The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Deep and Secret Places and Clear Water

By Judy Odom © 1987

Issue: January, 1987

"We'll have ourselves a piece of land some day," Todd solemnly announced to Sarah on the night he met her. "Fifty, maybe sixty, acres on a hill," he said. "We'll find a place that has blackberries and a lot of pine trees and a creek to wade in. There'll be willow trees and birches. There'll be silver maples and some trumpet vines. The house we build, we'll make sure it looks eastward. Every day that comes, we'll stand out on the porch and watch the rising sun."

Sarah only smiled and let him go on fantasizing. She was twenty two, and more in love with change and freedom than she ever planned to be with Todd or any other man. No matter where she was, she wanted to be some place farther out on the horizon. To Sarah, hills were meant for climbing over, not for building houses on.

Within six months, she'd married Todd, of course. By then he had become essential to her, the one person that she couldn't leave behind. Some day, she expected, they'd go traveling together. They'd find a thousand hilltops to explore.

But as it happened, Todd and Sarah didn't travel much except from one year to another. Then, one gray November Sunday, Sarah woke up to discover she'd turned thirty five.

Her dreams the night before had been disturbing. She'd spent the whole night trapped in an enormous room that must've had a hundred doors. Against the stark white walls, each door shone like a giant band from some fragmented rainbow, red, blue, yellow, orange and green. At first, she couldn't choose which one to open. With that total certainty that only comes in dreams, she knew that every door hid something wonderful.

For some time, Sarah stood there in the center of the room and gazed around her. Then finally, she decided to approach a blue door on her right. But when she reached it, Sarah realized it didn't have a handle. She went to every door in turn and found them all the same.

Before she could think what to do next, Sarah woke up crying, relieved to see the bedroom was still plain varnished oak like it had always been. The old brass door knob needed polishing, but Sarah thought that it was beautiful.

She looked at Todd, asleep so warm and comfortable beside her. Gently, she reached out and placed her left hand on his chest. The steady cadence of his heartbeat soothed her, and she liked to feel her hand rise with his chest when he inhaled. Sarah's breath came slower as she caught his rhythm; soon, her breathing settled into unison with his.

Outside the bedroom window, she could see bare branches shivering in the wind, while dark clouds fled across the sky like refugees. She yawned and burrowed deeper underneath the blankets and wished that she'd been born in spring. November weather didn't lend itself to birthday celebrations, especially not the kind Todd had arranged.

Two days ago, he'd come home with her birthday present, the deed and title papers to a forty acre tract of land. "It's just an hour out of town," he said his green eyes shining. "We'll start on the house when springtime comes."

Because he looked so happy, Sarah didn't want to say what she was thinking. "For that much money, we could take a trip around the world." Instead, she smiled and hugged him. "I love you, Todd," she said, and it was true.

While she was fixing dinner, Sarah gave herself a lecture. For ten years, she and Todd had lived in Kingston in the same house they had rented when they first arrived in town. Todd hadn't tried to rush her into buying. He was a patient man. He understood. She wasn't done with traveling.

But since they'd moved to Kingston, they'd acquired two sons, a dog, an investment program, more acquaintances than they had time for, and a few close friends. Sarah knew she might as well admit it, she and Todd weren't going anywhere.

The red winged maple seed floats light and lovely on the wind in spring, but spring can't last forever. Every maple seed must settle to the ground some time, no matter how much it might love to sail the air. A hill one hour out of town should make as good a settling place as any, Sarah thought, if that was what Todd wanted. To please him, she would have to learn to want it, too.

Next morning, Todd had loaded Chris and Brian and the dog into the Blazer. "Come on, everybody," he had called out, laughing. "Let's go see your mama's farm."

While Sarah followed Todd around and tried to look enthusiastic, Chris and Brian raced each other through the muddy fields. Tripper chased off after some unlucky rabbit. A cold soft rain began to fall. The dark green of the pine trees faded into silver gray.

"Tomorrow afternoon," Todd said, "the weather should be better. I sure hope so, 'cause I've got some people coming out to see about a well," he grinned. "First thing we have to do, we have to sink a well."

"A well?" asked Sarah. "Todd, tomorrow's Sunday. There's not a company in town would come out here to drill a well."

"Porter Thomas, his place borders ours," Todd pointed out to the north, " 'way over there beyond that stand of birches. He's a good man, Porter. Neighborly. His daddy's sister, his Aunt Rachel, she knows how to dowse for water," Todd explained. "She's a water witch," he laughed. "She never misses, Porter says."

"A water witch? Todd, are you serious? You don't believe..."

"Around here, water witching's a tradition," Todd informed her. "A tradition, Sarah. That's important," he insisted, his mouth set in a stubborn line. "I want the boys to see that woman dowse for water. Hell, I want to see her, too. We might not have the chance again, because she's getting pretty old. She might not be around too many years. According to what Porter tells me, water witching is a dying custom. Not many people in the present generation have the power, he says, or care to use it if they do."

Todd put one hand on Sarah's arm. His touch was gentle, softer than the rain. "I planned this 'specially for tomorrow, Sarah. We'll find water on your birthday. Porter Thomas's Aunt Rachel will, I mean," he qualified. "I want our house to have its true beginning on your birthday. I don't know," he shrugged. "Tomorrow, that just struck me as the proper time."

And now, tomorrow had become today. It always did. Sarah yawned again and threw the covers off and shivered as her bare feet touched the floor.

When Todd and Sarah and the boys got to the hilltop, Porter Thomas and his aunt were waiting. They were standing by a blue and white Dodge truck parked in the shadow of the pines. Todd pulled the Blazer off the road and headed it across the field.

The uncut meadow grass looked soft and yielding. Its pale russet color promised ground as comfortable to lie on as a goose down bed. But Sarah knew the grass concealed hard ridges from a hundred plowing seasons. She braced her feet against the floorboard and held on to the door. Each bounce and jostle jarred her to the bones. Behind her in the back seat, Chris and Brian whooped like cowboys at a rodeo. Tame city streets and highways couldn't match the fun of the wild bucking ride.

Todd stopped the car at last, next to the pick up. While Sarah watched him, he got out to shake his neighbor's hand. Porter had khaki work pants and a fleece lined denim jacket. He was thin and graceful like a birch tree, a good head taller than the woman by his side.

"Hey, Mom, is that the water witch?" Christ whispered. "She doesn't look much like a witch to me."

Her face was round and deeply wrinkled, like a wizened apple. Her gray hair was braided tight and wound into a bun. She was wearing knee high rubber boots, deep black and shiny, except where they were streaked with mud. A sturdy woman in a light gray raincoat, she stood as a boulder, firmly planted and immovable.

"She's just an ordinary woman," Sarah told the children "Not the kind of witch you read about in stories. Some people think she has a special power, that's all."

"Well, does she?" Chris demanded.

"Maybe," Sarah hedged. "We'll have to wait and see."

The two boys scrambled from the car and ran to join their father. Sarah followed slowly, uncertain of her footing on this unfamiliar ground.

Porter and his aunt were smiling at her. They didn't look that much alike but any stranger seeing them together would've realized they were blood kin. They had the same proud way of standing and the same gray eyes.

"Welcome, Sarah," Porter said. He stepped back to admit her to the circle. The old woman took her hand and gripped it hard before she let it go.

"You call me Aunt Rachel now," she said to Sarah. "Most ever'body does." She winked at Chris and Brian. "Y'all gon' be my helpers. Climb up in the truck bed and fetch me my new cherry limb."

"And y'all bring me my hammer," Porter added. "My hammer and them wooden stobs." He turned to Todd. "Where'bouts you plan on building? Closer to the house we set the well, the less pipe you gon' have to run," he said.

"I was thinking maybe here in all these pines," Todd answered. "Facing east." He glanced at Sarah. "That's what we always planned."

Aunt Rachel nodded. Then she put one hand on Sarah's shoulder. "It's a good place child. Real peaceful. It's where you need to be." She took the cherry branch that Chris brought to her and she held it out to Sarah. "Take it for a minute. That's right. Look it over careful. Tell me what it feels like. Won't just any limb from any tree make a divining rod, you know," she said. "There's peach, now. That'll do. And hick'ry. I've knowed some that uses willow. But I favor young black cherry limbs, myself. Black cherry works the best for me."

Obediently, Sarah studied the forked branch. Its reddish bark felt rough against her fingers. Here and there, she noticed, it was marked with horizontal lines. Sarah flexed it gently, found it pliable, but not completely limber. She wondered what Aunt Rachel wanted her to say. "It's light," she murmured. "Strong, though. I can tell it's strong."

Aunt Rachel took the branch again and nodded once to show her satisfaction. "Watch me, child. Watch what I do." She started walking north, the cherry limb held loosely in the curve of her right arm. Sarah kept the pace she set; the others followed. They'd gone ten yards or so before Aunt Rachel stopped to look around. "This here's a likely starting place," she beamed. "We might find y'all some water by your kitchen door."

She held the cherry branch with one fork in each hand, palms upward, fingers clamped down tight. One quick twist, and she had turned its point up to the sky. "Porter," she said softly, "get your stobs and hammer ready." "Boys," she said to Chris and Brian, "y'all can help him. Watch and make sure Porter plants a stob exactly where this rod dips down."

Todd linked his arm through Sarah's. Together, they walked with Aunt Rachel and matched her, stride for stride. Brian carried three or four of Porter's stakes; Chris had the hammer. With Porter in the middle, they scurried a few steps ahead.

For several minutes, nothing happened. Then, the point of the divining rod arced toward the ground as quick and graceful as a blue jay diving through the air. "Right there, y'all," Aunt Rachel said. "Right, there's your water. Clear and cold and bubbling. Down 'bout ninety feet, I'd judge, or ninety five."

With solemn faces, Chris and Brian set the stake where Porter told them and took turns hammering it in. Porter tapped his boot against it to make sure it was pounded tight.

Aunt Rachel went on with her pacing. Ten minutes later, they had marked four other places in a line that angled southeast down the hill.

"A fine big stream," Aunt Rachel chuckled. "Flowing sweet and steady underground. It's bubbling under ninety feet of dirt and limestone, and I reckon it's been waiting on y'all 'bout a thousand years."

Sarah looked down at the mud and meadow grass she stood on and tried to visualize the water rushing far beneath the soil. Aunt Rachel spoke with easy confidence, as though she'd seen it. The old woman knew its course as well as if she'd walked beside it and knelt to drink from its clear icy flow. To her, the land meant more than trees and grass and hills and little valleys spread out golden in the rising sun. Aunt Rachel understood the depths and knew the secret places. In her mind, the visible merged with the hidden landscape and made a natural union of the light and dark.

"How did you learn to do that?" Sarah asked her shyly "Did it take you long to learn?"

"Lord bless you, child," Aunt Rachel said. "It's not a skill for learning. I reckon it's a gift. A gift from God. The time was that I fought against its power, 'cause I knew it meant the land had claimed me for its own."

Deliberately, Aunt Rachel took three steps across the narrow strip of ground that separated her from Sarah. For an instant, Sarah thought she saw her own reflection in Aunt Rachel's clear gray eyes.

"I know. I understand," she whispered and accepted the divining rod Aunt Rachel offered to her. "I want to try," she said.

Porter hooked his thumbs into his belt; he smiled encouragement. The children laughed and clapped their hands. Todd squeezed her arm. "That's right," he said. "You try it, Sarah." Then he stood aside to let her have the freedom and the distance she would need.

Carefully, Aunt Rachel guided Sarah's fingers into the correct position. Her touch was warm and gentle as the sun in spring. "The holding, now, that's real important," she explained to Sarah. "You got to hold each fork just so. The right fork here, it lays like this. It lays atop your little finger and underneath the rest. Mmmm hmmm. That's it. Now." Aunt Rachel grasped both Sarah's wrists and helped her raise the point of the divining rod.

"I can't, I don't..." The rod seemed heavier, more difficult to hold without Aunt Rachel's hands on hers.

"Go on," Aunt Rachel prodded gently. "Keep to the path I set for you."

Sarah stumbled on a rock and nearly lost her balance, but Aunt Rachel moved in close to steady her, and so she plodded on. She walked the line of stakes and tried to merge herself into the secret rhythm of the hidden stream.

When Sarah passed the first stake and the second, nothing happened. Slowly, she approached the third. She felt a trembling and a hesitation; then, the point of the divining rod plunged down.

Aunt Rachel touched her on the shoulder. "It comes easier with time," she said, and took the cherry branch from Sarah's hand.

While Chris and Brian cheered and danced around her, Porter knelt to hammer Sarah's stake into the ground. It was closer to Aunt Rachel's than one pulse beat to another. Porter pulled a red bandanna handkerchief out of his pocket and knotted it around the narrow strip of wood.

"There," he smiled. "You'll recognize which one's your place now. I've marked it for you good and plain."

Todd hugged Sarah close and kissed her on the forehead. "Happy birthday, love," he said. A wind was rising. The free ends of the red bandanna fluttered in the air. "I'll get the drilling underway tomorrow. And I promise this'll be the first place anybody tries."

"That's good," Sarah murmured. "I know the water's there."

Late that night, she roused up smiling. She had dreamed about the room again and all its brightly colored doors.

The room had changed. It didn't have a floor or ceiling. Beneath her bare feet, she could feel plowed ground. High overhead, she saw the light converging with the darkness, while deep inside the earth, a river cut its secret channel through white stone.

Sarah spread her arms and let the current claim her. Its rhythm pounded in her blood.

Todd and Chris and Brian, Porter and Aunt Rachel stood around her in a circle. "Take any door you fancy, child," Aunt Rachel said. "The doors are yours to open." She pointed the divining rod at every one in turn, and handles gleamed.

But Sarah shook her head. "I've done my choosing," she responded proudly. "I don't need to open any doors." The wonders they concealed had lost the power to move her. She had found the place she wanted to explore.