The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Finding the Gate

By Bob Sloan © 1991

Issue: May, 1991

A Sunday School choir was here today, brought by a slick faced preacher to sing hymns for the old folks after dinner. As they were leaving, a boy looked at me and stuck an elbow in his friend's rib. "That one lady must be older than God," he said, his voice low enough he didn't think I heard.

The boys laughed, and so did I. They didn't mean to hurt my feelings. It was the sort of thing Stevie might have said. Besides, sometimes I feel older than God.

The young nurses who work in this place believe in options. I hear them often, earnest and convinced, telling one another every woman has choices beyond doing what men want. Perhaps I had choices too, and made only bad ones. But looking back, it seems to me things just happened. Even with Stevie.

I'm old enough to have turned twenty just after the first big war, and by standards of that day, I was educated. I finished high school and spent two terms at the "Normal School," where the college is now. If someone asked why I spent so much time at learning, I said I wanted to be a school teacher.

I once heard a preacher compare the high flint ridges rising all around us to the caring, cradling arms of Jesus. It was a pretty image, but to me these Kentucky mountains seemed more a fence so high we could neither cross nor see beyond it.

I talked about teaching school; what I wanted was a gate through that fence.

Then I met Steven Ray Bell, red-haired, broad shouldered Steven Ray Bell from Ashland. Each evening for five months, I heard him whistle "The Wildwood Flower," climbing the hill road to my boarding house. I watched his intense, long legged daily march with amazement, standing away from the window so he couldn't see me. No one ever courted me so earnestly.

I married Steven because he wanted me, because I was feeling a bit desperate with no other marriage prospects, because for a few months in 1922, I let fear convince me there was no gate.

We grew tobacco and paid our taxes. That's all Steven talked about; whether tobacco was doing or would do well, and high taxes. Sometimes, when he needed money to buy more land, Steven worked at the brickyard and I managed the fields without him. I chopped weeds and carried water for his precious tobacco, waiting for the day we'd be "settled," when I could teach and begin searching for the gate again.

By the time I was twenty-five I had four daughters, and I felt old, emptied of everything but more babies. When I was twenty-six, my son came, and he was my saving.

The birth was hard, and I spent a week in bed afterward. I hadn't done that when the others were born. Steven was frightened. He even brought me a present. He'd gone to Ott Taylor's auction, looking for tools, and carried home instead a bushel basket of old books. "You like to read," he said, "Maybe you can find something you like in here."

I threw dozens of the books out. I didn't want an advanced Latin text, and most of the others were just as useless. But I found the atlas, with maps and pictures of every place I'd heard of and hundreds I hadn't.

I found political divisions in a dozen colors, annual rainfall and principal products and population densities, racial distribution, heights above or below sea level, all one could wish to know about any piece of earth important enough to have a name. I can close my eyes and still see mapped roads into all those corners of the world. It was wonderful.

The baby had his father's hair color, and later the world would differentiate between "Big Steve" and Little Steve," "Big Red" and "Little Red," but so long as he lived, I never called him anything but Stevie. He nearly killed me, screaming and kicking his way into life, impatient even from birth to be out and about this wide world. It seems fitting his first days were spent so close to the atlas.

I've wondered if something happened while I lay there nursing my baby, losing myself in maps, dreaming about a gate that never opened. Perhaps I gave Stevie more than milk, passed into him a yearning for his own gate. I think he was already looking for it when he was six years old, the day he wandered away and stayed lost for hours.

His father came home at dusk. Exhausted by searching for Stevie, I was alone on the front porch, the girls fearfully quiet in the house. Our farm was divided by a creek, and I was picturing my son, caught somewhere in the swirling muddy water.

Steven shouted, told me I ought to have watched the boy more closely, demanded to know why the girls hadn't kept him from wandering. And he said other things, loud and hurtful. I know he was frightened, but some of what Steven said burns to this day.

He was lighting a lantern, preparing to go out and look for my son, when small movements parted tall weeds around our house lot, and Stevie stepped into the clearing. Clothes, face, hands streaked with dirt, he smiled at me. Not at his father, or at finding home again. He smiled at me.

Later, when his father's rage had passed, our daughters sent tearfully to bed, I took my son onto the porch and rocked him a long time. By and by, Stevie began to tell me what he'd seen.

He found silver minnows in a dark creek, followed the water's flow to distant fields. Crouched in weeds, he saw his father's sweaty labor in mid-day heat, laughed at curses Steven flung at our old mule. Fat groundhogs crept from hillside crevices, and their babies came out to play, ignoring Stevie as though he belonged in that wild place.

I rocked till he slept, a limp, warm weight in my arms. I thought of his small body hidden in high grass, watching strange business. I saw, as he had, mystery in a muddy creek. He brought me what he had seen, and locked to a farm I'd grown to hate, I made him my saving.

I found my gate.

Stevie was lost for years after that, lost and wandering, seeing and doing. He came occasionally home, whiskey-breathed, sometimes with nameless women, whose faces turned always to floors or far corners. Stevie's eyes were always bright with wonder and pleasure as theirs were haunted.

His father had no time or patience for the boy. Once Stevie bought a guitar and played it for me, singing a silly song he'd made up. One of his lyrics was "My mama gives me money and my daddy gives me hell."

Until Stevie died, I bought a new atlas whenever the current one seemed dated, so he could show where he'd been since I'd seen him last. I never mentioned his whiskey; he never talked about the women.

But he told me how desert bloomed an Eden, one Arizona summer he saw a rare August flood. He showed me marks a Dakota blizzard put on his feet, the time he recklessly hopped a fast freight train from Pierre to Bismark. He gave me Amarillo, San Francisco, Denver, Boston, Minnesota. Bringing pieces of his restless wandering back to that damned farm, he was my gate and dear God, he was my saving.