May 24, 2009
She didn’t look one hundred years old.
“This must be the best view from any nursing home in the country,” I said, sitting in a rocking chair next to her wheelchair. I placed a brown bag at my feet and gazed at the lush, rounded mountains, which undulated in wave after wave, stretching to the horizon over twenty miles away—where the highest mountains separated North Carolina and Tennessee.
A wry smile slightly lifted the corners of her wrinkled lips. “To gaze across the great ridges, which like giant billows blend their sapphire outlines with the sky.”
“Nice,” I said. “Poetic.”
“Not mine. They’re from a writer named Christian Reid.”
“Haven’t heard of him.”
“Her,” she said. “Frances Christine Fisher Tiernan. But she wrote under a pen name. It allowed her to compete with her male counterparts—kinda like one of my sisters before . . .”
“That’s all I’m gonna say ’bout that.” She turned back toward the ancient mountains, clothed in their spring coat of fresh leaves.
I chuckled. “I guess I need to add Reid to my reading list.”
“If you’d been taught fine readin’, like my sisters and I were, by the likes of Horace Kephart, you’d have read much more just like it.”
“Don’t know that name, either.”
“Sad,” she said. “One of the best-known authors at the start of the last century. He wrote famous books like Our Southern Highlanders and Camping and Woodcraft, and scads of articles for Field and Stream magazine.”
“You read him a lot?”
“Read him? I knew him—loved him like a second pa. He lived near where I was raised. And that’s all I want to say about that.”
She turned back to face the peaks and valleys from which, I would soon learn, she had come—a wilderness that had shaped her past and personality as much as its view inspired us.
“I brought you something,” I said. “It’s not wrapped very pretty, but . . .”
“Magnolia blossoms,” she said, smiling and reaching for the bag. “Smelled ’em comin’ down the hall.” She opened the bag and placed her nose in it, taking a slow, deep breath. “Ah, just like the ones on my family’s homestead. That old tree could perfume acres at a time.” She took another sniff. “Just like I remember—a bit like heaven and summer all rolled into one.”
She removed one and held it at arm’s length, slowly twirling it and admiring it as if it were the Hope diamond. “Just look at that, Doc. Must be nine—no, ten inches across. Looks like freshly starched linen and smells even better!”
“They say the magnolia tree is rare in the Smokies. But your family had one?”
“Sure did. Magnolia grandiflora, the queen of the South. Gives new meanin’ to the term white-on-white. Just look at all the shades of pure, silky white against the deep green leaves. It’s an astonishin’ and marvelous flower.” Her smile went from ear to ear as she gazed at the bloom. “What a wonderful birthday gift.”
“Did you have a good party today? Heard people came from all over to celebrate you making it to the century mark.”
“One of the ER nurses who had come up here.”
“You must be talkin’ about old Louise Thomas—who claims I look as old as Seth himself.”
“You know, Adam’s son.”
“Adam and Eve, sonny.” She shook her head. “Louise was tryin’ to get my goat, saying I looked as old as Seth when he died.”
She was quiet for a moment—waiting for me to ask. Finally, I took the bait. “Which was how old?”
“The Good Book says he lived nine hundred and twelve years. Course, any fool knows Jared and Methuselah lived longer; Jared, nine hundred and sixty-two years, and old Methuselah, nine hundred and sixty-nine years. But I don’t want to live that long. Gettin’ to one hundred is hard enough. It’s ’bout wore me out!”
“Sorry I couldn’t make it up for the party. I’ve been running since sunup.”
She turned to look at me and patted my arm. “You doctors are always as busy as one-armed paper hangers.”
“Well, Miss Abbie,” I said, “I’m here for a bit.”
“You know much about me?” she asked, still gazing over the mountains as the lights of the small hamlet of Bryson City began to illuminate the valley below us.
“Just what I’ve read on the chart. Other than all the medical stuff, I know you’re a widow. Active over at First Baptist Church. Have kids that have moved elsewhere—”
“More important, I don’t smoke, or dip, or chew,” she interrupted, smiling, “or dance with boys who do.”
“Well, that’s a good thing,” I said with a chuckle. “Might shorten your life.
“Where’d you grow up?”
“Out on Hazel Creek. Not twenty miles from here as the crow flies. But it used to take all day to drive out there.”
“What road is it on?”
She looked at me like I had two heads. With a laugh, she explained, “The town of Proctor was out on Hazel Creek—it’s now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But we was all forced to move out when they built Fontana Dam and the government stole our land for the park.”
“When was that?”
“Nineteen hundred and forty-four. I was thirty-five years old when we left our old home place. My grandpappy had homesteaded the land.”
“Proctor musta been a hole in the wall.”
She shook her head and looked at me once again as if I was dimwitted. “Heckfire, son, because of Calhoun Lumber Company, Proctor had well over a thousand citizens in the 1920s. It was bigger then than Bryson City is now. But our farm was a long way from town—about six miles up valley. And walkin’ those miles seemed to take an eternity back then.”
“Well, Miss Abbie—”
“You’ve made that mistake twice now.”
“Callin’ me Miss Abbie. It’s Mrs. Abbie,” she corrected. “Was married nearly seventy years to a wonderful man.” She showed me her wedding band. “One of my most prized possessions. Was my mama’s . . . once upon a time.”
“Well, Mrs. Abbie, I bet it was a unique time to live back in the Roaring Twenties.”
She laughed. “No one accused Proctor of bein’ a roarin’ anythin’. But Hazel Creek was unique. Some called it the ‘Wild East.’ Others, like Reid, called it the ‘Land of the Sky.’ Hazel Creek had wild animals like panthers and bears, Cherokee Indians, desperados, lumbermen, moonshiners, revenuers, visitors from all over, mysterious wanderers, more than one world-famous writer, Civil War heroes, murderers, rustlers . . . even a flesh-and-blood Haint. Tarnation, without him—and the Good Lord—we would have for sure lost our farm.”
“A Haint? What’s a Haint?
Abbie laughed again. “It’s a term we used on Hazel Creek to describe a ghost—or a person whose soul was haunted. You know, hainted—a Haint.”
“Sounds like an interesting person—and a mysterious place.”
She nodded, looking back over the mountains. “It was—and so is he.”
“The Haint?” I inquired.
“No, the Lord. He’s mysterious and works in wonderful ways. And Hazel Creek certainly had more than her share of massacres, secrets, adventures, and whodunits.” She turned to look at me. “Got time to hear about a few?”
She turned back toward the mountains and, with a faraway look, began . . .