Down from Moonshine

Mary Ann Cain

       For as long as she could remember, horses had given Viney her direction, starting with her daddy's Morgans. The Morgans had always longed for their life down in the Low Country, their dainty hooves a poor match for mountain roads. They spoke a prouder, showier language than the work horses, mules and Indian ponies of the Georgia highlands. But they were in love with her daddy and so took him wherever he wanted to go. He'd won them on a bet in Savannah during a moonshine run and had driven the team home in the darkness for two days straight so that no one would question why a black man was handling such fancy horseflesh and a high-brow carriage on his own. Listening to the Morgans' bridle bells jingle each time her father returned home, Viney concluded that she, too, had begun her life in a place other than the cabin over Rabun Gap and, like the Morgans, was destined to leave it one day.
       That day came when an old Appaloosa carried her to Snowbird, following behind her mama and younger brother, who drove a borrowed wagon. They had given up on her father ever returning to the highlands and instead sought refuge with her mother's people just over the border in the Cherokee reservation. The sudden popularity of his moonshine once Prohibition began made his trips home shorter and the time away longer. He'd even hired a neighbor to run his still while he was gone. For months, her mother had said nothing. She had never argued or raised her voice to complain. She traded the bolts of silk he brought her for calico and advised her children to save the nickles he flipped into their waiting palms for shoes instead of gorging on horehound and licorice in Dillard. The last time Viney saw her father, he was dressed in trousers with a knife's edge crease, his dark face aglow. The Morgans lifted their heads, whinnying eagerly. "Next time, you coming with me," he told her mother as he kissed her deeply on the lips. She fixed the pins holding up her braids as he waved goodbye, but did not wave back.
       Early the next morning her mother walked off and came back that afternoon with the wagon and Appaloosa. She started loading everything they owned inside and directed her children to do the same. With each armload of quilts, pots, and clothes, Viney listened for the telltale bells. But when it came time to leave, it was the old Appaloosa, not her beloved Morgans, whose spotted rump carried her away.
       That same Appaloosa, from her mama's Cherokee side of the family, put her back on the road alone a few weeks later. She wasn't expecting to leave and didn't have a destination in mind when the Appaloosa appeared at her grandmother's door one morning wearing a blanket and a rope harness. She had simply gotten on. She had learned from her daddy that she could trust the horses; they would take her wherever she needed to go.
       "Baby girl, you done born with the caul," he liked to tell her. "You see what other people can't. Just like the horses. They don't see with their eyes. They see with their skin. The caul is that seeing skin. You born Divine."
       Because of the horse's age, it took three days to cross into Georgia. She didn't mind its lazy habits, which suited her own inclination to dawdle, daydreaming about the Morgans and her daddy's life in the Low Country. She hunted fiddlehead ferns, day lily buds, dandelion greens and scotch broom flowers and chewed them slowly as her mother had taught, to release all their vital juices. She sniffed the air for signs of rain and compared the growth of jewelweed from one side of the valley to another. It never occurred to her that she was leaving the most beautiful mountain valley in the world. When a horse spoke to her in its fine, soft tongue, she could never refuse it.
       On the third day, she arrived at the abandoned family cabin. She went inside and hung a raven feather over the door jam with the red curls she'd pulled from her scalp. She left it as a sign for her father that they'd gone to Snowbird. Then she slapped the Appaloosa's rump to send it off. She rubbed the sore spot on her scalp as a man pulled up with a team of bays.
       "You live here?" the man squinted down at her, his head cocked. His eyes were glassy and his stare cold. Instead of answering him, she smiled at the bays, who stomped one hoof, then another, in the dust. Bound in their bridles, they were dying for some of the new grass next to the cabin. She whistled softly, and their ears shot up. She squared her shoulders, and the bays, both mares, licked their lips for her to approach.
       The wagon creaked as the man shifted the reins into one hand. The wide wagon, tall-heeled boots, and, of course, the bays, practically shouted his lack of acquaintance with the highlands. The stiff way he turned his neck and the tension in his back gave away his purpose.
       Like many men, he had been lured up the mountain by moonshine. The man's pink-turned-brown skin told her he'd been some time on the road. Until her daddy left for Savannah, men had come from farther and farther away, hauling off bigger and bigger loads of that pure liquor that sold on the promise of visions. The ones from far away were always surprised by his looks. Instead of dungarees, he wore trousers with a knife pleat down the middle. Her mother refused to iron those pants, but her father wouldn't let her anyway. He also carried the charcoal complexion and buttery skin of someone born deep in sunshine but shielded from its harm. Such airs from a backwoods moonshiner came totally unexpected. He acted as if he owned a kingdom, not just hardscrabble where nothing grew except jewelweed and clover.
       While her father had spun stories about haints and horses, card games and duels, she had occupied herself by studying his listeners. For the most part, they'd ignored her except to comment on her red curls and green eyes.
       "Sister, you either blessed or cursed, but you ain't gone unnoticed by the good Lord," they'd say.
       They always turned their attention back to the moonshine. The angels that spoke through the alcohol made it possible for her to observe them without fear. Though she herself had never traveled farther than Snowbird to visit her mother's family, she could easily imagine the kinds of places that these men had come from just by watching them swap stories around the still.
       Eyeing the bees' nests clustered around the cabin door and the tin shingles askew on the roof, the man shook his head, then spit under the wagon's front wheel. "I knew I shouldn't a listened to that fellow. Scotch-Irish bastard sends me running up here, expecting a dime for every penny I get." His eyes lingered on Viney's moccasins then followed her calico dress up to her face. He rubbed an arm across his eyes as if waking from a long sleep.
       "Damned if you ain't colored," he said. Viney scratched the bays' foreheads. The man said it as if being colored was unusual, but also distasteful. She knew that compared to most people in Rabun Gap, she had unusually bright skin. Both her parents attributed that to being born in a caul. She remembered that place between the womb and the world, and the ruby light the caul had cast, even though her mama contended it was only her daddy's story that she recalled. He liked to tell her how her name rose like a fountain to his lips as soon as he saw her. "Baby Divine," he said, and every time he said it, he smacked his lips.
        She felt the man's eyes on her even when she turned away to pull grass.
        "Don't you talk, gal? You dumb or something?" As she fed the bays, the man laid the reins on the seat then reached into a bag for a pouch and a newspaper. While her daddy had always praised the power of talk, her mother's example was on the lessons of silence. Viney adored her daddy's stories, but it was silence that she practiced with her mother. Silence was protection, but also respect for Higher Powers, which was why her mother would not call her by her given name. She gave Viney a plainer one instead, to show the ancestors her child was not vain. Her mother called her Sister, while her younger brother tagged her Spud, like the muddy red potatoes with yellow flesh that they dug out of the ground each summer.
       Had this man known anything about silence, he would have understood that the only thing that kept her there with him was his horses. Unhappy with a long journey that was about to leave him empty-handed, he was turning to her for appeasement, flushing her out like a grouse
       "I speaks when it called for," she said.
       "Hoo, you a sassy one, ain't ya?" he said, leaning back on his heels and waving his free hand as if about to fall.
       He tore off a piece of newspaper then folded it along the bottom. Then he pinched a wad of tobacco from the pouch, and sprinkled it inside the fold, still keeping an eye on her.
       "Well, maybe I ain't come for nothing, after all. How old are ya, gal? Sixteen?" he asked her.
       The bays whinnied nervously. She didn't blame the horses for bringing him. He was a fearful man, and they had to obey. But she wasn't sure if she should agree to go with them. Between the horses and her silence, she didn't know if she had enough protection against the story that his face and hands were telling. Yet she also knew that the horses needed her courage, just as she needed their guidance now that she was about to leave all that was familiar behind.
       He licked the edge of the newspaper and rolled it tight between his fingers. The cigarette plunged in and out of his mouth several times. To finish it off, a match licked its length then ignited one tip into flame.
       She heard the tobacco cry out, trapped within the printed world that burned it. The hoarse voice of tobacco mingled with the sweat of horses so that the sound had a smell and the smell had a sound. She followed the smoke with her breath, inhaling: Ahahahah, ahahahah. Smoke moaned through the cracks in his calloused hands. Then exhaling: Eeheeheeheeh, eeheeheeheeh. Between wiry blonde hairs erupted the scent of spoiled hay. The bays' nostrils shrieked and the whites of their eyes rattled as the smoke stirred the wildness held back by the bits in their mouths and the harnesses on their heads.
       Smoke whispered in the horses' pores and filled their lungs. It embraced one shoulder blade, then another, until all four of their shoulders leaned forward as if to leap forward and run. Smoke fingered their tongues and lips for all they had to say.
       Hold still.
       Smoke settled into floorboards where boots had agitated the wood's grain smooth. It rested in tiny cracks in the reins and between the sunburned knuckles that held them. Everywhere something was open or was missing, smoke found a place to spread itself out. Ahahahah. Eeheeheeheeh. Ahahahah.
       Finally, from out of the sounds of the smoke, the answer-that-was-not-an-answer came to her, something sensible that made no sense, that would knock him off the path his story was following. "Mister, I am in a powerful hurry. My mama, she need some thread to patch things."
       His eyes darted to the holes in the cabin where the shutters used to close, then settled on the collar button of her dress. A question surfaced in his eyes, but the smoke blew backwards and blurred them until he forgot what he wanted to ask. Eyes watering, nose running, he pulled out a rag and blew, then stuffed it back in his pocket.
       "Get on, then," he said. He held out his hand.
       The wagon creaked beneath her as her hand disappeared into his, big as bear paws. His eyes followed the next five buttons down the front of her dress as he shook the reins.
       For the next mile, she debated whether to agree to the age he had given her, ignore it, or offer a substitute. The bays trotted restlessly, as if fearful of something in the woods. Every now and then one or the other would roll back an eye. When Viney opened her mouth again to speak, he started to pull back on the reins as if to stop, so she held her tongue. Sensing his attention turn away from them, the bays ignored the reins and picked up their pace. He grumbled at the horses, then, glancing at her, let the reins relax. The bays settled back into a trot.
       He drove her the whole three miles down to Dillard in silence. There, he steered the wagon into a grove of pines spitting distance from the mercantile. The bays flicked their ears at the lone mule hitched to the porch. She started to tell him she didn't have any particular birthday, now that her daddy was gone, thinking the truth might stop his story. But when he clamped his bear paw on her shoulder and said, "You're not a girl-child, you're a she-wolf," she realized her lack of birthday was suddenly a hazard.
       "I'm 12," she said. It wasn't a lie. That's what her daddy had said the last time she had actually celebrated a birthday. Her mama never fussed over birthdays, and she had lost track of how many she'd had since then, since her daddy wasn't around to remind her of when she was born.
       The man stared at her as if she really was a she-wolf and dropped his hands abruptly.
       "Go on and get," he muttered. "You didn't get no ride from me." Which was true; it was the bays that had driven her, not him.
       As she climbed down into the red dust, the bays snorted and shook their heads. She wanted to rub their muzzles one last time, but the man started cursing and looked for his whip.
       "The hell if you think you can go wild on me. I'll show you who's in charge."
       She clicked her tongue a few times while the man twisted and turned on the seat, reaching for the whip but coming up empty-handed. The bays' ears perked up then relaxed. The man shook the reins hard, but the horses now set their own pace down the road towards Clayton.

       Viney began to wonder if she would ever go back to Snowbird and her mama and brother. But she clung to her daddy's trust in horses to take her beyond what she already knew. Where the bays had left off when they dropped her in Dillard, the mule took over, moving her farther away from that corner of the world where two mountain ranges hugged a valley that hadn't changed since the beginning of time. The mule carried her down to Clayton, stopping outside the post office next to two Percherons hitched to a wagon full of seed corn.
       While the mule nibbled, she covered herself with the hard yellow kernels, trusting the massive yet gentle Percherons not to give her away. She heard the driver shout curses at the mule before taking up the reins. The Percherons shook their heavy harnesses as if to acknowledge the extra weight, but the man, distracted, seemed not to notice.
       For a long time, all she felt were the hard, slick kernels pressing against her. If she breathed too hard, corn would block her nostrils or fall into her mouth. Sweat bound the seeds to her skin. The corn slid up her legs and pushed against the place her mama said her two bodies, earth and spirit, joined as one. Her mama had hinted that at some point she would have to cover over that place, to keep out evil influences. But as a girl, it was important to keep the opening clear. Her two bodies were joined by one bone that formed around a hole in women's bodies, enabling her to follow the movements of spirit even as the life inside her stayed protected.
       The seeds pressed against every pore, every crease, every curve, every hollow. With each bump and dip in the road, the corn rattled and hissed. Corn filled her ears and eclipsed her eyes. At times, she wasn't sure if the darkness that crept over her was shade or a blackout brought on by the heat. At these moments, she clenched her teeth and sucked air so hard that it whistled. She chewed stray kernels, letting them soften in her cheek before grinding them to their core.
       Hours later, the wagon stopped. She heard the brake squeal and the seat creak in the midst of voices and movement. A loud, hooting sound, like an owl a hundred times over, echoed in her corn-muffled ears. Light shone through the hulls in her eyes. She thought about how to leave the wagon without notice.
       After the first, long Hoo-Hoooo, she sensed the voices and movements turn together like a flock of blackbirds. The Percherons stomped their hooves. Another hoot came, with the same results. By the third one, she slipped out of the corn and under the wagon into the safety of its shadow.
       She had heard stories about Tallulah Falls and the big gorge that sliced the land open, the river a silver thread far below. Hawks and eagles spiraled on air currents up and down the rocky walls. Her daddy met city people there sometimes to sell them his moonshine, watered down and dressed up in bottles labeled "tonic." He would tell her about their clothes, city clothes that were strictly for show. He said they came for the air and water. Their skin was pale like mushrooms on rotting wood. She wondered how they could possibly reach water so far away in the gorge. Her first glimpse of Tallulah Falls was between the bushy fetlocks of the Percherons, who continued to stomp with every Hoo-Hoooo. Instead of the gorge, she saw steep slopes of pine and rock. Many feet moved around the wagon: dusty boots, bare toes, high heels, thick soles, thin soles, feet bigger than the biggest fish she'd ever seen, ankles criss-crossed with straps of leather. Her own feet were callused by hours of walking alongside the Appaloosa, whose bony body could not bear her weight very long. And then there were the Percherons with their iron-clad hooves, stomping along with the Hoo-Hooos.
       Suddenly a screech so loud she had to cover her ears pierced the air. Its thunder traveled up and down her legs. Black Wheels rolled past one Percheron leg then another, then ground to a halt. Smoke heaved out of a chimney. The wagon creaked as the Percherons shook their heads. She held her breath, hoping they would not forget where she was.
       This was as far as the horses would take her. Somehow she knew that, just as she knew the Percherons were eager to haul their empty wagon up the mountain and rest in their stalls with a bag of mash. Their huge heads grazed the ground as if to signal her to go. They seemed to be pointing to the Black Wheels where all the feet were going.
       She leapt out from under the wagon. She didn't care where she was headed as long as it was away from the Black Wheels.
       A man's shiny shoes appeared next to hers. She looked up, narrowly missing his blue coat and stiff white shirt. With jowls like raw pie crust and a biscuit cutter hat, he asked, in a strangely musical voice, "And just what would your hurry be?"
       Had she been less frantic, she would have laughed. Sometimes her mama would give her and her brother leftover pie dough, and they would shape fat little men with pale arms and legs that stuck out from their bodies, just like his. Panting hard, she replied, "Ain't no more horses."
       "Aye, well, it certainly seems that's where things are headed." The biscuit-cutter's voice took on a kindly tone. She searched eyes bright like a blue jay's wing. "You know," he cleared his throat, looking away, "first the Iron Horse and next the automobile. That'll be taking over these parts in no time."
       She looked around and noticed other wheels besides the Big Black Ones, spoked wheels alongside the wagons'. Glass kept back the wind, and roofs gave shade. On the sides of one vehicle she read, "Tallulah Falls Mineral Springs Resort," yellow on the black door. She wondered about "resort," which she recognized from her Mama's primer as an action, but not a thing. The man cleared his throat. "You'd best be moving along if you expect to find a place to sit." He pointed to the end of the Black Wheels where people were still climbing inside.
       "Iron Horse?" Viney asked. "That what you call it?"
       The man's frown cut deeply into the pie dough jowls. "Certainly. Isn't anyone who doesn't know that."
       So the Percherons had not been wrong, after all. Viney followed the man's arm to the end of the Iron Horse, where smoke waved overhead. There, she caught a glimpse of the gorge and thought she heard water falling. But it just as easily could have been the Iron Horse, rumbling in anticipation of the journey ahead.

       She never did see the falls. What she did see were miles of tracks, just like the ones she'd stood on as she'd tried to figure a way inside the Iron Horse. Another biscuit cutter had frowned over passengers outside, taking slips of paper from their hands, as they boarded at the very end of the Horse. She'd stood there staring while a line of people gave up their paper one by one. When the biscuit cutter threw her a frown, she took off down the side of the train opposite where all the wagons and motor cars waited, in search of some other opening. Then she heard the sound of water and crouched low under the Horse to find its source.
       While the Iron Horse Hoo-Hooed and began to move, she balanced herself over the hole she'd come up through. It smelled of piss and was dotted with dried dung but otherwise was clean, nothing like what lay at the bottom of her privy back home. The walls around the hole closed in so tight she barely had room to stand or move. She crouched down to watch the tracks race past, to keep her mind off the heat and stink. A knock on the door finally shifted her inside the narrow aisles of the Iron's Horse's belly. She traded places with a man in overalls, who let her exit before he squeezed past and closed the privy door. Inside the train, people stood clutching bags and boxes and sometimes a chicken or two, all with the same sun-weary faces, crowded by bags of feed, wooden crates, and bags of mail.
       Nobody's eyes raised a question. Everyone looked as if they already knew her. She found a sack of mail to sit on and watched the highlands disappear into rolling, piney hills.
       When the train finally stopped in Atlanta, she got off with the others but then hung back on the tracks, listening for the sound of water falling. Another privy hole invited her into the belly of another Horse. This time, when she opened the door of the privy, she entered a bigger car with more people, still standing but without the company of sacks, crates, and livestock. Unlike the last Horse, biscuit cutters walked inside, asking for papers. Seeing the fear on her face, some of the passengers guided her back into the privy and closed the door, huddling around until the biscuit cutter had passed.
       For two days and two nights she listened to railroad ties go ka-chunk ka-chunk underneath her feet. Finally a proper seat gave itself over to her on an Illinois Central someplace out of Alabama. After the first biscuit cutter had passed through, she opened the privy door to one bright wooden bench winking right at her. She curled up in its lap and fell asleep for two more nights and three days, waking only when someone covered or uncovered her as the biscuit cutters passed through.
        Since leaving Georgia, she hadn't eaten a thing. A boy child maybe half her age, with red hair and freckles against clay colored skin and a nose like a fish hook, shook her shoulders, then thrust a biscuit into her hands. An older girl she took for his mother nodded from the window seat across the aisle, a straw brim shading two round, soft eyes. They were unlike any eyes in the highlands, where moonshine or determination was most likely to shine through. Nothing so soft, so butter-melty, as this girl's eyes.
       She hadn't noticed the pain in her stomach until those eyes melted into hers. She wanted to cry even more than she wanted to eat. Where was her mother now that the horses had taken her so far away? Until now, the steady clacking of the Iron Horse had reassured her like hoof beats. She had matched her breath and adjusted her movements to the Horse's rhythm. Even with her stomach's first rumblings, the Iron Horse's rocking had steadied her.
       Yet tears came while the butter eyes watched, bitter like those she shed each time the Morgans took her father away, tears she knew her mother also shed but was too proud to show. Bitter because her mother had never let her go with the Morgans. Bitter because now that the horses had taken her, she had no mother, only horses. Bitter because she knew her mother would never leave Snowbird. Bitter because she was unprepared for butter eyes that melted into her own and made everything so soft and slippery. Bitter because she'd never received such a look before. Bitter because she was receiving it.
       The boy patted her arm and made little cooing sounds, awkwardly stroking her sleeve.
       "Why you crying?" he asked. "This biscuit ain't so bad."
       He broke off a piece of biscuit and put it into her mouth. Against the roof of her mouth it was tender, leaving a smoothness on her tongue. Her mother's biscuits had always scraped the insides of her mouth and had to be dug out from between her teeth. But this biscuit kissed her as it went down. When she bit into the ham, it was easy, too. Instead of stinging salt, her tongue met juicy flesh. She had never had fresh meat, only cured, dried, and pickled. It had never occurred to her to want any other kind. Her mama knew how to butcher a hog but insisted hogs were man's work and so refused to raise them. Her daddy was a city-born man and did none of that.
       She nodded to the girl-mother as she ate the ham biscuit. Grinning, she nudged the boy with her elbow. His nose hooked up as he grinned back.
       "You a funny color," he said. "Where you from?"
       Viney looked around, feeling many eyes on her suddenly, waiting for an answer. It was true; most folks around her were a shade or two darker than she, except this boy and his red hair and freckles, the likes of which she'd never seen before.
       "You funny looking," she said, and poked him in the stomach lightly, the way she used to tease her brother.
       "Uh-uh," he smiled, shaking his head. "I ain't red like you."
       Then he slid off the seat and squeezed through the forest of pants and skirts to his seat beside his mother, who lowered her eyes as if embarrassed.
        She'd come to expect that most of the faces on the Iron Horse would be a shade or two darker than her own. At the Alabama station, the biscuit cutters had called out, "Shee-cag-oh. All aboard," and shuffled a crowd of shadow heads from one track to another. Only when she stepped out into the hard light of, "Shee-cag-ohh! End of the line!" did she realize how vast were their variations of color and how many people the Iron Horse had carried. Only in her daddy's Low Country stories were so many people in one place all at the same time, but in her child mind, they all had her daddy's soft skin and long limbs.
       The surprise of so many people made her wonder where this river of faces might end, if, in fact, it did. She looked up at a tower with a numbered face and wondered what it was for. Shee-cag-oh. The strangest name she'd ever heard. Someone thrust a piece of paper in her hand. Chicago Urban League read the big print over a lot of little words underneath. Chi-cog-uh. She wondered if it was the same as what the biscuit cutters had yelled. Someone said something about a lake. She wondered if could she camp there that night. Wind tangled in her hair. She felt as light as the abandoned papers that swirled over the tracks.
       As she stood in the wind in Shee-cag-oh, the end of the line, or Chi-cog-uh, the beginning of a new life, she recalled those butter eyes. Until then, she never imagined any other mother than the one to whom she'd been born. Staying on her feet would be hard, but whatever falls she took would be more forgiving with a mother whose eyes melted into her own.

Mary Ann Cain's prose has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as North American Review, First Intensity, Many Mountains Moving, Under the Sun, Yfief, Porcupine, The Sun, 13th Moon, The Little Magazine, The Nebraska Review, Labyris, Flying Island, and Artful Dodge, among others. Her book, Revisioning Writers’ Talk: Gender and Culture in Acts of Composing, has been published by the State University of New York Press (1995). She has been awarded residency fellowships at the Mary Hambidge Center for the Arts in 1996 and 1997.


Opinions expressed in Terra Incognita are not necessarily shared by all or any of the editors.
La revista no comparte necesariamente las opiniones de los colaboradores.
©2000- 2002 Terra Incognita. All rights reserved.Todos los Derechos Reservados.