Thursday, March 20, 2008

“The New Jerusalem”

“My husband left me just a week ago today
And he never said a word before he went away”
The Hawk’s Done Gone and Other Stories was the sole compilation of fiction from Mildred Haun (1911-1966), a writer and song-catcher from rural Cocke County, TN, at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains. Haun enrolled at the age of 16 at Vanderbilt University with the notion of studying medicine. She flunked math and science, but her keen talent for writing came under the notice of English professor John Crowe Ransom, leader of the Fugitive Poets and Southern Agrarians.

Upon first inspection it would be easy to sympathetically dismiss Haun’s style as local color. But her writing was far from quaint. She captured the rhythm, the pathos and poetic expression of mountain diction like no other from her region.

“The New Jerusalem” is a story, told from the vantage-point of an elderly “granny-woman,” about Effena Kanipe, a young mountain woman whose husband, a Melungeon, has gone missing:

[Effena] walked along the cow path till she got to the watering place up there. She laid down in the grass, above the place where the water fell off that little rock cliff in the branch. It smelt so good there. She could tell from the way the sky looked around the sun that it wasn’t a-going to rain that night.

She set down. Thought she would watch the few scattering clouds. But the sun hadn’t quite got down behind the hills yet. She could barely see the top of it. She said it looked like the sky was on fire with streaks of red-gold clouds around the sun. The clouds were all moving – like they were trying to get down behind the hills and hide themselves. The sky was full of birds – about as full of birds as a strawberry is full of seeds. They were going somewhere to roost. To some tree on Sals King Mountain. They looked like little specks swirling around in the air. She kept her eyes on the clouds. One of them made a big white dog. He had a basket in his mouth. Then it turned into a cow – a white cow with a calf by the side of her. They were running as fast as a scared deer. Then it turned into a bear running after a man. The man fell down. And broke himself all to pieces.

The wind fawned her cheeks. She felt happy. She shut her eyes. There was a jay bird over her head fussing about something. A mocking bird was singing too. She didn’t know a mocking bird could sing so sweet. She thought it must be trying to sing her to sleep. She never had heard one of those trying to act so pretty before. She took note of the brown threshes up there in the catawba bush. She reckoned they would take care of her for the night. The waterfall was playing for her. She couldn’t quite make out what it was playing. She tried to sing, "Oh, Sweetheart, I have grown lonely living thus alone,” to its tune. That wasn’t it. She tried another. Then she caught on. It was:

“And oh, what a weeping and wailing
When the lost ones were told of their fate.”

And she commenced humming to the music:

“They cried for the rocks and the mountains
They prayed but their prayers were too late.”

She lay there and counted the stars as they popped into the sky. Counted them till they got too many to count. The night jar flies and the crickets begun to sing. She recollected what Murf had told her. Murf said God made all them pretty things. She never had believed there was a God. But now she was sure there was. She felt Him – she almost seed Him. He was up yander in the sky.

She raised up on her elbow and looked at the water in the branch. The moon made it light as day. She could see the watering hole. The water stood still in it. And there was the moon. She looked up. The moon in the water was exactly like the moon in the sky. She told herself there had to be a God. She thought about the things Murf had said. Murf said she ought to go to the New Jerusalem. She had never prayed. But she said she somehow or nother felt like she had to then. She shut her eyes and said it out loud: “Oh God, you are a good God, and you love Melungeons and widows and orphans as well as anybody else. And God, Murf loved You. He said you did everything right. I’ll be much obliged to you, God, if you’ll send him back to me by – by –“ then she thought – she would have to give God time – “by the time little Murf is born. Amen. And, Lord, I forgot to tell You, I am a-going to the New Jerusalem as soon as little Murf is big enough.” She said she didn’t know whether she ought to be talking to God about little Murf or not. But she reckoned He already knowed.


jackscrow said...

I found this book on ebay. It is on my nightstand. I plan to read a story a week, hopefully....

Chuck said...

Good for you. It is painful in parts, and you wonder whether to believe Dorthula. Apart from the horrors of infanticide, murder, and evil spirits, the chief value of this book is the rich, visceral language.

I like the "other stories" best, especially "Turkey's Feather" and "Dave Cocke's Motion." "Apple Tree," of course, was the inspiration behind the song "Pairlee" by our favorite band.

Enjoy. And thanks for reading this post.

jackscrow said...

I read almost all of them, Chuck. Posting is never in vain....

Lord willing, we'll be seeing the 'fields on the 18th at Stuarts' Opera House in Nelsonville before heading out to "The Hamptons, Buffy" (Thurston Howell III accent) for a slightly delayed Passover.

It's fun going to the Hamptons (much-much better half's brother's country place -- accent again). The jeep and it's brush-guard scares all the Porsche (plural?) into the ditches.

Bad of me, but I sometimes want to take all of the Hamptoners and send them to Git-mo, so that the place would be fit to inhabit.

Chuck said...

...and my bro in Columbus will finally go see them (1st time) in Huntington, WV (his in-laws are there) on the 19th.

Have fun at the Hamptons.