Chapter 11

 

We lived on the old Lowder Farm, a ninety-acre homestead just north of the city limits on the other side of Little Mountain Creek. The farm sat beneath Morrow Mountain, which rose magnificently behind the back pastures. These sloping pastures, mostly fescue and clover, bulged outward as they wrapped over the base of the mountain, and the back fence of the very back pasture, high up the slope with the edge of the woods just beyond it, marked roughly the border between our property and Morrow Mountain State Park.

We moved there from our house in town on Pee Dee Avenue when I was five. Mom, having grown up on a farm on the other side of Uwharrie County, aspired to a less rural life in town when she married my father. But after I was born, she had a change of heart. She found the modern conveniences of town life like diaper delivery and the Astroturf patio contrived and unfulfilling and soon longed for life again in the wide-open countryside of Uwharrie County. Dad agreed, so they moved out to the country where Mom would raise me as she had been raised: pushed into awareness by nature and nurtured by its challenges.

Mr. Lowder, who had raised a small herd of Black Angus beef cattle and dabbled in growing crops, wound down his farming altogether in the years before he died and turned over the periodic upkeep of the pastures to Bud Plyler, a farmer who lived several tracts to the east. Plyer managed the pastures by allowing their grasses to grow in turns, then mowing them and baling the hay, which he would sell. This arrangement, which Plyer continued with Lowder’s widow and which he had taken upon himself to continue even after she died, survived when my parents bought the property. No other farming activities occurred on the old Lowder Farm.

When we moved out there, in May of 1967, the farm was accessible only over a distraction of dirt roads. But as the town grew, the most major of these roads became paved, and eventually our long tree-lined driveway let out on Little Mountain Creek Road extension, a state highway built to arc around the northern perimeter of Stony Gap.

Looking south from the front porch, away from Morrow Mountain, a field sloped down from the house to the road. A pond — the first pond, we called it — sat to the left of the long driveway, and at the foot of the property, a line of cedars ran beside Little Mountain Creek Road.

“See how they’re in a neat row?” Mom said to me as we stood on the porch one afternoon shortly after moving in.

I tugged on my bottom lip with my finger, my mind elsewhere as I tried to understand what Mom was pointing at.

“I bet the birds planted those trees,” she said.

The birds?

“I bet there was a fence there once, and that birds stood on the fence and pooped.”

Now she had my attention.

Pooped?” I said with delight.

“Yes. You see, birds will eat seeds from a tree. And then when they need to poop, sometimes they fly over and land on a fence and lift their tails. And the seeds come out of their bottoms and land on the ground, where they grow into trees. That’s Mother Nature for you. That’s how she makes sure we have lots of trees.”

Well, I thought, Mother Nature has a great sense of humor.

Closer to the house, fruit trees dotted the front and side yards and kept Mom’s fruit bowls filled with cherries, pears, apples, and figs, and the vegetable garden to the side of the barn, by this time mostly fallow, still produced asparagus, which kept our dinner plates populated with misery.

During my first weeks, I combed every inch of the old Lowder Farm and discovered an endless bounty of places to play. Its outbuildings in the farmyard behind the house stood as mythical structures on earth packed tight by years of trucks and tractors coming and going in service of the farm. On my first day, I explored the barn closest to the house. I tried to enter by opening its large sliding door, but it wouldn’t budge, my piddling weight no match for the metal-clad slab the size of a drive-in movie screen. I found on the left side of the barn a small hinged door made from planks. As I opened this door, easily and slowly, light crept into a space that seemed to have been dark for years. The barn smelled ancient. I stepped in and stood among unfamiliar objects — old machines and implements randomly placed over the packed dirt floor. I moved cautiously between them, dragging my hand over a rusty cultivator, a broken grain binder, and a bedder. In the dark reaches of this private universe, my excitement grew as I imagined these pieces of farm equipment to be spaceships that would take me as far away from the old Lowder Farm as a little boy could imagine traveling. I climbed onto the seat of a small tractor, placed one hand on its steering wheel and the other on a side break, and rocketed through the stars for a journey through time with the Lost in Space theme playing in my head. After landing safely back on earth, I hopped off and stepped over a couple of plows to examine a wall crowded with hanging tools and implements: a scythe, several axes and hatchets, various rakes and hoes — future weaponry to fend off the Martians. An old-timey motorless push mower, its sinewy blades caked in dry, dusty grass, leaned against the wall next to its motorized replacement. Next to them sat a large workbench, upon which sat several cans of motor oil and a grease gun. A large table vice, bolted to the corner of the workbench, gave me my first lesson in mechanical advantage when I placed one of the cans into its jaw and began cranking the handle. Just when I heard Mom calling me from the back porch for supper, the can burst, coating my arms and shirt in oil.

For a brief time that week, I played in the abandoned chicken coup, a small box-shaped wooden structure with a slanted roof and two large glass windows on the front with several broken panes of glass. I lifted the door’s makeshift wooden latch out of its slot to swing it open and stepped back when a burst of fetid air hit me. Looking inside, I saw a narrow ramp, covered in dry chicken dung, leading up to a nesting box stuffed with rotting straw. Decomposed chicken feed caked the basins of several tin feeders scattered around the floor, and pellets of dried rat droppings peppered the entire scene. A small opening in the bottom corner of the back wall, just big enough to crawl through, beckoned me, and in no time, I was playing Combat, squeezing through the opening from the outside, scurrying up the soiled ramp, and diving into the nesting box to escape the Germans.

After an hour of warfare, I returned to the patio at the back of the house, where Ester, horrified, saw me through the sliding glass door.

Mercy, child! Don’t you touch a thing!” she said, sliding the door open quickly and taking me by the arm.

Scolding the grime as much as me, she rushed me into bathroom to clean me up and get me out of my clothes before Mom had a chance to see what I had gotten myself into. But Mom eventually caught on, and when she determined how it was that I would come back into the house so filthy, she made the chicken coup off-limits.

Mom’s concern for my safety did not blunt her vigorous encouragement to explore the old Lowder Farm. We worked out a simple system for communicating: a thick steel cowbell she’d found in one of the barns, which she placed on a wicker table on the back porch. Whenever she wanted to check on me or call me back to the house, she would ring it vigorously, drawing me into her line of site where I would wave my arms to show I was okay.

I was allowed to wander across the entire farm, including the back fields and pastures, discovering the natural world as she had at my age, freely and in solitude, slowly and thoroughly, mindfully and with innate caution. I touched the barbs of barbed wire fences, ascended the wobbly rotting ramp of an old loading chute, and slung fistfuls of SweeTarts at wasp nests. I climbed a wall of stacked hay bales in the hay barn and bit into tree fruit before it had ripened.

When I got to the ponds, one in each pasture, I slushed ankle deep along their silt edges, imposing a new and disrupting constituent upon their ecosystems. Duckweeds, pondweeds, cattails, and bulrushes had flourished among these unattended ponds, and lily pads covered two of them almost entirely. Bullfrogs dove for their lives as I splashed my way along, while bass and brim bubbled in the distance to see what all the commotion was about.

The one place I was not allowed to go on my own was into the woods beyond the old Lowder Farm, the woods of Morrow Mountain State park high up the slope on the other side of the very back pasture’s fence. Because I was eager to see what waited under the dark cover of those trees, Dad promised to take me hiking there on that third Saturday in June.

When we rose that morning, I got dressed for the hike, and as planned, Dad took me with him into the bank where he needed to catch up on some paperwork. He did this most Saturday mornings, and sometimes I tagged along. I sat at the other desk in his office, the one with the adding machine, pressing buttons and pulling the hand crank, usually making my way through an entire roll of adding machine tape before asking when we could go. But on this day, with little patience, and less than a quarter of a roll in, I popped the question early.

“How much longer, Daddy?”

“We’ll go in just a minute,” he said.

By the time I reached the end of the roll, I finally turned to him.

“How long is a minute?”

When we got back to the Old Lowder Farm, Roper was out front mowing the high grass in a clearing by the road. We happened upon him just before the lawn mower he was pushing happened upon the pillow.

Dad pulled into the driveway, and as we stepped out to greet Roper, there was a loud pop. In an instant, feathers blew out from the mower’s side chute across the freshly cut grass on the other side, forming a dense cloud that rolled quickly up into the air and billowed against the dusty morning sky. As the feathers began to float back down, they dispersed over the silhouette of a shirtless little boy standing motionless with his arms coiled in tightly and his wrists crossed at his chest. One by one, the feathers settled onto his moist brown skin, and he began to giggle with delight.

This was the first time I ever saw Nehemiah. His pants were cut off at the knees, give or take, and within seconds he looked like a tattered angel.

At first, I didn’t know what had happened. The pillow, randomly dumped there, had lain hidden by the nearly waste-high grass. Roper turned off the mower and bent over with laughter, and when my father joined in, I raced over to marvel at Nehemiah: From the tight curls of his short hair to the tops of his bare feet, the feathers coated him as thoroughly as powder on an Etch A Sketch screen. When I reached to pull one off, he backed away with a smile and raised his arms like a bird — or, indeed, an angel — and began bounding across the grass as if he were flying through the air.

“You better be careful!” Roper yelled. “You might fly off away from here!”

“I’m flying! I’m flying!” Nehemiah cried out, tilting his arms left and right, building up speed as he circled over clumps of freshly cut grass.

Suddenly, he stopped. He placed his hands on his knees and began coughing uncontrollably.

“My, oh my,” said Roper, still chuckling, making his way to Nehemiah. “Come over here, son and let me wipe you down before you hurt yourself.”

Nehemiah had inhaled a feather.

“Dal,” Dad called out to me, “why don’t you take young, ah …”

“Nehemiah,” said Roper.

“Take young Nehemiah here to the first pond and you boys jump in and get those feathers off him. We can’t have a fine boy like this choking to death.”

When Roper had finished rubbing the feathers off of Nehemiah’s face, the two of us ran up to the pond — Nehemiah flew — and then raced down its long narrow pier. Nehemiah was only four at the time, so I was surprised when he didn’t pull back at the end. I thought I would jump off alone, but he ran harder than I did and flung himself in the air, landing elegantly, butt first, in the black water.

“Where did you learn to swim?” I shouted once we had surfaced.

“I been swimming,” was all he said before sucking in some air and darting back down into the deep water.

He was a year younger than me, but much sturdier. His muscles, smooth and already rounded, flexed and gleamed in the water as he splashed about. As we took turns jumping from the pier, I saw he was bolder as well. He tried something more daring each time, and in one attempt, after a full running start, drew his knees up to his shoulders and landed headfirst in an upside-down cannonball.

I was drawn to him as Dad had been drawn to Roper. I forgot all about our hike that day and instead began showing Nehemiah around the old Lowder Farm. For the remaining weeks of summer, until school started, we were inseparable. We discovered new parts of the farm together and even ventured into the woods of Morrow Mountain with no grownups.

And we made a significant discovery just before school started back. We learned that by standing at a specific point high in the very back pasture and yelling in the direction of Morrow Mountain with as much force as our tiny lungs could generate, we could hear an echo. It didn’t happen every time, and the echoes weren’t always loud — I know now windy days are portentous — but at least once a day, we trekked up there to see if we could wake the sleeping mountain. We would start by shouting single-syllable utterances — “Hey!” “Ha!” “Boo!” — and if we heard an echo, we quickly reacted with two-syllable words like “echo” and “football,” taking turns and then even shouting in unison to make the echoes louder. It was as if the mountain recorded what we did and then played it back to us. In our excitement, our phrases quickly became too long for the mountain to faithfully reproduce. Our shouts escalated into screams, and our screams continued unabated until we realized that soon, our voices would give out and we would not be able to scream at all. So, in unison, we would let out our final scream and listen as the last echo, our voices at their loudest, emanated and then faded from the vast folds of that mighty rise of earth.

 

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