fiction by Gail Tyson
When the half-gods go, the gods arrive. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was risky to drive the Cherohala Skyway with fog moving in. Foolhardy, even. But when he walked out of the prison that December afternoon, the wind scouring him like steel wool, all he wanted was to go home, light the Buck stove to take the chill off the logs, pour two fingers of Heaven Hill, and let Darrell Scott croon away silence with “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”
Hank’s ministry brought him over the Skyway every Sunday. From his cabin near Indian Boundary Waters in East Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, his pickup swooped and swerved the two-lane blacktop up to 5,400 feet, crossing the North Carolina state line before plummeting down to Santeetlah Gap. As churchgoers raced each other for tables at McDonald’s and Wendy’s in downtown Robbinsville, he’d coast into the Graham County Jail parking lot. Guards watching him lope toward the entrance saw a lanky man, beard going gray, blond pony-tail under a Tennessee Titans ball cap, his granny’s Bible in hand, the hand that held a carving mallet or hand plane more often than the Good Book.
Now, tossing the Bible and ball cap on the passenger seat, he headed east under pewter skies. A twenty-five-year-old memory surfaced: walking his black Lab up the roadway, not quite finished in December 1995. He could still see Trooper run figure eights in knee-deep snow. Some kind of instinct, he guessed. She was long gone, a gap in his heart that never closed. Maybe he stoked that grief, the same way prisoners could harbor grudges. Did the inmates recognize his rugged stillness, his voice worn as his faded flannel shirt, as the signs of a fellow solitary? He had more in common with them than they’d suspect. His was the life of a cast-off, like the classifieds in the local weekly. Best offer: man’s gold wedding band, never worn on out-of-town trips. Must sell: Four grave lots at Greener Gardens.
Climbing, he passed the first overlooks—Shute Cove, Obadiah. A few teardrops of rain pinged the windshield. To the north lay Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness, 3800 acres of virgin hardwood that had escaped the logging once rampant in these parts. A cross on Huckleberry Knob marked the spot two lumberjacks, Andy Sherman and Paul O’Neil, had died in 1899, overcome by a whiteout. Months later a hunter crossing the grassy bald—the highest peak in the remote Unicoi Mountains—found their remains and empty whiskey jugs. A century on the Skyway turned the knob into a destination, especially when purple vetch and fleabane patchworked the open meadows, and songbirds—blue-headed vireos, moss-green, golden-crowned kinglets—split the quiet with their calls. It was also a great place to watch a storm roll in. He suddenly felt the need to stretch his legs after hours spent sitting, listening to men serving time. Spying the trailhead, he pulled into the small vacant lot. Truth is, he thought, there was no reason to hurry home.
The footpath stretched uphill, deserted. Bent double, maples flailed their limbs, twisting together like demented lovers. Had the wind warped them? His boots slapped the ground until trail turned into grassy heath at Oak Knob, muffling his footsteps. He felt like the only creature moving through suspended time, the suspense of a brewing storm. Like walking through the prison. He conjured Charles, whom he’d met with today. When they first talked months ago, the felon shook his head when Hank told him his name. “Nah, I’ll call you Country.”
Charles was anything but country: ebony, dreadlocked, muscle-bound. A long-haul trucker, he’d been pulled over on Highway 68 near Murphy, where State Patrol found tidy bags of meth beneath his seat. He’d been out of a California prison only six months. Charles spoke nostalgically about his last stretch. Shakespeare Behind Bars, a statewide program, had reawakened his high school passion for theatre, and he’d played the title role in the prison production of “Othello.” After their initial conversation Hank had looked up the theatre program online, stunned by photographs of Charles as an angry and later agonized lover. Intensity rippled through the pixels, punching Hank like a fist.
A gust cuffed him. Lashing across the open heath, it blew toward a grove of mountain ash. Here and there wild cherry glinted in the weird dusky light, silvery bark shining, smooth as Annie’s skin. Thrusting that image away, he set his shoulders against the chilly blast, headed toward the aluminum cross that marked the summit.
One cross, one marker for Andy Sherman. Poor Paul O’Neil, his corpse sold to a local doctor for medical study, merely a footnote to the tragedy. He sensed a kinship. Hank’s disjointed past felt like an annotation to his prison ministry. The year he’d spent in seminary, the decade as an EMT, and a lifetime of woodworking had fostered the attentiveness and focus he needed to offer as a caregiver of souls. That sounded pretentious. Maybe a witness. Each person’s soul made its own journey. His own had taken some hairpin curves, like the Skyway. There was wisdom, he’d discovered, that only revealed itself in encounters with others. From time to time his talks with the inmates had resolved a fear or sorrow of his own. Unexpectedly, a prisoner’s story would dovetail with how he saw himself, twin discernments locking into place like a corner joint that kept his life from falling apart.
He rotated slowly. Eight mountain ranges circled this bald: Unicoi, Great Smoky, Cheoah, Snowbird, Nantahala, Valley River, Tusquitee, and Cohutta. On crisp, sunny mornings, mist would billow in the hollers as if the mountains were exhaling. Now those slate-blue ridges hunched, mirroring his mood. “We Irish love our melancholy,” he thought ruefully. Perceiving the emotion reflected in nature riveted him.
Preoccupied, he did not notice the mist stealing over the bald until it stung his face. Moisture thickened like pepper gravy, prickling his alarm. Turning to the path, Hank lengthened his stride, tramping down the heath as darkness hurtled with him toward the trees.
Every step led him deeper among trees. Tripping over gnarled roots,
he landed on one. Pain shot through his tailbone. It obscured any
sense of direction he thought he had, sharpened his alarm. The night promised a hard freeze.
Just short of Oak Knob the fog enveloped him. He panicked, feeling for the path, the long grass slick beneath his soles. Bitter air seemed to move towards him, a white malevolence. He thought he walked straight but crashed blindly off-trail into a tree. His armpits dampened. He smelled his fear.
Every step led him deeper among trees. Tripping over gnarled roots, he landed on one. Pain shot through his tailbone. It obscured any sense of direction he thought he had, sharpened his alarm. The night promised a hard freeze. He doubted the rare motorist, windows rolled tight, would hear his cries.
Now his felt kinship with the two lumberjacks cast a long shadow, stretching one-hundred-twenty years to this night. He didn’t even have a whiskey jug to numb whatever hours it might take for his body heat to seep away, sleep steal in to slow his heartbeat and breath, shivering give way to confusion. Adrenaline flooded him with a kind of warmth. What an idiot he was. Flashlight in the car along with matches. His fingers delved in his pockets, dug out an old pair of woolen gloves, a knit cap. At least he had those, he thought, jamming the cap over his ears. He’d trade places with Charles in a minute for the man’s inside cell, a hot meal.
Shuffling, Hank groped his way, trunk by trunk. He palmed lichen here, muscle-like bulges of beech bark there. What was that story about Daniel Boone carving “D Boone cilled a bar” into beeches across the mountains? Hank suspected he was walking in circles. He felt like a clay pot on Annie’s wheel, except the pot would take shape beneath her strong fingers, while he was losing any boundary between flesh and dense mist. Her hands on his body had been supple, restless, inquiring. They burned away forty years and he was twenty again. He had never felt so aroused or so vulnerable, before or since.
He sat down, remembering how they first met in Tellico Plains, where the Skyway rolled to a stop at the old lumber yard. The yard took a back seat these days to its 3,000-foot gallery, featuring furniture made by himself and other local craftsmen and women. Wealthy folks from Florida and New York were building massive log homes, and they wanted twelve-foot dining tables, live-edge consoles, and hand-hewn mantels for their Volkswagon Bug-sized fireplaces. One day last spring Hank was unloading a side table from his pickup when a woman parked next to him. Hoisting a box brimming with pottery, she closed the car door with one hip, tossing her long dark hair, pausing as he strapped his table, swathed in felt, onto a hand truck. He held the door for her and, side by side, they chatted on the way to the sales room. When Hank unpacked his table—black Singer sewing machine base topped with an irregular slab of box elder heartwood, honey-gold streaked with red—the woman whistled.
“May I?” She reached one hand out to stroke the lustrous wood, pointed to the streaks. “What causes that?”
“It’s called flame. These trees produce it when they’re wounded.”
She bent down to her box. Lifting a sinuous black urn, she arched an eyebrow at him before placing it gently on the gleaming surface. It seemed to complete the table, although his work had not seemed lacking before that moment.
The second time he saw her, by chance, was at the town bakery. Annie was her name. Journaling at a window table, she raised her head the moment he reached the café door. She squinted at his silhouette: black shirt and pants against bright sunlight. As he walked to the table, her smile almost made him stumble.
“I thought that was either you or the Man in Black.”
“There is a difference.”
Hank stood abruptly. He had to find the car, get warm again. But darkness thickened the fog, the trail eluded him. He’d thought losing Annie was the worst sorrow he could ever feel. But losing his life, thanks to a stupid whim, ranked right up there.
Just like that, the fight went out of him. His feet found open ground, sheltered by trees, and he sank to his knees. Lines from an old hymn came to Hank—No word of comfort or promise for me/Covered in darkness, bereaved and undone—and with them, a resignation as deep as the hush surrounding him. The ground seemed to reach for his body like an old friend, and he lay down, inhaling hard-packed soil. Annie smelled like that, fresh yet earthy. She’d tried to talk him into moving to California, reminded him about his ancestor who’d headed West in 1838. That great-great-great-great uncle, who ran a dry goods store, was married to a woman from the Cherokee tribe. When Federal soldiers forced her people to walk away from their homeland, he sold his shop and went with her on what they called Nuahi-Duna-Dio-Hilu-I, the trail where they cried. Before their group reached Taliquah in the Ozarks, the couple melted away into the night, last seen headed for Alta California.
But Hank, unlike his wandering lover, had never lived anywhere but here. He resembled the fugitive tribe members who hid in these mountains for decades more than his intrepid forebear. He couldn’t leave. Annie did.
He was starting to feel drowsy when he sensed creatures approaching. Two of them, treading so silently they must be deer. He lay still, felt a soft, moist muzzle dip down to his cheek. It felt like a dream when first one, then the other lay beside him. Velvet, muscled haunches cradled his body, thawing him. Turned toward one, he smelled her musky forehead, imagined her sloe eyes glistening, felt his own fill with tears.
Years later the two forest rangers still told the story: spotting a car at the Knob early one Monday after a fogbound night, deciding to check the trail and finding Hank alive. Kept from freezing, he claimed, by two whitetails. Some people dismissed the tale as a rural legend. But the young men knew what they heard.
What they didn’t know: The deer heard them first—tires hissing on wet asphalt, the clang of truck doors, the snap of branches underfoot, voices afar growing louder. Rising as one, the creatures stood over Hank, alert, as he opened his eyes. Moments before his rescuers came into view, the does sprang into the trees, rustled upwind, out of sight.
Gail Tyson has published a chapbook, The Vermeer Tales (Shanti Arts, 2020). Her prize-winning story “Surely Mercy” is the first of a ring of stories set in the Cherokee National Forest and Tellico Plains. An alumna of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program and the Dylan Thomas Summer School at the University of Wales, she lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she serves on the board of Flying Anvil Theatre and belongs to the Knoxville Writers Guild.