Folk Song “Billy Boy”

From a YouTube recording of the spoken poem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bKJHwNzXAs

As often happens, at 3 a.m. I was lying awake with a song running through my head. I hadn’t thought about this song since I was child when my mother sang it in the style of the Andrews Sisters’ recording.

Why Billy Boy? I have no idea. But in the need to put this to rest, this morning I looked up the lyrics. And as happened before with other folk songs, I discovered this one has a long and not so nice history.  Wikipedia states: “Its lyrical structure is thematically complex and modeled after the question and answer form of traditional ballads” that served as Bob Dylan’s inspiration for a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.

While the tone of the nursery rhyme is ironic and teasing, both the question and answer form and the narrative of the song have been related to “Lord Randall”, a murder ballad from the British Isles, in which the suitor is poisoned by the woman he visits. Wikipedia

Here are the lyrics I always heard:

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife, she’s the joy of my whole life
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Where does she live, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where does she live, Charming Billy?
She lives on the hill, forty miles from the mill
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she bid you to come in, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she bid you to come in, Charming Billy?
Yes, she bade me to come in, there’s a dimple in her chin
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she take your hat, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she take your hat, Charming Billy?
Yes, she took my hat and she threw it at the cat
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she set for you a chair, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she set for you a chair, Charming Billy?
Yes, she set for me a chair, she has ringlets in her hair
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she cook and can she spin, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she cook and can she spin, Charming Billy?
She can cook and she can spin, she can do most anything
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy?
She can bake a cherry pie, quick as a cat can wink her eye
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she make a feather bed, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a feather bed, Charming Billy?
She can make a feather bed and put pillows at the head
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she make a pudding well, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a pudding well, Charming Billy?
She can make a pudding well, I can tell it by the smell
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she milk a heifer calf, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she milk a heifer calf, Charming Billy?
Yes, she can, and not miss the bucket more than half
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Is she often seen at church, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she often seen at church, Charming Billy?
Yes, she’s often seen at church, with her bonnet white as birch
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

And is she very tall, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
And is she very tall, Charming Billy?
She’s as tall as any pine, and as straight as a pumpkin vine
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Are her eyes very bright, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Are her eyes very bright, Charming Billy?
Yes, her eyes are very bright, but alas, they’re minus sight
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she sing a pretty song, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she sing a pretty song, Charming Billy?
She can sing a pretty song, but she often sings it wrong
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

How old may she be, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
How old may she be, Charming Billy?
Three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Is she fit to be a wife, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she fit to be a wife, Charming Billy?
She’s as fit to be a wife as a fork fits to a knife
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

But now with the information about an earlier darker version named Lord Randall, I had to know what it said. Here’s the Wikipedia description:

“Lord Randall”, or “Lord Randal”, is an Anglo-Scottish border ballad consisting of dialogue between a young Lord and his mother. Similar ballads can be found across Europe in many languages, including Danish, German, Magyar, Irish, Swedish, and Wendish. Italian variants are usually titled “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man”) or “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man’s Will”), the earliest known version being a 1629 setting by Camillo il Bianchino, in Verona.

Of course the Scots are in it! Here are the lyrics, by one version.

Lord Randal

“Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall, my son!
And where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man!”
“I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

“An wha met ye there, Lord Randall, my son?
An wha met you there, my handsome young man?”
“I dined wi my true-love; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“And what did she give you, Lord Randall, my son?
And what did she give you, my handsome young man?”
“Eels fried in broo; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“And wha gat your leavins, Lord Randall, my son?
And wha gat your leavins, my handsome young man?”
“My hawks and my hounds; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“What become a yer bloodhounds, Lord Randall, my son?
What become a yer bloodhounds, my handsome young man?”
“They swelled and they died; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary wi huntin, and fain wad lie doon.”

“O I fear ye are poisoned, Lord Randall, my son!
I fear ye are poisoned, my handsome young man!”
“O yes, I am poisoned; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m sick at m’ heart, and I fain wad lie doon.”

Several performed versions may be found on YouTube. I particularly enjoyed this one by Giordano Dall’Armellina .  Some versions include a couple of final stanzas where he curses his treacherous lover to hell fire.

 

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I Killed a Dog

When I was twelve, I killed a dog.

We lived in a rent house next door to Frank and Ethyl McMillen, a nice older couple who allowed our entire family (dad, mom, me, sister, two little brothers) to tromp into their living room every Monday at 8 p.m. to watch Gunsmoke on their nice big console television. The adults sat in chairs, Frank and Ethyl in their recliners, we kids on the floor–they had carpet– and sometimes Ethyl would serve us homemade cookies but only when my mom said okay.

McMillens had a dog named Penny. Her muzzle had started to turn gray and her black-and-white body had taken on some extra weight. Little terriers like that don’t handle extra weight very well. She walked like a sausage with legs. We weren’t encouraged to pet Penny. She moved stiffly and had her own ideas about company. But she never growled or scared us.

Each day I walked to school down a long gravel alleyway that ran from beside our house (and McMillen’s house) due west to the end of the block. The route then took me across railroad tracks, then alongside the athletic field and into the north wing of Will Rogers Elementary where I attended sixth grade. When school was over, I walked home.

One day as I returned home, I heard kids shouting and screaming. I spotted a group of kids jumping around on the far side of McMillen’s house, so I ran over there. At least six kids of various ages had gathered around the flower bed where Penny and another dog were in a fight. Only Penny wasn’t fighting. The other dog, a brown boxer more than twice her size, had her by the throat and pinned down.

One little girl screamed, “He’s going to kill her.”

I saw that was true. I ran around and knocked on the McMillen’s door, but I already knew they weren’t home. I looked around for a weapon—a shovel, a stick—something I could use to pry the dogs apart. I considered reaching down to pull the boxer off Penny, but then I worried the boxer would attack me. I thought of calling for help, but everyone there had been yelling and no one had come.

I was the oldest kid there, a head taller than anyone else. Someone had to do something, and the task fell to me. I couldn’t stand there and watch Penny be killed.

So I kicked the boxer. In the head. With my saddle oxfords, big heavy shoes I had to wear with specially-made arch supports inside so I wouldn’t get fallen arches. My feet in those shoes dangled from the end of my legs like concrete blocks. It wasn’t without some serious clout that I aimed and fired with the toe of those shoes.

The boxer didn’t budge. In retrospect, I suspect my assault may have only intensified his determination. I kicked his head, careful not to also hit Penny. She had collapsed by now, resting against the red brick wall of the house and the well-tilled soil of Ethyl McMillen’s rose garden.

I kicked again and again, each time terrified I’d miss and hit Penny or that the boxer would turn and sink his teeth into my leg.

Why didn’t he let go? Why didn’t somebody come, a grown-up, someone who would know what to do? My heart pounded. Sweat poured off me. I was shaking all over.

Finally the boxer let go. Penny didn’t move. The boxer trotted away. The kids dispersed. I went home.

Two or three hours later, my dad stood outside talking to a man. My dad came back inside and asked me if I knew what I’d done. I told him what happened. He shook his head.

“That man,” he said, gesturing. “He came down here to tell me that his kids’ dog just died. In their bathtub, bleeding from his nose and ears. He said you kicked him to death.”

I stood there as all the feeling drained out of my head and chest. I couldn’t breathe. I had killed a dog. It wasn’t that my dad lectured me or seemed angry with me. He seemed bemused, unsure what to think that his oldest child had done such a thing.

The man had told him they paid fifty dollars for that dog. Did my dad have to pay him for the dog? I don’t know.

I don’t remember if my dad said I’d done something wrong. But I felt terrible anyway. No one hugged me and said they understood, that everything would be okay. No one seemed to recognize the trauma of my experience.

I think I cried later, after my sister in the twin bed next to me had gone to sleep, when no one would see or hear me.

I didn’t mean to kill a dog. I was trying to save a dog. Surely everyone understood that. Who else had any idea of what else I could have done? What anyone could have done? But it was my fault their dog died and they were mad.

Penny died, too. She would have died even if I hadn’t killed the boxer with my big heavy oxfords. My right foot.

It was their fault the boxer died, not mine. I understand this now. They had a dog who for no apparent reason invaded Penny’s home turf and attacked her. A dog like that shouldn’t have been allowed to roam loose, but in those days, leash laws didn’t exist. For all I know, the boxer may have killed other dogs in that neighborhood.

At the time, I knew none of that. I only knew that I had kicked a dog to death and its owners were mad at me and my dad was uneasy with the whole thing. I think the McMillens thanked me, but I don’t remember that part.

I remember the deep red of the brick, the soft sun-warmed dirt, the rose bushes and the big evergreen at the corner of the house. I remember the agitated neighborhood kids jumping around, yelling. I remember that boxer straddled over Penny as her big dark eyes bulged, her mouth gaping while the boxer kept his jaws firmly fastened over her throat. I remember the impact in my body of each kick, of holding myself steady for yet another carefully aimed blow to the boxer’s head.

I remember the impact of my foot against that dog’s skull. It traveled up my leg, through my hip, up my spine, and lodged in my head where memories stay forever.

The Kiss

I mostly don’t remember my dreams anymore. When I was younger, dreams wound out in vivid detail, some of them becoming stories with strange twists and turns. I regret the loss of that talent or torment or interface with other worlds.

Last night I dreamed a dream I remember intensely. Sadly much of the detail melted away as fast as I dreamed it. But what I remember echoes through me, a repeated experience of great emotion and yes, questionable meaning. I had arrived in a place not familiar, a small wooden frame house with a high porch that I entered as if someone welcomed me there. I stood in the narrow living room, well lighted in the afternoon sunshine, facing a man I once loved.

I still love him, love him in that way we can with those we never completely knew, never joined in the flesh or struggled through the ups and downs of an intimate relationship. I can’t actually discuss all the ways I did know him because how we met and what discourse we participated in over a period of years actually would identify him and would undoubtedly create problems.

Not for me. The situation for me was entirely different than his and even more so now. He’s still married, still in a position of importance in his profession, and esteemed by a great many people. And justly so. He is a truly Good Man.

But then, of course he is. He’s made it the objective of his life to be a good man, and has done admirably well in such a difficult pursuit. In my most fevered moments in our acquaintance, I highly resented his determination to be good. I was not then and am still not, a ‘good’ woman. I’m also not a ‘bad’ woman, but that’s beside the point. And another story entirely.

In the dream, he stood before me in this small well-lighted room, a place with pale blonde  furniture, what there was of it scattered around the place. Behind him, a small table built of a light colored wood sat surrounded by its four chairs. A patterned cloth draped over the table at an angle so that the cloth corners dropped onto the chair seats on each side leaving the table corners bare. The cloth pattern featured faded yellows and greens on a cream background, and these were the same colors as the upholstery on a small couch near us in the living room and perhaps an overstuffed chair, although these were items that I didn’t examine closely.

And why would I? The object of my attention, my full and astonished attention, was him, this amazing good man who for reasons never made clear in the dream, welcomed me into his arms. Whatever I had been carrying, if indeed I carried anything, dropped from my hands as I accepted his invitation.

His chest felt warm and strong as he pulled me into his embrace although now, in trying to remember, I can’t envision how his chest looked or what he wore. Perhaps a dark suit over a white shirt with an open collar. The image seems to have evaporated into a misty phantasm so that nothing below his neck remains concrete in my memory. I regret that this is so, because in real life his chest like the rest of him satisfied, even more than satisfied, the requirements of robust manhood. Not overly muscled. But lithe. Strong. Pleasing.

Tight against that chest, I felt his warmth and his affection. That he grasped my face with his hands and lowered his mouth to mine surprised me, pleasantly so. I had longed for him to kiss me almost as long as I knew him, and it was an act that had always been refused on the grounds of his marriage and his fidelity to his role as a Good Man. The kiss rapidly kindled a deep need, apparently, in both of us, and the gentle touching of lips transformed to a passionate embrace of open mouths and tongues.

In the dream, I worried that his wife would see us and be unhappy about our transgression. He looked away without letting go of me, as if peering out the bright window to see what he needed to see, and then returned to me with his hazel eyes crinkling in a smile, that reassuring smile I’ll always remember, to say I shouldn’t worry. Then he kissed me again, this time softer, more reassuring, more comforting than erotic, and for a long time I marveled at the sensory wonder of that touch of lips, how soft his were, how deeply my lips buried against his.

I can see his face, still, and his wavy hair and the crinkle of his eyes when he smiled. He had a terrific smile, which would have been even more wonderful if it had been reserved for me, but of course it was not. It was his professional smile, probably not simply reserved for his many acquaintances and clients in his work, but his smile for everyone. Probably even the smile he gave to his wife and child. But I wanted it for myself. I wanted to be special, not an acquaintance or a client but me, a unique and mysterious element of his life that set me and us apart from the rest of his life.

Maybe I was. He told me, more than once, I was special. To him. That he loved me. But it was agape love, not physical. Transcendent. Nothing infuriated me more, that he insisted on that. Only once did he let that curtain slip, if it was a curtain. Maybe it was only once that he lost control. Or only once that he felt anything more than his perfect good acceptable kind of love.

He did kiss me. We embraced over the console of his sports car, a fevered touch of lips and then more until we were both sinking into the erotic in ways that I had come to expect in my life, ways of freedom and basic human honesty and pleasure. I don’t know what he expected, whether he planned that moment as a brief ration of the forbidden or if it caught him unawares in the midst of trying to help me, pull me back from the brink of despair. I don’t know if those few moments, really only a few, of what some might consider an almost innocent touching of lips, and then slightly more as the kiss deepened and our tongues spoke the silent language of desire, whether those were the only moments in his entire good life that he deviated from his intended path.

In the dream, he wasn’t troubled by the kiss. He was fully in the moment, focused on me, on holding me in his arms and savoring what we exchanged. His objective, it seemed, was to reassure me, convince me of something important, that he cared, that he had always cared, and that what we had would never be diminished or lost.

I don’t remember anything else, and it seems this must have been the main event of this longer scenario that faded into mist like the yellow and green patterns on the tablecloth. I woke up telling myself to remember it, afraid that like most of my other dreams it would slip away into nothing and that when I tried to retrieve it, it would vanish from my fingertips. By some miracle, the memory remained. And even now, as the day drifts again into the early gray evening of a rainy late February day, the image of him, of his hazel eyes and the curl of his hair and the angle of his jaw and the sensual curve of his lips, remains clear in my mind.

What I feared most when I woke up, when I showered and dressed and made my tea and sat at my desk, was that somehow this dream marked his death. That in the night as I slept, he had passed into the ether and from that brilliant space had joined with me for one last moment of expressed affection. I searched the internet for news, hoping that surely if he had died, there would be an announcement, a notice, for he was well known. There was nothing of his death, only other news of his accomplishments, press releases, his position on boards of directors and other such ephemera.

Perhaps he did not die and the dream rose from the depths of my memory, my loneliness, if indeed I am lonely, for I do not consider myself lonely except in the strictest terms of that condition. Yes, I am alone. I am not lonely. Perhaps something of my current endeavors or books I’ve recently read have opened a path to that phase of my life so that all the unresolved angst of my desire and his restraint has found a path to my present. It’s been forty-five years, but then, some things are never forgotten.

Or perhaps he did die and this morning was too soon for there to be obituaries and notices and mourning. I will watch and wait.

And I will savor the dream.

Smoking

I kind of quit smoking when I was 33 after having incessant heart palpitations. I think the actual trigger had been the exhaust we breathed stuck in traffic the night before after watching fireworks at the mall. Plus I’d had a lot of dental work done which involved repeated doses of ephedrine. Whatever. The doc looked at my EKG and said I had to quit smoking. And drinking caffeine.

I loved smoking. Maybe I imprinted on my father’s lifelong relationship with Winstons. Maybe I was just a natural addict. Maybe the boost I got from nicotine helped me jumpstart the confidence I so badly needed.

Pretty much within the first several weeks of college, I bought Winstons and started smoking. I learned how to French inhale. I learned how to flip ashes and thump butts out of car windows. After a year or so, I gave it up temporarily because my soon-to-be husband didn’t like me to smoke and I wanted him more than I wanted cigarettes.

For a while.

I could write an entire story about my life with cigarettes, about the on again, off again drama while married to him. About the shift to Kools after I met a particular man who was my lover for three months. One spring night as a thunderstorm raged outside, I ran out of Winstons. He offered me a Kool and that was that.

Smoking felt even more exhilarating with Kools, the intense menthol burn on the inhale, the slightly sweet smoky exhale. I loved each new pack in its clean white and green colors, the ceremony of tapping the pack, of pulling the little cellophane thread that opened the top, the careful tearing off one side of the foil interior wrap and the skilled thump on the side of my finger to knock the first lovely white cylinder loose. These were gifts, objects of beauty. That first puff felt wonderful, but it was the second hit that filled my lungs and my body with the full tobacco experience.

If anyone ever wanted a hit of my cigarette, they did not get the second hit.

Cigarettes were my best friend. They were there for me when the rest of my world dissolved into runny shit. In lonely moments, in anger, in grief, I turned to my faithful companion. In the dark of night, I relied on the warm cheery glow of a cigarette’s lit end. In hunger, in drunkenness, in the hours of tripping my brains out, the cigarette was there, centering me, reminding me of myself. Being the lighthouse in the storm.

With my first pregnancy at age twenty-seven, I bravely stopped smoking. Time slowed to a crawl. I so wanted to do right by the future child growing inside me. Then one night my husband and I had a vicious fight. I leapt into the old Ford 150 and drove to the nearest gas station where I purchased a pack of Kools. Then I drove to a vacant parking lot and lit that old friend and sat there crying and smoking. I subsequently smoked through all three of my pregnancies.

I required a cigarette when on the telephone. Otherwise I might leap out of my skin in annoyance with yet another incessant nonsensical blathering about whatever, or another tale of romantic angst, or whatever the fuck it was someone else had to tell me and I thought I had to listen as the minutes of wasted life ticked by. Without cigarettes, I finally learned to just draw my line in the sand and make whatever excuse was necessary to end the call.

After the doc said I had to quit and pointed out that I risked having some other woman mother my young children because I could fucking die, I stumbled out of the building into the glare of July sunlight and sat in my blazing hot car with the windows down while I smoked my last cigarette. I cried. Deep body shaking sobs. Then I drove up North Street, finished the last drag on that luscious Kool then tossed the rest of the pack out the window. Yes, I looked back. The little green and white pack lay forlorn on the pavement.

That wasn’t the end of my smoking. I went through a period where I’d meet a friend for a beer and she smoked my brand and I’d luxuriate in the pleasure of ‘just one.’ Only I never could smoke just one. ‘Just one’ after weeks or even days of abstinence resulted in dizziness and nausea. I had to smoke more often if I wanted to tolerate the effects. And I did smoke more. I stopped and started smoking so many times I lost count. The craving would get so bad, I’d buy a pack, smoke one then throw the pack away. Then I’d buy a pack, smoke one, and keep the pack in my glove box until the next insurmountable craving forced my hand.

It took nearly ten years before I really quit. I’d have dreams of smoking, feel the pleasure of smoke curling over my tongue, drawing deep into my lungs, brushing past my lips as I exhaled. In the dream, I’d panic that I’d started smoking again, that I’d never be free of it, that I’d always be tortured by an addiction I couldn’t beat. Even now, nearly thirty years later, I sometimes have that dream. In recent years when the dream occurs, I know in my dream that it’s a dream. For years, though, I’d wake up not sure if I had started again.

Side note: Maybe I have this dream often. I don’t know because I mostly can’t remember my dreams anymore. Why is that? My life is crumbling away before my very eyes.

I understood my thing with cigarettes was a real addiction. To me, addiction is the ability of a chemical to make a place for itself in the recesses of a human brain and take up residence there. A more refined understanding is that it isn’t the chemical itself that takes up residence, but the effect that chemical has inside the body. The whole endorphin receptor thing. The euphoria that results from those effects will live forever inside me, always ready for that moment when I might finally lay down my guard and say ‘why not?’ and bring flame to the tip and inhale.

Knowing that, I sometimes lament my father’s last request for me to bring him a cigarette. Or, more accurately, I lament my response.

We all knew he was dying. Eighty-five years of life and Winstons finally came to collect its debt in atrophied heart muscle and congested lungs. He spent his days and nights those last weeks in a hospital bed in the family room, unable to walk and perhaps in pain. But he never said he hurt. He didn’t complain.

On one of my last visits before he died, he held my hand and asked if I’d get ‘the old man’ a cigarette. I said no, you know you can’t smoke, you’re on oxygen. But later I thought, what the hell was I thinking? I could have turned off the oxygen. I could have bought a pack and wheeled him to the porch and watched him enjoy the hell out of that damn thing.

It would have been the rational, kind thing for me to do. He hadn’t smoked in nearly a year at that point, so I’m not sure how dizzy it would have made him. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the joyous sensation he expected. Maybe he would have coughed or choked. But he was dying anyway.

I should have done it.

Winter

She speaks for us all, confessing to the check-out clerk with an excited laugh that if it’s going to ice, she’d better get ready. Milk, bread, chocolate bars, corn meal—her choices are different only in detail from the rest of us standing in line, in a store so jam-packed that even the stock boys work up front wearing jackets over their aprons and sacking supplies that will keep us secure when the weather moves in. Cars and trucks crowd the parking lot, some left running with the plumes of their exhaust whipping sideways in the freezing wind.

Men wait holding meat, bananas, coffee, restless in insulated tan coveralls with the legs unzipped over their heavy clay-soiled boots, their hair packed down against their heads where knit hats had been. Uneasy in a role usually filled by their wives, they joke, catch up with old acquaintances who also stand in line, promising to call soon, men not accustomed to being off work at one p.m., hurrying home to family before the sleet starts.

The cold comes first, thirty-five degrees when I started to town in the morning, twenty two when I return home, fifteen by three. Wind rocks the great oaks side to side, piling stiff dead leaves in new arrangements at the corner of the woodpile, at the steps. Twelve degrees at dusk, the clouded sky pale pink and white, the countryside settling into frozen night.

More wood on the fire at midnight and two a.m. I shiver by the fire. The house creaks.

Five-thirty a.m. by my bedside clock, the tick-tick of sleet against the windows wakes me. I indulge in another hour of fitful sleep, comforted by heavy quilts and cats at my feet. Plans of all I could do race through my dreams, the albums not finished, correspondence neglected, the watercolors so long set aside. Roads coated in ice mean a day without visitors, a day at home tending the fire, tending myself.

Dressed in sweaters not worn for five years, in long socks and with no regard to appearance, I sip hot tea at the window. Only a small shift in the light signals dawn, lifting the dark blue cast of the air to a lighter shade.  Barely visible deer move slowly through the woods, pawing at the ice-coated duff.  Tiny crystalline flakes of snow filter into the sleet, thickening the white of the downfall, obscuring trees at the fence line.

Four degrees.

I build a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. A kettle of water with cinnamon oil steams while I craft my list of things to do, tasks that seem too petty or cumbersome for normal days when open roads and obligations burden the hours. I simmer apricots with honey and ginger and fry half-moon pies, edges evenly crimped with tender fork lines. I sketch scenes, the road to my house, the long-familiar contoured hills, and let watercolor swirl on the heavy paper, a skyscape of gray and blue, fields tan, oaks silhouetted black.

Freshly washed clothes hang by the blistering stove whose greedy heat soon pulls out all moisture. With satisfying frugality, a pot of vegetable soup thick with garlic and a pan of beans decorate the stove top, cornbread in the small sooty oven. Every few hours I rush out for more wood, lingering coatless in the sharp scent of cold and wood smoke, large flakes of snow tumbling down into my hair, resting on my eyelashes.

The winters have not been accommodating in recent years, failing first with abbreviated snows, then disappointing even in temperature. In the onslaught of global warming, the Ozark hills have increasingly remained accessible in deepest January, when a few decades earlier our steep, curving roadways had been reliably impassible for at least two arctic weeks of the year. We grew up expecting that at times chosen by Nature, no one would venture out. The guy with the local wrecker service would make enough money to last until June.

In this mid-South clime, we don’t get winter enough to justify the county’s expense for snow plows. It suits us better to schedule school years with extra days for snow. It pleases us to find ourselves unexpectedly confined to the house discovering long lost treasures at the back of the closet, reading magazines, standing at the window as midday lightens the sky to a shade barely more luminous than the snow lying thick on the ground.

Lately, with the warming climate, there has been little winter at all. Days have run together, no time to reflect, restore, sleep in the afternoon. We long for the cold, the ice, roads we could not drive, jobs we could not attend.

Welcome then this celebration of ancient instincts to stay in the cave, content with the provisions we have hoarded, the firewood we have stacked near the door, wrapped in the warmth we have made. Embrace this triumph of man over the elements, a proof of our adequacy in a time when little else seems so clear.

This piece is excerpted from my collection of essays, I Met a Goat on the Road–and other stories of life on this hill. Published 2013

Best Gift Ever

All around us, every day, the people and events of the past still echo. What is better than to meet those memories and share them with your loved ones?

From 1835 to the present day, the City of Fayetteville in Washington County, Arkansas, has enjoyed a vibrant and colorful history. Its reputation as a regional center for arts, culture, and education began early in its history. Frequently named one of the nation’s Top 10 cities, Fayetteville hosts the University of Arkansas and its famous Razorback athletic teams.

In Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past, history comes alive in stories of the town’s origins and development. The five articles contained in Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past focus on under-reported aspects of that history. Published initially by the county’s historical society, these intensively-researched works have been revised and expanded with illustrations, photographs, and maps.

“The History of Fayette Junction and Washington County’s Timber Boom” now include not only an in-depth review of Fayetteville’s first major industry but also three appendices which examine wagon production in Fayetteville, the name and tradition of Sligo, and the Fulbright mill.

“Quicktown” delves into the story behind this quirky short-lived suburb in south Fayetteville.

“546 West Center” tracks the development of a landmark Fayetteville property from its earliest use as a site for an ice factory in the 1880s.

“The Rise and Fall of Alcohol Prohibition” documents the use, production, and regulation of alcoholic drink in Washington County from before statehood through the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and features indictment and other crime data.

“175 Years of Groceries” follows the transition from country store to supermarkets to big box stores and includes newspaper advertisements showing price changes over those decades.

Whether a reader is interested in learning more about the history of Fayetteville or simply enjoys the peculiar details of how time changes all things, Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past will inform and entertain.

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I Met a Goat on the Road

A visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for over forty years?

These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed–who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?

Come meet the goat on the road.

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