The afternoon sun was warm here. It mellowed the old logs of the porch, making them look smooth and golden. A few geraniums still bloomed bravely on the rail. Red against their bright green leaves. Linnea sat in the old rocking chair. Its familiar dull squeak - squeak rested easy in her ears, a kind of soft musical accompaniment to this September afternoon. The faded crazy quilt lay across her knees. She knew every scrap of it. In her mind she strung them on, like beads in a necklace. Grandmothers wimter coat, plain brown plaid, the red dress they had gotten for christmas one year, the yellow apron... She remembered stitching the quilt and tying it. Could it really be so long ago? Where do years go, when they are done? She thought they stayed, like this , a crazy quilt of memories in your mind. Sometimes, on a quiet afternoon, you could sit there and and run your fingers over the years, too, stringing them like beads on a necklace.
An old cemetery sloped down the hillside across the road. Orderly rows of saints and sinners washed white and clean by the rain and the wind and the sun. In all her eighty years, Linnea had never once seen a burial there, nor even a mourner. Thats how old it was, how long it had been here. Before her grandfather had built this cabin. She had lived here all her life. She had played among the stones. When she had learned to read, she had spent days there, tracing the letters and reading the quaint old names and sweet little verses. She remembered that she and Liisi never thought it was a sad place. It was just a peaceful part of their very small world.
Liisi was her older sister. One year older. This cabin in the North Carolina mountains was their very life. It was here they were born, here they were raised. It was here that her heart was. She had never desired to go any further. Liisi was the one with the feet that couldn't stay still, the one whose heart flew over the hills looking for something else.
Now they were old. Liisi had gone, up over the mountains with the traveling man.Oh, Linnea remembered still how Liisi had looked that day! So glowing and beautiful and and full of life. She wore her blue wedding dress and store bought shoes, some of grandmothers red geraniums in her hair. Linnea could still feel the great wrench in her heart as she watched her and her man walking off down the road to town where they would get on the train and go to the city. So far away it had seemed, as if she had flown to the moon.
Linnea laughed to herself, now. Now people really did fly, any where they wished, some of them had really flown to the moon! She searched for the scrap of blue in the quilt. There it was , still a piece of that wedding dress, here with her in the mountains. Liisi had never come back. Still she lived there in the city. Every week she had written to Liisi and every week, she had gotten a letter, too. She felt she knew intimately all the places that Liisi had been, all the things she had seen, and done. This is what she, Linnea had done every Wednesday since Liisi had left. Sat here on this porch, in this rocking chair and and read her letter.
She opened todays letter carefully, unfolding it and pushing her glases up on her nose. Liisis perfect, neat handwritting was now faint and scratchy, as though written by a trembling hand. Linnea knew that hers was, too. She thought about that. She remembered how grandmother had made them walk that mile to school in every kind of weather and how proud she had been for them to know reading and writing. Grandmother had never known herself, but through them, she had felt herself an educated woman. She remembered the teacher holding her hand over hers and guiding the pencil. She remembered how they had practiced and practiced until they could do the magic of making such lovely smooth curving letters that turned into words. She remembered the green checked gingham dresses that Grandmother had made for them to wear to school, one for each. How they took such care with them, carefully taking them off as soon as they came home and hanging them on the nail. There was alot of those green gingham pieces in the quilt.
Now their letters weren't so interesting any more. Liisis man had been gone for many years. Her only son lived near her, but he didn't have any children. There wasn't much to write about. Both of them had legs that didn't work so well anymore. Linnea remembered how they used to run and walk and climb, here on this farm of Grandfathers. This hilly steep, barely making it farm in the mountains. Here the winters were cold and snowy. The wild winds skirled and moaned around the upstairs loft where they slept and the snow blew in between the logs and rattled the window. Here spring came late, but it came in all its green glory, and the snow melted and the ice chunks chased each other down stream. The leaves furled out and the fruit trees blosssomed and the plowing and planting began. Summers were warm and and chancy, for a mountain farmer. This Linnea knew, for after Grandfather had died, she had been the one who kept the farm going. Fall here was the beautiful, mellow time, when the work was winding down. When the mountains were painted with brilliance, when the air hung smokey and blue.
All of Grandfathers years, he had worked hard here, first of all thinking he would be leaving something for his son. But Linneas father had died before she was old enough to remember him, and her mother soon afterward. Still Grandfather had plowed his meager fields and worked the soil to make it more fruitful. Still he had raised his cows and pigs and chickens. Still he had planted his apple trees and cherry trees. Still he had made his barn weather proof and strong, to last the years. She had watched him growing old there on that farm, and wondered. What would happen then? Who would be wise enough, who would love this little hilly farm as much as he did, who would carry on the work, then? Not once had she thought, "it will be me. I, Linnea will love this land, and keep it."
Now she let her fingers smooth the quilt. With out looking, she could find those squares of faded denim. Grandfathers shirts. The ones he wore until the elbows wore out, and Grandmother would patch them. The ones with the frayed collars and cuffs. After they were too worn, Grandmother would carefully cut off the butttons and put them in her button box, and cut the better pieces into quilting squares.
One afternoon, an afternon much like this one, she had walked with Grandfather across the road. It was only a gravel road then. They had climbed the hill, up to the top of the old cemetery. There Grandfather had put his frail, work worn hand on her shoulder. It had surprised her. grandfather was not one to show affection. Neither was he garrulous, but said only the words that needed to be spoken. He had stood there with his hand on her shoulder, looking off into the distance. His eyes where a faded blue and she could see the colorful mountains reflected in them. He seemed remote and far away. "Grandfather?" she asked softly. Slowly he turned to look down at her. "This ," he said with a sweep of his hand, "all this is all that I give you. Not just this hard scrabble farm, Linnea. Always remember this. Look around you." He slowly turned her around in a complete circle. "These mountains, these skies, these trees in all their glory, these rivers and streams. Everything that you can see. You can have it everyday for the rest of your life. Only you have to work hard to survive. Your survival only comes from that small holding on this hillside. If you can keep that, then you can always,always have all this loveliness to call your own."
Tears had burned in her eyes. She knew what he was saying. She was honored that he had such faith in her, that he would entrust a lifetime of toil into her hands. She had looked at her hands, up there on that September hill. They were small. They were untested. One day would they look like
Grandfathers hands? His hands were sinewy and brown, they sprouted grey hairs and dark age spots. His fingernails were bent and yellowed. Did she want hands like that? Ah, youth cannot see themselves bent with age!
Linnea looked down at her hands now. They were tracing a small yellow quilt piece, a piece of the dress she had worn that day. Yes, her hands did resemble Grandfathers hands. They were still small, of course, but they were sinewy and brown. They, too, had dark age spots and her fingernails were bent and yellowed. They are worthy, she thought, they are worthy of Grandfathers faith in me. I worked hard, and I still have this home that he built so long ago, and I can still see these mountains, all decked out in fall colors, I can still feel the wind and see the trees. I can hear the brook babbling and the sky above me is still smokey blue.
She put Liisis letter down, and just like she always did, she took out a pen and a paper from her pocket and wrote her return letter. You have to do it right then, or else it might get delayed or forgotten. her hand trembled so slightly, making the beautiful cursive writing jiggly and crooked. She saw that, but she smiled. "I did it. Liisi," she wrote. "I did what Grandfather asked of me all those years ago. It came to me today, while I sat here enjoying your letter. We are old, and the years have flown by, and I did it! This farm on the hillside still keeps. "
Linnea got up, taking her cane, and went down the porch steps. Yes, grandfather would be surprised to see all this. The privy was never used anymore. There was plumbing in the house, running water, a bathroom, hot water whenever you wanted it, electricity...things Grandfather would never have dreamed of. They made life much nicer, indeed they did. The barn even had lights. There were no cows any more, she still had a few chickens pecking around, giving her some eggs and making some noise. No pigs. No hay piled, fragrant and golden in the hay mow. People couldn't make a living on a small farm any more. That kind of life was past.
Perhaps Liisi was right. Up out of the mountains you could make a living all sorts of ways. Everything was handy, people every where to look after you. A few times, Linnea had gone over the mountain. It had been exciting. Liisi lived a good life. She had kept her mountain values and her mountain faith. She had tried to persuade Linnea to stay with her. But Linnea knew she never could be away from the mountains too long. They were a part of her that couldn't be taken out. She had always gone back, content with her choice.
Linnea made her way slowly back to the orchard. The trees were old and gnarly. A few apples still hung high up in the trees waiting for a brisk wind. The bees bumbled about groggily in the september warmth, gathering in swarms on fallen apples. She could hear their drowsy hum. She leaned against a rough trunk. How many happy hours had been spent in this orchard. As far back as she could remember she had loved this place. Nothing was ever so beautiful as the orchard in the spring. All the blossoms of white and pink, falling in drifts. How they had played of princesses and queens. Shady hiding spots in summer, she would climb to a comfy crotch to sit and read a favorite book.
Suddenly she laughed aloud, remembering. That was a spring morning. The first of May. They were about twelve and thirteen, her and Liisi. Long ago Grandmother had told them about it. The first day of May. You open your window and lean out, and say, "If you hear a robin sing, you will marry in the spring, if you hear a coffin fall, you will never wed at all." They had done it faithfully for years. Now Liisi was quite anxious that she would have a boy friend that would marry her and take her out of the mountains. She already had her heart set on the young man who came over the mountain every spring selling seed and farm equipment. Linnea was horrified and not wanting to think about Liisi ever going away. What would life be with out her?
Linnea had it all planned out. Early on that May first morning she snuck out of bed and raced out . It was absolutely clear, blue, the sun just beginning to come over the tree tops. The grass was dewey. She ran out to the woodshed. Catching her breath she waited, peeking from behind the door frame. She had a good view of the loft window. Sure enough, there was Liisi, pushing the window open. She leaned on the sill, looking about her. Her hair was tousled and golden, her arms shapely and her neck smooth ,rising from her white night gown. Her clear voice carried through the morning air. "If you hear a robin sing".... Linnea was ready. As soon as the ditty was finished, she hurled down her piece of cord wood. It made a true THUNK of wood landing on hard clay. It made her shiver, because it really did sound like a coffin hitting the bottom of the grave. There was a terrified shriek from the house and another THUNK! The window slammed shut. Linnea didn't know what to do. She glanced around wildly, then took off at a dead run for the house. She slammed through the door and climbed to the loft in record speed. Granmother had beaten her up there. Lisssi lay on the floor in a dead faint. Grandmother was splashing water on her face from the wash basin.
"What is going on, Linnea?" Grandmother was fuming. Liisis eyes fluttered open. She groaned. Big ears were rolling down her face. Suddenly Linnea had a desparate urge to burst out laughing. She did . "I'm sorry, Liisi, really I am," she gasped between laughs. "If only you could have heard yourself!" Grandmother gave them both a good shaking and went back down the ladder. They had looked at eachother and sat down on the bed and laughed themselves silly. Oh! That had been a morning they would never forget.
Many times afterward, she had wondered. How could they have been so ignorant as to really think that a robin singing or a coffin falling would have anything to do with their fates? After all, robins sang every day in the spring, and coffins were lowered all the time. Liisi did marry the young man from the seed company, though, and was happy, so it just goes to show! Don't believe old wives tales.
Linnea made her way back to the barn. It seemed strange to see it so empty and echoing. She thought of days past. She had spent so much time in here. Milking cows, forking down hay, finding eggs, feeding the grunting pigs. The hay mow should be full now, all ready for winter. Stuffed to the rafters, amok with kittens. There was still a trace. A trace of the oiled leather, a trace of manure, a trace of hay sifting down with the sun beams. She saw her son, a little lad with hair like a crows wing and eyes of swedish blue. Eyes like her Grandfather that looked at faraway places. He had loved it here too, but she had persuaded him to go to school and find a career. Already then she had known that this was coming to an end.
And of course, she saw Normie there, just like the first time. She had been needing help, after Grandfather had died. There was some things she just couldn't do. She needed someone she could depend on. It was June and the barn was shadowy and cool. She was cleaning the cows stall. A shadow paused at the door and she glanced up. He was standing there in the sunshine. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, not that she had seen many. He was tall and lithe. His hair hung low over his collar, shiny and raven black. Only a Cherokee could have that hair. It was straight and glossy, teased by the June breeze. He definitely should have had a feather in it. His eyes also were bright and black, his nose perfectly shaped. His shirt was open at the neck ,his skin smooth and amber, like coffee with a little cream.
She straightened up and wiped her hands off on her apron. He held out his hand. "Normie ," he said, "I hear your looking for help.""I am, indeed," she had answered. They had arranged it all. He would get room and board and half of whatever profits they might get. He would sleep in the barn and come in for meals. He was soft spoken, kind to the animals, knew how to do things and he worked hard. Often they worked together, and they sat at table twice a day. He never said much about himself, and she wondered sometimes, if he was hiding something. She was anamored of him, no matter how she tried to talk herself out of it. They liked and respected each other. She was older than him, and not getting any younger.
Sometimes in the evening they sat together on the porch and she read him books until it got too dark. Harvest was done, winter was on its way, she didn't want him to leave, because she liked having him around. She didn't have alot for him to do in the winter, but she would need him again in the spring. It was Liisi who had suggested it." Ask him to marry you," she had written. "That will solve it." So she had. "Linnea, I am not the marrying kind, and I'm definitely not your kind. I can't even read or write. All my life has been spent on the road, criss crossing the country. Staying a few months here or there. I don't want to stay here forever." Linnea took a deep breath. She thought it would be worth it even if he did only stay a while. It was a risk she would take. So they had gone into town and got married. It was a lovely, long winter they spent. Two years slipped by. One November day, Normie slung his bag over his shoulder and stood on the porch.
He kissed her gently. "Thank you, Linnea, I've had a wonderful time. But now its time for me to go. Don't cry. I'll always remember you." And he had walked off down the road. That open road that was his real home, that had been callling to him for awhile now. Linnea knew that. He never turned back, just swung off, whistling into the wind. She never saw him again. It was in December, though that she knew she was pregnant.
Linnea walked back to her rocker on the porch. Old memories always came back to that. That gripping fear and joy that had filled her heart at that moment. Oh, those months that followed, hollow and lonely and cold and afraid. If it hadn't beeen for Liisis Wednesday letters, she didn't know how she would have made it. Linnea smoothed the quilt over her knees. Here was no record of Normie or his child. The quilt was made before they had come into her life. She had named him Lars, after her Grandfather, and they had had a good life here in the mountains. Now she didn't see him that much, he lived away, but their love was the tie that binds. She had thought that the years would fade that picture of Normie, standing at the barn door, but it was still as vivid as ever. The old quilt had faded much more than that.
When Lars was older, she had taken him up the hill and they had sat among the gravestones, shimmering white in the sunshine.Peaceful and quiet as always, they drank coffee and talked of cabbages and kings. She saw his eyes, those same faraway blue eyes of Grandfather, looking at visions that she could not see. She knew they were looking at two different things. He was seeing a future and she could only see the past. Linnea showed him his heritage that day, all that could be his, but now it could not be had with what she and Grandfather had done. If he wanted to keep it he would have to work hard some other way.
Lars smiled at her that day. He had his fathers smile. It could charm you. He told her all his plans and dreams. How he would work hard to keep this place in the mountains, and she had to be the one to have faith now, to believe in this child of her love for a man.
The afternoon was waning. Linnea finished her letter. "I will come and see you, Liisi," she wrote. "The next time Lars comes home, he will take me over the mountains. We will see each other one more time, before we leave our earthly homes. And then when we meet again, we will have crossed all the mountains and waded through the Jordan over on the other side."
Linnea folded up the quilt to go inside, she folded it slowly, seeing each peice not as a quilt square but as a person, a day, a year , a crazy quilt of Grandfather Lars, Grandmother, her mothers wedding dress, her fathers coat, dresses from when her and Liisi were babies,curtains that had hung in the kitchen window, blankets from long ago beds. She had never made a quilt after this one. She had been too busy working the farm, keeping the faith. She wondered, should she regret it? But she thought, no. There is a box in my closet with all Liisis letters, and a box in her closet with all of mine. One day they can read them, and know what life was like. They will become familiar with all that we know. They will have a crazy quilt of letters. They will know that though we are far apart, we were always together in our hearts.
This story is for Margaret and Jessie. They knew about God and love and the North Carolina mountains.They knew about sisters. They have crossed all the mountains and waded over Jordan.Thank you, Margaret and Jessie.