The Lady in the Mountain Part 1
Jesse stalked the mountainside in the dim waxing moonlight. Tree branches passed overhead and wet leaves pressed silently under his boot heels. It was difficult to see under the thick canopy of towering ash trees and reaching oaks, but his legs could get him there on their own, so little difference it made. He crept by the last of the blooming rhododendrons and bent to pass under heavy vines of wild grapes that flung themselves tree to tree from low branches, until the rising earth gave way to a small glade. Short grass and the surrounding leaves were plated silver by the moon and whispers of the slightest breeze pushed its way into the treeless starlit clearing.
The grass was clipped short by grazing deer and wild rabbits, and shoots of trees and brush were trampled by the activity of animals that visited an enormous old apple tree in the tiny meadow's center. Jesse paced into the unfiltered light and sat beneath the tree and waited. It was the same place he had waited every evening, two hours past bedtime, for all of last fall and winter and all this summer. Nearly a year now. It wasn't every night that his patience was rewarded, but it didn't matter. The few nights a month that Ella escaped home and made her way up the opposite side of the mountain made the chill of every empty, starry night worthwhile.
Ella said they were like Romeo and Juliet. Star-crossed lovers. He wasn't sure what that meant, but he did know what it meant when the soft pout of her mouth pressed against his. And also what it would mean if her daddy ever found out that he'd once curiously, hastily, run his palm up the outside of her thigh, past the soft curve of her hip and how much he longed to retrace that exploratory journey.
There was a time when the Harris' and Clark's were pretty close families. But that was long before the laws changed. Now they were competitors, any camaraderie had ended when old man Clark saw fit to raise a surcharge on anyone moving moonshine through the gap to Johnson City. When Jimmy Clark made Deputy Sheriff two years ago everyone said it'd go straight to his old man's head. And it did. Between his son's connection and the help of the Turner's- who were poor as dirty carpetbagging farmers- they'd had the muscle to pull it off. Jesse's Daddy had been so angry he'd taken an ax to one of the Clark's stills last winter and nearly gotten himself shot. They paid their dues and avoided a full on feud, but it bubbled and steamed so close to the surface that the families avoided each other.
But Jesse could not avoid Ella.
It had been a couple weeks since he had met her last. He hadn't worried at first. But now there was rumor that she had taken off for the city. Some thought maybe for work, others thought maybe one of those slick fellows that passed through looking for shine had charmed her. Those thoughts had angered him so bad he'd dented the fender of his daddy's pick up truck with his fist. But Sally Hershal told him today that she was missing. Jimmy'd picked up a new client from some other state, some businessman working in Kingsport. That man had stayed the night, shared a meal and some drink, and left with the big box truck of moonshine he had paid for. And no one had seen Ella since then, not even her Momma. Sally said that was five days ago, and she ought to know. She was Ella's cousin and best friend.
Jesse was getting sick now of waiting every night in the damp darkness hoping she would emerge, mussed hair from the twigs and branches, her dress wrinkled from the work of the day, along the edge of the clearing. For nearly a year she'd been a ghost in the night wandering that mountainside, creeping from the treeline like a phantasm to the comfort and rest of his arms. Whispering his name in the dark.
But she had gone. And she hadn't come back. Nearly a year he'd endured a racing heart at the chance sight of her across the street in town from the open door of the mill where he worked. All these months he'd smoothed the sweat that spontaneously formed on his palms when she brushed into him as the crowd filed out of church on Sunday. He'd suffered every day through thoughts of her, been certain he'd heard her voice only to find he'd imagined it, and counted endless seconds until the moon rose and he could escape again with the hopes of finding her waiting in the dark wild.
So he sat under the tree and watched the stars gaze indifferently back at him until the evening chill made him shiver. A glow behind the northern hills, which grew a little brighter every year, reminded him of the city that laid not fifteen miles away. So his time passed wondering if she'd run off, like a month drawn to it, or if she'd truly been stolen. After too many hours he gave up and crept back to the board and batten house that awaited him in the narrow hollow between two mountains.
The giant blade of the sawmill screamed and spit dust at him as he pushed fat slabs of raw lumber through it later that week. Sunlight filtered through the building's walls in fat shafts that fell, almost with sounds, through the sweet-smelling airborne particles. He paused occasionally to shake the dust from the handkerchief tied around his face, and use it to wipe the sweat that raced from his brow, through his prickly man-child beard, to his neck. Vehicles passed through the town's dirty main street on odd intervals. If the saw was idling he could hear them echo through the storefront, and he would stand motionless until they passed the big mill window on the far side of the building. But it was never one of the Clarks'. Yet another day was passing without a word of news about Ella.
He took a break at noon for lunch, trading his worn leather gloves for the rusting lunch pail he hung on a crooked nail by the door every day. An old, discarded, buckboard from an abandoned wagon had become a sort of bench in an empty lot not far from the mill. It rested against the spare metal, stacked brick, and wood wall hob-cobbed along the mill's property; he wiped bits of wood from his flannel shirt as he made his way there. The short jaunt on the sidewalk from the front door to the empty lot produced Jimmy Clark, out of uniform, walking with Old Man Clark, Ella's Grandfather. The two were some distance away, outside the feed store. Old Man Clark's head hung humbled, something no one in town was accustomed to seeing, least of all Jesse. It went unnoticed by his young mind at first.
Jesse craned his neck and bent at the middle trying to look for the doe-eyed girl that watched her feet as she kept pace behind Old Man Clark when he ventured to town. Trills of excitement laced through his insides as he hoped to finally see her again. She would flick her eyes up at him as she neared, the delicious corner of her mouth curling into a knowing grin at the sight of Jesse. And he would break apart inside like ice on a spring-warmed creek because she had a celestial power over him. It killed him, in every good way, that she knew it. But the space behind the Clark men was empty. Even more disconcerting was the weak way Jimmy held his felted, wide brim, hat and worked its edge through his fingers as he walked along talking nearly in the old man's ear. His shoulders hunched in the same odd way his Father's were now.
They passed Jesse without slowing their quick pace or taking any notice of the world around them, or that a wiry young man's interest was piqued by their passing. He spun on his heel and willed his ears to glean anything from their hushed conversation, but nothing came. His gaze fell to the leftover ham lunch in his grasp, but his stomach turned at the sight of it. Frustration gave way to desperation, which rolled a poison pit deep in his belly.
None of it mattered. Rage boiled where his hunger had been. It wasn't his fault the Clark's and Harris' festered in a prideful blood-feud. He hadn't chosen who he loved. No one could help that instinctual spark that just some times consumed the space between two people, he sure as hell didn't care who thought anything about it. That whole town, and the whole long line of Clarks' could go straight to hell for all he cared. But someone was damn sure going to talk about that missing girl.
He flung his pale down with impetuous rationale and jogged after the men, his holey boots kicking up pebbles and tiny clouds of dust. Long before reason could reach his brain he tapped hard on Jimmy's right shoulder.
“Where's Ella?” He seethed, not knowing enough to cool himself before opening his mouth.
Jimmy only pushed him away without looking, his calloused hand brushing hard against the moth riddled shoulder of his shirt. Jesse shoved his arm away and stepped after them.
A dog somewhere barked. A black squirrel raced across the wires above their heads and scrambled at the blue glass insulator at its end. Gil Fuller rolled past in his old ford car, boards roped to the roof, his arm hanging out idly as he watched the load in the sharply turned side mirror. The Clark men continued on unphased. Jesse was only a gnat on a larger beast.
“I said where's Ella!” He reiterated, slowing his speech to enunciate each jumbled syllable, as if Jimmy or the old man needed the clarity. This time he crossed the space between himself and them and grabbed the back of Old Man Clark's shirt.
Quick as lightning Jimmy's hand bit his wrist and held fast as a snake, “Get your hands off my daddy, Harris garbage.”
Their boots shuffled, making harsh noises as Jesse and Jimmy fell to grappling with each other- Jesse pulling and wrenching to free his hand, Jimmy losing his grip and finding it again. Finally the older of the two lost interest in the scuffle and decked the boy hard on the jaw. Jesse fell awkward, huffing a shallow breath as his rump made contact with the ground.
“Your people never learn when to back t'hell off.” Jimmy said, shaking his sore hand. He curled his lip into something less of a smile, his eyes suddenly unfocusing with the thoughts of his own troubles.
Jesse saw something familiar in that grin. The way the big man's eyelashes fell in almond shaped crescents along his high cheekbones as he stared dully at the dry earth and stone under his feet. Ella looked just like her father, he could see that now. He never would have considered it, let alone felt the need to fight it, but tears flashed right past the brace of anger he armed himself with and spilled down his face. As though he were only a child who'd lost a scrap to an older sibling.
Old Man Clark looked the two of them over. All three men in their own minds, struggling against personal feelings and troubles no one else could experience for them. His face twisted hard before he shook his head and paced away slowly.
“C'mon, boy. Leave 'em. Enough fightin'.”
Jimmy muttered and followed, both their heads hanging low and their hands limp. Jesse sat where he landed, his elbows resting on his knees. The tattered end of one sleeve raking across his eyes occasionally. A pair of young girls giggled as they hurried past him, one with braids hanging behind each ear, the other with short curls brushed soft against her head. A car rattled by, its thin tires and wide spokes as outdated as the chipping paint and tar papered buildings in the town.
Three days passed as a slow moving flood of countless hours and even more emotionally overwhelming dreams. Whenever Jesse's eyes were open he could smell the sweet rosy scent of Ella's skin in the breeze, and see the flash of her smile in every glint of sunlight. In his sleep the taste of her kisses lingered on his mouth, and the weighted feeling of her hot body pressed against him in the cool of night was so tangible he could hardly trust reality when it awoke him. Time stood still for long stretched moments and then raced to make up for what had been missed, ebbing and flowing throughout the day and night until his head felt like a yo-yo.
His daddy needed him at the stills, so he slept and woke in the silence of the hills. Still he trudged the dark to their secret clearing in the woods, where he stirred nothing but the occasional deer and longings so raw he could hardly breathe. He couldn't help but worry about Ella, but the solitude of the woods, the monotonous boiling and hissing pop of wood fuel, nearly drove him to outright madness over her.
(TO BE CONTINUED)