(first appeared in Puckerbrush Review)
Nestled in thick clovers and blue grasses, this church sits high above a mountain hollow folks around here call the Valley of Crosses. I know this place well. My father’s father sawed and braced the rough-hewn pews that rest around me here. And along with other mountain folk that settled in this valley, he laid the foundations from stones gathered in the yammering creek down below. And raised the walls and tacked the cedar shakes for the roof that has long since been replaced by tin that gleams now against the morning sun.
My eyes rise to gaze across these empty seats that surround me. A wedding is to take place here today. But at this moment all is quiet. Well, almost all. The tongue and groove cedar boards that line the walls and gird the ceiling creak and groan occasionally, announcing the rhythms of the changing seasons. And worn flat boards beneath my feet do as well, but not until the crowd that is soon expected shuffles slowly to pews taken by tradition.
Old Mr. Detweiler will play the fiddle at this wedding, slowly and somberly at first as the bride makes her way down the aisle. Then lively once the vows have been exchanged and the crowd cascades out into the meadow. And Mr. Adams from the next valley over, who plays the recorder, said he would come, also. This is my wedding. Mine and Elizabeth’s, that is. Today is June 22, the day we have chosen. But nothing stirs as yet as I wait quietly save the pea-green leaves waving madly at me from a copse of birches beyond the west windows. How odd it seems to me that the ancient cedar rising high opposite in the east meadow where the graveyard lies stands so stoically still, with not a branch or twig in motion. A grasshopper sparrow lands briefly on the sill of a window near me, just to confirm that summer has truly arrived in these mountains.
My father lies there in the meadow as does his father and Waggoners and Leonards and Everharts and a host of others who have many times passed through my memory. And one other. A face I see smiling brightly. Smiling and waiting, I think. This church graveyard with stones leached by the rains and winds and time is no different from others. Full of memories and mishaps and wounds and worries and heartaches that eventually bring us all here; it remains a pregnant testament to unrequited desire and unfinished toil. And vagaries of winds and rain no long parried. But something is different here.
A miasmal vapor, silent and deadly, settled unnoticed over the land here not so long ago. The fever. It took the lives of one in ten across this valley. It was late in the month of May. I remember. Elizabeth and I had just announced our intention at the spring gathering in Vance’s old apple barn. My betrothed wore a cotton dress straight from Cooper’s Dry Goods. Store bought. Her first.
As I peer down the aisle toward the open doors of the church, a salamander stops in the sunlight on a weather-worn step and looks at me queerly, canting his head to one side, then the other. I suppose he is wondering what I am doing here, sitting alone on this rise where the minister usually stands. “There is a wedding to take place here today, my friend,” I announce to him in a soft voice. Knowingly, he scoots away. No doubt he is satisfied he has tarried here long enough with this idle fellow sitting in the shadows of the church.
Behind me on the altar rests a woven basket brimming with wild ginger, ginseng, yellowroot, and sassafras. This is intended for the good reverend, I assure myself. A gift from the Widow Barnes, I believe. She has so little, you know.
The minister, a circuit rider, just happened to attend the May gathering that night in Vance’s apple barn. Otherwise, we could never have been sure he would know he was needed for a wedding here today; this day we will share our promises aloud. Elizabeth and me. He is a good soul, this man of the cloth, and I know he will arrive shortly. I am sure of this. People say he is as dependable as the light of a harvest moon, and I have no reason to doubt them. The dust from the hooves of his horse striking the mountain road will be the first visible sign of him from the east over the valley beyond the graveyard. He will travel along the serpentine road that hugs the valley floor below, twisting and winding by the flirting creek that connects these gentle folk with the outside world.
I glance in that direction through leaded glass windows now propped open by limbs of saplings freshly cut by one of the deacons, I decide. How many of those there beneath the fertile earth would have come today to this holy rite, should the fever not have cut their time here short? All, I suspect. Folks around here like to gather for a wedding. But one in particular. One with clear blue eyes and a shy smile. I can see this soft face still.
The ladies of the church will arrive today, chatty and excited, ignoring me at first as they place their pies and cakes and other fine goods on the table beneath the great oak. Then they will greet me, all smiles. They will place ribbons and freshly picked bachelor buttons and black-eyed susans about the church for this, our special day. And then the good reverend will appear, his roan breathing smartly and snorting from the steep climb up the hillside to the church. Soon other buggies and surreys will fill the small shaded savannah behind the church by the apple trees and cherries that grow wild there.
And my Elizabeth. In her cotton dress, sitting between her ma and pa, waving demurely to smiling eyes that meet hers as she steps barefoot into the cool grasses by the church steps. I will be standing here in this borrowed coat, my nervous hands clasped together as I wait patiently by the minister for her to appear in the doorway on her pa’s arm.
I hear a soft rustle beneath the dusty boards under my feet now. A family of field mice stir somewhere near under the church. No doubt they feel an air of excitement about. Animals always seem to sense change long before it becomes evident to human kind.
The sun has risen above the valley now, chasing mountain shadows into those phantom creases we muse about around evening fires. The late spring flowers stand tall, soaking up the warmth they have so patiently awaited since the passing of a now-forgotten day.
And I wait patiently as well. She will be here shortly, I know. It was just this past May we told the world of our love. Not so long ago. I remember it well. I can see her still, her long dark tresses braided and festooned with mountain flowers, her simple gestures. I take a deep breath and sigh.
It will not be much longer, my love. Not much longer at all. I am sure of this. Very sure as I gaze longingly out across the east meadow where the grasses begin to stir in a gentle wave.