A History in Woods

Griffy Woods - squirrel - P1100479
In 1928, when Nila was born, the woods had been there, surrounded by more forrest on all three sides. A dirt road drew it’s contour on the east, and a creek ran it’s southern side. When hayfields and corn started dividing the countryside, they’d stopped at the creek, and at the sudden rise in elevation on the north and west sides, and the woods had remained a remnant of what used to be. These and the paved country road where the dirt road had been, clearly defined the boundaries to the property when Nila and Jim eventually purchased it.

Nila and Jim married when she was twenty in the summer of 1948. They acquired the woods twenty years later in hopes they might one day build a house there, but the little town of Menden had grown up around the first and only house they would ever live in for their 62 years together. The woods had instead became something of a family member, almost mystical and later, perhaps a bit haunted.

Mushrooms grew in some places (if you knew where to look). A nice morel flanked dinner was your reward, and folks in those parts had a hankering for that.  In warmer months, the creek bed, it’s silky-soft mud lacing through your toes as it cradled your feet, was host to children and adults alike. The family spent time in the summers trimming and mowing the meadow that served as a huge welcome mat with the creek off to your left, the hill to your right, and a peaceful upsweeping trail on back behind.

The meadow had seen many tents, many campfires, and heard many ghost stories. Many a child had woke screaming in their beds, their mothers calling Nila exasperated and angry, after Nila had scared them the night before at a campfire. The creek wasn’t any good for fishing, but that didn’t stop some of the children from tying strings to the end of sticks and dropping pieces of kneaded bread balls into the water. They’d giggle and scream as baby smallies would nibble at the bait, then gulp it down and give their little makeshift rods a tug as they swam away.

Nights in the woods were unpredictable. If there wasn’t a group camping, if it had been still and untouched for a time, one of the family teens might park a car just outside the meadow. Still under the canopy of trees and out of sight to passersby, some tried to lay blankets out for their attempts at passion. The more experienced simply cracked the windows and used the back seat, too many creepy crawlies on the damp ground. This went on until Nila’s brother and his wife bought a spread of land next to the woods and built a home there. Nila threatened several grandkids in the late 80’s when reports of their scandalous activities made it to her ears.

In the winter, the hill north of the meadow was perfect for sleds. The deer that frequented the woods would keep a low profile when sounds of children whooping and laughing would begin wafting through the trees, magnified by the silence the snow cover promulgated by filtering out other sound.

In time, Nila decided to leave the woods wild, and thought of it as a nature preserve. The hill and trails became overgrown, and even the meadow became more and more neglected as the pair grew older and the younger members of the family moved away or had other priorities. A chain link fence, complete with “Private Property” and “No poaching” signs made the boundaries clear at that point. And if family wanted to go for a walk or sit by the creek, they had to retrieve the key to the padlocked gate from the hiding place in Nila and Jim’s pool house.

Jim died in 1992, and Nila held on to the woods. When she passed away ten years later it was January. The leafless trees draped over patches of snow and mud, and in its wintery silence, the creek’s trickling of tears and the black and white imagery adjoining it, the woods displayed its profound sorrow and loss.


This is semi-biographical and was inspired by the “Landscape and Time” exercise in Brian Kitely’s book The 3 A.M. Epiphany. If I had written in response to this exercise for a class I would have failed, because as usual – I cheated. Alas, I am not writing for a grade. This piece still bugs me for some minor touch-ups in language and direction. I wanted to detail what kinds of trees grow there but, much like a person’s shirt color, I couldn’t recall all of that.  Funny.  I would appreciate any ideas you have for what works, what doesn’t, etc. Also, feel free to share where you would have written about and why.

[Photo above:By User:Vmenkov (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

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1977

I feel the sweet, warm candy juice escape my mouth and drip from my chin as my lips instinctively tighten their grip on the candy necklace.  I’m 41, but the feel of the candy beads on my tongue, the taste of sugar with the hint of sour rubber band that holds them together, floods me with nostalgia.  I can feel the textured dashboard and feel the warm rays coming through the windshield of that 1972 Chevy Nova my mom used to drive.  I named her “Suzy” after a cartoon on TV where the boy discovers a junkyard car and fixes her up.

Through the windshield

Those were the days when seat belts weren’t required – carseats either.  At five years old, I stood – feet on the vinyl bench seat, hands braced on the sloping dashboard, and sang harmony to all the great songs of the 70’s while mom drove me to a magical world called “pre-school.”  I faced the sky and the future in lyrical fashion long before Leonardo and Kate did on the bow of the Titanic.  Our favorite on the radio dial was an AM channel at 1190; their call sign was WOWO and they played top 40 hits for the time.  We especially liked their morning school delay or cancelation announcements.  If school was delayed I got to have a much nicer breakfast and spend some morning nap time with mom.  If it was cancelled I got to go spend the day with one of my grandparents.

We also liked what I referred to as, “Little Red Barn.”  That was the song they played for the Bob Sievers daily talk show.  His voice made me feel like words were special, not just things a person (my father) spewed out in anger or let fall carelessly.  Sievers’ voice gave me hope for men-folk.

WOWO and Suzy were my healing balms, my post-war era after my early childhood jungles.  Before mom packed me and our meager belongings to a small but nice place (an old church converted to apartments), I lived in the attic room of a run-down house with a creaky screen door.

English: The Pomeranian it is known as a Pom, ...

There among the hand-me-down everythings and peeling linoleum, I stuffed my little Pomeranian  dog in the handlebar-basket of my tricycle.  I pedaled him in tight little circles on the living room floor.  He would occasionally topple out and stagger his way (as fast as he could) to the orange upholstered sofa covered in cigarette burns.  Poor Toby could never escape.  Even if he made it to the subterranean sofa caves, I’d grab his tail and pull him out yelping.  Children are cruel; I was no exception.  In fairness, boys and girls who grow up in war zones tend to be desensitized to death and explosions.  Likewise, I was immune to the sounds of protest and pain.  He never bit me.  I love him more in hindsight than I ever could have as a child.

When I wasn’t abusing Toby, I was busy watching TV, shutting out the yelling and things shattering around me.  An invisible cocoon warped the air around me as a clay pot hit the door frame to the kitchen.  The local newscaster told me that Elvis was dead.  A beer can retaliated as daddy spit words at mommy that made me blush instinctively.  Later, when the front door had slammed, tires had squealed red streaks across the thin curtains, and mommy was crying in a ball on the floor, the comforting voice of Walter Cronkite told me, “That’s the way it is.”  He never was one to sugarcoat things.

China Jenny

History is almost always better than fiction.  And historic fiction, when done with respect for the actual history, is one of my favorite genres.  Actually, it’s very difficult for me to pick a favorite genre, but for your sake, dear reader, I’ll keep it on point here.

I recently discovered this precious little book – And Five Were Hanged.  It appears to have been compiled from oral histories as well as typical historical research via dissertations, and publications.  Fragmented tidbits of historical reminiscences are scattered throughout.  On Page seven I read:

When they weren’t busy mining, the Chinese men loved to gamble.  Not all of their stakes involved money.  The story is told of a Chinaman who owned a gambling place where his Chinese wife, China Jenny, dealt the cards.  She had the reputation of dealing them quicker than an eye could see.  One day as the Chinaman gambled with a white man named Joe, bad luck seemed to follow the oriental and he soon lost all his money.  With nothing left for stakes, he became quite desperate and, seeing his wife sitting cross-legged on a table, decided to put her up as stakes.  He couldn’t bear to part with her so bet only half interest in his wife.  But alas, luck was not with him and he again lost.  Old-timers remember that China Jenny lived one week with her husband and the next week with Joe. (p. 7-8)

As I read that, several things struck me.  The book was written in 1968, right at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, and much of the labeling reflects that.  The author refers to people as “Chinaman,” “Mullato,” “Indians,” and “Orientals.”  Interestingly, these labels are even used when the subject is revered, or a prominent member of society.  And, of course, among other things, the most glaring is the fact that women were treated as property, even talented and well-thought-of women.  This story stayed with me for weeks.  China Jenny was named, as was the presumably Caucasian Joe.  Jenny’s husband was not.  This was the only justice to this story for me.  Here follows my attempt at historic fiction.  Please let me know what you think.

China Jenny Wins the Pot

“Maybe I deal cawds in yo fava,” said China Jenny as Joe kicked off his boots.  “You no be so shu-wah.”

“Ahm sure o’ one thang – yer half with mey an it works good. Nah I dunna hevta steal you away when I need it.”

“You big haawt – so kine,” and anger dripped from her words as she pulled her skirt back on and turned her back on him.  Joe grabbed her arm, his thumb digging into her bicep as he spun her around to face his wrath. But this time Jenny used the force of his motion to bring her other arm around full force and planted her palm squarely on the side of his head.  As the contact sent a sharp cracking sound resounding in the one room shack he lived in, his face responded accordingly, twisting sideways with spittle flying in an arch through the air as he released her arm and tried and catch his balance.

Time slowed from the shock at this turn of events.  And suddenly Jenny turned her back on him again, grabbed her furs, and stormed outside.  She somehow wasn’t afraid of his brutality this time.  This time she was confused at her anger over this cruel man not loving her like she loved him.  She didn’t understand how she could love such a man, but she could see that her violence toward him was a new thing – spawning not from self-defense or latent fury at his past treatment of her.  She realized that striking him had come from a place inside her heart, a strange and harmful place that wanted him to possess her fully without forcing her to be taken.  She wanted him to wish he’d won her for all time, and not have to share her with another man. And it was this realization that frightened her and made her begin to loathe him less and herself more.  Her heart sank when he didn’t demand that her husband bet her all-in against the pot.  She lived in a time and place where no one questioned betting the use of her body every other week and she didn’t think to resent that fact.  Instead, she resented that this man, with whom she had been with many times before willingly and sometimes unwillingly, didn’t want her fully.

In the seconds it took for her to leave, Joe realized that he could have forced her to stay.  He could have taken her as he’d done several times before, with her arms and legs flailing and her face turning puffy from his blows before she finally was subdued to his power over her. As he turned to follow her out, her words sank into his skull, and he understood her.  It was the first time he had actually heard her, and he felt like he had lost something.  If he had ever truly reigned in some small way in this relentless hellhole of a town on the edge of a biting wilderness, the tables had turned.  She now ruled him.

He didn’t understand and wasn’t the type to analyze it further.  But Joe had not actually meant to overpower her those times.  He’d wanted someone to love him like he’d never been loved before.  He’d been raised by two farmers who cared only for how strong he grew and whether he’d done his chores and the crop was coming along.  Their treatment of him had been civil when the weather was good, but it wasn’t only the crops that suffered from the occasional drought. With her words and the force of her hand to drive the point home, his position toward her had changed.

He threw some wood into the stove and put some water on for coffee.  The emptiness inside him was all too familiar.  It wasn’t the all-too-common hunger pains they all suffered in that region.  It was something else.  The new immigration law and townsfolk’s predisposition made it clear that he could never keep her past the every other week wager he’d won.  Still, he found himself longing for her to come back, to touch the redness on his face, and kiss it.

Vantage Point

He’d been washing his flatbed trailer full of four-wheelers for over two hours.  The sound of high powered spray on fiberglass was driving her mad.  Besides, it had rained on and off all day long.  What the hell was wrong with this guy?  She leaned out the window, stretched just enough to see around the tree that blocked her view, and donned her best, “Forget to take your meds this morning, Mr?” face.  No effect. Continue reading