“The name’s Mae,” said the old woman, “nice ta meet ya, Elijah.” Mae and Elijah walked down the trail side by side, with Bailey running some ways ahead. “Oh, there’s jus so much ta say about this place, I wouldn’t even know where ta start! We built the structures with no prior carpentry experience. We learned everything we had ta learn about homesteading from books! Same way we learned vehicle maintenance. None of us came inta this with the complete skill sets needed fer the endeavor. We got our one tractor with the land. Had ta mow the yard and orchard every week by hand, though. Tractor wasn’t much of a help fer that. But we learned from books, from neighbors, and by networkin with other womyn’s lands in the state— that W-O-M-Y-N’s lands. Can ya guess why?”
Elijah furrowed his brow pensively. “Um, negating ‘-men’, M-E-N?”
“10-4, good buddy,” Mae confirmed, “So we networked, which in them days was a whole other kinda effort. But you know, people with intentions did it. People with intention have always been able ta find each other. Maybe back then one was more obliged ta see one’s intentions through, given the efforts to organize with others! So we hosted skills workshops fer others. We hosted guided nature walks, a lot a foraging, strawberries, creasy greens, blackberries… there’re highbush blueberries here, rare outside a the highlands. Workshops on building structures, agriculture, preserving, and a course buildin the trail we’re walkin on now…” The two stopped and looked up at the loving trees. “Any idea how that happened?” asked Elijah. “Not a clue,” Mae responded, putting a hand on one of them, “probably some thoughtless entanglement, trysting timbers caught in the act until, heaven forbid, someone comes along and cuts em down. Wouldn’t be the first time round here. This land got some stories, as you’d reckon. We took great pleasure in learnin all the stories we could, some true, some perhaps apocryphal. I mentioned the neighbors… the Blythes, a black family. Bold Moon was bought from old Ronnie Blythe. His family was all around these parts, and his grandmother was a slave on that land. The story was that the white Blythes gifted 300 acres to them upon readin the Emancipation Proclamation. An Ronnie Blythe’s daughter was killed along the river by her husband. Knifed in her stomach and left in a snowbank.” Elijah thought back to his encounter with the man named Al, and to his vision of himself bloodied in a snowbank.
“Pretty sad, right?” Mae asked. Elijah realized he had been gaping, lost in thought. Mae waved him along, “I’ll show you the spot where it happened. It’s a good fishin spot.” The two continued down the trail. Bailey was up on top of a small hill, crunching his way through the cold forest. “A course we had our share of death in our times here. We got the pet and people cemetery back up by the road. There was the Great Horned Owl who killed our cat, the copperhead who killed our other cat. Joe, the rooster who sacrificed hisself fer his hens— we sang him all the anti-patriarchy songs we knew, but he marched on off into that great hen house in the sky!” Elijah chuckled. “What got him?” he asked. “Oh, a fox…” she answered. Elijah nodded. “We found black widow spiders in the house and in the garden,” Mae continued, “an undertook to transplant them elsewhere. So much wildlife: deer, raccoons, foxes, turtles, turkeys, owls and other birds, the fishing bluebirds. The Blythes’ cow who sometimes raided our hay!” The two reached the water at the end of the trail and stopped. Its movement garbled the stillness and turned it into one long, continuous soliloquy down through the ages. Where the trail ended was also the ford in the old wagon road, still suggesting an easy crossing. “The black snake is still in the chicken house,” Mae thought out loud, “or perhaps a descendent. That sucker was the bane a our existence in so many ways…” She lifted up an arm and pointed to a clearing on the banks just off the trail, just off the wagon road, bordered by oak roots. “There, that’s the spot. Historically good fer fishin, historically bad fer other things.”
“I see,” said Elijah, pushing his round-rimmed glasses up his nose.
“Another story was that a Cheraw Indian named Justice had accidentally killed a Tuscarora and a white man on the banks in the 1710s, during the Tuscarora War. They were comin ta the ford an the Cheraw weren’t sposed to be on the wagon road or somethin. So he killed em. He concealed the bodies so as ta avoid conflict, so the legend goes. Din’t wanna get him an his kin drawn inta the conflict with those rowdy neighbors a theirs. I’m sure there’s more ta that story, if it’s even true.” Elijah felt slightly dizzy. The land pulsated around him in new ways, he was trying to settle it down below his feet. “So, your Bold Moon became the new troll at the ford, huh?” he grinned. Mae smiled, “I guess so! We wouldn’ta killed anyone, fer sure! But we also weren’t sposed to be on that there wagon road either, according ta many. An all we wanted was a place ta stand. Oh, the harassment from the sheriff was constant. Then there was the black septic system contractor who spit on the driveway cause we were the wrong color ta be there. Buses that would pass an wouldn’t stop fer us. But it’s jus a drop in the stream, ta tell the truth. This land’s seen much worse. Enslaved Africans, for chrissakes.” Mae snorted, shifting some phlegm in her sinuses. “Mr. Blythe drew out the layout of the land in relation ta the fork with a stick in the dirt, like he was mappin us out a battle plan while writin his mother’s name. We usta read Mr. Blythe’s electric bill for him— oh, I can still hear him railin gainst the lectric company, an he was right to. They’d rob him if they could. The Blythes in general understood. This land was all theirs since before it was theirs, ya know. They were here before they could stand up here, free land owners. They knew bout that value of a place, the value ta be able ta stand apart, an independent. Jus ta see it all again, with ol Mr. Blythe chattin with us in our bathrobes bout this or that, bout whatever ‘they’ was doin ta git ta us or him. Commiseratin on the same basic principle, that we were seekin the ground ta stand on, figuratively and literally. Oh heck, when’s it ever been jus figurative?”
“I don’t know…” Elijah said.
“You really have ta use yer imagination ta think what it was like back in those days. Violence, ya know. But I’m glad I spent my time down here rather than hidin away in the Lower East Side, or the French Quarter, or some college town. Glad I din’t spend my life runnin away from all this. I’m glad I gotta spend my time on this land. In the country, in North Carolina, in the South. So many times we’d play fiddle or banjo down round the orchard or the goatshed. The music festivals and performances, ‘Bold Moon Under the Stars’… An you know, people came an left. People who needed a place. Shelter. Animals, too, though. The lost horse in the orchard. The lost dog with a collar so tight it was lodged in the skin a his neck. We were animals, all the same. Lost, but abused an neglected all the same. An then one day, the times an the people changed, ever so slightly. The land was gifted ta the County.”
“Is there something missing today?” Elijah asked.
“Whadya mean?” asked Mae, scratching her nose.
The sound of the water filled the silence.
“I mean, let’s not idealize things,” she began, extending her arms out from her sides, “if things’re better they’re better.”
Elijah looked back at the place, bordered by oak roots, where Mr. Blythe’s daughter had been murdered. “I mean, a dog with a collar in his neck will always look fer a place, an let’s hope she’ll find it. Let’s hope we all find our places as we need em, and let’s hope a place like this stays a little unchanged fer us ta enjoy. We all need that place a nature ta go to. But I’m not wishin fer more dogs with collars in their necks, an in the same way I’m not wishin for an eternal dog-with-collar-in-the-neck sanctuary. Am I still committed philosophically to the womyn’s land movement? Absolutely!” After she finished Mae curled her lip with confusion and looked out across the fork, thinking. “I’m just an old womyn!” she chuckled, “I’ll still spell that with a Y, though. Us old folks gotta hold on to somethings, ya understand. You have obviously felt something, made some kinda connection ta the land. You and yer dog! Go with that, follow the lead ta see where it takes you.” Elijah smirked and looked into the water. “An also,” Mae added, “it ain’t as dramatic or glamorous perhaps, but it wan’t too long ago that folks here were still up in arms about the places other folks could piss.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t anywhere near popular sentiment,” Elijah said.
“Yeah, North Carolina’s got a good popular sentiment, don’t it?” Mae stood with her hands in her coat pockets, “Regulator Rebellion, Wilmington Coup. The hornet’s nest of Charlotte, the hangings of dissenters in Kingston and in the mountains. The Greensboro sit-ins, Dickie Marrow’s lynching. Poor man’s paradise, cheap black labor ta serve the competitive market of attractin out-a-state computer programmers who don’t give a damn about the place or the history. IBM pays Silicon Valley salaries, Trader Joe’s pays the federal minimum wage. A roof over your head in Raleigh is bargain basement for them comin from Akron, and an unachievable dream if yer ancestors were sharecroppers or slaves there. I find it hard ta make such pronouncements on the sentiments of a whole state. But if you know the secret recipe then by all means you bake us a cake.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Elijah smiled agreeably. Bailey had crept up and sat down, leaning against his owner’s leg and resting fishing rod. Mae pulled a hand out of her pocket and gently pushed Elijah’s side. “Hey, maybe we can jus kick all the people out, howsaboutit?” They both giggled. “That was the logic behind this, giftin Bold Moon. It was the only way to keep it relatively unchanged, as it appeared to us from the outset. Selfish?”
“Um…” Elijah’s thoughts staggered.
“She’s a good land, she’s a good muse. A woman in a dream gave the name ta one of us. I mean, she said, ‘Bowled Moon’, B-O-W-L-E-D, in that the land seemed ta hold the moon,” she cupped her hands, “but—”
“You had to negate the W-E,” Elijah said, matter-of-factly.
“Aha! Good one!” Mae’s eyes became bright, “Had ta negate the ‘we’! Well, whatchu gonna do, you gonna fish or stand here all day? Come on…” Mae and Elijah sat down on separate oak roots and he began to untangle his line. Mae put a hand on the tacklebox. “May I?” she requested. “Sure!” he replied. Mae opened the box and inspected its contents. She pulled out the artificial chub bait. “You don’t keep nightcrawlers?” she inquired. “Nah,” he said, unlatching the swivel. “Hmph,” she grunted. “Excuse me,” said Elijah, retrieving a hook and the bait from the box. He completed his rig and then cast it gently upstream, reeling it in as the current carried it down. Elijah wondered to himself how much his efforts might bring him in this weather, this early in the morning. “Pretty chilly,” he said. “Yeah, all the seasons. I miss them all. The hurricane. The hailstorm that flattened the garden in seconds. An always that damn black snake in the chicken coop!” Mae glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the coop, buried some quarter of a mile behind dense trees, earth, and time. She inhaled deeply and slowly exhaled. Elijah cast the line out again. “Times change, people change. But, my friend, Bold Moon’s still here. So we really stuck it to em, huh?”
“Sho enough,” Elijah smiled.