RITA SIMS QUILLEN

Author of 'Hiding Ezra,' 'Her Secret Dream: New and Selected Poems', 'Something Solid to Anchor To' and 'The Mad Farmer's Wife'

Rita Quillen’s novel Hiding Ezra is forthcoming in 2014 from Little Creek Books; it was a finalist in the 2005 DANA Awards competition, and a chapter of the novel is included in the new scholarly study of Appalachian dialect just published by the University of Kentucky Press entitled Talking Appalachian.

One of six finalists for the 2012-14 Poet Laureate of Virginia, her poetry received a Pushcart nomination as well as a Best of the Net nomination in 2012. Her most recent collection Her Secret Dream, new and selected poems, is from Wind Press in Kentucky and was named the Outstanding Poetry Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association in 2008.  Previous works are poetry collections October Dusk and Counting The Sums, as well as a book of essays Looking for Native Ground: Contemporary Appalachian Poetry.

 She lives and farms on Early Autumn Farm in Scott County, Virginia.

 

STARTING HIS JOURNAL-THOSE FIRST DAYS

         Two weeks after his mother’s death, Ezra was still running from rock to rock, tree to tree, until he was high on Stone Mountain in the stiff autumn wind.  He was sure he would be caught at any moment.  His heart beat very fast and wouldn’t slow down even when he stopped to rest, and his hands and legs had a tremble in them.  After two days, he was starved and exhausted.

         I can’t go on like this, he thought.  I have to eat.  I have to have shelter.  If I can make it for just a few weeks, they’ll get tired of looking for me.  They’ll have to go back.  They’s a lot of work to do in the army.

         Ezra had crept down from his safe peak to a valley where there were some farmhouses. He waited until nightfall and then stole a couple of eggs and a pumpkin from Tom Smith’s garden. Then he went home and slipped in the old storage shed behind the house where he had some of his hunting and fishing gear stashed. Ezra was delighted to see how useful these items would be in his present circumstances; there was a lantern, an iron skillet, some fishing line and hooks, an old ratty blanket and some matches. He left Eva a note telling her he was alright and to bring some things to him at Hale Springs Cave.

         This’ll just be like a good, long hunting trip, he thought. I just have to make a month or so, maybe two. That won’t be that bad. I’ve just got to keep my head.

         The walk over to the springs that first time was a long one, and the hunger made Ezra

weak and lightheaded. As soon as he was down in a little swag where the smoke wouldn’t be noticeable, he built a fire and fried his eggs as best he could. Without fat they stuck to the skillet pretty bad and he didn’t get but a few bites out of them. He then scooped out the inside of the pumpkin and cooked it. With no sugar or butter or salt, the sharp-tasting mush wasn’t very appetizing, but Ezra knew he couldn’t be too picky at this point.

         This is it, he thought. This is my new life. If I’m gonna live like this, I’ve got to start using my head. I better get busy figuring some things out.

         So Ezra hiked to a high rock and sat there all day pondering things. His first thought was to try to plan some way to get out of here. There were now trains rolling in two directions through the county—one went back and forth from Elkhorn City, Kentucky to Spartanburg, South Carolina and the other made a much shorter run from Appalachia, Virginia over in the coalfields to Bristol. I never been to Spartanburg or Elkhorn City. Nobody notices a stranger in towns that big, he thought. There were ferries up and down the Holston, too, that he could catch over in Kingsport and ride way down into Tennessee. But then he saw Eva’s face, and his father sitting by the window, and the face of the Sheriff. They’ll expect me to try to run and they’ll be watching. Ezra knew he was going to have to think of a better plan.

            The first thought that came to him was that he had to find shelter. When he penned Eva’s note telling her to bring things to the Hales Springs Cave, he was just thinking of a drop-off point out of the weather, but it occurred to him now that there was no reason he couldn’t

sleep in there, too. Sleeping out in the open was just too nerve-wracking. He felt too vulnerable and exposed. On his second night on the run, he’d woke up and nearly died of fright when a large dog had been standing practically on top of him, smelling of his arm.

         The caves across the creek from the Hale Springs had been favorite places in his boyhood. They weren’t very big; he couldn’t stand up in there. But he could definitely sleep and sit in there in a place that was fairly dry as well as cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. The cave would have to do for now. And there was a tunnel there through a narrow part of the ridge that old man Hale had dug. He had turned Copper Creek in a new direction, like God himself, to make the water run his mills.

         He made a new list of things to sneak down to Eva. But then he ran out of paper, and broke the little piece of a pencil he had. He took a long route back to the house to leave the note. It was dark when he crossed the hill and saw the Midway schoolhouse. He watched it for a while to make sure nobody was around. Then he ran up to the back of the building and raised the window. In a minute he was inside, blasted in the face with that schoolhouse smell he’d forgotten.

         The sound of Ezra’s heavy footsteps echoed in the room, and he flinched like someone might hear him. He walked up to the front of the room and sat at Miss Fletcher’s desk. There were two good pencils lying there and he took both of them. There was a notebook, too, with some writing in it. Ezra removed the pages that were written on and laid them on the desk. He

remembered that he had some change in his pocket, so he left Miss Fletcher a dime for the pencils and paper. He wondered what Miss Fletcher would think. It made him smile to himself to think of the puzzlement she’d feel. Probably nobody had heard yet about him running away; even if she had, she probably wouldn’t dream for a minute that Ezra was the mysterious visitor who stole her pencils. After all, what would an outlaw want with pencils and paper, anyway?

         That thought took the smile right off his face. He was an outlaw. It was the first time that had occurred to him. Ezra groaned out load and covered his face with his hand. How did I get in such a mess? I’m so glad Momma isn’t around to see this. Eva must be worried to death. Lord, forgive me, I didn’t mean for this to happen.

         Ezra stopped with one leg out the window and looked back into the room. He looked back at the desk where he used to sit and tried to remember how it felt then to be young and carefree. Then in one fluid motion, he was out on the ground, the window shut behind him, and he ran off across the little clearing clutching his new treasure.

         He napped underneath some laurel until about dusk, and then set out walking toward the cave. He was pleased to find it just as he remembered, only better: the opening of the cave was covered over with brush and the top of a dogwood tree growing up from the creek bank provided even more cover. This is much better, he thought, and crawled back into the deepening darkness. He curled himself into a ball, like one of Eva’s cats, and slept for several hours.

         Ezra woke to the dreamed words of his sister, “Ezra, time to get up. Biscuits are almost done.” He sat up, grabbed his pencils and notebook and moved out in the sun to try to warm up. Keeping his head and upper body in the shade, safely hidden from view by the branches of the dogwood, he propped his legs up on a rock that was out in the sun and immediately he could feel a little tiny bit more warmth. He beat on his legs and feet with his fists and wiggled them around. When he felt better and more awake, he took his homemade pole and one of his granddaddy’s old fishing lures down to the creek and caught a little baby trout in just a few minutes. Things is gonna go my way today. I’m gonna be able to get this fried up good before the fog lifts so there’s no chance of being seen.

         When there was nothing left of the little fish but a pile of tiny bones at this side, Ezra took out his pencils and the notebook and began to write. This will keep my mind occupied and sharp, he said to himself. And it will help me remember stuff later. He had to sit and think several minutes to figure out what day it was and to decide what he wanted to write. Crawling around on my belly, not being at my own mother’s funeral, what a sad, sorry mess I’m into. That’s what I got to write about.  Here he was eating on a cold fall morning alone, an outcast, a wanted man, trying to pass the time and keep his wits sharp, all his days like a Sunday afternoon, much calmer now than when he had first run away.  He reached into his pack and pulled out his little folder and began to write.

 

                                                             

 

EZRA'S  JOURNAL -- Nov. 10, 1918

         Hello book. I am going to write to you every day so I can remember things later and so I won’t forget how. When you are by yourself all the time with no one to talk to, your mind could get rusty. They talked to us about it at Camp Lee about what could happen if you get captured and wind up in one of them prison of war camps. They said that the only ones who come out of it pretty well are the ones who keep their mind occupied and don’t let things get to them so bad. So I’m gonna write down what I do every day, the weather, memories of good times, my prayers. I can remind myself of what I was and what I am now.

         I know a lot of people will wonder about me because of this. They’ll say I’m some kind of chicken, call me a weakling or a momma’s boy. It hurts me to think of it. It hurts me even more to think that people might say so to Eva or some of the rest of the family. I hope that most people will know me better than that. They know I’m a hard worker and I’ve never been one to run from a fight or from trouble if something had to be done. Times is just so hard for us right now.

         I can’t see that government making me go clear across the ocean to fight about something I don’t really understand when my mother and daddy was both sick and so much work to be done just to survive. And on top of that, everybody’s sick and dying with this terrible flu. I heard one of the officers at Camp Lee talking to another officer telling him that the flu was killing more of our men than the Kaiser’s men ever would. What if Eva was to get that flu while I was over across the water somewheres, not even knowing what was going on? Who would take care of daddy? The Army will forget about me and I can get back to doing what I need to do.

Nov. 12, 1918

         I walk the high ridge cliff over Copper Creek, hang in the skyline over the river. It’s a little risky, no, it’s a lot risky. But I cannot abide the skulking around behind trees and rocks today. I want to feel the wind. I want to climb the rocky path across the hill, pass under the big twisted oak that always reminds me of the Tree of Life, down by Joe Harper’s throbbing hum of bees. I’ll stomp right through matted briers and chiggerweeds to smell that honeysuckle and wild rose. I will lift up mine eyes unto these hills from whence cometh my help.

Nov. 19, 1918

         Hale Springs—I have always been drawn to water. That’s why, even in this most awful time of my life, I’m here close to it. As a boy I loved rain, loved to see it fill up the pockets in our dirt yard with pools brown as chestnuts. The other kids would scream and run inside when it stormed, but not me.

         I would hurry out and drop flat to the ground, let that rain pellet my face like bird shot. I loved to sneak off and go swimming in the Clinch. You see a lot of wildlife near water. Once I saw a shy doe with twins come to the water. And those huge cranes would rise up dragging those long, long legs. When Eva and me was little, we’d come here at the springs to wade. She loved the little purple flowers and the little mussel shells. She would wade in up to her knees, trying to pinch the tadpoles in her little fat fingers. I can still see those big sad eyes when she’d look to me for sympathy when they got away.

Nov. 21, 1918

         The only good thing I can see about this whole mess is that I’ve finally been able to do as much hunting as I want to. I love to hunt, always have, ever since I’s a boy. I love the smell of the black dirt on the floor in the deep woods, that wet dirt smell, and all the other smells, too. A lot of times you can smell the animals and such, too, that cucumber smell that copperheads have, and that strong smell of deer, especially during the rut. I love tracking and trying to outsmart the animals, deer and turkey especially. That’s what I been going after today. I seen a hen and a gang of younger ones and trailed them all the way up Barker Knob but never did see no tom. That’s what I’m wanting, a big old fat tom turkey that I can sneak down to Eva for a Sunday dinner surprise fit for a queen.

Nov. 24, 1918

         I watched a hog killing today and it was one of the funniest things I ever saw in my life. It was down at the Starnes. The family carried old man Starnes out in the yard and set him in a chair to watch. That littlest boy of theirs, I can’t think of his name, pitched a fit to be the one to shoot the hog. Jake handed him the pistol and he raised it up and aimed a long time, but he still just about missed that hog. That’s the worst thing that can happen-end up with a wounded hog.

        That big sow went plumb crazy and started chasing all of them around the yard. People was flying in all directions. Some of the kids shimmied up a big plum tree and climbed out on to the roof of the smokehouse, squealing and hollering up a storm. The women broke for the house. That left the pig and old man Starnes alone in the yard, and he was yelling “Holy hell” and “God hep us”, and that pig turned his chair a flip. I had to put my hands over my mouth, I swear, I was laughing so hard, but I felt bad about it cause the old man coulda been hurt. That pig even run up on the porch and into the house until it came flying back out with one of the women right after it.

         The funniest thing of all about it is that about that time, the oldest boy put one clean shot thru that hog’s neck and it fell over deader than a hammer. They all just come back out into the yard, real slow and serious, got the old man righted in his chair, started cleaning that hog just like nothing had happened. It beat anything I ever saw.

Nov. 28, 1918

         I guess I ought to put down some thoughts on the Army while it’s still fresh in my mind. I met lots of good folks there. A lot of them were from right around here somewhere but I didn’t know them before we got called up. I met some I didn’t care for, too. But I don’t dwell on that. There was lots of things about the army I liked. We was outside a lot, and they had us do a lot of shooting, which a lot of us were already pretty good at, and running these things called obstacle courses.

         That was one of the things about the Army that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. They’d make us get up before daylight to get started making everything clean and neat. I always thought Momma was pretty particular, but in the army she’d be sent to scrub the latrines. That’s what they made you do if you got on their bad side for any reason. Anyway, they made us scrub the bathrooms with little tiny brushes, check for dust and lint under our bunks, even up in the springs. If we left a wrinkle the size of a hair in our bunk when we made it up, we were gonna get yelled at.

         We had to bathe and shave everyday and we had to keep our boots so shiny we could use them for mirrors-then they’d send us out for a long hike or out on that obstacle course. I just scratched my head about a lot of things in the army.

Dec. 12, 1918

         I wish I was back at Camp Lee. Everybody was sad about me going in the Army and some fellows I talked to said I was heading straight to hell. But I kind of like it. I go to know some fine people there. The food wasn’t bad, they had some fine weapons. I even liked the training, the rope climbing and the obstacle courses. A man needs a test ever now and then. He needs to know how he stacks up.

         I done alright for myself. I was proud of my shooting up there. Pa would’ve grinned like a mule eating sawbriers if he’d seen me put nine out of ten shots right in that bullseye like I did. I woulda been a good soldier, I think, but I guess I’ll never know now. Ain’t no way the Army would have me back now.

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