Suffer the Lilies

Joni Tevas


NONFICTION



Margaret in the Garden


CRAWLED SLOWLY DOWN the rows, picking stones. Some said the devil sowed them every winter, a thing she knew to be false. In point of fact, they floated up through the soil like beans on the boil. She let them lie until spring equinox so their minerals could feed the garden, just as the storms did each time lightning struck. Manure from the sheepfold she raked into rows and plowed under with the mule. Shed feathers too, bits of broken clay pots, even her own water, collected in a jug and let set in the shade: nitrogen would push the corn to bear. Knew to save butchering blood for the roses—thirty different kinds. Some Mother had planted, others Grandmother, still others she herself.


She saved seed in twists of newsprint labeled in her own neat hand. Suffer the lilies to rise up on their own, but the garden for herb doctoring she liked to set out as close to last frost as she could, end of April, early May. Pieplant, catnip, boneset. Horseradish looked after itself. Couldn’t help a friendly feeling toward something like that.


She was the oldest, a responsibility she hadn’t chosen but took to heart just the same. Her sisters said she was the fastest at shearing a sheep; reporters (busybodies!) called her stern. Was a part of herself she kept close. Hard to feel easy about all these strangers trooping up the path. Better the old times, when people wanted what she knew to provide: horehound syrup for cough, blue cohosh for female trouble, Uncle Charley’s liniment for everything from muscle aches to snakebite. It burned like the hinges of hell and she rubbed it on everything that hurt.


That was summertime. In winter they lived off what they’d stored: cured pork, Hubbard squash, preserves in glass jars, apples from Daddy’s trees. Dried cherries. They had never wanted, and now, at this late date, her sister Louisa even ran a little to the fat.


Family Portrait (1909)


We forget the sons, all four of them. We forget the mother, who appears in none of the photographs; maybe she thought such things were foolish. We remember the father—known locally as “Hairy” John Walker for his impressive beard—and the seven sisters, especially Margaret. They lived in a pocket of Tennessee woods called Walker Cove, in the Appalachians, and I’m drawn to them because I love these mountains too. I live a few hours’ drive south of Walker Cove, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.


The seven Walker sisters: Front left to right - Margaret, Louisa, and Polly. Back left to right - Hettie, Martha, Nancy, and Caroline.

In this photograph from 1909, all seven sisters—Margaret, Louisa, Polly, Hetty, Martha, Nancy, and Caroline—wear the serious expressions common to photos of the time, but Margaret is the one I study. Could be the stoic set of mouth and chin, inherited from her father, or the cool stare she gives her brother-in-law’s camera. Dangerous to draw too many conclusions from the expression of a single photograph, but I love this one, the intensity of her regard taking my measure from a hundred years out, saying I have everything I need.


In the 1930s, when Department of the Interior lawyers were consolidating swaths of land into what would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park, various bureaucrats tried to convince the sisters to sell out. One story claims that Franklin D. Roosevelt himself visited the cabin to talk it over. I don’t buy it. FDR’s legendary charm would have fallen flat with Margaret. Smooth-talking city man, ivory cigarette holder clamped between his teeth. “If you smoke, it will only make two people ill,” she used to say, “you and me.” But in the end, faced by tremendous governmental pressure, the sisters didn’t have much choice. They signed papers that leased their own land back to them until their deaths. The park gates opened in 1940.


Hives and Honey


Two years later, when their nephews went off to war, the sisters sheared their sheep, carded the wool, knitted socks from the yarn, and mailed them overseas. Said Louisa, “We don’t aim for any of our folks to have cold feet, no matter where they are.” Those socks must have contained flecks of pasture grass, tiny specks snared in the knots. So through the work of their hands, they sent a little bit of Tennessee marching over the battlefields in Normandy.


In 1952, reporter John O’Reilly wrote, “More visitors come [to Great Smoky Mountains] than to any other national park. Last year there were 2,300,000 visitors. . . . At times the roads were as jammed as the West Side Highway in Manhattan.” Not long after that, Louisa wrote a letter to the park superintendent, asking him to take down the sign to their house. “We are not able to do our Work and receive so many visitors,” Louisa said, “and can’t make our souvenirs to sell like we once did and people will be expecting us to have them.” Dolls, apple pies, handwritten copies of Louisa’s poetry. “I write poems to sell but can’t write very well,” she said. “I used to write of winter but I haven’t been able to do much for the two last ones.”


Martha and Hettie on the porch and Louisa at the churn.

In a later picture, Martha and Hettie sit in the cool shade of the porch while Louisa, seated, works the churn near the foot of the stairs. Even in their own time people thought them backward and strange. But under their hands bee balm thrived, and hives and herbs and bachelor’s buttons. “We enjoyed meeting so many nice people from different places from every state in the union and many outside,” wrote Louisa in 1953, “but we want to rest a while it is too much work for us now.” What they gave, what they planted; what lay fallow, what they traded for money. They never had an outhouse; Margaret said other people would see it and know what it was for, and that would have embarrassed her. But she never scrubbed a floor for anyone besides herself, and in the end, I’m glad she took down the sign that read Visitors Welcome.


Lilac Season


To visit the Walker sisters’ cabin today, I park my car at the Park Service trailhead and follow the path from their one-room schoolhouse past crested irises and Little Brier Branch. Crows yell and woodpeckers drum. When the trail hooks right, I think: this had been their way home. From girlhood to old age, this was the scene that welcomed them back.


Well, not exactly like this. The sheep are long gone, but the springhouse still stands. In the toolshed, a strap from some extinct machine hangs from a rusty nail. Red clay stains the fieldstone chimney their father stacked and chinked. The gardens have run to grass, but lilies wave along the margin of the field, maybe from bulbs the sisters planted. A lilac bush grows on a knoll. When it blooms, its perfume drifts into the house through that window, May after May.


I step inside the cabin and am surprised to find scraps of old magazines still glued to the puncheon walls. I knew the sisters papered their walls every spring—people did back then, just using what they had for decoration—but by now I didn’t think there would be anything left. In the dim light, reading them is like listening to a fading radio signal. “The route we took was the . . . garden of Eden,” says one fragment. “Cold springs of water . . . crystals hanging from the sides . . . truly marvelous.” Fresh bird droppings streak the crumbling newsprint.


A ladder stands in the back corner and I climb up to look around the loft. The ladder’s plenty sturdy, its wood polished from all the palms that have gripped it over the years. The cabin feels not haunted, but alive. Think how it would have been on a day like this, a damp afternoon in late spring, fireplace lit to take off the chill. Lick of green flame hovering close to the hickory and a pop and hiss when the wood releases old rain.


Could be simple as this: Margaret did not care to leave. Would spend her earthly life here, where first the mountain laurel bloomed and then the rhododendron, where hemlock knelt on the riverbank. In summer, heat baked a sweet hay smell from the grass; persimmons dropped, and ants swarmed the skin to suck clear juice. The preserves she made would last all winter. Frost furring the nailheads, ice slick on the springhouse steps. She knew that hollow in a way nobody ever will again. It could still surprise her—the snowstorm that turned to thunder, the bobcat turning up in the corncrib with a litter of blind kits. But the hollow sang in the key she dreamed.


Margaret died in 1962, aged eighty-two. After Louisa’s death in 1964, the Park Service took possession of the cabin and furnishings. The sisters had owned a rifle, several pairs of men’s brogans, and a “chair (rocker), split bottom” their father had made. A “yoke for roguish cow,” a chisel for repairing shoes, glass pharmacy bottles, and a pair of crutches. No matter what trouble beset them, they were ready. In the loft over the main rooms, “when asked what was stored there, one source said, ‘Lord, everything.’”


Planting by the Signs


Margaret knew: there is nothing given that will not be required of our hand. In her blood the mother who had taught her to do, whose face and gait she bore; the father captured as a prisoner of war, cast into Andersonville, saved from starvation by a pumpkin some merciful farmer threw over the fence.


I wonder if John Walker saved a seed and smuggled it out in his trousers pocket when he was set free, if it made its way across the long plains and hills of Georgia and back into the Tennessee mountains with him. A little wager he made on himself, though he wouldn’t have called it that. Tucking the flat coin into the mellowed hill, believing it would sprout. He’d have called it faith.


Margaret took no mate and mothered no child, but her dark-eyed stare, witch-bright, I would take for my own. Few people can be as faithful to a place as she was, and I haven’t been. But I see something in her I recognize. She would not be moved.


Here I am. On hands and knees a little south of Tennessee, in dirt that’s mine for now to feed. I dig out henbit, wild onion, chickweed with my tool sharp as a fang. I turn peat into the beds with a hand scoop I bought the rainy morning of the feed store auction. I dry seed in the flowerhead. Worm, pit and peel, rainwater: every good thing I can, I save.


And as my great-grandma did, I pull dandelion greens in spring to thin my blood. As did my grandpa, I plant by the signs. Wrote T. E. Black in his 1963 booklet God’s Way: “We have plenty of the trouble in our land.” He was a truck farmer in Andalusia, Alabama, evangelizing on the Bible and seedtime. He knew you had to anchor yourself between earth and heaven. (“Your own particular soil,” read a clipping pasted to the Walker cabin wall.) Had to look into the night sky and see if the moon was a rind or a wheel, follow a calendar not your own. “I can’t possibly hope to explain all it means to do things at the right time,” he said. “Andalusia” means “to walk easy.” Sometimes you have to wait.


The moon last night, two days past new, was a curl thin as Margaret’s smile. Tonight will be a good time to plant. This is the twelfth equinox I have spent amending this patch of ground, three-tenths of an acre halfway between the synagogue and the Baptist church, with a maple tree in front and a magnolia out back. The smell of lilacs drifts in through this open window every April.


Good work, sun and rain in the appointed time, in this season of faith set us free from cutworm and blight, tare and trouble. From T. E. Black’s “pop-rind and sun-blister,” melons “white and hard hearted,” tomatoes fermented by sun. Even now green leaves, veined and gored, unfold from the fig we planted nine years ago. Some say it was a fig tree that grew in the Garden of Eden. Where all the trouble began. Fig tree looks after itself. Can’t help a friendly feeling toward something like that.



Joni Tevis (she/her) is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in Orion, The Southern Review, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she serves as the Bennette E. Geer Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music, destruction, and iconic American landscapes.




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