A Southern Way of Talking About Love
I’ve been trying to get it down— what I mean when I think about Southern Melancholy. You can see it in our old story charts and in the radio short about Clint, a barefoot boy who tried to buy his way outta Appalachia by gathering bloodroot and selling it a buck a pound.
Here is the Cumberland River. And here is a strain of the heartsickness bubbling through it and so through my childhood.
One blackberry winter I went behind the apartment and down the ravine in flip-flops (a Blue Ash sapling saved my life . . .) just to touch what it was that flooded and killed twenty last year. What, once, when I was seven, as if to confirm the existence of a petty personal god, claimed the neighbors’ porch set, which I had envied.
A certain strain in country songs. I think it was in a harmonica I first learned that love is not like how Cody’s grandfather, a brewery bottler who went to dig for gold in Carolina, came back against all odds with a band for his bride and gold futures in baby’s name. Gone three years, he found every family member he’d left still alive, and not a single brother in jail.
Cody and I grew up thinking ghosts stood guard. Legends made account of every whistle in the dark.
What could have been in those hills that made the Scots-Irish accents drawl out and twang? [End Page 178] We didn’t know many love stories, but we learned two names for every tree: Alaqua—sweet gum. Chinquapin—chestnut. Alemanchier—serviceberry.
We touched the same sad stones: The Baptist church. The other churches. That one Pentecost. The tornadoes. Several of them. The last few days of any year. Fleeing to New York. To the Berkshires. Coming back. The call of the night collector. The specter of the Bell Witch.
No, love is more like flying to Pensacola years later to see that old lover again, getting drunk in the airport bar just to cheapen it. He’d put me to bed like a child in his son’s room. We’ll talk tomorrow. Sleep it off. [End Page 179]
Mary-Alice Daniel was born in Nigeria and raised in England. She is currently an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Michigan.