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  • Black Ribbons
  • Kelly A. Dorgan (bio)

The youngest of three generations of women, my friend Ann lived with her mom and grandma on a sprawling rural homestead. The property itself served as testimony, a structural reminder of the Appalachian kinship-ways disappearing in our community. The long-dead patriarch's home loomed at the center of their land, decaying, abandoned, [End Page 66] and flanked by two smaller homes. We waged our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns during the 1980s in one of those smaller homes, a two-story clapboard farmhouse with creaky wooden floorboards and mysterious nooks and crannies. We'd tuck ourselves away at the top of a steep staircase in a long, narrow bedroom, a kind of birth canal for our pubescent dreams and fantasies to enter the world.

Ann's family property snuggled up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic highway stretching some 400 miles through the mountains and plateaus of North Carolina and Virginia. The parkway offers drivers jaw-dropping views of time-worn ranges, rocky peaks impaling the sky, lichen-covered boulders, and plunging waterfalls. Summers brighten the roadside with the pinks and purples of phlox and chicory. In autumn, the rolling ridgelines are a heady mix of scarlet maple, golden poplars, orange sassafras, and green conifers.

Then, there's winter. Storms swoop in, drizzling ice until backroads transform into satin ribbons, black and slick. During the day, mountains shimmer with frost, but as the sun slips behind the swollen terrain, temperatures fall, and lingering wet patches ice over on shaded pavement. By night, if there's no cloud-cover, sparkling stars appear overhead like diamonds spilling across a jeweler's ebony velvet display pad. The world muffles, transforming the parkway into an intoxicatingly beautiful place, enticing to behold and indifferent to human life.

Out there, in the silence and solitude, it's easy for chilled drivers to crank up the heat, enveloping themselves in a delicious cone of warmth. It's easy to be lulled—just a bit, only for a moment. [End Page 67]


Sitting in the backseat, I'd sulked, mentally reprimanding Ann's grandma for her sluggish driving. She was the kind of woman who'd disregarded speed-limit signs, resolutely going even slower. Back then, she had made me crazy, but she'd also been my ride to my weekend D&D sessions with Ann and Steve.

That night, the parkway was a deep-dark, the color of a decaying plum. No city lights, no streetlights, no illumination, nothing but our headlights. Our car crept, the dipping temperatures leaving the road riddled with patches of black ice, making the drive to the farm house dangerous. To me, time elongated, a sensation magnified by the parkway's otherworldliness: temperate forests, a diverse mix of deciduous and coniferous trees, rendered by nighttime into eerily simplistic shapes, no more than charcoal lines against the pitch-dark sky; behind us, the desolate road lit by bloody rear lights.

Suddenly, around a bend, came flashing. Hazard lights, and a car stopped in the middle of the road, bisecting the snaking strip of pavement. A man waved, a rhythmic insistence. Ann's grandma rolled to a stop.

Less than five feet tall, I had to shift and wiggle, struggling to see around the silhouetted figures of those in the front seat. Finally, peering through the windshield, I got a glimpse of a man, coatless—an oddity given the winter landscape.

All passengers climbed out, me included, planting out feet on the frozen parkway.

Only then did I see her.

Her acorn-colored hair remained strangely tidy, smooth and flowing, even though she had been cast to the roadside. She [End Page 68] was small, my height, but unlike me her body was slight, almost elven—like the female D&D characters I favored playing.

Without thinking, I crouched beside her, reaching for her cheek and finding it cold, rubbery to the touch. Her face took on a porcelain luster in the headlights, her skin unblemished, unmarked—details that would haunt me decades later.

A young man stood over her, over me. His body, tall in stature, shrank. His shoulders sagged, and he looked to be...