It was very late.  Mildred Sowers listened to the cold February wind.  It blew up Snake Hollow hard against the house and rattled the windows.  She sat in an easy chair by the woodstove and watched the flames as they flickered and danced around the lonely little room.  Faces of the people she had loved stared down from the walls in framed black and white photographs.  She was old, ninety-one and she had trouble sleeping.  Often she would sit up most of the night just waiting on Clarence.

Below the house, Snake Run wound its icy way down the through the mountains to Big Furnace Creek passed the cemetery at Furnace Creek Baptist where all her people were, the people in the pictures on the wall.  She’d lived there in the hollow all her life.  Joanne and Betty Lou were born in the house, right upstairs over her head.  They were getting old now too and had children and grandchildren of their own.  That’s the way things go, she thought.  They were all out in Tennessee and she hardly ever saw them.

There was only her sister Pauline to come visit and take her to church and to town on Sundays.  Mildred Sowers looked forward to seeing her sister every week.  Except for Sundays, and an occasional phone call, she might go for days on end and not speak to a living soul.  Still, she always had Clarence to keep her company and she was used to being alone.  Old people have to get used to being by themselves.  It’s just a fact.  The older you get the more you live inside your own head.

She reached over and stuck another stick of wood in the firebox.  Then, she leaned back and closed her eyes.  “Mildred, you really need to think about moving into town.  That new nursing home is a wonderful place and everybody says the food is real good.  You’d have friends there and folks to help you.”  Pauline was always after her to move, but she wouldn’t know what to do without her little house, without her mountain looking down on her and the comfort and security of Snake Hollow.  You can’t just up and change the ways of a lifetime.  No, as long as she could put one foot in front of the other she was determined to stay where she was, where she belonged.

The clock on the mantel struck four.  It was Clarence’s mother’s clock.  It had told the correct time for seventy some years without ever winding down.  In one way, the old timepiece reminded her of herself and her life.  She wound it faithfully every week just the way that Clarence used to do.  She could almost see him doing it.  He wasn’t a tall man.  He’d have to stand on his tiptoes to wind it.  He was a good man though, honest and hard working.  Everybody liked him.  If anybody ever needed any help they knew they could depend on Clarence.

The spirits rode the wind on nights like this, all of the spirits of the mountains.  Some folks would say that a soul never really leaves these old hollows.  Mildred Sowers wasn’t sure she believed it, but it was a comforting thought in a way.  After all, nobody knows exactly what Heaven will be like.  Even at ninety-one, it was hard enough just to try and make sense of this life without worrying about the next.  She didn’t know why she was permitted to live so long and why Clarence was taken away so young.  He was only forty-nine. That’s not long enough to live.  Still, they did have that precious time together.  She imagined his spirit aloft in the mountains, moving through the dark forest, riding the wind.

If he was coming it was nearly time.  It would soon be dawn…She listened for the sound of his boots coming up the front porch steps.  You could always tell Clarence’s footsteps.  He always walked heavy.  Mildred Sowers listened expectantly, but all she heard was the wind and the crackling of the fire.

James William Gardner

Author of, “DEEP AUGUST: Short Stories from the American South,” James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary southland. The writer explores aspects of southern culture often overlooked: the downtrodden, the impoverished and those marginalized by society. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Gardner is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and lives in Roanoke, Virginia. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Deep South Magazine, Newfound Journal and The Virginia Literary Journal.

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