Dark Hole, fiction by Rosanne Griffeth

If you mis­step just six inch­es to your right, you will fall right into it. It swirls bright­ly and is fit only for trout to live in. If you do mis­step, you will plunge up to your neck in the freez­ing water. Of all the swim­ming holes along Big Creek, those deep pock­ets of cold water chil­dren play in all sum­mer; the Dark Hole is the loneli­est one. No one wants to swim there.

She was pret­ty and del­i­cate in a Melun­geon way, lighter of skin than most of her rel­a­tives and shy like a white calf. Her eyes were large and sloe and dark. The light would glint off them in the dark­ness of the for­est like the flick of a trout tail in the deep­ness of the creek.

Her black hair was long, wavy and hung down her back, when he first saw her.

When she first saw him.

Her Pa had beat­en her that day, as he was wont to do. Her Ma died from the fever six months ago and there no longer was the com­fort­ing buffer of anoth­er woman in the house. Fer­by sure did miss her Ma. Most­ly, she missed her just being there.

She had risen before the men to fetch wood, stoke the stove and com­plete the rest of her chores she was expect­ed to do before the farm stirred to life. Before head­ing to the barn with the milk buck­et, she ran down to the spring­house for water, milk and but­ter. She put the water to boil on the stove then head­ed out to the milk parlor.

Tul­la, the jer­sey cow, greet­ed her with her usu­al vacant stare. She already stood at the stan­chion, wait­ing. Fer­by hun­kered down on the milk stool; her head lean­ing against Tulla's warm flank as she rhyth­mi­cal­ly pulled the milk down. Tulla's tail would whack her on the back of the head every so often. Fer­by would slap Tulla's flank in response and both cow and girl breathed out clouds of mist. Milk­ing time was a qui­et time, a right nice time.

Fer­by poured Tulla's offer­ing into the churn and placed it behind the stove to clab­ber just as the men stirred around upstairs.

She made a pan of cat­head bis­cuits and put the cof­fee on. Sure and swift, her hands flew as she checked the pot of hominy and siz­zling ham in the skil­let. She put some boiled eggs in a bowl and opened one of her Ma's cans of pick­led beets from last summer.

Shade, her old­est broth­er, came up behind her. He placed a hand on her shoul­der and squeezed.

"What'cher got there, lil' Fer­by?" he said, breath­ing into her ear.

She stiff­ened and shrugged his hand from her shoul­der. "Get!" she hissed at him between clenched teeth. "I'm busy."

Shade was tall and squint-eyed. He snaked his brown, cal­loused hand down to her waist. Fer­by turned and poked him with a hot spatula.

Shade drew back and shook his hand out where a droplet of boil­ing hominy had fall­en. He sucked on the burnt spot and shook it out again.

"Get! I said!" She slapped him away and he grinned, but his squin­ty eyes were cold.

Her Pa came in with her oth­er three broth­ers and stared at them.

The moun­tains them­selves had carved Ran­som Gorvins into a dark, hard man. Brown like gnarled wal­nut wood; Gorvins' eyes were dead black. He was a man of few words and he did not speak now.

He stepped for­ward, back­hand­ed Fer­by against the hot stove then calm­ly sat down at the table.

That was the day they met.

When the men went off to the fields and forests after break­fast, Fer­by final­ly had a bit of time to her­self. She ran, bare­legged and bare­foot, through the woods like a young doe to her spe­cial spot, the place where the rhodo­den­dron bush­es bent, gnarled and twist­ed, down to the swirling water.

There she could be her­self, a child—a wild moun­tain child. She lay on her stom­ach on a big slab of rock and trailed her fin­gers into the cold­ness. Some­times if you looked at the water long enough, you could for­get your­self and all your trou­bles. Some­times, if you lis­tened close­ly, God whis­pered. This was why she came here and how she remem­bered her mother.

He came through the for­est trail on a snow-white mule. A mule as white as he was black and when Fer­by looked up and saw him, she was afraid. Afraid, but fas­ci­nat­ed at the same time. She had nev­er seen such a man though she had heard of them talked about in angry tones by the men.

She stayed still like a fawn in tall grass, frozen on the rock, her hand in the water. She watched him loosen the reins to allow the mule to drink. When he saw her he startled.

"Oh—Hello," he said. "I didn't see you there."

His kind eyes belonged with his kind voice. Fer­by pulled her­self up from the rock to look at him. He was tall and spare. His chin was cov­ered with a close-cropped beard. She looked curi­ous­ly at his full lips and nose, so dif­fer­ent from hers. The dark­ness of his com­plex­ion was dif­fer­ent from the dark­ness of hers, and dif­fer­ent again from any of the peo­ple she knew. 

He dis­mount­ed and dropped to his haunch­es to fill his can­teen up.

"Regi­nald Hoop­er, Miss," he said. "I'm in these parts doing a sur­vey for Black's Min­ing. I'd appre­ci­ate it if you let your folks know I'm not going to be here long and should be mov­ing through right soon. Don't mean no harm, just be tak­ing some samples."

"I'm Fer­by. Samples?"

"I'm with a min­ing com­pa­ny. I'm just going through tak­ing rock samples."

"Oh." She under­stood about mines but was not sure what tak­ing sam­ples were.

He cut his eyes at her, war­i­ly. "I must be the first col­ored per­son you ever saw, the way you are look­ing at me."

"Yes," she whispered.

"Well, Miss Fer­by, I'll just be get­ting some water here and be movin' on."

He fas­tened the water to the mule's pack and start­ed to mount.


He paused and turned, leav­ing a hand on the pom­mel of his saddle.

"Where did you come from? I want to know about where you come from." 

He adjust­ed the stir­rup leather on the mule's sad­dle and said, "I come from Kingsport, Miss."

"Where is that?"

"Oh, about six­ty miles north of here. It's a city."

"A city? Do they have tall build­ings and all?"

"Yes, Miss. It's a fair sized city."

"Do you live there?

He pulled him­self up on his mule. "Yes, Miss, I do."

He reached back into one of his packs, pulled some­thing out of it and reached down to hand it to her.

"Here you go. Here's some­thing from the big city for you to keep."

Fer­by took the object from his hand and stepped back as though his touch might burn her.

She looked at what he had giv­en her. It was a cylin­der about the size of a can of peas, cov­ered in paper with a pic­ture of a cow.

She frowned at it and asked, "What is it?"

The edges of his eyes crin­kled. "Turn it over."

Fer­by upend­ed the lit­tle round box and almost dropped it when it made a sound like a cow moo­ing. She laughed up at him.

"It sounds just like Tul­la when I'm late for milking!" 

"Been nice talkin' to you. I'll be going along now."

He wheeled the white mule and head­ed off through the for­est trail, like a ghost into the woods.

Fer­by stum­bled after him and as he fad­ed into the deep cov­er of the for­est, she called, "May­hap I'll see you again!"

Her voice fad­ed into the crick­et song, float­ing off like a this­tle seed in the wind.

Fer­by took the lit­tle moocow box home, wrapped it secure­ly and hid it under her pil­low. This was her secret and she did not want to share the won­der­ful meet­ing with the strange city man with any­one. One day, may­hap, she would go to the big city. May­hap, one day, she would see the strange man again and be able to ask him more about the world out­side the mountain.

She hard­ly noticed the burn on her shoul­der where she hit the stove that morn­ing. No, hard­ly at all.

For the next few weeks, after the men left, she dart­ed through the woods like a wild thing on bare feet as tough as wolf pads over the rocks and shale. She searched out the dark man on the white mule, and when she found him, she sat qui­et­ly watch­ing from the cov­er of the rhododendrons. 

He drilled into the rock and pulled plugs of stone and soil, then placed them in tubes, care­ful­ly label­ing them before putting them in his pack. Fer­by guessed this was "tak­ing samples".

After a while, he would stand up, stretch, take some sand­wich­es out of his pack and sit on a rock, and say, "I wish I had some­body to eat these sand­wich­es with."

Fer­by would gig­gle, shy­ly emerg­ing from the moun­tain lau­rel and he would share his lunch with her. Mr. Hooper's life in Kingsport sound­ed exot­ic and excit­ing. A brassy pho­to­graph of his sweet­heart, smil­ing with Regi­nald in a pho­to booth, entranced Fer­by. She held it care­ful­ly from the edges and looked from it to Mr. Hoop­er, com­par­ing him now and then. They looked hap­py in a way Fer­by could not relate to–in a way for­eign to the hard­scrab­ble life on the mountain.

"What's her name?" 

Regi­nald took the pho­to from Fer­by and tucked it back in his wal­let. "Her name is Eva­line, but I call her Evy. We get mar­ried as soon as I have mon­ey for a house saved up."

So much of what Mr. Hoop­er described to Fer­by about the city made her want to leave the moun­tain and expe­ri­ence this life for her­self. He told the sto­ries so well that she could see her­self walk­ing down the wide paved streets wear­ing a store-bought dress and white gloves. Her hands were smooth, white and soft, and a man brought milk to her back door in the morn­ings. Fer­by imag­ined hav­ing a job where she worked indoors and had her own mon­ey to spend at the movies or to go to restaurants. 

"When I come there I'll wear a hat all cov­ered in lace and we'll go eat at one of them eat­ing places."

Hoop­er looked down. "That's not like­ly to hap­pen, Ferby."

"Why not? Don't you want to go to a fan­cy restau­rant with me?" Fer­by dug a bare toe into the dirt, flick­ing it up.

"No, Miss—that's not it at all. They don't let peo­ple like me in the front door of such places. We have to go to the back door. To tell the truth, you might have a hard time get­ting in your­self. You are a bit dark­er than most white folks, you know."

Fer­by frowned. This hadn't occurred to her.

She broke off a leaf-cov­ered twig of a sas­safras tree, stuck it in her hair and twirled around, laughing.

"See my hat?" 

Hoop­er laughed, then stood and dust­ed the seat of his pants off, putting his hat on. "Well, Ferby—you know I have to leave tomor­row. I'll be rid­ing out ear­ly to catch the train back to Kingsport."

Fer­by just stared at him for a moment.

"Will you be back?"

"I don't know." 

Fer­by didn't know what to say. And since she didn't know what to say, she ripped off her crown of sas­safras and threw it on the ground. Then she just ran away, dis­ap­pear­ing into the rhodo­den­dron grove. She ran all the way to her spe­cial spot and once she was there, she felt the tears on her cheeks.

Fer­by washed her face, star­ing into the swirling water. Her reflec­tion showed her face and wavy black hair in refrac­tions of light and dark. Then she shoul­dered her sad­ness like a yoke and went back home.

The cook stove fire smol­dered when Fer­by popped open the fire­box so she raked the coals from the ash and placed anoth­er log on the fire. She knew it was time to get sup­per start­ed, but first she want­ed to go up to her room and look at the moocow box, her one trea­sure and keep­sake from her time with her friend, the min­er­al sur­vey­or. As she climbed the nar­row stair, she thought, may­hap she would go to Kingsport her­self. She would leave this place and find a bet­ter life, an eas­i­er life. She felt, for the first time in her life, that her life could be her own one day.

Shade was sit­ting on her bed hold­ing the moocow box when she pushed the door open. He squint­ed nar­row­ly at her, and then turned the moocow box over so it made the mwah-ah-ah noise that sound­ed just like a cow. The cow cry hung in the silence of the room like the dust motes drift­ing in the sunlight.

"What th' hell is this, Ferby?" 

Her hands clenched the flour sack­cloth of her dress.

"Give me that. It's mine."

"Who gave you such a thing, Ferby?"

The lit­tle box sat pre­car­i­ous­ly in Shade's big dirty hands. Fer­by didn't say anything. 

Shade stood up and held the moocow box out to her.

"Here—you want it—take it." 

Fer­by reached for the box, step­ping forward. 

Just as her fin­ger­tips brushed it, Shade dropped it and crushed the frag­ile card­board under his heel. It made a for­lorn bro­ken noise.

Fer­by flew at him in a rage, scream­ing and cry­ing. Shade grabbed her by the fore­arms and held her there.

"You know what I heared, Fer­by?" he said. "I heared you was seen with that nig­ger prospec­tor. I think he gave you that there trin­ket. That's what I think."

Fer­by strug­gled, spat and pound­ed Shade. The loss of her moth­er, the loss of her friend, her lone­li­ness and all her long­ings, dreams and rage came shat­ter­ing home with the lit­tle sound the box made. Some­thing in her soul was lost and bro­ken with that lit­tle noise. When Shade raped her on the hard plank boards of her bed­room, she took her mind to her spe­cial place, where the dark waters swirled and God spoke softly—where the dap­pled light burst through the rhodo­den­drons and splat­tered the water with shadows.

After that day, noth­ing would be the same, and Fer­by would under­stand what it was like to be bro­ken beyond repair.

The days went by much as they had before. Fer­by milked the cow, fed the chick­ens, fixed meals for her father and broth­ers and escaped to the place she always had run to on the creek. When she stared into the swirling water of the creek, her heart no longer heard God whis­per­ing to her. She strained to hear Him but her soul was frayed and ripped now. It was as if some­one had fired a shot­gun next to her soul's ear, deaf­en­ing it. She went about her life, con­tent to fade into the back­ground like a moth on a wormy chest­nut barn.

No one noticed when she start­ed to look pale and tired. No one took into account the drab shape­less gar­ments she wore. Fer­by became a shade, hid­ing in the shad­ows of the wood and skulk­ing behind the trees like a doe that had tast­ed lead yet had not died.

In truth, Fer­by was not aware her­self of what was hap­pen­ing to her. She went through the motions of life with­out thought. In her mind were hap­pi­er mem­o­ries and, occa­sion­al­ly, she found her­self there and remem­bered God's whis­per­ings. She played the hap­py meet­ings with her prospec­tor friend in her mind, hid­ing from reality.

She became ill and lost her appetite. No one noticed when she would qui­et­ly slip out the back door and retch. When they did notice she was well into her eighth month.

Ran­som Gorvins stood like a mon­u­ment, unmov­ing on the back porch that morn­ing. He had not­ed break­fast was late get­ting on the table and was impa­tient to get out to the fields. Spread­ing fer­til­iz­er was on his sched­ule and his brow knit­ted in vex­a­tion he would be late get­ting start­ed. The days were still too short to cov­er the time he would have to spend to fin­ish in one day. He had decid­ed to give the daugh­ter a talk­ing-to since she seemed not able to shoul­der her share of the farm duties.

Fer­by strug­gled up the path from the barn with a milk pail. She would lug it a few steps, then would have to put it down and rest a moment.

Ran­som watched her progress, but did not try to help. He had seen her make this walk before with­out such dallying.

She saw him and redou­bled her efforts, but the task was too much for her. She stum­bled, fell and spilled the milk all over her­self. The milk drenched her bag­gy gar­ments, mak­ing them cling to her body, now vis­i­bly preg­nant. She strug­gled to her feet, dart­ing eyes at her father.

Ran­som Gorvins showed an unchar­ac­ter­is­tic wave of emo­tion. His eyes widened, then nar­rowed, and his dark skin flushed bronze and angry. He strode over to Fer­by with vio­lence in his cold dead eyes.

She was ter­ri­fied. She was sor­ry she had spilt the milk but she just did not seem to be able to han­dle it today.

"You lit­tle whore!" Gorvins' words snaked out like knives.

"I'm sor­ry, Dad­dy, I'm sor­ry, I'm sor­ry—" Fer­by said. "I'm sor­ry ‘bout the milk—I'll get more this evening. I won't spill it again an' we still have some from yesterday…"

Gorvins hauled back and land­ed a blow with his closed fist to Ferby's cheek. She fell back, hard, and sat there hold­ing her face and scream­ing in pain. The boys came out on the porch to see what the ruckus was about.

"I'm not talkin' about the milk. How dare you bring shame on this family."

Gorvins con­tin­ued to dark­en with rage. Fer­by still gasped in pain from the punch and her eye was swelling shut, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to see. She bare­ly processed what Gorvins said.

"Who's the father, you lit­tle whore? Who you been step­pin' out with?"

"N‑n-nobody! What are you talkin' about?"

"Don't pre­tend you didn't know you was expectin'!" Gorvins stalked towards her. "Who—is—he?"

Fer­by sobbed, her breath hic­cup­ping. She felt the sticky wet­ness of the milk all over her body and she start­ed to rock.

"I‑I-I don't know. I don't know, Dad­dy, I swear I don't know! Please don't hit me again. I don't know!" A string of blood and spit drib­bled from the side of her mouth.

Gorvins stood there look­ing at his daugh­ter, his body trem­bling with rage.

Shade stepped down from the porch, keep­ing out of reach of his father.

"Well, I heard she was 'round that dark­ie, Dad­dy." He said. "I bet she let him have a poke at her."

Gorvins turned slow­ly and looked at Shade, his eyes basilisk-like, and Shade thought maybe he'd gone too far. Maybe he should have kept qui­et, since the old man was just as like­ly to go off on him.

Fer­by howled from the ground where she sat rock­ing, "No! No! That ain't true! H'aint true! He nev­er touched me!"

Gorvins turned back to her.

"Shut up, you lit­tle slut! Shut your lyin' mouth! Time will tell if that be the truth. When you squirt your lit­tle bas­tard out into the world, time will tell."

With that, he stomped back into the house, leav­ing Fer­by in a pud­dle of milk and shame.

Gorvins kept her locked in her room for the remain­der of her lying in. Fer­by sat in a straight-back chair look­ing out the small win­dow, her gaze vacant and emp­ty. Her mind focused not on the woods out­side her win­dow, but on the swirling pool where she had spent so much time. Her oth­er broth­ers tried to inter­vene and get her to the local mid­wife, but to no avail. She heard their angry voic­es from below.

"Dad­dy, you gots to get her to Granny Wil­son. We can't han­dle this ourselves!"

Gorvins stony voice answered back, "She brought shame down on us and I'll not have any­one else involved."

"Dad­dy, she ain't a cow! She don't know what to do, she ain't had a baby before."

"No. That's my last word on it."

Fer­by spent those last weeks in her room. When her water broke, she bare­ly knew what was hap­pen­ing. She looked beneath her chair at the spread­ing pool of flu­id                             with sur­prise. The first con­trac­tions she had passed off as a stomachache.

As the con­trac­tions grew stronger, she paced the floor, breath­ing heav­i­ly and feel­ing the sweat bead on her fore­head. Even­tu­al­ly the pain became so severe she began beat­ing the door.

"Let me out! Let me out! I'm dread­ful sick—let me out—please!" She screamed but no one came.

She want­ed to bolt off run­ning like a bloat­ed sheep into the woods—run and leave the dread­ful agony behind her. She beat on the door until her knuck­les bled and after her pain was so great she could not form words, she screamed. She was not sure how long this went on. Time seemed to slow down and what took hours seemed to Fer­by like years.

Final­ly, she col­lapsed on the floor, pant­i­ng. When the baby came out, Fer­by looked at it, small and still on the floor with its cord con­nect­ing it to her. It jerked to life with a pul­ing wail when she picked it up and Fer­by brought the lit­tle crea­ture to her breast and sat there with it, nursing.

Her father and broth­ers found her in the mid­dle of a pool of after­birth, blood and flu­id. The infant was latched onto her like a hun­gry leech. Gorvins came for­ward and tore the umbil­i­cal cord apart.

"Get some strong iodine."

The men cleaned the dread­ful mess, work­ing much as they would if a cow had calved in the barn in their absence. They took care of Fer­by as best they could. She let them, and said noth­ing. She stared at the baby wail­ing on her bed where the men left it, like a growth they had removed.

"Go clean your­self up," Gorvins said.

Fer­by hob­bled to the door and looked back at the men clean­ing off the baby. She did as she was told and went out to the spring­house and cleaned all the blood and birth flu­ids off. She was sick tired and hurt­ing to the point noth­ing seemed to make sense.

When she made her way back to the house, Gorvins and her broth­ers were in the kitchen with the baby wrapped in a towel.

"Guess we know who the father is, now," Shade said.

Fer­by exam­ined the baby. He was an angry red, like most new­borns and had a fuzz of coal black hair. His eyes slant­ed and a port wine birth­mark spread over half his face and down his neck.

Her broth­ers were silent and grim looking.

"Look Dad­dy, it's the mark of Cain. That baby done been marked, it has." Shade looked from Fer­by to Gorvins, his squin­ty eyes like a crow's.

Gorvins took the infant and pressed him into Ferby's arms. "I reck­on your broth­er has the right of it," he said.

Fer­by looked down at the baby and held him close to her. She looked at his lit­tle face and touched the mark.

"No—no—it's a stain. It's just a stain. Give me a cloth, I'll get it off." She wet her fin­ger with sali­va and start­ed to rub the birth­mark. She smiled shak­i­ly, "See, h'its com­ing off. Real­ly it is!"

Two of her broth­ers turned away. As she con­tin­ued to rub the baby's face, the infant start­ed howling.

Gorvins reached a weath­ered hand over, grasped hers and drew it away from the child.

"Stop it. You can't rub that mark off. It's God's mark of your sin."

She teared up as she searched her broth­ers' and father's faces. She shook her head and grasped the infant tighter. She backed away from them, shak­ing her head.

"No. No-no-no-no-no."

She kept back­ing up until she was pressed against the door. The baby wailed as she held him too closely.

"You're wrong! It's just a stain. It'll wash off. God didn't mark my baby! It's not the mark of Cain! It's not."

Fer­by pulled the door open and bolt­ed with the infant out of the house. She ran blind­ly, ignor­ing her pain and tired­ness. She ran with her baby as fast as she could, away from there.

She heard her father holler out the door, "Fer­by! You get back here, now!"

Fer­by ignored him. She ran through the woods with the child until she came to her spe­cial spot—the spot where she lost her­self in the glint­ing water. The spot where you had to be care­ful not to step those six inch­es to the right, or you would plunge to your neck in the frigid, dark water.

Fer­by took her baby and mis­stepped, entire­ly on pur­pose. The swirling waters where God whis­pered would remove the stain. For she was sure, it was a stain and not a mark. Mr. Hoop­er hadn't touched her, but Shade sure­ly had. So the birth­mark had to be a stain that God would remove it in this holy place.

She plunged to her neck with the babe and held him under the water, rub­bing the stain, try­ing to erase the mark. She was not sure when the baby stopped breath­ing, but when she knew he was not draw­ing breath, she held him close, rocked his life­less lit­tle body and sang, tune­less­ly, to him.

"It were just a stain. Just a lit­tle stain. God will make it right. You'll see." She kissed his tiny fore­head and laid him on the big rock in the mid­dle of the creek, like an offering.

Fer­by wan­dered off, dis­ap­pear­ing into the wood like a wild thing. Like the child she once was and was no longer. She fad­ed into the moun­tain lau­rel like a ghost, hum­ming a mourn­ful lul­la­by. No one ever saw her on the moun­tain after that.

They say the Gorvins' buried that baby under the thresh­old of a cab­in they built. They say, at night when the wind howls through the hollers like a red-tailed hawk stalk­ing a rab­bit, you can hear a baby crying.

No one swims at that spot on the creek. They say that deep, cold spot will suck the life from you and dark­ness lurks there like a pan­ther in the woods. They say under the sound of the rush­ing waters you can just hear a lul­la­by being soft­ly sung. 

That's why they call it the Dark Hole.

Rosanne Grif­feth lives on the verge of the Great Smoky Moun­tains Nation­al Park and spends her time writ­ing, doc­u­ment­ing Appalachi­an cul­ture and rais­ing goats. Her work has been pub­lished by Mslex­ia, Plain Spoke, Now and Then, Pank, Night Train, Key­hole Mag­a­zine and Smoke­long Quar­ter­ly among oth­er places. She is the blog­ger behind The Smokey Moun­tain Break­down.

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One Response to Dark Hole, fiction by Rosanne Griffeth

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