The Ash Family
Bay and I approached the farm at dawn. The first sun churned sideways through the trees, catching in the previous day’s rain, which the wind now shook down from the Carolina silverbells, the beeches, and the poplars. I rolled down the window and heard the forest fizzing.
Bay had taught me one of their songs in the car: “Come, my soul, and let us try, for a little season, every burden to lay by, come and let us reason.” He sang the harmony and drummed his thumbs on the wheel. I couldn’t hold the melody and my voice kept slipping.
Before I met Dice, before I met Queen and Pear, he was the whole Ash Family to me, and I promised him: my soul, with which I would try. We repeated the song till I could maintain my line. When we turned off the paved road, the low sun lit up every strand of his hair, so that, as a result of its extreme disorder, it looked like a giant, bright halo. He had rescued me, I thought.
Bay drove maybe a mile more up a road so bumpy that my head kept hitting the ceiling. We passed four signs warning hunters not to come near, BEWARE LARGE DOGS.
“Here,” he said.“We’re here.” In an instant the gold light broke, and here was my first view of the farm. The house crouched in a whirl of yellow leaves from the biggest hickory I’d ever seen. The wind spun the leaves in the air as thick and self-contained as the liquid in a snow globe. I felt like my eyes were failing. I stumbled out of the car. Bay took my hand. I’d gotten a splinter in it the day before, and I felt like he’d shoved a stake through my palm. A light went on in the house.
On our trip up through the mountains Bay had told me that I could stay at the farm for three days or the rest of my life. His family—intentional family, not born family—sustained itself communally, off the grid, in the old way. This was the real world, he explained, and if I stayed I’d get a real-world name to replace my fake-world one. He said I would come to understand that there was no definite self: in the Ash Family there was no selfishness, so there were no possessions, no children, no couples.
“What if I stay longer than three days but want to leave after?” I said.
“Why would you want to leave, when you’ll have more freedom here than anywhere else?” he said. The family’s father, Bay said, was Dice, and Dice would understand me the way a lightning bolt would understand a rod.
I was ready to believe it, all of it. Bay could see, as no one else had, the yearning I felt for a more essential life. To me essential meant a life more connected to wild nature. I’d always known there was magic on the margins, there was a world beyond my mother’s world, where a dinner that “went off without a hitch” meant a dinner where no one talked about anything that mattered. My mother cared about manners and appearances and above all she wanted me to go to college so that I would “have a better future.” She wanted a life of safety for me, as though safety were still possible on the choked earth. Safety was a relic from before humans destroyed the world.
Some part of my mother was riven; I kept stumbling along the edges. Once my ex-boyfriend and I had found a broken-down shotgun in her dresser drawer.
My ex-boyfriend, Isaac, told me that my desire for a more essential life was meaningless unless I was fleeing from and fleeing toward. I’d had so much trouble discerning the toward. I was looking for the toward. Then I met Bay. Next to him, in the yellow-winged morning, it seemed to me that everyone in Durham had told me just what I’d needed to leave them behind.
The hickory leaves pattered against our backs and adhered to the house’s clapboards. “Will I meet Dice now?” I said.
“Not for a little while, I think,” said Bay. “Let the fake world fall away.”
His arm was around me, and I watched his breath enter the air. The cold had broken records for September. I didn’t know where I would sleep, what I would eat. I had no money and no possessions. Three days or the rest of my life, I thought. We stood listening to the leaves, the sheep’s plaintive calls, the cows’ exasperated moos. A white dog loped toward me—it was huge, almost my height—and butted its head into my chest.
“Let me see your watch,” Bay said.
I held out my arm. He unbound the watch from my wrist and slipped it into his pocket. I liked the feathery feeling of his fingers on my arm. Then he pulled away from me. “Stay,” he said as he walked into the house. At first I thought he was talking to the dog.
I stood alone in the courtyard, under the shedding yellow tree. I could hear a whip-poor-will and the creaking trunks of trees. Across from the house, the L-shaped barn filled up my vision from end to end, dim against the glare of the sky so its detail only gradually appeared, a dusky bronze color with a tiny tower on one end, topped with a tin wind arrow, slowly turning. Between house and barn, there was a storage house on crooked slate stilts, with a triangle roof like a child’s drawing. Mountain slopes rose on two sides, holding the buildings like a folded palm: what I would come to know as the holler. It was all tidier than I’d imagined, and older. I’d expected tarped buses and pelt teepees leaning in the woods, but this was a quiet old-fashioned farm tucked into standard pastures.
The wind streamed down the slopes, eddying and rumpling in the longleaf pines and on the weather vane, so that it turned this way and that, not indicating anything.
Bay stood on the porch. I started when I noticed him there, a tall broad shadow, like a black bear—I’d heard there were many bears in these mountains. I wondered how long he’d been watching me.
“We’re ready for you,” he said. “Just remember, don’t tell anyone your fake-world name.” He led me across the threshold. I noticed the dirt on the floor. The walls were milky yellow. I followed him through a meeting room filled with chairs, and then into the dining room.
And here was the family, two dozen young people. They all wore dun sweaters or canvas jackets; they all had the same short sloppy haircut, the same broad hands, the same rawboned faces and vivid eyes. They seemed to be moving slowly, their gestures drifting through the air; they reminded me of astronauts who had to strap themselves down to rest in space.
“A sister!” Bay said. They looked up at him and smiled. Every face was beautiful.
“Who’s this?” a black-haired man said.
“Berie,” I said. Then I remembered I wasn’t supposed to say.
“She’s fake world, through and through,” Bay said. He laughed. My heart lurched and seemed to budge the splinter in my hand that I’d gotten yesterday, during our trip here. “Sit here,” he said to me. He turned to the others. “I found her by the bus stop. I thought she was Cassie for a second, didn’t you?”
“Who is that?” I said.
“Very curious,” said the black-haired man.
“What’s easy for you is hard for us,” Bay said to me, in a sing-song. “What’s hard for you is easy for us.” The family members laughed.
I smiled along, though I did not understand.
But I had secret knowledge too. What none of these people knew was that he’d kissed me the night before. Maybe there were no couples here, but he’d kissed me.
Bay took a seat at the far side of the table. I sat, too, and the women on either side smiled. “You must be tired,” said one.
“This is the hardest part,” said the other, so gently that I felt my face flush. “Have a little bread. We make it ourselves.” She said her name was Sara. She was a beautiful woman with a grown-out buzz cut and big eyes with delicately veined eyelids. She buttered a piece of bread for me, but I felt too nervous to eat. I looked around. Laid out on the table were steaming red-clay cups and silver bowls and jam jars, berry branches and fall leaves, basket-embossed loaves of bread.
What would my mother think of me here? I hadn’t yet learned to control my thoughts, so she rose up, unbidden. She still thought I was on my way to college in Richmond.
I was fleeing from: my mother, whom I constantly disappointed. She worked at two different gift shops. She bought our groceries at the discount store that carried unpopular products from major brands—Welch’s jam with chia seeds, double-protein Philadelphia cream cheese, pumpkin spice Cheerios. She liked to speculate about why these things didn’t sell, always trying to reassure me that they were just as good, better, more special than the full-price versions. As a rule, the less confidence she had in what she was saying, the more she repeated herself. She said everything she did was for me, all so I could afford college and a better life. She said that over and over.
My mother owned three precious things, a matching jewelry set from her mother’s mother: a necklace of white gold and garlands of pearls and diamonds, and two stud earrings, big fat diamonds clenched in white-gold claws. She kept the set bedded in red silk velvet in a Colonial Girl Sandwich cookie tin in our house in Durham. My mother might have hated the jewelry, which did not keep her fed sufficiently as a child, did not send her to school, did not save her from the desperation that led her to marry my father. But instead she loved it; she pierced my ears when I was ten so I could wear the earrings and necklace together when we went out on glamorous occasions, which meant a stroll through Duke Gardens in the spring, among the college students, dogwoods, and magnolias. She must have asked me if I wanted piercings and I must have said yes, but she never understood that acquiescence is not the same as desire, and by asking for permission she forced my hand.
In January, she had begged me to apply to college. I did, even though I barely had the grades, even though I didn’t want to. It was her dream, never mine, kicked off by her own mother, or her mother’s mother, the long line of women who never got out, but instead grew old and stiff as boards and knocked over one onto the next, leaning hard all the way to me.
In May, she sold the necklace to pay for what the financial aid wouldn’t cover.
In September, she bought me a plane ticket for Richmond. “I always knew you’d manage,” she said, driving me to the airport on the gray slopes of I-40. I could have taken the bus to Richmond but she wanted me to arrive like the best students. I thought I was doing the right thing by accepting her offer. It seemed cruel to say no.
Four days before I met Bay, when we parted at the airport, she spent a while searching for something in her handbag, clear- ing her throat. Because she was a big-boned, broad-shouldered woman, her handbag, like her fl al cap-sleeve dress, looked funny on her, though for once I felt sorrier for her than ashamed for myself. She seemed to find what she’d been looking for. “Take this,” she said. She handed me a little photograph.
It was a picture of my father, yearbook-style. Cloudy gray background, chin up, face to the side, and eyes front. He had a high fade and the calm looks of a man who knew how to shoot.
“So you can remember him,” she said.
I didn’t want it. I hadn’t seen my father since I was six. I didn’t want to remember what he looked like. I tucked his face into my wallet.
I could not forget the sight of my mother standing there on the other side of security, watching me head away. Her arms straight at her sides, purse on the floor. Her neck pulsing. Her reflection in the linoleum.
Oh, my mother. I should have hugged her.
I wanted to make my mother happy but I knew there was something more for me than college.
I was fleeing toward the something more. Once, alone by the Eno, I’d found two bucks with their antlers wedged together. I’d approached them as they lay panting and I’d jostled their antlers till they separated. I remember kneeling on the dead mauve leaves, watching the bucks stagger to their feet. I remember feeling all of the forest moving through me. School, college, my mother were a dam on the river of a vivid life; out of doors the dam would break and I would tumble in the current.
The Ash Family rose from the breakfast table to begin their chores. I sat alone at the enormous table, worried I’d been forgotten. But soon the woman I’d met at breakfast—Sara—came to find me.
She hugged me as though we had not seen one another for a very long time. “Little one,” she said. She looked ethereal, but she stank like a tramp. She led me across the yard. I kept stumbling on the ridged ground. I felt clumsy, delirious. Four days ago I’d been college-bound and now no one in the world knew where I was.
Sara opened the stable door. “Good morning, horses,” she said. The sun came in behind us and the barn was filled with whirling gold chaff. I inhaled the warm sleepy scent of the animals and felt the quickening of an uncommon happiness. It was a moment of apprehension of all the forms life could take—it felt like remembering, but I’d never been so close to horses. Two of the horses were white with black pinpoint spots, and two were red, with white blazes splitting down their long heads. I’d later learn that the red ones were Suffolk mares and they pulled our plow.
“Dice is dynamite,” Sara said. A red horse pressed its nose into her temple and she laughed. “Found me when I was seventeen, when he was feeding all the people. I was the first to join him. I knew I’d been saved.” I thought about the man outside my high school who once handed me a comic book he said would save me. Then he tried the girl next to me, and she said, No thank you, I have already been saved. I wanted to be saved—then and now.
“How did you know?” I said.
Sara rubbed the horse on its blaze, and it sampled her shirt collar with its dark lips. “Dice knew this cold was coming, and we put the blankets down on the fields. He let it come. He can change the weather with his mind.”
I wanted to believe her. She was polite and stern, like a nurse; there was something entrancing about her easy kinship with the horses, her strength, her calm. “He actually used to work as an engineer at a power plant,” Sara said. “When he realized that all the fish downstream from the plant had died, he quit and went to the Arctic to learn from the glaciers. But he felt he couldn’t keep propping up the fake world forever.” She laughed and shook her head, like we were both in on a joke. “He wanted a new world, where he could live the right way. So he moved here, and I came along.”
We approached the three henhouses, where dozens of hens burbled and squawked. She showed me their water and grain, and moved from task to task without bothering to make conversation. “By the way,” Sara said suddenly.“Did you know that glaciers roar and thunder as they melt?” Her lack of etiquette made me trust her. She said the cooks rose at five and everyone else at six, some- thing like that—“Only Dice has a watch.” Work started at seven and continued for four hours.Then lunch, and break, and work till dinnertime, then singing or a story.
For the next short while, she said I was going to look after the sheep and the chickens and the pigs, while most of the family prepared for the action on the mountaintop. Dice found out that a coal company had planned to burn thousands of acres of forest nearby, in Tennessee.
“They’re burning the cottontails off, the flying squirrels off, the wolves off, the pumas, the bears, the salamanders, the spiders, the deer, all off,” Sara said. “In less than a week, now, the coal people are going to blow the top off the mountain with millions of pounds of dynamite, blow off five hundred feet of what they call overburden, right down to the coal.” I took pleasure in a moment of imagining how my mother would think Sara was crazy. Here I was, talking with Sara: my mother would think I was crazy too.
“They keep getting closer and closer to us. The old forest is almost all gone,” Sara said. “But they can’t get a good price for the soft coal. The industry is dying. You know why they’re doing it?” She fixed her large eyes on me.
I shook my head.
“They’re roaring and thundering,” she said. “You have to watch out for the half-dead wolf, you know. We see them around the land sometimes. Dressed like scientists. Looking in our rivers. Digging in the woods. There’s no coal here, but the roads have gotten better, and they want to develop. It’s already too bright to see the Milky Way.” Her tone made my skin prickle. “Once the biodiversity is gone, it’s gone. After a catastrophe it takes millions of years to come back.”
“Do you really think you’ll be able to stop them?”
“Let me tell you something Dice told me,” she said. “We animals are more like fungus than like plants. We are descendants of big groupings of cooperating fungus cells. We are not single selves, just tendencies, groups. And so we do think we can stop the catastrophe, because we are not working alone. The fake world is not a match for us.” When she turned away from me I saw her buzz cut was grown out in the back like a rat tail. In that moment she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
I wondered how they would stop the mining, the developing. I imagined a march through the center of town, like my ex-boyfriend and I had done against the bathroom bill and the ag-gag. “I’d like to come to your protest,” I said.
“We don’t really do protests,” she said. “We do direct action.” She stooped to stroke a hen’s broad red back, and it hunched, stilled by her touch. The hens ate soft mangoes and passion fruits. They jabbed their beaks into grapes. Sara showed me how to collect the eggs, feeling around in nesting boxes, under the warm feathers and sturdy legs. She watched me and said, “Bay was right to bring back someone who loves animals. I bet your family didn’t see that, did they?”
“My mother wanted me to focus on school,” I said.
Sara touched my face. Her hands smelled like horses. “I am glad you found us,” she said.
We tracked through the barn, a maze of low-ceilinged wooden rooms of irregular sizes. One room was stacked floor to ceiling with pieces of PVC pipe. As we walked past, the pipe ends looked like rolling eyes.
We fed the four massive pigs, dropping down crates of lettuce and kale and bagels and strawberry Yoplait. “From the free store,” Sara said. “The Dumpster.”
“Do you travel to town often?” I was remembering Bay: three days or the rest of your life.
“That’s a silly question,” she said. “We’re traveling at six hundred miles a second toward the Great Attractor.” She laughed when she saw my face. “Get relativity,” she said. “It’s one of our lessons.”
The pigs raised their fleshy noses and snorted as I emptied yogurts onto their heads. The sheep ate fermented tight-packed hay, silage, in a big round cage. They walked to the front of their stable to look at me as we approached. Dark eyes and white muzzles, side-springing ears. I touched the fine down on their cheeks. I’d never touched such gentleness, this wool, these horns, these gold eyes, built out of grass and water. I was used to carnivores like cats and dogs.
Past the sheep we tossed carrots and cabbages, loaves of bread, straw to the cows. The cows were silver with black noses. We climbed into the wide food trough between their rows, and Sara pulled a ladder down from a ceiling hatch and planted it in the tall hay. I followed her feet upward, feeling a cool breeze coming down the ladder. We emerged into a space that was as vast as a cathedral, windy and dark except for slivers of light coming in the loosely constructed walls. “The largest barn of its era in the Appalachians,” said Sara. “A monumental work.”
Hay piled up almost to the ceiling. I felt a long, deep thrill that mounted as I shuffled my feet over the uneven plank floor and fell into the bales to smell their sweetness, to feel their prickles in my hair. Isaac used to say that there are times when things are positive or negative, or times of simple intensity, when those distinctions dissolve. That was how I felt when I first fell in love with him. And here was the feeling again, after a long dormancy. I wanted to run out to the hills and press my face into the soil. I felt I would finally be swept away in the river of a vivid life. As we picked our way across the floor, every new view proved to me how perfect the place was and how right my feelings were. “This is where you’ll be sleeping,” Sara said. “All new arrivals sleep up here, in the hay.”
“How many are there?” I said.
“Haylofts?” said Sara, though I felt she knew what I was asking. “No,” I said. “New people.”
“Everyone is old at something and new at another,” she said.
I could stay here three days and then take a bus to Richmond. The semester had started yesterday, but maybe it wasn’t too late to enroll.
“You belong here,” Sara said. “I can tell.” The future had been a wall, and now the wall collapsed and I could see the huge range of weathered mountains, and the structures of the farm like the eyes in a face.
I could stay three days, or I could stay the rest of my life.
We descended the wobbling ladder. Sara showed me the leader ewe, whose loyalty I would have to capture if I wanted to herd the flock. The ewe was blind in one eye, which was white and brimming over with scar tissue. Her other eye contained a horizontal rectangular pupil in a gold-colored round. Her large compliant head took up so much space. Her horns were warm, as though they were filled with blood. “When the weather’s good, you’ll herd,” Sara said. She looked out the window. “Today, for example.”
We opened the barn doors and the sheep coursed out into the sloping meadows.“You’re going to have to do it when we’re away,” Sara said. “So you’d better learn.”
“I’ve never even met a sheep before today,” I said. The bleating flock slowly headed north, stretching and gathering. It was early afternoon.
“If you lose the sheep, you’ll lose the sheep,” said Sara.“So just don’t lose them.” She took off her scarf and wound it around my neck. “If it gets too cold, the sheep will find a warm hillside,” she said. “They’re good at that.”
“Don’t leave me,” I said. My hurt hand pulsed.
She took off her canvas jacket and draped it over my shoulders. “The more you dawdle, the harder it will be to catch them.”
The sheep had already disappeared over the ridge. I’d have to run to catch them.
“Stand in front of the ones that are going the wrong direction,” Sara said. “And if they don’t heed, shake a stick and shout. If you belong here, you’ll love it. Earn our trust.”
My wounded palm was hot, and I used it to try to warm my freezing fingers.
“You’re still cold?” she said. She took off her sweater and handed it to me. I didn’t want to accept it, but it was so warm in my hands. She took off her skirt, pulled it over her boots. She took off her turtleneck, exposing her prickled skin, her pale stained undershirt. She held her clothes out to me. I couldn’t look at her face, but then she turned and I wished I had. I no longer had any idea what she thought of me. I no longer knew whether I was safe. I wished Bay had been there to guide me.
Sara walked almost naked back down the long slopes.