I had been walking for some time. About four miles, I supposed. My car, an almost-new contraption, had sputtered to a stop somewhere along this Appalachian trail that was touted to be a road. The city was too far back, and it had been hours since another car of any sort had passed me. I had judged walking to be my best chance of finding help.
It was beginning to look as if I had judged correctly, for to the right of the stretch of road I was travelling sat a low, small house. The wood shingles that covered the sides were weathered gray, and the door sagged on its hinges. A dog- I wasn’t sure what sort- was lying on the sad-looking porch. He was a tired old mutt and barely raised his head to study me as I stepped up the drive.
Though I doubted the residents of this weary little shack- I had decided that the word house was too grand a word for the structure in front of me- would be able to help, I resolutely rapped on the door with my knuckles. There was no telling when I might next encounter people, and even if the residents here were not able to help with my vehicle, they could at the very least direct me to a place I could board for the night.
The door creaked open slowly, and a woman appeared in the gap created between the door and the frame. She was lean and tall. Her mousy-brown hair was caught up in something that had once been a bun but now sported more tendrils falling around her shoulders than left atop her head.
“You selling somethin’, mister?” Her dull gray eyes narrowed with suspicion. She was likely used to traveling salesmen insisting she buy useless items on which she had no money to spend.
“No, ma’am. My car broke down a ways down the road, and I was hoping that someone here could help me.”
“We ain’t got no car, mister. Can’t help you none.”
“Can you tell me where I might find lodging for the night, then?” I tried not to let my desperation show.
The mountain woman looked me up and down slowly. I felt I was being weighed in the balance. Would I be found wanting? And why did it matter to me what this stranger thought of me? Finally, after an eternity, she spoke.
“Mr. Holcomb will be home soon. He’s been out hunting today. If it’s fine with him, you can set up here a spell. Come in, stranger.”
I thanked her, hesitant to enter her house. How odd that she should call me stranger!
The inside of the shack was little better than the outside. No walls separated the eating area with its large fireplace from the sleeping area, with pallets piled in a stack in the corner. A rocker sat in one corner, a quilt draped carefully over the back. Two wooden benches sat along either side of the rocker, pressed against the walls.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the number of children. Of course, I knew that mountain families often had many children, but to see it in person was rather different than to read it in an article by some scholar. I tried to count them but the clamor they made, along with the fact that they refused to stay still, made it nearly impossible.
An older girl, a carbon copy of her mother, was busy laying dishes out on the long, wooden table. Benches identical to the ones in the living space were under one side of the table, and I suspected the other benches would soon be brought over to fill out the seating area.
“Miriam, you set an extra plate for this here gentleman what’s come to see your daddy.” Mrs. Holcomb commanded.
“Yes, Mama.” Miriam scurried to obey.
Clumping at the door drew my attention, as well as the attention of the Holcomb offspring.
“Daddy!” They all shouted, and as they crowded round the door, I was able to at last count them. There were seven smaller than Miriam. Five boys and two little girls. I wondered if any of them would ever receive an education, or even be able to leave this forsaken mountainside.
“Sarah, I’m home.” Mr. Holcomb’s voice was deep. A bass so deep it might have shaken the mountain itself. The owner of the voice was hard to spot, surrounded as he was by his children. Finally, one of the boys moved to the side, and I saw Mr. Holcomb. He was tall, lanky even, though he was nowhere near as thin as his wife. His hair was light, and his beard was exactly what I had imagined all mountain men to sport.
He spotted me at almost the instant I had seen him. He turned, and though he also studied me as his wife had, he extended his arm. I took a step forward to grasp the man’s hand, and he shook it firmly. For a long moment he stared intently at me, and I wanted to squirm and drop my gaze. I didn’t. Instead, I let him continue his evaluation. At last, satisfied, he introduced himself.
“Sam Holcomb. Pleasure to meet you, mister. What can we be doing for you?” I explained my trouble, and he nodded solemnly. “Well, my wife told you the truth, mister. We can’t be of much help with your machine. It’s late now, anyway. The nearest neighbor who could help is at least an hour’s ride away on Blackie. Nothing for it except to wait until morning. You can put up here for the night. It might be a little crowded, but it’s dry and warm and safe, which is more than anyone ever said for that trail you come in on.”
My heart sank inside me. If my mother, who had scolded me for using the front parlor once for a college party on the weekends, rather than the drawing room, could see me now, why, she’d likely swoon. Of course, I saw that Mr. Sam Holcomb was correct. There was no better option, as much as I hated to admit it. I graciously agreed to his proposal.
“Soon as you men are done jawing, we can eat.” Mrs. Holcomb fussed, but I noticed a twinkle in her eyes that showed she was teasing. I wondered how I had ever thought to call them dull.
The children were already seated around the table, youngest to oldest. Mrs. Holcomb took her place at the foot of the table, and Mr. Holcomb took the head. I was directed to the place on his right.
“Would you like to bless our supper, friend?” Mr. Holcomb asked me.
I shifted, uncomfortable with both the familiarity he so suddenly felt as well as the request. Nodding, I bowed my head and offered a perfunctory blessing on the food. The Almighty and I weren’t exactly close friends, nor had we been since my nursery maid had been traded for a tutor.
Mrs. Holcomb held her hands out, and children began to pass their bowls in one at a time to be filled with soup. I followed their lead. I didn’t ask what was in the soup, imagining the answer would be something like opossum or rattle snake. I took a hesitant bite, rolled it around in my mouth, and swallowed. The flavor was phenomenal, and soon I had scraped the bottom of my bowl clean, as had every other person seated around the table. How I wanted more, but I suspected there was not more to be had, and I would not take a drop of food from the mouths of the thin children with the large eyes who lined the table.
“Where you headed, friend, that you got caught out here in the back country?” Mr. Holcomb asked.
I explained that I was headed towards Richmond to work on a scientific research team. I told them how I had been asked specifically to join the team because of my work with stimuli while in university. I wasn’t sure why I was talking about such things. Surely they were above the heads of these mountain folk who probably didn’t make it through the eighth grade.
“That’s nice. Always thought maybe a fine education and a big city would be a good adventure.” Holcomb looked contemplative, and I wondered what he was thinking. Did he regret staying in the mountains that had raised him?
“I want an education like you got, mister.” The oldest boy, Walter, who I judged to be near fourteen years old, nodded solemnly.
I probed a little, wondering how realistic that dream was.
“Well, mister, even if I don’t get to go away to a fancy school like you done, I’ll find me an education in the hills, like my daddy done, and his before him. I want to be a preacher, and I can learn what I need to right from the Good Book. Seminary is a luxury, not a necessity.” Walter’s eyes were sincere, and I knew he meant what he said.
I let the topic drop as I mulled young Walt’s answer over. How would he ever be content? Never to leave this mountain? Never to receive the education he desired? And yet, he seemed to accept his fate with no angst, no fear, no regret. I had never faced any disappointment in my life with such stoic bravery. Mayhap the mountain folk were made of sterner stuff. I perked up at that thought. I could do observations here that might be useful for my future work with the Richmond team. Yes, that’s what I would do.
I startled as a voice broke through my musings.
“Fine meal, love. Mighty fine.” Sam Holcomb leaned back, patting his stomach. “You kids clean up and we’ll have a fine show put on for our new friend tonight.”
The children did as they were told and in less time than I had imagined possible we were settled around the living space. Mrs. Holcomb sat in the rocker, the quilt across her knees. The youngest girl-Eve I thought her name might be- sat snuggled on her mother’s lap. The benches had been returned to their previous places, and Mr. Holcomb and all his children lined the benches. I sat nearest the door, ready to bolt if necessary, though why I should still be thinking such thoughts after the welcome I had received was beyond me.
“What’ll we start with, Evie-gal?” Mr. Holcomb asked the little one.
“Oh, Daddy, let’s do Jesus Loves Me.” The little girl’s eyes lit, and it reminded me of the life I had seen flow from her mother’s eyes.
Everyone laughed at Eve’s answer. I was clueless why, but one of the boys- Peter, perhaps- leaned over and told me it was her answer every night.
Mr. Holcomb strummed a chord on his guitar and within seconds every voice, save mine, joined to raise the familiar tune. Harmonies like I had never heard before, nor have I heard since, swirled around my head. The beauty of the song shocked me, for I had never before heard it sung with such sincerity.
After the first, other tunes followed. Tunes like Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance, It Is Well, and others. The harmonies stirred something within me, a longing. Each note was familiar. Familiar but foreign at the same time.
I was aware of an emptiness inside. A chasm had opened in my heart so deep and so wide that I feared if I moved I would be swallowed up. What had caused it? I longed to leave. If only I could reach Richmond. My life would start then.
I tried, then. I tried to leave. My limbs betrayed me. They refused to move. I was grounded. Glued to the bench upon which I sat. All the time the harmonies wound round about me, pushing me closer, ever closer to the chasm.
And then it stopped. The music stopped.
I looked around, unsure. Had any of the others felt what I had felt? But no, they couldn’t have. I could spot not one sign of distress from the whole lot of them. Instead, utter confidence and gladness radiated from every face, from old to young. How?
“Don’t songs like them just rouse you? Don’t they make you feel so full?” Mr. Holcomb gently slid his guitar behind the rocking chair.
“When I hear those sweet old songs, it makes me know I ain’t got need of nothing else.” Mrs. Holcomb smiled, rocking Eve.
I was bed down on a pallet soon enough, but sleep was long in coming. I wondered what I could have missed. These simple people were so happy, here on their mountain with nothing more than daily necessities, and not always those, either. I had graduated from Harvard, top of my class. I was nearly famous for my work in the brain and electric impulses and stimuli. Never in my research had I come across any data that would explain the contentment that reverberated from the walls, even long after every other being was sleeping.
What was it that made these folk so full?
Mr. Holcomb was as good as his word, and the next day I was on my way to Richmond again. It took me until well past nightfall, but I was there. I joined my team and worked with them for five long years. I joined a new team then, after some restlessness in my soul. The chasm I had seen inside me that night on the mountain was never truly hidden again. Every few years I would move, searching for something to fill the expanse. Nothing that money could buy ever worked. I grew discouraged, and after being awarded yet another medal for my research, I left the field entirely.
I climbed into my car, now a man of forty-seven. I was no longer the carefree Harvard graduate. Unthinkingly, I guided my vehicle towards the hills. I had been driving several hours when I saw a small church tucked up in a hill. Its appearance was not unlike that of the Holcomb place as I had painted it in my memory, and I stopped, drawn by the sheer number of vehicles outside.
Of course, there would be people in church on a Sunday. I had lost all track of time. I slipped into a back pew. The reverend, a fellow younger than I, with a look of familiarity about him, got up and gave a simple message. My heart was tender this day, and the words fell on hearing ears for the first time. Tears streamed down my face as the man told of a Savior willing to bear pain and separation from God for a sinner. A sinner like me.
I left that church with the chasm filled. Something so simple had made me so content. This was the something I was missing in my data collection. This was what the Holcomb family had possessed that had so eluded me.
Climbing back into my car, I took the curved road to where I remembered the Holcomb home being. I parked across the road from the house, which looked the same, though it now mattered not that the shingles were worn and the door crooked.
With as much hesitancy as the first time I had been here, I raised my hand and knocked. An old man opened the door, and I recognized him as Sam Holcomb. His eyes showed his confusion, but they cleared in seconds.
Opening the door wider, he said, “Welcome back, friend. Come in. There’s something happened to you, I can tell. You look filled up. Won’t you tell us all about it?”