Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the collection of short stories What She Was Saying by Marjorie Maddox (Fomite, 2017).
Before Pennsylvania, the world was flat, the distance between two horizons a straight view. In those other states, I walked a state-of-mind, linear but un-livable. Map coordinates located something less than inhale/exhale. Now place has something to do with oxygen horded in the limbs of hemlock and elm, with the way these mountains bulge with breath. Air blooms among such unbashful blues and greens, darts with the dragonfly, and drinks with the white-tailed deer. Always, it winds with the creeks, then glides over Allegheny curves to rise up with the hawks. When the firefly blinks, it is not an SOS but a refrain from a mountain song so old you can hear the hills humming.
The only light in the shotgun house is the steady blink of the TV. I’ve swept her job at the mill beneath the corners of a 40-year-old carpet, crammed his factory work in the closet they no longer open. But for years, I couldn’t ignore the hum of what they didn’t have, the absence they gave my husband in abundance. I can almost touch each wall with its peeling paper of orange watering cans as I hike between sheet-covered furniture lined up for the one clear view of a sitcom. Though I try to get comfortable, I can’t. Even the air bunches up against itself between straight planes of plaster.
Outside the narrow windows, bricks block the coal-tinged breeze. Rusting lawn chairs clutter the neighbors’ crumbling porches from which out-of-work, middle-aged men stare at each other and do nothing. Teens compete at squealing their makeshift hot rods down the thin strip of asphalt left over between tightly parked pick-ups and hand-me-down four-doors. From the cracked sidewalk, barefoot girls in bare midriffs pause their hopscotch and wave.
I head instead to their backyard, where blooms border a six-by-four yard and spill over as geraniums and pansies, roses and black-eyed Susans, tulips, and marigolds. Hummingbirds nip nectar. Tomatoes bob from stalks tied-up with old panty hose. Lettuce proclaims victory over rabbits, and strawberries congratulate themselves for against-the-odds growth. My brown thumb, envious to the end, fingers joy.
The doe and its fawn enter our backyard on the slant, kitty-corner themselves from rhododendron bush to magnolia. Theirs is a quiet joy, stepping just so from their hills into suburbia, the distance six hops of a skipped stone. They’ve forgotten to worry and remember this grass and the long limbs of our maple. They step easily between swing set and tool shed, detour around a half-finished game of croquet. Nurtured on grace, they politely turn their sleek necks to avoid our gaze. From behind glass, my children stare. They compare the soft sheen of the deer’s fur to sketched likenesses in store-bought books. My husband warns them not to open the door, not to let the conditioned air out.
Beneath the tent flaps, my children and I breathe in the wild Pennsylvania air. The mountains, we say, are hugging the wind, the laurel so thick we could pick a thousand blooms. All evening we count the blinks of fireflies. We sense hawks circling the night clouds above our camp and bears obediently pausing between the zigzags of evergreens. We listen long into the dark until the drone of crickets leads us into dreams full of deer and ruffed grouse. Then we doze without worry, the curve of the world huddled about us as we breathe its crispness in.
In the chilled morning air, when we emerge from sleep and the tent door, it is—almost-surprisingly—just our backyard on the outside, our hammock waiting in the half-light of dawn. We think we hear the doe and her fawn, but it is my husband up on the patio, already flipping blueberry pancakes on the griddle. The country-style bacon sizzles with joy when we join him, humming our campfire rounds.