On This Mountain

Entry by: Greg Leatherman

30th March 2015
July 4, 1976 - Welton, West Virginia

“Deed, now you listen,” Granny warned, “You’d break your neck and ain’t nobody could find you up ‘ere.”

But at nine years old, after surviving all manner of previously predicted calamity, curiosity and youthful confidence compelled me to climb the rocky peak looming over our farm, where arrow deer-paths threaded a forest that smoldered from lightning strikes and came alive with violent torrents. Shot through with quartzite, it sparkled in sunlight, and yet, so eminent was Dunkard Ridge that it shortened our days with a creeping shadow, until night fell and the lonesome shrieks and ululations of prowling nocturnal beasts joined the ceaseless chanting whip-poor-wills.

No one lives on the mountain. At one end of its base, about a mile from our house, the hard road turns into a rutted logging spur that winds up the lower tree-line in a series of switchbacks, ending at a wall of stone. At the other end, the mountain shears to form a cliff-topped gap, beyond which live Haggertys, Thorns, and other members of our congregation. Our dirt drive meanders along Macks Run, except where the bottom forty softens to marsh and the road carves across the flanks of a sun-splashed hill. Uncle Dale lives up there, with his wife and sons, but the rest is entirely forested. We hunt the hills, cut firewood on them, forage them, and ride flexible flyers down their slate-strewn sides. They sustain us, and they lack mystery, but when you stand atop any of them, Dunkard Ridge rises sharply in the west, lording over the narrow sky like a giant plunging wave poised to drown the haphazard houses, sheds, and barns of our hardscrabble farm.

On this Sunday—a national holiday that doubles as my father’s birthday—my immediate family prepared for a visit from these aunts and uncles. With Mom and Granny rolling out pie crusts, Dad moving tables, and legless Pap snoring in his threadbare chair, I schemed to sneak across the creek and climb into the clouds torn to tufts by wind and sharp rocks. After my secret expedition, relatives would compliment covered dishes and lean back in aluminum lawn chairs to brag about getting fat, trade farm tips, and learn baby names—until the night culminated with Dad launching bottle-rockets out of our yard, toward Dunkard Ridge, while I guarded my secret.

After grabbing my fishing pole and tackle from behind the wood bin, I climbed over the barbed fence beyond the willow and cut across the creek. Behind the fat trunk of an old bent sycamore, I ditched the gear. Then I ran, arms pumping, across the marshy floodplain fringed with reeds—through the sweet flag, milkweed, and mallow—and after standing a moment beneath the steep mountain, I snuck undetected onto the lowest slope. I fought nettles and grappled scrub pine against thin, yielding soil—scrambling toward the obscured summit—and each time I caught a switchback, I paused to catch my breath and look back upon our farm.

Absent the reverb of the ridge, the axe my father swung was reduced to a weightless flash, the crack of split wood deadened to a thud, and as he stacked fuel for tonight’s bonfire, I wondered should I descend. Instead, I resolved to clamber up, though my thighs burned, sweat dripped down my brow, and my lungs ached. A thousand feet above our farm—away from the timber, the orchards, and constant chores—panting where no one had breathed in fifty years, I pushed past the moldering exposed roots of trees torn loose from the soil, until I came to a leveled stretch of large boulders—sheared from the peak aeons ago—sunk into the damp earth around an earthen mound.

Enthralled, I tripped the root of a fallen yew and sprawled into moss; and as I stood to brush myself, I noticed a trickle of water coming from a rub of clay beyond the next boulder and, following it, found a shallow spring where I cleaned scratched arms and soothed thirst. Catching my reflection in the pool of the spring, I wondered if by disobeying my family I had sinned against the forest, and whether, as a punishment, I would fall into a rocky chasm, or worse, be bitten by a rattlesnake.

Still, I did not stop. I hiked over fern and lichen-softened stone, into the arched beech-n-maple—so unlike the timbered mountains with their shorn tops. The wildwood so engulfed me that I inevitably imagined how above this forested face would emerge a pristine crest crafted not by the hammer of the carpenter; nor the chainsaw of the woodsman; but by the inscrutable gnaw of time, which when confined to the only ideal we truly possess: the instant—is beatific.
And when I reached the narrow spine of this reclining behemoth—four thousand feet above distant seas I’d never seen—I climbed upon a peak of immense flat stones stacked one upon another and broken only by the occasional flag spruce bent from constant wind, so that traversing these heights required hopping from stone to stone.

Careful of crevasses and jutting roots, I surveyed the adjoining valley. The mountain here was gently sloped—declining into a hilly vale—though beyond this rose Knobley Mountain, and behind it, the massive Allegheny Front, thrust violently from the earth. Knobley’s stoney slopes birthed a tree-lined trickle that eventually wound around the northern side and back to our hollow; the same clear creek—Macks Run—which I crossed before climbing.

I wiped the sweat around on my face with a soaked shirttail and stood panting, my lips salty, skin glistening, watching the shadows of small clouds move across the valley, until my breath stopped at the sound of an animal rustling through blooming rhododendron. As the creature neared, I imagined my family finding me devoured upon the altar of these cliffs—but came the dark blue of a handkerchief and the face of a lithe redhead looking cautiously down at her path, her cheeks pink with exertion, her faded jeans covered in burrs, her basket filled with berries.

Coming up to my right, to the bottom edge of the cliff, she shuddered at my silhouette against the sky, but she made out my features—a boy her age with his jaw agape—she climbed onto the capstone, stepped into sunlight, and smiled.

“Would you like some blackberries?”

“Sure, thanks.”

Touching my shoulder to steady her step, she set her basket down and untied her hair.

“Here, wipe your face first. You’re sweating something awful!”

Liberated, her hair coiled across her freckled shoulders like the spiraling skin of a peeled orange pippin. I daubed her spangled handkerchief against my forehead.

“It’s already wet,” I said, “but thanks.”

She smiled with green eyes glinting, and our surroundings, from the moonscape cliffs beneath our feet to the panorama of distant mountains, receded.

“I live down the mountain,” I offered, accepting a handful of her berries.

“I figured you don’t live under these rocks. You come from those little houses? I been seeing ‘em down there.”

“Yep,” I said, dribbling berry juice onto my t-shirt and wondering what kind of sign she implied. After all, she didn’t attend my school, reunions, or church.

“We’re having revival at Knobley Church next month. You and yours should come.”

“Well, that sure is kind of you.”

I turned on the cliffs to point out our farm, but a big blue fly landed on my forearm and as I swatted, I stepped back from the edge, to which she clapped her hands and hollered, “Be careful!”

“Here’s your handkerchief back. I almost lost it.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t fall.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Pops is the new undertaker down at Valley Funeral and yes, we are looking for a church. My name is Lily. Do you go to New Creek School?”

“I’m going into sixth grade.”

“I’ll see you in first period, first day.”

“Probably see you on the bus. I’m Ted. Everyone calls me Tater.”
As I extended a hand, red hair blew across her face; and when she took my hand, a shadow stepped out of her body. The girl—Lily—hopped off the capstone and went tromping down the gentler side of the mountain, but her shadow—having the complexion of a photographic negative—stood naked, devouring sunlight—reeking of turned loam and spent matches.

The shadow, a living smudge, leapt recklessly off the capstone and streaked down my side of Dunkard Ridge, leaving a scent in the air as she went. I scrambled after, dodging and careening over fallen logs, gasping as I slid down mud banks, rushing through crackling branches, with my thighs numb from sprinting down slope, until finally, as the inclined leveled, I hurtled into the reedy meadow where grasshoppers scattered, and caught her as she dashed madly into Macks Run and we slogged across the shallow stream, climbed over the barbed-wire fence, and collapsed on the other side, embracing.

When I regained my breath, a big blue fly buzzed around my head and the smell of smoke hung in the air, but I did not find a specter in my arms. I lay alone on my back beneath a willow whose leaves fed caterpillars crawling from their silken tents. My father sauntered down the yard towards me, so I sat up, wiped the sweat from my forehead, and—wet to the knees with creek water— I knocked some of the grit and dirt from my pants. Dad’d brown hair lay over his ears and sideburns, and while he had not dressed up for his birthday party— he wore a white t-shirt and jeans—when he pulled me up by my shoulders, the smell of cheap aftershave obliterated any sign of the girl.

“Y’all there, Tater?”

“I see a green and yellow light,” I said, wobbly as a fawn.

“You've been knocked silly, boy. I looked out the window and you were a’laying on the ground. Get up here in the house and let mom have a look at you."

When I tried describing the girl I'd seen, it sounded fantastic.
“She was the most beautiful girl in the whole entire world, but when I went to touch her, this other girl came out like a ghost!” I exclaimed.

“She was just a dream,” Dad replied, “like if you were sleeping in your bed. Now, let's get you where your mother can look at you and get those muddy clothes changed. We’ll be lighting the grill here in about an hour or so,” Dad said.

I didn't say any more, nor did I repeat the tale to my mother, for at ten years old I humored my parents in the same way I mouthed hymns or echoed amens. But, after Mom put the mercurochrome away and set out a change of clothes, she kissed me on the forehead and asked, “So, little man, what were you doing out there?”


“You’re not supposed to get in the water with them.”

“I know, Mom, but—"

“But nothing! A boy who won’t wait for the fish to bite is a boy gonna run off after the first girl that catches his eye. Just mind you don’t get in trouble. Wet pants is one thing. A pregnant girl is another thing entirely.”


“I said my piece. Now calm down and get changed before your kin gets here.”

In dry clothes, I sat on a wooden chair on our back porch, staring up at Dunkard Ridge. I would retrieve my fishing gear tomorrow morning, as light played off the ridge, while over the mountain, Lily would see the ridge in shadow—the perfect compliment to a boy of ten.