Years ago I studied in Appalachia and met some amazing people. The Boy Who Loved Horses came from my time spent with them.
I was born in a town like this. Mine’s on the eastern ridge and closer to Raleigh. My town had the same dirt roads, the same one-room wooden church, the same old store where you asked for things instead of getting them yourself, the same people but with different faces, the same old men carrying coon rifles, girls getting married when they’re thirteen and younger, having kids before they’re through being kids themselves, the same sense of what’s ours and what’s not. I left my town and got educated. Made it into the extension service. Decided to come back and help others in towns like mine. My education didn’t take all the hill out of me, though. Knew enough to carry a gun in case I got too close to a still. But it did take some of the hill away. I forgot about towns like this.
I came here about a year ago; my big, state-issue Buick all shiny as it passed suspicious eyes. The state needed a count of school age children to qualify for funding and I came to count the children in this town.
Hill’re wary of anything new. They saw my car and suit and whispered “city” as I passed. It was true. When I come to this town, I acted like I was an educated man and everybody was suspicious of me. I went into the general store and bought a pop, sat down and tried to talk with some of the folk. Took me a while, but I got a nod, then a wink, then a smile. Turns out some of us had kin.
Eventually had to tell them why I came. They got quiet after that. I asked if there was some place I could spend the night. Nobody said. I should’ve left. I know hill. I known the signs. One of the men, Burt, left. The rest of us talked some more and, when there was no more to say, I thanked them all and left.
I saw Burt as I drove out of town. He was walking, two steps forward and one step back, and I could tell he was tasting squeeze since he left the store. Should’ve kept on driving. Should’ve known. Hill’s got mysteries they need to keep. “Hey, Burt, you need a ride?” I opened the door for him and he winked and handed me his bottle getting in.
Burt lived in a cabin up a short, rutty, old road about a mile out of town. We drove there talking hill, talking kin. By the time we got to Burt’s cabin, he was smelling like a coon’s been rolling in ‘shine. There was another jug on his table. He offered me more but drank most of it himself. “They won’t tell you about the boy,” he said.
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