The September late afternoon sun streamed through a leafy canopy arching over the cracked and patched asphalt street as through skylights in the nave of a deciduous cathedral. Blue was leaking out of the leaves, infusing the sky, and curling the greens toward yellow, preparing them to someday sooner rather than later carpet the ground.
Down by the Holler I noticed our last big wind had shaken loose some sizeable boughs, depositing one along a faint fence line where two weathered wooden posts are all that remain from a previous owner but I still see serpentine sections of rail running along the hillside, keeping Mr. Mill’s cows out of Mr. Moore’s corn. If the road is a nave then the Holler is the sanctuary.
What kind of tree was this? I wondered before noticing a single green orb—about the size and shade of a tennis ball—clinging to a twig at the tenuous end of one of the offshoots. It was the green husk of a black walnut. Jugians nigra. Smooth and unbroken, probably not even fully ripe when the winds ripped the bough off the trunk of one of the flourishing local walnut trees.
Them are Effie’s walnuts.
A voice from the past.
There is a model of the universe where past, present, and future exist simultaneously. That means it’s possible to glimpse the Past—or the Future, though that’s more difficult since it hasn’t created as deep a rut, yet—where it occupies the same spatial dimensions. The Temporal Veil is downright flimsy, if you’re sensitive to it, and I’m enough Celt it’s sometimes more effort not to see through it. There are thin places all over.
Effie’s walnuts. I knew right away. Rhoda Effaniah Harris owned this land once. Long ago. She and her husband William bought it from the US government. A hundred acres in Sni-A-Bar Township, townships being the government’s way of plotting land and controlling expansion on the western frontier.
In 1830, when Bill & Rhoda loaded a Conestoga with essentials and joined a train headed by Old Man Reuben Harris, Missouri was the western frontier. It was as wild as it came. Reuben, Bill’s father, had some land coming to him in consideration of his infantry service during the War of Independence. The Federal government had been embarrassingly slow fulfilling its obligations to the only group of American veterans who ever actually fought to win American freedom. Even after President Jefferson doubled the country’s size buying what was left of French North America the government kept tight reins on settlement. Washington was obsessed with maintaining equilibrium between states were slavery was allowed and states where it was illegal. When Massachusetts ceded Maine as a Free State, Missouri was admitted allowing slave-holders.
Both banks of the Missouri River, from St. Louis to Kaw Point, flooded with settlers from Southern states, saturating the land to the point it was called Little Dixie. The group of Baptists who left Virginia’s Patrick Henry country in 1830 included several slaves. Patriarch Reuben Harris brought slaves with him. So did his son William and wife Effie.
It’s pointless for me to pass judgement on them. I understand them within the context of their times, a fact which neither condones nor excuses them. Humankind officially considers the idea of owning other humans as despicable. And yet it persists to our time. If you need to pass judgment there’s a pretty big target right there.
Effie were a witchy woman. That’s what some folk said.
Like most of the clan that followed Old Man Harris out of the foothills of Patrick Henry County, Virginia, Rhoda Effaniah Burnett was of Ulsterman stock—that is, Scots-Irish descent. She came from a long line of women who understood which plants did what. Which ones healed. Which ones helped you find thin places.
Effie, like her mother Effie before her, cultivated her herbalist craft and helped her neighbors when fever struck or some other ailment passed the point of prayers and broth. From her first days off the wagon from Virginia she planted a large herb garden, blending potions and elixirs for medicine. Over each vial she chanted “Slan-jah vore akussa yu-lay yanak do” words without meaning to her, except as a prayer for the infirm, words passed down from her mother and her mother before her to the very fringes of antiquity.
Effie had married Billy Harris when she was seventeen and he was twenty. She bore him fifteen babies. The last eight were born in their Sni-A-Bar Township farmhouse. All but one of them grew to adulthood, and that was unusual in an age when one in three babies died in their first years. Effie boasted she was from good stock. She must have been.
She carried scions of walnut and black locust from the Virginia highlands, wrapping them in strips of linen, rooting them, tenderly planting them with help from Jessie, her eldest boy, so many folks eventually called the winding road built alongside their property (the) Walnut Street, a name it bears to this day.
Sometimes I glimpse Effie as a younger woman. She was only 30 when she arrived her and started roaming these hills, these same hills, minus the houses, minus the streets, minus all the steel and plastic and utilities overhead and railroad running to the east and interstate plowing across up north. She and 12-year-old Jessie fashioned mud bricks by hand and dried them in the sun while William broke the soil with a barshear plow. Through 21st Century eyes she looks much older than her thirty years. She had already borne seven children in twelve years and spent long hours toiling under the sun. There was nothing bucolic about pioneer existence and it swallowed as many as survived it.
Other times I see Effie looking like Granny Clampett, standing with an old-style shotgun cocked and loaded, her faded yellow homespun dress flapping in the breeze, facing down some blue-jacketed Union officer who sat on horseback as his corporal read General Order 11 exiling Miss Harris—and all the civilians of Jackson County—for the duration of the war.
Effie always had been a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. It’s how she grew up. It’s all she knew.
When the War broke out Effie was 60. That was old by the standards of the day. Old for hard frontier life. She had already buried a husband and four sons.
Effie knew Billy Quantrill. Sure she did. Capt. Quantrill formed his band of Raiders—some called them Bushwackers—right down the road from the Harris farm. She kept her ears open. She passed along what supplies she could to them. News, once in a while. Couple of her kin rode with him. One of her own boys, Marion Lee, fought for the Rebels under Sterling Price. Company A, 9th Missouri Infantry. So it was no surprise when the Federals forced her and those of her surviving children still in Missouri from their homes.
Effie was not happy when the Yanks made her move. She set her jaw and stared them down. It was a Lost Cause. It was always a lost cause. The Yanks torched her crops and wrecked her buildings and turned her out for the duration of the war. Her Daddy fought against the British with the 10th Virginia. He must have been just spinning in his grave.
I was looking at the walnut husk on the dead branch, protecting the nut within and thinking of the roots that gnarled their way back to the soil of the 19th Century and the woman who walked their progenitors here from the Virginia mountains. And I was remembering those beautiful Blue Ridge slopes—where I had lived before moving here, as if there is some magnet pulling westward over those mountains. They used to call it Manifest Destiny, a Mongrel Horde of vagabonds riding collectively into the sunset.
Them are Effie’s walnuts I heard and looked around for the speaker, wondering if it was inside my head or outside, but I didn’t see him.
What I saw was a withered crone, the Widow Harris, older than I had ever seen her.
I see you, she said, looking straight at me.
I started. No one had ever seen me, before. “I see you, too, Miss Harris.”
She looked taken aback, but only for a second. You have me at a disadvantage, there, sonny she said. But which of us is seein’ inta th’ future? Hmm? she scowled. She gave a wave of her bony fingers, as if fore-casting was not even worth the trouble.
She touched the patch over her eye. She sighed, ancient and full of days.
I knew I was seeing her near the end of her life—though what, really, does that mean when everything is always … somewhere. Some time. I remembered she lost her eye after the War, when she was old even by 21st Century standards. I think it was a riding accident. Thrown as she dashed to an outlying farm to midwife a first-time mother. Or run like Absalom into a thicket which pierced the eye.
She looked agitated.
I remembered something. Something. Seemed she died in the same kind of accident, riding in a storm to deliver her elixirs to a feverish farmer. I could not refrain from thinking it, knowing as the words formed in my mind I was conjuring her doom on some level.
Long fingers once again touched the eyepatch. Begone! she said, made a sign with her hand, spat on the ground. She lifted the patch, opening the gaping socket, like Lazarus’ tomb, a swirling abyss, the Black Hole of Miss Effie Harris spinning pinwheel vortex sucking away all remnants of her and her time from my view.
I looked around. I was far from my usual path. About a half mile west. Northwest. I stood among a sea of gravestones and other monuments townsfolk who lived and died a stone’s throw from here . I drive here from time to time and wonder about the bones that lay beneath the grass, about the living, breathing souls who once wrapped around those bones and had lives and loves and suffering and joy. But I don’t see my car and sure don’t remember walking here.
At my feet lies a weathered, faded piece of carved rock to faded to read but I know from earlier visits this is little Lewis Franklin, Effie’s 3-month-old baby she bore in her forties and buried too soon on a hill on the family farm. It’s the oldest stone in the cemetery. 1843. Beside him lies his daddy, died of the cholera just five years later. And Effie, who lived long enough to become a crone—highly regarded among her people but little understood by the immigrants and easterners who flooded in on the back of the industrial revolution and the Gilded Age and made a whole new America than the one she rolled through the Appalachians and over the Mississippi to create.
Her gravestone said she died September 9th. I shivered.
“Hey, Miss Harris, thanks for the walnuts,” I said. And made my way back home.