Bitsy sat on the porch, smoking a pipe after a long afternoon traveling the hills. The sun had melted behind a Loblolly pine, the sweet after smoke of day stirring up gnats in the woods. Before long, fireflies attended the dance, lighting up in a fever, seeking mates in the coming darkness. Down below near the shed, the horse and mule snorted, tuckered out and set in for the night with a coffee can full of molasses bran, and a whisky barrel of spring water.
For most of her life, Bitsy was the closest thing to a doctor on Black Bear Mountain. She learned her craft from the old ones, how to use herbs for teas and poultices that ease the breathing of a small child, or calm the heart of an ancient woman. She learned how to apply honey to scrapes and burns, the natural antibiotic soothing and sucking all the bad out of the cut. And Bitsy knew when to say goodbye to a soul, watching it drift out of the body like mist over the valley, until the eyes looked skyward and met tomorrow. She helped bury many a person here in the hills, digging into the Kentucky clay with a shovel alongside the family, a ritual, the blade cutting into the dirt with a sorry thump, and the rhythm of the bereaved swinging the shovels in cadence as it rang through the trees.
Bitsy helped birth many a baby, peering between the legs of half the women on the mountain, marveling each time at the miracle that slipped out and into her arms, the first to see new life breathe in the mountain air, and often the last to launch the unborn soul to eternity, cupping their tiny heads in her hands and crying along with the blood soaked mother. The hollows rang with the laughter of children she had delivered. Many of them grown up now with families of their own, making their place in the sun, raising them in the shadow of the hills.
Times were changing. Sometimes when Bitsy loaded the mule with supplies and mounted the horse, setting out on the rutted mountain roads, the country doctor from the town below in the gorge passed by in his car. They nodded at each other, mouths flat and eyes straight ahead as though the other was nothing more than a mosquito, best to swat away before it bit.
Bitsy held no respect for the doctor, nor he for her, she suspected. It was annoying that some of the families she once tended called upon him now instead of her. They paid him good money, too. The kind you can bite with your teeth, solid money, come by dearly, when all Bitsy asked for was a jug of sorghum or a loaf of bread for her troubles, and the right to pick through the things that grew wild on their properties, looking for the soothing grasses and buds for brewing tea, and the mustard plants that made a plaster for loosening a chest in winter’s clutch.
It was autumn now in the Appalachians. Her ninety third autumn, to be exact. Bitsy never tired of watching the hills turn plaid like a patchwork quilt, the fog in the bottom land blanketing the colors until the sun rose over the peaks, then burned the valleys away, one by one, until the brightness of the leaves against the sky took her breath away. When winter came, she reveled in the tiny cabin, warm as rising bread, smoke from pine logs sweet as a lover, the light dusting of snow making everything crisp and clean as a linen sheet.
Her needs were simple. She would die a virgin. Never met a man she thought enough of to share a bed, and the home stitched quilts kept her warm in those lonely dawns. There were two Blue Tick hounds for companions, and the song of the mountains rocked her to sleep each night like a tender lover.
Bitsy had only been into town a few times in her life. Down below in the Gorge was a bustling anthill, cars replacing wagons and horses, storefront windows filled with things that nobody needed, cafes serving up food that came out of cans and tins, metallic taste permeating the sourdough biscuits.
For Bitsy’s eightieth birthday, several neighbors in the holler took her into town to see her first movie, “Gone With The Wind.” She’d never forget it. When soldiers sprang to life on the huge screen and fought, her hand slipped into a skirt pocket, and wrapped around the bone handle of a knife she carried, providing a sense of safety. Later Bitsy told everybody she never needed to see another one of those things because this was surely the best. Besides, now she had to go home and worry about that Scarlett O’Hara, and she had enough worries, thank you very much. She named her new mule Scarlett and laughed out loud whenever the animal threw its ears back and rolled its eyes. Bitsy cackled, saying “well, fiddle dee dee, Miss Scarlett,” slapping at her skirt at her joke.
Tonight, sitting on the porch, smoking the pipe and savoring the sweet aroma of cherry tobacco, Bitsy felt restless. Like something was moving in her spirit, pushing it along down a mountain stream, slapping at her like wet rocks. Her dang chest kept aching. It came and went, and lately it had been sticking around, an unwelcome guest. When she rode up the knob to tend patients and slid off the horse, it took a second to catch her breath. Sometimes the ache was sharp, like a hound’s tooth cutting into flesh. The chamomile tea she brewed, or the burlap soaked in mustard and slapped on the chest, didn’t seem to help much.
The next day it happened. Bitsy was outside cutting up kindling for the stove, when the pain got so bad she slipped right to the ground in a graceful fall of skirt and petticoat. The sky was fading white and dim, the trees around the clearing sloughing like a sad song.
The next thing she knew, Bitsy was being held up under both arms, somebody patting her face and calling her name. It took a minute to come around, and when she did, she was looking straight up into that doctor’s face. His car was idling by the side of the road, the door thrown open.
“Bitsy, such good luck I was driving by when you fainted!” he exclaimed.
“How do you know my name?” she spat out, backing away from him as though he had the sickness, not her.
“Oh Bitsy, don’t be that way, now. I know your name, just like you know I’m Dan Clark. We’ve been looking at each other for over 20 years, up and down this mountain.”
Bitsy sniffed, stared at him as though he was a copperhead snake, and was just about to say something, when the dimness came about again. She felt Dr. Clark’s hands upon her, but couldn’t muster up any protest, slumping in his arms.
When Bitsy regained her faculties, she was lying in a sterile room, white walls and white sheets bleaching out any thoughts. Her homespun dress was gone, replaced by a limp gown, and when she reached out one arm, there was a needle in it, connected to a tripod by the bed. Panicked, she sat straight up, staring around in fear, breathing in the smell of the hospital, pine cleaner, ammonia, and something else. Something frightening and confining.
Looking out the narrow window, day was ending, the sun sinking behind the hills. Bitsy saw Black Bear Mountain from the bed, dark and foreboding in the dusk, like a fist. “So far away” she thought, her chest tightening under the gown like the mountain, closed and ominous.
Throughout the night and the next day, the room expanded and contracted with the steady flow of strangers, nurses, doctors, orderlies. They thumped Bitsy’s chest, peered into her eyes, listened to the heart, the lungs, pulling her gown up and down like a window shade.
When Doc Clark appeared in the doorway, Bitsy’s eyes turned flinty. “What the hell am I doing here?” she asked, hands clutching the blankets, knees tight and tucked in a defensive position.
“Why, Bitsy, you had a spell with your heart. I couldn’t just leave you up there on Black Bear Mountain. You need a bit of help here.” His eyes were kind and sorrowful, the way one of her hounds looked when it had a belly ache.
“I gotta get out of here,” she said, trying to sound forceful, but her voice rang out like the bleating of a terrified lamb.
“Bitsy, you can’t leave just yet,” he said. “We don’t know how you might do up there all on your own. You had a major heart attack.”
Bitsy scoffed. “I’m ninety three years old. Of course I had a heart attack. Now, just let me be. I need to get back to my home, my animals.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” Doc Clark said, his hand resting on her fingertips. “I’m sorry, Bitsy.” And he walked out of the room, shoulders slumped and defeated.
Each day, Bitsy grew weaker. The song of the mountain hushed to her now. She felt her spirit reaching out through that window and up into the hills that held her close for ninety three years. She reckoned her soul was slipping out and going back to that mountain, and thought she’d let it go, if it hankered that much. Bitsy stopped eating and drinking and just lay there, head turned toward the window, staring at her beloved home.
One night, when the moon was a sliver on the horizon, not even enough to hold a cup of water, Bitsy saw a shadowy figure come quietly in the room. It was Doc Clark.
“Bitsy, are you awake?” he whispered. She mumbled something, then fell back on the pillow. Reaching down, Doc Clark lifted her thin body up and into his arms. He strode out of the room and straight down the sleeping hallway, not stopping until he reached his car, then lowered her into the back seat.
“What are you doing,” she mumbled, rheumy eyes looking up at him.
“Bitsy, I know the past few weeks haven’t been easy on you. You were born on that mountain and weren’t cut out for the likes of a hospital bed.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re right about that, Dr. Clark, but I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
His smile was gentle as he cradled her old hands into his. “You really don’t know me, do you Bitsy,” he sighed. She shook her head, tucking in her chin like a turtle beneath the blanket.
“Bitsy, I’m Dan Clark. You know, from the Clark family over on Goose Run. You were the midwife who helped my mama birth me over 50 years ago. I lived on the other side of that mountain throughout my childhood. Once or twice you even stopped in and gave me some molasses strap. My folks were grateful to you for helping out, and I thought being a doctor on Black Bear Mountain would be the most wonderful thing in the world.” He ran his hand through his thinning hair. “I was one of the lucky ones, who got away to college down here in town. Kept my grades up, and earned the opportunity to enter medical school at Duke. I was proud as hell to be the first from Black Bear to graduate with a medical degree. Was offered a job in Iowa, and almost took it, but knew I wanted to come back to Kentucky and help out as much as I could.”
Bitsy stared at him in disbelief. “Well, why the mercy didn’t you tell me who you were, Dan?” she said, shaking her head in wonder.
Dan Clark sighed again and said softly “I knew you held little store for regular doctors up there on the mountain and I wanted to prove to you I was worthy enough to work beside you, but you wouldn’t even talk to me or even smile when we passed each other on the road.”
Bitsy looked out the window, then back up to him. “Well, then, Dan, I guess I was a damned fool, wasn’t I. Looks like even at ninety three, I can learn somethin’ new every day.”
She peered up at him. “Why are you taking me out of the hospital? Tell it to me straight. I need to know.”
Dan Clark bowed his head as the words spilled gently from his mouth. “Bitsy, the doctors have done all they can for you. Your heart is weak. It’s tired. I didn’t want you to spend your days in that cold, sterile room, staring out the window at Black Bear Mountain. If you want, I can take you right back in to the hospital. But I thought you might want to go home.”
Bitsy closed her eyes, flooded with gratitude, and smiled as a tear trickled down one cheek. “Oh Dan, you do understand. I need to get back home. I don’t want to die down here in this town, all by myself.”
Dan nodded, tucked her into the back seat with blankets, and drove out of town, up the switchbacks into the Kentucky hills.
The moon hung above the pines, shedding barely enough light to see the tops of the trees. Bitsy looked through the rear view window as she lay on the seat, watching the lights from town fade away, scrubbed clean by the night air.
The headlights parted the trees as they traveled upwards, and Bitsy felt each rut and bump in the road, but it felt like home to her, as welcoming as a spring rain. Each rotation of the tires was another step closer to her cabin. Her spirit lifted just thinking about it. The rhythm rocked her to sleep as Dan crawled up the through the gorge, then higher still to the top of Black Bear Mountain.
When the car stopped, Dan got out, opening the door to the backseat. “We’re here,” he whispered, and lifted Bitsy into his arms as though she were nothing more than a baby. She craned her neck, looking at her home, and was astonished to see that it was lit up like Christmas morning. Light spilled from the rustic windows out on to the yard. Smoke fought its way through the night sky, unfurling through the higher branches of the old hickory trees that surrounded the cabin, cradling it in the crisp autumn air.
Then the door opened, and Bitsy saw people inside. Standing there were neighbors, friends, children she had delivered. They filled every square foot of her two room cabin, all of them smiling, hands reaching out to tuck her hair behind her ear, kiss her cheek, touch her thin shoulder, murmuring words of love, appreciation, and kindness. In the corner was a man with a banjo, strumming softly, the music floating out to Bitsy as she was placed lovingly in the bed. An old patchwork quilt hugged her like an old friend as she sank into the feather mattress.
The banjo player hit a chord, a familiar Kentucky lullaby, the sweet melody drifting up to the rafters. Then, voices raised in harmony, the people of Black Bear Mountain, and the Appalachians themselves, sang her home.
Sharon Frame Gay has been internationally published in several anthologies as well as Gravel Magazine, Crannog Magazine, Luna Luna, Biostories, Fiction on the Web, Literary Orphans and others. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.
© 2017, Sharon Frame Gay