Stay and Fight - Madeline ffitch Page 0,1
he was smiling at me for. But I’d been waiting for my life a long time.
It was March when I followed my boyfriend to the oldest slope, not quite West Virginia but right there on the border. In a hill town with a land grant institution, a hardware and salvage store, an IGA, a diner, and thirty bars, we searched the nickel ads and went for a drive. After six miles we saw a FOR SALE sign scribbled on a paper plate. The paper plate was stuck to a mailbox. The mailbox was stabbed into the bank of a creek. Behind it, twenty acres of raw wooded hillside. A gravel driveway spiraled up.
We climbed it, maybe seven hundred feet but felt like a quarter mile. At the top, I looked back the way we’d come, but the road below had disappeared. You couldn’t even hear it. The driveway went nowhere, but ended in thorns, soggy husks, wide-faced grasses, trees that I didn’t take seriously at first, because out West forest means evergreen. No houses, no structures, nothing but mud, rocks, and not-quite-wilderness. What about neighbors? I asked. My boyfriend studied a map. He said, We’re surrounded by coal company land. Miles of it. Coal mines? I asked. Isn’t that dangerous? The industry moved on a long time ago, my boyfriend said. They left the land to itself. Untrammeled forest, he said. Post-trammeled, I said. He said, It’s cheap to buy around here. I said, I had this professor once who said that private property is a totally problematic concept. My boyfriend said, We can start from scratch. We can hack some trails. Clear some trees. Build our way. He pointed into a thicket. Do you see that? Buried in the roots of an elderberry bush, a cast-iron kettle spilled muddy water. A freshwater spring, he said. We’d be fools not to. I used my uncle’s money to make the down payment.
We bought a camper so small that the two of us could push it up into the woods, where we cleared a sugar maple, an ash tree, and a red oak. I learned their names as we cut them down. With a shovel and a grub hoe we dug out enough space to prop up the camper on a stack of sandstone so it was level. Only the barest bit of light came in the windows past the orange spray-painted declaration scrawled across them, THE MCCANN’S: STEP AWA, someone else’s feud.
April, May, and most of June, my boyfriend worked up north in one of those new boom industries, drilling whatever, so we could pay off the rest of the land. Meanwhile, I was supposed to stay home and get shit done. But it was me against the land and I was in awe. No one was watching me all day but god, and I didn’t believe in god. I didn’t know how to get started. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It was cold and it was raining. I put on a poncho. I dug out the spring, buried a plastic bucket beneath the cast-iron kettle, called it a refrigerator. I strung a tarp, put another bucket under it, called it an outhouse. I tried to plant some onions, not knowing how much sun they needed, not knowing they were heavy feeders. Mostly, I waited for my boyfriend. I biked the gravel roads until I had enough signal to call him. He didn’t pick up. I biked to the bar and stood under the air vent, asked the bartender to turn up the heat. I played pool against myself. There were men in canvas, caps pulled low, college girls wearing miniskirts in the pouring rain, fuzzy boots to make up for it. No one found out that I was a good conversationalist. No one talked to me. I charged my phone. Tried my boyfriend again. At night I lay in the camper, figuring I’d get murdered or a tree would fall on me. I told myself I could always head back to Seattle and find another landscaping crew. Instead, my boyfriend came back with ducklings in a cardboard box. What did you do while I was gone? he asked. I gestured toward the buckets and the tarp. And I played pool, I said. There’s this bar in town. It rained a lot. You should have been planting, he said. I planted onions, I said. But peas, he said. Kale. Or I don’t know chopping wood. What would I chop wood