Robert Brunk

Creative Nonfiction

Robert Brunk’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Gettysburg Review, Witness, Chautauqua, The North Dakota Quarterly, Salt Hill and other publications. He is also the editor of two volumes, May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina. He resides in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays have been selected as Notable Essays for Best American Essays in 2014 and 2015.

Photo credit: Paul Howey


Not From Around Here

Though we already cared for a miscellaneous consortium of animals—two cows, a dog, one cat, five ducks, and a goat—our children, Ingrid and Andrew, aged five and four, announced one morning that we needed some chickens. Our children claimed that chickens would eat all the bugs that plagued our garden. My wife, Jan, smiled a bit, knowing that every new creature we brought into our lives came with a frayed suitcase of needs, some obvious but many unseen: nutrition, protection, housing, procreation, defecation, and burial.

Our cat, Black Power, had multiplied by eight one spring morning. Our goat, Jenny, who was said to be carrying two kids when we bought her a year earlier, seemed to be setting the North American record for the longest gestation for a Nubian goat, as no offspring had yet appeared. Our dog, Sophie, had been bitten by a copperhead snake, but thankfully, survived. The ducks, unnamed, continually dropped their excrement in the grass where I played with Ingrid and Andrew. When confronted by weasels, the slow-moving white ducks had been reduced from a flock of five to a trio of three.

We were back to the land people, strangers in a new place, bearing hopes and burdens of our own. In 1971, we had planted ourselves on this remote mountain farm in North Carolina to play out our dreams of living thoughtful, self-reliant lives. Our animals often reminded us of how inexperienced we were with the demands of rural life.

Nonetheless, I agreed that we should get a few chickens. This mountain farm came with pastures, barns, sheds, fences, and 100 acres of steep woods. Having a noisy menagerie of animals seemed to be part of the package. A small flock of chickens didn’t seem to add much to our labors.

A few days later I drove down to see Lige (Elijah) Allen who lived with his family behind the Antioch Baptist Church on Sugar Creek Road, to ask if he knew where I could get some hens. “How y’all gettin’ along up there?” he often asked, always kind and helpful. Though we had no family or history in the area, he accepted us as we were, without reference to our anomalies or protrusions. He also took great pride in his parakeet that often perched on his right shoulder, occasionally dipping its green head as though agreeing with whatever Lige had just said.

Driving up his short driveway that day, I met him in his front yard, where he had been weeding a flowerbed. “You need to talk to Blanch Rhea. She lives over on Holcomb Branch,” he said, smiling. “She’s moving, and she’s got a bunch of Banty hens she can’t take with her. Those chickens are wild and hard to catch, but your kids will enjoy hunting for the eggs.” He went on to say that Blanch’s husband had died several years ago, adding that she “doesn’t drive.”

Later that day, a warm, early summer afternoon, I headed out to her house, about three miles from our farm, and a mile and a half from the village of Barnardsville. When I arrived, I saw a few small red/brown hens scratching and pecking in the dust in front of her house. The rooster, with arched black tail feathers, let loose his piercing shriek every few minutes, his neck feathers trembling with the effort. The chickens glanced at me with no fear, strutting and pecking with postures of scorn and arrogance.

Blanch Rhea lived alone in an unpainted, two-story frame house that appeared to be abandoned; an overturned chair and worn broom lay on the front porch. I tapped gently on the screen door and heard her shuffling across the floor as she came to the door. When she opened it, I saw her face was deeply creased and slightly jaundiced, the stain of dried snuff at one corner of her mouth. She wore a thick stocking cap, her thin white hair showing at the sides. Her feet were swollen, nylon stockings rolled above her black shoes.

“Yes?” she said abruptly.

“I came by to see about getting some chickens. Lige Allen said you might have some I could buy.”

“Where do you live?” She was tall, but slightly stooped, and looked past my shoulder, toward the peaks of Craggy Gardens.

“I live with my wife and children up at the end of Sugar Creek Road. We bought the place from Wade Gutherie. Some people call it the Old Dock Fox place.”

“Well, I’ve heard of that,” she commented, apparently satisfied with my credentials. “We may as well go inside,” she said, turning into the dark room. She pointed at two old wooden chairs positioned near a wood heater, still slightly warm from pushing back the morning chill. Visible particles of dust hung in the air where the sun slanted through a cloudy window. I had not expected to be invited into her house, and was pleased that she had extended this courtesy to me, a rank stranger.

She explained that she had kept chickens “all her life,” but since she was moving in with her sister, she would be happy to let us have them. At night they roosted high in the white pine tree at the edge of her yard, as they had for years. She said she would get the “neighbor boy” to climb up there in the evening, catch them, and put them in feed sacks. She said he enjoyed doing this and had done it for her several times. I was glad to hear her plan as there was no possibility I would climb up sixty feet in a tree in failing light, grab chickens, get them into a sack, and climb back down. That was as unlikely as my first efforts to put a halter on a reluctant 1200 pound cow had been.

I asked her what I should feed the chickens, and what I needed to know about their care. She smiled a bit. “Well, they’re a little hard to keep up with. I had them penned up once but they were bad to peck each other, so I let ‘em out,” she explained, adding that the hens laid lots of eggs, but they were on the small side. She said I should come by early in the morning two days later to pick up the chickens. I thanked her for her kindness and offered to pay her but she said no, she was just glad to “be rid of them.”

Though our business was over, I wanted to prolong our time together to ask her what she knew of the history of the area, conversations I often had with neighbors, particularly older residents. From the day we arrived, I’d begun investigating the history of our place and the surrounding area. I wanted to learn family and place names, examine overgrown cemeteries, and hear the stories of farmers, preachers, musicians, and the makers of coverlets. I was drawn to all of it, the origins of obscure words, junk cars in creek beds, and why some people wouldn’t burn apple wood.

I found comfort here, a place very different from my Mennonite childhood in the Midwest, from my days as a social worker in Hagerstown, Maryland, and from my four years teaching sociology at the UNC-Asheville. As unlikely as it seemed, I wondered if I was looking for traces of my own history, or if I was trying to create an imaginary past for myself, rooted in this place, as though the region reminded me of an earlier life.

I asked Blanch Rhea if she would mind if I asked her a few questions about the history of the area. We were still sitting in the chairs near the wood heater amidst the scent of old ashes.

“Why no, I guess not,” she said hesitantly, “but I don’t really know much.”

I explained that I was mostly interested in how long people have lived here and where their families came from. I asked where her father’s family might have come from.

“Well, way back some time ago, his people moved here from Wilkesboro, North Carolina. I don’t know when that was, or how many came along, but that’s what I’ve always been told.” She stared at the window as she spoke, then waved one hand a bit, as if in some doubt of what she had said.

I wondered if they were farmers and she said yes, they were all farmers of some sort or another. “How about your mother’s family,” I asked. “Where did they come from?”

She said she believed they came from the Grapevine section of Madison County, but she wasn’t sure when that was. “You know we never talked much about these things, and I never asked. We just got along as best we could and didn’t pay much attention to that sort of thing.” She sighed as she spoke. I thought of my own family’s concern with ancestry and descent, books written, charts created and amended, pleasures and sorrows revisited; litanies not required of Blanche Rhea and her people.

I asked about her own family. “Well, my husband wasn’t from around here. He was from Barnardsville.” She folded her hands in her lap as if to say she had now answered all my questions.

Barnardsville. Only a mile or so down the road, but he was “not from around here.” I wondered if she thought about men walking on the moon, or if she allowed such an idea to nudge against the limits of her known world, or if the moon was pooled with other distant and unknown places she had no desire to visit or understand: Fayetteville, North Carolina, New York City, Africa, or China, places which, she perhaps believed, could not offer her kindness or comfort, only strange sounds and alien people.

I wondered what it meant to not be from around here. I thought I was not from around here, born in Chicago, lived in several states, and moved to Sugar Creek only two years earlier.

Perhaps “here” was not a place, but rather a measure of strangeness and social distance, a way of defining one’s boundaries and affirming the edges of one’s life. How did I measure the distance between the comfort of the known and the chaos of the unknown in my own life?

I didn’t ask Blanch Rhea any more questions, and wondered if I had any right to inquire as I already had, to prod at her privacy and carefully guarded sense of self and place. I thanked her for her kindness in giving us her chickens and for talking a bit about her family. We rose and walked slowly toward the screen door.

When I got home I announced to Ingrid and Andrew that the chickens would arrive in two days, and that they could go to the feed store with me to buy a large bag of cracked corn.

The subject of men walking on the moon had come up one night several weeks earlier in a conversation with Wade Gutherie from whom we had bought our farm. We were sitting on his porch, smoking Camel cigarettes, enjoying the cool breeze of the evening. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the moon about two years earlier, on July 20, 1969. We had been talking about the signs of the moon, and how those signs indicated the best times to plant crops or split shingles. “You know,” Wade said as he stared at the floor, his body bent forward as though in prayer. “Lotta people around here don’t believe it. They think what was on the television was all made up in a studio in Hollywood.” His voice was hushed and serious, as though he was delivering some tragic news. Gone was his usual teasing chatter. I didn’t ask him what he thought of men walking on the moon; his beliefs about the moon suddenly too private for discussion.

I was struck by how place determined one’s values. If many generations of my family had lived here, and I had been born here, I too would probably have doubted that men had walked on the moon. The truth of it lay in the place as much as in the mind.

I occasionally saw people in the area who still plowed or cultivated with a mule or horse, and for some of that generation, their ability to believe what was happening in the world away from Sugar Creek ended with men walking on the moon, this a violent rupture in how they knew the universe to be. They didn’t believe anyone walked on the moon and slowly lost the desire to even hear what else might have happened in outer space. Stay with what they knew to be certain. Some men tinkered and improvised endless repairs to their old trucks and tractors, complex electrical systems and high-performance engines having pushed them farther away from their known world of spark plugs and single barrel carburetors.

I understood this attraction to certainty and felt some kinship with those not enamored with the flash and beeping of ceaseless electronic invention. I had no doubt that men had walked on the moon, and I could imagine the engineering required to accomplish this feat, but I was more attracted to and impressed by the permanence and integrity of the dry-stack stone walls still standing on our place, their steadfastness and their truth.

I had assumed that most people, including Blanch Rhea, would be happy to talk about their families and their histories, and where they came from. But for many in this community these were questions which didn’t need to be asked, questions about people and events which could not be changed. If they can’t be changed, why worry about them? Many spoke as though the events of their lives had fallen on them, as if from the sky, episodes over which they had no control. They seemed to accept the joys and hardships of their lives without judgment, as had earlier generations of their families.

Their ancestors had endured the privations and losses of the Civil War, and later the wars of the 20th century. In the 19th century, residents of the area suffered the hardships of consumption, pellagra, typhoid, and diphtheria just as their descendants now deal with the ordeals of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. My neighbors and their families, mostly farmers, have, for several hundred years, endured the unpredictable calamities of weather: floods, droughts, crops of corn, oats, and tobacco shredded by sudden hail.

Many in this community had filled their days within the same boundaries of geography, language and habit as had earlier generations of their families. They were their ancestors.

Blanche Rhea’s sense of time and distance were rooted in the collective beliefs of many generations, she a living aggregate of cultural memory and experience.

My social memory and personal history could not be called an aggregate, more a loose scattering of Mennonite names and places from my childhood, and uneven exposure to conflicting belief systems, folkways, and cultural markers. I had lived in a wide range of urban and rural settings, but I did not carry with me the collective wisdom of a specific place, and the guidance it might offer.

Two days later the kids and I picked up seven hens and a rooster from Blanche Rhea. She sat comfortably on her front porch in the now upright chair, and waved to us as we drove up. The chickens lay in two loose feed sacks in the shade of a straggly forsythia bush. They were quiet but an occasional beak or sharp claw poked through the loose canvas as we maneuvered the bags into the back of our car. We thanked her again for bequeathing her chickens to us. I wondered if she would miss them, an unruly presence in her life for so many years.

At home, when we let them out in our front yard, they shook themselves to organize their rumpled feathers, and looked around their new home, a place they had never seen before. They examined each new detail of the terrain, their heads darting in all directions, deceit in their eyes. Did they understand that this was a new place, or was it merely an extension of already familiar ground?