Jellico King once lived in the city. He worked for the Chrysler Electronics plant—first, on the line, welding together distributor parts, and then as an assistant supervisor. Bitsy, his wife, decorated cakes at a factory bakery that supplied local restaurants, and eventually she ran the production line for their famous lemon pound-cake, which the company had begun to ship all over the Midwest.
They had two sons—Ralph and Boyce. For a while, they lived an idea of the American dream, until Jellico was drafted. They moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky—south of Louisville—and then Jellico shipped off to Korea. Bitsy and the kids moved back to the country, where at least she had their parents and cousins. While he was in Korea, she gave birth to their daughter, Frannie. When he got back home in ’53, he barely recognized his babies—grown two years older—and with his money from serving and Bitsy’s savings, together they bought wide plots of good farmland near their families, seventy-two acres for next to nothing.
Jellico and Bitsy built a house, and a barn, and a milking house down the road.
It wasn’t long before they had a busy little dairy farm—about sixty head of cattle—and they sold their milk to a bottling operation outside of Wraytown. They saved up money and bought Chrysler cars and took trips to Florida and Indianapolis, went on camping trips to Piney Lake. Voted Eisenhower twice, then Kennedy.
The kids got quickly, slowly older.
When Jellico was just a young boy, he started walking into the deep woods by himself, past the old cow creek and over a couple miles of forest, back to his grandfather’s hand-hewn homestead, to bring him oranges.
Jellico King’s grandfather was a mountain hermit. No electricity or plumbing, the old man got his mail and cashed his government checks from the Gulf station that opened up between Wraytown and Levi. Jellico would walk into the deep woods with his father as a real young thing, almost a baby. His father would bring the old man booze in from out-of-county, or whatever else he needed: lye soap and flour, salt and saltback pork. The woods became as familiar as home, wild with all levels of life.
“I don’t reckon we’ll be knowing each other for too long,” the old man told him once, peeling orange rind away from pulp with an old pocket knife. “So I got to teach you what I know about these woods. I gotta teach you some of the old songs.”
Then, the old man popped the juicy orange wedge into his mouth. Bits of orange stuck against his wild beard, and suddenly the old man opened up his rotten throat, and right there, Jellico King’s grandfather sang “Barbry Allen” in a sweet strong tenor.
Until his death, over the slow summer weeks, he taught Jellico to sing the birds from the trees: “Rock of Ages,” “Omie Wise,” “John Hardy,” other songs. In the dappled green shadows, the birds rose and well from the trees, following their voices through the woods until the wide oaks outside the cabin were live and drooping with the weight of dozens of birds. Watching, listening in the trees, the birds were quiet and wore shadows of black and gray. Fine spectators, they all looked the same.
Jellico King’s dairy farm sat on the top of a ridge out past the city of Levi, Kentucky where he’d raised his family and tried to make a living for years. Down the ridge sat a wooded valley with a creek running through it. The only neighbor was a used car salesman who lived miles away in Wraytown. Jellico would walk the borderline of their land—a rusted barb wire fence at the edge of the valley woods and listen to the birds who came to roost there.
He would follow the deer run—a dirt path carved into the land—and look for signs of the birds feeding in grass among the decaying leafy underwoods. He kept notes in a little book, always in his pocket. And even though he opened his mouth to the sky, he couldn’t get himself to sing.
One day, the used car salesman sold the valley land to his brother, who razed the trees, bought in 100 head of cattle, and put up flimsy fencing. The barbed wire broke down between the fields so often that Jellico had to tag their herd. On several occasions, Bitsy woke up to find strange cattle eating their lawn grass and shitting in their yard.
Homeless birds called in the fields like rain.
So Jellico bought a piece of remote woodland adjoining Peters County, miles away from the nearest highway or gas station or convenience store. The forest land was blocked off from the county by a mountain on one side and a river—Hog Branch—on the other. To get to the land, Jellico had to ford shallow water in his farmtruck, but even then, the river could only be crossed from May til December.
Jellico hired a team of boys—their sons, Ralph and Boyce, some of the kids they knew from school. Bitsy always brought a barrel cooler of water or Kool-Aid. They all smoked cigarettes, cut down some of the old-growth cedars and pines, hand-poured quick-mix cement for the new house’s foundation. Jellico helped them notch and hoist cedar logs, and when they mixed the mortar, he taught them how to chink the infill with small river stones to help prevent the wind from blowing through the structure. Every night, they’d go and milk the cows again.
Jellico built a wide outhouse and a small porch out of mountain rock. Bitsy had a fire furnace and chimney put in by some workers from Levi, and Jellico called his cousin, Noisy Pendergrass, who worked at the electric company, and had wire run up the backside of the mountain with enough electricity for a refrigerator, a clock-radio, hot water, and a couple lights.
Bitsy added a shaggy orange sofa, a 50’s Frigidaire with more chrome on it than a Cadillac, two hefty wooden headboards with deep hidden shelves. Jellico added cases of beer, and tins of Vienna sausages, and sleeves of Ritz crackers, and guns, and ammo. He brought in a toolbox and a fishing pole, a hand-ax and a garden hoe, and Bitsy brought enough seeds to grow a wild patch of porch-vine tomatoes, of cucumbers and hardy mountain corn.
The birds came to the cabin, too, and Jellico kept a bag of seed to throw out from the porch, whenever the mood hit him. Then a host of the small, bright-eyed things would peck the dirt patch clean, and fly back into their individual trees.
Another time, Jellico walked down the hill in front of the cabin to the edge of Hog Branch and began to follow the water upstream, deeper into the forest, until he came across a stark white doe standing across the banks. He watched as the deer hesitated, lifting a mud-yellowed leg as readable as a question mark. He watched the narrow pink of her eyes, and she inevitably bucked into the woods.
The birds called after her.
It was like the words to a song Jellico had forgotten.
Jellico liked to spend at least one day every couple weeks walking his new wild land, to find the deer ruts and blackberry brambles, the little streams and hollows—to see what he could find. On one walk, in between two pale birch trees, he found the rusted metal carcass of an old Ford Super Deluxe, its back seat littered with dozens of whiskey bottles. All around the cabin was deep woods, no people or cattle for miles, and it was like God himself had dropped it there.
One Spring Sunday, Jellico King stayed home while Bitsy drove up to town to buy groceries. He got out of his truck, hoisted a cooler with a sandwich and some beers, and ate lunch on the porch of the cabin. The light filtered through the trees and drew a camouflage of shadow across the sloping land, the fire pit, and the downed logs.
From his truck, he gathered a fishing pole and an orange hat that he pulled low over his ears. He tucked the hem of his overalls into his boots, and checked for his army knife and pocket tackle kit, and slid them into the front of his coveralls, next to his notebook.
Jellico walked couple miles south, downhill from the cabin site, to a wide overgrown field that opened out toward the widest part of Hog Branch, a stone chimney sat abandoned in the middle of the land. The sky was bright and blue, but some dark clouds gathered just beyond the treeline.
Jellico planned to cast a line in a few spots along the branch and see what, if anything, was living in the water. He figured that there were probably some sauger, but he was hoping for crappie or bass, something he could pack in the cooler and take home. He’d clean and fry the fish. He’d ask Bitsy to make hush puppies.
Underneath the long field grass—bromegrass and sweet timothy, both good to make hay—the land was rough with mounds of dirt and rock, not furrowed like an old field or pasture. Jellico stepped forward, and before he could realize what was happening, he felt the crumble of dirt, rotten wood, and he fell into the dark earth.
If someone were standing over the black hole, they would barely be able to see the rise and fall of Jellico’s chest. Unconscious, he lay there for hours, until the day became afternoon and the storm clouds spread across the mountains, and the evening fell gray.
In the dream, he entered his grandfather’s cabin—the same quiet building cradled by the woods. Inside smelled of oranges. But his grandfather was not there.
In the dream, Jellico thought about Bitsy and the kids, and a wind full of nuthatches beat across the cabin’s glass windows, bottle-thick and wavy. Jellico threw himself on the floor and the room was filled with the pit pit pit pit pit of the nuthatches. He could hear one window breaking, then all the windows.
In the dream, The cabin was nothing but sound and movement.
When Jellico King woke up in the black hole, it was to a loud roll of thunder. His heart was beating fast, and he remembered at once where he was—far away from the dream of the cabin and the cloud of birds.
He felt a tender lump on the back of his head, and the itch of dirt in his hair, on his arms, in his clothes. He rubbed his eyes with his fists, and blinked until he realized he was in complete darkness.
From the hard pack of the concrete floor, he could tell he was in an old root cellar, narrow but long. Years ago, the walls would have been wooden shelves. His old wild granddad used to have one, where he’d kept grain liquor, jarred preserves and jams and sauerkraut, salt meat, potatoes, turnips, and carrots.
Jellico tried to stand, but his left leg gave away, and he collapsed back down to the floor.
In the hole, Jellico King felt drops of water hitting his hands, his face, and he realized that it was raining.
He closed his eyes, opened up his mouth, and sang.
In the old cellar, his voice raw from effort, Jellico closed his eyes. His chest thrummed rapid, and he breathed in through his nose and exhaled through his mouth—an old trick from his Army days, used to relieve anxiety.
He thought about the trees above him, the birds with their smooth heads and sly and perfect beaks. And he thought of his grandfather and the songs they’d sing, how it seemed like life was so easy—the birds practically filling the trees.
He threaded the spiral from his notebook and smoothed it slowly into a thick line of metal. From the tackle box, he took a pair of small pliers and he pinched and bound the two pieces of fishing pole together with the wire to create a sort of cane. He tried to stand again, shifting the weight of his body to the pole and his good leg while holding on to the dirt wall for balance. Grimacing, he could balance himself, leaning on the pole just slightly.
At standing height, the top of his head was a couple inches away from the outside, and he could feel the rain, driving down in earnest now. Singing loud, and with one hand, Jellico began to pull the ground in, half-blinded by water and dirt.
By the time Jellico King climbed out of the ground, he was still singing. Clouds of birds broke gray against the pink morning sky, and the birds were calling to him. When he closed his eyes, he could isolate and picture each bird: the speckled trilling wood thrushes, the hollering bobwhite quail, the hammering of the red-breasted nuthatches.
He sang, and didn’t quit singing. He lifted his body to the air.
Shaun Turner‘s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been published in Bayou Magazine, storySouth, and Fourth River, among others. He serves as Fiction Editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection and co-editor at Fire Poetry Journal, has been named finalist in Best Small Fictions 2018, and recieved an Emerging Artist Award from the Kentucky Arts Council. Shaun teaches in Kentucky.