The Raven’s Locket
“To everything, there is a season,
A time to be born and a time to die…”
~ Ecclesiastes 3-1-8
Have you ever been in the woods and witnessed a tree spontaneously fall?
Unmolested trees in a healthy forest generally live far beyond the lifespan of a human being. Seeing one fall naturally and unexpectedly could be considered a blessing direct from nature. Humans are rarely there at the precise moment when gravity pulls a tree back to the earth from which it sprang.
But, when you are in the right place at the right time, it can make for an unforgettable sight and sound experience.
Conversely, witnessing a beloved tree fall can be a heartbreaking experience.
October 19, 2014, Droop Mountain, West Virginia.
Without a full moon, Myrna Malloy would not have seen her beloved old oak tree fall to the ground after providing nearly 300 years of shade and beauty. Myrna only saw and heard the effect, not the hidden causes.
Had she seen the series of events that caused her beloved tree to fall prematurely, it would have appeared as a Rube Goldberg chain reaction.
Myrna saw Barney Higgins the previous week digging ginseng on the ridge above her house on the flanks of Droop Mountain.
She knew Barney supplemented his meager income with ramps, sang and cohosh. Barney rarely speaks to anyone and lives quietly in a ramshackle farmhouse a mile or so back in the woods off Lobelia Road.
Being socially “off the grid” is not an unusual living arrangement here in these rugged mountains and hollows. They are a siren song to the fiercely independent residents that gravitate here. There are as many reasons for being a hermit as there are people; these hills are perfect for misanthropes, loners, ascetics, and even the occasional fugitive.
Barney lives with the pain of knowing he had imbibed too much at his sister-in-law’s wedding several decades ago. Driving back from Charleston that evening with his young wife and infant son, he hit a patch of black ice on Route 60 near Hico and slid into a stone retaining wall.
Barney regretted that he was the only one to survive the crash. He would have preferred that the grim reaper had taken him instead. Pain and guilt drove him away from the things that could have helped him – his friends and family.
Like most of his neighbors on Droop Mountain, Myrna has never heard more than a few words from Barney. He has resigned himself to a lifetime of pain and regret and has closed the door on the outside world.
On the other hand, 61-year-old Myrna, a tall, auburn-haired, and green-eyed woman of Irish descent, was not a recluse by choice – it was imposed on her.
Still, Barney unwittingly played a role in the demise of Myrna’s great oak. However insignificant at the time, it was an act that would set Myrna on a path to redemption and happiness.
Myrna would never know all the disparate causes that collided and conspired to bring her a key to fulfillment and love. If she had, she would have smiled and said, “Well, if God can take away something that you’ve never expected losing, he can replace it with something you never expected having.”
Myrna was an early riser, a habit maintained since getting up each morning to cook her late husband a full breakfast of bacon and eggs with a side of home fries and biscuits drowning in gravy.
She never got the amount of cream and sugar in Stan’s coffee to his liking. And he always let her know that in the most demeaning way so as to start the day with a bit of his unpleasantness. Myrna took it in stride after losing any affection for the man who controlled her life like a movie director on a film set.
Myrna no longer needed to rise so early because Stan Andersen had died the previous year. Now, getting up before sunrise was hardwired in her brain.
Myrna had yet to shed a single tear over her husband’s sudden departure to wherever men like him go when they die. Rather than death leaving grief in its wake, Stan’s death from a massive heart attack left a vacuum that only anger and loneliness filled.
Myrna’s resentment was not that he had left her last year as an aging widow but that he didn’t depart her life sooner. Excuse the outdated word, but Stan “forbade” her from engaging in any relationships outside the home, including attending church. To say that Stan was a controlling husband and father would be a vast understatement – it was “his way or the highway.”
Yet, in the first light of dawn, while sipping her coffee and looking out the kitchen window, she watched and heard one of the few things she was permitted to love fall to the ground with a deafening thud that shook the windows and dishes.
One growing physics theory suggests that everything that has or will happen in our universe has already happened. Moreover, everything happened at once. If accurate, we live in a fine sliver of universal time.
We, and all things, living or not, are time-stamped for a singular moment of expiration. There will be a specific time right down to the second, or a portion thereof, when we exhale our final breath.
The forces of erosion and tectonics will eventually grind Mt. Everest down to sand, and every tree in the forest will finally give way to gravity’s incessant pull.
Even our earth has a finite lifespan. Our beautiful blue planet will eventually be engulfed by the super-heated expansion of our sun when it enters its Red Giant phase. The oceans will boil away, and all life will perish.
But don’t lose any sleep worrying about something billions of years in the future. Humankind (a strange combination of words, a sort of oxymoron) will probably beat the sun to our extinction.
The previous afternoon, Cristina Mace, an athletic young woman, a yoga and snowboarding instructor at Snowshoe Resort, ran the ridge trail above Myrna’s home as part of a 10-mile loop.
She stopped momentarily to get a water bottle from her day pack. Unknown to Cristina, her PB&J sandwich fell out of the pack, sliding down the steep hill and coming to rest on a sizeable platter-shaped rock.
This was the very rock that Barney Higgins had undercut with his hand trowel to get at some older ginseng plants residing under the downhill portion of the stone. The rock was left a bit unstable from Barney’s excavation.
Stan controlled every aspect of Myrna’s life. She had no friends, family, music, dancing, and minimal conversation beyond Stan voicing bitter lamentations about his failures in making the farm profitable. Of course, Myrna was always blamed for Stan’s own shortcomings.
He tried to control their daughter, Maggie, but she, like her mother, was brilliant and saw right through this perpetually angry tyrant. Unlike her mother, Maggie left home the day after high school graduation and never looked back.
Myrna ached to see her daughter but understood that Maggie would not tolerate an empty life like her mother.
Because Stan did not approve of cell phones or computers, Maggie secretly sent her mother letters to a post office box. Maggie seemed happy living with her mother’s family in Belfast, Ireland, although she missed her mother terribly.
In keeping with his bastardly ways, Stan forbid Maggie from returning home to visit her mother. Likewise, Myrna was forbidden from visiting Ireland.
Myrna’s great oak gives up its secret
Shortly after pouring her coffee– black, no sugar or cream – the silence of the early morning was broken by a rapid series of loud crashes, booms and bangs.
A few minutes before, a hungry black bear smelled Cristina’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She half-lumbered and partially slid down the steep hillside to the sweet treat sitting squarely on Barney’s ginseng rock.
It slid away, upon stepping onto the rock, but not before the bear snatched the goopy sandwich and headed back up the slope to dine on firmer ground. Meanwhile, a cacophony of crashes ensued all the way down to Myrna’s house, but it was of no concern to the bear, not with the viscous PB&J dripping from her mouth.
The several-ton rock picked up speed, and because it was disc-shaped, it tended to skip like a flat rock across the water’s surface.
Directly in its path and further down the hill was a large hemlock that the invasive insect, woolly adelgid, had completely desiccated over the previous five years. It now had less structural integrity than a thin strip of balsa wood.
The airborne rock collided with the hemlock several yards up its trunk, snapping it off like a toothpick. The massive trunk slid down the steep slope and upended one of Stan’s failed business ventures – an old rusting well drilling rig parked several yards above the house on a level spot.
Unknown to Myrna, the seemingly healthy oak tree was weakened on one side by the 90 mph winds of the June 2012 Derecho. The force against the full-canopied tree lifted the windward side of the tree, causing its root system to break its hold on the soil.
The 15-ton rig careened down the remaining 60 feet of slope, hitting the old oak squarely on the trunk. The tree teetered momentarily and started over slowly, picking up speed before slamming into the ground.
The upended roots flung potato-sized rocks through the air, taking out several windows on the house’s first floor and one on the second floor.
And then, all became quiet again.
Ignoring the damage to her house, Myrna slowly picked up the hard-wired phone, a luxury Stan always said should be used only for emergencies, and called Ben Keezley, an arborist
Myrna was truly grieving; she loved that stalwart and bountiful tree. It was so inviting on a hot day when shade is scarce. No more would its acorns feed the squirrels and turkeys; never again would Myrna sit under her tree reading; her only indulgence was now gone.
An hour later, Ben set about bucking the old oak into logs. Shortly into his work, he knocked on Myrna’s door. He noticed the tears streaming down her face when she opened the door.
“Mrs. Andersen, there’s something out here I think you need to see,” said Ben. She nearly corrected Ben that her maiden name was Malloy, but curiosity caused her to answer instead, “What is it?”
“Ma’am, I think you need to see it for yourself,” he said, and Myrna slipped on her Wellington boots and followed Ben out to the giant tree.
Ben went straight to the top of the tree and pointed to the deep crotch in the crown. “What is all that stuff in there?” asked Myrna.
“It is an old raven’s nest; see the foil from birthday balloons and Christmas tinsel among the sticks and moss?” said Ben, adding, “It could be hundreds of years old; no telling what’s in there.”
Ben left the portion of the tree with the nest for Myrna to explore later, and after loading the logs onto a flatbed, he departed.
Myrna stood at the window staring at where the old oak had stood only hours before. Her future seemed so bleak at that moment, as if it had been stripped of the last remnant of hope.
But then, Myrna’s intense curiosity kicked in.
After putting on her gardening gloves, Myrna went straight to the raven’s nest and carefully dismantled it stick by stick, pull-tab by pull-tab. She had a foot-tall pile of debris on the ground when her fingers uncovered something shiny and gold.
Using her shirt tail to clean the object, Myrna sensed that the exquisite piece of jewelry in the palm of her right hand signaled the start of a new life.
And, damned if it didn’t.
To be continued in next week’s edition of The Pocahontas Times.
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