Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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"Under the Blossom that Hangs on the Bough"

by Stephen M. Davis




That was the year everyone was off hunting the panther. Whether the panther was real or imagined was never firmly established, but in that summer of nineteen-hundred and eleven, men--even some intrepid women--could be found up and down Jackson County.

The timid searched for their panther more domestically. On the outskirts of town, perhaps, where farmers could still be seen well into the evening hours on a summer day. Or looked for in McGunty’s bar. Or under a pool table in the old schoolhouse, which no longer had a name attached since the Coloreds had brought in the pool tables and the still that everyone knew smoked in a backroom, but which was tolerated because it dispensed a clear, smooth liquor that was only temporarily blinding.

The adventurous, though, trekked farther afield. Young boys, who had no fear because they were still too young to know the difference between a panther in theory and one in practice, went often as far as the Highlands river, and the bolder of them would even swim across on a dare, raising their arms on the other bank triumphantly, whilst mindful not to celebrate too loudly lest the panther be somewhere close by waiting.

Older, more experienced hunters and trappers mostly went nowhere at all, because experience in large part consists of knowing when it is worth putting on one’s shoes, and the truth was that no one had seen the panther, other than by second-hand, except Ms. Emilia Martel. Her account was not wholly believed, as she was known to the community as a well-meaning member of the Altar Guild who faithfully reported her Saturday evening ravishment at the hands of Moses Greely to the sheriff every Monday morning. Moses had been the colored help in the livery, until he had left this Earth some ten years before, so the sheriff thought he was doing well for himself, all things considered.

Some there were, though, who were no longer children, yet inexperienced, whether through retardation or gullibility, or who had that deep cynicism some men develop as a result of having encountered irony so often in so many forms as to cause them always to bet on the most outside chance in any gamble.

One from this last group was Octavius Barron Browne, a man well remembered by the residents of Calhoun as the fellow who nearly--by all rights should have--died after drinking, on a bet, an unlabeled brown-bottle solution, on the off-chance that it did not contain arsenic, and whose last statement before slipping into a long coma had been, “This changes nothing.”

Barron, who had reconfigured the last man foolish enough to call him Octavius, had purchased from a mail-order outfit an outdoor rig worthy of a hobo down on his luck. He then proceeded to wander farther up into the Piedmont than most men were willing to go. Hunters and trappers generally won’t go places where those pursuits aren’t profitable, and of the hearty adventurers who are driven by their natures to go to forlorn and freakish places, either none had been called to the High Air, or none had returned to write a best-selling adventure book about it.

Barron knew these things, but he was not a fool, only a skeptic sadly lacking in the qualities of mystery or romanticism.

He crossed Highland River. He paralleled Seneca Creek as it rose up towards the mountains from which it originated. He walked across Issaqueena where the Cherokee had a thriving village with lawyers, a library, and an apple orchard, until our county’s namesake gathered them all up and moved them to Oklahoma.

Remnants of the orchard still remain, though now the apples are small and bitter. There is a tale that the princess Issaqueena still waits for her English lover at the waterfall nearby, and that Cherokee braves as gray as wood-ash will haunt the dreams of any white man foolish enough to sleep near the old orchard.

Barron slept peacefully in the orchard, though, and was troubled neither by princesses nor Cherokee hunters. He packed his gear, kicked out his fire, spilling the remains of the coffee on the ashes, and began his ascent into the tail of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Blue Ridge now has a road being blasted through it, but in those days there were no roads there, for nothing was there that needed roads.

Above Walhalla, above Tammassee he went. He walked above the demarcation line separating farmers trying to get tobacco to come out of poor acreage, from farmers with nothing to farm, and whose subsistence came in ways only whispered about.

Finally, he reached the High Air, where even the Cherokee didn’t go. They claimed the gods kept their homes there. The white farmers who’d settled close by claimed it was because things walked up there that couldn’t be hunted, trapped, or fished. They prayed frantically in their little white-steepled churches and whatever walked the High Air left them to themselves.

Barron thought it sounded like a place a panther might go.

Thirteenth of June, nineteen-hundred and eleven, Barron walked across a wasted heath that had formed in one of the innumerable hidden valleys that fitted themselves between the hips and shoulders of the surrounding hills.

Nothing productive would grow here. Blueberries grew wild, but only because they grew wild. Barron had seen no sign of human habitation in the last two days, except for a weather-eaten cabin on the edge of the mountain he’d been coming down. A barn owl had watched him from the broken corner of the cabin. There was a small, stone altar in a clump of trees below the dwelling, with dried mountain flowers still upon it. Like many things that are true in spirit, it held a measure of wonder and terror in it. There was a difference, he thought, between laying his money on an outside chance, and throwing his money down a well with a bottom no light could find. The altar, to him, seemed a bottomless well, and he hurried on his way.

So Tuesday had come and mostly gone. Barron knew it could be treacherous walking in mountains when the sun fell far enough in the sky. What was still light on one part of a deer trail could be pitch black around a corner, or down an imperceptible bit of slope.

As mountain weather is wont to do, the skies grayed and Barron was walking in a cool mist with tiny droplets collecting on his jacket. Even in summer, it could be uncomfortable walking in mist at high altitude. He looked for shelter and found a rocky nook in the side of the mountain. It was not particularly deep, but it would do. He saw no scat nor other sign that suggested any other animal was fond of sleeping there, so he built a small fire at the entrance to his shelter, and ate his evening meal.

He smoked for a time while he lay out of the rain on his bed roll. He lay under a table of rocks that came together like a roof. The outside rock face was layered with moss, and had an air of stability about it that had suggested to Barron it was unlikely to collapse on him while he slept.

The smoke from his fire rode the contours of the facing, through the cracks, under the moss, and lifted off the brow of the rocks above. The fire was built from the wood he’d gathered nearby, mostly cherry, and had a sweet aroma. The fire was modest and he’d banked it so as to moderate its hunger.

As he slept beneath his blanket, he heard the chimes of his childhood--the chimes from before he’d become a skeptic, when he’d believed all things were possible, that all injustices would be righted, and that if he prayed hard enough, the God he prayed to would cure the woman who perpetually coughed in the room next door.

He hadn’t heard those chimes since the day after his mother’s funeral, when his father had taken them down and beaten them with a hammer until there was nothing left of them but metal shards and bits of cord.

“Barron,” he heard in his sleep, and thought that his mother was calling him. His eyes opened and he smiled, because he now realized the chimes he had heard in his dream were really just a translation of the sound that droplets of water were making as they fell from the shelter’s overhang and hit the smooth, thin stones below them.

“Barron,” the voice called again, muffled but distinct to where he knew he was not mistaken.

He could not rise. He felt certain his eyes were open, but it was the early hours of the morning on a rainy day, and there was nothing to see. His fire was dying and cast no shadows on the wall behind him.

“Barron,” the voice called a third time. “Why are you in my temple?”

He might well have been frightened if it weren’t that the words were so clear, if distant, that he thought the speaker must be just outside the shelter, where she could not be seen. He was not quite awake enough to consider how she knew his name. His mouth did not work, but his thoughts were clear.

“This isn’t a temple,” he thought. “It’s just a bit of shelter for the night.”

There was a low, soft laugh, and Barron thought it was coming from behind what he knew was a solid back wall with nothing but mountain on the other side.

“Don’t be afraid. I find my pleasure in falling rain and hidden pools in mountains, and in springs, and make my house accordingly.”

“What do you want of me?” he asked, having once again become master of his tongue.

“What do you seek?” the voice asked.

Barron thought hard on that. To start over. To be left here in peace, to listen forever to the sound of the water on the brow of this shelter, and to taste its sweetness as it runs behind the moss where the smoke is. For his mother to live, and for his father not to have died with her.

But a kind of silence and aloneness came over him at those thoughts.

Finally, he closed his eyes again and said, “To see the panther.”

“Then come,” the voice said, “come look.”

And Barron rose from his bed and walked to the shelter’s entrance. He put a hand on the edge of the rock roof as he leaned out. The rock was worn smooth. The palm of his hand fit the rock as though many men had steadied themselves just so as they leaned out here in the dark.

It was obvious to him now, under the light of a horned moon, in the dying embers of a fire, that this was a grove, and that the goddess still remained.

In the light he saw the outline of a great cat, its form breaking, reforming, breaking and reforming as it passed in front of and behind the trees in the grove. Moonlight caught the panther for a moment and two green jewels reflected its light at him and into him. He saw the panther as an incarnation of the goddess, and he sensed that the panther saw him as an incarnation of the goddess, and that, for a brief moment, the world was as the world had been on the first day.

Then his panther was gone.


* * *

Barron returned to Calhoun, not the same as the Barron who’d left. He no longer concerned himself with the world’s continuing attempts not to live up to expectations. It had exceeded expectations the one time.

He was occasionally asked by those who’d only ever heard half the story if he’d seen the panther.

“I saw my panther,” he’d say, and that was all anyone ever got out of him.


THE END


2017 Stephen M. Davis

Bio: Mr. Stephen M. Davis is an English professor and book reviewer who is trying to make the switch to fiction. Aphelion previously published "His New Unknown" in our April 2017 edition.

E-mail: Stephen M. Davis

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