by Fred First
Goose Creek Press (2006)
It’s the day after Christmas, a grey day, cold and growing colder. Last week I finally gave in to the stomach bug my students had been telling me about with horror all month: “Oh, my God, teacher, I been so sick!” I fought it for two horrific days, passed out in my doctor office, found myself in the tiny local hospital with Christmas cheer IV-ing into me. Meanwhile, Mama had some long-scheduled surgery. She and I came home the same day and I, the less feeble of us two, did all the cooking for the rest of the week. Today Mama is bruised but hearty, my daughter and son-in-law have come and gone, the dogs are asleep. I am almost alone in a warm, still house with Fred First’s Slow Road Home unfolding page after page as the afternoon quietly passes by. Fred doesn’t know what a Christmas gift he has given me—the gift of a place which is not my place. I love my forty acres beyond telling, but home can sometimes be too much with us, like a beloved but demanding three-year-old. Some times what you need is to borrow someone else’s place for spell, until you can come back with joy to your won.
This borrowed place must be beguiling, appealing, seductive, and First’s Virginia highlands home is all that. It is beguiling because it is so well loved. We humans are always drawn to what is desired by others. It is appealing because his acreage combines the raw beauty of mountain land with the physical demands of caring for such land. We humans have a weakness for rugged individuals, difficult as they may be to live with. And it is beguiling due to First’s lush way with words. Listen to how he presents us with the dual circumstance of performing a necessary task (chopping wood), with the loneliness he was seeking to assuage through hard work:
“Dressed as if I were about to walk on the surface of the moon, I ventured out into a hostile world and found busy work making kindling on the lee side of the cabin. There under the back deck, I sheltered from the abrasive full blast of the wind. Still, the eddies of frigid wind licked over the roof and spilled like a cold liquid into my gloves and down my neck under the old plaid scarf. But the heft of the hand axe and sharp resolve of a clean split gave me purpose. The busier my hands became, the less my mind settled into miseries. I fell into the motions, felt my pulse pick up and my muscles warm.
Then out of that vast moving sea of cold that spread south from the tundra, one malicious tendril of air licked down and found the scarf. It lifted up the smell of the cedar from my closet back home—what used to be home. That scent filled my memory like a thing alive.”
On this bitter winter day, after a hard time, Slow Road Home has today entered my flagging spirits like a thing alive. Now I offer it to you.