Lydia Copeland Gwyn

Burning Mountains

There was a space sta­tion on the news that sum­mer and some men­tion of the moons of Jupiter and the aster­oid belt. My grand­fa­ther yelled at the TV when­ev­er it switched to pol­i­tics and round table dis­cus­sions. I’d been stay­ing at his house for a while with my three aunts, lis­ten­ing to their talk of bitchy bank tellers, bad dri­vers, and awful co-work­ers. I was ten and tall and shy. I could be so qui­et that my aunts would some­times for­get I was in the room, and they’d start talk­ing about boyfriends and sex positions.

My moth­er slept at my grandfather’s house on the week­ends, when one of the aunts would take her spot in the hos­pi­tal bed next to my younger brother’s. On Saturdays and Sundays moth­er would take me with her to see Lucian. Even though my grandfather’s house was much clos­er than my mother’s, the children’s hos­pi­tal was still a thir­ty minute dri­ve into Knoxville, with inter­state cows and silos most of the way, and we had to dri­ve past the burn­ing moun­tains, which had been smol­der­ing for weeks from a con­trolled burn that had got­ten out of hand. Smoke cov­ered that sec­tion of the inter­state like a thick fog bank, and a few times I thought I could feel the heat from the fire through the windows.

Lucian had been in the hos­pi­tal since before spring. His doc­tors kept say­ing they were close to fig­ur­ing out what was going on with him, but every day there was still no news. They’d sus­pect­ed and dis­missed Leukemia and about five oth­er dis­eases. No one had believed my moth­er when she said he was sick. She’d spent the last month try­ing to con­tact my father, but no one knew where he was. His par­ents were dead and his broth­ers were scat­tered across the coun­try. His only kin left around our parts said they hadn’t seen him since the day he mar­ried my mother.

When I’d vis­it I’d bring bal­loons from the lob­by and sit on the bed next to Lucian’s, where my moth­er slept. On the bed, she kept a pile of books and a pack of play­ing cards held togeth­er with hair elas­tic. I’d play Lucian’s video games, draw in his sketch book, exam­ine all the presents he’d received, which were always lined up on a table next to the TV. He was three years younger than me and small for his age, but he looked younger and small­er in the big bed with his loose Mickey Mouse hos­pi­tal gown, which kept slid­ing off his left shoul­der. I would hold his hand with the IV, while he prac­ticed his read­ing. Sometimes there were dogs to pet.

One aunt owned a con­sign­ment shop, and most week­days I’d go to work with her and watch her clip tags on dress­es and orga­nize pieces of paper. I’d sit behind the counter with a bowl of corn­flakes and my embroi­dery hoop. Mother had taught me the arrow­head and bon­net stitch­es before she left, and my aunts had all sur­prised me with a stash of metal­lic and silk threads. My aunt would look up from the sales floor and say, “Since you’re here, I might as well put you to work.” And then she’d send me out to change large bills for small­er ones at the cus­tomer ser­vice desk of the gro­cery store down the street.

I liked dri­ving around town with my aunts, watch­ing run­ners on the side­walk, look­ing into restau­rant win­dows and people’s homes, try­ing to see right into the wall­pa­per pat­terns and the paint­ings in their liv­ing rooms, but that sum­mer I most­ly watched the burn­ing moun­tains. Beneath the smoke every­thing was black and orange, the col­or of lava. The whole moun­tain was a crack­ling ember. That sum­mer our town had the aro­ma of win­ter, with its chim­neys and back­yard brush fires.

For din­ner we’d slice up veg­eta­bles from the gar­den, and one aunt would make a new casse­role from Betty Crocker’s One-Pot Dinner’s near­ly every night. Everyone would be hum­ming dif­fer­ent songs to them­selves. And then we’d all sit around a big table, and I’d look at my aunts and wish I had more of their genes. They were small ladies, with del­i­cate bones and all had blonde fluffy hair. They had match­ing gold rings and drove sports cars and wore strap­py leather san­dals. They looked like their moth­er who had died when I was five, and who vis­it­ed them on the porch­es and in the laun­dry rooms of their dreams.

My grandmother’s ros­es still bloomed in the yard and around the front and back porch­es, and there were still heir­loom hydrangeas and sweet peas grow­ing. No one want­ed me to pick any­thing, but I’d sneak a peony or two into my room and keep them under my bed in some water in a paper cup. I’d pull them out at night and smell them before falling asleep. They smelled like the house did when grand­moth­er was alive and a lit­tle like Lucian’s hos­pi­tal room. Grandmother’s wed­ding pic­ture hung on my wall. She had those same flow­ers in her hands and a strange smile that made me wor­ry when I looked at her.

All sum­mer I dug things up out of the yard. I had shoe box­es full of bulbs and root pieces, cica­da shells, riv­er rocks from the flower beds. In their places, under rocks and in the ditch­es, I’d leave scraps of cot­ton with mes­sages I’d embroi­dered. On one it read, ‘Tis the sea­son to be jol­ly. I thought of Lucian and how he’d explode his cars and army men with the fire­crack­ers moth­er kept hid­den on top of the refrig­er­a­tor, and how he’d bur­ry their bro­ken bits in the field behind our house.

One week­end at the hos­pi­tal, I sneaked in one of the daf­fodil bulbs I’d dug up. I’d trimmed its long, green leaves down and placed it in one of grandfather’s can­dy tins. My aunts were always going on and on about those daf­fodils, how you couldn’t find that kind any­more even in the seed cat­a­logs, how grand­moth­er had got­ten them from her moth­er. When they bloomed they had lay­ers of pale but­tery petals and a whorl of dark yel­low in the cen­ter. When moth­er stepped into the hall to speak with a doc­tor, I gave the tin to Lucian.

Don’t let any­one find it,” I said.
He opened the tin and took out the bulb. In the light from his win­dow its papery skin glowed like amber.
“What is it?” he said. “An onion? A cacoon?”
“A daf­fodil. A rare one they don’t make anymore.”
“I can keep it?” he said.
I nodded.

We could hear mother’s foot­steps com­ing, her con­ver­sa­tion dying down. Lucian smiled and put the bulb back in the tin and under his pil­low. I knew moth­er would find out. Lucian was ter­ri­ble at keep­ing secrets.

On the week­ends, when moth­er spent the night, she’d sleep in my bed and talk to me until I fell asleep. I didn’t care what she talked about. “I just want to hear words,” I told her. I could nev­er sleep straight through to morn­ing, and many nights I’d stay awake from four o’clock on, when I’d wrap in a blan­ket sit at the kitchen table.

One night I walked out­side, bare­foot on the wet grass. I smelled the burn­ing for­est and watched the moun­tains glow­ing behind the hous­es. I won­dered if Lucian could see the smoke from his hos­pi­tal room, but I knew he couldn’t. The build­ings of down­town obstruct­ed any dis­tant views. Next time I saw him, I thought, I’d draw him a pic­ture of the moun­tains and explain the lay­er of smoke, the smell, what smol­der­ing was. I walked to the edge of the dri­ve­way and stared into the flick­er­ing orange.


Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s sto­ries and poems have appeared or are forth­com­ing in the Florida Review, Appalachian Heritage, Elm Leaves Journal, Glimmer Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, and oth­ers. She lives with her hus­band and two chil­dren in East Tennessee where she teach­es English and works in a pub­lic library.