Lydia Copeland Gwyn ~ Four Stories


Gray Cats

Juniper bush­es out­side a green house. Matchbox cars in the sand, the trace of their tracks lead­ing away from me. These are the first things I remem­ber. The dog’s neck, the swell of ticks under her collar–their white bal­loon bod­ies. I wait on the play­ground swing for Grand to pull up in old Hildy, the brown Town Car that made it all the way from Oak Ridge and would make it back again lat­er that night. At the gro­cery store down the street there’s can­dy at the check­out counter. A gold roll of cin­na­mon Certs pressed into my hand.

Another day, I ride in moth­er’s car behind a pick-up truck, which car­ries my uncles and our fur­ni­ture up a grav­el road and carves a gray dust cloud in the air. We’re mov­ing into a new house. It’s a fresh­ly paint­ed porch like the gloss of a robin’s throat. Plastic cov­ers the win­dows, and there are ros­es in the wall­pa­per. The smell of a wood stove.

Gray cats. Tiger cats. Beagle pups. One night I watch the owls in the evening sky, ghost-qui­et through the trees, while my aunt and moth­er talk in code and spell words on the front porch. My aunt and moth­er wear ear­rings that dust their shoul­ders. They roll joints on top of their col­lege text­books and pass the joints back and forth with eye­brow tweez­ers. On the book­shelf in my room, my fake cur­sive dec­o­rates the inside of a nature ency­clo­pe­dia, its white cov­er col­ored over in red cray­on. There’s a record play­er on the bro­ken clothes dry­er that plays The Moody Blues and Cats and Jim Croce. There’s my broth­er in dia­pers. My broth­er cry­ing on the floor and my father danc­ing with him until the cry­ing stops. A missed belt loop in a pair of jeans. The free green Bible I car­ried from church and used like a note­book for my lists. There are traps and skins on the back porch. The lit­tle bot­tle of musk father uses to paint the hinges of the traps. A door in the ground for the cel­lar. The stain of black wal­nuts on my hands. The wet lay­er in a pile of leaves.

The next year my broth­er has eye surgery. His scle­ras fill with blood when he wakes and we place ice chips in his mouth to dis­tract. The day before my broth­er and I were home and pre­tend­ing to go back in time. Back to the land our house sat on, back before there ever was a house, when the trees were saplings and there were no fields. There are music videos on the hos­pi­tal TV, which is mut­ed. I watch from a chair at the end of the bed and try to read the singers’ lips. After din­ner in the cafe­te­ria, there’s the dri­ve home from the hos­pi­tal, the hem­locks along the inter­state, a white kit­ten in the road.

At home the creek in the woods has its own lan­guage, a lan­guage of black snails and sun­fish and the fuzz of algae. My hand­ful of quartz smudged with red clay. My hand in the stream feel­ing for the curl of a cray­fish tail. My broth­er catch­ing min­nows in a net and wad­ing deep­er than he’s allowed. The brown mud of the water, soft as a pelt. Summer days, I watch the moun­tains for oth­er codes, the kind my moth­er and aunt know noth­ing about. The rise of a hot air bal­loon over the ridge, the loss of a green kite some­where in the trees of those moun­tains. A piece of it sways there still, the same way I swayed when I stood with my broth­er under the pin oak and wished for a time machine.


The wind is in the trees again and my broth­er turns in the field past the barn. Spinning cir­cles with his fin­gers fold­ed into baby fists.

In the front pock­et of his jeans is the body of a dead ring snake we found behind the house, limp as a thin rib­bon. He wears a red plaid shirt like our Dad’s, the same shirt he wore to Sears when we had our fam­i­ly por­trait made. My smile in that pho­to showed a raw, pink space where my front tooth used to be, the hole still fresh with blood and the sour taste of metal.

On the dri­ve back home we told rid­dles, and I got my broth­er good when I said, “I have two coins that equal 30 cents, and one of them is not a nick­el.” He began guess­ing with three coins and then two coins that totaled 35 cents, and when he was about to give up, a motor­cy­cle sped around us and cut into our lane, and then we saw the motor­cy­cle slide off the road and down into the gap.

The gap was made mil­lions of years ago when a mete­or hit this part of the world. It marked the space of some­thing miss­ing from the moun­tain like the vel­vet sock­et of a horse born with­out an eye. Our town was named after the gap, the edge of which was rimmed by hik­ing trails, and nar­row roads with alu­minum guard rails. Dad saw noth­ing when we stopped the car, not a tail light, not a spin­ning tire. The sun had already set and a storm was mov­ing in. I could see cliff swal­lows in the dark clouds fly­ing back to their nests in the cave walls.

But now it is a dif­fer­ent day and my turns in the field and the wind lifts the brown bangs from his fore­head. Today we’re play­ing the game where we wind back into time with the gyre of our bod­ies and the old house becomes a new house. The barn roof is red again and our par­ents aren’t alive yet. In the dust of the barn floor, he uses a chick­en bone to write an X with two invert­ed V‑s, a mes­sage for our future selves. It’s writ­ten with the fin­gers of God he says, so noth­ing can erase it.

Now he’s in the barn, fol­low­ing my lead, run­ning where I run, hid­ing where I hide, mouthing my same words. It is fall and our faces flush, our hair is damp with sweat and our skin cool and for­eign, like some­one else’s.

Plastic Over Wood

Our father’s mus­tache was wet with Coca-Cola, and we each had a bot­tle of our own on the table in front of us, the glass frosty from the freez­er, and the coke swim­ming with clumps of ice slush. I had a minia­ture can­dy bar in my pock­et that I kept show­ing off to my brother.

Behind our father, ros­es the size of a baby’s head bloomed in the wall paper. They were ros­es from anoth­er time, a time of yel­low fever and moun­tain lone­li­ness. I won­dered if hawks cir­cled the place, loop­ing over the open fields look­ing for the cat’s kit­tens or the giant rats which ate their own nests of pink and blind young. Our father had told us that some ani­mals turned to can­ni­bal­ism when there were too many of them in one place.

The din­ing room table felt like plas­tic over wood, and my hands were usu­al­ly under it at din­ner time smear­ing mashed pota­toes and chick­en grease. The high-backed chairs with their vinyl seats sighed when we sat down on them. My brother’s had a rip in the cush­ion where white poly­ester fibers poked out, and he’d bounce up and down on it to make it fart. Our moth­er mixed ham­burg­er with taco sea­son­ing. The yel­low Tupperware colan­der sat on the counter next to her cut­ting board full of shred­ded ice­berg let­tuce. There was the smell of green pep­pers, a toma­to sliced open.

Out the win­dow two white cows wait­ed in our dri­ve­way, hav­ing appeared that morn­ing from some neigh­bor’s farm over the moun­tain. We were afraid to walk across the grav­el and pull open the car doors. Afraid of their enor­mous size–taller than our car, their jaws con­stant­ly chew­ing. What was the bite force of a cow, I won­dered. Would it be sharp and tear­ing like in my ani­mal dreams when rac­coons bit my hands in the for­est? Or would they step out of our way, make an arc around our car as we approached?

It Was There All Day Until It Wasn’t

Today I heard how a man slipped from the rim of a vol­cano in Japan. How he’d received fund­ing to hike that coun­try and write about its land­scape. There were no return tracks in the mud next to his boot prints, and searchers found that his trail led almost to the inside of the vol­cano but noth­ing led out. You heard the same sto­ry only you heard it dif­fer­ent­ly because in your ver­sion the man jumped to his death. I heard how a Greenland shark can live to be 500 years old–according to the car­bon of its eye lenses–and how the soft curve of its body grows one cen­time­ter each year. It’s a slow, cold life in a part of the ocean we can’t be.

I heard of a man who was found dead in his liv­ing room, posi­tioned supine in his easy chair next to a win­dow. There were gem­stones embed­ded under his skin. Rose quartz in his chest. A lump of cit­rine in each of round calf. The man had a cab­i­net full of vit­a­mins and herbal sup­ple­ments, an amethyst crys­tal hang­ing from his car mir­ror. That’s what he gets, you said, for try­ing to cheat death.

Today your red hat is lost in the snow. It’s a red we could see from the win­dow if we looked. A red pos­si­bly plowed into a pile in the neigh­bor’s yard. All signs point to yes­ter­day when we drove home from the hos­pi­tal in Knoxville in your old truck with the slip­ping trans­mis­sion. The last time you wore the red hat, a day of inter­states and dri­ve-thru food. Half-alive poplar trees lin­ing the road. The car heater blow­ing my eyes dry. The ban­dage on my throat and the let­ter X where a some­thing like a grape used to be. Outside I watched a white-faced cow walk­ing through its field, rib­bons of snow melt­ing under its feet. Your hat was there on your head when we pulled in the driveway.


Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s sto­ries and poems have appeared in Elm Leaves Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, and oth­ers. Her work has been nom­i­nat­ed for a Pushcart Prize, and her flash fic­tion chap­book won sec­ond place in the 2014 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook con­test. She lives in East Tennessee with her hus­band, son, and daugh­ter and works at the Sherrod Library at East Tennessee State University.