My father built our home in the fog of the Sierra Nevada Sequoias. He had told me that when he was a child some nights you could see a beautiful chorus of spirits settle over the forest and feel the winds upwelling and chilling your bones. My mother, who was from Georgia, met Dad during a vacation in California and adapted the mysteries of her southern superstitious upbringing to the western forests.
The nebulous atmosphere of the Redwoods lent itself to her mindset, not the hoodoo of the deeper South and the bayous, but of Appalachia. She twisted old tales into new ones. If one heard the rare marbled murrelet after dark, it was a portent of death. She always buried her hair after cutting it, lest birds grasped it in their talons, giving her headaches for weeks. If someone died in the house, the clock must be stopped in that room. She wouldn’t buy wind chimes, because they called the dead to awaken from their gravely slumber.
When I was born right at midnight, my mama said I’d be able to see and talk with ghosts. It was an old legend, and it never came true in my case. She was convinced though, because as a young child I often stared into the distance, dreaming or thinking, but she thought I was looking at ghosts. I also began to draw and paint at a young age, and my subjects were abstract, for the transition of our world from fog to sunlight was confusing to me. I would paint the sky, the treelines, and all would appear fluid and wild. Mother said there were spirits in my paintings.
Dad studied the reduction of the frequency of the fog and climate change in the great trees. He was often out in the forests wearing his ranger suit, documenting in notebooks, and had an air of sound mind and logic—while Mom drifted about the spacious lodge dressed in bangles, feathers, shawls, flowery skirts, braids, and scarves. If my father was a rock, she was the wind.
She started a little café at our homestead on the outskirts of Silver City. She would cook only two types of food: Appalachian and Yokuts. Her specialty was shucky beans, and once people learned what it was, they’d come from miles around—and all the tourists who had tried the beans came back year after year if they didn’t live near enough to come by every day.
We had rangers and ranchers and loggers stop by every afternoon for their fix of cornbread and shucky beans. The beans you had to dry out. I remember the way Mom strung them up in a sunny window for days at a time. Then she would cook them with salt pork. Into her cornbread she added crunchy bits from her famous fried chicken to make “cracklin’ bread.”
She became obsessed with local native Yokuts food, too, thanks to a local woman named Maggie Morgan who was in her 80s and passed all this stuff down to Mama, who learned how to make acorn bread. To make the bread you had to pound acorns into flour and then put a little water into that mix to absorb the tannic acid. Once this flour dried, it made a crust, which you could mix with water again to make into dough.
At night we would have visitors hovering around our big lodge’s front porch, drinking and eating various traditional foods. Those nights I remember the heat of the dying day, the big sun lowering itself into the horizon like a phoenix closing its wings.
We had no air-conditioning. We relied on the shade of the biggest trees in the world, but because of the lack of rain and moisture, most of them were dying off and we were left with a shell of our once rich land: scattered trees and a homestead that had been deserted due to death and travel. And the wildfires. They happened each summer and more than once threatened our home. I remember seeing ash filling the skies like billions of insects as noxious smoke stung my nostrils. Then it happened. During a lightning storm, the fire crept close enough to us to burn down Mama’s café.
After Dad died of the flu, Mom hitched a ride down South to find her mama, who must have been in her 90s by then and I doubted she was still alive, but Mom couldn’t stay here, she said. Too many bad memories. If she could only find some kin, she might once again feel some familiarity in the world. I wasn’t kin enough, apparently, though she insisted she would return someday.
It was my job to bury my father—she couldn’t do that—and keep up the household. But week after week, the operation became too lonely. I wouldn’t see another soul for days. Sometimes Maggie’s adopted son Joe would come up to see how I was doing.
I hadn’t seen Joe for a while and now had a plan to wait for him. I would sit out on the front porch each evening, waiting to see his lithe body coming down the lane of weeds and wild things growing in abundance. I longed for the old fog, the old silvery moon outlined by an aura of mist—but nowadays it was a purple sky sketched with waves of heat, folding into red sunsets, dry breath, and dust.
I wanted to see if Joe would stay up here at the old house while I went to find Mama. He’d think I was crazy for sure, but I figured I could convince him because he loved our home so, and his mother was buried out back with my father. I had asked him often to stay up there with me, but he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. It had to do with some unrequited love thing he had going for me. I had never given him any indication of affinity, and while intellectually he realized that, he had had this love for too long and it wasn’t going away. I figured if he couldn’t live with me as a friend, he might live at my house if I had to leave.
Even now, with nothing left here but memories, I couldn’t foresee leaving the place by itself without someone looking after it. Oh, there were some chickens and a couple goats. An old nag. They’d need some looking after, but if Joe wouldn’t do it, I could easily get the animals to a neighboring farm.
It was on one of these heated early spring evenings, when the last of the mountain snow had melted and the sun played tricks in the low horizon, when I finally saw Joe coming down the lane. I knew it was him because of his black hair and hands in his overalls pockets—but he was not alone. He walked alongside a wagon, with who knows how many people in it, and for the first time in months I became both excited and nervous. I hadn’t seen much in the way of visitors in the last few years. Oh, some drifters here and there who were up to no good, who I had to scare off with my rifle. Or some locals who came up to say hello when they felt healthy enough to ride or walk over. I had to assume if Joe was bringing anyone to my home, they’d damn well better be pleasant types of folks.
Pretty soon they were ascending my porch, all weary and hot and thirsty. They had with them a little green-eyed girl who looked no older than age three or so and an older man who appeared as though he was going to pass out.
Joe was a shy but genuinely good man, which made me wonder why I couldn’t fall for him, but I figured I just couldn’t. I’d known him my whole life. Shortly before I was born, Maggie had adopted him, at age five, from an East Indian woman who had settled in the area years before but was dying. Maggie couldn’t ever have kids. I grew up with Joe, and he felt like a brother.
He jumped up on my porch, and his jaw was square and his eyes sad and gray-green. Perpetually, he looked lost and too thin. He introduced the others quickly. “They came down from Idaho, heading a stretch down California before going on to South Carolina. They need a place for a few days. They say they can help out around the house or whatever you want if we can put them up for just a bit.”
I immediately jumped up and said, “Joe, go get some water from the creek. Come on up, you all. It’s cooler out on the porch, and we’ve got the room.”
Heck, the lodge was built with visitors in mind. There were several bedrooms with cots or built-in bunks. Nothing fancy, but it was roomy and would suffice.
Clara Hume’s speculative novel, Back to the Garden, takes the reader through post-apocalyptic America, after climate change and other ecological disasters have devastated the planet. A group of survivors heads out to find loved ones, meanwhile facing painfully nostalgic memories of a different world as well as struggling through personal loss and tragedy. Across fierce deserts and ghost towns, contaminated lakes and rivers, and deplorable faces of death, the group develops surprising relationships and resolutions. Back to the Garden presents a frightening and tragic possibility for our future but doesn’t ignore our affirmative connection to nature and other people. The novel attempts to open people’s eyes to the importance of respecting limits, before it’s too late.