Author’s Note: This novel, at first glance, appears to be told through many voices. In fact, a frame narrator, revealed through a prologue, epilogue, and woven fragments, is actually creating and curating the other voices in an “attempt at compassion and trying to understand each of the people who played a role during those formative years.” This excerpt is the beginning of Part II of the novel. Part I includes the discovery of an isolated mountain cove and warm spring as the site of a new hotel north of downtown Asheville. The lives of people living in Sampson Cove are disrupted as the hotel and society move in.
Our story shifts here. The hotel sped life up with the coming and going of so many people. We lived many lives in the space of only a few months, just as a flowering spring ephemeral sits dormant all winter and then suddenly “springs” to life, metamorphosing from foliage to stem to bud.
The telling of the story shifts too, as I try to keep up. My days now are filled with sitting and remembering, a calm that I also carried before the hotel, but during the height of its activity, new developments and faces arrived every day to our cove—a cove that for so long sat empty, except for our amalgamated family of Daddy, Mars, and Anna. Our voices that were once headwater streams, rushing rivulets cutting out solitary lines in the topography, now came crashing into each other, converging with the multitude of voices emerging, complete with luggage and evening dress attire, into the full body of the river.
Everything became compressed and sequential. I encountered Mordecai, for instance, on the very day of the opening ceremony and the seemingly casual encounter pointed me on a trajectory that I continue even now.
The hotel filled slowly starting three days before the grand opening, and then on the day of the ceremony the corridors and lobby suddenly bustled with people. Their doors clicked and slammed as they came in and out of their rooms. Guests gathered in the foyer and watched the spectacle of the electric elevator while Maurice, the Pullman porter whom Cornelius recruited to serve as chief elevator operator, flashed his white teeth and matching white livery, cranking the brass gate to allow people in and out.
Mars, helping in the basement kitchen heard the arrival of three special trains just that morning. Anna, in the master suite practicing the piano accompaniment she would play before the opening remarks, watched guests in the gardens below, moving in small groups or seated in nooks holding tête-à-tête. I sat on a rock in the forest edge watching a thunderstorm of black-suited men depart the train and wondered if one of them was Governor Jarvis.
Rich Cove Forest: Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum
Mayapple’s large single leaf emanates from a single stem. Many stems can sprout from the same rhizome, leading to dense populations of Mayapple forming in one place, despite low fruit maturation rates. As with many medicinal plants, parts of the Mayapple plant are edible and some are quite poisonous. A tincture made from the root may be curative for the liver and bowels but overdoses may also lead to death. The ripened fruit is edible and can be used in a variety of fashions.
The hotel’s opening ceremony would take place at five o’clock. By Mordecai’s calculations he would only have four hours of foraging before needing to get ready. It would be an exploratory mission, he thought, as he scanned the edge of the forest cupping the hotel’s backside. The freshly disturbed land on the forest edge yielded an array of cutleaf coneflower, joe-pye weed, and an assortment of trees sprouting up trying to take back the land. Although he admired these plants, seeing in his mind’s eye what beauty they would reach with maturity, he easily drifted past them into the filtered light of the forest. There, as he stood on the border between clear bright daylight and forest light, between the sounds of shifting leaves and the rumbling of guests arriving at the hotel below, a large primeval oak beckoned him farther into the forest. He couldn’t explain these moments—the appeal of plants that overtook him—but he had learned to follow. It nearly always yielded results.
Behind the tree, the land dipped, and in that dip a dense carpet of large mayapples carpeted the ground. Common enough though it was, Mordecai still smiled and set to collecting the apples. When finished with the apples he took a hand trowel from his satchel and dug up a foot-long length of the rhizome. Although he had collectors all across these mountains caching ginseng, goldenrod, and yes a little bloodroot and mayapple among other things, at their closest general store to be brought to his warehouse in Statesville and then redistributed from there, he still took pleasure in collecting his own.
After Mordecai was done collecting, he wiped off his hands and took out his journal, smudging a bit of dirt on the bottom of the page to demark the groundline before sketching the plant, complete with underground roots. He must of sat quietly for thirty minutes because as he emerged from behind the large oak, root in one hand and journal in the other, he gasped in surprise at seeing another person sitting, not two hundred feet away, who also started and bolted upright in apparent surprise. But, before any of this registered, an impressive blonde dog came at him, barking.
Its owner, a straggly little thing who’d been sitting on a rock, now stood up, straightening her back to stand tall and call her dog. At first he had thought she was a boy because of the loose pants and work shirt, but upon examining her straw colored hair loosely tied back beneath a straw hat he determined that she was a young lady.
“What you doing with my mayapple?” she spat out, narrowing her eyes at the rhizome in Mordecai’s dirt-covered hands.
“That’s my patch.” She jumped off the rock and briskly brushed past him to peak around the large oak, down at the dip. “You took nearly all of them.”
“I did not—I am sorry to—I am Mordecai Hyams, and please let us start over. I would like to make amends to you for uprooting your plants.” He couldn’t keep a grin from appearing on his face as the luck of finding a local collector washed over him, replacing his initial surprise and the twinge of guilt on his conscience.
“I sell these roots for twenty-five cents a pound, more if they are processed into a powder or juice and packaged, and the apples for a penny a pop. To right what I have wronged you I am willing to pay you a dollar. Would that set us on the right path to starting over?”
She looked hard at him and then down at the cleared patch. “I reckon. You left enough so as they’ll sprout back up, but Mor-de-cai, I won’t forget that name. I will know to find Mor-de-cai next year if these go missing again.”
“And what can I call you, miss?”
“Jolene, it’s nice to meet you. There is one more thing.” At this he reached into his satchel and pulled out the notebook.
“I’ll be staying at the hotel all week.” Both of them unconsciously glanced down the hill at the estate. “But I plan to spend much of that time in the woods, searching out some of these plants, maybe drawing some new ones.”
As he talked he flipped through the drawings and notes, pausing on milkweed, a sketch he found particularly fetching because of the Monarch butterfly also drawn in. Jolene took hold of the notebook and gazed, childlike, at his drawings. He didn’t know if she could read, but she definitely seemed interested. “You know where I could find a lot of these plants, don’t you?”
Her smile twisted. She rolled her eyes. “When can I collect on my dollar?”
“Here, tomorrow morning. I’ll be starting the walk to find,” and he flipped to the page of Gray’s Lily. “I’d be happy for the company of a plant person like yourself—and to compensate you for your time I’ll send you the finished drawings of any new plants we discover on my list.”
That evening at the opening ceremony, Mordecai listened to speakers laud Dr. Price’s business acumen and praise the era of advancement symbolized by his hotel in the mountains. When it came time for the keynote speaker, Governor Jarvis, he also advanced his political mission: railway privatization and operationalizing state hospitals for the mentally insane. A makeshift stage had been built on the patio and the guests were seated in the grass. During the speeches, Mordecai found himself looking at the refreshment tent often, and then back up at the verdant hillside.
The next morning, Mordecai took his coffee to the rock above the hotel and waited. After half an hour of watching the morning laborers down in the courtyard get started with their day, their morning grumbles mixing in with morning birdsong, he slipped Jolene’s money on the rock, propped beneath his tin coffee cup, and started up the hill.
A number of plants flirted with him along the way. He spotted Solomon’s seal and wild geranium, cohosh, and spicebush. A leftover bloom on a burgundy trillium between the rocks—Trillium vaseyi perhaps—tempted him to stop and sketch, but he did not, wanting to find out what plants grew at the top of the mountain instead.
“If you’re hoping to get up to the top before midday you’d best take the trail.” For the second day in a row she startled him, this time she was on the top of the slope at the top of a boulder, her hands resting on her hips. Her dog, Kayla, was alert, ears upright, but with arched tail wagging. “I’ll get you to where there’s a lily plant though I’m not sure if its flowering or no. C’mon.” And she set off nimbly weaving up the hill. Her pace was such that Mordecai had to scurry to catch up with her, his walking stick carried horizontal, like a staff, in his hurry.
He was raked by branches and in a full sweat by the time they entered onto a trail. “I’m having a hard time figuring you, Mor-de-cai.” She said after they settled into an easier pace. “You know plants, but you don’t seem to know your way in the woods. You say you sell samples in your store and you paid me for mine, but we are off on a search for a lily that has no health or other use to my knowledge.”
He smiled at her puzzling. “I see your conundrum. Did you read in the papers about Dr. Gray’s quest for and discovery of Shortia galacifolia?” She looked at him blankly. “Of course, never mind. There are plant specimens in this region that only grow here and that haven’t been discovered yet.”
“Like galax? He discovered galax? It’s everywhere. We passed some earlier, don’t know if you saw it.”
“Yes. But that’s not Shortia galacifolia. Dr. Gray ran across a dried specimen of Shortia in a Paris herbarium, collected from these mountains, here. This previously unknown specimen plagued Dr. Gray and he spent the next thirty years looking for it, following a vague description of the place in a yellowed journal. He didn’t have much luck, but wouldn’t you know who found it for him?” Mordecai puffed his chest and smiled broadly.
“So are you telling me you’re famous for finding galax?”
“Shortia galacifolia. No, look here.” He stopped walking and pulled out the notebook again, flipping to the page.
Rich Cove Forest: Oconee Bells, Shortia galacifolia
Only discovered in the high mountains of the Carolinas, Shortia is a treat to find. The plant hides in dark, wet yet well-drained sloping expanses; areas with thick canopies of tightly knit trees and enough rainfall to feed the lush undergrowth in copious drips down trunks and dashes down leaves. In these specific environs one might find Shortia, with scalloped edges glistening, a dark green or sometimes purple in the shade.
“My son and I were riding along. I had sprained my leg then so I couldn’t go out collecting by myself, and I spotted an elevated hillside. The air just beckoned me from that hillside—rich, alive, wet breath coming out from the forest and so I asked George to go bring me whatever was in flower there. He came back with this delicate white flower that I hadn’t seen before. After looking through my notes and books to make sure I couldn’t identify it, I sent a specimen to Congdon and before I knew it, Dr. Gray himself wrote me a reply that Shortia had finally been found!”
“Well I’ll be. Dr. Gray himself.” Jolene mocked him. She began to walk again. “Who might that be?”
“The esteemed botanist. You know, Gray’s Manual?”
“Is that what you call your journal?”
Rocky Outcrop: Spreading Avens, Geum radiatum
Spreading Avens spreads out in the most unlikely of places. High up, on hunky ledges of rock, rock, and more rock, this verdant fan-shaped plant crops out in the thin layer of soil collecting in pockets and cracks. Fog and dew at these higher elevations keep it from completely drying out in the thin crust of soil it occupies. A sun drop, or a few sun drops of yellow, bloom out of these bright green leaves in the late summer, a profusion of stringy anthers and open petals against the backdrop of grey rock and blue mountains.
I led Mordecai up to the bald. Still not completely trusting him, I detoured around the cabin and Black Rock, knowing those places might lead to conversations I’d rather not enter. At the tree-break, wind sent the branches above us swaying and rustling through the grass. Mordecai kept saying “plants found on a mountain bald” and it occurred to me that “bald” was a strange term, because as far as I could tell there was a fair head of grass that parted and blew this way and that, just like hair in the wind. We wandered apart in the meadow, and reconvened at the most prominent feature, a rock with a view of the valley below and ridges unfolding into fainter and fainter replicas of themselves again three times and finally unto the brighter hue of sky, all above.
“The lily’s over yonder where it gets swampy. Down where this hill meets the other. I might just close my eyes on this rock for a bit while you search it out and do your sketching.”
Mordecai nodded, apparently eager to continue on his quest. “Just meet me down there when you’re done,” he said as he left.
From the rock, I could just make out the red tip of the hotel roof down in the cove. Looking down at Buckhorn Valley and then the waves of ridges out into the beyond, I felt for Anna’s last letters in my pocket, creased and wooly from handling. Once again I reread them, trying to contextualize the Anna I’d witnessed since, in the atrium and at the opening ceremony.
I saw you last week in the ocean.
I finally convinced Cornelius and Haddie to take a break from silverware spying in Charleston’s markets, to take me on a day trip to the beach at Sullivan’s Island. We took the Hildegard Ferry to bypass the quagmire of Charleston’s harbor swamps; and as the ferry paddled leisurely downstream, the drooping live oaks and Spanish moss waved tenderly from shore.
Haddie had packed fabric samples, which she sifted through and fretted about whether they would do as bedding and napkins for the hotel. As I watched the banks of the Cooper River pass, I imagined her in a textile swamp, drowning in folds of embroidered silk, fighting her way through heaps of jacquard tablecloths. And indeed, every time I looked up and nodded complacently at her murmuring she stroked some new fabric or was holding it up for Cornelius to observe.
My complacency ripped apart at first glimpse of the ocean. The salty wind cleaned me of the cloth details as I ran down to the water. My feet skimmed the sand, leaving imprints, making a real mark with the simple press of my toe. Off went my laces and my boots.
“Anna, darling, you’re getting sand on your dress.”
They followed me to the water’s edge, pleading.
“Corny, this is so typical. You’ve got to take a stand with her.” Haddie’s muttering went on, but the spluttering crest of a wave caught my attention and I no longer cared. My toes sank in and clear cold water ran over them. I remembered us at the warm spring.
“You can’t marry Cornelius, because I love you,” you’d said. I turned away from you then, marched to the waterfall and stuck my head in it, hoping to clear away the myriad wings beating, suffocating my head and throat and heart, but you followed me. And as the water beat down on my head, roared in my ears and on my back, you pulled me to you and kissed me.
I remembered all this as the waves crashed. When I went in up to my knees, a powerful current drew on me, but then a wave came crashing and jolted me momentarily the other direction. Cornelius and Haddie yelling at me were distant sounds. My wet cotton dress clung to me as if I were a mummy in one of Charleston’s crypts. Farther out, I dove under a cold wave. That is where I saw you Jolene, in the single moment of underwater calmness before I came up and another wave ripped me backwards. You were sitting in my cabin by the woodstove reading a letter, and looked up at me and smiled.
Time seemed to lapse, as I floated and rocked between waves, before Cornelius’ soft white hands clutched me and dragged me back to shore.
I miss you. I am sorry I never told you about the wings in my throat.
Ever since the incident at the beach, they’ve been dosing me with Laudanum, presumptively for the cough I developed from the cold water, but I think they are frightened by my “erratic” behavior. I must be more careful of how I behave around them.
The Bible placed by the bedside has been my only companion during these blurry times. I find myself drawn to the shorter books, so that I can get through them in my moments of clarity. I want to remind you of Ruth (1:16-18) who married Boaz after pledging thus to Naomi:
Whither thou goest, I will go:
where thou lodgest, I will lodge:
thy people shall be my people,
and thy God my God.
Where thou diest, I will die—
And there will I be buried.
The marriage was arranged “to seek some security.” Ruth 3:1. Don’t you see yet that there are more reasons that people marry than for love?
I folded the letters and looked back out at the ripple of mountains. It seemed like every glimpse I got of Anna, she was on a stage or in that glass box of a sunroom. I just couldn’t reconcile the softness and openness in the letters with these glimpses.
A strong gust of wind blew against me and the grass shifted direction almost all at once in the wind. I thought I heard Mordecai singing, faintly, from below the knoll. The gladness I felt for the company of this peculiar man surprised me.
Not only was I glad for the distraction from my melancholy, but I had to admit that he intrigued me. However much I mocked him, the Latin he used to describe plants, together with his rich drawings, suggested a truth that I craved. For years, Anna preached theatrics and schooled me and Mars in drama and great literature. I endured this because it allowed me to admire Anna, usually flushed with excitement. The professor, his Latin and pictures were different. Just that morning he’d mentioned Trillium vaseyi—it was the dark velvety red one—what a regal name, vaseyi, for such a regal color, I’d thought. As I’d flipped through his notebook and caught glimpses of other names and pictures of plants well known and loved by me, I felt a butterfly in my own throat, flapping its delicate wings, trying to get out. I knew that Mordecai’s Latin words were the only things that would set the butterfly free; this type of learning was the remedy to let its brilliant veined wings shimmer in the sun.
The next morning, determined to finally confront Anna, I sifted through my clothes. The dresses my mother had sometimes forced me to wear were long ago used up in rags, but Anna had sewn me a few items in recent years. I wanted to look respectable, or at least not attract attention with my usual getup, as I searched for Anna in the hotel. I pulled out a narrow skirt with striped bodice and wool jacket. “I know it seems ridiculous to you now,” Anna said,” but you never know when you might need a sturdy costume to be taken seriously in. And for your sake, I didn’t put in any lace.” She had said this two Christmases ago, when I unwrapped the present.
I pulled up the skirt with the annoyance I always felt when putting on dresses. I tore at the buttons, almost popping one off, as I slowly made my way up the front of the bodice. Once dressed, I brushed the tangles out of my hair and swept it up in a clumsy bun. With my hair up and the fitted costume on, I felt the vulnerability of air passing over my legs and around my stomach. I went out to the porch and took our only mirror off its peg and held it up to see the young lady in the looking glass. The grimace on my face and the hunch in my back were the only improvements I could think to make.
At the top of the small hill that acted as a barrier between our cabin and the grounds of the Grand Park Hotel, I paused to imagine myself walking through those doors, waving off the attendant at the front desk, and sliding down the hallway leading to the conservatory. The conservatory would be the first place to look for Anna. In reality, as I approached the doors my heart beat fast with apprehension. Instead of blowing through the front entrance as I had imagined, I turned and went through the garden to the side conservatory doors. I didn’t hear Anna playing.
Inside, the room was much warmer than the cool afternoon outside, and more humid. Fronds of exotic plants waved at me from above and below, and I felt a momentary reprieve from anxiety. It is just like hunting in the forest, I thought, spying my first hotel guests in the atrium. I smiled at them and moved quickly past them, past the empty piano where Anna so often practiced. It occurred to me to simply come back another time, but no, too much time had already passed thinking and watching. I would follow through with this, I thought, and pushed through the heavy locust wood doors closing off the conservatory from the rest of the building.
The hallway was red. Red carpet and polished red walnut walls carved in lattice between ornate rounded columns. I heard voices coming and wished I could shrink down to miniature and hide in a red walnut tableau. Fix the grimace, the hump, I reminded myself instead and took a deep breath, straightening my back. The voices didn’t come down the hall. As I continued, the hall emptied out into a foyer containing a large spiral staircase and the famous “ascending room” elevator. The attendant was just locking the gate. Up and up the thing went humming and clucking as it rose. Death trap, I thought, stepping onto the smooth marble staircase. Down would be to the kitchens and serving quarters; I knew that much. Thinking of Cornelius’ opulence, I divined their room would be on the top floor, most likely with a vantage point of the whole estate. I glided up the smooth marble staircase, recalling skating on Samson Creek on the rare occasions when it froze over completely. So enthralled was I with this surface, I passed several other hotel guests without self-consciousness or trepidation of being found out as an imposter.
Rich Cove Forest: Spicebush, Lindera bensoin
Spicebush is one of the earliest shrubs to waken in the forest, flowering in March and April when many other plants are just leafing out. The shiny, bright red berries that form on the plant in August and September are also an important food source for migratory birds, providing fleshy edible pulp as well as seeds to sustain the birds on their long voyage south. The twigs and bark of spicebush can be made into an aromatic hot beverage in the winter, and the leaves can be used in refreshing iced teas during the summer.
The miraculous invention of running water still enthralled Anna. She sat in the copper tub and watched it stream out of the plumbing, slowly filling the tub. First she sat in a puddle and then it covered her to the waist. She waited until it was above the slight bend in her knees, just below her breasts to turn the running water off. Silence broken with a few drop-drops. As she sat back the water heaved forward and then gushed back at her, then back and forth. She felt her insides caught up in the movement. She took another draught of the nerve medicine she’d set beside the tub and watched as her skin turned red from the heat.
Bubbles of detached remembrances floated out of the water. From previous experience, she knew these to be hallucinations from the medicine. Her—splashing herself with water heated on the woodstove in their cabin. Cornelius during his wedding proposal—threatening “to expose the indecent condition of her cohabitation with a Negro” to his friend the constable, who he assured her was dedicated to the preservation of Southern integrity. Her—looking out of a ghost’s eyes at the crowd during the grand opening. Cornelius—smashing himself into her in the evenings. Her—mashing the ivory keys of the piano void of feeling. Jolene—at the staircase to the conservatory that night watching her with owl eyes. She took one more draught of the nerve medicine. The stopper on the drain tub became an eye watching her. She splashed and it refracted into two eyes, winking, then became the drain stopper again. The edges of reality softened more and more until becoming a blur of colors, smells, and emotions; her body slowly relaxed into the tub.
She woke up to her name being called and thought she was still hallucinating. The water was cold, her skin oily from the bath salt. “Anna.” Jolene held Anna’s head erect and splashed water on her cheek. “Anna, wake up.”
“You’re here,” Anna said, her voice airy and disbelieving. It felt like she was back in the cabin again, splashing cool water on herself, waking up with every throw, only Jo did the splashing this time.
“Yes, your cook showed me in as she was bringing you a plate. Here just sit up now. Good, that’s good.” She pulled the plug on the drain. “Can you stand?”
Anna choked on a laugh as Jo helped her stand and toweled her off, hands shaking. She remembered all the years witnessing Jolene taking care of her drunk papa. Those years had made Jolene a good nurse to the inebriated, but Anna never suspected she would be the patient.
The two of them didn’t speak as they walked together into the bedroom. Jo wrapped Anna in a fresh towel, nestled her into one of the large armchairs, and poured her a cup of tea from the platter of food that had just been brought up.
“I’ve been meaning to come see you,” Anna finally said. The Orange Ceylon tea was still warm, and with every sip Jolene seemed more real and less a figment of her imagination.
“Now I see what keeps you here.” Jo dangled the bottle of laudanum in the air. “Seems you’ve taken a liking to Cornelius’ medicine.”
These words flew at Anna, cutting through the remnants of her confusion, leaving her mouth agape and constricted pupils darting. All of the detached bubbles from her hallucination now had real feelings—ones she hadn’t been able to express to anyone. Queasiness filled her stomach. She grabbed Jo’s hand. “I don’t want to quarrel with you. I know you’re upset with me, but I’m just doing what I have to do to survive.” She squeezed Jolene’s hand, hard.
Anna’s words hung in the air. They sat in silence for a few moments, holding hands, innocent of all the malignant forces and counterforces in the world as if they had no part in them. Anna shook her head and withdrew her hand as she said in a low steely whisper: “Cornelius would destroy everything and everyone I care about in order to impose his will. Which is why you have to go now.” She paused. “I’ll send word to you through my woman, Dee—she’s the one who mailed my letters to you in Charleston—about a time we can meet for a visit. This weekend, I promise.”
“And this?” Jolene held up the bottle. She looked into Anna’s eyes. “You could have drowned.” She said this quietly but with such a moving sincerity that it finally caused Anna to shed a single tear.
“Okay. Okay. I see my excess, and that it pains you.” Anna quickly wiped away the tear and composed herself. “A walk on Saturday afternoon? We’ll meet at the warm spring. If anything changes I’ll send word.”
As Jolene got up to leave, Anna examined her clothing. The fitted dress and awkwardly tied-back hair had been there all along, the unusual apparel adding to the dreamlike quality of their interchange, but in the commotion Anna hadn’t fully registered it until now. “You look nice,” she said, smiling as she saw the red immediately bloom on Jolene’s neck, spreading as she turned for the door.