Evie-Willa made her way down the aphotic, shadowy trail toward the faint sound of running water and knew that she was nearing her place of solace. Her eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness, though the light that shone through the break in the forest canopy just ahead guided her. It’s not really as if she needed it. She knew her way instinctively, like the family of barn swallows that return to her back-porch every April, year after year. Only difference was, they are guided by an innate desire to raise babies, and she was guided by the hope that being there would still the turmoil that ravages her spirit.
Her bare feet crunched across brittle leaves that had fallen months before and, for a second, she thought she heard something walking behind her. She stopped to listen. Other than a colorful ensemble of bullfrogs and crickets in the distance, the only sound was the heaviness of her breath. She probably ought to be afraid of being out here alone in the black of night, but she wasn’t. Fear was not something that Evie-Willa had much of for anything. Most folks were afraid of things that they don’t know. She knew this trail, these woods, this creek, and all of the living things in it. She had walked this path a million times. Her best friend Juliet would call her brave, others would call her foolish. She thought most of it was pure defiance; she took risks on purpose. She wasn’t about to live her life thinking about all of the possible things that could happen. She wasn’t afraid to fight. Not only wasn’t she afraid of it, she secretly coveted the release that it would provide. Clemency from her aching heart.
As she reached the clearing, the lucent beams from the moon touched the glistening stream and drew her near them, the same way the purple bug zapper on her mamaw’s porch drew in crane flies. The shadows of the moon taunted her, the energy seeking a body to entice. The moment that she eased her fatigued body down on the bank and stretched her legs out, she felt the rigidness drain, as if someone had pulled the stopper out of the place in her weary soul that held all of the anguish that had built over the past few months. The cool water energized her as it caressed the skin on her legs, taking with it unease and replacing it with calmness.
Lying on the cool soil, absorbing the strength from the ground and the power of the moon above her, she wondered when humans became so disconnected to the natural energy that the earth provided. She supposed it was when we invented modern miracles like electricity, and never looked back to consider that without a synchronicity with the cycles of the moon and earth, inner chaos would eventually befall. That disconnect from the rhythms of the earth is what landed her here, engrossed in inner chaos and questioning everything that she was taught as a child.
Evie-Willa was adorned in lacy dresses and little bonnets as a newborn, and practically went straight from the hospital nursery to Pleasant Valley Baptist. Sunday mornings were filled with Mrs. Peggy enthusiastically reading Bible stories about the symbolism of rainbows, a boastful giant and his day of reckoning, and man-eating whales to her class during Sunday School, then sweet Mr. Lee handing her a dollar to put in the offering plate as she sat on the back row with him during “big church.” She was taught that Jesus is love and that there was no problem whatsoever that He could not solve, and she believed it. She had no reason not to.
Now, after spending decades living her life as an obedient Christian, the violent reality that the belief system that enveloped her whole heart could all be a lie weighs heavily on her spirit.
It’s not that she doesn’t believe in God. It’s not really that she does, either. Was there one God who controlled every single thing that happened, and if there were, why did this one God allow so much anguish and torment to happen to the innocent?
For all one knows, God is the moon.
And the moon is a woman.
There were clues, though. Signs everywhere.
Yet, Evie-Willa was so detached from the pulse of the earth that she couldn’t recognize them.
It was soul-shattering, life-altering grief that finally opened her eyes to the fact that maybe there was more to the universe than what she’d always believed. To understand why the loss was so catastrophic, one must understand the impact that the individual had on Evie-Willa. Evie-Willa didn’t have a mama. Maybe she had one, but she didn’t have a good one. Certainly not a nurturing one. Certainly not a consistently loving and supporting one. She had left when Evie-Willa was an infant, then popped in and out whenever she got the notion, and it left a gaping wound in Evie-Willa’s heart that would never completely mend.
It is said that the strength of motherhood defies natural laws. Sometimes, though, for whatever reason, the instinctive processes that give us a primal desire to protect our young are interrupted. It happens occasionally in animals, even, so it’s not surprising that it should also sometimes happen in humans. Everyone has a dark side, just like the moon, that not a soul ever sees. That the light never touches. The factor that determines whether or not a child who is abandoned becomes a normal functioning adult is if she has at least one nurturing adult to inspirit her. In this instance, there was someone else to stand in the vacant space when the wires of nature were crossed. Problem was, Evie-Willa didn’t fully comprehend the impact, the light, strength, and courage, until it was too late to really appreciate it.
Ten-year-old Evie-Willa sat on the side of the ditch inspecting the sun warmed gravel. She normally wouldn’t play in the road, but she and Juliet had stumbled across strange looking patterns in a few rocks that they’d picked up one day as they were playing after church. When she showed them to her mamaw, she told Evie-Willa that they were fossils, and that gave birth to an obsession to find more. There wasn’t much of a chance of traffic anyhow. Her mamaw’s house was the last one on their old dirt road, besides the abandoned dog-trot about a half mile down that her family called the old house place. Past that, there was nothing but miles of a red dirt passage engulfed by overgrown, desolate woods on each side. Sometimes teenagers would drive by in muddy four-wheel drive trucks, but even that was rare.
Evie-Willa’s bare feet followed the dusty road until she reached the decrepit house that sat back off of the road in an overgrown pasture among black-eyed susan flowers and wild onion. It was the home where her mamaw had spent her entire childhood. Evie-Willa had gone there with her older cousin a few times to dig up wild garlic to use as catfish bait, but she was under strict instruction never to go inside of it while she was out exploring alone because, she was told, it was so old that it could collapse at any time. There was also the warning that there could be dangerous snakes living in it, which had seemed logical, since she had once seen an exceptionally long chicken snake weaving its way around the joists of the decaying smoke house during a visit. Although it was a lovely sight to look at from a distance, Evie-Willa didn’t have much of a desire to walk through the tick infested, waist high grass to get to it anyhow, since the old drive that led to it was only visible during the winter.
Because the house had seemed to be so run down, Evie-Willa was astonished when she saw a woman standing in the yard. She spent almost all of her time outside and hadn’t seen anyone pass down their quiet road in weeks. Because the grass in the pasture was so tall, it was hard to tell what she was doing exactly, but Evie-Willa thought it looked like she was hoeing a garden. She stood watching, aware of the heat that her bare feet were absorbing from the rocks that garnished the red dirt road beneath them, and the stinging of the sunlight radiating down onto her bare arms. The woman began to walk toward the house, then stopped and turned toward Evie-Willa. Evie-Willa held her breath, knowing that she’d been caught staring. The woman in the yard raised her hand up and eagerly waved at Evie-Willa. Just like they were neighbors. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. Evie-Willa shyly waved back to her, then turned and ran back home to her mamaw’s.
That evening after eating a supper of purple hull peas and cornbread, Evie-Willa swayed back and forth in a rhythmic motion in the wooden rocking chair on her mamaw’s porch, staring down the road as she reflected on what she had seen that day. She couldn’t get the woman out of her mind. She hadn’t mentioned it her to her mamaw, for the simple fact that her mamaw didn’t like to talk about the old house place. She’d asked questions about it before, like what it was like growing up there and what she did back then for fun, but her mamaw always changed the subject. The only things she knew about her mamaw’s childhood, she had heard from her aunt and cousins. Evie-Willa didn’t know why talking about the place was uncomfortable for her mamaw, but she figured telling her that someone was possibly living there again might distress her, so she decided not to say anything about it. Families have a way of holding on to secrets, and within the walls of that old house were stories that would never be spoken of. Besides, she didn’t even know herself what was going on up there. Yet.
The next few days were busy. Evie-Willa and her mamaw traveled to town for their weekly trip to the grocery store, and then spent a whole day on the front porch cutting corn and shelling peas from the garden, so she didn’t have time to really remember that someone had been at the old house place. But as she watched her mamaw’s fragile hands cut corn off of the cob to put in the freezer, Evie-Willa’s mind went back to the woman. She stared at her own purple-stained fingers and tried to come up with an excuse to walk down the road. Not that she needed one, her mamaw allowed her to run wild and play as much as she wanted, as long as she was in the house before dark.
Evie-Willa took the dishpan of peas and sat them on the table when she finished shelling, then made a bee-line toward the door, hollering over her shoulder to her mamaw that she would be back after-while.
She smelled food cooking before she even got close enough to see the house, which told her that it wasn’t her imagination, after all. As she made her way up the rock driveway, an anxious feeling took her over. Evie-Willa needed to know who the woman in the yard was, and how she came to live in such an isolated specimen of a house. When she got closer, however, the house didn’t look as rickety as she had remembered. The front yard was bare dirt with not even a single blade of grass, and the only thing growing were rows of blooming lilies and irises. Freshly washed sheets were hung on the clothes line beside the house that had been half rotten and plagued with honeysuckle vines the last time that Evie-Willa was this close. The front porch held a rocking chair and a broom made from straw. Her mamaw had told her that people used to sweep their yards back before the days of lawn mowers, to keep the snakes away, her mamaw had said, but Evie-Willa had never actually seen a swept yard before.
Evie-Willa climbed the steps to the imperfect, yet surprisingly sturdy, wooden porch and stepped inside the breezeway to a screen door, trying to decide whether to knock or to run. Before she could do either, the woman appeared on the other side. Evie-Willa stiffened, not exactly knowing what to say, but was overcome with relief when the woman’s face broadened with a warm smile as she pushed the screen door open for Evie-Willa to come inside. Something in the woman’s eyes looked familiar, radiated kindness, and Evie-Willa felt completely at ease with her.
Evie-Willa followed her inside and sat down at the long wooden dining table as the woman lifted a plate of warm tea cakes from an old wood burning cookstove and offered her one. As she ate, Evie-Willa looked around the room and noted how tidy it was, with jars of colorful put-up vegetables lined up neatly on a shelf and cast-iron cookware hanging on the wall. A large metal wash pan sat in the floor. She admired the wooden pie safe with punched tin doors, and the old hoosier cabinet in the corner that looked just like the one in her mamaw’s kitchen.
“Do you live close? I was born here,” the voice bringing Evie-Willa out of her reverie, “a long time ago. Mama had to hang a sheet over the bed so I wouldn’t get wet from the rain.”
“I don’t have a mama,” Evie-Willa replied.
“Is that right? I’m sorry. Everyone should have a mother.”
Evie-Willa took a bite of her tea-cake.
“Do you have kids?” She’d looked for clues, hoping that she would finally have neighbor kids to play with.
“I do, but they are all grown and gone now.”
Evie-Willa didn’t think she looked like she was old enough to have grown kids.
“Is that why you moved here, in this old house?”
“I came back here to find something.”
Evie-Willa wanted to ask what she came to find, but something inside told her to mind her own business, so she sat quietly and finished her tea cake.
For weeks, Evie-Willa came back every day to the old house place to spend time with the woman. She helped her work in the little garden behind the house and learned how to can tomatoes. They made sourdough bread and fried apple pies. The woman didn’t talk very much, but that was ok with Evie-Willa. They were content working beside each other, quietly completing tasks.
One evening, it got dark before Evie-Willa realized it. She had been standing over the stove stirring sweet jam made from plums that she picked that morning, and so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t realized that the woman was no longer in the kitchen with her. Evie-Willa set the pot off the stove and walked outside to find her standing beside the slow-moving creek that snaked around behind the house, looking up to the sky. She walked through the canopy of trees down the trail to the clearing and stood beside her. She looked up, as well, to find the biggest, brightest moon that she’d ever seen. Evie-Willa stood in awe.
“Isn’t it incredible?” the woman whispered. “Did you know that the moon doesn’t even make its own light? All of this is simply a reflection from the sun. Can you imagine how powerful it would be if it did? We cultivate and plant by the moon, harvest and transplant by the moon. Its influence is the force that moves the tides of the oceans and stabilizes our earth’s rotation, yet it is a mere illumination from something else entirely.”
Evie-Willa mulled over what the woman said for a few minutes. It was, indeed, astonishing. A compelling sense of something larger than herself swept over her.
She turned to the woman and asked, “Do you believe in God?”
“I think that you must believe in something greater than yourself before you can have a peaceful and happy life. When I look at this moon, I feel the presence of something spiritual. I feel power and beauty, a compelling spark of strength and divine connection. I feel the influence of all of the women before me who lived on this earth doing tremendous things, and the brush of their hands in my life and everything around me. I believe there is a force so big that we cannot even imagine it.”
Evie-Willa didn’t really know how to respond. She definitely believed in God, and there were no grey areas in her mind about it at all. “I’ve never asked your name or told you mine. I’m Evie-Willa.” The woman smiled with her whole face and responded, “It’s nice to meet you, Evie-Willa. My name is Beth. Beth Abram.”
Realizing how late it had gotten, she told the woman that she needed to go and turned to run back home. At the end of the drive, Evie-Willa looked back toward the house and hollered, “See you tomorrow, Beth!”
The next morning, cocooned in an old feather mattress and heavy, handmade quilts, Evie-Willa was shaken out of a deep, cozy slumber by the piercing cry of sirens. After the shock of being awakened so suddenly, she sprang from her bed and made it to the front porch in time to see two volunteer fire trucks rushing by. She rushed into the kitchen to find her mamaw rolling out dough for biscuits, oblivious to the chaos happening outside. When she told her mamaw about the fire trucks, her mamaw calmly said that they’d better drive up the road and see what was going on.
As the station wagon neared, Evie-Willa saw that the old house place was in flames and billowing smoke. Evie-Willa threw herself out of the car and began screaming. Her heart was pounding and she couldn’t catch her breath. Every thought of the past weeks, every peaceful moment spent with Beth, poured into her soul at once, and heavy grief blanketed over her. As they drove back to the house, she told her mamaw about the woman living there and recalled all of the things that they’d done together. She described how kept the house had been, and all of the things that Beth had taught her. It was impossible that any of that had happened, her mamaw argued, because not a soul had lived in that house in years. She reckoned some hunters or trespassing teenagers had started the fire, but no matter because that ole house was a death trap anyway. Yet, something lingered in the air. Something thick and tangible. Something that felt a lot like the mourning and sorrow that you feel sitting in a pew during a funeral.
Evie-Willa spent most of the day collecting her thoughts and finally decided to walk back to the house that afternoon. Although she couldn’t bear to walk all the way up the drive to the house, she could see that nothing remained standing except the tall, smoke stained fireplace. It was curious, though, because it looked like the spot where the garden was already grown up and the clothes line was covered in honeysuckle. Evie-Willa noticed for the first time how exquisite the trees and vines were, growing wild and free. Beautiful things happen when things are left alone to grow. It was like no one had been there at all.
It was a scorching Sunday morning, and Evie-Willa dreaded the day that lay ahead. A day that death was respectfully embraced by the entire church congregation. Blankets would be lain on the ground for a picnic lunch, limbs and old sprays would be removed, then fresh, colorful flowers would decorate the tombstones of every grave in the cemetery.
It had been several years since the old house place burned down, and the memories of Beth were tucked away in her heart and attributed to a vivid childhood imagination. Evie-Willa walked with her mamaw, scrubbing off the tombstones of long-dead relatives, placing fresh flowers on the graves of church members who’d been like family and had no one else to do it. Decoration Day at the little church cemetery was a yearly tradition that her mamaw did not miss. She’d spent the entire week before making arrangements and talking about the tasks that needed to be done. In prior years, Evie-Willa wasn’t expected to participate much. She and the kids from her Sunday school class had played hide and seek and ate fried chicken out of picnic baskets while the adults cleared the ground of debris and cleaned up.
But this year, her mamaw’s age had begun to slow her down a bit, and Evie-Willa was more than willing to help her. As she had grown, her devotion to her mamaw had grown. It is difficult for small children to appreciate the sacrifices that adults make for them, and Evie-Willa was just beginning to realize how devoted and loving her mamaw had been to her since her mother left.
Evie-Willa was also old enough now that her mamaw was more open to speak with her about things that she hadn’t been before. As they walked through the canvas of massive oak and pecan trees that blanketed over dozens of graves, her mamaw reminisced about the relatives that were buried there. Her great-grandfather, who had bright red hair and fought in the Civil War. Her beloved grandmother who bore eleven children, only to have four live to adulthood. Her mother and aunts, who spent their teenage years picking cotton and lived their lives with dignity and kindness. Even though they didn’t live long enough for Evie-Willa to know them, she felt a powerful connection to them. She felt them in her life daily, their influences, their morals, the devotion to their families. They did not know her at all, but she knew them, and it didn’t minimize the connection that she felt with them. Even though they did not know her, they prepared for her in the lives that they lived, paved the way for her to become the kind of woman that they would be proud of.
As Evie-Willa and her mamaw neared the edge of the cemetery toward a lone grave to place the last wreath of the day, her mamaw’s eyes welled up with tears. She began to speak of her sister, and how they’d been born only ten months apart. They had been inseparable from the time that they could walk. Her mamaw described how her sister had died in childbirth, leaving behind two small children and a loving husband. Her mamaw witnessed it all, the agonizing screams of her sister’s children when the midwife couldn’t revive her, and how they all watched in horror as the life drained out of her. How her husband had remarried shortly after and moved away, taking with him the children, the only parts of her sister that were left, even though she understood that staying would be too painful and difficult for them. Evie-Willa was astounded that her mamaw had never told her this before, but could see the pain that her face wore as she described her. When they reached the tombstone, Evie-Willa looked down at the name on the tombstone and her breath caught.
Loving daughter, sister, wife, and mother.
As Evie-Willa lay in the clearing at the creek, the frigid water flowing over her legs, her heart became engulfed with grief as the memories swept over her. Her mamaw was gone. She woke up that day to what felt like any other day, going about her normal routine until she got the phone call, and ignorant to the fact that by that evening she would be standing over a hospital bed watching her mamaw’s breaths get farther and farther apart. Until there were none. It wasn’t fair. Evie-Willa could not comprehend why God would allow evil people to walk around freely in the world, yet take someone as kind and giving as her mamaw. A surge of tears ran down her face at the realization that her life had transformed in an instant. She wanted to run far away from the grief, away from the intense heartbreak that she was experiencing. As the moon shone down on her, she began to think about her mamaw’s unwavering faith, then felt a twinge of guilt for questioning her own. She still wasn’t sure whether or not she still believed in God, but Beth’s words from long ago had clung to her throughout her life;
You must believe in something greater than yourself before you can have a peaceful and happy life.
What she was sure of was that she was surrounded by the spirit of those whom she may not have known, but loved nonetheless. Those spirits protected and guided her, their legacies and wisdom passed down from one generation to another. Faith is risky. You can’t control it; you just have to accept it or not. Choosing to have faith, maybe not in religion, but in something greater, was the only thing that Evie-Willa knew how to do. If you don’t have faith in something, what do you have? Faith helps to heal those vulnerable and broken places inside of you. Faith diminishes anguish and provides hope for better days ahead, possibilities that aren’t yet seen.
Evie-Willa also knew that, although the grueling misery that resided in her heart did not define the legacy that her mamaw, and the ones who left this world before Evie-Willa was even born, gifted to her. As she lay in the moonlight, soaking in the moonlight and the pulse of the universe, absorbing the sounds of the world that continued to turn despite her pangs of agony, she realized that they do not live in a grave at the cemetery, or in the beautiful places where you release their ashes back to the universe. They live in the places that made them, where they experienced joy and even heartache, the element battered homes that hold their secrets. They live within the flowers that they planted in the days when their own lives were in bloom, perhaps the height of their days when they were surrounded by babies and all of the things that made them feel whole, the irises and lilies that grow back every year no matter how cold and harsh the winter is. They live in the midst of the trees that heard the laughter and tears when life was filled with joys and heartaches, the whispers of hope and serenity of being. They live within the light of the moon as the spirit of all they were transcends darkness and grief.