By Marly Youmans
28 November 2005
Originally published in Capitol: The Magazine of New York's Capitol Region 5:7 (July 1989).
Perhaps it was the circumstances of her birth that made Jorinda so lavish in growth, so at home in the trees. For in those days when spaces between the cabins of settlers were wide, her mother took shelter from the rain in an immense hollow oak and there gave birth to her first and only child. Jorinda was born under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near what is now the eastern edge of the Qualla Boundary.
When baby Jorinda could be soothed by nothing else, the soughing of wind in the pines would calm her cries. In this way, the place of her birth had marked her. More notable to her parents, however, was the child's huge size. Why had his wife not sought out the umbrella of a tender sapling, asked Jorinda's father, for in only a few months the child had grown into a regular infant ogress.
Her childhood was a battleground between growth and hunger. As her appetite ballooned, infrequent passers-by were invariably startled from their path by hoarse infant yells. Between feedings, the child staggered to the door in her large white dress and howled. One night a loud thunk followed by a rending sound woke Jorinda's parents; the child, growing as she slept, had struck and split the head and footboards of her bed. Often her aching joints made her growl and snuffle all night, robbing her parents of the sleep they needed after a day on the pocket-sized mountain farm or an afternoon of canning and hunting. The two took turn and turn about rubbing her legs with tallow, wiping her sweaty forehead.
Soon the unhappy parents were measuring a week's provisions by the cartload, Jorinda's breakfast porridge by the washbasin. If the girl strayed, she might be discovered toying with a bobcat as with a kitten or struggling to carry home a bear cub. One afternoon when the child was ten, Jorinda's father returned to find her playing with her mother as though she were a large doll. Harassed and weeping, the mother crumpled onto the hearth.
The father managed to hold sway a few years longer. Passing trappers thought that he disciplined Jorinda wholly by his glances, which, while no fiercer than the glares of any other father, had the added strength of proceeding from an extraordinarily ugly face. A face that could bile a bear, said the trappers, a face that could turn dough to sourdough, halt a screech owl in mid-screech, make a ring-tailed roarer buckle down to a whimper. Raised on the coastal plain, the father had idled his way into adulthood, lying in the sunshine, feeding on tender wild piglets from the bush. It must have been that diet—sweet fresh pork loins in summer, salt pork in winter, smoked pork all year—that had undermined his face and collapsed what had once been a reasonably elevated nose. A river of smallpox had swept over what was left of his natural features, leaving only a dried, corrugated streambed of a face. A sharp glance from that cratered face could unsettle even Jorinda. But one day at a time when Jorinda teetered on the brink of puberty, he lit out for the Carolina coast, taking only his hound Randy and his gun. Lowlander, Jorinda snorted, ignoring her mother's tears.
2. The Summer of Butterflies
One spring Jorinda left school and spent her afternoons wandering the woods or basking on stone outcrops high on the mountain slopes. The settlers named the months that followed the summer of butterflies. Not that butterflies were previously unknown to them. A few in the settlement, and even Jorinda herself, famous for her forest walks, had seen thousands of monarchs ascending the long rapid chute of air at Newfound Gap. Every child had seen the orange, black-etched monarchs clinging to flower heads or riding an erratic breeze across a meadow.
And by the time Jorinda reached the age of seventeen, when the valley below her mother's house teemed with wings, settlers and settlers' children were no longer so scarce as silk britches in the wilderness. The village in the valley provided a store and a school, which Jorinda, crouched on a piano bench, had attended for five years, until she could read and write as well as the master. The schoolchildren had not mocked her, but she had flushed when she felt the briar-like hooks of their attention.
Now their childish notice was caught by a phenomenon stranger than she. In the evening, great light-seekers, pale green and violet, glimmered on the windows of the houses and beat themselves against the town's single streetlamp. One day a young man stopped in the village, saying that he was traveling all the way from Pennsylvania to southern Florida. It was he who told the townspeople that their butterflies were not butterflies at all, but moths, luna moths. He delicately lifted the feathery antennae of a luna with a pencil. The moths could smell the fragrance of another luna a mile off, he told some solemn, watchful children. Wasn't that wonderful? That's how they found their mates, he said. The children looked at one another, thinking. They had never heard a grownup speak quite this way before. Were there any other oddities around here, any other peculiar things? The giantess, said one child, the giantess on the mountain. The young man smiled. That glooming brow with its crags and heath balds certainly looked the haunt of kobolds or ogres.
The next morning when he left the valley, he was pursued by children and by lunas.
"A naturalist he called himself," Jorinda's mother reported after her next trip to the valley. "Wanted to know why these butterflies keep coming around."
That entire summer Jorinda could not hold still. She wandered everywhere, and everywhere she wandered, her longings trailed, invisible, acrid as smoke. What she longed for she did not know, and yet her longings were neither obscure nor strange: someone like me, she thought, groping to put her feelings into words. The lunas floated up from the village and mingled with the air of her desire. Thus in the evenings her longings became palpable, quivering with wings. At night when she sank exhausted onto her bed, the lunas pressed against the isinglass window and clustered on the outer logs until the cabin became a green cocoon.
3. Jack Flint
In August of the butterfly summer, streams and rivers sank in their beds. Jorinda climbed the staircase of slate slabs to the source of Pigeon Creek and lay at full length in the grass, listening to the remaining trickle of water and watching a flock of restless bluebirds whirl from shrub to shrub. A single luna lingered on rhododendron leaves, tilting itself slightly now and then, warming itself in the sun. Jorinda dozed.
A cloud as big as an oak stepped before the sun. Jorinda opened her eyes, then sat up.
"You," she said. What she meant to say was, Who are you?, and Where do you come from?, and Where are you going?
The man standing in front of her rolled back his head and laughed with delight.
She stood up. For the first time in years, she was smaller than another human being.
"You've a mane like a bear rug," she said, and then covered her mouth. What if he ran away?
He only laughed the louder. "My beauty," he said, "you've got hair enough to stuff a mattress, you've got eyes like saucers, eyelashes like wheel spokes, brows like cane thickets. If you tripped, you'd cause earthquakes in California, tidal waves in Japan. Catamounts and grizzlies, Indian tigers and giant pandas should be your pets."
Jorinda stared. Never had she heard the talk of giants. Her mother had seldom spoken of her size and tried never to give the least intimation that she noticed Jorinda's gargantuan proportions.
"Why, who are you," she asked, "with your head in the clouds and your beard rooting through your face like pike-shafts? With your legs like tree trunks and your chest like a mountain slope. . . ."
Jorinda blushed and turned her large, elegant head aside.
"The name is Flint," declared the giant. "Jack Flint the Jack of trades, once stevedore to Manhattan harbor, canal digger to Virginia's Dismal Swamp, steeldriver to the prairie. Call me Jack of the North Woods, of Maine and New England, lumberjack to the world. Shepherd of the woods, I shear the states like sheep. I'm at home in the north, with snow for my blanket and the earth for my bed. Niagara is my bathtub, where I slide on rapids and help sperm whales jump the falls. The sky is my rafters and roof, the clouds my close companions.
"I'm a man among men. But never have I seen a woman like you."
Jorinda's eyes widened as Flint brushed against her side. When he grasped her in his arms, she learned that the desire of giants is as brisk, electrical, and flowing as bristling firecats, rubbed backwards. The discovery left her so weak that she almost dropped from his arms like a felled tree.
"I've searched for you," he said. "For years."
4. The Play of Giants
All that summer Jorinda and Jack Flint leaped lightfooted over ravines and gullies, as though the mountains themselves were their stepping-stones above the swirl of human life. Scanning the ranges, settlers caught glimpses of the pair vanishing into blue haze. Their boisterous romp shook the mountains down to the root, as, like children playing at bowls, they stampeded herds of stones which bounced into the valley, dragging loops of dust behind them.
It became calm only when the giants fled to far ravines and hollows, their cries sounding remote and foreign from a distance. Young men and women paused in their work to listen, and only the smallest children asked, What is it? Mothers plugged their half-grown daughters' ears with honeybee wax when the unearthly music filtered into the village, fearful that the girls might hear those siren sounds and be taken by the green-sickness. That wayward, flashing summer, Jorinda's mother ran away with a peddler from Rabun Gap, a seller of ribbons and trinkets. But the next summer, what a parade of babies arrived in the valley. The itinerant census taker broke three pen nibs recording all the names, most of which were either Jorinda or Jack.
Their playful struggle, strength against strength, gave birth to its own atmosphere. In the mountain clouds, darted through by lightning color, the giants flung themselves at passion. The Blue Ridge mirrored their turbulence—thunderstorms trapped the settlers in their cabins, mudslides sealed the roads out of the valley. Even the bewildered, fumbling flights of lunas seemed an extension of the weather, their green and violet colors like a landscape just before an early evening storm. Caught by an invisible net, they had forgotten the soaring updrafts which might toss them free of the valley.
5. The Winter
The day Jack Flint remembered the woods of New England, twilight seemed to fall early, and it was hours before Jorinda understood that the dropping blue was not evening but snow. Snow that had absorbed all twilight into itself. Jorinda had walked miles and miles northward with Jack, lingering with him among the foothills. On the way back she was sleepy, lulled by the slantwise hissing of snowflakes. Close to home, she wedged herself into the hollow oak where, eighteen years before, her mother had given birth.
Three months later Jorinda woke and floundered through drifts to the empty cabin. She collapsed onto her huge bed and slept, dreaming of the north. Dreamed of an immense saw, made from three crosscuts brazed together. Of the fall of ancient timber, northern pine and spruce slashing through the air. Dreamed white birch glowing in a purple twilight, yellowing hackmatack—trees she had never seen. Dreamed the lumberjack's prodigious tools, honed and polished. She dreamed of logs jamming the streams, of streams choked by wood, of a powerful flood of water sluicing all before it.
That was the winter the lumberjacks up north labored under the snow, logging trees in tunnels beneath the crust. They lived in the realm of mining dwarves, their passages jeweled by stalactites of ice, blue and green. Each morning Jack Flint hammered the daylight free of ice on his iron anvil. And when the season changed, it changed in a cataclysm of spring. Then trees half-fallen, frozen in midair, crashed to earth. Frozen flames thawed in hundreds of abandoned lanterns, scorched the trees, and blossomed into small, threatening fires. Before fire could inflame this world of ice, snow melted and land tsunamis sprang up, tearing harvested timber and camps before them, driving the wood pell-mell to the sea and waiting ships.
This tempest of hurled men and timber was answered by Babel, by thousands of thawing words, for each word spoken since October had remained in the forest. Outcries littered the ground and were snagged in boughs. As the temperature rose, the freed, twittering "halloo!" of the greenhorn met the bravado of the lumberjack. Songs, shouts, and curses jostled one another in the chilly branches. Old recriminations shot up with green meanings, the phrases of lovers caused a second flush or ache, and the pealing of dinner bells deafened a gang of lumberjacks. Deep in shadowy corners of the woods, the shouting continued for weeks, and the echoes lasted through midsummer.
A thousand miles south, Jorinda woke as the shells of words murmured in her sleep fell to the ground. All that remained of a winter's dreams was a slight tinkling noise and some fragments of ice on the floor.
6. The Years
Whether it was caused by the abdication of her mother or by her longings or simply by growing older, Jorinda changed. Though Jack Flint came to her, at unexpected times, in the following summers, Jorinda knew that she could never go with him, never leave her Blue Ridge. With this knowledge, something of sorrow touched her face. She brooded more over the settlers—over their losses and errors, their actions she once had thought petty—and found in them a diminutive heroism. Hovering in the balsam, she would watch them lower their dead into consecrated ground. One spring soldiers invaded the mountains, and the Trail of Tears wound by her door. Many Cherokee, with their strong trunks and beautiful dull-gleaming hair, departed the woods. At night she came to them like a dream, bearing some weary man or woman for miles. It did nothing; they sickened and died on the long march to Oklahoma. Not by ones and tens, which could touch their stern watchers, but by impossible thousands.
Now when Jack Flint came to her from the Great Lakes and Big Woods of Michigan, she was no longer ripe with boasting, ready for trials of strength, eager to play. Instead, it seemed that clouds hung on her shoulders. Warm and thoughtful in the sun, she would sit as quietly as a tree, letting the nest-building birds light on her arms and carry off combings from her hair. Surely love with such a one is profound in nature. But Jack Flint stayed the old Jack, rowdy, a hardy wild lummox of the woods and water. As he moved westward, sodbusting in Minnesota, he came to Jorinda less often and, when he arrived, found her farther from him. Even her home-spot became more remote, harder to pick from the neighboring wilderness. The surrounding mosses and splashes of lichen plastered over wood and stone until it resembled nothing else so much as a hummingbird's tiny nest.
7. The Sleeping Mother
Visitors climbed to Jorinda's cabin, especially women broken from labor and weary of the villages. Both settlers and Indians visited her mountaintop, bringing gifts of fruit and flowers. The place became sacred to the Cherokee, and women worn and smoked as clay pots departed refreshed by a sip from Jorinda's mountain stream. Young men and women lingered near the cabin, gazing across the curve on curve of blue mountain ranges, the white spume of mist rising between them. To children and to the very old she appeared most often, but many claimed to have glimpsed her retreating back or the golden line of her arm among quaking leaves, the spill of her hair along stone. Climbing the twisted path, old men and women felt more sharply a nostalgia for a lost landscape where lonely settlers staked a solitary claim.
By the time Jack Flint came to her from the Olympic Peninsula, she was already half hidden in moss and stones. Her voice, a soughing of leaf and branch, merged with the wind. Men, both greenhorns and lumberjacks, have recorded that Flint staked his last claim to the wilderness of Alaska. Mountain men have told of seeing him among a tribe of grizzlies, fishing for salmon with bare hands in a stream pebbled with gold. The Inuit tell of a spirit large and generous as the sea. Winter storms and summer winds still breeze from the Alaskan coast as far as the Blue Ridge, and farther.
Birds nest in Jorinda's hair. Careless, shawled in cloud, the slopes of her body stretch across the Blue Ridge. When the haze lifts on a clear afternoon, there is always one who lifts his eyes to the mountains. Haiee! the woman wakes from sleep, an old man mutters, hearing the sound of falling rock. There, child, look, a woman says, there sleeps the dreaming mother. Guardian of valleys, Jorinda dreams her stories of earth. Her ear is close-pressed to loam, the better to listen to the world's invisible thrumming. Snow and sunshine lodge in the tender crook of her arm.
Originally published in Capitol: The Magazine of New York's Capitol Region 5:7 (July 1989).