Sam and Leah moved from one disappointing house to another the first few years they lived together. Their jobs had them on the road much of the time—Leah as a home health aide, Sam driving as far as Charleston to work for her uncle, a countertop installer. They kept hoping they could find a place in Guyandotte County that was cheap, quiet, with enough natural light for her to paint still lifes, and for him to glue, knot, and wire together his objects.
Mixed media sculptures, Leah had called them, early on in their relationship. It was the first time Sam was brave enough to show her what he had been working on, cow skulls tied together with Christmas lights and mounted on found wood, stored under a blanket in the bed of his pickup. When he peeled the blanket even further back, there were a few dozen empty cans of Treet lunch loaf that Sam had shot with his brother’s rifle, and then a bunch of can keys strung together like a necklace.
Leah said that Sam’s assemblage in the truck-bed was saying something important, that she liked how he was fighting the industrialization of meat, the torture of animals.
Sam didn’t want to tell her that his art wasn’t that complicated. “So now you’ve seen my junk jumbles,” he said sheepishly, and he ran his fingers through his curly hair.
“Don’t bash your vision,” she said, and put her hand on his shoulder, as if she was steadying him.
There was an old company house in Burnerville that smelled like coal dust and rotting wood and had humpback crickets swarming the cabinets. And then there was a tiny garage apartment in Clevenger that Leah’s uncle owned, crowded with junky furniture, the oven door almost bumping the foot of the bed. And then a fixer-upper on Sam’s mother’s place near Mullins Tipple, surrounded by overgrown lilacs and yuccas and wisterias that set off Leah’s allergies.
After that, a secluded two-story with asphalt siding, a well that went dry in the summer drought, house sparrows that chittered in the attic, and scrub pines grown through the ruined back porch. Sam wanted to nail up sheet metal to close the holes in the attic, get the sparrows to quit nesting there. Leah didn’t want him to bother them. Sam said that they had to draw the line somewhere.
“I know you could care more if you tried,” she said.
“Don’t they destroy the eggs of other birds?” he said. “They’re invaders. An alien species. Let’s run them off.”
“Should we run off humans too? We’re the worst enemies of birds.”
Leah took out her field guide on eastern birds, learned all that she could about house sparrows, and put trays of millet and cracked corn on the ground. She repaired the folding attic stairs so that she could go up and watch them. Before dropping out of college, she had wanted to become a field biologist, maybe a wildlife illustrator. Leah was a house sparrow enthusiast for a while that summer; she studied them, painted them, talked about them. Sam picked up her field guide, made a tiered birdbath from trashcan lids because there was no rain. He also read about house sparrow aggression, found a dead bluebird in the driveway, did some more research. If Leah changed her mind, he thought he would offer to help her make ground traps, capture the sparrows, cut their flight feathers.
The landlord raised their rent—and the house sparrows were still clamoring in the attic—when Sam and Leah decided to look for another place. Sam found them a drafty bungalow with rust-brown carpets, too close to Route 3, coal trucks rattling by all night. In the winter, Leah tried painting with mittens on, gave up, found chores to do, or watched Wheel of Fortune, or napped. She didn’t complain, and that worried Sam. Usually, she would say, we can do better.
When the heating bill for the bungalow was painfully high, Sam said, “I think we should move.”
Leah was in the living room, scrubbing at a stain in the carpet. She said that she couldn’t stand another dump.
“I’ll keep looking,” Sam said.
Sam and Leah had different ways of finding places to live. Sam checked bulletin boards at convenience stores, scanned newspapers and circulars, watched for signs while he drove, kept the phone numbers of everyone he knew so that he could call around. He plodded, tinkered, accrued.
Leah was slapdash. She waited on chance conversations with strangers, or her uncle’s schemes, or surprise house-sitting invitations. Sometimes, she had a tug of intuition while driving that compelled her to make a sharp turn, venture up a steep dirt road, ford a creek—and sure enough, come to a rental sign.
Another week of bitter cold had gone by—a week when Leah taped more plastic sheeting on the windows, and Sam unfroze the pipes with his arc welder—and then Leah came to him with a possibility while he was sorting through his collection of scrap metal. She had seen a place for rent on her way back from checking on an elderly couple in Burnerville, and she had a good feeling about it.
“The trouble is, I had gotten a little lost, and now I’m not sure which road I was on,” she added.
Sam said that he wished she would be more methodical.
“You’re one to talk,” Leah said, smiling. “You pretend to go house-hunting, but really you’re junk-hunting.”
Sam knew she was right. When he checked the papers and the roads, he was always looking for the discards and freebies that sidetracked him.
“You could try writing a note to yourself,” he said.
“My way gets results,” she said, almost an accusation.
Reproach could run both ways. Sam wanted to say something sharp, to think of words that would push back, but he just stared at Leah, her paint-spattered flannel shirt, her copper-penny eyes, her uneven ponytail, her breaths puffing out as clouds in the cold room that had frost flowers on the windows every morning.
They went out looking for the house Leah had chanced upon while she was lost—Sam used the GPS on his phone to guide him to the general area and a handwritten list of side roads, while Leah drove her Subaru in circles. She had said she would go the crow way. And then they both pulled into the driveway of the house almost at the same time, Leah arriving about a minute sooner. It was a farmhouse in the hollow off of Packville Road.
Later that day, the owner took them inside, pointed out the beadboard walls and stone fireplace and the creek in the ravine out back. Leah said she loved it. She and Sam moved in, got rid of the cobwebs and dead wasps, scoured and mopped, unpacked and organized. After the farmhouse felt like a home, they sat at the top of the ravine and listened to the creek gurgling over its stony bed.
The love they had then was heated and ravenous, wood smoke and patchwork quilts, blackberry wine and cinnamon candles, red trillium and sweet everlasting, tonic and salve.
Leah made the smaller bedroom her painting studio. Sam said that he would raise seedlings, sell vegetables and herbs. He was thinking about objects made from turban gourds and toothpicks, pipe cleaners and milkweed pods.
“It’ll be different now,” Leah said. She said it two or three times the first week they lived there.
“I hope so,” Sam said.
The sides of the ravine were shale and clay, too slippery to get down. For a closer look at the creek, Leah walked down the road, unfolded a camp chair, and sat under the slab bridge that crossed it. She was gone for hours. When Sam asked what she was working on, she showed him her sketches: ripples flowing around a series of mossy stones, tiny flies hatching in dense clouds, the refracted sunlight.
She kept asking him to join her, and eventually Sam did go with her to the creek. He rolled up his jeans and waded with her to the edge of a swimming hole not far from the bridge, and they took their clothes off and went in. Sam thought the water smelled funny, maybe a little like rotten eggs, maybe like licorice, but he said nothing. He didn’t want to spoil her enthusiasm.
He thought about how withdrawn Leah had been last winter, when they lived in the chilly bungalow. She was mopey, closed off. Sam had puttered along like always, he did chores, halfheartedly tried to recycle some materials he knew he would never use. He made scrap metal reindeer, sold a few of them; he stayed busy because he thought that an awful feeling might seize him if he stopped, some dread or defeat.
Maybe the cold weather had been depressing them, maybe geography. Sam and Leah had long commutes, and they drove through a lot of Guyandotte County. If they wanted fresh vegetables and meat, they had to drive an hour to the nearest super center, then an hour back. Sometimes, in hushed voices, they told each other what they had seen. Too many sad little towns and boarded-up grocery stores, and billboards that said coal keeps the lights on and coal powers the nation, too many ruins left by deep mines, rusted tipples and battered conveyors and coke ovens, and memorials for miners, black helmets and red crosses, white tulips and dark granite etched with the shapes of the dead, and the savage upheaval of mountaintop mines, giant dozers and draglines gouging the earth, and valley fills and blasted ridges, creeks stained with yellow boy, and the mountains laid bare.
Now, spring was coming, and they had settled into the farmhouse in the holler, between unbroken ridges that folded around them like hands. Leah was inspired, full of energy, but Sam was not. When she wasn’t working, Leah was drawing the creek. She was unfurling, Sam thought. Let her draw all day, what was the harm? Let them live like hermits in parallel worlds. Sam was happy for her, or mostly happy, a little jealous. He wanted the attention she gave the creek, or some of it. He varnished some gourds, cut pictures from Life magazines, made some popsicle stick people with googly eyes and panting yarn tongues because Leah always laughed at those. That was as far as he got with his projects. He was stuck, or he didn’t have enough motivation. He had seedlings to thin, and raised beds to build, and old leaves to collect for the compost pile.
Sam walked outside and saw dogwood and service-berry trees blooming. Frog eggs glistened in patches of muck where the ground was swampy.
A coal truck drove up the road, and he wondered if there was a mine portal somewhere in the holler. He had thought there weren’t any mines nearby.
One day when Sam was planting lettuce, Leah came to him, ready to talk. Her face was flushed. Her hair was muddy, her jeans too.
“You should see what’s living in the creek,” she said.
“Tell me,” he said.
“Caddis-larvae that make their own shelters from silk and grit,” she told him.
“I’ll check it out after I finish up.”
“And whirligig beetles that have two pairs of eyes,” she said. “One for seeing above the surface and the other for seeing underwater.” The cuffs of her flannel shirt were wet, as if she had dipped her hands in the creek. “I’m going back,” she said.
“Don’t stay away too long,” Sam said. He didn’t think she heard him.
When he went inside, he put on his coat. There was ice breath in the farmhouse, and a dead daddy longlegs in the sink, and in the hearth, a mound of cool gray ash.
On a warmer day a few weeks later, Sam and Leah were wading the creek upstream. Leah had sold four small watercolors to a coffee shop in Charleston, all views of the creek from the slab bridge, and Sam had suggested that they look for more scenes for her to paint.
“I can’t find a new subject just by willpower,” Leah said. “Or whatever it is you think I can switch on.”
“I’d still like to get to the top of the ridge,” Sam said.
In old running shoes and track pants pushed up to the knees and faded tee-shirts, they clambered along. Sometimes they hopped from stone to stone, and sometimes they waded, kicking up water.
They followed the creek’s twists and meanders, and passed by a few houses and trailers. They invented names for the feeder branches and forks. In a low spot where the hemlocks and laurels bowered over them, Leah told Sam to hunker down. She pointed out tiny columns of mud rising from the bottom. “Crawfish chimneys,” she said.
When he stood up from the water, Sam saw that his shirt-hem was tinged yellow. “What’s this?” he said.
“Sweat stains,” Leah said.
They kept wading until they came to a chain-link fence that ran across the creek and into the woods on either side. The fence was hung with signs that said No Trespassing and bore the name of the company who now had a claim on the land upstream.
“That’s weird,” Leah said.
“Maybe to keep four wheelers out,” Sam said.
Leah had brought sketching supplies in a snap bag; she took out paper and jotted the company’s name and phone number.
And then about a week after they waded the creek, Leah dashed into the farmhouse. Sam was making frames for her pictures, honeysuckle braided with grapevines. “Something’s wrong with the creek,” Leah said. “The fish are swimming funny, like they’re drunk.” And then she was gone, running down the road to the slab bridge.
When Sam got there, Leah was standing in knee-deep water, surrounded by dead fish, belly-up, lifeless little ovals. She lowered her cupped hands into the water, lifted the fish, let them spill back into the creek, lifted more fish out. She was repeating their names: minnow, muskie, shiner, darter.
Sam thought the dead fish all looked the same.
The creek widened and got shallower a few feet from where Leah stood, and Sam could see clots of white slime coating the creek-bottom, maybe algae, or trash, or maybe something like paint. “Get out of there,” he said.
Leah shuddered but stayed where she was.
A pickup crossed the bridge, and jerked to a stop, and pulled off to the side. An old woman rolled down her window and poked her head out. “Don’t you people know that’s sick water,” she said. “Ever since they put a cleaning plant at the head of the hollow. And they have up there a bunch of slurry ponds that spill over when it rains.”
Leah stopped going to the creek. When she and Sam talked about moving now, Leah didn’t say that she was tired of dumps. She said, “I love it here and now I hate it too.” She said that she felt poisoned, not just her body but something deeper, and when Sam said he wanted to help, she said she didn’t think he could. “I know the creek is not a thing you care about,” she said. She had smudges under her eyes.
Sam thought that Leah had stopped drawing and stopped eating too—when he offered to cook something, she said she had a headache, she had no appetite. But then he snooped in her studio while she was at her cousin’s baby shower. Her desk was littered with rice cake crumbs and empty mustard packets. The top sheet of her sketchpad was blank; he turned to the next sheet, almost didn’t see the tiny female humanoids penciled in the bottom left corner. One encased within a tube of pebbles, and one armored with quills and bristles, and one who had beetle-eyes.
After Leah quit going to the creek, Sam tried to take up where she left off. He missed how exuberant she had been when she was drawing the creek; maybe he could get her connected with it again, or maybe knowing the creek would be a way for him to know whoever she was becoming. Early each morning, before he drove to work for her uncle, he went to her spot under the slab bridge, added notes to a journal he was keeping, sometimes a rough sketch. He thought he might build a diorama of the creek scene; he would enjoy the repetitive work of gluing and detailing the tiny set-pieces. Most of the notes he recorded in the journal were mundane; there might be discarded beer cans disrupting the sameness of the creek, occasionally a faint odor, but that was it.
Sam also visited the neighbor who had told them about the cleaning plant at the top of the holler. Her name was Flutie Johnson, and she was in her housecoat and work-boots, weed-eating the steep part of her front yard, when Sam stopped by. She had covered her pickup with blue tarps. She said that there was a silo full of coal dust up the road; on a windy day the dust came down in clouds and got all over her marigolds and yard gnomes. The company that owned the ridge had put renewal permits in last week’s Coal River News. When Sam didn’t say anything, Flutie said, “That means they’re about to expand the sludge ponds.” She went inside, brought out the newspaper and showed Sam the permits, and gave him a glass of dandelion tea. She said she had made it from store-bought water. Sam winced when he saw that his glass had bits of vegetation floating in it.
I need to tell Leah this, Sam thought. Get through to her somehow. Maybe she would decide to move; maybe she would want to fight for the creek; maybe she would snap out of the slump she was in.
When he went into her studio, it sounded like Leah was scribbling aimlessly. He heard the rapid scratching of her pencil as she slid it around and around. She said “hey,” but didn’t look at him; she was leaning over the pad, her face almost touching the paper, as if whatever haphazard thing she was creating required her full concentration.
He said, “Do you want to stay here?”
She kept her eyes down, took out a kneading eraser, dabbed the paper, then sharpened her pencil against a sanding stone. “Maybe. I think so,” she said. “But I’ve got a bad headache.” She turned her chair toward Sam, sat there facing him. “I can’t paint. Is my hand shaky?”
She held out her right hand; it reminded Sam of some neglected plant, drooping and stained, desperate for sunlight.
“We could move out of state,” he said.
“We have people here,” she said.
“I don’t know what you want,” he said.
“Are you ever going to ask what I’m working on?” she said.
At first glance, a quick flip through Leah’s pad, Sam felt anxious. It looked like a stranger’s work. Pages of chicken tracks and zigzags and curlicues. He saw random markings, irregular shapes, chaotic slashes. Leah was watching him, tapping her pencil, and Sam tried to keep his expression neutral.
When he gazed carefully, when he gave a long look to one page of Leah’s swirls and slashes, and then to another, he saw gusts of wind clearing rubble from the earth, and then diagonals of rain that might wash it clean, put out the burning, and then potent loops and eddies coming off the page.
William Woolfitt is the author of three poetry collections: Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014), Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, 2016), and Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020). His fiction chapbook The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014) won the Epiphany Editions contest judged by Darin Strauss.