On Jan. 1, 2008, I sat in my apartment in Kenilworth with friends, throwing cards and eating black-eyed peas and collard greens for luck in the New Year. I wasn’t thinking about how the Wheel of Fortune sometimes spins wildly, turning tides and yielding unexpected outcomes.
Two weeks later, I traveled to southwest Virginia with my husband, Ben, and my baby daughter, Karoline, to welcome the newest family member: Maebel Clay Johnson, Karoline’s cousin. It was bitterly cold, and the new baby, swaddled tightly, was passed from relative to relative in a cozy room with a wood stove.
But Ben and I didn’t know that in our absence, a pipe had come loose beneath the sink in our upstairs neighbor’s apartment. Barbara, our neighbor and landlord, was in Florida, so no one was home, and the water dripped and dripped, flooding both apartments. Over those fated two days, the ceiling caved in, leaving our place covered with pink insulation and crumbling ceiling tiles. The carpet was a quagmire; the water wreaked its quiet destruction.
Whether by coincidence, blind intuition or dumb luck, I stayed in Virginia, visiting my sister. Ben called me and, over a crackling phone line, said, “Kristin, the house is ruined,” describing the maelstrom that had greeted him. He must have been shocked and dismayed, but he acted fast.
Ben works at Doc Chey’s, and his friends from the restaurant housed our three cats, our dog and our many houseplants. They helped him move all our belongings to a safe, dry place. They let him sleep on their couches. In the blink of an eye, we’d become a family of squatters.
I wound up in Hendersonville, at the home of my old school chum Nicole. While Karoline napped, I stayed glued to the computer, scouring the Internet for a new home. There seemed to be a dearth of rental houses around Asheville where the price was right and a 90-pound dog, three cats and a baby were deemed acceptable tenants. Somehow, some way, our path led to east Asheville and the poetically named Bittersweet Lane.
I first came there right before Candlemas, when the light begins to turn and the days slowly lengthen. The old farmhouse had moss on the roof and a crooked gutter. It sat on a hill surrounded by tall, stately oaks; to the east were distant, knobby mountains and an open field. A family of elderly boxwoods sat sentinel in the front yard. Inside, the floors were bright, beautiful wood.
The house had been in the family of landlord Tommy Glass for many years. His grandfather built it; his grandmother named Bittersweet Lane. The venerable structure soon became our home.
I’ve always loved winter’s spare beauty, but last year I learned that it’s also when the buds on the trees begin to form. The wind howled through the cracks those first few months, and every day I walked to the Swannanoa River; dark and cold, it nonetheless still flowed, which I found reassuring and calming.
By April the yard was covered in daffodils, some pale and butter-colored, some double-headed. Hardy and strong, they bowed their ruffled heads and weathered a final April snow. I watched with delight as the light began to change and the woods grew green. I recited the names of all the plants I spied, as if some secret were revealed through this strange new woodland vocabulary: adder’s-tongue, toadshade, fiddlehead, cowslip, May apple, vetch.
Summer came on thick, and the cicadas swarmed in June. The monotone buzz made the stale air even hotter. The bugs got caught behind our ears and in our hair; I even saw an albino cicada, pale as a moonflower, on a lone stalk of tall grass.Karoline plucked the nymph’s shells from the tree trunks, crushing them between her tiny fingers. The pieces blew away like onion skin in the stagnant season’s thin breezes.
Around the summer solstice our cat, Autumn, went missing. We found her about a week later amid a patch of trees down by the road. Her ribs were the color of dull sand, and she weighed half of what she once had. We buried her under the walnut tree, marking the spot with a thick chunk of quartz pulled from the woods.
In July’s torpor, ground bees swarmed from their hidden hollows in the scorched earth. A baby turkey cheeped once, mournfully, in the front yard; its eyes were clouded over, and it was crawling with fleas. I let it hop away, and the next day it was dead.
The bears periodically revealed their dark, glossy forms in the shadowy woods, or ambling placidly along the Dam Pasture Trail. There were double rainbows, shooting stars, and a hawk killed a blue jay in midair. Every month, the same full moon rose over the mountains, but with a different name: Flower, Harvest, Hunter’s.
Summer waned. The blackberries ripened, and the goldenrod, asters and ironweed bloomed. The morning glories curled their bugled heads in the garden; tomatoes ripened on the vines.
The trees turned and the leaves floated quietly to earth en route to becoming something else.
And here we are again, just past the year’s longest, darkest night. The wind rattles the panes, and I dress the baby in tights and fleece.
We turn inward in winter. The fire pit is ashes, and there are Scrabble games at night. “Oink” is unacceptable, and “hydronic” is not a word, according to my 1969 Webster’s. Curious, I look up the word “bittersweet.” There is, of course, the noun: the poisonous vine with red berries that choked the roses along the old fence line. And then this, the adjective: “both bitter and sweet, both painful and pleasant.” And I think to myself, well, isn’t that life? Isn’t that life.
[Kristin MacLeod likes horses, walking, and the moon.]