When the phone rings way too late
for good news, just another farmer wanting me to lose half a night's sleep and drive some backcountry wash-out for miles, fix what he's botched, on such nights I'm like an old, drowsy god tired of answering prayers, so let it ring a while, hope they might hang up, though of course they don't, don't because they know the younger vets shuck off these dark expeditions to me, thinking it's my job, not theirs, because I've done it so long I'm used to such nights, because old as I am I'll still do what they refuse to, and soon I'm driving out of Marshall headed north, most often toward Shelton Laurel, toward some barn where a calf that's been bad-bred to save stud fees is trying to be born, or a cow laid out in a barn stall, dying of milk fever, easily cured if a man hadn't wagered against his own dismal luck, waited too late, hoping to save my fee for a salt lick, roll of barbed wire, and it's not all his own fault, poor too long turns the smartest man to stupid, makes him see nothing beyond a short term gain, which is why I know more likely than not I'll be arriving too late, what's to be done best done with rifle or shotgun, so make driving the good part, turn off my radio, let the dark close around until I know a kind of loneliness that doesn't feel sad as I pass the homes of folks I don't know, may never know, but wonder what they are dreaming, what life they wake to — thinking such things, or sometimes just watching for what stays unseen except on country roads after midnight, the copperheads soaking up what heat the blacktop still holds, foxes and bobcats, one time in the forties a panther, yellow eyes bright as truck beams, black-tipped tail swishing before leaping away through the trees, back into its extinction, all this thinking and watching keeping my mind off what waits on up the road, worst of all the calves I have to pull one piece at a time, birthing death. Though sometimes it all works out. I turn a calf's head and then like a safe's combination the womb unlocks, calf slides free, or this night when stubborn life got back on its feet, round eyes clear and hungry, my IV stuck in its neck, and I take my time packing up, ask for a second cup of coffee, so I can linger awhile in the barn mouth watching stars awake in their wide pasture. An Excerpt from Ron Rash's 2004 novel Saints at the River
She follows the river trail downstream, leaving behind her parents and younger brother who till eat their picnic lunch. She is twelve years old and it is her school's Easter break. Her father has taken time off from his job and they have followed the Appalachian Mountains south, stopping first in Gatlinburg, then the Smokies, and finally this river. She finds a place above a falls where the water looks shallow and slow. The river is a boundary between South Carolina and Georgia, and she wants to wade into the middle and place one food in South Carolina and one in Georgia so she can tell her friends back in Minnesota she has been in two states at the same time.
She kicks off her sandals and enters, the water so much colder than she imagined, and quickly deeper, up to her kneecaps, surging under the smooth surface. She shivers. Fifty yards downstream a granite cliff rises two hundred feet into the air to cast this section of river into shadow. She glances back to where her parents and brother sit on the blanket. It is warmer there, the sun full upon them. She thinks about going back but is almost halfway now. She takes a step, and the water rises higher on her knees. Four more steps, she tells herself. Just four more and I'll turn back. She takes another step and the bottom she tries to set her foot on is no longer there and she is being shoved downstream and she does not panic because she is a good swimmer and has passed all of her Red Cross courses. The water shallows and her face breaks the surface and she breathes deep. She tries to turn her body so she won't hit her head on a rock and as she thinks this she's afraid for the first time and she's suddenly back underwater and hears the rush of water against her ears. She tries to hold her breath but her knee smashes against a boulder and she gasps in pain and water pours into her mouth. Then for a few moments the water pools and slows. She rises coughing up water, gasping air, her feet dragging the bottom like an anchor trying to snag waterlogged wood or rock jut and as the current quickens again she sees her family running along the shore and she knows they are shouting her name though she cannot hear them and as the current turns her she hears the falls and knows there is nothing that will keep her from it and the current quickens and quickens and another rock smashes against her knee but she hardly feels it as she snatches another breath before the river pulls her under and she feels the river fall and she falls with it as water whitens around her and she falls deep into darkness and as she rises her head scrapes against a rock ceiling and all is black and silent and she tells herself don't breathe but the need grows inside her beginning in the upper stomach then up through the chest and throat and as that need rises her mouth and nose open at the same time and the lungs explode in pain and then the pain is gone along with the dark as bright colors shatter around her like glass shards, and she remembers her sixth-grade science class, the gurgle of the aquarium at the back of the room that morning the teacher held a prism out the window so it might fill with color, and she has a final beautiful thought—that she is now inside that prism and knows something even the teacher does not know, that the prism's colors are voices, voices that swirl around her head like a crown, and at that same moment her arms and legs she did not even know were flailing cease and she becomes part of the river.
About the Author
Ron Rash grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and graduated from Gardner-Webb College and Clemson University. Rash's family has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since the eighteenth century, and this region has been the primary focus of his writing career. He cites a diverse array of writers, including James Joyce, Philip Roth, and Eudora Welty, as important influences on his creative approach to place.
Rash's poetry and fiction have appeared in many magazines, such as
Sewanee Review, Yale Review, Georgia Review, New England Review, Poetry, and The Oxford American. He is the author of three short story collections, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth (1994), Casualties (2000), and Chemistry and Other Stories, Eureka Mill (2001), Among the Believers (2000), and Raising the Dead (2002); three novels, One Foot in Eden (2004), (2004), and Saints at the River The World Made Straight (2007); and a children's book, The Shark's Tooth (2001). His list of awards includes The Academy of American Poets Prize, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the Fellowship of Southern Writers' James Still Award for Writing of the Appalachian South, the O. Henry Prize, and the Southern Book Critic Circle Award. He has taught at the University of South Carolina and is currently the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University.