"Yellow Bird" examines the thin and fragile line drawn between what excites our faith and breaks our hearts. It is a gentle healing hand, a familiar song from bygone days, a memory just beyond our reach. It is the story of faith on trial, an invitation to grapple, as the characters do, with what can never be explained.
" Johnson's debut is, at its core, a pastoral tale, a celebration of the rustic music and rich traditions of the hills and hollows of Virginia and West Virginia and their ability to offer relief and purpose in a harsh, lonesome world. . . a charming story about a bygone time where even magic seems possible."
- Kirkus Reviews
|Publisher:||Garden Gate Farm|
|Edition description:||LINDA JOHNSON DBA GARDEN GATE FARM|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It had been a tough year for the Yellow Bird, Amanda's used bookstore, a clapboard building painted ochre years ago over a coat of whitewash that showed through. It was a small building with a long history, rumored to be named for a native woman who had saved a settler's child from drowning in the Chalahume River that tumbled through the gorge behind the farm at Twin Gap.
In the beginning, the Yellow Bird was a cider inn, quenching thirsty travelers passing through on the wagon trail to the Scots-Irish and English settlements further up on South Mountain. When the railroad came through a century later, Twin Gap became a popular destination, especially for the well heeled who sought to escape the heat of the city or yearned for the unsurpassed beauty of the Appalachians. In more recent years, the romance of the passenger train had given way to the hard practicality of coal, and the Yellow Bird now depended on the generosity of sightseers who ventured off Interstate 81 to take their chances on the back roads along the Virginia and West Virginia border on their way to the more popular summer resorts in Tennessee.
Amanda sat out back on the bookstore's large stone patio laid more than a hundred years ago with blue and gray granite from the old abandoned quarry at the edge of the coal mine. She rested her elbows on a massive hand-hewn table and held a worn and stained brochure from the 1920s. She opened it to a picture of a string of guests lined shoulder-to-shoulder at this very table. They were wearing the white gabardine and seersucker of the day, parasols and bonnets aflutter. Amanda's grandmother was standing behind them ladling out bowls of soup while the patrons smiled white-toothed into the camera. The caption read: "The Yellow Bird is an unlikely retreat for the well-to-do nature enthusiast." She was certain her grandmother had charged handsomely for their soiree in the mountains.
Her grandmother looked as stalwart and weathered as an old boot, but she couldn't have been older than thirty. Life had been hard for Bernie, which is what everybody called her grandmother. By then she already had been widowed for five years, maybe more, and was left with a baby, Amanda's mother, to raise alone.
Amanda pulled out the only other photograph she had of her grandmother. It was from an earlier time, taken at the beach when she was just a teenager. Even through the fading and mottled image, Amanda could see that Bernie was a strikingly beautiful woman, teasing the camera with a devil-may-care pose, all legs and curves. Amanda looked at the pictures side by side and sighed, wondering if she was destined to suffer the same fate. She knew as well as anybody how a few short years could change a person.
How had her grandmother managed it - the farm, the bookstore, a daughter? Amanda was barely hanging on, even without a child in tow. And the truth was, it was getting harder. Too hard. Soon even Bernie, from the other side of the grave, would have to admit that.
Amanda turned to stoke the small fire she'd lit in the patio's stone hearth. The coals came alive against the chill of a dimming sky. She leaned back and sipped a home brew, letting her thoughts wander as they would, a healing hand over the memory of the past few months.
"Pardon me, ma'am," he said, standing on her patio in the half shadow and angled light of the doorway, and she swung around to see who it was. "The door was open so I let myself in," he said, hat in hand. "I'm just passin' through and need somethin' to read."
She thought she recognized him and started to get up, but she sat down again and looked at him more carefully. No, she was mistaken, she didn't know him after all. "Sorry, we're closed" is the only thing she could think of to say. What kind of man suddenly materializes on a stranger's doorstep? Especially on Sunday. And besides, she was closed for the season. Everyone knew it. What was he really after?
"I'm only here for a book, if you don't mind the inconvenience," he continued.
"We're closed," she said again. He wasn't very tall. Maybe five feet ten. She figured she could take him down if she had to. Working the farm had one advantage. It kept her small frame strong and agile. Yet he didn't seem dangerous. On the contrary, he was open and congenial and appeared genuine. Her hesitation seemed to amuse him, and that rattled her. She looked away realizing she'd been staring at him for a long time. Again he smiled, this time broadly. One thing she could tell for sure, this was a man accustomed to the silent and thorough scrutiny of a woman.
"Yeah, you told me." He ran his fingers through his curly brown hair and it made her pause. Something about that small gesture felt familiar. He felt familiar. But then again, he didn't.
"You been here before?" she asked.
He shrugged. He wore a patch over his right eye. Injuries were common up and down the ridge, especially these days. Between the coal mines, farms, and railroad, there was hardly a soul who didn't live with some sort of disfigurement. She was about to ask him what had happened, when he said, "I'd like to pay for a couple of books I picked out in there. And maybe a couple of those." He pointed to her beer. "You sell in bottles?"
He passed the litmus test, for now anyway. She nodded and got up from the table.
"So what'd you pick out?" she asked, showing him back into the shop.
"Does it matter?"
"Maybe, maybe not. I find it interesting, though - what people choose."
He slid the books across the counter. "How do I measure up?"
She rang up a T.S. Elliot collection: not bad, she thought. Then a 1959 copy of Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls and a 1937 edition of Margery Wilson's Pocket Book of Etiquette: The Modern Social Guide.
"I have eclectic tastes," he said and he pulled out a pack of Camels.
"Don't light up in here," she said.
He nodded then tucked the pack into his shirt pocket.
I know this man, she thought. "That'll be seven dollars and thirty-nine cents."
"Everything included, but you get a five cent refund if you return those bottles."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said with a tip of his hat. "I just might do that." And he disappeared out the door.
His name was Jeremiah Abner Stone, but he'd been called Cody for as long as he could remember. It had been nearly a year since he was discharged from the army and six months since he'd been released from the hospital.
The flesh just above his knee had been splayed by shrapnel and had healed well enough. After two operations and some physical therapy he could almost walk without a limp. But the incessant standing is what still killed him. He'd have to get another job soon if the boss couldn't find any sitting-down work for him to do.
It was an honorable discharge and he left the documents with his mother in case he ever needed to prove it. He came stateside feeling a lot of things, but honorable wasn't one of them. He'd only been on tour for three months when it happened. He was one of four in an advance team sent to sweep the village before the rest of the company arrived. Reconnaissance assured them that the town had been abandoned, but sabotage had become a more frequent ploy of the guerrillas and the lieutenant was taking extra precautions. Twice last week, they received news of troops not far north losing men in maneuvers like this. A pattern was emerging. Insurgents invade a town, terrorize the villagers, cleanse the population, then leave behind a maze of landmines to detonate when a door opens or a foot steps carelessly off the designated path.
It was Cody's first serious assignment and he was terrified. He was ashamed of his fear but he couldn't shake it. It seized him like a wild animal the moment they left the jeep and started the long dark hike to the village.
They'd been told the town was strategic. It was the only viable route to the bridge beyond it. His company would cross over, destroy the bridge, and then rendezvous with the rest of the regiment about ten miles south.
Cody's buddy, a colored man named Clarence Robinson, spotted the house first. It emerged from the night when they rounded the bend. It was a simple thatched building along the side of the road with a dilapidated shed in the back. Clarence moved out ahead of the rest and Cody soon followed. His sweat smelled sour and it poured from his armpits and down his back. He felt nauseous. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He had prepared.
Mr. Edgeworth was the one who delivered Cody's draft notice. He wasn't their regular postman, but having served in the last war, Mr. Edgeworth insisted on handing the message to Cody himself. He lingered while Cody and his mother read it.
"When do you report, son?" Mr. Edgeworth asked.
"In four weeks," Cody told him.
"Then start preparin' now," he advised. "You'll be all right if you're prepared." He turned to Mrs. Stone and squeezed her hand. "He'll be all right, ma'am, don't you worry," and he headed back down the road to finish his route.
Cody heeded the warning. He would prepare. A thick skin was the best defense against whatever lay ahead. He began to read accounts of war, war of any kind. The Peloponnesian Wars. Sparta. The Civil War with all its blood and brutality. The Great War and the stories told by victims of chemical poisoning. Reels of Churchill entering the German camps. Hiroshima. The bombing of North Korea. The more gruesome the better so he would be ready to face the Viet Cong. But he was not ready.
When they reached the thatched house, Clarence began to check the side window for wires and trips, then he climbed through. Several long numbing seconds passed before Cody heard Clarence whisper, "It's empty." Cody looked in the window. The blue light of the moon shone through and Cody could just make out Clarence's silhouette in the hallway leading to a room in the rear. Cody slipped out of sight and began circling to the back of the house.
He moved silently over the dirt, every muscle taught, his rifle erect, the butt pressed firmly on his shoulder. He could hear his blood pulsing in his ears. He stopped at the end of the wall and listened. Nothing. He gulped his breath and then held it. Slowly he pushed his face around the corner and aimed his rifle into the night. Nothing.
The back of the house was in shadow. He could see a door with a small opened window beside it. He peered in but it was too dark to see. All was silence. He told himself to be patient. The darkness was disorienting and he thought he might faint. But he did not. He knew Clarence would be taking his time surveying every inch of the hallway for traps. Cody tried to stop shaking while he waited for him. Gradually his pupils, already dilated with fear, opened and a small mound in the corner of the room came into focus.
There on the floor piled in a heap were the bodies; limbs and necks bent at odd angles, faces contorted, eyes blank. Small bodies. Boys and girls. Motionless, inert, dead. Left there for him to find. And he did find them. He started to vomit. At that moment, a single moment plucked from the infinite sea of moments floating unnoticed past the rest of the world, Cody's soul shattered into a million pieces.
"Jesus Christ!" Clarence screamed as he entered the room. Cody's reflexes took over. In one swift leap, he kicked open the door. It was the last thing he remembered until he woke up in triage.
"They still don't know why you weren't blown to bits," Clarence joked from the side of the hospital bed weeks later. But Cody was blown to bits, the pieces simply hadn't surfaced yet. He could hear Clarence talking but couldn't figure out how to answer him or anyone else for that matter. It was as if he had become an ice melt, breaking up and slowly drifting farther and farther away in every direction from everyone and everything he had ever known. A million pieces unreachable and unredeemable.
"They say it's shellshock. Not your leg, you're nearly over that. They say it's in your head. How'd you do it, man? They're actually going to send you home."
Home to what, Cody wondered.