SUMMER/AUTUMN 2015 / VOL 15 ISSUE 2
Books

Nectar

By Terry Coffman
 

A man is lucky to have one true friend in life. Jonathan MacCumber was that friend to me. He came home to Virginia with Sundar. He bought a small farm and became a beekeeper. He owned a hundred and twenty acres located in one of the many valleys nestled near Front Royal, Virginia. He raised bees and, in the summer and autumn, sold honey and beeswax to locals and also grocery chains throughout the South. Additionally he rented hives to farmers in Virginia and West Virginia and sometimes as far away as Kentucky and Maryland. He drove his old Ford pick-up truck, filled with the white bee boxes, over macadam country roads and concrete interstates. Sometimes Iíd go with him. We would drive down a gravel road, drop off three or four hives, and then head out to the next field. I loved those times with him, delivering those tiny pollinators. 

We shared a love for the countryside, the mountains, the valleys and the places where our families had been living for over 300 hundred years. Some of our people lived in the hollows, a few resided in towns with pretty white houses and some were still scratching out a living in tarpaper shacks. We were proud of our Irish and Scottish ancestors and our forefathers who fought in the Army of Virginia. In spite of the fact that we were both born in West Virginia, we were not Yankees. We were true Virginians. Our people wrote the Declaration of Independence. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and General Robert E. Lee all came out of this neck of the woods. There would be no United States today if it werenít for Virginians. 

Jonathan and I appreciated the magic side of life. He was a traveler, a wise man who possessed a heart filled with kindness and a soul that was ancient. I was hard-nosed, a tenacious man who lived most of my life with a hammer in one hand and a book of poetry in the other. I was a survivor of war, a crippled man, a loyal friend, and a kind of bandit who would steal a song or a plank of wood without any guilt. I saw opportunities where others didnít. If someone said a thing couldnít be done, I took it as a challenge. I was often blinded by my passions. I didnít demand companionship, yet my friend spent the last quarter of his life doing things with me. Sometimes Jonathan and I didnít see one another for several months, but when we met again, we were like two metronomes sitting on a piano, our conversations never missing a beat.

As Jonathan MacCumber grew older, he began to look like a cross between Stonewall Jackson and Samuel Clemons. His drooping mustache was a filter for tea and long words. We shared a love for salt pork, cheap cigars and the whiskey made from local stills. In the summertime we climbed the Allegany and Blue Ridge Mountains, where the moon held us captive at night and in the morning the mist enveloped us with awe. 

It was the mountains that initially brought us back together. After he left Molokai, Jonathan, along with his adopted son, came home to Virginia. For a while he lived with his sister, but things were difficult for him and he left the child with her as he tried to come to terms with all that had transpired in his life, both the good and the bad. He had so many loses, the Thai princess, Maka, Riji, his family in the hilltops of Siam, Ramacharaka, Gandhi, the nun in Calcutta, his mother and others. I received only one letter from him during this time of exile. From that letter I learned he had been working in the remote oil fields of Alaska, but was about to leave. He didnít say where he was going or how long heíd be away. He said heíd be out of touch and that I shouldnít worry about him. It would be like him to go to an isolated island or an ashram in the remotest parts of the Himalayas. Whatever he chose to do would be what he needed. 

Three years later he telephoned me. Up until that point, I was uncertain if Iíd ever hear from him again. All that I remember about that call was his voice, which sounded calm and purposeful. "Morgan, I believe I am ready to re-enter the world. I am coming home. Before I return to my sister and Sundar, I have to go to Spruce Knob. The final act of penance must take place on the mountain. Will you join me there next month on Easter Sunday? 

I agreed.

Spruce Knob is a mystical place where the twisted limbs of the windblown pines near the summit remind me of crucifixes, their branches hacked apart by vultures and woodpeckers. The land below and around the mountain is predominantly filled with spruce forests and meadows and the mountain slopes are packed with slabs of boulders. The wind on top of Spruce Knob sometimes howls like the souls in Hades, and at other times the wind sings in tune with angels. People go there to be close to heaven. 

In my youth my father often took my brother and me, along with a guide who did the dirty work, to hunt and fish around Spruce Knob. The small creeks were filled with trout and crawdads. Huge rocks and pine trees covered the surrounding smaller mountains. We often slept on the Knob. The grass was four feet high and softer than a feather bed. The color had a fragrance. It smelled green, perfect green, deep green, not yellow green. No weeds could grow in its thickness. The wind braided the grass like a Shawnee warriorís hair. I was baptized on that mountain.

In spite of the lingering years of pain in my torn leg, I looked forward to climbing Spruce Knob one last time. When I reached the top, I saw Jonathan sitting on a huge boulder. He must have been there for several weeks. He was disheveled and wrapped around his shoulders was a filthy Indian blanket. He smelled of smoke and pine needles; it was obvious he had been roaming in the woods and sleeping beside fires at night. We sat together. We walked together. We slept side by side. We talked about his journeys to Siam, India and the leper land. We prayed. I said Hail Maryís while he chanted Buddhist prayers. Both seemed to draw out the pain that imbedded itself into his wounded spirit. We climbed down the mountain. It was easier going down the Knob than up. On descent, he put his strong arm around my shoulders to help me keep my balance, but more importantly, his support reminded me of how he helped me stand after I lost my leg at the Battle of the Marne.

Sometime after rural phone service came into the valleys and hills of the Virginias, he called one day out of the desert of his mind. Phoning became our new mode of communication. I was surprised when he told me that he had married a young Cherokee woman of quiet strength and gentleness. "She was," he said, "the beautiful daughter of one of the old chiefs of the reservation near the foothills of the mountains." Her Indian name was Walking Willow, but he called her Willa. 

One day while he and Sundar were away retrieving several colonies of bees from a Kentucky peach grower, a neighbor, Clyde Bishoff, came to pick up three hives. My friend later told me he had forgotten that Clyde was coming that day. 

Jonathan had told both Willa and Sundar to never go near the hives without him. Jonathan guessed she just wanted to be helpful, so she volunteered to help load the bees onto the manís truck. As she was attempting to move one of the boxes, she slipped and knocked the hive over. A swarm of frightened bees were buzzing round her. Even though Jonathan had taught Willa not to make quick movements when she was near the bees, she must have panicked. The bees chased her. As she was trying to reach the house, she must not have seen the rattlesnake sunning itself on the path. 

The peach grower saw her fall to the ground; she was holding her leg yelling, "Help, help." He came running towards her. She screamed, "Snake. Itís a God damned snake." Before he reached her, the serpent struck her again; this time his fangs hit her hand as she was trying to fend him off. After this second strike the snake slithered towards the beehives. Clyde grabbed the garden hoe leaning against the well. He chased the snake, then remembered Willa, turned and ran to her aid. As he picked Willa up and carried her towards the house, the bees began stinging them. He dropped her on the steps leading up to the screened porch, but later she must have managed to open the door and got inside. 

The next day a neighbor found them. The farmer was lying on the porch, unconscious and barely alive, his body swollen from the toxins of hundreds of bees. Willaís body was in the kitchen near the wash sink. Pieces of her treasured blue and white crackled porcelain pitcher, a gift a friend had given her soon after she and Mac got married, were scattered across the floor. Apparently she had managed to open the door and was able to enter the house. It appeared to my friendís neighbor, the one who found her and cleaned up the house and called the funeral parlor before Jonathan got home, that she had died while trying to reach water. According to the coroner, the combination of poison from the bees and the snake must have spread through her quickly. Jonathan told me he destroyed the bees by burning his hives. He went to retrieve her body from the morgue and took her back to the reservation to be buried with her people. Lost in guilt and sorrow, Jonathan and Sundar stayed with the Indians for two months. An old medicine man took my friend to the top of Spruce Knob. The shaman called the mountain, "Land-that-floats-on-clouds."

They sat up camp on the peak of the mountain. The seer chanted and danced before the flames of the fire he built. He told Jonathan to kill a rattlesnake, cut her head and rattle off and bring them to him. 

Jonathan had been a catcher of snakes, but had only killed one, the cobra who had slain his wife and child in Siam. 

MacCumber searched for hours until he heard the sound of the rattle. The snake must have been a female because it was only four or five feet long. She was curled up next to a dead pine tree. He took a stick and tried to hold her head down. He missed, and the creature bolted forward, sinking its fangs into the corduroy fabric of his pant leg. He remembered Gandhi, when the serpent could not get its fang out of the cloth of Great Manís robe. If MacCumber were going to prevent the snake from tearing loose and biting into his calf he would have to grasp her behind the head and pull her loose. With his heart pounding wildly, he quickly grabbed the serpent. Her body wrapped around his arm as she fought to free herself. She tried to twist her head back toward his hand. She was strong, but he was determined; she would not overpower him. The sound of her tail was like the loud crackling of a fire. She hissed, and her tongue flicked across his wedding ring. Jonathan slammed the snake against a rock until he was exhausted. He slammed her over and over until her body bounced off the jagged edge of large stone. Ripped from her body, her scales layered the soil and small pebbles on the groand. MacCumber sat down on a boulder and let her still body twitch until it grew still. He stared at it without any sense of compassion or remorse as a cluster of eggs spilled out of one of her wounds. 

He picked the serpent up, cut the parts from the snake that the Shaman told him to do, then walked to the edge of the cliff and threw the remaining length of her body out towards the valley below as far as he could. He lost sight of her when she disappeared into the shamble of fallen rocks and dead twisted pine trees hundreds of yards below him. When he returned, he smashed the eggs under the heel of his boot.

When Jonathan returned to camp, the old Indian took the snakes head and squeezed what venom remained into a clay bowl. He tossed the head into the fire. Then he cut the palm of MacCumberís hand and mixed the blood with the poison. The Indian took the rattle and tied it to a leather cord and placed it around Jonathanís neck. He told Jonathan to remove his clothing. Jonathanís tattoos startled the Indian, but he smiled and began painting my friendís body with a mixture of ash and the contents in the clay boul. The medicine man smeared its black concoction over Jonathanís man parts. He then spat in the solution of blood and poison and emptied a powdered potion from his medicine bag into the liquid. He handed Jonathan the mixture and told my friend to drink. 

MacCumber drifted out of his body. Jonathan told me that he rose like smoke swirling into the mist surrounding the mountain. The embers of the shamanís fire became one with the stars. Jonathan said he reached for the light only to burn his hands. The talons of a large bird pulled him back and drew him into the air. They followed a white buffalo through meadows filled with wildflowers, dead horses and screaming men with yellow hair. For days Jonathan traveled between Purgatory and Hell. He spoke with dark angels and cobras. He said that he saw things men should never see. All through the journey he could hear the rattle of snakes and the drone of bees. Jonathan explained that he cried out for water to quench his thirst. He said a bee hummed near his face. On the insectís legs were droplets of water that the tiny insect deposited on his parched lips. In his hallucination Jonathan was engulfed by a swarm of honeybees that carried him back to Spruce Knob. As in many other times in Jonathanís life, some magical event or spiritual awakening brought him home. 

When he regained his senses, Jonathan told me he was wrapped in that old moth-eaten Indian blanket. Lying on the ground, sick with fever, the medicine man gave him herbs and teas until my friend was finally able to eat. When he regained his strength, Jonathan and the old Indian climbed down the mountain. At the bottom, the entire tribe and Sundar met them. The Shaman returned to the reservation and Jonathan and his boy came home to the farm.

Not long after the strange occurrence on the mountain a swarm of bees appeared on his property. He said they were a colony returning all by themselves from Maryland. A year later, MacCumber reopened his bee business. And like the bee colonies, he prospered.

On the mantle of his home, the arrangement of feathers and bird nests Willa had collected during her walks in the meadows joined the gray stones, worn smooth by the river, and the fragile remains of bumble bees and yellow ginkgo leaves. I remember looking at her display and thinking about what Jonathan said, "She always touched everything with love." 

That winter, Jonathan emptied Willaís closet and gave everything to the women on the reservation. He gave the Cherokee blanket she wove to Sundar and sent Willaís Cherokee necklace and beaded earrings to Riji. 

Sundar had dual mothers. The two Indian women had been faithful correspondents. Within six months after of Willaís passing, Jonathan received a letter from Riji. This letter, however, proved to be Rijiís last. It was filled with love and no remorse. She told Jonathan her heart was weak, and thanked him for all he had done for her. "Especially," she wrote, "for giving my son a good home filled with love."

Sundar had lost two mothers, Willa and Riji. Most of his memories of his birth mother and India had faded, but somehow his mind could not erase his brother from his consciousness. Every event, word, or experience they had together stuck in his head as if smeared in honey and glued to his memory. He was close to Willa, very close. She gave him all her attention. She was the presence in his life that shaped who he had become.

Sundar had the delicate features of his mother, Rijikari. He possessed an uncanny way of watching people. "At times", Jonathan often said, "I feel he is able to read minds. When I look at his thick dark hair and penetrating black eyes, I see Riji and Maka." 

Sundar had a great sense of humor, and, no matter what kind of mischief he would get himself into, his smile and boyish charm would almost always insure him a reprieve. He was one of those young men you just want to hug, a charmer who could woo the hearts of mothers and daughters alike. 

During the summers, Jonathan made it a point to take him camping up on Judy Sods. In those days my leg didnít bother me like it does now so sometimes Iíd join them. Weíd climb mountains. Weíd go high above the hemlocks and birch, higher than the twisted spruce limbs that seemed to be genuflecting to the howling choir of mountain wind. I loved the granite stones covered in moss and speckled with lichen. In spite of my gimpy leg, I skipped and moved with the grasshoppers across the high grass woven with mountain flowers and meadowlarks. It was a place of expansive fields where boulders were left by ancient glaciers. They seemed to me to look like the Neolithic burial mounds in the north of Ireland where my people came from. I once took a photograph of Sundar and my friend standing on one of those huge boulders. Jonathan, with his gray hair and flint blue eyes, held his arm round his Sundarís shoulder. That picture is in my wallet and when it comes close to my time to leave this world, Iíll give it to Sundar.

Gosh sake, I still conjure it up in my mind, the three of us setting up our sleeping bags on that thick grass. Oh, what Iíd give to see that sinking sun fall behind the mountains again. I remember how the moon lit the night like the gentle glow of the pole lamp outside the gasoline station in town. Sundar would fall to sleep watching shooting stars and listening to me reciting poetry.

Jonathan was always the first to rise. Sundar and I would awake at daybreak to the aroma of bacon frying in a skillet and the coffee brewing over the campfire. "Chief Little Man," as we called Sundar, would wipe the sleep from his eyes so he could watch the red tail hawks circling on the air currents above the valleys and the hollows below. We would set out under an orange sun walking to a distant sod. The woods on the sides of several mountains were cut down so cattle could graze through the summer. Great seas of green ran up those mountains and disappeared into the mists that hung at the top. Chilled water ran down in the small streams cutting through the sods to the valley floor. Thatís where we filled our canteens. 

For several summers, we looked for the secret stream that was rumored to run through the fields and then disappeared underground into a cave. It was said to have been the hiding place for Confederate rangers, moonshiners and outlaws. It wasnít marked on any maps, and the hillbillies who knew the hideoutsí whereabouts took an oath to never tell, and they never did! Eventually the old timers died out and the secret of the cave was lost. We heard from an old country woman that her grandfather told her long ago that the entrance was not far from Judy Sods. Her Grandpa said it was hidden in the field where trees and small calves were swallowed into the earth. 

We searched for a long time to find that hidden place. We were determined, but after a few years we started to get discouraged. I thought maybe it wasnít in the cards for us to find the legendary hideout, but Sundar kept pressing on, saying it was our destiny to find the place. One summer, while driving on a desolate rural dirt road looking for a place to camp, we came across a dilapidated general store. Jonathan, along with Sundar and I, went inside to buy some mosquito repellant and a few candy bars. 

As we were talking to the owner, Sundar noticed an odd child with a big head standing in the yard beside the store. He was a cross-eyed, snaggle-toothed, hairless, big-eared boy and more likely than not, the product of years of inter family lovemaking. Sundar wandered out into the backyard and struck up a conversation with him. The man in the store told Jonathan not to worry. "That there is Jake Gandy, he looks kindaí like a monster, but heís just a slow freak of nature. Your boy is safe. Jake is harmless, he wouldnít hurt nobody."

Even though he was 16 years old, Sundar had a way with people, especially older folks and people who were hurting in some way or another. When Sundar returned to the car he had a crudely drawn map that the Jake boy had made for him. It was showing the way to the entrance of the underground river. 

We followed the directions of the inbred boyís map of unmarked roads, traveling over bumpy farm lane that had been gutted by years of wheels of tractors and heavy machinery. We abandoned our car when our muffler and gas tank began to scrape the sunbaked mounds of dried mud and manure that had piled up between the ruts in the road. Watched with indifference by sad-eyed cows, we walked the rest of the way on foot until 

we reached the fork on the trail where a sign read, KEEP OUT OR BE SHOT!

We climbed the fence and entered no-manís-land. Jonathan acted as scout, looking out over fields of alfalfa and corn for enemy farmers, or worse, a bull. As we came over the rise of a hill, we saw a small river running through the field. The slow moving stream flowed into a pond where cattle were drinking in front of a rock-strewn landslide into which the water seemed to disappear.

This was the mecca of our dreams; the place where secret treasure could be hidden or skeletons of Confederate marauders might be found. It was what all three of us had been searching for so long to find. The three of us cheered, slapped each other on the back and Mac said, "Holy Shit. Finally we struck gold." Sundar could hardly contain himself. He was dancing in circles and saying, "Hell we stuck gold, silver and diamonds all at once!" I took a cigar from my shirt pocket, lit it and we passed the tobacco around. Even Sundar took a long drag. Then we headed straight for the entrance.

We carefully stepped on slick rocks and waded into the knee-deep water that led to a grotto-like entrance of a cave. The mouth was big enough for a grown man to walk upright through. Upon walking 10 feet or so into the cave, it became dim, almost too dark to see. The sound of water cascading over stones could be heard off in the distance and it seemed to drain into a foreboding abyss. As we hiked farther in we felt cold and damp. MacCumber and I hesitated. Should we go forward into the unknown? Before we knew it, Sundar had disappeared into the blackness. "Come on Morgan, thereís nothing to be afraid of," he yelled to me.

MacCumber and I turned our flashlights on and plunged into the shadows. Sundar was waiting for us by a boulder encased in mud. There seemed to be a path that ran alongside the water, so we followed it. Jonathan took the lead, Sundar was in the middle, and I brought up the rear. The cave was so black I could put my hand in front of my face and not see it. Our voices bounced off the walls and blended with the sound of gurgling water racing toward some giant drainage basin. The beam from our lights sifted through the blackness to reveal a large albino salamander sitting on a slimy rock.

After hours of slipping and sliding over muddy rocks and debris we reached the end of the cavern. We came upon a large pool of clear water that glowed from somewhere deep under the surface. I suggested to Jonathan that it appeared there was no way out but to backtrack to the caveís entrance. Suddenly I heard splashing. Sundar had waded into the pond and dove under the water. He disappeared quickly. I screamed for him to return. He didnít listen. He dove under the water towards the light. Jonathan jumped in after him and I followed. The water was as cold. We swam for what must have been a minute or so, but seemed to me like forever. Just as I thought my breath was gone, I exploded to the surface. Sundar was sitting on the bank of the river, laughing and waving at us. When Jonathan reached him, he grabbed the boy and held him in his shaking arms. We should have been angry. But the two of us were so relieved, all we could do was thank the good Lord he was safe.

Spring in Virginia is the most splendid of seasons. It doesnít matter if you are rich or poor, live on a plantation or in a tar-papered shack; everybodyís front yard is planted with flowers and yard decorations. The vanilla-colored flowers of the cherry trees bloom in late March, and by the first of April, blue hyacinths and yellow jonquils have pushed through the pine needles we use as mulch. The magnolias look as though a shoeshine boy has polished each leaf. Later, the pink and white azaleas fill the yards and the scent of boxwood and camellias return to mingle in the air with the butterflies. 

In spite of all its charm, and how us Southerners look forward to it, the Virginia spring warm-up also releases the poisonous creatures that hibernate through the winter. Mud daubers and wasps swarm near the screened porches. The rattlesnakes and moccasins slither out of their holes. It is a dangerous time.

In anticipation of the spring cotillion, young debutantes practice waltzing with one another under the light blue painted wood ceilings of their parentsí porches. They hope their mothers can arrange dates for them with the young men from the military academy in Front Royal. They wanted to dance with the boys who wore white gloves and shiny shoes and are heirs of rich Virginia families. 

These cotillion girls were not interested in the pimply-faced ruffians from Stonewall Jackson Public High School. They could care less about the local boys whose daddies worked on tobacco farms, in the cotton mill or the shoe factory on the outskirts of town. Those boys gazed out the school window dreaming of nothing more than following in the footsteps of their fathers and granddaddies. By the end of summer, half of them would be loading cotton into trucks. The other half would be sloshing in the swamps collecting wild rice, cutting lumber or shoveling cow shit, pig shit, horse shit, or whatever shit into trucks that doused the fields with stinking fertilizer. A few might be considering college; that is, if they could find the money. 

Sundar was a smart boy. Study came easy to him. I suspected he would become an engineer or a doctor. What with my inheritance, combined with Jonathanís growing bee business, his education was ensured.

There was a girl Sundar liked. Her name was Caroline. She was unlike the usual 

prissy girls who lived under the shade tree canopies of our townís broader streets. She was going to the "Heritage Cotillion" with Sundar. She wanted to be with him because he sincerely cared about her. She used to date one of those pretend soldier boys and had learned their chivalry was just for show. It didnít matter to her that his skin was dark brown, or that he was not from a prominent Old Dominion family. Apparently though, it did matter to her father. 

Thaddeus P. Cooper never did like Sundar and a few years back had written a letter to the principal saying Jonathanís boy was nothing more than a "black mongrel, and should be sent to the colored school." The fact was, Sundar was a straight A student, a member of the 4H Club, and an Eagle Scout to boot!

Her old father couldnít stop Caroline from sneaking out to be with the boy she loved Those two teenagers not only figured out how to get to the big dance, but they found ways to be together in secret. Teenage love may not be lasting love, but it sure is powerful. Like a lot of kids their age, they got in trouble. Sundar didnít realize his potency and Caroline didnít understand her body quite yet. She got pregnant. Jonathanís boy told him he loved Caroline and wished to marry the gal.

Jonathan stood between the fatherís rage and the boyís shame. My friend offered to pay all the costs associated with the birth and six months of baby and mother care. He told her father she could live at his farmhouse outside of town so as she and her family would be isolated from gossiping and embarrassment on the part of the old biddies in town. 

I was a man of stature in our town. I offered Carolineís father the opportunity to let her stay at my home through the duration of the pregnancy. I told him Iíd hire a private school teacher for his girl. I was the richest man in town and also a deacon in the church where both Cooper and I were members. That should have warranted Cooperís serious consideration, but the manís stupid southern sensibilities made it impossible for him to be rational. In the South, honor is everything, even if it doesnít make sense.

Instead, Thaddeus Cooper sent his only daughter off to his sisterís home in Charlestown to have the child. An hour after the baby was born he was taken away by a Christian family from Richmond. Caroline never returned to Front Royal. A few years back I heard she ran off to Atlanta and married a black fellow who became a successful lawyer. 

Sundar was pretty broken up over what happened. I think the boy truly loved her. The year after Caroline disappeared he joined the army and we didnít see him for a long time. When he returned to Front Royal he went to college, got a degree in forestry and went to work in the Monongahela State Forest as a park ranger. You can find him there today.

My dear friend, Jonathan MacCumber died in a truck accident in 1958. When the tragedy happened, he was delivering several bee colonies to a farmer who lived near Riverton. He had driven his old Ford truck down Saw Mill Road. No one will ever know why he drove the old heap on such a dangerous stretch of lane. I donít know if it was because the brakes gave out, maybe a deer or some critter jumped in front of him and he swerved to get out of the way, or it could have been a few bees got loose and flew into the cab of the truck. It doesnít really matter. We all die because of something. Itís not how we die thatís important; itís how we lived that matters.

He was found dead in his truck at the bottom of the roadside cliff. Around him swarmed his beloved bees. I like to believe, after saying their goodbyes, the bees soared off towards a nearby grove of flowering apple trees. I envision each one landing on the white blossoms each containing droplets of holy water from the early morning rain. There, the bees sanctified their wings for the long journey they took to carry my friendís soul to heaven.

Iím getting old now and my wounded leg hardly works anymore. I know it wonít be long until Iím with my friend the cobra catcher. But in the meantime, when the weather is obliging, I go fishing on Spruce Knob Lake with Sundar. Iím noticing there are less and less honeybees around here. They say itís the pesticides that are killing them. Iím not sure of that. I suppose Iíll have to ask Jonathan about it. 
 
 


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