Let me tell you a story.
by Celina Summers
by Celina Summers
* * *
A red-gold sun rose one morning on a woman standing alone in a field. She looked around for a moment, confused. She wasn't used to being alone, and wasn't sure if she liked the way it felt.
What the heck am I doing out here?
The sun was hot--Tennessee in summer hot, when the suckers are climbing the tobacco leaves and the heat shimmers over the turned, red earth like fumes of gas. The woman didn't waste time worrying about why she was suddenly in that tobacco field. She took off through the rows, her long stride snapping with impatience and more than a little irritated. Irritation was a familiar sensation, just like the red earth that was cool between her toes. The tobacco leaves slapped against her as she passed, but softly--not the slicing shear she remembered in an abrupt flash of skinny arms and stinging slashes into tanned skin.
As she marched through the field, the sun rose higher above her--rising oddly fast, searing into her skin with a pleasant heat. In time, those long, lanky strides relaxed--her irritation faded, and was replaced by a sense of challenge.
How big is this darn field anyway? Not big enough to scare me.
She was going to find her way out of it.
She topped a small rise, and just ahead a line of trees interrupted the endless monotony of the tobacco field. Her steps grew faster, longer, because anyone in a tobacco field in Tennessee knows that the only promise of escape from the merciless sun and the smell of the arid, pungent leaves lies under those trees. The woman turned back for a moment, surveying the immense field with its red clay and green plant stripes. As the verdant shadow of the century-old oaks darkened the ends of the infinite rows, the clay underfoot moistened and cooled until a trail of evenly paced footprints tracked her out of the field and into the breathless silence of the wood.
She breathed easier there, under the cooling caress of the shade, but when she thought about brushing the sweat away from her face she decided not to. She liked the feel of that sweat, liked the scent of it against her skin--infused with the unmistakable sting of the tobacco field and hinting at some greater promise.
She could rest here and no one would blame her. But herself.
A breeze rustled through the trees, and the leaves' silver underbellies gleamed throughout the wood. As she passed under them, streams of sunlight gilded the path. The entire wood was a series of contrasts--silver and gold, cool and hot, light and dark. Like an imperfect checkerboard, laid out like a promise beneath her feet.
She liked the contrast. She loved the conflict between the elements. This all felt familiar, comfortable and beloved. She had left the dusty monotony of the tobacco fields behind, and traded it for this elemental struggle without a twinge of regret. The golden light faded and the leaves turned back into their normal bland summer green, the breeze abruptly stopped and the woods began to rise into a steep hill. She came out of the shade into the scorching blaze of the afternoon sun.
As she walked, she thought: No one has ever walked here before. I am the first.
Animals watched as she walked by, unafraid but hesitant--like they'd never seen such a thing in their forest before. Eyes everywhere, gazes fixed on her at first with suspicion or disdain, then comprehension lightened those feral looks. Other animals--small, shy, uncertain ones--emerged from their hidden dens. She stopped, crouched low, and smiled.
And they came running to her, eyes lit in wonder and unaffected joy. She stroked their soft fur, ruffled their feathers, and turned them all to look up the hill.
"That's where we're going to go," she announced.
They all stared at her, and for a moment they were all frozen in shock.
"Up," she explained.
With that, she stood up, turned her face to the hill, and started to climb. At first, only a few of the animals came, bounding alongside her without fear. But then the rest followed, running--leaping with her, proud to be in her company and elevated because she led them. There were pockets of shade around hinting at rest and relief from the heat, but she avoided them. She embraced the heat like a long-lost friend, welcomed the trickle of sweat down her spine as she continued her ascent of the stone-tumbled mountain she was determined to conquer.
Once something loud crashed in the underbrush, shattering the silent joy of the animals and the shade that had been so alluring was now threatening and dark. The woman stopped and leveled a hard, challenging look at the beast growling at her from its den. Her animals suddenly straightened and glared at the challenging beast without fear.
"Don't even think about it," the woman warned the beast. "And shut up."
She turned her back and continued her climb, and the animals that followed her burst forth around her, unafraid of the predator who'd slunk, chastened, back into its dark den. They swarmed around her, raced through her legs, jumped as high as they could for her approval. They couldn't keep pace with that unhurried stride, the constant pulse of determination that fueled her long limbs, so they ran instead. As the crowd swelled around her, the animals passed her and ran up the hill that was more like a mountain. Some that had followed her took wing, and soared through the trees into the sky.
None of them looked down, afraid to fall.
None of them looked back.
And all the time the crowd of animals that had volunteered to accompany her on this ascent ran harder, flew faster, soared higher--because she willed them to.
At last, the woman reached the summit of the mountain--and stopped dead in her tracks. A grim-faced man was sitting on the rocky top of the mountain, an old Bluetick Coonhound at his feet. The dog looked up at her mournfully from smokey-colored eyes, so she knelt and scratched his ears. His fur was silky under her fingertips, and he swiped her hand with a rough tongue.
Best dog in the world.
The man's face was craggy, his short cut salt and pepper hair receded slightly from his weathered features. He glared at her and growled, "What the hell are you doing here?"
She glared back. "Had to get to the top."
The man relaxed slightly. "Know what you mean, but you're here too damn early."
She stared at him for a long moment, something whispering against her mind. The connection suddenly clicked and she laughed. "Butch looks a lot like you."
The man laughed too, as if her comment had surprised him. The hound lifted his head, his ears pricked up. The woman looked down at the now-alert dog.
"What's wrong with him?"
The man squinted past her, his eyes twinkling. "Nothing wrong. Smokey always gets excited when they show up."
The woman turned around. The forest was gone; the animals were no longer clustered on the mountainside. Instead, she, the man, and the dog stood alone on the summit of the mountain. Smokey got to his feet and lifted his muzzle in a loud, joyous howl. His tail thumped hard against the side of the woman's leg, as the sun illuminated an endless field of faces--faces of girls she'd known who'd grown into legends, of women she'd known who'd worked at her side, of men whose dismissal had turned into reverence, even people she'd known only well enough to smile at when they passed on the street or in the arena halls. But there were millions of face she'd never seen, never known--all smiling, all wreathed with the same expression of awe and love.
"You remember 'em?" the man asked softly.
"I always remember the faces." And for the first time in what seemed like an infinite climb, she did.
"You brought 'em with you," the man said. "Brought 'em all to the top--millions of 'em you never met have all climbed the mountain because of you."
"Not me," she replied. "Themselves."
"One increasing purpose, Coach." The man clapped his hand on her shoulder--an approving clap that wasn't lessened because she was a woman. "You kept everlastingly on the job."
She turned to the man with a smile, a smile unlike her usual infectious laughing grin. A shy smile, the smile of a child seeking approval from a god whose maxims she revered. He extended his hand, equal to equal. Giant to giant.
But his eyes softened, and glittered with unexpected tears as he said quietly, "Welcome home, Pat."
Without hesitation, she gave him a huge hug. "Thanks, General."
Between them, Smokey howled, and a final vagrant breeze brought a whiff of the heat-baked tobacco fields as the white-hot June sun finally slipped from the sky in a blaze of orange. The sea of faces flared in front of her one last time, gilded by the last ray of light, then sank and receded into the darkness.
The last thing she saw was the tobacco field, tiny and deserted, its green rows fading into the blood red clay--distant, but still clearly visible. The foundation. The root. The impetus that began the climb.
Requeiscat in pace, Patricia Head Summit 1952-2016