What took you so long?

Welcome. I've been waiting for you to show up.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Education of Lila

The Wakassa Pass ran by Lila’s cabin and sloped upward to a high plains meadow where rudbekia and plumbago grew wild. Their gold and blue mirrored the summer sky. Not many travelled that pass anymore, not since the government had paved a new road through the hills. But occasionally, photographers laden with gear hiked the pass to set up their cameras. They sold pictures of the meadow to the Sunday rotogravure sections of big city newspapers. People in cities liked to look at pictures of hawks making lazy-eights and sulphur-colored butterflies drinking nectar from red salvias.
The year was 1943, and the world beyond Lila’s horizon was at war. She rode her mare, a placid quarter horse, to town once a week to get provisions and hear the war news. She’d heard talk of a victory over the Japanese at a place called Midway, though neither Lila nor her kinfolk had heard of the place before. Neither had they heard the names “Solomon Islands” or “Guadalcanal.”
A photographer passing through had taken Lila’s picture in front of the cabin, and he had mailed her a copy along with a world map, as thanks. He wrote, “Your smile made the sale,” and Lila wondered how much the magazine, named “LIFE,” in capital letters, had paid him. She smoothed the map’s creases carefully and pinned it to the kitchen wall. When the radio announced a terrible event at Bataan in the Philippines, she located that far-off place and circled it. She learned the names of cities and rivers in Europe and Burma where the blood of American boys had spilled. One Saturday while she was at a store in town, the radio said that 600 soldiers and airmen from North Carolina had died overseas since the war had started. In town, people prayed for the safe return of “our boys.”
The cabin had passed down to Lila from her mother’s side of the family. Her Uncle Thomas and Aunt Rebecca had built the place and tilled a garden, using dug-up field stones to form the walls of the spring house which doubled as a root cellar. Lila grew vegetables in a neat plot by her kitchen door. She shot the rabbits that came to eat her garden, baking them into pot pies with the English peas and carrots they’d come to steal.
In July, two photographers -- a man and a woman – stopped at Lila’s door. They asked for water, and she brought them a jar from the spring house. The man smoked in the shade of a hickory tree while the woman took photographs of Lila on her mare and showed her a newspaper depicting the surrender of a short, dark-eyed man they described as the dictator of Italy. Lila proudly showed them her map of the world, and while they examined the circles and lines she had drawn, she had them spell out the name M-u-s-s-o-l-i-n-i. The couple, it turned out, had taken that picture and now were back in the United States, recording what they called Appalachia. They seemed surprised that life anywhere could be so “untouched” by the war raging around the globe. Lila told them that President Roosevelt had sent more than 600 telegrams to widows in North Carolina since the war had started.
When they left, Lila circled the western corner of North Carolina and wrote in the margin of the map: In Appalachia, 600 dead are not untouched.

No comments: