Rowan County, 1937  (The Chain Carrier)

                    appeared in Wind, winter 1992)


 

 
1
Small children,  hearing
ring of metal
in darkness,
frightened by
fathers' pacing,
sought safety
at mothers' bosoms
and shivered a chill
they feel to this day.
 
2
No one knows  (nor ever knew)
what dragged a log chain
through Depression darkness,
crossing miles of
steep ridge and rough road,
years before electricity
and asphalt made
Appalachian nights
fit for travel.
It pulled an iron burden
in circles around
a dozen cabins
the length of Holly Fork,
while hounds who fought
boar coons for fun
bayed panicked, primal fear
at chiming metal in the night.
 
3
Men walked their fear,
the length of a room,
the length of a room,
the length of a room again,
loaded guns at hand.
When the cadenced signal faded,
became mere memory,
men walked another hour,
straining to hear
past sudden, grim silence.
 
4
Ott Turner dared
(or said he dared)
lift lantern and shotgun
against the maddening noise
And saw nothing.
But Turner heard
(or said he heard),
beyond his blurry light
a guttural, wordless warning.
Ott understood the meaning:
something was truly there,
something Ott didn't want to see
after all.
 
5
By day they saw its mark,
the single furrow,
a senseless winding wander,
coming east and going west
as far as they cared to follow.
In December snows
and slick May muds
and across dry autumn death
they saw the track
that no one,
not even Ott Turner,
pretended to explain.
Proud, hard people
the length of Holly Fork,
who feared nothing
lower than God and Angels
cringed at the small sound
of metal ringing gently
into their nights.
 
6
That jingling chain,
those howling hounds,
and tense paternal marches,
all came a score of times
over three years,
then went away,
forever.
 
7
Grown to old age,
frightened children remember
the unnamed something
prowling rural Rowan County.
It was real enough.
In the eyes of
aging mountain children
telling the tale,
gleams a truth:
it was real.
 

This is a tale my father tells, originally heard from his father, who was born in 1877.  I got the date wrong; the  "Chain Carrier"  prowled Holly Fork in the early 1890's, not 1937.  But the essence of the story is what Pop heard from a true and entirely honest Appalachian gentleman of the nineteenth century.

I sent it to Wind  magazine, then published in Pikeville, KY by Quentin R. Howard.  He founded the magazine and kept it going for twenty two years  (winning numerous awards and considerable national recognition in the process)  before passing it on to another generation of editors.  I was quite proud by Howard's response to my submission:

"Mr. Sloan,   this poem far exceeds Wind's preferred line and word length, and we do not like work about the supernatural or the unknown.  It'll be in the next issue."

I kept that letter until it was lost in a flood years later.



 
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