Monuments to the Forgotten: Flash Fiction, an Attempt at Billybuc Photo Challenge Prompt: Installment 1
Monuments to the Forgotten
My first memory is of the air, still and sweet. We lived in a valley surrounded by steep mountains with a rocky soil. Even the natives that once lived nearby refused to live here, but to men like my great, great-grandfather, it was paradise. He first came here back in 1822 back when this was all still Virginia. Diocletian Martin saw this valley as a paradise. He cut down the trees to build the first house and cleared the land with a pickax and his own will. The house still stands in the place as a monument to a man no one remembers. That's what cemeteries are, monuments to the forgotten. I wonder just how long it will take for me to be forgotten when my headstone becomes the only sign I ever lived.
OK, back to that memory. When you're poor in a city, you know your poor. You're surrounded by signs of wealth and a society that wants to help you while keeping you poor. When you're poor in the country, especially if you live in a poor community, you never really know you're poor. I grew up in the second house built on the farm. My parents built it just after the first world war. Like the original homestead, it had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Dad built the house around a pump, so we had a water source inside. He was proud of that house, and one of the only few times I can remember seeing him cry was when it burned to the ground. Well, anyway, we were poor. We made almost everything we had from our food to our clothes. I was nearly seventeen before I ate something from a grocery store. That stuff never did taste right. We had real food we made ourselves. We grew our own vegetables, ground our own corn, raised chickens and pigs. Mom bartered with our neighbors for beef and flour. The house always smelled of sourdough and bacon. We were not poor where it counted.
Old Man Fritz
The valley had one real road in and a dirt path going through old man Fritz's land. He grew tobacco and corn, but he was known for his shine. He grew his corn and made his own sugar from the stalks so the feds couldn't track him. The funny thing is the local sheriff not only bought from him, but he also helped sell the shine outside of the valley. My whole life was in that valley. We walked down that dirt path to school. I made it all the way to the tenth grade before I had to quit. Dad needed help on the farm after the stroke, and I learned enough. The last time I was near old man Fritz's place was a strip mall. The path was gone along with the history. Dad made barrels and aged that shine for years. We still have some of it buried in the backyard, somewhere.
We were a community back then. We came together to help each other harvest crops, build barns, and share in what we had. We built three barns on the farm, and over time they were modernized with metal roofs and the oh so fancy electricity. The first building on our property to have power was the chicken coop for an incubator. As a community, we celebrated everything. The most important day of the year was the fourth of July. When I was seventeen during one of those celebrations, I met my Maggie. She was sixteen, the daughter of a farmer on the other side of the mountain. She wore a simple white cotton dress with the scent of the soap her mother made from roses and honeysuckle; her eyes were a pale shade of blue with sun freckles and a smile that could warm the tundra. I miss her every day. The farm now sits empty as nature slowly goes back to what it was before we interfered.
We built a house near the road so we could have electricity and indoor plumbing. I remember my dad saying how it was disgusting to have a toilet in the same building where you cook your food. He died before the house was finished, and mom followed soon after. We had five children in the house. Maggie loved the place. Like me, she had a limited education, but she was smart where it counted. We built the house with our neighbors from the foundation to the roof. Maggie made our curtains and anything that helped make our house a home. Out in that cemetery next to a plot waiting for me is my Maggie. Next to her is our son Jacob.
The Richest Man in the world
On the other side of the valley, there is a pond. People swam in the waters going back to the native peoples long before English was ever spoken on the continent. As kids, we skinny-dipped in those waters. Maggie and I had our wedding reception on the banks. Our youngest son Jacob died in that pond; I turned my back for a second. The McKenny girl, Nancy, I think, came out of the water without her top and, as a good man, of course, I looked. I turned back, and he was gone. We did our best to revive him, but he was gone. Maggie never recovered from his loss. I never went back to that pond.
All that seems like a thousand years ago. Our kids all have their own kids, and some of them have yet another generation. I like to think one of them will take the farm and continue the traditions of Diocletian Martin. My will gives the farm to our oldest son John, but he lives in Ohio. He once said he would sign the farm over to our daughter Mary and her husband, Dan. He's not a Martin, but she is, and they are family.
I'm at the end of my story. I shoveled my last patch of earth. My mother once said how life was like digging a hole. It starts out with loose soil and seems so easy, then it turns rocky, and only the strong make it through. Eventually, you reach the end, and all you have is your hole and what lies behind you. I prefer Maggie's saying. Life is a photo album you fill with memories. I remember seeing my dad cry. I remember seeing my Maggie cry. Lying here now, seeing all my family around me, I don't want to cry. I feel like the luckiest man in the world and the richest man on earth. My first memory is of the air, still and sweet.