When people are children, I think it is somewhat common to wonder if maybe their parents had a secret family somewhere. Well, mine actually did. One of them did, anyway.
To understand how this is possible, I think it is worth knowing that I am from Appalachia. Not Kentucky or Georgia or anywhere people first think of when they think of Appalachia. No, I’m from Maryland. In Western Maryland, Mountain Maryland as we call it, in Allegany county (“Allegany” without an “h” like in Alleghany county Pennsylvania, just north of us) the state becomes a sliver of land thrown out along the Potomac river with West Virginia on the southern shore and the Mason Dixon line running straight like a bolt to remind us that we too are Southern. The Appalachian Mountains run from Georgia to Maine, after all.
Nothing is what it seems like from the outside.
The reason knowing that I am from Appalachia is helpful for understanding why my father had a secret family, or at least secret from me, is not the reason people think of when they think of reasons why people from Appalachia have secret families. This is typical of what people think they know about Appalachia. Nothing is what it seems like from the outside. Outsiders are A Thing in Appalachia and certainly in my hometown of Cumberland, Maryland. You are either from Cumberland or you are decidedly not. I will always be from Cumberland, Maryland.
I fucking hate Cumberland, Maryland.
But Cumberland, Maryland lies in what I take to be the most beautiful landscape on God’s Green Earth. Not that I believe in God – I do not. Which is one thing that the Good People of Cumberland, Maryland will not forgive. This in spite of the commendations of the Savior they claim as their own.
The mountains are a contradiction.
Regardless, the mountains are really what is key to understanding how a person has a secret family. When I first think of the mountains around my hometown I think of their splendor. Those majestic, rolling hills that unfold out of themselves into a blue horizon. I see these hazy, blue-grey horizons in da Vinci’s work, winding away behind the Mona Lisa. I think sometimes she’s smirking because she knows the audience isn’t really looking at them, back there, in the distance. They’re standing there staring at her half-smiling face, her implacable ironic façade and wondering, “what’s she thinking about?” when the answer is there, in front of them, way off in the distance but giant. Green in the summertime, golden orange and red in the fall, a brown-grey mass arboreal grave in winter, except when it snows. I love Cumberland when it snows.
The mountains are a contradiction. How can you not help but think of the seemingly inexhaustible expanse of these monoliths lapping lazily at each other’s sides for miles and miles, dappled with farmland and rock-land and wide meadows in the valleys and wood in the dells? Just talking about them makes you sound like you’re a thousand years old and could talk a mile.
But these mountains hide things. They are not open. The wood in the dell is a close place, a shady place in the daytime and dark at night. In the dark of the hollow a lot goes on that never sees the light of day.
That is a literally true metaphor. These mountains are a contradiction. Like how my father’s secret family was an open secret. I mean, it was a secret secret from me, but everyone else basically knew about it. No one would talk about it though, at least, not in broad daylight. People whisper a lot in Cumberland, Maryland.
Aside from being dark, the hollows can be hard and cold… I’m sorry. I can’t go on this way. The holler is dark and cold. Outsiders call the holler a “hollow” and that, I hate to tell you, is wrong. It is the holler through and through. People from the Outside will never know the holler from the inside, what it is to come from the holler, and so they sure as shit don’t get to name it. You come out of the holler following a long gestation and after you leave the holler you are always from the holler. The mountain follows your wherever you go. We have a cute saying for this: you can take the boy out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the boy. I have said this and meant it, usually as an excuse for something I’ve done.
It does not excuse having a secret family. But it explains a lot.
The dark of the mountain is a cold cradle for many things.
Water comes out of the mountain in the holler. It is cold clear water. The mountain can be a cold place. I don’t know if you’ve ever really drunk water straight from a spring in your life. I have. In the holler where my paternal great-grandparents are from, you can go down to a place in the deep of the mountain and there you will find a pipe protruding directly out of a rock face about three or four feet off the ground over a barrel. The clearest, coldest water you’ve ever had runs right out of the rock through that pipe and fills the barrel daily. I’ve drunk from that pipe and filled a jug for the hike back many times. Outsiders are afraid to drink this water. They don’t understand what the mountain does. They cannot comprehend that rain falls on the mountain and that the water from the sky, along with whatever impurities we’ve belched into the air through coal-choked smokestacks, runs down through the rock and soil, down thousands of feet of shale and gravel and sand and limestone and that all the so-called “toxins” and demons and bad juju are filtered out or exorcised by the power of Christ or more likely something far older that eats darkness and sleeps a deathless sleep until finally in the darkest pit of Appalachia there is birthed something so cold and pure that life grows flush and green all around it. The dark of the mountain is a cold cradle for many things.
This is the paradox of stone: that it is hard and dark and cold in the heart of the mountain, but it also cradles, nourishes, and fosters life. When I was nine years old, the mountain that I had known as my cradle and in which I had been swaddled my whole life was finally cracked open and I was thrust out into the open, taken from the deep dark core of the holler and lifted, completely unawares, onto the sun-bright exposure of the hilltops. This was terrifying despite its strange beauty. In some ways it was sublime.