The ground was damp and soft. Under Molly’s leather boots, its richness brought to mind a dark brown, but when she peeked downward over her bulging middle, the earth surprised her with its smooth light tone, like coffee with milk. Molly’s skin was milky too, though her light cheeks had acquired a persistent rosy sheen with the effort of this journey, and she had noticed recently that at the age of 25, she was beginning to show signs of aging around her green eyes. Her blonde hair, matted for lack of brushing, she kept secured under her white cap. She was trying to be less concerned with outward appearance these days. For one thing, out here in the the wilderness there was little use for vanity. For another, she would be a mother soon, any day now, and mothers, Molly thought, should be concerned only with their children.
Hills rose around the band of settlers on all sides, but even in the relatively flat expanse where they now rested, the ground was far from even. Roots stuck up like traps. Fallen trees rotted, their bark wet and dark with decay, as they traded their vertical glory for a horizontal immortality and again became a place for the living. Each piece of deadwood was a festival, within which infinite dramas played. Spiders trapped insects. Beetles dug their way in and out. Tiny insects nestled under peeling bark. Caterpillars crept, then wound tight inside their casings, dissolved, and reassembled.
Grass, ferns, and briers intermingled to make the woods both a treacherous and beautiful place to walk. Molly and the rest had to maneuver around the big trees— the oaks, chestnuts, sycamores, and maples. They stepped more easily around the smaller shoots. These saplings grasped upward for their share of the sunlight, hoping for majesty as high as the father and mother trees around them. Between the trees were roots and thorns, daring any who passed to be clumsy or boastful. Dare to look up for a peek at the sun and your boot could betray you, catching. Twice already Molly had fallen, catching herself with outstretched hands. Both times Sam had rushed to her, concerned about the child she was carrying.
“You really must be careful, Molly,” he had insisted, and she wondered if he cared at all about the scrapes on her palms. She wiped them hastily on her dress and scowled at Sam, who had already turned back to his conversation with the other men.
Molly was grateful that for the most part the animal inhabitants of these woods stayed hidden. Occasionally a squirrel would leap from one branch to another, searching endlessly for its stash, chattering with satisfaction when it inevitably stumbled upon the store of a forgetful friend. The birds, too, were largely unafraid. Cardinals, red flashes against a monotonous backdrop of green, would flit and land, turn heads jerkily, and once again rise to flight. Woodpeckers jammered on— peck peck, insects, peck peck, insects. An owl would occasionally make his boxy way down to the level of the mortal beings that populated these woods, swoop low, blow a low whooo, and swipe an unlucky mouse.
As the band wound their way around the natural obstacles before them, Sam incessantly reminded Molly that they may stumble upon a hive of bees, a hornets’ nest, or a copperhead, it’s slithering body convulsing with the smell of cucumber— “Be wary if you smell cucumber in the woods,” Sam was fond of reminding anyone in earshot.
If they were particularly unlucky, Sam said with a shine in his eyes that made Molly wonder if the idea might actually thrill him, they may cross paths with a mountain lion. These too were unafraid, because they had no creature to fear. The lioness of the wild Appalachian wilderness would hunt to her heart’s content. “If she decides upon you for her feast,” Sam said, squinting delightedly, “you had best make your peace with God.”
Better to make peace with the mountain lion, Molly thought.
The bears and the wolves, the coyotes and the deer, though, mostly stayed hidden.
So on the day that Molly saw the doe, the humid air making pools of sweat wherever her linen shift did not restrain her swollen body, she considered at first that she might be dreaming.
She had wandered away from the men, telling them she needed time to care for womanly matters. Really she had been ambling aimlessly, pondering the possibility that she may have been mistaken when she pressed Sam to leave the post. Had she been hasty in harassing him? She had been anxious for adventure, had grown weary of the weaving that occupied her waking hours. Now though, in the woods with five men, no other women to commiserate with or question about the strange feelings in her abdomen, she longed for the chatter of the trading post, or at least the safety of their new settlement. Out here she felt too scattered, too unreigned, like a horse gone out its stable. There was no one watching. Instead of free, Molly felt like a wayward animal, like perhaps her life would just amble on with nothing to contain it. Though Sam said they were but a day’s trek to their destination, the Buckhannon River, it seemed to Molly that the wilderness might wind on forever around them.
The woodpecker jammered. A squirrel chattered. The deer stood frozen. If her inclination was to run, she resisted, looking at Molly as though she thought she might be dreaming too. A person was just as rare as a deer out here.
Neither Molly nor the doe dared move. Molly felt both tender and embarrassed. She longed to move closer, to touch the coarse tan fur on the doe’s lean body. More overwhelming, though, was the urge to apologize for her intrusion on the deers’ wild home. She felt as if she had been caught— a child again with a finger in her mother’s apple pie. She found herself bending in a sort of uncomfortable bow, lowering her head to the deer in reverence. As she did so, the baby within her body kicked her hard under the ribs, causing her to pop back up again.
The doe’s flank muscles twitched when Molly jumped back to alertness and her own child, a yearling, appeared from behind her, still spotted. The young deer stayed two steps behind her mother, who assessed the present situation carefully, sniffing deeply, nostriling this unusual creature before her. Apparently Molly did not have the air of a predator about her, as the mother deer stepped toward her, the fawn staying carefully just behind.
As the mother deer stepped, her hoofed foot brought to life a circle of trillium, millet, and bluets. The green and brown— endless green and brown, gave way to a burst of bright colors, awakening abilities of vision that Molly had not used since the days before they left. How had she forgotten so quickly what it was to see blue and white and red?
Were these the souls of those who had died here, revived as dancing flowers? The Mound Builders? The Shawnee? The British? Sam would have scolded Molly for thinking such thoughts, but something told her this was something no Bible, no man, could explain.
A breeze blew, lifting only one layer of leaves— the ones at eye level, slightly, leaving behind just enough relief from the heat to remind Molly of her discomfort. Her stomach tightened again, this time with more force. The breeze had lifted too the smells Molly had learned to live with out here. The loamy earth, and more than anything, the rot. The reeking of rotting trees, the fetid meat they had packed, sometimes, she thought, the rot of her own body. There was a musty, earthy smell now too— blood and bowels. As these smells overtook her, acid rose to the base of Molly’s throat and caused her to retch.
The doe only watched curiously and ventured another step forward. More flowers, and now, Molly noticed, her brow too was flowered— a crown of Queen Anne’s lace, light and airy, draped delicately on the doe’s forehead.
As more flowers rose before her eyes, something else descended— a warm, thick, wet trickle down Molly’s leg. She bent her head in alarm and clutched her dress. Snatching at her hem, she lifted and lifted, layers of linen, until the length of her skirt was bunched in her fists at her breast. A line of blood stretched past her knee. Kneeling now, Molly looked up again at the deer. Did the doe nod? She couldn’t be sure.
Imagined or not, this was all Molly needed for affirmation. The tightenings she had been feeling all day meant the baby would be coming soon. She knew this for certain now. Molly was frightened and she felt a tightness in her chest that matched that in her stomach. What would this mean for their journey? How could she anchor a child to this world when she herself was a ship lost at sea? She did not call for Sam, though she thought perhaps she should.
Molly moaned, the sound rising from her center. In the other direction, more wetness, a sweet sick smell that slid to the damp Earth. The linen of her shift labored along with Molly, stretching and straining with each pain as her body pressed tight against it. Molly’s shift gave way then, the flax fibers breaking free from the fabric they had formed. They unraveled— yarn, strands of fiber springing free, bringing forth another moan. Plants once more, the fibers joined the flowers at Molly’s knees. At least her boots were still on. Her swollen ankles had caused the laces on the leather boots to lacerate her skin like the string through a ham hung from the ceiling of the smokehouse. Even this was preferable to bare feet, Molly thought. She needed some kind of containment— something had to hold her to her life. She clung to the worn soles like a life raft.
“Molly?” Sam’s voice cut through the sticky air.
At this deep sound, both deer bounded over roots and bushes. Molly lifted her head and watched as their graceful legs propelled them into the air. For every moment that hooves touched earth, there was a moment they flew, alight, suspended in the hazy, stagnant humidity, eventually past a chestnut and out of sight. Molly cried out to them. She did not want to be alone again.
As her husband approached, pain washed over Molly and she again dropped her head. On hands and knees she sang— a low hymn.
Sam, who had been polishing his Kentucky rifle, set the gun under Molly’s head, oblivious to the mystery of the flora surrounding the long barrel, and placed a heavy hand on her back. The sight of the gun made Molly retch yet again. She had watched Sam with that gun— watched him aim it at bucks and does alike. She had watched its bullets cleave animals’ flesh, leaving them still and warm with black glossy eyes. She had tasted their meat, picked tendons from her teeth. She closed her own eyes now to shut the image out.
As the liquid pooled between her knees, stitching her to this place, a sticky line from her own body to the soil, Molly knew they would go no further, that this wilderness would be their home. The others would continue, make their way to the river, but she and Sam would remain in this place. The lawlessness of this land would become her life. Any walls to contain it she would have to forge herself.