Appalachian Gods

This week, instead of doing a #flashfictionfriday post I felt more slanted towards posting a nonfiction essay I have been working on for some time. Enjoy and hopefully next week I will get back to the fiction stuff. 😉


I feel compelled to write about these mountains like there is a voice inside of me that isn’t my voice but wants to be heard. I am the mouthpiece or the transcriber as it is. It is my heritage, the mystique of Appalachia, and the strange mark it leaves on all who are born here that yearns to be written. A little stain on the history of this country, this world. Appalachia is beautiful, fierce, and lonely.

When the sun rises over the Appalachian foothills, there is a strange frenzy of activity. I have heard that the safest time to be in the woods is at night because, like people, animals seek cover in the dark and prefer daytime for hunting. But I think it is more than just an evolutionary preference. The darkness of an Appalachian night is heavy like there is more in the air than dew. It is heavy like the breath of a million souls exhaling at the same time. There are ghosts in the Appalachian Mountains. And if ever there was a time they revealed themselves it was during those black nights.

People rarely write about cities and suburbs with the same romantic notions as they do about nature. Nature is an enigma, an evolving mystery, consistently surprising and confounding those who observe it. These mountains are not like cul-de-sacs. Men own their cities, they know every inch, every culvert, all mapped and laid out like a science. No one owns the Appalachian Mountains. But they hold every soul born here. They are unconquerable. Even scarred and pitted from years of strip mining and clear-cutting, there is a refusal to surrender to the appetites of men. They still loom larger and make me feel more than anything man has built himself.

For the people born there, the mountains mean protection. As a child, I played throughout its valleys, swam in the streams that bubbled from its peaks, and explored the forests that populated the hillsides. I never felt alone. There are eyes everywhere in the mountains, whispers with inhuman voices, a language not in the conventional tongue of man. It is ancient. We grew up in the shadows of gods.

Spirituality was in the very water we drank. Everyone born in southeastern Kentucky knew of the power of the laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, serpent handling, whether they believed this to be a God-given talent or the overactive imaginings of religious radicals. My grandmother claimed to have the power to drive demons from people who were possessed. I witnessed one such attempt when I was eight years old. Our neighbor had been tied to a day bed with a leather belt around his hands, holding him to the trembling bars.

There was no moon that night, no stars, low clouds made the entire valley claustrophobic and damp. He hissed at my grandmother as she came through the door, a worn Bible in both hands held out before her like a shield of faith. He spoke, but he didn’t, not in words I could understand, a faint echo in his tone. It was otherworldly, eerie. I am not sure I believe in the existence of demons, at least ones that exist on the physical plane with humans, but what I was witness to that night, I will never forget. Belief is very strongly regarded. My neighbor believed he was possessed that night. My grandmother thought she could exorcise his demons. When she left, he lay limp, sweaty, and regular. Apparently, he thought she could exorcise his demons too.

If there are demons in the world, maybe they are more likely to follow those who believe. Guilt, faith, and God lay heavy on the hearts of Appalachian men and women. They can claim atheism but religion haunts their every action, they feel the weight of God when lifting a beer bottle, the chorus of angels in explicit, secular music. It is harder not to believe, to push beyond the wall of guilt and act against traditionalism. Akin to “Catholic guilt” the people of Appalachia, more often Baptists and Pentecostals (or some form of either), carry their religion like a family heirloom, their inheritance. They did not buy it or build it, but it has been imbued with too many memories to throw away.

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