Who could be calling from outside? Nobody knows us here yet…
But I opened the screen door of the attic apartment and saw Carolyn, our next-door neighbor, standing on the driveway below with a brown bag in her arms. We had met her the day before, our first full day in Asheville. Already, here she was, a one-woman welcome wagon of Southern hospitality, with two ripe tomatoes, a boxed loaf of pumpkin bread, a giant container of mixed nuts, and four gold apples obviously from a real tree nearby. She had noticed the Montana plates on our car, and told us how much she wished she could move there. Not only her gesture but her timing was perfect. We had just finished carrying our most basic possessions into the loft of the peeling old house, and it felt like being on a lifeboat at sea. As if the world were fluid beneath us, and our munitions were few. And here she was, a friendly little craft who knew our port of departure.
It had been hard to leave J.’s parents’ house, much as we were ready for a place of our own. This despite the fact that the primary occupation of our week and a half visit was neurotically cleaning, disassembling, reupholstering and reassembling our Mazda, in which green nasties had sprouted during the wet spring months of our absence. Between bouts of scrubbing, we took humble excursions to remind us that beauty is nearby, and so is peace, even when we return to the daily grind. You wouldn’t know to drive along the Cleveland Highway that just a few hundred meters away is the blue hole spring at Red Clay, the water source of the last home of the Cherokee people before the Trail of Tears (upon which the Cleveland Highway was later built).
We also took care of the animals while J.’s folks were away: two hypersensitive daschunds, one bouncy mutt, an elderly cat, fifteen chickens, five chicks, plus everything that the hummingbird feeder attracts. The hens were a small-scale throwback to our chores at Nuestra Finca, enjoyably so. Flo’s birds are the only truly happy ones I’ve met. They roam free in the big, green backyard, and have roosting barns with protective netting at night. Every other day, with a plastic extension claw, one of us retrieves eggs from underneath the power saw, where they nestle in a bit of straw next to a hollow green Easter egg, unless a hen has decided to sit on a batch, in which case she is allowed to hatch them. When their laying years are over, no axe awaits, only a long, verdant retirement. Hence they feel entitled to develop outsized personalities, like the rest of us. The animal scene at Fawa’s Cottage made us remember a deeper purpose than a life spent among only televisions or newspapers or websites can convey: to care for creatures, as we ourselves are cared-for creatures, and to see them through their shorter lives.
The day before we left, a beautiful chill entered the air. I walked the perimeter and snipped leaves and berries and dried bits of blooms past, and put them in jars of water around the house. Symbols of fall: of the brilliant energy of change and death and transformation. We all, but travelers especially, must perform such minor rituals to remind ourselves of the season, to remain grounded in cycles despite constant uprooting.
Despite the repeated transplants, from the Montana bed to the Appalachian Trail vine to the Costa Rican forest to the Georgia sanctuary to, finally, the rocky soil of Asheville, we ought not fret. The city is a new nut to crack, jobs and housing and culture and people, and our lifeboat, though cozy, contains a leaky toilet but not a smoke detector… but the drive to North Carolina was beautiful, valleys of trees inhaling the warm blue afternoon, deep gulps in preparation for the impending costume change. It’s an autumn transplant, both in the sense of it being hopefully the last one for a good long while, and in a more urgent sense of wanting to get situated before snow flies. But the world is full of surprises, and we sometimes remember to trust our higher power. We have reinvented our lives before. Sometimes I feel ancient, but we ain’t that old yet.
I miss awakening to dawns full of toucan cries and monkey talk, to air redolent of fruits and flowers. I miss knowing my task for the day is simple, the rhythm steady, the subtle variations pleasures to be savored. I miss feeling secure and content within the boundaries of a miniature existence, one wherein the Future and Income and Lodging are not concerns. But of course the seasons turn, and all things end, and we are living in a different chapter now. Carolyn’s gesture of hospitality spurred me to another small ritual: baking. Symbol of taking up residence, filling a small space with heat and domestic aroma. Which means acknowledging that yes, this is where we are now, might as well make banana bread. Might as well make connections: give a loaf to Carolyn, two big pieces for our downstairs roommates (whose oven we use, our upstairs having only a two-burner and a nuker), a slice for our landlord, and some for ourselves, a communion, however haltingly granted, of place and nourishment.
Perhaps in the next few days I will even see fit to snip some bouquets of wild, scraggly plants from the yard, to adorn our lifeboat, to mark it as, for now, home.