Kimberli Buffaloe is a pastor's wife, Penwright, and creator of Carolina Towns and Trails (www.carolinatownsandtrails.com), a blog featuring outdoor destinations around the Carolinas. Her posts have appeared in the Chicago Sun Times and other national publications via Blogburst, and spotlighted on WYFF's Sound Off South. She has written several short stories and is currently working on a novel. She and her husband live in eastern North Carolina with their Westie and Jack Russell Terror.
Early mornings are best, just after dawn when the only creatures awake are the birds. A mist rises from the river, nearly shrouding the sea of leaves rolling across the gorge. I can think then. Think without having to compete with Mama’s chattering or the constant blare of cooking shows.
The breeze curls around me, bringing with it the sweet scent of pine mixed with new growth and decay. Scents I’ve known since childhood. Moving slowly, as if I’m still the gymnast crossing the beam, I walk to the end of the sandstone arch known as Sky Bridge and bend backward. My hair pours to the ground like water over Yahoo Falls, but my hands land on gritty rock. Pointing my toes, I kick off into a back walkover and flip to my feet. A tangle of chirps erupts from the trees.
“Girl, you’re crazy.” From the middle of the arch, Joley peeks over the edge to remind me that we’re a couple of dozen feet above ground. Though I’d love to continue the routine, I settle beside her and let my gaze wander across the canopy shielding the deep ravines of the Red River Gorge.
“That’s probably the last time I’ll be able to do that. After Memorial Day, tourists’ll be crawling all over the place, and the fall semester starts before they clear out.” Which irritates me, since I can’t even hike unmarked trails without running into them.
Joley crosses her legs, tucking her toes beneath her thighs. “That’s true, but it’s stupid to take chances before graduation.”
At the reminder of the upheaval to come, I zone out Joley and the ceremony. Tuning in the birds as if they’re playing on Pandora, I focus on poplars and sourwoods, elderberries and laurel, silently reviewing family and genus. Will I remember it all by August?
Joley nudges me. “Have you decided?”
I know she’s not asking what I plan to study at UK. I’ve known that since my family’s first camping to Daniel Boone National Forest when I was a kid. Mama hated sleeping in a tent and using the toilet in the bathhouse, but I fell in love with Tree City, as I’d called it. Stomping through the ferns, I pretended the rhododendrons were houses and Jack-in-the-Pulpits preached to tiny gnomes wearing pointy white Dutchman’s-breeches. I refused to spend vacations anywhere else, though Mama once said she’d like to go to Florida. Daddy sided with me, and when summer rolled around, off to the forest we went. Ashley Pennington loves to harass me about it, but only because I’m prettier than she is—least that’s what Tom Meadors tells me. And because the blonde in my hair is natural.
An elbow lands in my ribs. “Darryl Ann, I asked if you decided.”
I brush away her arm and focus on the trees just off the trail below. “Have you ever wondered why God put tulips in a tree?”
“Oh my—” She stops because I smack her when she says the Lord’s name in vain, but to complete the thought, she rolls sideways and flops on layered rock melted into shape by centuries of exposure to the elements.
I silently repeat the phrase. It’ll sound good on a test.
“C’mon, Darryl,” she says as if it’s one word. “It’s too early in the morning for deep. You’re better off trying to figure out how to keep Ashley away from Tom while you’re at college.”
“If he’s stupid enough to go for Ashley, then I don’t want him.”
Joley pffts because she knows better. “Stop changing the subject, and stop talking about tulips. Have you decided if you’re going to ask your mom?”
She was the one who changed the subject, but I let it go. “No, and that’s why I wondered why God put tulips in a tree.”
With an exaggerated sigh, Joley drops her arms on the rocks, softly so as not to make bruises before the big graduation bash. “You know, it’s no wonder you don’t get invited to parties.” She pushes herself into a sitting position. “Okay. Tell me where you saw tulips in a tree and I’ll make up something.”
This shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Pointing into the intertwined branches, I flatten my hand on Joley’s back and press. “There, on the tulip poplar.”
She squints at the greenish-yellow blooms resting atop lobed leaves, then her eyes widen. “Oh my gosh, those are tulips. Is that for real?”
Joley has spent her life keeping an eye on her popularity. It’s no wonder she never bothered to look up every now and then. Even to see Kentucky’s state tree.
“Yes, it’s for real. Why would God put tulips in a tree?”
She shrugs and flips her dark hair over her shoulder. “To get a better look? Who knows, Darryl. It’s a tree. What does this have to do with asking your mom about your father?”
It had everything to do with it, though I wouldn’t say that to Joley. She hates it when I get what she calls philosophical. Translated, when I think of anything deeper than what shoes to wear to school. But a tulip in a tree seemed like a question God didn’t intend to answer, and not answering the obvious was what Mama was doing. I’m a blonde in a household of chocolate-topped brunettes. A thin reed to my parents’ average statures. Nothing on my face matches my father except the blue in our eyes. Mama claims she named me after the actress, but I think it was her way of telling Daddy who my real father was. But without a male blond Darryl as evidence, I had no proof.
Not that Daddy seemed to notice. My entire life, he called me his little Butterbean, though I don’t know why. He always tells me I make him proud, and he supported my dream of going into forestry when Mama insisted I become a nurse. If love is proof of parentage, I had my DNA.
So should I hurt him by telling Mama that I had a right to know before I run off into adulthood? And what if Ashley didn’t get her claws into Tom and he and I ended up getting married? In one of Joley’s smarter moments, she said I should know my medical history before having kids.
Joley rolls to her feet and brushes bits of sand from her jeans. “I’ve had enough of this nature garbage. Let’s go to the grill for breakfast. You can pay for making me get up this early.”
I stand, and as Joley makes her way to the trail, I stare across the Red River Gorge and the sheer drops of Clifty Wilderness. I have visions of spending my days here, working. Of hiking with Tom and two little boys.
We go to the grill, where we order waffles topped with strawberries. After spending an hour listening to Joley gush about a party I’d have skipped if Ashley’s best friend had invited me, I drop her off at her house and head home to talk to Mama.
I open the door to the house my grandfather built after settling in Clark County. The smell of old and bacon fills the air. Daddy is sitting in his recliner, reading the paper while the same news blasts through the television loud enough for our deaf neighbor to hear. He looks up and mutes the volume.
“Hey, butterbean. Where did you run off to so early?”
“The gorge. Where’s Mama? I need to talk to her.”
Before talk of the party, Joley and I practiced what I would say. How I would beg Mama not to tell Daddy I’d asked.
“She’s making breakfast. Whatcha got there on your shoe, hon?”
He gestures toward my feet, and I look down. There, sticking to the side of my ankle boot like a wad of chewed gum is a greenish-yellow flower. I lean over and peel it off.
Daddy turns the page and skims the headlines. “What do you need to talk to Mom about? Is something wrong?” He peeks over the top. “Don’t answer if it’s a girl thing.”
I walk across the room and kiss my father on the forehead. “Nothing like that, Daddy. I just need to know how to hold on to Tom while I’m at college. Short of marrying him, that is. I’m not ready for that.”
Daddy puts aside his paper and pulls up the ottoman as he did when I was little. As he dishes out advice, I finger the tulip in my hand. Maybe God did put tulips in a tree so He could see them better. Or maybe He figured some things are so precious, they need to be kept out of reach.