This is our February story for the 2022 Short Story Challenge started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary. You can find the original post here. The theme this year is folklore and we’ve decided to set our stories in Appalachia. I say “we” because my husband Doug is writing these with me. We’re using the pen name Bonnie Douglas. This story is about the water in the mountains, and the old sayings “gift of gab,” and “there’s something in the water.”
The Gift of Gab
By Bonnie Douglas
“Blech!” erupted almost involuntarily from my mouth as I took the first sip of water fresh out of the tap. “I had almost forgotten how much I hated the taste of the water!”
I could see my Mom shaking her head and hear the laugh hiding underneath her answer.
“Well, Frances, you never were one to mince words. Tell me how you really feel.”
“Now Mom, you know I just can’t take the iron taste of that water, fresh out of the branch or not.” I huffed, exasperated. I knew it got under Mom’s skin that one of the things she loved about the mountain holler she grew up in was one of the things I disliked the most about it.
Mom shrugged. “The water is one of the things I will miss most.”
Years ago, I had decided to go to college in the city, and I had not returned permanently until now. My parents had decided to spend their retirement nearby in town, with much less lawn to mow. It also put them closer to the grocery store and hospital. By the time they offered to sell the house and land to me, I was much older and ready to make the jump from city living to the more laid-back mountain lifestyle. I was sure I could solve the water problem.
The water that intermittently trickled or flooded down the branch depending on the season was one of the reasons Grandpa had picked this holler to settle in. Mom and her whole family had grown up drinking that icy cold water, carrying it in buckets to fill the barrels that provided water to the dirt-floored cabin they grew up in, long before anyone had the means to drill a well or even think about piping water from the small town to the “country folks” houses.
“You just don’t know what you’re missing, Child,” Mom said softly. “I hope you’ll remember to bring me jugs of water ‘regular’ once I move into town. It means a lot to me. You don’t even know how much!”
“I know Mom, and I promise,” I said with determination. I remembered all the stories about the land and how hard my Grandpa had worked to not only buy it, but to keep it. It was the very definition of hard times. When most people in the little mountain enclave were lucky to have any kind of food or shelter, my Grandpa worked two jobs in town and then came home to work some more. Raising cattle and crops, cutting and hauling timber, building the little cabin and ramshackle barn, and somehow finding the time to create a family of twelve with my Grandma.
There were also whispered family rumors about certain “activities” taking place in the hidden coves and almost impenetrable stands of mountain laurel that studded the hills. These rumors involved a “special recipe” for moonshine that made it the most desired and sought after in a three-state area. That all changed after one of the younger children, Cecily, died when the rickety wagon used for illicit deliveries in the dark of night rolled over and off the edge of the mountain trail in the light of day, with Cecily playing inside.
It was then that Grandpa became a preacher. The death of his daughter brought him to his knees. The moonshine no longer flowed out of the “holler,” but the Spirit did. His sermons were famous throughout the county.
“Your Grandpa was such a good preacher he could save half the county on Sunday and the other half on Wednesday night!” Grandma used to say. “Those lawbreakers and sinners would come running down to the altar like a pack of wild dogs after a bone.”
I had always laughed at her joke, but Grandpa did have a way with words. His sermons were intertwined with stories that seemed to touch each listener personally, and they would come up the aisle, seeking the same relationship with Jesus that Grandpa enjoyed. I had admired his extraordinary ability to share God with everyone in such a personal way. Grandpa had eventually expanded that relationship, going home to Heaven.
As much as Grandpa could touch the soul of his parishioners with words, Grandma could tell a tale. When she was alive, she entertained us all with stories. Some were mountain legends, some were her own made-up tales, and some were from her life experiences. She was even part of a mountain storytelling hour at the library in Asheville, and her stories were in great demand. My favorite was The Hungry Toads, a story from her youth. I used to beg for that story as a kid. In the evenings after gardening was done, she would sit at the table with me, drinking coffee and eating pie, banana pudding, or other treats, and tell me her tales. I smiled as I thought back to this story.
“When I was 7, my socks started to go missing!” she would exclaim. “This was something of a problem, because money was scarce and socks were not free. My mother spent a lot of time darning socks to keep them wearable. It all started when one day I went to my bedroom and one of my socks was laying on the floor. Next to it was a small green toad, who hopped away when he saw me. I scrabbled after the toad, caught him and took him outside. Momma would not like a toad in the house.”
I smiled as I recalled how Grandma would sit back, sip coffee, and continue. “The next day, another sock was laying on the floor, and another toad hopped by me on his way out the door. And then I began to think the toads were stealing my socks. But where had they put them?”
I went into the kitchen and announced, “I’ve lost two socks to toads!”
Lots of giggling from my brothers and sisters followed that statement, and Momma just looked at me.
“What do you mean, Gert?” She asked.
“Two times I’ve found one of my socks on the floor, the other missing, and a toad in my room! I think they’re stealing my socks.” “Then a thought struck me as I picked up a biscuit. “Maybe they’re eating them!”
“Toads don’t eat socks!” My brother Ed scoffed. “Toads eat flies and other bugs. They don’t eat wool or cotton. I think you’re going crazy, Gert.”
“You need to find your socks, Gert,” said Momma. I promise you, the toads didn’t eat them.”
Grandma would always smile in remembrance as she thought of her Momma, then she would continue.
“This went on for two more days, as I would go into my room, find one sock, and see the inevitable toad. Eventually, I was down to one pair of matching socks, and a lot of socks without mates. This was becoming a family mystery, and Daddy was beginning to take notice, looking at me thoughtfully as I described another visit from “the hungry toads.””
“Gertie, you’re going to have to wear mismatched socks if you can’t find the missing ones,” he’d say softly. “No extra money for new socks.”
“I knew the truth of this and had not even planned to ask for new socks. When my shoe went missing, though, that was another story altogether. I went into my room on a Sunday, and one of my “Sunday best” shoes lay by itself on the floor. Next to it was an impossibly large, green toad, with a white stomach and unblinking yellow eyes.”
“Now they’re eating my shoes,” I yelled, running out into the front room. Daddy looked at me skeptically but said nothing. A missing sock was one thing, but a pair of new shoes was impossible.”
“A couple of hours later, I saw Daddy walking down the hill with my brother Rufus, his fingers clamped tightly over Rufus’s left ear. Rufus was howling, his ear redder than the embers in our woodstove. He was carrying a bundle of socks. And Daddy had in his hand my other Sunday shoe!”
“Rufus will be washing your socks, Gert, and doing your chores all next week.”
Grandma would laugh as she thought of that day. “Rufus would steal a sock, replace it with a toad, and hide the socks up in the woods. When he advanced to taking a shoe, Daddy had had enough! He followed Rufus up into the woods and caught him trying to hide it in a hollow log. So that’s how I learned that toads can’t eat socks!”
Grandma was full of tales like this. Like many other mountain storytellers, she could keep the listener mesmerized and leave them begging for more stories.
My mother had her own way with words. She wrote poetry and short stories and submitted them to contests, often winning. She had recently finished a book of poems and submitted it to a publisher.
I did not seem to have inherited the family talent with words. Though I would have loved to have written a book, I was always more comfortable with numbers, and owned my own accounting business. I had already factored all the costs involved with getting water from somewhere that didn’t involve drinking something I simply didn’t like.
“Mom, just so you know I plan to have well-drillers out here as soon as you move to town.” My plan was to avoid that spring water by drilling deep enough to get into a completely different water supply.
“Good luck with that, Girly,” Mom almost giggled. “You think you’re the first one to try? There isn’t a well in this entire holler that produces anything but a lot of cash for the well driller. That’s just one more reason everyone drinks that branch water you turn up your nose to.”
“We’ll see Mom. We’ll see.” I answered determinedly.
Well, we did see, that’s for sure. Three months and four different drilling companies found nothing. I even hired six dowsers, all walking around with their “witching sticks,” and all claiming to find water. Not a trace, not a trickle of anything remotely resembling water fit to drink was actually found.
I’d spent every bit of the money I had earmarked for well drilling and even more besides.
Disheartened, I scrounged together some more cash and built a reservoir and all the filtering and purifying equipment I could find. I purchased advanced oxygenators, UV sanitizers, multiple stage filter systems and technical equipment I couldn’t identify. It was all sold to me by a “water adviser,” who assured me I would have nothing but the best quality H2O that human intelligence could deliver. If I had to drink that branch water I’d be darned if it was going to taste like anything but pure, fresh water.
It had taken a couple of days for the reservoir to fill from the branch and for that wretched brew to begin making its way through the convoluted intricacy of the purification system into my completely re-piped and re-plumbed little cabin.
With my hands quivering, I turned on the tap for the first time and filled one of my moon and stars patterned goblets with the first taste of the water I labored so hard to get.
Sniffing the goblet carefully, I could detect not a hint of the iron scent that generally accompanied a glass of branch water. With trepidation, I lifted the goblet to my lips and let the merest trickle of water onto my tongue. Swishing it around like a wine connoisseur, I tasted nothing. Not a hint of the dreaded iron or the tiniest fleck of grit from the rock-filled branch. Chuckling with glee, I filled a pitcher and poured a stream of delicious iron-free water into my coffee maker. This sure beat trying to get a water delivery company to make the journey up the rutted gravel path that was commonly known as a road in the holler. I finally had it made! Water I could drink, cook with, and everything else that modern life required, all without an unpleasant iron taste.
Today was the day I usually visited Mom and Dad in their rented little bungalow in town. I had a jug of Mom’s branch water already in the car. I grabbed my keys, and with a grin, I picked up an empty jug and filled it from the tap. I’d take this along with me and slip it to Mom instead of her usual branch water, just to see if she could tell the difference.
Whistling cheerfully, I jogged up the path to the house, carrying my substitute jug of water for Mom. Letting myself in I hollered into the kitchen “Mom, I’ve got your water!”
I could hear Dad plucking on his banjo on the back porch and crooning a song to Mom as she worked in her garden patch. I stepped onto the porch and listened. For as far back as I can remember, whatever house we lived in had been filled with music, jokes, and stories.
I walked up and listened as he sang “Carolina Sunshine Girl,” to the woman he adored. His voice was wonderful, and he was often in demand to sing in church. He’d never had any voice training that I know of, except from his mother. As a boy, he had had a very pronounced stutter, and his mother figured out that if he sang his thoughts instead of speaking them, the stutter was greatly reduced. Later in life, after he met Mom and came to live in the mountains, he lost the stutter completely.
“I brought Mom’s water,” I announced, after he finished his song. “And I love your singing,” I smiled.
“I have great inspiration,” he replied, gesturing at Mom. “Emily,” he called out, “Your water’s here.”
“Oh good,” Mom replied walking up to the porch. “That chlorine city water they have here in town is just not cutting it.”
I handed her the jug, watching carefully. She sipped it and smiled. “I see you’ve been trying to change the taste. It’s not quite what I remember, but it’s much better than the city water.” “And,” she grinned, her eyes twinkling at me, “You haven’t changed the soul of it.”
“Water doesn’t have a soul.” I replied.
“Oh you might be surprised!” she answered. “But time will tell.”
This was not the first time I was unable to decipher one of Mom’s cryptic statements, so I didn’t even try.
As time went on, I acclimated to the cabin and basically forgot my battle with the water, checking that off as done and won. I was operating my business right out of the cabin, having amazingly secured working internet, and my little gravel road even greeted the occasional client who wanted to talk in person.
One such client was Jeannette Crisp, who preferred to do her business face-to-face. I had been helping her settle up the estate of her late mother, who had died before I arrived back home.
Jeannette came in the door, appearing flustered.
“Well, I’m at my wit’s end,” she said, taking a seat on the sofa in my little office that used to be a spare room. “I just heard from the County. Momma left five thousand dollars in property taxes unpaid. They have extended it three times, but they can’t do it anymore.”
I was a little concerned. Jeannette’s mother had left her the house and land, but there was nothing else of value, and no money. We had used any extra cash paying off outstanding debt.
“If I can’t come up with the money by next month, I’m going to lose the house and land that’s been in my family for 100 years!” She twisted a handkerchief in her hands as she almost sobbed. “I don’t know what to do.”
We talked about options and possible items she could sell, but there was nothing that would bring anywhere near five thousand dollars.
“I guess the only option is to talk to the bank about a loan,” I replied. The house and land are paid off and worth a lot of money. You can get an equity loan and pay the taxes with that.”
Jeannette sniffled and nodded. “I was trying everything I could to avoid getting a loan against the house. Momma was so proud when she paid it off. She would hate getting a loan against it for any amount of money.”
Agreeing that it couldn’t be avoided, we looked up interest rates for some of the local banks and settled on a course of action.
As she gathered up our research and prepared to leave, Jeannette said, “Thanks, Fran. You’ve made this a little more bearable for me.”
“She kept a savings bond,” I blurted. “It’s in the house. She forgot all about it.”
Jeannette whipped around, paused, and looked at me strangely. “What!” She paused again and said, “What!”
I began to stammer. “I—I don’t…” I took a deep breath. “I don’t know where that came from. It just came out of my mouth.”
“O…Kay…” Jeannette walked slowly to the door. “Okay, Fran, I’ll talk to you later.” Her voice was falsely bright and she scurried to her car.
“Well I think I just lost a client,” I said out loud after she was gone. “What was that!” I had never lost control of my own voice before. It had taken on a life of its own. I gave up and went to lie down. Maybe I needed a rest.
A few days later, while at church, I was soaking in the sermon, still unnerved by the incident with Jeannette, and trying to find some peace. I watched the family in the pew in front of me. Clive and Mary Sanders and their three children. They were all so beautiful. Clive, son of a local banker, immediately caught the eye with his chiseled chin and brown curls, cut and pomaded into a style that models would envy. Mary’s blonde hair hung down her back and she wore the latest designs well on her trim frame. The children were all perfectly beautiful combinations of them both, and so well behaved. I was sure they didn’t blurt out inappropriate things for no reason. As the sermon wound down, I felt guilty for being distracted by my own silly predicament.
Mary came up to me, smiling, as we all began our exit after the final prayer. “Hi Fran! How are you doing?”
“Leave him,” I said. “You deserve better.”
Mary’s face paled and she stood stock still, her eyes filling up with tears.
“I’m sorry,” I began. “I don’t know why…”
She reached for my arm and pulled me into an empty corner. “How did you know?” The tears were spilling down her face now.
“I’m sorry!” I repeated, wiping at tears running down my own face now as well. “I don’t know why I would say such a horrible thing.”
“But it’s true.” Mary began to pull herself together. “It’s true, and I haven’t faced it.” She smoothed her hair and looked me in the eye. “He cheats on me over and over, and then blames me for it. I thought I should keep the family together, but your words just now seemed to shake me out of it. How did you know?”
“Would you believe I didn’t know?” I said, putting a shaking hand out to her. “It just came out of my mouth.”
Mary sighed. “Maybe the Lord works in mysterious ways after all, especially in church. Thank you, Fran, for making me face this.”
She dried her tears and had a firm look in her eye as she walked away. I, however, was a mess. I was even less prepared for Jeannette, who was waiting for me at my car.
“How did you know?” seemed to be the question of the day, and she greeted me with a smile and a hug.
“Know what?” I asked, still struggling to process my conversation with Mary.
She was waving something at me. It was a savings bond.
“After I met with you last Wednesday, I thought you were strange to say the least! But I still couldn’t resist looking around the house for a savings bond. I found it in a frame behind Grandpa’s old picture up in the attic. Momma bought a $750 savings bond when I was a little girl! I looked it up and now it’s worth $7500! I can pay off the taxes and have a little left over!”
She hugged me, ecstatic. “But I can’t figure out how you knew.”
I threw my hands up in the air. “I didn’t know!” I exclaimed. “It just came out of my mouth.”
Jeannette paused, thoughtfully. “Maybe Momma’s spirit was with us.”
“Maybe,” I said, still thinking to myself that I might be going crazy.
After Jeannette’s many thanks, and a promise to come see me at tax time, I got into my car and headed home. My mind was racing with the events of the day. Instead of heading out of town and back to my cabin, I found myself driving to Mom’s house.
“Fran!” Mom hugged me after I arrived, and then stepped back, taking in my somber face and desperate eyes.
“What’s the matter?”
“Mom, I’m going crazy! I’m blurting things out to people who are just acquaintances, things I couldn’t possibly know!”
She put her hands on my face. “Try and calm down,” Her soft whisper held so much strength that I did begin to relax.
“Now tell me, “What things?” “What do you mean.”
So I related my encounters with Jeannette and Mary, and their surprising conclusions. Her face relaxed into almost a smile as I finished.
“Well, I’ve never seen it manifest itself exactly this way before.”
I started in surprise. “Seen what!” I exclaimed.
Instead of answering, she picked up a letter. “It’s from Blankford and Dunn.”
I recognized the name of the famous publisher instantly.
“They say I’m a unique talent and they will be pleased to publish my poems. I’ve been offered a contract for four books, with the option for more.”
I forgot my own dilemma for a moment and gleefully grabbed her in my arms, jumping up and down and taking her with me. “Congratulations!” “That’s amazing!”
“Don’t you see, dear, that this family has a special talent for words?”
“Not me,” I said. I can’t write a coherent sentence or tell a story. I certainly can’t write poetry, like you. But I was balancing your checkbook at the age of 10.”
“Well, Fran,” she said cautiously, piercing me with her gaze. “Think about it and tell me what’s different about you.”
I started to feel a little self-conscious, even though I knew my mother would never insult me. I shook my head, bewildered.
“You rarely drank the water.” My father’s deep voice boomed behind me, making me jump.
He put his hand on my shoulder and came around to face me. “Sorry to startle you, but think about it. You took a couple sips when you were little, declared you didn’t like the water, and avoided it whenever you could. You drank milk, Mountain Dew, Orange Crush, and anything else that wasn’t our spring water.”
I laughed. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
In answer, he grabbed my hand. “I first met your Mom in the city, where I grew up with a pretty bad stutter. My mother, as you know, taught me to sing the words I found it difficult to get out. But I still stuttered quite a bit and I couldn’t go around singing all the time. Then Emily brought me down here.” He grinned at Mom. “In a few weeks, my stutter began to ease, and within a couple of years I found myself with a pretty good singing voice.” Then he smiled and tipped up my chin. “And what was different about being here, Fran?”
It couldn’t be. I didn’t believe it, but there was only one answer. “The water.”
Mom piped in, her voice taking on a musical quality. “You ever hear the phrase, “There’s something in the water?”
“Did you ever wonder why we have such a storytelling tradition and so many great tale-tellers here in the mountains, all with the “gift of gab?”
“You’re telling me it’s the spring water?” I asked. My voice had taken on a higher pitch as I struggled to take in what I was hearing.
“Well, have you ever done anything like this before?” Mom asked. “Before you began drinking the water regularly?”
I shook my head, my mind reeling.
Mom smiled. “The closest I can recall to it is my father’s gift for preaching. He had a sincere desire to help people and he always seemed to be able to say the right thing. It’s close to that with you. You have been given the gift of helping others, not with eloquent speech or writing, but you’re helping them all the same.”
“But how do I know these things?”
“Well, maybe you’ve just been given the ability to sense things that the people you are helping already knew. Jeannette may have a forgotten memory of that savings bond from her girlhood. Mary certainly knew her husband was cheating on her. You’re just helping them remember or deal with the truth. Or maybe it’s more than that.” She shrugged. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
“But I’m not consciously doing anything!”
She shrugged and smiled, putting her arm around Dad. “There’s something in the water. Filtered or not, that water is changing you. We’re living proof as well, and it’s been going on for generations. I really wasn’t sure until your Dad came down here. Some people, for some reason, have a “gift for words” that is magnified when drinking the water. Your father’s speech was healed by these waters. Your talent is different, but look what you’ve done with it! You’ve already helped two people.”
Again, without any control, I blurted, “You need to move back!” They looked at each other in surprise. I looked back at them, just as disconcerted.
“Well, the water has spoken again,” I laughed. “You don’t really want to be in town. We can build another cabin on the land and you can come back home. I can help with the shopping and take you to medical appointments. We’ll find someone to mow the grass. It will work out.”
After they promised to think about it, I once again hit the road for home. I knew when I said the words that they were the truth. My parents were moving back onto the land, and that was the right thing.
I thought about my situation. What was I going to say next? What embarrassing predicaments would I end up in? But I knew that if it helped people, it was worth it. I knew as sure as that branch traveling down the mountain, that if I could make others happy and help resolve their problems, I was all in.
Come to think of it, I felt a little thirsty.
Author’s Note: For this story, we took the tradition of mountain storytelling and combined it with the sayings “there’s something in the water” and “gift of gab.” A branch runs through our property in the Smokies, and Bonnie’s Mom drank from that branch as a girl. Bonnie’s Dad actually did have a stuttering problem as a child. He lost his Mom at the age of eight, and it was a nun in the orphanage he was sent to who helped him overcome the stutter by singing.