By John Thomas Tuft

In the mountains of western North Carolina there lived a boy name of Johnny Junior. Johnny’s family lived on the edge of a small town near Pilot Mountain, known to the first native inhabitants, as Jemeokee, “Great Guide.” You can see it in the distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, a towering, rounded pinnacle of sheer face rock cliffs wearing a dainty cap of vegetation. Unmistakable,  silently bearing witness to century after century of travelers and traversers of this corner of creation. The Yadkin River flows nearby, past vineyards and wineries that the first people, the Saura (sun) Tribe may well find baffling. Even more so would be the town to the north, Mount Airy, known to all near and far, as the real cultural center for all things Mayberry, the mythical television town patrolled by one Sheriff Andy Taylor, his deputy Barney Fife, and intrepid son Opie and beloved Aunt Bee. But I digress.

Johnny Junior, at the time this story takes place, and his family were still becoming acquainted with this new technological wonder of television and all the breathless expectations of how it could shape society, bringing all the hopes and fears and genuine real news, into the living rooms of real people. Everywhere. At the flip of a switch. Forget radio. So old school. But it didn’t put food on the table, hoe the tobacco, wash and mend the clothes, or weed the all too necessary garden. Johnny Junior had his chores, the least favorite of which was milking the cow. Seems Ol’ Molly didn’t care too much for spending her days wandering around the pasture outside the communal barn on the backside of town, just waiting for some eleven year old boy to show up with his pail twice a day. And no matter how many times his mother told Johnny to watch and not let Ol’ Molly kick the bucket while being milked, it happened with clocklike regularity.

So it came to pass that one evening Johnny Junior made his way to the barn, impatient as usual at the demands placed on him, and just wanting to get it over with. And, true to form, Ol’ Molly took umbrage with his approach and gave the bucket a couple of swift kicks that sloshed half the milk onto the ground. Johnny, thinking himself an enterprising young man, stopped off at the pump and as usual, topped off the bucket before making his milky way home. This time he decided to take a long cut through the woods. Near a bend in the path, something off in the trees caught his eye. A campfire, a magical wonder to children of all ages. Standing near the fire was an old woman, dressed in a buckskin dress, long black and gray hair hanging in two thick braids, a colorful necklace of beads, mountain laurel, and the eye teeth of a wolf draped around her neck.

Johnny stepped off the path and approached, transfixed. He set down the pail and asked, “Who are you?” The old woman dipped her finger in the bucket, tasted the liquid, and said with a laugh, “Don’t blame the cow!” Johnny protested, “It’s her own fault!” The woman gave him a look that summoned eternity. “They call me Selu. I’m here waiting for Kanati. He’s gone off hunting again.” She opened a pouch at her side and took out a handful of corn, saying the words common to grandmas everywhere, “Are you hungry?” Johnny shook his head, murmuring, “Why are you here?” Selu smiled at the boy. “I came to see if my children are sleeping hard. Too, too many are sleeping with one eye open. It’s not good. We are meant to sleep hard.” She looked off into the woods. “He better bring me strawberries, if he knows what’s good for him.”

Johnny heard a sound behind him and looked around nervously in the fading light. “You’re not afraid of bears, are you? Don’t be. They need to learn from the deer about spirit,” said Selu. She distracted him. “Did you know every plant has a purpose? Unetlanvhi put them into the earth where they learned to be medicine.” She stepped closer, searching his eyes. “You must decide, child. Will you spend your life gathering? Or will you spend it grabbing?” Johnny shrugged, speechless. “It’s just a bucket of milk.” Selu raised an eyebrow at that. “It’s up to you, young one. Will you spend your life being true? Or will you spend it being troubled? If you learn how to gather life, how to be always true, then you will sleep hard.”

She dipped her finger in the pail one more time, and tasted it, nodding. “Go to your mother. She’s waiting for you.” Johnny picked up the pail and headed back through the trees. The bucket felt heavier, oddly. He looked down. Thick white cream floated on top. He turned back around to say something. But all he saw through the trees was the faintest wisp of smoke. Nothing more. Or maybe it was an evening mist, rising toward Jemeokee.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.