My Old True Love


By Sheila Kay Adams

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Sheila Kay Adams brings us a novel inspired by the ballads of the English, Scottish, and Irish. These long, sad stories of heartbreak and betrayal, violence and love, have been sung for generations by the descendents of those who settled the Appalachian mountains in the 1700s. As they raised their children, they taught them first to sing, for the songs told the children everything they needed to know about life.

So it was with the Stanton family living in Marshall, North Carolina, during the 1800s. Even Larkin Stanton, just a baby when his parents die and he’s taken in by his cousin Arty, starts humming before he starts talking. As he grows up, he hungrily learns every song he can, and goes head-to-head with his cousin Hackley for the best voice, and, of course, the best attentions of the women. It’s not long before the two boys find themselves pursuing the affections of the same lovely girl, Mary, who eventually chooses Hackley for her husband.

But, just as in the most tragic ballads, there is no stowing away of emotions. And when Hackley leaves his wife under his cousin’s care in the midst of the Civil War, Larkin finds himself drawn back to the woman who’s held his heart for years. What he does about that love defies all his learning of family and loyalty and reminds us that those mournful ballads didn’t just come from the imagination, but from the imperfections of the heart.



SOME PEOPLE IS BORN at the start of a long hard row to hoe. Well, I am older than God's dog and been in this world a long time and it seems to me that right from the git-go, Larkin Stanton had the longest and hardest row I've ever seen.

Granny had an old cow that was skittish back then that would kick anybody but her, so I knowed things was bad when she said to me, "Arty, go do the milking."

My heart laid in my chest as heavy as the milk bucket on my way back. See, my aunt Polly had been trying to have a baby for days and had screamed till her voice had plumb give out. I heard Mommie crying when I started up on the porch and just as I reached for the latch, the door opened and the granny-woman Hattie come out. She had a bright red stain on her forehead and try as I might I couldn't get my eyes to look nowheres else but at that red swipe mark. She never even had to say it. I knowed Aunt Polly was dead. Hattie's eyes was soft as a doe's as she took the bucket of milk and handed me the one she'd carried out of the house and told me to empty it at the far edge of the cornfield. Oh, Lord, I did not want to see what was in that bucket, but just like that red stain, I could n't look nowheres else, and I gagged the whole time I was burying the afterbirth.

Even though they was a candle burning on the rough-planked table inside the cabin, it seemed dark to me. But there was that bucket of milk, and since they was all talking, I figured it fell to me to strain it. I kept looking at the bed where Aunt Polly was covered up by one of Granny's best quilts. It seemed like the gay colors caught what little light there was and I got sick to my stomach thinking about what lay beneath them. Mommie and Granny stood next to the bed and Mommie was still crying. Crazy-like, the words to an old love song run through my head.

The doctor he come, to her bed he drew nigh

Her chambers all parted and moved to the side.

And quick as lightning, another line from another song.

No doctor's hand, just God's own hand.

Granny's face was so full of sorrow and hurt that I could barely stand to look at her, and I busied my hands to straining the milk. But that didn't stop my ears from hearing every word. In the softest voice ever was, Granny allowed as how Aunt Polly had plumb give up after Luke was killed. Mommie was holding Emily who had cried so long she had the snubs. Hackley had his fists twisted up in her skirt and when she started to say over and over, "My baby sister, my baby sister," he pushed his little face deeper in the folds. Right about then the baby started to cry, and everybody turned back to the bed. I took Emily from Mommie. It was when I set her on my hip that it come to me that I didn't even know what the baby was. But Emily was crying and fussing and Hattie was out the door and gone before I had a chance to ask.

Then Mommie said, "I'll take him," and Granny said, "No you will not." They quarrelled back and forth for a minute, then Granny said, "Thirty-five ain't young, honey. Ye've got eight young'uns and, God willing, soon to be nine. Ye have to think of your own." And what she said next caused a chill down the whole length of my back. "I'll keep him." And then her voice got real soft. "Till he dies, anyway."

Mommie's voice come out in a wail. "We can't let him die. He's all that's left in this world of Polly and Luke."

Granny held up her hands and said, "All right, all right." Then she said one of us needed to go to the spring and bring back water to wash Aunt Polly with before she stiffened, and my eyes flew back to the bed. I felt all done in and Emily was still making this tired little hiccuping sound like she wished she could stop but kept on anyway.

Mommie folded back the quilt from Aunt Polly's face. She tucked a strand of hair still wet with Aunt Polly's living sweat behind one ear.

"She looks young as a girl," she whispered.

Oh, but I thought I would die when she said that.

Then the baby cried again and Mommie got the funniest look on her face. Her chin jutted out, her eyes went to little slits, and she looked mad as hell. "Come over here, Arty," she said to me in a rough voice. She jerked Hackley loose from her dress skirt and knelt by the bed.

"That there is your cousin," she said. "He's ours to raise. He ain't got nobody in this world but us." Hackley made a little sound in the back of his throat and Mommie looked right at him. "He'll need a good strong name, now. You come up with a stout one, all right?"

Hackley looked at Mommie, then back at the baby. He nodded solemnly.

That must've satisfied her because she stood up, got the water bucket, and said, "I'm going to the spring."

And as Granny followed her out on the porch she allowed as how Mommie ought to take the pitch torch, since dark had probably come on down at the spring.

THE BABY MADE ANOTHER little sound and of a sudden I wanted to see that baby more than anything in this world. The quilt they'd wrapped him in had halfway covered his face and I leaned over and flipped it back. His big pretty head was covered in hair as black as a crow's feather. A tiny hand with fingers all spread wide reached out to us. Hackley stared at the hand, then shot a glance at the open door where Mommie and Granny stood backlit by the yellow light of the torch. I could see what he aimed to do and any other time I'd have smacked his hand. But, I didn't do or say nothing. I only watched Hackley's little hand move toward the baby. Quick as a snake the baby's fingers gripped it hard.

"Well, howdy," Hackley whispered. And I swear, that baby turned its head toward him just like he was listening. Hackley smiled. "Howdy, little feller."

IT WAS A GOOD summer for growing in Sodom, just the right amount of sun and rain. We would have plenty for the coming winter. Granny still spent a lot of time up on the side of the mountain where the garden was. With a sheepish look on her face and never quite meeting my eyes, she'd announce before the fog had even burned off that she had to go pull the biggest cucumbers or old bean vines to feed the hogs. She'd say this even though I knew for a fact she would never go in that garden with the dew still on. She'd stay gone until noontime and come in just long enough to fix us something to eat. She'd fuss the whole while about how everything in the garden was going to come in at the same time, which I had to laugh at because that's the way it always was. Then she'd head back out up the mountain, climbing hard to where the first row of corn started. She'd always stop there to bring her apron up to wipe the sweat that run off her face like little freshets, look back toward the house, then disappear in between the rows. But I could always tell where she was by the moving of the corn. And I could tell just as well when she'd leave the patch for the cool of the woods beyond, too. We'd had no fresh corn in many months, and my mouth watered at the thought of it and when she come in with the first little ears covered with watery blisters, we fell on them as though starving.

It was toward the end of August before I realized what Granny was doing. It was way up in the day and she was just heading back toward the house. She'd caught up the hem of her apron and had loaded it with potatoes. I had beat out a path on the porch walking the baby. He'd cried so much that day that even when he weren't crying, my ears rung with the sound of it. Granny was beelining it for the steps when he started to cry again. Her head come up and she made a sudden jag toward the springhouse.

She didn't want to sit here in the house and listen to him cry. It was then I knew it was going to be pretty much me for it. From the day he was born, my arms had carried him, but that very day was when my heart claimed him for my own.

IN OCTOBER, MOMMIE BIRTHED a baby girl. We all crowded into the cabin to celebrate and to hang her with a name. Mommie said she'd be known as Martha Elizabeth, after Granny's mother and the queen of England.

We all shouted out, "Welcome to you, Martha Elizabeth Norton!"

Then Granny stood up and took the floor.

"When Polly's baby was born, Nancy told Hackley he could pick out a name for it. And now the little feller's three months old. It's time to hang him with a name, too. Hackley's been wanting to do this for a spell, but we weren't about to waste a perfectly good name on a young'un that might wind up carrying it to the grave, so we waited till we were certain he'd pull through."

I stood up next to her holding the baby. The room was quiet as could be and everybody was looking at us.

Granny went and put her hand on Hackley's shoulder. "All right, Hack. You hang a name on him, son. The time has come."

Hackley come right across that room and stood in front of me. He looked solemnly at the baby.

"I name you . . ." He looked around at everyone in the room, then back at the baby. "I name you Larkin!" he shouted.

The room rang with the shouts: "Welcome to ye, Larkin Stanton!"

OH, BUT THERE ARE no words to tell how Larkin grabbed hold of my heart forever when he was five months old. They was a big snow on the ground and Granny had just come in from milking the goat she'd got from Jim Leake. Me and Larkin was laying on a quilt in front of the fire and his little face was a constant wreath of the sweetest smiles and he was cooing at me for all the world like a little dove. And then he looked up at me with them big round black eyes and said plain as could be, "Amma." Tears come so quick to my eyes I was blinded. Though it pleased me beyond all knowing I tried to tell him, "No, no."

But Granny stopped me.

"Let him call you Amma, child." Granny's eyes were soft. "He's chose you to love best of all, and with good reason. You been all the mama he knows."

LARKIN TOOK HIS FIRST steps, just shy of nine months old, into Hackley's arms. From then on he was never still. He was slow to smile, but when he did his whole face beamed, and you felt blessed just to be in its light. He was quick to learn and I could make him mind with not much more than a smacked hand.

One summer evening me and Granny was on the porch where we'd be more apt to catch a bit of a breeze should one decide to come up the cove. I'd been trying to learn this really hard love song called "The Silk Merchant's Daughter," and Granny had already sung it through a half-dozen times. Larkin was in my lap, and halfway through her singing it yet one more time he started to rock back and forth in perfect rhythm. A low hum began in his throat.


Granny never liked being interrupted mid-song like that so she was ill when she opened her eyes.


"Watch Larkin," I said.

Granny began to sing again and the low humming started up again. She stopped and his humming stopped. Larkin's eyes were fastened on her mouth. She sang and the humming started again.

"Well, I'll be damned! He's trying his best to sing, ain't he?"

"He is singing, Granny. Sure as I'm setting here holding him. That's what he's doing." I turned his body until his face was close to mine, but he wanted none of that. He squirmed away back to Granny, humming impatiently in her direction.

Granny laughed with delight. "Looks like we got us another singer, Arty."

He called for a knife his business to do.

"Hold on," said the young maid, "for a moment or two

It's a silk merchant's daughter from London I be

Pray see what I've come to from the loving of thee."

Larkin's humming got all mixed in with our singing and it all eased its way into the dark there on the porch.

BY THE TIME LARKIN was five he had already learned every song I knew. Granny had to start reaching far back in her memory for them love songs that were so old she swore they'd come straight from the old country. I had to agree with her since they talked an awful
lot about Scotland and England. It made me feel funny to think of singing songs that had been tucked away in people's hearts that had come all the way across the ocean.

But Larkin was too little to think about all that. He never cared where they come from. He was just always begging for one more.

"Lordy, honey." Granny said. "You have to give me time to study about it. You know who you ought to git to sing for ye is Hackley. He's learned from that bunch of singing Nortons, too. He's about the only one I can think of right off that can sing all day and not sing the same one twice't."

And so Granny pieced another square in the quilt that would bind them two boys together.

These were the days that I would look back on once I'd married with such a longing in my heart. Them were times that seemed almost magic—you know how it is when you remember your childhood. The sun is always shining or there's a big pretty snow on the ground, and you're young and never sick or tired, and everybody you ever loved is still living and your whole life is a big wide road stretched out in front of you just waiting for you to take that first step toward the living of it.

IT WAS IN THE fall of my fourteenth year, just as the leaves had started changing on the highest peaks, when I really noticed Zeke Wallin for the first time. I'd knowed him all my life but this day at church I really saw him. Me and Granny were making our way through a knot of people that were still milling about in the churchyard after preaching and Larkin had darted away from us with the final amen. I watched his dark head move through the crowd until I saw him catch up with Hackley. Then I saw a flash of teeth from beneath one of the old oaks at the edge of the churchyard.

Zeke Wallin had the same spare build, fine bones, and square jaw-line of his older brothers. Never in his life would he tame his curly black hair, and on this day a glossy lock had sneaked out from under his hat. Oh, but his brows set off his best feature: widely spaced eyes of such dark blue they often looked purple, which they did now as he was looking at me. In that minute he was the prettiest man I'd ever seen in my whole life. He told me later my feelings was all over my face, and I blush even now at what he must've seen there.

His smile got even bigger as he swept off his hat and give me a little bow. A rush of heat started in my stomach and streaked outward. A line from a love song raced through my head, the words changing and reshaping themselves into the version I would sing the rest of my life.

Black is the color of my true love's hair. His face is like some rosy

With the prettiest face and the neatest hands. I love the ground
whereon he stands.

It felt like my skin had caught fire and it was all I could do to keep my eyes on the back of Granny's dress as I went stumbling through the crowd. But as Granny stopped to speak to the preacher, there I was face-to-face with Zeke.

"Howdy," he said.

"Howdy." All that fire felt like it had settled in my face and I knew it were beet red.

"I wanted to speak to you before you took off. Tried to last Sunday, but you got gone."

"Last Sunday?"

He flashed me another smile, then his face went all serious. "See, I wanted to ask if I could walk you home. Same applies to today. If you'll let me."

He took a sharp breath. "It ought to be against the law of the land to have eyes that color, Arty Norton."

It was all I could do to keep my eyes level on his, but after he'd said that I weren't about to look away.

"So can I walk with you?"

I realized that I'd not be the same again, ever. Already I felt as though my skin laid over my frame differently. I looked up at the towering peak of Lonesome Mountain, imagining the child I'd been a moment ago standing just yonder.

"I reckon you can if you want to."

ON THE COLD NIGHT before I was to marry Zeke, exactly three months from that warm fall day, I laid in bed listening to the sounds that were as familiar to me as the sound of my own heartbeat. I heard the soft snore from Granny's side of the room. The wood from the banked fire hissed. The wind moaned its way around the cabin. Out on the porch, Belle, the redbone pup Hackley had given Larkin, gave a few sharp barks, then was quiet. Larkin, caught in a dream, muttered something I couldn't make out and flung a hand in my direction.

I reached out and touched his shoulder. He rolled against me, and was still. Suddenly, scalding tears come pouring out of my eyes. I put my chin on top of his head.

"I won't never love nobody the way I love you, Larkin."

Outside, the wind stilled as though listening, then rushed up the mountainside. On its breath was the smell of snow.


THE ONLY MAN I'D felt love for was Daddy, and that don't really count. But the thought never crossed my mind that I'd ever love a man the way I loved Zeke. I am a hardheaded woman and speak my mind whenever I take a notion, and when we first married, I had the notion often. He was so good and tender and loving. I was bad to fuss and quarrel, not at him but just to be quarreling. At first he'd try to offer advice or try to help me somehow. But he soon figured out that the best thing to do was just let me blow and then I'd be fine. Then I fussed because he never listened to nothing I said.

But Lord, how I loved him.

There were times when we'd be setting at the table eating and I'd just have to reach out and lay my hand on him. Many a dinner went cold because of that. And I know he felt the same for me. We was lucky people. I've knowed some that's passion for each other turned to hate after they'd been married awhile or, worse yet, they growed indifferent to one another. I would've gladly took the hate if I'd had to choose. But they was never nothing between me and Zeke but love. Now that ain't to say we never fussed nor quarreled. I was more than a little jealous though he tried so hard to never give me real cause. It was just that I was not blind. I saw the way women's eyes follered him, but if I mentioned it he would sigh great big and say, "You are seeing what ain't there, honey," or even better, "If they are looking why would I look back when I've got the prettiest gal in this part of the world?"

Zeke knew how to handle me all right.

ANOTHER REASON I LOVED him so was that it was fine with him that I brought Larkin with me. He were five year old and I couldn't stand the thoughts of leaving him. He stayed with us for almost two years then he wanted to go back to Granny's. It used to make me mad as the devil when somebody would say, "You'll feel different about your own." I could not imagine loving my own any more than Larkin. And it weren't so much that I did. It's just that Abigail was born before we'd been married not quite a year and within four months I was breeding again with John Wesley. Too many babies for Larkin. He even said he wanted to go stay with Granny where it was quiet. And, truth be known, Granny was not young anymore and needed the help. I missed him and cried when he left but I was so busy. And I did get caught up in the loving of my own, but I still say I loved him just as good.

THAT SPRING AND SUMMER after he went to Granny's, Larkin and Hackley got to be as close as two beans in a hull. Granny said she would find them sitting facing one another, Hackley patiently singing verse after verse, Larkin with eyes shut, his face still as a looking glass, soaking up every word. They roamed the mountains in search of ginseng, singing the old songs. Hackley's voice was clear and strong. But it was Larkin's voice, high and pure, that seemed to have wings.

Several man-shaped roots of ginseng decorated the fireboard of Granny's cabin. During the long nights of that winter, the boys would often give the roots the names of people that lived only in the old songs. Lord Thomas "dressed himself in scarlet red and wore a vest of green," and all the other roots "took him to be some king." Little Margaret sat in her high hall and sadly watched her sweetheart, William, and his new bride come riding up the the road.

They was in and out of my house all the time and I wish you could've seen the two of them—Hackley fair and hair so blond it looked white, with short, stout arms and legs; Larkin so dark, long, and lanky.

A HEAVY FROST BLANKETED Sodom in late May of 1853 during a cold snap we called blackberry winter. The white blooms of the thorny canes covered the ground looking for all the world like snow, out of place against the backdrop of the greening-up hillsides. Granny said we'd have us a fine blackberry harvest since only the hardiest berries would survive. And by July she knew right where to find them.

Larkin ran ahead of us as we paused to rest. The hill was steep, and this was the second time we'd stopped. He reached the top and turned, black eyes sparkling. His short hair, so black it gave his scalp a bluish tint, was damp with sweat.

"I done beat you to the top!"

"Your legs turned eight year old as of today, son!" Granny called out. "Lot younger than ours, for a fact."

"Not much younger than Amma's," he hollered.

"But mine's got a lot more miles on them and I'm hauling two," I hollered back. I was just four months gone but already showing.

Granny reached into the pocket of her apron and took out a plug of tobacco, bit off a chew, then put the plug back in her pocket. She chewed vigorously for a few seconds, spat, and tongued the moist chew firmly between gum and cheek.

"Larkin?" she called, gazing at the mountains in the distance.

His head popped up from the grass at the top of the ridge.

I laughed. "Your head looks like a guinea fowl sticking up that-a-way!"

He jumped up and come careening down the hill.

Granny waited until he stood next to her, then pointed off into the distance.

"You know what that mountain is a-way off yonder?"

Larkin shaded his eyes and stared. "Ain't that Little Bald?"

"It is. And hit's all the way in Tennessee, honey."

We stood there for a long time without talking as the summer breeze come flowing up the side of the mountain and, finding us in its path, teased and petted us before rushing on.

"Well, now," Granny said. "Them berries ain't gonna jump off the vine and into our bucket by theirselves."

"And we need to make haste, Larkin," I said. "Mommie is probably right now making you a stack cake for your birthday."

"Love Aunt Nancy's stack cake, yes I do!" Larkin sang.

The blackberry thicket had been there for as long as even Granny could remember. Some of the canes were thick as Larkin's arm. The berries were big and sweet and it weren't long before our hands and Larkin's mouth were stained purple.

Granny smiled. "Believe you put as many in your belly as in your bucket, honey."

"Reckon he just might have." I patted Larkin's stomach. "See how big it is?"

She reached and thumped his belly. "Lordy! Tight as a tick! They might not be no room left for no stack cake."

He pulled up his shirt and examined his stomach with a worried look. Then his face relaxed.

"Aw, Granny. You're just deviling me. Anyways, Hackley says I can eat more'n anybody he's ever seen."

"Ah! That Hackley is a trick, ain't he? He's sharp enough to stick in the ground and green enough to sprout," she said. "Don't believe they's a serious bone in his body."

"I don't know, Granny," I said. "He's serious about singing them love songs."

"Honey, let me tell you something. You three young'uns are some of the best singers of them old love songs I've heard since my Pappy passed. Now, he was a fine singer, Pappy was. Mommie would try to make him quit singing love songs. Said it was a sin! Pappy was plumb insulted, I can testify to that. Told Mommie she might want to reference the Good Book. Quoted scripture to her right then and there. 'Make a joyful noise . . . come before his presence with singing,' he said. 'And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.' Said if the greatest was love and for us to come before his presence with singing, what better way than by singing a love song! Said if God hadn't meant for us to sing them old love songs, why he wouldn't have give us sense enough to learn the words to them. Weren't much Mommie could say about that. Pappy knew the Bible like the back of his hand, better than anybody in this part of the country." She sighed. "He was a fine fiddler, too. When Pappy took to fiddling, why, I couldn't of kept my feet still if my life depended on it. And sing while he played. Now, that's harder'n hell to do. Yessir. Could sing and play the fiddle at the same time."

"Hackley can, too, Granny. Aunt Nancy said she'd never heard of nobody that could play like him when they's only a young'un."

"Pappy could play the fiddle when he weren't no more than a young'un, too. Must be something in the blood."

"What's that mean, Granny?"

"What, honey?"

"That it must be something in the blood?"

Granny looked at Larkin. "Why, it means it must run in the family."

"Oh." Larkin was quiet for a minute. Then, "Granny, have I got something in my blood? Other than the singing thing? Wish't I could learn how to play like Hack. He's trying to learn me but, for some reason, it just don't make no sense to me."

I knew just how he felt. Hackley had picked up the fiddle when he was five and had flew right into playing. He could pick the banjo, too. But, before I could say a word, Granny answered him.


On Sale
Jan 4, 2004
Page Count
288 pages
Algonquin Books

Sheila Kay Adams

About the Author

Sheila Kay Adams is an acclaimed performer of Appalachian ballads passed down for seven generations through her own ancestors. She has been a featured performer in several documentary films, served as Technical Director for the film Songcatcher, contributed to The Last of the Mohicans, and was cohost and coproducer of Public Radio’s Over Home. She performs year-round at major festivals throughout the United States, as well as in the U.K. She has three children and lives with her husband, Jim Taylor, in Madison County, North Carolina, where she was born.

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