The last time I walked up Cow Horn Hollow, it was such a hot day in August that even under the thick, towering trees the atmosphere seemed to rise and settle again as disturbed as the air in front of a fire, and the jar-flies were whirring so loud they sounded like a power line. I suppose it was too hot for anybody, even in the big valley, to pay much attention to the weeds that August, much less the people up Cow Horn; but you’d have thought they’d be scared of snakes, the treacherous bright copperheads, silent as Indian shoes, that could coil in the high weeds when the bare-footed children passed. The people up Cow Horn seemed too drowsy to be afraid; they just stretched like lazy snakes themselves across the old porch swings, or squatted Indian-style against the houses, deep in the heat, and didn’t care.
People don’t cling to places like Cow Horn Hollow. They get thrust into those steep cuts between the hills like leaves caught in a crack between the high stones of a wall, which may flutter and struggle a little in the fitful gusts of wind, but then, if they are caught too tight, seem to give up the fight and lie there until they turn to dust. At first look it’s a beautiful place; one of those accidental penetrations into the virgin woods which are destroyed when the road is paved, or the level of the suburbs rises up into the cuts; for when money is spent to clear and plant tidy suburban gardens, the wild, threatening, delicate plants shrink back beyond reach. But as it is, the hollow is so erotic, you’d think, that it would put forth wolves of men and women so broad and tall they’d look like the pictures on travel posters. It isn’t true. The life’s too hard, the ground won’t yield at such a deep grade, and the rains bring down what topsoil there is on the clearings every spring and deposit it in the swollen branch to ship by flood water down to the wide, fertile creek valley, owned by richer people.
So the men look more like hound-dogs, and the movement and color of the women makes them seem shrunk by the time they are thirty-five, just as their ancestors, the great pioneers, must have seemed two hundred years ago. Only the lacy sumac, which reminds you of Palm Sunday, and the wild cucumber, with its flat green tongues of leaves, thrive there among the strong, high, ignoring trees.
So when I walked up there in August I knew already not to look for the accepted signs of human habitation in the hollow. Of course, near its mouth, where the flat land broadened out like a saddle, there was room for small corn-fields, and a few of the houses had been at some time painted. They were three or four rooms large, and their thin walls, although no more than an inch thick between the wind and the sheltering inside, were built of the wide vertical boards sealed by narrow ones in true, neat, upright ‘Jennie Lind’ style. In front of a few of the houses were rows of dusty asters; some had vines along the wooden porches; one even a small cut plot of grass. But these houses faced down toward the branch mouth, their backs to the rest of the hollow as if their original builders in the fierce snobbery of self-preservation had only backed a little up the hollow, and didn’t count on staying there for good.