A CAROL FOR HIRAETH
by Hamelin Bird
It’s something I see long forgotten in the faces of our town.
It’s in the eyes, mostly.
It’s when I pass them on the street and they glare at me beneath wisps of snow-blown hair, and I know they’ve forgotten what it means to survive.
For those who’ve been around long enough, however, we know better.
Yes, we know…
And as I linger here at the window of time looking back on that magical summer—back when we were green and star-eyed, and had plenty of our best years ahead—I can still make out the rime etching spiderwebs up the glass, can see those first breaths of morning fogging the air like some ghostly vision of halitosis, just as they had all those years ago…
Things were different back then. Sure, it’s a platitude—but it also happens to be true.
Hiraeth was a simpler town in those days, belonged to a simpler world. Our family woke well before sunrise to milk Bess-Matilda and feed the hungry horses; yet we were merely cogs of a much greater communal organism, a bright country where front porches stayed crowded and screen doors left unlocked, where children kicked rusty cans and ran wild in the streets. The usual cash crops—tobacco, soybeans, corn—lay sprawled through the center of town, the harbors lining the coast and dotted by legendary fleets of
Hiraeth trawlers, names scrawled down their sides in flaky hard-boiled script: THE BOUNTY. SCAVENGER. EDWARD TEACH ENTERPRISE.
Festivals highlighted the year, the Tulips & Lager Parade in March, followed as always by the Blessing of the Fleet and, mother of all galas, the Croaker Festival—a time when families strolled the boardwalk and watched the Fourth of July fireworks before crowding to see which young miss nabbed the title of Croaker Queen. The men downed another Coors as their gals whistled for street dances and the band cranked “Brown-Eyed Girl” out into the night; children tossed firecrackers and ran barefoot over the Olde Towne bridge, water lapping beneath them as they pointed to the wild neons of jellyfish and man-of-wars and of their own imagination.
Then were the forever-rolling blackouts which haunted the town year-round. Occasionally it was the East Enders—Florence and Whortonsville and Paradise Shoals—occasionally the Aurora side, though most times the entire town was thrown into the blackness, hurled headfirst. Families collected ceremoniously under grandparents’ roofs to swap yawns and play charades, or perhaps gather in hushed candlelit vigils to whisper old haint stories. And later that night, as the crickets gabbed and the frogs told tall tales, everyone tossed and turned in the swelter of these dilapidated screen-door palaces. Those nights if you yellowed your sheets it came out so warm it burned…
Even Hiraeth-then was not immune to tragedy, however, and folks carried with them their weight of grief and hollow seasons. Yet even our darkest moments were only the usual sordid legends of broken-to-hell families, occasional suicides, mishap deaths. But there was also the chance olde-tyme massacre, most of these rarely as simple as a flared temper or barroom brawl but usually the culmination of a slow, steady slide into depression and, ultimately, madness.
Yes, that was the way things were.
As I sit here peeling away the layers of that summer, like the layers of some bitter onion, I recall that the first warnings were from the fishermen. Even these were slow in coming—but so, I suppose, was the storm itself. In a way I believe we all felt it coming, felt it growing, if not in the air then perhaps in our own skittish hearts. One morning we turned from the closet and, rather than the ripped-knee coveralls and white-tee we’d decided on, instead found ourselves clutching a winter jacket…mittens…a toboggan.
First came Mark Halpern down on Acorn Avenue, talking in his sleep, babbling away with tears in his eyes about freezing nights on the water—nights so cold he’s sure it was ice he’d heard scratching at the hull. Then it was old Tommy Rafferty, who’d left a leg in Korea and was first to call attention to the strange flock migrations in the area, pointing ominously as speckles of Mallards and swan winged away from the docks.
The stories escalated when the crew of the ALBEMARLE ELITE reported a hailstorm of frightening violence in the Sound; pictures of injuries received were documented in the local Clarion. From then it seemed we could all sense the nights becoming cooler, the days after that, and finally it was as if Hiraeth fell into a deep blue dream. Pipes burst. The sun lost its strength. Crops began to frost and worried farmers prepared to cut their losses and plow.
They wouldn’t have the chance.
The night of August 28th—two weeks after the hailstorm first appeared in the weeklies, and after light hours of back-and-forth sleet—the town of Hiraeth witnessed its first flake of genuine summer snowfall. Many more followed, and by morning the slush had topped four inches. School was canceled, at which time wild half-dressed children blazed from their homes, mouths blurting high nonsensical cries that tore through the streets like gunfire.
The rest of us only looked on in grave awe and wonder…some even fear.
The snowfall continued through that day and into night, pausing once to catch its breath and then never looking back. By next morning, the toll stood at eighteen inches. Still the blizzard raged, sweeping in from the darkness that settled over the Sound and piling snow in great heaps on doorsteps and beneath windows, flanking cars, burying roads. The looming sign as you entered town—WELCOME TO HIRAETH WE SLEEP WITH THE FISHES!—was now covered in white and said nothing.
Reporters and press deluged the town; tabloids were printed, offering the truth of “The Arctic Bubble of North Carolina” or its purported effects (“Hiraeth Residents Growing Fur!!!”). The mystery of Hiraeth had become a national obsession, and soon we all began groping unnaturally for ways to handle this newfound fame.
Some came forward with tall tales of life out there. Oh yes, they’d seen them, the lights in the sky, and THEY were the ones responsible. Some said it was nothing short of a rebuke from the Almighty; others claimed it an “unprecedented weather anomaly” and left it at that. There was talk of the next Ice Age and one family—the Redmans—really did leave town and never returned. They’re getting along well now in Atlanta.
And yet, like so many pop culture fads before it, interest waned and the Arctic Hull of Hiraeth quietly faded away, vanishing into the dark night of America’s subconscious. For residents of Hiraeth, however, life did not change as the fad did. Summer wore on and ended. Winter came and went, with no lull in activity but thankfully no increase. Interest waned, but the snow did not; it remained and still remains to this day.
Longer piers were installed down at the harbors with federal grant money, a reckoning of the massive ice floes that have collected along the shore. Defying the weather, our fishermen trudged forth with admirable determination, continuing to serve the waters and thereby feed hungry mouths waiting back at home.
It was the farmers, however, who took the brunt of the hit—and what a hit it was.
The bulk of that growing season was lost, buried under ice, and for the next few years it appeared the fields would never be resurrected. My own father had passed away by then, my brother and I going our separate ways in the farm supply and construction businesses, respectively. The anomaly crippled him initially, but lately business has been picking up.
Others have made allowances, as well; only eight months ago, the miser Earl Hutchins completed what is said to be something of a greenhouse—big as two football stadiums, complete with the latest-day sprinkler systems and heat lamps and doors wide enough to let in the Cub tractors and combines. It’s going well.
Others quickly followed suit.
Of the one hundred counties in this state only seven are currently being affected by the anomaly, with three of those in it up to their elbows—none as bad as ours. There’s been talk of taking down the hothouses and stopping all attempts at growing; at this writing, the idea is in the minority, though the conversation itself shows just how much things have changed since the anomaly first hit. Tourism has suffered, and is close to being pronounced dead. That was a concern in the early years, when the first of the Roswell-like groups dwindled to pairs. But we’ve moved on. Sad to say, there’s much more to see in this Tar Heel State than our small white corner of the universe.
I am sitting at the window now as I write this, and looking out can see the barn where I shared my first kiss, the fence where I broke my first bone: the bitter and the sweet. My hair is white now and not the rusty brown it was for oh, some fifty years or more, but that’s not the snow.
Just age, that’s all.
Nights like these I wake sometimes, crawl out of bed. My wife is asleep beside me but she doesn’t stir, not anymore. She’s used to it by now—used to me, I should say, and my tendency to roam after dark. And some nights as I sit here looking out I still dream about the old days, about skipping stones and closed clams on the lake, and of crowded clotheslines on a balmy mid-afternoon. I dream about the dance of vapors over burning asphalt or the sweet miserable feeling of the dog days of summer. I dream so many things. But even I know that’s all these are, and all they’ll ever be . . .