by Amber Walker
It had been about adventure when I moved to those mountainsFirst Place WinnerThird Place Winner
still a product of cappuccinos at midnight,
shopping in the bright cities,
meeting friends for lunch and martinis
dreaming of life at a glossy magazine house
in my Bulgari gems and heavy with Chanel.
I little understood it myself - how I had signed up
for teaching at a mission, hidden in a hollow,
forgotten and impoverished. Did I want to be saint?
When I unpacked in the tiny cottage on the hill,
overlooking a valley of cattle, panic struck
and my hand itched to grab my cell phone - which had no reception.
Someone come get me! I made a mistake!
The first day of teaching, I wore my new outfit,
presentable and confident, and the children piled
into the hallways, thirty or more - noisy, dirty, hungry.
I was handed a sandwich platter and asked to pour milk.
I washed dishes before lessons were given
and in my new outfit, smudged with peanut butter,
cuffs moist from dishwater,
I sat on a dusty floor, encircled by curious eyes as I read
stories of talking dogs and princesses.
As the days went on, the electricity went out, skunks visited
my front porch, and coyotes haunted the night-blackened woodlands
while I slept with a baseball bat.
Friends would call and I would sigh about my troubles.
I relapsed to jeans and tennis shoes.
I poured milk and served sandwiches with my hair tied up,
with my make-up streaking. And then -
a child's arms encircled my neck,
little hands clasped at my fingers
little voices asked me to play games
or tell them about that "place" I was from.
Have I lost my mind? As I gave away my shoes
in the spring, sweaters in the fall
I drove a bulky van around hair-pin turns, hundreds of feet
above forests and dense, mysterious glens.
The children sing-songed me goodbye as they headed into
tumbled-down houses, rusted trailers,
shacks with rotten siding and can-littered lawns.
I forgot about the magazine, my Bulgari, my Chanel.
My friends lost interest in my new passion;
the phone calls began to dwindle into weekly, ten-minute tête-à-têtes.
I had found myself there, in that Appalachian year,
a new woman who had learned what it meant
to be human, to be brave, to rend my heart,
no matter the hurt!
And when that year ended, I had to pull myself away
from those mountains, from those children,
and I drove to the lights and garish storefronts,
to the bustling masses draped in finery for which I once lusted.
Cappuccino machines frothed, martinis glowed
in the dim lights of cafes. "We are so glad that you're back!"
My friends crowded like sharks around some bleeding thing.
How can I come back to this?
when my own shoes and sweaters clothed bodies
in those mountains, and my heart was still scattered
in the hollows, on the back roads, like petals on a wedding day.
However, the mountains never called.
They never wrote.
I was a one-time guest only with a longing for a visit.
But Nebraska made it quite clear
that I was needed there in the plains that seem to stretch forever.
Like Appalachia, it surprised me, reawakened inside me
the unexplainable love that beckoned like some soft, untraceable music
and I followed it and found
that while pieces of my heart are still adrift
on the mountain breezes, there's more of me to give
as a young hand clasps mine
and I see a faint reflection in their eyes - the children of my
I'm still reaching them
in this adventure that no glossy magazine
could possibly understand.