Helen arrives in Appalachian Ohio full of love and her boyfriend’s ideas for living off the land. Too soon, with winter coming, he calls it quits. Helped by Rudy—her government-questioning, wisdom-spouting, seasonal-affective-disordered boss—and a neighbor couple, Helen makes it to spring. Those neighbors, Karen and Lily, are awaiting the arrival of their first child, a boy, which means their time at the Women’s Land Trust must end. So Helen invites the new family to throw in with her—they’ll split the work and the food, build a house, and make a life that sustains them, if barely, for years. Set in a region known for its independent spirit, Stay and Fight is a protest novel and family novel that both breaks with tradition and celebrates it. It is full of flesh-and-blood characters who force us to re-imagine an Appalachia—and an America—we think we know.
One winter, Rudy got an infection in his testicles while he lay out drunk on coal company land in a one-room shack that didn’t belong to him. When the corruption began to smell, he washed his balls with creek water and put some plantain on the infected place. He wrapped it up in duct tape, and kept the whiskey bottle by the bed. He lay on his bunk until his dick turned black and started bleeding out pus, at which time he found he could no longer walk. He couldn’t even get up to light the fire. When he started hallucinating, he knew he would die if he didn’t get up, so he forced his feet to find the floor, and he forced his body upright. He made it to the road, where he began, somehow, to walk. He knew his only hope was a ride. But it was the middle of the night, and it was February, and he was miles from town, and no one came by. Rudy would count out fifty paces and then collapse. Each time he passed out, he tried to do it in the middle of the road so that any car that came would have to stop for him. He kept himself moving like that most of the night. Finally a truck passed, some poachers coming back from a run. They pulled him up into the cab despite his odor, and they drove him the hour into town, speeding the whole way. He stank like he’d dug himself out of his own grave, shit and piss, the high smell of white worms and the paste of decay, and the hunters hauled him into the emergency room and left him there, and he fainted away on the floor.
“What happened then?” I asked my boyfriend, the night before he left me.
“They put Rudy in a hospital bed,” he said. “He was dead to the world for three whole days.”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then? Well, I guess then he woke up,” my boyfriend said.
“But what happened after he woke up?” I asked. We were lying in our narrow camper bed, not touching, but maybe about to.
“Come on, Helen,” he said. “That’s not the point of the story.”
“What’s the point of the story?” I asked.
“The point is that I’m quitting,” he said. “I can’t take working for Rudy anymore. He’s crazy. He’s spent too much time alone. He’s a first-rate blowhard. He’s impossible. And besides that, he’s sexist. All women are his mother, sister, girlfriend rolled into one. Every waitress, he says she wants it. Ranks them one through ten, that sort of shit. Like I’m gay if I want to talk about anything besides tits and ass, if I consider women to be human beings. He hates women and he’s obsessed with them.”
Oh yes, he was a fine man. And yes, I drove him away.
“Are you sure you’re not being too sensitive?” I asked.
Oh yes, he was a fine man. And yes, I drove him away.
• • •
I met my boyfriend the week after my thirty-first birthday, when he hired me on to his landscaping crew in Seattle. Some people might have called him two-faced but when I met him I noticed his wavy hair and how he smiled at me all the time, whether or not he meant it. It annoyed me right up until I couldn’t do without it. He had ambition. I didn’t. I’d barely graduated college, never really got around to dating. He wanted to leave the city, to get some acres and live off the grid, not that a person could expect to buy land in the Northwest at those prices, not that he’d managed to save much money, not that he had any credit. After we’d fumbled around for a few months, he said, In the Southeast you can get land cheap. The Southeast? I asked. Appalachia, he said. Never been there, I said. He said, Didn’t your uncle leave you some money?
The only thing keeping me in Seattle was my aunt, who was walking dogs and selling vintage clothes online, barely making the mortgage, busy grieving my uncle. What was I busy doing? What I’d been doing since college: seasonal work, mostly outside, circling around the city hoping my uncle wouldn’t get sicker and now he was dead. I thought my aunt might want me to stay, but how she put it was, Thirty-one’s not old, but you might as well see if you can hold on to that man. I really didn’t know him that well. I still wasn’t sure what he was smiling at me for. But I’d been waiting for my life a long time.
It was March when I followed my boyfriend to the oldest slope, not quite West Virginia but right there on the border. In a hill town with a land grant institution, a hardware and salvage store, an IGA, a diner, and thirty bars, we searched the nickel ads and went for a drive. After six miles we saw a FOR SALE sign scribbled on a paper plate. The paper plate was stuck to a mailbox. The mailbox was stabbed into the bank of a creek. Behind it, twenty acres of raw wooded hillside. A gravel driveway spiraled up.
We climbed it, maybe seven hundred feet but felt like a quarter mile. At the top, I looked back the way we’d come, but the road below had disappeared. You couldn’t even hear it. The driveway went nowhere, but ended in thorns, soggy husks, wide-faced grasses, trees that I didn’t take seriously at first, because out West forest means evergreen. No houses, no structures, nothing but mud, rocks, and not-quite-wilderness. What about neighbors? I asked. My boyfriend studied a map. He said, We’re surrounded by coal company land. Miles of it. Coal mines? I asked. Isn’t that dangerous? The industry moved on a long time ago, my boyfriend said. They left the land to itself. Untrammeled forest, he said. Post-trammeled, I said. He said, It’s cheap to buy around here. I said, I had this professor once who said that private property is a totally problematic concept. My boyfriend said, We can start from scratch. We can hack some trails. Clear some trees. Build our way. He pointed into a thicket. Do you see that? Buried in the roots of an elderberry bush, a cast-iron kettle spilled muddy water. A freshwater spring, he said. We’d be fools not to. I used my uncle’s money to make the down payment.
We bought a camper so small that the two of us could push it up into the woods, where we cleared a sugar maple, an ash tree, and a red oak. I learned their names as we cut them down. With a shovel and a grub hoe we dug out enough space to prop up the camper on a stack of sandstone so it was level. Only the barest bit of light came in the windows past the orange spray-painted declaration scrawled across them, THE MCCANN’S: STEP AWA, someone else’s feud.
April, May, and most of June, my boyfriend worked up north in one of those new boom industries, drilling whatever, so we could pay off the rest of the land. Meanwhile, I was supposed to stay home and get shit done. But it was me against the land and I was in awe. No one was watching me all day but god, and I didn’t believe in god. I didn’t know how to get started. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It was cold and it was raining. I put on a poncho. I dug out the spring, buried a plastic bucket beneath the cast-iron kettle, called it a refrigerator. I strung a tarp, put another bucket under it, called it an outhouse. I tried to plant some onions, not knowing how much sun they needed, not knowing they were heavy feeders. Mostly, I waited for my boyfriend. I biked the gravel roads until I had enough signal to call him. He didn’t pick up. I biked to the bar and stood under the air vent, asked the bartender to turn up the heat. I played pool against myself. There were men in canvas, caps pulled low, college girls wearing miniskirts in the pouring rain, fuzzy boots to make up for it. No one found out that I was a good conversationalist. No one talked to me. I charged my phone. Tried my boyfriend again. At night I lay in the camper, figuring I’d get murdered or a tree would fall on me. I told myself I could always head back to Seattle and find another landscaping crew. Instead, my boyfriend came back with ducklings in a cardboard box. What did you do while I was gone? he asked. I gestured toward the buckets and the tarp. And I played pool, I said. There’s this bar in town. It rained a lot. You should have been planting, he said. I planted onions, I said. But peas, he said. Kale. Or I don’t know chopping wood. What would I chop wood for? I asked. It’s going to be summer soon. You’ve got no ambition, he said. We took down a hickory, pried apart some pallets, and built a duck shed.
That summer, Rudy hired my boyfriend to run his ropes. Who’s Rudy? I asked. Just one of these assholes, said my boyfriend. A tree trimmer. I saw him up in a maple on the way into town, so I asked if he needed a hand. It’s not forever but it’s a job.
When my boyfriend came home from work each evening, I was desperate for company, but he wasn’t much for chatting. Me, I could talk all night. We would get in bed, and I would begin. When I began talking, the raccoon crept by, and when I finished, the woodpecker hammered its spring-loaded head into the ash tree outside our window. I jiggled my boyfriend’s arm to keep him awake.
We almost made it to September.
The night my boyfriend quit working for Rudy, he was finally in the mood to talk. He’d come home with a cut on his face, but he didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to tell me the story about Rudy’s balls. “It’s not that I’m sensitive,” he said. “The guy’s a mess and that story proves it. I mean, what the hell kind of man trespasses on coal company land to hide out and cure himself with whiskey and duct tape? Just ask yourself that.”
“But what are we going to do for money?” I asked.
“We’ll think of something,” he said. “What about your aunt?”
“They’re about to foreclose on her house,” I said.
“What about your college degree?”
“What about it?”
“There’s a college in town, maybe you could I don’t know be a professor or something,” he said.
“You can’t do anything like that with a college degree, the only thing you can do with a college degree is get another degree,” I said.
“I could go back up north to work,” he said. “Plenty of money up there.”
“And leave me alone here again? I’ll die.”
He told me that I wasn’t going to die, and so I said, Okay but I want to die, and he said, No you don’t, and I said, Okay but I want to kill you. He opened his eyes then, but he didn’t say anything, so I told him that I was going back to Seattle. He told me not to leave, and I told him to give me one good reason.
He told me not to leave, and I told him to give me one good reason.
“It’s not right that you should go,” he said. “I’ll go. I’ll find someplace else. I’ll go in the morning.”
That was how he outsmarted me.
• • •
After my boyfriend left, I packed up, too. But I’d spent all the money from my uncle on that infernal slope. I couldn’t even pay for a bus ticket home. I went to the bar and stood under the air vent. I charged my phone and called my aunt, ended the call before she picked up. I didn’t want to admit defeat. I knew she’d made some outlandish equation that if I would just get married all her struggles would be worth it. But now I was alone with a leaky camper, a flock of ducks, twenty acres to care for, little firewood, and no income to speak of. My aunt’s number blazed up on my phone’s screen. She was calling me back. I canceled it. The air vent blared. I went through my contacts, the guys my boyfriend had known, who’d been up north with him, or worked construction in town. Called Frank. “You know I can’t hire you onto my crew,” he said. “Why don’t you try Rudy? I hear he’s desperate. Your man left him high and dry.”
“Why can’t you hire me?” I asked.
“I’ve never seen a woman could work a full day like one of my men,” Frank said. “The economy’s too hard right now to do it out of sympathy. Besides, what would my wife think?” To be helpful, I told him that his crew was primarily made up of pill heads and drunks, that I could work circles around them, and that, as far as I could tell, he had never asked his wife what she thought about anything before, so why start now? These people believed strongly that the world was coming to an end soon because of solar flares and the shifting of the poles, not that they ever mentioned climate change, relentless war, or industrial capitalism, but he had hung up.
So I shifted my bike down to its lowest gear and I rode up to Tanner’s Corner, where Rudy was clearing a half acre of yellow pine. Tangled red ponytail sticking out from underneath his hard hat, pink safety goggles, hairy face so full of sawdust it looked like he’d been breaded. He had his Husqvarna 362XP gnawing out the hinge on a fifteen-foot stub when I leaned my bike up against his truck, but he let it idle when he saw me.
“If you come any closer, I’ll take it you want to be killed by this tree,” he yelled above the motor. I stood back while he made the back cut. We watched it fall. Rudy turned off the saw and lifted his goggles. “You expecting your man back anytime soon?” he asked.
“Seems like you’re having a hard time holding on to ground crews,” I said.
“Must be due to my bad attitude,” he said.
“I don’t think he’ll be back,” I said. “But I need work.”
“Any experience?” he asked.
“Landscaping, tree planting, firefighting, flagging, clearing debris. I’ve taken down my share of trees,” I said. “And I have a college degree.”
“Oh my,” Rudy said. “Slumming it with the hill folk.” He knelt and began to oil his saw, judiciously dripping it from an unmarked plastic bottle.
“I’m saving money to go back to Seattle,” I said.
“What did you go to college for?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Sounds like you got scammed,” he said. “Do you know your knots?”
“Of course I do,” I said.
“I’ll probably yell at you. It’s not that I’m proud of it, but that’s just how I am.”
“If you yell at me, I’ll walk off the job,” I said.
Rudy screwed the lid back on the bottle of chain oil and stood up. He wiped his hands on his shirt. He pulled wood chips from his beard. Coarse red hair crept from his cuffs and his collar, laced with sawdust. He reached in and scratched. “Might as well start today,” he said. “It doesn’t appear that you have anything better to do.” I stashed my bike. He handed me a hard hat.
While I watched, Rudy set his climb line on another yellow pine, and strapped on his spurs. Then he threw his body upward, making his way up the tree by launching himself up into the air, an eel, gaining inch by inch up the rope. He moved as a current, sending his Blake’s hitch up ahead of him, until he reached the lower branches, twenty feet up. Then he dug his spurs in, hugged the trunk like a bear cub, and went higher, using the small handsaw in his holster to cut twigs and small branches out of his way. Finally, he looked down at me. “Turn a quick-hitch on my climb line and send me up the Echo for limbing,” he called. So I sent him up the little saw. I tied on the bull rope, and he hoisted it up. “Come-along’s hooked onto a cherry tree,” he said, swinging in his harness and pointing into the woods. I took the highway of a fallen pine and found it.
Fifty feet up, Rudy tied his bowline, then drew back and launched the end of the bull rope. A long white arc, it sailed through sun and shade, snaking down into the forest. I went for it, pulled it out of a greenbrier. I hooked it up to the come-along by wrapping a klemheist three times around, then yelled up to Rudy, and waited to hear his saw begin working. When I heard him knock out the wedge, I fit the steel handle into place, and cranked it hard as he made the back cut. Three clicks forward, two clicks back, then two, then one, rowing it to and fro until it was almost too heavy to pull. Rudy dug his saw in again, while I heaved back, and then the rope went nearly slack, and I cranked hard and fast and looked up to see the top of the tree moving. Far up in the sky like it had nothing to do with me, the fringe of green began to flinch and duck, and I dropped the handle and got the hell out of there. I skidded sideways down through the saplings, then turned to watch it go. The pine toppled, dizzy and slow in the first moments, then picking up speed. It hit like a trampoline, the matted pelt of branches and trunks leaping up together, then shuddering back to earth, crushing one another, making new hollows and hiding places beneath the boughs.
Rudy whooped, and I whooped back. That was to tell each other we were alive.
Rudy whooped, and I whooped back. That was to tell each other we were alive. Then I unhooked the come-along and hiked back up, pulling the bull rope out with me.
“You didn’t kill me,” Rudy said, stepping out of his spurs. “Maybe you really do know your knots.” He went to the cab of his truck and came back with a gallon jug of water and a bag of super-spicy red-hot Cheetos, the bold hue of artificial cinnamon. He passed me the bag.
“What about you?” I asked.
“What about me?” he said.
“Where did you learn your knots?” I asked.
“My dad,” he said. “That motherfucking cocksucking piece of shit. He taught me everything I know about tree work.”
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“What is it with you fucking anthropologists, you want me to speak into the mic? Of course I grew up around here. My family’s been here since 1840. Basically stole their land directly from the Shawnee.” He teased some Cheetos from his beard, tipped them into his mouth. “But that’s over now,” he said. “No family. No land. Lost it all to the coal company.” He took a long drink, then stretched out on the ground with his head resting on his hard hat. He reached into his tool bag and brought out a thick book, opened it to a folded page. When he caught me looking he waved the cover at me. The Count of Monte Cristo.
“You want to say something to me, college girl?” he said.
“I’ve never read it,” I said.
“Philistine,” he said. “It’s the classic tale of revenge. I read it at least once a year. Come on, English major.”
“Liberal studies,” I said.
“Well, mind your own fucking business,” he said. “I’m taking a break. And I’m not paying you to ogle the locals.”
Madeline ffitch cofounded the punk theater company Missoula Oblongata and is part of the direct-action collective Appalachia Resist! Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Guernica, Granta, VICE, and Electric Literature, among other publications. She is the author of the story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn.