THE SKY IS a deep purple, faded on the edges like a bruise on the mend. At dusk, I drive down the dirt road to the house where I was born. I have come home to rest in the valley that divides the Ozark Mountains, to put my bare feet on the knot in the wood floor where I was born. I have traveled 1,470 miles from Mexico City, where I live as an adult, to arrive in Oark, my childhood hometown.
My mom complains that she has nowhere to store the sweet potatoes from her garden in my old bedroom because I have left the shelves filled with books. I remind her that I only keep signed books, but she would still like that space for her vegetables. She has recently broken her foot and walks with a limp. My dad is making beer on the wooden cookstove, an act of rebellion in what has been a dry county ever since I was born. They look older, wild and hardy like their dying winter garden.
Growing up, it took me a long time to realize that although I loved the life that my parents had chosen in rural Arkansas, it wasn’t the life for me. I fell in love with Mexico City at 19 when I traveled there with a study-abroad program at my university. I loved the energy, the movement, living in another language, that each neighborhood was its own world, that food on the street was homemade and spicier than anything I had ever tasted in my life. I loved the libraries and the cafes and Frida Kahlo and Luis Barragán’s houses and their life stories. In Oark, I had spent my childhood in the woods. As an adult, I longed to see all the places and speak all the languages that Oark could never offer.
In Oark, we sit at the kitchen table as my parents look out the window at the birds, whom they have become fond of in their old age. In the summer, they feed the hummingbirds, whom they refer to as their children, religiously. Their faith is rooted in the earth, in nature. As the summers get hotter and the growing seasons change, they have become, in turns, sad and angry.
After making beer, my dad shows me a basket of red and orange orchid peppers from the garden before he cuts them up and puts them in his simmering tomato sauce. I go downstairs and lie in my old bedroom, a framed pastel portrait of my grumpy 5-year-old self hanging above the bed. I have not changed that much, I think. I still do not like to sit quietly or pose.
My mom ties an orange handkerchief around Ernesto’s neck. A family left the Australian shepherd mix tied to a stake when they abandoned their house a few years back. He cried until the poet living next door took pity on him. Then the poet gave Ernesto to my parents. Whenever I stop petting him, he rubs his nose under my hand, a reminder.
I stand in the kitchen and drink water from our well out of one of my dad’s ceramic cups. I remember how our neighbor lost a five-year lawsuit against a fracking company, and I wonder how long our well water will be clean. Each year, the earth trembles more, the state wracked by fracking-induced earthquakes.
My mom says there is no more good firewood. When I was younger, my parents cut the wood themselves, but now they have it delivered. She complains about how the national forest is logging too much, about the mountain being left bare in patches. I remember stacking wood as a child and cleaning the ashes out of the woodstove.
There are 179 people in Oark. I am not sure where my mom got this figure. When I was a child, there were at least a dozen more. Many got busted for growing marijuana and decided to become fugitives rather than go to jail. Jeff died in a chain-saw accident. Uncle Bill got liver cancer and died before I got home to say goodbye. Paul overdosed on drugs while driving down the dirt road and crashed into a tree. He didn’t survive, and there is still a dead stump covered in plastic flowers and bows that marks where his life ended.
At the dinner table, my dad sits with a box of his wood-fired ceramic cups. He says he has made them to celebrate the apocalypse. He is a potter, and he is worried about the end of the world. He has made decals of a local fish that used to be plentiful in the Little Mulberry River but that is now endangered, and he is going to decorate his cups with that fish. As he soaks the decals in warm water, he says, “I’ve been thinking about this whole thing with climate change, and there is going to be no chocolate, no wine. I’m going to build a wine cellar under the house to store 1,000 bottles of wine.”
I go downstairs and lift open the trap door in the floor. Below is the earthen foundation that my dad dug in 1976 when he first bought the land in Arkansas. It is dark and smells fertile, like a womb.
I haven’t lived in Arkansas in more than two decades, but the land that shaped me as a child, that continues to be the center of my parents’ lives, calls me back. I walk down to the creek and look cautiously at the rock wall where copperheads liked to sleep when I was a girl. I remember summer days spent running through fields of flowers that ended with me covered in hundreds of seed ticks. I would find duct tape and calmly use it to pull them off. I remember the boredom and heat of summers, time spent catching grasshoppers, collecting rocks and making enclosed pools for crawdads and tadpoles.
My connection with the land and its creatures remains, and I understand why my parents grow weary with the weight of love for their home, which keeps getting hotter every summer. I worry about them as they get older, wondering how they will continue to cut and stack wood, to plant the garden and swim in the creek. Although I would like to think I will return to Oark to help them care for the land and their house—I know that I will not. I have built my own life, one in which I wander the streets of Mexico City living fluently in another language, which is something
I never dreamed possible growing up in Oark.
Dr. Alice Driver is a journalist whose work has been featured by publications such as National Geographic, Time and CNN. Follow her on Twitter: @alice__driver.