I started listening in early March. It happened every year. I heard it before I saw it. The tiny creek ran down from the top of the mountain on its path right past my playhouse and I could stand on the porch and listen for its whisper, look down and see it glisten in the dappled sunlight. It started with the first warmth of the sun, the first chirp of the birds, the first faint veil of green that appeared on the trees. It started as a hush, and in the quiet of the mountains, I could hear the water coming. It moved over the rocks, whispering, happy to be moving again. It kissed the earth on each side of the hollow as it moved past my playhouse. I knew all was well in my world; the mountain was alive again. It happened every year.
I didn’t need a calendar to tell me the mountain was waking up. In fact, I don’t remember knowing much about a calendar except for counting the days down to Christmas. But all I had to do was watch for the water to begin its whispery trickle down the tiny narrow hollow; then I knew. The water came from a natural spring at the top of the mountain, a small dripping water source that started at the base of a giant rocky cliff. If I followed the creek high enough up the mountain, I could see where it started. If I stepped over to the other side of the mountain, I would no longer be in Kentucky, I would be in Virginia. Ferns grew on that rocky overhang, their fronds looking for all the world like dainty green umbrellas, shading the water drops as they made their way from the crack in the rock.
That was our secret, the mountain’s and mine. I don’t think anybody else knew when the mountain woke up, but I did. The whisper of the water told me. It was only a small creek, maybe one or two miles from the top of the mountain down to my house, and only about a foot or two wide as it trickled past my playhouse. It held treasures if you knew where to look, and I knew all the hiding places. It started carving its way just below the ferny cliff, there where it had dripped for more years than I could count. It carved out a dip in the top of the next cliff down, a very deep mysterious dip, then fell as a tiny waterfall on to the next level. It had continued carving its path for hundreds of years all the way down the mountain until it finally found its way to the little hollow that led it past my playhouse. Granny Ninna told me so and I always believed my Ninna.
In every dip along the way, the water shared its treasures. There were tiny pebbles, old as the hills, made round and smooth by the moving water. Darting and dancing among the pebbles were black glistening tadpoles. Where the hollow formed and continued its downhill trek, an occasional deep spot became the home of minnows, silver streaks of sunlight just beneath the surface of the moving water; little families darting in and out of even bigger rocks. And so it continued on down the mountain, until it became the border along the side of my parents’ property.
Abraham lived in the first deep dip. Snow and ice froze the stream solid all winter long, and I guess Abraham froze too, but when the water started whispering, I knew Abraham would soon be waking up. I had to hurry to greet him. He would be expecting me. It happened every year.
I was only a little girl, but during those years I knew the mountains much better than I knew the nooks and crannies of the house where I lived. I knew if I followed the little stream I’d never be lost. It took most of a morning to climb to the top of the mountain, but once there I was right at home. The morning when I first met Abraham went something like this:
“Ninna! I see something white in the water!! Come look, it’s moving!”
“Must be one of them water dogs, but they ain’t white, must be the sun shining on him.”
“He’s white, Ninna, I can see him and he’s lookin’ right back at me. Did he fall into the water, Ninna? Do I need to get him out? He’s way deep, I might not can reach him. Can you hold me, Ninna, so I can get him out fore he drowns? He’s so white he must be a ghost water dog, you reckon, Ninna?”
Ninna was gathering the leaves of a plant, most likely spring greens for our supper.
“Water dogs live in the water, honey, they don’t like to be on dry land. Water dogs can breathe in water, so you just leave him alone now, don’t be scarin’ him.”
“Why’s he there, Ninna? What’s he do down in that water?”
“He’s there to tell us the water’s clean and pure. He’s just now wakin’ up, you know. All winter long he sleeps down in the mud and rocks, then he comes out soon as it’s springtime to test the water and let us know it’s good fresh water and ready for us to drink. You must always leave him alone, cause he’s got a ‘portant job to do, makin' sure the water's safe.”
“Has he got a name, Ninna? Can I name him? I believe his name’s Abraham. Abraham? Hello Abraham? See, he knows his name! He’s wavin’ his tail at me!”
And from a little above me, I heard Ninna say, “Well, if he’s come out to see you and if he already told you his name, then most likely you’ve for sure just met Abraham.”
Abraham was the biggest name I’d ever heard, and since he had such an important job to do, I thought he deserved an equally important name.
So in spring, every year, I climbed that mountain to greet Abraham, to make sure he was awake just in time for spring. I wanted to make sure that water was safe for us, too. Sometimes I went alone as I got older, and sometimes Ninna went with me. And every spring, Abraham was there; frisking and frolicking in the cold mountain water; he was far better than any calendar, he knew exactly when it was spring!
If it hadn’t been for Abraham, I might have missed seeing the Trilliums, the little Mayflowers, the tiny snowdrops. I might not have known the redbuds and dogwoods that colored the mountain with their pastel pinks and whites or the wild honeysuckle and mountain laurel that came later. And because of Abraham, I knew for sure I could drink that pure sparkling water. He was always happiest in spring, just like I was. He was never still, not even for a minute, dancing and prancing in the water. When Ninna was with me and came over to watch, Abraham would hide because he didn’t know her very well. But he always came out to see me. I think Ninna thought he might have only lived in my imagination, but when I drew his picture for her, she knew he was real.
When I visited him during the hot days of summer, he was a little slower, the water wasn’t as deep and cool, and sometimes I could barely see him. Ninna said he liked the cold clear waters of spring much better, just like I did, so I completely understood. And in fall, I hardly ever saw him at all. He might have been getting ready for his long winter sleep.
When I was very young, I watched and I listened to the world around me. There were no traffic sounds on the dusty one lane road where I lived, there was no television, there was only the chatter of the birds, the little stream, Abraham and me. When I was a little older I had a friend, Doris, who lived on up the road from me. Until she came, I spent most of my days playing only with the gifts I found in nature, I had very few other playmates. I think now I should have taken Doris up the mountain to meet Abraham. I know she would have liked him, too.
I waded barefoot in the stream, tiptoeing from moss-covered rock to sandy bottom, and all the time the water continued its trickle between my toes. Aunt Bett told me the water fresh from the mountain was cleansing, so I sometimes disrobed very nearly completely, placed my clothes on the hillside and lay down in the middle of the stream. I think I might have been the cleanest child in the mountains, and it's probably a good thing I had no one else living nearby during those early years.
I often wondered where the stream was going. On down the road it met a bigger creek, joined it and ambled on its way, forming the North Fork of the Kentucky River. I built boats of bark and twigs and leaves, and decorated them with fire pinks gathered from the hills. Ladybugs became queens, and when tadpoles grew into tiny frogs, they became kings. They sailed on their boats to lands far away.
When I learned to write, I sent notes with the ladybugs and secret messages with the frogs. Sometimes I added a vanilla wafer, just in case Prince Charming was hungry when my floral raft arrived at his feet. Standing in the bed of the stream, I carved the initials of my boyfriend on a little maple tree. That stream was pure magic to a little girl. I could close my eyes and float away to anywhere.
The tiny stream behind my house was the North Fork and as it grew and flowed into Beattyville, KY, it became the Kentucky River. Eventually the river winds its way out of the mountains and meets up with the Ohio River. The Ohio takes it on to the Mississippi and from there down to the Gulf. I didn't know then just how far that little stream could take me. I’m very close to the Ohio and the Mississippi now at my home in western Kentucky. Sometimes I stand on the banks of these large rivers and listen for the whispers of the tiny stream that still winds its way down the mountain, past my old home nearly 500 miles away. I know it’s there, pure fresh water straight from my mountains mixed with the rivers of my today, and if I just look closely enough, I think I might see a little raft with a ladybug on it, and maybe a note from years past.
And I wonder today if Abraham is awake yet, flipping his tail deep down in the cold water of the mountain stream. Someday I’ll climb again to the top of that mountain. I'll look down into the deep water, I'll see a flash of white and I’ll say, “Wake up, Abraham. Do you remember? It’s Spring!”
The photo of the mountain cliff, the photo of the redbud, and the drawing of Abraham belong to the author. The remaining photos are the courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons. Please be sure to click on the photos to enlarge them.