It’s August in the hilly country of Southern Kentucky, 1931. On a hill, in the Dutton family cemetery, my father, age 16, is digging a grave in the heat-hardened red clay. A family stands by, watching him dig. Pete, the man whose grave he’s digging, who played with him when he was a child, who helped raise him, who told him stories ~ came to their home place as a slave.
That was in 1845. Pete was eight years old then, when he and his brother Charles, age six, were given as dowry from my great grandmother Lucy’s family in Missouri. Her husband, my great grandfather, Daniel Dutton, brought Pete and Charles, on horseback, to Dutton Hill. Eventually Charles would leave – where to, or why, I do not know. Pete stayed until the last 2 years of his life, spending those with his daughter in Danville, Kentucky. But he must have impressed his desire to return to The Hill upon his children clearly. When he died, they made what must have been a difficult 50-some mile journey, through hostile territory, to bring his body home for burial.
The Dutton Cemetery is not far from Pete’s Spring, a fine source of water pouring forth from the limestone bedrock in a little holler on the eastern side of The Hill. Pete made his home in a cabin on the level ground just above the spring. He married and had children. After the emancipation, he and his wife, Jenny continued some sort of working relationship with my grandfather, Daniel Hoskins, and his wife, Sarah Belle. Her ledger books show that Pete bought supplies on the Dutton account at stores in nearby Somerset, and he was evidently involved intimately in their daily life – my aunts and uncles recalled him helping dress them when they were children, and he gave at least one of them a gift that would have cost him dearly.
Of the spring there was a saying that if you drank from it, you would always come back. It was curiosity about this bit of family lore that lead me to wonder if the saying originated with Pete, and if so, what the meaning of it might be. My attachment to the land and its waters is so intense that the meaning initially seemed self-evident ~ but what sort of imagination originated it? It’s been said that you cannot go home again; apparently Pete did not share that view – he made his home by the spring, and he came back to rest near it for as close to eternity as a body gets.
There is some precedent, in Africa, as well as other places, for the idea that after death some aspect of being, what could be called the ancestral spirit, merges with the elemental quality of the local spring, becomes, in essence, the spring itself, and thereby perpetually returns to nourish its descendents. For the descendent of a slave owner, whatever the relationship of labor and return might have been, it is a challenge to claim Pete as such an ancestor, but the truth is that his life nourishes mine, and the stream that flows between us is love. This story, which I’ve titled You’ll Always Come Back, is my testimony to that fact.
The spring, now a seldom visited spot in the midst of a housing development, is an actual place, and the history of the events surrounding it, how the virgin forest was cut and sold in Louisville and Cincinnati, how the land was farmed by a family with customs, some quite strange, connected to their origins in the land now called Germany, of the ancient white oak they chose to live by, of the Civil War battle fought on The Hill, which Pete himself witnessed and told of, how the land was almost lost to the family, and then finally was – all these comprise a story of known things well worth telling. A meticulous historian would gather the names and dates, put them in chronological order, and tether the whole thing with a narrative line, certain that the vanished past must bear some relation to how they imagine it.
But if Pete did imagine that an ancestor and a spring form a continuum, I suspect that his world would defy any linear sense of history. In that case, art stands a better chance of verity. Be that or not, I have chosen to situate You’ll Always Come Back in the intimate realm of my own peculiar method, where imagination deforms and exaggerates, where the tangents between dream, matter, and time are free to intersect in the present as well as the past, where the unknown can present its mysterious possibilities. Perhaps the best case I can make for the relation between his story and mine is that although separated in time, we both drank from the same spring.