2021
SHORT STORY CONTEST
Second Prize
$100 Award

BANJO

by Earl LeClaire

Vassil-John ‘V-J, Red, The Fat Man’ Ryder floundered about the Appalachian State University campus that August morning while waiting for his wife. He was still dressed in his California garnishments: baggy cut-off Levis, a loud, luau shirt, strap sandals, and a straw Panama to protect his shaved head. Rebecca had what Vassil lacked: focus, purpose and a connection to her life. She also had a job. This one, a faculty position in a newly formed department at the University, was filled with promise.

He contemplated the outdoor sculptures like a Lost Boy in the throes of a pointless stupor. What did he know about art? Not much. Even less. The concrete, donut sculpture thing left him clueless. Homer Simpson as artist? Maybe it was supposed to be a bagel, toasted, with cream cheese and a thin slice of red onion? Something beyond description.

A covey of students stared at him as they walked by. Vassil was aware of his own presence and how to present it for the effect he desired. If viewed in the right light he could be considered, to a degree, handsome: red-haired (when he let it grow), bright Irish face, his smile a sunbeam. But, in the wrong light, he was downright Freddy Kruger: eyes dark and foreboding, smile bent in the wrong direction, the indifferent look of a being who’s come to believe that nothing worthwhile is possible.

He detected a sour odor drifting up from his clothes, same clothes he’d slept in the night before. Damn, the night before: driving up the two-lane Highway 321 under the dark sky of a new moon, in a U-Haul-It loaded with everything they owned and towing the Ford Ranger on a trailer. Up that mountain, pedal to the floor, fifteen miles per hour at best with a line of traffic that stretched an hour behind, all the way down to the town of Lenior. Vassil swore at the top of his baritone. How much farther? How much farther? Are we even close? Frigging hill! Frigging truck! No damn way can I pull over nor am I going to stop.

Now, only one day in, he really didn’t think he’d make it in Appalachia, home of barbecue, bluegrass, Bible, and shine. He belonged to the Left Coast. The little that he’d done with his life was there. He’d earned fame of sorts as a surfer. The Fat Man is what they called him. The forty-four-year old longboarder with attitude and belly. They even had a T-shirt with a caricature of him in the tube. The Fat Man. He rode a Greg Noll Ten-Three, and a Hanson Fifty-Fifty. He needed those big boards to float his weight. The Hanson’s chubby framing allowed him to run his bulk to the front and hang ten. The Noll’s sharp 60/40 rails were made for speed.

He surfed up until that fateful November ride at Salmon Creek Beach when, honey-sweet in the green room, the sun shining emerald through the curl, he saw the gray hide of a Great White, heavy in the chest, sweeping in like a blurred wind with row upon row of teeth. He left the surfboard just before the shark took it. No leg-rope for that forty-pounder so he was free and on the beach before the fish knew it had but a mouthful of fiber and foam. One of the young surfers rescued the shark battered board from the tidal backwash and dragged it onto the beach.

—Get the hell away from me with that thing! V-J shouted. That’s it. I’m done. Through. Finished. That’s two close ones with those gray bastards. Three and you’re out!

He peeled off his wetsuit, dropped it behind him, next to the shattered Greg Noll and the Hanson Fifty-Fifty on the sand with Sex Wax, and duffel beside it and trudged bare-assed off the beach.

* * *

A horn blared. Vassil was startled to find that he was in the middle of the street and tried to jump back as a gray Mercedes, heavy in the chest, swept by. He fell to the pavement and lay there for a time until the aching slowed, then painfully, he managed to pick himself up. He made his way to a colossal statue of a bearded mountain man, one leg forward, arms raised, fists balled, wrapped around what he could only imagine was an invisible musket in one hand and an axe in the other. The sculptured being had a look of insanity carved into his face.

—I know how you feel, pal, V-J said to the figure. I’ll be just like you before long. Was it these hills, or was it a life lived poorly that finally got to you? Because life and these damn hillbilly drivers are probably going to finish me off.

He limped across the street, found a grassy hillock and sat, his broad back braced against a young mountain ash. As he waited for Rebecca to finish her business with the chair of her department, Vassil shook his head at the titles in higher ED: chancellor, provost, dean, chair, full professor, professor, adjunct, studnut.

Damn, what was he to do? Focus, of course. On what? Making sausage? He was a good sausage maker. Drink more scotch? He was damn good at that. Hell, even his kids had more focus and success. He was glad of it. The way it should be. But they had come to it by their mother’s example. Jeffery, a horticulturist, was in the Peace Corps teaching farming techniques to Madagascans. Courtney was about to enter med school. Only he, Vassil-John, V-J, Red, The Fat Man Ryder, husband, father, and ne’er-do-well, was still adrift.

He became conscious of a presence behind him. The soft sound of someone moving close. The bottom of a banjo appeared in his peripheral vision, sun bouncing off it like Ezekiel’s Wheel of Fire. Below that, an apparition of femininity: long slender legs, bare feet, toenails painted purple, and the edgy opiate of an understated perfume.

—Mind if I sit here, Cowboy? the woman asked, a twang in her voice.

—I’m just another flea. I don’t own the dog, he said without turning.

The woman sat.

—That a banjo?

—A five-stringer.

—Do you play it or just carry it around to strike up conversations with strangers?

—It’s not mine.

—So, I was right, you just carry it around.

—Not exactly. Belongs to y’uns. I was sent to fetch it to ya.

Vassil turned to face her. Flames off the banjo unsighted him, its blaze engulfed him and in the shimmering conflagration he could not make out the woman, neither her face nor her form. A wild music dancing in his ears grew louder, insistent, demanding attention, calling for devotion. His heart hammered with the speeding rhythm and suddenly he was flying into the sun buoyed by a wild spirit the likes of which he’d never experienced. He shuddered in the ecstasy of fear. He was being propelled to a place beyond the world in which he sat.

—Take it, the woman told him, bringing him back.

Vassil shook his head. No.

—Take it.

—Who are you? What’s happening here?

—Y’uns know. Now, take it. Ya don’t got no choice.

The instrument flew into his hands as if iron to a magnet. It was warm like the morning that wrapped him, like a fond memory, like the embrace of a woman. He brought it toward his chest and the flames melted away and with their dissolving the woman vanished. Now, on the hillock, only Vassil, the tree, the grass and the banjo still warm in his hands. At the end of the musical doohickey’s long, five-stringed, tapering neck, was a Mylar-covered sound box with a resonator plate on the back, still buzzing with a swarm of low, sympathetic vibratrions. His fingers ached to move; his chest strained to echo the rhythms. He tried to calm himself, to take stock.

Maybe, he thought. Maybe, I’ve had a stroke. Maybe I’m dead or dying. That would explain the situation. It was a misfiring of the neural synapses that brought on this hallucination. There had been no woman, no flames. There was no banjo. A stroke or death explained it all.

—Whatcha got there? The voice of Rebecca as she approached with her expensive, leather, business satchel in hand.

Dumbfounded, Vassil looked up. He was overwhelmed and started to tear.

—What? he asked.

—That, she said, pointing to the instrument he was holding.

—You can see it?

—Of course I see it. It’s a banjo.

—Then I’m not hallucinating?

—What?

—I’m not dead?

—What?

—I’m not dying?

—What?

—It’s a banjo, he said, hesitantly.

—I can see that. Where did you get it? Her voice suddenly wavered. You didn’t get into any trouble, did you? Oh, Vassil, already?

The sun was behind her and the cooling shade of her shadow swept over him as she stepped closer.

—Whose banjo is it?

—She said it’s mine.

—Who said it’s yours?

—The woman with the purple toenails.

—What woman? Rebecca asked, looking around.

—I don’t know. She gave me the banjo and disappeared.

—She gave you a banjo and disappeared.

—Uh-huh. He decided to be cautious.

—She gave you a banjo and disappeared.

Was that an echo?

—Just listen to yourself, Vassil. A woman gives you a banjo, tells you it belongs to you, then disappears. Does that make sense?

—No. But that’s what happened. She disappeared behind the flames.

—The what?

He hugged himself and started to rock back and forth to relieve the sensory overload. Rebecca put down her case, leaned over and felt his forehead.

—You’re quite warm, she said. You may have a bit of a fever.

—It’s from the flames. They surrounded me.

—The flames?

—Off this.

He shoved the instrument toward her.

—Oh, my Lord! she declared. Look at that. That’s your name!

—My name? Where?

Rebecca pointed to the neck. Warily, V-J turned it and there, right there, inlaid into the fretboard in mother-of-pearl, was V-J R-Y-D-E-R.

—Ohhhhhh, he groaned. He was now desperately alarmed and began to hyperventilate.

—Vassil! What’s going on here? Stop! Try to relax.

She pressed one of her hands on his shoulder, the other against his stomach.

—Breathe from your belly. Take slow, deep breaths.

He tried slowing his breathing as he braced his back against the tree and half pushed, half slid his way up until he stood.

—I don’t know what to tell y‘uns, he blubbered. I’m afeared.

Y’uns? Afeared?

—Vassil, please. What is going on here?

—I need something to eat. I do. Maybe then I’ll be able to recall from the beginning.

Reluctantly, Rebecca agreed for she knew that to push him on an empty stomach could get ugly. Sometimes it seemed like he was babbling in tongues, such as now with words like y‘uns and afeard.

They found a restaurant on West King Street and sat at a somewhat secluded table behind the eatery’s front window. V-J leaned the banjo in a corner within arm’s reach. He looked first to Rebecca, then out the window. Beyond the glass The New World Order passed on foot and in vehicles. They could have been sitting in an ‘attempt at trendy’ restaurant anywhere in Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare, that Vassil and Miller had come to suffer, was America. The restaurant presented nothing exceptional, everything expected: uninspired watercolors of landscapes and flowers by local tabbies, nice tables, chairs, matching silverware, fresh blooms in small, clay vases and young, bright-smiling waitresses and waiters in khaki and teal.

A willowy twenty-year old with a Southern accent and voice a pitch higher than required, pranced to their table.

—I’m Debbie, your server. May I start y’all off with something to drink?

—Glenfiddich. Make it a double.

—Is that a hard liquor?

—Scotch.

—We only serve wine and beer.

—Oh yeah, an ABC state. Make it a wine.

—House wine?

—Sure. Red.

—Mam?

—Water, please.

—I’ll be right back.

Vassil turned back to the menu.

Grilled Portabella Sandwich. Veggie and Black-Bean Burgers. Hummus, Artichoke Appetizer.

—Do they serve real food here?

—Vassil, behave yourself. Look on the overleaf. Meat just for you.

Debbie returned.

—I want a Reuben with buckaroo beans, coleslaw, an order of onion rings, as well as a coffee and bread pudding with vanilla ice cream.

—All at once? she asked with a ‘surely you’re joking’ grin.

—All at once.

Rebecca ordered nothing for herself and the waitress wagged her head in dismay. When she was gone, Rebecca prodded Vassil-John to explain.

—I don’t know what happened out there, Becks, but it was scary. And what scares me more is that somewhere inside me it’s all familiar. It’s like my face, my skin, my body. I know what I look like yet when I see myself in a storefront window it’s a shock to see me. That’s what this is like. It’s a shock, but somewhere in that reptile brain of mine I know not only the banjo and the music I heared whilst it ware going on but I know that ah knows how to play it.

Rebecca stared at him. She got the message but the heared and the whilst, the ware, and the ah knows, as ingredients of his speech were troublesome.

—Why don’t you try to play it? Just try.

—And what will that prove?

—It will prove that you don’t know how to play it and that will end this nonsense.

—And if I do know how to play it? And…if…I…do?

Rebecca fell silent. She glanced up at a busboy who brought her a glass of water, then looked back to her husband. She had wanted to reinvent herself here, but with Vassil and the constant, cosmic chaos of his psyche, she just wasn’t sure.

—You’ve never played the banjo before have you?

—No!

—Then that settles it. You don’t know how.

—Yeah, well a flaming dryad gave me one with my name on it and said, ‘Take it. Ya don’t got no choice.’ What does that mean?

Debbie appeared with a tray of food, left it on a tray-stand, then returned with Vassil’s glass of wine. She placed it in front of him, then plate after plate as well.

—Enjoy, she said with an exaggerated haughtiness reserved for those she perceived as non-tippers, or somehow beneath her, and a personal insult to have to serve. Hurriedly, she turned on her heels.

Vassil swore under his breath.

—Vassil-John, his wife scolded.

V-J bit into the sandwich and offered the other half to Rebecca who took it out of habit.

—But ifin I do know how to play it?

Ifin? Ifin? What is that about? His wife, understandably disturbed by the rapid breakdown of his speech, despite the food, kneaded her forehead with her long, fine fingers.

—And if…in you don’t know how to play it, which you don’t, then there’s nothing to worry about, is there?

The Fat Man shrugged and worked on his sandwich. He was dragging a piece of pastrami out from under its bread blanket when a figure loomed beside their table. A man in a chef’s uniform holding two instrument cases.

—The busboy told me y’uns was here. From the description of ya banja I knew it twas y’uns. It couldn’t be anyone else. They told me I would be the first to play a duet with ya. So, let’s get to it.

He handed a case to Vassil.

—They told me to give ya this.

The case had VJR imprinted on the front.

—I don’t want it, Vassil told him.

—It’s y’uns’, the man declared.

—Taint, Vassil said, not bothering to look up from his food.

—Ya Mr. Vassil-John Ryder, ain’t ya?

—Maybe. Maybe not.

Rebecca was in tears. The disorder was spreading like kudzu, reaching out, gripping anything and everything that came near it, engulfing all.

—Well, y’uns take hold of that banja and let’s play. Ya don’t got no choice, Chef said.

—There it is again, Vassil told Rebecca. I don’t got no choice.

Chef pulled up a chair and set to tuning his banjo.

—We are not, Chef said, and I repeat, not, playing ‘Dueling Banjas.’ Ya got that?

—I don’t know it anyway, Vassil told him.

—Let’s try a Scruggs tune: ‘Earl’s Breakdown.’

—I don’t know that one either.

—Less jus’ git to it.

Vassil picked up his banjo, strummed the strings, and surprised himself and Rebecca by tuning the instrument.

—Do you want to play it Scruggs style or old-timey clawhammer? Vassil asked.

—Its Earl’s tune. Let’s do it his way.

V-J looked to his wife. She stared back, helpless.

—I know what the styles are, Becks. I know the differences. Clawhammer, sometimes mistakenly, in my opinion, called frailing by those who should know better, is played by picking the melody string downwards with the nail of either the index or middle finger, then strumming using the same nail, and picking the fifth string—that’s the short one—using the thumb. The Scruggs method, on the other hand, is a fingerpicking style, much like the guitar fingerpicking of Doc Watson but on a banjo. You use picks on the thumb and first two fingers while the other two brace against the head and you build up a roll. You fret separate notes within the roll to play the melody. You enhance it by adding licks which are simply embellishments.

—You are truly scaring me, Vassil. Just stop this.

—I cain’t. M’ fingers is a itchin’ ta play an’ m’ mind’s just a hummin’ the melodies. Got some finger picks there, Chef?

—Vassil!

Vassil slid the picks on his thumb, index and middle finger and finished tuning his instrument.

—As you said, Chef-Boy-Howdy, less jus’ git to it.

Chef began and V-J joined in. Soon fingers were flying and Vassil-John, V-J, Red, The Fat Man Ryder’s were a blur as he screamed through the tune. Chef struggled to keep up and halfway through, gave up, sat back and beamed.

Vassil finished with a flourish and a frisky, ‘shave and a haircut, two bits.’

People in the restaurant clapped. A few got to their feet.

Vassil’s jaw dropped but the corners of his mouth were lifting to a smile as he looked to Rebecca. Sweat had beaded on her forehead. She whimpered as he leaned close.

—Maybe I’m a banjo-idiot-savant, he whispered.

Tears streamed down Rebecca’s cheeks.

The crowd called for more. But Vassil, now noticeably shaken himself, waved them off, put the banjo into its new case and got ready to go. Chef sat there amazed.

—M’ God, I have never heared the banja played that well or that fast afore ‘cept for maybe Earl hisself, Béla Fleck, or that Swiss feller who lives up Highway 18 North, that Jens Krüger. We’re going to have to get y’all together.

Rebecca dragged her husband and his banjo through the appreciative diners, out the door and back onto King Street. There her sobbing escalated into a full-blown, bone- shaking, crying jag.

—I wanted…she managed through the yowling…to start over here. To make it a community we could just melt into. But, No! You take up the banjo!

—I didn’t want it. Perhaps it’s fate.

—Stuck with it for life, Vassil?

—At least it’s something new.

They retreated to the little farmhouse in the holler off Beaver Branch Road they had found and rented online. Rebecca retired early, still shaken from the day’s events. Vassil hit the sauce, Johnnie Walker Black. He swore at the hillbilly gods.

—Why me? I hate the damn banjo as much as I hate the accordion. Why couldn’t it have been electric guitar? Saxophone? I’d even have settled for a bass fiddle. But, bluegrass? Bluegrass?

He sat on the porch and stared into the night. The landscape no longer had definition. He tried to remember it as he watched fireflies light up the hillside. Or maybe it was just trees standing tall. He couldn’t remember what was out there. Grudgingly, Vassil picked up the banjo and began plucking out a rhythm that coincided with the insects’ bioluminescent flickering. Soon he lulled himself into a dreamlike stupor that could have been mistaken for sleep. In that deep darkness just before dawn he put the banjo aside and retreated into the house. He cradled his head on his arms and fell asleep on the floor before the cold, stone hearth. He dreamed of the Pacific and breaching whales.

Four days later, Chef arranged a bluegrass picking jam at a restaurant in Ash County that boasted a picking parlor. Local musicians filed in. One, a young, honey blonde wearing ripped jeans and a snakeskin button up vest over a fine, long sleeved, white blouse, made her way through the crowd. The heels of her Justin Bent Rail cowgirl boots made an audible tattoo as she maneuvered her way to the makeshift stage. She sidled up to Vassil with a smile a mile wide.

—Uncle Vassil! What are you doing here?

Vassil beamed a smile back. It was his surrogate niece, Miquela Joan, the daughter of a friend in Berkeley, California.

—Mickey Joe! By Gawd y’uns a sight for lonesome eyes. Isn’t what are you doing here the question that should be asked?

—You encouraged me to give up the bass for the guitar and force fed me blues. Do you remember? Bonnie Raitt, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa. Well, as this is Doc Watson country, I enrolled in the App State Music Program. I heard there was a new banjo man in town so here I am and ready to jam. I didn’t know you played the banjo, Uncle Vee. Is that what brought you here?

—Nope. Rebecca took a job on the faculty at ASU, and I didn’t know I knew how to play the banjo. Surprise, surprise, he added, mimicking Gomer Pyle. Git ya guitar and take a seat here next to me.

Vassil brought his microphone closer and to a round of applause introduced Miquela as his niece. Soon there was standing room only and the music began. They played until two in the morning with most of the banjo solos performed by Vassil-John Ryder.

Days later, after one long session, Vassil approached Chef.

—Isn’t there more to this bluegrass music than what we’ve been playing?

—Lots of tunes, Boss. Millions. Ya jus gotta learn um.

—I hate to tell ya, Chef-Boy-Howdy, but I’m a gittin quite bored with it. There must be something more.

—That Béla Anton Leoš Fleck feller, and Jens Krüger play some a that classical an’ jazz stuff.

Vassil frowned.

—Yeah, well, I tell ya, Chef, for me, boredom is a killer.

—Y’uns jus’ stick t’ bluegrass, Boss.

The month wore on into September and the semester began with Rebecca working and dreading, and Vassil playing, day after day, night after night, bluegrass, bluegrass and more bluegrass. His hands ached and his heart hurt so much it was downright painful. What the hell is this about? he wondered and finally decided it must be all the fingerpicking and the instrument pressing against his chest. He considered this and he felt himself being isolated as real life swirled around him like a tempest. He continued sleeping on the floor by the stone hearth. He had no idea why he chose to sleep there. It was not comfortable, but he felt that was where he was meant to be.

That fateful morning, Rebecca, now at her wit’s end, hacked at her husband with the heel of her shoe.

—Vassil. Vassil! Damn you! Get up! It’s six o’clock. Get up and do something about this!

Vassil John came up out of a deep sleep like a leviathan rising slowly to the surface.

—What? What? What time is it?

—It’s too early for all this! For God’s sake, get out there!

Vassil forced himself to stand. He heard a clamoring beyond the walls of the farmhouse. He staggered to the door, opened it and there, on the porch, he saw several men setting up microphones and amplifiers while musicians milled about, chatting, smoking, and lifting their instruments from the carry-cases that housed them. Beyond the porch, the front yard was packed with people, shoulder to shoulder, sitting in folding lawn and beach chairs, with coffee cups and bottles of water and assorted pastries in their hands.

Vassil-John took stock of the men on the porch. One by one they came to him. Béla Fleck and the Fleck Tones. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. They shook his hand with ‘Pleased t’meetchas.’ Up stepped Jens Krüger, his brother, Uwe Krüger, and their bassist, Joel Landsberg.

—Holy shit, V-J swore to himself.

Then the women: Kristen Benson, Rhiannon Giddens, Alison Brown and lastly, the glowing Abigail Washburn. Vassil stared at her. Could she have been the dryad? Finally, up sidled Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Vassar Clements with his fiddle, Tut Taylor, dobro in hand, Merle Watson, John Hartford wearing a bowler, Dock Boggs, Stringbean Akeman, and a bronze-toned, Doc Watson.

—You guys are dead, Vassil declared in a whisper of disbelief.

Dock Boggs managed a sly wink. Hartford tipped his hat and Ralph Stanley handed Vassil-John the banjo with V-J R-Y-D-E-R in mother-of-pearl on the fretboard.

—Shall we git to it boys? Doc Watson asked. I ain’t got all day. I gotta git back into my memorial statue on King Street. People are waiting to take selfies with me.

They flung themselves into their instruments and filled Beaver Branch Holler with rollicking bluegrass. ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ ‘I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.’ ‘Salty Dog Blues’ with a Dillard Family-Mayberry RFD flare. ‘Orange Blossom Special.’ ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.’ Uwe Krüger snuck in ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett.’ The lawn chair audience went wild and joined in singing: ‘Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed, poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed….’

Vassil watched as Rebecca, dressed to the nines and sporting purple shoes with stiletto heels, shoes he never saw before, made her way, suitcase in hand, through the musicians, down the steps, to the road and a waiting taxi. She never looked back. He felt his world begin to collapse around him.

—Rebecca don’t leave me like this!

Yet, no matter how dismayed, Vassil, tears streaming down his cheeks, continued to play.

Then it began to rain. Not hard at first but its tempo increased a little at a time. Undaunted, the bluegrass lovers unfurled umbrellas or held newspapers above their heads.

Vassil listened intently to the rain on the tin roof above him. He veered from the melody for ‘My Home in Caroline’ to imitate the sounds he heard. As the rain’s tempo increased, V-J Ryder’s fingers kept up until the sounds issuing forth from his banjo became indistinguishable from the sound of the heavy rain. The band slowed to a stop. Vassil’s banjo echoed through the downpour. The crowd went silent then howled for more bluegrass. Play ‘Rocky Top’! ‘Shackles and Chains’! ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’!

A full plastic bottle of water struck the head of V-J’s banjo. Another bounced off his noggin. Soon, wet newspapers and clumps of sod and stones pelted the porch. The musicians retreated to the safety of their buses and vans. Only Earl Scruggs and Vassil remained. Scruggs safely cradled his banjo in its black, carbon, velvet-lined coffin. He stood motionless, then laid a weighty hand on Vassil Ryder’s shoulder.

—You blew it, son. You misunderstood. It was never about the instrument. It was, as it has always been, all about the music.

He waggled his head, turned, and disappeared.

Without warning, the dryad rematerialized in a wheel of flame, snatched the banjo from V-J’s hands, and expressed her disappointment by slamming a fiery fist into his chest. The blow knocked him off his feet onto the porch floor now cluttered with automobile wreckage.

Vassil’s chest smoldered as if seared by a branding iron. His sternum and left arm stabbed with a blistering pain. Somehow, he managed to press his chin to his chest and saw the indentation of a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament embossed on his torso. In the distance he heard the three-note whine of a siren. The curb he had stepped off stared back at him. Lying there, perfectly still now, he suddenly felt cold. Then Vassil-John, V-J, Red, The Fat Man Ryder moved in darkness. He was carried across the continent, above the redwoods of Occidental, beyond a small plain studded with oaks where Pomo Indians had once gathered acorns and traded goods with other coastal tribes, to the estuary where the Russian River emptied into the Pacific and the sea rose and fell like his last breath. Gradually, and serenely, Vassil forgot the voices around him, forgot about the grass and the trees, about color, about the sun, and stars, and the measured cadence of his heart, as molecule by molecule, atom by atom, slowly, bit by bit, he disappeared into the vapors of the Universe and was no more.

Watch Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn perform
“My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”

Earl LeClaire recently moved with his wife, Dr. Alice Naylor and their 20-year-old cat, RudyTwo, to Mount Pleasant, South Carolina from the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina. He won the 2010 Aquillrelle Poetry Award for his poem ‘Below the Mayonnaise Factory.’ Earl has held a myriad of jobs including lobsterman, seaweed harvester, nuclear piping designer, historical researcher, taxi driver, and chef. He does not play the banjo and says he has no intentions of doing so. But, he adds, if you happen to be in the Appalachian Mountains, and you hear banjo music, paddle faster.