As is my practice, I took my morning cup of coffee outside to enjoy the daybreak over the ridges and valleys that grace the view from my southern deck. That rebellious, disorganized part of my frontal lobe pulled two words out of the vast emptiness of my misfiring synapses, “Chalice Run.” The groggy left cranial hemisphere that shelters my curiosity chimed in with, “Okay, I know what a chalice is, but how does that fit with run?” Memories from my right quadrant began sharing images of my stays in Houston County, Tennessee and its quaint Church fish-fries, beautiful hills, crystalline waterways, and the simple, but reverent hill-people who live off the land. About that time the stimulant reached that half dozen brain cells I use when writing, and The Chalice Run of Houston County was born. I hope you enjoy it.
The Chalice Run is an oddity unique to the people of Houston County. No one knows or truly remembers when or why it started. Some of the oldest families in the hills believe it is somehow related to the Orthodox Church celebration of the Epiphany, others say it was probably some school yard dare that grew too big for its britches, but most of the mountain folk believe its roots lie deep in the cultural practice of moonshining and revenuer evading. It is without question the most anticipated early summer event in the western reaches of the Tennessee Appalachians: a barefoot marathon over steep craggy ridges and through the densest hollows. The Run boasts of no age limit, but the competitors are rarely older than 22 or younger than 15. It marks a region wide celebration where no one is left uninvited and everyone participates.
The tractor lanes, cow paths and game trails that comprise the course are lined with men and boys spared momentarily from their day’s labors of rural subsistence. Mothers, wives, betrothed and unattached girls make the long walk to cheer the finishers from the vantages of Ankle Ridge and the shoals of the Yellow Creek. Village church yards throughout the county are lined with roughhewn, makeshift tables covered in bed linens and garnished with varying bowls of potato salad, baked beans, corn chow-chow and pitchers of sweet tea. On the lawns, picnic blankets lay in the shade of oak, maple and poplar trees; cattail reeds are burned to chase the mosquitoes and green flies; and the fence lines sport rows of propane fired fish fryers and charcoal grills, spewing the indigenous aromatics of country festivity. Along the race route, strategically positioned coolers are attended by elderly chaperones dispensing a choice of Mason jars of spring water, icy cans of store-bought Mountain Dew, and for those more bent on revelry than racing, plastic cups of the local White Lightning. The race begins at daybreak, but the music, dancing and bonfires will last until the wee hours of the following morning.
Spectators all across the hills follow the race’s progression by listening to the distant hoots and hollers as groups of runners pass each marker stone on their way to finish line.
Ezekiel knew he was not the fastest sprinter in the county, and he knew he had tough competition. He had spent weeks practicing a deliberate routine of pace, sprint, pace to a degree of perfection that almost promised the coveted cup waiting in the waist deep water of the creek. He was running in third place, but every time he pushed harder, Bo and Geek, the two leaders, quickened their stride, expending precious energy that they would eventually need to tackle the steep ridges this side of the Yellow Creek Basin. Each time he saw their pace slacken, Zek would run up long enough for them to see him approaching and react with yet another ill-timed sprint.
Donella June stood on the creek bank listening to the melodic tinkle of the current hitting the rocks and the whispered swoosh of the eddies and backwater. The night before she had burned the oil lamp until the moon began to set, reading 1st Corinthians and praying silently for Divine intervention. The prize of a calf and a dozen laying hens would give her and Ezekiel a much needed start. The Sherriff had already given them the okay to homestead the abandoned Noughty place. The eggs and milk from the livestock and the crop from the bushel of seed corn would yield precious money from the flatland tourists next summer. That ceremonial stoneware jug of moonshine could be stowed in the root cellar for company and routinely monitored against her man’s genetic propensity. Almost no one knew how important it was to Donella for Zek to win.
The only other person in the basin that knew Donella’s secret was Bessy. Donella had let slip that her period was late, and that led to the teary confession of her sin of fornication. Zek knew nothing; the news of his accidental paternity would have to wait for the outcome of the Run.
From high on the ridge, a whoop, whoop, whoop signified the runners were in the final leg of the contest; Donella studied the yells, laughter and jeers trying to discern the order of the lead runners. With a certainty that only devout Faith can provide, she knew her man was somewhere near the lead, but she also knew that spry little Geek would be there too.
Geek was the younger brother of Maurice Bower. Everyone knew Maurice as Tripper, a cultivator of Houston County’s best cannabis and the most daring hooch transporter in all of Tennessee. Donella and Tripper had courted during her fourteenth year and it was once presumed they would be married, but Donella quit Tripper for better prospects with Ezekiel Thompson. Tripper never forgave her and held a well-known grudge against his rival. That is the reason for her dread that Geek might still be in contention for the Chalice. It would not be unexpected that Tripper could sabotage the race in the spirit of a traditional mountain feud. Revenge and grudges are deep rooted in the culture of these backwoods.
As the grade steepened, Bo and Geek slowed their pace and their breathing grew heavy and labored. Lagging by no more than 100 feet, Zek maintained his practiced gait that step-by-step shortened the distance between him and his overly confident rivals. At the crest of Ankle Ridge, the smell of the water below revitalized all three runners, but the two leaders were too spent to find their needed second wind. As they began the treacherous descent, the runners were three abreast. A cheer went up from the crowd on either side of the hollow so loud that it muffled the report of a camouflaged rifle shot.
Bo stumbled and fell in the loose rocky soil. Unable to regain footing, he rolled most of thirty yards until his momentum was stopped by centenarian oak. The impact of his body silenced the crowd long enough that the second round from the hidden marksman reverberated through the hollow. No one gave a moment’s concern over Bo’s fall or the sound from the gun. Hunting is not a seasonal sport in these hills, but a necessity of life and the defeated runner seemed content to rest where he fell. Gunfire was rarely given much attention and the errant bullet from the second shot buried itself in the soft clay of the mountain, no one but Zek understood the potential consequence of Bo’s collapse and the echoed pop of the deer rifle.
Ezekiel’s legs still had life in them; his dash down the steep grade was punctuated by purposefully sporadic directional changes. Although uncertain that someone might be gunning for him, he knew that something nefarious awaited the end of the Run.
Geek was fatigued to the point that his every step threatened to upend him into a downward roll. Still in contention, Tripper’s baby brother struggled to keep pace with the chaotic progression of his co-leader. One misstep and his left foot lost traction. Geek bounced his butt on a hard outcropping evoking a loud execration against God, Earth and Ezekiel before rebounding to his weakened trot.
The crowd cheered; no one heard the third shot.
Zek leapt from a thick deadfall to the safety of the sandy creek bed and dove head first under the water. Without surfacing for a needed breath, he scoured the sand and rocks for nearly twenty feet in the current before finding the pitted pewter cup that signified victory.
Raising the Chalice above his head, Ezekiel stood from the water and screamed, “Where you at, you son-of-a-bitch! I won! What are you gonna do, shoot me now?”
A gasping hush fell over the crowd as whispers of surprise and revelation at the rifle shots spread up and down the hollow. The crowd scanned the trees in search of the armed culprit.
A female voice cried, “Bo’s been kill’t!”
An air of excitement overcame all as everyone suddenly declared they had heard all of the shots, and shouted incoordinated vectors of their origination. Several men rallied their comrades and began to assemble an armed posse. Women and children bawled in startled alarm and wept in despondent admonitions of caution. Emotions along the hillsides rose to a riotous crescendo.
Donella shrieked in terror at the defiance of her beloved. Pushing her way through the crowd, she ran into the water hoping her presence would shield Zek from the wrath of her rejected beau. “No! Tripper don’t shoot, please!” Her arms grappled Zek’s head and she pulled his body down into the clear current, kissing his lips in desperate passion.
A silent angry glare from Geek on the bank caught both of their attention. Zek jumped from the water causing the sour loser to lurch in reaction. “Where’s your brother, boy?” Geek backed slowly towards the safety of the wooded grade. “Come back here you yellow bastard.”
Donella seized Zek’s hand, “Hush, honey.” Her gentle hand tugged at his arm; Zek turned to face his love. “We’s gonna have us a baby.” Donella’s voice cracked in a combination of fear, pride and love. “Please don’t be hateful to Maurice; I be needing you. He gots nuthin’. We’s got us a house, a cow, chickens and now, youz and me are gonna have a baby.”
Zek lifted Donella to her feet and held her tight against his chest. “You oughta toll me this afore the Run, Doni.”
“She didn’t have no need t’ tell ya afore now. You had dis race t’ ponder,” a voice came from the far creek bank. “I knew’s you wuz gonna win. Now youz gonna be a family and none of y’all got no more worries.”
Bessie waded into the water and joined their embrace. “You wuz gonna win, Zek, and that’s that. I weren’t ne’va gonna have it no other way.”