Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Crossing The Devil's Heart

"Now you must go out into your own heart as onto a vast plain."

- Rainer Maria Rilke

If you look at my birth certificate, you will know some things about me. You will see that I was born in May, 1953; that I was the first-born – a daughter – of Thomas Caston Philyaw (20 years of age) and Ruth Ann Philyaw (17 years of age); that I was born in the Ouachita Memorial Hospital in Clark County; that I was a "live" birth; and that the town of my birth was Arkadelphia, in Arkansas.

And that is all true. Or mostly true. The part that isn't accurate, not exactly, is the name of that town: Arkadelphia – Arkadelphia, which is now one of the "Fifty Fabulous Places to Raise Your Family," according to the City of Arkadelphia website. What isn't there - either on my birth certificate or on the website - is the name by which the town used to be known: Arkadelphia is the sanitized name of the that little town set on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. Every map you look at now will point to that place as Arkadelphia. But the original name was a bit more precise, a bit less Baptist, a town named first by the early Scottish and Irish settlers in the region, a name that spoke to the wild nature of the place. The town had been renamed Arkadelphia by the good Methodists and Baptists who settled there much later and who had been much unsettled by the town's former name: Devil's Heart.

Those first Scots and Irish named the town Devil's Heart for the way sudden and terrible storms originated there in the little gully town between the mountains and the river below them. Violent storms seemed to come up out of nowhere, moving outward in all directions from there, devastating the outlying tenant farms and homesteads, leaving houses splintered and crops uprooted and scattered. Lightning struck the trees and set wild-fires among the thick forests; tornadoes set the treetops whirling and lifted shanties off their dirt floors; animals, it is said, went mad with fright when thunder rumbled underground, thunder that occurred with the regularity of freight trains. Rumor has it that in the foothills, in the hardest wintry years, babies were born ruined or stillborn. And once, in a freak summer windstorm, a weathervane spun so hard it lifted off and circled a barn-yard before flying into the window of a sharecropper's shack.

No wonder they named it as they had. No wonder it stuck, that name. No wonder the old-timers whispered that name - Devil's Heart - and crossed themselves after saying it. And so I come, later in my life, to the truth of my birthplace and my birthright: I was born in that stormy place, dead-center of the Devil's Heart which is, it seems, somewhere in Arkansas.