The roads through Alabama are straight and flat. The stretches that Virginia drivers deem boring are what is simply “the road” in western Alabama.

Not the vast flatness of the American southwest, though. These roads are lush with green, so they feel sheltered, like paved garden paths decorated with kudzu instead of grapes.

Sometimes, just off the blacktop, the scratch of a clay road peels back, and I can see the hard-packed trails of tires and feet down a well-traveled path.

I have nine chapters drafted. I have revised most of them once, and yet, I still feel like I don’t know the shape.

I want to take out an atlas and sketch the path of this story on roadways. I want to highlight it and mark the places I will stop with a child’s star. But there is not an atlas for stories.


Yesterday, as I sat at a wooden table patinaed with years of heavy books and forearms, I found the names of Carter and Dilly Cocke, married in 1866 in our local courthouse, just up the hill from where I sat in that moment.

I see them, bent from years of hoeing and minding children and making themselves useful, taking a wagon – if they are lucky – or walking the 25 miles from Bremo to Palmyra to marry in this first year that they are legally allowed to do so. Carter was 85 years old; Dilly 80.

They climb the hill to the courthouse, another building that they or their enslaved friends helped construct, and they vow to live – in the sight of white men – loyal to each other.

They had vowed this quietly to themselves, a broomstick, and their friends long ago.

I am silent.

I do not want to stay on the atlas path because the clay, hard-traveled roads where newly-freed octogenarians marry are not usually mapped.