Excerpt from: In The Forest Of Harm by Sallie Bissell, published by Bantam
Attraction: Nantahala National Forest
Location: North Carolina
The following excerpt comes from the debut novel of a four-book series by Sallie Bissell featuring the fictional Mary Crow, a beautiful and compelling half-Cherokee prosecutor. This incredible series offers an enticing look into the mesmerizing landscape of the mountains of western North Carolina. In this excerpt, Mary is leading her two best friends on a hike deep into the Nantahala National Forest to a spiritual location first introduced to Mary by her Cherokee mother. Check out the links in the Tourism Guide at the end of this excerpt to learn about the real locations that inspired the story.
From In The Forest of Harm:
Alex turned left onto a gravel path that led to a small unpaved overlook, where she braked beside a tangle of wild honeysuckle. Thirty feet to the right, a tiny footpath seemed to plummet off the edge of the world.
The three women got out of the car and walked to a crumbling stone wall that skirted the overlook. Alex hopped up on the wall, putting her hands on her hips as she surveyed the expanse below.
For miles, a sea of trees undulated away from them. Still green at the lowest elevations, it swelled to red and gold and brown until distance tinted it mauve, then lilac. Finally it disappeared, miles away, into a hazy blue nothingness. As they watched two faraway hawks glide on a high thermal, the only sound they heard was the breath that rose from the forest itself. Cool and unwavering, it carried the fecund smells of growth and decay and made the fine hairs on their arms stand erect.
“Jeez,” murmured Joan, standing beside Alex. “And I thought Central Park was something.” She fumbled for her disposable camera that she had stashed in her purse. “I gotta get a picture of this.”
Mary watched as Joan snapped away. She knew from experience that her pictures would come out disappointing—the colors would be flat, the scope less majestic. Photography was frustrating that way. Only the images etched in your memory remained crisp, with colors undiluted.
“Can you imagine how the pioneers must have felt the first time they saw all this?” Alex spread her arms, as if all the acres below were a wild empire that belonged only to her.
Mary smiled. Alex’s imagination had always been able to soar at the slightest provocation, thrusting her back into history or forward into some crazy future. Though it made for interesting conversations, sometimes when she stood next to Alex she felt as dull as a stump.
“If we got lost could we follow those electrical wires out?” Alex pointed to a phalanx of power lines that stretched over the trees like strands of some giant spider web.
Mary squinted at the TVA cables linking the Cheoa and Calderwood dams. “I suppose, if we could climb a high enough tree to get a fix on one. It’s probably a day’s hike from pole to pole, though.”
Joan stared at the vastness before her and frowned. “Mary, are you sure you can find one little Cherokee hot spring in the middle of all those trees?”
“If this were New York, could you get us to Coney Island?”
“Okay,” said Mary. “Then just think of this as my Manhattan.”
“Well, okay,” Joan sighed. “But just remember I’m supposed to have dinner with Hugh Chandler next Saturday. I don’t want to have a broken leg or poison ivy or anything.”
“All you’ll have is thrilling tales of hiking through Appalachia,” Mary assured her. “Hugh will think he’s eating with Superwoman.” . . .
“Hey, Mary,” Alex asked, “when can we hike on to the spring?”
“Soon as the mist burns off.” Mary looked out across the huge cauldron of thick white mist that roiled just beyond the lip of the fissure. Only the tops of the mountains pierced through the swirling clouds. The view reminded her again of San Francisco, only here the mountains were the whales, dark forms breeching in a wispy white sea.
Joan flopped down between them. “Is all this fog why they call these the Smoky Mountains?”
“Shaconage,” Mary said without thinking.
“That’s Cherokee. It means ‘land of blue smoke.’ Although actually,” Mary continued as she warmed her fingers around her coffee cup, “we’re in the Unicoi mountains, which comes from the Cherokee word Unaka.”
Joan laughed. “You’re a regular thesaurus, Mary.”
“Don’t get excited. Ten more words and we’ll be at the end of my Cherokee vocabulary.”
Alex fixed them oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, then they waited for the fog to lift. By the time they struck their tent and repacked their gear, rust-colored mountains began to reappear as the thick white mist drained away. Overhead the sky turned from white to dazzling blue, and the breeze carried the aroma of apples and damp earth. It promised to be one of the singularly gorgeous fall days for which the Appalachian Mountains were famed.
Mary grinned at her friends, suddenly exhilarated. “Are we ready for the final assault on Atagahi?”
“I’m ready for any kind of hot tub,” replied Joan. “Electric, solar, or thermonuclear. These old bones need to soak in some nice warm water.”
Alex laughed. “Joan, you’re only thirty.”
“That’s in Atlanta years. Up here I feel three hundred.”
They doused the fire, buckled on their backpacks and followed Mary as she began to pick her way down from the cave . . .
They walked on, no longer stopping at creeks or listening to birds, just doggedly planting one foot ahead of the other, determined to make their destination. They crested the mountain, then Mary led them around the jutting roots of a massive overturned maple.
“There.” She grinned triumphantly and pointed below them. “Atagahi.”
A hundred yards away, ringed by huge boulders, a clear green pool glistened iridescent as a hummingbird in the sunlight. The calm waters glittered like an extravagant emerald on the finger of a czar.
Alex gasped. “Good grief! That looks more like Acapulco than Appalachia.”
“It even smells different.” Joan sniffed the air. “More like flowers instead of forest. And there aren’t any of those awful bugs!”
But Mary couldn’t speak. Atagahi was even more beautiful than she remembered. She could almost hear her mother’s laughter tinkling up over the water as they had lain floating on their backs, watching white clouds sail across blue sky.
Hurrying now, the three women picked their way among the rocks to the spring, ditching their backpacks under a drooping willow tree, their aches and complaints forgotten in the excitement of reaching their destination. At the lowest rim of the rock, they knelt and dipped their hands into the water.
“Hey, it is warm.” Joan looked up at Mary in surprise. “You weren’t kidding.”
“How deep is it?” Alex was peering into the fluorescent green depths.
“I’ve never known anyone who’s touched the bottom.” Mary sat down and began to unlace her boots. “But in a minute I’m going to try.”
She undressed. Her clothes made a small pile on the rock. She stood naked in the warm sun for a moment, then she poised on the edge of the pool and dived, her skin flashing pale bronze as she arced over the water. Seconds later, she surfaced ten feet away, her black hair slicked back and shining.
“This is incredible!” she cried exultantly. She arched her back and exhaled, floating, letting her weary arms and legs relax in the warm green water.
“Did you touch the bottom?” Alex called, fumbling with the buttons on her shirt.
“Nope, I saved that just for you.”
“Are you sure nobody will see us naked?” Joan, who felt uncomfortable in the dressing rooms of Bloomingdale’s, peered around anxiously.
“Only that gun-toting red wolf we heard last night,” Alex replied. “And of course the ghost who slept outside our tent.”
“Oh, shut up, Alex!”
Mary closed her eyes and smiled as her friend’s voices danced in the air. They could swim or not, as they pleased. She would be content to float here for the rest of her life. In a few moments, though, she heard a western Yee-hiii! and felt a splash. Alex swam beside her; a moment later Joan did, too.
Her mother’s body is sleek as an otter’s. Martha smiles in the sun and dives headfirst into the spring as if she might find diamonds hidden in the deep green water. Her head breaks the surface and she calls to Mary. “Come on in, baby. Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anything hurt you!” Mary strips down to her bathing suit and leaps into the water with far less grace than her mother. Down, down she goes, bubbles nibbling at her toes like tiny fish. She looks back up above her and sees the sun shining gold through the water and she gives one strong kick and surfaces in the honeyed air.
--Excerpted from IN THE FOREST OF HARM, Copyright 2001 by Sallie Bissell, published by Bantam.
I first discovered Sallie Bissell, seen right, when reading an excerpt in Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains-A Guidebook by Georgann Eubanks, published by UNC Press (see previous feature). Sallie’s writing immediately jumped out at me, and I wanted to read more. I quickly read all four novels and loved every minute.
Although the suspense element is riveting, the humor and wry observations on character that lace the storyline throughout are the real gems to me, along with the breathtaking introduction to the rural North Carolina mountain landscape. The mountains call to Mary Crow, and she cannot resist the pull of their ancient spirits, nor can the reader. There is an artistic craft of style in Bissell’s writing that seems to constantly accompany the normal commercial thrill element that drives book sales.
I don’t normally read suspense/thrillers; I’m quite happy with Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but this style really made a literary impression on me. All great writers observe, and Sallie Bissell’s observations on the common characters that make up our real society are keen, inspiring, and often hilarious.
Mary Crow’s practical sensibilities make her a very solid, engaging character. When a fellow Cherokee political activist pushes a brochure on her about getting Native Americans into Congress, her reaction is priceless:
Mary looked up at Ruth Moon, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. Did these Indians not know how their government worked? Rich people sent other rich people to Congress to protect their interests, and everybody else—black, white, yellow or red—could go to hell. (from A DARKER JUSTICE, Copyright 2002 by Sallie Bissell).
Mary is caught between two worlds, but not the ones you would expect: her love of a lifetime, Jonathan Walkingstick, against the predatory thrill of being a prosecutor. The latter world consumes her passions to the point of threatening her personal—and often physical—life with extinction.
After experiencing this series, readers will want to step into the story themselves to discover the rich landscape so far away from urban life. Even with the humor, there are some very gritty scenes throughout the novels, as you would expect from a prosecutor’s life. However, the sweeping majesty of the mountains will tempt you with a vacation and peace of mind that you won’t find in the crowded, expensive and over-commercialized hotspots that most of us think of as a “getaway.” This will be a real getaway, and one that you won’t ever forget. Please check out the informational links below to learn more.
The beautiful photos provided are from a wonderful travel blog by Dr. William Yelverton, who often hikes deep into the mountains himself. These few photos are only a slice of the incredible shots you will find from his travels around the world, and I highly recommend a visit to his blog. Among other things, Dr. Yelverton is a competitive marathon runner, experienced deep mountain hiker, college professor, concert guitarist, environmentalist—oh, did I mention he knows how to handle wild bears? I told Sallie that he should be a character in one of her books. Suave villain or charming protagonist? You decide. In either case, I am most grateful for his permission to use these photos because they fit pefectly with the excerpt. Here is a link to his blog:http://tnparadise.blogspot.com/.
For another great story set in a national forest, please visit "Today's Tom Sawyer: Camping Under An Alabama Moon." That feature offers an excerpt and guide on Watt Key's highly-acclaimed novel Alabama Moon, set in the Talladega National Forest of Alabama. Watt's novel is a great story to encourage young adults to get closer to nature and literature. Alabama Moon was also made into a movie (starring John Goodman). Find that feature here:
Sallie Bissell’s website
Nantahala National Forest
Learn about all of North Carolina's National Forests at the official site:
Fontana Village Resort
Learn about all that North Carolina has to offer tourists
Bantam Dell Publishing Group
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