By Ray Lesser
About 20 years ago, Sue and I moved to an old farm in the Appalachian hills of southern Ohio. The community was a mix between old-timers whose families had been there eking out a living for generations, and more recent arrivals, who were part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s. Living on one of our borders was Jake McCoy, who kept a small herd of beef cattle in a pasture next to our trailer. He would regularly drive his pickup truck right to our fence line, and feed his cows treats while standing up in the bed, where he could get a clear view of what we newcomers might be up to. Jake was a friendly sort, always willing to lend a tool or offer his opinion about nearby fishing and swimming holes. Jake and his boy liked to take their hounds down to the creek on Friday and Saturday nights and hunt squirrels, groundhogs and anything else that moved. We would often doze off, only to be awakened by their gunfire at one or two in the morning. But on Sunday mornings they’d be spiffed up in plenty of time to attend the little church that Jake’s grandparents had built.
On the other side of us was Starr Vega. Most of her time was spent operating heavy machinery for a road construction crew. Her home, an old farmhouse, was a mecca for stray cats and dogs, which she would rescue from worksites. The animals bred with each other, and in her frequent absence the dogs would sometimes wander around the neighborhood in a semi-wild pack. Starr was a follower of an obscure religious cult who believed in the visions and prophecies of an 18th century English poet, and were rumored to have orgies and pagan rituals on a nearby mountain top. But whenever we happened to see her, she was always friendly and full of advice about organic gardening, and offers of herbs and medicinal plants for our garden.
Although we got along fine with both Jake and Starr, they had a bitter feud going on with each other, dating back to years before we became their neighbors. Jake thought Starr was a witch and a devil worshipper (which was probably true), and frequently would shoot at her dogs when they strayed too close to his animals. Starr thought Jake was a drunken redneck, and had posted NO HUNTING signs all along her large property line, which Jake would ignore, or worse, shoot up with his rifle. He considered all the land in our valley, which his family had once owned, to be open to him for hunting, fishing, or foraging.
Things came to a head one September. Starr’s horse kept turning up in different neighbors’ pastures. Starr apologized to each neighbor, but accused Jake of cutting her fences in order to purposely let the horse out. Jake said she was nuts, that her fenceposts were all as rotten as her soul, and that she was probably letting her horse out on purpose, because the only way the neighbors would ever invite her to visit was if they needed her to come and retrieve the horse.
One morning we awoke to find Starr’s horse penned in our garden, munching on the remains of the sweet corn. There was no evidence that any of the sturdy (and electrified) fencing around the garden had been breached. The only way the horse could have gotten there was if someone had walked her through the gate.
So we began baking. First we made a batch of apple pies, and then for good measure some pumpkin pies as well. When the pies were cool we took a couple with us and led Starr’s horse back to her pasture. Inside Starr’s kitchen we shared the pies and conversation about our dreams of gardens and orchards, of peace and fun. Before we left we noticed a homemade straw doll on her counter which bore a striking resemblance to Jake McCoy. A large pin was stuck in the doll’s shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” Starr said. “I just wanted to hurt him a little.” We asked if she might consider removing the pin. “I’ll think about it,” she said, “if he stays off my land, and stops shooting at my dogs.” She sent us home with a talisman, a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and a jar of blackberry jam.
Next we made a trip over to Jake’s farm. His wife Mabel greeted us and called Jake in from the barn. When he appeared he was rubbing his shoulder. “You got any of that liniment, Mabel. My bursitis is acting up again,” he said. We each had another piece of pie and a nice chat about ticks and snakes and septic systems. When the subject came around to Starr Vega, Jake said he was tired of feuding with her, and had decided it wasn’t worth it to hunt on her land anymore, and that he was planning on staying as far away from it as possible. Mabel looked surprised. “When did you decide that?”
“Woman, I don’t have to tell you everything I’m thinking. If I did, when would I have time to chaw tobacco, or do anything else?” Before we left he went into his freezer and gave us a package of venison steaks, and some of a homemade concoction which he assured us would keep our cats from getting worms.
We never found Starr’s horse in our garden again, although occasionally tempers would flare up, and we’d hear Starr’s dogs and Jake’s hounds barking and baying at each other in the night, or see Jake feeding his cattle next to our fence, rubbing his shoulder. But then we’d just whip up another batch of peace pies, and make a round of neighborly visits.