In the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty-one, Percival McKinnery abandoned the shores of his Motherland, leaving behind him County Cork and the cold corpse of his beloved new bride, Julia. He took to the sea hoping to throw off the wolves of misery that hounded him. He left behind what little he still had and held dear, hoping to beguile the misery of days to come that haunted the trial ahead.
Landfall came two long months later after an endless heaving of sickness upon the sea that seemed sure and bent upon seeing him in.
There, as other bleary-eyed brethren stood bewildered, dumbstruck even, staring with their mouths agape at the crest of emerald green trees that rolled off onto the horizon of Virginia, Percival dove headlong from the ship’s rail and cleaved the water while others gasped and cursed. One man muttered something about “a fool off to drown his self in the New World.”
He was nineteen days into the Wilderness. Somewhere far beyond where the Europeans had so far settled. He had evaded death by bear and what he was sure might have been the same by the indigenous people—a fierce pair of men and a small boy who looked hungry to prove himself—and still Percival pressed on.
He would make his way. He would know his home when he found it. Three times God had spoken to him in visions and told him so.
In those moments of rapture Percival had seen fields of gold and streams of rolling waters. A sturdy cabin where a home-fire burned and the hint of companionship moved about busy at the hearth.
He was not under such delusions, but concentrating on navigating a slippery gully when his footing was lost and the walnut he had been clenching between his teeth was dislodged from the vice of his molars. As his back met the earth with a thud, the wind was knocked from his lungs and the walnut was planted firm in his throat.
He bucked and kicked about, falling twice more as he choked on the thing. He was near asphyxiation when he slipped a third time and struck his head upon a stone. The blow did not kill Percival McKinnery, but he was dead in two minutes just the same.
Whether his spirit went to someplace beyond to find his lost beloved Julia, there is no mortal who can say. What men did know of Percival came to pass some twenty-three years later when a man, who had been but a boy when Percival’s eyes saw him last, planted his musket at the foot of a strange and twisted walnut tree.
Before the hunter, like nothing he’d ever seen in all his years traversing and living and coming to know those mountains, was a tree commingled with the bones of a man; the nub of a femur protruding from one side and a hint of a skull grown over with bark but still there just beneath.
The hunter turned away, not wanting to linger, since, in the valley below, just over a small creek and beyond a field of barley, the morning’s first signs of life were stirring from the homestead of Josef Proust.