Swing Low

by Beth O'Sullivan

     I have long been a lover of swings. At first I used found swings, vines, curtains, willows, bell ropes.  Later, as I grew older and more sophisticated, everything in my wake was used to build a longer and more superlative swing than the last.  I remember one that I assembled from an abandoned tractor.  It resembled some kind of ghastly mechanical robotic bird that didn’t so much swing as it did clunk along the ground beneath the cherry tree by Sven’s cornfield.  Elastics, homemade springs, willow braids, wheels, all became objects for inventions.  
    I loved the pendular motion back and forth.  It was the thrill of the venture out into air followed by the surety of return that gave me a satisfaction nothing else in my life had provided me with.   The wind on my face, the movement of my limbs and the view from aloft of the receding fields made me utterly in love with being alive.
    What was it that I longed for in my search for the superlative swing?  Was it to build a swing long enough to swing out forever?  Over time my love of swings transformed itself into a love of stories for every story, whether true or fictional, has at its heart a return.
    My favorite swing was a long grapevine near my grandfather’s house in the Cumberland Pass of the Appalachian Mountains.  He was an unemployed coal-miner.  The mines had been shut down earlier in that decade and while a brick factory had been put in, only the young men had jobs.
    My family moved around a lot when I was young and being the most impossible child in the universe, I was sent to live with my grandfather, Colm O’Mahoney, for long stretches of time.  The grapevine hung down from tall trees that grew on a hillside.  It swung out high above the railroad tracks that used to carry coal out of the mountainside. 
    Everything seemed to be part of a world that had recently vanished. I could hear and smell its traces in the women’s lullabies and the liquor on the men’s breaths. In the room where I slept there was still an old doll that had belonged to my mother. It was made out of a tin can swathed in fabric.  Boarded up mines dotted the landscape. 
    In the faces of the men I could see the squint of a lifetime spent deep beneath the earth. What, I wondered, was it like down there? Stories of children falling down shafts and dying kept me from exploring beyond the wire fences around the old entrances. One story was about a boy named Harry who used to dig for fishing worms behind my grandfather’s shed. If I’d been asked then, I’d have said it was far more dangerous to dig worms within buckshot distance of Colm’s shotgun than it was to scale the fences around the mines.
    I did climb the shale mounds near the mines.  These were hills of remains from the mines. I’d scamper up the hillside of rocks and sit on top, rummaging through.  Every day I’d find fossils, that was how plentiful they were. I loved those fossils and years later carried a big box of them around with me through all of my temporary destinations, from apartment to apartment.  They reminded me that I did come from somewhere, even if that somewhere was a million years ago.
    I spent many hours walking along the tracks alone. I’d climb through abandoned railroad cars turned over on their sides and swing on the grapevine swing. The vine was so long that I was never quite sure if I could hang on long enough to make it back to the hillside before falling into the briar patch that ran alongside the tracks. I’d hang on for dear life and look far below into the brambles.  I didn’t know it then but I was in training for a life spent writing stories.  
    Sometimes I could just make out a bird’s nest near the top.  I’d mutter over and over, as if a protective prayer, words from an Uncle Remus story I’d been told by an old blind Georgian from the Smokey Mountains who lived across the street from my grandfather.  I even imitated his accent as I spoke, “I was born and bred in the briar patch, born and bred, I was born and bred in the briar patch, born and…”
    I think I figured that if I could turn it into my home, the place of my return, then I wouldn’t mind falling into it quite so much.
    One day I spent the whole morning swinging.  My hands still burned with the hot friction of the vine and my lungs were filled with the summer wind.  I was always alone then.  My grandfather regularly took out his rifle and shot at other neighborhood children who tried to pilfer his tomatoes. I was unpopular.
    That morning, when I came out onto the dirt road, it was crowded with children running.  There must have been a hundred children running and screaming as if an extra-terrestrial circus had just arrived in town and they were trying to join up.
    Every child swung a gallon of paint in each hand.  They swung from metal handles in rhythm to the pounding of their feet on the dusty road.  In their excitement, they forgot whose grandchild I was and they didn’t bother to keep their distance.
    Tommy, a boy I’d seen at the soda counter, put both gallons of paint in one hand, grabbed my hand and pulled me along.  “Last one back’ll get eaten alive by widow McKirken’s ghost,” he yelled out to the stampeding mass.  
    “Who’s she?”  I asked, panting as I ran and tried to keep up.
    “She died when she was a hundred and five, she lived back in the hills alone. She has blue skin and snakes in her hair and she’s always looking for young flesh”
    “Have you ever seen her?” I asked him.  I thought that maybe if I kept him talking he wouldn’t remember who my grandfather was.
    “Sure, I seen her all the time.”  
I got a little ahead of him so I could see his eyes and try to figure out if he was telling the truth.
  Tommy was my first friend.  I found that if I stuck close to him the children, while not exactly welcoming me, at least didn’t shun me anymore. 
    That afternoon, I went to Tommy’s house.  The houses stood on a dirt road that stretched out behind the brick factory.  Unpainted wooden two families lined the road.  People talked to each other from porch to porch. As Tommy and I made our way through the archeological dig of junk in his back yard looking for objects to stir the paint and pour it out into, I could hear his Aunt May-Lou stage whisper to her friend on the porch next door.  They both looked like their bodies had kind of melded into their rockers. “That’s right, Ella, that child’s the spitting image of Colm, just like her mama, and just as mean.”
    There’d been a sale at the paint factory.  All of the ends of strange unused colors rejected by the wealthy families in town were sold. None of the families could afford enough paint to paint their whole house, even at the sale prices. But every child had enough paint to paint the long roofed porches that lined the houses. There wasn’t enough of any one color to paint a whole porch.
    I spent my first afternoon of friendship helping Tommy and his sister, Nell, paint their porch.  We painted it part lime, part mustard colored, and part bright orange.  It was my idea to stripe the rungs of the railing, which gave the completed project more of a sense of order and pattern than the other porches on the street.
    It was hot. The smell of the paint mixed in with the smell of our sweat. Tommy mixed up a jar of sugar water and beet juice.  We sipped it as we took breaks in his tree house.  He and Nell filled me in on stories about all the local characters.  How their Aunt May Lou ran away from home when she was fifteen and disappeared for a whole decade.  Rumor was that she’d killed a man.  Old Mr. Quinn, who told the Remus stories, had gone off to the orient, old even then, and come back with a child bride. When she died in childbirth, her family came and took away all their children.  Tommy started to say something about Colm, but Nell stomped on his foot and we went back to painting. 
    The whole street was bursting with activity. A few children, wiping their brows and leaving a smear of magenta or turquoise, called over to Tommy, “Hey, what ya got there, what’s she doing there?”  In five hours the street was transformed.
    Evening came and I walked home.  My grandfather’s porch was the only one that remained weathered gray.  I sat down on his steps.  Fireflies blinked over the road and it added to the magic of the street, with all of the porches shinning in their new wild colors, crimson and chartreuse and sea green juxtaposed like a magician’s scarves.
    I could hear Mr.Bantok playing his washtub bass in his back yard while he waited for his potatoes to finish roasting in the open fire.  The smell wafted over, mingling with the smell of the paint.  I could hear Mrs. Pancake’s knitting needles clacking away with the rhythm of her fingers.  The fireflies blinked and I looked up at the emerging stars and I thought how steady they were, just like they were at their beginning.
    The shadows of evening always made me feel homesick.  The deep hues of light glancing off of my grandfather’s windows filled me with a longing to return to somewhere I’d never even been to before.  Where, I wondered, did I belong? It was as if the swing, and the story, had stopped mid-air.

BETH O'SULLIVAN studied writing with a fellowship at the Boston University Creative Writing Program with Leslie Epstein. She has been a finalist for a grant from The Artists Foundation and been a Judge for the Arlington Arts Council. She has published book reviews in The Boston Herald and stories in Free Parking, Sidelines,  236 Magazine and Tower Journal.

The support of two patrons enables her to write fiction in Paris for part of the year.  She advocates for others to similarly support individual artists.  It was just such patronship that enabled To Kill A Mockingbird to be written.


  1. A beautiful, mysterious tale about the origins of tale-telling--for one writer at least, but maybe for all of us who loved swings and must now sit and wonder about it. Mr. Mahan's big swing was on a steep hillside at the bottom of his back yard--when you sailed out on the swing (he pushed you hard!) you really felt the land drop out from under you. Maybe that's what made me want to be an astronomer, made me love flying?

  2. Makes me want to write my own childhood story. Conveys the doubting watchful eye of a child swept along by the conundrums of circumstance whose destiny is born of personal events and the larger story of time and place.
    My favorite sentence and word...'In the faces I could see the SQUINT of a lifetime spent deep beneath the earth.'


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