We Belong Wherever Our Hearts Fall: My Promise to Appalachia
Sara Sirk Morató
I was sixteen when I realized that Virginia had closed its doors to me.
The state could not kick me out. It couldn’t undo my upbringing in it. But, I realized, it doesn’t want all of me. I’m too faceted and slippery for it. I speak too much Spanish. I ask too many questions. I like too many girls. This state will never love me the way it loved me when I was young. I’ll have to make more sacrifices to stay.
That revelation throttled a sob out of me. I was all acne and insecurity then, and this realization felt bigger than my own body. My woodland womb did not want me. It felt like a death. A disownment. A heat and cicada song pressed on my shivering back.
Why does this hurt so much? I thought. Why do I want to go back? There’s no one like me in Virginia.
But I knew why: I loved a land that did not love me back. A city promised me community and Pride tickets. Rural Virginia promised me home. To have honeysuckles and coyote-song, I shattered myself. Appalachia was a chain of heartbreaks, and the older, browner, and queerer I grew, the more heartbreaks it would take to stay. So I cried for me and people like me before my voice broke too. Then I internalized it. The world didn’t need my tears.
Six years later I am still crying.
I grew up in the town of Galax, Virginia, a dot of 7,000 people nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I, too, was nestled in the mountains. Whenever I peered out of my bedroom window, a quilt of woodlands, fields, and navy ridges stretched out for miles before me. They completed me. During the day, I cavorted in the poplar trees and picked at crawdads in the New River. At night, I fell asleep to firefly dances. Child me could not fathom leaving the countryside.
I was also the only mixed-race child in my school. Every day held questions about my existence. Whenever I peered into Galax’s streets, I saw no elders that reflected my future — if I had one. When I came out at fifteen, my precious mountains suffocated me. By eighteen, I felt lonely, broken, and stupid. My isolation veered on violence. I was a walking corpse that did nothing but clutch its shroud and cry.
So, to save myself, I moved to a city.
The best aspect of the city was its potential. Its noise. Its tangle of sidewalks, brick buildings, and power lines dazzled me. I could walk without pine needles underfoot. People saw me. There were Pride events. There were other people like me. I drank down the city’s smog and services in one fell gulp.
Yet this was lonely, too. Everything was too close. Too crowded. Without the hills, a huge chunk of my soul was missing. I loathed the city as much as I enjoyed it. I heard all the jokes about my hometown, too. About how no one non-white or gay lived in the backwards, stupid, ugly countryside that I missed so much.
They don’t belong there, the jokes whispered. Neither do you. But you don’t belong here either, hick.
So where was I supposed to go?
I haven’t returned to the country. One day, I will. I am a cardinal, winging home to live where I love. I want to show young, queer people of color that that they are not alone. We belong wherever our hearts fall.
If Appalachia is the golden thread we all cut our hands on, then I will grip it first and grip it tightly, so that smaller hands that come after mine can place their palms atop my fingers. So that the razor wire will cut them less. In time, perhaps the wire will become silk. The wild strawberries and fallen leaves will not be red with my generation’s blood. To the new children, my heartbreaks will sound as foreign as coyote calls. That is what I want. I cannot walk to Pride in Appalachia, but I can walk with pride in me. The countryside put it there: it cannot take it away.
This is not a path for everyone. But to grow love in a place, someone must sow the seeds first. That someone may as well be me. One day, I will sit on my grandmother’s porch — older than her, older than my abuelo — and close my eyes. I will listen to the creak of my bones, the chattering squirrels, the New River’s lullaby. I will hold my spouse’s hand. And the children like me will count the cicada shells laid out on my grandmother’s porch, not knowing my suffering ever stained it at all. They will only see shadows of my love.
About the author
Sara Sirk Morató @bolivibird is a Zoology senior at the University of Wyoming. Her pronouns are she/they. Growing up mestiza and bisexual in the countryside permanently shaped how she views activism, especially conservation. Sara loves writing, environmental activism, and bad movies. She is a UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholar alumna.
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