Glass Hills in Steel Heels | 2 of 6


Finding Eve in the swamp

The piece of coal myth was a perfect start to a creation story. I just needed a balancing nature. I needed a heart. I needed an Eve.

Lake Drummond is a perfectly circle-shaped lake at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp. Native Americans believed a giant firebird made her nest there, and when she left, water filled the crater-shaped bowl and created Lake Drummond.

Unlike most swamps, water in the Great Dismal doesn’t run in to Lake Drummond. The lake sits 20-feet above sea level. Like a heart, it pumps water out, feeding seven rivers and sending its black elixir through miles of artery-shaped canals.

In 1803 Thomas Moore wrote one of the most enduring poems about Lake Drummond, “A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp.” The Irish balladeer wrote about a woman who drowned in the lake on her wedding night and haunts the lake by firefly light.

They made her a grave, too cold and damp

For a soul so warm and true;

And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,

Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,

She paddles her white canoe.

On my own late-night firefly walks through Westerwood, I’d fantasize about finding the woman at the center of the lake. I wanted her side of the story. I’d grown tired of the poems and fairy tales that kill off bright, intelligent women—by prince charming or by drowning. Little boys get stories about flying to Neverland. Girls get glass shoes.

If the shoe fits … it’s bull shit.

Those old stories don’t seem to suit the times. I loved the “Modern Love” columns in the New York Times. I’d search for insight and a light between the lines of the mini-documentaries about detached hipsters, skeptical divorcées and over-analyzed lovers.

My own little love vignettes looked nothing like the fairy tales, or the crisp, heavy-edited endings of the Daniel Jones columns. And I thought I had appropriately waited and apprenticed to love like the woman in the “Black Bull of Norroway,” a Scots myth about a woman who climbs a glass hill in steel boots to earn her keep for love.

That summer, the losses and the love’s lost hovered heavy, like the hot, humid July. I could feel a malaise settling in. I didn’t want to let it in. Malaise is a horrible roommate.

I needed a story that didn’t suck. I wanted a “Modern Love” approach to those old fairy tales. I wanted the Lady of the Lake in the Great Dismal to get a new legend. I wanted the girl on the glass hill to get down.

So I rewrote it. The “Black Bull of Norroway” and Moore’s Ballad combined to make a new story for the swamp.

The Eve of the swamp is love’s outcast. And the song is her story, her epiphany, the one that comes when she stands at the top of the glass hill and decides its time to get down.

I wanted my own damn fairy tale.

The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of a woman who climbs a glass hill for seven years to apprentice to love.
The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of a woman who climbs a glass hill for seven years to apprentice to love.

Modern Love

His T-Shirts Wouldn’t Turn White

We grew up on the outskirts of the Great Dismal Swamp. I was one of three sisters. We didn’t have much to give or take in those days and my mom sent us all off to work and live in other towns. I was headed to a blacksmith in a nearby town and I was fascinated. I’d lived in the swamp my whole life and was curious about dinners beyond stolen milk and river oysters.

My mother packed a sack of green apples and told me to wait outside for a black bull, who would take me there. When he arrived, we rode through the night, until sky turned blue.

The blacksmith looked like vintage clothing curator Christophe Loiron.
The blacksmith looked like vintage clothing curator Christophe Loiron.

When we arrived, the blacksmith stood on his front lawn and peeled green apples with a pocket knife. He looked to me like Christophe Loiron in a leather apron.

“I’m here,” I said.

He told me I’d learn to smoke cigars and build a pair of steel boots to climb a glass hill. When I finished the first pair, Christophe Loiron pointed to a glass hill one town over. He told me to put the shoes on and climb it. On the first step, my foot pushed straight through and shattered the glass.

The next summer, fall, winter and spring, and for the next seven years, I’d pour and pound the metal and destroy my hands in the fire. The designs improved over time until finally, I could pound the steel slipper thin. I put the shoes on and climbed. The glass didn’t shatter.

“Your apprenticeship is finished,” the blacksmith said. “There’s a prince in the next town. If you can get his t-shirts white, wash away the wounds from his old lovers, your apprenticeship to love is finished. He’ll be your king.”

I climbed the hill one last time and as I climbed, I missed my stolen milk and river oysters. I missed the swamp.

“He can do his own laundry,” I thought about the prince.

I gathered my things and walked home. As I neared the swamp, I stole the logging tools that the working men in the swamp had left overnight and I pounded the steel hammers and axes into slipper-thin silver sheets. I laid them one-by-one on the rooftops of the lean-to shelters of the men and women who lived there.

And I do this still, every night: Smoke cigars and pound the steel and set off a fireworks-worth of sparks that hang like stars in the night. It’s better than doing laundry.

And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,

Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,


A song and story series by Molly McGinn, inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp. Album available now, online.

2 responses to “Glass Hills in Steel Heels | 2 of 6”

  1. A woman who can stand up for herself on equal footing with anybody because of the power of her brains.

    1. Still trying to figure out how to do that. ;)

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