Local legends optimistically ascribe special powers to the mountains that line the narrow, green valley where this tiny community lies. They speak of benevolent, protective peaks that not only offer up an abundance of deer, wild turkey and ginseng roots, but also keep bad things out.
Especially nasty weather.
It was into this supposedly sheltered cocoon that a tornado -- one of dozens that strafed the nation's midsection over the weekend -- recklessly swept on Sunday evening. The torment cost Mossy Grove and surrounding Morgan County seven lives, making it one of the hardest-hit regions in an extraordinary swarm of tornadoes that killed 36 people along a jagged line from Louisiana to Ohio.
But here today, as sallow survivors walked gingerly through tangled phone lines and over piles of shredded cinder block, they mourned more than lost lives. They also lamented the loss of their once unshakable sense of security, here in this sliver of flat land between Lone Mountain and its scruffy neighbor, Little Brushy Mountain. They wondered if they would ever feel safe again.
"The mountains were here to protect us -- it's like they just turned their back," Brenda Bunch said as she helped her friends, Kevin and Tina Freels, search for the remnants of their lives.
There has been much of late to test the sturdy faith of people in Mossy Grove. They've watched as jobs dried up over the years, one manufacturing plant after another closing, leaving behind unemployment slips and overdue bills. About the only big employers in the region now are the two nearby prisons, one of which -- Brushy Mountain State Prison -- held Martin Luther King Jr.'s killer, James Earl Ray, until his death in 1998.
Many of the people who watched the tornado hiss and moan down Lone Mountain earned their livings at the prisons or in the businesses that serve them. One of them -- an affable prison guard named Mike Williams Sr. -- died Sunday at his home near the base of Lone Mountain.
All morning, friends and relatives drove up to the now barely distinguishable house. They piled splintered wood or separated reusable metal. Others stared at the ground solemnly, as if at a funeral, seeking a quiet space of their own while backhoes and chain saws filled the ruined neighborhood around them with sound.
None spoke above a whisper.
Williams's house was pushed flat by the wind, but black work boots outside his back door were left untouched, testaments to the storm's fickle nature. His friend Ann Russell grasped for words as she listlessly poked through Williams's car. She needed a token to remember her friend, but it had to be the right one. This is the way she grieves.
Finally, she settled on a handgrip he had used to strengthen his forearms. Only she knows why.
"I don't want much," said Russell, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen.
A couple of smashed houses down Lone Mountain Road, the Freelses' daughter, Lindsey, a 9-year-old kiddie contest beauty queen with long, blond hair, cradled a cardboard box filled with treasures: a Nintendo control box, a shabby Barbie doll, a bottle of bubble mix. The grown-ups had been seeking her out all day, maybe because she had the least to forget and the most to look forward to.
When her mother bawled, Lindsey told her: "Don't cry, Momma. We're going to be all right."
Tina Freels wanted desperately to find Lindsey's baby pictures and the little bronzed baby shoes she'd had made after her son, Eric Jones, was born 16 years ago. She wanted them so badly that she came to her toppled home using a walker, her legs having been rendered wobbly and weak by the roof that smashed down on her as she cuddled Lindsey and her mother-in-law in the bathtub of their home on Sunday.
The Freelses moved to Lone Mountain Road in 1996, paying $42,500 for a four-bedroom, three-bath home, where they could look out the windows on crisp fall days like this one and see a mountainside of crimson and gold leaves. Tina Freels spent the first two nights after the storm in a hospital bed, tormented by nightmares.
"It'd be hard to live here again," she said. "What we lived through, it was terrible."
Her search for family heirlooms was complicated by the whims of the storm. The tornado left a haphazard distribution of goods, flinging mattresses out of one home and into the yards of homes half a block away, casting toy tricycles against the broken facades of houses owned by elderly residents who hadn't pedaled anywhere in decades.
Macel Phillips, 83, whose house at the entrance to Lone Mountain Road was one of the few in the area with a basement, stooped and picked up her old Rubik's Cube, which had landed gently on a mattress that had descended into her front yard.
Tina Freels's medicine cabinet showed up five miles away, where someone was kind enough to pick it up, spot her name on a pill bottle and bring it to her. Maybe that isn't such a surprise around here. It seemed that every other person who walked into the shattered community was somebody's cousin or co-worker or lifelong friend.
Brenda Bunch stood with the Freels family moments after visiting her cousin Earl Bunch, a fabulously crusty sort who insisted on spending the two nights after the storm in his house, even though the storm had ripped a giant hole in his roof and destroyed his bedroom.
"It was a beautiful place," Bunch, 63, said as he surveyed his tattered yard and the tree where he had tied up Duke, his Red Bone hound. "It will be beautiful again."
The storm was so ferocious it overturned a school bus next to Bunch's house and wrapped metal gutters around fences as if they were ribbons. Some of the few houses left standing had been stripped of their walls, even as the furniture inside was left undisturbed, leaving them looking like eerie, life-sized dollhouses.
People Bunch had never met before kept coming up to him throughout the day, asking him what they could do to help. They called him "Sir."
Hungry? Thirsty? Could they offer a backhoe to clear his yard?
The same was happening all around him. Kevin Freels politely turned down a meal offered by a relief agency worker because he had already gotten plenty of grub from another relief agency.
His friend, Jeff Henry, had come up not long before with an envelope filled with cash that someone had found in Freels's home. He took it, grateful and certain that the days to come would test his finances as much as his psyche.
Someone from their Pentecostal church across the street, New Life Apostolic Church, was talking to his wife about arranging meals, clothing, anything they needed. Another person stuffed two bags of toys into Lindsey's hands.
Even as they talked of their fears, more people rallied around this family that had lost so much. The mountains may have let them down, but they were coming to understand that they were now surrounded by something even stronger.