We always knew when Bobby Lee came home. Folks up and down the Coal River Valley heard the roar of his motorcycle on the gravel road long before he tore around the final bend, turning so sharp he lay nearly sideways on the ground. Sometimes he’d be gone weeks at a time, sometimes just a few days. But his homecoming never changed.
He rode into the valley like a conquering hero. And Jolene, his wife, would come flying out of their shabby cabin, long red hair streaming behind her, just as Bobby Lee pulled into their little dirt yard. He’d be off the huge bike in a flash as she ran down the two broken and patched steps and into his arms. And then there would be the kiss --- scandalous for that rural West Virginia community in the 1960s. We children would stand on our own porches or in the road, gaping at the two of them, our mouths and eyes wide.
Usually, Reana Mae was waiting on the porch, too, but Bobby Lee didn’t notice her right off. His wife was such a whirlwind of red curls and short skirts and hunger that their daughter --- thin, freckled, and silent --- went unnoticed. After the kiss would come gifts, if his haul had been a long one. Sometimes, Bobby Lee drove his rig all the way from Charleston to California, and he brought Jolene and Reana presents from places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Usually a toy or coloring book for Reana. For Jolene, he brought clothes --- shocking clothes. Like the halter top and hot pants he brought from San Francisco. Or the lime green minidress from Chicago. Jolene strutted around like a peacock in them, while the rest of the valley folk shook their heads and whispered to one another over their fences and laundry lines. Jolene was the first woman in the valley to go braless, her round, full breasts barely contained beneath the tight T-shirts and sweaters she wore.
After the gifts and the hellos and the “What’s happenin’ in the world?” talk, Jolene would send Reana Mae off to her greatgrandma’s, then disappear into the house with her husband for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes, Reana spent the night at her Grandma Loreen’s before Jolene remembered to come for her. Loreen would make up Jolene’s old room, and she’d fry pork chops and boil potatoes with green beans and bacon fat like Reana wanted, and she’d sing her the lullaby she used to sing to her own babies. And so, on those days, Reana Mae got cherished a little bit.
Jolene wasn’t from the valley, though her people were. She’d spent most of her childhood up north in Huntington with her mama, EmmaJane Darling. Her father, whoever he might have been, was long gone before Jolene made her appearance at Our Lady of Mercy Charity Hospital in Huntington. Jolene came to live with her grandparents, Ray and Loreen, after EmmaJane died, and she was a handful.
But Bobby Lee fell for Jolene the first time he laid his eyes on her, the day she came to the Coal River. She was just twelve years old then, but she looked sixteen in her tight black skirt, low-cut blouse, and bright-red lipstick. And Bobby Lee told his little brother, “I’m gonna marry that girl.” Five years later, he did. And don’t you suppose Ray and Loreen were relieved to have Jolene married off? They fairly beamed at the wedding, didn’t even bat an eye when Jolene wore a short blue dress to be married in instead of the nice, long white gown with lace that Loreen had offered to make for her.
“At least,” my Aunt Belle had whispered, “it ain’t red.”
They were scandalous, those two, even in a valley that tolerated a good bit of questionable goings-on. Times were hard, after all, and people had to take their happiness when and where they found it. Folks in the valley were philosophical about such things. But Bobby Lee and Jolene Colvin, they pushed it too far by half.
They didn’t go to church, for one thing. Everyone else in the valley spent long Sunday mornings at Christ the King Baptist Church, praying for redemption, hearing the true gospel, and assuring their eternal salvation. But not Bobby Lee and Jolene.
They sent Reana Mae to church, though, every Sunday morning, scrubbed clean and wearing her one Sunday dress, her spindly legs bare in summer and winter alike. Folks sometimes said Jolene sent her daughter to church just so she could lie abed with Bobby Lee, desecrating the Lord’s Day. And the church folk were sugary sweet to Reana on account of it. But she never even smiled at them; she just stared with her unblinking, green cat-eyes and all those brown freckles. Not a pretty child, folks whispered. Small, knobby, wild- haired, and so quiet you’d hardly notice her, till you felt her eyes staring through you. You couldn’t hardly tell she was Jolene’s daughter, except for those eyes --- just like Jolene’s.
Reana Mae sometimes sat with my sisters and me at church, and she never wrote notes on the bulletin or whispered or wriggled or pinched. She just sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared up at Brother Harley preaching. Sometimes her lips moved like she was praying, but she never said a word. She didn’t even sing when Miss Lucetta started up a hymn on the piano.
Christ the King Baptist Church was the glue that held that community together. The weathered white house of God had married and buried valley folk for longer than anyone could remember. Brother Harley, the pastor, was a heavy-jowled, sweaty, balding man who liked a good joke and a cold beer. When he didn’t wear his black robe, he donned plaid shirts with a breast pocket, where he tucked the white handkerchiefs he used to wipe the sweat from his forehead and neck. His daddy had been the first pastor of Christ the King Baptist Church, and he was hoping his grandson, Harley Boy, would take the pulpit when he retired.
Brother Harley was great friends with my Great-Aunt Belle. Often on quiet summer nights, you could hear his belly laugh echo all through the valley when he sat on Belle’s porch, drinking beer and sharing gossip. His tiny, sharp-eyed wife, Ida Louise, didn’t join him at Belle’s. Folks sometimes wondered, quietly over their laundry lines, just why Brother Harley spent so much time with a rich widow and so little time at home. “But” --- Loreen would sigh to my mother, her head bobbing earnestly --- “knowing Ida’s temper, maybe it ain’t such a wonder as all that.”
Aunt Belle --- Arabella was her Christian name --- was born and bred in the Coal River Valley, the eldest of the three Lee sisters. My grandmother, Araminta, was the youngest. Arathena, Bobby Lee’s grandmother, was the middle child.
When she was nineteen, Belle caught the eye of a much older and very wealthy man. Mason Martin owned a chain of drugstores in East Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. He’d come to the valley to look into property, before deciding the community was too small to support a drugstore. He left without a store but with a beautiful young wife. The couple settled into a fine house in Charleston, and for eleven years lived happily together.
At thirty, Belle came back to the valley, widowed and childless. Mason had dropped dead in his rose garden at the age of sixty-two, leaving Belle the sole heir to his drugstore wealth. They’d had just one child, a scrawny son who died of whooping cough before his first birthday.
When Mason died, Aunt Belle had her big house built and proceeded to buy from the Coal River Excavation Company as many of the small riverfront cabins as she could talk them out of. These she sold to the families who had long lived in them, for monthly payments of about half what their previous rents had been. It was Belle who waged war with the electric company to get the valley wired in 1956, and Belle who hired the contractors to install plumbing and septic tanks for her little houses a few years later.
Aunt Belle always sat right up front at Christ the King Baptist Church, marching in solemnly, winking sidelong at friends, just as the first hymn began. When we first started coming to the river, she and my mother had battled fiercely over whether we would sit with her.
“Pride of place,” my mother said softly, in that velvety firm voice that brooked no argument, “does not belong in the house of the Lord.”
“You all are my family,” Belle had hollered. “You ought to be up front with me. What do folks think, you all sitting way at the back of the church, like you’re ashamed before the Lord?”
But my mother would not be moved. Aunt Belle had all the resources of her drugstore empire and the indebtedness of an entire valley, but they were nothing in the face of my mother’s rock-solid belief in the rightness of her faith.
That was always the difference between valley faith and my mother’s. Valley folk took their religion tempered with a hard dose of pragmatism. If Brother Harley spent more time than was absolutely seemly with Arabella Lee . . . well, look at his wife, after all. If the mining men drank too much beer or even whiskey on a Saturday night . . . well, didn’t they earn that privilege, working underground six days a week? If Reana Mae had been born only six months after Bobby Lee and Jolene got married . . . well, at least they made it legal in time.
My mother’s fiery faith allowed for no such dalliances with the Lord and His ways. There was no liquor in our house, no card playing, no gossip. And there was definitely not pride of place; no, ma’am, we would not sit up in the front pew with my Aunt Belle, no matter how loudly she argued. We sat quietly in the back, with Reana Mae.
Most of the valley kids teased Reana Mae, but my sister Tracy was the worst. Tracy seemed to really hate Reana. I wasn’t sure why, but then I didn’t understand a lot about Tracy in those days. She was purely mean most of the time, and poor Reana Mae bore the brunt of it when we came south. I wonder sometimes that Reana didn’t fight back earlier. Later, much later, she learned to hurt Tracy more than Tracy ever hurt her. But in those hot and sticky days of the 1960s, she only took whatever Tracy gave and came back for more.
“Why doesn’t your mother get you some clothes that fit?”
Reana Mae looked down at the faded yellow swimsuit that hung from her shoulders, her cheeks reddening. She shrugged and lowered her head. We were building mud and sand castles at the strip of cleared land that passed for a beach.
“I guess she doesn’t want to waste her money,” Tracy continued, shoveling dirt into a pink bucket and smashing it down with both hands. “Why, it’d be like dressing up a scarecrow. Like putting Barbie dresses on a stick doll. Ain’t that so, Bethany?” She paused, looking up at me expectantly. I didn’t make a sound, so Tracy went on. “I guess she wants to keep all Bobby Lee’s money for herself so she can buy those trashy dresses she wears, the ones that show her butt.”
Reana Mae just stared at the ground, her small frame slumped and still.
“My daddy says people down here breed like rabbits,” Tracy continued, “but your mama and daddy just have you. How come?”
Reana shrugged her shoulders again, still silent. She shoved her dirty-blond hair back from her freckled face with a muddy hand.
“I guess when they saw how ugly you turned out, they didn’t want any more babies.” Tracy smirked.
Still, Reana Mae said nothing, and neither did I. At least Tracy wasn’t focused on me.
“What’s white and ugly and disgusting to look at?” Tracy continued.
Neither of us said anything.
“A pile of maggots . . . and Reana Mae’s face.”
Tracy’s laughter rang shrill up and down the river. Reana Mae looked up at me, to see if I would laugh, too. She looked like a dog waiting to be kicked.
“Shut up, Tracy,” I heard myself say out loud.
Tracy’s eyes widened in surprise, then she snickered. “Well, I guess you finally found your real sister, Bethany-beanpole-bonybutt- baby. You and Hillbilly Lilly must have come from the same garbage can. That’s where we found Bethany, you know.” She turned to Reana Mae now that I was the target. “She was crying in a garbage can and Mother felt sorry for her and brought her home. She’s not our real sister. Mother has to pay people just to be her friends.” She laughed again, her brilliant hazel eyes sparkling mean.
Reana Mae stared directly into Tracy’s beautiful, hateful face and finally whispered, “I think you’re the meanest girl that ever was.”
Tracy stopped laughing abruptly and hurled the contents of her bucket at the two of us, drenching us both with wet sand and mud.
“You two are just alike,” she hissed as she rose. “You’re the trash-can twins.”
With that, she picked up her bucket and ran up the road.
We sat there silently for a moment, dripping and muddy and miserable. Then Reana said to me, smiling shyly, “Well, I guess I always wanted a twin anyhow.”
I smiled back at her. All my life I’d had three sisters --- three strangers I lived with but never really knew. Sitting in the mud on that muggy day, I found my real sister. I was seven, Reana Mae was six, and I had no way of knowing just how intertwined our lives would become. But from that day forward, Reana and I were connected in a way I’ve never been with anyone else. Her story and mine got so tangled up together, sometimes it felt like I was just watching from the outside, like she was the one living. Sometimes, I hated her for that. But mostly, I loved her.
Strangers in a Strange Land
We weren’t from the Coal River Valley, really. We only spent our summers there, my mother, my sisters, and me. Nancy and Melinda --- the older girls --- never let anyone forget that, either. They were not hillbillies. They were northerners, from up in Indianapolis, Indiana --- which was a real city, as anyone could tell you. People up north in Indianapolis, Indiana, didn’t talk like trailer park trash, or listen to Tammy Wynette, or cook with lard, for heaven’s sake. My big sisters hated coming to the valley --- or at least they pretended to.
Tracy, of course, played both sides of the record. When she was south, she talked incessantly about how much better, cleaner, and more modern things were back home. But when she was back in Indianapolis, she affected a Southern accent and bragged about her family’s “vacation place” down south.
My mother really did hate coming to West Virginia, though she was born and raised in Charleston and had been coming to the Coal River Valley since she was just a small girl herself. But when she married, my mother wanted to get as far away as she could from the bluegrass music, the coal mines, and the grinding poverty of her childhood. It was hard on her to have to come back every summer, but she had no choice. My daddy wanted it. And what my daddy wanted, he usually got.
My parents met in the valley in 1946. Daddy’s people lived on the river. His mother --- my Grandmother Araminta --- had married a valley boy named Winston Wylie and then moved north to Ohio, where Winston found work in a mill. But Winston was killed in a car accident at twenty-four, leaving Araminta with two small children and no drugstore wealth to fall back on. So she came home to the valley and stayed on in one of Aunt Belle’s little cabins for a while, taking in laundry, sewing, and baking bread to support herself and her babies.
My father was just two then, and he was the prettiest baby the valley had ever seen --- everyone said so. His reddish-blond ringlets, dark brown eyes, and childish lisp captivated his Aunt Belle. Before a year was out, he had moved into Belle’s big house to live with her.
“After all, Minta, you ain’t exactly got the same resources I got,” Belle had argued to her sister. “I can raise Jimmy up right, like he deserves.”
And Aunt Belle did raise Daddy just like he was her own. Since her son had died so young, Belle had always wanted a boy. My grandmother also had a daughter, but Belle never offered to take DarlaJean. She only wanted my daddy. Soon after my father moved in with Belle, Araminta took DarlaJean and moved on south to Florida, and they never came back to West Virginia except once, for my parents’ wedding. Araminta hovered at the edge of our family’s consciousness, like a specter instead of a real person.
Aunt Belle, on the other hand, taught me to make spoon bread and whiskey balls. Aunt Belle switched my legs raw when she caught me playing on the railroad tracks. Aunt Belle bought me my first high-heeled shoes. Aunt Belle was my family.
Belle’s house was a showplace, fitted out with all the bells and whistles a chain of drugstores could afford. The three-story, yellow Victorian stood right at the river’s bend. Sitting on Aunt Belle’s porch swing, you could see up and down the river for miles. I loved sitting there and watching the barges glide back and forth from the mines, empty or loaded down with coal. It seemed like the safest, most comfortable spot in the world. And I could not understand, as a child, why my mother hated it all so.
Mother had spent her own childhood summers farther down- river, staying with her grandparents, who kept a boardinghouse for miners. Mother came every year to help in the kitchen and breathe cleaner air than they had back in Charleston.
When she was fifteen, Mother spent an entire year on the river with her grandparents, the year her own father went on a seemingly permanent bender before finally disappearing for good. That’s when she met my father.
Daddy was sixteen then --- tall, freckled, and handsome. He was so smart, folks knew he wouldn’t stay in the valley and work the mines. Mother was tiny and pretty, with curling dark hair and flashing black eyes. She had a quiet manner and a fiery faith in Jesus Christ. She caught Daddy’s heart right away, and she loved him fiercely.
Three years after they met, my parents got married in a big church up in Charleston --- Mother in a demure, white gown and Daddy sweating nervously in his first real suit. They moved away from West Virginia the very next day.
Daddy studied at a college in Oberlin, Ohio, while Mother typed away in a doctor’s office. As soon as my father graduated and got a sales job with Morrison Brothers’ Insurance Company, my mother quit her own job, got herself pregnant with my sister Nancy, and set to work making an orderly, clean, and quiet home for her family. She never once wanted to go back south. Even when her own mother died in 1957, she only drove down for the funeral in Charleston, then came home the very next day.
I was two years old when my father was made a regional director at Morrison Brothers’. As a regional director, Daddy had to travel, and the summer months were the busiest. So he decided, rather than leaving us alone in Indianapolis, he would leave us with his kinfolk for the summers. And Mother knew better than to try to argue him out of it.
My sisters might have copied her disdain, but I loved the Coal River Valley right from the start. I loved the way the steam rose hazy off the water in late August. I loved the way the muddy river bottom suddenly dropped out from under your feet if you stepped in the wrong spot. I loved the nasal twang and sleepy drawl of the voices around me, the fiddling, the innumerable cousins, the smoky kerosene lamps, and the mossy dark woods that crowded in around the row of small, clapboard houses. I even liked the outhouse behind our cabin, gray and white with a tiny window box planted with petunias under a painted-on window.
There was so much life in that valley. Babies were born and old folks died in those houses by the river. Our own cottage had seen weddings and births and even a death or two. The red-checked curtains in the bedroom I shared with Tracy were hand-sewn by my Grandmother Araminta when she was young and newly widowed. The sagging porch out back was where Joe Colvin first kissed my Great-Aunt Arathena. The weathered picnic table in the kitchen had groaned under more Thanksgiving turkeys than I will ever eat. It was my family’s place, even if they didn’t seem to know it.
It was home.
I don’t think Reana Mae ever felt at home in the valley. The dense woods and muggy heat were suffocating to her. As a small child, before she could even read, she spent hours at her Grandpa Ray’s little grocery, paging through the same old National Geographic magazine --- one with vivid photographs of a gloriously blue sky somewhere over Montana. And it seemed to Reana Mae that a person could probably breathe out there in the West, and maybe she wouldn’t feel so afraid under a great big sky like that.
Reana Mae was born in the little house Bobby Lee bought from Aunt Belle when he and Jolene got married. Jolene’s labor went so fast, they didn’t have time to drive to the hospital at St. Albans, so Bobby Lee sent his kid brother running to Belle’s, to ask if her housekeeper could come quick. Donna Jo Spencer had tended to women birthing in the valley for years, and she delivered the baby without a hitch --- though Jolene swore the process nearly killed her. Her Grandma Loreen told folks later she’d never heard a woman carry on so over a few labor pains, especially since Reana Mae was such a tiny thing --- barely five pounds, after all. But Jolene had hollered so you could hear her half a mile down the river. Poor Bobby Lee, smoking unfiltered Camels on the porch outside, could hardly stand it.
After the birth, Loreen carried Reana Mae out to meet her daddy, wrapped tight in a blue flannel blanket. Bobby Lee grinned at the baby and asked, “Boy or girl?”
Loreen shook her head. “I’m afraid it’s a girl, Bobby Lee . . . an itty-bitty little girl. Ain’t she just the scrawniest thing you ever laid eyes on? I’d never even guess she was Jolene’s baby,” she clucked, pulling the blanket from the baby’s head. The cool air on her scalp made the baby squall, and Bobby Lee brushed past Loreen and into the cabin.
“I’m sorry, Bobby Lee,” Jolene said, wiping a hand across her eyes. “I know how bad you wanted a boy.”
“That’s all right, sugar,” he crooned. “We’ll get us a boy next time.”
Jolene dropped her hand from her eyes and stared up at her husband with wide eyes. “You listen here, Bobby, and you listen good. I ain’t never doin’ that again. I done gave you a daughter, and you’ll just have to make do with her.”
All the while, Loreen stood on the porch with the tiny girl already forgotten by her parents and screaming at the world into which she’d been born.
Essie Down Under
Reana Mae and I spent the sticky summer months of 1969 hunting for garter snakes, swimming, digging tunnels in the mud at the river’s edge, carving out a clubhouse in the dense bushes, and mothering her dirty little doll, Essie. Essie had a lumpy cloth body and a rubber head, hands, and feet. Her hair and face were painted on, and she had one yellow-flowered dress to wear. I had a much prettier doll at home, but my mother didn’t let me bring her to the river. There wasn’t room in the car, she said, and she didn’t want me to lose my best doll. “I’ll get you another doll when we get there.” She sighed, kissing my forehead.
“But there aren’t any other dolls like Patsy,” I wailed. “And she’ll be lonely without me.”
But Mother would not be moved. Patsy was left in her pink flannel nightgown, tucked safely beneath the quilt on my bed back home, her beautiful blue glass eyes shut beneath her real eyelashes. I hated Mother that day.
I didn’t tell Reana Mae about Patsy. She loved Essie, and I didn’t want her to know how much nicer my own doll was. So we played that summer with Essie, carrying her out to our clubhouse in the bushes, making her a bed from leaves and soft, dry grass, feeding her with an old baby bottle Cousin Lottie had outgrown in the spring.
One morning in early July, I was lying on my back in the sun on the small porch behind our cabin, listening to Mother and Jolene talking in the kitchen over coffee.
“I’m going over to St. Albans tomorrow, Jolene. Do you need anything?”
“Thanks, Helen, we’re fine. Don’t you worry ’bout us.”
“Well…I was thinking I might pick up a doll for Bethany while I’m there, since she forgot hers at home.”
Forgot? Was my mother telling a lie? I leaned against the wall and listened intently.
“And I was thinking I could get one for Reana Mae, too.” Mother paused briefly, then continued in a rush. “That way the girls would have matching babies to play with.”
“No, thanks, Helen.” Jolene’s voice was flat. “Reana Mae’s already got herself a baby doll. She wouldn’t know what to do with a brand-new one.”
“I just thought…" my mother began, but Jolene cut her off.
“That girl is the most careless child you ever saw. What she don’t ruin, she loses. She don’t need a new doll, Helen. When she does, her daddy and me’ll get it for her.”
Mother gave up, and I never got a new doll that summer either. But I understood why she wouldn’t let me bring Patsy to the valley. It was the same reason I didn’t tell Reana Mae about her. Neither of us wanted Reana to know how little she had. She loved Essie, and that would have to be enough.
What I didn’t understand in those days was why Mother took such an interest in Jolene and Reana Mae. They were the very picture of all the things Mother despised about her West Virginia childhood. Jolene was nearly illiterate, slatternly, and mouthy --- often profanely so. Moreover, she was overtly, even brazenly sexual --- reveling in her marriage bed and flaunting herself shamelessly to young men and old alike. And poor Reana Mae was purely odd --- everyone said so and even I saw it. She hardly talked at all; when she did, it was in a nasally half-whisper. Her face and hair and clothes alike were mostly dirty and disheveled. Worse, she sang to herself almost constantly that summer, a tuneless, wordless humming she seemed unaware of. From near silence to constant hum, no one seemed to know why she was the way she was. She was just odd.
But Mother doted on Reana Mae in ways she never did on her own daughters. We all saw it, and we all resented it --- even Nancy, who didn’t seem to worry about what Mother thought most of the time. But for Tracy, it went way past resentment. She hated the attention Mother paid Reana Mae, and whenever she could, she made Reana pay dearly for the smiles and quick hugs she received from our mother. For Reana Mae to receive so freely what Tracy fought so hard for must have been a fine torture to her stunted soul.
That day on the back porch, I understood why Mother would lie to Jolene about me forgetting my doll at home. She wanted to get Reana Mae a new one.
But the two women soon began talking about other things --- like hemlines. In 1969, ladies’ hemlines were a topic of great controversy. Just now, my mother was opining that they couldn’t get any shorter without God himself sending down another flood, and Jolene was laughing that she planned to take all her dresses up another two inches that very week.
I gave up listening and rolled off the porch onto the damp ground below, and then on down the hill to the river’s edge. I didn’t care about hemlines or God’s wrath, either.
Reana Mae was out with Bobby Lee that morning, on a rare father-daughter outing. He had been home almost a week --- a nearly unheard-of break during the summer months --- and Loreen had pestered him into taking Reana to St. Albans to get an ice cream. I watched them roar off on the motorcycle just after breakfast, Reana Mae clinging to her daddy’s back and grinning from ear to ear. Usually when Bobby Lee took them anywhere, Jolene rode behind him on the bike --- her short skirts hiked up over her thighs, her arms wrapped around his waist, her hands resting in his lap --- and Reana rode in the small green sidecar. But this morning Jolene had stayed home.
“I got cramps,” she told Bobby Lee. “You go ahead and take Miss Mouse.”
So Reana got to ride behind her daddy that day. Which was all fine and good for Reana Mae, but it left me with nothing in the world to do.
I lay on my stomach, throwing sticks into the water and watching them swirl downstream, wondering what to do next. Then I heard the low rumble of a car and saw Aunt Belle’s long white Lincoln Continental pull up in front of the cabin. If I went up to the house now, Mother would make me come inside and sit quietly, to “pay my respects” to my elders.
Now, most times I adored being with Aunt Belle. When it was just her and us kids, she’d laugh loud and tell silly stories and bad jokes and give us Oreo cookies and cashews and spicy-strong ginger ale.
But around my mother, Aunt Belle seemed to lose some of her steam. Mother was insistent that her girls behave like ladies, and she disapproved of Belle’s great horselaugh and off-color jokes.
Even Arabella Lee Martin didn’t stand up so well in the face of my mother’s disapproval.
Sighing, I threw another stick into the water. Now I was stuck. I couldn’t get up to the road without Mother seeing me, and I couldn’t go anywhere down on the bank. The riverbank was overgrown with weeds and brambles. Gnarled ancient trees stretched out over the water, and thin reeds crowded the shore. A few folks had cleared their portions of the lower bank. One or two even had swings or old furniture set down by the water. And my Uncle Hobie had built a small dock on his property and kept a rowboat tied there. But mostly the area along the riverbank was wild. Our own portion had been cleared, so we could sit with our feet in the water and cast fishing lines out into the river. A tiny path ran from our cabin’s back porch to the bank below, but mostly we just rolled or slid down the hill on our backsides.
Bobby Lee had built a stone stairway behind his house down to the bank, which Jolene boasted of up and down the river. “Thirtytwo steps he put in, all by hisself,” she crowed. But the stones were steep and unsteady, and Reana and I usually just slid down their hill, too.
I sat with my chin on my knees, staring at Uncle Hobie’s boat. If only I had a boat like that, I could row it down to the beach. But Uncle Hobie and Mother would have my hide if I used that boat. I glared up at the house and sighed again. Was there ever a day as boring as this?
Finally, I decided to practice my spying skills. Reana Mae and I had been playing spy all summer, crawling on our bellies, sneaking up under windows, listening to people’s dinner-table talk. Not that we heard much to interest us. Ida Louise yammering at Brother Harley about new choir robes. Aunt Loreen clucking over Bobby Lee’s younger brother, Caleb, who had just been kicked out of high school again --- this time for pulling a knife on a teacher. And once, Bobby Lee and Jolene in their bedroom, in the middle of the afternoon, sighing and cooing and then moaning.
Reana Mae had run down the hill with her hands over her ears. After that, we’d given up the spying business.
But I was bored and feeling a might desperate.
Silently --- or as silently as a child of ten could be --- I climbed the hill, cursing as the thistles scratched my bare legs. I crawled back onto the sagging porch and set to listening under the open window again.
“I just don’t know what Cleda Rae’s gonna do with Caleb,” Aunt Belle was saying, her voice grim. “What with Noah gone off like he did, it’s all left on her shoulders.”
“That boy was always trouble,” Jolene said shortly. “The day I married Bobby Lee, when I was getting dressed for the wedding, I caught him peeking in at the bedroom window, watching me.”
“Well.” Aunt Belle sighed heavily. “Caleb’s a spirited boy, that’s a fact. But Bobby Lee could always keep him in line. And Caleb, why, he just worships Bobby Lee.
“Probably,” she added, “that’s why he was peeking in at you.”
“Is that so? I thought it was so he could see my tits,” Jolene said.
Even from outside I could feel my mother’s dismay, see her lips forming a tight, thin line.
Aunt Belle burst into a great laugh.
“Probably some of that, too,” she admitted. “He’s all boy, that one.”
“What did you do?” Mother asked. “When you saw him at your window, I mean.”
“I told him if he didn’t clear off, I’d tell Bobby Lee on him. That made him run, I can tell you.”
“Did you tell Bobby Lee?”
“No.” Jolene sighed. “Didn’t seem any point. Bobby loves that kid, even though he is a pain in the butt. Besides, I knew he’d be going off to Dunbar with Noah and Cleda Rae right after the wedding.”
“With Cleda Rae, at least,” Belle added.
“I cannot imagine what possessed Noah to leave his family,” Mother said.
“A hundred and one pounds of fun, I guess,” Jolene said.
“Oh, Jolene, don’t say that. You don’t know that.”
“I do know, Helen. I know it for a certain fact. Cleda Rae told me when he left, he took his little Pop-Tart with him. It near to broke Cleda’s heart.”
“I had no idea,” my mother said.
I imagined she was shaking her head now, the way she did when she was confounded by the sins of the world.
“Poor Cleda Rae…and now to have so much trouble with Caleb.”
“Oh, Cleda will get by,” Jolene said firmly. “She always does. When push comes to shove, she just pushes and shoves whatever it is off on someone else.”
She paused. “I just hope she ain’t planning to push Caleb off on me and Bobby Lee. I already told Bobby, I ain’t havin’ trouble like that in my house.”
She sighed loudly. “But you know how Bobby Lee is about Caleb. He thinks the sun rises and sets on that kid.”
Now, all of this was more interesting than pitching sticks into the river, but only just barely. I slid back down the hill again --- my shorts were nearly black with dirt by now.
Mother did not allow us to walk along the river beyond Uncle Hobie’s property. After that, the bank was uncleared. But last summer, Reana Mae told me that she and Harley Boy had cleared a path almost all the way to the beach. Maybe I could find it.
I stared up at the cabin again, then set my shoulders the way I’d seen my daddy do when he started a big job.
If Reana Mae could do it, surely I could.
The way was easy at first. I took a big stick with me and used it to swat at vines and low-hanging limbs. The mosquitoes and brambles were bad --- my legs would be a scratched-up mess when I got to the beach --- but I plowed ahead. Pretty soon, I’d get to Bobby Lee and Jolene’s place, and their land was cleared, so that would be a break.
As I pushed on through the brush, I thought how impressed my sisters would be if I could make a path from our cabin all the way to the beach. It was nearly a mile, after all, by road. But going by the river would cut the walk almost in half. At least that’s what Aunt Belle had said when she tried to convince the county government to put in a paved walkway. She didn’t win on that one, but she gave it a good try.
I could tell I was getting close to Bobby Lee’s place, because the river curved inward slightly. I peered ahead, looking for the clearing I knew would come up soon. But when I spied it, I stopped short.
In the clearing, just coming down the stone steps from Bobby Lee and Jolene’s cabin, I saw Tracy.
What was she doing here? She knew Bobby Lee and Reana Mae had gone to town. She’d pitched a fit with Mother that morning about not getting to go along. Tracy adored Bobby Lee --- he flirted with all us girls. And when Mother explained that Reana Mae needed some time just with her daddy, Tracy had stalked out, slamming the screen door behind her with such force it rattled the whole house.
I crouched in the tall brush, watching my sister as she crossed the cleared area onto the lower bank. She was carrying something small in her arms. I couldn’t tell what.
I watched in dumb fascination as she knelt in the mud at the edge of the river and began digging with a plastic shovel.
When she had a hole big enough to satisfy herself, she threw the shovel aside and rocked back on her heels. Then she picked up the small bundle she had carried and carefully unwrapped it from a tattered green receiving blanket. My heart missed a beat then. I knew that blanket. It had been Cousin Lottie’s, and now it was Reana’s. She used it for her baby doll --- for Essie.
What was Tracy doing with Essie?
Tracy grasped the doll’s lumpy waist and shook her so that her tiny head and limbs jerked in a grotesque dance. Then she dropped Essie into the hole and began shoveling dirt onto the doll. She looked around now and then, but she didn’t see me there, watching her.
When she had filled in the hole, Tracy threw the shovel far out into the water, picked up the receiving blanket, and rose to her feet. Below those angelic hazel eyes, her lips formed a smile that was wicked. Her cheeks flushed bright red.
I must have made some small noise then, because she looked straight into the bracket and our eyes met. Her smile froze, her nostrils flared, her eyes widened. I backed away, but she charged into the bushes, grabbing me by the hair and dragging me into the clearing.
“What are you doing here, maggot head?” she hissed furiously.
“I was just going to the beach,” I whispered frantically. I didn’t want to cross my sister in this mood.
“You’re not allowed to go that way,” she said, smacking at my head. “I’m gonna tell Mother on you.”
“Well, I’ll tell what you did to Essie,” I blurted out.
Immediately, I wished the words back. Tracy was a whirlwind of scratching claws, kicking feet, and biting teeth.
“Oh no you won’t, you little bitch! Because if you do, you’ll pay for it. Do you hear me? I’ll make you so sorry, you’ll want to die.”
She was hissing as she pummeled me.
“Don’t you think I know where you keep Patsy? I’ll chop her into little pieces, and then I’ll do the same thing to you! Some night while you’re asleep, I’ll get Mama’s big kitchen knife and I’ll chop you up with it.”
I stared into her red, angry face --- her eyes wild and mean, her mouth a furious grimace --- and I believed her to my very core.
“Don’t, Tracy,” I sobbed. “I won’t tell. I promise I won’t tell anyone, ever.”
“Swear it,” she demanded, holding tight on to my wrist. She wrenched me to my knees. “Swear it on Daddy’s life, and seal it with blood.”
“I swear on Daddy’s life,” I sobbed, “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Now seal it.”
She pulled a small penknife from her pocket, the one Daddy had given her last time he came to visit. Smiling coldly, she held it out to me. “Go ahead,” she spat. “Seal it with blood.”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I drew the little knife across my fingertip and squeezed a drop of blood onto the ground. “I seal it,” I whispered.
“Just you remember,” she hissed, grabbing back her knife. “You swore on Daddy’s very life.”
Then she turned and ran toward the hill, climbing the stairs two at a time.
I sat on the ground, trembling and sobbing.
I cried till my stomach hurt. Then I slowly climbed the thirty- two stone steps and headed for home, kicking small stones before me and cursing my sister with every step.
That evening, I sat at the picnic table in our kitchen, staring sadly at the food on my plate.
Mother had fried small cubes of Spam and potatoes in bacon fat --- usually one of my favorite meals, topped with ketchup.
But tonight I felt as if a stone sat in my stomach. I pushed the little squares of meat and potato around in a puddle of grease and ketchup, listening to my two oldest sisters chatter.
Nancy had heard a rumor just before we left Indiana that Paul McCartney’s wife was pregnant. Melinda indignantly pointed out that the latest Tiger Beat magazine had profiled Linda McCartney, with no mention of a pregnancy. Nancy said Tiger Beat wasn’t a reliable source.
Glancing at my mother across the table, I felt like I could read her mind. How had she raised such a mindless, thoughtless group of chattering, noisy girls? Lord knows she tried hard to teach us. She took us to Sunday school and church every blessed Sunday, she read us Bible stories and parables, she prayed with us morning and mealtimes and night. What more could she do?
She caught my eye and smiled, reaching across the table to push my bangs from my forehead.
“What’s the matter, Bethy? Aren’t you hungry?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“My stomach hurts,” I lied, glancing at Tracy sitting beside me on the picnic bench.
My sister was not having any trouble with her dinner. She was on her second helping of Spam, licking ketchup from her fingertips. She met my eyes briefly, then looked at Mother.
“Did you talk to Daddy today, Mother?” she asked sweetly.
“No, honey,” Mother replied. “You know I talk to him on Saturdays.”
“I hope he’s all right,” Tracy said, her brow creasing slightly.
“Why, of course he’s all right, Tracy. He was just fine on Saturday. He said he was going up to Chicago this week. That’s just a short trip.”
Tracy set her fork aside and used her napkin to dab at the corners of her mouth.
“I just don’t want anything bad to happen to him.”
She kicked me under the table as she said it, but her eyes never left her plate.
Mother patted her hand.
“He’s fine, Tracy. You don’t need to worry. Your daddy is just fine.”
I rose suddenly, feeling like I was going to throw up.
“What’s the matter with you?” Tracy asked. “You look like you’re going to puke.”
“Tracy! Please don’t use that word!” Mother rose and came around the table to me. “Are you all right, Bethany? You do look pale.”
“Can I be excused?” I asked, not meeting her eyes.
“Surely, sweetheart. Why don’t you go lie down in your room for a while?”
Before I could move, the door to the house swung open and Reana Mae burst in.
We all stared in openmouthed amazement. In 1969 in the Coal River Valley, one simply did not burst into another family’s house --- and we had never known Reana Mae to burst anywhere at all. But there she stood, red-cheeked and grinning.
Then, noting my mother’s look, she stammered, “Oh, I’m sorry, Aunt Helen. I forgot to knock.”
She backed toward the door, her cheeks growing redder by the minute.
“Nonsense, Reana Mae. Come in, don’t be shy. Family doesn’t have to knock.”
Tracy’s fork clanked against the pine floor.
“But, Mother,” she protested, “you always tell us…"
“Hush, Tracy,” Mother snapped. She walked toward Reana Mae, her arms opened. “Come in, sweetie, and tell us all about your day in St. Albans. What have you got behind your back?”
Reana was clutching a wrinkled paper bag behind her.
She ran into my mother’s open arms and they sat on the worn, plaid sleeper sofa.
“I brought you something,” she whispered.
She reached into the bag and pulled out a flat, white box tied with silver ribbon.
“Why, Reana Mae, you didn’t need to bring us a present.” Mother smiled.
She took the box from Reana, but before she could untie the ribbon, Reana said, “It’s a box of chocolates…from Fannie May’s. I knew you liked ’em.”
“Well, yes, we do, Reana Mae. We surely do.” Mother kissed the top of Reana’s head. “Thank you, sweetheart. What a lovely thing to do.”
Mother opened the box, and we could see the assortment of chocolate candies laid out so prettily inside.
“Who wants a chocolate?” Mother asked, still smiling.
Melinda and Tracy crowded in to choose a piece. Nancy hovered, declaring she would not have any. She didn’t want to gain weight before cheerleading tryouts in the fall. But she finally was prevailed upon to have just one piece, since Reana Mae and Bobby Lee had brought them especially for us.
I stood by the table, staring as Tracy chewed the chocolate- covered caramel she had chosen.
I couldn’t believe she could eat Reana Mae’s chocolates after what she’d done to Essie. Yet there she was, chewing noisily and eyeing the box hungrily, spying out which piece to have next.
Reana looked up at me eagerly. “Ain’t you gonna have a candy, Bethany?”
I shook my head, unable to open my mouth for fear I’d scream.
“Bethany has a tummy ache, Reana. We’ll save her a piece for tomorrow.” Mother’s hand still rested on Reana’s shoulder.
Reana Mae suddenly bent forward, rustling in the bag again. “I almost forgot. I brought these, too,” she said, holding up several magazines. “Daddy thought you all might want ’em.”
Nancy and Melinda eagerly snatched the magazines. “Photoplay,” Melinda squealed, “and Teen Beat! Thanks, Reana!”
The older girls soon disappeared up the ladder to their loft with another piece of chocolate each and the magazines. I knew we wouldn’t see them again for the night. Mother didn’t even remind them to wash the dishes. She sat smiling on the couch with Reana Mae and Tracy, letting her girls enjoy the small holiday.
“Tell us about your day, Reana Mae,” she said.
Reana stared adoringly at her.
“Well, we went to the movie theater and saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And Daddy bought us some popcorn and Jujubes and Coca- Colas. And we had lunch at Woolworth’s. And he bought Mama some fabric to make herself a dress and one for me, too. And he bought me a comb and brush set. You got to see it, Aunt Helen. It’s powdery blue, and the brush is round and soft, and it’s so pretty. And then we had us some ice cream cones at the Tastee Freez and came on home. And Daddy took the turns so fast on the road, we almost touched the ground. But I didn’t squeal or nothin’; I just held on real tight to him, like I seen Mama do. And he said I was almost as brave as Mama!”
Reana beamed proudly, and my mother touched her hair softly.
“You are a good, brave girl, Reana Mae,” she said.
“Shoot, I guess anyone would be brave with Bobby Lee,” Tracy spat. “Anyone can see he’s a safe rider. What’s there to be afraid of?”
“I think I’d be afraid.” Mother laughed lightly, but I could see she wasn’t pleased. She never let us ride on the motorcycle with Bobby Lee, although sometimes she let us ride in the sidecar. “I hope he didn’t ride too fast with you, Reana.”
“Oh no, Aunt Helen. My daddy’s a real good rider, you know.”
“Of course I do. And I’m glad you had a fun day together.”
“Lord God in Heaven.” Reana stood abruptly. “I gotta get back home. I promised Mama I’d help her put supper on the table.”
She skittered to the door and was gone in an instant, leaving behind chocolates and ribbons.
When Reana Mae had gone, Mother made me lie down in bed while she and Tracy washed the dishes. I heard them clatter around the small kitchen, Tracy chattering about what she would do on a day in St. Albans.
I was still awake when Tracy came in. I lay quietly as she pulled back the covers and crawled into the double bed beside me. She sighed, pulled the quilt up over her head, and almost immediately fell into the deep, regular breathing that told me she was asleep. Whatever she did or didn’t do during her days, my sister’s conscience never kept her awake nights. She always slept the sleep of the innocent.
I lay quietly beside her, wondering what I could possibly do. I couldn’t tell anyone what Tracy had done, that much I knew for sure. But what would Reana Mae do without Essie?
I shuddered, thinking of poor Essie buried under the black mud by the river. I couldn’t leave her there. I would have to go get her…that was all there was to it.
It seemed like hours before I heard my mother pull out the sleeper sofa in the living room and blow out the kerosene lamp. It was quiet in the house then --- quieter than it ever got at home in Indianapolis, where there were always street sounds outside.
Still I waited, because I knew Mother was at her prayers now. I couldn’t see her in the dark, but I knew she was kneeling beside the sofa, her face buried in her hands, her lips moving silently as she talked to her God. She did this every morning and every night, and woe to the little girl who shouted or laughed or disturbed Mother’s conversations with the almighty Lord.
At long last, I heard the creaking springs of the sleeper as Mother climbed into bed. And a while after that, I heard her gentle, regular breathing.
Now there were only the sounds of sleep in the dark little cabin by the river. Tracy wheezed slightly beside me, Mother snored softly in the living room, Melinda and Nancy slept silently in the loft above. Now it was time to go, before I lost my nerve.
I crept into the living room, fumbled for the key on the hook by the door, turned it in the lock, and slipped out onto the porch. I closed the door again, slid the key under a large rock by the steps, and then I was running down the dirt road, my bare feet slapping the ground, my heart pounding.
The night sky was lit by a nearly full moon, but below lay a silent, palpable, living darkness. No streetlights shone along the river, no porch lights, no spotlights from car dealerships, no traffic lights. The moon was bright, but off the road on either side, the woods closed in darkly.
I had never been out alone at night, and I slowed to a walk when I got past Uncle Hobie’s place. I felt brave and shivery and very alert, seeing the familiar houses locked up and dark. The air on my skin was cool and damp, and I stopped for a moment to enjoy the strange sensation of being alone in the night. Everyone I knew, everyone who knew me, was asleep. I felt like I might be the only person awake in the whole wide world.
Down the river somewhere a dog barked, shaking me from my reverie. I had to get done what I needed to do and get home before I was missed.
I ran along the road, swift and sure. I knew every bump and rock, where to stay on the dirt, where to run in the grass alongside. It took only a minute to reach Reana Mae’s house. It was dark like all the others. Bo, Bobby Lee’s big coonhound, lay sleeping on the porch. I worried briefly that he would bark at me if he woke, but he only sighed in his sleep as I passed. I knew Jolene kept Buttons, her little white muff of a poodle, inside at night, for which I was grateful. Buttons, I was sure, would have barked her fool head off.
I slipped around to the back of the house and stopped at the top of the hill, undecided about how to go down. Usually, Reana Mae and I slid down to the bank below. I didn’t think I wanted to try that in the dark, in my white cotton nightgown. But I surely did not want to navigate those thirty-two uneven stone steps in the dark. I stood, frozen in indecision, my stomach clenching, my palms sweating.
I sat down at the top of the hill, staring at the steps, those uneven steps. How could I do this in the dark, Lord? After all, I was only ten years old --- much too young to do something like this. And yet, how could I not rescue Essie?
Finally, I scooted slowly toward the edge of the first step, then bumped down on my bottom to the next. I would scoot down this way, one step at a time. And I wouldn’t look down at all, no matter what.
One step after another, I bumped my way down. Halfway down, I stopped to say a quick prayer.
Lord, just help me get down okay and get Essie out of the mud. That’s all, Lord, just that. If you’ll do that, Lord Jesus, I promise I’ll be good from now on. I won’t ever tell a lie again, and I won’t fight with Tracy, and I won’t try Mother’s patience. Only just get me down without falling.
I waited for my heart to stop pounding so loud, then I slid to the next step, and on down --- slowly, one uneven step at a time --- till I got to the bottom, where I sat gratefully for an instant, saying thank you to the good Lord, not thinking of how I would get up again.
It took only a moment to find the place where Tracy had laid poor Essie in the ground. The dirt was mounded slightly, and I knew she wasn’t buried deep. Using my hands, I dug as quickly as I could until I felt Essie’s smooth rubber head. I pulled the doll from her shallow grave and hugged her tightly to my chest, heaving gratefully.
Clutching the wet doll in my fist, I started the long, slow climb up those thirty-two steps. My heart was pounding so hard it seemed I could hear it beating like an Indian’s tom-tom.
Then quietly, under my breath, I began to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
By the end of the third verse, I had dragged myself onto the top step. Looking back over my shoulder, down the long flight I had climbed, I swayed. My head swam dizzily and, for a moment, I thought my knees would buckle under me.
I turned away and walked unsteadily to the front of the dark cabin, where good ole Bo still slept. I laid Essie on the step to the porch, then turned and ran as fast as I could toward home, and my bed, and my mother’s gentle snoring. As my feet pounded the dirt road, I prayed with every step, Dear, sweet Jesus, let them still be asleep. Please don’t let them wake up till I’m home.
I reached the cabin porch, cold and sweating, and as I knelt to retrieve the key from beneath the rock, I realized I was covered with mud; my hands and face, my feet, and my white nightgown were all a black, muddy mess.
I walked around to the side of the house, slipped off the nightgown, and shoved it deep into the bushes, resolving to wash it in the river in the morning, before Mother saw it. Shivering in the cool night air, I ran to the pump in front of the house and pumped icy-cold water onto my hands, my face, my