“I say hit ain’t a-gonna be the same without Stuart around these here parts.” Stuart’s sister, Mabel said, “I don’t know what in the world Ruth’s a-gonna’ do without him under foot.”
“You’er right ‘bout that. Ruth’s sure as the world a-gonna miss Stuart,” replied Ruth’s brother, Daniel.
Mabel’s son, Jubel asked, “Ruth plan on stayin’ on here in this holler?”
Daniel responded, “We never discussed that yet. It’s too soon to bring it up. She’s lived up in this here holler nigh onto fifty years.”
Silence fell on the room as everyone dealt with his or her own thoughts. As the quiet continued for several minutes, the apparent stillness elevated to attention the background sounds in the house: the breathing of the occupants, the crackling of the fire in the cook stove, and from time-to-time, Ruth’s sobs coming from the living room where she kept vigil, along with the community keener. Ruth, dressed all in black, sat on a chair in a corner beside Stuart’s coffin where men from Webb’s Funeral Home had positioned it in the corner earlier that day. Ruth, now eighty-four years old, had been married to Stuart for sixty-two years. He had died suddenly two days before from a heart attack and even though Ruth wept, she seemed still not to realize his passing.
One kerosene lamp, turned low, barely illuminated the room and provided Ruth with some semblance of sanctuary for her grief. Jenny Lynd double-plank white walls enclosed the living area, a simple rectangle with painted wood floors. Lacy shear curtains hung at the windows. Yesterday the men removed davenport to make room for the coffin. Only three ladder-back chairs, the table with the lamp, and a striped upholstered wingback chair remained.
Several family members gathered in the kitchen, the closest room, around a big rectangular table. They drank from large cups of coffee and kept each other company. They also wanted to stand vigil all night. Especially they would like Ruth to feel like she could go to bed if she needed.
The kitchen, the hub of the house, had three doors leading out of it—one to the living room, a second to a bedroom, and a third out to a screened-in porch. Tonight several grandchildren slept in the bedroom leading from the kitchen. A stainless steel bucket with a dipper set on a wooden table to the left of the stove. It contained drinking water from the spring located three steps from the back porch.
Multi-colored checkerboard patterned linoleum covered the floor. The walls looked the same as in the rest of the house. Red and white checked curtains with tiebacks hung around the one window. The table in the kitchen could easily seat eight adults for a meal, but six assembled around it tonight. Mabel, Daniel, and Jubel sat on the side of the table next to the stove. On the other side sat Stuart’s daughter and youngest child, Mary. Beside her sat Jeb, her husband, and then further down closer to the end sat James, her older brother. Years ago Stuart had painted the table white but now a profusion of chips and dings etched deeply into the yellow-brownish surface.
James said with a smile on his face while shaking his head. “I remember when Dad caught me coming home late one night with moonshine on my breath. I was fifteen at the time. He asked me, ‘Do you think you’er man ‘nough to be a-drinkin’ moonshine yet?’ Naturally, I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Go wait fer me on the front porch.’ When he got back he had two jugs of moonshine. Where he got it so quick, I never found out. He told me, ‘Set down thar on the porch.’ He sat down with me and we drank until I was sick. It didn’t seem to affect him none. The next morning he got me out of bed at 5 am to work in the garden all day. It was hot, the sun beat down on me, and I thought the day would never end. I was one sick boy all day long. I reckon that's why I’ve never been partial to licker.”
Everyone chuckled as they sipped their coffee. In the center of the table an oil lamp, half full of kerosene, flickered as it illuminated the room and its occupants with its yellow light. The plates, now empty and pushed aside, had held samplings of some of the different desserts friends and neighbors had made.
Food that neighbors had carried in set everywhere in the kitchen and the refrigerator overflowed. Chocolate cake, moist enough to melt in your mouth, with milk chocolate icing standing an inch high. Yellow cake with rich flowing caramel icing. Coconut cake with coconut icing, pure white. Wheat cake made with honey, strong and sweet, and covered with honeyed coconut icing. Apple pie with a perfectly flaky crust made from late fall apples, white and tangy. Rhubarb and strawberry pie, tart and sweet, but at the same time tingle your taste buds. Banana cream pie made from fresh bananas in creamy custard with golden meringue piled high. All kinds of other scrumptious pies, cherry, blackberry and pecan. Applesauce cookies loaded with plump raisins. Giant oatmeal cookies with walnuts and raisins. Real food like salt cured ham, pot roast, homemade sausage spiced with sage, and pork roast in sweet and sour pineapple sauce. Green bean casserole made with half runners from someone’s garden, sweet peas, potato salad, and macaroni salad. Loaves of fresh homemade white bread and cornbread baked in an iron skillet with homemade butter. A quart jar filled with honey from a local beekeeper. Sweet milk.
“You could always count on Stuart.” Mabel said. “I ‘member back when we was just kids, hit twas a winter ‘bout like this’n. Colder ‘n blue blazes. Got word that Aunt Sue’s cabin had burnt to the ground. Stuart narry hesitated, he just said, ‘Nice day for a walk,’ and left to fetch Aunt Sue so she could stay with us. When Stuart got back he was plum tuckered out. Narry a one of us could figure out why, ‘til Aunt Sue told the story later. Said Stuart had a-carried her purt-near all the way. You see, she was seventy-five and not in the best a-health. Stuart never said a word ‘bout it.”
Daniel said, “I agree with Mabel, you could depend on Stuart. But I’m a-gonna miss his stories most. Ruth always said the ones he told about his adventures got more outlandish every time he told them. I didn’t care. Half the fun was a-watchin’ him tell them stories.”
“Did you have one you were partial to?” Jubel asked.
Daniel answered, “I reckon thar must a-been, but thar were so many. Le’ me think a minute.”
As they talked, snow had noticeably begun to fall again. It clung to the glass and sparkled through the window into the room. Even though the outside temperature had dropped substantially since nightfall, the wood-fired cook stove made the room toasty and kept everyone warm.
Daniel said, “Stuart had so many stories. Many were about his time in the Army stationed next to the Mexican border durin’ the Border War. Ya’ll probably don’t recall, but the Border War was from 1910 to 1918 ‘tween the US and Mexican rebels and ‘federales.’ The US Army fought against Pancho Villa and other Mexican rebels on many occasions. At times the Villista rebels entered the US and sometimes the Army crossed into Mexico to attack the rebels. Hit must have been a wild time from a-hearin’ Stuart talk ‘bout his adventures durin’ his two years stationed thar.”
Daniel continued, “He used to talk about a-saddlin’ their horses and a-chasin’ them rebels back into Mexico and sometimes they would go into Mexico a-lookin’ for them. And Ruth would say almost every time, ‘That story gets better every time he tells it.’ ” Daniel added in almost a whisper, as if he was talking to himself, “Maybe so, maybe so.” Then so all could hear, “But you know, thar never was a lot of details in those stories.”
Everyone smiled to himself or herself as they pictured Stuart telling his stories. They could visualize his dark complexioned face with deep lines contorting to mimic the characters. Stuart had worked as a lumberjack most of his life, as well as a farmer. The solitude of both jobs gave him mental time to make up the tales related to his experiences and kept his body wiry and muscular to help him act out the parts.
James agreed, “You’re right about that. I’ll tell you the stories he seemed to enjoy most and the ones his grandchildren did, too. They were the ones he would wait until after dark to tell—ones about ghosts and werewolves and trolls and hobgoblins. Growing up he would tell us those stories and scare me to death. I’d be afraid to get out of bed to go out to the outhouse. But I could never get enough of them and I don’t think the grandchildren could either. Every night they visited Dad they always asked him to tell another story.”
Everyone smiled and nodded in agreement. Continuing on, James said, “For instance, a few years ago when all of Mary’s and my family happened to be at Mom and Dad’s spending the night, Dad told a good story. All of the grandchildren were under ten years old and it was getting close to bedtime. The boys, two of whom were mine, asked Dad to tell a ghost story. They thought it would be one they had heard before, but it turned out they had never heard it. Dad said he might have time later, but needed to do some chores before too late. He said, ‘Go get ready for bed and I’ll come in to tell you’uns a story.’ ”
James took a drink of coffee and smiled as he remembered, “Mary, Jeb, and I followed the children into the bedroom to help them get ready for bed. All of a sudden we all heard a tapping sound in the distance. I thought maybe it was from the vicinity of the coal shed. Tap…tap…tap. We didn’t hear anything for a few minutes so the children laughed and said, ‘It was nothing.’ Tap…tap…tap. Then we heard a screeching sound. I figured it was some old hinge that needed oiling. Then a scream, like a trapped panther. Tap…tap…tap. All went quiet. One of the children asked, ‘What’s those sounds? All us adults said, ‘We don’t know.’ Then we heard a rattling sound. I was pretty sure it was the half full can of nails I’d seen setting around. The sound of it came rolling down the hill past the house. One of the children, I think it was Clint, declared, ‘I bet that’s Grandpa.’ He thought about it for a minute and ran into the kitchen thinking he would find Dad not there. But sure enough, Dad sat at the table. He had managed to slip into the house just before Clint came looking for him. Dad said, ‘What are you a-doin’ out of bed? No stories ‘til everyone is in bed, a-ready to go to sleep.’ Clint asked Dad, ‘Did you hear those sounds outside the house?’ Dad stated, ‘Yep, I did. Sounds like the troll is restless tonight. He knows thar are children here. We best be very careful, we don’t want the troll a-gettin’ holt of any of you children.’ Clint’s eyes got as big as saucers and he darted off to bed.”
Mary chimed in, “I remember that night. Dad barely got in through the door to sit in the chair before Clint ran in to see him. After Clint ran off to bed, Dad smiled really big because he figured Clint had run in and told the other boys about the troll stealing children.”
James picked up the thread of the story. “A few minutes later Dad walked into the bedroom and sat down in one of the old ladder-backed chair. The boys, obviously excited about hearing a story, seemed at the same time a little frightened. Clint, Don, and Edwin knelt or sat in one of the big four-poster beds in the room. Pushing the tobacco to the side of his jaw, Dad said, “The troll is out and ‘bout tonight. You boys best stay in the house and in bed ‘til morning.’ We don’t want the troll a-grabbin’ any of you.’ The boys vehemently shook their heads back and forth from side to side.”
“Clint said, ‘Tell us about the ghost up on Big Rock Mountain.’ Dad asked, ‘So you want to hear a ghost story, not talk about the troll, is that right?’ All of the boys responded with anticipation, ’Yes,’ at the same time. ‘Ok,’ Dad said. ‘But I’m a-gonna tell you about a ghost we’ve never talked about before. Have any of you ever seed a ghost?’ They all three said, ‘No.’ Dad said, ‘I bet you have and just don’t know it. Have you ever thought you seed somethin’ out of the corner of your eye, but when you looked directly to whar you thought you seed it, thar was nothin’ there?’ ”
“Their eyes got bigger and Edwin pulled the blanket on the bed tight around himself. They first looked at each other and then at me before they focused on Dad. Finally, each of them said, ‘Yes.’ ”
“Dad said, ‘Then you’ve seed a ghost. Cause they don’t want you to know thar near you. They stay in the shadows. They have all of these special powers, you know. Thar right there all the time, but you have to be a-ready and a-willin’ to accept them. And you have to know how to look at them before they will let you see them.’ ”
“Edwin asked, ‘Have you ever seen any?’ ”
“ ‘Yes, many times…’ ”
“Clint jumped in and said, ‘Are all ghosts bad?’ ”
“ ‘No, there are good and bad ghosts. You just have to figure out which they are.’ Dad declared.”
“Conveniently for Dad, about that time the wind blew down from the tops of the mountains shaking the trees so the limbs scratched the roof and the side of the house. Then the screen door on the back of the house slammed.”
“Dad continued with the story. As I had heard it, I realized it was a story he told me when I was five or six. Dad said, ‘Let me tell you the first time I ever seed a ghost directly. I was a young man a-loggin’ down in Panther Lick country. I kept a-seein’ these movements in the corner of my eyes, everyday. And at night I kept a-hearin’ these strange screams, not too far from the tents we were a-sleepin’ in. I’d wake up at night and the walls of the tent would be a-shakin’ like there was a strong wind a-blowin’, but thar weren’t even a breeze. This here kept a-happenin,’ and I couldn’t understand it. Then late in the day, it twas a Thursday, as I recall, I knelt down by a creek to get a drink of water. I was a-drinkin’ when this here reflection appeared in the water. At first, I thought it twas someone in the water, but it wasn’t. It twas like someone was a-standin’ behind me. I knew right away though if I turned around thar’d be no one there. The reflection looked like a dead body ‘ceptin’ the eyes were a-lookin’ straight at me. Skin pale as snow, hair white, shaggy beard, and clothes that looked like they were deerskin. The lips moved but I didn’t hear a thing. Instantly, just as the thought appeared in my mind, he pushed me in the creek. It twas like he had said, ‘I’m a-gonna push you in the creek.’ Yep, head first I went into the water and I could sense he was a-laughin’. The ghost thought it was a joke. He twas a prankster. When I pulled myself out, he was gone. Not even a reflection in the water.’ ”
James laughed as he remembered watching the grandchildren, “The boys trembled and huddled together like they were the ones who had gotten wet. Don blurted out, ‘Did you ever see this ghost again?’ ”
“Dad said, ‘Yes, several times and I was always careful when he was around. After that first time our relationship changed for some reason.’ ”
“ ‘Did he ever pull another trick on you?’ Don asked.”
“ ‘No, but he twas a help to me a couple of times…’ ”
“Clint interrupted, ‘How did he help you?’ ”
“ ‘After me and Ruth had been married a few years, I was a-sittin’ out on the front porch one evenin’ just after the sun went down. I seed this motion in the corner of my eye. I had learned it twas probably a ghost and the way it looked, I was pretty sure it was the prankster. I set all patient like, thought ‘bout him for an instant, and he made himself visible. He was level with the porch rail, sort of a-floatin’ just off the edge. His lips moved, and at the same time, I knew in my mind what he had said without a-hearin’ anything. You see I was supposed to go to a new loggin’ camp near the Tug River. The prankster told me not to go. He said if I went to this job I’d be kilt. But Ruth and I needed the cash money. The prankster told me not to worry I’d find out ‘bout another job in two days time. After a-talkin’ to Ruth about it, I decided not to go. He was right. A few days later I got another job and a couple of weeks later we heard there had been an accident at that loggin’ camp killin’ six people.’ ”
James put his hands up to his eyes and made big circles around them with his fingers, and said, “The boys’ eyes bulged almost out of their heads this time. They shook their heads in amazement. Clint said, “I didn’t know ghosts could look into the future. Grandpa, you could have been killed.’ ”
“Dad said, ‘After that time, the prankster appeared to me pretty much on a reglur basis. He’d tell me when one of our children or grandchildren had done somethin’ they were not supposed to do. Sech as a brother not doing thar share of the chores. Right, Edwin?’ ”
James sat back and finished up the story, “Dad let out a big laugh.”
Everyone sitting around the table had a big laugh, too. Even though all of them had heard Stuart tell this ghost story before, it was good to hear about the night he had first told it to the grandchildren. Some even got tears in their eyes they laughed so hard. The tears could have been tears of sadness, as well. Everyone would miss Stuart’s stories. Everyone would miss Stuart.
Time had flown by while James had given the account and the clock on the wall showed close to midnight. Ruth and the keener still sat with the coffin in the living room.
Mabel asked, “Does anyone want more coffee? Jubel can go out and get some fresh water from the spring and I can make it. Fresh water makes the coffee taste so much better.”
Getting fresh water was convenient. Many years ago Stuart had built a rock reservoir in the form of a small cave for the spring. The cave, three feet by three feet and six inches deep, protected the spring, kept snow from piling up at the mouth, and provided an easy way to dip a bucket into the water as they needed it rather than waiting for water to trickle out of the mountain. The rocks surrounding the mouth of the cave also helped to keep leaves and silt out.
Jubel ran out to get the water. Mary said, “Thanks. I would like some more. It would be nice to hear the coffee bubbling on the stove burner and I love to smell it brewing.” While Mabel started the coffee Mary began to tell a story about her dad on her wedding day. And the night wore on....
YOU MAY ASK, how do I know this conversation actually took place? Well, I was there. Yep, right there in the kitchen that night of the vigil for Grandpa. I sat on a stool against the wall about five feet from the cook stove. I was thirteen years old then, fifty years ago. I’ll always remember the looks on everyone’s faces as they talked about Grandpa and how the light from the lantern flickered across their faces and created shadows that could help hide their emotions.
But the thing I remember even more clearly than that night of the wake happened the next day of the funeral. Snow fell all night bringing the depth to about three feet. When Webb’s Funeral Home came to take the coffin to the church for the service, they could not drive the pick-up truck up the hollow to the house.
The day before Webb’s had brought the coffin to the foot of the hollow in the hearse, transferred it to a pickup truck, and carried it to the house. It hadn’t been easy going, but the truck had made it. The house stood a little over a mile from the main road that consisted of two ruts between the outcropping of the mountain and the creek. The narrow and steep road wound upward toward the clearing. In good weather a truck could drive up the hollow. In bad weather, like this storm, nothing could make the trip except horses, mules, or people on foot.
Now the problem became how to get the coffin down the hollow and into the hearse so it could be taken to the Missionary Baptist Church for the funeral service at 2 pm. Several family members stood around discussing what to do when Jubel walked into the room. He heard the conversation and immediately offered, “I’ll use the tractor with the loader bucket. We can secure the coffin with rope and take it to the foot of the hollow in no time.”
So, Jubel brought the tractor to the house and six people, I was one of them, brought the coffin out and placed it in the loader bucket. We secured it with rope and down the hollow the tractor bounced with the coffin. After the funeral service, the hearse again brought the coffin to the hollow and we loaded it on the tractor to take it back to the house.
Located at the top of the mountain opposite from Grandpa and Grandma’s house, the family cemetery had no road to it, but just a steep craggy path. Not even a tractor could make the climb. That morning some of the men of the family had cleared a path straight up the mountain through the woods. They also had dug the grave. For the burial we needed to carry the coffin up the path to the cemetery, and this time it took eight of us.
We picked up the coffin and started the climb. Even though deep snow no longer remained piled on the path it had icy spots. When we had climbed about half way up the mountain someone slipped, and then someone else slipped. Forced to rest the coffin on the ground, I had this sinking feeling. I looked back down the mountain, a straight shot to the bottom. What if we could not hold onto the coffin, what then? What if it slid down into the creek that ran beside the house? After a few minutes rest we picked up the coffin and started up the mountain again. It got so that every few yards someone slipped or fell to a knee, but even so we kept going. Then about three-quarters of the way up, someone slipped and fell to his knees—then a second person and a third. Soon, all us began sliding backward on our knees down the mountain. The coffin slid like a sled along the ground, dragging us with it. The coffin sped up. I thought, oh, gosh, we’re going into the creek. Everyone scrambled to regain traction, grab hold of a root, or do anything to stop the slide. Time seemed to stand still. Everything we tried to do to stop our descent took forever. Finally, cutting the heels of our boots in the ice, the coffin slowed down to a stop, with all of us still holding on.
After we caught our breaths, we all started laughing. We laughed so hard I started feeling ashamed about acting this way at Grandpa’s burial, but Uncle James said, “It’s all right. Dad wouldn’t care. He’d probably be laughing, too, if he were here. In fact, he would make up a story about it. ”
We picked up the coffin and started up the mountain again….
Biography: Garland Steele
Garland Steele was born in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia where his ancestors started arriving during the middle of the 18th century. He has two great-grandfathers who fought in the American Revolutionary War. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War; an electrical engineer who received a B.S. from WVIT several years after leaving military service; a retired business manager of a major U.S. corporation; and now an author who writes because he thoroughly enjoys doing so. Garland has attended writer’s workshops at Northwestern University, University of South Carolina Beaufort, and numerous small writer’s groups with professional instructors. He has received Honorable Mention Awards as an Emerging Writer in 2008 and 2011 for short stories submitted to the West Virginia Writers Annual Contest. He is scheduled to have a short story published in an upcoming edition of A Long Story Short.