The hay made my movements into a swishing sound. The woman seemed solid enough. She twirled to a tune I could almost hear. When I reached out to touch the tail of her lace dress, the woman whipped around and looked me in the eyes. Her eyes were the color of a clear blue sky, and the look she gave me almost made me believe she was as real as me. But I knew every living soul and some dead ones on that mountain. It was that kind of place. The spirit turned and began to run. Her feet were bare, and I knew she had to be a ghost or some spell conjured and discarded into the air. I stood in that field and watched her become part of the wind. When the woman got to the edge of the woods, she turned, giving a little wave, and ducked into the blackness.
A normal girl would have gone back to the cabin, but I followed the spirit. Of course I couldn't see a trace of her, but a mournful cry soaked the air. The dampness settled around me. Another moan and that time I understood: Talley May Green. That was my name. This woman, ghost, or spell knew my name. Was it the mountain speaking? Now, I'd heard tell that Black Mountain was alive as any person that lived on her, and that it didn't think anything about speaking to folks. But mostly, I didn't believe in those old tales left over from days way back when.
Sleep was long in coming. I tossed and turned, hearing my name being called, echoing through my room. The next morning when Granddaddy came in from milking our cow, I figured why not ask him. All he could do was think I was foolish. He already thought that about most womenfolk.
"Granddaddy, I seen me a ghost last night."
"There's a might of them out there. Who'd you see?" He took the coffee I'd poured him. The sun was just moving through the trees, and the light was gray, making it hard to tell whether the morning would be cloudy or clear.
"It was a woman, a pretty woman with white hair. She danced in a white dress, and she didn't look a bit like a ghost. Her eyes were so blue."
Granddaddy turned away from me and looked out the window. "That's just foolishness, Talley May. You can't tell what color a ghost's eyes be. It sounds like to me you ate some fatback before bed."
"No sir. I didn't eat a thing before bed, and I sure wasn't dreaming. I seen her dancing out there in the hay field."
"No one, even a dern ghost, would be dumb enough to dance in hay that tall. It must be full of copperheads." He looked sideways. "And I don't recall no woman who died that had eyes that blue. Of course she could be one of those old spirits that roams the mountain. One that was killed by a native way back when white folks first started settling here." He frowned as he cut a piece of fat back from the block of meat and threw it in the hot iron skillet. The hiss stirred my stomach. I pulled the biscuits from the wood burning stove's oven.
"She called my name." This came out in a whisper, but Granddaddy had hearing better than most.
"It sounds like you might have run into a angel, Talley. Maybe she was warning you to live your life right." His voice was soft and thoughtful.
"Or maybe the devil himself." I cut a hot biscuit open.
Granddaddy frowned deep in thought. "That could be. Best be careful in your ways."
I turned sixteen the year the depression hit the country and the ghost woman spoke my name. Folks everywhere began to live lives like the ones we had always lived on Black Mountain. Funny what some spell calling a name can do to the listener. A big old feeling with no name settled around me like a thick foggy cloud, and all I could think of was leaving that mountain. I took to mourning after Mama and Daddy. They died when I was just a bitty baby, leaving me with Granddaddy, who was a good Christian and honored his duty. Both Mama and Daddy died from the Spanish Influenza that killed half the mountain. Granddaddy said it was God's work that I lived.
After I saw the ghost woman, I got to hankering after my mama. I sure don't know why since I'd never known her. Maybe it was the fact I worked like a boy and didn't have one pretty thing in life. So, it was this lack that put the thought in my head to buy some decent cloth. I decided I needed a pretty dress, and the next time the pot man came riding up that mountain—he had all kinds of stuff on that truck—I stood in the front yard waiting. For what? I don't think I'll ever know. It sure wasn't about a dress cause my mind was jumping from one place to another, not one bit satisfied.
The pot man's truck had do-dads that played a little tune long before he bounced onto our place. When I closed my eyes, I imagined a glass chandelier, crystals hanging in the sun, tinkling, rainbow colors washing the vision. I'd never seen a dern chandelier other than in some old magazine, but on that day I could see it clear in my head. I stood there waiting for the pot man, waiting for what was coming up that mountain, looking for just me.
The first time I saw that fine looking town boy, I thought he was the best thing I'd ever seen. He had eyes the color of hazel nuts and thick dark hair. He was tall and wore a great big smooth smile as he jumped from the pot man's truck. He was a sight better to look at then old Mr. Jenkins. And I stood there thinking on the old men's boots I wore and my curly blonde hair in tangles.
"Good day, Miss." He gave me a little bow. "I'm Ronald Carter. My daddy owns these trucks, the business. I've taken over Mr. Jenkins' route. Can I give you some help with anything?" He swept one of the panels up on the truck, revealing all kinds of things tucked here and there.
"What did you do with Jenkins?' Granddaddy growled like an old bear.
Mr. Ronald Carter turned that smile on Granddaddy. "My father said to tell you the same deal still goes, sir. He said you might be worried since Mr. Jenkins didn't show up, you being friends and all."
Granddaddy looked at Ronald Carter. "I can't say Jenkins was my friend. You sit down and eat supper with a friend. I can't recall having eaten a thing with him. So, you tell your daddy that."
"Yes sir." Ronald Carter frowned. "My father asked me to help out with the route since Mr. Jenkins had him a decent sized heart attack and nobody knows when he'll be better."
About the time I was thinking how Ronald Carter might help me with that 'ants in the pants' feeling, Charles Ray Tucker drove his daddy's truck into the yard. Leave it to that boy to show up at such a moment. He was the most aggravating person I knew. He thought he was sweet on me. Granddaddy might have worked me like a boy, but it didn't take away the fact I was something to look at.
He jumped from the truck and looked Ronald Carter up and down. "Where's Mr. Jenkins?"
Ronald Carter found his smile again. "Well, I got to say Mr. Jenkins was well known." He chuckled to himself like he told a right decent joke.
Granddaddy looked at that boy hard. "Jenkins is a good man, knows how to act with folks. Awful big shoes to fill."
Ronald Carter threw his head back in a laugh. "I don't plan on trying to fill his shoes. Like I said, I'm just helping my daddy out. I'm going off to college in the fall."
It was that one sentence that made me look at Ronald Carter as more than just a pretty boy. I was smarter than most even if I'd been stuck on the mountain for schooling. Now I was just there, working the fields with Granddaddy, waiting for some old boy like Charles Ray to scoop me up as a wife before I got too old. College wasn't even a thought in my head. It was way out of my reach but maybe Ronald Carter wasn't.
"Hmf." Granddaddy nodded. He'd never had time for schooling and saw it as a complete waste of time. He looked over at me and his forehead wrinkled. "What you doing out here, Talley May?"
My shoulders turn stiff and straight. "I'm going to get me some good cloth for a dress."
Charles Ray smiled. "I hope it's yellow. You sure look pretty in yellow."
"It'll be any color other than yellow. I hate that color." Of course I was lying, but I wasn't going to let Charles Ray think he had one chance with me.
He just looked at his feet.
Granddaddy cleared his throat. "What can I do for you today, Charles Ray?" This was Granddaddy's way of letting me know that Charles Ray was going to be around and I might as well get used to it. I was going to be stuck on that mountain forever, pushing a plow, wearing blisters on my hands.
"I was going to ask Talley May if she wanted to go to the ice cream supper on Saturday." He still wouldn't look at me.
Ronald Carter was grinning from ear to ear, enjoying every minute.
"So, that's why you're buying cloth for a new dress. Good." Granddaddy smiled and his eyes that were a washed out gray color, glittered.
"I never said I was going." I looked away from Granddaddy.
"I got some real nice white cotton here. It's got little rosebuds all over it." Ronald Carter pulled the bolt of cloth down from a shelf. "Your hair would go good with this."
I took that cloth and stuck my foot right in the middle of the mess I was making of things. "You know, Mr. Carter, we have some fine tasting ice cream at the supper. You should come try some." I smiled at him.
Charles Ray's stare sliced right through me. I just wasn't normally that mean, but this was about getting off the mountain not him.
"I'm sure this young man won't even be back up here, Talley May." Granddaddy barked the words like a mean yard dog.
"No, no, sir, I have to be back up this way on Saturday. I got to deliver something for my father." He looked at me. "I'd love to go."
If I worked this boy right, I'd get myself off the mountain.
Charles Ray was the quiet sort, but his thoughts were always written in his eyes. I hated that I could read them as easy as I could the Bible.
"Mr. Jenkins said to be sure and give you this liniment. He says you need it for your shoulder." Ronald Carter handed Granddaddy a blue glass jar.
Granddaddy grunted. "How much of that cloth you gonna by, Talley?"
Was it that easy? Could I just invite this pretty city boy to the ice cream supper and no one was going to tell me otherwise? "Four yards should do me."
Ronald Carter smiled at me and winked. "I'll tell you what, Miss. . . "
He laughed as if we might have a secret between us. "Well, Miss Green. . . " He took the bolt of cloth and handed it to me. "There ain't much more than four yards left on this bolt. You take it all for a present."
"We ain't taking nothing free." Granddaddy looked at me like he could run right through me.
"I'll buy it as a gift for Talley." Charles Ray watched me with a soft look. Those eyes were comfortable to look at. I could get lost in the peace, but they were just country boy eyes. They'd never get me a place besides right where I was.
"I don't need but four yards, and Granddaddy will pay for that. Thank you both."
Ronald Carter shrugged. "Whatever the lady wants."
The word lady made me smile. Yeah, I wanted to be a girl, not some old mountain wife scraping a life out of the very dirt I stood on.
That evening I was sitting on the porch in a rocker just cause that cabin seemed to smother me. Granddaddy was already asleep. And I had drifted into sleep thinking why couldn't I tag along with a handsome town boy like Ronald Carter? Marrying someone handsome could make up for love. The warm breath on my cheek brought me out of my dream. The woman touched the back of the rocker, moving it slightly, humming. Her eyes were cloudy with another world, another whole place. In the flickering lantern light, I wondered if she was real.
"What do you want?" The words came out mean.
Her eyes focused on me and she pulled away like she might run.
"Who are you? You ain't no ghost. And why you coming around here?"
She laughed. The sound floated on the air. I decided she was the angel Granddaddy talked about.
"Why you here? Are you my guardian angel? Are you going to help me leave this mountain?"
She moved closer, peering at me with her beautiful eyes. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will open." Her voice was like music playing on the wind. She moved down the steps into the black of the dark night.
"Come back. What do you mean?" I stood up.
The laugh came again from the sky. She must have begun to fly. I could hear her wings flapping.
"What you doing out here?"
I jumped to see Granddaddy standing in the front door.
"Did you see her? I saw her up close. She's beautiful. She flew off, Granddaddy. She's that angel you was talking about."
His face turned soft, which gave me a little peek at what he would have looked like if Mama and Daddy hadn't died. "Talley, get on in here and sleep. That angel is here cause you're stirring up the mountain. It's plain as day what you're after." His words were tired.
"What do you mean?" I tried to act like I was too dumb to know what he was talking about.
"A pretty girl deserves pretty things. Without them they just grow up too fast." His voice was quiet, and I got the feeling he wasn't talking about me.
My lantern flickered. I looked to see if the angel had come back.
"You can't be chasing that pot man's son. Do you understand me?"
My hand shook behind my back. "I'm grown up."
"You're a girl, and girls have to be looked after. You ain't so grown either, or you'd know that town folks and mountain folks never make a life together." He turned away from me.
"That ain't a bit fair." The words sounded helpless, young.
"Fair or not, don't be around that boy. He ain't nothing but trouble."
Now I wish I could say Ronald Carter was my heart's desire, a love worth fighting for, but the truth was my anger was about a whole lot more than a silly old boy. "I might not listen this time, Granddaddy."
"You ain't leaving this mountain with that boy. It can't be, Talley May Green. Just get it right out of your head. You quit being silly and listen to me!" He stomped in the house. He was thinking that the whole subject was close: like I was listening to him. And on most days, I would have obeyed him. He raised me like that, but all I could figure was it was time to have things my way.
One thing about living on Black Mountain, life wasn't ever boring. I worked way too hard to get bored. I was churning butter on the back porch, watching the white fluffy clouds skating across the blue sky, when Charles Ray came bouncing up the road into our yard.
He climbed out of the truck with his straw hat in his hand. He nodded. "How you today, Talley May?"
I refused to notice the way his hair curled up in the breeze, making him look more like a boy than a man. "I'm doing good." I churned harder.
"Can you come with me?" His cheeks turned a warm pink. Of course it could have been the heat, but something told me it wasn't.
"Why?" I looked down at the churn. "I'm churning this butter."
"Can't you just let it ruin? I got something to show you."
Now it was just wasn't like Charles Ray to be so careless. "What's going on?"
"Just hush your mouth for once, Talley. I got something you got to see."
"And it's enough to let this butter ruin?" I let go of the churn paddle cause I had to see what this mess was all about.
"Yes Ma am." He held out his hand.
I stepped off the porch. My old faded dress didn't even get his attention. Charles Ray didn't bother with those kinds of things. That's why I tolerated him and disliked him at the same time. His hand was sweaty. It made me think of hard work. "This better be good, Charles Ray."
"I believe it is." He helped me into the truck. Then he jumped into the truck himself. "It'll just take a little bit. Your butter may not ruin." But we both knew I'd have to dump the churn and start all over. Granddaddy wouldn't like it one bit if he found out.
"Where we going?"
He turned the truck up Redson Fork Road. No one went there. The land was haunted something horrible. No one could even farm it. Of course part of the reason was the biggest rocks were buried up there.
"What could be up this old road?" My voice sounded all cracked.
"You'll see. Don't get all scared. It's daylight. The ghosts don't come out until dusk. We got a good four hours before then. I'll have us out of here in no time. Besides I see your Granddaddy walking up this road a lot."
"Why you doing this? Are you still hurt with me for inviting that town boy to the ice cream supper? You're the reason it happened." I lied.
"How am I the cause of you mooning after that guy?" He sounded like he didn't even worry on it. He sure sounded cocky like he knew he had me.
"Cause you thought you could just up take me to the ice cream supper whether I wanted to go or not."
"Ah, is that why you've got a bee in your bonnet?" He laughed. He hadn't never laughed at me before.
"That ain't no way to talk to a lady, Charles Ray. I want to you to know right here and now we don't stand a bit of a chance. I'm leaving this mountain as soon as I can. No use in loving me." It felt good to put my plans into words.
He looked over at me and we hit a hole so big I bounced toward him on that seat. "You won't leave this mountain. You got it in your blood. You'd be lost if you weren't here. You know what the old folks say."
I scooted back to the door. "I don't give a dern about what they say. They ain't holding me up here. I'm not the only one who feels like that. Young folks will start to leave this place."
"Them are kids talking. I'm not a kid. Are you?"
"I'm a grown woman, but I don't want to spend my life with blisters on my hands from pushing a plow."
"I got me a tractor." He looked over at me and grinned, like this was better than any pretty thing he could give me.
This was news to me. "How'd you get a tractor, Charles Ray?" He looked like he was telling the truth.
"I bought it from the pot man. That boy of his is bringing it up here Saturday." He looked like his head had grown five inches.
"Where'd you get the money?" I turned sideways and watched him.
"I built a new room on the pot man's house. It looks right good if you ask me. Maybe I'll start being a carpenter and travel around building houses."
He was happy. I could just tell. "I bet the pot man has a big house." I wanted me a big house down in Asheville.
"It's big enough." Charles Ray whipped the truck into a path that ran through the woods.
"Where we going, Charles Ray?" Nothing but trouble could come from being on this part of the mountain.
"We're going right in there. We got to get out and walk." He turned off the truck. "You got to be quiet, Talley, or you're going to miss it all."
My stomach did a little flip. "Ok."
He nodded and opened the door and motioned for me to slide across the seat since he was parked so close to the trees. The woods were dark on this part of the mountain, and if a place could really live—I mean really live—it was right there in that place where the heart beat. I could feel the bump, bump under my feet.
"Come on," he whispered. He took my hand, and we moved deeper into the woods. In places the sky had disappeared, and I couldn't tell if it were day or night. I tried to keep up with what direction we were moving, but somehow I got all twisted around. Charles Ray squeezed my hand tight.
I stopped. "You got to tell me where we're going before I move another step."
Charles Ray held his finger to his lips, and then pointed deep into the woods. It looked like more trees to me, but just as I went to make a fuss, I made out a house. Calling it a house was nice cause it was more like a shed, leaning to one side bad. Charles Ray pulled me forward. My heart was beating in my throat. Maybe if I pulled real hard I could get away and leave. But the truth was I didn't want to be by myself. Then, I saw it, a flash of white. Her hair was pulled back in a ribbon, but it was my angel.
Charles Ray looked at me with something shining in his eyes. I looked back at the woman. She was on her hands and knees. Next to her was a bundle of dirty pink cloth. She gathered it into her arms, cradling it like a baby and rocking. Without realizing what I was doing, I reached out, as if I might touch the bundle too. The side of her face was easy to see. She wore a smile of complete happiness. I looked around. This was a woman and not some ghost or angel. She was flesh.
What would happen if I ran up to her, sat down beside her on the moss? Charles Ray pulled my hand and motioned with his head back to the truck. I looked back at my angel. Was she the mountain? He tugged me with him. We didn't make a bit of noise even after we were way out of hearing.
As Charles Ray got back on the bumpy road, I looked over at his face. For a second, he looked like a man instead of the boy that was chasing after me. "Why did you take me there?"
He shrugged. "I found her three days ago. I got side tracked hunting squirrel and there she was. I thought she was a ghost at first, but I followed her." He looked at me. "Something just told me you'd seen her before."
"Cause you've been all restless. I had that feeling when I saw her." He gripped the steering wheel. "I think she's been there a lifetime. I think she grew right out of the ground. Now she's restless, searching for something more." Charles Ray looked at me, and I got to say I couldn't look away.
"I saw her dancing in our hay field." I looked deep into his eyes. "She knows my name."
He looked away. "She cries a lot."
"You've come here more than once?"
He nodded. When he dropped me off, we didn't speak. There wasn't a word to say. Between us was this knowing, this secret. The butter was ruined. All I could think of was that silly old Ronald Carter at our ice cream supper. He'd never understand about the angel, or believe. I had two days to come up with a good excuse not to go with him. My heart just wasn't in seeing him.
The woman didn't leave my mind. Something inside of me had tipped over and was spilling all over the place. Was she Black Mountain? Could I help her? Should I help her? My mind kept going back to that first night when I heard my named moaned. The next morning after a breakfast of ham, biscuits, and eggs, Granddaddy left for The Connor farm—Mr. Connor was helping him fix a wagon wheel. I set out on my own up Redson Fork. I should have been terrified to go face that dern mountain, but all I knew was I was determined to find the whole story.
The sun was bright, and I was sweating before I ever reached the edge of the woods. My stomach was begging for a bite, but I hadn't brought a thing with me. The woods, unlike the day before, were easy to walk. I couldn't explain why it was so easy to find my way.
"Take me to her, old mountain." I whispered. I walked the dark woods. Before I knew what happened I saw the shed, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. I almost turned around, but that same restlessness that started everything led me into the shed. There was a little bed and on it was the pink bundle.
My heart beat hard as I stepped into what had to be the woman's home. It was clean. Some apples sat in a bowl on a little table; alongside one of our very plates. On the plate were two of our ham and biscuits. I went to the pink bundle. When I touched it, I heard a whisper: Be careful. But I didn't listen no better than I ever had. I opened the pink blanket to find a baby doll with blonde hair. It was a doll I lost when I was just a tiny thing. I'd left it out by the garden, where I'd played house. The next day it was gone. Granddaddy had told me that's what I got for being careless.
"That's my baby." The voice was quiet but meant business.
I whipped around and faced the woman. Up close I could see lines around her eyes and her hair fell in tangles down her back.
"Give her to me." She held out her hands.
My arms creaked like rusty old gate hinges as I managed to have the sense to gather the doll in my arms like a baby. "She's so pretty."
The woman took the doll from me in a rush, clutching the bundle to her chest. "You go."
"I'm sorry." I walked sideways. I just wanted to get around her.
She came close and touched my arm. "My baby, you understand?"
"Yes." I prayed I could just get out of there in one piece.
"You go on home to your mama. Leave me alone." She hissed the words.
"I'm going." I stepped to the door.
"Her name is Talley May. This is my little girl. I'm May Beth." She held out her hand.
A rumble began deep within the ground under my feet. I took her hand. "It's so nice to meet you May Beth. Is your last name Green?" I held onto her hand to steady myself.
"Yes. My husband died you know. He died when a mule kicked him in the head." She looked at me. "That ain't no way to die. It was terrible. My daddy said I lost my mind, but I ain't. He tried to take my baby, but I came back to get her." She pulled her hand away. "What's your name?"
I wanted to grab her again, and I wanted to run at the same time, split down the middle. "Talley May Green." I watched her.
She looked at me. "I heard tell there was another girl named the same as my baby. He tells me about you."
"Who tells you?"
"My daddy." She looked away. "He tries to keep me right here. It worked for a while. He says that they'll take me away, put me off the mountain for being crazy." She spat the words. "He's wrong! I'm not crazy."
"No, you're not going anywhere." I sobbed the words and walked closer. "You're my angel." I touched her hair.
She smiled. "You're pretty. I hope my baby grows up to look just like you." She ran her hand through my hair. "You have to go now. My baby needs to sleep." She moved away.
"Will you come back to see me?"
She nodded as she began to rock the pink bundle. "Good. I like company."
The mountain whispered as I walked through the woods, but then I knew it was only my own sobs soaking the air. As I came into the clearing, the road home, Charles Ray climbed from his truck. "You're here." He watched me.
Black Mountain beat beneath my feet, vibrating through me into my heart.
Ann Hite is the author of Ghost On Black Mountain, forthcoming in Fall 2011 from Simon & Schuster.
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