Around 5:00 a.m. on a warm Sunday morning in October 1953, my Aunt Belle left her bed and vanished from the face of the earth.
"When I heard her get up, I figgered she was going outside to the toilet," her husband, my Uncle Everett, told the sheriff. "So I dozed off back to sleep. When I came awake again, I'd say maybe a half hour had passed, and she wadn't back, so I says to myself, 'Reckon I better go check on Belle, see if she's okay.' So I did."
Uncle Everett, a coal miner, and Aunt Belle, along with their boy, Woodrow, lived way far in the head of a long, isolated holler called Crooked Ridge, near the town of Coal Station, Virginia, where the Appalachians are steep and rugged. In those days the roads were narrow and rocky, barely passable in bad weather. They had an old Ford, and that morning it was parked on the slope with the key in the ignition like always. Their nearest neighbors, the Sloans, who lived almost a mile down the road, told the sheriff they hadn't seen or heard a thing out of the ordinary.
According to Uncle Everett, Aunt Belle was barefooted and wearing only a thin nightgown. Her two pairs of shoes and all her clothes were still in their rightful places. There was no evidence of foul play and no indication that she went traipsing off to somewheres else. Besides, there was no place to traipse unless she went over those wild hills in her night clothes, barefooted. And in that case, somebody surely would've noticed her on the other side. There were no fresh footprints anywhere, not even in that marshy place by the gate, no unusual sound heard by Uncle Everett, or Woodrow, who was sleeping in the loft.
Never before had anything like this happened in our county, and once the word got out, folks were fairly jolted out of their ruts.
"Why, whoever heard tell of a body vanishing into thin air?" they said.
"If the truth be known," some said, "there's a corpse to be found in them woods somewheres."
Others said, "There musta been somebody waiting down the road a piece in a car, and she rode off with him."
"But folks would've seen or heard a car up the holler that morning, wouldn't they?"
"Seems like they would."
And the speculation went on.
My mama, Love Ball Dotson, speech and drama teacher at Coal Station High School and sister to the missing person, was plenty upset. In a Mountain Echo interview she said it wasn't bad enough having your sister disappear like that without a trace, oh no, people had to go running their mouths and making an already tragic situation worse. It was just too much, she said, too much. Granny and Grandpa Ball, Mama's and Aunt Belle's parents, wanted to take Woodrow to live with them, but Uncle Everett wouldn't hear of it.
The days and weeks passed with nothing new coming to light. When the weeks turned into months, the hill folks settled back into their humdrum lives and Belle Prater became a kind of folk heroine, like Rose Conley in the song "Down in the Willow Gardens." In fact, somebody did write a song about Aunt Belle, and it was sung in Coal Station's main honky-tonk — the Busy Bee — accompanied by a bluegrass band, but Mama double-dared anybody ever to sing it in her presence. There were insinuations in it, she said.
When Aunt Belle had been gone for six months, it was brought to our attention that Uncle Everett was wetting his whistle to the point of saturation every chance he got.
"Not a healthy environment for a young boy," my Granny Ball declared.
So she insisted on taking Woodrow into her home, and this time there was no objection from Uncle Everett.
Coal Station — "in the heart of the coalfields," as the local radio station, WCSV, proudly proclaimed — was a dingy mountain town built at the convergence of Black River and Slag Creek. It was no more than a wide place in the road between the hills. On the town's outskirts were the work yards, where railroad cars loaded up coal from all over the county and carried it to points east and north. That's how Coal Station got its name.
Coal Station had only two streets, and they followed the lay of the land. There was Main Street, where all the businesses were located, running parallel to Black River. And there was Residence Street, the only place around for miles where you could build a house without going up in a holler or hanging it off the side of a hill. It ran parallel to Slag Creek.
Residence Street was, in fact, the brightest spot in all the county, and among the other nice houses there was the one in which I, Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster, lived with my mother and stepfather, Porter Dotson, editor of the Mountain Echo. Our house was a modern, one-story brick ranch, with white shutters, a front porch, and the only picture window in town. We had a telephone, two radios, a phonograph, a refrigerator, a stand-up freezer, and an electric stove. Next door to us Granny and Grandpa Ball had the same conveniences in one of those big old, white, greens-huttered, two-story houses with a wraparound porch on both floors. They also had a television set where you could sometimes see one real fuzzy channel from Charleston, West Virginia, if the weather was perfect. It was the mountains, according to Grandpa, interfering with reception. Surrounding our two houses was a wide expanse of cool green grass and about fifty apple trees which we called the orchard. What a wonder and a joy to behold in the spring when they all bloomed! There were also azaleas, pink and fuchsia. Not to mention the lilac bushes down by the creek, and the wild dogwood. People walking by our houses would sometimes stop there on the road and look and look, like they couldn't believe their dad burned eyes.
And that was the general appearance of my world that spring when Woodrow came to us — everything fresh and bright, pink and white. Mama reminded me how privileged I was, how fortunate, and I didn't doubt her word one bit, except when a certain nightmare came to haunt me. Then I couldn't help feeling more plagued than privileged. It had something to do with a dead animal, and I would wake up sobbing or screaming.
Even though Aunt Belle was Mama's sister, I had seen very little of her and Woodrow in my whole life. I had the idea from somewhere that there had been some kind of rift between the two sisters years ago, but when I asked Mama about it, she said, "Of course not! We were close. We loved each other."
Still, I wondered.
Woodrow had lived way up in the head of that holler with his mother and father without any plumbing or even a refrigerator, and he and I had always gone to different schools. We were the same age, as I had turned twelve in November and he had turned twelve sometime in January that year, and we were the same size — four feet ten inches tall and ninety-two pounds — but we had practically nothing else in common that I knew of then. Woodrow was gawky and backward and wore hillbilly clothes that were hand-me-downs from his daddy and his daddy's brother, Russell. Once, when we were about ten, I saw Woodrow, and his pants were too long and too big in the waist, so he had a rope tied around his middle to keep them up. He sure looked funny that day, and I think he felt self-conscious, too, because it was my birthday and I had on a frilly blue dress and black patent-leather slippers. Another time when I saw him at Christmas, he had on an oversized cap where you could pull the flaps down over your ears. He was proud of that ugly old thing.
And I'll tell you something else about Woodrow — though I really don't want to — he was cross-eyed. Sometimes you couldn't tell if he was looking at you or not, and he had to wear real thick glasses.
I couldn't wait to visit Woodrow that spring night when he moved in next door. I wanted to know if he had any secret knowledge or theories about what had happened to his mother.
It was a Friday, and I was in my blue jeans, parked on a stool in front of my dresser while Mama plaited my blond hair in two long pigtails, the way I liked to wear it when I had a chance to play. It was the only way I could tolerate having hair longer than Rapunzel's.
"Now, don't you go over there and aggravate him about Aunt Belle, you hear me?" Mama said to me.
"Gee whiz! I'm not a moron," I protested.
"Well, I should hope not," she said. "He's been through a lot, and he deserves some consideration. So don't go pestering him to death."
"Pester him? You make me sound like a cockroach!"
"Go on, then, and cheer him up. Tell him the eye-ball joke. It's so funny, and you tell it so well."
I swelled up a bit. It was a known fact that I could tell good jokes. Mama pecked me on the cheek and we smiled at each other in the mirror. My mama was very beautiful. Everybody said so. And she smelled good all the time — like Christmas candy. And her hair put you in mind of one of those Halo shampoo ads.
I slid off the stool and headed out the door.
"Tell him hey for me, and welcome," Mama called after me.
It was a mystic twilight I found myself in that first of the many times to follow when I raced across our yards to go visit Woodrow. The apple trees sprinkled tiny petals on me. The breeze whipped them and their sweet aroma around me so that I was heady with a strange excitement as I entered the door, yelled hello to Granny and Grandpa, and galloped up the stairs to Woodrow's room at the front of the house.
His shaggy blond hair was hanging down in his eyes, and he kept tossing it to the side. He was putting his few pitiful belongings into a dresser drawer. And in the middle of the bed was Grandpa's German shepherd, who had no name but Dawg. She was sweet and everybody loved her, but if Granny saw Dawg sprawled there in the middle of the bed, she would pitch one big fit. Woodrow had some things to learn.
"Hiya, neighbor," I said, and tossed a cherry jawbreaker to Woodrow.
He caught it, then looked at that piece of candy like it was pure gold.
"Joe Palooka!" he said.
We both unwrapped our jawbreakers and popped them into our mouths. I parked on the bed and started to pet Dawg. She licked my hand, and I scratched behind her ears. Then she rolled over and stuck all her paws up in the air like she was saying, "Scratch my belly, why don'tcha?" So I scratched her belly, and one of her back legs began to jerk. The harder I scratched, the faster her leg went.
"Wanna hear a joke, Woodrow?" I said.
He sat down on the bed beside me and Dawg.
"There was this man, see," I said. "Went into a beer joint and said to the barkeeper, 'I bet you a free beer I can bite my own left eyeball.'
"The barkeeper just laughed and said, 'Nobody can bite his own eyeball. It's a bet.'
"So the man took out his left eyeball and bit it and popped it right back into place. It was a glass eye, see?
"Well, everybody in the joint like to died laughing, and the man drank his free beer.
"Then the same man said to the barkeeper, 'I bet you another beer I can bite my right eyeball.'
"'What!' the barkeeper said. 'Impossible! You can't have two glass eyes! It's a bet!'
"So the man promptly took out his false teeth and bit his right eyeball with them."
That joke worked every time. I thought Woodrow would split.
While he was finishing up his belly laugh, I was trying to figure out how I was going to bring up the subject of his mother without playing the part of the cockroach. Pestering was something I didn't like to do when it could be avoided, but I told myself maybe it really couldn't be avoided. So I shrugged away all of Mama's admonitions and blurted it out.
"Now, Woodrow, about your mama. You must have some idea, some theory, about what happened to her, don'tcha?"
He wiped his nose on his shirtsleeve and didn't say anything more. I tried again.
"Grown-ups can be stupid sometimes, can't they? They overlook the most important things."
Woodrow nodded silently in agreement, but still said nothing.
"I mean, Woodrow, didn't you know something or notice something that nobody else noticed? Ain't there something you never told anybody, figgering they'd laugh at you 'cause you're a kid, you know?"
"Yeah," Woodrow said suddenly. "There was something."
He turned his crossed blue eyes on me and I nearly swallowed my jawbreaker, because I didn't expect him to deliver so soon.
"What?" I said.
"I tried to talk to Daddy about it, but he wouldn't listen," Woodrow said.
Then he went to his chest of drawers and pulled out a book.
"I don't want anybody to know about this, Gypsy," he whispered.
"What is it?" I whispered back.
"I'll tell you if you promise to be my best friend," he said.
"I would be honored, Woodrow!" I said, genuinely pleased.
He grinned all over, showing great white teeth and a tongue stained with the cherry candy. Carefully he placed the book in my hands.
One Thousand Beautiful Poems were the words staring up at me.
"This book was a gift to Mama from Grandpa Ball when she graduated from high school," Woodrow said. "She loved it. For the last few days before she disappeared, there's a poem she read over and over. She memorized it. She clutched the book close like this ..."
Woodrow reclaimed the book and demonstrated by holding it close to his heart.
"And she took on the most wonderful expression around her eyes, and she looked out at the hills — no, beyond the hills — beyond the earth even — and she said this poem. It's on page 88."
He handed the book to me and quickly I flipped to page 88. It read:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.
— Jalal al-Din Rumi, thirteenth century
"What does it mean, Woodrow?" I whispered.
"Don't you see?" he said.
Then he leaned in close and ran his fingers under the words as he read.
"The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you," he read. "She knew! I know she knew something was going to happen at dawn."
"But what?" I said.
"Then it goes on to say, Don't go back to sleep. So she didn't. She got up and went outside."
"And what happened, Woodrow? What then?"
"I don't know," he said. "I just don't know."
"That's all?" I said, disappointed.
"Yeah," he said sadly. "That's all I know. She got up at dawn and went outside because she expected something to happen, and nobody ever saw her again."
He closed the book and clutched it to his heart.
"But it's all here," he whispered mysteriously. "The secret is hiding in the lines of this poem."
"Why did you name her Belle?" I shouted at Granny the next morning.
I shouted because she and Grandpa were both hard-of-hearing but too stubborn to wear a hearing aid. So a lot of shouting went on in that house. We didn't even notice it anymore, and everybody who came in to visit picked up the habit.
"Belle's a perfectly good name," Granny said.
We were in her big, breezy, yellow kitchen finishing up a birthday cake for my stepfather. He and Mama were gone to Abingdon to see some of Porter's kin, and Grandpa and Woodrow were out buying clothes. I sure was glad of that.
"But Belle Ball is not a perfectly good name," I yelled. "Didn't you know kids make fun of names like that?"
Granny placed a tiny blue rose on top of the cake.
"The idea was that she would be the belle of the ball," Granny said, and gazed out the window with a long-ago look in her eyes. "We always hoped she would be."
"And was she?" I said.
"No, dear. Your mama was the belle of every ball. She was near about the prettiest thing on the planet. And poor Belle ..."
Granny sniffed a little, then abruptly came back to the present.
"There now. Soon's you put the candles on, we'll be all done. It's a right pretty cake."
"And what about poor Belle?" I said.
"Aunt Belle!" I hollered. "And poor Belle what?"
Granny sighed, wiped her hands on her apron, and sat down at the table.
"She was plain, Gypsy, and that seemed to be the most important thing in the world to her — her looks. Oh, she wanted so much to be beautiful like Love.
"Your mama was — and still is — a natural beauty. She'd pop outa bed of a morning looking like the Camay soap girl. And Belle had to work hard at her looks, then still not have much to show for her efforts."