Chapter 3

The coffin staggers back and forth, carried by the current, until it reaches the submerged Paw Paw patch.  The spindly branches of the Paw Paw trees, sticking out of the water near the extended bank, grab onto the coffin, holding it there like trash from the holler. 

Hanging onto the cables as they propel themselves across the swaying bridge, the men and Uncle Hiram reach the other side and run down to the creek bank, where they stand looking at the coffin, rocked by the force of the water trying to tear it loose.

Across the road, John Taylor comes out on his porch and calls to them.  “I’ll bring a rope.”

Lou Ann is standing beside me.  “Now ain’t that just like Joe Ray,” she says, her voice quavering.  “He always was one for acting the fool.” 

I open my mouth to say one thing but another comes out. “He hated long faces.” If Joe Ray’s spirit is still here, I think, he’s watching, and this is bound to be tickling his funny bone.  “Ain’t got no use for that body no more, no how,” he’ll be saying.  “Gonna get me some wings now.” 

I hear that hoot he gives when he says something funny.  He always had too much light in him for this dark place, up here on Hanged Man Holler.  Last time he was laid off at the mines I tried to get him to come to Kansas City, stay with me while he found work.  He shook his head. “You’re different from me, Callie.  You’re able to live any place you go.  Me, these hills is in my blood.  I can’t live nowhere else, don’t want to die nowhere else, neither.  Reckon I’ll just make do til the mines start up again.” 

Of course the mines always started up again.  Needing fewer men to work them, but with enough jobs left for the ones who’d waited out the shutdown by the ones who’d gone up north to find work when the mines were idle.  In the meantime Joe Ray played his guitar, made up funny songs, dug up ginseng roots and hung them in the kitchen to dry and sell, and did what fishing and hunting he could do to put food on the table.  Until he was called back to the mines. 

As I watch Joe Ray’s coffin rock in the Paw Paw branches I can see in the distance the flat line across the sky of decapitated Calliput Mountain.  Before Papaw quit talking altogether, he and I had sat on the front porch feeling the earth shake as they blasted off the top of the mountain so they could scoop the coal out with their gigantic machines. He sat in the hickory rocker his own Pap had made while I sat on the porch steps.  “First time I ever went hunting,” he said, “was up there on Calliput Mountain with my brother Earl.  The trees was so close you couldn’t see daylight at first.  Then we seen them wild turkeys just standing still, like they knowed what they was there for.  We picked them off ‘til we had one for ever family on the creek.  Went up and down the holler, we did, and left one at ever house.”

More than two hundred million years ago these mountains were a plain that rose from the long-dried floor of an inland sea.  The crust of the earth cracked and faulted, rearing Pine Mountain, a long steep ridge stretching from the Breaks of the Big Sandy River on the Virginia line one hundred and thirty miles southwesterly into northern Tennessee.  It parallels the Cumberland, or Big Black Mountain, the tallest mountain in Kentucky, which lies on the southern boundary of the plateau.  Many other mountains lie in between, including Calliput.

I was named for the first Callie, a little girl only ten years old when her folks first pioneered the mountain more than two hundred years ago; she was my seventh great-grandmother.  Callie’s grandfather, it was said, was fond of sassafras tea, and would come to the cabin door after a day of burning cane to prepare the bottomland for crops, and call out “Callie, put the kettle on, I’m ready fer my tea.” 

After she died at fifteen, birthing a child, her grandfather would come to the cabin door, call out “Callie put”, for a moment forgetting she was gone.  Remembering, he would collapse beside the door and cry. 

Folks started calling the mountain Calliput after that. Callie was buried on top the mountain, the large rock used for her headstone replaced by another generation, with the words “Callie lies here”, to mark the spot; a few wildflowers of Fading Summer grew each year in the dappled shade between her grave and those of others of my ancestors buried there, the blue of the small flower petals fading slowly to white in the summer heat. 

When the coal company got permission to move the graves, they dug in vain; there was nothing left of Callie or her family’s earthly remains.  Not long after they finished scooping out the coal on top the mountain, they put in a coal sludge pond up there. 

Some folks began hearing a crying sound coming from the mountain, said it was Callie come back to grieve for her people. Lines from a song Joe Ray made up one day, sitting on the front steps strumming on his guitar, come to me.

“Callie’s crying on Calliput Mountain, Cause her baby’s been done wrong. Corn won’t grow there, and Callie’s crying. Who’ll feed her baby, now she’s gone.” 

The flat line of the mountaintop blurs as I see John Taylor coming out of his house, wearing a pair of rubber hip boots; he’s carrying a coil of rope on his arm.  He hurries down to where the three men stand by the creek, their eyes fixed on Joe Ray’s coffin as if forcing it to stay put.  John hands one end of the rope to Uncle Hiram and wades into the water, working his way through the branches of the Paw Paw trees to where the coffin is caught.

He wrestles with the coffin as it rocks in the creek, getting the rope underneath and around it, slipping it through the handles and tying a knot.  Motioning to the men, who grab onto the rope with Uncle Hiram, he begins to push the coffin towards the bank. The other Taylors stand on their porch, watching.

Lou Ann has gone back in the house, and I hear Mama crying. Oh God, I think, don’t let her see this.  I go inside.  Mama is trying to get up off the sofa while Lou Ann tries to hold her down. “Where’s my boy,” Mama cries. “Where’s Joe Ray!”

“It’s alright, Mama,” Lou Ann says.  “Joe Ray’s in Heaven now, with the Lord.”

“No, no,” Mama cries, rocking back and forth.  “No, no.”

“Get her pills,” Lou Ann whispers, “on the dresser.”

 Going to Mama’s room for the bottle of pills, I stop in the kitchen for a glass of water, and then help Lou Ann get the pill down her.  We gently force her to lie down.  From the back of the sofa I take an afghan, one Mama had crocheted before her hands grew stiff with arthritis, and cover her. 

As we sit on the sofa’s edge, waiting for her to quiet down and, hopefully, sleep again, a loud shout comes from outside, from the direction of the creek.  I run to the door and look out.  The men are splashing about at the edge of the water, swearing as they watch Joe Ray’s coffin being carried off again down the middle of Hanged Man Creek.  The rope trails behind the coffin.  

I quickly look back at Mama.  Her lips are moving silently as if she’s praying, or talking to Joe Ray.  Lou Ann, watching me, realizes something must’ve happened. “Oh, God,” her lips move.

She hurries on tip-toes to my side, and we go to the edge of the porch. Gone.  Joe Ray’s coffin has either sunk or is out of sight around the bend. 

The men, water dripping from their clothes, are running with John Taylor towards his house. “Call Denton, tell him to hurry and get his tow truck to the mouth of Hanged Man, before Joe Ray makes it to the river,” John shouts to his Sally, who’s standing on their porch with her hands over her mouth.

She drops her hands, turns and runs inside while the four men stomp about on the porch.  John sits down on the steps while Uncle Hiram helps him pull off his rubber hip boots, pouring the water from the boots into the yard.

Hearing a movement behind me I turn to see Mama stumbling through the door onto our porch, Lou Ann holding onto her gown.  “Where’s Joe Ray!” Mama cries.  “Where’s my boy!  Did he get away?  Did he make it to the river and get away?  Praise the Lord!” 

Mama’s dark eyes are lit with a wild fire like she’s burning up inside.  “Hallelujah!  Praise the Lord,” she shouts.

Tears run down Lou Ann’s face.  She has her arms around Mama, holding onto her. Across the creek the men on the Taylors’ porch are looking our way, not moving. 

“Yes, Mama,” I say.  “Joe Ray got away.  Now you go lay down and rest.”  I take her from Lou Ann and lead her back into the front room.  “Praise the Lord,” she cries again.  “My boy got away.” 

I get her onto the sofa, rubbing her cold hands between my own.  After a few minutes she quits moaning, spent.

Lou Ann stands in the doorway, crying.  I go to her, hug her close, feeling her thin bones through her cotton t-shirt.  “Callie,” she whispers in my ear.  “Mama’s gone plumb crazy.”

Uncle Hiram comes up the steps, streaks of mud across his face, his clothes dripping dirty creek water.  He motions Lou Ann and me away from the door.  “We got a call from Denton.  He can’t find Joe Ray,” he whispers.  “We think he must of sunk to the bottom of the creek somewhere after going round the bend, but we don’t know where at yet.  It’s flooded purty deep, and the water’s too muddy to see anything.”  He pauses for a second, shakes his head. “We can’t for the life of us figure how that coffin got away.  Soon as John got it loose from them Paw Paw trees, it bumped into him, knocked him down and pulled the rope plumb out of our hands.”

I could swear I hear Joe Ray laughing but it must be an owl hooting in the woods.

2 Responses

  1. Absolutely riveting!!!

  2. I have to tell you something I learned recently that gave me chills. Although all the characters in the story are fictitious, the location is based on a place we actually lived when I was a child. But I recently learned that the son of an old neighbor of ours (she was a child when I knew her) ran his car into the flooded creek at this site years ago and drowned. I’ve wondered if I might’ve heard about this and forgotten it, otherwise it’s an odd coincidence.

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