Read The Ghost of Tillie Jean Cassaway Online
Authors: Ellen Harvey Showell
The Ghost of Tillie Jean Cassaway
Ellen Harvey Showell
For John and Michael
In hill country, there is always mystery. Things are hidden around the bend or in the dark of the woods or over the mountain. If there were such things as ghosts, they would be in the old, old mountains of Appalachia. Time lingers there. A child's spirit, taken too soon from life, might want to stay, be of morning mist hovering over crooked rivers, be of evening shadows deepening against the mountains
Some say Tillie Jean Cassaway is such a spiritâthat even yet she looks, yearns, for someone to help her come backâsomeone who can hear, who can see. Others say no, she is happy now, content in the spirit
Back in the hills there is a river town called Mauvy. Once it was a lively place, a center for the lumber industry. Loggers cut down the great trees and set them afloat down the river to the sawmills. Trains came through every day and there were stores, a bank, two hotels, and a picture show. But the forests became used up and the big companies moved on. Stores went out of business, the bank closed. Most of the people left.
As the years passed, those who stayed watched the forest return as new trees covered the hills and brush crept up on worn-out, abandoned farmland. They lived in white wood houses that lined narrow streets or in trailers on hillsides or in tumbledown shacks. Children could grow up there almost as free as birds, at home in the woods, learning the secrets of the rivers, caves, and hollows.
Twelve-year-old Willy Barbour, who lived in a yellow trailer at the edge of Mauvy, was a thin, pale boyâdeaf, his mother said, because he did not seem to hear half of what she said to him, but just stood there with a faraway look in his eyes. Sometimes she had to tell him three times that supper was ready.
When other children laughed at him for looking long and close at dandelions or rocks, Hilary, his eleven-year-old sister, told them Willy was an artist and had to know things better, so he could draw and paint them. She also claimed he could hear a cricket a mile away. Hilary never missed a call to supper and always made sure Willy got there too.
The story of Tillie Jean Cassawayâbe she ghost or notâmight well begin with one hot day in summer when Willy, with his paper and paints, rode his bike along the dusty streets of town, wishing he were elsewhere. Children were playing barefoot on the cracked pavement, old men were sitting on benches in front of vacant stores, old women in sunbonnets were hoeing their gardens. Willy turned down by the river and railroad tracks, wanting to get away from Mauvy, from the cramped trailer and the sameness of everything, glad to be near the river which forever rushed away but never left.
He followed the dirt road that traveled with the tracks along the river, twisting and turning. Weeds hid the rails in some places. Trains did not come by anymore. He rode until there were no more houses, only rocks, river, tracks, and hills.
After a few miles, he stopped to rest. The air was still. No birds sang, no leaves rustled. Even the rushing of the river seemed more like a tune in Willy's head than an outside noise. He laid down his bike, sat on a rock by the water, and looked about. The river disappeared around a bend. A little ways from the bank rose a hill almost bare of trees. “Probably a fire there sometime,” thought the boy, as he gazed upward.
At the top of the hill, two leafless trees stood side by side, their black limbs pointed like human arms, reminding Willy of two soldiers standing guard. He squinted his eyes so that they became spindly shapes against the sky and put a frame around them in his mind. He was thinking about sketching them when a movement at the bottom of one tree caught his eye, something shadowy sliding away.
Curious, Willy climbed the hill, but at the top could see no animal or person. Looking back toward Mauvy, he saw the curling river, distant farmhouses, and fields. The other way he could see an island in the river and a footbridge strung across to it.
“Must be Craig's Island and that old swinging bridge,” he thought. “Didn't know I'd come that far.” He knew about the old man who lived like a hermit on the island. Once some boys had broken windows in his house and since then, the man chased away any children that came around. Willy and Hilary were told not to go near the place.
Willy looked down the other side of the hill. It had escaped the fire, for growth was thick and tangled. The hill helped form a ravine, or small hollow, down below. The place seemed like nowhere to the boy, just brush and trees and rocks. It had a used, discarded look, messed with, stepped on, forgotten.
As he stared, Willy became aware of a peculiar stillness in the air.
Softly, almost in his ear, he heard it.
“What?” he answered, looking around. But the call did not come again. The breeze took up its gentle blowing, the birds their songs.
“Who's there?” Willy called. There was no answer. He wondered if he had imagined hearing his name. Then, standing still, gazing downward, he slowly realized that he had been wrong about there being only trees and brush in the ravine. A building was down thereâa house almost covered with vines and hidden by trees. He stared, trying to make out more of the place. But it was late in the afternoon. As he strained to see, shadows folded over and around the house, blacking it out.
A slow prickling started up Willy's spine. He seemed to be alone, yet he did not feel alone. Then he heard another noiseâthe growl of a dog, he thought, low and menacing. Unmoving, Willy looked around, but could see no animal. It must be in the cover of the wooded slope, he decided. He felt it was time to leave. He half scooted down the burnt-out hill, quickly mounted his bike and rode home.
He parked his bike near the yellow trailer, but did not go in. Hilary was singing again. After waiting by the door a minute, he turned and walked up to the apple orchard on the hill behind the trailer. He wanted to be alone a little longer.
“Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, beautiful ri-i-ver!” Inside the trailer, Hilary Barbour was singing with all the verve and volume she could muster. It happened about once a month. She caught the singing spirit, got an old gospel songbook like they used at Laurel Chapel, sat in a corner and sang each song she knew, one by one.
“Hilary, be quiet a minute,” said her mother. “Where's Willy? It's getting late.”
“I don't know,” said Hilary.
“Didn't he tell you where he was going? I know he went on his bike.”
“No,” said Hilary. “I asked him, but he said he didn't know, he was just going to ride for a while. He took his art stuff.”
“I thought I heard him awhile ago.”
“Then I bet I know where he is,” said Hilary. “I'll go get him.” She ran out of the trailer and up to the orchard where she found her brother sitting under a tree.
“I thought you'd be here!” she said.
“Sit down.” She sat. It was twilight and the trailer below looked shadowy. The hills began to blend into each other as night crept up.
“Don't you feel it?” Willy said softly, putting down a drawing he had started.
“The mountains. It's like they was coming close â¦ trying to get away from the dark.”
Hilary looked at the looming shapes that rose up around them. “You trying to draw the hills?”
“Yes. But when I started they were green and you could see the trees and lots of things â¦ even cows grazing. But I started too late. It keeps getting darker and they keep changing. How can you draw something that keeps changing?”
“It's a problem, I guess. Did you paint anything today?”
“No. I rode out toward Craig's Island.”
“Oh, did you
They sat quietly beside each other watching the outline of the ridges blur against the sky as the hills became solid walls of blackness.
“I feel like I'm being swallowed up in the mountains,” said Willy. “I like it.”
“Why didn't you come in when you got home?”
“I could hear well enough out here.” He began to sing, holding his nose, “The beautiful, bee-u-ti-ful ri-i-ver!” and held his arms around his head when Hilary flailed at him. “Hey, Hil, stop, you've got a great voice!”
“I do not!” she yelled, but she was mollified. “Come on, Willy, let's go in.”
But Willy would not budge. He seemed moody again, was quiet for a while, then said, “It's funny, people write songs about rivers. They stay in the mind. But the river is like the mountains. In the day, it's fun â¦ something to follow and explore. But at night it changes. It's scary.”
“You hardly ever see the river at night.”
“I do in my dreams. It's like I'm walking toward the mountain and I come to the river and have to get across. I'm afraid of the water because it looks so black. But I have to jump.”
“Across a river?”
“It don't seem so far in my dream. But it gets wider while I'm jumping and I fall in the water and have to swim. But the current carries me downstream. Somehow I manage to get out and keep walking, but I keep coming to the river. It keeps twisting and turning, so that whichever way I walk, there it is.”
“I've had dreams like that,” said Hilary.
A pickup truck pulled into the driveway of the trailer house, catching the two figures in the headlights.
“Dad's home,” said Hilary. “We better go in.”
“Wait a minute. I want to tell you something.”
“About â¦ something I heard on top of a hill. A voice. Calling me.”
“Who was it?”
“No one was there.”
“Then you just thought you heard it.”
“I heard it.”
“Well, I'll go with you there tomorrow and see if
Willy did not answer. He was sorry he had told Hilary. Some things you aren't meant to tell. They're just for you. He decided not to tell about the house in the ravineâat least not now.
A man's voice called from the trailer, “Hilary! Willy! Come in!”
“Be there, Dad,” called Willy, and they hurried in.
That night, Willy dreamed that he was following a path to the house in the ravine, but when he got to where it should be, nothing was there but trees.
Before falling asleep, Hilary thought about what Willy had told her, about hearing someone calling, and wished she had been with him. If he went there again, she'd go too.
Willy woke up early the next day and knew that he was going back to the place where he had heard his name and seen the house. It would be a beautiful place to paint.
“What's the matter, Willy? You seem jittery,” said his mother.
“Nothing.” Then, quickly, “What do I have to do today?”
“Weed the garden and your dad said to mow the lawn as soon as it's dry enough. Hilary has to help me can.” Mr. Barbour had already gone to the garage where he worked.