Please welcome Betty Dotson-Lewis and Kathleen Colley Slusher, co-authors of the novel ‘The Girl from Stretchneck Holler,’ released in April by Brighton Publishing, LLC. We’re pleased to present an excerpt from the book below.
Dotson-Lewis was born in the coalfields of southwest Virginia in Buchanan County where her family had deep roots in the coal and timber industries. Her dad moved his big family to a forty-two-acre farm high in the remote hills of Nicholas County, West Virginia when she was still a young girl. He was in pursuit of bigger game to hunt and bigger timber to cut. There in the mountains, Betty was raised surrounded by coal miners, coon hunters, and storytellers.
Slusher is the eldest daughter of a World War II veteran and his Hawaiian-born Japanese bride. Upon her father’s retirement from a career in the Marine Corps, the family of seven resettled in his hometown of Haysi, located in the Appalachian foothills of southwest Virginia. Blending her mother’s cherished stories of growing up in Hawaii with her stories of the mountain culture that her father so loved, Kathleen began writing about her rich and diverse heritage when attending Berea College.
The Tillman May Dream
I was five years old, walking with my mother across the back porch towards the kitchen door of Verdie and Tillman May’s weatherboard house. An apple tree close to the steps held an empty tire swing. I tried to control my trembling hands and wobbling knees. I pressed against my mother’s thigh, wanting to crawl back into the womb for protection from this stranger, Death, I knew nothing about, who’d made an unexpected and unwanted call in our coal mining holler.
My mother didn’t notice me clutching her dress. She was sobbing into a white, wrinkled handkerchief wadded up in her hand. She and I (her scared little girl) walked as one the length of the back porch, turning our bodies sideways to gain entrance into the small kitchen. Yellow flowered wallpaper covered the walls opposite the tall kitchen cabinets filled with Blue Willow dishes.
Women from Verdie and Tillman’s Pentecostal Holy Roller church crouched together in a circle, crying and praying aloud in the center of the room. The kitchen table had been moved to one side. They opened their entwined arms and made a path for me and my mother to pass through into the dimly lit dining room.
The brown metal coffin stood backed up against the wall away from the long knotty-pine eating table. I kept my head downturned and lifted only my eyes toward the coffin. Fancy, puffy white satin fabric filled the inside lid. An embroidered United Mine Workers of America emblem was sewn to the top edge. Big white buttons held the satin in place.
The coffin lining looked like the bodice of the beautiful wedding dress with pleats, tucks, and big buttons I’d picked out in the spring and summer Sears & Roebuck catalog.
Quickly, I lowered my eyes and pushed my chin further down on my chest, pressing against my collarbone till it hurt, so I couldn’t see Tillman. I did see Nellie, Tillman’s eight-year-old beagle hound, his most trusted and loyal companion with the exception of his wife, Verdie. Nellie’s long, tan head lay underneath the coffin directly below her master’s head. Her slanted brown eyes were filled with liquid. Several of the drops spilled over and settled in the white patch underneath each eye.
Nellie was Tillman’s favorite rabbit hound and the only hound allowed in the house. Nellie and Tillman meshed the moment they met. Both enjoyed the early morning rabbit chase and both showed signs of good breeding: happy, good-natured, and playful. An untouched biscuit from the kitchen table lay near Nellie’s front paw. She too was in mourning.
Tillman whittled me a wooden soldier doll for Christmas. My mother hadn’t told me why Tillman died or where he would go when he left the dimly lit dining room. My stomach turned over at the strong stench of funeral carnations, baby’s breath, honey-baked hams, and embalming formaldehyde.
Opposite Tillman’s dead body, a row of men lined the wall. Familiar faces to me. They drew slow drags on their Camel cigarettes. With mouths rounded into large Os, the men tilted their heads back, letting rings of smoke drift out of their mouths and noses and filter up towards the pink-flowered, papered ceiling. Some smoke rings drifted and hovered over Tillman’s head in the casket. The men spoke in low voices as they sipped cups of strong black coffee in preparation for the night’s watch with Brother Death.
One man’s breath reeked of whiskey when he opened his mouth to speak to my pretty mother. He attempted to give her a hug, but she pulled away. He was a regular visitor to our house, because he was one of Dad’s hunting buddies. The Dingess Family Gospel Quartet harmonized on the chorus of When the Roll is Called Up Yonder in the adjoining living room. Lillie Dingess sat in a chair to ease some of the weight of the guitar off her humped shoulder.
Verdie May, Tillman’s widow, sat in a rocker in the middle of the living room. A prayer shawl covered the upper half of her short, stout body. Her gray hair, pulled back in a bun, had fallen free from hairpins with the convulsing of her head in shock and grief. The unruly hair fell on her shoulders in the same young woman’s style I had seen in Verdie’s wedding picture on the bedroom dresser. The new widow’s deep mourning sounds could be heard throughout the house. Two of her daughters-in-law took turns dabbing tears from her swollen eyes and holding smelling salts under her nose.
I didn’t want to look in the box and see Tillman dead, but my mother took a firm grip on my hand, lifting me on my tiptoes even though I resisted. I squeezed my eyes shut tight. Fear washed over me as I bent toward the coffin. Slowly I opened my eyes. There lay Tillman May—hair slicked back and blackened with shoe polish, pale skin yellowed from too much formaldehyde, rugged hands with traces of coal dust around his fingernails, clutching the Bible he always carried. I had never seen a dead person before.