The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Head of The Hollow

By Richard Englehardt © 1987

Issue: October, 1987

We sat in lawn chairs under the towering gnarled oak tree, sipping ice tea and trying to stay cool. A small amount of water spared by the summertime dryness gurgled in the branch. I had known Jesse Bailey for a lifetime, just about, but he had never told me or anyone else about what had happened to his ankle to cause him to limp. I had been pestering him to tell me. On that hot day, I thought that I would try one more time.

"Say, Jesse, ain't you gonna tell me how you hurt your ankle?" I begged.

"Now Lee, don't go asking me that. You know I ain't a gonna tell you." He was firm in his answer as he stared off across the branch.

I tried again. "Come on Jesse. I ain't gonna leave you alone 'til you tell me. No one in these here hollows knows why you limp."

"Dang it all! It still bothers me to think about it," he said as he continued to stare across the branch. "But, I will tell you just to shut you up!" He turned to look at me with a little fire in those eyes of hisn. I had not seen him look like that since Clarence Taulbee accidentally shot Jesse's best coon hound, Red, up on top of Jack Rock twenty years before.

"And Lee, if you tell anyone, or ifn you laugh, I'll tan your hide good!" he said still staring at me.

"Uh, sure Jesse," I managed to say.

Jesse scratched his chin, thinking, and told me that he believed it was way back in 'bout 1941. I told him that I thought that was 'bout right 'cause I had moved with my ma and pa up Back's hollow the next year after the war had started. He still couldn't walk good then. He was seventeen and had dropped out of the little school at the head of the hollow a year earlier to help with the tobacco crop his pa grew.

He was in the garden 'round the side of the house, hoeing. Sweat was running down his face, stinging his eyes. He said that he had to flick the sweat off his forehead every few seconds so he could see good.

Jesse stared at a spot across the creek from where we were sitting. As he was hoeing, he looked up and saw a girl just a standing there. Even though it was hot as blazes, he felt a shiver run down his back. She was clapping her hands the way you'd clap your hands when fidgety. She smiled one of then lopsided smiles. She looked to him to be 'bout fourteen with long red hair, slender, and she had on a pale blue dress lookin' like it had been washed too much. He looked down a moment. When he looked up she was gone, running towards the head of the hollow, towards the Lowery's place. They was the last ones living up the hollow then.

A couple days later, Jesse was carrying a basket full of snap beans from the garden. He stopped at the gate at the side of the house and set the basket down. After he opened the gate, he looked over at the same spot across the branch and saw the girl. She smiled and waved. He thought she was pretty, at least from that distance. Then, the chill ran down his back and across his shoulders. He went on about his chores, but noticed that the girl was still there a couple hours later, in the same spot, just watching him.

For the next week or so, Jesse would see the girl in the exact same spot for hours just standing and staring, maybe twisting back and forth. She would smile that same lopsided smile when he looked up at her. He could not help but wonder who she was and where she lived. He guessed that she must be a Lowery or at least live with them. He just could not get her off his mind.

Jesse asked his mother, one night at supper, if she knew the girl. She did not think so. She too thought that the girl must be a Lowery.

One day, Jesse said that he was at the furtherest end of the garden picking 'matoes. As he bent over to put a handful into the basket, a chill ran down his back and out his fingertips. He knew that she was there across the branch without looking. He eased his head up slowly. She was there all right. He made up his mind to talk to her and walked quickly towards the big tree.

She smiled. Jesse smiled as he leaned against the huge tree. "What's your name?" he asked.

She smiled broadly and said in a voice, barely audible, "Helen."

Jesse wanted to draw her out. He asked, "What's your whole name?"

"Georgia Helen Hester," she answered, never taking her eyes off Jesse.

"My name's Jesse Bailey. Are you any kin to them Lowerys?" he asked.

She wrinkled up her nose and said, "No, I ain't one of them."

Jesse scratched his head and said, "Uh, but you do live up there in the head of the hollow don't you?"

"I live above the head of the hollow," she answered.

Jesse told me that he was still sure that she at least lived with the Lowerys, and asked her, "Are you one of their cousins from Ohio?"

"I DON'T live with them Lowerys!" she said. She did not take her eyes off Jesse. He said a shiver ran down his back and out his fingertips.

"What do you mean you don't live there? Their's is the last house up the hollow," Jesse answered.

Helen answered, "I live up the hollow past them Lowerys, on top of the ridge."

Jesse said that bothered him, what she said. He was almost certain that there was no house past the Lowery house. Even if there was, how could you get to it? Anyway, he gave up questioning her,

"Come over here," she invited, motioning with her hand.

Obeying, Jesse slid down the bank to the branch , wadded across, and climbed up the far bank on all fours. Smiling, not so shyly then, she took his hand. Jesse said that usually, he was thrilled when a cute girl took his hand. He looked down at her's and saw dirt under her fingernails, like she had been digging. Helen's hand also felt like a cold beer.

The two of them started walking up the gravel road towards the head of the hollow. They sloshed through the branch when the road ran out near the Lowery's place. Once in their yard, Jesse saw Kevin Lowery carrying what he thought was a basket of sweet corn to the back porch. "Hey Kevin, how's it goin'?" He wanted to be sure that Kevin saw him with this girl, even if she was strange.

Kevin set the basket down and walked over to where Jesse and Helen were standing. "Man I gotta tell you 'bout the wild time we had over at Willard's last night. Oh, but first, tell me who this young thang is with you." He stopped in front of Helen, smiled, and looked into her eyes. The smile fell off his face. He looked as if he had just been slapped. He backed away slowly, turned and walked quickly away from Helen.

Jesse a little embarrassed, called after him, "Kevin? What's wrong with you?' He didn't answer. Jesse sure was puzzled. He didn't want to cause a scene, so he just told Helen that they should be going. If he didn't know Kevin better, he'd be sure that Kevin had acted like he was scared of Helen. As they began to walk away, old Butch trotted to them wagging his tail, stopped cold, and ran around the house yelping.

Jesse said that it had been late in the day. The shadows had begun to creep down the ridges towards the bottom of the hollows.

He said that he was getting winded as they began to climb the ridge. Between breaths he asked her, "Do you wanna take a break an' rest?"

She answered, "No." She was tugging on his hand as she led the way up. He could see that it was a path, but an old one, maybe a deer path.

Hoping that her home was close by because he was dog tired, he asked, "How much more?"

"It's just over the top, up there," she said as she pointed to the top of the ridge a few hundred yards away.

Jesse felt that chill again. He said to me that he was sure at that time that there was no house up there, maybe something, he couldn't remember what. The chill stayed with him. He challenged her by saying, "There ain't no houses up there, only 'coons and bobcats."

"Yes there IS! We live up there," she maintained.

At the top of the ridge, Jesse let go of her icy hand and doubled over to catch his breath. She stood by impatiently with her arms crossed. He straightened up and asked her, "Which way?"

"This way," she said as she led him towards the sun. He wished that the sun would warm him. It was just an orange glow by then. His fingers tingled, his hair stood on end, and his body trembled.

Jesse said that he couldn't see, he had to squint. They had not walked very far when he barked his left shin on the hard edge of something. "Yeow! What the..." He dropped Helen's hand and looked down at his leg. He pulled up his pants leg, his shin was oozing blood from the scrape. He knelt down, he told me, to get a better look at his shin. His chin dropped. His face was six inches from a tombstone! He jerked his head up and saw a dozen or so of them, most obscured by high grass.

"This is where I live," the girl said with a slight smirk as she pointed further west. Jesse said he felt a lump in his throat as she said that and as he got a good look at the name on the stone. He said that the name was Georgia Helen Hester!

Jesse just sat staring at the far bank of the branch, not saying anything. I waited to see if he was going to say anymore.

"Say, Jesse. Uh, that ain't tha end is it?"

"No it ain't. After I got a good look at the name on that stone, I jumped up and run outta there, least, that's what I tried to do. My left foot caught on somethin' and I fell down in bad pain when my leg turned and my foot didn't. The girl, Helen, disappeared. I lay there moanin'. I wondered if I would die right then and there. No one knew where I was at." He paused as if to catch his breath.

"A few minutes later, a shadow fell across me. It was a tall, old man, dirty from working in the fields in 'baccer or somethin'. I just knew that it was the ghost girl's ghost father. Blackness hit me." He looked down at a root and was nudging it with his left foot.

"Well, what happened? How did you get back? Did you ever see the ghost again?', I asked him.

"I'll tell you. But if you laugh, I'll knock you up side that head of yourn," he demanded, looking straight at me with those intense brown eyes.

He looked back at the other bank. "Weren't no ghosts. She was a real little girl, named after her grandmother, who was dead. She and her family, that man was her paw, lived on the top of the ridge past the graveyard. I got back when her father drove me around the mountain in his old truck. My ankle never did heal real good. Anyway, that's how I hurt my ankle and why I limp." He stared at the ground.

As I was rolling on the ground and turning purple from laughing, I could see Jesse out of the corner of my eye as he picked up a big stick, and walked towards me as he raised it.