The Search for Belle Prater

Dedicated with affection to all those readers who wanted more
My
cousin, Woodrow Prater, and I, Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster, were both seventh graders in Mr. Collins’s homeroom. We were in the same building as the high school, and we changed classes like they did, but we would not be considered a part of the high school until eighth grade. That’s how it was in Coal Station, Virginia, in the fall of 1954.
Mr. Collins was a real good teacher. I’m sorry to say he was not very good-looking, and he certainly was not as funny as some teachers I’d had. Sometimes I didn’t even think he was very smart. I mean, I wouldn’t mention it to anybody, but once on the blackboard he misspelled the word
committee
. (He left off the final “e.”)
Even so, everybody loved Mr. Collins. He was kind. For example, when Cassie Caulborne joined our class in December, he went out of his way to put her at ease. Like Woodrow, Cassie was from the backwoods, and
she was littler than the rest of us. You could tell she was nervous about coming to a new school. So, during homeroom, Mr. Collins let her sit in the back row, where she wouldn’t be so public.
Then he quietly introduced her to the class and asked her if she would like to tell us about herself. She shook her head no because I think she was too scared to speak.
“That’s all right, Cassie,” Mr. Collins said. “The rest of us know each other, but you don’t know anybody yet, and I understand what it’s like to be in a new place.”
Cassie just smiled.
For our first class, English, we stayed in the same room with Mr. Collins. It was during that period that he gave us an assignment to write a page about our life. I thought this was peculiar, because we had done an oral exercise very much like this one the first week of school. Then it occurred to me that this was Mr. Collins’s way of introducing Cassie and the class to each other.
During recess we socialized in our homeroom, because it was raining buckets outside. A few of us moved near Cassie to make her feel included.
“Cassie, I’ll declare, with your curly red hair, you put me in mind of Little Orphan Annie,” Woodrow said to her. “Did anybody ever tell you that?”
I elbowed Woodrow in the ribs because I was quite sure Cassie did not want to look like Little Orphan Annie. In the funny papers she didn’t have any eyes.
“Well, she does look like her!” Woodrow said, scowling at me. Then he faced Cassie again. “Little Orphan Annie’s cute and tiny like you.”
Cassie blushed and smiled. After that, she was more relaxed. She even joked a bit with us.
The next day Mr. Collins asked for volunteers to read our autobiographies, as he called them, to the class. I believe he was hoping that Cassie would volunteer, and he was not disappointed. After five or six others read their papers aloud, Cassie raised her hand.
“Good,” Mr. Collins said to the class. “Cassie has agreed to share the story of her life with us this morning.”
Everybody turned around and looked at Cassie as she stood up. I don’t know what we expected, certainly nothing extraordinary, but we were wrong.
“My full name is Cassandra Carol Caulborne,” she read. “I was born twelve years ago and named after Grandma Cassandra on my mama’s side. She was born with a caul, and so was I.
“My mama died when I was born, so Gram was the closest thing I had to a mother, and after she died, too, I had no one but Pap, who is a quiet, good man. He has huge hands and broad shoulders. He really loves me and shows it in many ways. Because of him and Gram, I never missed my mother as much as I might have.
“On our own, me and Pap lived up Caulborne Holler,
which was named after my ancestors, and was once crawling with them, but now my kin are scattered all over these hills, and I was the last true Caulborne living in Caulborne Holler.
“A month ago our old pickup truck finally died on us. That’s when me and Pap decided to move to Coal Station so that Pap could be close enough to walk to the bus station, where he is a driver.
“We moved into a house across the river by the railroad tracks. From our front porch we can see the backs of the business buildings in Coal Station. Even though our house is small and on the wrong side of the tracks, I like it.
“In Caulborne Holler I attended John L. Lewis Elementary School. By the time I got to the seventh grade, I was a big fish in a little pond, but now at Coal Station I am a little fish in a big pond. Still, I know I am going to like it here. I have always liked school.
“I love reading history better than anything. That’s because sometimes I get so caught up in it, I think I am there. And when I gaze upon certain pictures from the distant past, I have feelings of homesickness.”
Cassie finished abruptly, and sat down. Immediately Woodrow raised his hand and waved it around frantically.
“Yes, Woodrow,” Mr. Collins said.
“What does it mean to be born with a caul?” Woodrow said.
“Cassie?” Mr. Collins said, directing the question to her, because he had no more idea than Woodrow did.
“Don’t y’all know about the Caulbornes?” Cassie said.
We all shook our heads no.
“Well …” Cassie hesitated. She had no script in front of her now, and she had to find the right words with all those eyes watching her. “Well … you see, the Caulbornes helped settle these mountains more’n a hundred years ago. They come over from the homeland of Ireland where they were not treated good ’cause they had the gift. Over there folks made them out to be witches and devils.”
“What is the gift?” Flo Muncy asked.
“The gift of knowing without hearing or seeing. It’s the second sight.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of that,” I blurted out. “It’s the sixth sense—knowing things without the use of the five known senses.”
“That’s it,” Cassie said, then smiled at me, and went on with more confidence. “In Ireland the Caulbornes had an ordinary name—Mc-Something—but when they came over here, they made up a whole new name which to this day we’re proud to own, and it tells the world what we are.”
“Exactly what are you?” Woodrow said.
Cassie no longer hesitated. “One of us is born with a caul every second generation. This time it’s me. Next time it will be one of my grandchildren.”
“But what is a caul?” Franklin Delano asked.
“It’s a thick veil that covers the baby’s face when it’s born. That’s how everybody knows you have the gift. When you’re born with a caul, you know things all your life without seeing or being told.”
Woodrow and I exchanged significant glances. Yeah, Cassie Caulborne was our kind of person.
“If you was in a poker game,” Buzz Osborne said to Cassie, “could you tell when an ace was coming up?”
“No,” Cassie said. “It don’t work that way. My gram always reminded me that I am not in charge of the gift. It’s in charge of me, and I don’t always know when it’s gonna open a door for me.”
“If the gift came from your mother’s side of the family, how is it that you have the name of Caulborne?” Mr. Collins wanted to know.
“Because whoever marries a Caulborne woman has to agree to take her name, so as to keep it and the legacy alive. That’s how Pap became a Caulborne when he married my mother.”
“So when you marry,” Woodrow said, “your husband will become Mr. Cassie Caulborne?”
Everybody laughed, including Cassie.
“No, just the last name,” she said.
“I must say, I find this fascinating,” Mr. Collins said. “And tell me, Cassie, why are you a year younger than your classmates?”
“Oh, that’s because I could already read when I started school, so they moved me right on up a grade.”
“And who taught you to read, my dear?”
Only Mr. Collins would ever say a thing like “my dear.”
“Why, nobody taught me, Mr. Collins. I just knew. I reckon I
always
knew. The same as I know how to take fire out of a burn. And how to stop the flow of blood from a wound. It’s just something I know.”
The class was puzzled, but respectful, and Cassie was glowing. She had made a good impression her second day in a new school. After that, it was like she had always been with us.
A
few weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, we were celebrating Woodrow’s thirteenth birthday next door at Granny and Grandpa Ball’s house. Seated around the big wooden table with them were my mama, Love Ball Dotson; my stepfather, Porter Dotson, owner and editor of the local newspaper, the
Mountain Echo
; Porter’s brother, Dr. Hubert Dotson, affectionately known as Doc Dot; his wife, Irene; their twin girls, Dottie and DeeDee, who were four years old; and, of course, me and Woodrow.
By this time Woodrow had been living in Coal Station for eight months. Before then he had always lived up in an isolated holler called Crooked Ridge. He had moved in with Granny and Grandpa when his daddy started drinking too much, following the disappearance of his wife and Woodrow’s mother, Belle Ball Prater. That event had been so mysterious, and so traumatic to our family, that she was never far from our thoughts.
Any time you got Porter, Doc Dot, and Grandpa together, you could be sure there would be a little blackberry wine and a lot of very loud joking around, because Grandpa and Granny were both hard of hearing. Doc Dot started the fun during dinner by shouting a story about one of his patients who came into his office with a banana in one ear, a cucumber in the other, and a carrot sticking up each nostril.
“Doc, I don’t feel so good,” the man said. “Whatsa matter with me?”
And Doc said, “It’s obvious, my man, you don’t eat right!”
When we had all finished laughing, Woodrow said, “Now, Gypsy, you tell one.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” I said.
Joke telling and piano playing were my two specialties. Everybody said so. I proceeded to tell a joke I had been saving up for an occasion such as this.
“These three mama potatoes all got together, see, and they started into bragging about their daughters,” I said.
“And the first mama said, ‘My daughter is gonna marry a royal Irish tater!’
“And the other mamas went ‘Ooo’ and ‘Ahh.’
“And the second mama said, ‘Well, that’s nothing. My daughter is gonna marry a rich sweet tater!’
“And the other mamas went ‘Ooo’ and ‘Ahh.’
“Then the third mama said, ‘Well,
my
daughter’s
gonna marry the television newsman John Cameron Swayze!’
“‘John Cameron Swayze!’ The other mamas sneered at her and laughed and said, ‘Why, he ain’t nothing but a commentator!’”
While everybody was laughing at my joke, Grandpa’s German shepherd, Dawg, nudged me from under the table, and I slipped a piece of turkey to her. She had been creeping back and forth between me and Woodrow to gobble up our scraps.
Granny, Mama, and Irene had been cooking all day, so we were blessed with not only turkey and the fixins but also ham, salads, four kinds of vegetables, hot rolls with real butter, and sweet iced tea. Grandpa said some people don’t see this much food in a month.
And Porter said, “Well, I, for one, won’t have to eat again for a month.”
“Just listen to him,” Mama teased. “He’ll be eating again before he goes to bed tonight.”
Porter smiled at Mama and touched her hand where it rested beside her tea glass. There was a time when they would not have been comfortable doing that in front of me, because I had been what you might call hostile toward my stepfather. But Lordy, you can get tired of being mad all the time.
At the end of the meal, Granny brought out a birthday cake with thirteen candles for Woodrow, and he blew
them all out in one breath, while we sang “Happy Birthday” to him. Then there were presents for him to open, and his face became so flushed with excitement, you hardly noticed that behind his thick glasses, Woodrow had crossed eyes.
Shortly before midnight we gathered in front of the TV to watch the ball drop in Times Square. Grandpa puffed up when everybody commented on how much improved his television reception was. Just a while back, you could hardly make out people’s faces on the only channel available, especially if the weather was bad, but now there were two channels coming in, with hardly any interference ever.
The cause of this improvement came about right before Christmas when a bunch of fellows in town, led by Grandpa, had constructed a homemade antenna from bed rails and erected it on the top of the mountain. They christened it the Christmas Tower. Everybody who owned a television set in Coal Station had strung their TV lines up the mountain and hooked on to it. Now Mama and Porter were talking about buying a TV set for us.
When Grandpa stood in the middle of the living room floor to make an announcement, we turned the volume down.
“It’s time for our New Year’s Revelations,” he said.
“It’s an annual tradition in our house. Now, if you want
to know the difference between a New Year’s Revelation and a New Year’s Resolution, then lend an ear, for I am about to tell you.”
Grandpa got awful wordy when he drank blackberry wine.
“A revelation is a disclosure, something you are revealing for the first time. And in our family, it’s something you want to get off your chest. It started when me and Granny were celebrating our first New Year’s Eve together after we got married. That was the evening she told me that it drove her crazy the way I sucked my teeth after dinner, and—”
“Do what!” Woodrow exclaimed.
“Yeah,” Grandpa said. “Don’t you know what teeth sucking is?”
Woodrow shook his head.
“Then I’ll show you,” Grandpa said, and screwed his mouth up funny.
“Please don’t!” Granny said.
But it was too late. Grandpa was standing there in the middle of the living room, making a clacking sound with his tongue against his teeth.
“Anyway,” Grandpa said, when the laughter had settled down, “that was the year we started our New Year’s Revelations. When Love and Belle got old enough to join in, they started doing it, too. Every year on New Year’s Eve we tell something that bothers us. You can revelate
to just one person if you want to, or you can do it openly in front of everybody.
“I remember one year when Belle was about thirteen. She’d been holding it in for most of the year, but she saw this as her chance. Once she got started, she had a pure tee fit.”
“’Bout whut?” Woodrow said.
“I remember,” Granny said. “It was about how we made fun of her hopes and dreams. She was always talking about flying, you know. When she was little, she wanted to be Peter Pan or the angel in the Christmas play.”
“And don’t forget the grapevine swinging on the hillside,” Mama reminded her.
“Oh, yeah, the grapevine swinging. She wanted to be Tarzan, too,” Granny said.
We all laughed softly.
“Then when she was older,” Grandpa continued the story, “she wanted to strap on a parachute and jump out of an airplane. By the time Belle made her revelation, she was gettin’ serious. She wanted to be an airplane pilot. Nothin’ else would do.”
“But, you know, at this point in her life,” Granny said, “we’d heard so much about this flying business that we didn’t pay attention to her anymore. We’d just laugh whenever she said something about it. And that’s what burned her up—the way the rest of us brushed her off.”
“She complained that we had taught her to believe in her dreams,” Grandpa said, “but that when she tried to tell us what her dreams were, we all laughed at her. She had a legitimate complaint.”
“Yeah, she did,” Granny agreed. “And we never realized before how much flying meant to her, and how much our laughter disturbed her. But she sure let us have it. And we tried to do better after that.”
“Funny thing, though,” Grandpa said. “We didn’t hear much about flying anymore. It was almost like once she had us on her side, she got bored with it.”
Woodrow was hanging on to every word about his mother. “She still talked about it once in a while,” he said, “but not a lot. She dreamed about flying out of Crooked Ridge over the mountains.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment. With sad, affectionate smiles, we were each lost in private thoughts of Belle.
“Anyway,” Granny finally said, “the New Year’s Revelation does help to clear the air. You have a whole year to think about what you’re going to reveal so’s you don’t say something frivolous.”
“Yeah,” I said, “tooth sucking is pretty important stuff.”
“When you hear what bugs somebody else, it makes you more considerate,” Granny said.
“I got one!” Woodrow blurted out.
“Don’t you want to think about it first?” Grandpa said. “You only get one revelation a year.”
“No,” he said emphatically. “The thing I want to get off my chest is about my daddy. I know he’s not here to listen to my revelation, but that’s the very thing I’m sick and tired of! He never comes to see me or call me anymore. He didn’t even come at Christmas.”
Woodrow paused and looked around at the sympathetic faces.
“I sent him a card on his birthday and at Christmas, and a Christmas present that Granny made with her own two hands, and do you think he even told me boo? No! Sometimes I feel like he’s disappeared, too.”
I couldn’t have said all of that without crying, but Woodrow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He was just mad.
“Yeah!” I said, trying to support Woodrow. “It’s enough to make you wanna throw your hands up and say to heck with him!”
“Right!” Woodrow agreed. “That’s what I want to do. He was never really good to me and Mama anyhow.”
At those words my mama, Granny, and Grandpa stiffened and stared at Woodrow with stricken faces.
“He didn’t act like he loved her,” Woodrow continued. “When he drank liquor, he neglected her—and me too.”
“How did he neglect y’all?” Grandpa said softly as he eased down on a chair.
“He didn’t do things for us that a daddy should do. He just thought about his own self.”
“Did you have enough to eat?” Mama said in a whisper.
“Most of the time, but—”
Woodrow stopped short, seeming suddenly selfconscious with all eyes on him. During his months with us he had talked sparingly about what kind of life he and Aunt Belle had lived. And I don’t think he meant to say all of that.
“Anyway, that’s my revelation,” he said with a shrug, and abruptly turned to me. “What’s yours, Gypsy?”
Before I could answer, Irene squealed, “The ball is about to drop!” Then she made three quick steps across the floor and turned the volume up on the TV
“Five … four … three … two …
one
!”
“Happy New Year!”
A great cheer went up from the people in Times Square, and also from us. Dottie and DeeDee began blowing their noisemakers, and Dawg jumped around and barked. At the same time I heard a ringing sound. I didn’t realize right then that it was the telephone. For the next few moments I was busy hugging everybody and yelling, “Happy New Year!”
Then I became aware of Porter trying to shush us because he couldn’t hear what was being said on the phone. We all got quiet and Mama turned the TV down again.
“Hello! Hello! Who’s there?”
Porter waited for a moment, then said, “Hello, this is the Ball residence.”
Porter clutched the receiver tight against his ear.
“Who’s calling, please?”
Then he listened some more.
Woodrow had gone over to stand beside Porter. As he rested the phone back in its cradle, Porter looked down at Woodrow.
“It was her, wadn’t it?” Woodrow whispered.
Her who?
“I don’t know, son,” Porter said. “I heard only breathing, then whoever it was hung up.”
“I know it was her,” Woodrow said calmly. “The phone rang right on the stroke of midnight. That’s the moment I was born thirteen years ago. It was her way of wishing me a happy birthday.”
The room was so quiet then that you could hear the sound of fireworks from the direction of Main Street. Could it really have been Aunt Belle calling Woodrow at that special moment they had always shared?
“How would she know you are here?” Granny said.
“She knew you would take me in. She knows. I’m sure of it.”
“Call the operator!” Mama said. “Find out where the call came from.”
“Good idea,” Porter said, and did as Mama suggested.
In a few moments he was giving the necessary information to the operator.
Then he said, “Thank you,” and hung up.
He turned to look at all of our expectant faces. His own face was sober.
“It came from a pay phone in Bluefield,” he said.
Bluefield was a medium-sized town sixty miles east of us right on the Virginia/ West Virginia state line.
“Then that’s where she is,” Woodrow said.

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