Sunday, October 25, 2015
A Ghost Story for a Cold Winter Evening
©Linda Goodman, January 2015
Painting by Mary Steenwyk
In 1960, when I was just a youngun, we lost our house in St. Paul, Virginia and moved into a shack in Esserville. That shack belonged to my mamaw and papaw, and Mommy was mad because they made us pay them rent. Daddy told her not to fret about it. He said that Mamaw and Papaw had just as much right to make money off of their place as anyone else. And the price they charged was fair. Daddy’s Army disability check was just enough to pay it.
That shack was small, and so was the piece of land it sat on. Daddy barely had room to plant a garden. We needed a garden that would grow enough vegetables for Mommy to can them. We depended on her canning to help get us through the cold, hard winter.
Geo Cassidy was our closest neighbor. His piece of land was so big he needed a plow to work his garden. He got a ton of vegetables out of it, but he never shared any of them. He was a mean old cuss.
Our place didn’t have electricity, but Geo’s place had it. He even had a television set. Brother Lee and me sneaked onto his front porch and peeked in his front window one night to see this marvel of modern science. Geo caught us, though, and chased us off with a shot gun. Daddy didn’t like that and told old Geo as much. Geo said that the next time he caught us out there, he would make that gun talk. Daddy just shook his head and told us not to go on Geo’s property no more.
My Daddy was an electrician by trade. He learned electricity when he was in the army during World War II. You would think that my daddy would have made a lot of money, being an electrician and all, but most folks around us didn’t have electricity. And them that did couldn’t afford to pay somebody to fix it when it wasn’t working right. That’s why we lost our house in St. Paul.
Geo Cassidy made a deal with my daddy. He’d give Daddy vegetables from his garden in exchange for maintaining the electricity in Geo’s house. They became friendly because of that, though they were never really friends.
One Friday evening, Geo came running like a banshee to our house, hollering for Daddy, “Ted! Ted!”
Daddy come running out to meet him, me and Brother Lee right behind. We thought maybe there was a house fire or something.
Geo was breathing so hard he couldn’t speak at first. Once he got his breath back, he told us to follow him to his house. Said he had something he wanted to show us. We went with him back to his barn, and when he opened it up, we saw a tall, muscular black horse standing there, so beautiful and regal it took my breath away.
“Geo, where did you get such a horse?” Daddy asked him.
Geo laughed, “I won him in a card game, Ted. You know how Rufus Gilliam has them poker games in the back room of his store of a Friday night? Well, I sat in on one of them games tonight. Some rich feller from out of town was there, too, on his way to Kentucky with a race horse he’d bought in Pennsylvania. He won’t real good at cards. Didn’t have a poker face. And you know me. I’m the best poker player in town.”
“And he bet this horse?” Daddy was dumbstruck.
“Had to,” Geo told him. “We’d already played three games and he run out of all his money. He wanted a chance at winning his money back, but I wouldn’t take a check nor an IOU, so he bet me his horse. He said it’s an Arabian stallion. He said it was gonna be the fastest horse the world ever saw…. He cried when I won it from him, but he honored his bet.”
“So you aim to race this horse?” Daddy asked.
“I don’t know nothing about racing horses,” Geo admitted. “I aim to use him to plow my field.”
“But, Geo!” Daddy protested, “You can’t use a show horse like this one to plow a field. That’s not what it was bred for.”
“Well,” Geo responded, “I won’t bred for it neither. My back is ruined from it. This horse will take a load off me.”
Daddy just shook his head, but Brother Lee was hopping from one foot to the other, he was so excited. “Can I pet him, Mr. Cassidy? What’s his name?”
“The man told me the horse’s name is Ebony Prince. Go ahead and pet him, boy”
Lee ran his fingers through the horse’s silky mane. “Ebony prince ain’t the right name for him,” he said.
“He sure is shiny,” Daddy observed. “Like a shiny piece of black coal.”
Geo didn’t like that. “Coal is no name for a horse.”
“But my teacher says that if enough pressure is applied to a piece of coal, it can turn into a diamond,” Brother Lee told them. “Why don’t we call him…. Black Diamond!”
Geo liked that, and Daddy did, too. The next day, Black Diamond took to the plow.
I wish I could say that old Geo was good to that horse, but he wasn’t. That proud animal didn’t like being hitched up to a plow. It bucked and thrashed so bad that Geo took a whip to it. Brother Lee cried every time that whip hit that horse’s back. One time he even begged old Geo to stop, but that just made Geo whip that horse harder. He told Brother Lee to mind his own business, or else he would take a whip to him, too. It took a few weeks, but Geo finally broke Black Diamond. And I have to say it was a sorry sight to see such a proud animal tugging and pulling that plow day in and day out.
One day Brother Lee come home from school with some fine news. Rufus Gilliam had offered him a part-time job at his store. Lee had to get Daddy’s permission first, though. Daddy said it was okay, as long as Lee didn’t let his school work get behind.
Rufus paid Brother Lee fifty cents a day. Lee spent part of his first day’s pay on sugar cubes for Black Diamond. Geo said he didn’t mind Brother Lee giving the horse treats, but he thought it was a waste of good money.
“Mr. Cassidy,” Brother Lee replied, “I ain’t wasting no money. I’m saving my money because I aim to buy Black Diamond from you.”
Old Geo just laughed and laughed when Lee said that. “You’re gonna buy my prize show horse, are ye? You can’t even afford to buy a television set.”
Brother Lee paid no attention to all that mocking from Geo. He went to work every day, and he saved every cent that he could. That winter he used some of his money to help out Daddy, and he continued to get a sugar cube for Black Diamond every single day. All the rest of his money, though, went into a tin can that he kept under his bed. That was the money he was saving for Black Diamond.
Every night when Brother Lee got home from work, before he even had his supper, he’d go to Geo’s barn to see that horse. One night he was out there with Black Diamond longer than usual, and Mommy sent me to get him before his supper got cold. I tiptoed around the corner of old Geo’s barn – I was fixing to make the sound of a ghost wind and scare Brother Lee. But then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. That horse had his long neck wrapped tight around Lee, and Lee had his arms around Black Diamond’s neck. When I got closer, I seen tears running down Lee’s cheeks. I thought he was hurt, and I screamed, “Daddy!” But Brother Lee said, “SHUSH! Black Diamond ain’t hurting me. He’s hugging me.”
And that’s when I seen that Brother Lee was smiling through those tears. It made me jealous. “Reckon you and Black Diamond are bonded for life,” I told him.
“For life and beyond,” he responded. “Ain’t nothing can separate me and Black Diamond.”
Time passes slow, and three years went by before Brother Lee realized that he was never going to be able to save enough money to buy Black Diamond. Shortly after that, in 1967, Brother Lee graduated from high school. Old Geo told Lee that if he didn’t act fast, the Army was going to draft him for Viet Nam. He advised Lee to join up with the marines, because they would make a man out of him. I don’t know why Brother Lee listened to old Geo, but he did. He went straight to the Marine Corps recruiter right after his graduation.
The day Brother Lee packed and left for the bus station, he went to say good bye to Black Diamond. The horse took the sugar cube that Brother Lee offered him. Lee hugged his neck hard and sobbed like a little baby, and once again Black Diamond wrapped his neck around Lee and hugged him back. I swear, that horse had tears running down his face, too.
By this time, Black Diamond looked far older than his years. His swayed back was scarred from all those whippings, and he was missing big patches of his hair. He was so thin you could see his ribcage poking out of his sides. He couldn’t pull a plow no more. But when he saw Brother Lee walking away, something got into that horse. He ran into the middle of the field and reared up on his hind legs, and then he ran like the wind and jumped high over the fence that had held him prisoner, so graceful…… just like the horse he was meant to be. I could see years dropping off his life in that jump. I could the shiny black, muscular stallion he had been on the day old Geo brought him home.
Daddy started to go after Black Diamond, but old Geo called, “No! He aims to see your boy off. Let Black Diamond go with him to the bus station. He’ll come on back when he’s of a mind to. Suits me if he don’t come back at all. That horse is more trouble than he’s worth these days.”
Sure enough, Black Diamond caught up to Brother Lee at the big oak tree on the edge of our property. Lee stopped and Black Diamond slowly knelt in front of him. Lee put one leg over Black Diamond’s back and rode him bareback down the road that led to town.
Black Diamond was gone for two whole days. Folks in town said they had to throw rocks at him to get him to go home. Geo told Daddy that if he would fix his fence for him, he could have Black Diamond. Daddy had no use for a starved out, beat down horse, but he did it for Brother Lee. He knew it would mean the world to Brother Lee to see that horse when he came home again.
Lee had left a sack of sugar cubes with me, told me to give one to Black Diamond every day. When the sack was empty, Daddy took it to Gilliam’s General Store and Rufus filled it up again. Wouldn’t let my Daddy pay for it. Rufus said it was the least he could do to help a brave, young boy who was serving his country.
In September, after he finished boot camp, Brother Lee got his orders for Viet Nam. He could have come home to visit before shipping out, but instead he sent Daddy the money he would have paid for a bus ticket. Brother Lee knew that a hard winter was coming, and Daddy would need that money to feed the family.
One night, August 18, 1969 it was, Black Diamond took to crying and fretting, and there was nothing anybody could do to calm him down. He made so much noise that old Geo threatened to shoot him. Daddy got his own gun out then and told Geo that if he was gonna shoot Black Diamond, he better shoot to kill, cause that was what Daddy aimed to do to old Geo. Geo backed off then and went back to his house. “You Melungeons is crazy!” he snarled. Never spoke to Daddy again.
Three days later, a black car pulled up to that little shack we lived in. Two men in Marine Corps dress blues stepped out of it. One of them patted my daddy on the back and handed him a telegram. As I watched Daddy fall to his knees, Mommy come running out of the house crying, “No! No!” And Black Diamond…. He was howling like a banshee. His pain pierced my ears and cut me right to the bone.
Later, Daddy told me what had happened. On August 18, Lee was riding in the back of a supply truck that stopped to pick up a fellow marine. That fellow threw his jacket into the back of the truck without realizing that that there was a grenade with a loose pen in the jacket’s pocket. Everybody in the back of that truck was killed. Poor Brother Lee never knew what happened.
After that, Black Diamond wouldn’t take any food, not even a sugar cube, from nobody. No matter what I said or did, that horse wouldn’t eat a bite. He just got weaker and weaker until, early one morning, my daddy found him dead in the field, under that big oak tree on the edge of our property, where he had said good bye to Brother Lee.
On the night of August 18, 1970, I had a hard time sleeping, it being the first anniversary of Brother Lee’s death and all. There was a full moon so bright that it looked like daylight in our little shack. And there was a hoot owl by my window that wouldn’t keep quiet. I never went outside after dark, but that night I felt the pull of the moon, and I walked out the door and into the field. Up I stared at that full moon, so beautiful it made me dizzy. But then I heard the rustle of the wind through the leaves of that old oak tree, and I turned to see its silhouette against the moon… There was something under that tree, but I could not make out what it was. I walked closer and saw the silhouettes of a young man and a horse. The man had his arms wrapped around the horse’s neck, and the horse had his long graceful neck wrapped about the man’s body. I walked still closer, until I could see that the horse was Black Diamond with his youth, strength and beauty restored to him. And the young man was Brother Lee, standing proud and strong in his Marine Corp dress blues. He looked happier than I had ever seen him. At first I thought they were real, that they had somehow come back from the dead. But then, just as I was about to reach out and touch my brother, they just disappeared into thin air, like a mirage.
I don’t live in that shack anymore. I moved in with my cousin Dulcie in Portsmouth, Virginia after Mommy and Daddy died. Got me a job as a bookkeeper for Flower’s Bakery. Jobs are easier to get in the city.
I still keep in touch with friends in Wise County. They tell me that there are some folks that claim to see a young marine riding bareback on a beautiful black horse under the full moon, on the road that runs past that old shack in Esserville. I tell them that when my time comes, I aim to go there on a night of the full moon and see if they will let me hitch a ride. Then we’ll all ride together to that place where tears are no longer, and dreams are always sweet.