Billy May Platte is a half Irish, half Cherokee Appalachian woman who learned the hard way that 1940s West Virginia was no place to be different.
As Billy May explains, “We was sheltered in them hills. We didn’t know much of nothin’ about life outside of them mountains. I did not know the word lesbian; to us, gay meant havin’ fun and queer meant somethin’ strange.”
In 1945, when Billy May was fourteen years old and orphaned, three local boys witnessed an incident in which Billy May’s sexuality was called into question. Determined to teach her a lesson she would never forget, they orchestrated a brutal attack that changed the dynamics of the tiny coal mining village of Cedar Hollow, West Virginia forever.
Global Ebook Gold Medal Winner in 2013, a finalist for the University of North Carolina-Wilmington’s Synergy Program in 2013, and voted Sapphic Readers Book Club Book of the Year in 2011 (under a different imprint), Appalachian Justice is a work of southern fiction that delves into social issues such as poverty, domestic violence, misogyny, and sexual orientation. Ultimately, however, Appalachian Justice delivers a message of hope.
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Crutcher Mountain, West Virginia, 1975
IN THE CHILL of the encroaching evening the girl ran, heart pounding with the effort, lungs gasping for air. Her bare feet, cut and bruised, left bloody smears across the rocky outcrop but she didn't notice, intent only on escape. Panting and gasping, chest heaving, scrawny limbs pumping, she ran down the treacherous wall of the briar-choked gully, tripping over the uneven ground. Clumps of her dark, knotted hair caught and remained on branches that seemed, in her terrified state, to reach towards her, conspiring against her, using their gnarled wooden fingers to hold her hostage.
She was young, certainly no older than twelve, balanced somewhere on the precipice between childhood and adolescence, and painfully thin for her age. The threadbare t-shirt she wore did little to camouflage the xylophone of her ribcage, the knobs of her spine a fragile zipper down her back. She was filthy, too, her battered feet nearly black from the coal dust soil of the mountains. Under normal circumstances, she would have been pretty, her almond-shaped eyes a stormy shade of green, her limbs long and supple. But the girl didn't live in normal circumstances, and as such, any prettiness she might have possessed was eclipsed by the ravages of fear and despair.
It was dusk in the mountains, the last warm rays of the sun shining upon the girl's chestnut colored hair and creating momentary sparkles of light among the tangles as she crashed downward through the gully. Ahead of her, squirrels raced for trees, scrambling for higher ground, abandoning the nuts and berries for which they had so determinedly foraged. Snakes raced away from her path, slithering through the impenetrable brush before taking refuge in the cool recesses of the damp rock walls. Even the songbirds fell silent, blue jays and mockingbirds halting their never ending arguments in the wake of the girl's flight.
The girl, however, noticed none of this. Her sensory perceptions having condensed into little more than animal instinct, she knew only that she had to run.
From the top of my mountain, I seen that girl runnin'. It was them hawks that told me to look. I was just finishin' my chores for the evenin' when I heard 'em squawkin' the way they do when somethin' worries 'em. Broad-winged, they was, and there was a passel of 'em, all spiralin' up in the currents over them mountains. They wasn't happy; somethin' had their attention and I remember hopin' it wasn't nothin' serious. A fox maybe, or even a bear would be fine. I didn't pay no mind to the animals; it was the people I feared. Give me a bear any day over a man. Bears is predictable; men ain't.
More than anythin' else, I was just curious about whatever was botherin' 'em. There must have been ten or twelve of 'em, all gathered together for their winter's flight south. Smart birds, I remember thinkin'. The cold on these mountains can kill a person quick, if they ain't careful. The cold and any number of other things.
I gave the axe a final swing and planted it securely in the choppin' block. Last thing I needed was to trip over my own axe on my way to feedin' the animals. If it didn't kill me right away, I'd be dead of exposure soon enough. It wasn't like nobody was goin' to come lookin' for me, and even if they did, they wouldn't know where to look. I bent down to gather the last piece of firewood and headed towards the cabin, wipin' the sweat off my brow with my shirtsleeve. Fall was comin' but the evenin' was a warm one, and I was a forty- four year old woman swingin' an axe.
I was filthy, soaked through with sweat, but who was to know? I lived alone, had for years, and that was the way I planned on keepin' it. I had no illusions about myself and never had. My thick, black hair was cut short for ease, and thirty years on a West Virginia mountain summit had taken its toll on whatever good looks I may have once enjoyed. I was as brown as my Cherokee momma, my skin as creased as old leather.
With the sweat out of my eyes, I looked up to see the reddish brown underbellies of all them little hawks, flyin' up high above the range and hollerin' to beat the band. I dropped the split wood into the wood box by the front door with a clatter and shaded my eyes against the lowerin' sun, gazin' out over the gully and tryin' to see what had caused the commotion. And that's when I seen her. There she was, Roy Campbell's girl, it had to be, headed for the creek and runnin' as if her life depended on it. I hadn't never met the girl, but there wasn't no one else livin' this high on the range. Keepin' my eye on her, I took off my work gloves, shoved 'em into the back pocket of my dungarees, and felt in my shirt pocket for a cigarette.
Findin' what I was lookin' for, I struck a match along the front of my little cabin and, usin' my hands, sheltered the timid flame while I lit up, sighin' with pleasure as the nicotine went to work. I don't like to admit to vices, but nicotine has been mine, nevertheless. I reckon we all got some sort of weakness, and nicotine was it for me, at least after I took up residence on the mountain. My lungs full of smoke and the cravin' thus satisfied, I leaned forward over the splintered railin' of the cabin's west facin' porch, proppin' my elbows on the weathered wood, danglin' my hands over the edge. This was how I spent nearly all of my evenin's after a hard day's work, but this was the first time I'd ever seen another person so close to my mountain. I drug hard on the cigarette and squinted through the smoke, watchin' the girl's frantic flight down the neighborin' hill.
The sheer desperation of the girl's flight troubled me. I hadn't seen Roy Campbell in nearly thirty years, but I doubted he had changed much. Judgin' by the frightened, filthy state of the girl, he hadn't changed at all. I watched the girl until she cut left around a boulder and disappeared from my view.
Takin' a final drag, I flicked the last of the butt over the rail and into the dust, scatterin' the chickens and causin' a flurry of agitated cluckin'. The sun was just beginnin' to dip below the summit of the mountain, spreadin' rosy streaks across the western sky the way it does on clear mountain evenin's. A cool breeze kicked up sudden like from the north, causin' the dust to dance in miniature tornados and sendin' an involuntary shiver down my spine. The universe has a lot to tell us, if we're listenin'. For thirty years, my survival had depended on listenin', so listen I did.
I still had work to do. First and foremost, I needed to gather them chickens into their coop before the spiralin' hawks decided they'd make for an easy dinner. But I found myself drawn to the girl, unwillin' to leave my perch. Distracted from my chores, I raked my hand through my hair, the calluses catchin' and pullin' as they always did, and gazed down the holler. Truth be told, I was afraid; I ain't ashamed to say it now, and I wasn't ashamed then, neither. The universe was talkin', and I didn't much like was it was sayin'.
The old woman
Huntington, West Virginia, 2010
I WAKE UP to the beep and hiss of the profusion of medical equipment that holds me hostage. I'm confused at first, the bright lights blindin' me. In my mind, I'm still on the mountain, and they is comin' after me again, pinnin' me down. I fight against the tubes snakin' into my arms, pull at the adhesives holdin' them to my chest. I cain't breathe, and they won't let me go; I panic.
A warm, brown hand stills my own, preventin' me from unpluggin' myself from the machines that monitor my body, and then I know. I ain't on the mountain, and it ain't 1975. It's 2010. I'm an old woman, and I'm dyin'. Funny how in my last days my mind keeps takin' me back up to that mountain.
"It won't be long now until she comes, Ms. Platte," says the young nurse, and her voice is too loud, as if the very act of becomin' old has automatically rendered me either dimwitted or deaf. "You just relax."
I'm annoyed by the patronizin' tone of her voice, but I stop fightin' and tamp down my irritation. The nurse don't mean no harm; she's a sweet girl, really, and I'm just a crotchety old woman she's paid to put up with. She cain't possibly know how I hate bein' restrained, could never understand the fear I have upon wakin' and rediscoverin' that I am, in essence, tied to this bed, held in place by the various tubes and monitors that is supposed to provide me comfort and relief. The irony of it all is astoundin'.
It ain't the nurse's fault that she cain't comprehend; after all, she don't know nothin' of my past. My chart don't have nothin' in it but what's needed: my address and phone number, the nature of my illness, copies of my medical insurance card. That's all they need from me, and that's all they is goin' to get.
I look over at the nurse. She's young and pretty, a black girl with smooth skin and a sweet smile. That poor girl don't need me givin' her a hard time; I'll be more patient. After all, she's surely better than that other one, the mornin' nurse, with her beady eyes and sharp nose, forever snappin' on the lights and announcin' at the top of her lungs, "Up and at 'em!" Lord knows, I ain't gettin' up and gettin' at nothin' these days, and she oughta be glad for it, because that may just be what's savin' her life. At least this one here is always cheerful, always makin' sure I'm comfortable with fresh water and a fluffed pillow. What's her name? I forget.
One thing that perplexes me is how when you get old you cain't remember what happened three minutes ago but you cain't stop rememberin' what happened three decades ago. Plumb crazy is what that is. Now, what is her name? Somethin' cute and perky. Oh, yes, I remember now. Starlette. Lord, that woman can talk. I'm too tired to respond to all the jabberin' but I smile to let her know I appreciate her kindness.
Starlette has evidently taken my smile as a sign to continue, because she keeps prattlin' on, "How long has it been since you've seen her, Ms. Platte? My goodness, you must miss her. And how did you say you know her? Is she an old family friend? Isn't that nice. You must be so excited."
In her chatty exuberance, the blamed woman has rearranged my body into a position that is sure enough guaranteed to result in leg cramps as soon as she leaves the room, but I won't complain; it ain't in my nature. I'll work my legs around later; move 'em into a more comfortable position. It might take a while, but I can do it. After all, I ain't dead yet.
"And do you have any children, Ms. Platte? Will they be coming, too? That will be so much fun."
I close my eyes, plumb exhausted. Starlette don't really expect no reply, and I'm too tired to give her one. If only she would hush; I don't want to talk. Hell, I cain't talk. I'm so tired I cain't hardly even breathe. Besides, some things is just impossible to explain and it don't pay to even try. Seem like when you try to explain somethin' important to somebody else, somethin' you hold close to your heart, they don't always right away understand the importance, and that is a frustratin' thing. The answers to them questions she keeps askin' me is important; they is my whole life, and I ain't goin' to take the chance of tellin' someone who cain't understand that.
I keep my mouth shut and breathe deep, prayin' that the nurse will hurry up and finish fluffin' and soothin' and talkin' and move on to the next dyin' patient, leavin' me in peace. My mind is already back up on that summit, whether I want it to go there or not. I will tell you my story if you want to know it, but some parts of it ain't pretty. Then again, some parts of it is just plain beautiful. Ain't that always the way of it? Just know that it is important, my story. It truly is.
The hiding place
Crutcher Mountain, West Virginia, 1975
THAT NEXT MORNIN', the one after I first seen the girl, I was up before sunrise hit the mountain, buildin' a small fire in the stove to ward off the early mornin' chill. It would warm up later, but in the mornin's there was already a nip in the air, particularly in the hours just before dawn, a sign of things to come in the winter ahead. Takin' note of the activity around me, I was anticipatin' a hard one. The migratory birds was already takin' flight and the four-legged critters of the woods was in a flurry of activity, hoardin', storin', or eatin' as their species required. I watched these things. I had learned long ago that the animals knew more than I did, and it behooved me to pay attention.
While the water boiled for coffee I dressed in the same flannel shirt and dungarees I'd worn the day before, pullin' my work boots on over wool socks and lacin' them with stiff fingers. Rummagin' through the steamer trunk at the foot of the cabin's only bed, I pulled out an old flour sack into which I threw some bread and cheese, a quilt and a box of matches. My preparations completed, I stood at the cabin's lone window in the cabin's single room, warmin' my hands on my coffee mug, takin' turns blowin' on and drinkin' the strong, black drink, tryin' to get a handle on my thoughts.
Mall sios, beag amhain, I heard my daddy's laughin' voice in my head. Slow down, little one, he would say to me, his Irish accent so different from the mountain twang around us. Smaoinigh sula gniomhu tu. Think before you act, Billy May. I'm tryin' Daddy, I thought right back at him. But you know I ain't never been good at waitin'. I sipped my coffee and pushed my daddy out of my head. If he wanted me to think, I needed room to do it.
I knew where the girl had gone. I had seen the signs a week before while I was down at the creek fishin' for trout. By then, I had been livin' on that mountain for thirty years and I knew every crook and cranny to be found. I also knew how to track, but I was certain I wouldn't need the skill that mornin'. The girl hadn't been interested in coverin' her trail; she had been runnin' for her life, crashin' through them wild blackberry thorns and honeysuckle vines like they wasn't nothin' but dandelion fluff.
I finished my coffee and set the cup in the washbasin, rubbin' my hands together for warmth. I remember bein' anxious to get started, not because I thought I'd see the girl — I didn't want to see the girl — but because when I was on the move my thoughts was quieter. Gatherin' up the flour sack, I got my rifle down from the rack over my bed. The city folk thought West Virginia mountain lions was all gone by the 1970s, but I still occasionally stumbled across tracks, and more than once I'd heard their spine-tinglin' screams in the wee hours of the mornin'. If you ain't never heard one, believe me, you don't want to; it'll make your hair stand on end. I didn't think I'd run across one that close to sunrise, but I didn't want to be caught unprepared.
I don't like to kill things, never have, and I wouldn't have never killed a mountain lion anyway, not even to save myself. Momma always said they was sacred, one of the only two animals that didn't fall asleep durin' the creation. I don't know as I believed that, but I respected that Momma did. No, I wouldn't kill one, but I would shoot in the air to scare one off if I needed to. Besides, mountain lions wasn't the only danger up on that range. Black bears was all over them mountains back then, and though more than likely they'd head the other way as soon as they captured my scent, I had learned to be cautious, especially when them bears was preparin' for hibernation. If it came down to it, I wouldn't have no problem shootin' a bear to save myself.
What I knew but refused to admit to myself that long ago mornin' was that out of all the livin' creatures on the range, Roy Campbell was by far the biggest threat. I reckon I couldn't admit it because I was scared to. At any rate, I doubted he'd followed the girl; whatever he had wanted from her, he'd already took. Roy was like that. Nevertheless, I shoved some extra ammunition into my shirt pocket. More than anybody, I knew exactly what Roy was capable of. The gun was for him. If it came down to it, I remember thinkin' to myself that mornin', I might actually enjoy shootin' Roy.
Shoulderin' my rifle and the sack, I pulled the heavy planked door shut behind me and stepped off the porch and into the dirt yard, enjoyin' my cigarette and listenin' for a minute to the sounds of the mountain. It was cold; my breath steamed in the night air. The eerie call of a screech owl took over the woods for a bit, echoin' off the mountains and frightenin' the crickets into a momentary silence. Momma always said the call of an owl was a good omen, and I believed it. Owls is known for bein' wise and helpful, and this one was tellin' me to get goin'.
Excerpted from "Appalachian Justice"
Copyright © 2013 Melinda Clayton.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Cedar Hollow, West Virginia, 2010,
Chapter One: The beginning,
Chapter Two: The old woman,
Chapter Three: The hiding place,