Of all the folks on the mountain, the Casteel children are the lowest.
Even the families that buy them think so.
Heaven Leigh Casteel may be the prettiest, smartest girl in the backwoods, but her cruel father and weary stepmother work her like a mule. For the sake of her brother Tom and the other little ones, Heaven clings to the hope that someday she can show the world that they are worthy of love and respect.
But when the children’s stepmother can’t take it anymore and abandons the family, Heaven’s father hatches a scheme that will alter her young life forever. Being sold to a strange couple is just the beginning; ripping away the thin veneer of civilization and learning the adult secrets of the world around her means Heaven must abandon someone, too—the child she was, to become the woman her mother never had the chance to be.
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 6, 1923
Date of Death:December 19, 1986
Place of Birth:Portsmouth, Virginia
Place of Death:Virginia Beach, Virginia
Read an Excerpt
Heaven THE WAY IT USED TO BE
IF JESUS DIED ALMOST TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO TO save us all from the worst we had in us, he’d failed in our area, except on Sundays between the hours of ten A.M. and noon. At least in my opinion.
But what was my opinion? Worthy as onion peelings, I thought, as I pondered how Pa had married Sarah two months after my mother died in childbirth—and he’d loved his “angel” so much. And four months after I was born and my mother was buried, Sarah gave birth to the son Pa had so wanted when I came along and ended my mother’s brief stay on earth.
I was too young to remember the birth of this first son, who was christened Thomas Luke Casteel the Second, and they put him, so I’ve been told, in the cradle with me, and like twins we were rocked, nursed, held, but not equally loved. No one had to tell me that.
I loved Tom with his fire-red hair inherited from Sarah, and his flashing green eyes, also inherited from his mother. There was nothing in him at all to remind me of Pa, except later he did grow very tall.
After hearing Granny’s tale of my true mother on the eve of my tenth birthday, I determined never, so help me God, never would I tell my brother Tom any different from what he already believed, that Heaven Leigh Casteel was his own true whole-blood sister. I wanted to keep that special something that made us almost one person. His thoughts and my thoughts were very much alike because we’d shared the same cradle, and had communicated silently soon after we were born, and that had to make us special. Being special was of great importance to both of us, I guess because we feared so much we weren’t.
Sarah stood six feet tall without shoes. An Amazon mate very suitable for a man as tall and powerful as Pa. Sarah was never sick. According to Granny (whom Tom sometimes jokingly called Wisdom Mouth), the birth of Tom gave Sarah a mature bustline, so full it appeared matronly when she was still fourteen.
“An,” informed Granny, “even afta givin birth, Sarah would get up soon as it was ova, pick up what chore she’d left unfinished, jus as if she hadn’t undergone t’most awful ordeal we women have t’suffa through without complaint. Why, Sarah could cook while tryin t’encourage a newborn baby t’suckle.” Yeah, thought I, her robust good health must be her main attraction for Pa. He didn’t seem to admire Sarah’s type of beauty much, but at least she wasn’t likely to die in childbirth and leave him in a pit of black despair.
One year after Tom came Fanny, with her jet-black hair like Pa’s, her dark blue eyes turning almost black before she was a year old. An Indian girl was our Fanny, browner than a berry, but very seldom happy about anything.
Four years after Fanny came Keith, named after Sarah’s long-dead father. Keith had the sweetest pale auburn hair, you just had to love him right from the beginning—especially when he turned out to be very quiet, hardly any bother at all, not wailing, screaming, and demanding all the time as Fanny had—and still did. Eventually Keith’s blue eyes turned topaz, his skin rivaled the peaches-and-cream complexion lots of people said I had, though I didn’t truly know since I wasn’t given much to peering into our cracked and poorly reflecting mirror.
Keith grew to be an exceptionally good little boy who appreciated beauty so much that when a new baby came along the year after he was born, he would sit for hours and hours just gazing at the delicate little girl who was sickly from the very beginning. Pretty as a tiny doll was this new little sister that Sarah allowed me to name, and Jane she became, since at that time I’d seen a Jane on a magazine cover, too pretty to believe.
Jane had soft wisps of pale golden-red hair, huge aqua eyes, long dark curling lashes that she’d flutter as she lay discontentedly in the cradle gazing at Keith. Occasionally Keith would reach to rock the cradle, and that would make her smile, a smile of such disarming sweetness you’d do anything just to see that smile come out like sunshine after the rain.
After Jane was born she began to dominate our lives. To bring a smile to Jane’s angelic face became the loving and dutiful obligation of all of us. To make her laugh instead of wail was my own special delight. Time to rejoice when Jane could smile instead of whine from mysterious aches and pains she couldn’t name. And in this, as in everything else, what I enjoyed doing was what Fanny had to spoil.
“Ya give her t’me!” screamed Fanny, running with her long, skinny legs to kick my shins before she darted away and called from a safe place in our dirt yard, “She’s our Jane—not yers! Not Tom’s! Not Keith’s! OURS! Everythin here is OURS, not yers alone! Heaven Leigh Casteel!”
From then on Jane became Our Jane, and was called that until eventually all of us forgot that once upon a time our youngest, sweetest, frailest, had only one name.
I knew about names and what they could do.
My own name was both a blessing and a curse. I tried to make myself believe such a “spiritual” name had to be a blessing—why, who else in the whole wide world had a name like Heaven Leigh? No one, no one, whispered the little bluebird of happiness who lived now and then in my brain, singing me to sleep and telling me that everything, in the long run, would work out just fine ... just fine. Trouble was, I had an old black crow roosting in my brain as well, telling me such a name tempted fate to do its worst.
Then there was Pa.
In my secret and putaway heart there were times when I wanted more than anything in the world to love the lonely father who sat so often staring sullenly into space, looking as if life had cheated him. He had ebony-dark hair, inherited from a true Indian ancestor who’d stolen a white girl and mated with her. His eyes were as black as his hair, and his skin kept a deep bronze color winter and summer; his beard didn’t show through shadowy dark the way most beards did on men with such dark hair. His shoulders were wonderfully wide. Why, you could watch him in the yard swinging an ax, chopping wood, and see the most complicated display of muscles all big and strong, so that Sarah, bending over a washtub, would look up and stare at him with such love and yearning in her eyes it would almost break my heart to know he never seemed to care whether or not she admired and loved him, or cried every time he didn’t come home until early morning.
Sometimes his moody, melancholy air made me doubt my mean thoughts. I watched him the spring when I was thirteen, knowing about my own true mother, and saw him sitting slouched in a chair, staring into space, as if dreaming of something; I, in the shadows, longed to reach out and touch his cheek, wondering if it would be bristly—I’d never touched his face. What would he do if I dared? Slap my face? Yell, shout, no doubt that’s exactly what he’d do—and yet, yet, there was in me a deep need to love him and be loved by him. All the time that aching need was there, waiting to ignite and burst into a bonfire of love and affection.
If only he’d see me, do or say one thing to encourage me to believe he did love me at least a little.
But he never even looked at me. He never spoke to me. He treated me as if I weren’t there.
But when Fanny came flying up the rickety steps of the porch and hurled herself onto his lap, shouting out how glad she was to see him, he kissed her. My heart pained to see the way he cuddled her close so he could stroke her long, shiny dark hair. “How ya been, Fanny girl?”
“Missin ya, Pa! Hate it when ya don’t come home. Ain’t good here without ya! Please, Pa, this time stay!”
“Sweet,” he murmured, “nice t’be missed—maybe that’s why I stay away.”
Oh, the pain my father delivered when he stroked Fanny’s hair and ignored mine. Worse than the pain he gave from slaps and ugly words when once in a while I made him see me, and forced him to respond to me. Deliberately I strode forward, coming out of the shadows into the light, carrying balanced on my hips a huge basket of clothes I’d just taken from the rope lines and folded. Fanny smirked my way. Pa didn’t move his eyes to indicate he knew how hard I worked, though a muscle near his lips twitched. I didn’t speak but passed on by, as if he hadn’t been gone two weeks and I’d seen him only minutes ago. It did shrivel me some to be ignored, even as I ignored him.
Fanny never did any work. Sarah and I did that. Granny did the talking; Grandpa whittled; and Pa came and went as he pleased, selling booze for the moonshiners, and sometimes helping them make it, but it was outwitting the Feds that gave Pa his greatest pleasure, and made him his biggest money—according to Sarah, who was terrified he’d be caught and thrown in jail, because the professional liquor brewers didn’t care for the competition overproof alcohol gave them. Often he’d go and stay a week or two, and when he was gone Sarah allowed her hair to go dirty, and her meals were worse than usual. But when Pa walked in the door and threw her a careless smile or word, she came alive, to hurry and bathe, to put on the best she had (a choice of three dresses, none really good). It was her fervent desire to have makeup to wear when Pa was home, and a green silk dress to match the color of her eyes. Oh, it was easy to see that Sarah had all her hopes and dreams pinned on that day when real cosmetics and a green silk dress came into her life and made Pa love her as much as he’d loved that poor dead girl who’d been my mother.
Our cabin near the sky was made of old wood full of knotholes to let in the cold and heat, or let out our cold or heat, whichever would make us most miserable. It had never known paint, and never would. Our roof was made of tin that had turned rusty long before I was born, and had wept a million tears to stain the old silvery wood. We had drainpipes and rain barrels to catch the water in which we took baths and washed our hair once we had heated it on the cast-iron stove we nicknamed Ole Smokey. It belched and spat out so much vile smoke we were always half crying and coughing when we were shut up in there with the windows down and the only door to the outside closed.
Across the front of our mountain cabin was the obligatory front porch. Each spring saw Granny and Grandpa leave the cabin, to decorate our sagging, dilapidated porch with their twin rockers. Granny knitting, crocheting, weaving, making braided rugs, as Grandpa whittled. Sometimes Grandpa fiddled for the bam dances held once a week, but the older Grandpa grew the less he liked to fiddle and the more he liked to whittle.
Inside were two small rooms, with a tattered curtain to form a kind of flimsy door for the “bedroom.” Our stove not only heated our place but also cooked our food, baked our biscuits, heated our bathwater. Once a week before we went to church on Sundays, we took baths and washed our hair.
Next to Ole Smokey sat an ancient kitchen cabinet outfitted with metal bins for flour, sugar, coffee, and tea. We couldn’t afford real sugar, coffee, or tea, but we did use gallon cans of lard for our gravy and biscuits. When we were extraordinarily lucky we had honey enough for our wild berries. When we were blessed beyond belief we had a cow to give us milk, and always there were chickens, ducks, and geese to supply us with eggs, and fresh meat on Sundays. Hogs and pigs roamed at will, to snuggle down under our house and keep us awake with all their bad dreams. Inside, Pa’s hunting hounds had the run of our home, since all mountain folk knew dogs were durn important when it came to supplying a steady flow of meat other than domestic fowl.
Animals we had aplenty when you counted the stray cats and dogs who came to give us hundreds of kittens and puppies. Why, our dirt yard was full of wandering animals, and anything else that could stand the clutter and noise of living with Casteels—the scum of the hills.
In what we called our bedroom was one big brass bed with a saggy old stained mattress over coiled springs that squeaked and squealed whenever there was activity on that bed. Sometimes what went on in there was embarrassingly close and loud; the curtain did little to muffle sound.
In town and in school they called us hill scum, hill fifth, and scumbags. Hillbillies was the nicest thing they ever called us. Of all the folks in the mountain shacks, there wasn’t one family more despised than ours, the Casteels, the worst of the lot. Despised not only by valley folk but by our own kind, for some reason I never understood. But ... we were the family with five Casteel sons in prison for major and minor crimes. No wonder Granny cried at night; all her sons had been so disappointing. She had only her youngest left, Pa, and if he gave her joy I never knew of it. On him she’d placed all her expectations, waiting for that wonderful someday when he proved to the world that Casteels were not the worst scum of the hills.
Now, I’ve heard tell, though it’s hard to believe, that there are kids in the world who hate school, but Tom and I couldn’t wait for Mondays to roll around, just so we could escape the confines of our small mountain cabin with its smelly, cramped two rooms, its far walk to the stinking old outhouse.
Our school was made of red brick and sat smack in the heart of Winnerrow, the nearest valley village, set deep in the Willies. We walked seven miles to and seven miles fro as if they were nothing, always with Tom close at my side, Fanny tagging along behind, meaner than ten vipers, with Pa’s black eyes and Pa’s own temper. She was pretty as a picture, but mad at the world because her family was so “stinking rotten poor,” as Fanny succinctly put it.
“... an we don’t live in a pretty painted house like they do in Winnerrow, where they got real bathrooms,” Fanny shrilled, always complaining about things the rest of us accepted lest we be miserable. “Inside bathrooms—kin ya imagine? Heard tell some houses got two, THREE—each with hot an cold runnin water, kin ya believe such as that?”
“Kin believe most anythin bout Winnerrow,” answered Tom, skipping a pebble over the river water that was our bathing hole in the summers. Without that river running we’d have been much dirtier than we were. The river and its little ponds, pools, and freshwater springs made life better in a thousand ways, making up some for all that would have been intolerable but for cool, tasty spring water, and a swimming hole as good as any city pool.
“Heaven, ya ain’t listenin!” yelled Fanny, who had to have center stage all of the time. “An what’s more, they got kitchen sinks in Winnerrow. Double sinks! Central heating ... Tom, what’s central heating?”
“Fanny, we got t’same thin in Ole Smokey that sets clean smack in t’middle of our cabin.”
“Tom,” I said, “I don’t think that’s really what central heating means.”
“As fer as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what I want it t’mean.”
If I seldom agreed with Fanny about anything else, I did agree that it would be paradise unlimited to live in a painted house with four or five rooms, to have all the hot and cold water at one’s will just by turning on a faucet—and a toilet that flushed.
Oh, gosh, to think of central heating, double sinks, and flushing toilets made me realize just how poor we really were. I didn’t like to think about it, to feel sorry for myself, to be inundated with worries about Keith and Our Jane. Now, if Fanny would only wash her clothes, that would help a little. But Fanny never would do anything, not even sweep the front porch, though she was pretty crazy about sweeping the dirt yard free of leaves. Because it was a fun thing to do, was my sour reasoning. Out there she could watch Tom playing ball with his buddies, while Sarah and I did the real work, and Granny did the talking.
Granny had good reasons for not working as hard as Sarah. Granny had her own problems getting up once she was down, and getting down once she was up. The time it took for her to get from here to there seemed an eternity as she held on to what furniture we had. There just wasn’t enough furniture to take Granny everywhere she wanted to go easily.
Sarah taught me when I was old enough, and Granny was too feeble to help (and Fanny flatly refused to do anything even when she was three, four, or five), how to diaper babies, how to feed them, give them baths in a small metal washtub. Sarah taught me a thousand things. By the time I was eight I knew how to make biscuits, melt the lard for the gravy, add the flour with water before I blended it into the hot grease. She taught me how to clean windows and scrub floors and use the washboard to force dirt out of filthy clothes. She also taught Tom to do as much as he could to help me, even if other boys did call him a sissy for doing “women’s work.” If Tom had not loved me so much, he might have objected more.
A week came when Pa was home every night. Sarah was happy as a bluebird, humming under her breath and shyly glancing at Pa often, as if he’d come courting and wasn’t just a husband tired of running moonshine. Maybe somewhere out on a lonely highway a Federal revenue man was waiting for Luke Casteel, ready to pitch him into jail along with his brothers.
Out in the yard I scrubbed away on dirty clothes, as usual, while Fanny skipped rope and Pa pitched the ball for Tom to swing at with his one and only plaything, a ballbat left over from Pa’s childhood. Keith and Our Jane hung around me, wanting to hang up the washed clothes—neither one could reach the rope lines.
“Fanny, why don’t you help Heavenly?” yelled Tom, throwing me a worried glance.
“Don’t want to!” was Fanny’s answer.
“Pa, why don’t you make Fanny help Heavenly?”
Pa hurled the ball so hard it almost hit Tom, who took a wild swing and, off balance, fell to the ground. “Don’t ever pay attention to women’s work,” said Pa with a gruff laugh. He turned toward the house, in time to hear Sarah bellow our evening meal was ready: “Come an git it!”
Painfully Granny rose from her porch rocker. Grandpa struggled to rise from his. “Gettin old is worse than I thought it would be,” groaned Granny once she was on her feet and trying to make it to the table before all the food was gone. Our Jane ran to her to be led by the hand, for Granny could do that if not much else. She groaned again. “Makes me think that dyin ain’t so bad after all.”
“Stop saying that!” stormed Pa. “I’m home to enjoy myself, not to hear talk about death and dying!” And in no time at all, almost before Granny and Grandpa were comfortable in their chairs at the table, he got up, finished with the meal that had taken Sarah hours to prepare, and out into the yard he went, jumping into his pickup truck to head to God knows where.
Sarah, wearing a dress she’d ripped apart, then sewn back together in a different fashion, with new sleeves and pockets added from her bag of scrap fabrics, stood in the doorway staring out, softly crying. Her freshly washed hair scented with the last of her lilac water shone rich and red in the moonlight, and all for nothing when those girls in Shirley’s Place wore real French perfume, and real makeup, not just the rice powder that Sarah used to take the shine from her nose.
I determined I was not going to be another Sarah—or another angel found in Atlanta. Not me. Not ever me.