Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I looked around good. Hit struck me how lonesome the cabin was, set back in the cedar trees thataway, despite her children a-playing all around the steps. Hit was kindly dark back in there, and the cold wind come a-blowing through them cedar trees with a sighing sound, a crying sound, real mournful-like.”  

           Lee Smith, The Devil’s Dream (1992)



The biggest mistake I ever made was moving to the mountains. Mother warned me and I didn’t listen. “I love Arthur,” I proclaimed one night at my parents’ elegant dinner table, home for a short break from college, and she said, “‘Love,’ my white ass,” and stormed off. This sort of crude language was unusual for Mother who, born poor and married rich, rarely returned to her roots. In fact, she went from Penny Gap, Virginia – “where,” she’d mock, “didn’t nobody have a penny” – to Richmond with her high school senior class to see the ballet Giselle, deciding then and there that she’d never be a weak-hearted peasant girl done in by her betters. Instead, she felt tremendous determination to become one of the elite; she would do whatever it took to join forces with wealth and, with either God’s help or the Devil’s, she pulled it off.

Mother moved to Norfolk at eighteen and met John Harrington at an officers’ ball when she was twenty. They married within six months, and she followed him and the Navy all over the world until my brother Dalton’s impending arrival was announced. At that point Mother said it was time to settle down in Chesapeake even though Daddy kept working and traveling. Three years later I was born; Mother named me Giselle so as to commemorate both her moment of awakening in Richmond and her ultimate victory in escaping generational poverty. Throughout my childhood she held court in a gated community called Cedar Grove Estates, a name she hated because it reminded her of the red cedars from home. All letters sent to Chesapeake from Penny Gap were returned unopened, but not before one day I finally thought to write down my grandmother Hattie’s address; I kept this secret treasure hidden away for years in my beloved jewelry box, the one Mother had given me for my fifth birthday. The box sheltered a tiny ballerina, a silent, patient girl hunched inside waiting to be released to twirl madly in her petal-pink tulle skirt.

I didn’t dare write to Hattie for fear of Mother’s temper but grew up longing to know about this side of my family. Daddy told a few stories about crazy aunts and witchy cousins (but only when Mother was off with her women’s club friends), and Dalton remembers meeting our grandparents once in Abingdon when I was a toddler, but I didn’t know them at all. As a result, I romanticized mountain life; envisioning rugged terrain and intense passions, I read Wuthering Heights at fifteen and yearned for connection with my wild heritage. Hattie could be like Cathy, for all I knew, roaming the hills and loving some brilliant, moody Heathcliff. I identified not with Daddy’s people who were originally from Maryland but with Mother’s, kinfolk spread out over a few coves and hollers within our same state but a million miles from the Tidewater.

Dalton believes I fell for Arthur Dennis because of this tendency to idealize mountain culture, and I’m sure he’s right. Arthur and I met at Radford University where, much to Mother’s disappointment, I refused to join a sorority and instead declared a History major with a minor in Appalachian Studies. Hailing from Grundy, Virginia, Arthur was a quiet, serious geology student whose parents had saved just enough money for him to attend the first two years of college; after that he was on his own, so he worked various part-time jobs and managed to stay afloat. We met at a mountaintop removal event during our junior year and talked about the importance of making a contribution in the world. Later, Mother said over the phone that our romance was “just a phase” but I envisioned the two of us living deep in the mountains, my teaching Social Studies and Arthur teaching Earth Sciences, both of us crackling with energy and youth and the fire of purpose. We would inspire rural kids with our knowledge and light a path for them to see their way beyond limitations and into wider realms of opportunity.


Giselle thought she had it all figured out even before we graduated from Radford, way before we knew anything much about each other or the mundane crap of adult life or what in hell we’d do to manage classrooms full of rebellious teenagers who didn’t give two damns about Native American artifacts or the Emancipation Proclamation. But what I loved about Giselle in those early days was her hope. She wanted us to join forces and build a life that mattered. I was hopeful, too, but more practical because I knew the mountains in a way she never could. The land itself was rich but fickle, physically wounded by human greed and prone to vengeance.

A bad feeling kept hanging around me like a ghost during our last semester, a dread I couldn’t get rid of even after Giselle – always the one who took charge and blazed trails – heard about a remote West Virginia high school that was hiring new teachers, then found the “perfect” little cabin without a neighbor in sight and “lots of potential.” I knew in my gut that this girl who grew up with the finest of everything wouldn’t be prepared for what surely awaited us in an old, isolated, fixer-upper cabin in Monroe County, but she was excited and her laugh so sweet that I couldn’t help but follow and hope maybe it’d work out. Hell, I’d been wrong before.

Giselle’s family met mine for the first time at our graduation day luncheon. That’s what Mrs. Harrington called it, “luncheon.” My parents didn’t know what to order off the menu so I pointed out some appetizers that might be good. Dad took one sip of his gazpacho and whispered to Mom, “Is this soup supposed to be cold?”

Well, the highlight of the event was Giselle’s grandmother Miss Hattie’s big entrance. She’d come over from Penny Gap and shocked everybody to death. Giselle had written to her, not expecting to hear a word back, but all of a sudden here she was rolling into the country club on her walker. “God almighty, it’s Hattie Buchanan,” Captain Harrington exclaimed. “Another round of bloody marys, please, Chip.”

Giselle’s brother Dalton jumped up to help Miss Hattie to a chair. Giselle was so happy she started crying.

“Good Lord, Mama, did you drive here?” Mrs. Harrington asked, white-faced. Miss Hattie acted like it was nothing, like she’d been joining the Harringtons for luncheon every Saturday of her life. “Aw, hell no, I haven’t drove in years. My cousin Inez got her boy Malachi to carry me,” Miss Hattie said. “He’s out in the car now. I figure I’ll bring him some ham sandwiches to eat while we all go to these young people’s to-do.” Miss Hattie put on her glasses to look at the menu but kept on talking. “Malachi don’t want to see nobody nor get out of the car. Old Plymouth he bought off of Onie’s people. You remember Onie and them, don’t you, Peg?”

I’d only known Mrs. Harrington to be called Margaret, so hearing “Peg” was a surprise. Sensing the tension, Mom made her usual changing-the-subject statement: “Well, the weatherman surely has been good to us, hasn’t he?”

Dalton smiled, relieved. “Yes indeed. Perfect day to celebrate Giselle and Arthur.”

Miss Hattie took off her glasses, her sunken gray eyes staring right at Giselle. “I hear tell you’re coming over toward our way for work, child.”

“Yes,” Giselle said brightly. “Arthur and I can’t wait to get settled. We’re going to be renovating this cabin – ”

“You’uns getting married?”

I cleared my throat while Mrs. Harrington took a pretty big sip of her second bloody mary. “We’re thinking about something small next summer,” I stammered, “after we get the first school year behind us.”

“Well, this is another surprise,” Mrs. Harrington’s voice was unusually high-pitched. “I don’t see a ring, do you, John?”

“Mother,” Giselle warned.

“Ain’t no reason for that wedding foolishness, is what I was about to say,” Miss Hattie barked. “One day I’ll tell you stories about your granddaddy, Giselle, stories that’ll curl your hair. Horace was bad to drink and stubborn as a goat, mean too, and ran with any woman in the gap that paid him the least bit of attention. I ain’t shed no tear about losing him to the pneumonia must of been five year ago now.” She leaned in and pointed a gnarled yellow finger first at Giselle and then me. “It’s a whole hell of a lot harder to get out of something than it is to get in it. You mark your old granny’s words, you hear?”

We sat in silence for some time. Giselle nibbled on a crab cake. Finally Dad said, “There don’t seem to be any regular-sized sandwiches on the menu, Miss Hattie, but this cold soup isn’t too bad if you think Malachi might want some.”

Hattie nodded. “I’m obliged to you for that.”

Thinking back on that day, I wonder what might have happened had Giselle written to Hattie sooner. Would she have told her granddaughter some truth about mountain life, like she did about marriage? Could she have said or done anything that would get Giselle to think differently about our move?


One of the first keepsakes I put out on our dresser in the cabin was my pink ballerina jewelry box. Somehow having it in sight made me feel like there was order amid the chaos of moving boxes, a reminder of better times despite the mess I’d made in convincing Arthur that Monroe County could be our home. A life lesson that even college didn’t succeed in teaching me: nothing is ever as good as we imagine. I dreamed up “rustic” and “charming” when really our cabin felt like it was falling down around us, dusty and dark, an angry outsider rejected by civilization. We were outsiders, too. Well, mostly I was the misfit; Arthur adapted to the Crabtree community’s ways pretty well, and his dad and some friends from Grundy fixed the worst of the cabin’s structural problems.

Still, no matter how many people came to see us that first summer, either to work on the house or to visit, nobody stayed long. Once darkness started to fall, our guests would get itchy to leave, almost like a spell was cast or as if they were put in a trance and told to go. Harlan Vance, the closest neighbor we had who lived about five miles down the road, would stand up at the appointed time and say, “Well, we better get on back.” He and his wife Erma would shuffle out to their Buick and leave Arthur and me alone to watch the fireflies dance in our front yard. Used to warm sea breezes, I never got accustomed to the chilly evening winds that whipped around us in those mountains, even in July, reminding me that I was not merely out of my element but isolated, forsaken, abandoned by the hopes that had bolstered me through long nights of studying and dreaming and making plans.

Gearing up for work in the fall was even worse. That August I stood in front of a classroom and struggled to find my footing, worried that my student-teaching experience in a more urban high school near Radford hadn’t prepared me for the different challenges that rural education systems faced. In fact, I couldn’t figure out the system at all; maybe there wasn’t one, or maybe I was never to be let in on its inner workings. I’m still haunted by the memory of one student in particular, a laid-off coal miner’s son, who blurted out right in the middle of my lesson on the Battle of Blair Mountain, “You foreigners don’t know nothing about it.” My first impulse was to tell him I most certainly did know about it, that I wrote my senior paper about Appalachia’s socio-political response to the mine wars, but then I realized: the student was right. I knew nothing about it.

Arthur’s team leader Mr. McKinney told us, when we went to him for advice, “We’re not social workers or addiction counselors or therapists, which is what most of these kids need. Just do the best you can and leave the rest to fate or God or whatever it is you choose to believe in.” Arthur was resilient, able by December to figure out some strategies that worked with even the most unruly of his teenagers, but I had lost my belief in much of anything. I fell into a really dark place after school let out for winter break. Icy winds wouldn’t stop blowing through the cedars; no matter how many times I put plastic over the crack in the kitchen window, the curtain kept blowing in. The cabin floors creaked at my every step. Terrifying nightmares about being chased into a corner with no way out made me afraid to sleep, so on top of it all I was constantly exhausted and irritable. Erma Vance came over fairly often with holiday recipes and small talk but the last thing I wanted to do was cook, much less chat politely about the goings-on at Crabtree First Missionary Baptist Church.

I wanted to close my pink jewelry box over my head, lie down with the silent ballerina, and disappear from life.


Arthur wrote me a letter and I knowed I had to go. It was Christmas Eve when me, Malachi, and Inez pulled up to that cabin in Malachi’s old truck, snow piled up deep against the walls, not but one light flickering in there. I hollered from the porch and Arthur let us in, us three and the cold blasting through that heavy door all at once, and I seen Giselle wrapped up in a quilt by the fire but she didn’t even hardly blink, just stared at the flames, and I knowed she was hurting bad.

Inez did too. Her and a lot of the women in our family (not me) got that magic something to where they feel things. She told Malachi to set down in the rocking chair by Giselle while she walked all around that cabin, feeling things, and I went straight to the kitchen with Arthur and started fixing up some beef soup. “Inez can see the haints and talk to the spirits all she wants,” I told Arthur, “but my grand-girl needs some meat on her bones.” He helped me cut up some vegetables and I could tell he was worried to death. I liked him a sight bettern I did old John Harrington that stole my Peg away. Well she was already gone by the time she met John so I don’t know.

Just when I got the soup ready to set out for everybody, here come Inez out of the main bedroom and into the kitchen, eyes blazing.

“Hattie, Hattie,” she said, grabbing at my arm. “They’s a woman in that bedroom wants to talk to you.”

“God’s blood, Inez, you know I can’t hear nothing like that. Get her to tell you and you tell me.”

Every time, Christ help us, every time, me and Inez have to do it this way. She can’t never remember I don’t have the gift or doesn’t want to, one. I went to the main room, put the soup on a tray in front of Giselle, and we were all quiet for a while.

Inez finally mumbled, “She wants to talk to Hattie.”

“Mama, Hattie can’t hear her,” Malachi hollered, rocking slowly, knowing Inez hears haint voices bettern human ones. “You got to tell it.”

I was setting beside Giselle who’d pepped up a little with some soup in her when I noticed Arthur was getting testy, wondering who in the world Inez thought was back in their bedroom. He’d done been back there twice and not seed nary a thing.

“Shh!” Inez shushed us, peering into the bedroom from the door frame. “Hush now, hush. She’s back in that corner, hiding. But I can see you, lady, come on out. Ain’t nobody gon hurt you here, come on, honey.”

I heard no sound but the fire crackling.

“She won’t come out from that corner by the bed,” Inez said. “But I can hear her whisper, can’t you, Hattie? She says, ohh, like a moan, o, it’s a sigh, but there’s more to tell than that, she wants to tell it but ain’t nobody ever listened, and she’s sad, gon fill up Giselle with hurt till she hears it too. O, it’s like a sad sigh, poor lost girl.”

Of a sudden Giselle cocked her head and said to me, “I hear her crying, Granny, can’t you?”

Erma Vance

Those young teachers in the cabin moved out right quick-like in the new year, and I’m glad of it. That place ain’t no good for nobody. Lyin son of a gun real estate foreigner from Beckley told them that the owners had foreclosed and they’d get a good deal, cabin just needed some fixin up, a little tender lovin care. He’ll get his for telling that story. Then again maybe me and Harlan are part to blame too. We never could bring ourselves to tell them about what all happened.

I recollect the winter forty-odd year ago when Harlan went over to the cabin to check on Ivy Wallin, all alone after her husband disappeared with some hot-to-trot thing he’d brought home from Vietnam, after the war over there. Ivy was hanging by the neck in the corner of her bedroom, Harlan never did tell me no details. He called the sheriff and they cut her down, bless that poor woman, didn’t have no family here and the closest kin anybody knew about was in Florida, so Preacher Davies and some deacons buried Ivy out back beneath the cedars, and things ain’t been the same in Crabtree since. Some say Ivy hung herself, some say her no-good husband come back and made her do it, forced her to make it look like she done it to herself. Preacher Davies said at the little graveside service, Oh, I pray her soul will rest, and that she repented and was saved by the sacrifice of our Lord in heaven, but Ivy hadn’t never been much of a church-going woman, so most everybody doubted it.

She may not of been saved but Ivy sure did love to dance, I remember that. They was these dance socials over at the square and she was the best and prettiest one there. The socials went on for a few months until the church elders said dancing was of the devil, which I didn’t believe. You wouldn’t believe it, either, if you’d of seen Ivy move so sweet in that pink shirtwaist dress, laughing and swaying with the husband she thought loved her more than life. And maybe he did cause he left that other woman and come back to the cabin a year later and shot hisself in the head with a rifle on Christmas Eve, didn’t nobody find him till after the thaw and he wasn’t but a twisted-up skeleton laying on the bedroom floor. Them rats and such got him, I reckon, course he was a rat too, they’d gnawed away at him till they wasn’t hardly nothing left. Harlan told anybody who asked, Yessir, wasn’t nothing left of that rat Mr. Wallin but his cold white bones.


How me and Giselle survived that winter eight years ago, I don’t know. Now that we’re living in Chesapeake near her folks it all seems like a bad dream. It happened, though, and Hattie still writes to us every month with updates about her garden and her cousins. She and Mrs. Harrington started to make up some when our little girl Ivy was born. She’s four years old now and loves to laugh. That laugh brings us all together, I guess, helps us stumble out of the old ways into a new generation.

Most days I’m happy enough here on the coast. Most days I hope for a typical Tidewater childhood for Ivy. Every now and then, though, I see something in our daughter’s face that makes me think of Inez, and Hattie, and all my relatives in Grundy, and the wild mountain blood that runs through Ivy’s little veins despite our constant drop-offs and pick-ups to swimming lessons and spring-flings and recitals. Frenzied activity fools us into believing that we can stave off the uncivilized and deadly forces that Giselle wanted to leave behind in the mountains. We left it all back there for good, she says, and that’s that. But outside on summer evenings just before dark when Ivy cocks her head and says to me, “Daddy, I see a pretty lady dancing,” and I see nothing at all, I wonder.


2 thoughts on “Danse Macabre

  1. My mother went back to work when my sister started school; Mom and Dad hired what used to be referred to as an “old maid” to come live with us, keep up the house, and take care of us after school. She never got a salary, but Mom and Dad gave her $20.00 a week spending money and room and board. Juanita, for that was her name, used to enthrall us with stories of the local haints and boogers while sitting on the front porch at about dusk. We were fascinated and terrified at one and the same time. This story reminded me of her.

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