Well, y’all remember how it was after Pearl Harbor–all the young men around either joined up right away or went in the draft. Petey was too young for either one, and although he tried to lie about his age and go into service at sixteen, he got caught; he was just too baby-faced to get away with it.
So he stewed and fretted a year and more away waitin’. And while he waited, he took up with Belinda Courtright.
I’m not sayin’ Belinda was bad, exackly, but she wasn’t good, either. She was a flirt, as flighty as a butterfly and not very work-brickle, and seemed like she wanted a man’s attention all the time. She wasn’t the sort that would make a good miner’s wife, able to take care of chores and children while her man toiled away down in the depths, hackin’ away at a coal seam, and a miner was what Petey–if he ever got the fightin’ out of his blood–seemed fated to be, like his daddy and grand-daddy before him.
Finally, Petey turned seventeen, and that very day, in spite of his mama cryin’ and takin’ on, he went and joined up. Went in the army, he did, and that meant he’d be off to Europe soon as his trainin’ was over.
Petey went to Belinda, the night before he went to the train station, and asked her, as many another boy was askin’ that one special girl around the war years, to wait for him. He’d be home someday fairly soon, he said, and he would be almighty happy if, when he came home, Belinda would be his wife.
Now the old folks shook their heads when they heard what that silly flirt said, and the young ones laughed outright, but only behind Petey’s back. Belinda not only told him that she’d wait for him, and marry him when he came home a hero; she went so far as to say that if he never come home atall she would never marry anybody. I give you my word, Petey darlin’, she said, sheddin’ a pretty tear or two.
And she meant it.
Till Petey was gone, and she got to pinin’ for a man’s attention.
That fall of 1944 there was a young city man come to the mountains. He was some sort of bigshot in the coal company that owned the mines around, nephew of the owner, and his mama had weaseled around and got her brother to make out like her son was more valuable at home, workin’ for the coal company, than he would be as cannon fodder overseas, so he never had to go. He was a right handsome youngster, you got to give him that, and had about as much starch in him as Belinda Courtright. That is to say, that, after she give him to understand that she was faithful till death to her Petey, off fightin’ them Nazis overseas, he moved in on her. He paid her all sorts of attentions. She ate ’em up like candy.
She completely forgot about poor Petey, save in rare letters in which she raved about how she loved him and how they’d be married just as soon as he got home.
Can’t say what kind of Dear John letter she was aimin’ to write, therefore, to explain why her and the coal company man was plannin’ to marry at Christmas.
Well, the weddin’ day come. The coal company man’s mama, although she didn’t quite approve of Belinda, paid for a right nice weddin’. Belinda looked beautiful in her white dress, alongside her man, in a dark suit, and the kiss they shared after the preacher called ’em man and wife for the first time was an outright scandal.
Belinda’s daddy was a miner and a fiddler, and Belinda had asked him, very prettily, if he’d play her first dance with her new husband. Well, her daddy was awful flattered, of course, and he agreed. He knew a lovely waltz tune, just learned it from the radio, listenin’ to Bill Monroe, he said; would that do?
Whatever you please, Daddy, she said demurely.
So, when the weddin’ was done, everbody went over to old Miss Brakebill’s house, the one that she’d inherited from her daddy that had a big front room, plenty big enough for dancin’. The happy pair cut a weddin’ cake made by some fancy city baker–courtesy of the groom’s ma–and then, after feedin’ each other a bite, they stepped out on the dance floor.
Her groom took Belinda in his arms, and her daddy drew his bow across his fiddle strings.
The sound that come out was not a sweet one. It sounded like a man’s death rattle.
He tried again. Same ugly, scary racket.
About that same time, too, the room got deathly cold.
What is. . .
Belinda was as puzzled as any of us, until the big double door that led into that room–closed against drafts from the front hall–slammed open, goin’ clean back on hits hinges and bangin’ against the walls.
There was a man standin’ in that door.
We all wished, afterwards, we hadn’t recognized him, but we did.
His head was half blowed off, and there was blood all down the front of the Army uniform he wore, but we could see it was Petey.
He just stood there a minute, and his one good eye–the other one was just a bloody hole–burned like hellfire.
Belinda said weakly, Petey–is that you? I can–
His words came out in a howl like winter wind blowing snow through a dark holler: You promised. . .
Nobody was lookin’ at Belinda’s daddy, sittin’ frozen with his fiddle in his hands, but all at once he jerked all over and then set to playin’.
You never heard such horrible music in your life. It was like that snowy wind mixed with the howls of demons and lost souls, a waltz, but the most evil ugly waltz ever played.
Petey stepped forward and took Belinda in his arms. This is my dance, he said.
She was whiter than her dress and looked ready to faint, but she began to move with him.
They danced for what seemed like hours, as her daddy played that dreadful waltz: danced until Belinda screamed NNNOoooooooo–
and dropped through the circle of Petey’s arms to the floor, the whole front of her dress red with his blood.
Petey stood over her a minute. Then he let out a howl of pain, grief and anger, the same words he had spoken when he first entered the room: You promised. . .
And then he was gone.
It took a minute or two for the shock to wear off, but then everything happened in a rush. Belinda’s husband rushed to her side, fallin’ on his knees beside her. Get a doctor! he shouted.
But it was no use. The doctor said she had been dead from the minute she dropped from Petey’s arms.
Word was some time comin’ to the mountains, but eventually Petey’s family got one of the telegrams edged in black. He’d been killed in the first stages of what history calls the Battle of the Bulge, right about the time Belinda was steppin’ forward to dance her first dance with the man she’d married in place of Petey.
This “death waltz” motif is an old one. Usually–as in S. E. Schlosser’s 2004 book Spooky Southwest–it’s told as a story from the Desert Southwest, around the time of the Apache wars of the 1870s. There’s an even earlier, similar story that comes from the area of Detroit, Michigan, around the time of the war of 1812; in that story, the young flirt survives, but never marries.
I just moved it to the mountains and brought it up to World War II, when many a mountain boy lost his life fighting the Nazis or the Japanese.
Copyright 2011 by Faire Lewis.