I felt ruined by my time in Pocahontas County – no other place would ever be so good. I felt harmed and also that I had harmed others with my weakness and my silence and my actions, and I didn’t know how to make those two feelings stay together. Every time I grasped one of them, the other seemed to fade away.
Things kept returning to me and knocking, demanded to be heard. For one, I remembered that when I lived in the farmhouse on Lobelia Road with Bill, calls came in for him at night from men, older men who lived along the road and had known him since birth. Man, they would say, sometimes slurring his name into our answering machine. It would be 3:37, 4:28, 1:11 am, and I’d sit up in the night, disoriented, listening to their voices roll in downstairs. Man, I’m hurting real bad, they’d say. I never knew exactly what kind of hurt they meant, only that they had to wait until it was 3:37 and they were loaded to talk about it.
For another, the waitress at Hillsboro’s only restaurant who had helped me home that night of the whiteout had likely participated in the spray-painting of ‘nigger lover’ across the restaurant’s north-facing wall. I thought a lot about the kindness in the waitress and also the cowardice and cruelty it took to write those words – both.
And then and always, Jesse. I’d see a station wagon that looked like his making a wide turn around the statue of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea in the Virginia town where I now lived and be smacked again: What had happened to me in Jesse’s house, where we played music all those nights and drank until we could no longer feel the parts of our bodies that were most private and the blow-up sex woman peeked out from the closet?
And what had I brought into or out of being for other people? The withholding of true feelings and information from people with whom you are intimate can be its own kind of weapon. The redheaded girl’s words: you make me feel dumb. I was most haunted by my own actions, the ways I let my appetites for belonging and alcohol get out of control, for I was not just a witness but a part of all of it, a person who wanted oblivion for my own reasons.
What did it mean that I had been employed to better the lives of girls, and all around me it seemed, grown men were dying? Could women and girls and men and boys truly be together in mutual community, or could they only hurt and wound each other? And how did poverty and class play into all this? Didn’t know.
I reread my journals from my time there and found the entry about the writers’ group and about how Tim, Peter’s father, had found two women’s bodies up on Briery Knob. What had all that been about? I had camped with Jesse up on Briery Knob, I remembered.
There we were, Jesse – rail-thin and gentle in a West Virginia University hoodie, pale hands on the wheel of his station wagon, and me, the feral girl from somewhere else sitting shotgun. We were on our way to camp with Ruth and Peter, a new VISTA from California and her boyfriend – a boy from the northern part of the county – and the blond banjo player.
Briery Knob was a reclaimed surface mining site. We knew it had been reclaimed because plants were growing there again, but they were gray-green, spongy, and all the same height. We might have been on the surface of the moon. When we stuck our tent poles into the dirt, it wasn’t dirt but chalky ash. The poles went in an inch, hit rock, wouldn’t budge.
It was June probably, because the VISTA girl from California has already gotten her dog from the pound, a brown mutt who kept sniffing the perimeter around their tent, but Jesse and I hadn’t had our joint birthday party yet, the one where we wore newspaper hats that looked like boats and the Director and her husband got a babysitter and came and danced with Jesse and me, holding our hands. It could be July if it were early.
We pitched our tents in a flat spot surrounded by steep wooded embankments. Maybe fifty feet away, someone had dumped a blue corduroy couch. It looked strange in this moon place, but it was less foul than you might think, just damp. Some of us touched it; some of us didn’t. I touched it; Jesse touched it. When I climbed the embankment to the ridge, I could see the white wind turbines over in Greenbrier County turning slowly. On the way back, I found a pair of sunglasses in the shaded path. Bear hunters, Jesse said, and put them on.
Later, we lit the fire, and the banjo player played a few tunes as the dark shrank the space. Jesse hadn’t brought his upright bass and kept looking around for it, his fingers twitching. When the temperature dropped, Jesse and I and Ruth and Peter chickened out and slept in our cars. But the girl from California and her boy stayed out, perhaps comforted by the noises her dog’s paws were making as he did slow circles in the dark. I thought for sure she was the tough one who would last – she wore brown Carhartt pants and thick knitted caps and learned how to change the oil in her car – but that isn’t the way it turned out. She went back to California, took some other man’s name, and I don’t know her now.
I remember being cold, the cold that moved across that plateau, and then being warm from the heat coming off Jesse’s body. I remember drinking water from a jar we filled at a spring on the way up, taking a bite from a block of white cheddar cheese in the night when I woke up starving, wearing two pairs of thick Smartwool socks, Jesse’s hands on my face. Laughing – roll over, roll over, three in the bed and the little one said, roll over.
I hadn’t known that Vicki and Nancy died in that spot when we camped there; now I did. Story speaking, nothing happened; it was just another night we slept in the woods as men and women from there and elsewhere. But I began to think about it all the time. I felt if I could understand what we had done up on Briery Knob and what had happened to the two dead women up there and if these things were the same thing or different things, I could answer some of the big questions that were choking my life and blocking my eyes.
I started staying in my car a long time after returning from getting groceries or seeing a friend. I looked through the windshield out at my dark Virginia street and left the engine running so I could listen to bluegrass. Before I’d left Pocahontas County, Jesse had made me three CDs: the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers, and his own pick, Jimmy Martin. There they sat in their neatly layered CD case, labeled in Jesse’s black Sharpie hand.
I knew I’d have to turn the car off and go back to my apartment and my life eventually, but there was nothing in me that was ready to do it. The car was an in-between space, a temporary container, and I could put my most curious and strange feelings into it. I did my best thinking and messaging and Googling there.
I read the 1992 and 1993 coverage of the arrests of the seven men and about the first trial of Jacob Beard in the Pocahontas Times and elsewhere. I read the words ‘culture clash’ and ‘they weren’t the slimmest, trimmest little things’ and ‘hicks versus hippies’ and ‘he goes to parties with axes and chainsaws’ and ‘culture of silence,’ and I smelled something off, something wrong. Something false had hardened into a story, I suspected, that people both from the county and not had heard over and over and then began to tell. I wanted to know how and why.
Jesse’s parents, I learned from messages I was exchanging with people in Pocahontas County, had been friends with Ritchie Fowler, the alleged driver of the blue van, and had believed strongly in his innocence. The red-headed girl was a relative of Fowler’s too, and Bobby Morrison was tied to a Mountain Views employee by marriage and friendship. Jesse had recently taken a job at the hardware store in Marlinton, a job that allowed him steady hours, a good paycheck, and colleagues he liked – including Pee Wee Walton.
If I had been harmed by Jesse or some other invisible force in Pocahontas County, and if I had harmed him or Mountain Views in turn, what did I want now? I wanted justice. And what was that? Didn’t know.
‘A crime creates a debt; the criminal becomes a debtor, the victim his creditor,’ writes Lacy M. Johnson. ‘One primary meaning of the word redemption was the sense that one could buy that debt back – every injury has some equivalent of pain or sacrifice.’
The idea that I might buy back my debt to Pocahontas County and to myself by writing about the deaths of Vicki and Nancy on Briery Knob did not come all at once. It came on hot afternoons when I fell off my bike and my knees ground against loose asphalt. It came at night when the light through the bars on my window fell in stripes across the face of some kind sleeping woman or man. It came in the morning when I woke looking at how those iron bars stood between me and the hostas I had just planted in my backyard, and it stayed with me, even after I had finished graduate school to become a writer and moved back to Philadelphia. Why did it make sense to put the story of Vicki and Nancy and the nine local men who had been implicated in this crime over the years up against the story of me and Jesse and the Mountain Views girls and the DMHB? Didn’t know. But it made sense.
The idea to write about both the Rainbow Murders and my own time in Pocahontas County, together, came most perhaps when I found out about Liz – a woman who was both a part of this story and not a part of it. I cared about the women who died, I knew, and I cared about the men who suffered because two women happened to die where they lived, in a place America prefers to forget exists. Writing this story became real to me when I realized a story could – must – encompass both.
The above is an excerpt from Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl, published by Hachette Book Group.
Image © Justin Meissen