Chapter Four: Back on the Bayou

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Momma was buried with the baby in her arms at her kin’s plot in Van, a flyspeck in the Delta near St. Charles. Daddy and I went back to Skunk Holler to tend to his affairs. I wasn’t sure what that meant. He spent a lot of time sitting in his undershirt at the kitchen table, staring at piles of documents, chin in hand, and quit going to his job at the mill. When Monday came around and I had to go back to school, I learned right quick how things would be different from here on in.

The kids at Skunk Holler had seen me leave before, and come back to all this. It was a case of mutual bewilderment. They didn’t know what to say and shrank away as if I were contagious. Mattie Lively tried to be nice. She came up and blurted, “Your momma was an angel!” but it bothered me. I remembered something Daddy used to say whenever Momma nagged him about going to church.

“She’s no angel,” I bawled at poor Mattie. “She’s a feisty hellcat with a scratchy tongue!”

Asian portrait June 2 1909

I took to skipping school and when Dad found out, he didn’t have the heart to whup me. The rats’ nest of documents on the kitchen table was growing more coffee-stained and crumpled by the day, so when Dad was napping, I tried reading them. Most didn’t make any sense, but there were some official looking papers from Momma’s Great-Aunt Adeline that caught my eye. She passed the year before.

I shook Dad awake and read out loud from the papers. He gave me a bear hug, tears in his eyes—he hadn’t been able to puzzle out the cursive on the deed. We had inherited Aunt Adeline’s dirt farm—10 acres and a creek! Slinging me by the arms, Dad danced like a Holy Roller. He had a mission now.

We were packing up the house when a knock sounded—a rapid rat-a-tat-tat that stopped us cold. “It’s Aunt Eula,” Dad gasped, and we instinctively looked around for a place to hide. She barged in the unlocked door, talking a streak and carrying a tattered parasol, the source of the knock.

“Did you not receive my letters? I have written you precisely every three days since the funeral.” Aunt Eula nodded coldly at me like she always did and Dad escorted her to the sun parlor where they could chat. Aunt Eula was Aunt Adeline’s sister. Momma used to say she was a lot of fun back in the day, when Eula and Adeline were flappers. Adeline stayed sweet and kind, but Aunt Eula soured up the older she got. I guessed she must be about 90 by now.

After she left in her usual huff, Dad gave me the bad news: Aunt Eula was going to be our landlady. Something about her being the executioner of Momma’s estate. “Cheer up, Dad,” I offered hopefully. “Aunt Eula can’t last forever.”

The trip to Van was a slog, but we made it by sundown. We spotted the house down a dirt road, a small wooden structure framed by a pair of big pecan trees. The yard was all grown up with weeds, but the key worked and once inside, we both flopped into the nearest chair and looked around. “Better than the company house in Skunk Holler, ain’t it?” sighed Dad. The front room was dark, so I opened all the curtains. It was definitely a little-old-lady kind of place, but real nice. “Momma would like this,” I blurted without thinking.

I followed Dad into the kitchen. Wood stove, red-handled pump over the sink, a deal table and chairs—he worked the pump until a stream of water flowed into the sink. “Yep, it’s a peach of a place,” Dad said sadly.

He dropped me off at Uncle Harold’s for a few days while he made some repairs to the house. As the Ford rumbled off, Uncle Harold elbowed me, saying, “Want to see a surprise?” I followed him to the kitchen; in a corner on the linoleum was a shoebox. Bo was guarding it, wagging. Inside the box, a tabby kitten peeked out of a nest of lambswool.

I was thunderstruck—here was my first pet. Momma frowned upon “house animals” as she called them. Every turtle, lizard, frog—even chipmunk—that I smuggled home eventually got sent back to the woods, no matter how I begged. All of a sudden, the kitten made a sound like a mudcat does when you pull it out of the water. Scooping up the ball of fur, I asked its name. “That’s your job,” said Uncle Harold. ”She’s all yours.”

“Mudcat. Her name’s Mudcat,” I said, rubbing my face in her fur.


The next few days were spent fishing off the deck with Mudcat. Uncle Harold sat nearby and whittled, giving me pointers from time to time. Mudcat was the ideal fishing buddy. She sat watching and lashed her tail, sometimes darting off to chase butterflies. I landed a good-sized blue channel catfish after a struggle and Uncle Harold put it on the stringer.

“What’s that cat got ahold of,” he muttered, as Mudcat zigzagged across the deck. It was a leopard frog. Uncle Harold chased down and rescued the hopping frog. “Shoo, Mudcat, this here’s my prize,” he chuckled.

For the next two days, Uncle Harold tormented me with that frog. He hid it in the medicine cabinet, where my toothbrush was. He hid it in the mailbox, in my tacklebox and my bedroom slippers. I got so nerved up from that frog jumping out at me and Uncle Harold cackling in the next room that I finally took the thing and threw it in the river. Uncle Harold pulled a long face; after a while I couldn’t stand it. I ran up the stage plank while he was skinning the catfish and on the third tree trunk I found a peeper—a little green tree frog. Smuggling it onto the houseboat, I looked around for the best place to put it to scare Uncle Harold.

“Altha Ray’s here,” Uncle Harold sang out. I darted into the kitchen with the frog, stashing it in the first convenient place: the sugar bowl. Retreating to my room, I hid under the quilt and listened. Altha Ray came into the kitchen and started her usual clatter with the dishes. I caught the words “peach cobbler recipe” and “cup of sugar” and next thing I knew, Altha Ray was howling like a banshee.

She left without making the cobbler after lecturing Uncle Harold on the sin of wasting good sugar. He poked his head around the doorway. “Guess I’ll take this peeper out and put him to bed,” he grinned. I snuggled with Mudcat until the frogs sang me to sleep.

When Dad showed up the next day, we had a heck of a fish fry, with hush puppies and chow-chow. Uncle Harold asked how the repairs were going, and Dad gave a heavy sigh. His work was now being overseen by the constant presence of Aunt Eula. “She showed up the other day and said she’s staying to make sure I fix everything right,” Dad groaned. “And ever since then, I can’t drive a straight nail.” At that, Uncle Harold uncorked his flask and shooed me off to bed. I eavesdropped from there on in:

“Eula ain’t been right since she ran off with that fancy-pants man,” I heard Uncle Harold say. “I understand she took him for a bundle.”

“Right before the Crash of ‘29,” Dad replied. “What was he up to, some kind of new duds or something?”

“He invented clothes without pockets for those as don’t need ‘em…britches for folks that got butlers to tell what time it is, or to fetch their snuffboxes.” Their snorts of laughter lasted into the night.

School in St. Charles was nearly done for the year, so it was decided the way to ease back in was to attend the May Day fair. Dad and Uncle Harold accompanied me as a united front, and the annual school picnic was more fun than I expected. There was a Maypole, a croquet tournament and a big spread, and all of St. Charles was there. I was eating frog legs when a tall skinny kid sat down beside me. “You’re the one took the rap for the flying squirrel,” he declared, putting out a hand to shake.

His name was L.C. Brown, and he was sitting in the back row in class that day I got whupped. He told me not to worry when I came back to the schoolhouse; that nobody was going to trouble me anymore. As he stood to walk off, I thanked him, and invited him to come out to the houseboat any time. To my surprise, the Pentecostal teacher-lady came right over and visited with Dad, telling him what a good student I was. The prospect of a decent end to sixth grade loomed. I wished Momma could see us now.

The following day, Dad went back to the property. I was teaching Mudcat to fetch, or trying to, when Uncle Harold came out and scanned the sky. The air got real still and he said it was time to come inside, a storm was brewing. We played a game of checkers and thunder began to rumble. A blast of hail hit and drummed on the houseboat. I had fun collecting hailstones and piling them in the sink until the storm abated and we went to bed.

It wasn’t until Dad’s next visit we learned about the effects of that storm on the house in Van. He told us how Aunt Eula went for an after dinner stroll to check the property, and while she was off by the potato field, the wind blew up and all hell broke loose. Dad climbed down from the roof where he was hammering shingles and yelled for Eula from the porch, but before he could go look for her, there came a frog rain.

“It was the damnedest thing I ever saw, Harold,” Dad said. “The air was green and thick with frogs—they were slamming into me like rocks. Eula came screeching up the hill and jumped in her roadster, never even came in the house to get her suitcase—she took off down the road like she was hauling white lightning.”

That was the last time we had to worry about Aunt Eula—she retired to Skunk Holler and kept her distance from then on. We never heard her rat-a-tat-tat again. Every once in a while we’d get a letter from her, but since they were all written in cursive, Dad didn’t pay much attention.


Copyright 2016 Denise White Parkinson

Chapter Three: The Girl in the Graveyard

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What is it about sixth grade that it’s the worst year of your life? I pondered this question throughout the long, dreary winter. Skunk Holler was cold and drab, and school was a hard road all of a sudden. The newborn infant said to be my brother (I figured it for a changeling) took up everybody’s time.

Momma stayed sickly after it was born. I couldn’t stand to hear the baby’s colicky cry; made my skin crawl. The day I came home with a report card full of D’s, Daddy said he’d had enough. He was taking me down to St. Charles for a second chance at sixth grade. Any other time, I would have killed to stay on Uncle Harold’s houseboat, but change school? I broke out in hives fretting about it. Momma slathered me with some nasty goo that didn’t even stop the itch. Maybe she was trying to run me off; her strategy worked, as I became too miserable not to leave.

When Dad pulled up to the riverbank, I didn’t look around. Seemed like tears that had been in my eyes for months were still stuck there. Gathering my gear, I went straight to my old room while Dad and Uncle Harold talked. When Dad left, I hardly said goodbye. After tossing around in my cot sniffling, I got up, curious as to why the place was so quiet. A note on the kitchen table said: “Gone to St. Charles. Back shortly.” Next to the note was Altha Ray’s cake tin. Inside was her specialty: chess cake. It tasted so good I began to cry.

Uncle Harold came home with the makings of a party—“just the two of us.” He presented me with a harmonica, and after dinner showed me some tricks on it. At bedtime I found a little wooden whistle on my pillow and brought it to Uncle Harold. He was smoking his pipe in the deck chair, watching the bats swoop. “That’s for you,” he grunted. “It’s a quill I carved out of cedar. Put it on a string and wear it so’s you can whistle for help if you ever get in a pinch.”

I thanked him and went back to bed, stashing the quill under my pillow, and slept a dreamless sleep.

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That first day walking to school, the Dupslaff kids fell in beside me, laughing and joking like old times. The teacher at the one-room schoolhouse seemed a nice old lady. When school let out, I wandered off by myself, distracted by Spring. The dirt road came to an end at a grassy entrance bounded by pillars—the St. Charles Cemetery. Rows of skinny gray headstones decked with spirea and redbud stretched into the distance. Some of the graves were decorated with mussel shells. As I stared, a voice called, “Can you see me?”

I jumped. Was one of the Dupslaff girls yanking my chain? “Yoo-hoo,” came the voice. “Catch me if you dare!” I darted between the rows, zigzagging toward the back of the graveyard. Whoever she was, she was quick. A wall of thick wild blackberries blocked the way and something whizzed by my nose—a hickory nut! Then one bounced hard off my head. “Hey!” I yelled. “Is this any way to treat a stranger?” The hail of nuts stopped, and a girl stepped out from behind a nearby cedar tree.

Her dress was the yellow of jonquils; her hair and skin and eyes were dark as my own. For such a petite thing she was a crack shot with a nut. We studied each other, and she asked, “What’s your quill sound like?” I reached up to where the string necklace was tucked inside my shirt. I hadn’t even thought to try it out yet.

Setting down my books and lunch pail, I fished out the whistle and gave it a blast. The shrill sound made us both jump. “Hush!” she hissed. “You want to wake the dead?” Giving my hand a quick shake, she said, “Pleased to meet you, stranger. My name’s Helen Spence.” I mumbled something about getting back to the houseboat, and she nodded. “Our houseboat’s near to your Uncle’s. He’s friends with my daddy, Cicero. There’s a storm coming, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I picked up my things and turned to find her gone. It was late when I got home and Uncle Harold gave me a funny look when I asked if there was a storm coming. I went to bed without mentioning the girl and her dad.

Next day at school I got blamed for something I didn’t do. One of the big kids in the back row found a flying squirrel on the way to school and hid it in his lunch pail. When the teacher was up front writing on the chalkboard, the kid tossed that flying squirrel into the rafters. Everyone watched it swoop around, closer and closer to the teacher’s piled-up gray hair (she was a Pentecostal). When that squirrel landed on her braid there was pandemonium. After the screaming died down, the bully pinned it all on me.

Despite and because of the pleadings of the Dupslaff kids (“Everyone knows River Rats stick together,” the bully insisted) I was doomed. The teacher whupped me in front of the whole class. Some nice old lady—she swung like a ballplayer!

When the bell rang, I ran straight to the cemetery, but Helen was nowhere to be found. Sprawling in dense moss under a shade tree, I fell asleep. I always sleep hard after a whupping, and this was no catnap—I woke with a start to find it was dusk already. What would Uncle Harold say?

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“Your Uncle sent me to fetch you home,” Helen’s musical voice called from the shadows. I grabbed my books and followed as night came on. Helen moved swiftly, surefooted along the paths. She didn’t say a word until we got to the cold spring, gurgling in the dark. “Our place is half a mile up from here. Now, run home—there’s a storm coming,” and she vanished.

Uncle Harold’s houseboat shone like a beacon through the trees, lights in every window. When I came in, all I could do was run up and hug him. We talked about my bad day over second helpings of sausage, grits and a pot of strong coffee. “Your first school whupping deserves your first nip,” observed Uncle Harold, reaching for his flask. Pouring a splash into my cup, he winked. “Today was probably the most fun that teacher-lady had since Prohibition.”

In the morning, I begged not to go to school, but Uncle Harold deemed it necessary for my self respect. I sullenly avoided everybody, even the Dupslaffs. At 3 o’clock I bolted from the schoolhouse and found Helen standing just inside the entrance to the cemetery. “Can’t catch me!” she taunted, and the chase was on.

We ran laughing among the headstones, tagging each other “it.” I collapsed on a patch of clover, panting hard. “Calf rope! I give!” Helen sat down, primly arranging her skirt. She wore stockings like my Aunt Eula used to wear: white cotton fishnet. After I caught my breath (Helen wasn’t even winded) she put her finger to her lips and gave a shush. Slowly she pulled the hem of her dress over her knee. Tucked behind the mesh of stocking was a roll of one hundred dollar bills—biggest wad of cash I ever saw. “That’s $300,” she said, “Daddy needed a place to hide his money.” As I gaped like a mooncalf, she jumped up and ran off, her laughter fading in the distance.

I got home before sunset to find Uncle Harold by the stage plank, scanning the sky. “You been talking about a storm,” he said. Dark blue clouds boiled in the distance, coming in fast from the west. After checking the tow ropes, we moved deck chairs inside. As we sat down to supper, a mighty thunderclap shook the air and the rain came down.

“Do you think Helen and Cicero will be all right in this storm?” I asked Uncle Harold, and a funny thing happened. His head jerked like somebody struck him across the face. Pushing back from the table, he strode to the door and opened it a crack. Flashes of light, roaring wind and rain burst in. “Time for bed,” he said, shutting the door.

A thunderclap woke me from a dead sleep and I was instantly wide awake. I pulled on a pair of rain boots and a slicker. Uncle Harold’s snoring was loud as the storm. Grabbing a lantern, I lit it and made my way out of the houseboat. I had to know if Helen was all right.

I slipped, barking my shin on the rain-slick stage plank. The footpath was easier going, though the trees were thrashing like crazy. I made it past the cold spring but saw no sign of a houseboat. “Helen!” I screamed. The rain ceased and the gale dropped to a whisper; I could hear the clicking of cottonwood leaves. With the force of the sun, a bright light exploded overhead. There was a cracking sound — I turned to see an oak split in two.

Branches crashed down, knocking me to the ground, and the lantern flew off into the dark. Reaching for the quill, I blew as hard as I could, over and over, whistling til all my air was gone. I must have fainted, because when my eyes opened I was in Uncle Harold’s easy chair, bundled in a horse blanket. Bo was licking my hand, wagging, and the storm was subsiding. My Uncle brewed coffee as I checked for injuries—just a barked shin. “How’d I get here?” I asked.

“I found you on the doorstep. Do you believe in miracles?” Uncle Harold held out a yellowed newspaper clipping with the headline: “Outlaw Shot After Escape.” He shook his head, muttering, “They called her the Swamp Angel, but she was just a little river girl.”

33 John Black clippings

The article was ugly as it was short: “Helen Spence, the houseboat girl who killed the man on trial for killing her father, Cicero Spence, was shot down after her fifth escape from Arkansas Women’s Prison. The Grand Jury is investigating claims Spence was the victim of a plot by corrupt prison officials. Spence was buried today beside her father in St. Charles Cemetery’s potter’s field.” I put down the paper. There was no Spence houseboat by the cold spring, not for years and years, anyway.

A telegram arrived in the morning saying Momma and the baby both came down with scarlet fever and died two days apart. I got sent back to Skunk Holler, but this time my tears did not stick inside. I cried them out, slept hard and woke up convinced Momma knew I loved her (I still figured the baby for a changeling). Helen Spence saved me from the storm. She showed me that time, like the river, doesn’t flow in a straight line.

10 Helen and Buster

Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson

Chapter Two: Freshwater Pearls

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The summer after the River Sisters went away, I got sent down to St. Charles to stay with my great-uncle. My mother was expecting; she had the morning sickness so bad it was decided I would spend summer vacation on Uncle Harold’s houseboat.

I could hardly wait to get a hook in the water, and when daddy dropped me off, it felt like coming home. Nothing had changed since my last visit years before: Uncle Harold was just as skinny and bent, with wrinkly brown skin like deer leather. The White River was still green and endless, carrying the smell of a million growing things. Uncle Harold’s houseboat smelled like wet dog, pipe tobacco and fried fish, which we ate a lot. In other words, it was heaven.

I played with the Dupslaff kids down the way, a German family that treated me like a dark-haired version of one of their gangly towheaded boys and girls. Miz Dupslaff made the best bread pudding with whiskey sauce; between that and Altha Ray’s fruit pies, I was eating better than at home, where sweets were for special occasions.

Altha Ray was Uncle Harold’s lady friend. She came by every few days to tidy up the place and fix a big lunch. She and Uncle Harold liked to sit in rocking chairs on the deck, staring off at the sunset. Uncle Harold’s other friend, Mr. S.E., came over Sunday afternoons to play cards and “have a nip.”

Uncle Harold had a nip most every evening. He often fell asleep in his big easy chair in the living room. My room was a little space behind the kitchen, with just a cot and a bookshelf, but cozy. Bo, Uncle Harold’s lab mix, slept with me, something momma never would have allowed.

We went to St. Charles once a week, to the Mercantile. It was a relief to learn Uncle Harold wouldn’t be taking me to church—he said Sunday school for him was fishing with Mr. S.E., outside under the sky. And since “S.E.” stood for “St. Elmo,” I figured they must have a line on the hereafter.

Every time Uncle Harold went to pay at the Mercantile, whether for salt, sugar and flour or penny nails and lye soap, he pulled out a leather pouch, reached inside and handed something to Mr. Ballard. It dawned on me that Uncle Harold was paying for his groceries with pearls! Freshwater pearls from White River mussels.

I began snooping to see where he kept his pearls, and sure enough, one afternoon I peeked through the window as he was lifting up his mattress. He took out a small wooden box and opened it—it was chock full of pearls. So, next time Uncle Harold had a nip and fell asleep in the chair, I went and snuck one little pearl. I wasn’t greedy; I only wanted one teeny-tiny pearl.

When I showed it to the Dupslaff kids the next day, they did not seem impressed. The eldest went and rummaged inside their houseboat and came back holding a matchbox. Inside was a pair of long, skinny pearls. “These are slabs,” the boy said. “River tears,” explained a sister. “Two river tears pulled from the same shell’s bad luck.”

42 pearl and river tears

Uncle Harold asked me to run get a newspaper in town, so I hopped on the bicycle and took off, forgetting I still had the pearl in my pocket. On the way back I came to a one-lane bridge and saw a big dry-lander boy standing blocking the way. The Dupslaff kids had warned me about this bully. They called him “The Troll” because of his frown, and he was glaring at me now.

“Toll bridge,” he yelled. “Empty your pockets!” When I hesitated he rushed over, knocking me off the bike. I reached in my pocket and slowly handed him the forgotten pearl. “I bet there’s more where this came from!” crowed the Troll. I took off running through the woods, clutching tightly to Uncle Harold’s newspaper.

After doubling back a bunch of times and crawling through the swamp, I thought I had lost The Troll. I finally got home and handed Uncle Harold the tattered newspaper, along with some story about getting chased by a swarm of hornets and leaving the bike in the woods. He gave me a funny look and said I could get the bike in the morning. I went to bed praying The Troll would leave us be.

That night, Bo woke us up barking. Footsteps sounded outside on the stage plank as I ran to the living room. “Uncle Harold!” I yelled, “It’s The Troll—he’s coming for your pearls!” In an instant, my Uncle grabbed his shotgun and was out the door. There was a single shot followed by unearthly howling.

“This no-good’s gone and cursed my pearls!” my Uncle thundered as I stepped outside to see The Troll writhing on deck, his hand full of rock salt. “The only way to take off the curse is to throw that box of pearls into the Everlasting Pit!” Uncle Harold ducked inside and retrieved the box. Handing it to me, he dropped his voice as the bully thrashed and moaned.

“Take these—stay gone til this blows over, and then sneak back here,” he said. “That way we don’t have to worry your parents with this mess.” I began to wail. I didn’t want to throw away my Uncle’s treasure.

Uncle Harold leaned in so close his whiskery whiskey-breath tickled my ear. “You think these the only pearls I got hid away? Listen: I was a mussel-sheller for 40 years. I got little cedar boxes like this one buried at every cold spring in Arkansas County. I got pearls to last til the Resurrection.”

“But where do I go?” I cried as he stuffed the box inside my shirt and threw his jacket over my shoulders. “You just head up the road and catch the first bus comes your way,” he said. “Don’t be scared–there’s a full moon to see by. Just go til you git where you’re going!” With that, Uncle Harold gave me such a shove that I staggered off into the night.

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I was asleep on the bench outside the St. Charles post office when the sound of voices woke me. The sun was up and a big green school bus was parked at the stop, surrounded by a bunch of kids. The box was still tucked inside my undershirt. I fell in line with the gaggle of kids and got a few curious stares as I took a seat in the back.

“Are you with the CCC Floating Camp?” asked a bespectacled boy who plunked down next to me. “I never seen you before.” When I didn’t say anything, the kid started talking a mile a minute about the “Big Dam.” At first I thought he was cussing. But after a few miles of listening to him yack, I gathered we were on a field trip to see a dam getting built up north. The bus was full of kids of Civilian Conservation Corps workers—they all lived in a big string of houseboats near St. Charles.

53 CCC floating camp st. charles

“Of course, they ain’t finished building the dam yet,” the kid said. “Right now it’s just a big ol’ pit. My dad says it’ll be years before it fills up with water.” I stared out the window. The everlasting pit. A dam upstream from Uncle Harold—what would he say to that? The bus stopped for lunch and the boy, whose name was Nelson, shared his food with me. By now he figured I was a mute, and had quit asking questions.

It was late afternoon when we got to the construction site. Bull Shoals Dam. From the road it looked like a mass of scaffolding, planks and catwalks. The grown-ups herded us to a hillside park with a vantage. A CCC man in khakis and a rounded hat started lecturing about the dam. It was going to be as big as an Egyptian pyramid. I spied the nearest overlook—there was an iron railing off to the side. Hugging the cedar box, I bolted.


The CCC man grabbed my collar just as I threw the box over the rail. He shook me til my head rattled, cussing the whole time, but I saw the little wooden box sail into the air and pop open, spilling its precious cargo into the gorge.

The CCC man was hollering, “Does anyone know this kid?” when Nelson piped up. “He’s my cousin, Mister. He’s deaf and dumb. Please don’t hurt him.” It was an impressive job—Nelson’s chin trembled as he fumbled with his glasses and wiped at his eyes. The man shrugged and let me go.

When we got back to St. Charles, I was glad to find Uncle Harold had fixed everything. Before long, everybody in town was talking about how The Troll was stealing Altha Ray’s peaches and she fired rock salt at him. Consensus was he’d gotten what he deserved. Everything went back to usual: I swam every day, S.E. came to fish and play cards, and Altha Ray baked pies for us. Uncle Harold said I did a good thing, throwing those pearls into the pit at the dam site. He never mentioned it again.

But later, after I went home and school started up again, I dreamed about that dam. In the dream, the giant gray concrete wall was finished. Behind it, a deep dark lake was filled to the brim. But at the base of the dam, little pinholes were forming, tiny holes the size of seed pearls, that bubbled and spread as I watched until the whole dam was pocked and crumbling. The giant thing exploded into chunks of tumbling cement as water foamed and roared into the gorge.

I had that dream for years, long after the dam was built and the downstream water temperature dropped, killing off the White River mussels and their hidden pearls. But I take comfort at the thought of Uncle Harold’s cedar boxes, buried beside every cold spring in Arkansas County.

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Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson

Chapter One: The River Sisters

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Everyone in Skunk Holler remembers the River Sisters. Half the town locked their doors whenever they passed by, while the rest of us cheered them on (under our breath).

I rode my bike out to the old River Place one time on a dare. Coming down the levee road, I was surprised to see their long gray wooden houseboat set up on the muddy bank, rock-throwing distance to the water (this was before the government kicked out the folks living on the river). I had pictured their home bobbing at the end of a towline.

Denise - houseboat


The yard was deserted, which struck me as odd, and the houseboat had imitation brick paneling on the walls, which looked even odder. When I got to the top of the rickety steps to knock on the screen door, I noticed a cicada sitting on the wooden railing. It stared at me with big black eyes like some guard dog insect from another world, all quiet, not like any junebug I ever saw. Next thing I knew I was tumbling backwards down the steps and landed on my butt in the packed dirt. As I tore off down the path, I swear that bug was laughing at me.

My favorite thing about the River Sisters was their laughter. Each one had a distinct laugh. Mary, the eldest, had a golden voice to match her yellow hair, and her giggle was like a little ringing bell. I saw a halo around Mary River once, but I never told anybody.

The younger sisters were said to be twins, although I never believed that. Lily was ginger-haired with eyes like a cat and a quiet laugh like a purr. Poppy River, on the other hand, was as tan and brown as Lily was pale. Poppy’s laugh was loud and ripe and jolly.

The more things that folks around Skunk Holler did to try and make the River Sisters cry, the more those girls laughed—they’d laugh right in your face. They even laughed at Old Man Dump, the slumlord of Skunk Holler. He didn’t like the River Sisters selling their wares in town; he said they needed a permit. But every weekend the weather was nice, the sisters came to town to sell all kinds of stuff.

They’d set up their willow baskets spread out on a quilt under a big shade tree on the courthouse lawn (Old Man Dump didn’t like that, either) and before you knew it, every kid for miles around would show up on foot or bicycle to see what the River Sisters were up to. Needles, yarn or thread? Just ask Lily, who tatted reams of lace while she bartered. Want some homemade molasses candy? Poppy makes the best.

The older girls crowded around Mary, who sold little glass vials of perfume she made out of flowers. She also made medicines from combinations of flowers and sold those too. Some folks said Mary’s jasmine tea was a love potion, but I don’t know what it tastes like.

One time I got real sick and the doctor couldn’t figure it out. My fever kept rising and Momma got so scared she went for Mary River, who came right away. They say I was delirious until Mary’s flower tea broke the fever.

That was when I saw the halo I never told about. It was like rays of sun filling up the bedroom as she leaned over me and whispered something I didn’t catch. Her gray eyes looked ancient and wise, but she couldn’t have been but a couple years older than me.

It got to where us kids had to form a human chain on Saturday afternoons in order to keep the town bullies from coming up under the tree and bothering the River Sisters. We pretended it was all a game of Red Rover, but everybody knew we were guarding the girls. The only one we couldn’t guard them from, though, was Old Man Dump. Whenever he showed up, all the kids scattered.

Old Man Dump took to campaigning for Justice of the Peace, saying he was gonna “clean out those River Rats living down in the bottomlands.” I never met anybody in Skunk Holler that cast a single vote their whole life, but next thing we all know, it’s Mayor Dump parading around like he’s the biggest hog at the trough. After that, instead of picnics under the shade tree with the River Sisters singing songs and telling stories, it was only Old Man—I mean, Mayor—Dump, speechifying.

“Those River Sisters have no adult supervision,” Mayor Dump would bellow at anyone passing by court square. “There ain’t a person in town ever even seen their parents!” he spluttered as his face got redder and redder.

Everybody had to admit this was true. Whenever a brave soul ventured down to the riverbank to deliver a message to the family, there was always some excuse: “Daddy’s off checking his trotlines,” Mary liked to say, but her wink and giggle made a joke out of it.

The girls’ mother was said to be a legendary beauty, although no portrait is known to exist. The school principal and Preacher Burton couldn’t seem to catch Mrs. River at home no matter how often they tried. Poppy explained more than once that “Momma’s off catching a swarm of wild bees—she hoots at danger!”

27 White River St. Charles 2011

Then Spring turned to days and days of gray rain. School let out so everybody in town could sandbag the levee. Mayor Dump holed up in the one dry spot: the County Courthouse. We heard he was studying ancient deeds and plats, liens and property lines.

On the third day of rain, we abandoned the sand bags and retreated to the courthouse lawn, the only high ground for miles. Nobody knew what to do. Mayor Dump flung open the courthouse doors and stepped onto the portico, unfurling a big black umbrella. I saw him smirk at the captive audience. We were all too exhausted to move, and too muddy to come inside the grand old building. So we just stood in the downpour while Mayor Dump surveyed us, shaking his head.

“Here we stand, citizens of Skunk Holler,” he intoned, “having worked valiantly for days to shore up that levee yonder.” The crowd shifted uneasily at such a compliment, temporarily distracted from the fact Mayor Dump hadn’t lifted a finger.

“And yet,” he swelled under the umbrella, holding up a sheaf of yellowed papers. “And yet, those people—that pack of squatters down in the bottoms, could knock a hole in that levee at any moment. Those River Rats would not think twice about flooding out this town. Everybody knows River Rats are crazy! These papers right here, they—they explain how the property—well, these papers–,” he broke off in a shower of spluttering.

We all just stared at the Mayor. “Well, if y’all ain’t gonna do anything about the situation, I’ll just have to deputize myself,” he grunted, stuffing the papers in a coat pocket. Then he reached into a different pocket (Old Man Dump was known for his patterned waistcoats) from which he drew forth a black pistol. At this, the crowd began a low rumble, emitting a bass note not unlike a restive flock or herd does when alarmed.

“Follow me, citizens of Skunk Holler! I’m heading down the levee to run them River Rats outta town for good!” Mayor Dump steadied his umbrella and walked down the steps. A strange thing happened as the crowd parted to let him pass. People shook themselves like wet dogs, and half the folks streamed inside the (now unguarded) courthouse. The rest of us shrugged and followed Mayor Dump.

“What you think’s gonna happen?” one of my classmates, Mattie Lively, said as we trudged behind the line of muddy people. The water was rising fast. I couldn’t answer, and the closer we got to the bottoms, the more I fretted. Up ahead, Mayor Dump’s umbrella was flapping brokenly like some evil bat. I began to pray the River Sisters would get wind of us coming and hide.

“At least he can’t burn ‘em out in all this rain,” Mattie said. The crowd, sensing the nearness of the Mayor’s prey, quickened pace. From the front of the line a boy hollered and instantly more kids picked up the cry. “Sounds like we treed us some coons,” the Mayor yelled.

Mattie and I pushed through the throng until we had a better view. The river was running high and dark halfway up the levee bank. The shrieking kids drowned out the Mayor. “Look!” they cried, jumping and pointing.

The old gray houseboat had come loose from its stacked-stone foundation. It was floating away. The windows were shut and curtains pulled so you couldn’t see inside, but as it turned slowly into the current, we saw a puppy—it was Mary’s hound dog—setting on the back porch, just wagging and watching us all up on the bank waving and screaming like crazy.

Mattie tugged my sleeve and pointed—the Mayor was lifting his pistol! Without even thinking, I reached down and chunked a mud clod at him, hard, right as he aimed.

Mayor Dump got un-elected that day by unanimous vote, on account of accidentally shooting Preacher Burton in the butt. Everyone in Skunk Holler breathed a little easier once’t we didn’t have a mayor any more.

But nobody ever saw or heard from the River Sisters again, and I still wonder about them to this day. Especially Mary.

bowers daughters

Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson


Families streamed into the park for a September 8th event, and more are planned!

Families streamed into the park for a September event, and more are planned!

On dreary Mondays like today, when the world is chock full of bad news, it’s a comfort to remember that there are good folks doing good things, and some not so very far away.

In fact, just up the road a ways (Hwy 7 North, the Natural State’s Scenic Route) there’s a place that Arkansans of a certain age remember well. A place dedicated to fun and families. As a concept, first created in two dimensions by a cartoonist named Al Capp: Dogpatch, USA. A place we thought we had lost forever.

When I was a kid, my sisters and I LOVED going to Dogpatch. Arriving there after a couple hours’ journey up the Pig Trail was like entering another dimension of time and space – a universe of laughter, silliness and good times. For an eight-year-old with an overactive imagination (me), it was sheer heaven. The setting—gorgeous Ozark mountains, forest, waterfalls, the whole bit—was beyond beautiful.

The stonemasonry was built to last, as evidenced by the park's waterfalls.

The stonemasonry was built to last, as evidenced by the park’s waterfalls.

These days, the property is getting help from some highly motivated hands: Eddy Sisson, part of the team of photographers called “Abandoned Arkansas” together with partner Mike Schwarz, is archiving the rebirth of the place as “Dogpatch Village.” Eddy’s been updating photographs over the past year via his Facebook page and event pages – there’ve been some fun shindigs up in yonder hills, and folks are helping bring the area back to life.

I interviewed one of Dogpatch’s most memorable characters a few months ago: award-winning Arkansas actress Natalie Canerday remembers the theme park fondly and counts it as a foundational part of her life. Her thoughts on the place are worth repeating.

A native of Russellville (“God’s Country,” she interjects), Natalie got her first break performing at Dogpatch. With news of the property’s sale to a motivated owner, generations of Arkansans are expressing hope of a hill-country renaissance. Natalie counts herself firmly among the optimists wanting the park to prosper, in whatever form it takes.

“I was a senior in high school when mother saw they were holding auditions for characters at Dogpatch,” Natalie recalls. “I worked up a song from Oklahoma (‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No’) and a few bars into it, I forgot the words!” Instead of freezing in panic, she sashayed up to the man accompanying on piano. “I got behind him so I could cheat and read the words on the sheet music,” she laughs. “I began rubbing his bald head as I sang.” She won the part.

dogpatch pic 2 Natalie Canerday as “Moonbeam McSwine” stands with Pappy Yokum.

As the youngest performer of the 1980 summer season, Natalie embarked on an adventure. For young’uns who did not have the good fortune to experience Dogpatch USA during its wild and wacky heyday, a brief intro: the 800-acre theme park near Harrison, Arkansas, was a destination from the late 1960s until its closure in 1993. Since that time, the abandoned site has attracted intrepid photographers and indie filmmakers that venture into the hills to capture its eerily beautiful landscape. (New owner Bud Pelsor has purchased the property and is currently reclaiming it from years of decay.)

But in the summer of 1980 the place was in full swing, with rollercoasters, musical shows, non-stop roving skits and improvisational performance featuring characters led by Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae. (A thesis could be written on the significance of Li’l Abner’s and Daisy Mae’s archetypal foreshadowing of Jethro Bodine and Ellie Mae Clampett, but probably never will.) Harrison, Arkansas, and surrounding hamlets were amply rewarded for embracing Dogpatch’s hillbilly caricatures as tourism boomed, boosting the local economy.

By the time senior prom arrived, Natalie had been commuting to perform on weekends for over a month. After high school graduation she went full-time at the park. It soon became apparent that the summer of 1980 would go down as the hottest in Arkansas history. Natalie, with trademark enthusiasm, welcomed this trial by fire.

“I drove up in my ‘76 Monte Carlo,” she says. “They housed us in a little circular trailer park called Rock Candy Mountain—honey, it was smaller than any dorm room. All the performers stayed there. The others were in graduate school from Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. At night, it was cool—they’d sit on the steps drinking, singing songs and playing guitar.” Natalie, all of 18 and away from home for the first time, was captivated by the atmosphere of laid-back creativity.

“That first year I was Dateless Brown—she carried a shotgun looking for a husband,” she explains. Lugging around a heavy antique rifle as a prop, Dateless Brown roamed the park searching for unwary little boys. “If they looked like they still thought girls had cooties, I’d come up to them and say ‘hey little feller, wanna get hitched?’ and make smooching sounds,” she says. The boys would run off screaming in terror and delight.

Nat dogpatch bw - Copy (791x1024) “Dateless Brown” roamed the park scaring little boys.

The following summer, five days a week, she portrayed Moonbeam McSwine, sort of a hillbilly Veronica to Daisy Mae’s blonde Betty. Every sixth day, Natalie played “Nightmare Alice,” the witch of Dogpatch. “I had so much fun—I carried a rubber snake and leather pouch full of potions and things, blacked out my front teeth,” she says. “As Moonbeam, though, I was all pretty and made up.”

Natalie attended college at Hendrix (Class of ’86 4-Ever!) and majored in theatre but maintains she learned everything she knows about staying in character during those sweltering Dogpatch summers, where heat stroke was a daily occurrence and the whole place, from town square to train depot and lake, was a theatre in the round.

“You could never break character, no matter if the train jumped the track (the heat kept loosening the rails) or if someone fainted,” she muses. “You couldn’t stop to tie your shoe, much less adjust your bloomers or wipe away sweat. Dogpatch was also the biggest influence on my accent—thanks, Al Capp!”

She remains in touch with fellow character James White, formerly the Shmoo, now associate editor of the Harrison Daily Times. “We bonded because James was one of the few kids my age. He toured Dogpatch with the new owner and wrote that it’s in better shape than he thought it would be.”

before and after A before-and-after pic of one of the park’s cabins.

At Harrison’s annual Women of Distinction awards banquet, Natalie was invited to be guest speaker (“comic relief,” she interjects). The organizers wanted her to share how Dogpatch influenced her career. “Afterward, every single person came up to me with some kind of connection with or good memory of Dogpatch,” she recalls. “People in the region know that back in the 1970s-80s, Dogpatch was a bigger draw than Branson and Silver Dollar City. It really affected the economy when that place closed. At one point I even dreamed about buying Dogpatch. I wanted it to become an artists’ colony—the Sundance of the South!”

And thanks to the artistry and hard work of some very dedicated folks, there is indeed a future for the formerly abandoned place. The sky is the limit where Dogpatch is concerned, so let’s dream big!

train station before BEFORE: train station

train after AFTER: train station

Morning in the Life of an Empath

beauty meets the beast daily!

beauty meets the beast daily!

It has to be Monday. Miles to go before I fully wake, start the day, the week, the endless rhythm of deadlines and moneymaking: a penultimate, wearying timeframe.

Promotional media, print media, social media, you, me, Medea –ripe nuggets of ambivalently valuable reality hang in the balance. But before I even get to work, I must navigate a minefield of ignorance.

I am dropping off the 6th-grader at his new middle school, located in a small town OUTSIDE of Garland County. It’s important to note that this public school is NOT located in Garland County.

(Although I’m not sure why it’s so important — this sort of public school thing is widespread, according to the Internet.) We are inside The School Office, home to the Secretary and ante room to the Principal, who has stepped into the office just as we arrive.

I fill out the appropriate student sign-in form (we have a doctor’s note, after all), slinging cursive confidently as part of my role as an appropriate parental guardian. But in the background, I detect a note of discord: an apparently delicate conversation between the Middle-School Principal and two terrified little girls standing in the corner.

(Seriously, these girls are little. Think: the character of Newt in “Aliens” or small as Scout in “Mockingbird.” The principal is your basic bland white-privileged male, anywhere from 30-50, it’s hard to tell b/c of the absence of any expression.)

From the corner of my eye, as I sign my name, I see the two little girls, all of four-feet-tall, trembling in their matching ankle-boots. It’s obvious (b/c Monday) that they have spent the weekend coordinating new outfits: knit purple tunics (mock-turtle neck) worn over patterned blue/green/purple knit tights. These are thick knit tights, probably seen featured in a Fall fashion mag’s full-color glossy spread as worn by a cadre of attractive ski-bunnies, displayed colorfully before a roaring hearth, probably photoshopped.

“You are breaking the school dress code,” the glowering Middle School Principal intones rather creepily. “Are you both in 5th Grade?” he inquires of the cowering pair.

“Yes, sir,” whimper the humiliated BFFs.

“Fifth-grade girls grow, on average, about 3 inches a year,” muses Principal Creepy-Ass Cracka, addressing the cringing Secretary behind the office countertop. Avoiding her gaze, I duck my head and finish filling out the required form as the Principal admonishes the pair of female children for having chosen garments that fall mid-thigh over such audaciously patterned knit tights. The Principal is shocked, Shocked! at the half-inch-wide deviation from the prescribed public school norm.

As Principal McCreepy gives the unfortunate girls a few more fashion/morality tips, I bid my (safely un-scrutinized male) middle-school child goodbye, wondering as I depart at his slovenly, threadbare, hand-me-down attire (a byproduct of our current Great Recession). I flee the distasteful, early-morning scene, hurrying out to the parking lot where I catch a glimpse of the two chastened 5th-graders scurrying up a flight of steps, the glory of their matching tights destroyed forever, replaced with a traumatic memory of epic scuzziness.

The girls are too far away for me to call out to them. I don’t want to frighten them by shrieking, “WAIT, WAIT! Your principal is an ASS!!! Your beautiful matching knit tunics that fall to mid-thigh, complemented in color and design by awesomely iconic contrasting knit tights; such timelessly youthful spa ski-wear, totally top of the line fiber art designs constituting a downright credit to the community — Wait, you girls don’t deserve to be insulted by hick, style-averse clods!” This is what I do not yell, to my eternal shame and regret.

I feel the need to apologize to all likewise universally insulted public school 5th-grade girls (and the women they grow into): beautiful Arkansas girls continually punished for being young, fresh and/or brash; the ones who call each other over the weekend to coordinate cool new Fall outfits — wearers of mock-turtle neck sweaters and matching patterned knit tights that reveal absolutely NO SKIN, except of course that undeniable, universally revolutionary fashion statement: a uniquely identifiable face and hands.

No burkas necessary in Arkansas, Mister Middle School Principal… at least, not yet, despite your patronizing best efforts at humiliating and shaming little girls for wearing clothes that defy outmoded, obsolete Patriarchal Constructs.

Radio Days

KUHS 97.9 FM Hot Springs Community Radio

KUHS 97.9 FM Hot Springs Community Radio

Today I drove downtown listening to local radio: KUHS FM, Hot Springs’ new solar-powered community station. The rain’s been coming down for days with no discernible effect on the transmission, which makes solar power even more impressive.

A mellow DJ was spinning some ‘80s tunes, including the B-52s’ “Channel Z” and the German version of “99 Luft Balloons.” After a bit, the DJ addressed the listening audience:

“Today’s theme is songs about nuclear war,” he explained. “I was 11 back during that particular Cold War era. I didn’t follow geopolitics.” The DJ then described a recurring image from his childhood, “nuclear propaganda,” some film of a boy at a dinner table dropping a fork in slow motion. Before the fork hits the table comes the atomic flash.

“You were vaporized,” he intoned, his deep DJ voice echoing through my car as I drove through steady rain, heading back to the office.

I remember where I was when those songs first got airplay: Hendrix College, walking across campus in the twilight as KHDX FM streamed music out of an open window overlooking the fountain. One of my favorite songs then was “Melt the Guns” by XTC. Sometimes, walking across the lush, shady lawns of the campus, I’d suddenly imagine a mushroom cloud filling the horizon. It was the 1980s and I was barely 21, but it occurs to me that the only thing more unsettling would be to endure such visions at the age of 11.

The nation’s first Cold War happened before I was born, but I was prepared for it due to my upbringing by End-Timers. Apocalyptic imagery of a nuclear flavor originally permeated the minds of writers that came together in the early 1950s. The Beat Poets signaled the first literary movement to address an omnipresent threat of mutually assured annihilation due to the splitting of atoms.

“Beat,” as in beat down to the point of beatitude, beat down to the nanoparticle level, suggests willful groveling in the dirt and mud of life:

“Life is a snake. What do I lose when I lose the snake?
I lose my writhing properties…”
— Jack Kerouac

This theme recalls an earlier mystic:

“I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch…”
— WB Yeats

As I sit here on the night porch listening to the rain’s drumbeat, it occurs to me that if it be life to confront the pain of ceaseless war again and again, I’m there. I’m also grateful for radio-waves sending music into timeless darkness. Like the rain, let come what may!

Poetry Night, 9.30.2015

I was invited to be the featured poet at Hot Springs Wednesday Night Poetry venue downtown, hosted by founder Bud Kenny at Kollective Coffee + Tea. Here is the first fragment I have been able to upload, will post the longer vid tomorrow. Thanks and praise to artist Julie Williams for filming this poetry written during researching and writing Daughter of the White River!

On the Town

A violation @ Carpenter Dam & Malvern Ave.

A violation @ Carpenter Dam & Malvern Ave.

I may no longer live in Hot Springs, nor Garland County for that matter, but I did for seven years, and I still work there every weekday and go there nearly every weekend. So today’s view was jarring, to say the least.

Malvern Avenue is getting a close shave for some odd reason, considering two sudden and pathetic attempts at what will probably be called “in-fill” development by the powers-that-be.

The woodsy knoll at Golf Links has been completely obliterated, with nary a buffer zone nor screen o’green to compensate for the loss of a once-steep hill filled with natural beauty.

This used to be a hill with tall trees.

This used to be a hill with tall trees (Golf Links & Malvern Ave).

But when the travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty began taking place a block away, at the intersection of Carpenter Dam Rd. and Malvern Avenue, my eco-rage-ometer zoomed into the red. I drove into the side street to take a picture of this ecological holocaust in the middle of a once-serene neighborhood, and lookie what I found:

This used to be a hill of really tall trees.

This used to be a hill of really tall trees.

The city’s response to this desecration of a main corridor of Hot Springs can best be summed up as too little too late. But after writing about ecological issues and natural resources of my home state for a quarter century, I have to ask:

Am I naïve to think city officials did not know about this building plan, which covers more than an acre in the heart of town? Could this development be just another oopsie daisy, or is this horror the work of a Hassanflu or a Malt, or some other plundering, well-connected fool? There have been so many, from outside Arkansas as well as from inside.

Garden City of the Natural State deserves better!

Garden City of the Natural State deserves better!

I spent the late 1990s attending countless city board meetings in another city, one that had no tree ordinances or desire for vision. Citizen appeals (including crying children) did not prevent the destruction of neighborhoods by rapacious developers in league with city hall. But then, Little Rock has never had much of an identity as a city.

Hot Springs is a different story: Hot Springs is as culturally unique as it is blessed with natural beauty. If Hot Springs wants to become another Little Rock, keep it up! You are getting there. Keep closing the barn door after the cows are long gone, and you will have arrived.

Thankfully, it is not too late to plant seeds, generate a vision and become the Garden City of the Natural State. Time to grow up, Hot Springs!

This used to be a hill w/trees on it.....

This used to be a hill w/trees on it…..