Chapter 1: The River Sisters
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 White River). I had pictured their home bobbing at the end of a towline.
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 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 to land 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. 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 don’t know as I believe that. Lily was ginger-haired with eyes like a cat and a quiet laugh like a purr. Poppy River, on the other hand, was tan and brown as Lily was pale. Poppy’s laugh was loud and ripe and jolly.
The more things 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, they came to town to sell all kinds of stuff. They’d set 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 tats lace while she barters. 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 remedies from combinations of flowers. Some folks say 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 sent for Mary River, who came right away. It was Mary’s flower tea broke the fever. That was when I saw the halo I never told about, like rays of sun filling up the room as she leaned over me and whispered something I didn’t catch. Her gray eyes looked ancient and wise, though 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 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 aiming to “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’d splutter 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 Barton couldn’t seem to catch Mrs. River at home no matter how often they tried. Poppy explained more than once, “Momma’s off catching a swarm of wild bees—she hoots at danger!”
Spring came, bringing 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 we abandoned the sand bags and retreated to the court square, the only high ground for miles. Nobody knew what to do. Mayor Dump flung open the courthouse doors and stepped onto the portico, unfurling his 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 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—these papers…” he broke off in a shower of spluttering.
We all 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) and 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 flapped 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 we couldn’t see inside, but as it turned slowly into the current, we saw a puppy—Mary’s hound dog—sitting on the back porch, just wagging and watching us all up on the bank waving and screaming like crazy. Mattie tugged my sleeve—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 Barton 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.
Chapter 2: Freshwater Pearls
The summer after the River Sisters went away, I got sent down to Saint Joan to stay with my great-uncle. My mother was expecting; she had the morning sickness so bad it was decided I would spend summer break on the White River, 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: 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 flowering 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 Dupflautz 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 Dupflautz 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, often falling 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 Saint Joan 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 “Saint 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. Bullard. 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 Dupflautz 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.”
That afternoon Uncle Harold asked me to run to town and get the evening paper, 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 blocking the way. The Dupflautz 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 figured I had lost the Troll. I finally got home and handed Uncle Harold the tattered paper along with a 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!” Uncle Harold 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.
I was asleep on the bench outside the Saint Joan 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 that lived in a big string of houseboats near Saint Joan.
“They’re just getting started on building the dam,” the kid said. “Right now it’s just a big ol’ pit. My dad says it’ll be years before it’s finished and 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. 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. “Does anyone know this kid?” the CCC man hollered, and 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 Saint Joan 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, Mr. 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 still take comfort at the thought of Uncle Harold’s cedar boxes, buried beside every cold spring in Arkansas County.
Chapter 3: The Girl in the Graveyard
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, Dad said he’d had enough. He was taking me down to Saint Joan 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 he talked with Uncle Harold. 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 town. 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 dinner 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 in the deck chair smoking his pipe, 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.
That first day walking to school the Dupflautz kids fell in beside, 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 Saint Joan 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 Dupflautz 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 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 inside 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 Dupflautz 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?
“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, not saying 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 into the night.
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 coffee, 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 Dupflautzes. 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 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 were eating 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, and an odd thing happened—Uncle Harold’s 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. Uncle Harold’s snoring was loud as the storm. I pulled on a pair of rain boots and a slicker. 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’s just a little river girl.”
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 Saint Joan Cemetery’s potter’s field.” I put down the paper. There was no 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.
Chapter 4: Back on the Bayou
Momma was buried with the baby in her arms at her kin’s plot in Vine, a flyspeck in the Delta near Saint Joan. Dad 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 Dad 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!”
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 Aunt Adeline that caught my eye. She passed away back when Momma first took sick. 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.
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 Vine 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,” he said sadly.
Dad 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 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 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 spot: 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 “fruit cobbler recipe” and “cup of sugar” and next thing I knew, Altha Ray was screaming 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.
Dad showed up the next day and we had a heck of a fish fry, with hush puppies and chow-chow. When Uncle Harold asked how the repairs were going, 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 ‘em what time it is, or to fetch their snuffboxes.” Their snorts of laughter lasted into the night.
School 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. Joan was there. I was eating fried 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 JC White, 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 slacked off 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 Vine. He told us how Aunt Eula went for an after dinner stroll to check the property, and while she was off by the potato patch 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.
Chapter 5: Summer of the Wolf
For the first time in a long while, I looked forward to going to school. Leaving the houseboat early, I walked through the May sunrise with firm resolve: there was a friend waiting on me.
The Dupflautz kids knew all about JC White. “He’s the kid on Big Creek that got the wolf,” they chimed. “It’s got red eyes!” hollered the youngest. They described JC in voices tinged with awe. When we came in sight of the schoolyard, there he stood: tall and lanky, with a cowlick of black hair that poked up on one side. “Want to go squirrel hunting after school?” was all he said. I spent the rest of the day watching the hands on the wall clock circling slowly around.
“See? This is where he waited for school to let out.” JC pointed at the remains of a rabbit. We stepped further in to the ring of forest bordering the schoolyard. “Wolf!” he called softly. Directly in front of us, a clump of bushes parted and a black timber wolf emerged, staring silently with eyes like glowing coals. “My dad was doing some logging and found him in a tree stump,” said JC. “He was just a little ball of fur when I got him.”
That afternoon summer really began. The last days of school flew by as JC and I took to combing the woods between Big Creek and Tarleton Creek, hunting fox squirrels till the sun got low. I tagged along with him while he checked his traps. Every day he brought home something for the table: a plump red-tailed squirrel or rabbit. Wolf didn’t sound or bark, but he sure could growl. Uncle Harold was glad I had a buddy. “Sheriff Joe’s son is the best shot in Arkansas County,” he observed. “Before JC—stands for Joseph Cressie—was born, his dad rode a one-eyed horse all over Forks-LaGrue Bayou. Ol’ Good-Eye; now there was a horse.”
JC had a plan for when school let out: we were going to find the Honey Man. Some folks claimed he lived in a hollow tree. Others called him the bogey man, saying he was big and wild-eyed and lurked in the bottomlands. No kid had ever seen him by day; he traveled by moonlight, hauling his kegs of golden honey to the Mercantile. His wildflower honey was the main ingredient (besides whiskey) for every cough remedy in Arkansas County.
JC had a powerful sweet tooth; one time he trapped a black mink and Mr. Bullard paid him $20 for it; first thing he did was buy two whole dollars’ worth of candy. “I got to know what the Honey Man’s comb tastes like,” JC said for the umpteenth time. On the last day of school, he kept his word about sticking up for me. A dry-lander boy tripped me as school let out and I went sprawling in the dirt. “Look at the deaf-mute river rat!” the boy sniggered. Getting to my feet, I stood there at my usual loss for words. JC ambled over and grabbed the kid by the back of his overalls. Swinging him up to eye level, he shook the kid like a rag doll. “He ain’t a deaf-mute,” he growled. “He’s a mind reader. You best run hide in the outhouse!” The boy scrambled away howling.
We hit the trail, Wolf gliding behind, and JC cut a pair of sticks to tap the ground for snakes. Coming to a shady spot, he bent some branches and pointed: quicksand. Skirting the mucky place, we moved deeper into the dim swamp where the cypress knees rise shoulder-high. After about an hour we came to a grove and sat down to share some deer jerky. Leaning against a hickory trunk, I piled up leaves til I was buried to my armpits. Patches of blue sky glowed through the branches.
“Hush,” JC said, shaking me from a doze. “You were snoring.” A doe and her fawn bounded past our hidden glade, racing down the trail. They zigzagged into the woods and disappeared. I saw Wolf’s fur bristle in waves down his spine; there came a sound of something tromping through the brush. A figure passed carrying a tow sack slung over broad shoulders. A sweat-stained hat hid his face, but his jacket of golden-colored deer leather seemed familiar: the Honey Man!
JC motioned and I followed. “Smell that?” he whispered. It was wood smoke. Ahead was a clearing, in the center a cypress shack. From the distance came a mule’s laughing bray. Scooting forward on our bellies, we hunkered behind a shed. A screen door slammed and the Honey Man walked over to a row of wooden boxes by the tree line. His face was brown as a walnut and shiny with sweat—he was grinning! Pulling a drawer from one of the boxes, he strode to the center of the clearing and set the drawer on top of a tree stump. He went back inside the little gray house and shut the door.
“Look at the size of that honeycomb,” JC sighed, eyeing the drawer’s glistening contents. Before I could blink, he was gone. Dashing across the yard, he grabbed a fistful of honeycomb and we tore through the woods as if the Devil were chasing us. After putting some distance between us and the shack, we stopped to gorge on the sweet gooey honeycomb, like candy from heaven. I was licking my fingers when JC said, “You hear something?” We stood stock-still, straining our ears. A thin whine sounded in the distance and Wolf growled. “Run!” JC yelled. We took off with the swarm of bees close behind. They chased us all the way to Big Creek, dive-bombing like crazy. “That’s the last time I take charity from the Honey Man,” said JC.
Back on the houseboat, Uncle Harold placed strips of wet brown paper on my bee stings and explained how the Honey Man crossed over from Mississippi a few years back. “His name is Sam. Some Mississippi lawmen claim he killed a couple of Cajuns, but it ain’t like Sam done anything this side of the River,” Uncle Harold shrugged. “Those Cajuns prob’ly needed killing.”
Summer played on and the White River replaced the woods as fishing and swimming filled our days. After finishing whatever chores I couldn’t avoid, I met JC at Bullard’s Mercantile to make plans and we’d go from there. He had the rest of the $20 he got for the mink pelt, so Saturday afternoon we came to town on a mission to buy a new snap gig. What with a full moon and perfect weather, the plan was to go frog gigging with Uncle Harold later on. We were in our usual spot in front of the candy counter when the door jingled. A sudden string of oaths burst forth—we spun around to see Mr. Bullard cocking his shotgun over the counter—it was pointed at a scrawny-looking fellow in the doorway. “You ain’t buying anything in here, mister, not with your blood money,” Mr. Bullard said. The man slowly raised his hands and backed away without uttering a sound. JC glared at the stranger, and when the door closed he leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Go straight home and don’t tell.” Grabbing a handful of nails, he tossed a nickel on the counter and left without buying the snap gig.
Uncle Harold and I were sitting on deck watching the moonrise when Dad drove up. In the morning he was taking me and Mudcat back to Vine for the rest of the summer—Dad was set on making a farmer out of me. He came barreling down the stage plank whooping and hollering, and after catching his breath and having a nip, he gave us the story: Driving through Saint Joan he spotted half the town milling around the Mercantile. Folks were in an uproar over Frank Martin, the prison trusty who got parole for killing Helen Spence. The murderer had brazenly come into Saint Joan only to get run off by Mr. Bullard. “Frank Martin took the rap for killing her, all right,” said Uncle Harold. “Damned drylander.”
“But that ain’t all,” Dad went on, “They said Martin left town in a hurry and was crossing the bridge at Forks-Lagrue when his tire caught a nail and went flat. He got out the car to check the tire and a pack of dogs set on him. Those dogs tore his butt to shreds before he could get back in the car. He drove off on the rim in a shower of sparks—it’s the talk of the town.”
“Well I’ll be,” exclaimed Uncle Harold. “Hopefully it was some mad dogs bit him.” We waited awhile and when JC didn’t show, the three of us slipped off in the shell boat. Sitting in front holding the lantern, I watched the moon peek from a cloud as an eerie howl echoed against the bluff. Dad speared fat bullfrogs one by one and slung them in the boat—he didn’t need a fancy snap gig. Uncle Harold lounged in back, manning the paddle between nips and chuckling through the darkness, “Mad dogs, yep, mad dogs. You ain’t just a-wolfin’… you ain’t just a wolfin’.”
Years later, we heard Frank Martin went around bragging he was the one shot the notorious Helen Spence. He walked into Cloud’s grocery near Casscoe to buy a loaf of bread and the lady behind the counter was from the River. She sold him a different loaf, said it cost less and was just as good. Frank Martin went home, ate dinner and never woke up the next morning. Folks always said the River got him.
Chapter 6: Run for the Roses
Back at the “dirt farm in Vine” as Dad called it, work was plentiful. After bending a dozen nails and breaking a hoe, I was put in charge of the chickens and pond. “Just bring in some eggs and a few catfish or bream now and then,” Dad pleaded.
His plan centered on a crop of fast-growing sorghum. We were going to turn it into molasses at the end of the season. Dad was already tallying jars to sell to the general store at nearby Bethel and Bullard’s Mercantile in Saint Joan. He had acquired a mule so we planted a big garden too. I got used to eating greens, baby taters and double-yolker omelets. Most days I found time to sneak off and see what JC was up to. The Brown farm, a much larger piece of land than ours, was located between Vine and Bethel. One midsummer afternoon I met JC coming down the dusty road. Recognizing me from a distance, he plunked down in the shade and waited. “There’s a horse race today at the big cypress,” he hollered when I was still a ways off, a revelation that set me running.
I never saw a real horse race. Whenever Aunt Eula would go on about the glory days of Oaklawn Park over in Hot Springs, Momma called it scandalous. As we walked, JC described the scene: after taking off from the big cypress, the horsemen would gallop over a mile to the general store in Bethel where the winner got a cold Coca-Cola and folks collected their bets. Part of the track went through the woods. “My uncle was on the crew that built this road,” said JC. “When they got to the cypress tree, there wasn’t a saw blade big enough to cut it, so they built the road to Bethel around it.”
We veered off to the bottoms as shouts of laughter and the jingle of harnesses sounded ahead. Soon we entered a cypress grove containing more drylanders and horseflesh than I had ever seen gathered in one place. At the center of the hubbub, the giant tree rose up like a mountain, with knees 10 feet tall. I stared up at the faraway treetop, where an eagle’s nest wedged between branches. “During rainy seasons it takes a canoe to get here,” JC observed. “A dry spell like this is good racing weather.”
Six tall farm boys swung into saddles. I like Palominos; there was a fine one prancing about, also some chestnut quarter horses and a paint pony. Men young and old ranged around swapping bets. JC stood in conversation with an older boy named Jim whose family kept a houseboat downriver from Uncle Harold. I knew Jim by reputation as one of the best mussel shellers in Saint Joan; despite being small of stature he could shoulder a helmet and stay under water longer than anybody. Suddenly the crowd grew quiet and a man hollered something, lifting his pistol skyward. A shot rang out and the horses broke away in a cloud of dust and yelling.
Some folks ran to the road and jumped in automobiles; a few followed on horseback or mule. By the time we made it to Bethel on foot, the race was over and one of the Hankins brothers had won on the paint pony. All the girls from school were there, milling around and gushing over the horses and the Hankins brothers. Some of the girls had made a garland of roses for the winner. Jim and JC rolled their eyes at the spectacle. “Let’s go fishing,” Jim said, tearing up his slip. “I’d rather bet on something I can eat than a horse race anyhow.”
The following week there was a revival down on the White River. Despite his aversion to indoor churchgoing, Uncle Harold never missed a chance to take Altha Ray to the brush arbor. I tried to get Dad to come, but he just shook his head. “God don’t want me and Hell’s already full,” he declared. He insisted I wash behind my ears and put on a clean shirt, muttering, “Your momma always wanted to see you baptized.” I had no such plans. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Every summer on the White River, folks cut lengths of cane and willow branches to fashion a rectangular open-air structure. Then they made a brush arbor, roofing the frame with branches while girls braided lengths of flower-vines and wrapped them around the posts. Honeysuckle, virgin’s bower and maypops dangled, heady with perfume, all within a stone’s throw of the River. Rows of benches were set up and lanterns hung. Preacher Barton surveyed the scene with satisfaction. He’d come down from Skunk Holler by way of Possum Waller to baptize the faithful and eat catfish and barbecue.
I rode with JC’s family to Saint Joan (Wolf stayed behind, consigned to the barn). The buckboard wagon joined a line of others as we neared the River. “I hear the Hankins boys are up to something,” JC said. “We’d better keep an eye out.” His dad pulled the buckboard into the shade and we ran to find Jim, who had already heard the rumor about the Hankins boys. Plenty of families were arriving as the sun rose higher. At every turn, groups of giddy mothers showed off their new babies, exclaiming over each other.
“Let’s get away from this hen party,” muttered Jim. We took a bench in the back of the brush arbor but saw no sign of the Hankins brothers. “Looks like they’re planning a surprise attack,” JC said as Jim nodded gravely. I had only a vague notion of the Hankins brothers; like Jim, they were already past 9th grade and out of school. Besides the winner of the horse race, there were several more just like him, big and boisterous and always into something. “The Hankinses are the best pranksters in Arkansas County,” JC remarked in admiration. Uncle Harold and Altha Ray came over to greet us and the seats began filling up as Preacher Barton stepped to the fore.
There were some farm-related prayers for the crops to increase and good weather to continue; beyond that I got lost in daydreams, drowsy from the heat. After a break for a few baptisms and a picnic lunch, the sermonizing started up again for the duration of the afternoon, punctuated occasionally by hymns. I fidgeted on the hard bench. The babies started fussing too; each time, the mother would get up and take the baby over to where the buckboards were parked in the shade. After tending to the baby, the mother wrapped it and tucked it in the wagon to sleep til the sermon was over. As Preacher Barton droned on, I wished I were asleep on a quilt pallet in a buckboard, too.
Preacher Barton finally ran out of steam around sunset. The contented crowd was headed home when a scream pierced the air. “This ain’t little Howard!” a woman shrieked from a nearby wagon. The line of buckboards slowed as a babble of voices arose: “Whose baby have we got?” “Why, this isn’t Opal—it’s Clara’s niece!” Women poured into the road, rushing hysterically from wagon to wagon. “Lord,” JC cried, awestruck. “I hope there ain’t a catfight.” Folks exchanged squalling babies, calling above the din, “It’s the Hankins boys!”
The revival went on for days, but I stayed home from then on to work with Dad and avoid any chance at getting baptized. JC showed up one day when we were sitting down to dinner, and as Dad piled food on his plate he offered up the latest news of the Hankins boys.
“After a couple days of folks getting their babies switched around, those drylanders took to checking their babies before they left for home,” JC grinned. He described how the Hankins brothers themselves finally showed up and sat in the back row. No one knew what to expect. At the height of Preacher Barton’s oration, the brothers began scraping their big old work boots on the ground, crunching the brush arbor’s floor of crushed mussel shells. Preacher Barton merely increased his volume. This ordeal went on for the entire book of Job.
“The next day was the last day of the revival,” JC continued. “Preacher Barton shows up to the pulpit, takes his Bible and sets it down. He pulls out his big pocket watch and puts that down beside. And then he brings out his Schofield pistol, lays it on top of the Bible and says, ‘I come here to preach the word of the Lord. But anybody in back want to make noise, I’ll be happy to send him to Hell!’”
Things quieted down considerably after the revival, and Dad spent the rest of the summer trying to make a farmer out of me. “I don’t know as you’re much of a farmer,” he would sigh. “But at least you’re not a prankster, nor a preacher.”
Chapter 7: Sweet as Molasses
Autumn on the River is busy season. There’s the Reunion at the end of October, but before that comes the sorghum harvest and molasses-making. I was itching to see my first molasses-cooking party—JC said it lasts for days, with music and circle dances and a big spread. School lets out early, perking folks up.
Dad liked to broke his back cutting the 10-foot stalks, topped with tassels that have to be sawn off by hand. From sunup to sundown we piled green cane into the hay wagon, falling asleep as soon as supper was over. My hands blistered and I got behind on the dishwashing—when we ran out of clean pots and pans Dad kept going. He switched to the Dutch oven and built a fire out in the yard. One evening we were tucking in to a mess of stew when JC and Wolf showed up. After dinner, we lounged on the porch. The moon shone through the pines as JC cleared his throat. “Mr. Granberry, can Brent ride with us to the molasses-makin’? We got room in our buckboard and he can camp with Jim and me.” I waited, holding my breath. Dad grinned. “That’ll work. I’ll be in Uncle Harold’s tent. Just follow the snoring.”
The next few days were a blur. Ducks and geese began flying back to the River, their numbers darkening the sky. Between the nip in the air and the colors in the leaves, I went around dazzled. JC talked molasses nonstop; he was sharpening his sweet tooth. “The best barbecue sauce has sorghum in it. The pit’s already dug at the Williams’ place—they’re probably scalding the hog now. Cracklings are my favorite,” he rambled as we walked home from school. Jim was already gone ahead up the River. “He’s pitching camp by the River, away from the big house,” JC said, “since Wolf is coming to guard the camp.”
“Guard it from what?” I asked. JC didn’t answer until we came to the fork in the road. As he and Wolf turned off for home, he hollered, “Ghosts, that’s what! Guard it from ghosts!” I stared until they were out of sight and a dust devil sprang up in the empty dirt. My scalp prickled and I ran the rest of the way home.
That night I lay awake, listening for Dad’s snore—the house was too quiet. “Dad? Is the Williams place haunted? JC says it’s haunted.” The Williams homestead, for years the site of the molasses-making, had fields and orchards and a big stone wishing well. Two maiden aunts and their elderly brother lived in the farmhouse in peace and quiet, except for the yearly wingding. JC called it “sorghum philanthropy.”
“He’s just rattlin’ your cage, son—go to sleep.” It’s true that JC held to uncertain lore, as when he swore if a Model A were parked with the engine running, the tires would melt. He’d cross his heart while describing in detail a hoop snake, gulley cat or snipe. He even got me to believe knotholes on trees were doors to beehives—for months I knocked on every knothole I saw. Maybe ghosts are uncertain lore.
When school let out we ran yelling down the steps. At JC’s house we climbed into the loaded buckboard, like a big shoebox on wheels, with Mr. and Mrs. White up front guiding the draft horses. JC’s older brother Henry followed on horseback and Wolf stalked beside. Being in high spirits, we took turns singing—that is, the White family sang “This Old White Mule of Mine,” followed by a round:
“I’m going to leave ol’ Texas now, they’ve got no use for the longhorn cow
They’ve plowed and fenced my cattle range, and the people there are all so strange…”
More wagons entered the road, winding past hedgerows of purple sumac and goldenrod. Mrs. White began “Auld Lang Syne,” and a lump came into my throat—Momma used to sing that. On reflex, I looked to the heavens that were bluer than a bird egg and it was like a vision dropped from the sky, as if Momma whispered in my ear: Remember, Poppy River makes molasses candy, the best molasses candy in Arkansas County. The River Sisters—surely they’d be there! I resolved to scour the Williams place for any sign of them.
The wagon topped a rise and the air hummed with sudden laughter and conversation, jangling harnesses, rumbling engines. Distant smoke spiraled from the vat of boiling molasses as folks gathered in oak and pecan groves, unfolding card tables and setting out potluck dishes. A group of men was putting up a stage next to the muscadine arbor and kids played crack-the-whip, white legs and brown legs snaking in a blur barefoot until the whip snapped, sending the small ones rolling in the grass. JC pointed to where a mule trod a circle, hitched to a long pole turning the grindstone. “First we try the raw cane juice,” he said. “But just a sip—you don’t want to spend the weekend in the outhouse.”
Escaping the wagon, we passed some folks working an apple press and a girl held out a cup. “Want some live-apple juice? Say—is that a timber wolf?” With a nod to the girl, JC grabbed my arm and steered toward the settling vat. “First things first,” he repeated. He was right—a little of that foamy, sappy juice was plenty—it tasted sharp as the color green. We took off toward the river.
Jim’s shell boat was tied to the bank and the camp looked a sight. A raggedy flag (red silk bloomers) flapped atop the tent pole and from trees hung all manner of gear: spyglass, drinking gourd, railroad lantern. A circle of stones marked the fire pit, next to which Jim lay with his hat over his eyes. JC whispered to Wolf, who broke into a piercing howl. Scrambling to his feet, Jim cussed us for being late. I stared off while the two of them argued about what to do first—play horseshoes or go find the musicians. “You’re mighty quiet,” said JC. “What’s eating you?”
I announced my mission: to find three sisters, name of River. Apparently, the girls were as legendary in Saint Joan as in Skunk Holler—JC and Jim gawked as though I’d sprouted a second head. “The River Sisters ain’t been seen in a good while,” JC began, but Jim shouted him down, betting us a nickel they were close by right this minute. After more arguing, we agreed to fan out on a search and meet up in an hour. “Wolf, stand guard,” JC called.
I plunged into the crowd and caught up to a buffet line, asking every few paces if anybody had seen the River Sisters. People seemed startled, but in the next breath they’d be talking a streak—everybody had a story about the River Sisters. Begging pardon, I excused myself and ran to the nearest card table, asking some poker players if they’d seen the River Sisters. That was the end of their hand, as each fellow folded his cards and talked over the other, vying to praise the girls. I gave up on the poker players and hurried to find the musicians.
The boys stood behind a shed, tuning their guitars and passing a jug. “Have y’all seen the River Sisters?” I panted. “Speak up, kid—don’t be a mush-mouth,” said the washboard player. When I repeated the question, they welcomed me warmly. “Sit down—have a nip of this blueberry wine.” Dad gave me some blueberry wine once when I had the croup, so I took a swig. The warming potion spread like electricity down my middle as the musicians debated over which songs to play for the River Sisters, ignoring my presence. This wasn’t working as planned, so I went in search of JC.
I found him at the Flying Jenny, a sort of giant seesaw for brave people. “They’re here all right,” JC said excitedly as Jim pushed through the multitude, hollering, “They’re here!” We spotted a table by the barbecue pit and compared notes over messy helpings of barbecue. It was like I thought: nobody had seen the River Sisters, but everybody was sure they were here. “Wonder who started that rumor?” JC hooted. Bonfires flared in the distance as the musicians took the stage, dedicating the song to “the sweetest gals in Arkansas, the River Sisters.” The Cajun reel went round and round: “When we didn’t have no crawfish, we didn’t eat no crawfish,” as couples danced under a full moon.
The rest of the weekend flew by. I won a penny jacknife pitching horseshoes, and Dad and Uncle Harold jarred up 30 crates of fine amber syrup—enough to pay bills. Back home, I slept like a log. But Dad woke me before dawn. “I want to fetch a premium price for our first batch—what do you think?” he said, raising the lantern. Mason jars of sorghum molasses covered the kitchen floor, table and counter. They all bore brown paper labels: “Granberry’s Hainted Molasses.”
Dad had stayed up all night making the labels and I didn’t have the heart to tell him he misspelled “haunted.” Turns out, it didn’t even matter—folks bought it in droves, said it was the best they’d had, and we were in tall cotton for a good while.
Chapter 8: Snow on the Cedar
The Reunion marks the beginning of the Holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year just around the corner. Camp Doughboy near DeWitt draws families from across Arkansas County, but Dad could remember the old Reunion ground, Camp Fagan, on the lower White River. Camp Fagan was named after a Confederate general; you can still dig up a musket ball on the riverbank there—even cannon balls. That part of the River was known as Indian Bay until a Civil War battle filled the water with dying soldiers and horses. Afterward folks renamed it Stinking Bay.
I rode with JC’s family again and before we saw Camp Doughboy through the trees we could hear the music. Anybody carrying an instrument gets in the Reunion for free. There’s a merry-go-round with wooden horses and a calliope and even a magic lantern show. At dusk, folks file inside the big tent to sit on benches, waiting for dark. Then they light up the lantern that projects pictures—the wonders of the world flicker across the canvas. My favorites were the Taj Mahal, Sitting Bull, the Sphinx and Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls made me seasick, it looked so real—or maybe it was just too many candy apples and rides on the merry-go-round.
“Altha Ray makes the finest fried chicken,” sighed JC, sprawled beside the fire. “I’m fuller’n a tick,” Jim groaned. We were camped by the River, away from the main campgrounds, and Wolf stood guard. “Tonight’s Halloween,” JC mused. “Did I ever tell y’all about the ghost up at the Icehouse?” The Icehouse at Saint Joan did set up on a bluff like some giant gray skull made of cypress instead of bone, but it wasn’t haunted. “I don’t want to hear your fish stories,” I challenged. “I seen a real ghost—it shook my hand!”
Jim whistled. “Still waters run deep. You don’t talk much, but when you do it’s a doozy!” We drew up in a circle by the fire and I told them all about meeting Helen Spence in the graveyard and how she saved me from the storm. “Here’s the quill my uncle made,” I said, pulling the string necklace from inside my shirt. “If I blew this whistle—right now—would it wake the dead? Do y’all think Helen would come?”
“Do it!” hollered JC. But Jim shook his head. “Brent, you know you can’t. It ain’t right to trouble an unquiet spirit. Helen’s an unquiet spirit.” I put the whistle back inside my shirt as JC fumed. “Well I wanna see ‘er! Y’all are scaredy-cats!” Jim stared into the fire. “JC, you talk like a drylander! Were you there when we broke her outta that damned funeral home in DeWitt? Where they had her dead body set up in the winder like Bonnie Parker? No. It was us River folk went and got her and brought her home. Your Uncle was with us, Brent.”
“That was the first time I saw my momma cry, was when Helen died,” JC asked. “I miss her too. You say you know where to find her grave?”
“I oughta know—I helped dig it,” Jim replied. “We planted a cedar tree to mark it. Next to where Cicero is buried, back in the potter’s field. The night we buried her, the moon was so bright it give me freckles.”
We agreed to visit Helen’s cedar tree after the Reunion was over, but there came a hard freeze. “Looks like the persimmon seeds predicted right,” Uncle Harold said, stoking the fire. “Back when your dad was a boy, there was a winter so cold it froze the River—folks went ice-skating!” Dad was toughing it out at the farm—he had closed up the house and was sleeping in the barn with the animals. In the middle of the night I woke to a strange sound, so loud it drowned out Uncle Harold’s snoring. Bundled in a wool blanket, I crept through the dark houseboat and went to open the door—it was stuck. I pried it open a crack, put my head out and felt something like needles on my face—an ice storm!
We were iced in all right. For the next few days we holed up, listening to trees exploding outside. My nerves were shot from worrying if the ice storm would fell Helen’s tree. Uncle Harold wore me down asking “Why so blue?” When I explained the reason, he nodded sympathetically. “Please—tell me about Helen Spence,” I asked, and he stoked the fire and began:
“They called her the Swamp Angel, but she’s just a little River girl. She could shoot straighter’n a man, and sew and tat lace finer than any dry-lander lady. She lived by a code; the code of River Justice. The River gets its revenge, y’know—the River’ll eat you up in the end. Helen shot the man who killed her daddy; shot him four times in such a tight pattern you could put a hat over it.”
“At the trial? In the courthouse?”
“You ain’t just a wolfin’. Folks were jumping out the courthouse winders to get away. The judge hid under his desk. She had a pearl-handled lady’s pistol tucked inside a fur muff she wore—it was cold that day, like now. After she shot that no-good, she handed over the gun to JC’s daddy. That judge never should have sent her to the Pea Farm, because she’s from the River. She kept escaping—always headed back to the River though, so they always caught her. One escape she planned for weeks. They had took her off the field crew and put her to work in the prison laundry. She saved up a bunch of cloth napkins—the red and white ones.”
“Yes, gingham-checked napkins,” Uncle Harold continued. “She saved ‘em and sewed ‘em into the lining of her prison dress. And when the mean ol’ prison matron, Miz Brockman, sent the gals up to Memphis and the bus stopped off at the station, what do you think Helen did? She went to the ladies room, turned her dress inside out, and waltzed off pretty as you please! But like I say, they always caught up to her, and give ‘er ten lashes with the blacksnake—a leather strop.” When I asked why Miz Brockman bused the prisoners to Memphis, Uncle Harold hesitated. “They done a lot of bad things then—I’ll tell you another time. Get on to bed.”
I woke burning with fever and poor Uncle Harold didn’t know what to do. As a result, he tried out all his home remedies on me: A knife under my cot “to cut the pain,” doses of turpentine “to clean me out” and hot oatmeal and onion plasters on my chest “to draw up the bad stuff.” When he came at me with yet another steaming cup of godawful stewed leaves he called “senny,” I begged for mercy. “That stuff puts me in the outhouse—it’s too dang cold out there,” I wailed. As a compromise, he brewed a pot of coffee and poured in the last of his “special reserve.” After a few cups, we both felt stronger.
I lost track of time, but one morning brought a moist breeze that started things to thawing. I felt strong enough to go outside, and from the top of the stage plank I watched chunks of blueish ice float past wet black tree trunks. The snow was so bright it hurt my eyes. I went back inside the houseboat, resolved to walk to the cemetery the next day no matter what. I would go alone, since I didn’t have the wind in me to walk to JC or Jim’s place and fetch ‘em.
I was sure I could find the right tree—when Uncle Harold described it, I recognized the place I met Helen. I went slowly, breathing hard, the drip and crack of melting ice sounding through the woods. Fallen trees blocked the road; it looked like the cedars got hit bad—split from the top down, branches sheathed in gray-green ice. At the cemetery entrance I leaned against a pillar, staring over an alien sea of white drifts and broken limbs. How would I find Helen’s tree? I looked down to see a line of rabbit tracks leading off among the headstones, so I followed them. The tracks led to the back corner of the graveyard and there stood Helen’s cedar tree, untouched by the ice storm.
I blew softly on the quill and waited. “Helen,” I whispered. “Are you there?” When nothing happened I leaned my head against the slender trunk. I was all give out. The sun came blazing from behind a cloud and through my tears the ice sparkled like diamonds, little rainbows everywhere. At the base of the tree a droplet appeared bright red against the melting snow—it was red as blood. I knelt and brushed away the snow, uncovering a patch of wild strawberries. What in the world—berries in the dead of winter!
“Brent? Son, are you there?” Dad’s voice called nearby. I answered and soon he was standing beside. “So this is her tree,” he said. He had driven to Uncle Harold’s to fetch me and found me gone. “Son, let’s go home—you ain’t well yet.” I took my quill necklace and tied it around the tree trunk, and Dad helped me to the truck.
That spring brought the best strawberry crop in years. At Eastertide, Dad and I planted dahlias at Momma’s grave. I didn’t return to Helen’s tree for a while, but JC always said that when the dogwoods bloom and a breeze comes off the River just so, the little quill whistles a pan-pipe call, and Helen’s laughter drifts like distant music through the trees.
Chapter 9: Heroes and Villains
There was a flying ace, a fighter pilot who left Arkansas County to travel the world—Frank Tinker. He was a real-life hero of the Spanish War and a buddy of Dad’s. He used to buzz us out in the fields, zooming loud and low over the farm in his single engine Jenny, laughing. We heard Frank Tinker met a sad fate in a Little Rock hotel—shot and killed over a jealous woman. He was buried at DeWitt with “Quien Sabe?” (“Who Knows?”) carved on his headstone. Folks tended to shy away from scandal, so his name went unspoken.
There was also in Saint Joan during this time a villain whose name was on everyone’s lips. From the church sanctuary to the docks, tales of his villainy spread until an image formed in my mind like some graven idol of the Old Testament. He was known as “The Colonel,” said to be rich as Midas and cruel as Herod. JC snickered when I asked which war he fought in. “The Colonel? He got his medals off a Memphis pawnbroker.” JC explained how the old man lived alone ever since his invalid wife up and died of sheer spite; he kept a house in town and a plantation toward Skunk Holler. Over the years so many housekeepers quit on him that he took to writing checks to the Pea Farm, paying large sums to parole poor gals out of prison—and straight into bondage.
“The Colonel rides his tenants hard,” JC said. “Works ‘em ragged. Awhile back, he drilled a well to irrigate his land. Now he charges the small farmers cash on the barrelhead for water.”
I stalked the springtime streets of Saint Joan with a sharp eye out for the Colonel, the only dark blot on April. Roaming the soft green woods, my brain set to reeling from misty breezes. At school I daydreamed and at home I turned bitter and sulled up, snapping at Dad. On top of all this, Mudcat was fixing to have her first litter of kittens. What if she were too small? I seethed with indignation.
“You’ve got spring fever,” Dad concluded. He pronounced the cure: a spell of fishing with Uncle Harold. He said I could come home after Mudcat had her kittens—“Harold’s the dang zookeeper, so let him deal. Cool your heels on the River—it’ll do you good.” But I didn’t want anything to do me good. The heathen in me reared up. First chance I got I snuck away from Uncle Harold’s, scaled the fence back of the Colonel’s townhouse and shook the ripening plums off his trees. Emboldened, I returned the following night with a rock and broke his basement window. JC confronted me after school: “Are you gonna tell me what’s going on, or do I have to throw you?” I bowed up on him, but as he was still a head taller than me, I thought better and dropped my fists.
“You’re the one broke out the Colonel’s winder, ain’t ya?” said JC. “I best keep you in my sight, Cole Younger!”
We came upon Jim standing by the log chute at River Bend. The Mary Woods churned our way, red paddlewheel shining in the distance. She was coming to pick up a tow—a bunch of floating logs all chained together. It was fun to watch the giant tree trunks plunge down the chute into the River, sending spray sky-high. Cypress logs were already piled at the head of the chute and a team of draft horses appeared, shiny with sweat, pulling a load of hickory. Mr. Williams walked alongside.
“Hey Mr. Williams,” called JC. “How’s the molasses business?”
“Like they say—sweet,” he replied. I realized Mr. Williams was a woodsman by trade and as he talked timber with JC and Jim, up strode the company man. “Get that hickory down the chute, boy—now!” barked the foreman. At the sound of a Yankee accent, the four of us turned to study the foreman’s pink face, not saying a word. “We got to chain the hickory to the–,” began Mr. Williams, but the foreman interrupted with an ugly oath. Mr. Williams shrugged and walked back to the wagon team.
“You see that?” Jim asked JC, who nodded. “What happened?” I said. “Watch,” muttered JC. The men used iron pikes to move the ragged hickory trunks, straining and grunting. As the logs thundered down the chute, splashing into deep water, I waited for them to shoot back up like big corks. But nothing happened—the logs just sank. Jim and JC hooted with laughter as the Yankee threw his hat to the ground, cussing.
“I done told you before—we got to hook ‘em to cypress to float ‘em,” Mr. Williams sang out as JC and Jim doubled over laughing until tears ran down their cheeks. Hickory, being a dense and heavy grain, doesn’t float easily. The day’s work was lost. The foreman caught my eye and snarled, “Damn river rats,” so I snatched up a hickory nut and beaned him on the temple. “Run!” yelled Jim and the three of us hotfooted it all the way to Uncle Harold’s houseboat. “You looked like David and Goliath back yonder,” gasped JC.
Somehow my Uncle knew all about the broken window. “Brent’s feeling his oats, all right,” he sighed. “Have y’all taken him to see Mother Carey? She fixed up my plantar’s wart—had me bind a slice o’tater to it. Worked like a charm.” At this, my companions grabbed ahold of my arms and ordered me to march. We left Uncle Harold grinning by the stage plank and headed past the cold spring, following the River. After much pleading on my part they finally let go. “Who the heck is Mother Carey?” I demanded.
“She’s an old gypsy lady,” JC began as Jim interrupted. “No she ain’t, she’s a voodoo witch!” This argument went on for a good half mile. “You got some tobacco?” JC asked, and Jim nodded. “Course I got some! I know the score.” “What is going ON?” I hollered, to no avail.
The path ended in a clearing with a flight of stone steps leading to the water, where a houseboat floated atop cypress logs. It had a pitched roof like a lean-to, and in the doorway stood a little old woman, brown as a bean—a very wrinkly bean. The minute her glittering dark eyes fell on me I got a rigor, a shiver that rippled from head to toe. The old lady lifted her pipe. “What’s a matter there?” she cackled. “A rabbit run over your grave?” Jim solemnly handed his tobacco pouch to Mother Carey and we went inside. She rocked slowly in a wicker chair as we sat cross-legged on the floor and my case was presented: “He’s moonstruck bad—he’s off his feed.” In the dim light I could see the walls were papered in newsprint. Bundles of sweet-smelling herbs dangled from the rafters. When she turned and asked, “What’s your question?” I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.
“Why’s the Colonel alive and my Momma’s dead?” For answer, Mother Carey lit her pipe. The smoke drifted toward the three of us, and things shifted somehow. It was like we sort of sank into the floor—I can’t explain.
“Don’t you worry ‘bout the Colonel,” her raspy voice echoed overhead. “Y’all be dancing on his grave before the next full moon. And don’t worry about your momma either—you gots her eyes.” The voice fell silent. As soon as we could lift our heads, we crawled out the door on hands and knees. The sunshine revived us and we stumbled back to Harold’s place lost in wonderment.
A week went by and nothing happened except that Mudcat had three kittens. I cheered up some; Bo was happiest of all, as though he was their dad. The Dupflautz kids wanted the two calico ones, but I secretly hoped we could keep the third kitten, a gray tabby. I was walking to JC’s house, musing about the kittens, when I noticed someone galloping up the road—the Colonel! Before I could look around for a good rock to chunk, he passed by in a cloud of dust, flogging his bay mare like a madman. It made me so angry I ran home to the houseboat, not wanting to see anybody, not even JC.
“It’s good you got here when you did,” Uncle Harold said. The weather had turned. We herded the animals inside minutes before a cloudburst ushered in days of rain. The houseboat rose in the water like an ark as the two of us holed up, playing cards and petting cats. After the rain stopped, we didn’t see Dad for a couple more days and I fretted—but as soon as the floods receded, he came bringing news: the Colonel was dead.
“Word is he was checking fences at the plantation when the rain spooked his horse,” said Dad. “The horse took off into the swamp. Rolled over on him—they say he drowned and got crushed, too.” Uncle Harold observed that “if anybody deserved to die twice’t it were the Colonel.”
I was glad to get back to the farm, but first I had something to do. I set out for the Saint Joan cemetery, resolved to dance on the Colonel’s grave. To my surprise, there was a family gathered around the big white marble monument (the Colonel had special ordered it from Little Rock years before). One of the people turned—it was Mattie Lively, my old schoolmate from Skunk Holler. I barely recognized her, she was grown so tall. She smiled and said, “Why, Brent Granberry!”
Turns out, the Colonel’s name was Harvey Walburton Lively—Mattie’s grandfather. He’d quarreled with his only son, banishing him years ago. But since nobody could find a will, the inheritance fell to Mattie’s dad. The farm was to be leased out and Mattie was coming to live in the townhouse. I offered to fix a certain window, and as we talked the old bitterness inside melted clean away. “I missed you, Mattie,” I said, and it was the truth. “Hey—want a kitten?”
Things shifted after that, in a good way. Cured of spring fever, I looked forward to the sun coming up. JC and I laughed at how folks in Arkansas County said the Colonel’s grave was the most fertile plot in the Saint Joan Cemetery. Tall white iris grew thick as weeds against his marble marker, adorned year-round with yellow stains.