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.
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!”
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.
Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson