By Stephen Geez
Retta danced the willy-nilly, grabbed at slick branches, then lost both feet and whomped back-end down on the ice. Hit ’em mean like that and 70-year-old bones act scared, then angry, then out for revenge—and they’ll complain bitterly for weeks. It’s not how hard the ground is, makes ’em mad; it’s how brittle the bones has got.
Now a sheet of frozen slick, this low patch in the double-rut drive-back had been needing some ’dozer work a long time running, one of many get-to’s set for when next year’s lump-sum money could hire some younger help. Hardly anyone drove it but Randall, easing the pickup ’tween overgrown mirror-snaggers when he brung groceries and what-not to Lurlene and her girl. Deputy Wallace used to ramble back here regular-like to pretend friendly and keep an eye for signs local cookers mighta set up, but when he found Hollis’s makeshift lab a ways down Cutter Road, his brother Cletus shot him dead. State Police come in and tore ’ern up from there to right up Middleton Holler just beyond. Now a new deputy’s done took over, but ain’t yet been out here lying about smells to claim “probable cause” when he trespasses on Lurlene and Retta’s private property. This very minute would be a good time, him to show for a howdy-ma’am, seein’ as how there’s an old lady needs picking up off her arse.
Retta rolled over on her side and wound up mashing the holdin’ end of that pocketed fish-knife into her thigh, then managed despite bad arthritis to pull herself up and set about shuffling forward, keeping to the treeline for more grab-branching. She came to sight of cousin Lurlene’s place, built by their granddaddy when he carried his unimpressed young bride here for a lifetime of second thoughts in the hills of East Tennessee. Lately the place looked embarassed at being let to run down, but now the dim gray fog and last night’s snow gave it a fairy-tale gingerbread-house look, all sugar-frosted and gleaming with drips of icing drooping its eaves. Wisps of smoke fed by a stingy stack of splits curled from the chimney and bent north to tickle more sleet from dark clouds of a mind to paint these hollers another coat of quick-freeze.
Lurlene stepped out and stood on the wide, covered porch. Ten years younger than cousin Retta, she looked real old of a sudden. Bundled in wool coat, crochet hat and scarf, jeans and hide boots, she’d already got a mind to head out. “Found her, didn’t they?” she asked as Retta stopped at the slicked-over bottom step. Eyes red and swole, Lurlene had been crying, imagining the worst and expecting nothing better.
Retta sighed and nodded. “TJ got eyes on her. Sykes Bluff, about like I figured.”
Lurlene sagged terrible, legs about to give out, but she gripped the rail and held herself up.
“Randall and TJ done started on gettin’ her up, gonna need our help,” Retta said, looking off into the ice-gleaming woods. Seemed like she oughta be hearing one of those no-words nonsense songs scattered among the trees, but them days was gone.
Lurlene eased her sturdy frame down the slippery steps, then acted for a second or two like she might just hug her cousin’s neck, but them days was gone, too. As a kid she’d hug the neck of anybody would let her, but not too many would, and the older cousin went from not too often to not for some time now. Hugs never much suited her or Randall, Retta’s husband, who started coming around sparkin’ when he and Retta was teenagers and li’l-dab Lurlene got just old enough to walk clear to her cousin’s place at the high end of the holler. Turned out not to suit TJ much, neither, ever since Randall’s grand-nephew come to visit and never left. Lurlene used to spend plenty hugs on Frances, her only child, the girl Clayton left her to raise alone when he up and disappeared; then on Cammie, the chestnut-haired grandbaby she raised after a bullet shard behind the ear left baby-girl to grow up not caring if she ever got hugged or not, for all the good they woulda done. What’ll Lurlene do now with all them hugs, and nobody to take ’em?
“Slippery uphill,” Retta said, leading her through the woods to avoid the iced-over double-rut.
Not a hundred yards up yet, and both of Retta’s bad hips demanded to know just where she thought to get to. “I reckon,” she said, breathing hard already, “we best carry the girl straight to rest with her mom and them.”
“No preacher? Nobody to come?”
Retta shook her head. “Can’t even think about trying to show her face—” She stopped and turned. “’Sides, you let it be known she’s dead, checks’ll stop, and next year’s big’n won’t never come, neither.”
Lurlene kept quiet, turned and looked away. The woods tinkled and popped, bits of ice falling, branches cracking, a beat with no song in it for singing. Mist skulked about, sniffing at all the shiny bark. Lurlene was showing that look on her face, the one where she’s still picturing how it happened, bullets flying, newlyweds sprawled in a pool of blood, baby-girl wailing in dead mama’s arms, daddy’s shot-up body still holding the stick police tried to say looked like a gun. Lurlene had just convinced her daughter to move back this side of the state line, maybe even back to the holler, but family comin’ home wound up two bodies for buryin’ and six-month-old Cammie with the tip of her nose grazed, her brain messed up for good from that head wound. Time the lawyers got through, Cammie was set with a small monthly check barely paid for all the pills, plus a big lump sum to come next year on her 25th, supposed to last the rest of her life. Them pills made her okay to be around when the pain wasn’t too bad. Sometimes her mind would focus just enough to care a bit about what-all is and where she fits into it. Those days, often as not, would find her somewhere by herself in the holler, singing, like that to be her only job in the world.
Retta stood there in the iced-over woods and waited for Lurlene to think her way back around to the job at hand. Mist crept closer, curious, sniffing their sleeves. Ice slid off a big branch not ten feet away, clattered and cracked its way into the brush. Seemed like Cammie oughta be out there singing right now, the way she’d find wannabe words in the tunes, no sense in ’em lest you knew how to listen to what she meant and not what she said. Retta thought she might could understand a time or two, but maybe not. Lurlene seemed to could make a bit of sense of her, and TJ turned out to have a knack. He could make her sit still long enough to look right at him, and lately he’d even figured how the right kinda look back could make her smile. Seemed like she finally understood something when she lit up like that. Everybody figured that to be a good thing, but after what she done last night, maybe not.
Maybe she finally understood too much.
Lurlene wiped her face with a sleeve, and they moved on without another word. Once they crested the rise and crossed the flat-top, they come to Randall belly-down and dangling blue rope off the overhang of creek-bluff. Lurlene stopped a dozen feet short, stood over by a tree where Randall’s rifle and TJ’s shotgun leaned, several coils of rope close to hand.
Randall turned and studied on her. “Don’t gotta look,” he said, “but we might not can get her up ’less you help pull.”
Lurlene eased closer to the edge, leaned out a bit, looked down. Retta figured to grab on if her legs give out, but Lurlene kept to it hard.
Was a bad sight down there, forty-foot drop, Cammie face-down on the gravel bar. She’d managed to drag herself a good ten feet toward that twist of shallow fast-water, smearing a trail of blood in the orange chert. Either hitting the rocks took some minutes to kill her, or she wound up going black and the cold got her. Woulda been no way on or off that bar, ’cept through that ice-cold water.
Already down there, TJ cut the corners off Cletus’s old tent and spread the faded green canvas beside her. At barely fourteen and built skinny like a Daddy Long-legs, how that boy managed to climb down the icy bluff face without he should get busted up like that girl, well, it struck a wonder, it did.
Lurlene turned away, put arms against that tree, buried her face in sleeves, made sounds of the kinda hurt don’t ever stop. Retta wished it hadn’t ended this way, but she and Randall had been layin’ wishes on that girl since the day it started, all the good it did her. You can’t live in a world of wish.
TJ pushed his makeshift tarp against the dead woman, but he fumbled, hands shaking. He took a deep breath, studied the situation a minute, then got her by the shoulders and pulled her about halfway on and rolled her over. Cammie’s face had busted to pieces, bits of rock bedded in the meat, that scar on the tip of her nose never to matter no more.
TJ turned away, then tuned up and started crying. Just stood there and cried, he did, like first time he’d had to figure what dead really means, like listening for Cammie singing in the woods from now on means hearing nothin’ but the birds and a creek that runs no matter who comes and goes, like doing this man’s job your 76-year-old great-uncle can’t do still leaves you feeling too much like a little boy.
“TJ?” Randall called, unusual patience in his voice. “Now, you got to finish so you can get her covered up. Do right by her, son.”
The boy wiped his face with a sleeve, then tugged at her feet until he got her full on. He straightened her out, thought better of it, and with some effort pulled her legs forward so she lay curled on her side. Pulling one end of the canvas over her, he gathered the corners and cinched them together, struggling to get her stiffened body to shape right. Satisfied, the boy sat right down on the cold gravel and worked hard at not crying some more, all the good it did him.
“Let’s get this done,” Lurlene said, catching Retta with a start. “New deputy’ll be pokin’ around soon; can’t risk him figurin’ out.”
TJ settled himself down and went to work, tying off both ends, setting a loop and hooking it for lift. He turned over the bigger rocks that showed blood, then tossed the small ones into the creek before Daddy Long-legging his way back up the bluff rock. Randall tied the rope to a tree, and all four set to pulling up Cammie’s body. Took ’em some work to get her up over the edge, but once they got off the bluff rock, it proved easy to slide her on the icy ground, straight to that unfenced plot where the earthly remains of kin rested, most of their markers long weathered away. Randall fetched a shovel from the truck and started a hole, but TJ did most of the digging, near done after forty-some minutes when he stopped to catch his breath.
Lurlene said, “As many times we found her looking down at that spot, she was thinking on doing this—doing this to herself.”
“No!” TJ said, digging again, stabbing that shovel through layers of Tennessee chert. “She wanted—to get closer—tried to climb down is all. Slipped and fell.” His eyes watered on him, nose all snotty. He handed the shovel up, jumped up and shimmied out, stood there and drawed himself up. “She figured this holler couldn’t be, ’cept with her songs. No way she’d a-wanted to leave us without.”
Maybe the boy said truth, or maybe just what needed heard. Either way, Lurlene would have to find some kinda way to live without her girl.
And now she had one more heartbreak to picture how it happened.
Lurlene stood there, face showing hurt with no place to put it, waiting while TJ and Randall managed to lower Cammie’s body gently to its resting place. Retta wished a preacher could come, not that Lurlene and them believed anything, but just to have some kinda way to mark the passing. Girl never left the holler from six months on, never learned to talk, never got seen by a soul these past few years ’cept that dead deputy and the kinfolk gathered here now, three outta the four now more short to this world than long. Nobody could think a thing to say, which sure didn’t seem right. Preacher would have sounded like something bigger than this holler cared about a dyin’.
So TJ started to sing.
No words, just one of them songs like Cammie always sung. Randall’s eyes swole, got watery, and he put his hand on his heart. Lurlene tried to look calm, respectful, but she wound up bowing her head to cry. Retta couldn’t see clear, eyes all leaky, no custom for her, but that hole in the ground . . . that pile of dirt. She had to look away, into the woods, all gleamy with ice . . .
A face, watching.
The deputy? No, a woman, a stranger, seeing the whole story, clear as day, the holler’s secret right out in the open, dug up and put back on the creek-bed gravel-bar for all to see.
Randall had leveled his rifle, cocked it.
TJ fell quiet, eased over to the pickup, lifted his shotgun from the bed, trained the business end on that woman.
She made like to ease her way backwards, all the good that would do her. TJ broke loose, rabbit-streaked beside the double-rut, flashed a ways behind her. She turned like to run, but willy-nillied on the ice, flour-sacked her backside to the ground, pulled herself back up one-handed. Randall eased toward her, TJ now thirty, forty yards behind.
“Stay here,” Retta said, hand on Lurlene’s arm. She shadowed Randall, unsnapping the pouch holding that fish-knife in her coat pocket.
Woman made like to run, couldn’t get a foot to hold. She whirled one way, then the other, surrounded now. She picked up a stick, made like to swing it one-handed, fight all rised up in her . . .
But she had no chance, no choice, and her shoulders slumped, the fight gone as fast as it had come. This woman had fought before, and giving up had learned to come easier than losing. She sat right down on the snowy ice and put face to hands, shoulders all a-shake. TJ moved in, stopped at twenty feet, lowered his gun a bit, ready, careful. Boy knows to watch his aim when a group is climbing slippery rock, wading fast water, sliding shiny ice, or moving on a down animal from both sides. But what do you do with a soul don’t care no more? Warn her away from the bluff drop?
Everybody stepped closer, both women now looking down at her. Woman looked up, her lip split wide open in two places, one eye black. Maybe twenty-some, she held one arm close, like maybe broke or pulled out the socket. “Jus’ kill me,” she said, and she meant it. “I’m dead anyway. Least then he’ll be left to wonder.”
Lurlene knelt down, lifted her face up, pushed long streaks of dirty blond out the way. “Who done this to you?”
The woman jerked and twisted her head at the snap of a branch, then took a deep breath, closed her eyes.
TJ put his own eyes every direction, listened close. That boy could hear willowflies rising from the water, come early spring.
Lurlene said, “How’d you get here, hon?” Must be liking this girl, whatever reason, “hon” never coming easy nor often. Lurlene sat right down on the ice with her. TJ relaxed a bit, fidgeted with his gun.
Five full minutes, they waited, and when the girl looked, Lurlene just raised her eyebrows and waited some more.
“I come east,” the woman said, “—from over the Arkansas line?” She went on, pausing ’tween bits, sometimes askin’ instead of tellin’, like she needed to be told it’s right, or wondering if it’s okay to say. “I finally put Leroy’s sorry butt out, so he come back and burned my place, then beat on me for lettin’ him do it.”
“How come you to be here?” Randall said, suspicion before hospitality for the uninvited.
“Drove till my car made bad noise and started smokin’—pulled up the gravel road yonder? Tried to park for the night, hit a slick ice patch, slid right over the edge.”
“Deep over there,” TJ said, voice lower, tough-sounding, like a bear cub on its hind legs looking big. “Big drop—all growed over, too.”
Randall gestured up toward the roadway, so Lurlene made like to help the woman up, but both wound up helping each other. Retta stood back, watched.
“How come you to hold that arm?” Lurlene asked as they started walking, Randall back a ways, TJ well out front.
“He stomped all over it when I fell,” she said, a sniffle trying not to cry. She eased it out from the sleeve of that ratty wool, shivered from the cold, the man’s undershirt no good, considering. All swole, dark and colored like a caught bream that’s give up ever touching water again, even a scraped spot like a bass-tail at bed-fanning time. It didn’t look so much broke as angry.
“Married to him?” Lurlene asked, gently helping her pull the coat back up, urging her on.
She shook her head.
“Won’t give you up?”
“He’ll be out to Jack’s place for now—but soon as he comes off that drunk? He’ll figure out can’t expect me to come back—ain’t no place to come back to—so he’ll head out to see can’t he find me. I got nobody, ’cept maybe a friend workin’ remodels with me over to Castor’s—when he can find us work?—but she lives with her mom and them, no room for me.”
Retta said, “He won’t be thinkin’ past state lines, not with no direction to guess.”
All three women helped each other up the chert piled alongside the double-rut, Randall and TJ still keeping their distance, weapons ready. They kept to the gravelly middle till they come to a gravel-scatter running into the deepest drop. Scrub, jack pine, quite a few discouraged spruce, and a patch of sycamore stealing most of the sun filled the space, no car in sight; but a powerful whiff of burn seemed to be sneaking around the misty cold, the smell of gas and oil. TJ walked down the road a piece to find a good spot, then worked his way down snag-to-scrub, disappeared in thick.
“Engine done burned!” he shouted with a boy-squeak from somewhere below, the mean low voice forgot. “Front tires melted, glass broke—nothin’ but junk in the first place!”
“I been meanin’ to bring a ’dozer through here,” Randall said, “—flatten this part, push some into that drop-off. Might could cover the car right up, never know it’s buried there.”
The woman’s eyes went big, and she stepped back, scared.
“No hurry,” Retta said. “Can’t see it ’less you’re looking for it, and maybe not then.”
Sounds of the car door opening come up from the scrub, all pig-squeals and clanks, then more squealing as it closed after a minute. The boy appeared where’d he gone down, oversized purse under his left arm, no telling what-all poking out of it. He presented it to the stranger. “That’s all,” he said, “’less something in the trunk.”
She shook her head, then with that good arm clutched the bag to her chest, all she got left.
“Gettin’ late,” Randall said, and they all worked their way back to finish conducting a funeral, rifle and shotgun propped against a tree, woman’s purse on the ground beside ’em.
TJ sang again, and the stranger even cried as they covered Cammie over. They stood back while TJ gathered branches and disguised the grave, scattering more close by to hide their work, give dirt time to settle ’fore anybody could notice. He eyed a gravelly patch off to the side where weeds never took a liking, no doubt worryin’ someone might figure ’em out, then started to go after more branches, but Retta told him, “That’s enough.”
And that woman stood there watching every bit of it.
Randall looked to Retta, and she knew what he was thinking.
“We need to stop by Lurlene’s quick-like,” Retta said, all matter-of-fact, “so we can get home ’fore dark.” They all headed through the woods, the stranger who’d seen their secret keeping to the middle of the group, nobody saying a word.
At Lurlene’s place, TJ fed sticks into the kitchen pot-belly, then started adding splits to the parlor fireplace while Retta pulled one of Lurlene’s vinyl chairs from the dining room and placed it middle of the tile floor. She gestured for the woman to sit, then gently took the purse from her. Randall stood to the side, holding his rifle. TJ kept working the fire up front.
Lurlene helped her out of her coat, clucked and shook her head at that arm again, offered the girl some water.
“Whiskey,” Retta said. “Pour it big.” She looked at Lurlene, and finally it seemed to dawn on her cousin what might be about to happen.
What had to happen.
The girl trembled a bit, but said nothing. She downed the glass in five swallows, set it on the floor. Didn’t take long before she slumped some in the chair, head looser, eyes a bit glassed-over.
Finally, Retta spoke. “Got nobody but that man lookin’ for you?”
She shook her head.
“Weren’t figurin’ to go back, was you?”
She snorted at the very thought. “Can’t never go back. He knows ever’body in the county.”
“No place else to go?”
“Got nothin’ and nobody.”
“And not a soul knows which way you come?”
She shook her head.
Retta put a hand in her coat pocket. “You said you hit a patch of ice, went off the road?”
The girl nodded, then closed her eyes.
Randall said, “Weren’t no ice on that high part—all gravel.”
TJ came into the room, the boy looking confused.
“Step out on the porch, son,” Randall told him. “Wait for us, and don’t come back in, no matter what you hear.”
TJ’s eyes went wide, then darted back and forth between the woman in the chair and his great-aunts, finally settling his gaze on Retta’s hand in her pocket.
Randall raised his voice a bit. “I gotta tell you twice?”
TJ backed up, stood there a second, then turned and hurried out to the front porch, closing the door firmly behind him.
Retta said, “So you slid off the road where they wasn’t no ice?”
Tears formed shiny smiles under the girl’s closed eyelids, then broke loose and run south with a quickness. She looked sick now, hard time staying in that chair.
Retta demanded, “How come you to go off the road up there?”
“I could see dark over that side,” she said quietly. “Deep . . . Soft . . .”
“Didn’t figure to leave this holler ever again, did you?”
The woman tried to shake her head, but it lolled to the right, wouldn’t come back up.
Retta said, “Figured to be dead by now.”
The woman just sighed.
Retta moved fast.
The woman opened her eyes—
The knife flashed.
* * *
Weeks passed before the new deputy got around to pulling up front of Lurlene’s place. He stepped out of his dusty Jeep-cruiser, put his eyes every which way quick-like. “Afternoon, ladies—young man.”
“Deputy,” Retta and Lurlene acknowledged, coming down from the porch. TJ paused from painting the porch-rail and nodded. Birds hollered from every direction, that ice storm forgot by now, early-spring nesting places a matter of vigorous discussion.
“Y’all are really fixin’ this place up,” he said, nodding approval. “I just introduced myself to Randall up by the road. He’s sure workin’ that ’dozer good for a man his age. Real nice work on this road. Real nice,” he repeated, turning to survey the smooth drive-up and new circular turnaround. “Doin’ some work inside, too, looks like. Oh, where’s my manners? I’m Deputy Kistler, born and raised in Humphreys County, just come east for this job.”
Retta stepped forward, introduced herself and cousin Lurlene. TJ put down his brush and moved closer, then reached out to shake the man’s hand as his great-aunt introduced him.
Lurlene said, “And that’s my granddaughter, Cammie.” She gestured to the young chestnut-haired woman painting the windowsill, her back to them, oblivious. Sounded like she might be singing to herself, barely heard over that bird racket and the roar of Randall ’dozing the highway access.
“Yeah, I heard about her,” the deputy said quietly. “Never been right, they say; never leaves this holler.”
“So sad,” said Retta.
“But she’s doin’ quite well,” Lurlene added, “and we’re even thinkin’ next year or two lettin’ her try livin’ with kin up north.”
“Well, good for her,” he said. “Hope it works out.” Quieter, he asked, “Fragment off a round caught her in the head? Something about the end of her nose shot up, too?”
Lurlene nodded, sadness in her eyes. “Cammie!” she called to the woman. “Cammie!”
The woman turned, looked sorta vacant, maybe aware some, maybe not. The end of her nose was tore up, tip missing, ugly scar to show for it.
“If you’re headin’ out,” Lurlene said to the deputy, “could you drop me out at the mailbox, save me half a walk? I’m expecting something important.”
Deputy tipped his hat to the others, held the door for Lurlene.
Retta watched them drive out, then turned and smiled at TJ and the young chestnut-haired woman with the funny nose.
Cammie came down from the porch to stand between them, then put her arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Up north?” she said, chuckling. “Why, when I get my share next year?—ain’t no telling which way I’ll head.”
“Settle in a college town,” TJ suggested. “Then I might could stay with you when I go ’way in a few years.”
She laughed, then gave him a hug with that hurt arm, now mostly healed, bruises about gone, doing good. “You got a deal,” she said. “Now, let’s finish this paint and get to work fixin’ up that bathroom.”
Retta watched the Jeep-cruiser’s trail of rising dust meet up with the big cloud where Randall ’dozed gravel.
Cammie and TJ went to work, singing again, louder’n birds, filling the holler with Cammie’s “words,” that song only the two of ’em could understand.