A Burning in Homeland: A Novelby Richard Yancey
A Burning in Homeland is
...a wonderfully written, crazily romantic story of intense love and devastating betrayal
...a stunning debut of a remarkably gifted young novelist
...a Southern novel that captures the beauty, madness and mystery of both place and time.
In what can only be described as a tour-de-force of passionate/b>/i>… See more details below
A Burning in Homeland is
...a wonderfully written, crazily romantic story of intense love and devastating betrayal
...a stunning debut of a remarkably gifted young novelist
...a Southern novel that captures the beauty, madness and mystery of both place and time.
In what can only be described as a tour-de-force of passionate atmospheric storytelling, first-time novelist Richard Yancey had created a finely nuanced narrative that resounds with raw, emotional truths -- a story about the ominous return to a small town in central Florida of a man once sentenced to prison for defending the honor of the woman he loved, about the woman and her husband who both betrayed him, and about a guileless young boy who gets caught up in their web of love, lies, and deceit.
The story of the love between Halley Martin and Mavis Howell is seldom talked about in the tiny town of Homeland, Florida, but in the twenty years since Halley was sent to prison for murdering a rival suitor -- the only murder ever in this small, pious town -- the story has become legend. To seven-year-old Shiny Parker it has become a mystery, something his parents whisper about. He knows that somehow the pretty wife of the local minister is involved, but it is all too confusing for him to sort out.
When the church's parsonage burns, almost killing the minister, only days before the legendary Halley Martin is due to be released from prison, Shiny senses a connection between the events -- as do most residents of the town. But if Haley was still in prison when the house burned, who set the fire...and why?
Passionate love, the betrayal of friendship, hidden letters, a suspicious fire, mystery and revenge -- all are elements of this complex and deeply involving Southern gothic tale.
Alternating among a trio of first person narrators -- Shiny, Mavis, and Halley -- Richard Yancey has created a lush, epic Southern landscape bursting with larger than life characters and rich atmospherics. A Burning in Homeland is both starkly haunting and exquisitely romantic and a masterpiece of dazzling storytelling you will not soon forget.
The summer of 1960 is eventful for seven-year-old Shiny Parker: He sees the Pastor nearly burned alive, gets married to crazy Sharon-Rose (she insists on vows after Shiny sees her naked), and witnesses a murder. After Pastor Ned Jefferies' house burns down, his wife Mavis and their daughter Sharon-Rose stay with the Parkers while Pastor Ned is hospitalized. Shiny's older brother Bertram warns the boy to stay away from that peculiar Sharon-Rose; in truth, the whole house-burning incident seems mighty suspicious. Soon the two discover that clues to the worst murder case ever in Homeland, Florida, are under their very roof. Twenty years ago, dandy Walter Hughes was accused of raping Miss Mavis, and Halley Martin, strong, handsome and poor as dirt, killed Hughes to defend the love and honor of Mavis. Though they'd never formally met, Halley, working in her daddy's orchard, secretly watched and drew Mavis every day, and from the watching grew a fierce love. Much of the story is from Halley's perspective as he spends the next twenty years-hard ones, filled with violent suffering and told in vivid detail-in prison for Walter's murder. With the help of the young prison chaplain, Halley learns how to write, and soon Mavis is flooded with declarations of his love, sentiments she secretly returns. The chaplain, none other than Ned Jefferies, contacts Mavis, and the fates once again turn against Halley Martin. Years pass, Halley continues writing Mavis, secretly builds up a fortune, and buys out her daddy's plantation. On the same day Pastor Ned is released from thehospital, looking like a skinless turtle and now insane, Halley is released from prison-seeking Mavis, or revenge, or maybe both.
With shades of Monte-Cristo and Wuthering Heights: a beguiling, old-fashioned tale of desperate love and cruelty.
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Read an Excerpt
I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
-- THE SONG OF SOLOMON
At the end of our dirt road, on the top of a green hill, beside a live-oak tree draped with Spanish moss, there was a little white church, and beside that little white church was a little white house, where the pastor lived. His name was Ned Jeffries, but everybody called him Pastor. He was a small man, and thin, with dark hair and squinty eyes. He wasn't a very friendly man, and some people said he was too sour, even for a Baptist preacher. Momma didn't like him much; she said he was too cold, that he didn't like people. But Daddy said it wasn't that Pastor didn't like people, he just liked God more. "That's terrible," Momma said. "That's a terrible thing to say." Daddy said, "What I mean to say is, he finds God more interesting." Momma said she never heard of such a thing. "Any man who finds God more interesting than people has no business in a church." Daddy didn't say anything after that.
Now Pastor had a wife, who we called Miss Mavis, and she was the prettiest lady in town. Daddy told my brother Bertram she was the prettiest lady in town because all the other pretty ladies in town talked about her, about how her looks were slipping, and that's how you tell who the prettiest lady in town is.
I didn't know much about that, but she sure seemed pretty to me. On Sundays she wore a white dress, and most of the time she wore her hair up, except for some dark strands that would come loose and hang beside her round face, the ends curling under to touch her neck. She was a lot prettier than Pastor. Her teeth were small and even; Pastor's were long and yellow. Her eyes were large and blue; his were squinty, like I said, and very dark, almost black. She was a very pretty woman who looked even prettier next to her husband. His homeliness made her shine. They would stand together after the service just outside the main doors, greeting everybody as they came out, her smiling and laughing and him grinning like it hurt, putting his limp hand in yours and giving it a quick shake while he was looking at the next person in line. "It's good to see you," he'd say, and when my turn came he'd put a sweaty hand on my head and say, "And how good it is to see you, Robert Lee." I wouldn't say anything back and Momma would poke me, and later in the car she would turn around in her seat and say, "You must start talking to the pastor, Robert Lee." And Bertram, my brother, would say, "Shiny don't talk to nobody." And Momma would tell Bertram to hush.
They had a daughter together, Pastor and Miss Mavis, their only child. They named her Sharon-Rose. She was a big girl for her age, with long, golden hair and a round face like her momma. She was three years older than me so I didn't know her very well, until that summer came when she moved in with us, because God burned her house to the ground, and me and her became engaged to be married, through no fault of my own.
But it wasn't Sharon-Rose's fault, either, when I think about it. It was more Miss Mavis's fault, for making her take a bath so late. But that wasn't really Miss Mavis's fault, because she wouldn't have been in my house taking a bath if it hadn't been for the fire, which wouldn't have happened if Halley Martin hadn't killed Walter Hughes years and years before I was even born.
So maybe it was Halley Martin's fault I got engaged at the age of seven. Everybody said the fire that night was God's will, but that was hard to think about, God willing Halley Martin to fall in love, so Walter Hughes would die, so Miss Mavis would marry Pastor and have Sharon-Rose, so their house would burn down, so they would have to move in with us, just so I would be engaged to a girl I didn't even like.
God's ways are mysterious indeed. That's what Momma always said. I never knew what she meant by that, but I started to understand, just a little, beginning on that night when the pastor's house burned clear to the ground.
Copyright © 2003 by Richard Yancey
from Chapter One
"Bertram, can you sleep?"
"Uh-huh. I'm in a deep, deep sleep, Shiny."
"Bertram, they ain't really coming to live with us, are they?"
"I don't know. Shut up and go to sleep, Shiny."
But I couldn't sleep. I watched the leaf-shadows dance and twist on the ceiling. I listened to Bertram breathe. I raised my arm in the dark and sniffed it. It smelled like smoke. I sniffed my fingertips. They smelled like smoke too. I threw back the covers and sniffed my knees.
"Shiny, what are you doin'?"
"Sniffing my knees."
"There's something not right about you."
"I smell like smoke. You smell like smoke, Bertram?"
"Well, I don't know. You s'pose I should start pokin' my nose into all my parts, like a dog?" He snorted. "Go to sleep, Shiny."
"I can't sleep."
"Then sniff yourself quieter!"
I watched the leaf-shadows dance some more.
"Momma said they were," I said. "She said it tonight on the way back from the fire. Miss Mavis and Sharon-Rose are coming tomorrow, and Pastor too if he don't die in the hospital."
"So what do you care if they do?"
"Well, where're they going to sleep?"
"Didn't Momma tell you? They're taking your bed. You'll have to sniff yourself on the sofa."
"But Bertram, why do they have to stay with us?"
"I told you I don't know! Now, shut up. Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up!"
"If you don't shut up I'm coming over there and shutting you up!"
I didn't want him to come over and shut me up, so I shut up. I tried to sleep. It's hard to sleep when you know it's almost morning and soon the sun will be shining through your window and all the wide world will be awake, except the crickets, which I didn't even know where crickets went during the day. I never saw a cricket in the sun. Where did crickets sleep? They must go underground. I never dug up a cricket, though. Worms and roly-poleys and tiny snails, but never a cricket. Did they sleep in holes like rabbits? Were there cricket holes? Did they live in hollow logs or under dry leaves? I could hear them now, chirping under my window. Momma said crickets sing because they're lonely. Come to think of it, I never saw two crickets together, though I could hear whole choirs of them, singing. I couldn't figure out how there could be so many of them and still all of them so lonely. But here I was with Bertram in the bed right next to mine, and I felt lonely. I didn't want the Jeffries to come live with us. There was something strange and sad about Miss Mavis, and Sharon-Rose was a girl. I didn't know much about girls, but I knew enough to stay clear of them. I didn't understand half the things they talked about, and they smelled funny. Sharon-Rose smelled like burnt oranges, but I had only caught a whiff of it this night, and she had just come from a fire so I wasn't sure if it was her natural smell or if she picked it up inside her burning house before she ran out.
She saw me and Bertram standing beneath the arms of the live-oak tree. I saw her standing with Miss Mavis and Momma by the big red fire truck at the edge of the dirt road. Bertram had taken me halfway up the hill to get a better look at the fire. I had never seen a house-fire before. Even halfway up it was hot on my face, and I could see it reflected in my brother's eyes, dancing.
It was a hot night, made all the hotter by the fire. I saw Daddy with the other volunteer firemen trudging up the hill, dragging the fire hose. Daddy held the nozzle on his shoulder while the man behind him gave the signal to start the pump. Just a trickle came out at first, then a huge stream shot out, and I heard Daddy grunt and saw him go to his knees. The man behind him helped him up. They aimed the hose at Pastor's house, but it was mostly gone, though the front was still burning pretty good.
Beside me, Bertram laughed. "Like spittin' on the fires of hell," he said.
Just then a man came out of the house. He was burning. His whole body was on fire. He walked onto the front porch, his arms spread out, and he was burning; he was burning alive. The man with Daddy gave a shout and tried to aim the hose at the burning man, but Daddy shouted, "No!" and dropped the hose and ran toward the house. The man on fire didn't move; he just stood on the front steps with his arms flung out and his head back, and I don't know if it was the wind or the crackle of the fire, but it sounded to me like he laughed, like he was laughing at the smoke-filled sky.
Daddy grabbed him by the shoulders and flung him to the ground. He rolled him like a log back and forth till the flames were out. Then a lady came running up the hill, her white robe flying behind her, her dark hair loose and flowing. The man with Daddy tried to stop her, but she just reared back her fist and smashed it into the middle of his face. Daddy was coming back down the hill, yelling for the stretcher-men to come up. The lady fell to her knees before the burnt-up man, and lifted her face to the sky. It was Miss Mavis.
"Oh, God! Oh, dear God!" she screamed. "I have given up my husband to the fire!" She pulled Pastor up. He was limp as a rag doll. "Don't die!" she yelled at him, slapping at his face. "Don't you dare die on me, Ned Jeffries!"
She was popping him pretty good by the time Daddy and the stretcher-men reached them. It took all four men to pull her off. Daddy held her as the other men loaded Pastor onto the stretcher, and Miss Mavis leaned on him as they all came back off the hill. The man she punched, whose nose was now the size of a sweet potato, said, "What about the house, Bertram?"
"Forget it, Pete," Daddy said. "Let it burn."
I said, "Let's go, Bertram."
"No. I want to watch the rest of it burn."
"I'm scared," I said.
"Then go and wait on the road with the other women. I'm gonna watch it burn."
I looked down the hill to the dirt road. They were putting Pastor into the ambulance. I could see Momma standing with Miss Mavis, her robe now black with soot, as dark as her hair, which fell forward like a curtain over her face. Coming up the hill toward us was Sharon-Rose, wrapped in an old yellow blanket, her gold hair all knotted and teased around her wide, round face. She was barefoot, and when she got close I could see her bare legs poking through a crack in the blanket. Her legs were plump and slightly pink, the color of the sky just before sunset.
I looked away. Bertram saw her coming and hissed between his teeth.
"Hey, Bertram Parker," Sharon-Rose said. "Hey, Robert Lee Parker."
Bertram didn't say anything. He was watching the fire. I slid around him, till I had him between me and her. She was watching the fire too.
"It's all gone now," she said. "Everything. Even my shoes. Gone, gone, gone."
The ambulance sirens screamed to life, and I must have jumped a little, because she looked over at me and said to Bertram, "What's the matter with your little brother, Bertram?"
Bertram looked at her for a long time. It was the first time he looked at her. Then he bared his teeth and said, "We got to go."
He started down the hill so quick I had to trot after him to catch up. Sharon-Rose followed us.
"Hey! Hey, you boys. You little Parker boys! Wait up! Wait up for me!"
"Don't look back, Shiny, hear?" Bertram said. "Just keep walking."
"It's God's will, this fire," Sharon-Rose said, catching up. "My daddy says everything that happens under the sun is God's will."
"Then what did your daddy do to make God mad enough to burn him up?" Bertram asked.
"My daddy is a hero, Bertram Parker. He saved me and Momma's life."
It seemed like the whole town of Homeland had turned out to watch this fire. There were cars up and down the road and people standing around in their robes and pajamas. Momma and Miss Mavis were standing inside a ring of people. I heard Miss Mavis say, "It's my fault. It's all my fault."
And Momma said, "Hush, Mavis. Everything's going to be all right."
And Miss Mavis said, "No. His blood is on my hands now."
Sharon-Rose stepped up, pushing people out of the way, and they parted when they saw who it was. Miss Mavis looked down at her like she had never seen Sharon-Rose before.
Sharon-Rose said, "Don't worry, Momma. Daddy's gonna be all right. Didn't you hear him, Momma? Didn't you hear him when they put him in the ambulance? He said, 'Jesus.' He said, 'Jesus,' plain as day. 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,' he said."
They moved in with us the next night. Miss Mavis took Momma's sewing room and Sharon-Rose got our sofa, so now we had a sofa that smelled like a girl, and I didn't think that was a smell you could get out. At noon the next day a bunch of old ladies came over with covered dishes. Momma pushed back the furniture in the living room and set up a long table in the middle. The table was nearly the length of the whole room but still didn't seem big enough to hold all the food. There was meat loaf and chicken and barbecue pork and sausage. There was green bean casserole and squash casserole and spinach casserole and black-eyed pea casserole and some I didn't even know what kind of casseroles they were. There was cucumber salad and tossed salad and potato salad and egg salad. There was oranges and strawberries and watermelon. There were pies and cakes, and Momma baked her oatmeal cookies. The whole house smelled of food and old lady smell, which smelled like medicine and perfume and hair spray, and all the old ladies went around talking about the fire and what were poor Pastor and Miss Mavis going to do now? Me and Bertram walked around the table filling our plates, and I heard old ladies saying that Pastor was dead; that he was burned so bad he didn't even look human, but like one of those Egyptian mummies after they're unwrapped after five thousand years in a sunless tomb, their faces all black and caved in; that, no, he wasn't burned bad at all, but the smoke had blinded him and addled his brain; that his brain wasn't addled, but both his lungs had collapsed and he was breathing with a pump; and that he was all these things, burned and addled and blind and crying for Jesus to take him home. I sat with my plate on my knees in the corner by the window so I wouldn't have to listen to any more. Whatever he was now, I sure didn't want him in my house. It'd be worse than having a ghost. Bertram sat beside me and said he guessed this was better than Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners put together, and he wished a house burned down every day.
"Where's Sharon-Rose?" I asked.
After we ate, Miss Willifred Peters stood in the middle of the room, and we all held hands and said a prayer for Pastor and his family. She thanked God for not killing anybody and praised him for his infinite kindness and mercy. When Miss Willifred prayed, her head bobbed up and down like those funny dogs you see in the back of cars. Everybody said, "Amen," then Miss Willifred clapped her hands and announced committees had been formed by the Homeland Baptist Ladies Prayer and Sewing Club to help the Jeffries in their Hour of Need. There was the Clothing and Essentials Committee, the Rebuilding of the Parsonage Committee, the Medical Bills Repayment Committee, and the Food and Entertainment Committee. Then she thanked the volunteers for signing up and led a prayer for all the volunteers and all the committees. Then Miss Rachel Cook suggested they combine all the committees into one big Save the Jeffries Committee since everyone was on all the committees anyway and who had the time for four committees when one would do just as well?
Miss Willifred said, "Well, I should hope that one would always have the time to do the Lord's work."
"It's not the work I object to," Miss Rachel said. "It's the time."
"Well, Rachel Cook, I had no idea you had more important things to do than aid our pastor in his most dire need," said Miss Willifred.
"Willie," Miss Rachel said, "my only point was we're all on every committee, and even if we weren't, we can't expect all the folks in Homeland, which I need not remind everyone is a small town with limited resources, to commit their funds four ways instead of into one large pot, which the big committee would then decide how to divvy up."
Miss Willifred didn't say anything, but her face was turning bright red.
Miss Rachel went on. "With four committees after the same pool of money, one, if not all, is going to be short-changed. People are going to say, 'I already gave to the Clothing and Essentials, I can't afford to give to Parsonage Rebuilding too.' It's conceivable the Jeffries could end up with four thousand dollars in Food and Entertainment and nothing in Medical Bills Repayment."
"What's 'Entertainment' mean, anyway?" somebody said. "Is the church sending the Jeffries on a trip to Hawaii?"
Everybody laughed at that except Miss Willifred.
"Perhaps we should all put this to a vote," she said.
There was an awful fuss about whether it should be a voice vote, a show of hands, a secret ballot, or a referral to the Board of Deacons to decide the whole thing so everybody could get back to supper. The whole house was full of the sound of old Baptist ladies chirping and squeaking.
Bertram said, "I can't take it anymore, Shiny. Let's go."
We set our plates on the floor and went outside. The driveway and yard were filled with the old ladies' cars; the noon sun glinted off the chrome and stung our eyes. The heat pressed down on my head. Sometimes in July it got so hot it felt like you were being squeezed by a giant fist. The hot air shimmered over the dirt road and across the road in Mr. Newton's pasture, making the cypress trees twist at the edge of the horizon like they were trying to screw themselves into the cool ground to get away from the sun. I climbed onto the porch swing, and Bertram sat on the bottom step. He took out his pocketknife and found a stick and began to whittle, his back toward me. Bertram had dark hair like Daddy, and a solid, blocky body like his too. In the summer his dark hair got shaved a half inch from his head, to let his scalp breathe, Daddy said. With his hair short like that his head looked too small for his body, so all summer he walked around with a shrunken head. My hair was cut short for the summer too, but I had a small head and a skinny body. And my hair was very light. When it was short I looked like I had no hair at all; in the sunlight it seemed to float above my head like a fine, golden mist. If I stayed out too long in the sun my scalp got burned, and nothing hurts worse than a sunburned head. I wondered what it must feel like to get burned head to toe like the pastor. He must have been burnt pretty bad -- his whole body was lit up when he came out of that house. When you pick up a piece of burnt chicken, the skin just cracks and falls off like loose paint. Thinking of that made me a little sick.
"How did their house catch fire?"
"Why can't one of those old Baptist ladies take 'em in? Why's it have to be us?"
"Shiny, you know Momma would take in every stray dog and cat in town if she could."
"Yeah-a. But the Jeffries aren't dogs or cats. And that Sharon-Rose. She makes me nervous, Bertram."
Bertram spat into the ground and said, "You stay away from her. There's something not right about that girl. I see her at school, and all she does all day long is whisper to herself."
"What's she whisper?"
"How should I know? She whispers it, stupid. Sometimes it sounds like she's singing. Sometimes like she's talking to somebody, but nobody's there. She don't have no friends. When we go outside, she stands off by herself or she sits under a tree and reads a book."
"Well," I said, "sometimes I do that. Read a book, I mean."
Bertram said, "Well, there's something not right about you either."
"But they aren't going to stay with us the whole rest of the summer, are they?"
"What makes you think I know anything about anything, Shiny? Jeez! You think Momma and Daddy asked me what I thought before they took 'em in?"
"It's just -- we only got one bathroom for the two of us, and that Sharon-Rose -- "
"That's right, Shiny," Bertram said. "So you better be careful and keep that door locked or Sharon-Rose might come in there and pee on you."
Just then our car pulled up and Daddy got out. Sharon-Rose hopped out of the back while Daddy walked around to help Miss Mavis out of the car.
"Why, here's that Bertram Parker and his little brother, Robert Lee Parker!" Sharon-Rose yelled, running toward us, like she was surprised to find us at our own home. "Guess where we've been!"
"The hospital," Bertram said, not looking at her.
"The hospital!" Sharon-Rose said. "The hospital, and your daddy bought me a chocolate shake in the cafeteria. I never been to that cafeteria, but it's three times as big as our cafeteria at school, and I swear I had the best chocolate shake I ever had in my life. I never would have thought a hospital would have such delicious chocolate shakes! But I sucked it down too fast and my right eyeball felt like it was going to pop right out of its socket! You ever have that happen to you? Where your very eyeball's going to pop out of its socket?"
Bertram looked at her and said, "No."
Daddy was leading Miss Mavis through the maze of cars parked willy-nilly by the Baptist ladies. Miss Mavis wore a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over her eyes and carried several bags. Daddy had some bags too, in his free hand.
"Oh," Sharon-Rose said. "And after the hospital we went to the store and I got three new outfits. I'll show them to you."
"We don't want to see them," Bertram said. He stood up so Daddy and Miss Mavis could pass.
"I don't think I can do this, Bertram," Miss Mavis said to Daddy.
"You'll be all right," Daddy said.
"No," Miss Mavis said, "I won't."
"They care for you, Mavis. Boys, help us with these bags."
Bertram took Daddy's bags and I took Miss Mavis's. She smiled at me; it was a sad smile, but even sad as she was, she was still pretty.
"Thank you," she whispered, clutching at Daddy's arm. "Thank you."
We followed them inside, and all the old ladies stopped their bickering and set upon Miss Mavis and Sharon-Rose, circling them and kind of herding them toward the table of food. Miss Mavis kept saying, no, no, she wasn't hungry, she really couldn't eat a bite, but Sharon-Rose, who almost lost an eyeball to a chocolate shake, went at that food like she hadn't eaten in a week. "He's wrapped tight as a mummy, only cleaner," she said, meaning Pastor. Daddy told us to put the bags in the sewing room, and when we came out Miss Mavis was nowhere to be seen. Sharon-Rose was sitting on the piano bench, the food stacked like a small mountain on the plate she balanced on her broad knees. She ate quick, like she was afraid someone might come and snatch the food away.
"Looks like they're going to need that Food and Entertainment Committee after all," Bertram said.
We went into the kitchen, where the old ladies were washing dishes, clattering the plates while they chattered about Miss Mavis and how drawn she looked. How worn and drawn. Momma was there, pulling a fresh batch of oatmeal cookies from the oven.
"Oh, Robert Lee," she said, "I knew if there were oatmeal cookies in the oven you couldn't be far away."
She slid the cookies onto a plate to cool and handed one to me. An old lady I didn't know, with very thick glasses and a pointy nose like a witch, stared down at me and said, "Why, is this your youngest, Annie? How old is he now?"
"How old are you, Robert Lee?" Momma asked.
"Seven," I told the old lady.
"Seven!" the old lady said. "Why, he's small enough to be five! What is he, a runt?"
"I was small for my age, Miss Alice. He'll grow," Momma said.
"I hope so! Small men make for big mistakes, I always say. Napoleon was a very small man, you know."
"So is Harry Truman," Momma said.
"I never liked that man," Miss Alice said. "Eat vegetables!" she shouted at me. "Make you grow! Milk! Give you strong bones! And meat, red meat, lots of red meat, the redder the better. Don't overcook the child's meat, Annie Parker, or you're asking for trouble. My Alfred, rest his soul, never ate red meat his whole life, and he was a small man. A very small man, and he made my life miserable!"
"Come on, Shiny," Bertram said, and we snuck outside through the kitchen door.
We cut through the side yard, down to the dirt road. The air was heavy and we walked as if wet blankets were thrown over our shoulders. I picked up a long stick and trailed it in the dirt. By late afternoon it would rain, but now the sun was hot and fierce against our necks. I wished I'd remembered my hat.
"Bertram, what's a runt?"
"No, what is it?"
"Like when a dog has puppies. The littlest puppy's called the runt."
I watched Bertram's wide back and big shoulders as he walked in front of me.
"It's just some old lady talking, Shiny," Bertram said. "Don't listen to her."
"You heard Momma."
"But Momma is still pretty little."
He didn't say anything.
The weeds grew tall and thick on the right side of the road where the ditch had been dug to drain the water from the heavy summer rains. Water lay in there now -- brown, sludgy water, covered here and there with green slime. On the other side of the ditch was the barbed-wire fence separating Mr. Newton's land from the road. From deep in the pasture, the cypress stands looked cool and inviting.
"Let's go to the fort," I said.
"No. There's something I want to see."
We came around the curve and up ahead I saw the church. All that was left standing of the house was the chimney, pointing up at the sky like a fat, black finger. I dropped my stick.
"I don't think we're supposed to go up there, Bertram."
"You don't have to come if you don't want. Go on back to the house with the other ladies."
He walked on without looking back. I turned and there was my house, dancing in the heat. I could have a slice of cold watermelon on the porch. I could crawl under the house and lay on the cool ground and no one would find me, especially Sharon-Rose. I turned back. Bertram was still walking toward the hill.
"Bertram, wait for me!"
I ran after him.
"What's to see, Bertram? It's just a burnt-up old house."
"You asked me what started the fire."
"Well, maybe we can find out. Look for some clues. You know, like the Hardy boys."
"Why don't we just ask Sharon-Rose?"
"I did ask Sharon-Rose."
"What's she say?"
"She said it was God."
He stopped and looked down at me.
"You think it was God, Shiny?"
"No. I guess not."
"Neither do I."
The road was empty. The air was still. The winds would come in late afternoon, with the rains. We climbed the hill and stopped to rest in the thin shade of the oak tree. We sat with our backs against the tree and watched the empty road. Bertram stuck a piece of grass in his mouth and chewed on the stalk slowly.
"What's the matter, Bertram?" I asked.
"Something's not right about it, Shiny. Last night Sharon-Rose said her daddy saved her and her momma."
"But he was the last to come out. If he got them out, why was he still in there?"
"Maybe he went back to get something."
"I didn't see him come out with anything. Did you?"
"Miss Mavis said it was all her fault," I said.
"That still don't explain why he was still in that house. You heard what else she said. She said his blood was on her hands."
"What are you talking about, Bertram?" I suddenly felt all cold.
"Maybe she's telling the truth. Maybe she hit him over the head with something and then set the house on fire to cover it up."
"But she didn't hit him hard enough to knock him all the way out, so he wakes up..."
"No! Stop it, Bertram!"
He looked at me long and cold.
"Miss Mavis would never do something like that," I said.
"How d'you know?"
"I just know."
"Well, I don't just know. People kill each other every day, Shiny."
"Not around here."
"Oh, you think we got the only town in the whole world where people don't kill each other? The way I look at it, we got one of two things living with us -- a murderer or an arsonist, and I'd kinda like to know which it is before I go to bed tonight."
He threw down the chewed-up stalk of grass and headed for the house. I watched him go. I was shivering all over, scared and mad at the same time. I knew Miss Mavis wasn't a murderer, but I didn't know what an arsonist was, and I was too scared to ask. Bertram was kicking around in the charred wood and ashes, raising little clouds of soot. Here and there in the ruins smoke still lingered, rising lazily toward the bright sky. Bertram found a stick and poked at the piles of smoking junk. He gave a little "whoop!" and yelled for me to come and look. I didn't want to. More than anything I wanted to turn and run, run back to the house and find Momma and ask her what an arsonist was and if anyone had ever killed anyone in Homeland.
"Come on, Shiny. Quick!"
I came, but I didn't come quick. I stopped at the edge of the black and gray mess, where the porch used to be, where Pastor came out on fire, his arms raised up to the sky. Bertram held up something long and thick, crusted black.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A candlestick. I think." He rubbed on it with his thumb. "It's heavy enough, Shiny." He swung it around a couple of times. "We gotta figure how to analyze this for blood..."
"Hey! Hey, you boys! You Parker boys!"
It was Sharon-Rose. She was huffing up the hill, lifting her big knees high as she ran. She stopped by me, sucking for air, squatting on her haunches, her face covered with red and white blotches.
"What...you're doin'...is...ill-legal, Bertram Parker. And you...Robert Lee Parker are...his accomplished in crime."
"What crime, Sharon-Rose?" Bertram asked.
She saw the candlestick in his hand.
"And stealing!" she yelled. "Drop that!"
"I will not."
"I told you to drop that!"
She puffed out her cheeks, then swung her head toward me.
"You're staring at me. Why're you always staring at me?"
Bertram said, "Maybe he stares because he can't believe how big and fat and ugly you are."
Sharon-Rose shook her head hard, like a bull shaking off a fly. Then she launched herself at him. I never saw anyone move so fast, and especially not a girl. Ashes and bits of wood flew from behind her feet. It was like something you'd see in a cartoon. Bertram stood still; he never expected her to come for him -- you could see it in his face. He'd look the same if she sprouted wings and flew into the sky. He didn't even raise the candlestick to bop her with. She slammed smack into him, and the candlestick flew into the air, turning end over end. She landed on top of him with a puff of boiling soot. I saw her big, soot-black fist raise up and swoosh back down. I heard Bertram go, "Oof!" and another fat fist came up.
I yelled, "Bertram!" but I didn't move. I wanted to move. Bertram was my brother. She was going to beat him to death and I was going to watch her do it. And when we buried him everyone in town would stare at me and they would whisper, "There goes that boy who let his brother get beaten to death by a girl." And Momma and Daddy would lock me in our room. And Bertram would come back and haunt me for letting him die. He'd haunt me for the rest of my life. But even though I knew all that would happen if I let her kill him, I still couldn't move. Sharon-Rose was sitting on his chest hitting him with both fists, swinging her arms high before each pop. The more I tried to move, the more frozen I was to the spot. Nothing was going to make me move.
Then Bertram yelled, "Shiny!" and I don't think I moved faster in my whole life; I don't think the bottom of my shoes got dirty. One second I was standing in the grass and the next I was on Sharon-Rose's back.
I grabbed a fistful of that thick blond hair and yanked back, like a bronco rider at the rodeo. Sharon-Rose gave a yell and reached back, sitting up at the same time, trying to throw me off.
"That's it, Shiny!" Bertram yelled, and he rolled quick to his side, throwing her off -- and right on top of me. She landed on my stomach, knocking the wind out of me. Bertram yelled, "God damn you, Sharon-Rose!" and picked up the candlestick.
"Well, well, well!" a voice boomed out. "What do we have here?"
I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Air gushed down my throat, air mixed with ash, and I sat up coughing and spitting, and Sharon-Rose sat down beside me, patting my back like she felt real sorry for me. Bertram dropped the candlestick.
Standing against the sun, rising up tall and black, with a big gun on his hip, a man was frowning down at us.
"It's me, Sheriff Trimbul," Sharon-Rose said. "Sharon-Rose Jeffries, and this is Bertram Parker, a criminal, and this is his criminal brother, Robert Lee Parker, who they call Shiny, I don't know why."
"Well, I can't say why either, Miss Sharon-Rose," Sheriff Trimbul said, "seein' he's black as a tar-baby."
"I would like you, Sheriff Trimbul, to place these two criminal boys under arrest."
"On what charges, Miss Sharon-Rose, should I arrest them?"
"Trespassin'! I caught 'em at it red-handed. Stealin' too!"
"Oh, is that so? Well, now. Trespassing is a serious crime."
He put his arm around her shoulders. "Come on over here with me and let's talk about it."
He led her away. She leaned against him, sniffing and snuffling and wiping his shirtfront black, like we were the ones beating up on her. I looked over at Bertram. His face was covered with soot caked up from blood and spit. His right eye was swelling up.
"I told you we shouldn't have come here," I whispered. "Now we're gonna go to jail." Talking made my chest hurt.
"Hush," he said. He spat a wad of dirt out of his mouth and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He was watching Sharon-Rose and Sheriff Trimbul. She stood next to him, her head down, listening while he whispered into her ear. She began to shake her head back and forth, real quick, and then she began to cry, the tears cutting pink trails down her black face.
Bertram sucked in his breath.
"We ain't goin' to jail, Shiny," he said. "Sharon-Rose is."
Copyright © 2003 by Richard Yancey
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