Sweet Heartsby Melanie Rae Thon, Melanie Rae Thon
At sixteen, Flint has spent eight years of his life in juvenile detention. Half child, half full-grown
Marie Zimmer has stories to tell but will not speak. Deaf since the age of nine and motherless since she was eleven, Marie is a mute witness to her family's turmoil, the only one bold enough to tell the tale of Flint and Cecile, her sister's dangerous children.
At sixteen, Flint has spent eight years of his life in juvenile detention. Half child, half full-grown criminal, he escapes from the Landers School for Boys and comes home to find the one person he loves and trusts, his little sister Cecile. Together they rob and terrorize a local doctor, steal their mother's car, then strike out alone on a desperate journey south to the Crow Indian Reservation, where their ancestors once lived.
Is Cecile Flint's hostage, or his accomplice? Nobody knows. Only Marie, the children's deaf aunt, understands the strange logic of their crimes, their desire and fear, their devotion to each other.
Fusing family myth with American history, Sweet Hearts exposes a never-ending chain of wandering and abandonment, the disappearance of mothers, the drowning of people. It is a devastating story, one woman's silent struggle to unravel the web of violence that has trapped her family for generations. This passionate tale is also a celebration of life in the midst of sorrow. In the fierce light of her imagination, Marie Zimmer weaves the past through the present, inventing a language of signs subtle enough to illuminate the mysterious ways in which we are all connected.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.63(d)
Read an Excerpt
1 G h o s t B r o t h e r
I am the daughter of a drowned woman.
I have stories to tell but do not speak.
Who will trust me?
When I’m afraid of what I see, I pretend it’s a play. The dead will rise for applause. We’ll all go home. I promise.
First there’s the girl, Cecile Vaughn, ten years old.
She stands barefoot in the muddy yard.
Montana in March, the earth just thawed.
Why is she the only one to know Flint’s home?
Ghost brother, she smells him in her stepfather Dexter’s truckwet fur, rags, bloodsomething the dog might dig up.
These are my sister’s children.
The missing boy brings bad weather and bad luck. Rain turns to sleet, then snow; his mother Frances singes her hair; Dexter passes out by the porch and wakes five hours later, left leg so numb and cold he thinks he’s paralyzed himself.
Chained to a tree, the dog howls and howls.
Flint leaves his mark on Cecile’s bedroom window, smears on the panefingers, nose, open moutha map of his body on the glass shroud. From inside, Cecile measures him against herself.
No ladder, no trellishow did he climb to the second floor?
At dawn, bare trees burst with squawking crows.
Dexter loads his .22, hates the birds, wants some damn peace in his own house.
But crows watch us through our windows, see us loading guns and setting traps, lacing bait with poison. Any farmer knows this. You have to be smarter than a crow to kill one.
Dexter Bell is no farmer. He owns a tow truck and a snowplow, lives by other people’s troubles.
By the time he gets outside, the crows have vanished.
Dusk. Clouds break. Wind rocks the pines and pink sky glows between branches. In the woods, coyotes cry while hundreds of boys try to slip their own shadows, all of them hungry and lost, like Cecile’s brother.
Under the porch Cecile finds the rolled-up rug where one boy has been sleeping. She leaves him a jar of milk and a box of chocolate raisins.
All week, that rain.
The yard becomes a shallow lake and keeps spreading. Beneath the porch, the ground turns spongy.
Even the invisible boy can’t sleep. He sinks. Cold mud seeps inside his scrap of carpet.
If the weather had been warm and dry, would he have stayed outside forever?
The little girl forgets to ask him.
The eleventh day, early morning.
A shivering child taps lightly at the kitchen window.
Dexter grabs his rifle, opens the back door, blocks the entry with his body.
But the boy is quick.
Fast as breath, he’s in the house.
He’s with them.
His mother giggles, inching backward. He’s small for his age, but harder than Frances remembers. Dark-skinned or only dirty? There they are again, two brothers in a field, fingers sticky from cotton candy. They follow Flint everywhere. Their shadows can’t be cut and peeled; one of them must be his father. He’s grown from child to little man, skinny in that way that shows every vein and tendon. He could be either one of those boys from long ago. One summer night Frances Zimmer ditched her deaf sister and twirled in a mad teacup. The Kotecki brothers paid for all her rides at the carnival. Ponies skewered on poles rose and fell while the carousel played its bright tune over and over. Those boys left fingerprints and the smell of sugar on her thighs and throat and stomach.
Flint, she says; and Dexter says, No wonder. He means his bad luck, the numb leg, snow that melted too fast for him to plow it. He says, Feed him, give him twenty bucksif he’s gone when I get back, I’ll pretend I never saw him.
Outside, Dexter fires three shots at empty branches, then unchains Dixie to take her with him. Dixie: half mutt, half boxer, sixty-two pounds and dumb as a rock but absolutely faithful. My girl, that’s what Dexter calls her.
Cecile crouches in the hallway. When her brother was a ghost, she liked him better. Now he’s flesh and mud. Just like Dexter. And the two men before Dexter. Just like Grandpa. And Cecile’s father, who always smelled of blood and was blood-spattered. A butcher, he couldn’t help it, but all the same, that’s why Frances left him. The blood, she said, I couldn’t stand it. Caleb Vaughn wanted his young wife to work in the shop beside him. But no, she’d rather go back to her own father, Lowell Zimmer, live cramped in one of his motel rooms with Cecile and Flint; she’d rather scrub floors and scour toilets than stay with Caleb.
Did Cecile’s father beg? The child can’t remember.
And Cecile doesn’t remember Daddy’s hand under her back, Daddy teaching her to float in the bathtub, Daddy singing hush, little baby in her dark bedroom.
All this she forgets on purpose. She remembers instead his stained apron, the marks of his handds where he’d wiped them, all the good reasons Mother had to leave him.
Cecile can visit her father any day she chooses. Can ride her bike to town, a gravel road Creston to Kalispell, nine miles. Cecile VVVVVaughn can walk past Caleb’s shop and see Daddy through the window. Sometimes she does this when she’s supposed to be at school. When the man looks up, does he know her? She watches Caleb’s new wife hack through bone with a cleaver. This wife doesn’t mind slabs of beef hanging in a cold locker. They have three daughters, plump girls, soon to be good workers. Not like Cecile, Caleb’s first mistake, skittery child born of a delicate mother. Look at her wrists, Caleb. If his mother had been alive when he’d made his choice, she would have warned him.
Free or runaway? Frances doesn’t need to ask Flint this question. Superintendent Beckett phoned last week. Most of them come home, he said. When he does, you call us.
He’s hitched six hundred and twelve miles across Montana, a jagged route to find them. He keeps the map in his head, can name every town where he wasn’t arrested: Rosebud, Sumatra, Slaytonthe beginning of his journey. He’s slept in barns and unlocked cars. Wolf Creek, Choteau. Once he walked all night to keep from freezing.
Frances says, You must be hungry.
She fries eggs and pork chops, gives him toast and jam, then coffee. He tries to eat it all, but can’tswallowing is work; his stomach’s shrunken. He smokes. That’s easy. Frances lights her own cigarette from the flame of the gas stove, and he says, You shouldn’t do that. He knows. The day her hair caught fire, he was a crow yammering at the window. He beat his wings against the pane, but couldn’t help her. She spun and flailed. Mother, burning. That night he turned all boy again, arms and legs, no wings to lift him. He climbed the maple high enough to see his mother naked in her bedroom. He watched her lips move; he read her body. So he knows this too: she’s pregnant, breasts and belly rounded, hipbones fading, not that far along really, but too late to end it. Dexter’s forbidden her to drink or smoke, has named his boy Jake, Jacob, a good name, from the Bible. His dead father’s name, and his father’s before him. A name too good for Dexter or his brother Gerry. When Frances said the baby might be a girl, Dexter looked befuddled. No, he said, you have one of those already.
Frances tells Flint she can spare a hundred dollars; and Flint says, How far do you think that will get me?
He means he’s tired. He wants to eat every day, stretch his stomach, take a bath, sleep under blankets. Like a person.
When he says this, his voice is high, the voice Cecile remembers. He’s her brother, and she comes into the kitchen. He stares. She’s too big; that’s what he’s thinking. It’s me, she says, really.
Copyright © 2000 by Melanie Rae Thon. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Melanie Rae Thon is the author of the novels Meteors in August and Iona Moon and the story collections First, Body and Girls in the Grass. Her work has appeared in Paris Review, Story, Granta, and Best American Short Stories. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. Originally from Montana, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Salt Lake City, where she teaches at the University of Utah.
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Melanie Rae Thon has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read one of her short stories in the Southern Review, "Lost Children". I have read all of her books, except Meteors in August and have loved every single one. After reading Sweet Hearts I found myself telling everyone about it, begging them to read it. She has a unique and beautiful sense of language and style of writing. I don't think anyone will be disappointed after reading Sweet Hearts.