The Woodsman's Daughterby Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Gwyn Hyman Rubio's first novel, Icy Sparks, was hailed as “vivid and unforgettable” (The New York Times Book Review), “a combination of fire and ice that will take your breath away”(Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Now, Rubio has done it again with The Woodsman's Daughter, a richly absorbing tale of the gothic South/i>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
Gwyn Hyman Rubio's first novel, Icy Sparks, was hailed as “vivid and unforgettable” (The New York Times Book Review), “a combination of fire and ice that will take your breath away”(Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Now, Rubio has done it again with The Woodsman's Daughter, a richly absorbing tale of the gothic South that, like Icy Sparks, has another unforgettable heroine at its heart.
Dalia is the brassy and beautiful eldest daughter of Monroe Miller, a shrewd turpentine farmer in 1800s southern Georgia haunted by a devastating secret. A resilient and resourceful young woman, Dalia strives to create a better life for herself and will stop at nothing to protect her family, but the sins of the father are never far behind.
In this spellbinding, page-turning epic, Rubio brings the swaying pines, humble shantytowns, and insular bustle of small-town living vibrantly to life. The Woodsman's Daughter is certain to cement Rubio's reputation as a major southern voice in American fiction.
- Penguin Group (USA)
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.94(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.77(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
"Vampires," Dalia hissed as she perched on the edge of her bed, waving her arms in the hot July air, the buzzing orbiting her head. A mosquito lit on her forearm. She felt the sharp sting and slapped the insect with the flat of her hand. "I got it," Dalia said triumphantly to her sister. "I don't know how it slipped in." With the tip of her tongue, she licked the warm, slick blood off her palm.
"They know better than to sip mine," Nellie Ann said in the next bed over.
From outside the long window came the sound of hooves clomping in the dust. Dalia squeezed the cotton-stuffed tick, releasing the tension that had lodged in her fingers. Pushing the mosquito netting back, she slipped off the edge of the bed, her feet thumping against the floor.
"What are you doing?" Nellie Ann asked as Dalia headed over to the window and peered out.
"Shush," Dalia scolded her. Beneath the canopy of hundred-year-old oaks, the moss trailing from their gnarled limbs like long, gray gloves, their papa was coming back after weeks of being gone. He jerked at the reins and brought his horse, Tarkel, to a halt. Rising up in his saddle, he squared his wide shoulders, pushed his black hat back on his head, and stared straight ahead. He was preparing himself to face them, Dalia knew. Suddenly he teetered to the left. Drunk as always, she thought as he threw out his right arm to regain his balance. Then, digging his boot heels into his stirrups, he jolted himself upright again, his head thrown back in laughter. He flicked the reins against the horse's neck, and once more hooves clopped along the dusty road that led to Miller's Mansion. "It's Papa," Dalia said, her voice anxious and weary. "He's back, two days early."
"That's old news to us blind folk," Nellie Ann said, dramatically rolling her white, unseeing eyes. "I heard him ten minutes ago."
"He's getting off his horse now," Dalia said, watching their father dismount and hitch Tarkel to the horsehead post (the groom would stable him later). "He's coming up the walkway," she added as he strode over the flagstones toward the veranda. At the bottom of the convex steps, he pulled out a flask from his shirt pocket, unscrewed the silver cap, and upended the container. Tarkel whinnied just as he took another long, deep swallow of bourbon, his drink of choice. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he twisted the silver cap back on and shoved the flask into his pocket. Reverently, he placed his hand over the container as though it held some vital organ, Dalia thought. As he trudged up the steps, she lost sight of him beneath the porch roof, but she could still hear his heavy boots, ascending slowly, coming to a standstill when he topped the last riser.
"Did you hear what I said?" Nellie Ann asked with irritation.
"I heard you," Dalia snapped. "You knew he was coming ten minutes ago. So why didn't you say something?"
"You know I don't like to seem superior." Nellie Ann giggled. "Not only did I hear him, but I could smell him on the breeze coming through the window."
"I'll be back in a minute," Dalia said, ignoring her sister, rushing from the bedroom without a backward glance, making a beeline for the staircase. She crept down three steps and sat- staring through the delicate banisters in the direction of the foyer. She could see her mother unexpectedly bending over as if in pain, her thin arms twined around her waist, righting herself back up when the small, spare form of Katie Mae, their cook, appeared. At once the two women began speaking softly, rapidly-Katie Mae's dark hands swooping in front of her as though trying to catch the words that flew between them, their voices growing louder as they spoke.
"Yessam, Miz Violet. I wasn't expectin' him back so soon," Katie Mae was saying.
Her mother flicked a gray strand of hair off her forehead, a habit of hers for as long as Dalia could remember, and adamantly pressed her palm against her chest. "Still, there's plenty of food in the pantry. You must fix him something good to eat," she stated. "He'll be hungry."
"Yessam . . . fix Mr. Monroe some food."
"Some country ham," her mother said mechanically, "with redeye gravy. Three eggs, fried soft the way he likes them. Biscuits and butter."
"Yessam, I'll fix him a good breakfast."
"And don't forget . . ." her mother said, lowering her voice, the words slurring together, so much so that Dalia couldn't make out what she said. But then her mother's voice swelled again, the words distinct and whole. "Yes, a big bowl of those fresh peaches we got yesterday-sliced thin, with lots of cream and sugar."
"Yessam." Katie Mae's voice was polite but not obsequious. She never toadied.
"Well," her mother said. "You've got a meal to prepare . . . you better get started."
Dalia looked on as Katie Mae straightened her shoulders-her spine erect as a cornstalk- and walked away. Her mother kept talking, muttering to herself now. Then, shutting her eyelids, she closed her hand over her groin, repeating, "Whore, whore, whore," in a low, angry voice, over and over, until the front door swung open and sent her fleeing for the staircase, her dark skirt polishing the floorboards.
Shaken by her mother's words, Dalia leapt up, took the steps quickly, and hid behind a gold- cushioned love seat on the landing.
"Violet," her father called out, clunking through the foyer while her mother pattered up the stairs.
The instant Dalia heard the crude sound of her father's voice, her heart stopped. For a second, it stopped. Conflicted, it simply quit beating-like a pendulum no longer swinging inside a grandfather clock. Just as she began to panic, it started to beat once more. One beat for affection. The next for disdain. The rhythmic ticking of emotions to keep itself going. "Violet," he called again at the bottom of the staircase, but before he could mount the first step, her mother's footfalls abruptly stopped.
"There's some breakfast for you in the kitchen," she said, her tone empty. Her dark eyes opaque as pitch. "And wash up outside before you eat."
"Won't ya join me?" he asked, his voice pleading but eliciting only her mother's icy silence. Next came her father's retreat, his dejected shuffle down the hall toward the back door.
Though her mother had convinced her that he was coarse and common, no one deserved to be treated like a stranger in his own home, Dalia thought as a wave of pity washed through her. When her mother's bedroom door clicked shut, Dalia stole out from behind the love seat and hurried back to her sister.
"What took you so long?" Nellie Ann asked as Dalia crossed the threshold.
"I was spying on them," Dalia confided, walking over to the bed where her sister lay waiting. "Papa's probably in the backyard now, washing up at the pump. You know how upset Mama gets when he dirties the house."
"Mama has every right to make him clean up outside," her sister said. "He's filthy when he comes back from that camp of his. I smelled the turpentine stink on his clothes before he even set foot inside."
"Poor Papa, he can't seem to do anything right," Dalia said, unwilling to take her mama's side this time. "Anyway, we'd better quit talking and get dressed. Papa will be expecting us to welcome him home. Now sit up," she said, rolling up the mosquito netting and offering her hand.
"Don't need your help," Nellie Ann said, grabbing hold of the tick and drawing herself up.
Nellie Ann had confessed to Dalia that she saw more than people thought. She saw the outlines of shapes, blotches of light and dark. A man, she said, was a thin dark line; a woman, a fuzzy ball of gray.
"Lift your arms," Dalia said. Gently, she coaxed the white cotton gown over her sister's head. Nellie Ann wiggled across the tick to the side of the bed. "You can pull these off now," she said, raising her spindly legs.
Dalia tugged and the bloomers slipped down, exposing her sister's yellow-tinged skin, stretched tighter than usual over her distended stomach. Fearful that Nellie Ann might be feeling worse, Dalia stood there nervously gripping the fabric. Again she pulled at the bloomers, snapping off a button near the waistband, sending it pinging against the plastered pink wall.
"What was that?" her sister asked, her skinny legs dangling, her stomach rising and falling. At once Dalia regained her composure. "A button popped off. That's all," she said, dropping the bloomers to the floor, forcing herself to breathe evenly, making herself do what was necessary to keep both herself and her sister calm.
"A button popped off?" Nellie Ann questioned.
"Yes," Dalia replied. "Do you know your skin is as soft as a baby's behind?" she said, trailing her fingers down the front of her sister's thigh. "When you were little, Mama and I rubbed baby oil all over your body."
"Are you jealous of my silky skin?"
"Most certainly," Dalia said, moving away from the bed, facing the floor-length mirror. "You're thirteen and still look like a child. No breasts. No hair down there, either."
"I told you I'd never grow up," Nellie Ann gloated, her voice victorious.
"You're lucky." Dalia sighed. "At your age, I was already blossoming. Now that I'm fifteen, I'm . . ." She paused, not knowing how to finish.
"You're a woman," Nellie Ann said. "You've got curves. I know 'cause I can feel them."
"And when a woman gets curves, it's time for her to get married. And you know what that means?"
"It means cooking and housekeeping and babies."
"You better start looking for a man, then."
Dalia groaned. "Maybe I can make them flat." She pressed her palms against her breasts. "I could rip up some old bed linen and bind my chest with the strips." When she removed her hands, her bosom popped up again. Through the lightweight cotton nightdress, breasts plump as peaches and hips round as cantaloupe halves shone back at her in the mirror. Disgusted, she made a face. "I could even shave down there," she said, hiding her crotch with her hands.
"With Papa's razor."
"Don't you want to grow up?"
"No!" Dalia said vehemently. "I want to have fun." She arched her back and thrust her rib cage forward. "I want to be strong and free," she declared. "But with these," she complained, positioning her fingertips below her breasts and pushing them up, "I won't get to do anything."
Nellie Ann eased off the bed. Her bare feet sank into the thick Aubusson carpet. "I'd like Papa to be free of his drinking," she whispered.
"But you know he isn't," Dalia told her, "and never will be." Moving over to the green-tiled washstand, she poured water from the porcelain pitcher into a deep, wide bowl. "We'd better get dressed," she said, grabbing the washrag looped through the pitcher's handle. After she dunked the rag into the tepid water, she wrung it out and washed off her sister's thin arms and legs, next her swollen stomach. Gently, she toweled her skin, dressed her, then brushed her fine, oily hair. The lank strands hugged her scalp and made her plain round face even plainer. In a moment of pity, Dalia said, "Nellie Ann, you look beautiful."
"Really?" her sister said, fingering her pale pink dress.
"Oh yes," Dalia lied, and she knew Nellie Ann knew it.
"Why, Papa, you've made a mess," Dalia scolded, advancing toward him.
He was sitting at a blue-draped table dotted with brown biscuit crumbs, drinking coffee. "So my girls have finally decided to greet me?" he said as Nellie Ann rounded the doorway behind her. "I've been gone for days and days," he said glumly. "At least your mama made me an offering of peaches. Don't I deserve something more than a scolding from you? How about a little kiss?" He shifted in his chair and glanced up at Dalia, who, pursing her lips, took a tentative step toward him but then changed her mind. Picking up his plate, she dutifully started toward the drainboard, awash in sunlight that bled through the white-lace curtains. "Nellie Ann?" he tried, twisting toward her sister.
"What is it, Papa?" she asked, flirtatiously batting her eyelashes.
"Don't I deserve a little kiss?"
"Not until you bathe," she chided him. Scrunching up her nose, she pinched her nostrils.
"Bathe?" their father said, lifting up his elbows and sniffing beneath his armpits. "Why, I bathe twice a day!"
"You call riding Tarkel through a creek or two bathing?" Nellie Ann bantered, rolling her white eyes at him. "You stink of turpentine."
"Turpentine," their father mumbled. He held up his hands and examined his palms. "So that's my problem. I thought it was the bourbon and the tobacco you smelled." He leaned over and tugged at Nellie Ann's fingers.
She snatched them away. "You need some of Mama's perfume. It's upstairs on her dresser."
"No, what I need is a 'welcome home, Papa,' kiss from you."
Nellie Ann opened wide her milky eyes in mock horror. "Get your sugar from Dalia," she said, grinning, her top lip rising above a bracelet of small, sharp teeth. "Her sense of smell is not as refined as mine."
"I'll put my nose up against yours any ole time," Dalia shot back, coming to a halt beside the washbasin.
"Are we wagering one of Papa's stinky kisses?" Nellie Ann said, giggling as Dalia turned toward her.
"My sugar is sweet, if you'll just give it a chance," their father persevered. "Nellie Ann, why won't ya trust me?" he asked, slipping his big hand into his pants pocket, pulling up a waxy brown wrapper.
"Trust Papa?" Dalia scoffed, once more moving toward the basin. She snapped the plate on the drainboard, clamped her fingers around the water pump's handle, and in rapid succession pushed it down, then jerked it back up. "I'd rather kiss a mule."
"A sweet kiss," Monroe insisted, rocking forward in his chair. "Please, Nellie Ann. Give me some sugar," he said. With closed eyelids and puckered lips, Nellie Ann listed toward him. "My kisses are so sweet," he said. From the wrapper he brought forth a small square of fudge, and before she could change her mind popped the candy between her lips.
With the fudge wedged like a cigar in her wide mouth, Nellie Ann looked foolish. Suddenly her face crinkled into a smile, making Dalia realize that despite her hard talk, her sister's heart was still pliable to him. "Oh, Papa," she said, as she slurped up the brown-colored saliva dribbling from the corners of her lips.
"A candy from my store," their father stated. "Sweets for my sweet."
With a boisterous smack, Nellie Ann swallowed what was left of the fudge. "Papa kissed me with candy," she called out to Dalia, but Dalia stubbornly pressed her lips together and refused to speak. "Sister, did you hear me?"
Dalia seized a dish towel folded neatly on the counter and with brusque circular movements dried the plate off. "I heard you," she said, thumping the plate down.
"Dalia, don't you want a kiss, too?" their father asked, but Dalia, skulking, kept her back to them. "How about a sweet kiss from your old papa?"
With slow deliberation, Dalia pressed down on the pump handle. "Nellie Ann is the only one sweet enough for your candy," she spat. "A mouthful of turpentine would be all I'd get."
Their father stood so quickly he knocked the silverware to the floor. "Where's your mother?" he asked, his demeanor instantly changing.
"Upstairs," Dalia replied.
"I come home after working hard for my family," he said, his voice stretched thin, "and what do I get?" Dalia felt his hot gaze on the back of her neck. "What do I get?" he repeated.
Slowly, Dalia pivoted around. Her eyes fell lovingly on Nellie Ann before shifting coolly to him. "Why don't you kiss Nellie Ann again?" she said, unable to cap off the jealousy that was bubbling up inside her.
"Whatever you wish, my beauty." Their father inched his fingers into the wrapper, brought up another square of fudge, and, staring intently at her, popped the candy into Nellie Ann's mouth. "My Darling Doll," he said, his tone softening. "Please, what do I get?"
Dalia threw back her shoulders and walked regally toward him. "A kiss," she said, the coldness in her voice giving way to the tenderness she once showed him. Then, lifting up on her toes, she brushed his cheek with her lips.
As they left the kitchen, Monroe wondered why he tried so hard to win them over each time he returned. Why did he work his fingers to the bone to buy them pretty things when, like their mother, they seemed so ungrateful? Why? he thought, but he already knew the answer. He pulled himself up each morning and worked as hard as his workers because this was who he was. Not a good man. Not a thoughtful man, but a man of work. A man of extremes who liked to feel the ache of his body after a long day's toil, who liked cutting boxes in the trunks of pines, cornering these boxes, chipping the bark off, applying streaks down the tree faces, dipping the gum, scraping off the dried sap, burning the tar kiln, drinking hard on Saturday nights. This was who he was. A workingman. Which was why he thrived now when others had failed to rebound after the Civil War, almost thirty years ago.
Of course, his family had prospered, but then he had known it would all along, as Violet Finster also must have known when he first laid eyes on her in 1870, five years after the war. Eleven years old, she was a skinny child with a mass of black hair and eyes as dark as watermelon seeds. He had come up to her in front of the country store and said, "One day, little girl, I'll marry you."
His first wife and infant son had died of yellow fever in the pine forests of coastal Mississippi in 1874. The baby died first; then Mary Lou also succumbed. Years later, he returned to south Georgia and rediscovered Violet Finster. At nineteen, she became his second wife; he was twenty-three. She told him later she fell in love with him because he had resembled a hero right out of a romantic novel. Almost six feet tall, he was an impressive man. Dangerous, he seemed, in his dark large-rimmed hat with a red bandanna around his neck and a pistol in a shoulder holster beneath his coat. One day, little girl, I'll marry you, he said. Those words had stuck in her mind and resurfaced years later like a fate she couldn't avoid. But though she couldn't admit it, he knew the real truth. She had fallen in love not with a dangerous man but with a hard worker, dressed in rough dungarees and sturdy, coarse brogans, the clothes of a woodsman destined to prosper. One day, little girl, I'll marry you. He had put into that statement the same fierce determination that he had always put into his work. A livelihood she now detested. A livelihood she wanted her children, his children to detest, too, but try as she might, she couldn't make him hate what he did for a living.
He strode over to the washbasin and pumped the handle. Filling up his palms with the cold water, he splashed it against his face, then wiped his skin off on a white towel embroidered with tiny blue flowers, leaving a stain, but he didn't care. Violet was right. He was coarse. Your work makes you coarse. Let your turpentiners do it, she said, often aggrieved when he left to tend his trees. You don't have to slave alongside them anymore. He scratched the bristles on his cheeks, glanced down to see the red smears of clay his boots had left on the floor cloth. Go, then. Make love to your pines, she'd sneered when he'd left this last time, but he hadn't let her sarcasm deter him, for he had to go. He longed to feel the humidity on his skin. He was addicted to the murmur of mosquitoes in his ears, the haze of gnats in front of his eyes. He relished the taste of tar in the air. He took refuge in Millertown, his town, where the woodsmen and their families lived, worked, and died. He delighted in the looks on their faces when he rode through his camp, as though he were not a man, not a mere mortal, but instead a god, their creator. Common and coarse, she said, as though the repetition of it would make him believe it was true. "Coarse, maybe," he whispered as he stared out the window at the fields of cotton like whitecaps on Snake River during a summer storm. "Common, never," he said aloud, the sour feeling he always felt when coming home rising in his stomach. He swallowed, sucked in his aching belly, and began walking toward the back door. He would go outside, sit beneath the double-fisted magnolia, and drink down the humid air. He had bought this grand white-columned mansion for them-to make them, not him, respectable. A shanty in the woods suited his soul better.
Breakfast over, Dalia plucked a blossom from a tangled thicket of roses bordering the flagstone walkway in the terraced garden, and positioned the yellow center beneath her sister's nostrils. "All right, Miss Sensitive Nose, what kind of rose is this?" she teased, wanting to make amends for the jealousy she'd felt this morning. "Silly goose," Nellie Ann said, "the camellias are blooming. They're so strong I can't smell anything else."
"How shall I describe it, then?" said Dalia thoughtfully. "Let's see. Each blossom has five petals. Pink, broad, and flat." She held the rose up to her own nose and inhaled deeply. "I can't smell it, either," she confessed, "but I can remember how it smells. It smells"-her voice became soft and dreamy-"like sugar tastes when you swallow a tablespoon of it, all at once, because you're hiccuping and want it to stop."
"Katie Mae made me do that once," Nellie Ann said. "It didn't help."
"That's not the point," Dalia said impatiently. "The point is, this flower smells sweet, but not too sweet, not cloying like the camellia. It doesn't bully, doesn't demand your full attention. You get a transitory whiff of sugar, tickling your nose for a second, and then-"
"Do you like sugarcane?" Nellie Ann interrupted.
"Do I like sugarcane?"
"Yesterday Katie Mae gave me a taste. She brought me some from the patch that Papa lets her tend on our land at the river. She cut off a chunk. Stripped away the thick hull, she told me, and said, Suck on it-hard. I did, but I didn't like it." Nellie Ann scrunched up her face and poked out her tongue. "After I sucked the sugar out, it was too stringy."
For several seconds, Dalia was silent. This morning her sister had gotten a second piece of fudge from Papa. Yesterday a bite of Katie Mae's sugarcane. All the sweetness in Nellie Ann's mouth, only a taste of bitterness in hers. "Lest we stray too far from the matter at hand," she began primly in an effort to disguise her jealousy, "I shall go on with my description. Such a modest little flower," she continued, "with a dab of yellow right smack in the center. The stem is slender-very, very fragile." Her thumb skimmed over a thorn. "But don't let yourself be fooled."
"Never," Nellie Ann asserted, stomping her foot against the flagstone walkway, crushing a yellow flower that had sprouted up through a crack.
"For below this blossom lies a prickly stem."
Nellie Ann tossed back her head. Her bangs, trimmed just above her eyebrows, parted, sweeping to each side of her puffy face. "Georgia has only one rose, sister dear, and it is the Cherokee."
"You're wrong," Dalia teased, dancing on tiptoes. "So very wrong. Your nose has led you astray, down the primrose path." She moved the blossom back and forth beneath her sister's nose. "Under hypnosis, you'll speak the truth," she said, mimicking a foreign accent. "Now guess again. What kind of rose is it?"
"Stop it!" Nellie Ann fumed, swinging at the blossom with her tiny clenched fist.
"I-I'm sorry," Dalia stammered.
"I'm not a fool, Dalia. I know it's the Cherokee."
Stilled by her sister's fury, Dalia clutched the rose between her paralyzed fingers while a queen bee in all its gold and black glory lit on the blossom. Nearby, a Bachman's sparrow, his yellowish gray feathers blending into branches of the longleaf pines, whistled before beginning his beautiful aria. The scuppernong arbor glittered in the sun. The slick, copper- colored skin of the grapes peeked out from among the leaves like a blanket of cat's-eye marbles. A soft-spoken breeze tickled the moss in the grand oak trees. Yet this abundance of natural beauty couldn't compete with the sting of Nellie Ann's fury, and Dalia stood in stony fear for a full half minute before finding the courage to reach for her sister's hand.
"No!" Nellie Ann spat, whipping her palm behind her back. "I might be blind and plain," she stated. "I might not have your pretty lilac eyes or your dark, thick ringlets, but the one thing I'm not is stupid."
"My dearest Nellie Ann," Dalia said, pressing her hand against her breast, "please forgive me. I've never thought you stupid."
Nellie Ann rocked back on her heels and blinked wide her white eyes. "You're not being honest." Dalia swallowed hard, tried to slow her racing heartbeat. "Tell me the truth," she demanded, banging the tip of her cane against the flagstone path.
"The truth is," Dalia said, staring at the cane, "you're one of the smartest people I know. I've never . . ." She kept her eyes on Nellie Ann's fingers, clutching the cane so tightly that Dalia feared the skin, stretched over her knobby knuckles, might crack. "Never," she stressed again, "thought you stupid. You have so many wonderful qualities."
"Like what?" asked Nellie Ann, her grip on the cane relaxing.
"Traits like . . . like . . ." Dalia thought. "Like adorable, loving, thoughtful, funny, talented, but most of all smart."
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
Nellie Ann placed her free hand on top of the hand that wielded the cane and smiled, her top lip disappearing as it rose upward. "Adorable?"
"A brilliant pianist."
"When you're not being so serious."
"I forgive you," Nellie Ann said, reaching out for Dalia, her cane drifting upward.
Dalia thumped her palm against her bosom. "Right here," she said. "Come to my heart." She whipped open her arms and folded them around her sister. The cane slipped from Nellie Ann's fingers and clattered against the walkway. A crow cawed raucously above their heads and swooped down to pluck a grape from the arbor. "The crows are eating Mama's scuppernongs," Dalia said.
"Then I wish I were a crow."
"So, let's be birds," Dalia said, breaking away from her sister. She bent over to pick up the cane, grabbed Nellie Ann's dress, and tugged. "Flap your arms and fly with me, little crow," she said, flapping her free arm.
"Mama will kill us." Nellie Ann giggled, waving her twig-thin arms. "Her grapes are for wine- making only."
"What Mama doesn't know won't hurt her," Dalia said, their legs zigzagging through the grass, their arms flying. "Wait here," she said when they came to the trellis. "I'm gonna climb the arbor." She pressed the cane into her sister's palm, dropping the rose to the ground.
"But you can't," Nellie Ann squealed. "It's dangerous."
"I want to, and I will," Dalia proclaimed, racing toward the mountain of dense green leaves. "Just you wait." Anchoring her hands on the trellis, she positioned the toe of her shoe on a latticed rung and carefully, inch by inch, one rung after another, hoisted herself up, her skirt snaring in the tangled vines, her white cotton bloomers showing. Upon reaching the top, she rested and caught her breath, draping her body over the carpet of vines, the skins of the grapes bursting like torn eyelids, staining her bodice with their viscous juice, the sweetly tart smell assaulting her nostrils. Dalia rose up on her elbows. "Open wide!" she yelled down to her sister, who shrieked with excitement, flung back her head, and opened her mouth. "Get ready!" she said, snapping off a grape, taking aim, and hurling it toward Nellie Ann's outspread lips. Dalia missed, and the scuppernong pinged against her sister's forehead. "Do it again," Nellie Ann cried. She laughed and opened her mouth even wider.
Dalia plucked another grape from off the bed of vines and, narrowing her eyes as though peering through the scope of a rifle, reared back on one arm, then, lunging forward, pitched with all of her might. The grape curved upward and dropped, bull's-eye, into her sister's mouth.
Nellie Ann wrenched her lips together, sucked greedily, and spit out the skin. "I want more!" she yelled, as a scuppernong ricocheted off her arm. "More," she spluttered. "More. More. More."
Dalia kept it up, hurling a volley of champagne bullets at her sister's lips, wounding her face and splattering her shirtwaist while she hopped up and down, swatting the air with her cane. "Not so fast!" Nellie Ann shouted. "Throw them slower."
Dalia snipped off a scuppernong that was near to popping. "Be still," she said. Nellie Ann thrust her neck out and upward, keeping her mouth open like a hungry baby bird. "Here it goes," Dalia said, heaving the grape over the trellis. It shone golden in the sunlight before hitting the dark crater of Nellie Ann's mouth.
Pleasure softened her features. With puckered lips, she whooshed out the skin. "Thank you," she said.
"It was my pleasure," Dalia answered, plucking a grape, popping it between her lips. She slurped, smacked, and spit the tough peel out-those little stabs of jealousy completely forgotten when she caught sight of Nellie Ann, squatting, her hands dipping down like fruit bats, her fingers finding a scuppernong in the grass, shoving it into her mouth as though it might be her last.
"Yes, we'll gather at the river. The beautiful, the beautiful river."
At the sound of Katie Mae's voice, Dalia quit eating and drew herself up. The trellis quivered beneath her. "Katie Mae! Katie Mae!" she cried, looking toward the vegetable garden.
"Miss Dalia!" Katie Mae hollered back, releasing her hoe, which shuddered to the ground. Making a megaphone of her hands, she yelled, "Wait there. I'm coming."
"Katie Mae's back from her cane patch?" asked Nellie Ann, craning toward the black woman's voice, grape juice shining like snail slime down her chin.
"I reckon so," Dalia said, snaking backward over the ladder-top trellis.
"She won't be happy when she sees us," Nellie Ann said, fluttering her fingertips over her shirtwaist. "I must look a sight," she whined, finding a grape skin, flinging it off.
"No more than I do," Dalia countered, positioning her foot on the top rung, weaving down.
"But you don't have them smashed-"
Dalia cut her off. "I've been lying in them, silly. It looks like I slept in them."
"You gals have been up to something bad," Katie Mae snorted. Her unbuckled shoes flopped toward them. The red rag tied around her forehead was moist with perspiration. Gray dust pockmarked her dark skin.
"Not really," Nellie Ann retorted, her demeanor instantly child-like, her voice babyish and plump.
"Why, just look at you." Katie Mae headed straight for Nellie Ann. "What has you been up to?"
"I thought you were still at the river," Nellie Ann said accusingly, her attitude now different, as if their feast of scuppernongs were somehow the black woman's fault.
"I gone and come," Katie Mae told her. "What's this?" she asked, flicking a grape peel off Nellie Ann's sleeve.
"A scuppernong," Dalia said, sauntering over, picking up the rose she'd dropped on the ground.
Katie Mae situated her hands beneath Nellie Ann's armpits and heaved her up. "You, too," she fussed, looking over her shoulder at Dalia's stained skirt. "Both of you, messes. You're way too old for this foolishness, Miss Dalia. You're supposed to set an example for your sister, not be the one to lead her to trouble."
"You want some?" Dalia asked her, extending a grape-filled palm.
"Do I want some?" Katie Mae said, tenting her eyebrows. "Get that nasty hand away from me." She swatted at Dalia's palm. "Your mama uses them grapes for her sweet wine and jelly. Ya know you ain't supposed to be eatin' them."
"We were just tasting them," Dalia said, licking off a bead of juice that was dribbling down her wrist.
"From the looks of you," Katie Mae said, eyeing her up and down, "you was bathing in them." Returning her attention to Nellie Ann, she began plucking the yellow skins off her shirtwaist. "You two ought to be 'shamed."
"I got nothing to be sorry about," Dalia sassed. "If Mama doesn't want me tasting her grapes, she should tell me so."
"I don't want to bother your sick mama about this, but if ya insists."
"If she's too sick to scold me," Dalia said, shooting purple anger into Katie Mae's eyes, "then I reckon she's too sick to make grape jelly."
Nellie Ann reached out for the black woman's hand. "Don't talk to Katie Mae that way," she said angrily. "With all she does for us, she deserves some respect."
"Why don't ya come with me, Miss Nellie Ann?" Katie Mae said, squeezing her hand. "Miss Dalia needs to spend some time by herself, needs to think on her actions. Let's you and me walk over to my herb garden. They're the strongest-smellingest things this time of year. Does that suit ya, Miss Dalia?"
Before Dalia could say a word, Katie Mae was leading Nellie Ann down the flagstone path. Together, they were walking away, their skirts dancing, their voices blending. She's just a servant, Dalia thought, choking on her approval. "A cook," she said spitefully, glaring down at the rose choked between her fingers. No, she thought stubbornly, as tears welled in her eyes and the rose plummeted to the ground. I won't cry. I won't give them the satisfaction.
Abandoning the pathway, she scurried over the well-kept grounds toward the house. She had gotten as far as the double-fisted magnolia when she heard him. "Papa!" she shouted, wheeling around. He was hiking up the carriage house door. Angling its loose frame into place, he threw the weight of his body against it and slammed it shut. "Papa!" She heard the urgency in her voice. He glanced up. The sadness in his eyes was transparent. It tempered her anger, filled her with pity, and sent her running to him, but when she got there, tilting up her face, her skin flushed from the heat, he didn't wrap his arm around her the way he usually did, but instead timidly touched her shoulder, like a distant cousin asking her to fetch him a cup of tea.
His restraint disturbed her, and they walked toward the house together, not speaking, she inching toward him, he pulling away. When he loved her too much, she pushed him from her. When he kept his distance, she wanted him back. It was this tug-of-war that made for her confusion.
They took the back porch steps and entered through the kitchen. From the front of the house came her mother's voice, issuing orders to Lucinda, the housemaid. "Did you beat the rug like I told you? Look up there," her mother said sternly. She was pointing at the chandelier in the parlor when Dalia and her father rounded the corner. "Lucinda, can't you see that dust?" Dalia had to squint hard before she detected the dull residue on the bronze fixture. "Did you polish my table?" her mother asked, walking across the room, stopping in front of the table, trailing her index finger over its rosewood top.
"Yessam," Lucinda was saying, rapidly nodding her head, which was much too large for her small body.
Her mother rubbed her index finger and thumb together. "Polish it again," she snapped. Then, breathing in deeply, she began to weave from side to side as though she might tip over.
"Mama, are you all right?" Dalia asked, rushing toward her.
"I'm fine," her mother whispered, gripping the edge of the table to steady herself. "Just fine." Wearily, she added, "Lucinda, never mind the polishing. The dust will creep back in. Filth, like illness, has a way of returning." When at last her mother looked up and saw him, the tendons in her throat tightened. "Monroe," she said in a pinched voice.
"Violet," her father responded.
For several seconds, an unbearable silence weighed down upon them. But then her mother came back to herself and with a flick of her head said, "Lucinda, why don't you go outside and beat that rug again?" When Lucinda left, she turned toward Dalia, studied her, as though she'd just become aware of her daughter's presence. "What's that on your skirt?" she said at last, her tone accusatory. Stretching out her arm, she fingered the slimy stain that ran the full length of Dalia's garment.
"Nellie Ann and I tasted a few of your scuppernongs," Dalia told her.
"From the looks of it, you ate more than a few." Her features hard and sharp, her mother stared at her in judgment.
"The crows were eating them . . . we wanted to be crows," Dalia said.
Her father laughed. "You could do worse . . . my Darling Doll."
"So it's funny now?" her mother said, her dark eyes huffy. "My children acting like those filthy scavengers, and you're laughing."
"Violet," her father said. "The girls ate some of your grapes. Ain't that what they're for?"
"Isn't, not ain't. . . . Isn't that what they're for?" her mother corrected him, her gaze haughty as it traveled down his body and focused on the red clay on the floor. "We've been cleaning this house for days, and in the space of a few minutes you've made it dirty. Brought that dirty camp back home with you. Brought that filth into my clean house. You might be coarse and common," she hissed, "but I'll not let you turn my girls into crows . . . into you."
"I'm not like Papa," Dalia said defensively.
"Coarse, common," her father echoed as her mother whipped by him. "I may be coarse," he yelled after her, "but I sure as hell ain't common. And ya'll sure as hell ain't my family. A family is a man's own thing, but ya'll don't even want to claim me. Well, then," he said, shooting Dalia a wounded look, "if that's what you and your mama think of me, I reckon I'll ride back to my filthy camp, where my woodsmen respect me."
"Papa-" Dalia started to speak.
"Crows treat their own better than this," her father said indignantly. "You're no crow, missy." Spinning around, he stomped off toward the foyer, making Dalia flinch with guilt as he slammed through the front door.
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