The eldest surviving daughter of Anna Guinn, Rachel rarely ventures far from her home in the Appalachians, aside from an occasional trip into town to trade a penny for a peppermint stick. Sometimes she yearns for more, but as much as she fears her mother's unstable mind, she is anchored by the strength of her grandmother, Willa. Freed from an abusive marriage, Willa holds the family together through hardship, all the while fulfilling her role as keeper of her neighbors' carefully guarded secrets-the most painful of which may be her own.
In this isolated, eccentric world where people depend on moonshine to put food on the table, hang talismans to chase away ghosts-and tragedy can strike as suddenly as a coiled copperhead-Rachel wonders what life has in store. Most of all, she worries whether she and her sister have inherited the darkness that lurks inside their mother. Her one respite is the town's apple orchard, the ally she finds there-and the revelation that she can take her destiny into her own hands, decide what to leave behind-and what is truly worth carrying into the future...
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Beneath a Thousand Apple Trees
By Janie DeVos
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Janie DeVos
All rights reserved.
1916, Howling Cut, NC
I wasn't born with a bad right foot. Instead, I'd been dealt a bad hand when an accident at Papa's timber mill crippled me. The man known as the off-bearer was busy stacking boards that had just been cut by the spinning, sharp-toothed saw and didn't see me walk up beside him. With his mind a million miles away, he was simply repeating the tedious pulling-off-and-stacking motion of yet another board when he turned and dropped it on my foot.
It seemed to happen in slow motion. The off-bearer, who was a stoic Irishman named Rusty Flaherty, saw me standing there just a fraction of a second after he'd let the board go, and the look of horror on his face was one I would never forget, and which froze me in place. I was lucky, they said, because it had narrowly missed my head. But I wasn't lucky enough, for even though Papa immediately threw me in the wagon and hauled me over to Doc Pardie's house, my foot had never healed right.
The doctor wouldn't operate because I was only four and "still had growin' to do, and there ain't any use but to wait 'til she's done a-doin' it," he'd told my father. I heard Papa tell Mama later that he wouldn't have let Doc do it anyway, since he smelled like he'd "dived into a bottle of one hundred proof. Maybe it'll just straighten out on its own," he'd said, without too much conviction in his voice. And it had healed, just not straight enough or strong enough, and there'd never been enough money to do anything to correct it.
I walked with a pronounced limp, and the fact that I was short and small-boned only helped to accentuate it. I'd been given the offensive name of Laggin' Leg early on, and each time I was called by it, I wished the darn pine had, indeed, clobbered me in the head. But, as Grandma was quick to remind me when I came home in tears, I must have been saved from certain death for a reason, and "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger," she'd point out, while pointing at me to emphasize her point.
That's all well and good, I thought, but I just wish the good Lord had warned me to stand on the other side of Mr. Flaherty, and found someone else to make a point with.
The first time someone referred to me as Laggin' Leg was when I was six. It was during Sunday school class as I walked back to my seat after reciting the first five verses of John. I'd proudly made it through my recital without omitting one word, and Mrs. Jacobson was in the midst of telling the class that I was "a true disciple of the Lord's," when nine-year-old Ray Coons deliberately stuck his foot out in front of me. Suddenly, I went from walking proudly with my chin up, to lying on the floor with a split in it. The whole class — all thirteen of them — fell into fits of laughter, while stars danced before my eyes as though they were having a celestial recital on the scuffed pine floor where I lay staring in dazed confusion.
"Ray Coons!" Mrs. Jacobson scolded as she quickly walked over to me. "I saw that!"
"Why, Miz Jacobson, I didn't do nothin'," Ray innocently objected. "She's just a cripple, that's all. She can't walk too good. She's got that laggin' leg o' hers, and she falls all the time, don't ya, girl?" Ray looked at me as though he'd cut my throat if I didn't concede that the fall had been my fault. I didn't — couldn't — say a word, however, as I was too busy trying to refill my lungs with air; the fall had knocked all of it out of me. And the wracking sobs that had followed only made the possibility of my breathing again that much more unlikely.
The episode left me with two things: a scar on my chin from the gash that required four stitches (which Doc Pardie sewed during a rare moment of sobriety), and the cruel new nickname. I hid in the back of the loft in the barn after receiving my stitches until Grandma coaxed me out with the smell of a cheese biscuit. I think she'd given me time to process the event — and to get hungry enough to make cheese biscuits more important. I came down the ladder and turned around, facing her.
Looking at her was like looking at an older version of myself, except for the fact that she had thick, medium-length, coal-black hair, with just a few streaks of gray blended throughout. My hair, however, was long and curly, and the same insignificant color brown as a withered maple leaf, just like my father's. But Grandma and I had the same build, same face, and the same brilliant blue eyes; "Carolina blue," she always called them. As we stood looking at each other, she pulled pieces of straw from my hair, then rather roughly rubbed away the telltale tracks of some dried up tears. I knew she wasn't mad at me for crying, but was angry with whoever had been the cause of it.
The wind whistled through the gaps in the plank siding on the north side of the barn, creating an eerie tune and causing me to shiver. Our town, Howling Cut, had been named for just that very reason — the eerie, howling sound the wind made when it rushed down the mountains and through one of the logging roads or "cuts" in the forests which surrounded us. And the place was living up to its name at the moment. Grandma handed me the biscuit and pulled the collar of my worn-out brown coat closed, trying in vain to keep the cold out.
"I can't keep life from hurtin' ya, Rachel," she said. "Alls I can do is learn ya to be tough enough to stand up to it."
She pulled me close to her and I could smell the smoke from our wood stove when I laid my face against her breast. She sighed after a long moment, held me away from her, and I caught the glint of tears that threatened to spill over from the reddened pockets of her lower lids.
"C'mon. We're gettin' as cold as our supper is." Turning, she led the way out of the barn.CHAPTER 2
Secrets in the Laurel
Big Grandma, Gertrude Cooper — Grandma's mother — lived with us until her passing when I was seven years old. She'd come to live with us when my great-grandfather, Earl Cooper, died and I was four. The two had lived in a cabin that was much farther up the mountain than ours, making my great-grandparents' cabin practically inaccessible to anyone that didn't have a darn good reason for undertaking the long haul up there. Once my great-grandfather had passed away, Big Grandma felt the solitude and isolation far more than she ever had before, thus, she'd packed up most of what she had, gave the rest to the church — including the cabin — and moved in with us. Her small cabin was left to the ravages of creeping vines and thick laurel that quickly took over the place and created a well-hidden and safe haven for a couple of turkeys, a family of mice, and a rat snake, all of whom must have taken into consideration the fine accommodations and reluctantly agreed to live and let live. And there were two others who found the perfect use for the abandoned home place — Myra Jenkins and John Vespie.
John was a married man, but forgot that small fact every Wednesday at noon. On those afternoons, John and Myra would casually leave the bank in town together, where they were both employed, he being the bank manager and she his secretary, and they'd make the rough trek up the old logging road in John's fancy Model T Ford (one of only two in town) to my great-grandparents' cabin. Their story was always the same: John had a standing date with his son for an afternoon of fishing on the river and, being the gentleman that he was, he was kindly dropping Myra off at her ailing mother's so that the dear and unselfish daughter could tend to the soon-to-be-departed woman's few remaining needs. Little did the town know that Myra's mother had died when she was twelve, and that Myra, being the result of a tryst between her mother and a timber man who'd long since come and gone, had been brought up by a strict and overly protective spinster aunt who lived two towns over in Honeycutt.
John had discovered the wonderful windfall of Big Grandma's deserted cabin when the church pastor happened to mention "the Holy Spirit–driven generosity of Sister Gertrude." Unfortunately, Pastor Franks said, the cabin was too high up and too far off the beaten path to be useful to the church. John, however, immediately thought of a wonderful use for it. Thus, Wednesday afternoons ended up being a blessed union for two of the most faithful of Pastor Franks's flock.
Their well-kept secret lasted two years, until one unfortunate Wednesday afternoon when John Vespie's wife, Edna, and son, Little John, came in to the bank to see if John Sr. would like to take them for an early supper at the diner. When asked where her husband was, the bank manager's assistant, Mr. Humphrey, stupidly replied that he was fishing with their son — their one-and-only son, who happened to be standing right before him. So, the already-suspicious Mrs. Vespie easily put two and two together, and figured the two absent bank employees were together. Unsurprisingly, Myra Jenkins put in her resignation the next morning, and left town that afternoon.
Nothing more was heard from the disgraced woman, but it was a miracle to see how suddenly and humbly John J. Vespie became a deeply devoted lamb of the church. And show his devotion he did when it came time to ante-up for the offering plate each Sunday. Some said he was trying to buy his way back into the good graces of the church, and God, Himself. And I suppose he figured he had a lot of amends-making to do, for he never missed a Sunday's service thereafter, nor slacked on his enormous tithing. Soon enough, the money seemed to make up for his indiscretions for no one, the preacher included, had any more to say about his "momentary dance with the devil" after the church got its long-awaited and much-prayed-for roof later that year. And Mrs. Vespie's face got a little less dour looking and a little haughtier looking instead when she finally got the mansion that she'd always dreamed of. And it had nothing to do with the one that was being prepared for her in heaven.
Big Grandma laughed about it and said that that poor old cabin had seen more life in it in the last two years since John and Myra had been sneaking around than it had had in the last twenty when she and my great-grandfather had lived there.
Being seven at the time, though, I wasn't privy to all the ins and outs of what was going on at Big Grandma's old place, or in the town, either. And, truthfully, the little I'd heard hadn't much interested me. But, something that did interest me and that I was well aware of, even at that young age, concerned Big Grandma herself. What she was fascinated me and lured me to her, yet, at the same time, caused me to keep a certain reverent distance from her. For my great-grandmother was the Wart Buyer.CHAPTER 3
The Wart Buyer
There was a certain awe and respect that went with the title of Wart Buyer. Perhaps it had something to do with a secret fascination with witchery, although a Wart Buyer was certainly not a witch. She was, however, thought of as a healer, although my great-grandmother never claimed to be such. But I know that when Big Grandma treated Minna George for the warts on her hand, Minna swore up and down that Big Grandma had also healed her rheumatism. And then there was Tycee Burns. She claimed that after Big Grandma got rid of the ugly wart on her forehead that she no longer had the paralyzing headaches either.
I didn't know if one thing was really connected to another, but I did know that Big Grandma held a lot of people's secrets, and they were as closely guarded as the ancient secret of how the healing of a wart actually took place. People respected Big Grandma's ability to hold that knowledge close to her, and so they entrusted more knowledge, of the personal kind, to her care. Far more than she probably wanted, needed, or knew what to do with. Simply because she held the enigmatic title of Wart Buyer, she had a certain aura of mystique and power, and was set on a level that was higher and demanded more respect than your every day, run-of-the-mill mountain folks.
Anyone that knew something that others did not was placed on a pedestal built on the foundation of folklore, myths, superstition, and magic. The Wart Buyer was highly revered. In people's minds, she had done something worthy of being given that role. The million-dollar question, though, was what? What had the Wart Buyer done to be set so far apart from the rest? The answer never came, of course. But, regardless, people treated all Wart Buyers with great reverence, and entrusted their greatest secrets, hopes, and dreams to them.
There could only be one person in the family who bought warts. And, until she (for it was usually a woman in the role) figured it was time to pass the secret knowledge of wart buying down, that person would remain the sole purchaser. The only way this ancient practice could be accomplished, Big Grandma explained to me (while carefully keeping from me the secret of how it actually worked), was that the one with the wart had to agree to sell the wart. Only then would the process work. If the seller was a non-believer, or joked about the reality of such a remedy working, then there could be no deal made. But, once the deal was agreed upon, then Big Grandma would take a penny out of a mason jar filled with them, and rub the wart gently but thoroughly with it. Then she gave the seller the penny and he or she was instructed to never, ever spend it, but to tuck it safely away instead. If the penny was used or lost, the wart would return. And that was true. I saw it happen, just as I saw warts miraculously disappear a few days after the ritual was performed. Since there could only be one wart buyer in a family, when the torch would be passed down was a decision only the present buyer could make. It was usually near the end of the buyer's life, though. Then, the newly designated Wart Buyer kept the secret to herself until it was time for that buyer to pass it on to the next one selected.
Grandma Willa was called into Big Grandma's room three weeks before she passed. "Close the door, darlin'," the dying woman rasped. I wanted to go in, too. I wanted to know what seriousness was being discussed, but I knew I wasn't allowed. I pressed my ear to the door but could only make out the words "knowed," "rubbed," and "copper." Mama came up the porch steps with Doc Pardie, who, as usual, looked like he'd spent the night out in the pasture with the goats, and I quickly sat back down in my rocker, appearing to be thoroughly engrossed in my ABCs primer book. Grandma came out of the bedroom then and quietly closed the door. I could tell she'd been crying, which was a rare thing for her to do. Quickly, she brushed away the remaining wetness, nodded curtly at Pardie, and mumbled something to the effect that "there wasn't much he could do, so just let her be." Then Grandma brusquely announced that she had to snap the beans or supper wouldn't get on the table until midnight. I called after her to see if I could help, but my mother told me to stay put; then she and the doctor went in to see Big Grandma. I looked back at the kitchen door but realized, even at that young age, that Grandma needed to be alone. And I realized something else then, too; that something large had shifted in those fifteen minutes behind closed doors. There'd been a passing of the torch, and my Grandma Willa was now the Wart Buyer.
Excerpted from Beneath a Thousand Apple Trees by Janie DeVos. Copyright © 2016 Janie DeVos. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents
PART 1 - Rachel,
CHAPTER 2 - Secrets in the Laurel,
CHAPTER 3 - The Wart Buyer,
CHAPTER 4 - A Slow Unveiling,
CHAPTER 5 - The Killing Time,
CHAPTER 6 - The Darkest Night,
CHAPTER 7 - The Wait,
CHAPTER 8 - Farewell, Safe Harbor,
CHAPTER 9 - Answers in a Cup,
CHAPTER 10 - A Heart Shift,
CHAPTER 11 - A Snake in the Garden of Ginseng,
CHAPTER 12 - Hail the Floundering Hero,
CHAPTER 13 - The Birthday Redeemer,
CHAPTER 14 - Into the Mist,
CHAPTER 15 - The Moon Man,
PART 2 - Willa,
CHAPTER 17 - Beginnings,
CHAPTER 18 - The Best-Laid Plans,
CHAPTER 19 - In the Cards,
CHAPTER 20 - Ties that Bind,
CHAPTER 21 - Fractured Lives,
CHAPTER 22 - Hanging in the Balance,
CHAPTER 23 - A Ballot Cast,
CHAPTER 24 - The Peace of Letting Go,
CHAPTER 25 - The Means to a Beginning,
CHAPTER 26 - A Wayward Son,
PART 3 - Rachel,
CHAPTER 28 - News from the Orchard,
CHAPTER 29 - Three Things to Keep,
CHAPTER 30 - Jack,
CHAPTER 31 - A Merry Fourth of July,
CHAPTER 32 - Those We Think We Know,
CHAPTER 33 - Moonshine on the Mountain,
CHAPTER 34 - The River Home,
PART 4 - Willa and Rachel,
CHAPTER 36 - Apple Jack,
CHAPTER 37 - Onions and Lightnin',
CHAPTER 38 - A Mill Reincarnated,
CHAPTER 39 - Moon Shine and Moonshine,
CHAPTER 40 - The Betrayal,
CHAPTER 41 - And Justice for All,
PART 5 - Rachel,
CHAPTER 42 - The Different Somethings,
CHAPTER 43 - Something Old,
EPILOGUE - The Harrises,