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On the Savage Side

On the Savage Side

by Tiffany McDaniel
On the Savage Side

On the Savage Side

by Tiffany McDaniel


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Six women—mothers, daughters, sisters—gone missing. Inspired by the unsolved murders of the Chillicothe Six, this harrowing novel tells the story of two sisters, both of whom could be the next victims, from the internationally best-selling author of Betty.

"Capture[s] what goes horribly wrong when women don’t fit a customary victim profile...McDaniel artfully evokes each facet of their common humanity, the sinuous landscape, and defiant community in the face of evil." —Oprah Daily

Arcade and Daffodil are twins born one minute apart. With their fiery red hair and thirst for escape, they form an unbreakable bond nurtured by their grandmother’s stories. Together, they disappear into their imaginations and forge a world all their own.

But what the two sisters can’t escape are the generational ghosts that haunt their family. Growing up in the shadow of their rural Ohio town, the sisters cling tightly to one another. Years later, Arcade wrestles with the memories of her early life, just as a local woman is discovered drowned in the river. Soon, more bodies are found. As her friends disappear around her, Arcade is forced to reckon with the past while the killer circles closer. Arcade’s promise to keep herself and her sister safe becomes increasingly desperate and the powerful riptide of the savage side becomes more difficult to survive.

Drawing from the true story of women killed in Chillicothe, Ohio, acclaimed novelist and poet Tiffany McDaniel has written a moving literary testament and fearless elegy for missing women everywhere.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593320709
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2023
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 21,675
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

TIFFANY McDANIEL is an Ohio native whose writing is inspired by the rolling hills and woods of the land she knows. Drawing from her Cherokee heritage, she is a poet, a novelist, and a visual artist. Her debut novel, The Summer That Melted Everything, won the Guardian's Not the Booker award and the Ohioana Reader’s Choice Award. She is the author of Betty, an international best seller and a Friends of American Writers Chicago, the Society of Midland Authors, Nautilus Book Award, and Ohioana Library Readers’ Choice Award winner.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The power of a flower is that she can tower. —Daffodil Poet

The first sin was believing we would never die. The second sin was believing we were alive in the first place.

When a woman disappears, how is she remembered? By her beautiful smile? Her pretty face? The drugs in her system? Or by the johns who all have dope breath and graceless desires?

In Chillicothe, Ohio, there is the familiar quarrel. The same quarrel that is known through once-pastoral fields, where industry was made and generations were supported by grandfathers and fathers working in the paper mill until they came home at night to become the captains of the dinner table while our mothers were women of immortal hands who picked up our dropped prayers and answered them.

But it was all a myth, these gods in ordinary folk. No more real than the heroes of ancient Greece. Chillicothe, Ohio, it turned out, was full of mortals.

The land had once been called Chala-ka-tha by the Indigenous tribes who had lived there for thousands of years before European settlers came to steal it and rename it something the white tongue could own. Chillicothe.

In their white ways, they industrialized the land. Chillicothe rose in building and pitched roof, competing with the surrounding hills. In her newfound kingdom, she had been the first capital of Ohio, before that, too, was taken away. Remnants were found in the presence of a couple of department stores, the aisles married to the turning wheel of shopping carts and Sunday coupons. Beneath the harsh breath of development and asphalt, there existed the rounded tops of the trees blowing in the wind and the traces of those who had come centuries before.

Home to what had been the rich culture of the First Peoples, Chillicothe was a primal place of geometric earthworks and burial mounds. Ripe with fossilized shark teeth, obsidian, and shells from the faraway ocean, the earthworks were magic to someone like me. As a child, I would dig, beneath the seething beetles and below the earthworms, into the deep cool and native soil, hoping to uncover the buried trace of the beautiful and the hidden.

Some folks look at a place by how it is. I like to look at a place by how it would be discovered in the future. What artifacts would Chillicothe, Ohio, leave in the dark ground if it were lost to time? There would be leather straps from the purses of the women who visited the cosmetic counters every Easter sale, plastic straws from the never-ending selection of fast-food joints, camo jackets from the predators, feathers from the nests of the prey. There would be old Tecumseh brochures, family photos from fabric-covered albums, earmarked pages from the Bible, and used needles to remind us we were not perfect.

Most of all, there would be layers. Layers of fury, of beauty, of the hours that shrivel like dry grass. On top of that, as the crowning deposit, there would be the sawdust from the paper mill. Maybe there would even be the smell, mixed into the soil, hardened with the rocks, renewed with each inhale. Locals called the odor coming from the paper mill the smell of money. But for the ones who were not born and raised in Chillicothe, they held their noses and said, “Damn this town stinks.”

There our entire lives, my sister Daffy and me figured it was what the whole world smelled like. A mixture of rotten eggs, hot garbage, and the toxic fumes that wood makes when it is forced to become paper. This odor would spew from the red-and-white-striped stacks, up into the sky, choking the birds. It would fall back down like a blanket upon us and cling to our clothes, hair, and homes.

It was in the shadow of the paper mill that Daffy and me lived with our mother Adelyn and her sister Clover in the part of town not visible when looking down Main Street with its brick and concrete, the works of old men. We lived on the south side, where slum landlords rented small cinderblock houses. Ours was painted a brown that Daffy said was the color of watered-down Pepsi cola. I thought it was the color of sand from the riverbank, left to dry on the bottoms of our feet and get dusty in the light. The house had a little front porch that had black metal rails my sister and me would slip notes back and forth through when we pretended we were on opposite sides of the world.

“I wrote my note in purple unicorn ink,” Daffy would always say, her pen as black as mine.

The houses had an uncomfortable nearness to one another. If there was an argument next door, you heard it. If there was dinner on the stove, you smelled it. If there was a woman sitting down at her kitchen table with her face in her hands, you saw it.

Perhaps when the houses had first been built, the concrete had been carefully poured on the porches in anticipation of the welcome mats. But as the nights tightened against the wasted time of those who slept their days away, it became the part of Chillicothe that the rats would chew their own legs off to be free of the hellhole falling in on them. A hellhole my sister and me would try to escape on our bikes.

We didn’t think it could get much worse, but in 1979, when we were six years old, our father died and our mother screamed while my sister and me held hands, our backs pressed against the wall.

I thought our mother had hung our father’s clothes on the windows out of anger. She seemed furious he had died, the way she banged on the walls with her fists.

“If he wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him,” she said as she kicked in and dented the kitchen cabinet. She pulled out a junk drawer and let it spill out on the floor as she headed for the hammer and nails.

“I’ll show that son of Chillicothe.” She yanked one of Dad’s flannel shirts up off the floor by its sleeve and jerked it toward the window like she was jerking the man himself out of the grave. Then she dragged the old upholstered chair across the floor and climbed up on its brown floral cushion, falling no less than five times.

The thin strap of her red camisole had slid down, exposing herself. My mother wore camisoles as shirts year-round. Even during the months when the ground froze. Sometimes she paired them with loose cutoff shorts. Other times just satin panties, worn so many days, they were stretched and baggy in the rear and crotch. Come winter it was elastic band sweatpants, mostly the peach- or teal-colored ones, pushed up over the sores on her calves. That day in 1979 was late spring, and it was the satin panties, baby blue but faded to gray.

Daffy and me watched our mother nail our father’s clothes to the wall, hammering with such force, there’d always be little cracks in the plaster around his ripped and dirty jeans, his yellowed underwear, even his army uniform, which was charred from the time he had tried to burn it, only to decide he didn’t want to do that after all.

“Goddamn lizard dick,” Mom grumbled as she stepped up on the wide armrest to balance.

“You better not fall off that chair, Addie.” Aunt Clover kept her eyes on the image of the Danube River in Hungary flowing across the TV. “We’ll have to throw your body into the tall weeds and let the animals drag you away. Spittle, spittle, spider, where you gonna hide her?” Aunt Clover spit into her palm and smacked it against the sofa’s arm. “In the blood. That’s where.”

Whenever Aunt Clover said the word blood, which she often did, she would say it like she was from a people who had shed more of it than any other. She was sitting slumped on the old sofa, the same color as the rust ring in our bathroom sink. Her feet were up on the coffee table, spaced far enough apart that the empty cigarette cartons, beer bottles, and small squares of foil could pile between her ankles, the bracelets on them sliding down to her dirty heels.

She used the nightie wrapped around her shoulders to dab the sweat on her forehead. The satin was a creamy blue. Nearly as old as she was, which to Daffy and me at the time seemed an hour younger than the dust in our house. Truth be told, Aunt Clover wasn’t more than a week into being thirty. She just wore the hardness of life a little too early.

“You think you could be any fucking louder with that hammer?” she asked, her head tossing with each word.

Even though Aunt Clover never watched TV with the sound on, she was always screaming about someone being so loud, she couldn’t hear the damn program.

“Stuff your fist in your mouth and choke on it, Clover.” Mom hammered even louder.

After every window was covered, I started to doubt Mom’s fury because all she did then was cry as she walked down the hall to her bedroom, dropping the hammer along the way.

“Your mom’s the wife to a ghost now, girls,” Aunt Clover said as she leaned forward, managing to find her blue eyeliner rather quickly amid the trash on the coffee table. “She’ll never be young again.”

Without using a mirror, Aunt Clover circled her eyes with the eyeliner and drew it out to each of her temples. On these straight lines, she crossed tiny x’s until it looked like the barbs on the wire fence by the railroad tracks.

“Aunt Clover?” Daffy watched her. “How come you always wear blue eyeliner?”

Daffy sang out the word blue until I joined her.

“Because when our skin drops off,” Aunt Clover said, “blue is the color we’ll be beneath. How’s my barbed wire look?” She turned her head side to side, showing the tiny x’s. “Will it protect me from the nine-eyed monsters who try to feast on a woman’s blood?”

We nodded as she stood, slipping her black fringed vest over her crop top, cut low enough to see the lace of her bra. No matter what she wore, she always had her faux fur leopard collar on. It had rounded flaps and a snap in the front, like the collars I’d seen on sailors in the paintings in the books I got from the library.

She took the collar off her neck to knock it against her leg. The puffs of dirt kicked up in the air. It would be the most cleaning it would see. When she wrapped the collar back around her neck, she curled her tongue into a purr as she clicked the snap.

I stood up on the sofa cushion to pet the collar myself. “Where’d you get it from again, Aunt Clover?”

“I got it from the time I visited the jungle,” she said. “It was my only souvenir. Now get your sticky fingers off it.”

“How’d you get it in the jungle, Aunt Clover?” Daffy crossed her arms. “You ain’t ever been outta Chillicothe.”

“There’s jungles here, too, child.”

She’d never called either of us “child” before. It sounded soft in her accent, like she’d said it a hundred times over boiling soup.

“Now, hand me my scarf.” She pointed to the nightie on the sofa.

After I gave it to her, she draped it over her shoulders. She called it her nighttime scarf. “Because,” as she’d tell you, “only women who carry the river on their backs get to wear it. And I’ve been carrying the river on my back since I was old enough to know you either carry the river or it carries you. My nighttime scarf is the ripple of the water. The type of ripple that only comes in the moonlight.”

We followed behind her into the bathroom, her long, stringy red hair grazing the back pockets on her denim skirt. We sat on the edge of the tub and watched her use the pink brush to feather her bangs. Then we stared at the white leather belt she wore. It had a bloody fingerprint by the gold-toned buckle and more in the area over her right hip. The blood was from a busted lip she’d once gotten. Another time, from a fist to the nose. A time after that, a cut to the back of her hand. Always she would rub the fresh blood into the tiny swirls on her finger and press it hard into the leather, blowing on it to help it dry faster.

“You think I’ll make a lot of money tonight, girls?” She laid the hairbrush down to push up both of her boobs. “Enough to go to Brazil?” She shook her hips. “Or Morocco? Yeah, that’s where I’m going.”

We watched as she brushed what teeth she had left with her finger. After she spit, she looked up into the mirror. There were small pieces of clear tape in a few places on the glass. As she studied her reflection, she leaned closer to it with a frown, her eyes on her right shoulder.

“There’s another one,” she said, picking up the small roll of tape from the sink. “Another crack.”

She tore off a piece of tape and put it over the reflected image of her shoulder.

“You’ve got to seal the cracks,” she said, pressing down on the tape. “If you don’t, they’ll keep getting bigger and bigger until they break open completely and steal your name from you. Remember this, girls. One day your skin will crack, too. Your skin will crack even more because you’re twins and you both have witches’ marbles for eyes.”

She stared at the tape on the glass, checking to make sure its edges were tightly sealed.

“Help me,” she said. “Help me make sure the cracks are sealed good.”

We hopped up from the tub and stood on our toes, pressing our fingers into the tape, the glass cold behind it.

“Press hard now,” she said. “Give it all you’ve got. You don’t want your aunt cracking to pieces, do you?”

We pressed so hard, the three of us grunted. That seemed to satisfy Aunt Clover as she smiled at her reflection.

“Spittle, spittle, spider, where you gonna hide her?” She spit into her palm and smacked it against the mirror glass. “Right there,” she said, turning out the light.

“There’s frozen dinners in the freezer.” She grabbed her purse on her way to the front door, her nighttime scarf trailing after her. “It’s a good thing we live in a cinderblock house.”

“Why’s that, Aunt Clover?” I asked.

“You can’t burn it down.” She winked, then slammed the door.

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