Sweet Hearts

Sweet Hearts

by Melanie Rae Thon


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Fusing family myth with American history, award-winning author Melanie Rae Thon exposes the never-ending chain of wandering and abandonment, the disappearance of mothers, and the drowning of people through the adventures of Flint, a sixteen-year-old boy that is half child, half full-grown criminal, and his little sister, Cecile.

After eight years in juvenile detention and an escape from the Landers School for Boys, Flint returns home to the one person he loves and trust, his sister Cecile. Together they rob and terrorize a local doctor, steal their mother’s car, and strike out alone on a desperate journey south to the Crow Indian Reservation their ancestors once lived upon.

But is Cecile Flint’s accomplice or his hostage? No one knows. Only Marie Zimmer, the children’s deaf aunt, understands the strange logic of their crimes, desires, fears, and devotion to each other. Marie has stories to tell, and though she will not speak, she is the only one bold enough to share the tale of Flint and Cecile.

In this devastatingly passionate story, the tales of a silent woman struggling to unravel the web of generational family violence are revealed through the celebration of life in the midst of sorrow. In the fierce light of her imagination, Marie interweaves the past and the present, inventing a language of signs subtle enough to illuminate the mysterious ways we are all connected.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743436793
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: 02/01/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x (h) x 0.60(d)

About 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.

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 truck—wet fur, rags, blood—something 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 pane—fingers, nose, open mouth—a map of his body on the glass shroud. From inside, Cecile measures him against herself.

No ladder, no trellis—how 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 bucks—if 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, Slayton—the 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’t—swallowing 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.

Table of Contents

C o n t e n t s 1. Ghost Brother · 1 2. Unburied Boy · 6 3. Small Crimes · 10 4. The Deaf Girl: Notes for a Play · 17 5. In Uncertain Light · 19 6. The Disappeared · 23 7. Cowbirds · 29 8. Dixie and the Crows · 32 9. The Long Way Home · 35 10. Children’s Games · 38 11. Snow · 39 12. Ghost Girl · 42 13. The Hunchback · 43 14. Dreams, Death, Desire · 46 15. Birdsongs · 56 16. Instructions for Extinction · 58 17. Blind Fish · 60 18. The Lake · 62 19. On Drowning · 72 20. Catechism · 73 21. Testimony · 81 22. Mother: Final Instructions · 85 23. The Rainbow · 87 24. In Another Lifetime · 90 25. Mysteries · 110 26. The Coyote and the Crow · 111 27. A Wounded Cow · 115 28. Little Woman · 118 29. Other Mysteries · 120 30. In the Photograph · 122 31. With Hearts Like Awls · 123 32. Another Winter · 128 33. First Winter · 132 34. In Summer · 134 35. A Child of Two Fathers · 136 36. The Stowaway and the Lover · 143 37. The Evening News · 147 38. Home · 150 39. Lost Children · 155 40. Twilight · 158 41. Morning · 164 42. In Another Country · 170 43. Catechism · 176 44. Miracles · 178 45. Our Saviors · 180 46. Catching the Coyote · 190 47. Whose Child Is This? · 193 48. On Bleeding Out · 195 49. Catechism · 197 50. The Lives of Birds · 207 51. Catechism · 216 52. Snow in August · 217 53. The Birdman · 230

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