For twelve-year-old Martha “Sonny” Creech, there is no place more beautiful than her family’s cotton farm. She, her two brothers, and her parents work hard on their land—hoeing, planting, picking—but only Sonny loves the rich, dark earth the way her father does. When a tragic accident claims his life, her stricken family struggles to fend off ruin—until their rich, reclusive neighbor offers to help finance that year’s cotton crop.
Sonny is dismayed when her mama accepts Frank Fowler’s offer; even more so when Sonny’s best friend, Daniel, points out that the man has ulterior motives. Sonny has a talent for divining water—an ability she shared with her father and earns her the hated nickname “water witch” in school. But uncanny as that skill may be, it won’t be enough to offset Mr. Fowler’s disturbing influence in her world. Even her bond with Daniel begins to collapse under the weight of Mr. Fowler’s bigoted taunts. Though she tries to bury her misgivings for the sake of her mama’s happiness, Sonny doesn’t need a willow branch to divine that a reckoning is coming, bringing with it heartache, violence—and perhaps, a fitting and surprising measure of justice.
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Daddy never wanted to do nothing much other than grow cotton, and the way he'd gone at it, we figured that would be the thing to kill him, but it wasn't. We got three hundred acres in Jones County, North Carolina, first-rate land he calls it. For a girl like me, meaning a girl who'd rather spend time outside more than anywhere else, there was no better place on earth. Some might think we're stuck out in the middle of nowhere, that what we have ain't no different than any other farm along Highway 58. I see things different — I see what he does. The way freshly plowed soil looks like that rich chocolate powder Mama uses for baking. How the leaves on a cotton plant are heart shaped, and how on a sunny day, their vivid green color gets so intense, you have to squint your eyes. There's these little buds on the cotton plants, called squares, and when they bloom, they turn pale yellow, like fresh cream. Within days they go to a light pink, and then darker pink, self-pollinating, Daddy says. When our fields turn those different colors, I can't imagine how nobody wouldn't think it wasn't the prettiest sight they'd ever laid eyes on.
In the spring when trees have started to bud out, and flowers reach for the sun, their sweet odor only beginning to drift on the air, we know it won't be long before cotton-growing season has come again. The Fort Hill creeping phlox, Virginia spiderwort, and jonquils dare to emerge, while Mama's Ches-tine Gowdy peonies begin to peek from the ground. Soon, the yard plumb bursts with colors too, always changing, always pretty. I like the hottest months, that time when a shimmery haze appears at the edge of the fields looking like water. In the fall, tiny, fluffy white clouds of cotton come, and we're in an entirely different world by then, with everything dying off and such. Even the coats of deer and squirrels change, turning mostly gray so they blend with the trees and bushes.
All of us, Daddy, Mama, Ross, Trent, and me, we're required to work real hard, hitching burlap bags over our shoulders, picking the cotton from dawn to dusk, fast as we can. School allows a break so anyone growing, which is most everybody, can get their fields picked. Afterward, the stalks get plowed under, and the land that was already flat looks even flatter. For instance, I can see a crow land in a tree a mile from our front yard. I can see someone driving down Turtle Pond Road toward our house minutes before they get here. That's why our little town's name suits this place. Flatland is where we live.
Our farmhouse is painted snowy white, like the cotton we pick, with a dark green tin roof. It's split right down the middle by what's called a dogtrot. The kitchen and living room set off to one side, and the bedrooms and a bathroom are on the other. The two sugar maples at each corner in the front, and a big oak tree in the backyard offer shade from a sweltering summer sun. Our land stops where Turtle Pond Road dead-ends in a thick row of longleaf pines, lined up like a natural fence. Beyond them are woods so dense and thick, during the warm months you can't see over to Frank Fowler's place, the only neighbor for miles and miles around. The only other thing visible sets off to the east, the small, silvery shape of the water tower that catches sunlight just so at certain times of the year.
Daddy said I appreciate the land like him, and while Ross is most like Daddy, Trent has got a wild streak long as the entire county. He absolutely hates farming. Daddy said the land's soaked into me the way blood soaks into wood, a permanent, everlasting mark. Three years ago, when I was nine, he placed an old willow branch in my hands, and showed me how to do what he's been doing since I can remember, something he calls "divining water." Turned out I could do this too. Since then, my attachment to the land beneath me has grown even more. I ain't never forgot how it felt, or how he'd looked either, like a cotton boll 'bout to burst open, all filled up with pride.
It was an early spring morning and as we walked toward a field to start work, we took our time, moseying along the path made by the tractor tires, him with one arm slung round my shoulder, the weight of it natural as my own breath. He pointed at all that surrounded us.
"That's a mighty fine view, ain't it, Sonny?"
"Sure is, Daddy."
The sun painted the edge of the sky like the inside of a peach, all orangey and red. We strolled along, taking in the morning before us. Ross was already at work, listing the dirt into neat, tidy rows. The hum of the tractor in the distance was as familiar and common as spring robins calling for a mate. At sixteen, he was allowed to drive pretty much anything he wanted. Not Trent. At fourteen, he's old enough, but last week when he was supposed to take one of the tractors to the barn, he got out on the road, and gassed it like he was driving a race car. He ended up in the ditch somehow and after Daddy found out he wasn't dead, he was ticked off but good. Trent was told he'd have to use money out of his allowance each week to pay off what it cost for repairs. Daddy said he could also forget climbing on anything with a motor until he straightened up and earned the right again. At twelve, I'm considered old enough to drive the tractors too, but I prefer the quiet of working with a hoe, which Trent said was dumb.
Daddy dropped his arm off my shoulder.
He looked to his left, toward Trent already at work without being told. "I see he's still thinking he can persuade me to change my mind."
He grinned down at me before he took off to check the fields we'd done the day before. I grabbed a hoe leaning against the fence, and went to work on the early nutsedge and morning glories. The work was something I could do while allowing my thoughts to drift as unpredictable as a dandelion pod caught by a breeze. I thought about Daniel Lassiter. Daniel has always been a head shorter than me until this past year when he'd abruptly shot up fast as a cornstalk. His family lives directly in Flatland, city folk we consider them, though our town's not much of a city. He likes to come here 'cause we got us a stage of sorts set up in one of the old barns. Daniel fancies himself a director, says he's going to make us movie stars one day. That, or he said he'd be a scientist.
Trent's voice interrupted my daydreaming. "Sonny, geez, hurry it up!"
Gosh, he was almost at the end of his row whereas I was only halfway. I didn't want to hear him gripe, so I chopped good and fast. From where we worked, I had a perfect view of Daddy, moving along parallel to us, his hair shining like pale gold. We had the same hair color, his eye color too, a clear green Mama said looked like new shoots of grass.
Whenever we were at Wells' Grocery or Slater's Supplies, someone would inevitably say, "Sakes alive, if you Creech kids ain't the spitting image of Lloyd."
My arms were burning by the time I caught up to Trent and I took a minute to stretch my back muscles. We'd plant soon as it was warm enough, and this was the last field to get ready.
I was already in the process of starting again when Trent, his voice cracking like it had been doing lately, said, "Sonny, get a move on, Ross is almost done!"
I didn't even bother to look up. "I ain't in no race with you."
"Just hurry it up."
I mimicked him under my breath, glancing toward Daddy. He was so far away, he looked like a tiny baby doll. He bent down, but it was what happened next that caught my attention. He stumbled backward, the way you would when you found a root, and pulled harder than necessary to get it loose. He lifted his arm over his head and brought it down quick, an odd movement, as if he'd tossed something away. I shaded my eyes. Daddy was looking right at me. I waited to see if he'd go back to work. Something about the way he stood so still wasn't right. He never wasted time just standing around. He was always on the go, in constant motion, sunup to sundown.
I leaned the hoe handle against my shoulder, cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, "Daddy? Everything all right?" The question in my voice got Trent's attention. Daddy didn't wave, or acknowledge me. He looked like a scarecrow standing there. I started across the field, still not sure there was anything wrong until he went down to his hands and knees, his overalls and T-shirt creating a blue and white lump in the middle of all that brown dirt. I kept thinking he'd stand up again 'cause he was strong, never sick a day in his life. I was confused, and when he didn't rise, a shivering kind a chill shot down my back and I started running, the soft, freshly turned soil making it hard to gain speed. I tripped, stumbling over the rows in an awkward manner, as if my leg muscles weren't getting the proper signals from my brain. I couldn't breathe, and the air was suddenly thick with heavily scented, overturned soil.
I yelled as I ran. "Daddy?"
Seconds later Trent passed me, his overalls stained dark with sweat, face already tanned almost the same color as the straw hat clamped on his head. Behind us the tractor shut off.
Ross's voice was faint as he yelled, "What's wrong?"
My hat slid off, fell to the ground, and my braid slapped against my back as I ran. It felt like it took forever to get to him when it only took seconds. Daddy lay balled up on his side, face contorted, his breath whistling in and out like a tire with a hole in it. Trent and I dropped to our knees in the warm, loamy soil. Daddy's hands clenched tight around the handle of his hoe, and he groaned. There was a trace of blood on his lip, like he'd bit it. One of his legs tremored, knocking against the ground, a spastic, foreign movement that was scary to see. Seconds later, Ross dropped down beside me and Trent.
I said, "Daddy? What is it?"
Ross swiped at Daddy's face with the tail of his T-shirt to wipe the sweat away. Daddy held his arm up. We looked. We saw, and understood. I put my hand over my mouth, covering the O shape of shock. Daddy's arm had two deep puncture wounds, and his forearm was already puffing up. Trent pointed at a long brown thing, not hardly fifteen feet away.
He said, "Rattler."
The snake squirmed, its body twisting and coiling, then uncoiling before slithering along a trench made by the tractor.
Trent jumped up like he would go after the snake, and Ross said, "No! Leave it. We got to get Daddy to the house."
The sun burned too hot right then, as if it would sear our backs as we stared down at the man we'd only ever seen upright unless he was sleeping in the bed or sitting at the kitchen table eating. Ross and Trent got on either side of him and helped him stand.
Daddy gasped, "Don't know why I didn't see him. Bent ..." He stopped to pant through the pain, then continued, "Down ... to pick ... up rock. There he was."
Ross turned to me. "Sonny, go tell Mama to call the doc. We'll get him to the house quick as we can."
Holding back tears, I took off for the house running hard as I could go, stumbling back the way I'd come, across the neatly laid rows, the tracks I left as erratic as the path of a small tornado. We'd left Mama tending to early English peas in the kitchen garden. She wore a pair of Daddy's work pants, cinched with a belt at the waist, and cut off at the bottom so they wouldn't be too long. Daddy had only joked this morning about how they looked like clown pants.
Within a minute I was bolting across our backyard screaming, "Mama! Mama!"
My eyes searched the garden, just past the clothesline where white T-shirts and underwear snapped in the wind, to where I'd last seen her picking peas. She wasn't there. I ran up the back steps, onto the porch, the boards creaking beneath my boots. I flew down the dogtrot, around to the side of the house where the outdoor cast-iron sink sat into a weather-worn wood table. This was where we brought tomatoes, okra, beans, cucumbers, and squash, and pumped the handle of the well to rinse them off. Granddaddy Creech had built all this about sixty years ago, and nothing had changed. There was a picture of Grandma Creech on the wall in our kitchen, and she was standing at the very sink Mama was bent over now.
Mama was motionless, eyes wide as she looked at me, auburn hair spilling out from under the pink kerchief she'd tied around her head, hands amongst the little green peas she'd shelled. Her face, usually flushed and pink, was milky white, as if my screams had already delivered bad news.
I gasped, half-sobbed, "Daddy. Snakebite. Rattler."
She jerked her hands from the water and rushed by me, and the uncomfortable squeezing sensation stuck in my middle grew as I hurried after her, my face crumpling while trying to keep myself from bawling out loud. We went through the kitchen where yellow curtains waved pleasantly in front of the open window over the sink. There was the smell of sausage still lingering from breakfast. I don't know why I noticed these small things. It was as if my senses had gone to a heightened state of alarm and took in everything, whether important or not. She picked up the receiver on the black rotary phone sitting on a small wooden table near the doorway to the living room. Beside it was a pad and pencil attached with a string, and a list of cotton-planting items Daddy had written for Slater's Feed and Supply, in his quick scrawl. The only sign of distress was her left hand, which she flapped up and down, an invisible signaling to someone on the other end to hurry.
She slammed the receiver down, then picked it up again, hitting the buttons in the cradle repeatedly. Having a phone was a new thing out here, and we shared a party line with four others in our small town. There were a couple of women who were always on the line gossiping.
Mama shouted into the mouthpiece, "Brenda Sue, clear the line, it's an emergency! No!You and Dottie got to hang up now!"
She put a hand over it and said, "Go see if the boys have got him here."
I turned to leave as the operator broke in on the call.
Mama said, "Eunice! Get me Doc Meade, quick!"
I ran back out into the yard. Ross and Trent were midway into the field closest to the house. Each had one of Daddy's arms over their shoulders, his feet dragging, like his leg muscles had gone to rubber, although one foot caught the ground every now and then like he was trying to help himself along. His head hung down and I couldn't see his face.
I cupped my hands around my mouth, and yelled, "Hurry!"
Mama had come out and ran toward Ross and Trent as they half-dragged Daddy into the yard. She'd brought a sheet and laid it on the grass, motioning for them to put him there. In the short time since he'd been bit, I was stunned by his appearance. His arm was already twice its size and turning a funny color. His breathing was raspy, like he was fighting even harder now to suck in air. Mama dropped by Daddy's side and yanked the kerchief off her head, and her hair fell forward as she leaned over him, hiding her face from us. He gasped loudly and his eyes remained closed tight in a hard squint, his body twisted in pain. I wanted to do something for him and didn't know what, so I simply knelt by him too, my eyes going from him to Mama.
She said, "Doc Meade's in the middle of delivering a baby over to Chinquapin. The nurse said he's got some antivenin with him. We got to get him there quick as we can!"
Daddy panted, struggling to speak.
Mama lay her hand alongside his face. "Lloyd. Oh dear God, Lloyd. What is it? What are you saying?"
Daddy gasped, "Water."
Her voice shaky, fearful, she said, "Get him water, Sonny, and get some aspirin too."
I jumped up, glad to do something, and ran back down the dogtrot and into the tiny bathroom where the scent of the gardenia bush right below the window drifted in. The medicine cabinet door creaked from rusted hinges caused by high humidity. I opened the bottle of aspirin, dropping the white tablets into my hand, but they were shaking so hard, a bunch of them fell out of the bottle. They hit the floor and the side of the sink, sounding like sleet on the windows in winter. I hurried back to the kitchen, yanking the freezer door open, and grabbed a metal ice tray. I yanked on the handle to loosen the cubes, accidentally dumping half on the floor while managing to get the other half into a mason jar. I threw the tray in the sink where it clattered like I'd dropped an entire drawer of utensils.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Forgiving Kind"
Copyright © 2019 Donna Everhart.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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