The Road to Bittersweet336
The Road to Bittersweet336
For fourteen-year-old Wallis Ann Stamper and her family, life in the Appalachian Mountains is simple and satisfying, though not for the tenderhearted. While her older sister, Laci—a mute, musically gifted savant—is constantly watched over and protected, Wallis Ann is as practical and sturdy as her name. When the Tuckasegee River bursts its banks, forcing them to flee in the middle of the night, those qualities save her life. But though her family is eventually reunited, the tragedy opens Wallis Ann’s eyes to a world beyond the creek that’s borne their name for generations.
Carrying what’s left of their possessions, the Stampers begin another perilous journey from their ruined home to the hill country of South Carolina. Wallis Ann’s blossoming friendship with Clayton, a high diving performer for a traveling show, sparks a new opportunity, and the family joins as a singing group. But Clayton’s attention to Laci drives a wedge between the two sisters. As jealousy and betrayal threaten to accomplish what hardship never could—divide the family for good—Wallis Ann makes a decision that will transform them all in unforeseeable ways . . .
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Stampers Creek, North Carolina, 1940
Whenever I hear the birth stories Momma repeats on our special day, I can't help but think of Laci, how she ended up. Her name alone conjures a frail and delicate being, someone who don't fit in with the harsh way of life here. With arms and legs as slender as the limbs of the willow trees growing alongside the Tuckasegee River, their movement as fine as the lines of Momma's bone china teacups, Laci seems out of place. Momma says Laci's looks come from her side, from our great-grandma Devon Wallis. Her hair shines like an Appalachian sunset, shot through all gold and red, while a sprinkle of freckles rides the bridge of her nose. Deep green eyes swallow any thoughts she might have, except we don't rightly know what she thinks since she don't talk.
Laci's birth story is dramatic. When she got born, Momma said the cord was in a true knot. Pulled tight during labor, Laci come out the color of a ripened blueberry. She was quiet, limp, no hollering, no having a little hissy fit like me on my own birthing day, none of the flailing, strong movements of a normal baby. The granny woman who come to deliver her smacked her hard on the behind, and silent she stayed. That granny woman flipped her around butt first, then head, and finally, Momma said, poor Laci squeaked out a little breathless cry at the rudeness of it all, and promptly fell silent again. Breathing, eyes blinking, flushed a bright healthy pink, yet silent. Momma said the one squeak was the only sound she'd ever heard Laci make.
The granny woman exclaimed, "Law, this child ought to be squalling after all a that."
I've often wondered if Momma regretted the name she'd give her, considering her ways. I relinquished my own stronghold from her womb fourteen years ago this very day, dropping into the capable hands of the same granny woman.
She'd asked Momma, "What's this one's name gonna be?"
The granny woman was said to have give a look what conveyed her thoughts about the choice.
Momma explained. "Wallis, my family name, and Ann, my given first name."
The granny woman grunted, then questioned her. "Like a boy's? Like W-a-l-l-a-c-e. It's a right odd name for a girl, ain't it?"
Momma shrugged, and replied, "Girl needs a strong name in these parts."
Upon learning it, Papa said, "It suits her. She looks more Wallis than Stamper anyway, that's for sure."
Momma said, "Well, thank you sweet Jesus for that."
They was only fooling. They're always saying that sort of thing to each other.
Whereas I'd kicked and pushed, rearranging Momma's insides to suit myself, Momma said Laci had barely moved, a prelude to her actual nature. As an infant, I'd shoved against her hands as she tended me, latched on to her at feeding time, and when she removed me from her breast, I'd screamed like I'd been stung by a thousand bees. Laci never whimpered. To this day, she exists like a whisper you barely hear, or a shadow on a partly cloudy day, appearing to fade, then unexpectedly bursting forth like a hot ray of sun. She's two years older, yet she'll never know the things I know. She'll never read. Or write. Or solve problems. I've tried to teach her, only to see if I could, and, sometimes, I believe she's listening, so I keep on telling her what I know, keep on reading to her what I'm reading, keep on talking to her like she's going to answer me back. In truth, I've spent a lot of time wondering what she's thinking.
Momma took her to Doc Stuart years ago and to that thought, he'd said, "Not much. Not unless it involves music. Then her brain does what it does with astounding proficiency. An idiot savant, Mrs. Stamper. I'm sorry, she'll never lead a normal life. Only the music truly speaks to her."
Momma's lips pressed together at the word "idiot."
On the way out of his office, she whispered to me, "He's the idiot. Well. She'll have her music, won't she?"
She was right. Laci's never talked, yet she can play any instrument handed to her. Fiddle. Banjo. Mountain dulcimer. She's not had one lesson neither. This come as a revelation when she was six. Back when Momma and Papa was only sparking, they sung together for churches, fish fries, tent revivals, weddings, funerals, county fairs, wherever anyone wanted them, they'd go. One day they stood in a church singing for Homecoming and they sat me and Laci on the front pew so they could keep an eye on us. I pressed against Laci and seen how she watched the lady playing the piano, eyes fastened on the woman's fingers. She never moved, not once, but I felt her breath quicken.
After Momma and Papa finished, everyone went into the church yard to eat. While plates was being piled high with fried chicken, tater salad, biscuits and pie, nobody missed Laci. Momma and Papa got preoccupied with the preacher, and that's when I heard piano music coming from inside the church. I was the one who found her banging away on the keys. She won't strong enough to pull the heavy wooden bench close, so she stood playing "When the Saints Go Marching In," the very last song the lady played. Mesmerized, I stood beside her, watching her small, dainty fingers fly. That's how Momma and Papa found us and when they realized she was special.
It was known as The Piano Incident, and after that, Laci learned a bunch of songs fast. Sometimes Papa would play his banjo, or fiddle, and Laci watched until he'd hand it off to her and she'd turn right around and play the song. Momma and Papa got to where they let her join when they went singing, cueing her by starting the song off so she'd know what to play. I was left to sit by myself, and I remembered not liking it one bit. Laci didn't like the separation either. She would stop in the middle of a song and stare at me. Just stopped playing whatever instrument they'd given her, and there we'd be looking at each other. After a time or two of this happening, Momma stood me beside Laci.
She whispered, "Stand here beside your sister. You know some of the words, so you can sing too, okay?"
I was petrified looking at them faces seeming to expect something out of me. One day my words got unlocked and I started singing. Folks pointed and smiled, and feeling encouraged, I become a little more animated each time, swinging my feed sack dress side to side, bouncing on my knees along with the tune. Soon we was going lots of places, and after a while, Papa decided we ought to have a name. He started referring to us as The Stamper Family. He was lucky enough to also work for Evergreen Sawmill Company in Cullowhee, and he saved up to buy an old truck, a Ford 67 model with wide footboards, and we left our holler, and headed into Cashiers, Sylva or East LaPorte, just about any place to sing and entertain folks.
I reckon that's how we got to be sort of famous throughout Jackson County, plus the fact folks was always curious about Laci. I was of a mind they only invited us because they'd heard about her, and considered she'd been blessed by the Holy Spirit. Her ways are as natural to me as breathing and eating, and I don't like it when people want to touch her, or want her to touch them. She don't understand the attention, and it scares her. Sometimes I want to drag her out of sight, away from the poking hands and curious stares. After little brother Seph got born three years ago, Momma has come to depend even more on me to watch over Laci. Her needs come first, even afore mine because she can't help the way she is.
Heavy gray clouds resembling a pot of boiling water rolled overhead while thunder shook the floor beneath my bare feet. A hard rain beat on the roof, sounding like a distant train rumbling along the tracks, as an odd milky vapor swirled through the woods, covering everything the way a good mountain fog settling in tends to do. Two weeks ago, a similar downpour made Stampers Creek rise over the embankment while strong winds uprooted massive trees, felling them like weakened saplings. Still cleaning up from that, I could picture all the hard work for naught.
Laci sat in a corner chair with the dulcimer on her lap playing "Sally in the Garden" nonstop. Seph was patting my arm to get my attention and I picked him up, before walking to the window to look at the churning brown waters of Stampers Creek. The creek had risen quite a bit, and was close to the trunks of the wispy willow trees Momma planted years ago along the embankment.
I squinted, studying the barn, chicken coop and hog pens, noting where the outbuildings sat compared to the creek. I dropped my gaze and tickled Seph's belly and he struggled to get down, his cheeks flushing pink while his robin's-egg-blue eyes got watery from giggling. The sound of Papa's boots stomping outside on the front porch signaled he was home early. I let Seph go as Papa come through the door looking like he'd been dunked in the river. He pulled his cap off his head and hung it on the peg. Water dripped off his beard, making the front of his shirt wet.
He glanced at me and said, "No cutting trees in this weather."
He tousled Seph's hair and looked over at Momma, who was pulling my birthday cake out of the oven. He set his lunch pail on the kitchen table, and I opened it to find most of the food we'd sent uneaten. There was still slices of fried side meat, and one of two cathead biscuits with pear preserves untouched. I handed Seph the biscuit, and he immediately crammed it in his mouth.
"Too much rain," Papa said to Momma, and she handed him a rag to wipe his face.
She replied, "Nothing anyone can do about it. Lord willing, it'll stop. Might as well go on about our business."
Papa said, "The Tuckasegee is still running high from that other storm. River's worse than anyone's seen in a long time. Some say another hurricane's on the way."
Momma walked to the kitchen window and looked out at a yard filled with geraniums, black-eyed Susan and hydrangea. She loved walking the edge of the woods where mountain laurel flourished along with her favorite, fringe trees, or "Old Man's Beard." She tended her flowers like everything else, though she said being prideful was a sin because anything of beauty was truly God's work. We was only here to cultivate it, help care for it. She couldn't hide some of her pleasure though when visitors come and admired what she'd done. Her face would flush red as a plum when complimented. She could coax near about any plant or flower to life and make it thrive.
Momma remained composed as Papa went on with dire flood predictions, listening as if he was discussing painting the bedrooms, a recent pursuit and desire of hers, a way to rid the walls of being tacked with newspaper and magazine coverings. She swiped a hand over the wood grain of her worktable, considering the words he spoke, and maybe she was calm because she'd been in a flood before, the one in 1916 when over eighty people was killed.
Papa walked over to the same window I'd been at earlier, and Momma turned to me and said, "Wallis Ann, go on and let's get supper started. Have Laci chop the greens."
I said, "Yes, ma'am," and retrieved the mustard greens in the bright yellow bowl Momma had cooked earlier. The music had gone silent from the other room. A floorboard creaked when Laci come to stand beside me, her warm, gentle fingers seeking to hold mine. I thought of all the timber Papa had planed, the bark he'd stripped off the logs, all the notches he'd wrested out of the hardwood for tongue-and-groove joints. He'd laid his hands on every part of the cabin, down to the dovetail joints along with each and every nail holding the walls together.
I said, "Here," and give Laci the bowl.
She went to sit at the kitchen table, and picked up the metal chopper. I turned to my own task, stoking the fire in the stove first, then I sliced some side meat and put a pot of beans on to boil. Momma took over frying while I scooped out flour for more biscuits, my fingers working the lard and flour together by feel. I'd made enough in my fourteen years such that I could near bought do it blindfolded. Supper was ready an hour later and we went on and ate. No one mentioned how early it was, or how Momma kept putting more and more onto our plates.
"Eat good now," she urged.
After supper, she placed my birthday cake in the middle of the table. It had chocolate icing, a rare treat, and for a brief moment I had uninterrupted attention from my parents. I studied their faces while they sang "Happy Birthday," Papa's ruddy from working outside, his beard already sprinkled with gray, while Momma's delicate-featured face remained young and fresh appearing. When the song was over, she cut each of us a huge slice. We ate cake, and drank glasses of cool milk poured from the clay jug brought up from spring house earlier.
After we finished the dishes, Momma took off her apron, smoothed her hands down the front of her dress and said, "Well. We best get some sleep."
Papa said, "Wallis Ann, put your shoes by your bed, and get you and Laci some extra clothes together."
We don't never wear shoes till it comes a frost, and Papa's instructions said more about his thinking than a long explanation. I didn't ask questions. Laci and I climbed the steps to the sleeping attic. Once there, I put our shoes by my bed, and put each of us a pair of socks in them. Next, I got our extra dresses off the individual hooks, one each, and folded them neatly. I retrieved a piece of string from the bedside table, and tied it all together into a tight bundle. I believed what I'd been told to do was in preparation for some unexpected event, though no one said so.
Laci fell asleep immediately while I listened to the rain hit the hand-split oak shingles over our heads. The wind blowed hard over the gabled roof, and the howling sound filled our tiny room. The light cast from a lantern stretched my shadowy form against the wall like a gray ghost as I tried to read the forbidden True Love and Romance magazine I'd found in the trash behind a store in Cullowhee one day. I'd hidden it under my coat, my curiosity stronger than my worry over Momma finding me out. The cover was torn and slick from repeated handling, and the pages fell open to the parts where lots of kissing happened. Despite the noise from the storm, and a strong sense of something about to happen, I eventually got tired. I leaned over the edge of the bed to tuck the magazine under a loose floorboard, then blowed out the lantern and closed my eyes.
A loud, splintering sound followed by a heavy thud close to the cabin woke me. I scrambled out from under the thin muslin sheet, breathing heavy like I sometimes do when we're about to sing. The spot where Laci's arm had pressed against my side left a moist imprint on my nightgown, the humid night air sitting heavy inside our small room because we couldn't open the window with all the rain. I pinched a section of my nightgown to free it from my sticky skin. My newly cropped bob allowed some air to reach my neck, and hot as it was, it was an odd but welcome sensation I hadn't growed used to yet.
I could hear the creek. It didn't sound right, not the soft whoosh over the rocks, more like an angry churning, which meant it was running swift and fast. The downstairs clock chimed four times. The heart pine floor under my feet vibrated with every boom of thunder, and the wind's force made the cabin creak with every gust. Lightning flashed constantly, and the odd flickers illuminated the room. As I made my way to the window, I glanced over my shoulder at the spindle bed, but Laci had her face turned towards the wall, her form a slender twist of long arms and legs under the sheet.
I stared out, waiting for lightning to flash again, and when it did, I seen the creek foaming like the mouth of a rabid dog, the edges sloshing into the garden in rivulets. It was much wider than what it had been earlier. I recognized that kind of fast rise would only keep on, and I backed away from the window, my mouth gone cotton dry, my chest tightening like somebody was squeezing me. I rushed over to the bed and shook Laci. She rose on her elbows, looking at me like she always does, without expression, without alarm.
I said, "Get up, Laci!"
She swung her legs over the side of the bed, and without waiting, I run from the room, my feet finding the stairs in the dark. Momma stood at the bottom, her face tense, pale, and she whispered because Seph was still asleep on her shoulder.
"Wallis Ann, you know what to do and be quick about it. Help your sister, understand?"
Papa was tucking his shirt into his coveralls.
Excerpted from "The Road to Bittersweet"
Copyright © 2018 Donna Everhart.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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