A massive storm was coming straight for Mama's little plot of land in the Mississippi Delta and there was no way any of them could outrun the weather.
For three years Melody Mahaffey has been on the road, touring as a keyboardist with a terrible Christian pop band she can hardly stand. So when her mother calls, full of her usual dire news and dramatic pronouncements, Melody is relieved to pack her bags and call it quits. But at the sprawling, defunct Three Rivers Farm her family calls home, Melody is shocked to discover her father is dying. Even worse, her mother has abandoned the family, leaving Melody the sole caretaker of her father and brain-damaged brother. Sure that her daughter will do the right thing, Geneva leaves to seek spiritual guidance and break things off with her long-time lover.
Rain begins to fall and an epic flood threatens the Mississippi Delta. While Melody tries to get a handle on the chaos at home, a man and his little boy squat on her land, escaping their own nightmare. Obi is on the run from a horrific mistake, and he's intent on keeping his son with him at any cost. When the storm arrives, though, they have no choice but to take shelter in Melody's house. And the waters just keep rising.
A lifetime of lies, misunderstandings and dark secrets bubble to the surface as the flood destroys the land and threatens their lives. Set against the fertile but dangerous landscape of the rural south near the fictional town of White Forest, Mississippi, Three Rivers beautifully weaves together three parallel stories, told over three days, as each character is propelled headlong into the storm.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Tiffany Quay Tyson grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and attended Delta State University. Her short fiction has been published in The Tulane Review and Peeks & Valleys: A Southern Journal. She lives in Denver, where she has served on the board of directors for Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and occasionally leads workshops for the Lighthouse Young Writers Program.
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By Tiffany Quay Tyson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Tiffany Quay Tyson
All rights reserved.
The preacher's wife delivered the crumpled note early that morning. Come home. I must leave. Your father is dying. Your brother is not able. The woman, who was balancing a grimy toddler on one jutted hip, asked Melody if there was anything she could do to help. Melody asked about a phone. The woman used her hand to wipe a streak of snot from the toddler's upper lip and told Melody the church office would be unlocked at eight. By quarter after, Melody perched on the corner of a polished wooden desk and dialed her childhood home.
Except for a row of yarn-woven God's eyes and a stack of Jesus pamphlets, there was not much about the office that marked it as religious. The fire-and-brimstone, hand-to-God preachers of Melody's youth had retired. Nowadays, churches were led by slick men in designer suits, who preached more often about prosperity than about eternal damnation.
Against her ear, the phone rang and rang. No one hurried to pick up a phone in her house. Mama could very well be sitting right next to the phone, painting her fingernails bright red, and saying, as she always did: A ringing phone does not demand urgency on my part. Daddy would still be sleeping. Bobby could be anywhere.
Years earlier, Melody had bought her parents an answering machine, thinking it would be the perfect gift. "Now you can just let it go to the machine and call people back whenever you feel like it," Melody told them. "Oh, my," her mother said. "I hope you kept the receipt. I can't have people calling and getting a machine. It's just so tacky." What Melody wouldn't give for a bit of tacky right now.
"Well, hell's bells." She wanted to say something stronger, but manners or superstition prevented her from swearing in a church, even though she was alone and it was just the office, and even though she'd stopped believing in God. Oh, she still believed it was possible God existed, but she didn't believe he cared. She didn't believe anyone was going to answer her phone call, either. She pulled the phone from her ear and nearly had it back in its cradle when she heard her brother's voice. Bobby shouted, "Hello? Hello!"
"Hey there." Melody tried to remember the last time she'd actually spoken to Bobby. "What's going on? Mama called."
"When are you coming home?"
She coiled the phone cord around her finger. "I'm not sure. Can you tell me what's going on with Daddy?" The cord was sticky, the victim of an exploding soda or some kid with jam-coated hands. She wiped her finger on the hem of her T-shirt. "Is Daddy around? Maybe I could just talk to him directly."
Bobby barked a harsh laugh into Melody's ear. "Oh, he's around, all right. He's around." Melody was supposed to be patient with Bobby. Since the baptism, he'd been a little off. It was like his brain got switched to a channel that didn't come in clear for anyone else.
"Why don't you run and get him?" She kept her voice as even and pleasant as she could.
"I thought you were home coming, home coming, coming home." Ah yes, there it was, not quite a stutter, but a vocal tic that was the most visible (or audible) reminder of Bobby's baptism.
"I will," she said. "I just want to talk to Daddy for a minute. Can you fetch him for me?"
Bobby huffed. "Well, he can't talk. He's hooked up to tubes. Phone won't far, far, far reach. Reach that far."
"Tubes? What sort of tubes?"
A loud clattering echoed through the line. She heard Bobby's voice, distant but still clear enough. "I'm checking. I'm trying to find out."
"Daddy wants to know when you're coming home."
Melody sighed and made a request of last resort. "Okay, then, let me talk to Mama. Can you just put Mama on the phone?"
Bobby said Mama had disappeared, gone that very morning. Melody was annoyed but not surprised. Mama had a long history of leaving for days or weeks at a time.
"I don't suppose she said where she was headed this time, did she?"
"She doesn't ever," Bobby said. "You know that, Sissy." He hadn't called her Sissy since they were very young. Melody softened. He was still her little brother.
"I'll be there tomorrow," she promised. "I'll get there as early as I can." She hung up the sticky phone and headed out into the rising heat.
* * *
A Christian music festival is no different from any other music festival except there are more young children, fewer tattoos and halter tops on display, and no alcohol for sale. At nine in the morning, however, there was nothing about the festival grounds, a scrubby field behind the Holy Redeemer Baptist Church just outside Memphis, that set it apart from any of the dozens of weekend music festivals being held in cities across America. Melody meandered a bit, not ready to break the news to her bandmates that she wouldn't be traveling on with them to Orlando. The girls would be furious. There was no way they would find another keyboardist who could harmonize on such short notice. They'd have to cancel the gig. They were scheduled to perform tonight and Melody decided that would be her final performance with Shout with Joy.
She strolled past the shuttered booths that flanked the grounds. Later, these booths would offer up greasy corn dogs, fried Twinkies, chicken on a stick, cherry lemonade. Even now, the scent of fried dough and sugar hung in the air along with citronella and diesel fumes. Melody was hungry. She was always hungry. Food was the last temptation of the Christian musician, and Melody was weak. It would be a relief to leave this behind. She didn't know how she'd stayed for so long. She'd started playing with Joy and Shannon in college. It was a way to earn a little money on the weekends. Before she knew it, Joy had slapped her name on the band and found a manager. Melody thought she'd play with them until something better came along, but nothing better ever had.
* * *
It was early evening when they took the stage. Melody's polyester pants strained against her stomach and thighs. A day of arguing with Joy and the girls had sent her off to the food trucks, where she'd scarfed down a bratwurst and funnel cake in the heat of the afternoon. Now she felt bloated and angry. Mosquitoes buzzed around her head, drawn by the massive amount of hair spray she used to keep the teased and curled strands in place. Thank goodness it was a short set, just five songs unless the crowd demanded an encore. Unlikely.
Melody leaned in and struck the chord for the last number, a dreadful song she'd never have to play again, but something was wrong. Her mic was dead. None of the other girls were playing. Melody leaned back, raised an eyebrow at Shannon, who looked away.
Joy addressed the audience. Her mic was working fine. "I wanted to take a moment and let our fans know that one of our group is leaving the flock. Our keyboardist and backup singer, Melody, has decided to abandon the path. I know you'll all join me in praying for her, praying that she'll see the light and seek truth in the love of Jesus Christ."
Melody seethed. How dare she call her a backup singer. Melody's voice carried the band, and Joy knew it. Joy's voice was just good enough for bad karaoke. Her face went hot. Sweat trickled beneath her bra, soaking the cheap blouse to her skin. Her chest burned, both from anger and the bratwurst.
"And now," Joy said. "Our final number, 'Heart Happy Heaven.' Join in if you know it."
Melody struck the keyboard, her muscle memory ingrained with the instinct to perform. She harmonized. Her mic was live now. Of course it was. They needed her voice. Shannon's voice was flat and tended toward nasal. Joy's was predictable, bland. Worse, she insisted on writing songs like this one, full of sappy lyrics and lazy rhymes. "Heaven" paired with "seven," of course, and "rise" with "lies," but the kicker was the last line of the chorus: And the angels appease us / when first we see Jesus.
Melody had argued with Joy over that line. "Why would the angels need to appease us? Is Jesus a disappointment?" There was no reasoning with Joy. She was convinced the song would be a hit. It wasn't.
She sang the horrid line and then, as the music ended and before the applause, she said the following: "Joy, you're an enormous cunt."
The nasty word echoed across the stunned crowd. A baby cried. A woman coughed. Otherwise, silence. If Melody accomplished nothing else, at least she'd squelched the polite applause that usually followed Joy's dreadful song. And Joy, oh Joy, stumbled backwards like she might faint. Melody turned her back on the audience and stomped off the stage. She tried to muster some dignity, but as she stepped off the back stairs, the too-tight polyester fabric of her pants ripped right along the seam of her ass.CHAPTER 2
Obi snuck out into the predawn mist while Liam slept. When they first took to the land, he had worried about leaving his young son alone, even for short stretches. It wasn't that he worried anything would happen to the boy — there was more danger in the city — it was that he thought Liam would be afraid. Now, though, Liam was at home by the river and Obi didn't fret about whether he might wake up and believe Obi had abandoned him as his mother had. They were a team. Together they had become so used to the constant rush of the river flowing past that the noise of the water was the same as silence. Together they made the land their home.
Obi picked his way through the pine trees, placing his feet by instinct to avoid cracking branches hidden beneath the needle-covered ground. He crouched down in the midst of a circle of trees, a place where he could hear the bubbling water of an underground spring, and he waited.
He'd chosen this spot the day before, when he noticed the smooth areas rubbed onto the bark of the trees and the piles of shiny brownish-green pellets scattered on the ground. It was close to their campsite, but not too close. Obi peered in the direction of the spring and listened for the telltale rustle among the trees. He heard the buck before he saw it and he shouldered his rifle in anticipation. The buck stepped out into a small clearing, sniffing the morning air and stretching out its neck toward the sunrise. It was a beautiful deer, reddish brown with a soft streak of white across its throat. Its antlers were symmetrical, with three points on each rack. The deer was just beginning to shed the velvet coat of spring.
Obi squeezed the trigger. The buck crumpled to its knees, head and chest falling first, back end timbering down behind. A doe and a young, spotted fawn leapt across the clearing and crashed into the woods.
Obi stayed put, watched the downed buck just long enough to be sure the animal was no longer breathing. He approached his kill and pulled his bowie knife from a sheath strapped onto the belt loops of his jeans. He figured the buck weighed about 150 pounds, small enough to handle but large enough to yield a generous amount of meat. He sliced the animal open from breastbone to penis, removed the buck's testicles and also its bladder, which was thankfully empty. Entrails spilled out onto the pine needle nest of the forest floor when he rolled the carcass. Obi's hands and shirt were covered with blood and the warm salty smell of the animal clung to his nose. He separated the tough muscle of the diaphragm from the chest cavity with a few sure strokes, severed the esophagus and the windpipe, and pulled out the heavy heart and slippery liver. Obi dragged the animal back to his campsite, where he strung it from a tree to allow the blood to drain. As he reached above his head to cut the rope, he dropped his knife. It came down, blade first, on his cheek, missing his left eye by less than an inch. Obi put his hand to his face and felt warm blood pulsing from the wound. His knife was sharp and the incision was clean, so it didn't hurt much. His heart pounded with the knowledge that he could have lost his eye.
"Ow, Daddy!" Liam pointed at his father.
"I'm all right," Obi said. "How about a trip into town?" Liam rubbed his eyes, yawned and stretched like a satisfied cat.
Sunlight was just beginning to filter through the trees. He'd strung the carcass up on a high branch to discourage predators, but he didn't have much time to dress and butcher the deer. The heat rose quickly at this time of year.
He drove to a truck stop that was also a small grocery on the side of the highway. It was open twenty-four hours a day, and Obi knew it would have what he needed. "Stay in the truck," he told his son. Liam was stretched out with his back against the seat and his feet propped up on the dashboard. His eyes were closed, but Obi knew he was awake. He wore nothing but a pair of faded red shorts. A cluster of mosquito bites decorated Liam's calf. His chest and arms were smooth and flawless. His hair was long and curly and the color of soft brick, and it framed his freckled face like a halo. Obi reached out and gave Liam's tummy a tap. "Hear me?" Liam nodded without opening his eyes. He looked like a starfish splayed on a bit of dry sand.
The store was empty but for the clerk reading a magazine behind the counter. She didn't glance up when Obi entered. Air-conditioning blared, though the morning was cool. He picked up a container of kosher salt, a sack of red potatoes, and a bunch of carrots. He'd rather take the vegetables from a backyard garden and save his money, but the season was wrong and the carrots grown in Mississippi were puny anyhow. He grabbed a cheap tube of antiseptic cream and a box of large bandages. On impulse, he grabbed a handful of chocolate bars that were on sale beside the register. The woman working behind the counter put her magazine aside and rang up his purchases. She looked at him and recoiled. "You okay, mister?"
Obi knew he should have changed his shirt and cleaned his hands before coming here. It was not deer season, and there were heavy fines associated with hunting out of season, besides which, he did not have a hunting license. He knew he looked terrible, probably smelled worse. It was never a good idea to attract attention. He smiled at the woman and felt the gash under his eye open up; a warm trickle of blood ran down his cheek. "Little accident." He wiped the blood with his palm. "Looks worse than it is."
She pushed his change across the counter, not touching his hands. Obi gathered his purchases and returned to his truck. Liam was on his stomach now, his head facing the seat back, his knees bent against the passenger door and his feet dangling out the window, soles toward heaven.
When they got back to camp, the deer had dripped the last of its blood onto the ground. Obi cut the buck down and then hung it again, this time with the head up. He sliced around the animal's throat to free the hide and pulled the skin off using his knife where he needed to release the muscles. He sliced off one of the buck's ears, washed it in a bit of cold river water and set it aside to dry as a gift for Liam. While he worked, Liam ran back and forth, dipping his feet into the icy cold river water. Obi was proud of how the boy moved, swift and silent and graceful. He belonged to this place, and Obi had no regrets about taking him from that other life. That woman from Social Services might even be impressed by how much Liam had grown.
Obi sliced through the joints of the deer's back legs and cut away the rump steaks. Most of the meat he cut into bite-sized pieces for stew, peeling away the tendons and connective tissue. He sliced the hams into strips and buried them in a pile of kosher salt. He filled his largest stew pot half full with water from the fresh stream and built two fires: one from coal and soft woods that sent up licks of flame and boiled the water in the pot, the other smoky and dry, a bed of coals topped with oak chips. Over the dry fire, Obi set up a crisscrossing frame of branches and stretched salted strips of meat across the wood. The smell of the smoke mingled with the fresh game and wafted out along the banks of the river.
Obi used the side mirror on his truck to examine the cut beneath his eye. The gash was deep and swollen. Obi dipped a cloth in a bit of river water and ran it along the wound. He scraped out the dried blood and the dirt and pressed to staunch the flow of fresh blood. It stung. Liam stood beside him, took the bloody cloth from him, and handed him a fresh one. When the blood coagulated, Obi smeared the antiseptic cream into the wound and covered it with a bandage. It needed stitches, but he didn't have the guts to stick a needle so close to his eye.
Excerpted from Three Rivers by Tiffany Quay Tyson. Copyright © 2015 Tiffany Quay Tyson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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