*Okay, I’m still writing NB, plus at three in the morning we had to get up, change the bed completely and… yeah, someone in the house is on a little p*ssing reign of terror, and we don’t know which of them or WHY. So– Remember a while back I said I’d post stuff from the drawer now and then because I have like 20+ books started that didn’t sell, and I’m trying to get a feel for whether y’all like them or not and what to do with them?
I grant you this audience is not possibly representative, but you’re the only ones I have in terms of “fans who’ll give feedback.”
What follows is highly weird. I ALMOST was forced to write it to the end, and I have several doubts about it. For instance, can a foreign-born chick write something not only set in the south, but dragging the Civil War ghosts in, and not get crucified, particularly at Southern cons?
My agent thought both that I couldn’t, and that I should submit it under a pen name “possibly something Southern sounding” which I think made it worse. So it never got sent out.
But I wasn’t intending to spoof or traipse into anyone’s territory. I’d just spent a year writing six books and homeschooling the genius, then in three consecutive weeks: I had RWA. I gave the genius his tests for certification by the supervising school and signed him up for the local high school. I had to prepare for World Con AND clean the house (because we had friends staying) in about three days. My explanation is that my brain fried. I woke up the first day of Worldcon, with all the packing to do, and this chick in my head, with an accent you could cut with a machete. And I HAD to write her. The following was written early morning, one day, before Worldcon. It’s not my fault.
That said, it’s been dormant a while, and it probably won’t PUSH me to write it, but if ya’ll think I should I’ll put it somewhere in the queue.
Warning: Contains relatively mild sexual situation towards the end.
Without further ado, I give you A Proper Southern Devil. (Oh, and it’s not exactly spoofing the south. In my head I HAVE a Southern accent, on account of having lived there my first seven years in the US. That’s how I HEAR myself. I’ve considered find a speech coach to make my exterior match what I hear in my head, but people think I’m nuts.)*
A Proper Southern Devil
Sarah A. Hoyt
©Sarah A. Hoyt 2008. All rights reserved.
Down To Georgia
Look, honey, ain’t nothing special about what I do. I wish there were. I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last southern girl whose mama taught her to pack her exorcism kit in her purse whenever she went out for a big date. You got your protection – in case he forgot – and your other protection all tucked into that little purse of yours, and you don’t admit to either because, well, it is all about butter not melting in your mouth, ain’t it?
What I do is different not in kind but in degree. After spending her whole life protesting about my using grammar like ain’t and double negatives and railing against my hatred of nylons and my smoking in public, mama up and died and, son of a bitch – yes, she would have glared at me for swearing too – if she didn’t leave me stuck with the family business.
The call had reached me on a cool spring morning, high up in my rented loft in Denver, Colorado, where I’d run away – at least that’s what mama always said – to pretend I was no Southerner or – in my view of it – to get a job in commercial art and use my degree. As Aunt Janeybelle’s slow drawl poured into my ear, slow as trickling molasses, I looked out my window, at the still-snow-capped Rockies. “Well, Honey, it ain’t no use saying you didn’t break her heart, because you sure did,” she’d said. And, “Her last wish was that you’d come home.”
And I can’t say it was mama’s wish that dragged me but legalities. Mama’s only daughter had to come and do something about the household and such. I delayed for two weeks – there was no memorial service and mama was cremated the day after her death – but at last there was nothing for me but to make my way towards the home I’d so long denied was mine, taking the first flight I could from Denver to Atlanta, then renting a car to get to Blazes. It wasn’t that Blazes didn’t have an airport of its own. Oh, Lordy no. Our town of three thousand had everything that you could find in them bigger metropolises. Or at least everything a body could want. Just ask Aunt Janeybelle. But on a good day, the Blazes airport could get tied up by the simultaneous take off of two pigeons and a crow. Which left me to drive two hours to Blazes, along the highway bordered by indistinct greenery – most likely kudzu – and to think of what Aunt Janeybelle had actually said, beyond reproaches and recriminations. My mother had died, as the obituary went, suddenly, at her residence. Which I had to presume meant heart attack or stroke.
Aunt Janeybelle, had said mama had died of her broken heart brought on by her trouble. By which I supposed the fact that papa had gotten – in mama’s words – the hell out the day I was born. But if that were what had killed mama it had taken its sweet time to work, since I had turned twenty eight just a week ago.
I drove down the Georgia highways with the windows tightly rolled up and the air conditioning on. I’d rented a smoking car, and I filled the ashtray to overflowing and perfumed the car with the smell of tobacco. Virginia Slims. I’d come a long way, baby.
One feel of the outside air in the airport car rental lot had been quite enough, thank you so much. While the Colorado air was crisp and dry and cool, well behaved air that did not intrude on you or demand anything of you, the Georgia spring was perfumed with more exotic fragrances than the most whorish of houris. It wrapped you like a sweaty embrace between tangled, body-warm sheets. And it didn’t give you a chance to ignore it.
I did slow to a more moderate speed as I turned off the highway and onto the rutted road that led me past a weathered, moss-covered sign welcoming me to Blazes, Georgia.
Blazes was — all told — a long main street and a straggle of farms in each direction. Right at the center of Main Street around the centuries old park, there were the Baptist church, the Presbyterian church and, noticeably newer, the Catholic church. To the side of that was Holy’s General Store, run by the Holy family since forever – Marylee Holy had gone to school with me – the school was past that, a sturdy butt-ugly building of fifties construction and managing to house under its flat roof all grades from kindergarten – usually called Kiddiegarden by the locals – to twelfth with no fuss and no muss, thank you very much.
Until I was about six, there had been trees on either side of the road and the road was unpaved. But as more and more people got cars, they’d cut down the trees and paved the road. I remembered mama had been right testy about their cutting the trees. She said they had taken all the charm out of Blazes.
To me blazes still had plenty of charm, or didn’t, depending on I felt about it at the time. When I was little and had first heard about the War Between the States and how Sherman had burned Atlanta, I’d imagined that Blazes had got its name from being burned to the ground. But it turned out Blazes had been there long before the war and had always been called just that. Aunt Janeybelle said it was because of our sunny climate. Mama said then it would be called Steam Bath, and by the time they’d gotten to where they’d argue like that in front of me, I was old enough to have no opinion at all, save that I wanted to get the hell out of Blazes, and the sooner the better.
Past the cluster of churches, store and school the main street down which homecoming parades rode and where the Elderberry Wine festival took place every fall came to an abrupt end. Or at least a stranger would think it just ended, in a confusion of cypress and a tangle of kudzu. But if you looked very carefully, straight ahead, underneath all that green, you’d see that an unpaved road continued from there.
I gunned for it, hoping that no one had let trees grow in the middle of the road or something. After all, this path led to only two houses. Or rather, to a house and a set of ruins.
Time out of mind, the winding bit of rutted track had been a road at least as traveled as the main street. At the end, it had branched off into twin plantations – what had been at one time twin homesteads started by two families that had got king’s grants at about the same time: the Childes and the Thornblades. But the last Thornblade had died in the War Between the States and their plantation had been torched, house and fields and all. For some reason, it had never been reclaimed – probably because Blazes was in the ass end of nowhere and even developers had never found us yet. It, like the fields that had once been my family’s were just left to grow over with wild plants and kudzu. Mama said our fields had been sold, but if so, no one had done claimed them. And if someone owned the Thornblade’s place, they were no more interested in it than the owner of our place was.
Which just went to show you, I thought, even if I wasn’t absolutely sure what it showed. I wasn’t very coherent, since I was dying for a cigarette but didn’t dare light it till I could see the way clearer ahead.
And seeing clear was a problem right enough. Because you see, the kudzu and the Spanish moss hanging from the tall pines on either side of the road, had turned what had once been a narrow road into a tunnel, filled with a filtered green yellow light. It was, I thought, just like one would imagine the bottom of the ocean to be like, with the tropical sun shining above.
A shiver ran up my back, because it was as if I were driving under water, as if I were drowned and long dead.
Nonsense. But my hands were white on the wheel, as the track veered now left, now right, amid the green-hung trunks. And then, as suddenly as it had closed in around me, the track opened up. Instead of a tunnel, it became a country road, meandering drunkenly along a well-beaten track, with the trees where they belonged, on either side of it and well away.
I took a deep breath, and, by touch, without looking, pulled a cigarette from the pack on the passenger seat, and put it between my lips with fingers I was surprised to see were trembling. I grabbed for the lighter the same way, and lit my cigarette, sucking the nicotine into my lungs as though it were heaven-sent nectar, or perhaps reviving water. I didn’t know why I’d got so worried. The track was clear enough out here, and of course mama wouldn’t have let it get grown over.
Mama hadn’t been dead all that long. Something like a stabbing pain with no physical place made my heart clench, and I sucked another lungfull of nicotine, driving with one hand to the turn off to our house, leftward, and past what had once been gracious, tall gates and were now rusted permanently open and covered in vegetation, the walls that they had once ornamented now mere piles of unruly stones.
Inside, there was what had once been a garden. Mama always said that her mama talked about her grandma speaking of manicured lawns and azaleas and oaks, rose gardens and orchards. But it had been a century and almost a half a one since we’d had gardeners. The plants had grown riot and the ones that could survive had, some thriving more than others. Blackberries infested the grounds, rambling like carpetbaggers all over the other, weaker plants. Their fragrance mingled with the scent of the roses – auntie Janeybelle said they were heritage or antique roses, whatever that meant – which also grew riot everywhere and even climbed the trunks the stately oaks still standing, even if senescently rotting from within.
There was no kudzu within where the walls had once encircled. I wasn’t sure why. There just wasn’t. It wasn’t like I’d ever seen mama – or grandma, when she’d been alive – do anything at all beyond picking the blackberries when they were ripe. Those blackberries, grown in our garden, made the sweetest jam in all the world.
And suddenly I found myself craving the jam I hadn’t had in eight years. And I remembered Mama in the kitchen, at the end of summer, tending to a giant pot of the stuff, as it bubbled slowly with sugar, over the fire on the back burner of the gas stove. Tears stung the back of my eyes.
Making that jam was my mama’s only domestic gift.
The smell of that blackberry jam penetrating every corner of the house had been a signal that summer was over and school about to begin, and the sweetness of its taste had been bitter too, because it meant my days of freedom were over, and soon I’d been taking the bus to Blazes School and spending most of my day confined there and away from the house and whatever interesting things Mama might be doing during the day. I’d always been convinced Mama did some wonderful stuff during the day, when I was absent. There seemed to me, back then, no rhyme or reason for me to go to school otherwise – not since I couldn’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, and I’d read everything in my path all the time. It seemed to me left well enough alone I’d have learned whatever the school had to teach.
But Mama said I needed to learn what people were like, whatever that meant, and to my childish mind that meant she was up to something during the day. Something she didn’t want me to know about.
As it turned out, I was right – though I didn’t know it that day, as I pulled up onto the flagstones of what had once been a gracious terrace. Mama said the double French door – right in front of me – had actually once been the back door to the house and opened off the ballroom, but we’d used it as our front door, all my life.
It was on the bottom floor of three which climbed gracefully up, with a wrap around porch on the bottom and two verandas above. It was built of mellow grey brick. You could sort of tell, from the vestiges on the brick, that – for whatever reason – it had once been painted, or maybe whitewashed, but I was glad that it didn’t need to be kept up. Because we didn’t even use most of the bottom floor, much less keeping all of it up. Brick maintains fairly well, and our roof was – mama said – asbestos and likely not to disturb anyone as long as we left it alone. And likely to outlast us all, too.
It had outlasted her.
I stood up – without remembering getting out of my car – clutching an almost-gone butt of cigarette, and realized I was crying which was plain stupid, wasn’t it? After all mama had been dead two weeks, and crying was not going to bring her back. Crying paid no rent.
Sullenly, as if it had done me wrong, I opened the trunk of the car, and dragged out my suitcase. I’d packed enough for two weeks, in as tight as space as I could. When I’d left, eight years ago, I’d left behind most of my clothes, and they should still fit. Jeans and t-shirts was about all I’d brought, and the tennis shoes on my feet.
Oh, mama had always made me wear skirts and dresses when I came to visit. Down here, I was Miss Childe and she said the locals noticed when I dressed like a common chit. And perhaps they did. But right now I didn’t care. I threw down the butt of my cigarette and stomped hard on it.
What I cared was to dispose of the estate, donate what I could to charity and put the house for sale and get the hell out of Georgia. Lord knew the house wouldn’t fetch much. Certainly not these days. But I’d make what I could of it.
Standing on the stoop, picking through my keys, I found my hands shaking again, for some unaccountable reason. There was the key to my Denver loft, and how I wished I were back there. There were my car keys for my car back home too, the battered jeep that had taken me up and down the slopes of the Rockies.
But I’d kept the key to this house on the chain, even though it made no earthly sense to always carry with you the key to a house that’s hundreds of miles away. And right now my own life back in Colorado seemed like a nebulous dream. It seemed as if I’d never left.
When the door opened, it was worse. I entered what my mama said had once been a ballroom – and maybe it was – but which some ancestress had divided off with paneling so that I found myself on a prim and proper entrance hall with a table – with a telephone on it, the only telephone in the house – and a straight backed chair in which mama used to make service-men and bill collectors wait her pleasure before being allowed into the inner sanctum of the house.
I dropped my suitcase on the floor – the yellow mosaic floor that covered all the rooms in the front of the house and which lent credence to the idea that it had al once been one room – and I almost called out Mama, I’m home.
Remembering mama wasn’t – would never be – home, was like a knot at my throat, and it made me catch my breath right quick, as if I were drowning.
Crying pays no rent. And it wasn’t like mama and I had been one of those mother and daughter pairs who were best friends and who did each other’s hair and each other’s make up and went to the mall together. Hell, I don’t think mama went to the mall, ever. When I’d wanted to buy my prom dress, Aunt Janeybelle had driven me all the way to the mall in Atlanta, because there was nothing out these ways. And mama and I had fought like cats and dogs and screamed at each other like banshees. Bound to, when she’d raised me all by herself, and I wasn’t the most biddable creature around. But she had been my mama. The only mama I’d ever have.
I swallowed again, and closed my door, carefully. Not that mama or grandma had ever bothered with the door much. But I had lived away for a while, and I didn’t feel safe with it open.
I went into the house briskly. My steps resonated hollowly. The house was empty. It smelled empty. Uninhabited. Isn’t it weird how you can always tell if there is anyone in a house or not? You can feel it. The air feels different and sounds are different.
Well, I was here. Not empty anymore. More or less blindly, I turned right, into what had been mama’s study and library. The curtains were drawn and light looked much like the light in the green tunnel, only dimmer. It cast a green penumbra on the oak bookcases, filled with books and notebooks in haphazard confusion. In the middle stood mama’s desk, piled with papers and more books and a newspaper or two.
It had always been like that, I thought, swallowing like mad to keep moisture out of my eyes, and stepping over to the windows, to open the curtains with a ripping sound.
The light that came pouring in was grey-dim, much softer than the sun that had beat down on the highway just moments ago. Looking up, I saw that the light had dimmed above and the sky was all over roiling clouds. One of those squalls of spring was in the brewing. Fine by me. At least it had waited till I was safe and snug inside.
Turning my back on the window I frowned at the bookshelves and the desk. Heaven knew what all those books were. I for one had no clue. Of all the books and notebooks in the house, the ones in this room were the only ones that had always been off limits. Mama said it was none of my business. Just as it was none of my business what she wrote in all those notebooks that she bought every month or so at the five and dime.
At some point – high school or so – I’d thought that mama must be a writer. But if that were so, then she’d never shown her writing to a living soul. And now I would have to look through the notebooks, I supposed, and figure out what to do with them.
And there was a dilemma. Because if mama’s stuff was trash, yet it was mama’s, and could I burn it? But if mama’s stuff was gold, too, what the hell could I do with it? I had some writing friends, back home in Denver, and some vague idea their careers were no easier than mine – some vague idea it took more than a great story to make it big.
“Ah, damn it, mama,” I said, to the warm, musty air. “You had to leave me stuck with this, didn’t you?”
I reached for a cigarette, and realized I’d left them, and the lighter, in the passenger seat of the car. Well, I’d best go out and get it before the rain started pouring down.
Hastily, I started towards the door and tripped on a tear in the rug. My eyes were strangely filled with water, which made it hard for me to see.
So my foot got caught and as I’d been rushing, my momentum sent me forward. I reached for mama’s desk to steady myself, but the pile of books my hand rested on went tumbling. My head hit the corner of the desk hard. And there was darkness and silence.
I came to lying on the floor of mama’s study, on the faded carpet that she kept atop the mosaic for when her feet got cold, she said. The carpet was all big pink roses and green leaves. Or had been, once upon a time, before it had all faded. It had probably come from the attic.
I was lying on it, with my hand outstretched. My hand was resting on a pile of books and, as I blinked and saw more clearly, I realized that the top one was a King James Bible with cracked leather spine. The hell. A Bible? In mama’s study?
It’s not that mama was an atheist. At least I didn’t think it was. She’d never told me that there was no God, or that I shouldn’t listen when my little friends talked of the holidays and Jesus. But she had withstood Aunt Janeybelle’s demands that she send me with her on Sundays to the church in Atlanta, and we’d never celebrated Christmas, not once. Mind you, I’d always thought it was because Mama couldn’t be bothered putting up a Christmas tree. At least after grandma was gone. And before grandma was gone, grandma’d been right sick, and mama had looked after her and not paid much attention to the holidays.
And yet, not only was my hand resting on a Bible, but under the Bible and a little to the side was a silver cross with fat branches, enclosed in a sort of circle. I remember that my friend Elene who does all the science fiction and fantasy art had said it was a Norse cross and not Christian, but… with the Bible…?
I started to pull them towards me, cross and Bible and all, dragging them because I wasn’t feeling all that well and didn’t want to sit up and pick them up. And then I heard tapping. Something tapping against the window.
Hail, I thought, and for once I did not mean the place where Sherman has been sent for torching Atlanta. But the tapping continued, hard, and it didn’t seem like hail. Besides, Georgia wasn’t Colorado where every now and then we got hail the size of Volkswagen Beetles.
My mind was none too clear, my head was still spinning from the blow to the head. My eyes refused to focus and there was throbbing pain from my temple, where I’d hit the desk. But I had to see what the hell was tapping at my window. Besides, if I had concussion, I had to make it to the phone and call someone. Or at least go back to the car and get the cell phone I’d left with my cigarettes on the front seat of the car. Lying here and passing out and maybe dying was no part of my plans.
I dragged myself to sitting, while nausea pulled at my stomach, and turned to look at the window. And blinked.
The first I looked at the window, I would swear there was a boy child out there. Twelve, maybe less, at that time when males’ faces are none too sure if they are going to be young ones or adults and usually their various features are on a different time line. This boy’s nose looked indecisive between a childish button and an aquiline slope. His eyes were too big for his face – liquid eyes, the color of the Spanish moss out there. It made him look like those postcard little boys, with eyes that no human could actually have. His hair – soaking wet – was a blazing color between gold and red, like fire or a sunset.
But the most pathetic thing was his hand – reddened and spread out, the palm flat against the window and the fingers pushing on the glass as if begging to come in.
I blinked. When I looked again, it was an adult man there.
Tall and rangy, as if he were half starving and been reduced to skin and bone and whipcord muscles. The features were almost the same as the boy’s had been, only more regular. The rest of them had caught up with his eyes, which remained, nonetheless, liquid and green. His face would have been oval save for the blunt chin and the aquiline nose that prevented it being too sweet to be masculine.
But the hair was the same. A blaze of glory, not exactly long and not exactly curly, but long enough to surround his face and curly enough to look as if it were as wild as the tangled blackberries in the garden.
And his hand – bigger, and with square fingertips – was still pressing against the window, so hard that his palm and fingertips looked white. And his lips, under the pouring rain, were forming one word. “Honey.”
The hell. I blinked again, but he remained there, and now his lips were forming, “Honey, Honey, let me in.”
It was possible, all too possible, that he meant honey as an endearment, but it didn’t seem like it. It seemed like he was saying my name. And, yeah, I’m aware I have a weird name. In Denver, I’d gone by Ney, preferring that to explaining to all and sundry that I’d not only been named Honey when our family name was Childe, but I’d been named Honey after my grandma’s great grandma, bless her heart, which must bespeak hereditary madness.
And this strange man outside the window was calling me Honey as if he meant it, calling me Honey as if he knew it was my name; as if he’d known me all my life.
Right. For all I knew he had. I couldn’t for the life of me remember anyone who looked like him, but then I couldn’t remember half of my high school class. It wasn’t as if we’d been best buddies anyway. Though by the time I attended the high school Blazes as about as integrated as it was gonna get, and though our family – that I knew – had no more money than any of theirs, and probably less, my mama had been known to be a higher class. And therefore so had I. Which had kept all the other children at bay. Oh, I talked to them at school, and it wasn’t like we were enemies. But there had been no one coming over to play, and there had been no sleepovers and no boyfriends or best friends.
I’d had some dates, but nothing really serious because we’d all known better – and I’d gone to the prom with my cousin Henry Albert, the son of Aunt Janeybelle and only because mama thought I should have the experience.
I squinted at the man on the other side of the window, trying to think from where I might have known him. Had he sat next to me in Kiddiegarten? Or pulled my braids in fourth grade? There was no telling.
“Honey,” he said, his voice making the glass in the windows vibrate. “Honey, let me in for the Lord’s sake. I’m cold and soaked all over.”
Well, right. And he didn’t look like a lunatic, or at least not like a dangerous one. He just looked… cold and soaked.
I dragged myself up, with my hand on the desk, and stumbled out of mama’s study and to the front hall. When I got there, he was already on the other side of the French doors, looking … Well… looking no crazier than most Georgians.
Here I have to explain for the sake of anyone who might be reading this, and who might be from other parts. Because my rainy-day visitor, shivering and dripping water on the front porch, under the shelter of the verandah, was wearing a confederate uniform. This in itself was not all that strange. If there was a Civil War renactment going on, any day of the week, there were a dozen of them. No. What made the blond man looking pleadingly at me through the glass, special was that he was wearing an historically accurate confederate uniform, for the end of the Civil War. What this meant in practicality is that what he was wearing was barely a uniform at all.
Forget all the stuff about the grey and the blue. By the end of the war, what men were wearing was mostly what other men had worn earlier in the war. My late uncle Albert Michael, mama’s brother, aunt Janeybelle’s husband, had been a Civil War buff and he’d lived till I was fifteen or so. He used to tell me that in the beginning of the war, the South was attired in uniforms from France or Poland, or something, all red with gold braid.
Perhaps they had, but what this man was wearing was a ragged dark grey jacket with insignias I couldn’t understand, pants that were some color between blue and brown, and what looked like – I’d seen them in museums – Prussian riding boots that came up to his knees.
I felt my jaw drop open in surprise, at this historically accurate splendor. I threw the door open and heard the confused, slurred words, “Where is the battle?” come out of my lips.
His eyes widened and for just a moment he looked surprised. Then he shook his head. “No battle,” he said. “No battle, Honey. I’ve been… lost.” A crease formed on his forehead. “You don’t know how lost I’ve been.”
I frowned in turn. He didn’t look like a lunatic. And his accent was definitely from these parts but overlaid with what seemed to be a cultured British accent. Something that wasn’t exactly the province of some mad man tumbling among the wilds of this back country place. I chose to take his word for it. He’d been lost. “This is the Childe house,” I said. Which was just a little strange to say, but the truth was that I’d never bothered with an address on those occasions I had to write to mama. Georgia Childe, Blazes, Georgia and the zip always found its way there. It wasn’t like everyone in town didn’t know us.
It was all too possible he said something else. I didn’t seem to be thinking sequentially, and I might have missed something, because what I heard next was, “May I come in? Please let me come in?” And the way he said it, all urgent and purposeful, I thought it must make sense. I thought he’d asked to use the phone.
I stepped aside from the door. “Sure,” I said.
He stepped over the threshold and there was a feeling that’s pretty hard to describe. It was as if an electric shock had run not through me but through the air. And then he was… staring at me. There was a hunger in his eyes. Not as if he was going to eat me – well, at least not unless I was very, very lucky.
I expected his uniform to smell – or at least to smell of wet wool and sweat because, let’s face it, you can’t be running around pretending to be a confederate soldier in the heat and humidity of a Georgia Spring and not sweat. But though there was a hint of wet wool and a faint redolence of clean male sweat, most of all, he brought with him the smell of woodland.
When I was very young, I used to go out where the garden used to be and lie beneath the big fig tree, near the capped well, and read. The smell he brought with him was the smell of that place – pine trees and moss, roses and blackberries.
I was so surprised by this, that I didn’t react as he closed the distance between us, and said, his voice all breath, “Honey, you are a sight for sore eyes. I’ve… dreamed of you.”
And without so much as by-your-leave, his hands came down on my shoulders, and he pulled me close to him, crushing my body against what was a very muscular body indeed, harder some places than others.
I would have screamed. I should have screamed. Blame it on the concussion, but I was so confused, that I let him bring his head down, and let his mouth meet my mouth, and before you knew it, I was kissing a perfect stranger.
His lips were soft, his tongue had a mind of its own. His mouth tasted of distilled liquor with an odd sweet edge. And he was kissing me as if his life depended on it, teeth clashing against teeth, his breath ragged.
Hunger – and not for food – roiled off his body, as he pressed against mine and drove me back and back, against the wall. Which was good, all things considered, because I was having a lot of trouble standing up. It must be that concussion. Same reason I didn’t scream.
He came up for breath for less than a second and I truly have no explanation for why I didn’t let loose with a shriek then, but I didn’t. And then his lips were back on mine, his mouth sucking at my tongue like he could only breathe through my mouth, like kissing me was the only thing that could keep him alive.
Coming up for air again, he made a sound that wasn’t so much a moan as half a sigh and half a cry of need, and his green eyes were half-lidded, as if he were in pain. Which he might very well be, since what I felt against my leg was definitely not a pez dispenser, and those pants looked a mite tight.
“I–” I started, but then I couldn’t continue because his hands were running over my body, warm, frantic.
“Why are you wearing breeches?” he said, but didn’t wait for an answer, which was good, because no one ever had called my jeans breeches. But since what he did next was get hold of my t-shirt – yellow with artists do it colorfully splattered in red across the chest – at the neckline and tear it clean down, it went right out of my mind. I just said, “Hey!”
And he looked up and said, “Don’t be missish, Honey, not now. You don’t know what I’ve done. You don’t know how I’ve dreamed of this.”
“What?” I said, trying to get hold of my shirt and pull it back together, even as those large, square-tipped hands were trying to work on my bra as if it were something he’d never seen before, and my mind was trying to run through everything I’d ever learned on rape prevention. Which, mind you, was precious little, since I’d never had much in the way of fear of being raped. I mean, I don’t jog in bad neighborhoods, I don’t walk in isolated places after dark, I don’t go out on dates with guys I don’t know very well, and I always carry a gun, and can shoot the nethermost wing off a fly at fifty paces.
Only I’d not brought checked luggage and you can’t fly with guns in carry on. Not if you are just an artist. And I didn’t know this man. And I had no idea why he was squeezing his fingers under my bra and pressing them, hungrily, against my flesh. I hadn’t ever heard of mad rapists running around in historically accurate Civil War gear. Not even here.
And I wish I could say I’d gone cold on him, but it was stranger than that. The part of me that could think rationally was thinking that this was a very strange encounter and that I was about to get raped. And the other part of me – a part of me that to be honest I’d never been aware of except when I was painting and really immersed in it – was feeling the hunger and the need wrapped around this man. It was an odd sort of hunger, an odd sort of need – a craving for love and comfort and acceptance, as if he were whipped dog, who had gone from doorstep to doorstep and at each one met with kicks and insults. But it was more than that, because it came wrapped in unbearable-chest-crushing-grief, the sort that you feel between catching your breath and letting a sob tear out at the beginning of uncontrollable crying.
But, strangest of all, what I felt from him, wrapped around these feelings, was love. Overwhelming love. There was an odd softness in the green eyes, as they looked at me, that went well beyond any possible lust. And his hands, warm and insistent, were also caressing, desperate, as if he knew me – knew me, loved me, had made love to me before and couldn’t wait to make love to me again.
I grabbed both halves of my shirt in a trembling hand, I wiped my mouth to the back of my other hand, more to gain control than to wipe his taste from my lips, and I didn’t even try to fight off his hand which had figured out how to unclasp my bra. “Who are you?” I asked, as he pulled my bra up and dove down, his mouth hot and hungry on my left nipple, then up to cover my breast in soft, worshipful kisses. “Who the hell are you?”
He blinked up at me, as if surprised at this question, and pulled away. “Honey?” he said, concerned. “Honey, you know me.”
I shook my head. “No. I’m sorry.” My voice came out really shaky, because, let me tell you, it is a bit of challenge to manage to form words and everything while one of the best looking men you’ve ever seen is kissing both of your tits all over and doesn’t give any signs of wanting to stop. Even if you have no clue who he is, and he seems to think you’re the bestest of friends. I tried to remember some peccadillo, some azalea and moonlight romance the memory of which I might have suppressed because of a broken heart, but suppressed memories and broken hearts were something that only happened in aunt Janeybelle’s stories and never in real life and certainly not to me. “I have no idea who you are.”
This got his head away from my breasts, which left them feeling rather lonely and neglected, strange as it might seem, and made him straighten up to his full six feet some. “So, that’s why,” he said.
“That’s why what?” I asked.
“You forgot me. Honey, what have they done to you to make you forget me?”
He grabbed my arm and squeezed hard. “Was it one of the bastards…” His eyes blazed with such crackling anger that I was afraid. “The Lord knows I’ve shot enough of the bastards and taken enough revenge, but I didn’t know they’d done that! If I’d known–”
“That?” I asked, now totally lost, and more and a bit afraid, particularly since his hand was holding my arm in a vise-grip.
“Your daughter!” he said as if this explained everything. He spoke through tightly clenched teeth. “I could forgive them destroying my home, I could forgive them burning everything. I could have forgiven them killing me. God knows I’ve deserved death. But you!”
“I don’t…” I started, ready to tell him I didn’t have any daughter. But he didn’t let me finish.
His hand left my arm and cupped my face, soft and tender. After his painful grip it was the softest of touches, gentle and – despite the fact I could feel calluses on his hand – as soft as velvet. “Honey, I am Gabriel Thornblade.”
“Thor– ” I started. But clearly the recognition he hoped for hadn’t shone in my eyes, because his own were now distinctly moist.
“Damn it all to hell,” he said, as a thunderclap echoed as if on cue. “We grew up together, you and me. We were sweethearts as soon as we could say the word. I just wanted the war to end so I could come and ask for your hand.”
“What war?” I asked, as a mad idea formed that this might be one of mama’s beaus who looked incredibly youthful. Though mama had never talked about any of her beaus going off to Vietnam. In fact, the war that had broken her generation apart and tore our culture asunder had seemed to leave mama as untouched as had most of the twentieth century, from which she’d adopted comfy clothes and cars and little else.
“Why, the war betwee– ”
“Honey Childe, have you run insane?” Aunt Janeybelle’s half-choked shriek echoed from the doorway.
A Proper Southern Lady
I was standing against the wall of the entrance hall, my shirt tore in half down the front, my bra undone and pulled above my breasts, leaving them bobbing, all white and round beneath.
In front of me was Aunt Janeybelle, as perfectly polished as a Southern woman could get.
Though Blazes was the back of nowhere, Auntie Janeybelle was not now and had never been White Trash. She couldn’t have been to have married mama’s only brother, after all. Though the Childes tended to marry off their boys, have the women keep the family name and inherit the house – at least since great great great grandma Honey Childe – Childe men were still Childes and they didn’t marry just anyone.
Auntie Janeybelle’s family had come from other parts. Atlanta, I thought, though I couldn’t swear to it, and she had been the prettiest debutante once upon a time. Now she wore a dark blue skirt suit, with a fluffy pink blouse and pearls around her neck, and her make up was so discrete you might not know it was there at all, save for the faint and tasteful lipstick.
She looked like one of those porcelain dolls you sometimes find in antique shops. When she was young, she must have been real pretty – a smooth, oval face with round baby-blue eyes. Age had not made her wrinkle so much as it had made her skin look stained and yellowed. However her hair was as gold as ever I remembered its being. I was sure it came from a bottle at this time, but that was the last thing I was thinking, as I panted, staring up at her, trying to think up of an excuse for why I was up against that wall and half-naked.
I realized that she was looking, her eyes very wide, at my temple, where I’d hit it on the desk, and I felt something liquid trickle from there and down the side of my face. I reached over, half expecting it to be water. Gabriel Thornblade – and who he could be, I plain couldn’t imagine, since all those people were gone – had been dripping wet, after all. If he’d ever been there. He seemed to have vanished like that, no more material than a soap bubble. But my fingertips, as I brought them in front of my eyes, were stained dark red.
“Well, land sakes, child,” Aunt Janeybelle said. Or perhaps Childe. It was hard to tell. “What have you been doing to yourself?”
I pulled my bra down, hooked it, and fumbled my t-shirt closed. What had I been doing to myself? Doing to myself being the great big question, since there was nobody around. “I fell,” I mumbled. And then looking up and giving her my best, innocent look. “I don’t know how it came about. I just tripped in mama’s study, and I fell.”
Auntie Janeybelle stifled a cry and covered her mouth with both impeccably manicured hands, with their polished, unnaturally long nails painted a lady-like pink that exactly matched her blouse.
I wasn’t in the mood for drama, though drama, it could be argued, was the birthright of every Southern-born woman. “If you’ll pardon me,” I said, and ducked around her to grab my travel bag, which I carried with me down the hallway, past mama’s study and into the powder room in this floor. The powder room was not a courtesy sort of thing in this case.
Though it did contain a toilet and a sink, the room was smaller than most closets and most suited to just powdering one’s nose in it. It was so small in fact that mama always did say that it kept her slim. If she gained any weight at all she would never be able to close that door again, and would need to give up on the powder room entirely. Now I wedged my bag between the pedestal sink and the wall and closed the door in the face of Aunt Janeybelle who, wouldn’t you know it, had followed me and seemed disposed to follow me right into the bathroom.
Then I looked at myself in the mirror and bit my lip, refusing to give in to an impulse to have strong hysterics. When Auntie Janeybelle was gone, I could go ahead and scream my head off, if it that was what it took. But not just now.
I could have cried with mama. I could have cried with grandmama. I could have screamed at my friends in Denver and asked what the hell I’d been smoking, or how I’d come to hallucinate the world’s most handsome man in period clothes no less. To any of them I could have said that I was going insane, but not with Auntie Janeybelle.
You see, she had always been there, this is true. And it could be said that after grandma was gone she had helped mama raise me. At least if you understand helping as telling mama every day and twice on Sunday that she was spoiling me and making me unfit for society. And that my wild spirit needed curbing. And that I read too much.
Aunt Janeybelle had the type of concerned, disapproving gaze that made me feel like I had forgotten to wash my face, I had dog’s doings on my shoe, or snot hanging from my nose. To make things worse, she was so flawless all the time.
If I told her what I’d seen – if I told her what I’d felt – she’d think I had finally gone insane. Not that going insane was something that Auntie Janeybelle disapproved of. Not exactly. She seemed to think madness, like drama, was the proper right of any well bred southern lady. She talked with pride of how one of her aunts was so high-bed and refined that she had spent years in a rest home, after a nervous breakdown. Second to getting consumption – and that was definitely hard these days, though Auntie Janeybelle seemed to pin her hopes on the new antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis. Or at least she talked of them a lot – going stark raving mad – particularly after my dear mama died – would probably be the only thing I could do to prove to Auntie Janeybelle that I was a proper southern lady and that she hadn’t failed in making me one.
She would be understanding and triumphant and rush me to some discrete rest home with some name like Frail Magnolias Recuperation Institute, and put me in a straight jacket. If I were very lucky, the jacket wouldn’t be pink, and she wouldn’t crochet a lovely frill for it.
So I bit my lip until the urge to scream passed, while I looked at my ashen face glaring at me from the mirror.
My face made a poor study. I had always had a face in shape of a face, with a jutting, stubborn chin, brown eyes and what my mother called a button nose. When I scrubbed up and tied back my unruly brown hair, which seemed to grow in several whirlwinds all over my head, I could be considered pleasant. My worst enemy could not accuse me of being a proper southern belle, or , for that matter, a belle of any description.
But now, my normally olive skin, probably inherited from the father I’d never met – since mama had always been a proper peaches-and-cream Celtic beauty – looked that curious green tinge it went when I was sick. With the red blood trickling down the side of my face, it looked right christmasy. I grabbed some toilet paper and dabbed at my temple, then held it there, pressing lightly.
That seemed to stop the blood, and it didn’t hurt as if I had broken any bones. My friend Terry, with whom I went out now and then, back in Denver, was a pre-med student and he’d said that if one had serious concussion one’s pupil would be a different size of the other.
At least that’s what he said when Julie – my roommate – had fallen on her head in the bathroom, New Year’s Eve, after she’d drank way too much Jack Daniels. I remembered trying to hold Julie’s eyelids open while Terry shone a flashlight into them. That is, until she came to and threatened to break all his bones, even the one that wasn’t part of his skeleton if he didn’t stop shining bright lights at her. He’d judged it enough evidence that she was back to her normal and let her be.
Now I opened my eyes as much as I could and turned the light on. It was just a naked forty watts dangling from its cord all the way up there, in the nine foot ceiling and I can’t say it did much to augment the light coming through the little palm sized window almost at that level.
And then it was pretty hard to tell what was my pupil and what was dark-dark brown iris. I glared at myself, daring my pupils to be the wrong size.
Auntie Janeybelle cleared her throat on the other side of the door. “Honey?”
When I didn’t immediately answer, being rather busy trying to discern if my pupils were the same size, she knocked at the door – a light, lady-like knock. “Honey.”
“Yes, ma’am?” I answered, deciding my eyes were about the same they’d always been, and so were my pupils. And besides, I remembered Terry had said that if you were concussed you’d throw up – which had been a world of good when Julie had lost her cookies all over his jeans and shoes, considering what she’d drunk by then – and I wasn’t even slightly nauseous. Not since first standing up.
Auntie Janeybelle shuffled uneasily on the other side of the door. It says something about her that her minimal movements, indicating uneasiness, made enough of a rustling noise to convey to me that she was moving this way and that a little, to let me know she wasn’t happy. “Honey, I can’t say as I’m comfortable with you being there on the other side of that door.”
I glared at the door. Well, I couldn’t say as I was comfortable with the idea of Auntie Janeybelle on this side of the door. Let alone the fact that to fit she would need to lose almost all of her weight, and spread herself thin along the wall. Of course, I didn’t say that, but made a sound best transcribed as “Um.”
Turning on the water, and hoping that would drown out any pearls of wisdom my aunt might have left in her mind, I splashed my face which made me feel better. That is, it made me feel better until I realized that there was no towel in sight, and I would have to leave my face wet and dripping.
In a fit of wild creativity, I took off my shirt – it’s not like it was fit for anything else now – and wiped my face with it. I swear it smelled of wild blueberries and trailing roses with a faint trace of wet wool. I flung it from me quickly.
Aunt Janeybelle knocked again. At this rate I was going to end up causing her to do serious damage to her nails.
“Well, Honey, I don’t know what possessed you to go into your mama’s study.”
I opened my mouth, but then I couldn’t imagine what had possessed me either, so I just said “Um.” again and sat on the closed toilet lid to unzip my bag and look for a t-shirt that wasn’t split.
Aunt Janeybelle sighed, which was a normal reaction of hers to anything I did that she didn’t approve of or didn’t understand. I pulled my t-shirt on, then looked up the wall at the tiny window and wondered if there was any way I could climb up the smooth plaster and get out through that window. Mind you, squeezing through the window might kill me. It was that small. And if memory didn’t fail, it was about seven feet off the ground on the other side, but breaking my head dropping from it seemed preferable to enduring Aunt Janeybelle’s lady-like reproach.
Only then she would stand over my bleeding self and tell me I’d always been a tomboy, and if only mama had always taken me in hand early. “Yes, Aunt?” I said.
“Well, dear, I’m sure no one ever did tell you, but seeing as…”
“Seeing as your mama did die in her study…”
For a moment – for just a moment – I felt as if the floor of the bathroom had shifted under my feet, which was stupid, since it was made of the same solid mosaic as the rest of the rooms partitioned from the ballroom. I grabbed at the sink with both hands, to steady myself, and when I spoke, I confess I was less than polite. “She what?”
Aunt Janeybelle cleared her throat, just enough to indicate, as it were, that she disapproved of my hoydenish manners. “She died right there, just sitting at her work table.”
“I see,” I said. “And my mama did what exactly. By way of work?”
There was a long silence from the other side, and then Aunt Janeybelle said. “I don’t know. You see, I’ve never gone into her study. Not a once.”
“I see,” I said, and flung the door open. As much as my aunt annoyed me, I supposed that I’d have to put up with her. “Then who found her? Henry Albert?”
My aunt looked at me, with wide open eyes, and for just a moment it was like she didn’t remember who Henry Albert was, which, considering he was hers and my uncle’s only son, seemed a little odd. Then she shook her head. “No. Henry Albert is just like you don’t you know? He done left as soon as he’d finished high school. He’s in New York City and he says he’s some kind of lawyer, though what he wants among them yanks, I don’t know.” She sniffed. “Not finding himself a wife, apparently.”
Well, considering that Henry Albert had taken a keen interest in pulling wings off flies, he was probably making a fortune. But I didn’t want to hear about him, and I returned to my question, “Who found mama?”
“Well,” Aunt Janeybelle said, and looked mildly embarrassed, as if she’d been discussing some rare and strange disease. Not that she would be in the slightest embarrassed by strange disorders. Discussing birth, female trouble and menopause was mostly what women in my family did when they got together. And though they banished boys from the room, it had never occurred to them to banish me. “The Catholic priest, you know?”
I didn’t know. Not an idea. “A… priest? Mama was Catholic?”
“No, no, no,” my aunt said, hurriedly, reassuringly. “Nothing like that, I’m sure. Only when Father Carver came to town… Lor’ I think that was after you left, wasn’t it? Well, he’s about Henry Albert’s age, or thereabouts, and I guess your mama was like a mama to him.”
I resisted an urge to stare. I couldn’t imagine my mama being like a mama to anyone. Even me. Oh, mind you, she’d kept me fed and clean, but there was none of that flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone that other mothers indulged in. I started to wonder exactly who this Father Carver was and what he looked like. I mean, there were stories about Catholic priests, and though most of them didn’t have anything with their seducing middle aged ladies… well… this was the South and it made people do strange things.
In my mind, the sort of purple romance ending in a crime passionale was forming, and I cut it short. It was the Southern mind, you see. We were never all that impressed by Wuthering Heights. Not that we didn’t read it. We did. But it paled in comparison to the stories of crazy aunts locked in the attics, mad grandma’s who’d died for love, and the woman down the street who claimed she was eloping, but the next morning they found her dead, with a set of male footprints that walked beside her and stopped abruptly.
I’d read A Rose for Emily in college and suffice it to say that if I hadn’t found it to be precisely advisable behavior to keep your dead lover’s corpse and sleep beside him for years after you murdered him, neither was I particularly shocked. It was just Miss Moreyne up the street, all over again.
But I wouldn’t think of what might have been going on between Father Carver and mama until I met Father Carver. I did not think, at any rate, that mama was the sort to get in the type of relationship that ended in her death – though I wouldn’t say anything about her lover’s death. Aunt Janeybelle maybe. Mama, never. “And of what did mama die, precisely?” I asked.
My aunt shrugged. “The doctor said it was a stroke.”
I shut of my mind on the various meaning of stroke. There are things one doesn’t think about one’s mama. I’d go see Father Carver and enquire. And his God help him if I didn’t like his answer.
Until then, Aunt Janeybelle was there, on the other side of the door, right in the path I needed to take out of the powder room. And she was looking at me with this curious, sharp expression.
I cleared my throat. There was no way to just shove her aside and get through. Not without enduring a speech on my manners. And she didn’t seem to be disposed to get out of the way on her own. So I grabbed the t-shirt I had flung on the back of the toilet, and resisted an urge to smell it. Instead, I folded it neatly.
“How you happened to rip that right across.”
“I don’t rightly know,” I said. “It happened when I fell.” Give or take a few minutes. I looked up, as she was as close to the door as if she meant to come in, but couldn’t. “Why did you drop by, auntie?”
She blinked, as if startled, as if her dropping by was, of course, something she did constantly. For all I knew it was true. After all, she was a widow, mama was alone too, and Henry Albert and I were quite gone. Not that mama had ever liked my aunt much, but I guessed that after a while what matters is who is left of your generation.
“Well,” she said. “Well, what with your mama having died here and all, I thought you might have wanted to come and stay in my home. It’s closer to the shops and all.”
Never mind that the only shops in Blazes were a sort of general store and a five and dime. I must have looked my reluctance. I remembered Aunt Janeybelle’s house. It was clean, with the kind of meticulous cleanliness that looked as though no crumb and no dust particle was allowed to fall in it. It should have smelled of disinfectant, it looked like. But instead it smelled of lilacs – a heavy, cloying suffocating scent.
And she crocheted covers for everything. All her kitchen appliances wore wooly covers, as if they were very cold. And what she did to hide her toilet paper involved plastic dolls with hoop skirts. I shuddered at the thought. “Thank you, but no. I’ll be fine here. It won’t be for very long.”
She looked like she was going to say something, but then she just shook her head. “Well, suit yourself, but why you’d want to stay in this mausoleum!”
“It’s my home,” I said, and as I said it I realized that it was true. This was home, a home knit in my bones, a home I could not deny or refuse, anymore than I could deny or refuse mama and grandma and that poor ancestress who’d had the misfortune to also be named Honey Child. Oh, this was going to be much more complicated than I thought.
“Well,” she said, and frowned. “At least you must come for dinner at my house tonight.”
“All right then,” I said, and started to step forward, hoping she’d get the hint. She dug for her keys in her huge pink purse, and stepped back, still looking at me. “I shall expect you at five sharp.”
I wanted to tell her that five wasn’t night, nor even evening, but it wasn’t worth arguing. “Thank you. I’ll be there.”
A strong urge to get her out of my house had taken hold, because I’d just remembered – or thought I remembered – a letter half-showing between the pages of that Bible. With all my luck, it would be a love letter to one of my long-dead ancestresses. Except that I thought I recognized mama’s handwriting on it. And I couldn’t imagine reading it in front of my aunt’s prying eyes.
Aunt Janeybelle made her twittering way towards the door. When she was on the porch, on the other side, I remembered Gabriel Thornblade standing there, dripping rainwater and sexiness.
“Yes, dear?” she said, looking way from the bowels of her capacious purse and up at my face.
“Have you ever heard of a Gabriel Thornblade?”
She blinked at me. “He wasn’t supposed…” She stopped and shook her head and it seemed to me she swallowed hard. “He was the last of the Thornblades. The one as died in the War Between the States. Your grandma had a painting of him somewhere, I remember seeing it once, when she was sorting things. A little painting, you know, a miniature. With all the other old stuff.”
Since old stuff described most of the house, this wasn’t exactly helpful. And I wasn’t about to believe I’d made out with a ghost. “But there is no one by that name now?”
My aunt tittered, a gentle, ladylike laugh. “Oh, no, dear. The Thornblades were all quite gone. Though they say…”
“They say?” I asked, imagining that they said there was some distant relative or something. This was just what I needed. I’d made out with some loony Brit – judging from the accent – who’d come back in search of ancestral glories.
“Well, they do say that Gabriel Thornblade walks.”
She looked at me with sudden impatience, mixed with irritation, as though I’d just asked her to explicitly define the phrase female troubles. “They say he is a ghost. He wasn’t a good man.”
And with that she turned and left for her massive bright green SUV which she’d parked next to the rental car. I watched her putting on driving gloves – gloves! – before she climbed into her car. And I thought as hard as I could that I sure as hell and Georgia, I most certainly had not been making out with a ghost.