A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end.
Death first touched my life on an early fall night in 1895 when Papa came home carrying a dead man in his arms. I had fourteen years behind me and a good many more to go, though I didn’t know that at the time. Something else I didn’t know, and in the long run this one affected my life as much as, if not more than, living to an advanced age: Death would take two of my loved ones not long after it first showed up in my life. According to my Cherokee great-grandmother Elisi, that was the way it usually happened. “Death always comes in threes,” she claimed. I didn’t think much about it at the time because Elisi was as stuffed full of adages and little bits of wisdom as a tick on a hound dog’s back is filled with blood.
Mayhap if I’d been in the kitchen when Papa came in, I would have caught a glimpse of Death slipping in behind him, as if a member of the funeral procession. But then, probably not. The sight didn’t come clearly to me until I was older and even then the visions were more of an ethereal knowledge, things I knew but couldn’t see or touch. I could hear them on occasion but it was sometimes hard to put a picture with them.
This uninvited guest stayed with us for almost five years and finally went away in the summer of 1900, proving Elisi wrong. Death doesn’t always come in threes. That time it came in fours and for all I know the number might have been higher if Death hadn’t decided to go off in search of more fruitful killing fields. Perhaps It found them in China where the Boxer Rebellion was winding down or maybe It went off to Italy to help with the assassination of King Umberto. It might even have gone off to Texas to prepare for the bountiful harvest that was to come Its way in September when a hurricane and tidal wave struck in Galveston, killing 6,000 poor souls. No matter, it seemed like there was always a war or some natural disaster somewhere and Death wasn’t hurting for business back then, just as It isn’t now.
The oldest of five children, I often felt more like an adult than a child, but then, according to Mama, I’d been born old. Perhaps that was why she named me Vashti Lee—Vashti after Queen Vashti from the book of Esther in the Bible and Lee after Papa’s mother. I didn’t think either name suited me at all. Vashti, to me, being Biblical, implied a meekness of spirit or a good girl, one who follows all the rules. And Lee was just dull and ordinary. Women destined to live life on their own terms, as I felt I was, had light, carefree names like Bessie, which my little sister called me when she first learned to talk, or firm, no-nonsense ones like Bess, which Papa took to calling me when he tried to curtail my often inappropriate behavior. Bessie or Bess, both of them fit me like one of my proper Aunt Belle’s kidskin gloves.
Of course, if I’d known the kind of woman the original Vashti had been, that she had defied a king and stood up for her rights as a woman, I might have kept the name and been happy with it. As it was, I didn’t learn her full story until later in life and by then everyone, with the exception of Mama and Aunt Belle, called me Bessie.
In 1889, at the age of eight, I told everyone I knew to call me Bessie and refused to answer to Vashti by my friends or brother and sister. I even informed the teachers at school my name was now Bessie and signed all my papers that way. Once when my third grade teacher wrote Vashti on the chalkboard and told me to stand in the corner for sassing her, I calmly walked to the board, erased the offending name and replaced it with Bessie before I did as told. When I announced it at the supper table at home, Papa laughed but he listened and never called me that ill-fitting name again. But Mama, well, Mama, like me, had a mind of her own. She liked Vashti and, though that was how she usually referred to me, she did slip up sometimes and call me Bessie. When she did, I took this as a sign she might someday accept me for the person I was.
Because of Mama’s delicate health, I was often left with the responsibility of looking after my younger brothers and sister. A daunting chore at times but Mama had never been very strong, and after the birth of my youngest brother, the spirit and fire which Papa said first drew him to her, a fire I’d seen plenty of before Thee’s birth, seemed to dampen down and sputter out like a flame left unattended through a long, winter’s night.
On that night when Death came for an extended visit, Papa stepped inside with the dead man in his arms, walked over to the large wooden table in our kitchen and laid the body out there, arranging his arms and legs just so. I stifled a nervous laugh. His actions put me in mind of Mama fussing over the arrangement of her good silver and china when the preacher came for Sunday dinner.
Tall and lanky, the man stretched from one end of the table to the other. His scuffed boots hung over the far edge, dangling in the air above Mama’s chair, and his head, with the neat bullet-hole dead center of his forehead, rested at the other end where Papa sat when home at mealtime. As if we were all sitting there waiting to eat, Papa bowed his head and, his hand resting on the man’s shoulder, mumbled something I couldn’t catch—a quick prayer, an apology or admonition, I didn’t know what. Papa wasn’t the most religious of men but insisted on saying grace before each and every meal.
As Papa muttered over the man’s body, I suppressed another laugh. The whole scene, while strange and unusual to me, seemed to mock our everyday life.
“John? Is that you?” Mama’s voice, wispy and soft as the finest goose down, called from the parlor where she’d been giving my sister Loney a piano lesson.
I stood on the bottom step of the back stairway, peeking around the door jamb. From the window of my bedroom, I’d tracked Papa as he walked down the street to the house. I’d been banished there earlier that afternoon for bloodying my brother’s lip—a punch Roy richly deserved, though Mama didn’t see it that way. Mama, as usual, didn’t bother to listen to me and ordered me straight to my room. I’d spent the time in exile preparing my defense, hoping I could catch Papa before Mama did.
At Mama’s voice, he sighed, taking off his hat and hooking it on the back of one of the chairs. I pressed back against the wall of the stairwell, hidden but stationed where I could hear and get a quick glimpse of the show if I wanted. This was bound to be good. Mama would probably succumb to a fit of the vapors at the very least. At the most, she’d pitch a hissy fit that would have all the neighbors within shouting distance whispering behind their hands for days.
William Fore—I found out his name later that night from Papa—rested on the table, hands crossed over his chest, eyes closed, face serene, appearing to be taking an afternoon nap. Papa squeezed Mr. Fore’s shoulder as if in silent apology then turned his back on him, facing the door to the dining room. He leaned his hip against the table and crossed his arms over his chest, the Silver Star pinned to his coat glinting briefly in the light from the oil lamps as the material bunched up over his arms.
“It’s me, Cindy.” He sounded tired and I could tell he wasn’t looking forward to Mama’s reaction.
Mama bustled into the kitchen from the dining room. The baby rested against her shoulder and Green held one of her apron strings in his chubby toddler fist as he staggered behind her in that flat-footed walk all babies have when they first take to their feet.
“John, you need to talk to Vashti Lee. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the girl, she—”
I hunched my shoulders but, other than that one defensive move, remained perfectly still. Papa hadn’t been home two minutes and already Mama was launching into a conniption fit about my behavior that day. She would, I knew from experience, lecture him for at least fifteen minutes about my actions, subtly suggesting it was his fault I acted the way I did, and then tell him he needed to punish me for hitting Roy.
Not that I minded her leaving the discipline to Papa because he would take the time to listen to me. He understood me far better than Mama ever would and we often ended up laughing about what I’d done to incur Mama’s wrath. Papa, in my eyes, was the best part of my life. I cared much more about pleasing him than I ever would about minding my manners or acting like a proper lady as Mama always said I must.
Mama gasped as she came into the kitchen, her hand flying to her chest, and I edged back a little further on the step. She’d surely squeal like a stuck pig if she saw me standing there. As it was, Papa and the dead man on the table held her attention.
The baby, reacting to Mama’s distress, opened his mouth, burbled and let out an ear-shattering cry. In an automatic maternal gesture, Mama jiggled him and swayed, something that usually ended the tantrum before it got started. Theodore Norton, or Thee as we called him, snuffled and quieted as Mama continued to bounce him up and down.
Green tottered over to Papa and held his arms in the air. Papa crouched a little and picked him up, tossing him over his shoulder and patting him on the bottom. Green giggled.
Mama stared at the dead man and inched her way back to the dining room doorway. Her mouth pursed and she shuddered before squaring her shoulders. She bounced Thee a couple more times and let her other hand fall from her breast. It came to
rest on her hip, her right eyebrow arching as she looked at Papa and waited for an explanation.
I clamped my mouth shut over the giggle bubbling in my throat. Oh, good, it looked like the neighbors would have a lot to talk about in the next few days.
Or so I thought until Mama surprised me by saying in a low voice, “Come into the dining room, please, John. I can’t talk in here with that…that.” She pointed at the table.
Propping Green on his hip, Papa looked at him and shrugged before following Mama out of the kitchen.
“You can’t leave a dead man on my kitchen table, John.” Mama’s voice, low and strained, held a touch of horrified disbelief that Papa would even consider doing such a thing.
In the parlor, Loney picked out the opening notes of some happy tune on the piano. I covered my mouth with my hand when I realized she was trying to play “Seven Drunken Nights.” Mama would surely throw a dying duck fit if she recognized the song. It wasn’t one she considered proper for a young lady since it was about a man coming home “as drunk as” he could be. It also didn’t sit well with her because Papa had been known to spend a few drunken nights of his own at the local saloon. I sighed, knowing I would be the one to pay the price for teaching it to Loney. Leave it to my sister to play Papa’s favorite song. She was forever trying to find a way to get Papa to pay attention to her.
I looked over at the dead man. I didn’t know him but figured he might object to having that particular song as his funeral dirge. Or maybe not; for all I knew, it was a fitting sendoff for him.
“Aw, now, Cindy, I couldn’t leave him at the jail. Norton’s got Hankins and Shepherd in the cell and you know how those two are, they fight over which direction the wind’s blowing. My deputy has enough on his hands without having to stand guard over a dead man. ’Sides, Fore there ain’t hurtin’ anything. He’s dead.” Papa, of course, didn’t see the need for making a fuss over such a simple thing as using our kitchen table as a makeshift coroner’s slab.
“I know he’s dead, John Warren Daniels. That’s precisely why you can’t leave him there.”
“It’s only for tonight. Norton and I cleaned him up a bit before I brought him home and I have some canvas in the barn that Roy can help me spread under him. I’ll take him to the courthouse in Marshall first thing tomorrow.”
“The courthouse? You mean to tell me he’s a…a…criminal?” The last word whispered as if Mama didn’t want the dead man to hear her less-than-complimentary description.
“Why else would I shoot a man? It’s my job to protect the citizens of the town, ain’t it?”
I stepped off the bottom step, checking to see if the coast was clear. The voices came from the dining room, Papa’s cajoling, Mama’s higher and a little desperate. Hiking up my nightgown, I tiptoed on bare feet into the kitchen. The argument might keep them busy long enough to let me explore the curiosity of having a dead man in the house. A dead man! Shivering with excitement, or more than likely fear, I held my breath and approached the old, scarred wooden table. Coming to a stop beside it, I stared. My eyes moved slowly from the tips of the man’s scuffed boots, up his legs and torso, and didn’t stop until they encountered the neat, circular hole in his forehead.
Papa shot a man in the head and killed him. This was another curiosity to be taken out and explored later. As Constable of Hot Springs, it was his job to shoot people if they needed to be shot just like it was his job to collect taxes from the people who lived there. As far as I knew, he’d never shot anyone before and he sure hadn’t ever brought a dead man home and stretched him out on our kitchen table like he was running a backroom funeral parlor.
I snickered then shook off the thought. Right now, I wanted to investigate the results of Papa’s action, examine the gruesome reality of death.
Holding tight to the edge of the table with one hand, I reached out with the other and poked at his arm. It felt like any old arm, maybe a little colder than most, but since he wore a long-sleeved coat and it was a chilly night outside, I couldn’t really tell. I trailed my fingers down to his hand but ran out of courage before I actually touched that dead flesh. I yanked my hand away and the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding rushed out of my lungs with a whoosh. I stilled, took a cautious glance over my shoulder just in case Mama heard, then focused on the hole in his forehead again.
Round and small, the skin puckered around it as if the man’s brain had swallowed a sour lemon instead of a bullet. The hole looked to be about the same size around as my index finger and what little blood had leaked out had already dried to a rusty red-brown color. I leaned down, studying it closely. To me, that little hole didn’t seem to be enough to kill anyone, but I guessed it was since this man was lying on Mama’s kitchen table, his face pasty gray and most undeniably dead.
Still, just to be sure, I placed my hand on his chest, feeling for a heartbeat or the rise and fall of air going in and out of his lungs. I couldn’t find any sign of life, nothing at all. As I stood there, I wondered if he’d felt the pain of the bullet and how long he’d continued breathing after that tiny piece of lead invaded his brain.
My eyes moved up to his forehead again and I stared in fascination at the little round hole. Had Papa aimed for that spot or just plugged him dead center of the forehead by accident? Leaning down, I studied the bullet hole closer and marveled at its perfect roundness. What would happen if I stuck my finger in there? I reached out but drew my hand back when I heard Roy clomping down the back stairs
Perfect! Maybe I could get Roy to put his finger in there and tell me what it felt like. Two years younger than me, Roy liked to pretend he was all grown up, a man instead of a boy. I walked over to the stairs and grabbed his arm to keep him from jumping off the bottom step as was customary for him. With his big feet, there was no way Mama wouldn’t hear that. I pulled him into the kitchen, clamping my hand over his mouth.
“Be quiet,” I hissed.
His eyes widened but he nodded and I withdrew my hand. That was the best thing about Roy: he made a fine collaborator most of the time.
“What’s going on?” he whispered.
I leaned in close to his ear. “Papa shot a man in the head and killed him and,” I paused and lowered my voice even more, “he brought him home and put him over there on the table.” I pulled Roy over so he could see. “Mama and Papa are in the dining room and Mama isn’t very happy with Papa right now. She doesn’t think it’s proper to have a dead man on the table.”
Loney hit a sour note in the parlor and stopped playing for a moment. Seconds later, she resumed, starting at the beginning of “Seven Drunken Nights” again. The giggles came back and I slapped my hand over my mouth.
Roy bent over the table and looked at the dead man, much as I had a few minutes before, taking him in from the toes of his scraped work boots all the way up to the hole in the center of his forehead. He swallowed hard, threw a glance over his shoulder, turned back and reached out a hand to the man’s face. Also like me, he jerked back before he could touch that cold, dead flesh.
“Go ahead,” I whispered. “Touch him.”
I ran my finger down his spine and brought it forward, studied it before wiping it on his sleeve. “Your yellow streak’s showing. Go on, chicken, put your finger in there. I want to know what it feels like.”
He shook his head. “Nope. You want to know, you do it.” He looked me in the eye. “I dare you.”
I hated to back down from a dare, especially when it came from my younger brother, so I shoved him aside and moved closer to the table. Wiping my damp hand on my nightgown, I balled it into a fist with only the index finger sticking out and touched the man’s cheek. It was slightly rough, his whiskers stiff and bristly beneath my finger. I traced a path up the side of his face, across his forehead, skirting around the hole then moved my finger down the other side.
“Buk, buk, buk,” Roy taunted. “Go on, Bessie, do it.”
“Shh. I will.”
Moving my finger back up to his forehead, I approached the hole, stopped and prodded the flesh around it.
“His skin’s cold,” I said.
Roy nudged me with his shoulder. “You’re just stalling. Go on, chicken, stick your finger in there.”
Suddenly, this didn’t seem like such a good idea, but if I didn’t do it, Roy would never let me forget and would tell all our friends I’d backed off from a dare. It would be years before I lived it down.
Raising my chin, I moved my finger closer and touched the puckered edges of the hole. Roy leaned down, crowding me, and I jabbed an elbow in his stomach to get him to move back. He giggled before slapping both hands over his mouth.
It was that slightly frightened giggle that did it. I lifted my hand and slowly lowered my finger to the hole. The skin, when I finally touched it, felt rubbery, and as I pressed down into the hole, it seemed to close around me as if greedy for live flesh. I almost lost my nerve until Roy gasped out another nervous giggle and I shoved in deeper. I could feel the bone now, rough with jagged edges where the bullet had torn through to the brain beneath. There was a slight resistance before my finger sank into something that felt like cool jelly.
“Oh my goodness, Vashti Lee Daniels, get away from there! John, get her away from there!” Mama’s shocked voice rang out and I snatched my hand back. Without thinking, I wiped my bloody finger on my nightgown.
“Oh, Vashti.” Mama sounded like she was going to swoon.
I looked down at the streak of red running along the white skirt of my nightgown. Darn, I was probably going to have to pay for that by doing a plentitude of boring chores around the house for the next month.
Standing beside Mama, Papa put his arm around her shoulders, keeping her upright as he peered at me. His handlebar moustache twitched before he firmed his lips in a straight line.
“Damn, Bess, you can’t be playing around with a dead man.” He tried to sound stern for Mama’s benefit but I could see the amusement dancing in his eyes, even though he narrowed them in an attempt to hide it. Papa might pretend that some of the things I did annoyed and flummoxed him, as they usually did Mama, but I knew the truth. More often than not, he enjoyed my scandalous behavior. Not that he’d ever let Mama see it.
I ducked my head to hide the grin. One of my greatest pleasures in life came whenever Papa looked at me like that and said, “Damn, Bess,” in that exasperated tone of voice. It was his favorite saying when it came to me and my improper behavior. As a deterrent or reprimand, it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it sometimes goaded me on. I loved to hear those two words come out of Papa’s mouth.
Every time I heard them, they reinforced my desire to be my own person though I didn’t have the words to describe my independent nature until Elisi gave them to me a couple of years after that night. We were foraging in the woods for wild herbs and talking about the goings on of a particular woman in our small town. Elisi, who swore she didn’t like gossip but was always willing to listen and offer the occasional comment, laughed and told me Miss Cordy was a whistling woman and didn’t care who knew it. When I asked her what that meant, she said, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end, or so they say. Now, Miss Cordy spends a great deal of her time whistling and I’d say she’ll go on whistling until the day she dies, no matter what the outcome or what people think of her.”
I thought about it as we grubbed in the dirt for ʼsang, and by the time we headed back to the house, I knew a whistling woman was exactly what I wanted to be. A woman who lived her life the way she wanted no matter what other people said or thought about her. Lord knows, I’d already bucked so many of Mama’s prim and proper rules of etiquette where a young lady was concerned, and though I didn’t like doing so many extra chores to pay for my indiscretions, I dearly loved it when Papa looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Damn, Bess.” I cared much more about pleasing Papa than I did Mama—or society in general.
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