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For those who haven’t read the book, here’s a short blurb:
A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end. In the waning years of the 19th century, Bessie Daniels grows up in the small town of Hot Springs in western North Carolina. Secure in the love of her father, resistant to her mother’s desire that she be a proper Southern belle, Bessie’s determined to forge her own way in life. Or, as her Cherokee great-grandmother, Elisi, puts it, a whistling woman. Life, however, has a few surprises for her. First, there’s Papa carrying home a dead man, which seems to invite Death for an extended visit in their home. And shortly before she graduates from Dorland Institute, there’s another death, this one closer to her heart. But Death isn’t through with her yet. Proving another of Elisi’s sayings, death comes in threes, It strikes yet again, taking someone Bessie has recently learned to appreciate and cherish, leaving her to struggle with a family that’s threatening to come apart at the seams. Even her beloved Papa seems to be turning into another person, someone Bessie disagrees with more often than not, and someone she isn’t even sure she can continue to love, much less idolize as she had during her childhood. And when Papa makes a decision that costs the life of a new friend, the course of Bessie’s heart is changed forever.
(Cyndi Tillery Hodges
Christy Tillery French)
Most of our readers know about Whistling Woman, the book Christy and I wrote about our great-aunt’s formative years living in Hot Springs, North Carolina. In an effort to remain true to the history of the small town, we did tons of research both on-line and in books. Luckily, a cousin of ours, Jackie Burgin Painter, who grew up in Hot Springs had written several books about the area, including our most valuable research tool, The Season of Dorland-Bell, History of an Appalachian Mission School and An Appalachian Medley: Hot Springs and the Gentry Family, Vol. 1. In Jackie’s books we were able to see pictures of our great-grandfather (Papa in Whistling Woman), John Daniels, as well as a copy of Aunt Bessie’s diploma from Dorland-Bell (Dorland Institute at the time) dated May 21, 1899. And we also learned about Aunt Bessie’s sure-fire cold remedy (warm moonshine mixed with honey and rock candy).
The books were a tremendous help to us but I think the one thing that really made us feel as if we were a part of what we were writing were the frequent visits to Hot Springs. Both of us feel a sense of “homecoming” whenever we go there, whether for a couple of days to edit or for only a couple of hours to have lunch.
This past Wednesday, using the excuse of our mom’s birthday, we met in Hot Springs for lunch at what has become our usual place (so much so that the waitresses recognize us!), the Smoky Mountain Diner. The weather was perfect, sunshine, very little wind, and temperatures in the 60s, so we took the opportunity to stroll around and take pictures (don’t ask me why we never thought to do that before) and we’d like to take you on a walking tour of our favorite town, Hot Springs.
Here we go! We’ll start at Smoky Mountain Diner where we usually eat. Best hot dogs in town (or anywhere else, for that matter) and they have a lot of options, everything from pizza to pot roast. All yummy!
Walking down the right side of Bridge Street (the main road) toward downtown the first thing we come to is a marker for the Appalachian Trail which runs the length of the town. Hot Springs is well known to hikers and they host a trailfest during the summer.
Also, along Bridge Street, you’ll see historical markers about happenings and places in the town. First is one about an English folklorist, Cecil Sharp, who collected ballads of the “Laurel” area in 1916 and the next one is about Dorland-Bell Institute which is where Great-aunt Bessie went to school.
Next up, is another favorite of ours, the Hot Springs Public Library. This was the first place we went when we started doing the research on the book. The librarians are friendly, knowledgeable, and very helpful.
After the library, it’s Gentry Hardware. The Gentry family is well known in Hot Springs and have been there almost since the beginning. Jackie’s book, An Appalachian Medley, is about the Gentry family.
And then we come to the Hot Springs Welcome Center. The welcome center used to be housed in a Southern Railway caboose, which they moved just down the road from the new building.
Next, we cross the bridge over Spring Creek. The creek played an important part in our Great-aunt Bessie’s life. It weaves throughout the story a lot like it weaves through the town of Hot Springs.
Next, comes the Hot Springs City Hall. No one could tell us if this is the actual location of the small jail we describe in Whistling Woman, but in our minds as we were writing, this is where we imagined Papa’s office was.
Cross the railroad tracks and cross the street and you come to the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, excuse me, the World Famous Hot Springs Resort and Spa (at least that’s what the gate says). This is where you can go to take the waters and cure whatever ails you. It’s not as grand as the Mountain Park Inn that stood there in Aunt Bessie’s time but it still is the focal point of the town.
Going back down the other side of the street, our first stop is at the Harvest Moon Gallery in a house that was built back in the 1800’s. We’d been told one of the houses our great-grandfather built was still standing and were hoping this was the one. Research showed it wasn’t, but it was so close to the house we described in the story it was a bit spooky when the owner allowed us to walk through as if it was our own home. (Why am I hearing the theme from Twilight Zone in my head?)
After that, it’s the Dorland-Bell Presbyterian Church which was built and opened in 1900. The chapel takes center stage in an important event in Great-aunt Bessie’s life. It’s a gorgeous building even though it’s over a hundred years old and the stained glass windows alone are worth a trip to Hot Springs.
Last but not least, behind the chapel we have the Hot Springs First Baptist Church which is where Great-aunt Bessie’s graduation ceremony from the Dorland Insitute was held (this was before the chapel was built). They used the Baptist Church because Dorland didn’t have a building large enough to hold all the people who came to see the graduation. Great-aunt Bessie was one of only seven members of the first graduating class but it was an event important enough to the town to have people coming from near and far to see it. As a matter of fact, it was so well attended they had to hold two ceremonies, one in the afternoon and another one in the evening, to accommodate everyone.
So there you have it, our favorite little town nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or as the sign for Madison County says, “The Jewel of the Blue Ridge.” We hope you’ve enjoyed walking with us through the setting of our book, Whistling Woman, and hope if you ever find yourself in Hot Springs you’ll stop in at the Smoky Mountain Diner for a cup of coffee and a slice of their scrumptious pecan pie or maybe a piece of their delicious German chocolate cake. And don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of Papa, Bessie, Mama, Roy, Loney, Green, and Thee–we’re convinced their spirits are all there.
CC Tillery has some big news to share! But first, a little backstory–toward the end of our book, Whistling Woman, the family celebrates Old Christmas, with Papa and Bessie telling Thee the meaning and the myths behind the holiday. The following is an edited section–no spoilers here!–from Chapter Twenty-one, Winter 1900, entitled, Breaking up Christmas:
Papa is talking to Thee:
“Ya’ see, boy, midnight tonight is when the baby Jesus was first presented to the world. That was when the three Wise Men arrived at the stables where Mary and Joseph had taken shelter so Mary could have her baby. The Wise Men had traveled for miles, following the light of a single star, because they wanted to honor the birth of their Savior. When they showed up and offered the gifts they’d brought, all the animals in the stables woke up, adding their praise to that of the three Wise Men and the angels singing up above. And to this day, they say if you go out right at midnight and stand quietly, you can hear the animals praying, and some say if you can get a look at them, you’ll see them kneeling, too. Don’t know how true it is, but I’ve heard tell that the wild animals out in the woods and up on the mountains wake, stand up, and then lay back down on their other side.”
I looked at Thee, his eyes wide and filled with love, and knew right then and there that not only could I forgive Papa, I had to for the sake of my family.
Loney, who loved Christmas, sat in the chair beside Papa with a nearly completed quilt top spread across her lap. She’d heard the story many times, but when Papa started telling it, she stopped sewing and listened as raptly as Thee. When the story was finished, she smiled and asked, “Have you ever seen the animals pray, Papa?”
“Can’t rightly say I have, but I’ve heard tell of people who sneak out at midnight and have seen it. ’Course, there’s folks who say it’s bad luck to go looking for the signs of Old Christmas, that if you do, something bad will happen to you. I don’t think that’s so, though, since the people I talked to that claim to have seen and heard it all looked hearty to me.”
“But if you just happen to be out and see a sign, then it’s all right?”
“Sure it is but why would a person be out in the barn at midnight?”
Playing along, Loney said, “Maybe they were late getting home and had to put their horse in the stable before they could go to bed?”
Papa laughed. “Could be, Loney, but we’re all safe at home, as most people are on a cold winter night, so I guess we’ll stay right here and let the animals and alder bushes do what they do without us.”
“The alder bushes?”
Papa winked at Thee. “Did I forget that part? Well, Loney, the animals aren’t the only ones who honor the birth of the baby Jesus. The alder bushes do, too. Right at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, no matter how cold the night is or how much snow’s on the ground, the alder bushes burst into bloom and some say they even sprout new branches. I’ve also heard it said that if you listen closely, you can hear the bees roar in the bee-gum, as if they wanted to swarm.”
Thee stood up, leaned on Papa’s knee and said, “Can we see the animals, Papa?”
“Maybe in a few more years, when you’re old enough to stay up until midnight but not this year, boy. This year, I’d say you’ll be fast asleep by the time midnight rolls around. Why, you already look like its long past your bedtime and here it’s barely gone dark. It’s a long time till midnight.”
Thee’s little face crumpled and Papa patted his head. “Tell you what, Thee, if you can keep your eyes open till then, I’ll take you out to the barn myself and we’ll see what we can see.”
Clapping his hands, Thee jumped up and down. Jack chortled and did her best to slap her tiny hands together, too.
“But Papa, what if it is bad luck?” Loney asked.
“Pshaw, girl, I’ve talked to lots of people who say they’ve seen just such a thing and they were all living and breathing when they told me.”
Loney picked up her needle and started working on the quilt top again. “Wouldn’t that be a lovely thing to see, all the animals honoring Jesus like that?” She looked down at Thee and smiled. “I think it might be worth taking a chance on some bad luck, don’t you, little man?”
Thee nodded and clapped his hands again. “Tell us some more, Papa.”
“Why that’s all I know to tell, boy. Maybe Bess knows more.”
Thee ran over to me where I sat on the sofa. “Tell, Bessie, tell.”
I smiled at him and ruffled his hair. “I’ll tell you what else happens during the twelve days of Christmas, Thee, but it’s about people, not about the animals.”
He looked doubtful but sat down at my feet, prepared to listen.
“There are some things you shouldn’t do, like lend anything to anybody during the twelve days of Christmas because if you do you’ll never get it back.” I pointed to the fireplace. “You see how the ashes are piling up in the hearth over there? That’s because it’s bad luck to clean them out during the twelve days. It’s also bad luck to wash your bed sheets until Old Christmas is over.” I leaned down and sniffed at Thee. “Good thing we only have one more day, else we wouldn’t be able to stand the smell.”
Thee giggled and dramatically sniffed the skirt of my dress, wrinkling his little nose.
“Tonight is Old Christmas Eve and at midnight people everywhere will be breaking up Christmas.” His face crumpled again and I went on hurriedly, “That’s not a bad thing. What it means is most people will drink sweet cider and burn a piece of cedar or pine in the fire as a way of saying farewell to the season.
“Do they have to break it because it’s old?”
I smiled. “No, sweetie. You see, some people believe the twenty-fifth of December is the day when the baby Jesus was born and the sixth of January is when He was first presented to the three Wise Men and to the world. But a long time ago, most people believed the sixth was the day when He was truly born and that’s when they celebrated so that day came to be known as Old Christmas. There are twelve days between the two dates, from December 25th, the ‘new’ Christmas, to January 6th, the ‘old’ Christmas, and that gives us the twelve days of Christmas. During those twelve days, people have what they call Breaking Up Christmas parties. Tonight’s party is at Aunt Belle’s house and there will be lots of sweet cider to drink and music for dancing.” I leaned down. “And I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell. Promise?”
I bent down and whispered, “Aunt Belle is planning on having a small fire in the street outside her house right at midnight so that people can burn a piece of cedar or pine to officially Break Up Christmas. Don’t tell Papa though, or he might have to arrest Aunt Belle.”
Thee laughed and whispered back, “I won’t. Can I go and see the fire?”
“If you do, how will you see the animals in the barn when they kneel down to pray?”
He frowned. Uncle Ned boarded his horse at the town livery stables so Aunt Belle didn’t have a barn or any animals he could spy on to see if they really did pray at midnight.
I took his chin in my hand and lifted it to give him a kiss. “Why don’t you stay here with Papa and Loney, and if you can stay awake, Papa will take you out to see the animals. You can see a fire in the fireplace any old time and Roy and I will be sure to burn a piece of pine in Aunt Belle’s fire to break up Christmas for you.”
Roy came in from the barn, bringing the crisp smell of winter with him. “You about ready to go, Bessie? I’ve got the horses hitched up and they’re champing at the bit.”
I stood, lifting Thee with me. “You keep those eyes open tonight, Theodore Norton. I want to hear all about what you see tomorrow.”
He put his arms around my neck and hugged me, whispering, “I will, Bessie,” in my ear. I squeezed him before kissing his cheek and setting him down on the floor.
Walking over to Papa, I kissed Jack on the top of her head first then bent further in to kiss Papa’s cheek. I turned to Loney who set her quilting aside and stood up.
“Have a good time, Bess.” She stepped forward and kissed my cheek, which surprised me. Loney wasn’t usually given to outward signs of affection.
I took her hand and squeezed it. “You sure you don’t mind staying home with the babies? I can stay and you can go to the party if you want.”
She smiled. “I don’t mind a bit. You know how much I enjoy taking care of them. You and Roy have fun.”
I hugged her goodbye. At the door, I turned and looked at my family and the strangest sensation washed over me, as if I stood far away, seeing them in a dream. I could feel their love for me, just as I could mine for them, but there was a distance there, a deep chasm keeping them from me.
Now for the big news, in honor of Old Christmas, and as a way of saying thanks to everyone who’s been involved with this book for the last four years, Christy and I decided to have a special 12 Days of Christmas sale. That means from December 26, 2011 until January 6, 2012, you’ll be able to download the Kindle version of Whistling Woman for only 99 cents!
Enjoy and a very happy holiday season to everyone!
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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