The Old South! Heat and humidity, plantations and levees, rivers and swamps, bears, alligators, snakes, and wild hogs! If Cleo could get her hands on the travel writer who made Georgia sound so magical, she would’ve plucked his eyelashes out with tweezers. If only she had not made that left turn off of Interstate10! But there was the sign: SUWANEE RIVER. More imaginary magic had somehow drawn her to follow a hand-lettered sign that read: FISH CAMP. The sun was a blast furnace, and sweat dripped into her eyes as she struggled with the bracing strut that clamped the awning to her Play-Mor camper. If she didn’t get the awning up, she’d bake to death.
A commotion in the overgrowth that surrounded her campsite distracted her. A wild hog? A deer?
She was on the verge of dropping the strut and stepping inside the camper for safety’s sake when a man burst through head-high palm fronds. He was striding fast and looking over his shoulder. She realized she wasn’t even on his radar.
“Hey!” she called, but the warning was too late. He caromed into her. The strut flew out of her hands. The canvas awning collapsed and enveloped them both. The sun was shut out, and Cleo found herself being dragged to the sandy earth, her arms and legs entangled with those of the man. Her first thought was of sand fleas and fire ants. Every site she had camped in from Texas to Georgia had been infested with the vile things. Once bitten, forever shy. In her imagination they were crawling over every inch of her skin.
“Christ on a crutch,” he muttered.
“Move,” she said to the man, panic a microsecond away. She kicked at his arms and legs and tried lifting the heavy canvas from her face.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Be quiet for minute.”
“Be quiet? Are you nuts? I’m suffocating. Get us out of here.”
The sailcloth, stiff and unmalleable from its winter packing, defied her attempts to throw it off. She sucked in a lungful of hot, musty air. She heard herself breathing; heard him, too.
“Are you okay?”
“No, you broke my arm.”
“Jesus Christ.” He scrambled over her legs and burrowed toward fresh air. Cleo crawled behind and atop of him. She wanted out.
But he didn’t crawl into the sunlight and heat-drenched air; he maneuvered out from beneath the awning, up the two pull-down steps, and right into her small camper. The screened door snapped shut, and the latch clicked.
“What the heck—Hey! Come out of there!”
“Lady, please,” came his whispered, pleading reply, “tell them I kept going…”
“Who? Tell who?”
“Witches and warlocks. They’ll be here any second.”
Oh, God, a crazy. A moment later, unseen hands lifted the canvas. Cleo homed in on the light and scooted into sunshine and into two pairs of well-tanned legs. One pair was fat and solid, the other stick thin.
“Thanks.” She breathed as she got to her feet. Rivulets of sweat were running down her face and dripping off her chin. She took a swipe at them. She checked herself all over for ants.
“Is Fletcher under there?” asked the chubby blonde. She stomped about the canvas until it was flattened. Finding nothing, she gave Cleo a sidelong look of reproach—a look designed to make its recipient feel mildly guilty.
At the moment it would take far more than a look to make Cleo feel guilty about anything. She stretched out her arm. Not broken, but she bet she’d have some bruises. “Who?” she asked, and got busy dusting twigs and sand from her shorts.
“The tall good-looking guy. He ran into you, didn’t he? We heard you yell.”
“Something ambushed me. I didn’t notice what it looked like.” She took in the women. Two against one. Since she was somewhat in control now, charity reared its head. Cleo avoided glancing at the camper. “This guy you’re chasing, what’s he done?”
“Did you see which way he went?” asked Thin.
Cleo shook her head. Well, she hadn’t, had she? Now, if the woman asked, “Do you know where he is?” Cleo would have been obliged to tell. She had been raised to tell the truth, but sometimes it clotted in her throat and she could swallow it before it got out and did damage.
“Ah, Cleo, you’re fudging,” said a small inner voice.
“I can’t talk to you now. I’m in a situation.”
“Sure you are, and the situation is there’s a strange man in your Play-Mor along with your traveler’s checks, your cash, your cameras and laptop, not to mention Gram’s last four pieces of Limoges.”
“I’m just doing him a favor.”
“A man you don’t even know?”
“He might be a rapist, a thief, schizophrenic, or worse—married.”
Cleo flushed and forced a smile. “Look, ladies, I don’t want to get involved in a marital spat.”
Blondie laughed. “This is no marital spat. Fletcher’s the perennial bachelor.”
Thin didn’t look happy. “C’mon, Bev, if you pursue this, Fletcher will get mad and refuse to make a fourth at bridge next time we’re here.” Thin looked at Cleo, explaining, “Women have been hassling Fletcher ever since his book came out. Some want to convert him, and some want to kill him. Besides that, it’s gotten terrible reviews. Not that any of us care.”
“Book?” Cleo was trying to change the direction of her mind in mid-thought.
The man was a writer. An unmarried writer. His book had gotten rotten reviews. The poor guy. A writer herself, Cleo had an instant affinity.
The woman called Bev was thrusting a thin volume in Cleo’s direction. She glanced at the title. For Men Only. 101 Ways to Stay Married. In very small print was, and Still Do What You Want by Fletcher Fremont Maitland.
Cleo blinked and read the title again. What utter gall. Her ire rose. Empathy for a fellow writer evaporated.
“No wonder he’s the perennial bachelor. No woman in her right mind would tolerate him.”
“Yes they would—and do. Fletcher oozes sex so thick you could eat it with a spoon,” said Thin.
“For God’s sakes, Clara, shut up,” Blondie said. “We just wanted his autograph. He promised, and now he’s trying to renege.”
“You’re looking for the guy who wrote this?” She was ready to tell them.
Clara scanned the clearing. “I guess we’ll catch up to him next time we’re here.” She turned to go, stopping in midstride. “Say, you’re new, aren’t you? I mean this is your first time camping at Big Mama’s.”
“Yes.” Cleo wanted to be rid of the women now. She also wanted to be rid of the clod hiding in her camper.
Clara thrust out her hand. “Well, I’m Clara, and this is Beverly. We’re a couple of the regulars. We’ve been coming here—” she looked to her companion “—six years, now?”
“About,” said Beverly. “And if we don’t round up the kids before they cause any more mayhem, Big Mama won’t let us back.” She smiled at Cleo. “We’ll see you in a couple of weeks if you’re still here. Say, do you play bridge? We usually get up a table or two…”
“Sorry, no,” replied Cleo, and the women disappeared around a bend in the footpath. Then she faced the camper and sang, “You can come out now, Fletcher Fremont Maitland.”
“I owe you a world of gratitude,” he said, emerging from the Play-Mor. “Those two make me miserable every time they show up in camp.”
“Trying to play footsies under the table,” he said, smiling, as if she should have guessed.
Cleo assessed him. His face was formed of converging planes—wide brow, straight nose—a little on the large side—square jaw, and deeply set brown eyes.
His teeth were of a peculiar whiteness and symmetry. The slight smile he gave her was irresistible. Clad in a black polo shirt, white walking shorts, and leather espadrilles, he exuded male magnetism, as if he was ready to take a swat at the world just to see where it’d land. It wasn’t lost on Cleo he’d taken an inadvertent swat at her.
“Did I hurt you badly, slamming into you like that?” he said in an easygoing way.
“There must be a Neanderthal somewhere in your ancestry,” she said, a little testily, almost before he finished asking the question, the tartness evidence of her rallying defenses. “But don’t give it a thought; I’ll survive.”
“I should hope so. It’d be a shame if you didn’t.” His voice was vibrant, accented heavily on interior syllables, Southern fashion. He probably could make it do anything. Right this second he was making it sweep and enfold her like a caress. Was that going to be good or bad? Nice or not?
His eyes flickered, inspection over. He thrust out his hand; she hesitated. “Shake?” he asked. “I’m Fletcher.”
“Cleo Anderson.” His hand was warm, slightly sweaty yet firm, and his touch sent a rush of pleasure through her. Right then and there she determined never to bite her nails again.
“Hold on, Cleo. You’ve only just met the man. You don’t want to appear needy. Get a hold of yourself.”
“I am not needy. Not anymore,” she told the voice.
“Cleo, you’re such a liar. You forget I’m right here, that I know everything.”
“Since I knocked it down,” said Fletcher, “let me help you get this awning back up.”
“No, thanks, there’s nothing to it,” she said, extricating her hand from his and anchoring it on her rounded hip to disguise its sudden trembling. Oh, my God. He did ooze sex. Pheromones or male musk probably. Maybe it was a Southern thing. The heat brought it out.
One could only allow a situation to go so far. She had to dilute the feckless reaction of her body to his looks and touch. “I insist not.”
“Okay,” he said. “Have it your way. Just don’t forget, I did offer.”
Flabbergasted, she formed a captivating moue with her lips, softening her strong jaw. She’d had every intention of allowing him to help put the awning in place. He was supposed to act on his words despite her protests. It was the least he could do, sort of a friendly atonement for knocking her down, causing havoc along her nerve endings, and invading her life. Well, not her life, but her personal space.
“A chauvinist would help you against your wishes,” he offered. In the sunlight his brown eyes were a deep umber. “I’m a firm believer when a woman says no she means it.”
“Really?” she said, utterly vexed now all her options were closed. “Where do you come by that attitude? Researching 101 Ways How to Stay Married and Still Do What You Want?”
His features hardened. “It was a privately published book and not meant for public consumption. One of my buddies had it distributed as a joke. It’s tongue-in-cheek—or it was.”
“Maybe that’s why it got panned by the critics.” Cleo discovered she was repelled, yet attracted.
“I’ll fade into the woodwork now. I’m detecting a slight trace of sarcasm.”
“Sure—nice to meet you.”
“You’re positive I didn’t hurt you and I can’t help you with the awning…”
“I’m tip-top, and the awning is a piece of cake.”
“There you are, Uncle Fletch,” piped a sprite of a child as she appeared from behind Cleo’s camper. “Dad sent me to see if you were still in one piece.”
“Just barely,” said Fletcher, leaving it in the air for Cleo to decide whether he meant she had discommoded him or if it had been his autograph seekers. He clasped the child’s frail hand. “See you later?”
The child tugged at Fletcher. “Hurry. Dad’s got the boat in the river. We’re waiting on you.”
“Don’t let me keep you,” said Cleo, lifting her hand in an abbreviated gesture of dismissal.
She turned her back and wrestled with the awning. She felt Fletcher’s gaze on her for a lingering moment. Instinct told her when he turned away. She chanced a look over her shoulder and caught the youngster doing the same, staring at her with … not curiosity, but something else, something more elemental. Cleo was struck by the whimsy of the face and the large gray eyes.
She gave the child a half smile. She meant to return to the task at hand, but she noticed the man looked as good from the back as he did from the front. No, she wasn’t likely to forget his name, or anything else about him. But there was no need, really, to remember him since she had no intention of ever expecting anything from a man again. A little flirting when she had the nerve once in a while was fun, but that was about as far as her expectations went.
* * * *
At last the camp was quiet.
Quiet enough for sleep. Cleo stepped outside the Play-Mor and sat on the bottom step. Birds cooed and fluttered their wings as they settled in swamp oak for the night; even the buzzing of insects was muted against her own breathing and the sluggish swish of the Suwannee River as it brushed the sandy banks and swept around boat keels. The moon was rising, but not yet in its zenith.
Dusk filtered into the clearing and blurred the outlines of the low, matted growth of swamp oak, palmetto shrub, and old pine that hemmed her in, separating her from the rest of the campers, the rest of the world. She inhaled the quietude and peace.
Chicago seemed far away, separated by more than miles. Chicago was where she had been born, raised, and gone to school. In Chicago she had lived a life hemmed in by shame. She would have to go back one day. Later, rather than sooner, though.
She found it good to sit on the Play-Mor steps, knees drawn to her chin, with only the buzzing of insects to keep her company while dusk thickened about her and drew her into it.
All in all, today had gone well. After all the aggravation, the awning was up, water and electricity plugged in, hotplate hooked to propane, and the cooler was full of ice. Six months ago she did not have a clue how to do any of those things. Moreover, after she had done all of those things, she had gone for a swim in the Suwannee River beneath a canopy of moss-draped poplars. She had meant to just go for a quick dip to cool off, but had instead stayed in the water for hours—beyond even the time when parents came down the river’s edge to call their kids to supper. She did not leave the river until the good smells of hot dogs and burgers being roasted on outdoor grills reminded her she’d had nothing to eat since breakfast. She had wolfed down two bologna and mustard sandwiches and a bottle of sweet tea before changing into dry clothes.
This moment, as full dark shadowed the camp, was what all of that Southern romantic literature was about. She wondered if there might not be something for her in this way of life. The friendliness of the natives, their generosity, their casual manner of revealing their lives, kept the wolf pack of loneliness at bay.
She had long been aware of her inability to sustain communication with another human being. Most people, given the chance for personal speech, loved hearing themselves talk, so they didn’t seem to notice her silence.
Then, in Mississippi and Alabama, it had begun to happen, as though it had been arranged long before, as though a pre-knowledge that something of importance awaited her in the South. She had begun to respond to people, revealing tidbits about herself—to gas station attendants who noticed her license plates and struck up conversations. To waitresses in off-road diners, curious she traveled alone. And to the woman in Biloxi, who insisted Cleo join her for lunch while the woman’s husband changed the flat on the camper. They had spent the remainder of the day sunning on Biloxi beach. When she had refused their coaxing to join them playing the nickel slots in the casino, they had insisted upon seeing her safely lodged in a beachside campground.
Since Biloxi she had camped at beaches in Pensacola, Destin, and Panama City, Florida. In Panama City she had done the wildest imaginable thing. She’d parasailed over the bay, the beaches, and miles of condos. Those twenty minutes of soaring three hundred feet above the earth had torn loose the fear and shame that had clung since childhood. She was a better person and, in a small way, brave, perhaps a little bit more adventurous.
On Interstate 10 East she crossed the Suwannee River, and the next exit pointed to Fargo, Georgia. Adventure or whim? Fargo was just a speck—not a town or a traffic light. On her right had been a narrow road with a hand-lettered sign nailed to a tree: FISH CAMP.
She had never been fishing in her life. But she had picked a good place. She felt it in her bones.
A faint finger of sunlight still shone dimly above the copper-colored Suwannee to the west of an ancient cypress. The tree cast an unnatural shadow. Her gaze strayed to the source of the aberration. Oh. Boards had been nailed up the narrow trunk above its squat base, rundles that climbed fifteen feet to a limb where a thick rope dangled above a deep hole in the river. All afternoon the kids had swung from that rope to drop with a great splash into the cool coppery water. She could still hear their laughter and their jeers as the brave coaxed the timid to swing out on the rope and drop into the deep river pool.
She had been one of the timid, never in step with her peers—never as brave. It had kept her alone, although the isolation had nothing to do with any attempt on her part to be different. She had been different from the very first.
She leaned her head against the screened door, her eyes half-closed, and let the dream come, the recurring daydream that took different shapes.
In this dream she was not alone. She never saw his face, only arms, legs, a muscled torso. Sometimes her fantasy man would hold out his arms and she could see herself rushing into them, anticipating a warm, loving, safe embrace. Before she got there, before he could speak, before she could see his expression, he would melt back into her subconscious.
The meaning of the dream plagued her. She had even gone so far as to make an appointment with a psychiatrist famed for interpreting dreams. Then she had learned he treated his patients with hypnosis, regressing them to childhood. Cleo could not see the use of reliving a childhood fraught with unhappiness.
She had gone instead to Madam Zutu, who read tarot cards and kept rooms in the corner building of the street on which she lived.
“I don’t understand why I can’t see myself in a loving situation, why love escapes me,” she had said to Madam Zutu. “Do you think that means I’m frigid? Paul said—”
“It means you’re scared of commitment.”
“That’s not true. I give my all to my job. I do volunteer work at the charity hospital on Sundays. That’s commitment.”
“Busy work,” countered Madam Zutu. “The cards don’t lie.” She had shuffled the deck, turned the cards up, spreading them out upon the baize-covered table. “This Paul used you, and he wasn’t very good at what men do.”
“I wasn’t very good at what women—”
“Ah, you used him, too, in the name of love.”
“No! Not in the name of love…” But something more desperate. If Madam Zutu had sensed this inner turmoil in Cleo, she never let on as she shook her head and tapped another card.
“When you rid yourself of her, the old woman, your dream will change.” She read on. “Ah, the old woman is dead. It is her words that live on and torment you. Troubled, insecure words from a troubled, insecure old woman.”
Cleo had never mentioned her grandmother to Madam Zutu. Gram? Insecure? Madam Zutu might as well have asked her to believe the earth was flat. That day she had left Madam Zutu’s, pale and trembling. She never went back. It had been a stupid idea. Tarot cards were a farce anyway. Everyone said so.
So Cleo had arrived at the conclusion her dream was wishful thinking, nothing more.
But now, because he had been on her mind all day, she tried to fit Fletcher Maitland’s face to the dream. It wouldn’t go. Nice try! She let her mind wander back to Madam Zutu.
The fortuneteller had been so right about Paul. He had used her.
She had married him while still in college and discovered too late what Paul had wanted was someone to do his laundry, keep house, and help pay his way through law school. He had no intention of continuing their marriage once he passed his bar exams. There had been the other thing, too—the thing she had not suspected—until she came home early one winter day. She was removing her galoshes when Paul stepped out of their bedroom. He was wearing a pair of her panties. She opened her mouth to laugh. Silly thing. But behind him, leaning against the headboard of their marriage bed, was a naked man—a boy really.
She had been outraged and caused bitter scenes, but she could not undo reality. Paul packed his bags and moved in with his boyfriend. Left her with two months back rent due and unpaid utility bills. Left her with an aching unfulfilled need buried deep inside. His very first legal procedure had been to file for his own divorce.
The despair and betrayal made Cleo empty and afraid. She still felt afraid sometimes.
Marrying Paul had meant escape from Gram. Divorce had forced her to return to the small dark rooms with their shabby furnishings where she’d spent her childhood. And to Gram, who had never been a great respecter of tender feelings.
“If you had listened to me, Cleo,” Gram had railed. “If you had! But no! You told him, didn’t you? Of course you did, I can see it in your face. For shame! That’s why he didn’t want you for the mother of his children. He thought you were a trollop. I warned you! I told you—no man of good family is going to take you to wife and keep you.”
“Paul wasn’t … that’s not the reason—” She stopped, for she could never tell Gram the ugly truth. Or anyone else. Just thinking about it made her feel shame so deep and thick it seemed to clot her blood.
“No? He’s gone, isn’t he? He took his name back, too, didn’t he, when you tried to keep on using it? You’re part and parcel of your mother’s sin. Tainted. You have bad blood, just like your mother.”
Sick at heart, weary of spirit, Cleo had crawled into the plain iron bed that had been her mother’s, lying there, staring into her past.
On good nights she fell asleep. On bad nights she remembered Paul—her awkward approaches, his refusals. The image was still so clear and strong it made her throat ache.
Then, one morning, Gram had hitched herself over the threshold of the small bedroom. “I said you’d end up like Ellie, and you will. Just look at you. Day in, day out, shriveling, shriveling. Lust! For a man. That’s all you know. Cast it out! Cast out the sin!”
Cleo wanted to deny it, but all her demons gathered and closed in, and she had to stave them off.
End up like Ellie? A small, desolate thing? Sickly? Dead at twenty-nine? The next day she got out of bed and put her life back together. She went back to work; she looked fine on the outside. Yet no one part of her fitted as it had, for the essential element that would give her life meaning was gone forever. She was not loved. In loving others, she had been rebuffed.
However, Gram’s prophecy lingered and fed her superstitious nature.
She didn’t walk under ladders. She was careful with salt. It was partly because of her superstitious nature she worked Sundays at the charity hospital. Patients were sick. She was well. The line was easily definable.
Because her mother had died at twenty-nine, Cleo had been chary her entire twenty-ninth year. Reaching thirty had been a milestone. Cleo had come to regard this, her thirtieth summer, as the watershed year in which all she had been would be separated from what she would become. She had a wonderful sense of buoyancy, as if anything were suddenly possible—even love. And just in case, in the event that possibility arose, she’d even started taking birth control pills—something Gram would have seen as a mortal sin.
She only had to figure out what she needed, wanted, could get. She didn’t expect to live happily ever after. That wasn’t the way life went, but somehow—by instinct perhaps—she knew she had a force inside her and it was just waiting to burst forth.
Yet the force could hardly burst forth while Gram’s voice lingered like an old ghost whose honor had been slighted. Cleo could still hear Gram speak, could still see Gram’s face looking like an argument you couldn’t win.
“You get settled a’right?”
The voice, coming out of the night to mingle with the voice in her mind, startled Cleo. It took her a moment to adjust, to separate the two.
The spare, angular body of the camp owner appeared as a bent shadow at the edge of the campsite. The young moon, cool and burnished, hung over the camp. The old woman stepped into its sliver of light.
Mrs. Freeman was holding a silver-gray tabby, and Cleo could see one of the veined hands slide down the velvety fur. Before she spoke, Cleo rose to her feet, a gesture of deference to an elder. It was an old habit, one ingrained during childhood.
“Yes, I did, thank you.” She tried not to let pride creep into her voice. There had been times when she’d had to ask help, but now she was adept at parking the camper, unhitching it from the Blazer, leveling it with wooden blocks, and plugging it into whatever hookups were provided.
“You be a writer you said,” observed Mrs. Freeman. She had not moved from the sliver of moonlight, nor adjusted her stance. Her hand still stroked the cat. “Another writer came here once, long about the time I was on my second mister. She lived in the swamp and writ about the people. You aim to write about people, mayhap?”
“I write about animals mostly, and plants sometimes, for children.”
“Oh. I be mistaken then. It don’t matter none. I got no call fer reading and writing nohow.”
“I might need your help, though, to tell me places to go and how to get there,” Cleo said, discerning a hint of disappointment in the old voice. “This is my first trip to Georgia.” There it was again, Cleo noted. Volunteering information. Whatever it was, she was in its grip.
The old woman nodded. For several long seconds her dark eyes tracked the tall pine and low scrub. “The first thing I be telling you be to take a flashlight when you go along the path to the toilets. It be snake weather certain t’night.” The cat wriggled and then leapt from her arms into shadows, becoming a part of the grayness. “Waal, I be going. You let me know something you need.”
“I will,” said Cleo. “Good night.” Mrs. Freeman stopped on the moonlit path and looked back over her shoulder.
“Don’t fergit now; you keep a mind out fer snakes.”
“Yes. Yes, I will. Thanks for the warning.” Cleo shivered. She hated snakes. Even in zoos. In her articles she stuck to birds, frogs, lizards, and from a distance, alligators, bears, and other predators.
“Fowkses who stay in my camp be reg’lars and call me Big Mama. If you reckon on it, you can, too.”
Cleo didn’t know what to say. Big was a misnomer for the reed-thin old lady. Big Mama,” she repeated. “You can call me Cleo.”
“T’was planning on it,” said Big Mama. “I don’t hold with uppity fowkses.” She took another step into the moss-draped shadows, and the low matted growth swallowed her as it had the cat.
Solitude once again overtook Cleo. She was more watchful, sensitive to the slightest noise or to a change in the nightly hum of insects. She was apprehensive. She had the eerie sense she was being watched. The cat, hoping for a scrap of food?
Her gaze swept the clearing, the tangled growth at each side. It was just the talk about snakes and seeing the cat disappear as if a magic baton had tapped it. It made her jumpy. No need to tempt fate her first night in camp. She gave a last look around and went inside.
The camper was tiny; there was space to stand, a bed beneath which she stored her things, a stovetop beneath which was a refrigerator and a fold-down table for two, and a narrow bench that folded down into a single cot. She was more prideful about the camper than she had been of the apartment she’d shared with Paul. She liked the cocoon effect of having the walls so near. It made her feel safe.
Above the table was a narrow shelf that supported a cracked mirror with an air of shame. Cleo didn’t dare throw the mirror away. She didn’t know how long it had been broken. She was counting seven years from the day she bought the camper secondhand. Five years to go before she replaced it, she mused, glancing at her reflection.
On the other hand, perhaps she would never discard the mirror. It knew her old image and now, her new.
Since her teens she had worn her red hair long and pulled back in a ponytail, but this, her milestone year, she was ready for a change. Now her hair was short and … curly. She hadn’t expected the curls that coiled tight at the first touch of humidity or salt or wind. She wasn’t sure she liked them. However, the new style did show off her eyes, and her eyes were her best feature. They were oval, tilted at the corners, and colored amber, a golden brown rarely found in redheads.
Her lashes and brows were so fair as to be almost invisible unless she dabbed them with mascara. She supposed she could make a virtue out of having a straight nose if her mouth wasn’t so ordinary or the chin below it too sharp. Even more humiliating were the freckles. She shouldn’t complain about her chin. She’d won a scrap or two by leading with it. Never with Gram, although those chilly battles had taught Cleo to guard well her secrets and vulnerabilities.
When Cleo walked, she looked as if nothing could stand in her way, not other people, not a barricade, not even a brick wall. That look was a façade, she decided, for she had crashed into a lot of life’s brick walls.
She strode from place to place with a purposeful, no-nonsense manner. In this she had no choice. She was too tall to take short, wiggly, feminine steps. Better to get where she was going, face whomever she had to, and find out if they liked the way she was up close.
Since both her mother and Gram had been small boned and dainty, Cleo surmised she took after her father. Not that she knew who he was or what he looked like.
She hadn’t realized she was supposed to have a father until she started school and the other kids had them—like possessions.
She had asked about her own father on one of the rare occasions Gram had allowed her mother to table. Ellie had responded to her query with a painful wince. But Gram had yanked Cleo from her chair, switched her legs with a flyswatter, and then stood her in a corner for hours. Later that week Gram had marched her down to the minister’s house to have the devil cast out.
The preacher had put his hands upon her head, praying in a language she did not understand. After the devil was cast out, she asked where he’d gone. “Behind you, in front of you—everywhere,” said Gram.
After that she had played elaborate games with herself to keep the devil at bay, but he followed her to school. It worried her sick the devil might sneak up and get back inside her without her knowing. He was under her bed at night or in the tiny closet where her clothes were hung. She woke sometimes with her whole body pulsing and fear thundering in her head.
Once the devil stalked her, it had made her sad to look at her mother; sad and guilty and angry. Why couldn’t her mother have a husband and so provide her with a father like other children? Fathers were big and strong and could keep the devil at a distance. Maybe even make the devil move into somebody else’s house. It wasn’t fair.
At six, Cleo did not understand any of it. At thirty, she understood too much.
She looked in the mirror again. “Who am I, really?” she asked. The twin selves she was plagued with stared back.
“Why, plain old Cleo Anderson,” came the reply. “Won’t that do?”
“Not so old,” retorted Cleo, “and I’ll make it do.”
As she climbed into her bunk she wondered if Fletcher Maitland had liked the way she looked up close. But then she veered away from the answer, as if it wasn’t her business to know.
“You can’t get him out of your head, can you, Cleo? You were someone else today. You almost melted at the center when you saw that man. Ripe, that’s what you are—for the first man who says a kind word to you. For shame.”
Looking had made me feel good.
“You certainly felt something. What do you think Gram would have thought if she’d seen how you behaved today?”
Cleo recoiled from the question. Gram thought all passion was sin.
“Really? How did she come by having your mother, then?”
“I don’t know. I’ve often wondered. Osmosis? Sympathetic alchemy?”
Cleo folded her hands behind her head and sighed, wishing she could’ve known her mother as a child. Wondering if Ellie had ever been carefree, or if she played hide and seek, or if…
“Know your own mother as a child? Cleo! What a silly idea. How like you to wish for the impossible.”
“I know, but together … maybe we could have outwitted Gram.”
“Dreams and tarot cards and silly wishes. What will you come up with next?”
Cleo switched off the tiny bed lamp. “Sleep, I hope.”
* * * *
When the lights went out in Cleo Anderson’s camper, eleven-year-old Katie Miller let loose a disappointed sigh. She allowed the sharp palmetto frond behind which she was hiding to snap back into place. Muscles aching from lying so still, she longed to stretch, but Big Mama’s warning to the newcomer about snakes still rang in her ears.
Snake weather! Goose bumps erupted on the nape of her neck as her eyes swiveled, investigating the shadows and black gloom of the underbrush. She knew about venomous snakes, the shoe-button black eyes with no perceptible iris, the elliptical pupil like a thin vertical line of cold jade green that gave the eyes brilliance during nocturnal hunting. She didn’t sense any danger, couldn’t see any unblinking eyes or angry fangs.
Maybe, Katie worried, Big Mama had spied her hiding place. It could be true, what people said about Big Mama—that she had cat eyes that could see in the dark, that she could see through things like a “hant” did. Katie didn’t believe in hants, which Big Mama said were swamp ghosts that took the shape of any dead thing. It was hard to believe Big Mama could see through things.
Katie had been trying to interest Big Mama in taking a scientific test—to no avail. Big Mama had just accused Katie of trying to court glory for her own self. But Katie suspected Big Mama’s refusal was to keep her see-all reputation intact among the children. Some of the littler kids did believe in hants, and Big Mama kept them in line by threatening to call one up. As soon as she was dead, she was going to check out hants. It was on her list. Not the first thing on her list, but when she had time.
A small slithering sound intruded at the edge of Katie’s thoughts and then melted away into nothing. She was back to the crucial immediate worry of whether or not she was sharing her nest of moss and pine straw with a snake.
She let awareness wash over her as they had taught her at the hospital. Her heart pumped, her pulse throbbed. Through her thin shirt and shorts, pine needles and twigs pressed into her flesh. The twigs didn’t hurt because the ground was spongy. She couldn’t feel any bugs or creepy crawlies scooting over her body anywhere, so the OFF! must be working. She’d just lie here another minute, though. It wouldn’t be long before she was missed back at their cabin. She rested her chin on her hands and watched the camper for signs of life.
You could tell a lot about people when they thought no one was looking. Like Uncle Fletcher. Twice today he’d gone looking off into space with a silly grin on his face. Katie had put two and two together and came up with the new camper in number eleven. After supper Uncle Fletcher had walked down to the boat ramp. Katie had been positive he was aiming to visit number eleven and raced ahead to get into place, but he hadn’t come. At supper she had learned he’d been sitting in a rocker on Big Mama’s porch watching the woman in the river.
Now there was nothing going on in the clearing. Katie yawned. She might as well go back to the cabin. She’d have to sneak in the side door and pretend she was just getting up from a nap, though, or Daddy would start yelling at Roger for letting her out of his sight.
She hated having Roger tag behind her everywhere. At ten, he was old enough to be a real pest. If there really were hants, she wished Big Mama would call one up to tote Roger off. If there was anybody who was out for glory, it was Roger. He courted it by tattling. So far as Katie was concerned, Roger could have all the glory he wanted, as long as he didn’t get it from traipsing along behind her.
Katie squinted at the clearing once more. Nothing moved. She didn’t think there were any snakes in her vicinity, but all the same, she was cautious as she wriggled backward. OFF! didn’t work against snakes because a snake couldn’t smell. She could hear the buzzing of insects, nothing else. That’s when there was a sudden harsh sting on her ear and knew the snake had got her. She opened her mouth to scream. And couldn’t, for the snake had slammed across her lips. Lights going out!
“Don’t you dast give a holler and get ever’body riled,” whispered Big Mama.
Katie came back from a dark place where her mind had gone fuzzy. She was being hauled to her feet. “Ooooo, let go my ear, Big Mama. That hurts.”
“It orta. What d’you call yerself doin’? Spying on my new fowkses?”
“I was just looking.” She wouldn’t be made to feel guilty about spying. She wouldn’t! “How else am I going to find out about life? Nobody tells me anything!”
“What yer hoping to find out ain’t fitten’ fer a child to know. Now get on back to yer place afore yer pa turns ever’body out a-looking for you. And no more sneaking, y’hear me?”
“You scared a year off my life, Big Mama,” Katie said in parting.
“Well, you come up to the house tomorry. I’ll bake you some cookies and put it back on. That is, if you can stand to relive it again.”
“I won’t pass up cookies, but it wasn’t a year I’ve already lived that you scared out of me. It was a year I got coming.”
“The only years a body can count on is the ones they had a’ready. Now scoot afore a hant comes outen the swamp and carries you off.”
“Big Mama, wait! Did you see me, or did you just guess I was there?”
“I smelled you. You done took a bath in mosquito lotion and you been eating peanut butter. Now, git.”
It wasn’t until Katie was well along the path that it occurred that all the kids ate peanut butter and that Big Mama had yanked her ear in the dark. She wished now she hadn’t asked.
She still didn’t believe in hants though.