Praise for Kathryn Magendie's
Bestselling Series, The Graces
“This message is for guys: It may have a soft, pink cover but it ain’t that kind of book. Kathryn Magendie’s Virginia Kate has plenty of what my grandmother called “brass,” treats us to earfuls of authentic dialogue, and gradually reveals a story not easily forgotten. We will soon read more, I hope, from Magendie’s pen. She’s real.”
Author of Cataloochee and Requiem by Fire
“A prodigal daughter story . . . exuberant.
“Lilting . . . well-told.”
“Kathryn Magendie's TENDER GRACES is a powerful, moving and beautifully written debut. With rich detail, vivid imagery and finely drawn characters who leap off the page, drag you into their lives and make you root for them, this book will command your attention all the way to the final page...and leave you wishing for more.”
, author of FALLING UNDER
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead,) events or locations is entirely coincidental.
Bell Bridge Books is an Imprint of BelleBooks, Inc.
Copyright © 2010 by Kathryn Magendie
Printed and bound in the
United States of America
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
We at BelleBooks enjoy hearing from readers. You can contact us at the address above or at [email protected] and www.BellBridgeBooks.com.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
To the little ones: Norah Kathryn, Nicholas, Amelia, Sabastyn, Maddison
Thank you to my friends and family; you mean everything to me. And to my long-suffering novel-widower GMR, who puts up with my strange ways and my distant mind and my leaving him (synaptically and brainwavingly) for long eons of time as I write, for the days I talk about some person and he suddenly realizes I am speaking about a character and not a real, living, person so no wonder he doesn’t remember them, and for all the times he’s cooked for me so I’ll “Please eat something,” and how he has to shuffle about the house among all the ghosts and spirits I call forth—even the ghost dog of my Kayla-Girl and the mysterious Shadowman for whom I woke to see watching me sleep.
And big huge heartfelt thanks to Sweetie’s “first readers:” Mikell Web here in
Western North Carolina
and to my bound-sister Angie Ledbetter in
—you both helped to bring clarity where I saw cloudity.
Thank you, lovely Mary Ann Ledbetter, for coming through again with a brilliant Reader’s Guide.
Bellebooks/Bell Bridge Books—the Debs—Deb Smith the coolest editor ever and Deb Dixon who creates book covers that make me go
!—and all the staff who make my dreams a tangible reality I can hold in my hands: thank you!
I must mention Deena at Drollerie Press, who encouraged me after she read an earlier version of Sweetie and saw something good in my work.
—if I didn’t get something right, please forgive me, for I tried my best to honor the place I live and love; as did Melissa, who is really the voice and storyteller here.
And always, to readers: my words are a love-letter to you; thank you for your support.
Let me tell you I am better acquainted with you for a long absence, as men are with themselves for a long affliction: absence does but hold off a friend, to make one see him the truer.
Sadly we sing and with tremulous breath, as we stand by the mystical stream,
in the valley and by the dark river of death, and yet ’tis no more than a dream
—old mountain song
This is not the beginning . . .
I smoothed my thumb over the tiny wood-carved bird lying in my palm, closed my hand around it, and recalled the day Sweetie became my friend.
She stood, feet rooted in the grass as she gazed down at her cupped hands held against her chest. Her blonde hair blew in the mountain wind, pieces of it whipping across a tough face. The intensity was only a reflex of preparation, a bracing against her secrets. She wore a cotton dress of faded yellow, scattered with once-bright roses that had turned the color of old blood.
I held my Big Chief ruled tablet at eye level, pretending to study my homework, and secretly watched her by peeking over the top. She brought her hands to her right eye and peered inside them, and I wondered what was there, a butterfly, or a wish? I shuffled by inches to stand closer to her.
When she looked at me full on, I was captured by her eyes—cat’s eye marble eyes. A bright burning flared in them, then was gone. She held out her hands to me. I hesitated, for I had been tricked before. What society of children could resist tormenting the walking cliché from daytime movies?—I was always the awkward new girl in town. One would hope I brought that cliché to the limit, somehow growing to be beautiful and showing them all, but I was at best unremarkable, average; though Sweetie would say, “Not nothing average about you, Miss-Lissa.”
Sweetie, herself born with moonbeams in her eyes that, when the veil was lifted, sparked and raged with a burning bright light of mystery and knowledge beyond anything I’d ever known.
In the schoolyard that day, in that little
Western North Carolina
, I stood watching a girl who wore her strange beauty like an afterthought, beauty that defied the scars mottling her body. There had been no one in my life like Sweetie before, and no one like Sweetie since.
She kept her hands held out, enticing me to her, not hurrying my shy hesitation. My feet took me to her, as if they were independent of my body, as if I were pulled to her by the force of those strange compelling eyes. When I at last stood by her side, I smelled mint and moist earth smells.
“See here what I got?” Sweetie thrust her hands to my face.
I put my right eye to the tiny hole she made between her thumbs, closed my left eye, and squinted through my glasses. She opened the backside of her hands a bit to let light filter through. A baby bird nestled in her palms.
“This here bird fell out its nest, and I got to put it back so its mama’ll take care of it.” She eyed me up and down, as if trying to make up her mind about me.
I stared at the scabs marching across her knees, the puckered skin racing up her right arm, the reddened zigzag that ran from her ankle, up her thigh, to disappear under her dress. She didn’t try to hide her imperfections, as I would have.
“You want to watch me give this here bird back to Mama-bird, or just stand there gawking?”
I tore my eyes from her hurts, tried, “N-n-no. I mean, y-y-yes. I . . . ” and then tried a shrug to show I didn’t care how I sounded or looked or was or had ever been or would ever be.
She narrowed her eyes. Then a grin lit her mouth, as if she then did make up her mind about me. She tossed her head to a herd of girls on the playground. “Them girls would keep it, like a pet.” She then asked, “It belongs where it belongs, right? And where something belongs is where it’s got to stay, right?” Without waiting for my answer, she pulled up the hem of her dress, gently placed the bird in a fold, tucked the ends into the cut-off dungarees she wore underneath, and climbed up the tree. When she was to the nest and had placed the baby bird inside, she waved to me, and then scuttled down as swift as an animal.
I looked up at the nest, hoped the little bird wouldn’t die, hoped it’d stay where it belonged, whispered, “Don’t d-die little one. You’re s-safe now.”
Sweetie stood again by my side. “Little Bird might be sickly, or busted up inside, and Mama-bird pushed it out the nest to spare it from dying slow.” She shrugged. “Or, it might grow up and old and live forever and ever and ever.”
“Y-y-you saved its l-life.”
“You got to breathe, Miss-Lissa.” She inhaled through her nose, filling her thin chest, and then blew out through slightly parted lips.
“Just try what I said, Miss Stubborn-brain.”
I breathed in and out as she’d done.
“That’s right. Stop getting in a hurry with your words and your thoughts.” Sweetie looked hard at me, then looked up to the nest. “All a person can do is give it all they’s got. Right?”
There was no turning back from Sweetie then, and I knew I’d follow her to the ends of her earth that summer. She was a mountain creature who could not be contained, and when they wanted to take her from her home, she fell away so they would not find her.
She said she would wait forever. She said she would wait for me. How could it be so?
I squeezed the wooden bird and its beak cut into my palm. When I opened my hand, a spot of blood beaded there. Another memory pierced me sharp with sound and image—the crowd of shouting people, the white robe with Sweetie’s bloody handprint, and Sweetie asking for her mother’s healing even though it meant she sacrificed her own unique gifts.
I would find what I needed there among the magic
, at our meeting place—Whale Back Rock. The big rock rose up out of the mountainside with its back full of moss and lichens, appearing like a great humpback whale curving back into the ocean after its breath released from its blowhole. There were natural signs to lead me: Bear Claw Rock, Turtlehead, Jabbering Creek, Triplet Tree, all the places we’d roamed on the mountain with its coves and secret places. And there were Sweetie’s maps. And there were whispers calling, unseen.
I pushed the bird deep into a pocket of my backpack, and walked up the blacktop road, which used to be a dirt and graveled road. The road led to the old log trails, only two miles or so from my old neighborhood where I’d lived that summer before Father and Mother took me away from the mountains, before the long deep sleep of denial.
I’d happened upon it. The Pandora’s Box of our memories. When opened, old dust and voices rushed, charging about my white-walled, antiseptic, scientific room made perfect for a scientific woman; where tiny microscopic universes came from microscopic big bangs; where germs became colonies marching to new words only to be foiled by antibiotics; where white coverings and masks and intense purposeful looks, or dreaming hopeful ones, made all of us look the same the same the same, where outside traffic rushed by, people clomped on purposeful shoes, mothers or fathers rushed their children to school and day care; where when spiraling out, suburban neighborhoods held family units with two-point-five kids, a collie or German Shepherd, Sunday dinners and Sunday drives; and all around and out of that Pandora’s Box the dust and voices slammed against the walls, to the ceiling, out the door and opened window, in my hair, through my pores, down my throat through my opened mouth. Sweetie spoke loud and insistent to me, from the distance of time and space,
Come home, Lissa. Back where you belong.
Layers of memory: a pack of Old Maid playing cards; a petrified Tootsie Roll; a tiny drawing of a mouth and eyes; a photo of my brother in his graduation cap and gown, a snapshot of Mother and Father two inches apart, our house in the valley, four other houses here and there, there and here; jacks (
onesies, twosies, threesies, kissies
); three marbles, including the cat’s eye my big brother gave to me; a Troll doll; a dried and cracked buckeye seed; and one of Mother’s food poems, and among all that were the carved bird and the diary. I blinked from my long sleep and blood rushed from head to toe, dizzying and thrumping in my ears.
. What mysteries and secrets you hold
As I made my way up the mountain, the muscles of my calves tensing and releasing felt good. So long since I’d stretched my flaccid muscles, so long since I breathed in air that wasn’t stale and long-breathed and re-breathed. I studied and followed the hand-drawn maps in the diary, checked the natural signs, twists, turns, switchbacks. The Great Rock should be up ahead, soon. A wind swept down and over the ridges and cooled my heated body.
There to the left was an almost hidden old log trail. Near the entrance to the trail were three rocks, as old as the time was old. The three rocks huddled together in a way that formed a small cave, a place where two young girls could squeeze in and hide away, a home to magical creatures with burning curious eyes. Sweetie’s grandfather had believed in magic, had believed in a granny woman’s powers to see behind the veil, had believed in mountain sprits and medicines from the fruits of the earth.
The growth was thicker on the old log trail. A creek bubbled down, tumbling over rocks. Landscapes changed with time, just as most things do if they go on with their lives unsleeping, yet the woods and mountains when undisturbed remained constant reminders of the past.
Sweetie’s maps were amazingly meticulous, full of detailed drawings and instructions written in tiny letters. I could imagine Sweetie bent over the diary, taking the time to fashion the maps so I could find my way. I had a sudden thought: had she made the maps only for
me? Or had she known I’d need them one day in the unknown future? A bird flew by so close, its wings brushed my cheek, or perhaps it was only the air disturbed by that wing. All the same, my arms broke out with goosebumps. The hairs on the back of my head lifted.
The old trail veered off to the left, and I left it to follow the creek for a while, even as it grew narrower as I climbed. I parted a clump of overgrowth, rhododendrons and blackberry vines, and went through them.
The blackberry vines grabbed me in a thorny grip, tried to keep me from going any farther, in vain. Spider webs wrapped across my face as I stumbled through the woods and I saw as through a veil until I wiped them away. I picked up a thick branch to use as a walking stick to help clear overgrowth and balance me on the incline, followed the narrowing creek runoff until it forked off, checked the map, and went to the right onto another log trail that would switchback after another half-mile or so.
After walking, climbing, swatting at webs, and pulling stickers out of my hands, I stopped at a large oblong rock that looked as if it had ancient writings on it. Maybe it was mountain fairy fossils, or maybe young Cherokee chiseled messages to each other into the rock. Maybe only wind and time had left their natural marks. I sat with my back against a giant of a poplar tree and stared at the rock. According to the map it was Tablet Rock, but I didn’t need the map to know. I’d told Sweetie the rock reminded me of one-half of Moses Ten Commandments tablet. She’d studied it with one eye closed, and asked, “Which of them commands you think’s on this one?”
The water flowed into the narrow creek, which flowed into the bold creek, which flowed to the river and on to the ocean; water finding water always. Like finding like. Need finding need. Never ending. Ending never.
There were wild flowers growing amongst the trees, bushes, and other growth. Overhead a red squirrel, what the old man Zemry had called Boomers, shouted down to me. I knew there could be bear, or bobcat, or big cats Zemry called painters. Or the haints come to haunt me—Zemry had told those stories, too, of the spirits of mountain men, of the Cherokee, of old and ancient times before. Of restless spirits following the living to see what they’d do next, and then trying to pull the living into their world so they wouldn’t be lonely anymore.
As I looked around the long-ago-familiar woods, I thought of my friend, my blood-bound sister. Sweetie had always believed in me. She saw another person inside the timid young girl I had been. Someone much stronger, with a full-burning heart. Yet I’d become a scientific woman, a biological machine, made of fallible parts and calculating synaptic brain, peering at those microscopic worlds I pretended were more interesting than the world of real people. A woman who believed only what science showed her and not what was felt with the heart. A woman who had left behind the magic and embraced her small, tangible room of a world.