Authors: Carolyn Haines
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Roy and Hilda Haines,
to my grandmother, Hulda Nyman McEachern,
to my brothers, David and Andy,
and to Venus, the best dog a girl ever had.
Many things go into the writing of a book, and many thanks are necessary. First I’d like to thank my agent, Marian Young, who read my work with insight and a firm grasp of where I needed to go. The Deep South Writers’ Salon—Rebecca Barrett, Renee Paul, Stephanie Rogers, Susan Tanner and Jan Zimlich—gave me that solid, unshakable support that is so necessary. I’d like to thank Elaine Koster and Audrey LaFehr at Dutton and Anne Williams at Headline. They made the process of publishing this book a real joy. And a special thanks to the mischievous friends of my childhood, without them this book could never have been written. Diana, Marie, Becky, Debby, and Janey—there was a time when we shared the most amazing and wonderful adventures through the freedom of imagination. A special acknowledgment goes to the late Rebekah Freeman. No one who knew her fails to miss her.
VanCamp Waltman disappeared from Kali Oka Road one October day when the grape smell of kudzu rose thick over Chalk Gully. The afternoon hung suspended forever in the golden light that happens only during Mississippi’s fall.
Halfway buried in a small cave I was excavating, I heard Agatha Waltman’s shrill cry of discovery when she realized her baby was missing and not just misplaced. The shriek of fury and fear traveled the quarter mile from the Waltman house to the gully. Abandoning all of the clay I’d worked so hard to collect, I grabbed my bicycle and pedaled fast for home, the scream still echoing in that place beneath the tongue where fear can be tasted. Even then I knew what had happened. Without a single specific or detail, I understood what that long wail of despair had to mean.
And I knew I was to blame.
Word of the baby’s disappearance rushed down that red clay stretch of road flanked by barren cornfields all the way to Cry Baby Creek, the end of the road. The place where that other little baby had been found more than ten years before. Though I rode as hard as I could from the back of our property, through the woods and pecan orchard to the house, I wasn’t as fast as the gossip. Mama Betts was waiting at the screen door for me.
“Somebody’s stolen the youngest Waltman,” she said.
“Maebelle?” I could picture the infant, only eight months old with brown eyes and a thatch of red curls. She was a frisky baby but hardly big enough to support her name.
“Effie’s gone to town, but when she gets back, she’s going to want you to go over to the Waltmans with her.”
My knuckles burned against the screen door. I’d meant to push it open, but my arms were jerky, unable to respond, and I’d rasped my fingers down the screen. “No. I can’t.”
“Alice will need you.”
Mama Betts’ eyes bored into me, watching, calculating. I finally opened the door and walked past her to the other side of the screened porch. Her soft voice held me prisoner.
“It was ten years ago almost to the day that Evie Baxter was stolen. Everybody on Kali Oka remembers, but nobody wants to. They’ve forgotten that baby’s name.”
Mama Betts remembered everything that had ever happened in Chickasaw County since the turn of the century.
“That’s the baby in Cry Baby Creek, isn’t it?” I knew parts of the story, what I’d overheard listening to adult conversations and in the whispered warnings from Mama Betts. My brother and I had spent many a night down at the creek listening for the ghost of the poor murdered baby. We’d heard it, too, one clear night when we’d almost given up hope. It had made my skin prickle, that pitiful crying of a helpless creature in distress.
“I knew when those church folks moved on Kali Oka it was going to be trouble,” Mama Betts said. “I told folks about the past and how it charts the present, but no one wanted to listen.”
“That first baby, Mama Betts, how did they find her?” Barking came from the backyard, and I walked to a corner of the porch where I could look for my dog. I’d been so busy hoofing it from the gulley I hadn’t thought to wonder if Picket was with me. But then Picket was always with me. There wasn’t any tricking that dog.
“They found that other little baby in the tree roots along Cry Baby Creek. If it hadn’t of been for those roots, that baby would have floated on down the creek to the Pascagoula River and right on out into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Mama Betts had blue eyes, like mine, and they were almost like a touch as she waited for my response. She waited for me to turn around, but I wouldn’t. “In the roots?” I saw it clearly. Those willows grow out of the bank and make a canopy across parts of the creek. It’s a snake haven, and in low water the roots would make a perfect little nest for a dead baby.
“A piece of ricrac on the baby’s little white gown hung up. The creek was low and the current couldn’t tug her free. Hadn’t of been for that ricrac, they’d never have known she was dead. They could have gone on pretending she’d just simply disappeared.”
The oak tree beside the house was ready to drop its leaves. Acorns littered the ground, a feast for the gray squirrels. In the distance the pecans clustered against the sky. Daddy had said it would be a big crop this year. We’d have to find workers to help pick them all up.
“I told you to stay away from those people at the end of the road, didn’t I?” Mama Betts asked. “Those fanatics.”
“And that crazy woman. Her too. Didn’t I?”
“Nadine doesn’t have anything to do with this.” I could hear my heart beating. My ears were drums. Nadine Andrews was different, a single woman with a barnful of prize show horses and some strange ways. But this business with Maebelle was something else. Something more sinister.
“That remains to be seen. But you remember, I told you.”
“Yes ma’am, Grandma, you did.” I could hardly speak. She had warned me to stay out of all the comings and goings that happened along Kali Oka Road in the summer of 1963. Bad influences had been stirred, she said, giving her head three little nods that meant business. Bad results were on the way.
Maebelle VanCamp Waltman was gone.
In a way no one else would understand, I knew I’d brought it on. If it wasn’t for me, Maebelle would be sleeping snug in her pillows on the bed in the room Alice shared with four of her sisters.
The best way to explain any of it is to start back at the beginning of the summer. That was when the bad influences began on Kali Oka. Or maybe it was just the time for old deeds to rise up again. Mama Betts is always saying not to stir the past. She says it was never as great as we remember it, and if we have to meet it again, it won’t be with smiles.
That summer two things happened. The Blood of the Redeemer churchers and Nadine Andrews. It wasn’t hard to steer clear of the church folks. With their tall hair and gray dresses, they seemed gruesomely cheerless. No point in lying and saying they didn’t prick my curiosity, they did, and I spent many a summer afternoon spying on them. But Nadine was another matter altogether. Not the threat of
the Blood of the Redeemers’ hellfire could have kept me from biking down to Nadine’s whenever Mama Betts or Mama blinked an eye and I could shake free of them. The Redeemers were a curiosity; Nadine was a craving.
Mama Betts said right off the bat when Nadine moved in the old McInnis place that she was unnatural. No one in their right mind would move into that place alone, with all those cats, dogs and horses.
What she meant was no woman. No single woman without a man. No twenty-four-year-old single woman with bleached blond hair, tight pants and boots who rode horses like she thought she was Jacqueline Kennedy, yet lived in a house that Mama Betts said she could smell from the road.
Nadine was an amazement to me, too, but not for the reasons Mama Betts listed. It was the horses, plain and simple. They were the most wonderful creatures I’d ever seen. Shiny and tossing their heads.
Those horses had come straight from my dreams to land not a mile away from me on Kali Oka Road. Mama Betts knew about the past, but I recognized destiny when I saw it.
Nadine and the Redeemers hit Kali Oka at the same time. Actually, the Redeemers came first. Six old yellow schoolbus-loads of them, women and children staring without a twitch or a smile as they passed the house. It was a bad omen. There’d been talk up and down Kali Oka all spring that the church property at the end of the road, closed since Evie Baxter’s untimely end, had been sold.
Property changing hands on Kali Oka was always good for rumors and speculation. Folks clung to their land like it was blood kin. Old feuds were a matter of pride and there wasn’t room for newcomers.
Kali Oka was farmland, most of it from original homesteads when the southeastern portion of the state had been settled back in the late 1800s. Jexville, with a population of two thousand, was a stable town. No crime. No trouble.
Though Jexville was the heart of the county’s business, in the summer of 1963 it was far removed from my world. Kali Oka was south of town, and that long stretch of red clay led directly from the present to the past. Our last taste of religious sects had resulted in scandal, murder and the pathetic cries of a dying baby that could still be heard along the creek on clear summer nights. The ghost of Evie Baxter still haunted that twisty little creek. Mama Betts said when poor little Evie was thrown into that cold artesian water, she fulfilled the prophecy of
the creek. If anyone except her murderer had been around to hear her wails and cries, she might have lived. As it happened, though, she spent her last minutes crying to the black heart of her killer.
All of that happened when the Live for Christ Church owned the property at the end of the road. The Lifers, as they were known up and down Kali Oka, built the original church and parsonage down at the end of the road and set up what Mama called a commune. That was a word that upset Mama Betts, so whenever she said it, she’d make her eyes round and act like she was callin’ up Satan.
At any rate, after Evie Baxter’s murder, the Lifers were run off the road by public sentiment, and the church remained empty. No one was real excited to see the Redeemers move in, and I guess that Nadine arrived with her nine horses, fourteen cats, and five dogs without creating the stir she would have if the Redeemers hadn’t stolen center stage.
That summer was one of the hottest folks could remember. The first week or two, Alice and I rode our bicycles, tended her baby sister Maebelle V., and tried not to sweat to death. It started as a typical Kali Oka summer. Daddy had gone to school in Missouri, but it was something we didn’t talk about to anyone. Mama had grown up on Kali Oka, but Daddy was a different case. He was a Yankee. He was always winning trips to schools to study or teach. Since Arly and I couldn’t talk about it, I never paid much attention to what he was really doing. We just said he was working away for the summer, and that satisfied most of our friends. Lots of daddies on Kali Oka were working offshore or over at the shipyard in Pascagoula.
Mama wrote books for children. We didn’t talk about that either. It wasn’t a secret, but Mama said it made other people ill at ease, so it was better not to talk about it. Maybe one reason Nadine held such appeal for me was because we were a family of secrets. Even our names had been changed. Mama Betts said she had been under the spell of fairies when she named Mama Erin Clare after the old country. Mama Betts said it affected Mama’s brain and that she’d grown up fey and with a wandering mind and had earned the name Effie. That was why she could think up all those stories for children but couldn’t remember when she’d put a pot of dumplings to cook on the stove. When Mama Betts would get mad, she’d say that Mama would get “caught up in the raptures of a sentence and burn the house down.”
The other extreme could aggravate her just as much. She called
Daddy the Detail Man ‘cause he was always so precise about getting every little fact. I think that was how he came to be called The Judge, ‘cause his name was Walter Arlington Rich the third. Everyone just called him Judge, even though he didn’t have a thing to do with the courthouse at Jexville or the law. He was a teacher at a university and a writer for those magazines that folks put out on the living room coffee table but never look at. He and Mama met at some writers’ gathering, and his family was still upset that he’s moved off to Mississippi, where Mama Betts said they thought we still dug a hole in the woods to do our business. Details and Daddy’s family could work Mama Betts into a righteous frenzy at times.
So that leaves Arly, whose name was Arlington and caused him to get into at least one fight every school year. And my name is Rebekah, from the Bible, and Brighton, from some of Daddy’s kin, but everyone calls me Bekkah, the full name being too solemn for Mama’s taste in the 1960s. Oh, yes, and Mama Betts. Her name was Beatrice O’Shawnessy McVay, but everyone calls her Mama Betts, except for her oldest friends and they call her Beatrice. She said she lets them do it because their bones are too brittle, and if she hits them they might break.
All of those secret names twisted up inside our big old house must have counted toward my penchant for secrets. Mama Betts said that there were times when I didn’t know the truth. She said if the truth and I walked down Kali Oka Road together, neither would recognize the other. Mama said I had a healthy imagination and to leave me alone. Daddy wanted to know “the specifics” about my “lies.” Mama Betts was the one I had to watch out for whenever I started going down to Nadine’s house to see the horses. Mama Betts was the one who’d check my blue jeans for horse hairs and the smell of leather and sweat. She knew me best, I suppose. Knew how hard I fought to get something I really wanted. If I hadn’t been so intent on getting my way, maybe Maebelle V. wouldn’t have disappeared.