Read This Tender Land Online

Authors: William Kent Krueger

This Tender Land (51 page)

BOOK: This Tender Land
9.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

She lifted another photograph from the bed. “And this?” It was of a very young child astride a rocking horse. “That’s you at three. And here you are at four,” she said, pointing to another. “And at five. This is the final one I have of you. You were six. It was taken the only time you visited me here. Until two days ago, the last time I ever saw you. I keep them in my room.”

She took the baby picture from me and seemed entranced by the smile on that child’s face—my face, although it didn’t feel that way to me.

“My parents sent you those?”

“Rosalee. Almost every year.”

“I don’t see any of Albert.”

She didn’t seem to hear, she was so lost in the baby photo and whatever deep meaning it had for her. “I remember the day you were born. Remember it as if it were yesterday.”

“You were there?”

“Oh, yes. It was here in this room. You were born on this bed.”

Well, that was certainly news, such a huge revelation that I didn’t know what to say.

“I named you Odysseus because Rosalee and I had grown up listening to our mother read Homer’s epic story to us. You know your namesake, Odysseus?”

“A Greek hero. Cora Frost, a teacher at Lincoln School, told me about him.”

“He was a great leader, and I knew that you would be, too, someday. But also I named you that because you were born on Ithaca Street. It seemed a sign.”

This was too much. “My mother named me,” I declared.

She gazed at me silently. A buzzing began in my head like a swarm of flies going round and round, looking for a way out.

In the end, I gazed right back at her, and a look of understanding must have dawned on my face, because she nodded and said in a whisper, “Yes.”

CHAPTER SIXTY-THREE

“THIS WAS NO
place to raise a child,” Aunt Julia explained.

No, not Aunt Julia. Mother. I tried the word in my head, but it sounded all wrong.

After her remarkable revelation, she couldn’t be still. I took her place on the bed while she paced, glancing at me periodically to gauge my reaction as she talked. Which must have been hard, because I was stunned to silence and sat looking as senseless as a scarecrow.

“Rosalee had a child already. I knew how good she was with Albert. Much better than I could ever be with you, especially here. Oh, I suppose I could have left and tried to make a living for us some other way, but I had no skills, no training. This”—she lifted her hands to embrace the room, the house, the whole circumstance—“this is all I know. And, Odysseus, they were so good to you, and Albert was such a good brother.”

“So . . . who?” I finally asked.

“Who?”

“My father.”

That stopped her pacing. She stood a few moments with her face downcast, her body so still it might have been carved from granite. “I wish I could tell you.” She brought her eyes to bear on me, gauging my reaction. “In a place like this, Odysseus, despite precautions, a baby sometimes happens.” She opened her hands toward me like a beggar hoping for alms. “But that’s the past. He’s not important now. What’s important is that you’re here and I’m going to take care of you, if that’s what you’d like.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“When my father was killed . . .” But I stopped myself, because that was wrong. He wasn’t my father. “When my uncle was killed,” I corrected myself, but felt that, too, was all wrong, “why didn’t you send for us then?”

“I’ve told you already. I didn’t know for a long time what had happened. And when I found out, it seemed best to leave you where you were. I talked with people who know about such things, and they assured me Lincoln School was an excellent institution.”

“I grew up a white kid among Indians.”

“Was that so bad?”

“What was bad was how they treated us all.”

“I didn’t know any of that, Odysseus. I swear to you. I received a letter from the superintendent every year telling me how well you were doing.”

“The Black Witch.”

She’d resumed her pacing but paused once again. “What?”

“That’s what we all called her, the superintendent, Mrs. Brickman. The Black Witch because she was so horrible to us.”

She hung her head, and the nervous energy that had fueled her movements seemed finally to have been exhausted. “I’m sorry, Odysseus. I truly am. But you’re here now. I can make things better.”

“I’m not staying. I have friends in Saint Louis.”

“Who?”

“It’s called the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade.”

“What is it? A church?”

“Something like that.”

Aunt Julia—I still couldn’t think of her as Mother—came and gathered up the photographs and sat beside me on the bed. For a long time, she said nothing. Then: “Can you ever forgive me?”

There it was again, just as Sister Eve had said, all boiling down to forgiveness.

“Maybe,” I said. “There’s so much to think about. I just need some time. Then I might be ready to come back. You understand?”

“I do.” She reached out and took my hand.

We are creatures of spirit, I have come to believe, and this spirit runs through us like electricity and can be passed one to another. That’s what I felt coming from my mother’s hand, the spirit of her deep longing. I was her son, her only son, and the photographs in her lap, the money she’d sent, her naïve willingness to believe the lies of the Black Witch, all told me that she’d never stopped loving me.

I didn’t leave right away. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and Aunt Julia asked Dollie to bring up sandwiches and lemonade. In that attic room where I’d come into this world, we prepared to share what I figured would be our last meal together, at least for a while. But after we’d taken only a few bites, Dollie returned.

“Some people are here to see you, Julia.”

“Not now, Dolores.”

“Oh yes, now.”

It wasn’t Dollie who’d spoken. The voice came from below, unseen, but I knew it well. Dollie stepped aside, and Thelma Brickman appeared on the attic stairs, and behind her came Clyde Brickman.

“Odie O’Banion,” the Black Witch said, the words dripping from her lips like poisoned honey. “And Julia. It’s so good to see you both again.”

DOLLIE HAD BEEN
sent away and had closed the attic door behind her. The Brickmans and Aunt Julia and I, along with a profound sense of the looming Tornado God, filled that small room.

“You look so lost, Odie,” the Black Witch said. “And, Julia, your face is one big question mark.”

I was less afraid than surprised and angry. I spat out, “How did you find me?”

“I still know people from my time in Saint Louis years ago, Odie. When you vanished with Emmy and all the papers in our safe, I
thought it possible this was where you might be headed, so I sent a telegram and hired a man to watch Julia’s house.”

Aunt Julia looked at me, understanding in her eyes. “The Black Witch?”

I nodded.

“Do you know, Odie, I’ve never minded that epithet,” Thelma Brickman said. “Fear is a powerful tool.”

“What are you doing here, Thelma?” Aunt Julia demanded.

“You know her?” I said.

“Julia and I go way back, Odie,” the Black Witch answered for her. Then her voice changed, became full of that twang Albert had told me he’d sometimes heard from her when she’d been drinking, the voice of someone raised in the backwoods of the Ozarks. “I still recollect when I first came to you, Julia. Do you? Brought to you by that brute my pappy sold me to. Was you bought my freedom. And for a while, we was like sisters.” Her voice changed again, became smooth and seductive. “You refined all the rough edges of a hillbilly girl, taught me about etiquette and books and the ways to please a man. You remember that, Julia?”

“What I remember, Thelma, is that you weaseled your way into my life, then tried to strike a deal with the local constabulary to steal my house.”

“You were the one who encouraged me to have ambition.” An animal look came over Thelma Brickman’s face. “I rose up from nothing, from dirt and filth and the kind of people who sold their children. That’s why I was a whore. You came up from something different, Julia. So, what’s your excuse?”

Aunt Julia glanced at me but gave no reply.

“You have no idea the hell I went through after you kicked me out,” the Black Witch went on. “I finally ended up working in a shithole of a brothel in Sioux Falls when a lonely man named Sparks asked me to marry him. He ran a school for Indian kids across the state line in Minnesota. A sweet opportunity I couldn’t let pass.”

“And is this Mr. Sparks?” Aunt Julia asked.

Clyde Brickman hadn’t spoken a word, but I could tell he was nervous. His eyes jumped around the room and back toward the closed door, as if he was afraid any moment someone would come bursting through.

“Mr. Sparks suffered a fatal heart attack a year after we wed,” Thelma Brickman said. “This is Clyde, my second husband. He ran a gambling operation in Sioux Falls and was one of my regulars. I needed a good right hand at the Indian school and Clyde . . . ?” She glanced at her husband. “Well, I could have done worse.”

“Minnesota,” Aunt Julia said in a way that sounded as if many things were falling into place for her. “Did you lure Zeke there, Thelma? Did you set him up in some insane plan to get back at us?”

Zeke. My father’s name. “You knew my father?” I asked the Black Witch.

“Your father delivered the liquor to this house. Bootleg liquor even in the days before the Volstead Act. When things went south between Julia and me, he was the one who saw me out the door without even giving me a chance to pack a bag. I left with nothing but the clothes on my back.” She’d spoken with venom in her words, but now she smiled, a thin line like a scar burned across her face with acid. “Clyde and I were expecting a delivery of liquor up in Lincoln, one of our side enterprises, and who shows up with his two boys in tow? When he recognized me, I was afraid he was going to spill the beans about my past.”

“So you shot him?” I wanted to strangle the Black Witch, and I tried to jump from the bed, but Aunt Julia restrained me.

“We’ll never know who pulled that trigger, Odie.” Then she turned her cruel smile to Aunt Julia. “One of Zeke’s boys looked so much like you, Julia, it made my spirit sing. I insisted that we take Odie and his brother under our protective care at Lincoln School.” She eyed me with cold glee. “Every pain you suffered there, every stroke of the leather strap was such a joy to me, because it was like a stab at your
dear aunt’s heart. Now,” Thelma Brickman said, composing herself. “The reason I’m here. Where is Emmy?”

“Where you’ll never find her,” I shot back.

“I don’t care about you anymore, Odie. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. All I want is Emmy.”

“Emmy hates you.”

“In time, I’ll make her love me.”

“You can’t make someone love you, Thelma,” Aunt Julia said. “Love is a gift. It’s given.”

The Black Witch ignored her. “The police haven’t stopped looking for Emmy’s kidnappers, Odie. If they get their hands on you, you’ll spend the next several years in a place much more difficult than Lincoln School, I can guarantee you. But I’m offering you a chance to save yourself. And your brother and Moses. All I want is little Emmy.”

“You’re not getting her.”

“Then I have no choice but to turn you over to the police.”

“Albert has the ledger,” I said.

“You mean the ledger in which Clyde kept track of the donations our local citizenry made to Lincoln School? Sheriff Warford knows all about that ledger, Odie. He’ll be happy to help us explain all this to the Saint Louis police. You can save yourself a lot of trouble. All I want is Emmy.”

“She’s lying, Odysseus,” Aunt Julia said.

But I knew that already. She wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d destroyed us all.

“Why do you want Emmy so bad? She hates you,” I said. “And she’s not perfect like you want her to be. Sometimes she has fits.”

The Black Witch leaned toward me and spoke in a low voice, as if sharing a secret. “I know about those fits.”

I stared into her eyes, two coals of evil, and wondered how she could possibly know.

She said, “In the hollow where I grew up, we had a neighbor who lived off by herself, a hag everybody swore was a seer. They said that
when she looked into the future, if she had a mind to, she could tinker with what she saw there. Emmy had one of her fits while she was with me. When she came out of it, she said ‘You won’t fall, Odie. He will but not you.’ I asked her about it later, but she didn’t remember. After we found Vincent DiMarco’s body in the quarry, I put two and two together and came up with a most remarkable possibility. If I’m right about her, she’s special, Odie. Am I right?” When I didn’t answer, she smiled in a way that made my skin crawl. “All she needs is the proper person to guide her, to make certain her gift isn’t squandered.”

“You’re not that person,” I cried.

“Oh, but I am. I had her once, Odie. I’ll have her again.”

“She was never yours.”

“Well then,” she said, as if bringing the discussion to a definitive close, “I guess we’ll just have to let the police sort that out.”

“You’re not going to the police,” Aunt Julia said.

“Who’s going to stop me? You?”

“Yes.”

“How exactly do you propose to do that?”

“I’ll kill you if I have to. Leave, Odysseus,” Aunt Julia said. “You know where to go.”

“I’m not leaving you,” I said. Then added, “Mother.”

She gazed at me, and in her eyes I found what it was I’d been searching for all along, searching for without understanding. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, heart of my heart.

“Mother?” Thelma Brickman said, then grinned like a rattler. “Well, no wonder you two look so much alike.” She drew a small, silver-plated handgun from her purse. “I’m taking your son, Julia.”

Clyde Brickman, who’d stood the whole time in cowardly silence, said, “For Christ’s sake, what do you think you’re doing, Thelma?”

“Shut up, Clyde. If you were half the man I’d hoped, I wouldn’t have to do this. Odie, if you don’t come with me, I’ll shoot Julia, mother or no.”

“And go to the electric chair,” I said.

“For defending myself against a woman who brutally attacked me? I don’t think so.”

BOOK: This Tender Land
9.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

El pirata Garrapata by Juan Muñoz Martín
The Return of Black Douglas by Elaine Coffman
Cursed Inheritance by Kate Ellis
Headstrong by Meg Maguire
The Tabit Genesis by Tony Gonzales