It’s better to be hated for who you are than to be loved for who you’re not, so the old saying goes. I hope that old proverb is true because I have blood on my hands.

I’m a marked woman. The man I shot had friends whose minds and hearts remain as closed as his once was. It has become my habit to listen for footsteps behind me in the dark.

This is the story of how it happened, as true as I can tell it. To understand the end result, you must know the beginning well. As I stir the smoldering ashes of the past, I can feel their flaming heat on my face.


I was born to be a teller of stories. Mama says I’ve been a chronicler of local events since I was “four going on forty.” I’m twenty years old, this summer of 1918, but I’ve already had some of my poems and short stories published in fancy Yankee magazines.

I write about what I know, the heart and soul of rural Alabama. I cherish the slow, clean fires of hickory coals, the whirring wings of yellowhammers, and the people of Village Springs, those who cling to the bosom of the earth for their survival. Some that haven’t survived now lie buried beneath overgrown honeysuckle vines and fig trees. Their untold tale is part of mine.

My given name is Sadie Lou Sheridan, but I’ll answer only to my nickname, Pug. The diminutive suits me fine, though I’m not sure who first called me that, or why. Daddy says it was in answer to my short, turned-up nose. Mamau Maude, Daddy’s mama, says my name fits my pugnacious personality.

I can be hotheaded at times, there’s no denying it. Such temperament is part of the total picture, one that includes Irish red hair, pale blue eyes, and long skinny limbs. My milky skin turns red if I even think about sunlit days. Every square inch of me is as freckled as a guinea egg.

There are those who can testify to the deceptiveness of my lean frame. I’ve more than once held my own in a fair fight. Lad or lass, I’ve whipped both. It’s said by some that my unladylike behavior embarrasses the Sheridan name. “That Pug Sheridan,” I hear them whisper, “she’s as wild as Burwell’s Buck!” I just smile; such talk aids my plan to foster such beliefs, convincing local evil-minded, two-legged beasts to leave me, and mine, alone.

Strong women remain the tradition—no, make that the necessity—in my family. Charmed and charming as they might be, Sheridan men tend to be flighty like bullbats, and as lazy as Uncle Deal. When I was a girl, there were three living in our house: Tyne Herbert Sheridan (my daddy, known to everybody as T.H.), Finas Sheridan (Daddy’s brother), and Azberry (my younger and sole sibling).

Sheridan males have always shared a peculiar characteristic, a propensity toward superstition adhered to with religious fervor. No self-respecting Sheridan gent would consider so much as a visit to the outhouse without first checking “the signs.”

Anything and everything could be a sign. The weather, dreams, curious animal behavior, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, nothing escaped the scrutiny of the aforementioned philosophers. Wives’ tales became wives’ truths with their interpretations.

Daily, with infuriating reason and calm, the men I lived with expounded on biblical passages, quoted in support of their metaphysical cause. (“Let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years,” Genesis 1:14.) It’s astounding that the Sheridan clan has come as far and lasted as long as it has. However, the truth is, for reasons I’ve yet to fathom, their daffy predictions often came to pass and even I learned to pay attention.

We are, by any Southern standard, well-off. Some might call us rich but that would be stretching the facts. Our perceived wealth has made us a powerful local force. An influence to be reckoned with, if not respected.

Our continued upstanding position was assured a few years before I was born. It was then that one of the Sheridan brothers’ cockeyed business schemes actually made good. After seeing a mysterious liquid oozing from the ground, they drilled around our family property for oil. One of their wells was unusually deep; the hole in the earth plunged 985 feet.

The ole boys soon hit a reservoir of gushing terrestrial secretion all right, but it wasn’t oil. The narrow crater sprang to life, first with a trickle and then a loud burbling sound, like some enormous underground monster with indigestion.

The reddish-white liquid that began to percolate at an ever faster rate smelled like rotten eggs. The Sheridan patriarchs discovered a genuine artesian well, a fountain of free-flowing sulfur. They had the water analyzed and determined it to be high in minerals, the kind of water long believed to be a recipe for good health.

For a time, the brothers became men of limitless ambition. They scooped out mountains of dirt and created themselves a mineral-rich lake five acres in size, reaching sixty feet down at its deepest gorge. Three narrow streams flowed from the well’s mouth to form Sheridan Lake. To this day, the hallowed waters continue to rise from the depths of the earth, backed by underground pressure.

Our home grew into a country resort, Sheridan’s Artesian Mineral Springs. Many sought joy and a myriad of cures there. The steep, sloping road to our place contributed to its nickname, The Hill. Scores of people, white and colored, traveled to The Hill from all over Alabama on weekends.

Segregation occurred by common consensus. The colored families migrated to the East side of the lake; white relations purposefully meandered to the West. Children from the East and West contingencies were forbidden contact. It was a long-lived division that my family neither encouraged nor approved of.

We Sheridans have always been stubbornly at odds with most folks living in Village Springs. “Judge a person by their deeds” was the family motto we lived by, a dictum that separated us from other white, God-fearing families. This attitude was regarded as an eccentricity, a result of our diluted (pronounced “deluded” by the gossips) blue-blooded genealogy.

The truth was much simpler. Essie, my black nanny, was our teacher about that which mattered. She’d also been a loving nursemaid to my father and uncle. Over the decades, Essie had become as much a part of our family as any of us. As she became a precious part of our lives, we learned to correct our own past mistakes.

I wish everyone could’ve seen things the way I did, not just in black and white. But sadly, while most colored families politely welcomed me to their lakeside district, I could tell that my close proximity made them uncomfortable. They’d come to The Hill to forget their troubles, not to create new ones with the nosy, uppity white folks across the way. I learned to avoid the tension my innocent offers of open friendship caused by staying on the Western lakeside slope.

As for our numerous visitors to The Hill, my watchful family left the established tide of peace to its own rhythm and course. To do otherwise would’ve hastened the drifting, rising tide of discontent. Thankfully, adversity was only a subtle undercurrent during those early community holidays at our tranquil resort.

Everyone who came happily paid a small fee which allowed them to picnic, swim, or fish for two-foot-long bass. Some came just to sit in the naturally warm water in amphibious communion, believing their silent prayers invoked the water’s magic to cure their physical ills.

At times, The Hill did indeed seem enchanted. A sacred grove of ancient cedars stood sentinel over the rust-colored waters. Huge oaks and pines also bordered our land; they offered strong limbs for rope swings and circus games.

Being the highest point in Alabama, the air on The Hill was usually pleasant and cool, even in summer. Our patrons sat on the banks of Sheridan’s Resort and studied the shadows of the big trees. The eerie flickering of sunlight in the surrounding woodlands was truly wondrous.

Other customers roamed the nearby area to gather sweet moss and ferns. Many kisses were stolen as young folks strolled and courtships blossomed. The would-be lovers were encouraged by the excited cries of wild turkeys and the fragrant aroma of the passion flowers that sprang up everywhere. Cares and woes melted away with the passing of the day and its rainbow of colors, the hazy, ever-changing hues.

Inevitably, the attention of all would return to the sparkling lake, the magnificence of it. On one side, its beach was made of sawdust. Across the way, the water’s sandy edge boasted great, vine-clad rocks. The water rose from deep within the body of the earth where there was no division of spirit. It offered exquisite silence.

Significant numbers of dry-landers also pondered the mystical properties of another liquid, the sort found in wide-mouthed mason jars. Homebrewed wines and whiskeys were surreptitiously passed from one gent to the next.

The ladies didn’t approve of this activity, especially when it occurred so close to countless frolicking children. However, they also understood that their menfolk wouldn’t stay hitched to the matrimonial post for very long if they tied the reins too tight.

In compromise, everybody pretended that all comers found redemption in the lemonade we sold and served from five-gallon tubs. It usually wasn’t long before each player, be he pious or potted, grinned like a dead pig in sunshine.

Their resort complete, Uncle Finas and T.H. contributed doodle-dum-squat when it came to running things. Successful management of The Hill depended upon their female kin. But, as the old saying goes, “there’s no use goin’ back on raisin’, and denyin’ heritage.”

I, for one, haven’t denied my heritage, though I have resisted looking back on the latter-day past. Much of the truth that rests there is painful and ugly, but it must be told. Dark times have fallen on Alabama and the darkness has a name; it calls itself the Knights of the Ku-Klux.

Many are responsible for what has followed; someday, the true criminals will be known. I now realize that recent, tragic events were inevitable, even predestined. They resulted from decades of ignorance and hate. It’s as though every person I’ve ever known was born to play a role in the drama; by being themselves, in the act of living, the stage was struck.

* * *

Two significant events occurred during my childhood. The first, my earliest memory, heralded Egypt. I was two years old when she came to live with us at Sheridan House.

It was late, long past ten, when the rapid, desperate knocks rattled our back door. Daddy cradled me in his arms as he slowly lifted the metal latch, allowing the heavy, pine door to swing open.

Reverend Watkins stood before us. The sleeves of his shirt were singed, and the rest of him was covered in soot. He was breathing hard, his face red with excitement. The preacher shuffled from foot to foot, but his arms remained stiff as he awkwardly held a tiny, black newborn infant.

The mute child was a bundle of confusion and fright; she lay stone-still in the man’s arms. The babe was swaddled in a worn, homespun, woolly blanket. Tiny pieces of ash could be seen in the folds of the cloth that warmed her.

“She was abandoned,” the preacher said, his words ragged puffs of air. “I found her lyin’ in the dirt underneath the church steps.” Reverend Watkins was overcome by a coughing spell before he was able to say, “Somebody put her there, then set my church on fire. Their intention was to murder us both.”

A shocked, agitated silence followed. Finally, my father found his wits and said, “Come inside and sit down, Samuel. We’ll get to the bottom of this thing.” Daddy paused, cocked his head, then added, “I don’t hear the fire bell.”

Brother Watkins’ voice broke when he replied, “That’s because there’s nothin’ left to save.”

Mama walked up behind us and whispered, “Lord have mercy. Give her to me.” As the reverend gingerly passed the baby to my mother, she turned to my father and said, “Go find Essie.”

Egypt’s eyes met mine; an innate recognition of one another, special to young children, gave rise to an instant trust and strong bond between us. Egypt relaxed, rendering her first audible sound, a tiny squeak.

Essie arrived. Like someone reacting to the arrival of a long-anticipated package, she lovingly took the babe from my mother’s arms. Her subsequent, unexpected words hung in the air like stardust. “I had a dream you was comin’,” she cooed to the child. “I’ve been waitin’ a long time. They told me to call you Egypt. Praise the angels, here you are. Granny Essie will take care of you from now on.”

Essie’s last name, Lovall, adequately described her inner nature. God never created a more gentle spirit. Already in her late sixties, she had tended many white children, but she’d never had a child of her own. That is, until the night God sent Egypt to her.

We watched with fascination as Essie prepared a bottle of formula, carefully testing its temperature on the soft side of her dark wrist. The baby was hungry. Watching Egypt suckle on the bottle’s rigid nipple with determined relish, Essie guessed that she’d never been fed. Neither had the babe been bathed; when the blanket was pulled back, birthing blood, dried and caked, covered her tiny body.

Essie laughed when Egypt’s diminutive lips formed a suction hold rivaling a baby bull’s. As Essie fed the newfound orphan, Brother Watkins passionately related the horrifying, yet miraculous, details of that evening’s events.

Though Brother Watkins was white, his Pentecostal church was one of the rare places where black and white folks worshipped together. Nobody could remember how long this had been true for the Holy Church of the Brethren, but it’d occurred naturally during his thirty years as pastor, a fact that remained a thorn in the side of local, self-proclaimed Christian “purists.”

On this night, the minister had lingered at his pulpit, long after a lively snake handling service, to prepare his sermon for the following Sunday. At first, he thought he heard a cat scurrying on his roof. Then, he heard a slight bumping noise near the church entrance.

Believing he had an unexpected visitor, the preacher waited. When nobody entered, he walked to the door and found it blocked from the outside. Try as he might, Brother Watkins couldn’t force open his only exit.

Sounds of breaking glass from one side of the little church, and then the other, drew his attention. Burning torches ignited the wooden pews around him with terrifying precision. They’d been thrown through the small ventilation windows that bordered the ceiling.

Praying aloud, the minister tried to smother the growing flames with the altar cloth, to no avail. Thinking quickly, he retrieved an ax from the forward closet, on hand for the sanctuary’s wood burning stove. He hacked his way through the pine door as the smoke threatened to overcome him.

The preacher claimed that as he left the burning sanctuary, the Holy Ghost came upon him, took his hand and showed him where to find the deserted, sleeping child.

Neighbors who had seen the flames rushed to help, but too late. The smell of burning kerosene was unmistakable. The chapel went up like a match stick, aided by the fuel that doused the outer walls and roof. Holding Egypt tight, the minister prayed as the House of Worship burned to the ground.

Then, he climbed upon his horse and headed for our place. In deciding where to go, Brother Watkins realized two things. As a U.S. Marshall, my father was the highest ranking local lawman. And, even though Egypt was colored, the preacher knew our family would take her in.

Later that night, after Brother Watkins’ departure, my father told my mother that he had a gut feeling the reverend had left out some important part of the whole truth.

As the years passed, nasty things were whispered about how our family included Essie and Egypt. Some folks gossiped about who Egypt’s parents might have been, and how she looked only “half-colored.”

Prejudice was like a dusty, ill wind that regularly blew across our valley. Under cover of the “devil’s paintbrush,” with its pretty orange dandelions, it carried the aged barb of the thorny briarroot that pierced and stung everyone it touched.

The sum of it is, despite our critics, Egypt and I were raised together. She was a nervous tot, needing constant companionship. For a full year after she was found, Egypt wouldn’t sleep until she was placed beside me in my crib. Nightly, she’d grip my forefinger with quiet desperation, added insurance that she would never be left alone in the dark again.

* * *

I often felt hateful stares bore into me from behind whenever I was in town with Egypt. As a young child, she was extremely shy, a regular stutterer. She never, ever spoke in public. The morning following my tenth birthday, I stood before the candy counter at Marsh’s Grocery, watching with amusement as Egypt tried to decide which sugary treat to buy with the three pennies Daddy had given her.

Fanny Holt, my closest white friend, came into the store with her older, depraved brother, Grady. Like Grady, Fanny was as ugly as a mud dauber, but there the likeness stopped. On most days, Fanny’s pure, unspoiled spirit was mirrored by her quick wit and unassuming charm; but that day was different and it became a signpost for the future.

Grady Holt invented juvenile delinquency. His Baptist preacher father had a son as mean as old Satan wanted him to be. But I held Fanny to a higher standard.

“Boo!” Grady sneaked up from behind and scared Egypt by goosing her in the ribs.

“Leave her alone,” came my exasperated challenge. “I’ll make you sorry if you don’t.” I raised my fist and Grady hesitated before taking two steps back. I assumed he was remembering the time, three years earlier, I’d broken his nose for being too forward.

Several adults had gathered to watch this local form of entertainment, my unpredictable behavior regarding senseless insults leveled at Egypt. It surprised me when, with stuttering words meant to mimic Egypt, Fanny decided to show off for everyone. “Try those chocolate covered nuts over there, darkie. The ones that look like nigger toes. Don’t all you blackies suck your muddy feet when nobody’s lookin’?” Fanny’s audience rewarded her with clamorous laughter.

Though tears stained her long, thick lashes, Egypt stood ramrod straight. For the first time, she didn’t look to me for comfort or protection. Instead, she turned to face Fanny. Eight-year-old Egypt slowly walked toward her tormentor, head held high like a queen, while I held my breath. With angelic dignity, she gently lifted Fanny’s hand; Fanny was too stunned to resist. Then, Egypt pushed her three precious pennies into Fanny’s palm. “You’re the one that needs sweetenin’ today, Miss Fanny,” came Egypt’s timid murmur. “Try the jawbreakers.”

Fanny’s gaze met mine. Her expression belied anger, confusion, and shame as she and I held forth a mad-dog staring contest. Unspoken words and accusations passed between us like static-filled air.

During our formative years, Fanny and I usually played at her house, apart from Egypt. But sometimes, she’d bravely defy her parents, sneaking away with me and Egypt for covert fun in the shadowy woodlands near our homes. With time, uncertainty had turned to familiarity where Fanny and Egypt were concerned. But on the day that found us in Marsh’s Grocery, stubborn pride combined with choice words to spell betrayal, the most hateful kind. All for a laugh at Egypt’s expense.

An unfamiliar adult voice said, “That nigger’s been livin’ with white folks so long she’s forgotten her place, gotten uppity. Needs to be taken down a notch or two.”

That’s when I rushed forward to slap Fanny. The room was absolutely quiet after that. Curious bystanders waited for the show’s finale. Dumbstruck, Fanny stood still as a statue.

I took Egypt’s hand and kicked in Grady’s direction when he moved toward us. Egypt and I slowly backed away, step by step, until we reached the door. Fanny softly sobbed while I addressed the room, saying what they all needed to hear. “Unlike some people,” I declared, “Egypt does know her place. She belongs with those that love her. Something you’d all do well to remember.”

I narrowed my eyes, looked back at Fanny and added, “A person without real friends is no better than a bug in the dirt.”

We hotfooted it back to The Hill, my black sister and I, hand in hand. After that fateful day, she never stuttered again. But the many similar scenes that played out during our life together, though at different places and times, would find interchangeable actors wearing the same wretched masks. By the time we were grown, Egypt and I knew our lines by heart.

When Egypt was nine, Daddy gave Essie and her grandchild their own cottage. It sat on a cleared patch of ground on the west side of our home known as Posie’s Peach Orchard. It was a stone’s throw from the main house and I often went there to hear Essie’s unusual yarns.

Essie was a natural storyteller and teacher, a weaver of tales; she held Egypt and me spellbound for hours on end. As she sat in her worn, upholstered chair beside the fire, Essie talked of family that came from Africa, a land she called, “the lost place in time.” Essie’s stories advanced a sacred oral tradition that stretched across oceans and generations. She also had a hidden agenda—to plant seeds of meaning that would germinate and sprout with age.

A favorite spooky tale, passed down by tribal bushmen, revealed why the wind blows. “On the day we die,” Essie would dramatically and somberly begin, “the wind comes and blows away our footprints. The dust covers our tracks. The great, dark goddess livin’ under the ground knows for sure, then, we’re gone. Otherwise, she’d lose count of her creatures, get flustered and cause mayhem. If the ghost wind does its job, calamity is stopped. It howls and fusses for good reason, ’cause on the day of our passin’, its breath blows away any trace that we walked this earth.”

When I told Mama about Essie’s tales, she smiled and said, “Maybe we’re the ones livin’ in the lost place in time.”

It would be many years before the reason for the Pentecostal Church fire was explained; the answer would unearth secrets from the graves of both the innocent and the guilty. In the meantime, the dead remained a patient bunch. They’d wait their turn to talk. For most of her life, Egypt wondered if the facts of her parentage would ever be known. The main question that needed answering was why somebody tried to burn her alive.

* * *

Egypt was delivered to me, but I found Fawn. We were ten years old when we met—or I should say, when she saved my life.

I had a vague idea of Indians living down in Spunky Hollow; the recent arrival of these curious neighbors had created quite a stir in Village Springs. After listening to the offhand rumors and careless hearsay of several local townspeople, all kinds of foolish notions presented themselves to my uninformed childish mind, especially at night. I took to sleeping with my hat on, to up the chance of holding on to my flattened-down scalp.

One spring day, I’d wandered a fair distance from my home in search of wildflowers. I found myself in a colorful field of blooming foliage. An orchestra of Bluebonnets, Redtopped Sheep Sorrel, Granny Gray Beard, and Wild Iris played for me, luring me farther into the patch. I stood alone, eyes closed, imagining myself inside an enormous bouquet arranged upon a docile giant’s table. For a while, time eluded me.

As I reached out to pick a pretty, daisy-shaped cluster, I heard a voice say, “You better not touch that. It’s a chigger plant.”

I jumped and swung around in one continuous motion. There, three feet from me, was a girl my own age. Somehow, she’d sneaked up from behind without a sound. Where did she come from? I was mad as fire for being given such a start.

Fawn stood straight and still; I thought her beautiful, even then. Her skin was tanned a golden brown. Shiny thick strands of black hair caressed her shoulders and back. Her eyes sparkled, the color of hickory nuts. There was an undefinable quality about her manner, like a graceful untamed creature. It was a regal charm that I mistook, at first, for overbearing biggity.

I closely examined the flower in question, then loudly declared that I saw nothing that looked like a chigger bug.

“They’re so tiny they’ll fool your eyes,” Fawn said slowly, the way one patiently explains something to a small child. “Those red bitin’ bugs’ll dig into your flesh and cause it to welt up. When you pinch your skin, you can sometimes see ’em and scratch ’em off. Otherwise, they’ve got to be scraped out with a knife or have kerosene poured over ’em. You can be itched to death after pickin’ those ‘gussied up’ chigger plants.”

I was still bending close to the bloom as I watched her out of the corner of my eye. This young stranger had my undivided attention. I decided not to risk such a cruel and untimely death, so I drew away from the flower in question.

We faced off, sizing each other up. Our puckered lips reflected mutual irritation. Suddenly, our bodies collapsed to the ground, paralyzed by waves of helpless laughter. Every time we looked at each other, the howling, tittering commotion began all over again. Our bellies ached with spasms as tears streamed from our eyes.

Finally, a breeze-blown, gentle quiet settled over our meadow as Fawn and I lay in a clump of mashed-down wildflowers. Staring at the sky seemed the safest. It wouldn’t have taken much to start us laughing again, and I was tuckered out.

“I didn’t mean to scare you like that,” I heard her say. “I thought you would notice me comin’.”

“Never mind,” I answered. “Mamau Maude would’ve said I was asleep at the switch.”

“It’s awful hot,” Fawn murmured. Her voice carried a kind of purring quality, soothing and nice.

My reply came slowly, words subdued by fatigue and heat. “T.H. Sheridan is my daddy; he says the hotter the summer, the colder the winter.”

Whereupon, Fawn made an uncannily accurate observation. “Sure sounds like your family’s got a lot of sayin’s.”

It was almost enough to get me laughing again, but I controlled the urge. I swallowed hard and asked her if she was new to Village Springs, though I already knew the answer.

“Badgerwoman and I moved to Spunky Holler about a year ago. My daddy had bought the place, and was fixin’ to come with us before he died of the flux. He’s with my mama now. She died when I was a baby.” Fawn paused, then added, “We’ve kept to ourselves, settlin’ in and all.”

“Badgerwoman?” I asked, nonplused.

“She’s my granny, my daddy’s mama. Badgerwoman’s full-blooded Cherokee like Daddy was. Granny knows things. Secret things.”

Suddenly, Fawn appeared much older than her years. Her overall demeanor changed; this shift was subtle, yet unmistakable. For a moment in time, she loomed as Artemis personified, the way I’d envisioned the Greek heroine in mythic tales I’d read. Artemis, virgin goddess of the wilderness and the sacred hunt.

Like an old habit, my romantic nature distracted me. I hadn’t thought to ask this girl’s name, yet I wanted to know everything about her and her mysterious granny. Here I was, talking to one of the “fierce Injuns” of Spunky Hollow; the adventure was just too delicious.

Excitement swelled inside my head and I was, once again, lost in another daydream as my nostrils took in the pungent aroma of wild sassafras and wormwood. Suddenly, Fawn’s voice, low and whispery, interrupted my reverie. She was begging me not to move, but my unqualified amazement upon seeing her standing shadow, knife in hand, had the opposite effect. I sat straight up, realizing the problem too late.

The air around me hung in heavy stillness. I recognized the brown and orange checks of a copperhead. It’d slithered in our direction as we rested from our childish cackles. Instinctively, I rolled away from the moccasin. The creature’s rough skin shimmered majestically in the sun as it struck out, biting hard into my bare leg.

As I continued rolling, a dull thud shook the ground; Fawn’s knife had made its mark. I raised my head to see the snake skewered to a mound of daisies. It wasn’t quite dead; its tail moved slightly, while the woods around me appeared to blur.

A trickle of blood oozed from the puncture marks just above my ankle while I let loose with every cuss word I’d been able to acquire in my few short years. I then did a most peculiar thing; I ate clumps of dirt, handful after handful. It tasted warm and rich. The coarse, musty aroma soothed me somehow, and kept the panic down.

Fawn tightly locked her arms under mine, dragging me to the nearest shade tree, a weeping willow. I tried to stand but felt dizzy and overbalanced.

“What’s your name?”

“Pug.” My voice sounded separate from myself.

“I’m Fawn. Fawn Storm. I live in that holler by the creek. I’m gonna run over there and get Badgerwoman. I’m sure she’ll know what to do. You hunker down here and lie still.” Fawn ran toward the little valley where she and her grandmother lived.

The world around me appeared queer and dreamlike. I found myself lying in a big bed of red ants. It was as though every one of them took a notion to bite me. Before I could react to the pain, I realized they weren’t really there.

I remembered my mother; I thought about how mad she’d be that I was lolligagging in the fields with dinner waiting. Then, with a wrenching that reached down into my soul, I vomited all the gritty earth I’d consumed minutes before.

I took a mild oath and spoke it aloud with as much earnestness as I could muster. “Bless God! If I ever get done with this thing, I’ll always do right for as long as I live! I’ll even go to church. I won’t go back on you, Jesus, I swear . . .” I intended to go on praying for a while; I figured an oath needed to be long on words to take adequate hold. However, my soul sounds soon sank into merciful blackness.

* * *

I awoke after sundown, in the pink of evening. I wanted very much to go back to sleep as I was in a tremendous amount of pain. An old woman lit a kerosene lantern in the small room I found myself in. Even in my stupor, I noticed the character lines etched in the weathered face, illuminated with a red glow. It was an Indian face, with strong features and dark, leathery skin. Silken hair, pulled back into a tight bun, was black with wide bands of gray streaks. Long years had left their mark, a humped back and shoulders. She looked like an aged soul, one that’d been carrying a heavy load for a considerable time.

My sympathetic benefactor moved slowly and deliberately to my bedside; her wrinkled hand held a small pottery mug. “Drink this, child. Sleep more.”

“What is it? Who are you? Am I dead?”

A flicker of a smile crossed the old woman’s face. Before she spoke, she studied me with serene, black eyes. “I’m Badgerwoman. You’re in my bed. This is rattleroot tea. Works best for rattlesnake bites, but we can’t be fussy. You need to sweat out poison. Now drink.” The concoction put to my lips was as bitter as bile. I gritted my teeth to get it down. Once I’d swallowed all of it, my body felt warm and loosened.

I’d been placed in a feather bed, soft like the down of a goose’s breast, laid atop a corn shuck mattress. It felt like a womb, one that protected me from the darkness both inside and outside myself. As I passed the night in a fitful doze, Badgerwoman stayed by my side, chanting in modulated tones so powerful I knew God was listening. Mamau Maude says, “Kind deeds are a balm to the soul.” That night proved the truth of such a simple expression.

A rattle passed over me more than once; herbal tea was administered every hour. I was vaguely aware of pressure being applied to my wound. Cries for my mother were soothed with gentle words and caresses.

Some part of me hovered above the rest. I imagined my body to be a soft dessert and I, the real me, was a mound of whipped cream floating on its surface.

Past the window hovered a purple sky, covered with a blanket of stars. I knew that—if I chose—I could take flight, ascend to the Milky Way, and discover once and for all what lay on the other end of a sparkling night sky. If this side appears so radiant and beautiful, how glorious Heaven’s Gate must be.

That’s when a bizarre buzzing noise rattled my brain, followed by a voice that sounded neither male nor female. A proclamation reverberated loudly around the corners of the room: “No, little one. Put away your wings. The time hasn’t come that you may fly like an eagle. You must stay where you are.” I tried to reflect on this message, but awareness trailed off into sluggish slumber.

I awoke to familiar voices. It was well past the crack of day. “We were nearly out of our minds with worry,” my mother was saying. “I’m so thankful we came upon this girl when we did.”

Fawn had gone out at sunrise and found my posse; many in the search party were strangers to me, folks that cared enough to look for a lost child. Within minutes, the modest cabin overflowed with warm bodies. I hadn’t had that much attention since the day I’d cold-cocked Grady Holt for trying to look up my dress.

For a few local citizens, Fawn and Badgerwoman became folk heroes. Commonalties were recognized, including their desire to live a quiet, steadfast existence in our little town. Still, most Village Springers stubbornly held to ignorance, seeing all people of color as dirty or beneath themselves. Regularly, I’d see neighbors I had cared about while growing up intentionally cross the street in front of us, simply to avoid the two people that had saved me from certain death.

Small-minded spirits thrive in the dankest of places, the coldest of hearts, that’s what Daddy always said. From my perspective, and that of anyone who wasn’t lily-white, Village Springs was one of those bleak places. I was ashamed, determined to change things, starting with my own life.

Ignoring community-wide disgust, the Storms were made honorary members of the Sheridan clan. Like Fawn and me, my grandmother and hers became fast confidants during my convalescence; it was as though the four of us had known each other before.

My consummate fatigue, a remnant of the snake’s venom, was slowly but surely remedied by Mamau Maude and Badgerwoman. In due course, after weeks of soaking my leg in turpentine, the swelling died down and the soreness lifted. However, for years after my recovery, whenever springtime revisited, my leg would ache and swell around the puncture scars. I know it doesn’t sound reasonable, but it’s true.

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