Blue trotted onward through tall, wet grasses. The enchanting music of nearby Katydids, hidden in lush meadows, filled my ears. My young mind’s eye conjured fantasy picnics under moonlit skies—images of amour. Our cross-country path led to an ancient Indian trail, given the colorful name Bear Meat Cabin Road. The name “Bear Meat” belonged to an old Cherokee chief who’d lived in the area, long before the first white man had ever passed foot. The dusty byway shimmered, polished by rain; my pony chose his footing carefully in the hoof-deep mud.

I scanned the nearby fields, filled with bright yellow flowers that bestowed a golden glow on the environs, like the haze from a fire. I thought about something Badgerwoman once told me; the early Cherokee called themselves “Cha-la-Kee,” chosen from the word “Cher-fire,” meaning men of divine fire. Perhaps some of those Cha-la-Kee were buried under the incandescent yellow blossoms, the wisdom of a lost age reflected in the surreal light of a hazy afternoon.

“It’s beautiful!” I shouted. Out of nowhere, a hawk swooped down and playfully circled overhead before disappearing into the brightness of the sun.

I neared Horseshoe with growing anticipation. A wives’ tale goes, “in the dark all cats are gray.” That evening, Seven Sisters would declare that saying true as we completed the final, formal ritual to establish our club. Breaking long-standing southern taboos, we’d blend our assorted hues, becoming one in sisterhood.

But first, Fawn had to complete the egg tree rite. On the appointed night, each sister was required to make such a tree, following a strict protocol. A small hole was poked into each end of several eggs and their contents sucked out, one egg for each year of the initiate’s age. Egypt, being the youngest, had sucked eight eggs; the others had swallowed nine. Ten was the required number for me, as it would be for Fawn. Vomiting was allowed, but every egg had to be devoured.

The initiate used the “blown” eggs to decorate a small, dead bush, dug up before the ceremony. After cropping its limbs, the girl tied the eggs on to the little tree with bright, shiny threads. Then came the scary part. With her sisters watching from a safe distance, the new recruit set the bush into the ground near the cabin of Rola Moon, the rumored witch of Village Springs.

Rola lived alone and was feared by most people who knew of her, though I’d never heard anybody say they really knew her. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d actually seen the witch. Remarkably self-sufficient, she came in contact with other people no more than she had to.

In desperation, some folks would go to Rola Moon for help when sickness, or other calamity, struck their family. They said her spells always worked; payment was a chicken, a blanket, whatever they had to give. It was whispered that Rola used her conjuring magic to do other things, like keeping a husband or wife from flirting around, or giving a rival bad luck. Her “customers” always kept their business with her to themselves; conspiring with Rola was denounced by all the local preachers. In fact, she was condemned to Hell from some pulpits.

According to the Seay sisters’ granny, a woman born and raised in the blue hills of Kentucky, an egg tree limited a witch’s powers. If caught in the act, however, Seven Sisters never doubted we’d be boiled alive. The terror of the deed was surpassed only by our impishness. Six of us had succeeded without incident; this night was Fawn’s turn.

I tumbled into the hidden grotto to find a fire already burning. Fawn, as usual, was one step ahead of me. We’d settled into a comfortable routine over the summer; I always slept at Fawn’s house on Sundays so Mama would habitually assume where I’d be, except she didn’t really know. My mother would’ve thrown a conniption fit if she knew that I often slept in a dank cave on cold ground.

No living adult knew about our meetings in Horseshoe Cave, except Badgerwoman. Weeks earlier, Fawn had shown the hidden chamber to her granny while they were roaming the woods, grubbing for herbs. Badgerwoman never gave away our secret, not even to Mamau Maude. With the passing of time, the old Indian became a mentor to us all through Fawn’s stories.

During the initial stages of our clandestine assemblies, we came together on an irregular basis. Eventually, a full moon signaled that it was time to meet, a gentle light that guided each girl’s path through the woods.

“Badgerwoman packed a good dinner tonight,” Fawn announced as she laid out the squirrel that her grandmother had parboiled, then recooked in fresh water with sassafras root. My mouth watered at the sight of walnut bread smeared with pumpkin butter; it was earthy food, well-suited to the coarse surroundings. “Too bad, I can’t eat any of this since I’ll be havin’ eggs for supper,” Fawn cracked.

“You ready?” I asked, knowing what lay ahead.

She rolled her eyes and nodded. “Let’s talk about something else before the others come. It’ll help me calm down. I can’t stop thinkin’ about the tasty ‘girl stew’ the witch will make if she catches me.”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured. “Rola Moon wasn’t even home all the other egg tree nights. At least, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t. I think she prowls around after dark; she’ll never even know you’ve been there.”

Fawn shook her head, insistent. “Not this time. She’s waitin’. Somehow the witch knows I’m comin’. I can feel it.” She shivered and rubbed her arms in the passing chill.

I searched my mind for something to say, but drew a blank. I was thankful when Fawn spoke again. “You look starry-eyed. Anybody I know?”

“I doubt it, since you could count on five fingers the number of boys you’re acquainted with,” I said, teasing.

“Around here, boys worth talkin’ to are as scarce as hen teeth,” she shot back.

“Well shut my mouth, Fawn Storm, you’re startin’ to sound like me!” It was good to see her brief smile. “Put another log on the fire, and I’ll tell you about my day,” I cajoled, realizing a way I could divert my friend’s anxiety.

Fawn listened intently as I told her about being baptized twice, how different the church services were, dinner at my house, and the Strawbridge brothers. It took more than an hour in the telling, my mouth chugged full, running over with the details of the day’s events.

“I’d say this was an important afternoon in your life, Pug. What granny calls a ‘starhawk’ day.” Fawn didn’t talk much after that; she didn’t need to. We’d become such good friends that we now thought alike; much of our communication was body language, an intuitive link.

Whenever the other girls would ask why Fawn’s words could be so few and far between, I’d answer, “It’s just her way. Remember, she’s part Indian.”

By the time I’d finished embellishing that day’s adventures, the other five had arrived. What a ragtag bunch we were, with our torn coveralls and colorful, short sleeved shirts. (Except for Newt, who insisted on wearing a dress every day of the year, winter blizzards included.)

Violet’s and Ruby’s clothes always appeared a size too small, but they were clean. The Seay sisters quickly unfurled the candy they’d brought, delighting in our squeals of appreciation. “We’ll eat it later, you know, after all the excitement,” they stipulated with knowing looks.

Newt was as fidgety as a cricket, her usual state. Egypt glowed with unmitigated joy, a heightened reflection of her happy-go-lucky self. Fanny’s high-spirited presence filled the room. Fawn remained in a hushed daze, absorbed in thought; we assumed it was a Cherokee approach to what was coming, a kind of mental preparation.

The group’s overall excitement was palpable. No verbal mention was made about what could go wrong; everyone knew Fawn’s dread. She watched with interest as each sister, in turn, silently pulled out a pocketed egg and placed it into the ceremonial basket. Fawn added two, and I contributed the final three eggs to the collection, part of the stash I’d pilfered at breakfast. But it was still too early to begin the rite. Instead, we passed around the talking stick as we waited for darkness.

We kept a tally of achievement after talking stick “events,” with scrape marks rasped upon the cave wall. Fanny and I were in fierce competition for the Seven Sisters title of “Miss Mouth of the South.”

That night, after drawing for straws, Violet went first. Unprepared, she made up a crack-brained fable as she went along. “While walkin’ here tonight,” she began, “it looked like the full moon was swallowin’ the silvery clouds. Maybe the moon’s really alive, a monster that eats vapors to stay afloat, and keep its inner glow. But when it looks watery, like last week, it has gobbled too many wisps and is feelin’ poorly, soggy even, like when we drink too much cider.” Good-natured moans and groans noisily resounded in the chamber. Violet shook the elaborate rattle to signal the end of her time, and eagerly passed it to her sister.

Ruby was ready with a riddle. “When was the first talkin’ stick created?” Itching to give the answer, she impatiently waited until we’d hushed, then yelled, “When Eve gave Adam a little Cain! Get it, a little cane?”

Egypt, always shy when it came her turn, often had something original to say; she was good at eliciting red-faced giggles, a natural comedian. “Granny showed me how to cure my hiccups by holdin’ my breath for a whole minute. If y’all promise to stay quiet and count, I’ll prove I can do it.”

An electrifying stillness filled the cave as Egypt held her breath for an impressively long time. Just before a minute had passed, Fanny leaned over and wickedly tickled her under the chin, forcing Egypt into a giggle. Fanny leapt up and the chase was on as Egypt playfully pursued her around the cave. Ultimately, Egypt caught her rascally friend, then tickled her bare feet until Fanny begged for mercy, evening the score.

Fawn passed her turn, giving the floor to Newt, who often came primed with queries that ran along a never ending thread. Her mind was a surplus of opinions and inclinations about the lives of the lovelorn. “What’s the difference between a taken lover and one who’s been turned down?” Newt’s body was all aquiver. An inadvertent belch erupted as she cried, “One kisses his miss, and the other misses his kiss!”

Fanny took the rattle and declared, “Daddy never lets me play cards; he says they’re of the devil. I think he’s wrong; cards are fun. So here’s a trick my Granny showed me. If you want to win the game, stick a crooked pin inside your clothes.” Fanny theatrically revealed the rusted hat pin attached to her inside pants cuff, and hysterics ensued.

After an hour of informal comedic competition, we’d almost tittered ourselves out. When my final turn came, I could smell victory. Feeling smug, I asked, “Why does a dog’s nose always feel chilly to the touch?” No answer. Whereupon I began to recite: “There sprung a leak in Noah’s Ark which made the canine start to bark. Noah took its snout to plug the hold. That’s why a dog’s snoot is always cold.”

“Pug Sheridan, you just made that up! In all my born days, I’ve never heard a more ridiculous poem!” It was Fanny. With a self-satisfied grin, I returned the talking stick to her, an obvious challenge. “All right, Pug. You win!” Fanny announced good-naturedly. “But don’t get too cocky. I’ll be ready for you next time, with some stupid rhymes of my own.”

That night, we reveled in our perceived wickedness as we sang forbidden Yankee songs, then passed the “peace pipe” that Fawn filled with her own unique recipe, comprised of cinnamon, sage, and lavender petals. It was past ten when the carefree interval ended. Our pent-up, girlish energy was spent, allowing us to focus on the weighty matters at hand.

The egg tree rite began. Seven Sisters transformed themselves into prim and proper young ladies. We were the picture of decorum as we exited the cave. Beneath the light of a silver-gray moon, we formed a cohesive circle around our final initiate.

Fawn’s breath appeared fast and uneven as I wordlessly handed her a canteen of water, but the young Cherokee then calmed herself, closing her eyes while inhaling, slow and deep. She waited several minutes before uttering her special chant (each girl’s was different), repeating the prayer three times, her voice clear as crystal. “The river will watch over me. The ocean’s tide shall carry me. Like a mother, the waters of Spring.”

Ruby handed Fawn a thick, straight sewing needle. With expert precision, Fawn took an egg and poked the first hole in the larger end of the oval, gradually widening the opening with a circling motion; she repeated the deft action at the narrower end of the egg. Watching her, I suspected she’d been practicing for days. Fawn put the shell to her lips and rapidly slurped the contents as her sisters applauded, reciting in unison, “Seven Sisters hatched like an egg. Swallow the golden egg.”

Fawn stared fixedly into space while exhibiting superior control over her gag reflex. Amazingly, she vomited only twice while sucking all ten eggs, a Seven Sisters record. She also proved to be the nimblest when it came to tying her eggs on to the tree branches. The rest of us had hurried to end the rite, but not Fawn. She insisted on drawing a charcoal picture on each and every egg, creatures mostly: birds, fish, spiders, and others.

When the egg tree was ready, the seven of us walked to Rola Moon’s cabin in tense silence, traveling in a scraggled line hand-in-hand, our only protection against otherworldly, threatening sounds coming from the blanketed woods. Wild boar were on the hunt, running in packs, their grunts and snorts too close for comfort. Panther screams, far off in the hills, sounded like a terrified woman.

Occasionally, we’d hear the screech of an owl, an eerie sound in a darkened forest, warning off any enemy endangering its young. “Owls will gouge out your eyes for gettin’ too close to their nest,” Fanny volunteered with perfect timing. Terrified, Egypt squeezed my hand so hard it grew numb.

“This is scary enough, Fanny, without your two cents worth,” I whispered.

“Some folks just don’t know how to have a damn good time,” came Fanny’s retort. She defiantly pressed on, “By astral light, by moonbeams bright, I make the wish I want tonight . . .”

I couldn’t resist the dare, so taking her cue I responded, “The hag is old, bent like her cane, we’ll soon take all the power she’s gained.”

Newt spoke for the other five girls. “You’re scarin’ the dickens out of us! You may think it’s funny, but this isn’t the time for a cursin’ contest. You two don’t know when to quit. Besides, did you ever stop to think that your hexes might backfire?”

Chagrined, Fanny and I kept close-mouthed for the rest of the trip. When we reached our destination, all was quiet and dark, both inside and outside the witch’s house.

Six of us sought safety within a large sunflower patch while Fawn cautiously approached the house. She turned and whispered, “I don’t like it when the crickets are this still at night. It means something’s wrong.”

Fawn’s worst fears were quickly realized. As she prepared to set her roots into the ground, Rola Moon bounded onto the porch. The sorceress squatted, hooting like an owl, “Whoo, Whoo?” It was a perfect imitation of the real thing; the owl cries in the forest had been Rola all along, stalking us as we approached her property. The witch stood and faced the sunflowers that shielded us from view; we held our breath, feeling naked and exposed.

At first, the witch acted like she couldn’t see Fawn, frantically digging in the earth six feet from the porch step. “Who goes there? Is it the rites of ancient ripenin’?” Rola shouted. “Answer me now! Do you lie with silence?” She sounded furious.

Fawn quickly shoved her egg tree into the hole she’d dug, then filled it in with dirt. With catlike agility, the witch was off the porch, facing Fawn, nose to nose. Fawn tried to flee, but Rola grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Oh my God,” whispered Ruby. “She’s gonna eat her alive if we don’t do something.”

“Ruby’s right,” said Egypt. “If we tackle her all together, we can knock the harpy down, grab Fawn, then run like hell.”

“I’ll stab the old shrew with my hat pin,” chimed Fanny, loud enough to draw Rola Moon’s attention.

When the witch turned to look in our direction, the woman’s expression startled me. An inkling of understanding crept into my mind. “Wait,” I said, addressing my friends. “Nobody move. Stay where you are ’til I say.”

“This ain’t no time to act like the boss,” argued Fanny. “Are you just gonna stand here while Fawn has her tender giblets cooked at a slow simmer?”

“Shh!” I flashed Fanny a look that could kill and she hushed. What I’d noticed was incongruous; the witch appeared sad, confused, on the verge of tears. “Who’s scarin’ who?” I wondered.

Still grasping her by the shoulders, Rola Moon studied Fawn’s face for the longest time, like she wanted to ask a question but didn’t know how. She looked our way again and hollered, “Mirror, clear mind. Let it be renewed this time!”

“She’s crazy I tell you,” Fanny insisted. “Has been for years, accordin’ to Daddy.”

Rola looked back at Fawn and said, “Be gone red-lettered signs. Looking glass of doubt! A puzzle. Whoo, Whoo?” Rola inexplicably loosened her grip, allowing Fawn to escape. Our Indian friend unleashed a raw, grizzled howl, the victory cry of the Cherokee, as she raced across the witch’s yard. Seven Sisters waited until she reached us.

“Whatever happens, don’t look back!” came Fawn’s excited words. Together, we scampered back to Horseshoe, empowered by the force of female friendship. We drank strong coffee until midnight, recounting Fawn’s daring escapade again and again.

The final initiation had been completed. Now, we came together for our most important moment, the consecration of our club, uniting in a bonding ritual and pledge. Fanny dramatically produced a gleaming razor blade, and our nervous breathing conjoined as one breath, a seven-part harmony.

Hesitantly, Egypt reached into her pocket and unfolded one of my father’s old handkerchiefs, holding it securely by the sides so that it sagged in the middle. Fanny sheared off a piece of her thick, brown hair, and placed it in the center of the cloth; then she held the ritual fabric so that Egypt could cut a sizable length from one of her own pigtails. I was next. One by one, we added large chucks of our long locks to the growing pile.

The razor came ’round again and, expectantly, Fanny held the handkerchief near me. I loudly sighed, then pricked my right forefinger, letting the bloody, dark droplets fall on the silky border of the snowy cloth. I focused on remembering the Seven Sisters secret oath as I recited it aloud: “In the name of the seven daughters of Atlas: Maia, Electra, Calaeno, Taygeta, Merope, Alcyone, and Sterope, who under the moon of long nights were metamorphosed into stars, I give you my solemn pledge.” The oath was my own creation. I’d read and re-read the story of Atlas, and his daughters, from a book on Greek mythology; it captivated Seven Sisters’ romantic spirits.

Fawn didn’t flinch as she coolly sliced her own soft flesh, allowing the blood to spurt forth and join mine. There were sharp gasps, and stifled moans, as the keen bite of the razor traveled farther around the circle. Violet was last; her voice squeaked as she announced, “I know I’ll faint if I do this standin’ up. Y’all mind if I sit down to draw my blood?” As if unified by a group spell, everyone nodded a silent assent. We were seven, synchronized in our goal, when Violet added her blood to ours, the handkerchief now dyed red, the color of ripened pomegranate.

I lifted the small basket that contained seven slips of paper, bearing the names of Atlas’s daughters. As the basket was passed, each girl spun outside the circle in rounds of seven, then drew a name, permanently capturing her secret sobriquet, known only to the other six. Egypt drew Taygeta, Violet became Maia. Fawn pulled Calaeno, Ruby became Merope. The luck of the draw made Fanny Alcyone and Newt Sterope; I was Electra.

We wrapped the papers bearing our secret names in the damp cloth that contained our blood splattered hair. As I tossed the sacrosanct material into the fire, we held hands and repeated the pledge as a group. At that moment, the Seven Sisters covenant was sealed.

We celebrated with the Seay sisters’ gift of peppermint sticks. The fancy candy was sugary rich, offering a needed energy boost. For several minutes, words were supplanted with cheeky giggles.

Finally, Fanny spoke for us, her thoughts bursting forth like rapidly fired bullets. “Tonight has been the happiest in my life. I can’t wait to see what happens next! If we stick together, we’re unstoppable. You’re the best buddies I’ll ever know.” As Fanny made eye contact around the circle, she added, “Each and every one of you can count on me in a fight, even to death. I keep my promises.”

With reluctant good-byes, and a lot of foot-dragging, we ended the evening. Our circle broken, Seven Sisters left the cave to creep back into their respective houses—that is, except for Fawn and me.

Before we scrambled into our bed rolls, Fawn ran outside to vomit one last time; she was clearly tuckered out when she returned. “You look tired enough to be makin’ three tracks in the sand,” I joked.

Fawn smiled. “Badgerwoman ends her prayers with the same words every evenin’ . . . ‘Blessed be this night for dawn is sure to follow.’ Now I know what she means.”

By the time I lit a long-burning candle, my friend was sound asleep. “Blessed be this night,” I whispered before closing my eyes to welcome the dark.

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