To cover the houses and the stones with green—so the sky would make sense—you have to push down black roots into the dark.
REE DOLLY stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.
Snow clouds had replaced the horizon, capped the valley darkly, and chafing wind blew so the hung meat twirled from jigging branches. Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs. She smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered. The coming weather meant wash hung outside would freeze into planks, so she’d have to stretch clothesline across the kitchen above the woodstove, and the puny stack of wood split for the potbelly would not last long enough to dry much except Mom’s underthings and maybe a few T-shirts for the boys. Ree knew there was no gas for the chain saw, so she’d be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the valley and fell around her.
Jessup, her father, had not set by a fat woodpile nor split what there was for the potbelly before he went down the steep yard to his blue Capri and bounced away on the rut road. He had not set food by nor money, but promised he’d be back soon as he could with a paper sack of cash and a trunkload of delights. Jessup was a broken-faced, furtive man given to uttering quick pleading promises that made it easier for him to walk out the door and be gone, or come back inside and be forgiven.
Walnuts were still falling when Ree saw him last. Walnuts were thumping to ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing that never quite came into view, and Jessup had paced on this porch in a worried slouch, dented nose snuffling, lantern jaw smoked by beard, eyes uncertain and alarmed by each walnut thump. The darkness and those thumps out in the darkness seemed to keep him jumpy. He paced until a decision popped into his head, then started down the steps, going fast into the night before his mind could change. He said, “Start lookin’ for me soon as you see my face. ’Til then, don’t even wonder.”
She heard the door behind her squeak and Harold, age eight, dark and slight, stood in pale long johns, holding the knob, fidgeting from foot to foot. He raised his chin, gestured toward the meat trees across the creek.
“Maybe tonight Blond Milton’ll bring us by one to eat.”
“That could be.”
“Don’t kin ought to?”
“That’s what is always said.”
“Could be we should ask.”
She looked at Harold, with his easy smile, black hair riffling in the wind, then snatched his nearest ear and twisted until his jaw fell loose and he raised his hand to swat at hers. She twisted until he bore up under the pain and stopped swatting.
“I’m cold,” he said. He rubbed his smarting ear. “Is grits all we got?”
“Butter ’em more. There’s still a tat of butter.”
He held the door and they both stepped inside.
“No, there ain’t.”
MOM SAT in her chair beside the potbelly and the boys sat at the table eating what Ree fed them. Mom’s morning pills turned her into a cat, a breathing thing that sat near heat and occasionally made a sound. Mom’s chair was an old padded rocker that seldom rocked, and at odd instants she’d hum ill-matched snips of music, notes unrelated by melody or pitch. But for most of any day she was quiet and still, wearing a small lingering smile prompted by something vaguely nice going on inside her head. She was a Bromont, born to this house, and she’d once been pretty. Even as she was now, medicated and lost to the present, with hair she forgot to wash or brush and deep wrinkles growing on her face, you could see she’d once been as comely as any girl that ever danced barefoot across this tangled country of Ozark hills and hollers. Long, dark, and lovely she had been, in those days before her mind broke and the parts scattered and she let them go.
Ree said, “Finish up eatin’. Bus’ll be along soon.”
The house had been built in 1914, the ceilings were high, and the single light overhead threw dour shadows behind everything. Warped shadow-shapes lay all across the floor and walls and bulged in the corners. The house was cool in the brighter spots and chill in the shadows. Windows set high into the walls, and outside the panes torn plastic sheeting from the winter before whipped and fluttered. The furniture came into the house when Mamaw and Grandad Bromont were alive, had been in use since Mom was a child, and the lumpy stuffing and worn fabric yet held the scent of Grandad’s pipe tobacco and ten thousand dusty days.
Ree stood at the sink rinsing dishes, looking out the window onto the sharp slope of bare trees, looming rock ledges and a thin mud trail. Storm wind shoved limbs around and whistled past the window frame, hooted down the stovepipe. The sky came into the valley low, glum and blustery, about to bust open and snow.
Sonny said, “These socks smell.”
“Would you just put ’em on? You’ll miss the bus.”
Harold said, “My socks smell, too.”
“Would you just
Sonny and Harold were eighteen months apart in age. They nearly always went about shoulder to shoulder, running side by side and turning this way or veering that way at the same sudden instant, without a word, moving about in a spooky, instinctive tandem, like scampering quotation marks. Sonny, the older boy, was ten, seed from a brute, strong, hostile, and direct. His hair was the color of a fallen oak leaf, his fists made hard young knots, and he’d become a scrapper at school. Harold trailed Sonny and tried to do as he did, but lacked the same sort of punishing spirit and muscle and often came home in need of fixing, bruised or sprained or humiliated.
Harold said, “They don’t really stink that bad, Ree.”
Sonny said, “Yeah, they do. But it don’t matter. They’ll be in our boots.”
Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law. There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the