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Bloodroot (Vintage Contemporaries)by Amy Greene
Myra looks like her mama, but prettier because of her daddy mixed in. She got just the right amount of both. The best thing about Myra's daddy was his eyes, blue as the sky. They'd pierce right through you. Myra ended up with the same blue-blue eyes. I always figured she was too pretty and then John Odom came along. Now I'll die alone. It's not that I'm scared of being alone with this mountain. I love it like another person. I just miss my grandbaby. Me and Myra's mama wasn't close. Clio had little regard for me or Macon either one. Myra's the daughter I always wished I had.
I didn't see nothing wrong with John Odom at first, but even if I'd seen that snake coiled up inside his heart I wouldn't have tried to stop her. I could tell by her eyes Myra had to have him whatever the outcome. Now I know the outcome is no good. This morning I went to see her and it broke my heart in two. I can't stand to think about what he might be doing to her beside of them tracks. Through the years I got tougher than a pine knot, but something about getting this old has softened me up. I reckon I have too much time to think about my troubles these days, without Myra here to talk to.
I should have seen what was coming after that time she got in late from the library. She was supposed to have been studying with one of her school friends. But I caught a funny shine in her eyes. "What have you been up to?" I asked.
She went to the sink and got a glass of water, gulped it down like she'd been in a race. She turned around and her cheeks looked hot. She smiled with water shining on her lips. "I'll tell you later, Granny, I promise. Right now I want to keep it just for me."
"You're silly," I said, but the way her eyes shined made me nervous. Then I got busy tidying up the kitchen before bed and forgot all about it.
When I finally laid down, I fell asleep as quick as my head hit the pillow. Thinking back, it was an unnatural sleep, like I had drunk a sleeping potion. I had a dream that I was standing on a rickety bridge over muddy water. The roar of it was so loud I couldn't hear nothing else. Then I seen there was things getting carried off in the rapids. It was pieces of our house on Bloodroot Mountain. The leg off of my favorite chair. The quilt I made for Myra when she was a baby. A drawer out of the kitchen buffet. A baby doll Myra used to play with. Some floorboards and a few shingles and even the front door came rolling by. Then there was a crack and my foot went through the boards of that old bridge. It started coming apart, jagged pieces dropping and rushing away, until I was hanging on by a scrap of rotten wood, my feet dangling over the water. If I fell it would carry me off, too. Finally I couldn't hold on no longer. Just as I was dropping, I jerked awake, wringing wet with sweat. I set up on the side of the bed, heart thudding so hard I was afraid it might give out on me. I should have knowed right then. Grandmaw Ruth always said it's bad luck to dream of muddy waters.
Last night I closed the door to the smokehouse where the bloodroot is kept in cardboard boxes, away from the mice and bugs. I stood there with my back against it, looking across the yard. The house was dark with my parents sleeping and all my brothers gone. Behind barbwire the pasture made a chain of starlit humps. I took the feedbag, heavy with corn, to the barn on quivering legs. The cows are sold and the field was still, but from the barn came fitful knocking sounds. Wild Rose never rests. Daddy had to put her up because she's been getting loose more often. I think I know why. Myra Lamb is gone from her house down the mountain and Rose has been looking for her.
I went to the black opening of the barn and turned on my flashlight. The knocking sounds stopped at once. I could sense Wild Rose waiting for me in the shadows of her stall. The smells of manure and damp hay turned my stomach. Walking deeper into the barn, I saw the reflective shine of her glassy blue eyes and wanted to turn back.
"Rose," I said. "I brought you something good to eat."
The horse didn't stir as I came down the aisle, like she knew what I was up to. She's never liked being touched, but she usually lets me strap on the feedbag. I was hoping the taste of sweet corn would hide the bitterness of what I'd laced it with.
"You hungry?" It was hard to hear myself over the thudding of my heart. Part of me couldn't believe what I was doing. Maybe I was still in bed asleep.
Wild Rose took a few steps toward the front of the stall. I could hear her breath snuffling through the wet channels of her nostrils. Somehow, even before she charged, I knew that she had figured me out. She exploded out of the stall door as she had out of the trailer the first time I saw her, a storm of splintering wood and pounding hooves, with a scream that threatened to split my head in two. I dropped the feedbag and the flashlight and clapped my hands over my ears. I felt the hot passage of her body like a freight train in the dark, the force of it knocking me down. Then she was gone, out the barn opening and across the hills, leaving me to lie in a mess of spilled corn and bloodroot.
When I was a girl I lived across another mountain in a place called Chickweed Holler. Until I was ten years old, me and Mammy lived with Grandmaw Ruth, and two of Grandmaw's sisters, Della and Myrtle. I used to crawl up in Grandmaw's lap to study her face and follow its lines with my finger. She stayed slim and feisty up until the day she died of a stroke, walking home in the heat after birthing somebody's baby. Myrtle had hair soft and white as dandelion fluff that she liked for me to comb out and roll for her. They was all good-looking women, but Della was the prettiest. Her hair stayed black right up to the end of her life, and she didn't have as many wrinkles as Grandmaw. I reckon it's because she didn't have to work as much in the sun. She was the youngest and Myrtle and Grandmaw still babied her, old as all three of them was.
It was just me and Mammy after my daddy passed away, so Grandmaw took us in. We lived in a little cabin with a porch up on stilts. I liked to play under there, where they kept mason jars and rusty baling wire and all manner of junk for me to mess in. Chickweed Holler was a wild place with the mountains rising steep on both sides. From Grandmaw's doorstep you could see a long ways, wildflower fields waving when the summer winds blowed. That land was in our family for generations and Grandmaw and my great-aunts loved it as good as they did any of their kin.
All the neighbors thought the world of Grandmaw and her sisters. They was what you call granny women, and the people of Chickweed Holler relied on them for any kind of help you can think of. Each one of them had different gifts. Myrtle was what I've heard called a water witch. She could find a well on anybody's land with her dowsing rod. People sent for her from a long ways off. Sometimes they'd come to get her and she'd fetch the forked branch she kept under her bed and hop in their wagon. She'd be gone for days at a time, depending on how hard of a trip it was. Della was the best one at mixing up cures. She could name any root and herb and flower you pointed at. Another thing she was good for was healing animals. She could set the broke leg of the orneriest hunting dog and it wouldn't even bite her. One day I seen her in the yard bent over the washtub scrubbing and a bird lit on her shoulder. It stayed for a long time. If she noticed, she didn't let on. I stood still, trying not to scare it away. When I told Grandmaw about it later, she said animals are attracted to our kind of people, and so are other people of our kind. She winked and said, "Don't be surprised if the feller you marry has the touch. People with the touch draws one another." I've always remembered that, but I don't reckon Macon had none of the gifts Grandmaw and her sisters had. I didn't either. It's odd how the touch moves in a family. You never can tell who'll turn up with it.
Grandmaw had the best gift of all. She claimed she could send her spirit up out of her body. She said, "You could lock me up in the jailhouse or bury me alive down under the ground. It don't matter where this old shell is at. My soul will fly off wherever I want it to be." She told me about a time she fell down in a sinkhole when she was little and couldn't climb back out. She had wandered far from the house and knowed her mammy and pappy couldn't hear her. She looked up at the sun between the roots hanging down like dirty hair and wished so hard to fly up out of there that her spirit took off, rose, and soared on back to her little house in the holler. That's when she figured out what her gift was. She had no memory of being stuck in a hole that day. What she remembered was watching her mammy roll out biscuit dough and romping with her puppy dog and picking daisies to braid a crown. Grandmaw wasn't even hollering when a man out hunting came along and his dog sniffed her out. That's the gift I wish I had. I'd go back to Chickweed Holler right now and see if everything still looks the same.
It doesn't take as much to poison a horse as people think. You just have to know what to feed one. A few oleander leaves, a little sorghum grass, a bit of yellow star thistle and a horse can choke faster than the vet can get there. Tie your horse to a black locust or a chokecherry tree and it could be dead within minutes. Bloodroot is dangerous to horses, too. We have a carpet of it growing down the side of our mountain when springtime comes, thriving under the shady tree canopy high above our house. We have to walk quite a piece each year to find it. Daddy says such a lush stand is rare these days. My brother Mark, Daddy, and I used to go up there with hand spades and a sack, noses red in the leftover cold of winter. Bloodroot can be harvested in fall but the leaves have died back, so it's harder to know where the plants are. That's why we always made the trip in early spring, when the flowers are spread across the slope like the train of a wedding gown. We had to be careful not to damage the roots. When Mark and I were small, Daddy would yell at us if we were too rough, "That's money y'uns is throwing away!" He taught us to shake the roots free of clinging black soil and brush off the bugs and pluck away any weeds that might have got tangled in. Then we had to move fast because bloodroot is easy to mold. We'd head back down the mountain with our sacks to spray the roots with the water hose attached to the wellhouse spigot, washing away the dirt. Once the roots were clean we put them in the smokehouse to dry for about a week. Daddy or one of us would check them for mold once in a while, and when they broke without bending they were dry enough to store. Sometimes we got up to ten dollars a pound. I've heard bloodroot's good for curing croup, and it's even been used for treating certain kinds of cancer. Some of it we kept for ourselves, to use on poison ivy and warts. I've known bloodroot to last in a cool, dark place for up to two years. It will also kill a horse. Daddy told me so last spring, the last time we went up the mountain to dig.
It was March and still cold enough to see our breath. Daddy lumbered along beside me and Mark walked on ahead because, even though we're both grown, he always had to be the fastest. We heard the crack of Wild Rose's hooves before we saw her.
"Dang horse," Mark said. He hoisted himself up by a sapling onto a shelf of rock. "She's loose again."
Daddy shook his head but I saw a grin ripple under his beard. His beloved Rose could do no wrong. Not far up the mountain we saw the bloodroot, a lacy white patch littered with dead leaves. Wild Rose stepped out of the trees near the scattering of flowers and stood looking down at us, tail switching. Her beauty took my breath away.
"I don't believe I've ever seen her stray this far from home," Mark said. "She must be looking for something to eat up here that she's not getting in the pasture. Do you think she needs a dose of vitamins, Daddy?"
Wild Rose blinked at us indifferently for another second or two, then lowered her head to crop at the mossy grass beside the patch of bloodroot. All of a sudden Daddy sprang forward and threw up his arms. "Hyar, Rose!" he shouted. "Git!" Wild Rose turned and thundered off between the trees, tail high.
"Shoot, Daddy," Mark said. "You scared me half to death."
"Wouldn't take much of that bloodroot to kill a horse," Daddy said. He straightened his stocking hat and picked up the sack he had dropped. He moved on with Mark but I stood looking after Rose for a long time.
"This here's a three-man operation, Douglas," Daddy finally called. I went and joined them on my knees among the flowers.
From the Hardcover edition.
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