by Nat Burns
Delora November is a survivor—ask anyone in Redstar, Alabama, and they will tell you that. Her ex-husband put her in a burn ward and she came fighting back. She works three jobs and on the surface she’s keeping it together.
Redstar itself works its own magic. When the thought of yet another hospital is too much, Delora turns to healer women she’s heard might help. In the quiet, breathing depths of Bayou Lisse she meets Sophie Cofe.
It seems like magic indeed when Delora finds answers to questions she had yet to ask and cures for ills she had thought beyond fixing. But underneath her happiness there is still a lurking evil that can take away everything Delora—and Sophie—hold dear.
Praise for Nat Burns
Golden Crown Literary Awards — Winner.
Alice B. Reader Committee — Lavender Certificate for Debut Author
Summer in Redstar, Alabama, usually settled in for a long, unwelcome stay. The people of the town regarded summer as an intruding mother-in-law dragging suitcases packed with heat and suffocating humidity. And though the sin of rudeness was employed by mid-July, there was no relief until her departure in mid-October.
Delora November was already harboring her own rude thoughts about the weather, even though by early May it had yet to sear the tiny leaves of the willow tree into brown ash. The thought of another long, humid summer of work and more work was almost more than she could tolerate. She wished she could leave, could shake the dust of this town off her discount store-brand athletic shoes. And she would, really, if only Louie would let go of her life.
The thought of Louie made nausea steal over her and she moved quickly from the back door into the relative gloom of Blossom’s Diner. Ancient Johnny Pellen was telling the story about the black bear again and the comforting cadence of it soothed Delora’s roiling stomach. She fetched herself a short glass of unsweetened iced tea from the urn and downed it fast, no sugar.
“Well, it weighed in at might near six hundred pounds and they say bears in that part of ’Bama never get that big,” Johnny summed up.
The tourist who was listening to Johnny ramble merely shook the USA Today he was perusing and made polite noises of interest.
Delora wiped an already gleaming counter and let her eyes roam the diner. The Jacksons were still okay over in the smoking section. Marina had given them the bill and they were lingering over a meal-ending cigarette. They were regulars and would let Marina or Delora know if they needed anything else.
She was most concerned about the family of five that was occupying booth eight. The booth abutted one of the huge panes of glass that made up the front wall and she was worried about young Jimmy’s airplane. It was a giant plastic jet airliner, and she was just waiting for one of the wings to take out the window. Jimmy was piloting in earnest too, even climbing onto the seat next to his bedraggled mother and banking the jet over her head and the head of his little sister as well.
The father, a quiet older man, was trying to study the menu while dealing with Jimmy’s younger brother who was about eighteen months old and experiencing everything on the table. The father would read one sentence of the menu, grab little brother’s hand, pry something from his clenched fingertips, then intone, “Jimmy, son, will you please sit down!” before returning to try the menu again.
“Want me to get them?” Marina asked, coming up close behind her.
“No, I already got them coffee. My table, I’ll do it.”
Concern sparked in Marina’s dark eyes. “You don’t look so good. Are you sick today?” Her accent was a pleasant blend of America and her native Mexico.
Delora took a minute to admire Marina’s inky black hair and finely defined features. “Nope, I went outside for a minute and the heat got to me. I’m fine.”
She fetched the tattered order book from her pocket, checked to make sure she had a pen, then moved with expert grace across the floor.
“So, have y’all had a chance to decide?” she asked, reaching to right the saltshaker the baby had tumbled. She absently tossed some of the spilled salt over her left shoulder and caught Jimmy’s eye, giving him such a look that he parked the airliner and sat next to his sister, pretending to peer at the menu.
“I’ll have two Bright-Eyes for the kids, with milk, and I’ll have the Hearty Breakfast platter.” The mother had probably been up since dawn. Traveling with a family this young couldn’t be easy.
“And the baby?” She made a face at the toddler and he giggled and squirmed on his father’s lap.
“The baby can just eat off my plate, if that’s okay?”
“Sure. And you, sir?”
“I think I’ll have the Hearty as well, but can I have sausage instead of the bacon?”
“Absolutely,” Delora said as she gathered up the menus. “You’ll like our sausage. It’s local and fresh ground. Good and spicy.”
Interpreting her comment as interest, the man transformed before her eyes, changing from a tired, beaten-down father into the young rapscallion he must have been before settling down and raising a trio of children.
“I do like it spicy. Just how spicy is this local grind?” he asked, his voice light and flirtatious.
Delora sighed. There was something too compelling about conquering new territory for most men. She had no doubt that Mr. Tired Face would step out on Mrs. Tired Face the first real opportunity offered him. She glanced at Mrs. Tired Face and saw her shuttered disgust at her husband’s behavior. The kids all sensed the change in Daddy as well, for they had stilled to watch the exchange.
“Not too spicy, don’t worry,” she said as she left the table.
She tore off the middle copy of their order and placed it on the carousel for Tommy Jay, then started a run of fresh coffee. The Jacksons left, still talking animatedly, and Delora wondered how their marriage had lasted so long. Maybe it was because they had so much in common. Tyrone Jackson was a professor at the University of South Alabama over in Fairhope, and his wife, Sharell, was a librarian. It seemed they always had something interesting to talk about.
The fragrance of newly brewed coffee washed across her and she felt strangely at peace. Her marriage to Louie was over, in fact, if not in the Alabama legal system, and she felt good not having to analyze why it wasn’t working anymore.
“It’s done, honey,” Marina said as she slid by carrying a new order of eggs for Johnny.
Surprised, Delora looked down and realized she’d stood idle while the whole carafe of coffee filled. She glanced to the kitchen access and saw the steaming plates awaiting her. Lifting the coffeepot, she hurried back to the Tired Face parents and refilled their cups, assuring them that their food would be right out. Her left hand deposited more plastic containers of creamer even as she hurried away. With speed born from years of practice, she filled small glasses with milk from the cooler and, with the glasses balanced in one hand and the two children’s pancakes and sausage links in the other, raced them back to the booth. One more trip and she had the parents served and made sure they were settled with plenty of ketchup and warm syrup.
As she turned to return to the kitchen she heard a loud expletive and whirled to find that young Jimmy’s jet airliner, in the hands of his sister, had veered and dumped milk across the table. Since the father was trying to rise to help the mother mop up the table, Delora automatically leaned to take the baby even as she murmured assurances that there was no harm done. The baby watched his parents clean up the milk, his hands sticky and clasped around a mottled mess of pancake. He continued to chew as Delora leaned with her free hand to pile the milk-soaked napkins into an empty coffee cup.
“It’s okay,” she assured the apologetic parents. “Accidents happen. Don’t worry yourself about it.”
The young girl huddled, as if ashamed, against the pocked vinyl of the booth seat. “It’s all right, honey,” Delora said directly to her. “We know you didn’t mean to do it.”
Delora shifted the baby against her hip and smiled when he presented a gap-toothed, pancake-filled grin. “You’re a cutie, aren’t you?” she teased, poking a finger into the baby’s round tummy.
“Oh, here, I’ll take him,” the mother said, brushing her disarrayed hair from her forehead. “You’re good with kids. How many do you have?”
Delora stiffened and quickly returned the child to his mother. “None. Nope. Just helped my mom with foster kids is all,” she explained as she removed the overflowing coffee cup and emptied milk glass. “I’ll get you a new cup of coffee.”
Feeling their curious stares heating her back, Delora faced the concerned eyes of Marina in front of her. It was too much. She dumped the dishes into the cavernous kitchen sinks, waved apologetically to Marina and went out the back door still wearing her apron. She just needed a minute—just a minute or two—alone. With dismay she saw Hinchey Barlowe getting out of his pickup.
“Hey, hold up, slick.” Hinchey caught up with Delora as she stepped into the late morning sunlight. “What’s the matter?”
Delora wasn’t crying, would not cry no matter what, but she was shook hard by what the woman had asked her. She was good with children, by golly, always had been, but now all that was over with. It was a fact best not thought about too much.
“Nothing. Nothing to worry about. How are you, Hinchey?”
Hinchey’s pink face pinched with worry as he studied her. Delora knew how much Hinchey cared for her, and pangs of guilt nagged at her every time they were together. He was always a comfort, however, and she considered him a dear friend. His face relaxed and he took a deep breath before speaking.
“Okay. I’m okay, but there must have been something going on for you to have come out that way. What happened?”
“Nothing really. This family in there just got to be too much for me.”
She chewed a thumbnail, her eyes looking along the long slope of I-65 leading out of town. “I just needed a minute.”
He watched her a long while, until Delora started worrying about him noting the shadows beneath her eyes and her disgracefully chewed nails.
“I sure do worry about you sometimes, Delora.”
She smiled and raised her eyes to look at him. “I worry about me too, Hinchey. I do. Seems like the good Lord has a whole different plan for me than what I had set aside for myself.”
“How do you mean?” He cocked his head to one side.
“I mean,” she straightened her apron and smoothed her hair, “I got a living to earn. Come on in and I’ll get you some breakfast. Do you know what you want?”
He grinned, his gaze going all befuddled. “Yeah, but I’m not so sure the state of Alabama would look kindly on me having my way with a married woman.”
Delora laughed hollowly, envisioning Mr. Tired Face in her mind, and moved through the door he held open for her. “How you do go on, Hinchey Barlowe.”
She fetched more milk, poured a new cup of coffee for Mrs. Tired Face and motioned for Hinchey to sit at the counter. The Tired Face Family was just as she left them—as if she’d never left their side.
Sometimes at night, especially on dark nights unlit by the light of the moon and stars, Sophie swore the bayou gave off its own glow from deep within the watery depths. The bayou was a living creature, breathing with each inhalation and exhalation of the tide, and the glow, like bright eyes, seemed to follow this tide. Perhaps the bayou was female, for it was brightest once a month, just after the new moon.
Sophie, watching the water from a slatted rocking chair on the porch, rocked and lazily wondered if the swamp water was like a rechargeable battery, storing so much moon and sun energy over time that it glowed when there was no other light source.
She pushed a bundle of thick blond curls from her cheek and studied the emanated light. Perhaps there was a whole world down there with its own photoelectric infrastructure. A fairyland. A marine fairy glen.
Smiling at her flight of fancy, Sophie lifted slim arms above her head and jutted her chest to give her back a good stretch. She’d spent most of the afternoon mixing potions and that always made her back feel twisted in knots. The potions were good though—especially a powerful tincture for Anna Michael’s cramps. Anna had fibroids and, to date, had refused surgery. Sophie didn’t blame her; surgery was expensive. Most of the people in Bayou Lisse lived paycheck to paycheck, and health insurance was a true luxury. Anna was far too busy looking after four children anyway. Her man was pretty much useless, so everything fell back on her.
“‘Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young shall see visions,’” Sophie’s grandmother said as she settled into the chair next to her.
Beulah Cofe, called Grandam by the members of her family, was a small woman with an abundance of long braided hair, black striped with silver, and deep-set brown eyes that surprised with their occult keenness. She’d been troubled by a series of mild strokes during the past few years so she often had a hard time getting around. Some days she felt stronger than others, and this Sunday had been a good one for her. She’d gone to church, then, after coming home, had helped with dinner. Here it was nigh on ten o’clock and she was still going strong.
“What’s that from? I like that one.” Sophie studied her grandmother.
Beulah pulled her worn house sweater close about her neck with sun-spotted hands. “The Bible.”
“‘And your young shall see visions.’” Sophie liked the sound of the words as much as she liked the sentiment the phrase conveyed.
Beulah looked out across the bayou with serene eyes. The water slapped gently against the pilings below their feet. The sound was a comfort to both of them, always had been. “Who were you working this evening?”
“A couple folks.” Sophie paused to chew at a hangnail on her right thumb. “Anna’s fibroids mostly. I sent a little shift to Righteous and Stephen too. I think they’re having trouble again.”
“What’s going on with them?” Beulah waved to one of the otter babies as it slid by below them, moving as if on wheels. In the twilight Sophie couldn’t make out which one it was; there were five that lived below the house.
Sophie sighed. Grandam knew as well as she did how Righteous’s unfaithfulness troubled Stephen.
“You best be working on Clary. Sal’s done gone off and left her with the girls again.”
“No.” Sophie angered immediately upon hearing the news. Clary, their housekeeper, had taken up with Salty Davis about a year ago, and he made a habit of going off from time to time and staying gone for two or three days at a stretch. “That son-of-a-bitch. What does he think he’s doing?”
Beulah screwed up her already wizened features. “I can’t get too riled up, for some reason. The sense on this one won’t go where I want it to. Maybe just a little shift to keep him straight is all that’s needed.”
“Hmmph.” Sophie wasn’t convinced. “You or me?”
Beulah sighed and was quiet a long minute. The swamp filled the silence with insect whir and frog splash. “I’ll get this one. You’re closer to her than I am and have a might bit more attitude.”
Sophie smiled and a small chuckle rose from her. “Nothing wrong with bein’ against injustice, Grandam. I just don’t want nobody doing our Clary wrong.”
“What are you two cooking up out here?” Clary asked as she stepped quietly onto the decking of the porch. “Whenever I hear my name spoken by you two, I start to worry.”
Sophie wondered how much she’d heard. Sometimes Clary moved like a wraith through their small house. “We’re talking about Salty. He doing right by you?”
Clary, wearing cut-off jeans and a pale blue button-down shirt, looked good tonight. She stepped into the sparse light from the bayou, and Sophie could feel Clary’s brown eyes boring into her even though night shadows prevented her from seeing them clearly. Clary moved to the railing and, lifting a leg, rested one side of her bottom on it.
“Only him and the good Lord know the answer to that one. He doesn’t act triflin’, I’ll give him that. Good to me as the day is long. He just…disappears…from time to time. Damned if I know why.” She turned and seemed to peer at something on the water.
The three women stayed that way a long time, allowing the spell of the bayou to wrap them in its peace.
Clary was as much a child of Bayou Lisse as Beulah and Sophie. Born on the water in a houseboat owned by her father, she was part of the close-knit family of the Manu Lisse, which is how outsiders referred to them. No one could posit much on how the Manu Lisse came to be. Some said, predictably, that they were clearly a branch of the Cajun peoples who settled southern Louisiana. Grandam had told Sophie that this was what the Manu allowed the outsiders to think, with a mind leaning toward the less they know the better. The true origin of the Manu was far more intriguing. It was admitted, in hushed whispers, that it was Roma blood that flowed in their veins. They were Gypsies hailing from ancient Egypt and had been brought to Europe as slaves to build the great cities spawning in the cradle of civilization.
How they came to Bayou Lisse had been lost, but Sophie liked to imagine it was settled by a group of friends escaping the religious persecution of Europe. The beauty of life on the bayou would be a fitting peace after such horrible suffering.
Whatever their origin, the families of the Lisse knew one another by legend if not by sight. Clary’s mother was not unknown to Beulah twenty years ago even though they’d never met. When Beulah was summoned to heal the infected leg of Waverly Evans, she worked diligently to heal the bacterial suppuration left by the suckers of diseased leeches, and the two women discovered an unspoken kinship. Later, when Waverly was on her feet again, her daughter Clary knocked on the door of Salamander House and offered herself to the Cofe family. The Evans family was poor but had many children. Clary was a type of gift, an offering of gratitude. Allowed to freely come and go as she pleased, over the years she had become an indelible part of the Cofe family as well as the Evans, serving as a bridge of kinship between the two clans. Twenty years later, it was as if that barefoot girl in curly ninny tails and buckteeth had never lived apart from the Cofe women.
“There has to be a reason,” offered Beulah. “Just doesn’t make sense. Is he off with his ex-wife?”
“No, Ruth died, remember? Sophie told the girls about it.”
“Right.” Sophie remembered, with a painful lurch of emotion, the day she’d made herself tell Salty’s daughters Sissy, then eleven, and Macy, a baby at three, about their mother’s death from pancreatic cancer. She would never truly forget, no matter how hard she tried, the feel of Macy’s hand, sweltering in disbelief, tugging in her own as she asked Sophie to take her to her mama. Sophie knew she meant the mama she remembered, the plump and sassy woman now wasted and taken by disease. Sophie’s powerlessness had been complete and disturbing.
“I think he’s off doing man things.” Clary sighed as she tilted her head and leaned it against a porch upright.
“Like Kith, you mean?” Sophie watched Clary and noted her nod.
“Maybe. I can’t think what else it would be.”
“It’s not another woman,” Grandam interjected. “I can feel that. He has goodness there.”
“Did you get the potions finished?” Clary allowed one arm to slither along the porch piling. Sophie couldn’t answer because she was busy watching the gracefulness of the movement. “I can run them around for you if you have a heavy day tomorrow.”
Sophie leaned her head against the back of the rocking chair. “You’re a fine woman, Clary Evans, you know that?”
Clary and Beulah broke into low laughter.
Sophie tilted her head to see Grandam’s profile. “What?”
“Fine woman, get me a smoke, will you?” Grandam said to Clary, ignoring Sophie.
Clary, with a smirk of amusement, disappeared inside. She reappeared seconds later reverently carrying one of Beulah’s carefully rationed cigarettes. She handed it to Beulah and leaned to tease at it with a lighter.
“Speaking of cheating men, I saw Larry Hawking’s Avalon parked over at the Quality Inn in Goshen,” she said.
Sophie leaned forward. “No! Was Fritzie’s car there too?” Fritzie Ramsey and Larry had been carrying on for years.
“Of course. Parked around the corner, though.”
“I can’t blame him,” Sophie said quietly.
“Why?” Beulah asked.
“Cancer. Lung. I thought you knew.”
Beulah looked at the cigarette glowing between her fingers. “No. No one told me. How far’s he gone?” She took one more pull, then flicked the cigarette into the water.
“About two months in. I saw him last week.”
“Does Fritzie know, you reckon?” Clary asked. She had remained by the doorway, one hand resting on the jamb.
“Hell, he won’t even talk to Alice about it.”
“He won’t tell his wife? I can’t believe that. They have a lot of business to take care of before he passes.” Beulah moved to rise from her chair and Clary stepped to help her. “You need to talk with him, Sophia.”
“That’s too much meddling for me, Grandam. Let the man die in peace.”
Beulah eyed her granddaughter. “You know there’s no peace after if you don’t leave your family in order. I’m tucking in for the night. You comin’?”
Sophie nodded. “After a swim.”
Grandam blew her a kiss, using her mouth alone. “Mind the gators. Lord mind you,” she said as she and Clary moved into the house.
Sophie felt the reverberation of the slapping screen door as much as heard it. The soft murmur of the two women’s voices carried to her as she stood and absently removed her jeans, T-shirt and underclothing. Naked, her arms and legs glowing ghostlike in the dusk, she made her way along the plank steps and down to the lower landing. Her favorite otter, Astute, chattered to her as he floated by on her left. It was a good thing he was there; it meant no gators were close. It wasn’t likely one would bother her anyway. The bayou fed them well and it wasn’t her bleeding time.
The shock of the cold water after the heat of the day almost took her breath as she slipped into the shallows by the landing. Moving deeper in, she encountered random warm pockets that comforted her. Tucking her head under, she looked for the fairy villages, trying to follow the light trails as they descended. Though she was diligent, the trails dispersed as she closed in on them and she found only sand and muck. Surfacing, she felt Astute’s hand-like claw against her shoulder, so she turned and made cooing noises at the adolescent creature. He backed off, his prattle giggling at her and she laughed and turned to float on her back. The stars seemed to mock her as they danced in the night sky. She wondered suddenly where the bayou ended and the sky began.