Excerpts from selected stories appearing in Relative Strangers (Carolina Wren Press).
originally appeared in Red Cedar Review
Lydia had developed a sixth sense for adultery — or her other senses, like a blind man’s, became heightened in its presence. She could see it in the way an illicit couple stood side by side yet straining toward each other. She could feel it rise off them, like steam. She could smell it, musky and pungent, winter spices simmering on the back of a stove. She could hear it in the cadence behind carefully chosen words. She could taste it in her own mouth, acrid and sweet, the flavor of rust.
The River’s Daughter
originally appeared in Talking River Review
. . . I had been Cecelia until Carrie was born and then I became Sissy forever after. Not just because Carrie’s rosebud mouth couldn’t articulate my given name, but because her arrival gave me a new one: I was no longer Cecelia; now I’d become Carrie’s Sister, Sissy for short. Even though I came first, once Carrie was on the scene I never came first to mind. I bore the distinction of being both the oldest and an afterthought.
originally appeared in The Laurel Review
subsequently appeared in 20 Over 40, University Press of Mississippi
. . . He had always been unsettled by people who remade themselves. A man they had known from church became an orthodox Jew at the age of thirty-five. A girl he had dated in high school later changed her names, all of them, from Mary Magdalene Potter to Molly Bloom, without benefit of a husband. People who invented themselves, who didn’t accept the name or religion or political party they were born into fascinated Martin like fire fascinates a nine year old boy. He had always seen the danger in it.
originally appeared in Phoebe
. . . It had seemed to me back then that everyone was always hungry, always suspicious. People wore too many clothes and still they could never get warm. Everything was heavy — the coats, the shoes, the sky, the hearts. The old country was sculpted this way, too, in the memory of my parents and my sisters: a cold, dark, empty place that could not be filled.
The Bee Queen
originally appeared in Sou’wester
. . . The day her grandmother died, Bette was off with Lady With down by the creek. Lady With had climbed the wild cherry tree that hung over the creek while wearing a white dress with red stripes and a red handkerchief triangle stitched into the breast pocket. She was afraid of tearing her dress and was paying more attention to it than to where she was going. That’s probably why she didn’t see the wasp nest.
Bette had never before heard, had never imagined, such screams, not even when one of the twins got scalded with potato water and the potato peels stuck, burnt into his skin like branding irons. Lady With tumbled from the tree and hurtled herself home, the black bugs adhering to her like beads of tar. Bette ran alongside her, crying, unstung. At Lady With’s door her mother gathered her collapsed form into the darkness without a word or look to Bette who stood on the porch ashamed that her own chest and arms and legs were bare of these pinned-on badges of honor.
Bette ran on to the sagging front porch of her grandmother’s house but was stopped at the door by a tall, gaunt woman she had never seen before. Bette stared at the buttons of her flowered dress, dark red circles, the color of cough syrup, with a bright jewel winking in each center. “Who are you, child?” The buttons danced.
“Bette Louise Melroy.”
“Why, of course you are.” The woman lowered herself so that she almost perched on the heels of her black laced shoes. “You must have already heard about your poor grandma.” She pulled a white handkerchief with blue crocheted edging from inside the cuff of her dress sleeve and wiped at Bette’s cheeks.
“The wasps were eating Lady With,” Bette said.
The woman frowned and stood up. The line of shimmering buttons came back into view. “That’s too bad,” she said.
“Will she die?” Bette asked.
Bette’s mother appeared in the doorway, her sleeves rolled up, slipping the collar of a bib apron over her head. “You grandmother has already passed,” she said. “She made a fine death. I believe she saw Jesus just there at the end.” Then she disappeared into the house.