I’m not one to whine over what the War between the States cost us. I don’t harp on what’s owed, what all was lost. What I do is come home from Mr. Wilkins’s store, wash up for dinner with Momma, and eat whatever it is Ana has managed to scrape together, knowing there’s many a man laying his head down at night hungry. But when I see that candlelight flickering out in the barn, my stomach gets tight. The food goes bland in my mouth. I want to get up from the table and throw open the back door, running. Instead, I muddle through dinner, pass on dessert, and wait for Momma to fall asleep before climbing up into that hayloft and letting Myra Mullins wild me to where I can’t tell dawn from dusk. It’s an achy-sweet kind of burning, Myra’s touch. I know it’s not right, but I just can’t never seem to deny myself her.
Come morning, I watch the sunlight tease out everything. Time was, Myra would be down the ladder and halfway home before my eyes could find what all my hands had felt. I brush a copper lock out of her face and know from the way her eyelids flutter that she’s dreaming up church bells and the lie of a white dress. I shake her awake, already feeling the twin barrels of the shotgun Buck Mullins will shove between my shoulder blades, if Myra gets herself caught up here with me like she’s been angling to.
“Get up,” I tell her. Myra slits those unearthly green eyes at the bright fall sky peeking in through the rotted rafters. She blinks, and then frowns at me like she don’t know my face. I shake her again. When she sits up, the warm spot she made on my chest cools.
“Bubba Laurent,” she says, real coy. “How long do I have to wait for you to make an honest woman out of me?”
Myra has her sights set on a shotgun wedding. But I know that if it comes to it, Buck won’t wait for me to say “I do” or “I don’t” to pull the trigger. There’s always been bad blood between the Mullinses and the Talberts—my mother’s people. I’m a Laurent, but everyone has always lumped me in with the Talberts because they don’t know my father’s folks. Jean Laurent, the man whose name is on my birth certificate, died in a fire before I was born. But my having Laurent as a last name never stopped Buck from thumbing his nose at me when he comes into the store, no matter how cordial I try to be.
“You know your daddy would never have me,” I tell Myra.
“What if it’s not up to him?”
“There’s not a judge that would marry us without his say-so,” I remind her. “Besides, him and Jeff Morris already got the china picked out. I seen the order in with Jeff’s violet water on Wilkins’s books just the other day.”
Myra scrunches her face in disgust. “I can’t stand that violet water. It gets all over everything.”
“I thought you liked it.”
“Well, I don’t. I want a man to smell like a man.”
“What’s a man smell like?”
The first time I brought Myra up here, she spent the whole night staring up at the stars, dividing the constellations between us: Libra for her, Orion for me, Gemini we could split. Myra’s mother taught her to map the stars before she passed. Said a woman should know exactly what all hangs over her head.
“What if one day you and me just up and left?” she asks, taking my right hand and holding it between both of hers. I try not to think of how nice it would be to have her do this in our own house, in our own bed.
“You know I can’t.”
“I can’t leave Momma.”
Myra sighs, sits all the way up, and pats around the hay for her underclothes. Once she gets them on, I pull her dress down off the railing and hand it to her just for the pleasure of watching her slip into it. Once she has it on, she works her fingers over her hair, brushing all the hay and dust into the sunlight’s mottled rays. As I watch her, I can’t help but hope that, with my buying a stake in Wilkins’s store, Buck will have a harder time denying me Myra’s hand.
Myra started being sweet on me a few years after I finished school. The plan was for me to go to college up north, but once Momma finally let me have a look at our finances, it was clear that there wasn’t money enough for me to go anywhere, so I went to work for Mr. Wilkins instead.
It was there that I first saw Myra. She’d come by with her friends wanting nothing more than to peep in on me.
“She’s cute,” Mr. Wilkins had said.
“She’s young,” I countered.
Mr. Wilkins laughed. “I used to say the same thing about Sarah when her mother started asking me around to tea, and now she’s older than I am.”
I shook my head and went back to filling a bag of cornmeal for Mrs. Leeks.
“Listen, son. You’re not half as old as you think you are. That girl likes you and looks good. Those few years y’all got between you don’t mean nothing.”
I put Wilkins’s words out of my mind and didn’t give them a second thought until that traveling show came to town. I’m not particularly fond of traveling shows, but that day Momma and Aunt Ana were bickering over some old foolishness neither of them wanted to give voice to, so I went to the show to get out of the house. In one of the tents, there was a mulatta woman with a yellow scarf on her head playing the part of the gypsy and charging a penny a fortune. I handed my money over, not thinking all that much of it, and let her turn cards for me.
“Ten of Pentacles,” she said, flipping the first one. “It means wealth.”
“That must be the past,” I muttered.
“No,” she said, meeting my eyes in a way that not even Aunt Ana dares to. “This is a coming thing.”
She flipped another card. “The Knight of Cups,” she said. “You should follow your heart wherever it leads you.”
I nodded, wondering what on earth had compelled me to waste my money. Behind the fortune-teller, someone outside the tent walked up and stopped. I could tell from the silhouette that it was a woman, but I didn’t know that it was Myra until I stepped outside.
The fortune-teller turned over the last card. On it, there were two wolves, standing by a river, staring up at the moon. She narrowed her eyes and looked from me to the card and back again.
“What’s that one mean?” I asked.
“That you’re hiding from yourself.”
Something in me went cold. “How do you hide from yourself?”
The woman shrugged, picked up the cards, and started reshuffling the deck.
When I stepped outside, Myra and her friends were there, standing around. Myra had on a blue-black skirt with her hair curled and pinned up. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a penny.
“On me,” I said, holding out the coin, but she took my hand instead.
“You don’t want to get your fortune told?” I asked. Myra’s hands, then and now, are hotter than they have any right to be.
“I’d rather share yours,” she said.
Her friends laughed, but Myra was serious. Still is. I tried to pull my hand out of hers, but there wasn’t any give. Behind her, at the center of the circle of tents, a man on stilts with long hair, a top hat, and red-and-black striped coattails spit fire out into the air. The blaze of it flew up behind Myra.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Sixteen,” she said.
I yanked my hand from hers. She laughed.
“Go on somewhere,” I said. “Go on before somebody says something to your daddy that gets me shot.”
She smirked, turned on a heel, and walked her pretty little self on away from me. Myra’s walk, out of step with the skipping stride of her peers, is sure, long, and slow. Her hips rock from side to side, allowing the pleated hem of her dress all the time it wants to sweep away at her ankles. When she and her friends stopped at the concessions to buy fry bread, she looked back, smiling like she knew every little secret thing that walk of hers awoke in me. The fire-blower spit again and I could see Myra’s grin in the half-light. Since that moment, I’ve known just which way my stars are ordered.
Used to be I’d sneak back into the house by climbing up the trellis, easing open the window, and crawling to my bedroom just to muss up the sheets before making my way to the kitchen for breakfast. But I gave that up the morning I found Ana standing by my bed, waiting. Said she was tired of trying to wash the barnyard smell out of my sheets. “You grown now,” she said. “Act like it.” The smell couldn’t have been half as bad as she made it out to be. The barn hasn’t housed any animals since the Confederate Army commandeered every ungulate they could wrangle. The receipts, which lay preserved in the top drawer of Momma’s bureau, attest to the fact that before the Talbert Rifles set off, there was at least a head of cattle out to pasture and a dozen horses in that barn.
Ana swears that she can hear the ghosts of those same horses whinnying when the moon is full. But I can’t see why any horse, dead or alive, would bother coming all the way back here from Shiloh. If Myra didn’t claim to hear them too, I’d have thought Ana was funning me about how I spent my nights out there. Now the pasture is overgrown, the fields have gone to seed, and me and Myra are the only living things giving the barn any kind of use.
Now, as I make my way back, I see Ana in the yard, bent double, playing at the azaleas that line the side of the house. I hang my head a little when she stands to greet me. If the loan doesn’t come through, I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to keep her on. Momma said she wanted to be the one to tell her, but I know from the way Ana keeps smiling at me that she’s yet to broach it. It’s only fair to let her know the situation far enough in advance for her to ask around and figure something else out.
“Let me go,” she says laughing. “Let me go where, Bubba?”
“It’s not for certain,” I say. “But if things keep on the way they have been, we won’t be able to afford you.”
“Afford me?” she says, throwing her shears down into the fresh dug flowerbed. “You think your momma’s paying me to stay here?”
“If it comes to it, we’ll give you a good reference. In the meantime, do you have any people you want me to write to? Anybody you might want to visit with if we can’t place you right away?”
“No,” she says, bending down to pick up her shears. “I don’t have no people outside of you.”
I find Momma at the kitchen table, messing over a bowl of oatmeal. She’s got on a faded blue dress, her favorite, and is holding the paper out an arm’s length away from her face. Momma’s farsighted and can’t see anything closer than her outstretched hand. She sets the paper down when I come into the kitchen.
“You look well-rested,” she says.
Momma hates Buck Mullins just as much as he hates me and is delighted that I’m keeping his last daughter from marrying respectably, though she’s hinted more than once that it’s past time for me to find someone of our ilk to marry. What she thinks our ilk is I don’t know.
“Don’t start with me today, Momma.”
“Just making an observation is all.”
At my place setting, Ana’s set out rye toast, eggs, and a cup of coffee already sugared and creamed the way I like it. As I sit down to eat, she passes by the kitchen window without looking in.
“Momma, Ana says she’s not being paid.”
“Ana’s a liar. Always has been. I give her money every other week.”
“That’s for grocery, Momma. She turns around and gives that money right back to me to bring back from Wilkins what all you and I need to eat.”
“Oh. Well. She should budget better. You know her kind aren’t known for being good with money. You can give her something out of your loan if it’ll make you feel better. Though I honestly can’t imagine what she’d spend it on.”
“I been meaning to talk to you about that. I spoke with Mr. Wilkins about how he got his loan, and he says that the only way I can get a manageable rate is to put down collateral.”
“Robin Wilkins isn’t a Talbert. Without Talbert money there would be no bank.”
“You can’t get a loan on just your name anymore.”
“I’m not selling any more land.”
“It’ll come out all right,” I say. “We’ll just put that branch out by the creek down. Nobody’s ever done anything with it anyway.”
“If your grandfather hadn’t have sold so much land, we’d still own this whole town.”
“Momma, if he hadn’t sold it, there would be no town. Besides, they just hold the deed until I can pay the money back. They can’t develop it or anything like that.”
“And what if you can’t pay it back?”