a novel by
ISBN: 978-1-59948-966-7, 234 pages, $18.95 (+ shipping)
Release Date: November 14, 2023
The Advance Sale Discount on this title has expired. For those who prefer to pay by check, the price is $23/book (which includes shipping) and should be sent to: Main Street Rag, 4416 Shea Lane, Mint Hill, NC 28227.
Three strong Southern women—twelve-year-old Len, her mother Cora, and her Aunt Jean—grapple with love and loss in this poignant tale set on a hardscrabble cattle ranch in a small Texas town. Len yearns to find the father who abandoned her, and after a chance encounter with a country music star who she suspects is him, she embarks on a life-altering journey to find the truth about her past. At the same time, Cora and Jean must deal with another shocking family betrayal that complicates everything. Told in turns by these three remarkable women, Abilene explores the boundaries of love and the transformative power of self-discovery.
The sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon, and the morning is cool and dry. As I open screen the door and breathe in the air, I know there is something on the horizon, something coming my way.
I slip on my muck boots and head out to the barn. I don’t ride the perimeter every morning – only when I feel the darkness creeping in. No one else seems to notice – the dark clouds that press in from outside the ranch. But there is a song that sits inside of me, deep and waiting. And when I ride the perimeter it flows, wordless like waves out into the world, and those dark clouds just roll on along and leave us all alone.
I creak open the barn door and step inside. The horses are softly munching their hay, and the air smells of sweet feed and dust.
“Mornin’ Pea,” Walter says, handing me a soft sticky bun with powdered sugar on it.
“Thanks.” I take a bite, the sugar puffing in a small cloud as I breathe on it. Most mornings Walter has something for me – a thick slice of warm cornbread, a peach so ripe it drools down my chin when I bite into it. We don’t talk this early in the morning, we just munch right along with the horses.
Walter turns back to mucking stalls, whistling soft and low. He wears his big work overalls, a handkerchief shoved into his side pocket. There’s already one big smudge mark across his forehead from where he’s wiped the sweat away, his skin like a board just after you put shellac over it and it’s not yet dry.
He moves slower lately, sits in the shade earlier in the day for his break, and I try not to think about that. I finish my sticky bun, lick my fingers, and start to tack up Cyclops. I can ride the other horses when someone’s with me, but if I’m going out on the trail by myself, I have to take Cyclops. I don’t think he has ever moved at any pace faster than a slow trot in his whole life, but I don’t care. He never spooks, no matter what.
I saddle the horse quickly, for I can feel an extra tension in the air, pressing in around me. Cyclops watches me with his good eye as I put away the brushes and tighten his girth.
We set out towards the northwest corner, crickets chirping and the smell of sage all around us. I ride the dirt trail the ranch hands use – it runs out to the northwest corner and hugs the fence line. Our ranch is a hundred and forty acres of flat brown land. A few cactus plants grow up out of the cracked earth, their bulbous leaves sucking up all the moisture for miles around. Here and there are a few rambling bushes, some tumbleweed, and tufts of crabgrass wherever it will grow. Cattle graze year round, although sometimes in the summer it gets so brown we have to feed them hay and oats until we get some rain.
Our house is an oasis in the middle of all that brown. Most folks have the Texas shade trees around their homes – Texas Lilacs and Chinkapin Oaks. That and a little green grass surrounding the house, and maybe some flowers for color. But our house is different. We’ve had folks from the Taylor County Horticultural Society spend afternoons examining the plants, making notes about what’s growing where, and even taking little samples of dirt away to run tests on it. ‘Cause around our house the landscape is green and lush, with Japanese primroses, Louisiana irises, ostrich fern feathers, and the whole of the side yard covered with creeping jenny. And in the middle of it all, rising impossible and lovely against the Texas sky, is the banana tree Ma found one morning years ago, left on the doorstep like an abandoned baby, small and thin and in a pot. They’ve never found any explanation, those horticulturalists. It just seems that no matter what Ma decides to plant, it will grow as if we are in the middle of a rainforest. But not along the perimeter. Where I ride, it is brown and dry and barren.
Once I get to the far end of the ranch, I turn and ride along the fence line. As usual, I can see the darks clouds on the horizon, rolling toward me. I close my eyes and look deep inside. I feel a shimmer, and when I send that shimmer out into the world, it is a song no one else can hear. When I let it out, the clouds recede, and I know we are safe another day. I don’t actually know what would happen if the clouds crept all the way in, but I have my theories. Because the closer they get, the less Ma laughs and darker her day. Sadness is coming for Ma, and I’m just doing my part to keep it at bay.
Cyclops and I are slow and steady. The north fence is mended, the milking shed is bustling with activity. Nothing is out of sorts. Until I turn for home. That is when I see clouds I’ve never seen before – right over the house.
I saw a cyclone once. It raced along the open fields and Ma and I ran for cover to watch it pass even though it was miles away. But these clouds are different, they are willowy, and they disappear almost entirely when I look directly at them. There’s a deep humming sound that I can feel through my whole body. Suddenly everything feels a little unbalanced, like the whole world is leaning slightly. And I know that I need to get home.
I quicken my pace, pushing Cyclops to his limit, which is maddeningly slow. I can see Aunt Cisley’s car in the driveway, and I don’t even brush Cyclops before I put him back in his stall. I have never known Cisley to be up this early in the morning.
The air around the front door is so thick it stops me before I put my hand on the doorknob. It is dense and hot, and there is a pulsing noise that fills my ears, so I know there is something going on they don’t want me to hear. Instead, I head to my place under the house. I crawl into the dark space, smelling the rawness of the wood where it meets the earth. The forgotten space.
A spider crawls across the board beside me, within inches of my forearm, making the hair on my arm stand up.
“Go away,” I whisper. He twitches his brown spindly legs and moves on.
I hear only murmurs, not words, so I keep crawling right up underneath the porch swing and settle myself in.
“I don’t see anything crazy about it,” Aunt Cisley is saying. “She just walked into her house and found them in the middle of it. They weren’t even in the bedroom – they were in her living room. Broad daylight and they’re doin’ it right on the new couch she just had delivered last week.” Her voice is shrill. “If I walked home to that sight, and I had a gun in my purse, I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing.”
Her bracelets tinkle, and I picture Cisley stirring more sugar into her tea. “Sorry Cora, I didn’t mean it like that,” she says softly. I figure Ma must have given her some kind of look on account of Aunt Cisley is married to Ma’s brother, my Uncle Bo.
“Shit,” Ma says. “Who would have thought she had it in her?”
“I always said there was something about that Roger I didn’t trust. I always said steer clear of him.” I can tell by the rhythm in Granny’s voice she is in her rocking chair.
They are silent for a while – there is just the soft squeak of the rocking chair and the sound of ice cubes against a spoon.
The phone rings, sharp and insistent, and footsteps head into the foyer. Ma calls Cisley to the phone. I strain to hear her over the pounding in my ears. Ma says, low as if she is talking to me, “Roger’s still unconscious. They’re not sure if he’s going to make it.” It is the worry in Ma’s voice that brings a hot flush to my face. The news that my uncle might die does not touch me so deep – he isn’t truly an uncle, he’s my Uncle Bo’s brother-in-law, and I’ve never liked him much anyway.
Cisley returns to the porch. “Mama wants me to come with her to the jailhouse. I don’t know what help she thinks I’m gonna be.” She lets out a sharp little laugh, almost a bark. “Jean’s the smart one, not me. Unless she needs a new hairdo to go with her prison jumpsuit, I can’t see what good it’s gonna do for me to be there.”
“Your mother doesn’t need you to be smart right now,” Granny says. “She just needs you to be there.”
When I hear car keys jangling, I crawl back out from the porch and dust myself off. Ma is already on the front stoop with Cisley, and she narrows her eyes at me, suspicious.
“Len, can you go on out to the barn and make sure the mares have water?”
“Walter already watered the horses, it’s past seven.” I stare hard at her. She knows I am asking what happened.
Ma raises her eyebrows at me.
Cisley shrugs and pulls open the door to her car. She squints, holding up a hand with long pink fingernails to shield her eyes as she looks toward the house. She tosses her head and her blond curls bounce. “She’s gonna hear about it sooner or later, you might as well get it over with.”
Ma sighs. “It’s Jean,” she says, her voice sounding tired. “I don’t know how else to say this, but apparently last night she shot your Uncle Roger. He’s in the hospital, and we just don’t know yet how bad his injuries are.”
The morning sun is just beginning to send its heat out over us, and I listen to the calls of the sparrows and killdeers coming from the dense leaves of the river birch tree overhead. I picture Aunt Jean, thin and plain but with a fire inside of her that I can always see so clearly no matter how quiet she is. But when I try to picture Uncle Roger, things start to go blurry. Ma is at the edge of the porch saying something to Cisley, and suddenly the edges of everything merge together – I don’t see separate shapes anymore, it has all become one. The song rises inside me until I can no longer keep it in. I am not sending it out on purpose like I do when I ride the perimeter – it is rising and singing all by itself. I can feel it, the way you can feel a drumbeat if it’s loud enough, and the world starts to swirl around me. Instead of the ranch, I see Uncle Roger in front of me. He is lying in a hospital bed, and I know somehow that I have to visit him there. Then it is gone suddenly, and the world goes black. My limbs feel limp and my head spins, and somewhere, down a long tunnel I heard Granny calling, “Cora, get an icepack, quick!”
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