Saturday, September 28, 2013

Thieving Magpies

Thieving Magpies
By April Bradley

            Clarey and Imogen decided to take advantage of their day off from the third week of vacation bible school. That week it was the Nazarenes, and, due to a special Wednesday evening service, school was cancelled. The sisters did not inform their mother of this piece of luck. They had already crafted and kool-aided their way through the Cumberland Presbyterians and the United Methodists, and next week the Church of Christ promised to be a carnival of delight compared to the Baptists who would finish off the summer. They craved adventure, a summer day unfettered by doctrine and cookies that tasted of tedium and dissolved in their mouths like chalk. 
            That morning the girls woke up early and dressed in the dim bathroom while their mother slept. Clarey braided her younger sister’s hair. Imogen was so tow-headed, her hair reminded Clarey of milk.
            “You don’t have to wear pants, Clarey. No one’s gonna to see us this early.” 
            “Don’t you worry about what I wear.” Clarey hissed into Imogen’s ear. “Brush your teeth, but be quiet.” Imogen glared at her sister then snatched her toothbrush out of Clarey’s fingers. Clarey rolled her eyes. “Rinse the sink when you’re done.” Clarey tiptoed toward the kitchen.
            The girls skipped breakfast and packed their lunchboxes. They crept, each movement an exaggeration of activity. Clarey slunk up a stepladder and pilfered a handful of quarters from the purple Crown Royal bag her parents hid in the cabinet above the refrigerator while Imogen made peanut butter sandwiches. They added oranges, animal crackers and bottles of coke coated with a thin residue of frost. Clarey fed her younger sister a vitamin, and they slipped through the back door into the sticky-slick Tennessee morning thick with the pervasive scent of suburban asphalt and relentlessly mown lawns. They felt as if they were trudging through lavender Jell-O and could not resist drinking the slushy cokes. Acid and toothpaste sizzled in their mouths, and needles, vivid and sharp, spiked through their heads. Clarey winced. Imogen’s teeth scraped the glass rim.
            The girls travelled a little over two miles and made their way over the last hill toward Mansker’s Creek. They tramped through the neglected pastures of the old Bowen Plantation House, and Clarey helped Imogen climb over the fieldstone wall into a stand of birch trees. Imogen crouched and scratched an old chigger bite on her shin, smearing blood and scraping away the pink fingernail polish. She pointed at the wall. “If I were a bell-tail or a cottonmouth, that’s where I would live, right there in the crannies of those rocks.” She hesitated to unfasten her sandals. Her mouth frowned and the skin between her eyes crinkled into twin lines that sometimes meant contemplation but Clarey knew expressed worry. Imogen would fret all day if she weren’t distracted.
            “Quit worrying that bite and come on over here.” Clarey dropped her lunchbox by the wall.          “We’ve never seen a rattler yet, and the cottonmouths always swim away from us at the lake.” Clarey shucked off her shoes and rolled up her pants legs. “Let’s go, Im. It’s gonna feel so nice and cold. Don’t sulk all day.” 
            “You’re not gonna swim in pants and long sleeves, are you?” 
            “I told you to leave me alone about what I’m wearing—”
            “You look stupid.”
             “—Now get in or stay on the bank, but leave me be about my clothes.” Clarey ran off and splashed into the water.
            Imogen nodded, stripped down to her bathing suit and left her clothes next to Clarey’s things. She climbed down into an eddy as the tumble and trickle nipped at her toes. The air tasted brackish with her sweat, and she recognized the tang of minerals at the back of her throat. Minnows and crawdads swam around her ankles. Imogen watched her sister up ahead in a shoal, already squatting down and sifting the silt, her hair tucked behind her ears, her shirt cuffs dripping, pushed up to her elbows. The water was harsh in contrast to the growing closeness of the day, almost numbing in its chill, unlike swimming pools this time of year that never cooled off to more than bathwater. As Imogen inched her way towards Clarey, the creek became deeper, murkier and more remote than the one they played in at their elementary school. Imogen slipped and went under, then surged up to her feet, coughing up creek water and heard her sister laughing at her.
            Imogen’s fists held globs of the creek bottom, and she spit weeds and grit out of her mouth. “Don’t you laugh at me, you muley-hawed priss.” 
            Clarey only laughed more—Im sounded so countrified. 
            “That. Is. It. See how you like it!” Imogen slung a handful of mud at her sister and splattered her canvas pants with slime. Imogen’s first smile of the day occurred when Clarey’s return lob included a nice chunk of Indian money. “Finders, keepers!” Imogen crowed.
            When the girls grew bored of panning, they gathered up their things and followed the creek southeast for a couple of hours. The heat blistered, so they decided to eat under the shade of the willow and wild dogwood on the floodplain. They could taste the scent of the wildflowers, and in the distance the foothills of the ridge unrolled in a haze. Clarey peeled her orange in a careful corkscrew and threw it in the creek. They watched it float away towards Nashville. They figured it was at least an hour past dinner and, if their mother was awake, she would be wondering where her daughters were. Clarey decided they should keep on walking the creek to Gallatin Road where they could find a telephone and reach their grandmother. “Memaw always knows what to do, Im. We’ll get home before Momma wakes up.”
            “We’d better. If she’s sick, and we aren’t there to take care of her, I don’t know what will happen.”
            “We’ll catch hell is what.” 
            The girls reached Center Point Bar-B-Q in the middle of the afternoon. Clarey used the telephone since she had more practice. 
            Halle answered, “That you Clarey?”
            “Yes, sir. May I please speak with Memaw?” 
            “No gal, she’s not here right now. What can I do you for?”
            When she explained the situation to Halle, he laughed for so long, he told her to “hold on, honey.” Clarey did not respond and twirled the phone cord while she waited for Halle to finish laughing at her.  He asked her to pass the phone to the waitress with the nametag that read “Charlene”. Charlene spoke with Halle, nodding and simpering. Clarey walked over to Imogen who was waiting by the counter.
            Imogen perked up. “Is Halle coming to get us?”
            “I think so. Maybe. Memaw’s not there.”
            “Halle’s so much fun—He’ll smooth over everything with Momma.” 
            “Im, you know it’s no good saying anything to him. Even if he believed us, he won’t get in the middle of things. You know that, right?”
            Imogen sighed and looked over at the waitress who was nearly dancing with the phone. “Yeah, I know. But I still want to see him.”
            “Me too.” Clarey knew exactly what Imogen meant. They learned early in their ten and seven years never to complain about their mother to their uncle, even when he asked questions, because if he didn’t like the answers, they earned a scolding instead of help. 
            Charlene hung up the phone and waved the girls over to a booth. 
            “Ok, girls, over here, Halle’s on his way. Now, I’m supposed to feed you if you aren’t already full up of creek water. You know how this works. Grilled cheese or a BBQ sandwich? Coke or Tea?” Charlene tapped her ink pen against her shiny teeth while she waited for the girls to decide. 
            By the time the girls finished eating, Halle arrived and hollered, “Hey there, Charlene, how about some tea, extra ice.” He stood by the girls’ table. “Thanks for looking after the girls.”
            “Certainly, Halle. Something to eat?”
            “No, ma’am. I’m good. Ate at home.” Halle winked at his giggling nieces, and he settled into the booth next to Imogen. “I’m here to see if these girls have anything good to show for their trouble today.” Imogen scrambled closer to Halle. “Well you chatter-pied truants, did your efforts yield anything worthy?” 
            Clarey and Imogen yattered and warbled over one another. “Oh, yes, Uncle Halle, just see right here” and “look look look, this one and this and oh see” as each girl dumped her gritty, slippy goods out of her lunchbox onto the table. Imogen wiggled around and said, “We collected loads of Indian money and stones.” Clarey added, “We even found three arrowheads.” 
            Charlene served Halle his tea and glanced down at Clarey’s hands fumbling with her treasure. “Did you hurt yourself today, honey?” Imogen froze while Clarey pulled her sleeve over the cut and bruises peeking out from under her cuff. 
            She gave Charlene a pretend smile and said, “Yes, ma’am. It’s nothing —I banged up against a rock is all.”
            “Well, have your grandmother attend to it later.”
            “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” Clarey leaned back into her seat and refused to look at her sister. “Go on, Halle, check out those arrowheads,” she said and placed her injured wrist on her knee under the table. “Im, tell him about them.” Imogen did. Clarey sipped her cold drink and ignored Charlene until she left the table.
            Halle studied an arrowhead. “Do you girls know what you now possess?” Halle leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table. Sunlight flared through a window and cut him in half, dividing him up for the girls. “First of all, you have two arrowheads and a rock, and that means neither of you will fight over a piece of flint.” Halle passed one to each girl. “Dovetail arrowheads increase in value because of size, condition and the integrity of the stone as it holds its shape over time. Their age exceeds six thousand years, but an expert can verify the age and more.” 
            This information bewildered the girls. It tipped their minds over. They could not conjure so much time. Imogen stared at the arrowhead in her hand; Clarey put hers in her pocket.
            “A nice day’s haul. I couldn’t’ve done better at either of your ages. Now pack it up and let’s get you over to your grandmother’s.”
            The girls packed away the rest of their artifacts while Halle paid Charlene with currency and charm. He guided his nieces outside toward his GTO convertible.
            Witch, thought Imogen.
            On the way back to their grandmother’s the girls listened to stories about Halle’s laying out-days with the creek when he was young. All Clarey wanted was Halle to drive faster.
            When they arrived at their grandmother’s house, Halle let the car idle in the driveway. Clarey opened the passenger side door. “Clarey girl, Im?” Halle said, stalling the girls’ exit from the car, “you want to tell me anything?” 
            “Like what?” Clarey asked, holding the door open, one foot planted on the floorboard, the other dangling just enough for her toes to touch the driveway. The door’s ignition signal pulsed politely at first but seemed to amplify with each insistent ping. She watched her foot draw a circle in the gravel and answered Halle in a low monotone. “We already told you all about our day. We had a grand time, Halle. Thank you for coming to get us and telling us about our arrowheads.” Clarey clutched her lunchbox to her chest with her free hand.  
            “You’re quite welcome. I’m glad to help and enjoyed myself.” Halle went to touch Clarey’s shoulder but put his hand back on the steering wheel. “You want to tell me why you’re wearing pants and long sleeves in August?” He looked at Imogen in the rearview mirror. Imogen met his gaze but made sure to keep her face blank. 
            Clarey did not respond. “Girls?” The ignition signal pounded out an insistent heartbeat.
When Halle had enough of his nieces’ silence, he huffed, cut the engine, climbed out of the car and left the girls alone. Clarey scrunched down by the door and fiddled with her shoes, making sure Halle was in the house. She heard the screen door slam shut and said, “He’s gone, Im, come on now.”
            Imogen joined Clarey in the shade by the passenger side wheel well. Clarey removed her arrowhead from her damp pocket and tested its heft. The point did not flake a bit when she flourished it across the curve from the fender to the door. The scar she gouged in the Matador red gloss looked barbed, tender, raw. It satisfied her. Imogen thought a knife or screwdriver would have done a better job but would have caused their teeth to ache as if they had chewed aluminum foil. The idea of scraping metal against metal caused her skin to crawl away from her. The arrowhead answered just fine.
            “Ready to go in, Im?”
            “Yeah, I gotta pee.”
            Halle never said a thing. 


April Bradley is an American Southern writer and feminist philosopher from Tennessee who now lives on the Connecticut shoreline. She is a graduate of Eckerd College (BA) and Yale University (MAR).  As a Tennessee native living in Connecticut, April’s writing accentuates place, landscapes, dwelling and displacement. She blogs at and is at work on her first novel.