Tag: speculative fiction

Cricket and Grey (winter): Chapter Two

Dawn broke frigidly across the hills, the grey rising to reveal a frail winter light, not quite sun but enough change in brightness to wake the birds whose sharp territorial cries shot through the quiet like little knives punctuating the soft skin of sleep.  Cricket heard the rustlings and felt the dark dissipate but didn’t lift her head.  She sat in her father’s fresh dug grave, knees pulled to her chest, arms resting loosely across them, her head bent between them in exhaustion; too tired to feel the cold reach through her.

Her father’s stiff shrouded body lay on the cabin floor in the deep shadows of dawn, waiting to be laid to ground; the ground in which Cricket still sat, her muscles stunned into paralysis by the repetitive work of gouging out the hard stone-shot dirt, her head still ringing with the rhythm of digging. All she could do was think of her mother, dead three years.  Mairead had always said Cricket was just like her father, as though this was too bad for a girl, chiding Peter for turning their daughter into a pugilist by the time she was six years old.  He laughed it off saying that the girl would soon enough be the spitting image of her mother, full of wit and grace and beauty.  He would remind Mairead that it was his job to make sure Cricket could protect herself.  It wasn’t the “old” country they were living in where family might come to help, he would remind her.  They were alone here.  “For twenty years we’ve lived here, Peter.  How long does it take to stop being the ‘newcomers’?”  “I don’t know, darlin’.” He’d say.  “I suppose it’s the same everywhere; we’re newcomers til we die if we move from the place we’re born.  Our girl belongs here, that’s got to be enough.”

It was strange how losing her father made her miss her mother more all of a sudden.  She missed the smell of her skin, the sound of her husky laughter and the way she’d read aloud in the evenings from favorite books.  She missed crawling through meadows with her in the summer foraging for chicory root and self-heal, the air hot with the smell of drying salvia.  Looking up from the grasses she would see her mother blazing like a wildfire in the bright sunlight.

She still hadn’t moved a muscle when Shockey walked up to the lip of the six by six, his large belly visible over the edge before his head.  Removing his smashed up soiled rag of a baseball cap, he mumbled something meant to be respectful and grave-appropriate but which sounded more like a rough shambling speech appropriate for a congregation of prison lifers.  Cricket had long since learned not to try to decipher everything he said.  Whatever was really important always came to light eventually if you waited patiently for it.  Which it did, more quickly than usual this time, when he asked her if she was planning on burying herself instead of her father.  Before she could form an answer another figure appeared at the edge and looked down into the grave and when Cricket looked up at him he froze in surprise.

Grey Bonneville had heard a hundred late night stories about Cricket that Peter told like all proud fathers are prone to do, though most of them told such fond stories over a friendly barbeque not during an armed stakeout. Grey had practically fallen in love with Cricket through Peter’s colorful stories.  Peter had made her out to be larger than life; brave, reckless, beautiful, strong, impatient, and unintentionally amusing the way she was always getting herself into trouble with her temper and fists.  What Grey saw when he peered over the edge of the grave was a shivering woman covered in smears of dirt who looked startlingly like his old friend staring up at him with the same clear grey eyes. Though her hair was straight and cut in a bob instead of being short and wavy it was just as red as Peter’s had been.  How could this girl be the fierce person Peter had told so many stories about?

Grey was nearer to Cricket’s age than she’d imagined he would be.  He wasn’t especially tall but was well built, had dark short-cropped hair, and his clean shaven face was weathered as though he spent a great deal of time outdoors, which he did, but was otherwise handsome with high cheekbones, grave hazel eyes, and a sharp straight nose.  The first thought that ran through Cricket’s head when she saw him peering down at her was how annoying it was that her father was friends with such a good looking young man who was undoubtedly irritatingly fond of delicate females with floral complexions who could bake the fluffiest cakes out of nothing but water and dust.  The last thing she needed on the day of her father’s burial was to be reminded that she was nothing but a scrapper of a girl.

First impressions can be a real bitch.

“Need a hand outta that big hole?” Shockey asked.  Although she was only five foot six she didn’t think it was particularly difficult to climb out of a six foot deep grave when there was a ladder within reach.  Time for dreaming with the dawn, for waiting on ghosts to subsume the quiet was over.

She unbent herself and stood up stiffer and colder than she realized she’d become.  It was thirty five degrees and she’d been working without her coat on for hours after tossing it when the digging made her too warm.  She was shivering now but paid no attention as she climbed out of the hole.

Shockey performed his version of introductions which went something like “Mumble mumble- Peter’s half pint- blah blah- has the hardest left hook- mumble- old friend going to play the pipes for Peter- blah blah- staying with me and don’t tell no one.”  Introduction done.

Cricket said hello quietly and Grey said “I’m sorry for your loss.”  The three of them stood at the edge of the grave awkwardly, Cricket shivering but not noticing it, Shockey noticing it but distracted by thoughts about Peter and, impossibly, summer cherries.  Grey noticed it and waited for Cricket to pick up her coat which lay crumpled on the ground at her feet.  When it seemed obvious she was going to ignore both the frosty air penetrating her cotton shirt and the wool coat that was the remedy Grey picked it up and said with exasperation “Jesus pet!  Do you not notice you’re all to pieces with the cold?” and put her coat around her shoulders which she wanted to resent but was too relieved to bother.  She was distracted by Grey’s accent, so much like her father’s that for a moment she thought she might turn around and hear him admonish her for being so careless of her health.  The thought hurt a little and Grey noticed the small look of pain cross her face and felt guilty that he’d been impatient with the girl when he should have been kinder because it wasn’t just his friend being buried today, it was her parent.  He would have been surprised to know that his accent had given both pleasure and pain and that it would continue to be a source of both.

“I’m not your pet, Jimmy, but thank ye.” She said mimicking her parents’ dialect as she pulled her coat more tightly across her body adding “Come ben the hoose.”  This surprised a smile out of Grey who hadn’t expected the lass could speak any Scots.  His smile was arresting, not because he had a great big mouthful of bright white straight hero teeth (his teeth were neither especially white nor very straight) but because it was in such contrast to the serious expression he generally wore.

“Aye, it’s fair Baltic the day.” Grey said, still smiling.  Cricket wasn’t proof against such warmth and because her parents only spoke Scots at home between them it felt familial and made her happy to hear it on a day otherwise caustic with loss.  Without realizing it she was smiling too. Shockey watched the two of them, his face passive and curious, rubbing at his messy white hair absently pushing it to new levels of dishevelment.  Not understanding them he let it wash over him like a pleasant echo of Mairead and Peter, whose lively voices had filled his life for over twenty years.  He thought Bonneville and Cricket were both too serious and needed to let go a little, have some fun like young people like to do.  These thoughts came through the old man’s mind in images and disjointed words rather than fluid coherent thoughts.

Cricket, suddenly aware that she was standing around shooting the shit in Scots with a man she’d just met, started walking back to the cob cabin motioning the men to follow her without further invitation.  The cabin was so cold inside their breath made thin arctic clouds.  No fire was lit because Cricket had been digging all night.  She bent to the woodstove and built a stack to light.  While she got the fire going Grey stood over his dead friend’s shrouded corpse lost in silent observance.  The old man disappeared into the kitchen where he made a great deal of bumbling noise and yet managed somehow to provide, in a few moments, the most heavenly unexpected gift to warm them: three steaming cups of coffee.

“Shockey!  Where did you get this?” Cricket asked in astonishment. Shockey shuffled and mumbled something about Red Bess (a local dairywoman) and her “connections”.  Apparently he performed some dubious favor for which her gratefulness apparently knew no bounds because coffee was not an easy or cheap commodity to come by those days.  If you had some it was almost certainly grown in the southern states which, while acceptable, was nothing to the imported beans which only found their way up north through shady deals and great expense because so few ships were bringing goods from South America and Africa anymore.  If you had some, you probably didn’t come by it honestly, or at least you must be someone’s bitch who themselves didn’t come by it honestly.  Or else you were rich.  The three of them stood by the weak fire, reverently inhaling the dark bitter smell of the coffee while waiting for it to cool down enough to sip.  The big mugs warmed their cold fingers.  Cricket was still shivering and Grey suppressed an unaccountable urge to find a blanket to wrap her in, choosing instead to fuss with the fire to coax more heat from it.

All of them were painfully aware of Peter laid out on the floor behind them already beginning the process of decomposition.  Peter had been right in thinking that Mitch Smith and John Hesse would take a personal interest in his burial, though Cricket failed to see why her father considered them a danger, for he certainly meant to warn her of more than bureaucratic harassment.  So far Mitch Smith had delayed the burial by forcing Cricket to rewrite the permit paperwork three times claiming she’d filled it out wrong.  Then he’d refused to approve the precise spot her father had chosen to be buried in, claiming that it was too close to the public road (though this wasn’t true) and she couldn’t start digging until he stamped and signed the permit. With each delay she grew more anxious and began to feel that Smith and Hesse were enjoying her discomfiture.  She wasn’t wrong.  The burial had already been delayed by three days when a fresh one cropped up causing her to clench her teeth to bite back the temper she’d held in surprisingly tight rein for long enough to have shocked anyone who knew her well, had they been witness to her uncharacteristic forbearance.  She had only gotten the signed permit back last night, five days after Peter’s death.

Through all of this Cricket had acted alone.  The Martins offered to help her with everything but Cricket didn’t want anyone near her until the wake which she had to share with everyone.  She was one of those people who, when wounded, prefers to den up in solitude to experience pain alone with no witness and no fussing.  The Martins would most certainly fuss and Cricket couldn’t bear for any of them to watch her wade through the first few days of mourning.  She didn’t want anyone at the burial either because she wanted her last minutes with her father to be her own.  In the end she admitted to herself that she couldn’t manage to get him into the grave without help for logistical reasons and since the burial attendants don’t help with the burials they attend and are there strictly to oversee that it is executed properly, she had to ask Shockey to help.  Shockey was okay though.  He wouldn’t fuss.  He was naturally barely coherent and his habit of saying peculiar and inappropriate things was a quality she found strangely comforting.

The coffee was warm but not warm enough.  Cricket pulled out a half empty bottle of Shockey’s White, the cheapest alcohol he produced, similar to grappa, and poured a shot into her mug.  Now the drink burned hot all the way down to her stomach and sent radiating waves of warmth through her muscles.  She offered the White to Shockey and Grey who gratefully took a shot in their own mugs, each thinking essentially the same thought: here’s a girl with good sense!

There was still a little time before Smith and Hesse would arrive and Cricket had to send a message to the Martins that it was time to head over the mountain to meet her at the cottage in town for Peter’s wake that afternoon.  She told the two men she was going to the dovecote for a few minutes and to shout up if they needed anything.  They nodded silently as she pulled down a cord to a trap door in the ceiling of the tiny hall that separated the main living space from the only bedroom downstairs, unfolded the attached ladder, and climbed to the second floor of the cabin which was completely round but divided into two halves, one was her bedroom and the other was the dovecote.  Once in her bedroom she pulled aside the beautifully finished dresser her father had had made for her when she was a child, revealing a small hatch door which she opened and crawled through.

The dovecote was one of her favorite places to sit alone, though perhaps part of its charm was that she could think her thoughts uninterrupted but in the company of her birds for whom she had a keen affection.  Along the straight wall that divided the two halves of the second floor hung several decent sized cages in which perched the Martin’s pigeons which she kept until she needed to send a message at which point she’d stuff a note into a tiny metal capsule fixed to one of the pigeon’s legs and, set free, it would fly home to them in Pacific City where the message would be received.  The Martins always had several of the Winters’ birds waiting in cages to perform the same office.  All the uncaged birds in the dovecote were their own.  Free to come and go as they chose until caught up and brought to the Martins for their turn to provide messenger service.

The pigeon post wasn’t the perfect messaging system but it was more reliable than sending messages on computers (provided you had access to one) which were notorious for breaking down or being intercepted by hackers.  It was also more reliable than phones on most days because the phone services were always crapping out and this was provided you even had one because most people couldn’t afford to have the service in the first place.  Phones were hard to come by now and once your phone died it could be months before you could afford a refurbished replacement model even if you were able to find one.  Though the pigeons were occasionally killed by hawks the only real trouble was that to get a message in a timely fashion you actually had to be sure to check your dovecote frequently for any returned birds.

Luckily for Cricket the Martins were waiting for word from her so someone, almost certainly Julie, would check their dovecote frequently.  They’d be waiting for word to ride over the mountain to come to father’s wake.  She knew that even at this early hour they’d be ready.  She sat quietly with the pigeons for a few minutes listening to their noisy cooing and fluttering; the jostling for position on the ample perch was entertaining.

She knew she couldn’t sit there all day ignoring the world no matter how much she wished she could bring a blanket into the dovecote with her and hide until everything was over.  She went to the corner where a small wooden bench and a counter were fixed close to the wall.  Here was where they kept the feed, the salt licks, other pigeon-keeping accouterments, the message tubes, and the thin sheets of cigarette paper they used to write their notes on.  She wrote in a careful tiny script “It’s time.  Wake at 4pm.  Bring accordion.  Father will want you all drunk by midnight.  LC”  She rolled up the little paper and after enclosing it in the metal tube she opened up one of the hanging birdcages and pulled out a sweet little pigeon named Juju.  Once the note was in place she held the bird for a moment, looking it square on and said “Listen swifty, don’t get eaten by a hawk.  This is important.  Got it?” the bird blinked and cocked her head slightly as though considering the request carefully.  “Right.  So long as we understand each other.  Now go!” she set the bird free, watching as Juju stretched her wings into flight and within half a minute was already out of sight above the thicket of trees surrounding the large clearing the cabin was situated in.

When Cricket reemerged in the living room it was much warmer than when she left it fifteen minutes earlier.  Shockey handed her a fresh hot cup of coffee and she looked at him in surprise “So much?  What the hell did you do for Bess, buy her a new cow?” Shockey would have blushed if he’d had enough blood left in his old body to reach his cheeks but since he didn’t he shuffled his feet uncomfortably instead and avoided looking at Cricket by turning around and heading back to the kitchen because in spite of his discomfiture he was grinning mischievously at a private (recent) memory.  Grey smiled at the old man warmly.  Cricket hadn’t realized that they already knew each other well until seeing Grey look at Shockey the same way her father always had, with obvious affection.  It was true, the two men knew each other very well.  Though Peter hadn’t wanted to introduce any of his work mates to Cricket, claiming it was because they were an uncouth lot, Grey had stayed with the old man discreetly many times between guard jobs that took him through McMinnville.  Seeing Grey smile fondly at the old man made her feel outside of her own life the same way she felt when her mother died, feeling that everyone knew each other better than they knew her, as though she was a detached observer in an unfamiliar life.

Shockey brought in a tray of food and said “Don’t do no good to starve yerself smaller.  Yer mother’d find her way from the grave (something garbled here) an I don’t fancy no innerference so you best eat.” She looked disinterestedly at the tray and pushed it away but Shockey was persistent “Don’t eat and you’ll fall in the pit yerself from fatigue like some dab a flesh, don’t mind me sayin.” The image made her laugh and she took a piece of stale bread to go with a slice of Shockey’s home made cured meat and cheese.  At first they tasted like stale straw but once her palate was cleared and her body received a bit of food she realized how hungry she was.  Shockey’s meat and cheese were always as good as his liquor but today they seemed to be especially good.  It was with great satisfaction that Shockey watched her eat.  He himself ate nothing but insisted that Grey eat some food too.

Into this strange domestic scene rose the sound of tires biting into the gravel drive leading up to the cabin.  They all looked at each other and Cricket got up the fastest to look out the living room window.  This was it.  They were here.  What pomposity that the federal agents drove cars when no one else could.  What a stupid thing to think at a moment like this.  Cricket didn’t want to go outside again into the cold, but her father’s body needed to be buried so she opened the door and stepped out onto her little porch to watch the arrival of the agents.

A big black car stopped close to the grave site which was a couple hundred yards from the front door of the cabin.  The car, which was once a very expensive luxury vehicle and from a distance still looked lush and sleek, was, up close, full of dings and rust spots which was to be expected if you drove it around here in the damp country on roads that hadn’t been kept up for nearly thirty years.  Cricket watched as Mitch Smith opened the driver’s door and climbed out of the vehicle, all burly dense five feet ten of him.  He wore a long black overcoat under which he wore his usual starchy black suit, blindingly white shirt, and black tie.  He could not have looked more like a fictional federal agent if he tried.  The fact that his partner Hesse was dressed identically to him made them seem even more like caricatures of FBI agents but, other than being dressed the same, they looked nothing alike.  Smith had the wide shoulders and the muscled physique of a man whose main hobby was benching metal.  He wore his nearly black hair combed back neatly with the use of some sort of shiny pomade and his dark brown eyes were large and attractive in a way that might have seemed almost pretty if they weren’t set in such a mean square-jawed face pocked thoroughly in his youth with untreated acne.  Hesse, by contrast, was very tall and thin with narrow shoulders and spidery limbs.  There was nothing particularly distinct about his features which were in every way unremarkable.  The only thing anyone could ever remember about him after meeting him was that he was tall.  He had the power to be invisible in spite of his height which was a gift he put to good use in his work: materializing out of the background with loaded gun which was not a lucky time to notice him as he was an expert marksman.  They didn’t immediately approach the house where Cricket was waiting for them on the small front porch.

“It’s like she’s actually trying to look like a smuggler’s daughter.” Smith said with a thin lipped sneer to his partner.  “Absolutely filthy with dirt!  How the hell does a woman like Mairead Winters have a daughter like that?” Hesse, who wasn’t much of a talker took in the sight of Cricket who had maintained a reasonable cleanliness during the last few days.  He didn’t bother to tell Smith that from his observation smuggler’s daughters didn’t look much different from anyone else’s.  Smith was still talking while they gathered the paperwork that Cricket would need to sign.

“Her mother was something else.  She’ll never have a figure like that.  I remember the first time we busted Winters and Mairead came to bail him out. I would have tossed her right there if I could have.  I always regretted that.  I had more scruples back then.  Her daughter doesn’t hold a candle to her.  She’s got no tits to speak of.  What kind of figure is that?”

This was too much for Hesse who retorted “Oh for fuck’s sake Mitch, you didn’t have scruples back then.  You didn’t toss her because Winters would have killed you in your sleep later.  Anyway, what makes you so confident Mairead would have willingly slept with you?  She didn’t exactly strike me as the cheating type.”

“What would you know about that?  I’d lay odds you’ve never slept with anyone you didn’t pay for.  Anyway, I didn’t say I would have asked her permission.  God doesn’t give a woman a body like that without meaning for it to be used.  That’s your problem Hesse, you’re weak when it comes to taking your due.”  Hesse didn’t answer this accusation because it was pointless to explain to Smith that what he wanted as his “due” was entirely different than what Mitch wanted.  Mitch was all about the classic male vices: women, money, power, and sport, whereas what John wanted was something darker, finer, and couldn’t be recklessly snatched at.  Mitch had got one thing right though, John never slept with anyone he didn’t pay for.  It kept the balance of power where he wanted it and the way he saw it, it was more honest because no woman ever left John wondering what his intentions were or whether he’d call them later.  Far from being ashamed of only sleeping with prostitutes, he believed it made him superior to other more sentimental men.  What Mitch thought was a well delivered insult was wide of the mark and all John had to do to convince Mitch that he’d succeeded in driving his insult home was to keep silent, which Mitch mistook for an admission of shame.

Cricket was still watching them, with her hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, and when Hesse returned her stare she got the queer feeling that he was scouring her for silent information, as though there was a message written across her skin and it made her uneasy.  Like an animal, the man seemed to know the effect he’d had on her and his lips curved into a slight but unmistakable smile.  She’d been dealing with these two for three days now and Smith she understood immediately – he was a swarthy swaggering bore who would bully and steal his way to whatever he wanted, but this other one was something else.  He didn’t look like much.  He was tall but his demeanor was quietly unassuming to the point where you might not see him in a crowd if you weren’t paying attention but one thing Cricket was sure of – you would feel him there.  While she knew how to read and handle men like Smith, she couldn’t read Hesse which disconcerted her. He not only seemed to be aware of this, he seemed to enjoy it.

At last they walked up to the cabin.  When they got to the door Smith said “It’s a freezing morning for a burial Miss Winters but at least you can be thankful it isn’t wet.  We’ll see the body first and then we’ll inspect the gravesite.”  She let them in the front door without responding and stepped aside so they could see her father laid out in the living room.  The cabin was one big open space with the front door opening into the living room and from there you could see through to the kitchen space.  Peter’s body was laid on a stretcher of rough wood on the packed earthen floor just inside and to the left of the front door where Shockey and Grey stood over him like sentinels, both looking grim.  Smith gave the two men a curt nod and said “Amazing how I can never find you when I want to talk to you Bonneville, but here you are when I’m not looking.  Next time I want a word I guess I know how to flush you out.”  Neither man spoke so Smith commented on the odor in the living room as though he felt the company needed a specific topic to focus on.  The odor was faint but they could all smell it.  Cricket retorted that if she’d been allowed to bury him three days ago they would all have been spared the stench of putrefaction.  In truth, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it would have been if it hadn’t been so cold the whole week.  Smith said lazily that it made no difference to him, he was merely noticing.  This rankled Cricket but she had nothing to say that didn’t involve calling the man an asshole and besides, she was tired and sore.  She watched silently as the two inspectors examined the body.  Seeing nothing remiss they walked out of the cabin to the grave site they’d finally approved.

Smith ordered Hesse to measure the grave while he did nothing but chew on an imaginary toothpick and continue to lay his appraising black eyes across Cricket who had come out to watch them measure.  She noticed Smith staring and stared back at him unflinchingly, without embarrassment or fear and without knowing it she had dealt a blow to him better than any retort she could have made.  To not be in awe of him in one way or another was unacceptable to Smith, especially in a female.  He stood taller under her stare and tried to appear more impressive.  In a twisted way his disgust for her almost felt like attraction and this annoyed him.  He asked Hesse to hurry up.  The measurements were reported and the numbers brought the insolent smile back to his waxy pocked face.

“Ah.  Now that’s too bad Miss Winters.  It appears you’re a couple inches shy of the depth requirement.  We’ll have to come back tomorrow and try again.” The look on Cricket’s face was a mix of horror, exhaustion, and anger which was better than Smith was hoping for. Telling Hesse they were done there for the day he turned to leave when Cricket almost yelled out “You can’t do that!  You can’t make me wait another day.  Surely that’s a health hazard?  My father is starting to rot in there.”  Smith stopped and drank in the desperation and holding his hands out in a gesture of helplessness asked her what he was supposed to do?  It wasn’t his fault the grave was too shallow.  Rules were rules and he was paid to make sure she followed them.

Shockey and Grey who had been watching from the living room window looked at each other and without saying a word they both turned from the window and left the cabin to see what was going on.  Shockey was distressed to hear that Cricket was short a couple inches and still without words he ran to get the shovel that Cricket had dropped unceremoniously in front of the cabin porch earlier and returning with it he climbed into the grave and began to dig which was difficult for an old man like him because though he was strong for his age the soil was hard from weeks of dry cold weather.  Cricket climbed into the grave and gently took the shovel from him.

“You’re too old for grave digging.” Shockey hesitated and seemed to be looking for the words to make an objection.  She put her hand on his arm “Just having you here is everything.  But let me finish the job I started, let me make it right myself.”  He nodded and climbed out of the grave.

“Oh, did you think I was going to wait here while you finish digging?  You should have made sure of your measurements before we arrived.  I have other things to do and this isn’t my problem.” Smith said glancing at his watch. “I’ll come back same time tomorrow morning.  Have it fixed by then.”  And with that he turned from the grave and started to walk away.

“Come on!” Grey said “Winters needs to be buried.  A couple inches won’t take much of your time.”  Smith looked hard at Grey, a man the bureau had an “interest” in and said smoothly “If you do the digging yourself I’ll wait.  I’d like to see you sweat a little, Bonneville.” With this caveat Grey jumped into the grave and reached to take the shovel from Cricket but she didn’t relinquish it immediately.  She had spent all night in a meditation of sorts, letting the job of digging the grave fill her mind and her ears and delay grief a little longer.  What soothed her was the action, the repetitive action, to be doing something for her father, knowing it was the last thing she could do for him.  She had done nothing for her mother, just let her father take responsibility for everything without question, without objection.  This time it was her turn.  Grey wrapped his hand around the shovel and said very quietly “Go on, let me have it, hen.  I know Smith, when he has a flea up his ass he won’t back down.”

“I’m not a hen, lad.  I liked ‘Pet’ better.” She said.

“No man over thirty is a lad, pet.  I liked ‘Jimmy’ better, reminded me of home.  Now please, let me have the shovel.  I’ll-“.

“I don’t have time for this crap, make your minds up.”  Smith said impatiently.

“Okay.” Cricket said almost inaudibly letting go of the handle of the shovel. She climbed out of the grave and without looking at Smith or Hesse, walked back to the cabin and Shockey, who had been standing nearby worriedly, followed her back inside where she added some wood to the stove which sat in the center of the house between the living room and kitchen.  Shockey sat himself down near Peter and didn’t attempt any conversation with Cricket.  Neither of them was uncomfortable with silences and followed their own thoughts while listening to the sound of the shovel cracking into the dirt outside.  As it turned out, both of them were thinking about the last conversations they’d had with Peter and wondering how they were going to stand not hearing his rich loud laugh again.

Grey was a strong fit man so he managed to dig out the required couple of inches in little time.  When Hesse re-measured and pronounced it to code Grey returned to the house telling Cricket and Shockey that is was time to put Peter to ground.  They picked the stretcher up together and slowly carried him out and lowered him, not completely without mishap, into the grave.  Grey said he had to do one more thing for Peter and without further explanation ran off for a moment and returned with bagpipes that Cricket hadn’t noticed sitting in the cabin.  With each of them on a different side of the grave, he played “Amazing Grace”, Peter’s favorite song.

The hairs on Cricket’s arms rose slightly in response to the wailing bellows.  She loved the pipes as much as her father had though she’d heard them less often.  For the first time since he’d arrived, Cricket took a really good look at Grey who was wearing an olive button down wool shirt tucked into a matching plain olive wool kilt, the effect being somewhat military.  He wore gillie brogues and black hose with no flashes.  His crisp tidy appearance was slightly marred by the dirt on his kilt and the dark sweat stains on the shoulders of his shirt, yet he still managed to look clean and well dressed making her suddenly self conscious as she looked down at her dirt streaked clothes and mud caked boots.

Mitch Smith had been walking slowly behind Grey eyeing him with some derision and was now making his way around the grave to where cricket stood.  He stopped to stare openly at the specimen before him: the lowly daughter of a smuggler looking as dirty and poor and unladylike as one of the homeless road travelers that crawled through town occasionally begging and bleeding through the streets.  Cricket could feel his insolent stare on her skin and chose to ignore it because her mother would have wished her to behave with some decorum and grace at a moment like this.

When the last notes of Amazing Grace fell across them there was a profound answering silence broken unceremoniously by Smith’s voice drawn close enough for Cricket to feel his breath on her face.  He said “You’re mother was a whore.”  Cricket, deciding it was best to ignore him, refused to answer or to look at him keeping her eyes focused forward, on Grey, as a matter of fact.  Smith was holding a small folded piece of paper in his big hands “I’ve been carrying this around for a while now wondering what I should do with it.  It’s evidence, of course.  I should have turned it in.”  He unfolded the paper and held it in front of her face which she didn’t want to see but she couldn’t keep her eyes from the familiar handwriting which opened up a sharp twist of pain in her chest.  Her mind was racing, boiling with questions and confusion.  It was a note directed to a man, an assignation, something Peter wasn’t meant to know about.  Smith sneered.  She wasn’t able to read everything in it before Smith snapped it away from her, refolding it, putting it in his pocket again for safe keeping. Cricket kept her expression as passive as she could, hoping to give nothing away but Mitch Smith saw enough of what was in her mind to spur him on, especially because she wasn’t asking the obvious questions.

“You want to know why I would hold back such a choice piece of evidence.”  A statement of truth.  Cricket focused her eyes back on Grey with some effort, observing how straight his nose was and how high his cheekbones were, almost like a Slav’s.  He was focused on her as well and observed that she was coiled tight like a spring.

“She inspired appetites in men.  Does it make a difference whether she was screwing for fun or for pay?” He looked her up and down with obvious distaste which, if he was intentionally provoking her was working better than Smith could have hoped though he couldn’t tell yet.  She was as still as a fox in a hole, waiting.

This would have been a good time for Smith to stop.  Hesse saw three vultures circling in their slow lazy way no doubt getting wind of death the way they mysteriously do before any other animal does making them grim messengers of decay.  If the vultures had got wind of a ripening corpse then it was high time they got this one covered in dirt.  Hesse, having no real conscience of his own, didn’t mind letting Mitch have a little fun with Winters’ daughter, call it a perk of the job if you will, a little bullying, a little cat and mouse fun with the occasional rape before closing time.  But Hesse was eager to get back into town where he might get some breakfast off his mother with whom he still lived in a mutually satisfying arrangement of semi-indentured servitude on her part and a great show of devotedness on his part which cost him next to no expenditure of energy and stroked his ego on a daily basis as he got to congratulate himself on keeping his mother from living on the streets.  It might be lunch by the time the grave was filled.  He shifted his feet impatiently.

“You’re nothing but the daughter of a smuggler and a whore.” For all of Smith’s prowess reading people he had missed something with the Winters girl because he never saw it coming.  Grey Bonneville didn’t see it coming either until it was too late.

At Smith’s last words Cricket suddenly became electric energy gone hot and charged, her right fist shot into his face with a breathtaking economy of motion shocking Mitch backwards with an ugly smear of an expression blossoming in tandem with blood from his nose.  Immediately he caught his footing and with ferocious speed he threw a punch back expecting to hit soft flesh with his large hard hand used to getting its way through split skulls, but it met air; Cricket saw it coming and ducked.

By this time both Shockey, Grey, and Hesse were moving towards the pair and all of them heard the sickening sound of Cricket’s second punch hit Smith’s face, this time catching his chin which split open like a soft peach as he fell backwards.  However, the shock of the unexpected violence from this scab of a girl was over and he recovered himself quickly. “You bitch!” he yelled driving his fist into her left cheek twisting it just as it caught her skin, ripping it open with a painful tear.  This punch sent her backwards but didn’t knock her down.  She was aware of backing into someone behind her, of hands grabbing at her arms, trying to restrain her, but she smashed her elbows into the body behind her catching a pair of ribs and having broken free she lunged for Smith again but this time he stepped out of the way easily.  She only hesitated for a second before she kicked the inside of his knee causing him to cry out and his retaliation was a fist to her stomach which took her breath away causing her to fall backwards again.  This time when a pair of strong arms restrained her she couldn’t get loose because she was still trying to get air back into her lungs.

“Stop it!” Shockey yelled at Smith.  “You son of a monkey’s ass!  Her dad’s dead, you got no respect?”  To which Smith growled before replying “That little cur attacked me, not the other way around, old man!”

No one but Smith knew that Hesse had his Glock pointed at Cricket’s head.  Smith knew because his partner was quick to pull his gun out and Smith also knew Hesse to be the best shot in the county.  There was, so far, no target he couldn’t hit if he set his sights to it.  It was one of the things Smith liked best about his otherwise flaccid mamma’s boy partner: his complete transformation into a dangerous animal with a weapon in his hands.  The man always had his back which gave him a little  more room to do as he pleased, assured that if things got ugly enough, Hesse would be there, ready to shoot.  Now, as Smith stepped slightly aside revealing that his partner had his gun  to Cricket’s head, the other two men became more careful.

Cricket, having got her breath back a little, sank down to the ground and Grey, who had been restraining her, let her go when he felt her muscles relax. No one spoke until Smith approached Cricket, completely ignoring Grey, his easy cat-like swagger restored, and said with obvious pleasure “You are under arrest Christine Winters.  Stand up.” She barely registered what he said because she hadn’t heard her birth name said out loud since she was a little girl.  She wasn’t even sure why her parents gave her a name they never intended to use. Hearing it now was like having a queer flashback in which you become someone you don’t even know and wonder how you came to be wearing their skin.  Christine?  Who the hell was he talking about?

“Get up, I said!” Putting her hands to the ground she tried pushing herself up but her stomach cramped sickeningly.  She might have fallen over but for Grey’s quick hand to her elbow.  He helped her up, keeping his eyes on the gun rather than on Smith.  “Now turn around.” Smith commanded.  She turned around and found herself face to face with Grey whose eyes shifted from Hesse’s Glock to her and new appraisals were made between the two of them.  Grey’s original impression of Cricket had undergone some serious changes in the last few minutes.  He was no longer surprised by the things Peter had said about his daughter during those long stake-outs in the dark.  In fact, it was uncanny how much like Peter she was.  Her grey eyes might have been framed by slightly longer and darker auburn lashes than Peter’s had been, but they were just as unflinching and steely and at this moment full of burning anger.  She had the same pale skin covered with apricot freckles, not just across the bridge of her nose but across her whole round face, this he could see in spite of the dirt smears and blood streaming freely down her cheek and onto her coat.  She no longer looked the least bit small.

Smith read her rights while he roughly handcuffed her but Cricket wasn’t listening because she was distracted by uncomfortable thoughts about how Bonneville had fit into her father’s life without bisecting hers as though her father had been living two lives instead of one.  It was uncomfortable to suddenly, for the first time, wonder why she had asked her father so few questions about his work life.  She mentally shrugged off this uncomfortable question and instead coolly looked at Grey whose eyes were softer than hers; the color of faded conifer needles, and she noted with annoyance that he had better lashes than she did, and he probably didn’t even care.  She realized how ridiculous it was of her to be jealous of a man’s lashes, to even think of such a thing at a moment like this.  A sheepish flash of a smile and a quick flush crossed her face which was immediately erased by a wave of pain.  Grey said to Smith “She needs her cheek seen to.” To which Smith made no response aside from jerking Cricket towards the ostentatious black car, shoved her into the back seat, and slammed the door shut.

Read Chapter One of This Book:

Cricket and Grey (winter): Chapter One


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10 Reasons You Want to Read Cricket and Grey

Feel free to skip straight to the 10 reasons you want to read Cricket and Grey.

I kind of sprang the whole serial fiction thing on you.  No preamble or explanation or working up to the decision.  I apologize.  It’s just that for a whole year I’ve been trying to write pitches and though I did accrue 11 rejections I dropped the ball many months ago.  Partly because I was so sick of trying to write a good pitch.  You can’t sell a good story with a bad pitch.  But there’s no question that the whole pending move thing got in the way of my writing as well.  I finished writing the book last June.  13 months ago.  I haven’t worked on any fiction since then.  I did try.  I tried to write Baby Girl Six and discovered that though I want to write that story – I wasn’t ready.

So once I made a decision to self publish (about 72 hours ago) I burst out of the gates without further hesitation and started re-editing Cricket and Grey.  Once the first chapter was cleaned up I just posted it on the blog – BOOM.  DONE.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to publish one chapter every Monday afternoon until I reach the end of the book.  Each chapter will be available to read on my blog for one month.  Then I take it down.  Meanwhile I will get it formatted so that you can buy it for your Kindle or Nook or whatever electronic book device you have.  I’m not sure of the price range – probably between $3 and $6.  I will also format it for print on demand.  To get a hard copy of the book is more expensive so it will most likely be between $10 and $15.

Once I’ve got all those formats covered and the book is available in every way possible – I will begin working on the second Cricket and Grey book.  Either that or I will work on Jane Doe.*  If anyone reads Cricket and Grey and wants to read a second book I suggest you speak up and say something – these are the two projects I have queued up and I could go either way.  Cricket and Grey is meant to be a four book series (winter, spring, summer, and fall).

10 Reasons You Want to Read Cricket and Grey:

  • Cricket is possibly the first ever small -breasted, all-over freckled, red-headed medium height heroine who won’t make me you want to strangle her for being too perky and optimistic and singing ALL THE FUCKING TIME.  This heroine carries an M&P pistol, gets in fist fights with burly men, but also cares about healing people and animals.**
  • This story features an obese Mormon crime boss and a buxom Mormon teen-bride.
  • Grey is exactly the kind of hero you need on the post-oil semi-apocalyptic scene: he appreciates fine catgut suturing, plays the bagpipes, likes girls who get in fistfights with burly men, knows how to evade federal agents, can build a fire in the rain, doesn’t turn his nose up at stale bread, is not hero-tall and buff (5’11” and strong but not rippling with enormous sweaty muscles), and bathes regularly.  He’s a Scot, what more inducement could you possibly need?
  • There are lots of guns.  Not only are there lots of guns but I did a lot of research to include all these guns and even went shooting for the first time in my life (twice in one year!) in spite of the fact that I’m pretty anti-gun myself.  But this story isn’t about me so my stance on firearms is not important.  What’s important is that I got to spend many hours reading about semi-automatic pistols in order to choose the right weapon for Cricket.  I also got to consider the relative merits between an M16 (sexy, as far as assault rifles go) and an AK-47 (reliable and has a sexier full name if you love Russians like I do*** – Avtomat Kalashnikova).  I know you want to catch me out in weapons errors.
  • This novel includes the words pemmican, orchid, harem.
  • Horse drawn smuggled goods – how can anyone possibly resist Clydesdales as a get-away vehicle?
  • I really love the main villain and I think it shows.  In fact, the whole story ended up changing so that my favorite villain could have a bigger part.  This was unexpected.
  • There are a lot of scenes over meals consisting primarily of old bread, pickled and canned goods made by the people eating them, and some freshly hunted animals.  I had to find out how to pluck a bird and my main source for this information came from my favorite hunting food writer Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. 
  • A big theme in the story is about our need for modern medicine and how we’ll all get on when all we have is what we can grow and forage to heal ourselves.  Know how to set your own bone breaks?  Yeah, me neither.  But it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?  Instead of stockpiling military grade assault rifles to prepare for an apocalypse I think everyone would be better served stockpiling band-aids and ibuprofen.
  • When this book is made into a movie there will be no parts in it for the following actors and “actors”: Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Miley Cyrus, Ben Affleck, Rihanna, Beyonce, Kristen Stewart, any other singer-turned-actor, Milla Jovovich, or any other model-turned-actor, Tom Cruise, Daniel Craig, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Michele Williams, Uma Thurman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hugh Grant (sorry Hugh), Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Reynolds, Megan Fox, or Kate Hudson.  (The list is exhaustive so I’m going to end there and you may add to it after you’ve read the book)

So what the hell are you waiting for?  Read the first chapter now!

Cricket and Grey (winter): Chapter One

(So did it work?  Did I convince you to read it?  Wait a minute – you’re still here because you’re mad that Grey isn’t like FABIO?  You all know I’m a Nathan Fillion girl not an oily bulgy long haired hunk kind of girl.  Okay, picture Nathan Fillion but younger and Scottish.  Naked.  Now go read…)

*I’m back to calling it Jane Doe because nothing else works right now.

**So maybe if you love little orphan Annie you might hate Cricket.  I loathe LOATHE that story and every single version of that obnoxious little red headed girl and I have nightmares about her curly fro.  (I’m not kidding at all)

***Seriously, I’ll take a Russian over a Frenchman ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.

Cricket and Grey (winter): Chapter One

The night my mother was delivered home to us on a donkey cart with four bullets to her chest and one to her head, a dark red coagulated river choking through her curly bright copper  hair; I thought I’d learned all a person needed to know about death.  I saw my father’s spirit empty out like a trickling mountain spring into a great rushing river headed for the ocean to be lost in an anonymous lunar pull of tides and eddies. I saw him leaning over my mother keening low, crushing tears away from his face with his blocky rough hands which, even now, I remember noticing particularly (the way you notice odd details when the greater details are too huge to swallow) how the curly hairs on his big knuckles were shining like red spun gold in the low light of the cottage, wondering how I had managed not to notice how hairy his hands were until that night.  Such are the inane things that go through young heads at the most solemn moments.

When my mother died I learned that watching other people lose their loved ones is much different than losing your own.  I learned that up close and personal death is like a strange gruesome dream; the impossible de-animation of a body that used to scream and laugh and dream and fight and sleep and wake again and again and again, grown hollow, pale, and still.  I took the sight of her in and inhaled the details with a painful hunger to change them; to fill the small crusted hole in her head with flesh and life and pull her hair back into the chignon she usually wore which was always coming loose. Then, just as I braced myself against a rising tide of hysteria, my father took her away from me.

I was not allowed to sit at my father’s side to do my part preparing mother for burial.  He secreted himself in their bedroom to perform these offices alone.  I remember feeling like a powder keg of conflicting emotions: relief at not having to see her naked chest, shame that I felt relief, and a strange feeling of isolation from both of my parents.  My father kept the door closed until she was ready.  He ate nothing.  He might have been drinking but though he was ragged when he finally emerged, patting me on the cheek absently as he passed me in the kitchen and told me she was ready, he didn’t smell sour like a man deep in the bottle.  He left our cottage in town on his bicycle without another word to me, heading, I knew, for Hill Road which leads out of McMinnville proper and into the surrounding hills. We have property up there, about nine miles from town, and a cob cabin father built himself in the likeness of the old thatch cottages common in Scotland where he grew up.  I knew he was going up there to dig mother’s grave.

I think my mother would have preferred to be buried in town, in our own cottage garden, but it was too small to get a permit for human burial there so instead she would be buried in a sunny spot in the half acre clearing around our cabin in the woods.  This was vastly preferable to the public burial ground where people could bury their dead in mass graves that were excavated periodically like huge human compost piles, the bones removed and sent to the local dump, then refilled with fresh bodies.  This was much cheaper than getting permits for burial on private property.  The original old cemetery was still operational but I have never known anyone who could afford to purchase lots there.

After my father left, I went in to see mother laid out.  I’m not going to lie and say I fell in a heap of tears.  I wish I had because I think that’s what normal daughters do. I was scared when I looked at her, more than anything.  It wasn’t the first dead body I’d ever seen.  I’d seen plenty laid out through every winter in my memory, taken by influenza and the bone-chilling cold, through accidents, and old age.  I was scared because I didn’t feel broken but I could see that father was.  It’s not that I didn’t love her but I felt unfinished with her, like we’d been working up to something and never got there.  I was always trying to find myself in her or to find something in myself that I could say “That part of me is hers”.  I constantly fell short of her in everything, even the apothecary work she trained me in which we did together every day.  My mother would say to me “You’re Peter with breasts, my girl!” a comment that made my father laugh loud, the irony being that I didn’t even have much to speak of in the breast department.  She wasn’t wrong, of course.  The things my father taught me came easily to me, the hunting, the boxing, the butchering and the stalking.  My temper was his, as was my innate restlessness.  But every time she mentioned how much like my father I was it felt like a dig in my ribs, like a small thorn caught in my clothing, scratching and stabbing me at random moments.  Just once I would like her to have noticed something in me of her own, so that I could feel as close to her as I did to father.  Seeing her laid out cold and speechless did not make me cry.  Instead I felt unfinished and cheated.  Then, simply numb.

I learned that death makes people obsequious for no apparent gain.  My mother wasn’t a person many people in town loved but she was a person they all needed.  I heard the things they said behind her back because I know how to keep my mouth shut and my feet silent.  I know what most of them said to each other when they thought none of us were listening; that my parents must have been related, that they must have at least been cousins because there were so few redheads in our county.  Ignorant fools!  My parents weren’t from this area.   In Scotland, where they came from, red hair is so common no one even notices it.  I heard them call her a witch.  Sometimes I heard these things through other girls and I spent my early years with a string of black eyes, though truth be told I delivered more of them than I received.  I knew some thought mother worshiped the devil.  She was called “too proud”. I’d be proud too if I was my mother, because no matter how hard she was to impress, she was a person worth emulating, worth loving.  In spite of consistently failing to make her proud, my loyalty and love for her were unshakable.

But when they all streamed through our house for the wake, to give their condolences they said “Mairead was such a fine woman!” and “I’ll miss Mairead so much.” And “She was such a good friend.”  All of this from people who called her a witch, an incestuous bride, and too proud.  They told me how much they would miss her.  They wouldn’t miss her at all. They would only miss what she did for them: how she would come to tend their sick children when no doctor would do it because doctors refused to be paid in cheese, or fruit, or carpentry which my mother wasn’t too proud to accept in exchange for the herbal medicines she made.  She wasn’t too proud to attend bedside vigils; watching fevers rise, never too tired to send overworked sick parents to bed while she stayed with their children all night instead of her own.  Instead of me.  They said, as they slaked their thirst on our loss, that my mother was so loved by everyone and was such a good woman she’d surely be accepted into God’s arms in heaven.

It made me want to vomit.  That’s not true, I wanted to hit them, to lash out and make them shut up.  I held my tongue as long as I could before I had to leave the house.  To leave my father with those liars who would none of them lift a finger to help find out who killed this woman they said they loved so much.  Lots of quiet mention of the horrible nature of her death, many head-wags and pitying looks, but none of them would lend a hand.  They would retreat into their own less tainted lives and feel good about themselves for having said the right thing.  I couldn’t stand it anymore and made for the French doors in the kitchen when father grabbed my arm to detain me “Take your gun, lass, I won’t be up to the cabin tonight.  You know I’ll stay here with James and Mary, drinking.” He nodded to the door “Go on.”  I felt bad to leaving him, but if I had stayed I would have laid someone out under the dining room table.  Maybe if James and Mary Martin had brought their children, Tommy and Julie, who were my best friends, they might have tempered my anger and I would have stayed but they had to tend to a farm emergency and couldn’t be spared.  Such is life.  I left father to play nice at the wake and I rode my bicycle out of town and up the hill to our property in the woods where I could hear the crickets singing in the glorious quiet and my mother whispering over my shoulder that I was being selfish and immature and that father needed me.  It’s an uncomfortable fact that if you were never good enough for a person when they were alive you will never be good enough for them after they die because it’s impossible to impress or please the dead.

I learned that you still have to work, no matter how long you’re in black bands.  Life keeps moving forward.  My mother’s death left a hole in the community that it was my duty to fill as her trained apprentice.  She died in the summer, an admittedly slow time for an apothecary as far as dispensing is concerned, but since we also had to grow and forage most of the herbs we used it was a busy time for gathering and processing the herbs and plants I would count on during the winter months when ailments were exaggerated by the damp cold weather and the diminished supply of fresh produce.  So I didn’t spend a lot of time drowning in my loss, and though I know father struggled with his black grief every day from the moment he woke until the moment he crashed into bed at night, he worked too.  He was an armed guard for various kinds of transport between the surrounding counties so he was gone for periods of time and I believe he found relief in his work on the road.  When he was home he worked hard helping me tend the small crops we grew and foraging for medicinal plants coming into season.  He helped me prepare harvests for the drying shed he built in the back of the cottage garden.  The shed in the town cottage was where we made all of our herbals and stored them as well, because the cabin was too far up in the hills for most sick people to ride or walk to.

We couldn’t take time off from working to grieve because we had hefty death taxes to pay for the privilege of my mother dying.  I’ve heard my parents and their friends reminiscing about the days when you were only taxed if you inherited anything substantial from those who died but how the government, losing so much of their previous tax bases, took an opportunity to take a larger chunk from something they could always count on – death.  I don’t know exactly what we owed because father brushed off my questions about it telling me not to worry, that he would take care of it.  I trusted him, and let it go.

Other people noticed a change in father and hinted darkly that maybe he was never going to recover from my mother’s death.  “How’s your father dearie?” they’d ask.  “Peter was always devoted to Mairead, I’m sure I haven’t heard him laugh for months.  So sad…so sad.” which gave me the feeling that I was somehow outside the sad event, that I was just an interloper in the great life of Peter and Mairead Winters.  What right did I have to expect anyone to think my life had changed at all?  I was not crying at her grave each day or draping myself across their doorsteps begging for surrogate mothering.  I’ll bet they all would have loved that, to see me knocked down with visible pain and suffering.  It’s true that father never removed his black bands but it’s not as though he went dragging his heart through the dust behind him every day in a great display of bereavement.  Still, he was greatly pitied (and sighed over) by women.

If it hadn’t been for the Martins I suppose I would have felt almost completely alone.  Making any trip over the hills to Pacific City where they lived (a small town on the coast about fifty miles of broken road to the west of us) usually required staying the night.  In the years since my mother’s death I made that trip a lot more often than my mother would have approved of me doing, what with it taking time away from my work and my responsibilities.  But Mary and James were my parents’ oldest friends and they filled some of the silence in my life with their comfortable warm presence.  Julie, their daughter, is the best person in the world I know and at the time of my mother’s death she was embroiled in a particularly messy affair with some questionable slightly older man and listening to her tell me all the improbable details that only best friends tell each other kept me tethered to my own life with some enjoyment and when we couldn’t see each other we used our fathers’ pigeon post to send messages to each other which were occasionally intercepted by her older brother Tommy who was running their farm by that time.  James relinquished the reins of the family farm to his son to get more work as an armed guard, work he and my father often did together, and which was how they met each other before any of us kids were born.

I have been in love with Tommy Martin since I was nine years old.  Tall Tommy with hair illuminated with internal sunshine and his startling dark brown eyes that glint with mischief and undress you while he laughs…that’s what other girls say about him but the sad truth is that Tommy has never undressed me with his eyes.

Anyway, Tommy thought we were degrading the pigeon post’s purpose by sending messages about such unimportant things like the men Julie was dating and the men who weren’t dating me.  Before he took over running the Martin farm in James’ stead he was a lot more fun.  I guess he had to become dour in order to be taken seriously but nothing is more tiresome than people becoming so stiff with their perceived importance that they don’t see the fun of sending inconsequential but cheerful notes on the leg of a carrier bird.  He said we could call each other or use the public internet to gossip with each other.  I reminded him that we still hadn’t replaced our phone after it broke years ago because most of the people we would have wanted to call couldn’t afford a phone service anyway and using the public computer was annoying and expensive when we could send Euclid or Troy back and forth for free.  The hidden bonus in using the pigeons is that it necessitated more visits with each other in order to trade birds back (pigeons, you know, only fly one direction which is wherever their nest is) and nothing could have pleased us more than extra excuses to visit each other.

It was within the first year of my mother’s death that Tommy began his ridiculously long engagement to Rebecca Foster, a chaste little dab of a girl with the most exquisite skin I’ve ever had the pleasure to wish a pox on, and it was my personal little hell watching him court her with all the princely gestures a gently bred girl could hope for that rougher girls like me would never inspire.  I was only ever his devoted wingman and he liked it that way.  I don’t think he even saw me as a girl at all.  Why should he?  I have a lamentably flat bosom which doesn’t tend to heave or swell the way attractive heroine’s bosoms are generally expected to do and I’m more likely to get into a fistfight than a gentle embroilment from which I might be rescued and then be eternally grateful for.  Men of Tommy’s cut like a woman with a lot of gratefulness in her, it’s clearly an attractive quality, something I don’t seem to have much of.  When he began his engagement to The Orchid it was clear that my girlish dreams were over.

I thought I knew everything about death when we laid my mother in the ground, but the day my father died I discovered I knew next to nothing at all.

When he first started getting sick we tried a number of remedies we found in our natural medicine reference books.  Sometimes it seemed we were making progress, that whatever was ailing him was going away, only to be disappointed a month later when his symptoms recurred.  Mixing medicine is a precise craft but for a small town apothecary with no fancy equipment, diagnosing is a hit or miss business.  You make the most educated guesses you can without cutting someone open or seeing inside of them with x-ray machines or lab chemicals.  When the symptoms grew worse he applied for a government issued voucher for diagnostic tests which he was approved for through a lottery system.  He made the long tedious trip to Salem General, twenty seven miles away which is a long way by horse cart, but after being diagnosed with stomach cancer he couldn’t get vouchers for treatment.  No one was approved for cancer treatments who didn’t have the money to pay all expenses, the irony being that if you had the money to pay for all your expenses you didn’t need to get a voucher to get treatment.  I did everything I could for him, everything I thought my mother would have tried to keep him comfortable near the end.  I suppose it was the right order of things for a daughter to feed her father at the end of his life just the same as he fed her at the beginning of hers, but the right order of things pissed me off.  I knew it must have been hard for him, an ex-boxer always up for a fight to be fed soup in delicate spoonfuls by his scrappy twenty six year old daughter.

From the time he was diagnosed it took him six months to die.  As he drew nearer to the end he began to tell me what I would have to do when he died.  How to clean him and dress his dead body.  How quickly I would need to accomplish this.  He told me where to bury him up in the woods near the cabin and what permit requests I would need to fill out.  He told me how deep and how wide the grave would legally need to be.  He told me what would happen if I didn’t get him dressed before rigor mortis set in.  All of this he said quietly and no matter how much I might have wished to have more cheerful conversations as his life drew to a close, I didn’t have the luxury to have gentle chats.  I didn’t have the luxury to send him off to a mortuary like I’ve heard people used to do.  Everything that needed to be done had to be done by me.  I could have asked the Martins to help me, father told me I should ask for their help, but I didn’t want a fuss.  Shockey, our nearest neighbor and close family friend who also happened to be the county’s best distiller and possibly the oldest man alive, was the only one I let help and I only let him help because I – wait – I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Take notes, Cricket.” Father said quietly.  “This is important.  I can trust you to take care of yourself girl.  Your mother taught you well and though your temper is deplorable, you’re good at what you do, but burying me is not something you’ve been taught.  I ought to have let you help with your mother.”  I waited for more in that line, secretly hoping he might explain why he’d performed all the cleaning and dressing offices behind closed doors as though he had something to hide but he gave me nothing more so I prompted him “Why didn’t you let me help?”  but he shook his head and said “It’s not important now.”

He told me how I might have to break a bone to get him dressed but as unpleasant as it may sound I had to do it or else my mother would – (would what?  Come back from the grave to spank me?)  I heard her in my ear “You get him dressed as a sign of respect, child.  We have no need of wood coffins or fancy plaques but a man needs to go to ground in his most comfortable clean clothes.  It’s about respect, Cricket.  You don’t care about it now but you will when it’s your turn.”  (Or else mother would admonish me from the grave, apparently.)

He told me what papers I would need to fill out for the county health officer and who I would need to call.  He laid out all of my death duties and responsibilities.  He told me what alcohol to ask Shockey to bring to his wake.  And when I say wake you will think Irish, but we’re not Irish.  We’re Scottish, and not Catholic in spite of me having gone to the Catholic school in town (it was the only school left in town) so having a “wake” might seem strange.  What can I say?  My parents didn’t play by anyone’s rules and though they could have just called it a memorial service, I suppose they didn’t want their own ritual of sending the dead off to be mistaken for the sad, tee-totaling, grim, prayerful, dry affairs that most people favor in our community.  My father chose to let people view mother the day before her burial but not during the actual wake.  Few people chose to view her but many had chosen to attend the drinking and eating part.  For practical reasons my father’s wake wouldn’t include a viewing either because the wake was going to be held at our cottage in town but he died up at our cabin in the woods and I wasn’t going to bring his body to town for people to stare at.  Anyone who wanted to view him could, of course, come all the way up to our cabin in the woods, but that was a long trek to see an emaciated dead man.

I took it all, I think, with good grace.  My responsibilities might feel solemn and daunting but I understood that it was my honor to do these things for my father.  Except for throwing the wake.  I hated that I had to repeat that awful experience.  The things people said about my mother were no more colorful than the things people said about my father behind his back and I didn’t think I could listen to all the insincere honey they would pour over him in death after calling him a shady bruiser, a smuggler, a foul mouthed son of a bitch, and a lady killer.  None of it true, of course.  Well, mostly not true anyway.

His last hours were not comfortable or peaceful.  As his body shut down, organ after organ, he kept trying to suck up enough oxygen into his lungs, reminding me of a fish pulled out of water and left on the shore; mouth opening and closing in a futile effort to fill it with life – the slow drying up of whatever it is that animates us, makes us who we are.  I had always imagined that if one was dying one could simply “give up”, let go, and be dead.  Isn’t that what old people do?  I always imagined there’s some mysterious switch whose location we discover at exactly the right moment we need it, and then we simply flip the switch when there’s not enough air left to breath.

Other than giving me detailed instructions on how to dig his grave and file paperwork and be a good daughter and invite people over to make me sick to my stomach, he didn’t say a lot.  We didn’t have a lot of conversations the way people in books often have long eloquent death-bed soliloquies but we did have two conversations that turned out to be poignant in hindsight.  He told me that I was to be careful of Smith and Hesse.  No – those weren’t his exact words.  It was stranger than that, as though there was a meaning within meaning that came out of nowhere but he said it as though we’d been having a long conversation about it.  (Maybe he was having soliloquies in his head without me.)  What he actually said a few days before his death was “I know you don’t carry but you need to now.  Is your .38 here or at the cottage?” I told him my gun was here in the cabin.  “Get it and wear it at all times, loaded.  Watch out for Smith and Hesse, they’ll be closer than you think.”  I asked him what he was talking about but he would only repeat it and looked so tired I didn’t pester him.  Instead I considered his warning, for that’s what it was, silently.  Mitch Smith and John Hesse were the two federal officers in charge of my mother’s murder case.  They’re the ones who brought her back to us and led the investigation.  I remembered Smith and Hesse only vaguely.  Mostly I remembered Smith throwing his weight around a lot in postures meant to impress and intimidate but however much others might find him impressive, my father was not one of them.

The second conversation we had just before he died was slightly more cryptic than the first.  “Listen to me lass,” I leaned in to listen to his fading voice “Grey is coming.  He meant to get here before, he promised me pipes.  You’ll let him play.”  Grey was a man my father worked with who I’d never met.  I knew he was a Scot and not much else.  “Of course, father.  Of course I’ll let him play.”  My father smiled at me with a mischievous wide grin making deep shadows in his gaunt face.  “You’ll not punch him, little scrapper?” the look I gave him made him laugh which turned to coughing.  I had water ready for him and when the coughing finally eased I brought the cup to his mouth but he pushed it away saying he was done with all that.  He looked at me intently, making the hairs on my arms rise; there was something keen in his look, something hard.  He pulled me close so I could hear him clearly “Do you trust me, girl?” I said of course I trusted him.  “Then you will keep him close.  You’ll need him.” I began to object, because getting directives from your father’s deathbed to keep strange men close to you is irritating, but he shushed me and fell asleep.

He died in the early hours of the morning.  I didn’t even notice because I’d fallen asleep in the chair next to him when it happened so I can’t say if he called out for me or if he just guttered like a candle with no wick left.  Gone and gone.  Done and done.  I was completely alone.

I did all that my father told me to and the preparations for his burial went more or less exactly as he told me they should.  Except for the part where I got myself thrown into jail on the day of his wake.

Cricket and Grey (winter): Chapter Two

Cricket and Grey (winter): Chapter Three

Note: I am publishing Cricket and Grey in its entirety on my blog so that you can read it for free.  I am working on formatting it as an e-book and as a print on demand book that you can purchase if you like it but would like an easier format to read it in.  I apologize for the formatting on this blog – I don’t know how to adjust the style sheet to allow me to format it the way it is in Word.

I will publish one chapter every Monday until the whole book is online.

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