Breaking Twig (excerpt)

eppersonBW

By Deborah Epperson

PROLOGUE

 I must have been about five the first time Grandpa Eli told me the story of the Pickers and the Picks. He was sitting in his rocking chair on the back porch of the modest plantation house he’d built twenty years earlier. My imaginary friend, Claudia, and I were having a tea party under the shade of the weeping willow. A clump of purple flowers plucked from the wisteria vine trailing along the back picket fence served as our grapes, while half-a-dozen emerald leaves pilfered from a hothouse geranium represented mint cookies.

  “Becky Leigh,” he called. “Did I ever tell you the story of the Pickers and the Picks?”

  “No, sir.” I headed for the porch. “What are Pickers, Grandpa?”

  “Pickers are mainly folks who are big on the outside, but small on the inside.” He gave a push and the oak rocker resumed its familiar cadence. “Not necessarily tall and heavy big. Pickers are more like puffed up big.”

  I climbed into his lap, nestled into the crook of his shoulder. “Like popcorn puffs up when you cook it?”

  “No, more like a sore that’s got infected and is puffed up with mucus and poisons.”

  “That’s yucky.”

  He laughed. “That’s a true fact, Miss Becky.”

  “What do Pickers do?” I asked.

  “Pickers hunt for someone who looks like easy pickin’s.”

  “Easy pickin’s? You mean like when Momma makes Papa and me pick dewberries along the railroad track instead of by Lost Mule Bog because she says it’s easy pickin’s along the tracks? But it’s not really. It’s just the bog is messier, and you know how she hates messes.”

  Grandpa stopped rocking. “Are you going to be quiet and let me finish my story, young’un?”

  I covered my mouth to stifle a giggle. It was the funniest thing, my grandpa pretending to be mad at me. “Yes, sir. I’ll be quiet.”

  The rocker started up again. “As I was saying, a Picker hunts for someone he thinks will be easy pickin’s. That’s usually someone smaller, younger, or weaker in some way. It can be someone whose only weakness is that he or she is a nice person.”

  I tapped Grandpa’s shoulder. “How does a Picker change nice people into Picks?”

  “Well, he screams and hollers at them. He makes them do things they know they shouldn’t do. Champion Pickers are experts at bullyin’, intimidatin’, and dominatin’ other folks.” The rocker stopped once more. “Do you understand anything I’m saying, Becky?”

  “I think so. Maybe. Will I be a Picker or a Pick when I grow up, Grandpa?”

  “Can’t say for sure. Let’s try an experiment.” He helped me down and pointed to a line of ants marching across the porch floor. “Go stand by those ants.”

  I did as I was told.

  “Now, Becky, I want you to stomp them ants as hard as you can.”

  “Why should I kill the ants, Grandpa? They’re not hurting me.”

  “Because you can, girl. Because you can.”

  I began to stomp. I stomped the ants in the middle of the line, the ants in the back of the line, and all the ants at the head of the line. I stomped so hard my cat’s dish vibrated across the floor, tumbled over the edge, and landed in the azalea bushes that circled the back porch. I didn’t stop stomping until all the ants were either dead or beyond my reach.

  Grandpa Eli motioned for me to come back. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. “That’s what Pickers do, Becky. They hurt other living things just because they can.” Pulling me closer, he asked, “How did stomping those ants make you feel?”

  I lowered my eyes. “Bad. I felt bad, but . . .”

  “But what?”

  “But when I was stomping them I felt . . .”

  “You felt strong?”

  I nodded, too ashamed to acknowledge my Picker-like feelings in words.

  “How do you think the ants felt?”

  “Terrible,” I said. “And so will Pinecone when he sees his supper is gone.”

  “Don’t you worry about that cat. He won’t starve. But that’s what happens when a Picker gets riled up. Lots of innocent folks get hurt too.”

  “Does this mean I’m gonna be a Picker when I grow up?”

  “It’s all up to you, child. You don’t have to be a Picker or a Pick. You can choose to be nice to people and insist that they be nice to you.”

  I climbed back into his lap. “And if they’re not nice to me?”

  “If you stand up to the Pickers in this world, they’ll leave you alone. Remember, they like easy pickin’s.”

  “Have you ever been a Picker, Grandpa, or a Pick?”

  “Sure. At certain times in life, most people are either a Pick or Picker. It usually takes a lifetime for folks to figure out they don’t have to be either one.”

  “Grandpa, do you think a Picker, a champion Picker that is, can ever change?”

  “Maybe. With the passage of time and a heap of prayers, I think anyone can change.”

  I gave him a hug. “I think we should start praying for Momma right away.”

  Grandpa Eli smiled. “I think you’re right, Becky Leigh.”

       *****

I did start praying. But after both my grandfather and my beloved Papa died, and after the only noticeable change in Momma—despite eight years of fervent prayers—was her new husband, I stopped. I let the tales of Pickers and Picks slip from my mind and forgot Grandpa Eli’s warnings on the perils of becoming easy pickin’s.

  Not until one day in November of ’63 did I recall the lessons of the porch. That was the morning Momma and her new husband, Frank, went to the Miller’s house to watch President Kennedy’s funeral, and the time I got caught slipping into my new stepbrother’s room to borrow some paper. It was also the day a seventeen-year-old boy decided to teach a thirteen-year-old girl a lesson she wouldn’t forget. That was the day I knew for sure I was a Pick.

Breaking TWIG

Breaking TWIG

 

The Magic of Middle-Grade Literature

by Jenny Mattern

C.S. Lewis once said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Throughout all the years I have been reading and enjoying middle-grade literature, I have found this to be eminently true. What exactly is middle-grade literature, you ask? It’s that sweet spot between beginning chapter books with their controlled, simple language and young adult literature, which so often seems to venture into dark places. In middle-grade literature, the main character is a child on the cusp of something else–in that place between childhood and adulthood where magic can still flourish.

Not long ago, I read The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. It’s not even twenty thousand words, this little novel, but it’s powerful. I handed it to my fourteen-year-old daughter. “Just read this,” I told her, and she did, very quickly. Afterwards, our conversation went something like this:

Me: What did you think of that book?
Teenager: I really liked it.
Me: It made me cry. How about you?
Teenager: Yep.
Me: What did you like about it?
Teenager: I’m not even sure. It was just so, so beautiful.

I do read books written for actual grown-ups, but I probably read twice as much middle-grade literature as any other genre, because when it’s well-written, few things can rival it. Are there books you read as a child that you’d consider reading again? C.S. Lewis also said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” Try to remember what delighted you at age ten or eleven or twelve, and revisit it. If you spend all your time at the library searching through the shelves of the adult books, venture into the children’s section once in a while. You just might be surprised. 

Here are a few suggestions to get you started… 

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Happy reading!

To Plan or Not to Plan?

Photo.cropped by M. Frances Erler

I know I’m paraphrasing Shakespeare, so I hope he doesn’t mind.  With the Shelter-at-Home orders due to COVID19, I’ve been facing a challenge I’ve never encountered before.  We all have, I know.  Over the past three weeks all the plans I had for the next five months have gone out the window.  Or into the trash.  And yes, I know I’m not alone.

My quandry is whether to have a schedule for my empty days or not.  I’ve always been a planner, with a daily schedule on my bulletin board and a well-marked calendar on the wall. Setting up a new schedule has the appeal of helping me cope with everything and giving me some stability.  And a way to make sure I don’t ‘waste’ my time.

On the other hand, now that the calendar is gone, along with the schedule, I feel a strange sense of liberation.  I can do what I feel now, go with the flow.  Though I admit I find myself playing Solitaire on my Kindle a lot.  But maybe I need this bit of down time in a stressed life.

Hmm…I’m not sure which is better.  To schedule or not to schedule, that is the question.  Any ideas out there?

 

Shadows of Home (excerpt)

eppersonBW

By Deborah Epperson

Elita backed out of Rat Snake Slough and headed across open water to a slip of land she hoped was Tadpole Island.

After paddling the pirogue into the shallows, Elita jumped out, secured her ride, and headed toward a large clearing. She found a worn tree stump to sit on while studying her homemade map and tried to reassure herself that she wasn’t lost. Maybe it had been five years since she’d been here, but she’d spent her first seventeen years on the Caddo. Mathematical probability was in her favor.

“What’cha doin’ here, Girl?”

Her insides froze. She rose slowly, bringing her gaze to rest on a stringy-haired stranger standing fifteen feet away at the edge of the clearing.

He stood about six feet two, roughly eight inches taller than Elita. A barrel chest, thick waist, and wide hips rested on tapering legs that looked like they should snap in two under the weight of the body they supported. The stranger’s arms appeared too short for the rest of him, as if God had made them for someone else, but stuck them on this fellow at the last minute. No chin to speak of, his woolly dark eyebrows combined to crawl across his forehead. The man’s hands were massive, or at least they looked that way to Elita. That could’ve been because of the shotgun they caressed.

His navy blue tee shirt and rolled-up jeans were stained, but not dirty. An oval white patch containing a silhouette of a dog decorated his black cap. His clean-shaven, round face served as a pale canvas to black eyes that turned down at the corners.

“Why you messin’ around here?” he asked again.

“I was headed for Moccasin Bayou, but took a wrong turn someplace.”

He eyed her up and down before resting the shotgun in his left arm like a mother cradling her child. “Sorry about ya ma.” He shifted the shotgun to his other arm. “How’d she die?”

“A car accident.” Elita took two steps toward the man. “Jax Boudreaux, is that you?”

He nodded. “She were a good woman. Gave me four peach fried pies once. Peach is my favorite.”

Jax’s sudden appearance surprised her. The Boudreaux family kept mostly to themselves, especially Jax, the youngest of the clan. Rumor had it his mother was a quadroon, meaning she was one-fourth Negro, the offspring of a mulatto voodoo priestess from New Orleans and a white sailor. Elita understood how a person of mixed blood would shy away from some of the townsfolk, if you’d call LaSalle, Louisiana, with its population of 682 souls, a town.

Having grown up in Louisiana during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Elita recalled that the public water fountains, restrooms, and doors into the town’s only grocery store had signs hanging over them that read Whites Only or Colored. She figured if people were only one-eighth Negro like Jax, they’d be considered white. But it didn’t work that way in the Deep South. If you carried any Negro blood, you were viewed to be a Colored, arithmetic be damned. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in ’64, the signs came down. But signs are easier changed than minds.

Jax’s older half-brother, Luther, shared the same daddy, but not the same mother. Thus, Luther was viewed as being white. Nobody paid him much mind unless they wanted to hear the latest gossip or buy a mess of catfish for supper. Uncle Matt claimed Luther’s two talents in life were spreading rumors and catching fish.

“What brings you to Tadpole Island, Jax? You got trotlines set out around here?”

He shook his head. “The Caddo talks to me. She told me you were here.”

“I wish she’d talk to me and tell me how I got lost.”

“The Caddo’s mad at you cause you and your ma up and left her.”

Elita didn’t mean to laugh. She did that sometimes when she got nervous.

Jax’s face darkened. “It’s not funny, Girl. The Caddo can be real hurtful to those who upset her. You should know that better than most.”

His insinuation was less than subtle.

“My daddy loved this place. His death was an accident, pure and simple.”

“There ain’t no accidents in the Caddo.” Jax studied the sky. “Dark’s coming on fast. The loup-garou will be prowling soon.”

She hadn’t heard the term loup-garou since leaving the Caddo, but every child raised on the bayou knew about them. Some folks called them werewolves, while others referred to them as rougarous or shapeshifters. Half-human, half-wolf. Whatever the term, they were the most feared of all the creatures rumored to haunt the swamps of Louisiana. Like the werewolf, a loup-garou couldn’t be killed with regular bullets. And when one bit you and tasted your blood, you became one of them.

Even as a child, Elita had never believed in the tales of the Cajun werewolf. Still, the thought of navigating the bayous alone at night made her feel uneasy.

“You’d best come with me, Girl, before the loup-garou finds you here.” 

Dammit. She’d only been home a week and already managed to get herself into a bind reminiscent of her early teenage years spent on the Caddo. Why hadn’t she listened to Nettie?  Her father had spoken the truth—Elita was jackass stubborn. She was also a twenty-two-year-old educated woman who wouldn’t be intimidated by ancient tales of imaginary swamp monsters. But Shotgun Jax and the alligators that navigated the murky waters of Caddo Lake were not fantasy.

In her haste to make it to Moccasin Bayou, she’d forgotten to get a lantern or a flashlight. Alligators didn’t worry her in the daylight, but at night they could be mistaken for a submerged log. In the dark, she might paddle right over the top of a gator. An angry alligator could flip a pirogue over with one swish of its mighty tail.

“We need to git.” He glanced around the clearing. “We need to leave before it’s too late.”

Jax’s nervousness was catching. You’d think an anxious man holding a gun would be worrisome enough, but no. Her annoyingly inquisitive brain kept wondering what could make a man who knew the Caddo as well as Jax did, a man protected by a double-barreled and no doubt loaded shotgun, so anxious.

She decided to take her chances with the gators. “I can’t leave my grandpa’s pirogue here, so I’ll just drift on home before it gets good dark. It was nice seeing—”

“Be quiet, Girl!” Jax took a couple of steps toward the lake. “You hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s cause the Caddo won’t talk to you, but I hear. He’ll be here . . . soon.”

Elita’s scalp tingled, never a good sign. She’d almost decided Jax was hallucinating when she heard the sound of a boat motor.

“A Mercury engine. 135 horsepower.” Jax shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come here, Girl. You shouldn’t have come.” He stomped off toward the woods.

She watched Jax’s retreat until the underbrush and fading light swallowed him. The precariousness of the situation settled in her chest. Alone, Elita would face the menace that had sent Jax and his shotgun fleeing. Her mind swirled. Should she jump in the pirogue and paddle as fast as possible toward Rat Snake Slough? She couldn’t out-paddle a motorboat, so she might as well get ready for the unknown coming around the west end of the island.

Elita picked up a sturdy limb. Her father had dubbed her Warrior Girl of the Caddo for a reason. This would not be her first fight.

EPPERSON - SHADOWS

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