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Read by Emma Galvin
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“The lineage from Faulkner to Woodrell runs as deep and true as an Ozark stream in this book…his most profound and haunting yet.” — Los Angeles Times Book Review
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
Preview of The Maid's Version
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REE DOLLY stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.
Snow clouds had replaced the horizon, capped the valley darkly, and chafing wind blew so the hung meat twirled from jigging branches. Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs. She smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered. The coming weather meant wash hung outside would freeze into planks, so she'd have to stretch clothesline across the kitchen above the woodstove, and the puny stack of wood split for the potbelly would not last long enough to dry much except Mom's underthings and maybe a few T-shirts for the boys. Ree knew there was no gas for the chain saw, so she'd be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the valley and fell around her.
Jessup, her father, had not set by a fat woodpile nor split what there was for the potbelly before he went down the steep yard to his blue Capri and bounced away on the rut road. He had not set food by nor money, but promised he'd be back soon as he could with a paper sack of cash and a trunkload of delights. Jessup was a broken-faced, furtive man given to uttering quick pleading promises that made it easier for him to walk out the door and be gone, or come back inside and be forgiven.
Walnuts were still falling when Ree saw him last. Walnuts were thumping to ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing that never quite came into view, and Jessup had paced on this porch in a worried slouch, dented nose snuffling, lantern jaw smoked by beard, eyes uncertain and alarmed by each walnut thump. The darkness and those thumps out in the darkness seemed to keep him jumpy. He paced until a decision popped into his head, then started down the steps, going fast into the night before his mind could change. He said, "Start lookin' for me soon as you see my face. 'Til then, don't even wonder."
She heard the door behind her squeak and Harold, age eight, dark and slight, stood in pale long johns, holding the knob, fidgeting from foot to foot. He raised his chin, gestured toward the meat trees across the creek.
"Maybe tonight Blond Milton'll bring us by one to eat."
"That could be."
"Don't kin ought to?"
"That's what is always said."
"Could be we should ask."
She looked at Harold, with his easy smile, black hair riffling in the wind, then snatched his nearest ear and twisted until his jaw fell loose and he raised his hand to swat at hers. She twisted until he bore up under the pain and stopped swatting.
"Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered."
"I'm cold," he said. He rubbed his smarting ear. "Is grits all we got?"
"Butter 'em more. There's still a tat of butter."
He held the door and they both stepped inside.
"No, there ain't."
MOM SAT in her chair beside the potbelly and the boys sat at the table eating what Ree fed them. Mom's morning pills turned her into a cat, a breathing thing that sat near heat and occasionally made a sound. Mom's chair was an old padded rocker that seldom rocked, and at odd instants she'd hum ill-matched snips of music, notes unrelated by melody or pitch. But for most of any day she was quiet and still, wearing a small lingering smile prompted by something vaguely nice going on inside her head. She was a Bromont, born to this house, and she'd once been pretty. Even as she was now, medicated and lost to the present, with hair she forgot to wash or brush and deep wrinkles growing on her face, you could see she'd once been as comely as any girl that ever danced barefoot across this tangled country of Ozark hills and hollers. Long, dark, and lovely she had been, in those days before her mind broke and the parts scattered and she let them go.
Ree said, "Finish up eatin'. Bus'll be along soon."
The house had been built in 1914, the ceilings were high, and the single light overhead threw dour shadows behind everything. Warped shadow-shapes lay all across the floor and walls and bulged in the corners. The house was cool in the brighter spots and chill in the shadows. Windows set high into the walls, and outside the panes torn plastic sheeting from the winter before whipped and fluttered. The furniture came into the house when Mamaw and Grandad Bromont were alive, had been in use since Mom was a child, and the lumpy stuffing and worn fabric yet held the scent of Grandad's pipe tobacco and ten thousand dusty days.
Ree stood at the sink rinsing dishes, looking out the window onto the sharp slope of bare trees, looming rock ledges and a thin mud trail. Storm wind shoved limbs around and whistled past the window frame, hooted down the stovepipe. The sky came into the valley low, glum and blustery, about to bust open and snow.
Sonny said, "These socks smell."
"Would you just put 'em on? You'll miss the bus."
Harold said, "My socks smell, too."
"Would you just please, please, please put those fuckin' socks on! Would you do that? Huh?"
Sonny and Harold were eighteen months apart in age. They nearly always went about shoulder to shoulder, running side by side and turning this way or veering that way at the same sudden instant, without a word, moving about in a spooky, instinctive tandem, like scampering quotation marks. Sonny, the older boy, was ten, seed from a brute, strong, hostile, and direct. His hair was the color of a fallen oak leaf, his fists made hard young knots, and he'd become a scrapper at school. Harold trailed Sonny and tried to do as he did, but lacked the same sort of punishing spirit and muscle and often came home in need of fixing, bruised or sprained or humiliated.
Harold said, "They don't really stink that bad, Ree."
Sonny said, "Yeah, they do. But it don't matter. They'll be in our boots."
Ree's grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law. There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own. Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.
"Get," she said. "Get your book satchels'n get. Get down the road'n catch that bus. And put your stocking hats on."
THE SNOW fell first in hard little bits, frosty white bits blown sideways to pelt Ree's face as she raised the ax, swung down, raised it again, splitting wood while being stung by cold flung from the sky. Bits worked inside her neckline and melted against her chest. Ree's hair was shoulder-length and full, with ungovernable loose curls from temples to neck and snow bits gathered in the tangle. Her overcoat was an implacable black and had been Mamaw's, grim old wool battered by decades of howling winter and summer moths. The buttonless coat fell past her knees, below her dress, but draped open and did not hamper her chopping strokes. Her swings were practiced and powerful, short potent whacks. Splinters flew, wood split, the pile grew. Ree's nose ran and the blood came up in her face and made pink on her cheeks. She pinched two fingers high on her nose, snorted a splat to the ground, dragged a sleeve across her face, swung the ax again.
Once the pile of splits became big enough to sit on, she did. She sat with her long legs close beneath her, booted feet spread wide, pulled headphones from a pocket and clamped them over her ears, then turned on The Sounds of Tranquil Shores. While frosty bits gathered in her hair and on her shoulders she raised the volume of those ocean sounds. Ree needed often to inject herself with pleasant sounds, stab those sounds past the constant screeching, squalling hubbub regular life raised inside her spirit, poke the soothing sounds past that racket and down deep where her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a gray room, agitated and endlessly provoked but yearning to hear something that might bring a moment's rest. The tapes had been given to Mom who already heard too many puzzling sounds and did not care to confront these, but Ree tried them and felt something unknot. She also favored The Sounds of Tranquil Streams, The Sounds of Tropical Dawn, and Alpine Dusk.
As the frosty bits dwindled the wind slowed and big snowflakes began falling as serenely as anything could fall the distance from the sky. Ree listened to lapping waves of far shores while snowflakes gathered on her. She sat unmoving and let snow etch her outline in deepening clean whiteness. The valley seemed in twilight though it was not yet noon. The three houses across the creek put on white shawls and burning lights squinted golden from the windows. Meat still hung from limbs in the side yards, and snow began clinging to the limbs and meat. Ocean waves kept sighing to shore while snow built everywhere she could see.
Headlights came into the valley on the rut road. Ree felt a sudden bounce of hope and stood. The car had to be coming here, the road ended here. She pulled the headphones to her neck and slid down the slope toward the road. Her boots left skid tracks in the snow and she fell on her ass near the bottom, then raised to her knees and saw that it was the law, a sheriff's car. Two little heads looked out from the backseat.
Ree knelt beneath stripped walnut trees, watching as the car cut long scars in the fresh snow, pulled near and stopped. She pushed to her feet and rushed around the hood to the driver's side, taking firm aggressive strides. When the door cracked open, she leaned and said, "They didn't do nothin'! They didn't do a goddamned thing! What the hell're you tryin' to pull?"
A rear door opened and the boys slid out laughing until they heard Ree's tone and saw her expression. The glee drained from their faces and they became still. The deputy stood, raised his hands, showed her his palms, shook his head.
"Hold your beans, girl—I just brung 'em down from where the bus stopped. This snow has shut the school. Just give 'em a ride is all."
She felt heat rise in her neck and cheeks, but turned to the boys, hands on her hips.
"You boys don't need to do no ridin' around with the law. Hear me? The walk ain't that far." She glanced across the creek, saw curtains parted, shapes moving. She pointed up the slope to the woodpile. "Now get up there and bring them splits into the kitchen. Go."
The deputy said, "I was on my way here, anyhow."
"Now why in hell would that be?"
Ree knew the deputy's name was Baskin. He was short but wide, said to be a John Law nobody should tangle with unless the stakes were high, quick to draw, quicker to club. These country deputies answered calls alone, with backup help an hour or more away, so dainty rules and regulations were not first on their list of things to worry about. Or second, either. Baskin's wife was a Tankersly from Haslam Springs, and Mom had gone to school with her from first grade on up and had still been friendly with her until they both married. Baskin had arrested Jessup on the porch late in the summer past.
"Ask me inside," he said. He dusted snow from his shoulders. "I got to talk some with your momma."
"She ain't in the mood."
"Ask me in, or watch me go in, anyhow. Whichever way you like it best."
"Goin' to be like that, huh?"
"Listen, I didn't drive close on two hours of bad road only just to see your smilin' face, girl. I got reasons. Ask me in or follow, it's goddam cold out here."
He began moving toward the porch and Ree loped ahead of him and stopped him at the door.
"Stomp your shoes. Don't track melt all over my floor."
Baskin stalled and hung his head for a moment, like a bull pondering, then nodded and dramatically stomped the snow from his feet. He made porch planks wiggle, snow fall from the railings, sent booms into the valley. "Good enough?"
She shrugged but held the door for him, slammed it shut as his heels cleared the threshold. Clothes were strung in three ranks across the kitchen, shirts drooping to eye level, dresses and pants falling deeper from the lines. Drips formed puddles beneath the thicker garments and trickles followed the slant of the floor to the wall. It was easiest to move about through sections where underthings and socks allowed more headroom. Mom sat in her chair beside the potbelly, humming thoughtlessly until she saw Baskin ducking below her damp panties.
"Not in my daddy's house!" She smiled broadly, as if tickled by the surprise antics of a likable idiot. She began to rock her chair and laughed and held her eyes nearly closed. "Huh-uh, huh-uh. No, sir." She pouted her lips, shook her head, suddenly dulled again. "You can't bust a girl in her own daddy's house." She did not look at Baskin, but bowed her head and raised her knees to her chest and folded herself into a posture of tormented penance meekly offered. "I seen it written. Over there, somewhere. Daddy's house ain't the one you can do nothin' in."
Ree watched Baskin's face spin through reactions: brief alarm, then confusion, sadness, resignation, pity. She waited until he turned from Mom, stumped and flubbing his lips. She said, "Just tell me."
The boys came in from the back, cheeks looking scuffed red by cold, hair damp, and dropped armloads of splits that clattered beside the potbelly. Some splits carried snow and thawed more wet onto the floor. The boys went for another load and Baskin nodded after them, saying, "Could be we should talk on the porch."
"That bad, huh?"
"Not yet. Not for sure. But you never do know."
The porch was surrounded by a shifting veil of falling snow. Ree and Baskin stood awkwardly and silent for a time, the breath from both rising white toward the passing flakes. Dollys across the creek gathered near the meat trees in their side yards, big knives in hand, slashing at ropes so the hanging meat would drop to ground. Several times Blond Milton and Sonya and the others paused in their slashing and looked toward the porch.
"You know Jessup's out on bond, don't you?"
"You know he cooks crank, don't you?"
"I know that's the charges you laid against him. But you ain't proved it on him."
"Shit, Jessup's just about the best crank chef these Dollys and them ever have had, girl. Practically half famous for it. That's why he pulled them years away up in the pen, there, you know. It was sure 'nough proved on him that time."
"That was last time. You got to prove it on him every time."
"That won't be no hard thing to do. But this noise, this noise ain't even why I'm here. Why I'm here is, his court date is next week and I can't seem to turn him up."
"Maybe he sees you comin' and ducks."
"Maybe he does. That could be. But where you-all come into this is, he put this house, here, and those timber acres up for his bond."
"He what, now?"
"Signed it all over. You didn't know? Jessup signed over everything. If he don't show for trial, see, the way the deal works is, you-all lose this place. It'll get sold from under you. You'll have to get out. Got somewhere to go?"
Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin' a fiddle. The boys and her and Mom would be dogs in the fields without this house. They would be dogs in the fields with Beelzebub scratchin' out tunes and the boys'd have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she'd be stuck alongside them 'til steel doors clanged shut and the flames rose. She'd never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S. Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She'd never have only her own concerns to tote. She'd never have her own concerns.
Ree stretched over the rail, pulled her hair aside and let snow land on her neck. She closed her eyes, tried to call to mind the sounds of a far tranquil ocean, the lapping of waves. She said, "I'll find him."
"Girl, I been lookin', and…"
"I'll find him."
Baskin waited a moment for another word to be spoken, then shook his head and walked to the top step, turned to look at her again, shrugged and started down. Dollys lugging meat paused to watch him, openly staring. Blond Milton, Sonya, Catfish Milton, Betsy and the rest. He waved to them and none moved a twitch in response. He said, "That'd be the best thing, girl. Make sure your daddy gets the gravity of this deal."
NEAR DUSK the snow let up. The wood of the house tightened in the cold and creaked and both boys had scratchy throats. Their chests jumped pumping out coughs. They had sniffles and voices becoming froggy from sickness. Ree sat them on couch cushions laid beside the potbelly, under the hanging clothes, and threw a quilt over them.
"I told the both of you to put your goddam stocking hats on, didn't I? Didn't I say that?"
Mom's evening pills did not tamp her as far down inside herself as the morning pills did. She did not stumble so wretchedly after concepts that squirted away from her time and again, but had occasional evening thoughts come complete and sit on her tongue to be said, and as the sun faded from a day she might release a few sentences of helpful chat or even lend a hand in the kitchen. She said, "There's whiskey hid in a ol' boot on my closet floor. Any honey anywhere?"
The whiskey was Jessup's, kept hidden from the boys, and Ree fetched it from the old boot. She had to stand on a chair to find a long-forgotten honey jar on a high shelf. The jar held an inch or two of crystallizing honey. She poured whiskey on the honey, then said, "This enough?"
"A dollop more. Stir it good."
Ree stirred with a tablespoon until the crystals dissolved in bourbon, then raised a gob and held it to Sonny's mouth.
"Swallow. All of it."
Then came Harold's turn, and as he swallowed somebody knocked on the door. Ree glanced at Mom, who got up from her rocker and shuffled away into her dark room without turning on a light. Ree went to the door and opened it with her boot wedged behind as a stopper should a stopper be needed.
"Oh. Hey, Sonya. Come in, why not."
Sonya carried a large cardboard box that had venison on a long bone jutting above the rim. Sonya was heavy and round, with gray hair and fogged glasses. She had four children grown and gone and a husband who still looked good to plenty of gals in these hills and knew it, so she could never banish suspicion from her face. Blond Milton stood fairly high amongst the Dollys and Ree knew he'd shared some hours on the sly with Mom years back, hurtful hours that Sonya had yet to forgive.
"Didn't want you-all to fear we'd forgot you for good." Sonya set the box on a chair. She clasped her hands and peered into the shadows of the house, noted the mess. Her nose wrinkled, her brows arched. There was a snap sermon said in the way she held her hands clasped against her bosom. "Got meat for you. Canned stuff. Some butter and such."
"We can use it."
"How's your mom gettin' to be?"
The laundry hung dry and the boys coughed.
"You poor thing. I'll have Betsy's Milton haul across a rick of wood for you-all. Looks like your pile's burned low. We seen the law was over here talkin' to you this after."
"He's huntin' for Dad. Dad's got a court day next week."
"Huntin' Jessup, is he?" Sonya lowered her glasses and looked up at Ree. "You know where he's at?"
"No? Well. Well, then, you didn't have nothin' to tell him. Did you?"
"Wouldn't never tell if I did."
"Oh, we know that." Sonya turned to the door, opened it on the cold night, paused. "If Jessup's court day ain't 'til next week, I kind of wonder why was the law out huntin' him for a talk today? Wonder why that would be."
Sonya did not wait for a response, but spun outside while pulling the door shut and quickly descended the steps. Ree stared from a window until Sonya reached the narrow footbridge and crossed the creek. She picked up the box. Her arms went around it and her hands locked. Good smells long lost to this kitchen returned with the box and spread as she carried it to the counter. Sonny and Harold hacked, sniffed, snorted, but shot up together from beneath the quilt and rushed to the food. They opened sacks, hefted cans, kept croaking, "Oh, boy, oh, boy."
Ree saw four days inside that box. Four days free from hunger or worrying about hunger returning at daybreak, maybe five. She said, "I'll be fixin' deer stew tonight. That sound good? Both of you two need to watch how I make it. Hear me? I mean it. Haul them chairs over here and stand on 'em with your eyes peeled and watch every goddam thing I do. Learn how I make it, then you both'll know."
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- Jul 20, 2010
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