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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Towers Falling
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My name is Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson. Maddy, for short.
I live in New Orleans. I have four sisters. I'm the youngest, almost ten. I'm the littlest, too. "Bird bones," Ma gently teases, pinching my wrist. But she knows I'm strong.
All Lavalier women are strong.
"We're a stew," says Ma. "African. French. Native and Spanish blood, too."
It's Saturday. Me and Ma are in the kitchen making jambalaya. I like to cook. My sisters don't.
Ma slices onions. I clean shrimp.
"The whole world is kin, Maddy. Blood flows like river water."
I snap, slip off pink shells.
"I'm going to miss you, Maddy." Ma kisses my cheek.
"I'll miss you, too," I say, trembling, scared to visit Ma's momma, my mysterious Grandmère.
Last four summers, a different sister has visited Grandmère.
Aisha says, "The bayou's boring. No TV."
Dionne says, "Grandmère's mean. Makes you clean dishes, but better not sweep a spider's web!"
"No microwave. Only a stinky outhouse," says Aisha, wrinkling her nose.
Layla shudders, poses dramatically. "Don't tell Ma I said—Grandmère's weird. She sleepwalks. Tells the craziest tales."
"Think slithering ghosts," says Aleta. "Think howls. Think creatures gobbling, crunching your fingers and toes. Bugs laying eggs in your ear."
"Shadows," groans Layla. "Everywhere. Coming alive, diving through the window, falling on your bed."
"Boo!" says Aleta, making me jump.
Grandmère Lavalier doesn't have a telephone. Four times she's mailed us an envelope holding a piece of brown paper with a name scratched like bent chicken wire.
Yesterday, Ma opened a letter and paper fluttered to the floor. I picked it up.
Even though I was expecting it, I couldn't stop staring at my name. My turn to have a bayou summer.
My turn to stay with Grandmère, who only visited New Orleans on the days my sisters and I were born.
"Once Momma saw you were healthy," Ma says, "she went back to the bayou. Said she couldn't stand the city. Couldn't breathe the stale air.
"Momma hasn't left the bayou since you were born."
I pressed the paper, MADISON, to my chest, trying to quiet my heart.
My sisters cluck-clucked, patted my back. "Too bad," said Dionne, woeful. "No malls. No burgers."
"Glad it's not me," quipped Layla, her beaded cornrows clacking as she shook her head. Aisha, the oldest, sniffed, "I'll write." But I know she won't.
Aleta, the next youngest, the one who teases me most, gripped my hand. "I'll never forget you. If you don't make it back, if the swamp swallows you, if you're lost in the wild…"
"Shoo," said Ma.
But the damage was done. I crumpled the paper and hid it inside a sock in my drawer.
Dionne, Aleta, and Layla want to be just like Aisha. She's fourteen, popular, and pretty. Whatever Aisha does, they want to do, too.
I prefer listening, watching, dreaming. Sometimes my dreams come true. Last winter I dreamed about a boy who could fly. Without asking, Pa gave me Peter Pan. Ma gave me Miss Hamilton's The People Could Fly. Imagine, slaves becoming birds, flying back to Africa.
Mostly, I don't remember my dreams. Aisha says she can tell when I've been dreaming. "You're bug-eyed in the morning. Got sweat on your upper lip."
This morning, I lick away that sweat. Aisha sees me. Not knocking, she barges right into the bathroom.
I squeeze paste on my toothbrush and move away from the mirror so Aisha can fix her hair. She combs it to one side, swipes pink gloss across her lips.
Making tiny circles, I clean my teeth.
"Grandmère's a witch," she says, staring at me in the mirror. Snapping her fingers, she flounces from the room.
Wait. A witch? Really?
"Time to sauté."
I grab the cast-iron pot. Pour in golden oil. Ma adds onions. I add chopped celery, green peppers.
Tomorrow, I leave.
I murmur, "Do I have to? Do I have to go? Visit Grandmère?"
"Your Grandmère would be unhappy if you didn't go."
"Would you? Be unhappy?"
Ma doesn't answer, just strokes my hair.
With a wooden spoon, Ma stirs. The onions turn silky brown, the celery softens, and the peppers wilt. The savory smell comforts me.
Quiet is the best part of cooking. Me and Ma watching the stew blend.
Today, though, my mind won't still.
I add spices. Garlic. Bay leaf. Hot sauce. Worcestershire.
"Don't measure—cook with your heart," Ma teaches.
I lift the bag of rice and pour. Just enough rice to layer the pot's bottom. Then I add chicken stock Ma made from bones from Sunday's roasted chicken. Rice and vegetables float, the bay leaf twirls. I make a good jambalaya.
"Don't worry," Ma says, her voice mellow and high-pitched. "You're not your sisters."
Nervous, I clench my hands.
"Every stew is different, Maddy. Special. Put the lid on."
I turn down the fire. Blue flames sputter and glow. Me and Ma stand side by side, staring at the simmering broth beneath the glass top.
"Momma taught me how to make this stew. Now I've taught you."
Ma kneels, surprising me. She hugs me quick, strong, and tight. She pulls back. "Oh, Maddy, I wish I could go, too."
Looking into her gray-green eyes, I see myself, reflected. Brown curls. Brown skin.
I'm swimming in Ma's eyes. Ma has happy tears.
My reflection flickers, shimmers.
Trust your heart, I hear, echoing inside me. Like Ma's speaking beneath water.
Lightning shoots through me. I exhale, my body tingling. I see myself… on a shore—a full moon high, mirrored in blue-black waters.
It's going to be fine, I hear myself say.
More than fine, Ma's voice again. You're you.
Then I'm jolted back. Ma stands, adds shrimp to the pot. I blink.
Something's different. I feel it. I look about. The clock shaped like a birdhouse chimes two o'clock. The cabinets are a dull white. The linoleum is still cracked, the window screen torn. Our kitchen is small, barely enough room for the stove, the fat refrigerator, and the sink. For Ma and me.
Tomorrow I'll be gone. I feel warm, a burning wick glowing inside me.
"Do you really wish you could go?" I ask Ma.
She smiles, sadly, sweet.
For the first time ever, I'm doing something Ma wishes she could do.
Be me. Be young. Visit Grandmère.
Over the Hill, Through the Woods
Louisiana doesn't have any hills. It's flatter than a pancake, and it doesn't have woods with snowy pines.
It's below sea level, so water kisses and hugs the dirt, making swamps and wetlands. It's always warm or warmer. Hot or hotter.
As we drive, road signs—GAS, FOOD, LODGING—become fewer. I see more trucks. Motorcycle riders with paisley bandannas wave to me. Yellow road signs show black deer leaping. Seventy miles gone; sixty miles left to go.
Driving to Grandmère's house, I feel like I'm traveling to a foreign land. I'm used to the city. Concrete, brick, and steel. In school, we study nature—read books, take field trips to the Audubon Zoo, the Audubon Butterfly Garden, Insectarium, and Aquarium of the Americas. I like the gift shops. I buy magnets to remind me of what I've seen—turtles in the aquarium; an alligator in the zoo; and honeybees, the state bug, living in glass-walled hives.
The Mississippi is supposed to be wild, but I've only ever seen the river chained by levees to make waterways for tugboats, steamboats, and cargo ships. When Katrina hit, they said, "Water became dangerous, spilling into homes." I was only five. We Johnsons went to Baton Rouge.
When we came back, the river was tame. Flat, boring.
Traveling deep into the country, the world seems huge. Miles and miles of open space. No high-rise buildings, trees so old and big dinosaurs might've chewed them. The sky is crayon-streaked—yellow, orange, and purple with marshmallow clouds.
Ma says nothing. Just drives, with the windows down, wind whistling through the car. Static scratches when I turn the radio dial. Tires slap-slap, slap-slap, pounding "… to Grandmère's house, to Grandmère's house we go."
I'm still scared, but somehow excited, too.
Leaving home, my sisters expected me to cry. I didn't. My eyes stayed dry.
Now I breathe wet, salty air. Farther south, there's a lot more water. Rivers, streams, swamps. The Gulf of Mexico.
The sun is high. Bright. Hotter than a smoke pit.
Sweating, my dress sticks to my legs. My legs stick to the seat. I'm drenched.
A bird screeches.
My head tilts sideways. Trees, sky, and clouds steadily zoom by. The sun lowers toward ground.
I blink. So hot. Slap-slap, slap-slap beat the tires. Sweat weighs me down. Wind whizzes, warbles. Gentle rumblings and heat lull.
I look left. Ma studies the road.
I look right.
A firefly sits, blinking on the rim of the car door.
I keep still. It's beautiful. Its body, brown-striped, shaped like a sunflower seed; its wings, fragile, flapping. The firefly turns its itty-bitty head. Black pin-drop eyes watch me. I watch back.
Its stomach sparkles yellow-green. It's a signal, I think. But for what?
Holding my breath, I swear I can hear its heart beating.
Ma shakes me. Was I dreaming?
Tires crunch pebbles and dirt. I rub my cheek, which is creased from the ridges on the seat. The car bounces, jerks.
Headlights brighten a square house on stilts. Above it rises a crescent moon.
"There's my momma," Ma says, proud. "Your Grandmère."
I don't see anyone.
The shack, gray, dried wood, looks like it's floating. The roof is tin, sparkling, reflecting moonlight. Its window eyes are lit with candles like a carved pumpkin.
I hold back, don't unclick my seat belt. I want to go home. Back to New Orleans.
"Come on, Maddy."
I stay in the car.
A match flickers. A shadow holding high a kerosene lamp separates from a post on the porch.
I swallow a yelp, then exhale. "She's tiny!"
I imagined Grandmère was a GIANT. Instead, she's barely bigger than me, wearing baggy overalls that make her seem even smaller. But her shadow is long. It stretches, spills down the steps, reaching toward me.
"Be polite," says Ma.
I get out of the car. There're no other houses or stores in sight. No streetlights. No one else around—just me, Ma, and Grandmère—deep in the dark bayou.
Grandmère's face, expressionless, appears out of the shadows of the porch. She has high cheekbones. Piercing eyes.
"I want to go home."
"Hush," Ma says, pushing me forward.
I walk, my Sunday dress swishing at my knees. Dirt, pebbles, sticks scratch my shoes. I don't look in Grandmère's eyes. Instead, I stare at her bright-white, curly hair, luminous like the moon.
I shudder, feeling like she can see deep inside me.
Ma squeezes my shoulder.
There's quiet all around, stillness in the lush green trees. Silent stars and sky. Moths dance about the kerosene light.
Grandmère squints and asks, "Did my firefly come?"
I'm confused. People don't own fireflies. Do they?
Standing tall on the shadowy porch, gazing down at me, Grandmère waits, like my answer is the most important thing in the world.
Grandmère's hands clap. "A good sign."
"Ma, I don't understand."
"You're your Grandmère's child," Ma says, wistful, proud, confusing me more.
I tremble. A warm breeze washes over me. But there isn't any wind. The bayou air is thick, heavy. Draped about me like a shawl.
Grandmère sets down the lamp. Her arms reach for me. I feel an urge—ever so deep, pushing, pulling me.
I walk up the porch steps, then hesitate.
Grandmère reaches for me, hugging me tight. She smells of Creole flavors—celery, onion, and green pepper.
A firefly lights on the porch rail, its wings black, glittering.
I feel the warmth of Grandmère's body, the beating of her heart, her breath in my ear.
"You'll have to be strong."
Words so soft, I'm not sure I hear. I don't know what they mean. But I feel a deep sadness. Trembling, I twist out of Grandmère's arms.
She stares, sizing me up.
I look, over my shoulder, at Ma. She's smiling, happy. She doesn't sense Grandmère's sadness.
I look at Grandmère. She nods like we've agreed upon something. Made a pact.
"About time you got here, Maddy. The bayou and me, we've been waiting. Been dreaming about you forever."
I wake, disoriented. Off-kilter.
Where am I?
Then I remember. After dinner, Ma and Grandmère in the rockers, me on the steps, we sat quiet on the porch, watching the bayou like we were watching TV.
Grandmère kept saying, "I've never lived anywhere else but here." Each time I heard her, I'd marvel more at how velvet moss covered bark. How silvery willow-tree branches hung, forming canopies. How moths tried to kiss the blue flame inside the lamp. How right off Grandmère's front stoop was the most beautiful and frightening world I'd ever seen.
I kissed Ma when she left. I bit my tongue—still scared. Still trying to be brave, but wanting to beg her not to go.
Grandmère tucked me in bed, tight with a crisp white sheet.
"You know how to listen quiet."
I felt like I'd passed a test.
Waking, I stretch my arms and toes. Ripples of silver tin shape the ceiling. In between ridges, there are spiderwebs. I almost scream.
I pull my legs up, tight. I feel itchy. Creepy.
I don't see any spiders. Just webs. Like lace. Delicate connecting threads filling the ceiling's hollows.
If spiders don't bite me, I think I'll be fine.
I like how the cot holds me. It's snug. But there's no door. Just a sheet on a rope making a screen.
There are no stuffed animals or a closet of frilly dresses. No twin beds. No electric ceiling lights.
I hear Grandmère shuffling, trying not to clang pots and pans.
For a moment, I feel good. Like I was meant to wake up here, feeling sunlight streaking through the window above my head.
Grandmère's house isn't fancy. Just logs and wood slats. Mesh for windows. Grandmère's poor, my sisters probably thought.
But I feel like I'm in a storybook, in a magical cottage deep in the forest.
Still, I can't help but remember Aisha's warning: "A witch." A witch's house? I try to calm myself.
I smell bacon and something else, tangy and sweet. Dewberries. My stomach rumbles.
"There's a shirt, overalls at the foot of your bed." Grandmère's voice comes from the other side of the screen. She starts to hum.
I hum, too. Grandmère stops. I stop.
She hums again, low and deep. I match her pitch, only higher. She hums another note. I hum it back. Separated by the sheet, it feels like a game.
Grandmère hums another note, then another and another. A repeating pattern. I follow her lead. Our voices mingle, making a happy tune.
With back and front pockets, my overalls are just like hers, only smaller. I've never had overalls before, just my sisters' hand-me-down skirts, dresses. I like the pockets.
I slide the hanging sheet.
Grandmère quiets like a spell's been broken.
I see the small kitchen. I see Grandmère's cot, covered by a quilt with a pattern of blue and white fish. There are wildflowers by the window. Not a single mirror. Another reason why my sisters didn't like it here.
Grandmère's wrinkles are deep. Her hands are covered with brown spots. She looks like Ma, except older, an elderly sprite. Tinier, too. Bird-boned like me.
"You done studying me?"
I swallow. I don't want Grandmère to think I'm rude.
"There's better studying to do than studying me," she challenges.
"Like how these dewberries here, plus some sugar," she says, pouring brown crystals, "make syrup. Perfect for griddle cakes."
On the stove, there are no gas or electric coils, just red-gray coals on a shelf beneath the pot.
"Can I help?"
"Yes, ma'am. Ma taught me everything you taught her."
"Did she now?" Grandmère's eyes shine.
I've passed another test.
"Get some eggs. From Sweet Pea."
Grandmère laughs, sounding like sparkling water over rock. I don't feel embarrassed; it's a happy laugh.
"Sweet Pea. My chick. Her coop is 'round back."
I dash out the door, leaping off the porch. I've never seen a live chicken. Stones and pressed dirt make a trail leading past a garden to a yellow-painted box, low and long.
- On Sale
- May 12, 2015
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers