Peevey’s Noggin looks to me like a lumpy little head hanging off to one side of Hogback Mountain; a bald head hung with a fringe of dark pines. Don’t nobody around here have much use for Peevey’s Noggin—makes folks feel like it’s hanging over them, and no way to get to it but by the sort-of track that wanders along however it pleases.
I’ve been under the shadow of the Noggin most all my life, since Uncle Nin and Aunt Clary took me in after my folks passed. Peevey’s Noggin is the kind of place that people tell stories about, and the stories get bigger with the telling. Moonshine and murder, mostly, and sometimes things too strange to tell in the daylight.
Black bird-shapes pepper the dull gray clouds above the Noggin now, fading in and out of the drizzly mist that blankets the mountain. I hate to see those buzzards, slow-spiraling down, wing-over-wing, the way they do when they’re satisfied they won’t go hungry.
Royal Canady’s up there somewhere—my Royal—and he’s coming for me, so I got to wait.
Uncle Nin sits in the dogtrot of our cabin, rocking in the old walnut rocker, a loaded rifle laid easy across his patched denim knees. He can see the buzzards, too, but he just keeps rocking. He looks straight through me, as if he didn’t know I was there.
The oldest of Uncle Nin’s hounds, a red-bone named Bell, looks up at me with sad eyes above her silvery nose. She knows there’s trouble creeping down on us, but she’s too stiff to be off into the scrubs and laurel hells to scrap it out before it gets here.
There’s no comfort for me but to keep tight hold of the copper wire Royal twisted round my ring-finger, with a kiss and a promise to do better soon as ever he could. Nobody don’t know about me and Royal yet, nor what’s beginning to show under my apron. Just one more run of shine, he promised me. Just for the cash money.
“Turkey buzzards,” Uncle James says, stepping out onto the porch, moving so close he brushes me with the rough sleeve of his jacket. He seems to look right at me, but never says a word, just rubs at the shaggy hairs on the back of his neck, as if they suddenly prickled.
“See em, Nin?” James asks.
“Seen ’em,” Uncle Nin says. “Yonder to the Noggin. Reckon that’s where Royal’s been holed up all this time, had we but knowed it. And the girl, too, more’n likely.” He doesn’t seem to expect an answer.
Uncle James fiddles in his jacket flaps, fumbling for his pipe. He wants something to do with his hands, maybe, so he won’t have to see them tremble. He loves Royal Canady like the boy was his own—and there’s some say he is—it’s no secret that Uncle James courted over that way. Still, Uncle James won’t go against Uncle Nin. They’re brothers, true enough, but it’s Uncle Nineveh heads up this family, and his word roots us deep to his ways.
A few gray curls of dried rabbit tobacco, the sizzle of a sulfur-headed match, then a thread of thin smoke blows past me. There’s nothing makes time pass slower than watching pipe smoke, remembering the rush and sweat of harvest as the sweet smell of all that work burns itself down into a pile of rusty ash. Uncle James keeps his eyes on the buzzards.
“Anybody talk to them city fellers that was over to Canady’s place yesterday?” Uncle James asks, breathing and blowing somehow so the pipe smoke swirls right up through the hairs of his bristly moustache.
“Nobody at Canady’s got nothing to talk about,” Uncle Nin says, rubbing the stock of his old rifle, tracing patterns he doesn’t know how to read. “Not since Poke Canady got himself locked away. They all know he’d a’got worse than six months if the law could have got a word against him.”
Uncle James just shakes his head. There ain’t been a shortage of shine lately, even with Poke locked up, and now there’s strangers poking around, asking has anybody seen Poke’s boy Royal. My Royal.
I know where Poke Canady’s works are hid, but I’d cut out my own tongue before I’d tell. Sure’s the world, I’m looking at it now, with the turkey buzzards wheeling above it. Something’s dead up there on Peevey’s Noggin; dead or dying. If it ain’t one of those city fellows that’s been nosing around with their stiff new overalls and shoes that ain’t never seen the inside of a chicken coop—if it ain’t, well then—
Aunt Clary peeps around the edge of the cabin door. “Nin…” she says, timid-like, letting his name hang between them.
He turns in his chair, frowning at the distraction. “What is it, woman?”
Aunt Clary steps out of the shadows, tangling her hands and apron together into a knot of calico and knucklebones, her gray hair all worked loose from its pins like she doesn’t have a care for it. “Nin, can’t you let James take the dogs and go for Royal? It might not be too late, if he was to hustle some.”
“Too late, woman? It was too late for Royal Canady the day he was born into that backslid pack of bootleggers. Get on back in the house, now.”
Aunt Clary ducks her head and fades back into the doorway. She ain’t said nothing about Royal and me, but I know she’s had her hopes since we were in shirttails. She’ll bring Uncle Nin, around, too, even though he don’t hold none with lawbreakers—especially when there’s liquor mixed up in it somewhere. If ever Royal gets back here with word he’s done stilling for good, Uncle Nin can’t help but take to him again.
Uncle James knocks his pipe against the porch railing. A little shower of coals drops down into the wet leaves and fizzles out.
“Do you remember how Ma always called this life everlasting?” he asks Uncle Nin, taking more of the rabbit tobacco out of the pouch in his jacket.
“I remember,” Uncle Nin says, rocking slow.
Peevey’s Noggin mists all the way over, veiling the dark shapes that circle above it. Rain begins to drip down through the trees and plink off the cabin’s tin roof.
I hear them before I see them; sound carries when it’s this still. Bell stirs beside me, lifting her nose off her paws. She moans low and the sound rises into a howl that lifts the hair on my scalp.
A swipe of color shows up at the edge of the clearing, shaping itself into a man in a dull red coat. Another man behind him, even less visible, tugs the reins of a reluctant mule. Closer, closer still, till I see the mule’s a light dun with black socks and a nickel-trimmed harness—Royal’s mule. Uncle James’ face goes as sickly white as clabbered milk and his pipe drops to the porch.
The mule shies sideways like it doesn’t appreciate what it carries, and its long ears keep swiveling back toward the quilt-wrapped bundle flopped over the saddle.
Uncle Nin stands up slow, leaning the rifle against the dogtrot wall. Aunt Clary is quicker; she’s out the door in a flash of gray skirts, trembling on the edge of the steps, apron held to her mouth to stop what she can’t bear to ask.
The men hold up a little way from the house, and one of them takes off his hat. There’s a streak of what might be blood across his forehead. He looks at us, standing there on the porch. Steady, dripping rain darkens his light-colored hair.
I don’t need to see what’s wrapped up in that quilt—the bright, patchy Drunkard’s Path Aunt Clary pieced one summer, when Royal was learnin’ himself to bark squirrels and daring me to walk shut-eyed over the step-stones in the creek. There’s a piece of my blue Sunday bonnet in that quilt, and a scrap of Aunt Clary’s yellow waist. I learned to feather-stitch on that quilt—
The stranger is speaking, words spilling out of his mouth. He says how they sure are sorry, and they had no idea Royal wasn’t alone, and how it was the girl, after all, that fired first. Uncle Nin clutches at Aunt Clary’s shoulders, trying to keep her upright. The rain drizzles down harder over them and soaks into the bright-colored quilt.
“We’ll be on to Canady’s, then,” the first man says, turning his hat round and round between his hands. “There’s no way we could reach young Canady; he went clean over the far side where it’s all split away.” He looks back toward Peevey’s Noggin with its dark halo of buzzards and shakes his head.
The other man says nothing, but lays hands on the quilt, tugging the whole thing off the saddle. He staggers under the damp burden, bundling it gracelessly into Uncle James outstretched arms. Starts to speak, stops. Touches his hat to Aunt Clary, nods at the men. The slick-shoed strangers turn their backs, hauling on the mule’s bridle to bring it around.
Uncle James moves like a man in a dream, slow stepping back to the shelter of the porch. He crouches down until he can rest his burden on the floor. He’s gone old in the space between heartbeats.
A little white hand slips through the patchwork folds, and I see a glint of copper twisted round one finger. Bell keens deep in her throat, edging away from the place where I stand.
Aunt Clary’s face is full of rain and tears as she kneels to lay her cheek against the quilt. “I should have knowed you’d go to him,” she whispers. “I seen how it was with you.”
Don’t take on, Aunt Clary, I want to tell her. Why, there’s Royal now, a’wavin’ for me from the shadow of the trees, and I’m bound to go. I touch her shoulder, but she just shivers a little.
The pipe smolders, forgotten, where Uncle James dropped it, and the air is sweet with life everlasting.