I am continually impressed with the short fiction and novellas I read over at TOR.com. The artwork for the stories is always top notch, the writing is first rate, and the editors are superb.
This story is an absolute beauty…
Art by Gary Kelley
Wakulla Springs, in the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world.
‘Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. Twenty-five thousand years after they disappeared from the face of the Earth, the bones of prehistoric mastodons, giant armadillos, and other primeval monsters have been found beneath the seemingly placid surface of the lagoon. The visitor to this magical place enters a timeless world of mystery.
“Well, there you is, Mayola.” Vergie Jackson looked up from the porch of the shotgun cabin on the edge of the piney woods, waving a paper fan with a faded picture of Jesus. “I like to die in this heat, a-waiting.”
“I told you,” Mayola Williams said. “I was helping Miz Green close up the school for the summer.”
“You said you’d be home ’bout noon. It’s near two o’clock.”
Mayola shrugged. “We got to talking, and I lost track of the time.” She shifted a stack of books from one hip to the other. “Lemme set these in the house and we can go someplace cooler. I won’t be a minute.”
“What for she give you homework in the summer?”
“Ain’t homework. Just some books she loaned me to read.”
“The kind they teach up at the A&M.”
Vergie rolled her eyes. “I want to be quit of school, and you always asking for more. I don’t see the point of it.”
“Well. How ’bout this?” Mayola took the top book off the stack and held it up, just out of Vergie’s reach.
“They Eyes Was Watching God,” Vergie sounded out slowly. “That’s just Bible study.”
“Nope. It’s a story novel.”
Vergie fanned herself again. “Make believe.” She shook her head.
“But look here.” Mayola showed the back cover. “Wrote by a real-life colored woman. She from Florida, too.” She laid the book on top of the others with gentle care, then went into the house, the rickety screen door slapping shut behind her.
She reappeared a few minutes later. “Let’s go over to Cherokee Sink. I’m all over sweaty, and a swim would sure feel good.” Mayola liked to swim about as much as anything, except to read, and it’d been nearly a week since she’d been able to kick loose all the kinks and sitting aches.
“Uh-uh. My brothers gone over there, and Luke Callen’s with ’em. That boy’s mean as a sack a’snakes.”
“True enough. How ’bout the river then? Lower Bridge only ten minutes more.”
“I can’t swim nowheres this week. I got my monthlies.”
“Oh.” There was no arguing with that. Mayola thought for a minute. “Tell you what. Miz Green give me twelve cents for helping her clean. I put it all in my piggy bank, ’cept for one Indian head penny—that’s good luck, and I put it right into my shoe, so it’ll watch out for me. But I reckon I could spare a nickel to walk over to Gavin’s store and get us an RC Cola from the ice chest. That’s almost as cool as swimming.”
“Let’s get us some goobers, too.” Vergie pulled on a pair of laceless, formerly white Keds.
“I don’t know. That’s another nickel.”
“And you saving up for college. I know. I know. I been hearing ’bout your biggity dream ever since Miz Green put that bug in your ear. But this’s my treat.” Vergie paused, to make sure Mayola was paying her proper attention. “I got me a whole quarter.”
“How?” Vergie never did a lick of work if there was some way round it.
“Odell Watkins. He kinda sweet on me, and he got hisself a job up at the springs, rowing white folks out on the river. He shows ’em a sleeping gator and some old bones way deep under the water, and they tip.” She held up the coin with a satisfied smile.
Mayola didn’t think much of Odell, but a cold soda was nothing to fuss about, so she just nodded, and they headed down the sandy track out to the Shadeville Road. She was a tall, slender girl with long, muscular legs. Vergie was a head shorter and sashayed as she walked, all hips and curves. The soles of her Keds were coming unglued, and made a flap-scritch-flap sound when they hit the gravel.
“I need to get me a pair of shoes somebody else ain’t worn out first.”
“You could save up Odell’s quarter.”
“What for? We thirsty today,” Vergie said.
The sides of the road were shallow, weed-filled ditches, jumping with grasshoppers and chigger bugs, and there was nary a car, so they walked down the center. By the time they’d gone a few hundred yards in the fierce June sun, Mayola could feel the thin cotton of her dress sticking to her back, damp as if she was laundering it from the inside out.
The one-room white-washed store sat at the crossroads, its tin roof and bright red Coca-Cola sign glinting in the sun. Inside it was dark and cool and smelled of briny pickles and sweet Moon Pies. A man in bib overalls stood by the counter, talking louder than polite conversation called for.
“You think just ’cause Roosevelt’s in for the third time, we gonna get the electric down here? May as well wish in one hand and spit in the other.” He threw a sack of potatoes over his shoulder with a grunt. “Sometime I think you tetched in the head, Frank Gavin.”
The storekeeper watched him go, then turned to Vergie. “What can I do you for, young lady?”
“Two RCs and a pack of salt peanuts,” she said, laying her quarter down on the rough counter. She got a mercury dime in change, Mayola noticed. That was lucky, too.
Mayola set the peanuts on the windowsill, cellophane crinkling and sticking to her sweaty palm, before she plunged her whole arm into the galvanized ice chest by the door. Her hand closed around the soda bottle right away, but she held it there long enough for her skin to remember what cold was. When Vergie made a my-turn sound, she pulled it out and popped the bottle cap with the church key that hung on twine by the door.
Outside, they sat in the shade of the roof overhang, on a crate stenciled MOBILGAS. Mayola wrapped her hand around the top of her bottle, making a funnel, and Vergie poured in half the bag of peanuts. One by one they fizzed bubbles as they sank, then the bottle was all a-foam, peanuts floating back up in a sweet, salty slurry. That first sip was just about close to heaven.
“Odell’s taking me to a dance next Friday night,” Vergie said when her soda was most gone.
Mayola was finishing off her peanuts, tilting the bottle and tapping on the bottom to get the very last one, so it was a minute before she could reply. “Where ’bouts?” News of a dance went around pretty quickly in their small town, but she hadn’t heard a peep.
“Cooper’s.” Vergie let the word hang out in the air.
“Vergie Jackson!” Mayola dropped her bottle right onto the ground. “Cooper’s nothing but a jook joint.”
“I know.” Now she was smiling like the cat that ate the canary.
“But you took the pledge in Sunday school, same as me,” Mayola said, and heard the prissy in her own voice.
“Just ’cause I’m gonna dance, don’t mean I got to drink.”
But she would, Mayola thought. Vergie’d been edging toward wildness and forbidden fruit ever since she started her turn from child to woman. “Your daddy’s gonna have a conniption, he hears you was anywhere near that place.” She shivered, even in the heat. Reverend Jackson was hellfire on sinners.
“He ain’t gonna hear nothing. I’ll tell him I’se staying over at your place. And I will. But not till pretty late. If I leave my church dress with you, come Sunday morning, I can walk in shiny bright and full’a the spirit, a-men.”
“You asking me or telling me?” Mayola crossed her arms over her chest and tried to look fearsome.
“You my friend?”
“Yeah. But, Vergie. A jook joint’s mighty—”
“I’m going.” Vergie held up her hand. She stood up, and did look fearsome. Then she smiled, sweet as spun sugar, and just as full of air. “C’mon. Do me this itty bitty favor, and I reckon I can do you a big one right back.”
“I don’t need no favor.” Mayola picked up her soda bottle and put it in the crate for the RC man to take back.
“Oh yeah? How’d you like to add to that piggy bank? Three dollars a week.”
“Three dollars?” That was near as much as her brother Charles was making, cutting pulpwood for St. Joe. Hard work. She narrowed her eyes and stared at Vergie. “You got yourself into some mischief?”
Vergie shook her head. “Ain’t got nothing to do with me. Odell say they looking for girls to work in the Lodge up at the springs.”
“Kitchen work. Cleaning rooms. Maybe some waitressing too. I don’t know ’bout that, though. White folks don’t care much who make their food, but seems they real particular ’bout who puts it on the table.”
“Three dollars a week? You sure?” Mayola was quick-like doing the numbers in her head. School didn’t start up again until mid-September. Three months was twelve weeks was—thirty-six dollars! That would more than triple up her piggy bank, and she’d been saving on that for a better than a year.
“We can find out easy enough.” Vergie pointed to the woods that ran behind the store. “We take the logging road, it’s only a couple three miles to the springs, and it’s most all shade.”
Mayola sat still for a tiny little moment. She liked to think on a thing, make a plan, before she set off to do it. Not like Vergie. But if they were hiring up at the springs, and word got round, those jobs would be gone fast as cornbread off a hungry man’s plate. It couldn’t hurt to ask. She nodded once, and they headed east, toward the trees.
Most girls who grew up in Shadeville knew the piney woods as well as they knew their own kitchens—the snakey places to watch out for, the shortcuts, the swimming holes and sinks, the back ways into everywhere. So it was a only matter of minutes before Vergie stopped at a narrow break in the dense green wall, and they stepped off the wiry grass and disappeared from view.
The path was so narrow they had to go single file, brushing away the creeper vines and scrub branches that threatened to choke off what trail there was. Insects droned and buzzed and clicked all around them, like a thousand tiny New Year’s noisemakers. The sun was only a memory above the impenetrable canopy, but the air felt thick and close, like it was considering changing its name to steam.
Vergie slapped at her arm, then her leg, and after the third slap, untied the kerchief from her neck and wrapped it around her head.
“That gonna help?” Mayola asked.
“Maybe. Mama used some new kind of hair oil when she ironed me out this week, and I think the skeeters like it.” She knotted the kerchief at the back. “Got perfume smells like flowers, I guess.”
The path ended at a long, wide slash running north through the tangle, broad enough for a wagon. Down the middle, a dusty-green brush of grass and weeds divided the sand as far ahead as they could see, flanked by traces of wheel ruts.
Now the going was easier, and they walked side-by-side, pine needles and a scatter of dry leaves underfoot, birds calling unseen from the trees. Chee-chee-chee. Yip-yip-yip-yip-yip. Heee-ee. Heee-ee. Twisted scrub oaks and longleaf pines lined the road, the pine trunks as straight and bare as pencils, the wide leaves of the oaks not quite meshing overhead, so the ground was dappled with a calico of sun and shade. Once or twice Mayola felt a breeze run down the corridor, whispering leaves against each other and cooling her almost to the edge of comfort.
“Hold up,” she said after they’d been walking in silent company for fifteen minutes. “I’m gonna get some gum. Want a piece?”
“That’d be fine.”
Mayola stepped over roots and low brush, avoiding the bright green trios of poison ivy, and entered a clearing a few yards in. The bark of the pines had been slashed, revealing raw yellow wood, glistening with beads of resin. Narrow strips of tin formed shallow V-shaped troughs stacked one on top of the other, a few inches apart, like an angular column of Cheshire cats. Nothing but smiles.
It was an old gum patch, where woodriders like her father used to bleed the pines for the turpentine stills. Mayola stopped at a tree as big around as her waist. A clay pot, its edges glittering with dried sap, hung at eye level. She pinched a wad of sticky amber resin from the cut above the pot and rolled it across her palm until it was the size of a store-bought gumball. She popped it in her mouth, savoring the clean pine taste between her teeth, then made a second one for Vergie.
The back of her neck prickled, and she felt something that was not Vergie watching her. She looked around. Up there in the shady darkness among the tree branches, a thing with small black eyes looked down on her. Probably just a possum. But it didn’t look quite like a possum’s face, and didn’t that paw look more like a hand? Mayola felt with her toes to make sure her penny was still where it ought to be, and walked fast out of the gum patch.
They stayed on the path another twenty minutes, the whole world as narrow as a tunnel, with green straight up and down on the sides and white sand straight ahead. Then a dark and horizontal line appeared, a quarter mile in front of them. The county road. An old black truck rumbled into view and was gone again two seconds later.
“Almost there,” Vergie said. She took off her kerchief and stuffed it into her pocket.
“Pretty near.” Mayola felt her stomach tumble over inside. Not scared, really. Just wondering what was going to happen. By the time they reached the road, she’d made sure all her buttons were done up and her collar was straight, and tugged at her dress, pulling it so the fabric unwrinkled a bit and a puff of air cooled the damp at the small of her back.
The road was two lanes, paved flat. The trees fell back behind ditches, and she could see the sky again, a pale, cloudless blue. She looked both ways then crossed over, the tar hot even through the soles of her shoes. Ten yards to the left was the back road into Wakulla Springs.
The springs had been there for years—millions, according to Mr. Monroe, the science teacher. He said that hairy elephants and camels and armadillos the size of Chevys had once lived around here. Mayola thought those animals being real was about as likely as the tales her brothers told about ghosts and swamp varmints that ate up people who wandered where they shouldn’t. But her grandaddy said he’d swum in the springs when he was a boy, so they were for sure old.
The buildings weren’t. She’d been in the fifth grade when her uncles got work digging up land and nailing boards and pouring cement for Mr. Ball’s hotel. Most everybody in the county worked for Mr. Ball, one way or another. He ran the paper company and the mill and—
Vergie let out a long, low whistle. “Holy Joe!” She pointed to a line of black cars—new cars—polished like mirrors so the shine like to blind a person in the hot sun.
“Rich people,” Mayola said in a whisper. No wonder the pay was three dollars a week.
“Ain’t that many rich people in the whole county.”
“Maybe Mr. Ball got visitors from Tallahassee. He know a lot of business folk, even senators, I suppose. They all rich.”
The road led to a courtyard at the front of the Lodge, with its gleaming white walls and red tile roof. The parking area was full of more cars than Mayola had ever seen in one place before. At the far end, nosed every which way, were a dozen or more trucks—pickups and flatbeds for hauling, and one closed off all the way around, with bars on the sides like a box of animal cookies.
Both girls stopped, out of sight behind a massive oak tree, and stared, their mouths open. “Something big is going on here,” Vergie said, and the excitement in her voice matched what Mayola was feeling at the same exact moment.
Nothing big ever happened in Wakulla County.
She was just catching her breath again and readying herself to go find out about what they’d come for, when they heard a screech of grinding metal that like to cut the air in two. She watched as a white man in a strap undershirt pushed up the back of the cage truck, pulled down a ramp, and poked inside with a long hooked stick.
Mayola almost swallowed her gum when, slow as a Sunday stroll, a for-real elephant walked out into the Florida sun.’
– Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages
Read the rest of this beautiful novella here, at TOR.com…
(Published by TOR, 2013)