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  • Writer's pictureCarol Ann Ross

A Halloween Tale - Serenade Of The Cattails: Part 1

Excerpt. Late 1960s.

“Oh, lovely, lovely. My lovely child, poor dead child, rest in heaven’s arms. Forgive her sins... my sins. Forgive my bad thoughts of revenge. I know that is yours, oh Lord... ummm, ummm.” Mary’s fingers stroked the hard, bumpy surface of the brooch pinned inside her pocket as she rocked and hummed. Her eyes fluttering open for a moment as she listened to her husband Norwood moving about in the house. Her lips smiled softly as she thought of him and how he loved making Sunday dinner.

He’d been doing it since they first married, so it was a tradition. Every Sunday after church, when they came home, Norwood pecked her on the cheek and scooted her out the front door or back door, whichever she’d indicated she preferred. And then he would set to making chicken and pastry or fried chicken, boiled shrimp or fried fish, vegetables from their garden and either fresh baked biscuits or hushpuppies.

Through the years there had been experiments with Oriental food, Italian, Indian, Mexican, but after the children went off on their own, the menu relaxed back to the traditional home staples.

Closing her eyes to his sounds, Mary continued her chant, “rest in peace, rest. Oh child, lost and gone, rest.” Still rubbing the stones of the brooch in her pocket, her mind wandered to a smaller brooch, the one she had given Naomi. She added to her chant, “and help the dark haired girl and her baby. Keep the snake away from she and her new baby.”

The pin she’d given Naomi, Mary considered to be the sister brooch to the one in her pocket, not twins, but sisters almost, since one was larger than the other. And though they were both deep purple, and both turned lavender in the sunlight, Mary knew hers, the one that caught the light just so, was the stronger of the two

Both were replica pins of wisteria and both, Mary believed, were not just touchstones for faith and healing, but actually held powers of their own.

Rocking and humming Mary endeavored to return her thoughts to the dead girl, the one from California, the one Amos Burger had killed. It riled her to no end that he had gotten off with merely a slap on the wrist and that he seemed to have no remorse. She never could stand him, “damn money grubbing... old Towler’s behind all this. I bet you two dimes to a dollar he has something to do with it, with Amos, with getting that old bag of worms off,” she snorted angrily. “They’re both just... just,” Mary’s mouth pursed tightly, “just money grubbing bags of pizzle.”

Closing her eyes tightly again, she grunted a no, blaming the two men for causing the anger within her while she was trying to pray. “Oh sorry, sorry, Lord... ooh…”

Frustrated, Mary opened her eyes to the marsh and rocked slowly, still thinking of Towler. She’d known him and his family her whole life. They’d been coming to the island since she was a kid. That’s where she’d met the Towler family, seine fishing on the island with her father and brother. That was before World War II, when there was no bridge and you walked over at low tide

Running a finger across her top lip, she half smiled as she thought of her youth. Her eyes moved to a stand of cattails at the point that jutted out into the marsh. Cranes often stood their waiting for frogs or fish. None were there now, but she watched one from memory as it stabbed a fish with its sharp beak.

Seeing herself as a girl (she’d never stopped doing that) Mary licked her lips to the memory of salt air and of sunshine glaring off the stands of cattails that, though they made no noise, even in the breeze, had always conjured the music of life in the marsh, where life began.

Then, turning briefly to the muffled sound of a car door slam, Mary scowled, thinking that in a few minutes her husband would come bounding to the back door to announce the presence of a visitor. Or maybe not, she thought. Sometimes, it’s just somebody who wants to see him. She waited a moment then shrugged as her thoughts returned to Towler.

“Uppity Yankees, he and that biddy of a wife,” She snapped her fingers, “damn, that’s right, they ain’t Yankees, but they sure do act like it, the both of them. Full of blue sky and greedy as all get out.” Inhaling deeply, Mary shook her head and raised her hand, the palm flat against the sky, “Nope, keep thee away Satan. Keep these nasty thoughts out of my head, oh Lord. ” She squinched her eyes tighter to quit thinking about Al Towler and to keep the bad thoughts out, “Oh, forgive me for calling them bad names.”

It was a constant battle and sometimes she actually did feel like there was a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other pulling her this way and that. Shaking her head again, Mary endeavored to concentrate on only good wishes for the California girl. She succeeded for only a few moments before ending those thoughts quickly with, “Give her peace, oh Lord...and forgive the Towlers, amen.”

Her eyes flew open as she ended the prayer. “Oh, I forgot that Naomi girl, she needs my praying now.” She rubbed the brooch inside her pocket again, her fingers softly feeling the amethyst stones dripping down into clusters. “I like this one better”, she cooed softly to herself.

Nobody ever got to hold the larger brooch. It had been given to her by her mother, and thinking of her she looked again to the marsh and the cattails swaying so slightly in the breeze, their silence made her mother’s image clearer, so that Mary could hear the voice, ever so sweet and calm, humming. And she felt the warmth of her mother’s smile as her eyes scanned the wire grass and cattails. Together, the two had spent hours there, crabbing and throwing cast nets for shrimp and fish.

Lifting her nose to the aroma of frying fish, the image of she and her mother fading, she watched as a red-winged black bird settled on the bend of a cattail. Mary noticed how it twitched it’s little body this way and that, as it cocked it’s head, its throat quivering to release the trill she loved so much to hear.

Life is good, Mary leaned back, commencing the rocking of her chair and the rubbing of the purple brooch. Thinking of Roy and Naomi, of their new baby and the snake called Elmo who deserved to be erased from the lives of the little family she had known for all of their lives. “The world is full of snakes,” she said sadly, Don’t pet the snake, remember that. Don’t pet the snake no matter how pretty it is, her mother’s voice sounded. Mary nodded in agreement, her hands holding to the arms of the rocker, she giggled then turned her head to the sound of Norwood’s voice announcing that company was at the door.

“Who is it?” she called back as she rose from the rocking chair. Her fingers still rubbing the stones of the brooch. “Oh, for a bit I thought you were here just to see Norwood,” she smiled and held her hand out to the police officer standing just inside the doorway.

“We talked a bit.” The officer offered.

“Please have a seat,” Mary directed the young policeman to a small round chair and seated herself in a soft full one just across.

“Ma’am, Mrs. Bolton, I just need to ask you a question or two.”

“That’s fine Officer…?” Mary turned an ear toward the young man.

He grinned, “Scaggins, Officer Scaggins.”

“The name, I know it.” Mary tittered, tapping the side of her head gently. “You’re from around the beach area, aren’t you? I remember your kinfolk. Farmers weren’t you?”

Yes ma’am. Farmers and fishermen, but I joined the police force, I’m in the Ferry now.

Nodding, Mary studied the young man. “And you’re here to see me. What’s the matter honey? What do you want to ask me?”

“Do you know the Curtain family?”

“I told him we didn’t know them,” Norwood groaned.

Frowning, Mary shook her head back and forth, “No, not really. I’ve heard the name, heard little bits and pieces, but no, can’t say that I do.”

“How about Elmo Curtain?”

Again she shook her head, “Officer Scaggins I just said I don’t know any Curtain people… but... Elmo? Could that be the boy? The one I hear went off to California and got mixed up in drugs and came back.” Tilting her head just a bit, Mary asked, “has something bad happened to him?”

Officer Scaggins did not answer her question, but waited for the older woman to continue.

“Did you check with his aunt?” Mary finally asked.

“With his aunt? I thought you didn’t know anything about the Curtain family.”

Mary tittered softly, “honey, just because we don’t know somebody, doesn’t mean we can’t gossip about them.”

Scaggins grinned. The old lady was right. Around these parts gossip was a form of entertainment, making it quite possible for someone to know all about another person without even having met them. “Well, Mrs. Bolton, his aunt said she hadn’t seen him in a few days and was worried. She said he sometimes came over this way. We’ve been investigating, just talking to folks, you know. And I was just wondering. That’s why I’m here, Mrs. Bolton.”

Mary leaned back in her chair, brow furrowing as she anticipated the words Officer Scaggins was about to say. She knew they would not be good. Crossing her arms across her chest she uttered sternly, “Is that why you’re here? You don’t have something else to tell me?”

“We found his body,” the officer blurted.

“I knew you were going to say that. I knew the minute you mentioned his name.” Peering curiously at the policeman for a moment, Mary added, “You should have told me that he was dead in the beginning.”

Officer Scaggins drew a pencil and pad from his pocket, opening it to begin writing. “Mrs. Bolton…”

“Please call me Mary or Miss Mary,” she smiled.

“Miss Mary, how did you know I was going to say that?”

“Say what?”

“That Elmo Curtain was dead.”

“I certainly did not know you were going to say that, Officer Scaggins. I just speculated that since Mr. Curtain took drugs that he could be dead. Isn’t that what happens to people who do too many drugs?”

“Oh,” Scaggins replied.

“I guess too, I suspected that you had bad news to tell because of the look on your face, son. The worry in your voice. The way you’re sitting there, like you were sitting on a cactus plant.

Norwood propped his elbow against the doorway, “I suspected too that there was something bad going on when you asked me about the Curtains. They’ve always been... odd. And I told you I didn’t know anything. Told you my wife wouldn’t know anything either. But I’m curious. Have you spoken with anyone else in this neighborhood besides us?”

“The deceased was holding a brooch pin. Looked like a cluster of grapes. On the back was etched the initials MB.”

“Got to be thousands of people in the country with MB for initials. What made you come here, specifically?”

“The body was found this morning, Mr. Bolton, just down the road, drowned in the marsh, by the stand of cattails on the point.”

“We must have been at church.” He nodded to Mary. “Who found it?” Norwood asked the officer as he lifted his nose to the aroma of food cooking in the kitchen. “Excuse me, be back in a jiffy.”

“We must have been at church.” He nodded to Mary. “Who found it?” Norwood asked the officer as he lifted his nose to the aroma of food cooking in the kitchen. “Excuse me, be back in a jiffy.”

“He’s making dinner. Would you like to stay for dinner, young man... Officer Scaggins? We could talk further if you like. And you need to relax a bit, quit acting like you’re on the Lindbergh case.”

His head lowered now, Scaggins repeated his decline to stay for dinner. “But it sure does smell good, Miss Mary. “Fried Virginia Mullet?”

“And cole slaw, green beans straight from the garden, boiled potatoes with butter and parsley and hush puppies. Norwood makes outstanding hushpuppies.”

She could see the hesitation in his eyes, the unwillingness to continue with the questioning. “Oh, come on, just a bite or two and then we can all talk at the table. It’ll be more comfortable.” Her brows lifting, lips parting to expose her still white teeth, Mary nodded, “Okay?”

“It does smell good, Miss Mary.”

“Who did find Elmo Curtain?” Asked Norwood curiously as he refilled Officer Scaggins' glass of sweet tea.

“Ben, call me Ben.”

Norwood smiled broadly, “Okay.”

"It was a local man, out crabbing.”

Norwood nodded. “How long do you think he’d been there?”

“Hard to say, we think it’s been at least forty-eight hours.”

“Ooh, that must have been nasty,” Mary’s lips contorted, “um, um, just horrible…I guess the crabs got to him, and the minnows and I’m surprised a gator didn’t start gnawing….” Mary lifted her bright eyes to meet Ben’s, “now why don’t you have some more green beans,” she ladled two helpings onto Ben’s plate. “They’re good aren’t they, I season them with just a little bacon drippings, not too much... you know."

“Oh yes, you mentioned that little wisteria brooch,” Mary added as she dabbed at the corners of her mouth, “Did it look like this one?” Pulling the sister brooch from her pocket, she held her hand open and stretched it towards Officer Scaggins.

Nodding, he dabbed his lips too with the cloth napkin. “Yes ma’am. That looks almost just like it, except this one here is bigger. You say this is wisteria? I thought it was grapes.”

Mary tittered, “grapes are bigger.” she held the brooch to her nose. “They don’t smell as pretty either.”

Chewing on a hushpuppy, Scaggins half smiled, wiped his lips again, and asked, “the initials on the back?”

“Oh, yes. This is my brooch and I’m sure the one you found with Elmo is too if it has my initials.” Standing, Mary moved to the other side of the table and turned her smock pocket inside out. “You see, honey, see the two little holes, well, there’s more than two, but you do see the holes?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Things are always falling out of my dress pockets. I like pockets and I carry all kinds of things in them. But for special things, like brooches, and money or little doo dads, I use a little safety pin, the itsy bitsy ones. But sometimes the pin breaks or opens up. Don’t ask me why or how, but it does and I had that little wisteria brooch, the sister to this one here, well, I had it pinned and I think I must have lost it out by the marsh.

Officer Ben Scaggins nodded, sipped from his tea and taking his time, enjoyed the fried mullet, savored the fresh beans and sweet tea. He joked with the Bolton’s about how everybody gossiped about everybody and how everybody knew everybody’s business. He told a bit more about the Scaggins family and how long they had been in the Topsail area.

Norwood talked about the old days when he seine fished at the island and knew Scaggins people. “Good People, drank a little bit, but who didn’t back then. Things were different.”

“Some of them still drink too much,” chuckled Ben as he reached for his cap. “Well, Miss Mary, Mr. Norwood, I truly enjoyed dinner. Thank you, it hit the spot.”

“You come back now, Mary cooed. Norwood nodded as he opened the door.”

“I’ll be back,” Officer Scaggins winked. “That’s fine, honey. If there’s anything me or Norwood can help you with, well, you just come on back and we’ll do all we can to help you.”

Waving to Ben as he stepped into the patrol car, she threaded her arm through Norwood’s, and watched him back from their drive.

To be continued....


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