“Excuse me,” the reporter said to the young woman hustling between tables
“Can I help you?” she asked, her brown eyes bright with youth, yet dim with a sorrow that told him she’d already had a hard life. “I was just thinking I might need to stay the night in town, so I can see these blackbirds for myself. I saw the motel was full. Is there any other place to stay nearby?”
“There’s a few places taking people in,” she said. “Let me check around, and I’ll get back to you.”
“I’ll be here,” he said.
“Sixty-six, sixty-seven.” I stared at the stack of money on the table. I’d earned nearly seventy dollars in tips at the café today, on top of the hourly wage Anna Kate had paid me.
It was a start.
I put five dollars into Ollie’s piggy bank, put twenty in my wallet, and tucked the rest into an old metal watch box that I hid in my underwear drawer. Which, I quickly realized, was probably the first place a burglar would look, so I then moved it into the bathroom, under the sink. Much safer there, mixed among shampoo, soap, and bath toys.
I’d done some checking around and found a one-bedroom apartment in town that ran at four hundred dollars a month, not including utilities. I’d need first and last month’s rent as a deposit before I could even think about moving out of the little house—and out from under my mother’s iron fist. I’d need to eventually find a full-time permanent job as well.
Taking a deep breath to quell rising panic, I told myself finding another job was a worry for another day. For now, I’d squirrel away as much money as I could. The thought of building a nest egg appealed to me so much that I took the twenty out of my wallet and put it into the watch box, swapping it for a ten-dollar bill. Then I swapped that for a five.
Ollie sat on the floor of the living room, in the green Tinkerbell costume my mother had bought for her to wear to tonight’s moonlight movie. Pushing a dump truck loaded with blocks across the throw rug, Ollie didn’t look the least bit tired, even though it was closing in on bedtime.
Taking a moment, I simply watched her play and thanked my lucky stars that there had been no drama with the swimming lesson this morning. According to Mama, Ollie had taken to the water like a fish and had stayed in the pool with her long after the lesson had ended. All of which had been reported with a smugness I could’ve done without. It had taken every last ounce of maintaining some semblance of peace, as phony as it was, to keep my mouth shut. To simply say “Thank you, Mama, for keeping Ollie all day.”
I took another deep breath to settle my suddenly queasy stomach and tamp down my anger. Ollie was fine. Happy. Alive. No harm, no foul.
But how many lessons would it take for me to be okay with Ollie being near water? How long until the paralyzing fear subsided? Because right now, I didn’t see an end in sight.
Out the front window, I noticed my father walking toward the little house and suddenly had second thoughts about going with my parents to the movie at the courthouse tonight.
It seemed easier to stay here. Easier, that is, than dealing with everybody’s condolences and questions and Mama’s frostiness.
I pulled open the door before Daddy could knock. He stepped inside and handed me a plastic grocery bag.
I peeked inside. “What’s this?”
“Window alarms. I thought they might help set your mind at ease after this morning.” He bent and opened his arms wide, and Ollie went running toward him.
“Gaddy!” Ollie shouted.
It was her shorthand for “granddaddy.” I was learning that toddlers were quite inventive at creating words.
“Well, aren’t you the prettiest thing I’ve seen all day,” he said to Ollie, fluffing the gossamer petals of her costume’s skirt. “You know what’s missing, though?” From his pocket he pulled out a hand-carved, scarred green tractor, its finish worn thin from use and time.
Her face lit up. “Tactor!”
He said, “That tractor was mine when I was a boy, then AJ’s. I thought it was time to pass it on to someone who would love it as much as we did.”
Ollie happily dumped the blocks out of her dump truck, then set the tractor in the truck’s bed. She pushed both around the rug, running over the blocks in her path.
My chest swelled with emotion. This was why I’d moved back, I reminded myself. This was what made the aggravation and fights with my mother worth it. For Ollie to have these little connections to my family. If I had stayed in Montgomery, that beloved tractor would have remained a dusty relic on AJ’s bedroom shelf. Because Ollie and I had come here, a piece of my daddy and my brother would now have a place in Ollie’s heart. In mine as well.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “She already loves it, as you can see.”
He rocked on his heels. A sure sign something was on his mind. I waited him out and he finally said, “Heard you did some waitressing today.”
“I’d say a lot of waitressing. The café was packed.” I fussed with the stacks of fabric samples I’d laid out on the countertop. I planned to work on Faylene’s headband order after Ollie went to bed. “So Mama knows too, then?”
“She received six calls, three emails, and a bouquet of flowers from concerned friends, all before eleven o’clock.”
Sometimes I despised small towns. “Yet Mama didn’t mention a single word about it when she brought Ollie home earlier.”
“Did you want her to?” When I didn’t answer, he added, “What are you doing, Natalie? Why are you working at the café, knowing how your mother would likely feel?”
My skin heated. “I went there to buy a piece of pie, but there wasn’t any today. I stayed because I need a job much more than Mama needs her pride.”
Lord knew there was a time I would’ve set out to make my mother miserable on purpose, but I was past that. I wanted peace—and was willing to give up a lot to make that happen.
Just not this.
“If you need money .... ”
“I need to earn my own money.”
“I see,” he said after a moment. “And Ollie?”
“I’ve made arrangements with Faylene Wiggins.” She had been more than generous to take on watching Ollie a few days a week. We’d argued for a good five minutes about me paying her—she’d been set on doing it for free—but finally she agreed to take my money. It wasn’t anywhere near the going rate for babysitting or daycare, but it was enough to make me feel like I wasn’t freeloading. “Faylene keeps her granddaughter a couple of days a week, so Ollie will have a friend to play with.”
“You do know you could have asked your mother.”
I crossed my arms stubbornly. I could’ve asked my mother. I probably should have. But I hadn’t wanted to. It was as simple—and as complicated—as that. Instead of debating my decision with my father, I said, “It’s utter foolishness that someone sent Mama flowers. Flowers! Good Lord.”
He cracked a smile. “The flowers came with a sympathy card.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. It was either that or lose my mind. “Honestly, I didn’t set out to disappoint Mama yet again, but I don’t see anything wrong with working at the café. Or getting to know Anna Kate. She’s family. This feud with the Callows has gone on long enough.”
Ollie rolled the tractor over our feet, then up the side of the coffee table. She was babbling in her own language as she did so, completely oblivious to the strife around her.
I longed for that kind of peace of mind.
It was he who dodged the debate this time by saying, “You went to the café for a piece of pie? Blackbird pie?”
“That’s right,” I said, hearing the defensiveness in my own voice. “No need to make a big deal about it.”
“Who’s making a big deal?” he asked casually. Obviously, he’d picked up on the defensiveness, too.
Ollie drove the tractor over the back of the couch, and I tried my mightiest to focus on the good in my life.
Daddy started rocking on his heels again. Sticking his hands in his pockets, he said, “I happened to speak to a colleague in Fort Payne this afternoon. She has an appointment available next Thursday if you want it.”
Instantly suspicious, I said, “What kind of colleague?”
“What kind of counselor?”
“A grief counselor.”
I clasped my hands together and prayed to the good Lord above for patience. “I’ve had therapy.”
“It might be time for more,” he said calmly. “You said yourself you’re still having nightmares. And I heard you had some sort of panic attack in town this morning.”
“You’ve been hearing lots today, haven’t you? Who told you?” So help me if he’d received flowers, too.
“Does it matter? Were you clinging to a lamppost, white as a sheet, or not?”
Embarrassment set my cheeks on fire. “ ‘Clinging’ seems a little overexaggerated. I was merely holding on to the lamppost. Tightly.”
“When did your panic attacks come back?”
I didn’t want to admit that they’d never entirely left, so I shrugged in answer.
He gave me a pointed look. “Also, let’s not forget that fight with your mother yesterday …”
“Which was about her controlling nature, not anything to do with grief.”
“Is that so?”
“The decision about swimming lessons should have been mine to make. No one else’s.”
“I agree,” he said.
“Then why didn’t you side with me last night, when you heard Mama and me arguing?”
“Because it is in Ollie’s best interest to learn how to swim.”
Confused, I stared at him. “Whose side are you on? Because I’m getting mixed signals.”
“I’m not taking sides. I’m trying to help.”
“Well, you’re not.” I kept my voice low, tame, as to not alert Ollie that there was tension in the air. She seemed oblivious, however, as she stacked blocks only to plow them over with her new toy.
“Don’t you see, Natalie? You allowed fear to make the decision. You weren’t thinking about what you knew, as Ollie’s mama, was best for your little girl, because you do know that Ollie learning to swim is a good thing. You let fear take away your voice.”
His words, and knowing he was right, cut like a jagged, rusty knife. I turned away from him, unable to look at him a moment longer without bursting into tears. I’d sworn off crying long ago. Tears did nothing at all except make me feel like I was drowning too.
“The blame,” he said, “for that argument last night isn’t on your mother, and it’s not on you. It’s on the accident that killed someone you loved deeply. It might be a good thing to talk to someone about that, a bit more in depth.”
He reached around me, a business card in his hand.
I stared at it through blurry eyes before taking it.
“Grief can change a person to the point where they become someone they don’t know, or even like very much. I don’t want that to happen to you. Or to Ollie.”
I had the feeling his message was more than advice—it was an explanation. My mother had changed completely after AJ died, but she had never sought help to deal with her grief. Would life have been different for me if she had? Or was there no turning back after experiencing the pain of losing a child?
He gave my shoulder a squeeze. “You’re not going to find healing in a piece of pie, Natalie. The healing’s got to come from within you. Make the appointment, please?”
Unable to talk, I nodded. I’d call.
“We’ll be leaving in five minutes,” he said. “Are you walking over to the courthouse with us?”
If I was going to back out of going to the movie, now was the time to do so. As much as I wanted to stay home, my father’s wisdom had hit its mark. What was best for Ollie? My gaze drifted to my daughter, in her Tinkerbell outfit, with that scarred toy tractor clutched in her hand as if it were the most priceless object in the world.
Maybe it was.
I closed my hand around the business card and found my voice. “I need to pack a few things, so it might take a minute. You don’t have to wait for us if you need to get going.”
“We’ll wait for you, Natalie,” he said quietly as he walked to the door. “Always have. Always will.”
Saturday at almost midnight, I sipped my hot tea and tried not to stress.
Today, I’d sold four kinds of blackbird pies, twelve in total. I’d increased the pie output because of a tip from Mr. Boyd late yesterday afternoon. He’d mentioned how word of the blackbirds had spread throughout southern birding groups and many were headed here this weekend for a glimpse of the rare birds. They’d arrived in full force this morning, and not a crumb of pie remained by noon.
All those pies had held a secret—a teaspoonful of mulberry syrup, which on its own was pretty terrible, but it was practically undetectable in pie filling to those who weren’t looking for it.
The flavor of the mulberry came across boldly to me, as if my taste buds had been searching for it all along, and I hoped the syrup would be enough to get the blackbirds to sing. I had the feeling the proper secret ingredient was a fully ripened mulberry, but I still didn’t know how Zee had managed to use them in pies year-round. For now, the syrup would have to do.
Whether the syrup had worked its magic, I’d know tonight.
Looking out the window, I saw that the birders gathered seemed just as anxious as I was—fidgety and oddly quiet.
Unable to stand still, I itched to cook something, anything, but I didn’t want to mess up the clean kitchen. I’d already made another twelve pies for tomorrow: apple, peach, blackberry, and rhubarb. They sat in the pie case, their flaky crusts the perfect shade of golden brown.
Instead, I washed my teacup and busied myself by neatening rags in the laundry room, triple-checking inventory, and making sure the restroom was spotless.
Finally—finally—the clock turned over to twelve.
I shut off all the lights inside but kept on the outdoor lights that dimly illuminated the backyard. I stood at the screen door. Crickets, katydids, and frogs vied for volume, and fireflies were like sparks of magic in the garden.
The thick, humid air stilled as the blackbirds emerged from the leafy tunnel, and it seemed to me that they took extra time tonight in the sky, soaring and circling in rhythm like some sort of dance only they knew. An aerial ballet.
The night silenced as the blackbirds landed, the fireflies dimmed, and the blackbirds … began to sing.
Tender notes, sweetly melodious. Even with no lyrics, the songs told stories of love, of life, of laughter, of sadness, of hope. Harmonies rose, then fell as if in conversation, the emotional tones eliciting in me memories of my mom and me standing side by side at the sink, doing dishes together as we talked of weekend plans. It reminded me of Zee and me, holding hands as we walked along dense wooded pathways, the air heavy with the scent of the earth.
It seemed as though time stood still as I listened to the ethereal symphony, my chest aching, my throat tightening as my soul found peace for the first time in a long while.
When the blackbirds finished their glorious songs, the birders erupted in applause. I closed and locked the door, and climbed the stairs with tears in my eyes. I waited up for a while longer, hoping for another visit from the two rogue blackbirds, but they never came.
Still wrapped in that feeling of peace, I fell into bed and closed my eyes, and tried not to worry about how hard it was going to be to leave the magic of Wicklow behind.
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The following morning, I crouched in the garden, a basket at my feet as I filled it with the day’s bounty. “I see you’ve forgiven me,” I said to the zucchini plant closest to the deck steps. I tugged a small zucchini from its stem, its beautiful green skin seemingly more vibrant in the hazy morning light than it would be in full sunshine. “Aren’t you pretty? What shall we make with you? Frittatas? Fries?” Anything but zucchini loaves was just fine with me.
I’d decided to nurture the zucchini instead of curse it. The two plants were coming along nicely. In only a few days, they’d lost their sickly appearance and had perked up. They were still on the small side, but I had faith they’d be full and healthy in no time. There were plenty of orange-colored blossoms peeking through the leaves.
As I worked collecting more zucchini, cucumbers, squash, beans, and rhubarb, I tuned out the drone of birders camped in the side yard. Many had come to me yesterday for permission to set up tents, which I allowed, or pop-up campers, which I had not. The yard already looked enough like a campground without any trailers parked there. However, Pebbles Lutz had offered up her back field to recreational vehicles for the cost of only twenty dollars a night. The acreage was already on its way to being full.
I halfheartedly pulled crabgrass as I walked around the garden, noting that I needed to spend some time doing it right. Zee, I decided, must have spent hours out here every day just on the upkeep. I checked on the progress of the tomatoes and two lonesome corn stalks and stopped in front of the yarrow.
Doc Linden had stopped by the café again this morning to reissue his invitation to supper this afternoon. I’d declined, and he said he’d be back in a few days to ask me to next week’s meal. He could ask until he was blue in the face. It wasn’t going to happen.
I finally made my way over to the mulberry trees and smiled at the leaves, seeing that they were flat, not curled. Some brown tips remained, but hopefully after a few more songs, the trees would flourish once again. I picked a cluster of mulberries—the pinkest ones I could find—to make another batch of syrup. As I headed back to the café, I saw Summer Pavegeau coming up the path from the side gate, a basket on her arm.
“Good morning, ma’—Anna Kate.”
“Hi, Summer,” I said. “You’re up early.”
Today she wore a pale blue dress that highlighted her tanned skin and those big blue eyes. Her long hair shone in the morning light, sunbeams glancing off natural highlights. On her feet were a pair of leather sandals, and she looked like she wanted nothing more than to kick them off and go barefoot as she shifted foot to foot.
“I usually come by early on Sundays, before church.”
“Makes sense. Thanks for the eggs you’ve been leaving on the deck these past couple of days. Come on inside, and I’ll get your payment. Would you like a piece of pie, too?”
Hope bloomed in her eyes. “Is it fixed?”
She followed me up the steps and into the kitchen. “I think so?” I wouldn’t know for sure until Mr. Lazenby arrived. He was my test subject. “The blackbirds are singing again.”
I set my basket on the counter and checked the crock-pot. I was making a salve to give to Natalie for her blisters, and using the crock-pot to speed along the process.
A faint sheen of moisture glazed her eyes. “Then yes, ma’am, I’d like a piece, if you have enough to spare.”
I let the “ma’am” slide as I glanced over my shoulder at the twelve pies in the case. “I guess that depends on how many pieces you’d like.”
She laughed, then looked around. “Why does it smell like marigolds in here?”
“Calendula-infused oil.” I motioned to the crock-pot. Calendula officinalis was best known as the common marigold. “Marigold petals have great healing properties for skin ailments and injuries.” Among many other things. In tea, it helped with digestive issues.
She smiled. “Cool.”
I thought so too.
Then her gaze narrowed as she looked in my basket. “You do know that those pink mulberries are going to be sour.”
“Oh, I know they are. I’m making syrup with them, using lots of sugar to sweeten them up.”
“Syrup would taste better if the berries were ripe,” she said slowly, as if wanting to correct my decision without coming off as critical.
“I still have a good week or so before the mulberries will be ripe, and I need them now.” I unpacked the rest of the basket, hoping she didn’t ask me why. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to share the secret ingredient to someone who wasn’t a family member.
“Oh, for the pies?”
I almost dropped a zucchini. “How’d you know?”
She smiled, a slow, sly smile. “For one, I can taste them. Also, for the last few years, Zee hired me on to help her gather the berries, remove their stems, and process them.” She frowned. “The stems are a nightmare.”
“Wait, process them?”
“Sure. Zee has years’ worth stashed away in small jars. They’re adorable, the jars, but time-consuming to assemble and steam. I’m surprised you haven’t been using those for your syrup,” she said, as though I were making cow pies, not something edible.
“There’s no processed mulberries. I’ve looked. Bow and Jena haven’t seen any either.”
“Oh my word. I’m sorry. I didn’t even think—Zee claimed those mulberries were the most valuable thing in the café, and didn’t like people knowing about them. She hid them. I should’ve thought to tell you, seeing as how you’re making the pies now. I’ll show you where they are.”
I immediately thought it odd that Zee hadn’t told Bow and Jena of the mulberry cache but trusted Summer with the information. She’d told the couple about me, as she had with Summer, so why not share the mulberries with them too?
I followed her into the pantry, and she closed the door behind us. “Just in case.”
Baffled, I went along, not entirely sure why she was taking me into the pantry when I’d already told her there were no mulberries to be found.
“Here, scoot out of the way, Anna Kate.”
I ducked in behind her. “I’ve searched this pantry, top to—”
My words died in my throat as she grabbed the molding on the shelving unit closest to the door and pulled. The floor-to-ceiling wooden shelf swung outward, revealing a secret room.
My jaw dropped. “A hidden door?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She went into the darkened space and flipped on a light. “I call this the Harry Potter room for obvious reasons.”
I smiled. Because Harry had slept in a cupboard under the stairs. I followed her inside and noticed the slanted ceiling—this room was also under the stairs. Long and narrow, an apartment-size refrigerator stood along one of the walls, but most of the space was lined with shelving. The far wall held canning supplies—empty jars and lids—but the rest of the shelves were stocked with processed mulberries in small jelly jars. I picked up a jar, held it to the light.
Summer stood back as I took it all in. She said, “Each jar has two tablespoons of mashed mulberries in it. The jars are processed with a simple syrup of sugar and water.”
There had to be a thousand jars in here. Maybe more. It was hard to tell with the way they were stacked. My eyes suddenly filled with tears thinking of how much love this room held.
“Each harvest makes near about five hundred jars. One jar makes six pies—one teaspoon per each since there’s three teaspoons in a tablespoon. A teaspoon’s worth doesn’t seem like enough to me, but Zee always said it was plenty.”
I hugged the jar to my chest. “Summer, I can’t even tell you what this means to me.”
“I’m just sorry I didn’t think of it earlier.”
“Better late than never,” I said, tucking the jar back on the shelf. “Bow and Jena will be here soon, so we should probably close this place back up.”
But I’d be back—later tonight, and I’d finally make the blackbird pies the way Zee had intended them to be made.
Summer gave me a quick lesson on how to operate the swinging door, and I hired her on the spot to help me gather this year’s mulberries when they were ready.
I was cutting into an apple pie to give her a slice when Bow and Jena came sailing through the back door.
“Where have you been hiding, Summer?” Bow asked as he grabbed an apron from the rack near the door. “Haven’t seen you in days.”
As he slid the apron over his head, it caught on his hair, tugging it away from his left ear. I noticed he had small scar along the upper curve.
“I haven’t been hiding,” Summer said, but looked quickly away.
I slid the pie into a to-go box, wondering about her strange reaction.
Jena tipped her head. “This isn’t about Natalie working here, is it?”
It seemed to me her melodious way of speaking had taken on an even softer tone.
Summer glanced at the back door. “I should be going.”
“Oh, sugar.” Jena shook her head. “Natalie’s just Natalie. Give her a chance.”
I handed Summer the pie box. “I don’t understand … you don’t like Natalie?”
“I don’t not like her,” Summer said. “I don’t really know her.”
“You’re not the only one who has issues with the Lindens,” Jena said to me.
“What did they do to you, Summer?” I asked.
“To me?” she said. “Nothing. To my dad …”
Jena said, “Seelie didn’t much approve of Aubin, either.”
A bright flash of anger went through me. “Does she approve of anyone?”
“A few,” Jena said with a smile. “But, Summer, honey, Natalie isn’t her mama.”
Summer shrugged and looked away.
“Seems to me,” Bow said as he went about preheating the ovens, “there’s a whole lot of people around here carrying around a heap of pain tied to the past. Might be time to start letting that go and start healing.”
Jena said, “I agree.”
I crossed my arms. “Letting go is easier said than done.”
Summer nodded her agreement.
Jena patted my cheek. “But sweetie, letting go is the only way you can fly.”
Her words rang in my ears as I went for my purse to pay Summer before she left. I owed her for several days of eggs and also for the blackberries.
When I handed her the money, she said, “This is too much, Anna Kate.”
“No, it’s not. That was a huge container of blackberries you left here. Plus, the eggs. Don’t argue.”
She snapped her lips closed, then smiled. “Thank you. I can use the extra money for college.”
“College!” Jena cried. “I didn’t know you were leaving us. Where are you going? When?”
“’Bama,” Summer said with a shy smile. “In August.”
“Roll Tide!” Bow pumped a fist.
“Well, that’s just wonderful.” Jena beamed. “Good on you! I bet your daddy’s tickled.”
“He’s proud. Prouder than usual,” Summer added.
“What will you study?” Jena asked.
“I’m not sure yet. Ecology? Forestry? Something outdoorsy—I can’t imagine having a job in an office all day, all cooped up.”
I thought back to the first time I met her, with her reddish-purple fingers and filthy feet. Nature was her calling, no doubt about it.
“I have time to decide,” she said. “I’ll take general-ed courses my first year, then pick a major.”
Bow wiped his hands on a cloth. “If you need help moving down, you let me know.”
“I will,” she said. “Thanks.”
She offered her goodbyes and was on her way out when she abruptly turned around. “I almost forgot to give you this, Anna Kate.” She handed me an envelope. “It’s from my father.”
“What is it?” I asked, turning it over to see my name written out in scratchy penmanship.
“Don’t know. He only said to make sure I got it to you. Bye, all!” She went out the back door, and it slammed closed behind her.
“I really need to fix that,” Bow said, edging closer to me.
“Yes, you do,” Jena agreed as she sidled up. “What have you got there, Anna Kate?”
I laughed as they hovered, their blatant nosiness on full display. “Only one way to find out.” I slid my finger under the envelope’s flap and lifted it. Inside was a lone piece of lined paper, folded in thirds. I pulled it out, not sure what to expect. When I saw what he’d written, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been given a wonderful gift.
A little taste of happiness for you, Anna Kate. —Aubin
Below it, he’d carefully written out his recipe for blackberry tea.
My gaze swept over the recipe as I took in every detail, but my head came up suddenly when someone pounded on the front door.
Mr. Lazenby had his face pressed to the glass.
Jena chuckled. “I think that’s for you, Anna Kate.”
Taking a deep breath, I tried to read Mr. Lazenby’s expression. If the mulberry syrup had worked, the pie he ate yesterday would have brought him a dream from his loved one last night.
I saw that he had tears in his eyes, and my heart sank as I pulled open the door. “It didn’t work?”
He ducked his chin, then stepped forward and threw his arms around me in a bear hug. “It worked just fine, Miss Anna Kate. Thank you.”
No one was more shocked than I was when I hugged him back.
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