In this valley songs live . . . and kill.
No one knows where the Tufa came from or how they ended up in the mountains of east Tennessee. When the first Europeans came to the Smoky Mountains, the Tufa were already there. Dark-haired and enigmatic, they live quietly in the hills and valleys of Cloud County, their origins lost to history. But there are clues in their music, hidden in the songs they have passed down for generations.
Private Bronwyn Hyatt, a true daughter of the Tufa, has returned from Iraq, wounded in body and spirit, but her troubles are far from over. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, while a restless ''haint'' has followed her home from the war. Worse yet, Bronwyn has lost touch with herself and with the music that was once a part of her life. With death stalking her family, will she ever again join in the song of her people and let it lift her onto the night winds?
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ALEX BLEDSOE grew up in west Tennessee, an hour north of Graceland. He's been a reporter, editor, photographer, and door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman. He has published more than fifty short stories on topics as diverse as big-game hunters, mermaids, modern witches, Victorian gentlemen, and country musicians. He has two sons and lives in Wisconsin.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A screech owl stood on the porch rail, its tiny talons scratching against the wood. The dawn light made the tufts of its wind-ruffled feathers look jagged and bloody. The bird had a voice far out of proportion to its size, and was intimately acquainted with the night winds that guided the Tufa destiny. It was also, when seen during the day, an omen of death.
So when Chloe Hyatt, a pureblood Tufa, saw it through the little window over the kitchen sink, she froze.
Water from the faucet ran heedlessly down the drain. She began to hum a secret tune for both calm and protection. The day’s events were going to be difficult enough without adding this to it.
The owl’s head turned almost 180 degrees to stare at her. The movement was so sudden, she jumped. For a moment the bird held her gaze; then it flew off into the trees.
She followed its flight and caught the haint’s outline as it faded into the dawn. As it had done for the last week, the apparition remained silent and watchful all night. When it first appeared, they’d all approached it, but it ignored entreaties from Chloe; her husband, Deacon; and their younger son, Aiden. Kell, her older son, would have sensed it and come home from Knoxville had it been meant for him. That left only one Hyatt ordained to receive its message: her wayward middle child and only daughter.
But though the haint wanted someone else, Chloe knew the owl was intended just for her. It wasn’t the first death omen the night winds had recently blown her way.
The sun crested the side of the mountain, turning the ominous red dawn to gold. Midges and pollen hung sparkling in the air. Everything brought by the night wind vanished.
Deacon came up behind her and kissed her on the shoulder. He smelled of aftershave and that generic dandruff shampoo he liked. “Morning,” he said quietly, not wanting to wake Aiden. The boy had been so excited about his big sister’s impending return that he hadn’t fallen asleep until midnight, after both Chloe and Deacon sang him their usually foolproof lullabies. Even Tufa children, it seemed, could hear the hum but resist the shiver.
“You haven’t made the coffee,” Deacon observed.
“Sorry,” Chloe murmured. She put the carafe under the faucet.
Deacon peered out the window. “Was the haint still out there this morning?”
Chloe nodded as she filled the coffeemaker. She did not mention the death owl. Deacon had been upset enough by the unseasonable blooms on her acacias.
“You’d think it’d know she ain’t here yet,” Deacon continued.
Chloe dried her hands, hoping Deacon didn’t notice the trembling. “Just ’cause they’re from the other side don’t mean they’re any smarter than they were before. When it was alive, it might’ve been one of those people who were always early for things.”
He nodded. “True enough. You sure it ain’t for you or me? Maybe we should call in Bliss, see if she can talk to it.”
“It won’t speak to her, you know that. Aiden can’t see it, and Kell would’ve been home from college by now if it was for him, sensitive as he is. That only leaves one of us.”
Deacon nodded. He spoke the name with all the weight it carried: the name of his middle child, the one who caused him more sleepless nights and grief than the other two put together. It was a name the whole world now knew, the name of his only daughter.
* * *
The Black Hawk military helicopter blew wispy fog from the treetops as it circled over Needsville, Tennessee. The rotors’ throb bounced off the Smoky Mountains, echoing as if a herd of gigantic, apocalyptic horsemen were charging over Redford’s Ridge.
The pilot dropped as low as he dared, twenty feet above the power lines, as he approached the town. He recalled his father’s description of a similar approach to an Asian village, only instead of power lines, it had been palm trees, and the villagers had pointed guns and artillery instead of fingers and American flags.
“Your folks are sure glad to see you,” he yelled over his shoulder to the young woman in the passenger seat behind him. She did not respond.
Needsville’s main street—its only street—swarmed with people watching the helicopter as it passed overhead. But Bronwyn Hyatt, a private in the United States Army for at least the next thirty days, knew that the pilot’s observation was wrong; these weren’t “her” people packing the street below. Hell, the entire population of Needsville couldn’t block its own traffic. Most of the crowd consisted of reporters and well-wishing strangers drawn to the circus her return home had become; the vehicles she saw were TV news vans and shiny SUVs, not the rusted-out pickups and old sedans of the natives. As she scanned the crowd, she saw very few heads with the same distinctive straight, jet-black Tufa hair that she wore neatly pulled back and tucked under her uniform’s cap.
Her official minder, public relations liaison Major Dan Maitland, peered out the other window. “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, look at all that,” he said. “Where the hell are they all going to stay? Didn’t you say there’s only one hotel in town?”
Bronwyn shifted her weight slightly to take the pressure off her leg. The metal rings and struts of the monstrous Ilizarov apparatus wrapped around her thigh and calf, sending bone-holding screws and pins through her pasty, tortured skin. She would’ve been more comfortable on a stretcher, but she’d been on her back quite enough these last nine weeks. And not, she reflected wryly, in the way her Needsville reputation always implied.
Maitland leaned close and shouted above the engine, “Can you see okay?”
Bronwyn shrugged. The engine’s vibrations jingled the new medals on her chest. “Seen it all before,” she said.
“Yeah, but from the air?”
Again she shrugged. Tufa flight was something she could never explain to someone like him.
Maitland patted her on the shoulder. He was a career officer, frighteningly good at his job, and exuded false sincerity with such skill that dozens of flash-in-the-pan media figures still counted him as a friend when he likely couldn’t remember their names. Luckily Bronwyn had seen right through him at their first meeting and maintained a cool cordiality that ultimately perplexed him. He seemed unable to imagine anyone, male or female, immune to his charm. Watching him hide this confusion was one of the few things that still brought Bronwyn any pleasure.
Maitland said something to the pilot, and the helicopter passed back over the town, banking sharply so Bronwyn could be seen at the window. The harness that held her in the seat dug into her shoulder. When she placed her left palm against the glass to maintain her balance, she saw many of the hands below wave in response. The sun glinted off a thousand camera lenses. None of this was a surprise, but it disheartened her just the same. A hero’s homecoming, and she couldn’t even remember what she’d done to earn it. Or even if she’d done anything at all.
As the helicopter rose to continue on to the small county airport, she caught a glimpse of an old man seated in a rocking chair outside the post office. Rockhouse Hicks did not deign even to acknowledge the circus around him, or her passage overhead. It wasn’t in his nature to admit, even for a moment, that someone else might be more significant than himself. That made her smile; some things in Needsville truly never changed.
But the smile faded almost at once. That was both Needsville’s charm and its curse. Nothing of significance ever did change, or ever would. She herself was living proof of that. And she was too numb to feel either anger or sorrow at the realization, just the weight of its reality.
“We’ll be landing in five minutes,” the pilot told Bronwyn. “I just got the message that the motorcade’s already there waiting for you.”
* * *
Craig Chess watched the helicopter circle overhead as he lifted the box of plastic disposable silverware. He stood on the porch of the Catamount Corner, Needsville’s only motel, and the cacophony in the street made him wince at its shrill, unnatural loudness. Needsville was a quiet town, both by disposition and logistics: Three hundred taciturn, mysterious people spread out over an entire valley simply didn’t make much noise.
Now, thousands of people from all over the country brought the entire hamlet to a dead stop. And all, he reflected ironically, for the return of one local girl who, he’d been told, couldn’t wait to leave.
“Makin’ it okay, there, Reverend?” Marshall Goins asked from the storeroom.
Craig shifted the weight of the box in his hands. “Sorry, got distracted by all the commotion.”
“Yeah, it’s a sight, ain’t it? I always figured Bronwyn Hyatt would cause a major ruckus one day, but I never thought it’d make the national news.”
“It’s international,” Craig corrected. “I saw a German TV crew setting up.”
Marshall emerged from the storeroom with another box. The label said NAPKINS, 3,000 COUNT. “Do you really need that many napkins?” Craig asked.
“Yankees are sloppy. Better to have too many than not enough.” He also paused to look over the crowd. “You ever figure a town this little could hold this many people?”
“Never,” Craig said. “Did you?”
Marshall shrugged. “Good for business, if nothing else. I’m selling parking places in the side yard, and we’re booked to the gills. Hell, we even have some folks paying to camp out in the lobby.” He paused. “I mean, ‘heck.’ Sorry, Reverend.”
“I use the word myself sometimes,” Craig said. “Does the fire code allow you to put people in the lobby, though?”
Marshall chuckled. “Not much worry about codes and such here in Needsville, Reverend.”
Craig was eleven months shy of thirty, and had received his appointment as minister for the nearby Triple Springs Methodist Church just after graduating from Lambuth College in Jackson. He’d never met Bronwyn Hyatt, but had heard so many stories about her since he arrived six weeks earlier that he felt as if he knew her. “Ten feet tall and bulletproof,” as the Travis Tritt song said, only she apparently never needed alcohol to feel that way. A full Tufa at a time when most families had diluted their heritage through intermarriage, she was as well known for her exploits as for her famously profane language. Needsville’s extended Tufa “community”—essentially everyone—had more than its share of iconoclasts, but Bronwyn, though she was only twenty years old, was extreme even for them. He wondered how her horrific wartime experiences, now chronicled all over the world, had changed her. He hoped not much, because he secretly hated to think he’d never get to meet the girl once known as the “Bronwynator.”
Marshall brought him back to the moment when he said, “I think these two boxes’ll do us, Reverend. Just put yours inside the dining room entrance, and Peggy can sort ’em out. Thanks for the hand.”
“Glad to help out, Marshall. You and Peggy have made me feel awfully welcome.”
The older man went inside the motel, and Craig was about to follow when something caught his eye: a man with the distinctive black Tufa hair struggling to get his camera in position for a shot. That struck Craig as odd, and it took a moment to realize why: None of the other Tufa were taking pictures.
Craig watched more closely. The man also wore a lanyard with an ID tag that said PRESS. He managed to get his camera up above the heads of the crowd just in time for the helicopter’s final pass. When he pulled it down and scanned back through the pictures, though, he frowned and muttered to himself.
Craig decided that, although this man had the general look of a Tufa, it must be a coincidence. His conduct was so different from the quiet, suspicious natives that he had to be simply a Yankee reporter who happened to have dark hair. After all, there wasn’t a single newspaper in all of Cloud County, so no real Tufa journalist would have anywhere to work.
Craig went inside, threaded through the out-of-towners texting, talking on cell phones, and begging for accommodations, and deposited the last box by the dining room entrance. Normally the Catamount Corner used cloth napkins that matched the tablecloths in the dining room, but that wasn’t practical, or appropriate, for this crowd. They treated the town like it existed solely for their benefit, and deserved no more than they got.
As he turned, he was knocked into the wall by a man with slick hair and a pin-striped suit talking into his Bluetooth as he muscled his suitcase across the lobby. “Come on, baby, you know I didn’t mean it. Just score me some, and I’ll pay you back when I get back to town. I’ll even take you out to dinner somewhere nice, what do you say?”
Craig sighed and pushed himself upright. God loves everyone, he reminded himself, even Yankee jackasses. He worked his way to the door and out into the street, hoping he still had time to get close enough to witness the main event.
* * *
Three burly MPs helped Bronwyn out of the helicopter and into her wheelchair. One of them accidentally brushed the curve of her breast with his hand and flushed bright red, although he said nothing: apologizing, after all, was for fags. She held on to her cap and the hem of her skirt, both of which threatened to fly askew under the idling rotors. She carefully arranged her injured leg on the upright footplate, the metal rings gleaming in the sun.
The one-hangar airport, with its lone runway and faded orange wind sock, served mainly crop dusters and charter sporting flights and was overwhelmed by the sudden military occupation. In addition to the huge Black Hawk delivering its human cargo, the local National Guard motor pool provided two staff cars and a jeep. Beyond them waited some sort of huge vehicle that did not, from the little bits Bronwyn could see around her escorts, appear to be military.
Maitland stepped behind her and took the chair’s handles. “Are you comfortable?” Before she could answer, he continued, “We added a special seat to the motorcade to accommodate your leg.”
“Don’t forget the crutches,” Bronwyn said. “I’m not making a speech sitting down.” It was her only real demand, but she intended to stick to it. The people of Needsville were not about to see her unable to stand and face them after everything that had happened.
“All arranged,” Maitland replied. And then Bronwyn saw the vehicle intended for her return home.
She grabbed the rubber wheel runner and brought the chair to a sudden halt. Maitland’s stomach bumped into the back of her head. She stared for a long moment, then slowly turned as much as her injuries allowed. “Major Maitland, I know you outrank me, and I apologize in advance for my language, but there is no … fucking … way I am getting into, or onto, that.”
Maitland crouched beside the chair as if he’d expected this response all along. In his Teflon voice, he said, “I understand, Bronwyn, really. I thought it was tacky, too. But it was donated by the Ford dealership in Johnson City, and it might sow ill will in the community if we don’t graciously accept it.”
“I don’t care if it sows black-eyed peas,” she snapped. “I’ll do this show, but not if I have to ride in that.”
Maitland’s voice grew softer, and he leaned so close, she could smell his aftershave. “Private Hyatt, this is not a ‘show.’ It’s a hero’s welcome. Perhaps you should be a bit more … gracious?”
Bronwyn turned her dark eyes on him. “Major, I’m as gracious a...
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