Long, low strips of silver fog filled the green hollows and ravines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mists feathered over the creeks and rivers at six-thirty in the morning. Redbud was blooming, the tulips had opened. The white and pink dogwoods would explode in another week.
Mrs. Murphy, awake since five-thirty, snuggled next to Pewter, whose small snore sounded like a mud dauber at work, a low buzz. The two cats rested in the hollow of Mary Minor Haristeen's back while Tucker, the corgi, stretched out to her full length, most impressive, on the hooked rug next to the bed. She, too, snored slightly.
Murphy loved spring. Her undercoat would shed out, making her look sleeker and feel lighter. The robins returned, indigo buntings and bluebirds filled the skies. Down by the creek the redwing blackbirds snatched insects, gobbling them in one swallow. The scarlet tanagers flew into the orchards for their forays. The rise in the bird population excited the tiger cat even though she rarely caught one. Both she and Pewter dreamed of killing the blue jay who made their lives miserable. Hateful and aggressive, he would dart at them in a nosedive, scream as he got close, then pull up at the last moment just out of paw's reach. This particular blue jay also made a point of pooping on the clean clothes hung on the line to dry. Harry hated him, too. Harry was Mary Minor's nickname, which often surprised people upon meeting the young, good-looking woman.
People assumed her nickname derived from her married name but she had earned it in grade school because her clothes were liberally decorated with cat and dog hair. Her little friends hadn't yet mastered spelling, so hairy became harry. To this day some of her classmates remained on uneasy terms with spelling but rarely with Harry.
Outside the opened window, the cat heard the loud rat-ta-tat-tat of woodpeckers. She couldn't remember a spring with so many woodpeckers or so many yellow swallowtail butterflies.
The giant pileated woodpecker, close to two feet in length, proved a fearsome sight. This bird, found throughout the hickory and oak forests of central Virginia, was a primitive life-form and in repose one could almost see his flying reptile ancestors reflected in his visage.
The smaller woodpeckers, though large enough, seemed less fearsome. Mrs. Murphy enjoyed watching woodpeckers circle a tree, stop, peck for insects, then circle again. She noticed that some birds circled up and some circled down and she wondered why. She couldn't get close enough to one to ask because as soon as they'd see her, they'd fly off to another juicy tree.
As a rule, birds disdained conversation with cats. The mice, moles, and shrews happily chattered away from the safety of their holes. "Chattered" being a polite term, because they'd taunt the cats. The barn mice even sang, because their high-pitched voices drove Mrs. Murphy crazy.
The tiger glanced over at the clock. Harry, usually up at five-thirty, had overslept. Fortunately, today was Saturday, so she wouldn't have to rush in to work at the post office in Crozet. A part-time worker took care of Saturday's mail. But Harry, an organized soul, hated to waste daylight. Murphy knew she'd fret when she awoke and discovered how late it was.
Pewter opened one chartreuse eye. "I'm hungry."
"There are crunchies in the bowl."
"Tuna." The fat gray cat opened the other eye, slightly lifting her pretty round head.
"I wouldn't mind some myself. Let's wake up our can opener." Murphy laughed.
Pewter stretched, then gleefully sat, her back to Harry's face. She gently swept her tail over the woman's nose.
Mrs. Murphy walked up and down Harry's back. When that didn't produce the desired effect she jumped up and down.
"Uh." Harry sneezed as she pushed the tail out of her face. "Pewter."
"Me, too," Murphy sang out.
The dog, awake now, yawned. "Chunky beef."
"You guys." Harry sat up as Murphy stepped off her back. "Oh my gosh, it's six-forty. Why did you let me sleep so late?" She threw off the covers. Her bare feet hit the hooked rug and she sprinted to the bathroom.
"I'm standing vigil at the food bowl." Pewter zipped to the kitchen.
Murphy, in line behind her, jumped onto the kitchen counter.
Tucker, much more obedient, accompanied Harry to the bathroom, looked quizzically while she brushed her teeth, then quietly followed the human into the kitchen, where she put a pot of hot water on the stove for tea.
"All right, what is it?"
"Tuna!" came the chorus.
"M-m-m, chicken and rice." She put that can back on the shelf.
"Liver." She hesitated.
"Tuna," Tucker chimed in. "If you don't feed them tuna they'll make a mess and it will take me that much longer to get my breakfast," she grumbled.
Harry reached into the cupboard, lifting out another can. "Tuna."
"Hooray." Pewter turned little tight circles.
"Okay, okay." Harry laughed and opened the can with the same hand opener her mother had used. The Hepworths, Harry's mother's family, thought fashion absurd. Buy something of good quality and use it until it dies. The can opener was older than Harry.
The Minors, her father's family, also practical people, proved a bit more willing to let loose of money than the Hepworths. Harry fell somewhere in the middle.
After feeding the cats and dog, she turned on the stove, pulled out an iron skillet, and fried up two eggs. Breakfast was her favorite meal.
"Well, I've got Mr. Maupin's seeder for the weekend so I'd better overseed those pastures," she said to the animals, good listeners. "I was lucky to get it. Anyone with a seeder can rent it out for good money, you know. I'd love to buy one but we'd need almost twenty thousand dollars and you know, I'd rather stand in line and wait to rent Mr. Maupin's. Even a used one is expensive and you only use it in the spring and in the fall, depending . . ." Her voice trailed off, then rose again. "The trouble is, when you need it, you need it. We were lucky this year." She reached over to stroke Mrs. Murphy's silken head, as the cat had joined her at the table. "I just feel it's going to be a lucky spring. Worms to turn and eggs to lay."
She washed her dishes, walked out on the screened-in porch, and threw on her barn jacket which hung on a peg. The temperature was in the forties but by noon would near sixty-five.
As Harry stepped outside into the refreshingly cool air the first thing she noticed was the fog on the mountains. The sun, rising, reflected onto the fog, creating millions of tiny rainbows. The sight was so beautiful that Harry stopped in her tracks and held her breath for an instant.
The cats noticed the rainbows but their attention was diverted by a huge pileated woodpecker, lying in the dust, just off the screened-in porch.
"Cool." Pewter hurried over, tried to pick up the freshly dead bird in her jaws. It was quite heavy. She gave up.
"I could help you with that," Tucker offered.
"Touch my bird and you die," Pewter hissed.
Mrs. Murphy laughed. "It's not like you brought it down, Pewter."
"I found it. That's almost as good."
"Yeah, the great gray hunter." Tucker curled her upper lip.
"I don't see you catching anything, fat bum." Pewter's eyes narrowed to slits.
"I'm not fat. I don't have a tail. That makes me look fat," Tucker replied sharply. "Bubble butt, you should know."
Pewter lashed out, catching the dog squarely on the nose. "Weenie."
"What is going on with you two?" Harry walked over to the fighting animals. "Oh, no." She knelt down to examine the giant woodpecker. "You hardly ever see one of these up close."
"I found it first." Pewter put her paw on its plump breast, claws out for emphasis.
"Pewter, let go," Harry commanded her.
"Only if I get my birdie back." She swished her tail.
"You'd better let go, Pewts," Mrs. Murphy advised.
"Oh sure, so you can grab my woodpecker."
" 'Cause she's top dog," Tucker wisely noted.
"I'm not a dog." The gray cat said this with a supercilious air.
"Good, because I'd hate to claim you."
"You're being a real snot," the cat said but she relinquished the bird, retracting her claws.
Harry first felt the woodpecker's neck because a bird will sometimes fly into a windowpane and break its neck. The woodpecker's neck was fine and woodpeckers usually don't fly that close to houses. She turned the bird over. Not a mark.
"This guy is heavy."
"Tell me," Pewter agreed.
"In perfect condition. Strange. Really strange." Harry lifted the bird by its feet as she stood up. "Taxidermist," was all she said.
"I can pull the feathers off a stuffed bird as well as a live one." Pewter smiled.
"Indulge her, Pewter," Tucker growled, her nose still hurting.
The cat said nothing, following Harry closely as the human located her old large cooler, filled it with ice, wrapped the woodpecker in a plastic bag, then placed it in the cooler. She would visit the taxidermist after overseeding.
She then walked to the barn, turned the three horses out, picked stalls, scrubbed water buckets, and was on the tractor in no time, happy as she could be.
The animals had no desire to run after the tractor as Harry monotonously rolled up and down the fields, so they reposed under a huge white lilac bush, blooms half-opened. Pewter and Tucker called a truce.
"It was weird--that woodpecker." Mrs. Murphy watched a swarm of ladybugs head their way.
"An omen. Found treasure," Pewter purred.
Tucker rested her head on her paws. "A bad omen if you're the woodpecker."
"What do you think?" Harry leaned over the heavy wooden table where Don Clatterbuck studied the recently deceased pileated woodpecker.
"I can do it. Sure can." His smile revealed teeth stained by chewing tobacco, a habit learned from his maternal grandfather, Riley "Booty" Mawyer, who was old but still farming.
She folded her arms across her chest. "Lots?"
"Not for you." He smiled again.
"Oh, how about a hundred dollars and you give my card out when foxhunting starts again? At the meets."
"Really?" Harry knew she was getting a good deal because stuffing birds was more difficult than stuffing deer heads.
"Yeah. We go back a ways, Skeezits." He called her by her childhood nickname.
"Guess we do." She smiled back and pointed to coffee tables, the tops covered with old license plates, some dating back to the 1920s. "These are good. You ought to carry them up to Middleburg and put them in those expensive shops there."
His shop, a converted garage, overflowed with hides, knives to cut leather, and a heavy-duty sewing machine to sew leather, though usually he employed hand tools even for sewing. Donald repaired tack, leather chairs, car upholstery, even leather skirts and high-fashion stuff.
He made a decent living from that and his taxidermy but he also exhibited a creative streak. The license-plate-covered coffee tables were his latest idea.
"Not satisfied. I want to make some using the color for design. The old New York plates used to be orange so what if I used orange and, say, the old California plates, black. I don't know. Something different."
"These are good. The ones right here. Where do you get these cool old plates?"
"Yard sales mostly. Junkyards. Scratchin'."
As they'd known one another since they were toddlers, they employed a shorthand. Scratchin' meant he'd scratch up stuff like a chicken scratches up grubs. Many of Harry's friends did this, as they all had known one another all their lives. In the case of the older generation, this shorthand contracted into orders. The Virginia way was that older people gave orders, young people carried them out. "Worship of youth is for other parts," as Virginians said. And what any true Virginian would never say was that those "other parts" of the country didn't count.
Another fundamental of Virginia life was that society was ruled by women. The entire state was a matriarchy, carefully concealed, of course. It would never do for men to know they were being directed, guided, cajoled, or sometimes openly threatened to do what the Queen wanted, the Queen being the reigning woman of every locality.
What the men never told the women was that they knew that. Hunting, fishing, and golf provided a respite from the continual improvements of the ladies. Despite the occasional irritations, interruptions, and exhaustion of pleasing women, Virginia men bore this burden for reasons they did not share with those same women. The men felt they were bigger, stronger, and more inclined to fight, which also meant they could protect those who were smaller, weaker, and who needed them. They declined to let the women know that those ladies needed them or that they knew full well what the ladies were doing.
The system worked most times. When it didn't there was hell to pay.
Harry and Don, in their late thirties, actually believed they weren't part of this dance. Of course they were, and in time they'd understand just how much they'd been influenced by their elders and by the very ethos of Virginia.
"You're the craftsman." She smiled.
"I get by." He wiped his hand across his chin leaving a faint streak of light brown stain, as he'd been coloring calfskin before Harry came into his shop.
"You've always done good work. I don't know where you get your ideas. I remember the Homecoming float with the stallion that bucked. I still don't know how you built that bucking horse. No one's ever topped that."
"Wasn't bad." He grinned.
"Where do you get all this stuff?" She pointed to a broken pediment, good stone, too; a huge pile of ancient license plates; an old gas pump, the kind with a whirling ball on the top; a massive enameled safe with a central lock like a pilot's wheel; and a beautiful old Brewster phaeton, badly in need of repair but an example of the coachbuilder's art.
Mrs. Murphy and Pewter sat in the cracked, deep green leather of the phaeton seat. The body of the coach itself was dark green enamel with red and gold piping, quite lovely even if faded and cracked.
"The salvage yard? I haven't been there since the old man died."
"Opened up four acres in the back. The boys are good businessmen. Sean really runs the business and Roger runs the garage, old cars. He still spends half his time at the stock-car races. You ought to go over there." Don carefully put the woodpecker into a large freezer he had for game. "They've even got a caboose on the old railroad siding. Must have been fun in the old days when businesses all had railroad sidings."
Copyright © 2002 by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.