Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable entities herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

There are racial terms that are considered offensive by many, and rightfully so. These are characterizations, and not a language this author condones outside of fiction.


Awards:

Judge's Choice - PlanetBlue, Runtagu, Dreamweaver94, Believeitornot

Judge's Choice Runner up - Spanglemaker9, arfalcon


When you cross the sweeping drama of romance with the macabre isolation of small town life—and then throw in a touch of Southern whimsy—you've cooked up a collection of American literature absolutely unique in time, place and sentiment. Southern gothic.


This story is dedicated to Joe and Sue,

my grandparents,

whose stories of a South long gone

will live in my heart, in my mind,

and through the tips of my fingers.

Forever.


Bartered

Chapter One

Forks, Alabama

March 15th, 1933

I love the rain.

I love the smell of it, how it's fresh an clean, earthy an pure. I love the way it arrives when you need it the most, the way it brangs life to the world, causin' the plants to sprout up, and mournful cows to quench their long-awaited thirst. I love how the mud sticks to my feet after a good shower; how it cools my bare soles on the days I work the fields without my old shoes.

Them old shoes put a hurtin' on my feet. They too small an pinch my heels, but I got 'em. I got them shoes, an that's better than some folks can say, 'cause some folks ain't got no shoes 'tall.

Thangs has been bad since the twenties with the drought, sickness, an all. Seems like we don't git 'nough rain 'round here. When it does rain, we consider it a blessin' from the good Lord. Seems like we don't git much of nothin' 'cept hard times an oppression.

I reckon it's the dreamin' of rain that wakes me up, that or the sound of the baby in Ma an Pa's room, mewin' like an old Tom cat. That baby's got pains twistin' an gnawin' at his gut, an I reckon he's hungry again. Hell, everyone's hungry now a-days.

In my dream the rain lightly pelts on the tin roof; a few raindrops slippin' through the holes an spatterin' on the wooden floor. I reckon the desire I have to hear the chorus of raindrops works on my bladder. I ease from the bed, dancin' an all 'fore draggin' the chamber pot from below where Alice an I rest.

Hikin' up my gown-tail I relieve myself, groanin' at the ecstasy of an empty bladder 'fore shovin' that ole pot back under the bed. Then I slip on my dress, the one that's still dirty from the field, 'cause I's too tired to rub it over Ma's washboard after workin' the ole mule all day.

I tiptoe from the room, slippin' through the breezeway an out the door. The porch squeaks as I walk across the wooden boards, whisperin' the sound of its life, the years of bare feet, crawlin' babies, an loungin' hound dogs.

After easin' across the pitiful fields, I slip through the backwoods as quiet as a church mouse, allowin' the moonlight to guide me through the hollers. The bullfrogs are a-croakin' an sangin' to one 'nother. Other strange noises fill the night air, noises I ain't never paid much attention to.

The woods don't scare me none. Pa always says they ain't nothin' lurkin' 'round durin' the night that ain't lurkin' 'round durin' the day. Besides, they's worse you should be afraid of. At least that what Pa always tells me when we pass on by the cemetery that's fillin' up with fresh graves, right fast.

'Fore my Mamaw left the earth to be with the good Lord, she told us stories 'bout haints; how she seen the ghost of her own grandmother when she was just a lil 'un. I've been scared of cemeteries ever since. Now a-days they fillin' up so quick that it makes my head spin.

The ground's over-worked, nothin' but poor soil, an ain't worth plowin' half the time, resultin' in not only us folks goin' hungry, but our cows an chickens goin' hungry, as well. An when a plant does sprang up, them bugs munch 'em away. Them bugs are eatin', an we's a-starvin'. When folks ain't starvin' to death, they be wastin' away from the consumption an malaria which is runnin' rampant in our small, Alabama town.

It's endin' up in one of them there graves that scares me so. I hear the baby cryin' at night, an I know he's starvin' to death. Hell, I reckon we's all starvin' to death. That's why I'm sneakin' through these woods right now on my way to the Cullen farm to steal me a fat chicken.

Hell, I'd even take a skinny 'un.

Now, I know stealin' ain't right. Every Lord's day, I sit under the old Oak tree, or in church, dependin' on how hot it is outside, an listen to the preacher man. He spreads the gospel, wipin' his brow with that old hanky that he keeps tucked in the front pocket of his overalls. He reads aloud from Romans, Mark, an Luke, an I feel right 'shamed of myself but not enough to hinder me none from what I'm 'bout to do.

I grit my teeth as I reach the tree line, my eyes dartin' over the Cullen property. It ain't fittin' fer folks like Old Man Cullen to be so high falutin' 'round here when the rest of us are starvin', our bellies eatin' out our backbones, but what do I know? Pa says I'm eighteen goin' on eight, an that I ain't got a lick of sense.

I reckon I'm goin' to hell when I die; at least I am if I keep stealin' these chickens from a dead man's home place. Old Man Cullen's been dead fer goin' on 'bout fourteen days now. He's probably rottin' in the family plot. I bet the worms an bugs an all done got full bellies right now, an I'm green at the gills 'cause I ain't had a full belly since Lord knows when. I don't recollect the last time I had a full belly. Maybe I ain't never had no full belly.

My skirt-tail's draggin' the earth, but I don't pay it no attention. Naw, I got that big ole hen on my mind an that's 'bout it. I can taste the juice as sink my teeth in the warm meat. Just the thought of it makes my mouth water.

My tongue darts out to wet my parched lips, an I wish I weren't so poor. I reckon I'm 'bout the skinniest gal in town, least that's what Ma says. If I keep stealin' these fat chickens, I'll be the fattest gal in town. Then maybe one of them boys in town will marry me if they see how healthy I am. My arms are too skinny, an my knees are knobby. If I gain a lil weight folks will start whisperin' 'bout me. They'll think I'm right smart an found some money somewhere.

"They'll think I'm livin' high on the hog," I giggle, clampin' my hand over my big ole, fool mouth.

My giggle echoes in the night, bouncin' off the trees an the side of the barn. I curse myself below my breath, stumblin' through the remains of a cotton field, 'cause I reckon I'm a might bit clumsy, least that's what Pa says. I ain't too clumsy, or I wouldn't be comin' home once a week with a fat chicken that I sneak into our chicken coop.

Pa never asks 'bout the chickens, an I wonder if he knows I'm sneakin' off at night stealin' 'em, or maybe he remembers how Mamaw talked 'bout when she was a kid, prayin' fer food an swearin' that it rained live fish one day. I wish it'd rain live fish one day 'round here. We's so poor that even the fishin' holes are empty. Them fish may be out of worms an bugs to eat. They just as poor as we are, I reckon.

I slip inside the coop, an the hens make a big ole ruckus when they see me. Pressin' my finger to my lips, I shush the old biddies, but they don't pay me no mind. They keep on a cluckin' an struttin' around an some of 'ems sittin' on their eggs. I'm wary of the ones sittin,' 'cause them's the ones that'll flog me the quickest, an I don't like no chicken pecks on my arms an legs. Then Ma will know I've been sneakin' out at night an stealin' them old biddies, an she'll tell Pa to use the strap on me.

My tail-end stings when I think 'bout that leather strap hangin' on the wall back home. That leather strap right smarts an I'll be damned if I git caught an let Pa whoop me with that piece o'leather tonight.

They's a big, ole, white hen stuttin' around, bobbin' an weavin'; an I git a big, ole grin on my face when I see them plump thighs. I crouch down, bendin' at the knees, an stalk forward. She's a cluckin' an carryin' on; runnin' around like a chicken with her head cut off, an I laugh at the thought 'cause that's what I aim to do, cut off her head an all.

She don't stand much of a chance after I jump on top of her. I am the town's best chicken snatcher, after all. I got her by her feet, an she's a flappin' them wings an carryin' on, makin' a big ole fuss. I hold her way-out from my body, so she don't peck me with that sharp beak, 'cause that smarts.

I clutch the chicken's feet in my one hand, an shut the coop door with the other. I'm thinkin' 'bout them feet, how chewy they are in my mouth once Ma git ahold of 'em an cooks 'em just right. I think 'bout deep fried, chicken skin, an my stomach is a-grumblin,' cause all I've had to eat lately is cornbread, molasses, an fatback, not that they's somethin' wrong with fatback, cause I love me some grease, 'specially when I sop it up with some good ole bread.

My mind's so busy conjurin' up thoughts of food that I don't realize my dress-tail's done snagged on an upturned root, not 'til I'm on my back starin' on up at the big ole moon, clutchin' a fat chicken out beside me. Groanin', I rise up from the ground an yank at my dress-tail, pullin' it from the root, an cursin' the ground below my breath.

I don't know why I'm a-cursin' it. Maybe fer bein' so fertile when the field on our farm ain't, an fer bein' so hard that my head feels like it's cracked in two. I'm so busy cursin' an spittin' an holdin' onto that chicken that I don't see the man 'til I'm turned 'round.

An ear-splittin' scream sounds through the night, an at first, I don't realize it's mine. The man cringes an I narrow my eyes at him; lurkin' out here in the middle of the night in an old cotton field wearin' nothin' but his drawers.

"Lord, have mercy," I holler, pointin' at the man's long johns. "You ain't got nothin' but your drawers on! What in tarnation are you doin' standin' in a cotton field in your drawers like an ole scarecrow?"

"What are you doing standing in my field holding one of my chickens?" he counters, lookin' right upset 'bout the whole ordeal.

"This ain't your field," I argue, 'cause Pa says that's what I do best. "This is Old Man Cullen's cotton field, an I reckon he's been dead fer goin' on two weeks now."

The tall feller steps forward an fer the first time I git a good glimpse of him under the pale moonlight. His hair's slicked back like he's been usin' pomade, an it's an odd color, even in the dark. It's darker than the sunset, an brighter than brownest soil.

"Lincoln wheat back!" I holler, pointin' at his head.

"Pardon?"

The kerosene lantern he's holdin' by his side casts dark shadows over his high cheek bones, makin' him look ghastly an gallant all at the same time.

"You hair's like a shiny, one-cent piece," I proclaim, grinnin' when he raises an eyebrow.

"You're an odd little girl," the man muses, one side of his lips drawin' up into a big ole grin.

"I ain't no lil girl, feller," I argue, tryin' to maintain the chicken that's still floppin' its wings around. "I'm eighteen-years old."

"Eighteen, huh?" the feller says, steppin' even closer, "Well, I'm twenty-six; older and wiser. You don't see me kidnapping innocent hens."

I take a step back 'cause you just don't never know a feller's intentions, 'specially one who's wanderin' out in the cotton fields at night wearin' nothin' but his drawers, an grinnin' like a possum. They ain't too much to grin 'bout these days, 'lessin' you got some fat chickens struttin' 'round, an maybe that's why the feller is so damn tickled.

"What's your name?" he questions, creepin' closer.

"What's yours?" I shoot back.

"Eddie," he smiles, an damn if he don't have the purdiest, whitest teeth. "Eddie Cullen."

"You kin to Old Man Cullen?"

I'm carryin' on casual conversation, backin' on up all the while. The feller is still edgin' forward, his smile falterin' slightly when I mention Old Man Cullen.

"He was my uncle," he replies, pausin' fer a bit as a look of trepidation crosses his handsome face.

"Where you from, feller?" I ask. "You've got a different sort of drawl 'bout you."

My voice sounds garbled an thick, while his sounds pure an fancy, remindin' me of Ma's glass bowls she keeps high on the shelf. Them bowls are purdy, an clear-green, just as clear an green as Mr. Cullen's eyes.

"Quit changing the subject," he responds, still smirkin' all big. "You were in the midst of stealing one of my best chickens. There has to be some sort of penalty that you must pay."

"Listen, mister," I tell him, waggin' my finger. "You can have your damned old chicken back. I wouldn't steal 'em if I knew someone was a-livin' here."

"I was thinking we could make some sort of trade," he offers with a shrug; that grin still on his face.

"What kind of trade?" I ask suspiciously, shakin' the damn chicken, 'cause she just won't shut up.

Mr. Cullen opens his mouth an begins to speak, but that hen is squawkin' so loud I can't think straight, let alone hear. I finally git enough of that old hen. I heave a heavy sigh, tuck the fightin' chicken under one arm, an wring its neck with my free hand. The chicken immediately becomes still, her lil feathered body goin' slack under my arm.

"Now, what was you sayin'?" I ask, droppin' the chicken on the ground beside me.

"Well, I, er, was willing to 'offer' a trade," he laughs, his eyes wide in amusement an surprise, "but now that you've murdered my prize hen in cold blood, I don't see any room for refusal on your part."

"What sort of a trade?"

"A chicken," he grins, pointin' to the dead bird then pointin' to his lips, "for a kiss."

"Ha!" I laugh, 'cause that's a damn funny thang to trade a chicken fer, plus no man's ever flat-out asked me fer a kiss. "You ain't gittin' no kiss from me!"

"But you took my poor chicken's life," he argues, dramatically clutchin' his chest with one hand, the flame from the lantern flickerin' in the other. "She never stood a chance."

This feller's funny, an I appreciate it, considerin' we's under hard times an all, but I don't know him from Adam, an I damn sure ain't fixin' to kiss him.

"Keep the chicken. I ain't kissin' you."

"I don't want the chicken. I want a kiss from your sassy, little mouth."

"Put the chicken in a pot. I don't know how to kiss."

"I'll teach you."

"No."

"Hmm. How about two chickens?"

Two chickens? Them words make me pause an rethank thangs fer a minute. One, tiny lil peck fer two chickens? How can I refuse?

"Alright, Cullen," I barter, leanin' back on my heels. "Two chickens fer one kiss, but it better be another fat, old biddy. I ain't kissin' you fer fun; that's fer sure."

"Deal," Mr. Cullen agrees, droppin' the lantern, the flame dancin' as it settles on the ground.

My Pa always says a true gentleman shakes hands to seal a deal. Mr. Cullen, bein' right fancy an all, offers his hand. I take his outstretched hand in mine, marvelin' slightly at the size of it, how large it is wrapped around mine, how long an elegant his slim fingers are. I don't marvel fer long, 'cause the next thang I know Mr. Cullen's pressin' me 'gainst his chest, tiltin' my chin back an all with one of them there purdy fingers.

I stare up at him with wide eyes, gazin' an gaspin' at this man. I ain't never been this close to a strange man 'fore, never been courted, an I sure ain't been properly kissed.

Mr. Cullen's body feels nice 'gainst mine. I find myself touchin' his chest like the Jezebel I've become. It's good an firm under my fingers, an I revel in the feelins' that I've never felt 'fore, the quiverin' in my belly, the strange tinglin' down further.

His eyes close, long thick lashes restin' over his cheeks as he bends down, an I close mine as well, gaspin' slightly when his warm lips brush 'gainst mine.

The breath comes out of my chest in a rush; mixed emotions floodin' my heart. The peck I imagined ain't no peck 'tall. No, siree, this feller presses those purdy lips right firmly 'gainst mine, an they start movin', those lips, an mine's a-movin' back. My hands slip from his chest as his slide around my waist, an I feel him all hard 'gainst my belly. It unsettles my stomach, the feelin' of this man, like a brush fire's been kindled in my soul.

My cheeks burn as he slips his tongue into my mouth, the feelin' new an unexpected, although not unwanted. No, it's not unwanted 'tall, these feelins' he's stirrin' up inside of me. I hope I'm doin' it right, slippin' my tongue in his mouth as well, lavishin' the arousal in the pit of my belly as our tongues meet one another. Our bated breaths are fillin' the air along with those toad frogs an crickets an all.

Mr. Cullen's kiss tastes like whiskey, an I don't want it to end but it does. I break the kiss first, scared he'll take the life right out of me directly, 'cause I ain't never felt this way 'fore. It ain't like me to be standin' under the big, ole fat moon kissin' some strange feller, my heart putterin' so loud I swear he can hear it. He looks down at me like he's witnessin' the sweet Lord's return to the dear earth, an it frightens me the way this man is uprootin' my long a-waitin' heart.

"You got your kiss, feller," I tell him, wipin' my mouth with the back of my hand. "Now git me my chicken."

The feller nods, pickin' up his lantern an crossin' the field. I foller him, leavin' the dead chicken where she lies, hopin' an old coyote don't snatch her up 'fer I git back.

Cullen disappears inside the coop an returns with 'nother fat hen. I grin at him, unable to hide the smile that stretches across my face, an he pauses, lookin' at me all funny again, makin' my smile waver as he hands me the yard-bird.

"You have sad eyes, but an astonishingly, beautiful smile."

My smile completely fades at his words; the voice soundin' far away an thoughtful an all. I know I'll dream 'bout that voice, an 'bout this man an how he felt pressed up 'gainst me in the moonlight. I shake my head an turn around, stumblin' across the field an snatchin' up the dead bird with my free hand.

"Where do you live, bird thief?" he questions, an he's right behind me, on my heels, as I'm quick scootin' down the rows of cotton.

"You need to cultivate this field here," I tell him, ignorin' his question. "Cotton shoulda been planted by now."

"The workers left," he explains, shufflin' up beside me as the tree line grows nearer. "After my uncle passed away they abandoned their stations. I'm assuming they thought there wouldn't be any further pay. I'm surprised nothing was stolen in their departure."

"We ain't all thieves down here," I grumble, 'cause I'm guilty of the sin myself an feelin' a might defensive on the subject.

"Just you, huh?" he asks, an the damn fool is grinnin' at me, his teeth all shiny an purdy.

"Listen, mister," I sigh, stoppin' my scootin' to look him in the eye. "I gave you a kiss like you asked fer. You gave me my chickens. I reckon we's through doin' business. Let's part ways cordially."

The feller looks downright chastised by my words, standin' there, still as the dead, callin' out fer my name, but I say nothin'. He can call me 'bird thief' fer all I care.

I take them two yard-birds with me, one dead as a doornail an one squawkin' an carryin' on. I step from the field an into the woods, wonderin' if I'll ever see the man ever again, an secretly hopin' to the good Lord that I do. I doubt I will though. Nothin' good stays around here fer long. Nothin' good 'tall.


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