BITTERSWEET CREEK 1833
JAKE WAS KNOWN as the dowser. With a forked branch, he’d made his way from the Arkansas Territory to Missouri, stopping at farms to find water for new wells. His plan was to raise enough money so he could do what he wanted and never pick up the branch again. But the dowsing was a gift. And a gift might be abandoned, but it will always be there, waiting to be claimed.
One farmer didn’t have money, so he paid Jake by giving him a parcel of land with a cabin. Since winter was settling in, Jake decided to stay there until spring, when he’d take up trapping. His cabin sat a hundred steps from Bittersweet Creek and about a mile, as the eagle flew, from the Hurd place. When their oldest daughter, Delilah, showed up at his door, begging for a place to stay, he’d not been with a woman in a long time. Without thinking, he said, “Well, I reckon I could marry you.”
A few months later, Jake went west to trap. He left each fall and returned in the summer after the trappers’ rendezvous. The life suited them. Delilah had a safe haven from her pa’s temper, and Jake had someone to come home to. And most satisfying to them both were the months of solitude that they craved.
DELILAH STROLLED through the woods, thinking about how that day felt especially hot. Jake would be making his way from Green Valley, and when he arrived he’d expect a clean house and a hot meal. She hurried home to prepare for him.
Anticipating Jake’s arrival always brought on dread and excitement. Every year, Jake traded for supplies with an artist who painted the mountain man’s way of life. Delilah looked forward to getting new paints, brushes, and paper. But she also loved her time alone in the woods. And the birds. She loved the birds.
Delilah treasured walking among the pines and cypress trees. She’d grown to appreciate the smell of her own sweat and the way it mixed with the musky smells of the earth. Now she’d have to wash all that away. Jake’s return meant she’d have to bathe more often, keep house, and cook meals.
From him, she’d learned how appearances deceived. Her pa, Eb, was a small man who looked as gentle as a cat, while Jake was stocky, barrel-chested, and furry like a bear. He could talk until the sun fell out of the sky, but Jake didn’t have a temper. To Delilah, listening to Jake drone on and on about his trappings was a good trade-off.
A FEW DAYS later, Jake arrived. He grabbed hold of Delilah and pressed his lips against hers. When it seemed he’d never let go, she wiggled free and grabbed the leather satchel in search of the new paints and brushes. She moved so quickly that the bag dropped with a thump to the floor, causing a glass to crack. Staring down at it, she could clearly see her own reflection. “What’s that there?”
Jake sighed and collapsed upon a chair. “A mirr-o. Was one.”
She took off his boots and fed him a bowl of vegetable and bacon soup. Jake gulped down the broth in less time than it took to sneeze. Then he fell asleep.
Delilah carefully set the hand mirror on the table next to her tablet and stared into it. The crack ran the entire length of the mirror, but what she saw fascinated her. She touched her red hair that frizzed like the threads on a ball of wool. When Delilah was a young girl, her ma braided it in a long pigtail and smoothed the wild hairs with lard. Delilah’s finger stroked the lines of her nose and her wide chin. She smiled, not just because she was amused, but because she wanted to see what would happen to her face. She had a space next to her black tooth. She’d lost the tooth when Eb punched her for not milking the cow a few years back. Delilah was amazed that a piece of glass could reveal the history of her life. A fire burned inside her, and she began to draw.
IN THE MIDDLE of the night, Delilah heard Jake ease out of bed and pull on his boots. She knew what was next. He did it every summer when he returned. And she knew for sure he thought she didn’t know. Last fall, she’d lifted the rock under the oak tree, hunting crickets for fish bait. She discovered the muslin sack buried in the ground under the rock. When she saw the money inside, she fell back on the ground and laughed. Jake didn’t know her at all. Money didn’t mean a thing in the world to Delilah.
For three months, Delilah cooked and cleaned for Jake, all the while gazing outside the window, praying for cool weather to come. Several weeks before the leaves turned crimson and orange, Jake packed up his mule and headed toward the mountains.
A month later, a sour taste formed in Delilah’s mouth and she vomited her breakfast of bread and blackberry jam. Immediately she felt better, but the next morning, the sickness returned. Two months later, her belly began to round out like a melon. She cursed Jake’s name to the trees, even threatening to kill him.
Then one November night, as if the heavens had heard her cries, light poured through the cabin window, awakening Delilah from her sleep. She hurried to the porch and discovered streaks of light streaming across the sky. All the stars are falling, thought Delilah. But instead of being afraid, she settled on the top step and watched. There were thousands, too many to count, and so she didn’t even try. She just waited and watched. The light was so bright she could clearly see a doe and her young buck in the thick of the woods. The heavens had given her a gift. And hours later, when the shower of light ended, she felt sad.
The next day, Delilah awoke craving bread. Before sunset, she’d baked twelve loaves and eaten three. She tore the other loaves in tiny pieces and scattered them on the porch. In the morning, the birds had discovered her offering. She pushed the table next to the window and began to paint.
By the time winter arrived, Delilah’s resentment had disappeared and a softness for the life inside her was growing. Though at times she believed they were in conflict with each other. When Delilah curled up in bed to sleep, the baby kicked, hard, until she got up and walked the floor. At which time the baby became still. Whenever Delilah settled at the table to draw, the baby caused a burning inside her gut that made her drop the pencil and give up for the day.
She began to dream the same vision each night. In her dreams, she heard a baby cry. Then she saw herself standing by a long winding river. A baby floated by, his little arms stretching toward her. But try as she did, she could not reach him. Downriver, a woman picked up the baby and handed him to another woman. That woman handed him to yet another. And so it went, the baby being passed down through a chain of women along the river. This dream occurred so often, Delilah started to think of it as a premonition. No matter what, she believed her child was destined for trials and tribulations. He would struggle. Delilah was certain of it.
Spring arrived, and Delilah spotted new nests every day. She discovered them in tree branches and corners under the porch cover. She even found one in the hole of the barn wall. The birds crafted their nests from bits of twigs, dead grass, corn husks, and Delilah’s hair. She loved seeing her red strands woven in with all the other textures. She always believed she was a part of nature. This was proof of it.
In May, the baby birds began their flight lessons, and a feeling came over Delilah that she, too, was about to spread her wings and take off. She couldn’t explain it, but the feeling became stronger each day.
One afternoon, as she walked through the woods, an old black bird called out to her. A-mos, it said. A-mos, a-mos. The wind began to howl, but she could still hear the bird’s chant. A-mos, a-mos, a-mos.
When it was time for her baby, she had no choice but to fetch her ma. She set out for their cabin, walking the mile through the dense woods. Even though it was May, the mornings remained cold. And since there was no worn path, Delilah followed the smell of smoke rising from her parents’ chimney. The pains in her womb kept her from noticing the cloud of birds flying above the treetops that towered over her head.
As she’d predicted, her brother Silas was hoeing the garden with Eb.
“I heard you coming the whole way,” Eb said. “I could hear those dad-gum birds. They’s always following you.”
Eb feared birds ever since one swept down and pecked him in the nose. The incident happened three years ago after he’d taken a strike at Delilah. That was when she took off for Jake’s cabin.
A huge flock of crows landed in the garden. Silas removed his hat and waved it overhead as he ran about trying to scare them away. His long thin limbs caused him to resemble a scarecrow that suddenly came to life. The birds flew away from Silas’s reach, circled the garden, then returned.
“Shoo! Shoo!” Silas hollered as he flapped his hat, turning to his right, then his left. He started to spin.
If she’d not been in pain, Delilah would have laughed.
Eb narrowed his eyes at Delilah’s stomach. “Looks like you got yourself in a heap of mess, gal.”
“I had me a man to help.”
Wiping his forehead with his sleeve, he said, “I can see that.”
“Jake’s my husband.”
“I reckon you want your ma. Lolly’s in the house.” He turned away from her and joined Silas in his crusade, stomping his feet at a circle of crows.
Delilah felt the air close up around her. Just returning there had brought back all the bad thoughts. Then Daisy, her seven-year-old sister, ran over and hugged her legs. The tiny girl stared up at Delilah’s big stomach and said, “You’re as fat as an old grizzly bear.”
Delilah stroked her sister’s golden red hair. “And you’re as tiny as a little squirrel.”
Her other siblings acted as if she were a stranger, cowering behind the ladder that led up to the loft. That bothered her most, more than seeing her pa. They’ve been poisoned against me, she thought. Or maybe they resented her for leaving because Eb had gone to hitting one of them. Her eyes searched each of their faces and arms for bruises, lingering longest on Daisy’s. Relieved to discover none, Delilah figured she was probably the lone thorn in her pa’s side.
Delilah wanted to return to her cabin for the baby to be born, but Lolly insisted on finishing Eb’s dinner first. The pains came quicker, and Delilah paced on the front porch until Lolly finally joined her. They were making their way through the woods, heading back to the cabin, when Delilah’s water broke. Before the sun was down, she was crying out for Jake.
The birds’ chatter grew so loud that Lolly hollered, “Them birds are driving me crazy!”
The labor was long and hard, which puzzled Lolly since she’d merely grunted and pushed one time to bring each of her babies into the world. And when Lolly saw more blood coming from Delilah than she’d ever seen with all her own births put together, she suspected the outcome wouldn’t be good.
Delilah’s screams turned to groans, and her groans became whimpers.
Lolly went outside and found a stick, then gave it to Delilah. “Here, bite down on this.”
Delilah yanked it from her mouth and slung it across the room. “It tastes like mud.”
When the baby finally came, he was red as a ripe raspberry. Wails escaped from his wide mouth as he shook his tiny fists in the air.
Chuckling, Lolly held him up. “This boy is mad.” She placed him next to Delilah’s breast to suckle. “He’s a strong one. What you reckon you’ll call him?”
Delilah’s lips brushed the light fuzz on his head, and she closed her eyes. Her words came out soft. “Amos is a good name.”
“Amos?” Lolly mused. “Where in tarnation did you get that from?”
Delilah didn’t answer. She just said, “Tell Jake I done my best. Don’t let my baby forget me.”
With that, she took her last breath. The cabin and the world outside the window grew silent. And every bird at Bittersweet Creek flew away.
Excerpted from The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt.
Copyright 2010 by Kimberly Willis Holt.
Published in First edition—2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.