Canaan Creek, 1985
From the back porch, Bonnie watched Thora Dean in the flowery bramble behind the house. In a wide straw hat, Thora plucked blackberries, each the size of a silver dollar, and set them in her basket. Over the years, the bramble had become one of Thora's favorite places. At the height of the season, the area was peaceful, fragrant, and the prickly shrubs that extended well into the woods were overcome with plump, dark berries.
"Thora," Bonnie called. "I'm fixin' to set breakfast on the table."
"I'll be along," she yelled back.
Bonnie could smell the impending rain. Like most quick showers during a South Carolina summer, the coming storm might be just enough to cool the day off. Bonnie entered the house and the screen door slapped shut behind her. She used a moist paper towel, tucked in the pocket of her housedress, to dab beads of sweat from her face. Sometimes she couldn't tell if it was the actual heat that made her stop and take a breath, or her own "private summer." Perhaps a bit of both. She lifted a platter of pancakes from the stove and lay it on the table, set for two. Then Bonnie glanced at the wall clock above the sink. She decided to place an extra plate and coffee cup. Most mornings, Tally, the mailman, stopped in for a quick cup before he ended his run.
"Thora," Bonnie yelled out of the screen door.
"Damn it to hell," Thora hollered as she made her way across the back lawn. "I say I'm on my way, then I'm on my way!" She hooked the basket of berries on her forearm and took the porch steps one at a time. Her large chest, once the highlight of a voluptuous body, now seemed to drag her down, and when she entered the kitchen, she was slightly winded.
"You made the pancakes already?" she asked.
"That's what I been tryin' to say," Bonnie replied. "I told you that."
"I told you so, I told you so! Girl, you startin' to sound like an old woman."
"That's 'cause I am
an old woman . . . and I hate to tell you, dear . . ." Bonnie let the rest of her sentence dangle conspicuously in the air.
Thora hung her hat on the hook beside the door. A thin, black ponytail trailed down her back and a few silvery hairs sprung from her temples. Thora's dark face was misted with sweat but her lipstick remained perfect. Even working in the bramble on a hot summer morning, Thora Dean refused to leave the house without at least applying a subtle coat of Positively Plum.
Thora quickly rinsed the berries in a colander, then dried her purple-stained hands on the dish towel. The two women sat, clasped hands across the table and bowed their heads while Thora said grace. Her mumbled devotion sounded like a familiar song, ending with ". . . our dear Father, amen."
"Wildflowers 'bout to take over the bushes out there," Thora said, pulling two pancakes onto her plate.
"I can think of worser things growing."
Thora stirred a bit of cream into her coffee. "Weeds, weeds, and mo' weeds," she grumbled. "Them damn Johnny Jump-ups fin to choke the life outta the blackberry roots."
"Why you so contrary this mo'nin'? You up again last night?"
Thora nodded. "Horace come to me."
Bonnie stopped pouring maple syrup and looked at her old friend.
"Somewhere 'round two a.m. there he was a-standing in the bathroom door. Standing there jes' like any other mo'nin'. He was holdin' one them big ole pipe wrenches and wearin' his smock like he was headin' fo' a job. All he said this time was, 'Need to lay that copper pipin', honey. Can't skimp on this one.' Then he left."
Bonnie looked at Thora curiously. "What in the world that mean?"
Bonnie said, "He was a lot less talkative in this dream."
"Wadn't no damn dream, and you know it."
Bonnie tossed her hand. "You and all that foolishness. All I need right now is to start believin' in haints and things."
They heard a truck pull up outside, then a door slammed shut. Thora's eyes shot up to the wall clock, then she dabbed her mouth with a paper napkin. "Tally late again this mo'nin'," she said.
"Only twenty minutes."
"How often do we git our mail late?" Bonnie always defended Tally when he was running behind on his deliveries. "Fo' fact, I cain't remember the man takin' mo' than a day two off in the six years he been deliverin' our mail."
"Five years," Thora corrected. "And Tally took plenty a days off. We jes' ain't got our mail 'til he come back."
"Well, he do alright fo' me."
Blackberry Corner was the last stop on his route and she recognized that Tally was one of only two mail carriers for the Canaan Creek Post Office, so he was responsible for seven miles' worth of mail deliveries every day. Sometimes when Bucky Elworth's arthritis acted up, Tally would take on the additional shift and deliver to the entire tri-county area of Pertwell, Manstone and Canaan Creek, affectionately called the "Three Sisters."
The gate squeaked open in the front yard.
"Hey there, Tally," Thora called out. "Hope you got my check."
"And my Spiegel catalogue," Bonnie put in.
"Seem like I had every catalogue the Lord ever made in my bag today." Tally's sack brushed the foyer walls. He slid it off his thick shoulder and set it by the kitchen door, then placed a bunch of letters into Thora's waiting hands. "It's still summer," he carped, "and here I got all these dern fall catalogues."
In the years that Tally had worked this route, the color of his uniform had changed from navy to light blue to khaki. His hat, once a boller, was now a stiff-rimmed cap. But one thing that never changed was that his uniform had always been too tight, causing his stomach to spill over his belt.
"Set on down and ha' yo'self some breakfast," Bonnie said.
"You know I ain't got no time to sit," Tally said, even as he shifted a couple of pancakes from the platter onto his waiting plate and eased himself into the chair across from Thora. "I'm doin' the Manstone run after this."
"Still takin' on extra shifts?" Bonnie asked.
"Sockin' my pennies away," he said. "Got my eye on a lil' piece a land out there in Taliliga."
"Taliliga," Bonnie said with surprise. She set a cup of hot coffee in front of him.
"Fo'teen acres," Tally added. "Pretty land. And cheap as sin."
" 'Course it's cheap," Thora put in. "Ain't nothin' in Taliliga but sticks and mosquitoes . . . and some of the countriest folk God ever made."
"Thora," Bonnie scolded.
"She ain't lyin', Bonnie," Tally said. "But, I'm sho' Columbus men said the same thing when they landed in the New World."
"You mean befo' they commenced to whuppin' on them po' Indians," Thora argued.
"Got to beat some eggs in order to make an omelet," he shot back.
Tally and Thora were always locking horns. And as much as Thora complained about the man, Bonnie was beginning to think that their wrangling was the highlight of Thora's day.
"So you plan on movin' into this new house by yo'self," Thora asked.
"Lessen you got some ideas," Tally said.
As usual, Thora ignored his foolery. She returned to sorting the mail and finally separated a mustard-colored, government-sealed envelope from the rest of the pack. Beneath it was a small white envelope with a handwritten address.
"My mama always said," Tally went on, "that it's bad luck fo' a single man to move into a house by hisself. Say the house swallow 'im up. Say it turn 'im into a man no woman can ever live wit'."
"Why you doin' it, then?" Thora asked.
" 'Cause Mama's dead and I'm tired of livin' at Coreen's place. A man of fifty-such-in-such shouldn't be livin' at no roomin' house."
"You mean sixty-such-in-such," Thora mumbled. She took a pair of gold-framed glasses from her pocket and slipped them on, then tried to make out the return address on the back of the envelope.
"What you got there?" Bonnie asked.
"Just say, 'Bonnie Wilder, Canaan Creek, South Carolina
"Meant to mention that one, Bonnie," Tally said. "At the station, we calls it a Christmas letter. Like them letters addressed to 'Santa Claus, North Pole
Thora handed Bonnie the envelope and her glasses. She opened the seal and unfolded a letter written on plain white paper. Her eyes skimmed it quickly, a smile spreading across her face. "It's from one of our children."
"Gal or boy?" Thora asked.
"Gal named Augusta Randall," Bonnie answered. "She a grown woman now. They's all
"If that don't make me feel old," Thora mumbled.
Tally refilled his coffee cup at the stove. "Them kids must live all over the place."
"One boy," Bonnie started, "or should I say man
, live right here in the Three Sisters. Work as a porter for the Penn-Eastern Railroad. Outta the blue, he come by one day jes' to say hello."
"And remember the letter we got from that gal live all the way in Barcelona, Spain," Thora said proudly. "Yep, she some kinda translator."
"Must be good to know when the babies grow up and do well," Tally said. "Lotta folk woulda look the other way. Woulda took them babies right on over to the county home."
"I don't know," Bonnie said modestly.
"Heroes," Tally insisted, "all two of you!"
"A few mo' than two," Thora put in.
"And I wouldn't call us no heroes," Bonnie said.
"Bonnie's right," Thora said. " 'Cause anybody with the love of Jesus woulda done the same damn thing!"
Tally nodded. "So why'd y'all stop?"
Thora sipped her coffee. Bonnie looked over the top of her glasses. "There's a time fo' things to happen," she said thoughtfully, "and a time fo' things to end."
"What this Augusta Randall have to say?" Thora asked, trying to change the subject.
" 'Dear Miss Wilder
,' " she read, " 'I hope this letter finds you well and in God's favor
. . .' "
"Mean she hope you still alive," Thora said.
Bonnie went on reading. " 'You don't know me, as I've spent most of my life in New Jersey, but I was born in the Three Sisters. My family name was Porter
.' Augusta Porter," Bonnie said. "Y'all recollect any folks named Porter?"
"Maisy Porter," Thora answered. "Lived out by the Main Street. But she was a white woman."
" 'My mama's name was Evelyn and my daddy was called Dorsey. He died when I was just four and that's when Mama and I moved to New Jersey. I work as a schoolteacher now--I teach third grade in a town called Montclair
.' Ain't that nice," Bonnie said. " 'My husband, Joseph, is also a teacher at a college here, and we're about to have our first child
.' Lovely," Bonnie whispered almost to herself. " 'I wanted to thank you, Miss Bonnie. I've had a wonderful life and I know that it was you and the other ladies who started me on my way
"Heros," Tally insisted. "No, no, sh
"You jes' crazy, Tally." Bonnie chuckled. Then she went on reading. " 'The second reason I'm writing is a bit more complicated
"Ain't it always," Tally grunted.
" 'My mama, Evelyn, went to her glory just a year ago. I can't tell you how painful her passing was for me. Now that she's gone, and now that I'm about to be a mama myself, I'm hoping to find out who my real mother is.
"Lot of folks doin' that now," Tally said, wiping his mouth. "I see on that Geraldo
show where all these people, young and old, is runnin' 'round tryin' to find out who they is and where they come from."
" 'I miscarried a child two years ago and the doctor says that I should stay off my feet, so I've had a lot of time to sit and wonder. I hope you don't mind if I call you . . . maybe you can tell me what you remember
.' Lord, I cain't recall what my name is sometimes," Bonnie said. "And ne'er a one of us ever kept no records."
"Maybe this gal oughta go on that Geraldo
show," Tally joked. Thora rolled her eyes. "Geraldo don't play! He find folks whether they wanna be found or not!" Tally finished his coffee in one gulp. "Bonnie," he said, rising, "breakfast was delicious . . . as usual. Hate to eat and run . . ."
"Run?" Thora said. "All them pancakes you scoffed down, man, you be lucky if you can walk."
"Always a pleasure to see you too, Thora Dean," Tally said, lifting his sack. At the kitchen door, he turned back. "Say there, Thora . . ." he began.
"Umm-hmm," she replied without looking up from a Rich's catalogue.
"I hear-tell you like them picture shows . . ."
"I do," she replied.
Tally's sack knocked against the coatrack. "They's got a new one there at the Regal," he said. "The Color Purple
He thought a second. "In Manstone, at the Grove is that new Rocky
. . . Rocky number fo' . . . or maybe that's number five . . ."
"Seen it," she said. "And before you go on," she added, "I done seen every movie playin' in all the Three Sisters."
He rubbed the new growth on his chin. "Didn't know you had such an active social life," he said. "Well . . . y'all have a good day, then."
"You too, Tally." Bonnie shot Thora a threatening look, then she set Augusta's letter on the table and followed him out to the porch.
"She a hard nut to crack," Tally said.
"The hardest," Bonnie agreed. "But her shell ain't made a steel."
He nodded. "Hope that Augusta gal find her way."
"I'm sho' she will. Young people get somethin' in they head," Bonnie said, "and most times it's gone after a week or two."
"You right 'bout that," he replied. "Ain't like us old folks. Get somethin' in our head, we see it through. Yep, we see it through, all right."
Tally strode down the steps toward his truck.
"Got some mint jelly settin'," Bonnie called. "Come on by and pick up a couple a jars."
"I'll sho'ly do that. Lamb chops ain't the same wit'out yo' mint jelly."
Bonnie waited on the porch until she saw him drive through the gate. When she returned to the table, Thora was skimming Augusta's letter.
"Why you chop that man off at the knees like that?" Bonnie chided.
"I'm 'bout as interested in seein' Tally Benford as I am in gettin' a new crown on my tooth."
Excerpted from The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner by Andrea Smith. Copyright © 2006 by Andrea Smith. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.