A red-shouldered hawk, tiny mouse in her talons, swooped in front of the 2007 Outback rolling along the wet country road. She landed in an old cherry tree covered in pink blossoms, which fluttered to the ground from the hawk’s light impact.
“Will you look at that?” Miranda Hogendobber exclaimed from behind the Outback’s wheel, as she drove to the garden center over in Waynesboro.
“Raptors fascinate me, but they scare me, too,” Harry Haristeen remarked. “Poor little mouse.”
“There is that.” Miranda slowed for a sharp curve.
Central Virginia, celebrating high spring, was also digging out from torrential rains over the weekend.
Harry, forty and fit, and Miranda, late sixties and not advertising, had worked together for years at the old Crozet post office.
When Miranda’s husband, George, died, Harry, fresh from Smith College, took his position as head of the P.O., never thinking the job would last nearly two decades. Miranda, despite her loss, showed up every day to help orient the young woman whom she’d known as a baby. Harry’s youth raised Miranda’s spirits. In mourning, it’s especially good to have a task. Over the years they became extremely close, almost a mother–daughter bond. Harry’s mother had died when Harry was in her early twenties.
Noticing fields filled with the debris of the now-subsiding waters, Harry observed, “What a mess. Can’t turn out stock in that. You just don’t know what else is wrapped up in all those branches and twigs.”
“Hey, there’s a plastic chair. Might look good in your yard.” Miranda smiled.
“Well,” Harry drawled the word out, like the native Southerner she was.
The younger woman, generous with her time and happy to feed anyone, could be tight with the buck. Miranda couldn’t resist teasing Harry about a free if ugly chair.
“This is sure better than my 1961 Falcon,” the older woman said. “Initially I resisted the Outback’s fancy radio. I mean, this is a used car and had the Sirius capabilities, but I didn’t want to pay extra. How did I live without it?” Miranda mused, now a Subaru convert.
“Regular cars can now do more than Mercedes or even Rolls from ten years ago. That’s what amazes me: the speed with which the technological developments of those high-end cars became commonplace in much-lower-priced vehicles. But I still love my old 1978 F-150 and you still drive your old Falcon. Hey, want me to wax it?”
“Would you? What a lovely offer.”
“You know how crazy I get with anything with an engine in it. I’ll clean the tires, refresh your dash. I’m a one-woman detailing operation.”
Her eyebrows knitting together, Miranda said, “Uh-oh.”
An odd pop, then a lurch, made holding the Outback on theroad difficult.
“Put on your flashers and brake.”
They slid toward a narrow drainage ditch, and the airbags billowed up inside as the wheel dipped in the ditch. Miranda couldn’t see.
If there was enough room, narrow drainage ditches, about one to two feet deep, paralleled the country roads. Occasionally, small culverts passed the runoff under farm driveways or sharp curves, moving the water, which could rise very quickly, away from the roads.
Even without vision, Miranda was not one to panic. She braked smoothly, and the right side of the car dropped into the ditch. The car rocked a little.
Asleep on the backseat, Harry’s two cats and dog rolled off.
“Hey!” Pewter, the rotund gray cat, howled.
The tiger cat, Mrs. Murphy, and the corgi, Tee Tucker, scrambled back up on the seat.
“No other cars,” the dog noted.
The tiger cat looked around. “Right.”
“I was asleep.” Pewter hauled herself up to sit next to her friends.
“We all were,” Mrs. Murphy drily noted.
“Well—I was more asleep.”
Harry, already outside, having punctured the air bag with the penknife she always carried in her hip pocket, crouched down to look at the undercarriage. Then she walked to the right front side of the car, front end inthe ditch.
“See anything?” As best she could, Miranda rolled up her air bag, which Harry had also punctured.
Harry called back, “Your right tire is cracked; the rubber’s flat, too. Do you have Triple A?”
“I do.” Miranda slid out as Harry helped her. “But I’m going to call Safe and Sound instead.”
Safe & Sound, founded and run by Alphonse “Latigo” Bly, was headquartered in Charlottesville. Specializing in auto insurance, the company covered the mid-Atlantic and coastal South. Many business people believed Safe & Sound would go national, sooner or later.
As Miranda called, Harry opened the back door of the Outback.
“Does anyone need to go potsie?”
“Must she put it that way?” Pewter grumbled. “And I am not about to get my paws wet.”
“We’re okay.” The corgi answered for the rest of the animals. Not seeing one of her best friends budge, Harry closed the door to the rear, then did her best to fold her air bag back into the dash.
Miranda was already on the phone with Safe & Sound, spilling out details, perhaps too many.
With difficulty, Harry opened the glove compartment, pulling out the manual.
Having concluded her phone conversation, Miranda informed Harry, “Someone will be here in twenty minutes. Says don’t call Triple A. He takes care of this stuff all the time.”
“Always best to do business with friends,” Harry observed. “When you try to save money, you usually waste time or spend even more money. Safe and Sound is local.”
Miranda sighed. “The older I get, the more I realize time is more precious than money.”
Harry, flipping through the manual, stopped at a schematic drawing of the auto frame. “You’re not old. Anyone who sings in the choir, gardens like you do, and is a member of every ‘do-good’ group in the state of Virginia isn’t old.” Changing the subject—a habit with dear friends—Harry declared, “Whatever happened, it wasn’t the engine. It may be a defective wheel, but there was that odd pop sound.”
“Yes. I couldn’t steer after that.”
“Weird.” Harry glanced back at the manual. “Subaru makes great cars for the money.” A fresh breeze brought the aroma of blossoms, flowers, and hay coming up, filling her nostrils.
“I’ll be curious to find out what happened. How lucky we were that the car swerved to the right, not the left into oncoming traffic. Better yet, there wasn’t any traffic.” Miranda exhaled.
“Monday afternoon. Everyone’s at work or in the fields. Herb’s truck is in the shop, too, after his collision last week,” Harry said, thinking of the minister at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, the Very Reverend Herbert Jones. “Things go in threes. Maybe I’m next.”
“I don’t know what happened, but I bet that will cost Herb an arm and a leg. Truck’s still at ReNu,” Miranda said, naming the garage favored by the insurance company. “He was driving his Chevy truck. His ‘bigfib’ truck.”
They laughed, because the Chevy, used for fishing and filled with tackle, was also filled with fish stories. Oh, how Herb could wax poetic on the one that got away! He was also all too happy to show what he had actually snagged, though the cats generally proved more interested in the display than did the humans.
“If you’re going to be stuck on the side of the road, best it happens on a beautiful spring day.” Harry smiled. “We were lucky. Unlike Tara Meola.”
Harry shuddered at the thought of the poor young woman killed last week in the hard rains when a deer smashed into her vehicle.
“True.” Miranda nodded.
“You just never know,” Harry sighed.
After a bitterly cold winter, spring had stayed cool until late April. It was now late May. Nights in the mid-forties or mid-fifties promised days in the sixties. Late-blooming dogwoods dotted the forests and manicured lawns. Over pergolas, the wisteria hung pendulous with lavender or white blossoms. The roses threatened to riot.
Harry walked through her tended acres. The farm maintained a healthy balance of crops, hay, and woodlands. Mrs. Murphy, Tucker, and Pewter followed, taking numerous side trips to investigate rabbit warrens and fox dens. The butterflies danced together, swirling, fluttering their beautiful veined wings.
Eying them deviously, Pewter crouched down.
“They see you,” Tucker said.
Ignoring the ever-practical dog, Pewter wiggled her gray butt, then leapt upward.
Without breaking rhythm, the butterflies flew away.
“Almost had ’em.”
“Dream on,” the corgi teased.
Mrs. Murphy at her heels, Harry turned. “Come on, you two.”
“She’s always giving orders,” Pewter grumbled.
“True,” the handsome dog agreed. “And she also always feeds us on time.”
Considering this, the fat cat trotted toward Harry, who was now leaning over to inspect the tops of sunflower plants just breaking the surface.
“With a little luck, I’m going to have a good year.”Harry smiled, then moved on to her quarter acre of Petit Manseng grapes.
Dr. Thomas Walker, Thomas Jefferson’s guardian after Peter Jefferson died, tried to grow grapes. Jefferson did, too. The types they wished to grow didn’t flourish. With the passing centuries, viniculture advanced, thanks to people on both sides of the Atlantic. The wine industry now poured millions upon millions into the area’s coffers, a boon to growers and a boon to Virginia.
The horse business alone contributed $1.2 billion to the state economy. Not that any horse wishes to be compared to a grape.
Shortro, a very athletic Saddlebred, and Tomahawk, an old Thoroughbred, hung their heads over their paddock fence.
“This will be the first year she can sell her grapes, ”Tomahawk noted. “Remember, she had to let the first year’s stay on the vine.”
“Even the broodmares know that.” Shortro laughed.“Harry’s obsessed with her grapes and her sunflowers. She’s just sure both will bring her money.”
In the adjoining paddock, one of the broodmares heard Shortro’s comment. “I resent that.”
“Ah, Gigi”—Shortro called the Thoroughbred by her barn name—“I didn’t mean anything by it. You girls are all wrapped up in your foals.”
Gigi tossed her dark bay head. “If she makes money, she over seeds the pastures in alfalfa. We all want Harry to succeed.”
The other broodmares nodded in agreement. Their foals, the youngest only a month old, hung by their sides.
Blissfully unaware that she was the topic of conversation, Harry chatted with her house animals. “I can put up scare crows and big plastic owls, but, you know, gang, sooner or later the birds figure that out, so I mustn’t do that too soon. I’ll wait until the grapes appear—tiny—on the vine, then I’ll put that stuff up.” She shook her head in exasperation. “Tell you what, birds and deer can wipe you out.”
“I can take care of the deer.” Tucker puffed out her broad chest.
“They’re nothing more than big rats.” Pewter was never one to keep her opinions to herself.
“Oh, but they’re so beautiful.” Mrs. Murphy loved watching herds of deer, with fawns still dappled, as they crossed the pastures and meadows before melting back into the woods.
The 1812 Overture began to play. Harry fished her cellphone out of her jeans’ hip pocket.
Her husband’s deep voice answered, “Good greeting.”
“What do you want?” She laughed.
“You and only you.”
Pewter could hear Fair’s voice, as could the other two animals, their senses much sharper than a human’s.
“Oh, Pewter, you’re such a spoilsport.” Tucker wagged hernon existent tail.
“Heard anything from Miranda?” Fair asked.
“No. Latigo Bly picked us up himself. Drove her home, then me. He said not to worry. The company would take care of everything. The car was hauled to ReNu, where there’s a backlog. Latigo said they’ve been overwhelmed with claims. There were quite a few accidents during all that rain.”
“Never thought of that.”
“Fair, we aren’t in the insurance business.” She laughed.
Fair believed that if you did business with friends, you had the advantage of speaking with someone whose native language was English.Although growing fast, Safe & Sound still seemed like a local outfit toHarry’s husband. Fair got his insurance from Hanckle Citizens, as did Harry.Both their parents had used the company and been well served. “We’ll hear aboutit tomorrow. Herb sure had a tussle when he had his little accident. He couldonly use ReNu, when he actually wanted to use Tom Harvey’s garage. He told meSafe and Sound insisted on ReNu, since the repairs are cheaper. That was theonly time I heard our Very Reverend Jones cuss a blue streak.”
Harry smiled. “I’d pay to hear that.”
“Called to tell you that I ran into BoomBoom”—Fair nameda childhood friend of theirs—“and she told me to be sure to tell you if youintend to sell your sunflower seeds this fall, you ought to get down to thehealth-food store right away. Yancy Hampton is buying now.”
“Yancy is what? Why on earth now? The crop’s not nearlyready.”
“She didn’t say. Oops, call on the other line, and itlooks like Big Mim. See you tonight, darlin’.”
Harry hung up with the thought that he’d be late forsupper, as one of Big Mim’s best mares suffered from lactating problems and thefoal needed that milk. If the mare couldn’t produce, Fair would need to find asurrogate. Since the stud fee had been $75,000 for this particular breeding andthe foal was correct, it was imperative to keep the little guy healthy as wellas get Mama back right.
Harry flipped shut her cellphone. She neither liked nordisliked Yancy Hampton, but, for Harry, neutrality bordered on suspicion.Still, money was money. She’d think on it.
The triple-sash windows, wide open, allowed a freshbreeze to fill the comfortable room at St. Luke’s Church, where thevestry-board meeting was now in progress. The administrative offices wereconnected to the church itself by an old stone arcade, so one could walkwithout getting soaked in those sudden hard Virginia rains. The St. Luke’scomplex was built around a lovely symmetrical inner quad, and parts of thechurch were some two hundred thirty years old. The entire site radiated calmand encouraged contemplation.
The early parishioners and pastor rested in a largerectangular cemetery behind the huge quad at a lower level. This lower largesquare was surrounded by a row of eighty red oaks, in front of which a borderof climbing roses cascaded over the stone retaining wall. The current pastor’sliving quarters anchored the far southern side of the large outer quad. TheVery Reverend Jones’s fishing gear could be seen leaning against the garage. Itwas a hopeful sight.
Also attending the vestry-board meeting were the Lutherancats, Elocution, Lucy Fur, and Cazenovia. As the humans—Harry beingone—discussed and occasionally argued about funds or the social calendar, thefeline parishioners languidly sprawled on the windowsills. Their kind were oncegods in ancient Egypt, but all had the good sense to keep that to themselves.Then, too, they loved their reverend. Why upset him with a competingtheological view? Humans could understand so little of cat communication. Soall felines—not just Elocution, Lucy Fur, and Cazenovia—recognized that thefeline–human relationship was often one-way. They pitied the two-leggedcreatures, but when that tin of Fancy Feast was opened, they utterly adoredthem.
“The riding mower needs a new air filter, and the bladesmust be sharpened.” Susan Tucker, Harry’s childhood friend, now in charge ofbuildings and grounds, read from her monthly report. “This isn’t terriblyexpensive. Jimmy Carter is excellent and more than reasonable, but because ofthat there’s a long, long wait time.”
“We can’t let the grass grow. It will look awful.”BoomBoom Craycroft, a smashing beauty, knew people would grumble about unkemptgrounds, and not just parishioners.
“Can’t we borrow a mower?” Harry sensibly inquired.
Craig Newby, in his first year on the board, replied, “Intheory, yes, but everyone is mowing. It’s been a wet spring. Some people aremowing three times a week.”
Excerpted from The Big Cat Nap by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. Copyright © 2012 by Rita Mae Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.