Put salt on the doorstep of a new house and no evil can enter. Mama taught me to lie.
Some would say that Mama went to jail in Carling, New York, because of lies, but we had other ideas.
We knew that the truth came in different varieties and that most people had a favorite. Same thing with untruth. Anyone could decide what to call a lie, so sometimes there'd be a misunderstanding.
Mama made claims to being clairvoyant: able to "see clearly" what was unseen by everyone else. She had what she called a sensitive way with the spirit world. I was her assistant. We offered services that only we could perform. Mama cultivated her talents to help people seeking solace, or relief from a predicament.
When a gentleman, for instance, misplaced a gold watch and offered a reward for its recovery, Mama's psychic ability was almost certain to detect the missing object. Particularly when her beguiling smile and her nimble fingers had caused the misplacement to begin with, and I had selected the discovery site. When the gentleman reclaimed his property, we were handsomely paid, and everyone was content.
Until an incident of faulty timing led to a watch being observed in our possession.
That day in Carling, I was fifteen. I watched Mama being dragged away by the police with her stockings torn and her feet scrabbling to touch the ground. I saw her hat flung to the pavement, with the ostrich feather snapped under a boot. I wanted to howl and kick somebody. That sickening scene played over and over in front of my eyes, like at the moving pictures with the pianist gone home.
And while Mama languished for two days and nights in the stone cellar of that Carling police station behind a wall of iron mesh, I was confined to the sheriff's home. The sheriff's wife was a more formidable jailer than any of the young men with pistols who were watching over Mama.
"We've had villains in here before, Miss Annie Grey." She jabbed her finger at me. "But never one so young, nor so unrepentant!"
Well, what was I supposed to be repenting for? We didn't want the watch, we wanted the money for its recovery, and we never got that, so how could we repent?
"You sit right there and read aloud from the Good Book. Your mother has some nerve, with her claims to see into the future. No one but the good Lord can say what awaits us! I know what awaits you, young lady. You will read, without moving, from the moment you finish your breakfast until I put your supper on the table tonight. . . ."
At first I didn't think it was much of a punishment. There are some great moments of drama in the Bible, storms and miracles, plenty of evil doings and heroic characters.
" 'And God divided the Light from Darkness!' " I thundered, waving my fist in the air, " 'and God called the light Day and He called the dark Night. . . .' "
But the sheriff's wife didn't want my interpretation. She wanted my piety and she wanted it plain.
"Don't you get fanciful and don't you rest."
I had no wish to repeat that experience as long as I lived. I chose to have an epileptic seizure at the same moment that Mama agreed to marry her guard, and so between us we negotiated our freedom.
Luckily, Mama prided herself on always being prepared for trouble. Our savings were neatly arranged in the false bottom of our trunk and hadn't been disturbed by the rude officers who had searched our belongings. We left town the very hour Mama was released, and we swore not to repeat our errors. Mama said soon we would have enough money to buy a home of our own. She said we could settle down, just as I'd been begging for, so long as I could remember.
We arrived in Hawley feeling breathless, as if we'd run all the way from Carling in our fine leather Hi-Cuts, instead of sitting in a first-class compartment with a Thermos of chamomile tea and a two-pound box of coconut macaroons. We stayed in Hawley just long enough to come up with a new twist to our old game.
"One of our strengths is your sweet and innocent face," said Mama. "We'll take it one step further and turn you into a dim-witted angel. You will be clucked over and then ignored by heartless women who think only of themselves. This will put you in an excellent position for eavesdropping."
Mama was sharp; no mistake about that. She was a fake as far as hearing from the dead, or even seeing the outcome of a situation ahead of time, but she had a sensitive way about her, when required professionally. She was a master at drawing out secrets. With a little background information, she easily appeared to see straight into the hearts of forlorn and desperate seekers--usually women--who spent heaps of money to hear the advice of a stranger. And Mama was so pretty, people tended to trust her without thinking about it.
So, in Hawley, I sat for hours holding Mama's mirror with the tortoiseshell handle. I perfected the ability to cross one eye while my mouth stayed open. I breathed out with a faint wheeze so that my lips dried up or even crusted. Once in a while I'd add a twitch.
If anyone had looked through the window, they would have heard Mama scolding me, "Get rid of that smart glint in your eyes. And let your lips gape!"
"It makes me thirsty, having my tongue lolling out."
"Try honking through your nose when you laugh. That will give your mouth a rest."
I experimented on the streets of Hawley. People would take a first look at me and shiver with disgust. They'd look again and think, Oh, the poor thing, thank the heavens she's not mine. And then they'd ignore me, just as Mama had predicted, out of politeness, maybe, or embarrassment.
That was the moment I could go to work.
While in disguise I planned to gather gossip and bring it home to Mama. She would put it to use in little ways, giving it back to the very same people, only shaped differently and in exchange for money. Lots of money, over time.
We moved on to Peach Hill toward the end of summer, to start fresh. The days were still hot and I wished we could go closer to the shores of the Finger Lakes, but Mama said resort towns attracted more sophisticated people. We were better off in Nowhere, New York.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from How It Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn. Copyright © 2007 by Marthe Jocelyn. Excerpted by permission of Wendy Lamb Books, 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.