Grey tests the hook by shaving up bits of his thumbnail. He winds a piece of chicken feather around the shank, securing it with a strand of deer hair he collected from the rough boards of Bess McGill’s garden fence. Bess was his mother’s good friend. Once a week she brings a pot of beans and a basket of cornbread for Grey and his father, Felix, who barely speaks to her. Cilla, the name of Grey’s mother, hangs in the air between them. Hardly anyone says his little sister’s name anymore. Phoebe. But Grey hears her singing to him from the meadow: chip chirp chatter squeak ph ee bee ph ee bee. It is the only faint sound he will ever hear.
From his mother’s sewing basket, Grey takes her sharp scissors and cuts the fibers of feathers he has collected so they stick out like delicate flower petals. Grey can sit for hours watching the nuthatch creep headfirst down the trunk of a blackjack tree, leaving tufts of white breast feather on the rough bark. At the end of the hook, he secures a bit of red from a robin’s breast to the head of the lure and then lacquers it with a tiny drop of his mother’s Hyglo.
Cilla thought her big hands were ugly and would not call attention to them by adorning them with the bracelets and rings Felix once made from copper and silver and sometimes objects like nails or spurs. The only jewelry she ever wore was her thin wedding band. But when she heard about Hyglo nail polish, she ordered a whole box from a store in Kentucky. Almost clear, Hyglo simply added light to the tips of her fingers as they tripped across the keys of the piano or pressed the holes of her flute.
Grey works on a Bass Bug. He’d first made them from pieces of cork Cilla had bought to stopper bottles of homemade syrups and mustards. When he used the last one, he’d had to go into Tahlequah and purchase more at Rhode’s General Store. Down to his last drops of Hyglo, he’ll have to make that trip again. He’s never purchased fingernail polish and isn’t sure Rhode carries it. He has the address of Simple Manicuring Outfit in Louisville, but isn’t sure how to place an order. Unsure of almost everything, Grey gets by with help from Bess who offers what she can by way of guidance.
With a paring knife he shapes the cork like a frog, then wraps it in deer hair. Using the Hyglo, he lacquers the hair in place, letting brown spots of cork show through in a pattern common to frogs of the Neosho River. He pulls oily rooster feather tight to form the legs that make the cork float in the right position.
Then he decides to saddle Whisper, his father’s old horse, and head off to Tahlequah. The Cherokee Seminary School for Girls is there. When his family went to church and concerts on Sundays, he’d see the girls parading two-by-two down Muskogee Avenue, his father’s friend Horace, a teacher at the school, chaperoning until the girls separated as they made their choice: Presbyterian, Baptist or Methodist. But they always met back up with him afterwards in a frilly clump at the square in front of the Cherokee County Courthouse when services were over. Cherokees are strict, but allow schoolgirls to wear pretty shoes and have fancy parasols. Grey thinks where there is a school for girls, there is fingernail polish at the general store.
He packs a saddlebag with an apple and a big piece of jerky for lunch. It’s only 10 miles to Tahlequah, but Grey will take the long way, avoiding the covered bridge near Sadie’s Water Mill where Cilla and Phoebe were killed. Whisper will need to stop often for water and rest. To Tahlequah and back is an all day affair.
Grey puts a plate of cornbread and two apples outside the barn door where Felix spends most of his time on a hard cot watching the sky through the cracks in the slats above his head. He let his forge go cold, but still makes jewelry. He gets a lot of orders for a hatband he calls Crown of Thorns, barbed wire hammered, then whip stitched, onto a strip of velvet.
When Grey passes Bess McGill’s house he slows the horse to give her time to notice him. Bess has known her own sadness, her boy killed in the war. Grey doesn’t know if she ever had a husband.
When she sees him, she comes out of the kitchen and meets him on the road.
“Going to town?”
He nods. “Need a few things.”
“How about a nice slice of pie? Wait here, and I’ll get it. Fresh berry.” She walks quickly back to the house and returns with a thick wedge of pie wrapped in a pretty yellow tea towel embroidered with her name. She says, “You bring this back, all right?”
This is the agreement they have. She will always be there to give him something he must return. He will always come back with it.
Not too far down the road, he stops to eat the pie then folds Bess’s tea towel and puts it in Whisper’s saddlebag. It’s near noon by the time he arrives at Ross Street. The gaze of the townspeople makes him uncomfortable. He can’t tell if people are saying hey to him or not when they look his way. Those who know him wave to get his attention. If he thinks someone has spoken to him, he’ll nod and touch the brim of the big black hat he found under the bed his parents once shared. When he reaches the dead end of Ross, he crosses Sequoyah Park. He rides past the library to the intersection of Keetoowah and Mission, ties the horse to the hitching post outside Rhode’s General Store. Practicing in his head what he’ll say to Mr. Rhode, he steps up to the display window and studies it. A silver hand mirror. Pink rosebuds of soap in a glass dish. A baby blue pincushion made to look like an ottoman with a frilly lace skirt. Everything small and pretty makes him think of Phoebe, so he concentrates on the goods inside. Bolts of fabric. Fishing poles. A barrel of nails.
Rena All Bones Harris spots Grey Sixkiller. She hasn’t seen much of him since she quit riding out to the Sixkiller farm with her teacher Horace Counsel—a couple of girls from school always accompanying them when she and Horace were together in public. Horace liked to sit in the barn with Mr. Sixkiller while he shoed horses. If Grey was helping his father, she’d watch him dance in and out beneath the horse, between the legs with the hame strap until he noticed they had arrived. Then he’d scamper off to the river. Horace always tapped his temple, signifying that maybe Grey wasn’t right in the head. What Rena took into account that Horace did not was that Grey Sixkiller was awfully handsome. But it was Horace she’d chosen as the object of her affection. She was paying for that choice now. Rena smoothes her skirt and walks quietly up to the window where Grey stands. She’s only a year older than he is, but at 14 he still looks like a child while she has become a woman.
Grey’s hands rest against the pane of glass. The sidewalks are wooden, and the vibration of Rena’s approach arrives before he sees her reflection. Chief Harris’s daughter has her eyes on something, he can tell by the way she fixes her gaze. He is surprised when she comes to a stop next to him. She smells like flower petals.
“Hello, Grey.” She tries to make the sad color of his name pretty in her mouth.
“Good afternoon, Rena.” He sticks out his hand for a proper shake. Cilla taught him etiquette. She said knowing the rules of hello and goodbye and polite conversation would make life easier for a boy like him.
Rena takes his hand firmly in hers and holds it long enough to make him uncomfortable. She remembers how he used to wait in the wings during piano recitals. And after performances by Cilla and Phoebe, he was always so gentle with his little sister, straightening her hat, buttoning up her coat. She takes no pleasure in this, but she must have what she wants. “Shopping?” Rena knows to keep it brief. She gives him time to hear, then answer. He nods.
“For what?” she asks.
Grey smiles because he thinks the word is funny. “HyGlo.”
“Lures,” says Grey, almost swallowing the word. This is the longest conversation he’s had with anyone besides Bess in a long time.
Rena has seen the beautiful lures Grey sells. Horace showed her a Yellow Thrush he bought not long ago. “What do you do with it?” she asks.
“A drop on the head,” Grey says after a few seconds, to let all the words come to him, “sets the feathers.”
“Do you want me to go in and ask Mr. Rhode for it?” Rena thinks maybe Grey is shy about asking for a lady’s item.
Grey nods and gives Rena two quarters. She goes into the store and waits in a short line before she returns, excited by her purchase, a bottle of polish in each hand.
“He gave me both when I told him you wanted them for your lures. The last two.” Instead of giving the bottles to Grey, Rena raises them above her head and races down the street. “Gotta catch me,” she calls over her shoulder.
Grey hasn’t played a chase game since Phoebe died. He feels a little foolish, but he lopes down the sidewalk after Rena, who races toward the town square, then pretending to be out of breath, plops onto a bench at the side of the courthouse, under a clump of trees, mostly hidden from the view of people passing by. She pats the empty space on the bench next to her. “Sit.”
Grey does as he is told, but leaves some empty space between them. Rena holds the bottles of nail polish tightly in her hands and shoves them between her knees. Her hands disappear in the folds of her skirt. Grey thinks she must want something. He takes a nickel from his pocket and offers it to her.
Flirting with Grey Sixkiller is like flirting with a bucket, Rena thinks and switches tactics. “Will you show me how to make lures?”
Rena leans in close, looking straight into Grey’s eyes. They are Cilla Sixkiller’s beautiful smoky eyes, and she feels ashamed of what she is up to with her old piano teacher’s son. She hands Grey the bottles of fingernail polish. She’ll have to find another way. Fortune Mary has a potion for girls who need it. But last year a girl at the Seminary School died along with her baby when she drank the special tea. This scares her more than the wrath she anticipates if she has to tell her father she is pregnant. She rises to leave.
Grey resists the urge to pull on Rena’s skirt the way he might have pulled on Cilla’s to get her attention when he was a child. He tries hard to talk the way people talk. Back and forth, back and forth, sometimes the words don’t even sound important. “My mother didn’t like jewelry,” he says. “She thought her hands were ugly.”
“So she polished her nails to dress up a little?” Rena sits back down. He wants her to stay, after all, trying so hard to make small talk.
“When she performed?”
Grey nods again, his throat burning. He brushes tears away from his eyes.
“My mother died, too,” says Rena. “But my father married another woman. That’s why I live at the school.”
Grey notices the change in her voice—the teasing lightness gone—and sees the quiver in her bottom lip. He puts his hand lightly on her throat to feel her sadness. “The Chief has a new family.” Rena holds his hand firmly in place, surprised at how much she wants the attention of this odd boy. “He’s sending me off to teach next year at the Cherokee Orphan Asylum. A great opportunity, he says.”
Grey removes his hand from her neck and places one bottle of Hyglo down on the bench. He opens the other and pulls Rena’s hand to his leg.
Rena feels the tension in his slender thigh muscle. With smooth precise strokes he paints all ten of her fingernails. She knows she can do it now. She can take this boy to the river and make what is already inside her his.
“Dry them,” says Grey when he is finished. “Like this.” He spreads his fingers out like Cilla had and blows on them.
“Do mine,” says Rena. Her heart races as his warm breath plays across the tips of her fingers. “Will you meet me tomorrow night?”
“Down by the river near the little cove between the bridge and Sadie’s,” says Rena, forgetting what the bridge means to Grey. Little Phoebe thrown over the side, Cilla battered and bloody on the pilings. “How stupid of me. Some other place.”
“There,” says Grey. It’s close to town. He doesn’t want her traveling too far alone at night.
“If you’re sure.” Rena stands and pops open her parasol for her walk back to the school.
Grey nods. Before he leaves, he heads back to town to Rhode’s and buys root beer barrels and peppermint kisses.
He’s heard boys talk about going for a walk after church or taking carriage rides with girls. It’s called going on a date, and he would like to tell Bess about Rena but he sees Fortune Mary’s horse cart in front of Bess’s house. The two women are sitting on the porch. He knows who Fortune Mary is because bit by bit, Bess has told him her story. She was just a young girl when she had a baby that she left with her sister and joined the circus, where she was known as Princess Cherokee, a famous bareback rider and tight rope walker. That baby was his father. Her real name is Mary Sixkiller and she is his grandmother. Bess’s friend. He’s seen his father down the road from the farm sitting on a box across from her at a table she puts out by her cart when she reads palms and cards and tea leaves. But she has never been to their house and he doesn’t know how to act around her. Whenever she sees him, she waves. So he waves back.
Grey puts the tea towel in Bess’s mailbox and continues down the road. Close to home, he gets off Whisper and loosens the cinch, walking the old horse down the path to the river near the wing dam where Phoebe built her pyramids of stones and bones and pieces of wood while she watched him swim. If only he’d taught her to swim, she might have had a chance when those men threw her off the bridge.
The next day is long. Grey keeps an eye on the candy that sits in the wax paper Mr. Rhode wrapped it in. He hopes it doesn’t get sticky. He does a few chores and then starts walking toward the place he’s meeting Rena. Whisper can’t make another trip so soon, and besides, he can think better when he walks. He avoids the road because he doesn’t want to pass Bess again and stays down by the river. He can almost remember days of playing in the shallow water with Phoebe, fishing and trapping leeches for bait, without it hurting too much.
He finds a good place at the cove and waits for a long time without knowing exactly when she will come. When Rena does arrive, the fire built has burned down to smoldering embers.
Rena sits on the ground beside him. “I had to do late chores for my roommate, so she’ll cover for me at bed check.” Rena pants from walking fast, afraid he’d be gone when she arrived. Grey puts his head on her chest so he can hear her rapid heartbeat. She plays with his silky black hair. Grey sits up and reaches into the wax paper he’s kept in his shirt pocket, takes out a peppermint kiss and places it on her lips. She opens them for the candy, then pulls his face to hers and passes the peppermint into his mouth. Grey rolls it around, tasting her saliva. She takes another from his shirt pocket and pops it into her mouth before she unbuttons the top of her dress and places Grey’s hand upon her breast. He kisses the skin no longer hidden by her tightly buttoned up collar and finds her mouth again. Rena holds him in the kiss as she slips out of her sleeves one arm at a time and lets the top half of her dress fall to her waist so that she is wearing only her camisole.
Grey had almost forgotten about layers of clothes. All the white things flapping on the laundry string, decreasing in size from his mother’s long slips and thick stockings to Phoebe’s white bloomers and little petticoats. Rena pulls the skirt of her dress up over her knees. Grey sees that she has come barelegged to the river.
Rena moves Grey’s hand under the skirt and opens her legs. The moist skin he finds is softer than anything human he can remember touching. For weeks Rena has needed someone for her plan to name a father for the baby she carries, but now she truly wants him, this quiet boy who understands with his hands. She has never known her own urgency, only Horace’s. She unzips his pants and guides him to her. Grey pulls off his shirt. He wants her hands on his skin. He finds his way, following the rhythm of her body.
Awakened some mornings by his own sticky heat, Grey has known longing. But this is not like that, sudden and unexpected. It is like music, a hymn, the first to vibrate through him, free of Cilla and Phoebe, free of memory. Beneath Rena the earth is hard, unyielding against her bare skin. Pebbles and twigs jab; her tailbone digs in. Grey listens to the song they are making. Rena hears the bells on Fortune Mary’s horse cart passing through the night.
Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley. She has published in a variety of magazines and journals, such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and Southwestern American Literature. Luring is an excerpt from a work in progress based, in part, on her family’s Cherokee history.