Before she got on as a deputy, and long before she became the state’s first female sheriff, Bertie Clemmons determined the course of her life with the stroke of a cleaver. Her husband had struck her in the face out by the chicken coop at the cabin where they lived with Bertie’s mamaw. It happened often in those days, but this time something rose up inside the young bride, a vein of courage she found far beneath her country femininity, though something of it was distinctly feminine, too. Her mamaw nodded knowingly a week later when Bertie learned that she was pregnant. “It’s mountain instinct,” the old had woman said. “It’s the females that protects the young in these hills, not the males.” Bertie didn’t know whether she meant animals or humans. Likely both, she finally decided.
But when Bertie’s young husband hit her that day, out by the coop, she made for the killing cleaver and caught him under the eye, deep enough to get his attention, but not deep enough to stop him. His face was a sheet of red and he cussed from some place unholy when he came at her again. This time he got hold of her wrist with one hand and punched her in the jaw with the other. Just then a gnarled old hand, full of liver spots and bony protrusions, wrested the blade from Bertie’s hand. The young bride watched her mamaw deliver a blow to her husband’s clavicle. The man howled and grabbed at his shoulder. The next blow tore through two fingers and deepened the wound. He fell to the ground and the old lady mounted him like an anxious young lover. In a high arc, she raised the cleaver and buried it where the neck met the torso.
What Bertie remembers next is the old woman tossing her house dress into a wood stove under the rickety canopy adjoining the cabin. Without a stich of clothing, she faced Bertie, the bloody cleaver in her hand and her face a mess of blood spatter. “What I’m gonna do you ain’t gonna like, but it needs to be done,” the grandma said. Like a snake her fingers grabbed Bertie’s throat and squeezed. Bertie felt the raw power in the old woman’s fingers and she nearly passed out. When her mamaw finally let go, Bertie watched the woman wipe her eyes with her forearm.
“Take this,” she told Bertie, and handed her the cleaver. “I’m your witness. You was out here, about to set to cullin’ the sickly chicks. He come at you, you hear? Said something about you bein’ a whore and a no-good bitch. Then he gone to hittin’ you, sayin’ he’s gonna kill you. You grabbed the cleaver from the stump and hit him in the shoulder. But that just riled him. So you cut him again. Then he choked you, liked to kill you if you hadn’t hit him in the neck with the cleaver. Show ’em the marks on your throat. It’s self-defense and I seen the whole thing from the coop. It ain’t exactly a lie neither, the way that one was.” Bertie nodded and started to cry.
The grandma slapped her fiercely in the face, and then again and again. “You get yourself together, by God. That one needed cullin’ and you know it.”
There wasn’t much left of the old coal tipple out on Kentucky Route 82. For that matter, there wasn’t much left of Kentucky Route 82. The road had fallen into disuse after the company moved operations back in the sixties, once the deposit had been fully extracted. Weeds grew up through cracks in the asphalt and clotted the railroad tracks that crisscrossed the ground under the tipple. The structure itself sat rusted and full of graffiti, a baleful-looking gateway to the dense woods that rose up high on the hillside behind it. Long ago the county had laid newer roads to accommodate traffic for the other mining sites that buzzed with life in the seventies and eighties. They, too, now sat idle with their own abandoned tipples. Officially, 82 was closed to traffic, but high school kids and bikers still partied out there.
Bertie pulled the cruiser right up next to the tracks and steeled herself against the memory of her daughter, a young girl who ran off under the tipple twenty-one years ago after an argument about a boyfriend. Bertie was only thirty-five then, and just a junior deputy, but she was lighter and faster, and at the time she took off running after her. But at fifteen the girl was fast too, and that was the last Bertie ever saw of her. That a report of a missing girl would take the sheriff out to the old tipple was no odd coincidence, then. More of an omen, if anything.
Good little scenes and voice. Real Characters. Makes you want to read more and more and more.