Read Thistle and Twigg Online

Authors: Mary Saums

Thistle and Twigg



Midnight Hour

The Valley of Jewels

When the Last Magnolia Weeps







New York

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

. Copyright © 2007 by Mary Saums. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied
critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Book design by Mary A. Wirth


Saums, Mary.

Thistle and Twigg / Mary Saums.—1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36063-4

ISBN-10: 0-312-36063-0

1. Widows—Fiction. 2. Alabama—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3569.A78875T47 2007



First Edition: April 2007

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1


Jane Thistle Arrives

knew from the first there was something odd about Tullulah, knew it even before I saw the town itself. The feeling struck and traveled deeply into memories I’d not thought of in years, something vague and hard to discern, like an overgrown path found at last with a little searching. Oh, yes, I felt it immediately, as soon as I entered the forest that surrounds it, guards it like a secret treasure, and it was this, you see, that drew me in.

My first day as an official citizen of Tullulah began with a spectacular omen of things to come. A monstrous brown snake, at least eight feet long and several inches thick, slithered across the threshold of my front door. Naturally, the men from the moving company had left the door open all morning as they moved furniture and boxes inside. It didn’t occur to any of us this might be seen as an open invitation to the local wildlife.

The snake zigzagged across the wood parquet and down the hall, then turned right into the living room as if he’d dropped by for tea. He meant us no harm and came to none himself, although I must say I’m not at all squeamish and would certainly have shot the trespassing beast if necessary.

One of the men screamed. The others laughed at the poor fellow, but if the truth were told, we all had a good scare. The snake sidled with frightening quickness, its sideways movement making it difficult for us to predict the direction of its intended course. One of the movers grabbed a wide push broom then scooted the snake, a nonpoisonous one I was assured, out the door and off the porch.

The incident, though surprising, was also strangely calming, I thought, as I watched the snake swish across my yard into the tall grass that bordered Anisidi Wildlife Refuge next door. The snake’s ancestors, as well as those of the other animals here, had survived on this piece of land for centuries, longer actually. As the newcomer, I intended to live peacefully with my neighbors, even those of the reptilian persuasion. Within reason, of course.

This, after all, was why I came to this place of special beauty after discovering it completely by accident. Do you believe in chance? I’m not altogether sure I do anymore. For now, let us say that it was, in fact, chance that brought me here.

Almost twenty years ago, I was driving from Florida where my late husband, Colonel John Bradford Thistle, and I lived. In the fall of that year, he’d received a transfer to a facility in the Midwest and had already flown there to begin his new assignment. It fell to me to stay behind, pack our belongings, and arrange for the moving company, just as I had done many times since our marriage years earlier when he was a dapper young officer and I was his English bride.

My leisurely drive northwest from Florida was, for the most part, uneventful until an hour or so past Birmingham where, on a whim, I decided to take an alternate route, away from the interstate, for a more scenic drive.

And scenic it was. I had not seen such beautiful valleys and farmlands since I’d left England, perhaps earlier when as a child I’d visited my grandparents in Wales. The thought of their home, the surrounding countryside, the mysterious look of the land, the play of light and color all came back to me, stirring memories.

That’s when it began, the odd sensation. At first, it was only that, just a hint of something fresh and new in the air, like the scent of pine that blew in my open windows. A large highway sign indicated I could enter Bankhead National Forest at the next exit, and I could see a great expanse of green ahead as I topped hills.

Trees grew thicker on either side of the road as the car traveled steadily upward. The air was heavy with the sound of birds’ wings rustling in and out of branches. I had the sense of going back in time, as if I were returning rather than arriving, something I couldn’t define.

I crested a small hill and slowed as I passed a little clearing with a neatly painted white board sign that bore three lines of text in pretty script: “Welcome to Tullulah, Population 9,523, or Thereabouts.” A lattice trellis framed it, twined with ivy and a beautiful yellow climbing rose. Below me, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, I could see a quaint town square that echoed the neatness of the welcome sign. Beyond the buildings, a vast green backdrop of forest stretched to the horizon, with occasional rock-face cliffs jutting out of tree-covered mountains in the distance.

While I waited at the first stoplight just outside of town, I had a lovely personal welcome. A mockingbird lit on my car door’s rearview mirror and cocked an eye, studying me, then sang a melodious greeting. He trilled through quite a repertoire, looking at me all the while. One gray wing was a bit damaged on its white stripe, yet the bird was able to hop into the air and fly for a short distance as it sang a three-note farewell.

I drove around the square to look for a place to eat and parked near the City Grill. And there, as I walked down the quiet sidewalk, was where I first saw the girl.

She waved coyly to me, smiling as if she had a secret, then ran quickly around the side of a building. I’d say she was about seven years old and had long dark hair in ringlets falling past the shoulders of her white lace dress.

I looked down the alleyway as I walked by it, but she was nowhere in sight. I wondered at the time if perhaps she wasn’t being naughty, playing outside in her fancy dress when I was sure her mother would have forbidden it.

I thought no more of it, had my meal, and drove slowly about the little town before leaving, trying to put my finger on why the area brought back memories of my childhood. Not even memories really; there was no certain place that reminded me of another specific location from that time. Yet there was a connection, I was certain of it.

And then a strange thing happened. As I drove out of town, I glanced at the welcome sign again, this time at its reverse side. To my eyes, the sign said, “Come Back, Jane,” as I passed it. I would have sworn it.

I braked instantly. Fortunately, there was no one behind me. At the next opportunity, I turned the car around and drove past the sign once more. It clearly said, “Come Back Again.” I attributed misreading it the first time to being distracted, perhaps a little disoriented by driving in a new place, or to driver’s fatigue. However, deep down, something disturbed me. I didn’t know why.

It would be another year before I figured it out. Tullulah haunted me all that time. I took to studying the area and its history, searching for books of which there were precious few. That scarcity may have been the great attraction to studying it. It was a new and exotic place of which I had no knowledge.

So, when I had to drive through Alabama to Florida again a year later, I made a point of visiting Tullulah. I rolled down my windows, breathed in the pine scent, and drove past the welcome sign toward the town square to park near the City Grill, just as before. And just as before, there was the little girl, waving coyly, standing in her white lace dress, running shyly away and disappearing behind the same building. She hadn’t aged a day.

I must say I was a bit shocked. After I thought about it awhile, everything fell into place. I understood the connection to my past, why I’d experienced the déjà vu. My childhood had been filled with such images, ones dismissed by my parents and siblings, so much so that I pushed them all away and had forgotten them. But now, after years of denial, they’d come back to me. I could see ghosts.

Something about Tullulah must have made them visible once again. I had no such visions elsewhere. After my return home, I began more intense study of the national park and the other woodland areas of northern Alabama. I dreamed of it, of the deep tranquility I’d felt while in the midst of the forest, and of returning one day. Not for the ghosts, certainly, but for the serenity and the indefinable quality in the air that, once breathed in, possessed me with a great longing for its peace. Years later, when my husband passed away, there was no question what I would do. When his estate was settled, I packed a bag and spent a week in Tullulah looking at property.

There was really only one choice. One place had a strong sense of connection, and of peace. The old house beside the wildlife refuge, far outside the town limits, seemed to call to me and welcome me in.

It’s just what I’ve always wanted, to live in a beautiful place where I can relax and never have to move again. The Colonel and I had a deal, you see. Traveling from base to base had been necessary for his work. I knew that when I married him. Since his job required constant travel, he promised our retirement years would be spent wherever I wished. After so many years of having no roots, I realized my home was wherever he was happy He liked Florida, so I told him that’s where I wanted to retire. We were content there, but when his health began to fail, I knew I would not stay after he was gone.

Through the years, Tullulah had been my secret, the one thing I didn’t share with my husband. I knew he wouldn’t be happy in a small town, this one in particular. It was much too quiet and sleepy of a place. His personality craved movement, excitement, lots of goings-on around him. He was a city man, accustomed to the bases filled with likeminded men who had also seen the world and conquered it.

No, I knew he wouldn’t care for Tullulah, not at all. For me, it represented everything I’d missed. Beautiful countryside, a slow pace of living. But most of all, a different sort of community from those we were used to. No flat utilitarian, ugly buildings of blocks painted white, or worse, service gray or green. Here the houses and even the businesses surrounding the courthouse square all had personalities to match the people—open, friendly, and beautifully devoid of the harsh, sarcastic atmosphere of cramped city life.

After that second visit to Tullulah, I became restless, obsessed even. I’d always been a student of history and of the natural world; those things fascinated me and led me to the love of archaeology and ancient civilizations. Learning about the first inhabitants of the area, several native tribes and all new to me, and the array of wild species and their habitats sparked my mind as it had not been stimulated in many years. And so, when the Colonel was gone, I sold our house in Florida, hired a moving company, and set off for my new life.

After the snake incident that first day, I thought it wise to have a pistol handy. My new house was, after all, bordered by the wildlife refuge on one side and a privately owned forest on another, both of which surely harbored many a wild animal. I found a pistol easily in my old antique trunk, but had no luck in locating the proper bullets among the packing boxes. With the thought that it could be days, weeks even, before I had everything unpacked, I determined to get a box of bullets when I stepped out to pick up lunch for the movers and myself.

That was how I came to meet Phoebe Twigg, a lifetime resident of Tullulah, who has become my closest friend. I’m sixty-seven and she is sixty-five, although she looks much younger. Her most prominent feature is her flaming red hair, of which she is understandably quite proud. Her clothes reflect her flair for the dramatic with wild color combinations. She makes me feel quite pale and small in comparison.

Phoebe is a perfect dear. She makes me laugh. There’s nothing she loves more than to entertain with a good story. Facts are of minimal importance and serve only as a springboard for great leaps of imagination and elongated stretches of the truth.

Unfortunately, someone unfamiliar with Phoebe’s tendency to embroider reality overheard one such fantasy and came to believe Phoebe knew more than she actually did. Although she didn’t mean to, Phoebe put us both in great danger. I have absolutely no doubt, however, she’d tell a much different story.

Other books

The Christmas Portrait by Phyllis Clark Nichols
Fearless in High Heels by Gemma Halliday
Break Me (Taken Series Book 2) by Cannavina, Whitney
Town Darling by Copella, Holly
Dancing With the Devil by Misty Evans
The Virgin Cure by Ami Mckay
Undead and Done by MaryJanice Davidson
Dark Justice by Brandilyn Collins