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Authors: Rett MacPherson

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BOOK: The Blood Ballad
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Oh well, I thought, somebody will claim her eventually.

I drove into town and made my way to the Kendall House. My newest acquisition was two stories, with white clapboard and newly painted blue trim. In the spring and summer, all sorts of blooming vines and bushes smothered the house, including some supernatural morning glories. In this part of Missouri, the old-fashioned morning glories are annuals. Meaning they don't usually make it through the winter. There are some new and improved breeds, I suppose, that would—or so I've been told. But at the far edge of the porch on the Kendall home lived some freakishly hardy old-fashioned morning glories that bloomed all morning, all day, and into the evening and came back every year, going dormant only about six weeks during the winter. As a result, the Kendall home was now on the register of haunted places, because a lot of people believed that the house was haunted by Glory Anne Kendall, thus the freakish morning glories. I personally had never seen the ghost of Glory Anne, but there were times I felt something … unexplainable. Someday, we'd probably discover that what was growing at the end of the porch weren't morning glories at all, but some unidentified flowering vine, and then I'm not sure if we would still be eligible to be on the register of haunted places anymore. At any rate, the place was quite gorgeous in summer and autumn.

The Kendall House was a museum. Not so much a family museum, unlike the Gaheimer House. The Gaheimer house was filled with all of Mr. Gaheimer's furniture, antiques and the likes, so that one could see how life was at the turn of twentieth century. With the exception of the World War I mural done by Glory's brother Rupert, the Kendall home was a haven for women's textiles. Not only did we have all of Glory Kendall's quilts to display but we had also acquired many other textiles from around the state, going back as far as the late 1700s—everything from quilts, chintz coverlets, rugs, and doilies to dresses, undergarments, samplers, and children's clothing.

This was my baby. Everything else I had inherited from Sylvia Pershing. In fact, most of the town still had the stamp of Sylvia and Wilma Pershing's hard work all over it, but this museum had been my brainstorm. When the house had gone on the market the previous year the owner had agreed to sell me Glory Kendall's quilts and textile-related objects. Then I bought the house. After learning the tragic story of Glory's life, I felt like I should make some sort of monument not just to her but to all women like her.

The surprising thing? It was a huge success. I had more visitors per week to the Kendall home than any other landmark in town. People began calling me up, telling me how they wanted to donate their great-grandma's things because they didn't want anything bad to happen to them, or they didn't want the family fighting over them.

There was a guest house in the back, where I kept some acquisitions in storage, and someday I planned to rotate the things I had on display. None of this would have been possible, though, without the help of Geena Campbell, a quilt historian and textile artist. I'd learned a lot from her, but without her, I wouldn't have known a two-hundred-year-old quilt from one made fifty years ago. She pulled a shift once a week at the Kendall House and said it was the highlight of her week.

At any rate, this took a lot of my time now, which is why I was hiring somebody to take over giving tours for me at the Gaheimer House. Of course, I was still head of the historical society and the only genealogist in town. Not that there was a huge rush on people needing me to trace their family trees, but I still did, on occasion, have somebody request that I find an ancestor of theirs. The sad part about genealogy as a hobby is, well, once you've sort of flushed out all of the lines on your family tree, all that's left are brick walls. Those aren't a whole lot of fun, until they come tumbling down, and then you have this whole new family to absorb. That's the point that I was at now. My family tree was pretty much traced, with the exception of those brick walls.

I opened the museum at ten o'clock, and exactly five minutes later a man walked in and rushed toward me. “Are you Torie O'Shea?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, extending my hand. “You must be Glen Morgan.”

He shook my hand, glanced around the room, and said, “I must speak with you at once. Alone.”

Well now, I'd been known to do some stupid things in my time, but when a perfect stranger told me that he must speak with me at once, alone, I was a bit leery. Especially when I was the only one working the museum. I'm not saying it would have stopped me from speaking with him alone—because I'd been known to do some pretty silly things—it just made me nervous.

“Well, I can't really disappear, Mr. Morgan. I'm working.”

Glen Morgan was about my age, maybe even a few years younger, so late thirties or early forties. He was tall and lean, like a teenage boy. His body was sort of long in the torso and he had big hands. His face was pleasant enough, with expressive black eyes, and he had a head full of brown hair. The resemblance to his grandfather was slight, but I could find it around the chin and the curve of his mouth.

“I've made a huge discovery,” he said.

“What's that?”

As he leaned in toward me, he whispered, “I don't think your family tree is what you think it is.”

I laughed, until I realized he was serious. “What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly somber. Nobody, I mean nobody, tells me my family tree is incorrect.

“A few months ago, your cousin Phoebe contacted me.”

“Phoebe … what, Uncle Ike's daughter? Why would she contact you?”

“She's been tracing the family tree,” he said.

“She has? Why would she do that?” I'm not sure why the news was so upsetting to me, but it was. Maybe because Phoebe was a nutcase most of the time. She was notorious for just taking off and living in the woods in a tent for weeks on end. Then she'd reappear with some new “vision” that the spirit of the oak tree had given her. Now, I'm not knocking trees. I'm not saying that there isn't wisdom to be learned from our natural environment, because I think there is, but Phoebe was also the same cousin who'd said that Lee Harvey Oswald had impregnated her mother from prison and was really her father. So that sort of put that whole tree wisdom stuff in a bad light.

While her acid-tripping days were over, and she realized that she was the daughter of Ike Keith after all, I still couldn't understand why she'd retrace what I'd already traced. I'll be the first to admit that every family has its secrets. I'll be the first to admit that ancestors pass on their familial “knowledge” and stories to us, and I think for the most part our ancestors are telling the truth. Or, they're telling what they believe to be the truth. I also know that sometimes ancestors will do whatever they can to keep something they're ashamed of a secret, but the data on my family tree was all documented. I only used the family legends as background. The documents were what hold up all of the branches.

“Does she even own a computer?” I asked.

He looked at me weirdly and shook his head. “That's not the point. She has information that suggests that John Robert Keith may not be the son of Nate Keith.”

My head spun. Not the son of Nate Keith? I'll tell you right now that Nate Keith was a son of a bitch, but he was still responsible for me being here, and we can't pick our ancestors. Among other things, Nate Keith was vindictive and beat his wife. I'd love to not have his blood running through my veins, but I do. It's who I am, regardless of whether it makes me happy. I'd had customers come to me before, trying to manipulate data so that they could be descended from the person they thought they
ought
to be descended from. I had a friend who'd started tracing her family tree just so she could find the famous French theater actress that her mother claimed her great-grandmother had been, only to find a family tree full of Irish and Germans, no French, and definitely no famous French actress.

In my own family, I'd been told many times how my great-grandmother had died when my grandma was only four years old. But then I found her obituary and death record, which showed she'd died five years later than I'd been told she had. My grandma was actually nine when her mother died, not four. How does that happen? There are all sorts of reasons, but I had two independent records giving the exact same date, and the obituary couldn't exactly have been faked, since it was published when the event actually happened.

At any rate, I had mixed feelings about Nate Keith. I despised the man, but then, all of his ancestors that I had painstakenly researched wouldn't be my ancestors at all if he suddenly wasn't my great-grandfather. Just off the top of my head, I could think of at least two really cool families that I'd no longer be associated with, and I wouldn't be descended from the highland clan of the Keiths. This bothered me. Which was ridiculous, I knew. Because I was being just like the people I complained about. My ancestors would be who they would be, regardless. So the angst I would feel over no longer being a Keith was sort of … silly. But I felt it all the same. For one thing, my maiden name wouldn't even be Keith. This irritated me, to say the least, and my irritation was a bit more evident than I intended when I answered Mr. Morgan.

“Phoebe is a nutcase,” I said. “What reason she'd even have to reresearch the family is beyond me.”

“The music, Mrs. O'Shea. It's in the music. I'm afraid, whether you like it or not, we're cousins.”

“What?”

“I'm saying that your grandpa, John Robert Keith, was actually the son of Scott Morgan.”

“Based on Phoebe's discovery?” I asked, crossing my arms.

“That and more. Look, I want you to listen to this CD,” he said, and handed it to me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It's a recording of the Morgan Family Players,” he said. “Never-released recordings. Your grandpa is the main fiddle player on at least four songs.”

“How do you know?”

“Just listen, you'll know. There's more where this came from. After you've listened to it, please call me. I'll meet you,” he said.

“Mr. Morgan…”

“Call me Glen.”

“Glen, I'll be honest. If it came from Phoebe, I'm skeptical. I love her, but she's not always all there. She once said that a rosebush told her to bet four thousand dollars on a horse named Gidget. She lost the money.”

He waved his hands in protest. “I know,” he said. “I can barely have a normal conversation with her, but her research deserves some closer scrutiny. I'm aware of your credentials. My mother told me if there was anybody in the Keith family to go to with this, it was you. I'm trusting you that you'll give this an unbiased, clinical study. I've got Phoebe's research at home. After you hear the CD, we'll talk more.”

I blinked at him. “All right, Glen,” I said with a big sigh. “I'll listen to it.”

He exited the museum quickly, and I glanced down at the CD he'd given me. He knew exactly what buttons to push. I itched to hear this CD so badly that it actually felt heavy in my hands.

Seven

Stephanie sat in the chair across from my desk with her chin resting in her hand. I put the CD in the player and waited for music. Nothing happened. I checked the cord and made sure it was plugged in. Still nothing. Then I banged on it. Finally, it spurted and kicked in and music began to play.

“Is that him? Is that our grandpa?” I felt sorry for Stephanie. She was the product of an affair that my father had had, and he hadn't known she'd existed until she was grown. As a result, Stephanie had missed out on weekends in the country at Grandma and Grandpa's house. She had missed out on all the crazy sleepovers and strawberry-picking frenzies that all of us cousins had engaged in on a regular basis, as well as running through the orchard at night catching fireflies, nearly drowning in the pond, chasing the dogs down the road, pulling ticks off of the back of your legs at the same time you nursed the stings inflicted by nettles. But most of all, she had missed out on the music—the endless jam sessions of all of our uncles and our dad in Grandma's living room or, in the summer, out in the front yard. The question of whether or not Grandpa was actually going to treat us with playing a song on his fiddle would hang in the air. Then inevitably, at some point, he'd pick up his instrument and scratch out a few old dance tunes.

Stephanie had missed all of that, through no fault of her own. It was at times like this that I could have kicked my father a good one for the careless way he'd sauntered through life. But, at the same time, if it had been any other way, I wouldn't have had one of my newest dear friends sitting across from me. I was beginning to believe that there was no healthy place for regret.

I listened to the music carefully. It was definitely in the style of my grandpa, but I'd really only heard him as an old man. Sometime during the fifties, my father had taped my grandpa, but even then, he'd hardly been young. Besides, it wasn't as if I was a musicologist. A fiddle is a fiddle, right? Probably the only time I could pick out a specific musician was because I could recognize certain guitar styles. My father and his brother had a definite style all their own that I could pick out in a crowd. I'd listened to my father play every single day growing up. It would be hard not to be able to pinpoint him, but—the fiddle? My ear just wasn't that well trained.

“I'm not sure,” I said. There were no liner notes that came with the homemade CD that Glen had given me, so I wasn't even sure what I was listening to. The first song ended and then I heard a voice come on.

“Hey, Johnny, how many babies you got now?” I had no idea whose voice it was, but the man spoke in that clipped and fast way that people did during the Depression.

“Next month's gonna be my third,” he said. “I wrote this next song for Jed.”

BOOK: The Blood Ballad
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