My daddy was killed on the road, and only my mama’s pearly white bones have a resting place. As for me and my cousins, we’re all without our parents. We just live out here in the west, where people are still goin’ out exploring. We travel from place to place, sleeping under a wagon here, an old abandoned shelter there. Sometimes--most times--we just lie out on our backs atop the grass in the wide, open air. Those times, it seems there’s not a thing between us and the stars. The stars help us remember; you see, Grace’s mama was a storyteller. She could spin yarns like no other. Her daddy would find pictures in the stars that went right along with our favorite stories. My mama would go on writing songs about Aunt Maggie’s stories, and she’d sing ‘em all night long while my daddy played his guitar.
We never had much money, the Flock and I. Aunt Laura said we all reminded her of little birds, so we started calling ourselves a flock or the Flock. Our parents were a travelling band, but now since all their bodies are laid to waste, we just pick up odd jobs here and there in every town we stop by to pay for food and clothing. Travelling for the Flock is a sort of distraction; a lifestyle away from other kids with their parents to love them and provide for them. We just keep going on like we were taught, smiling at the sunshine, saluting the storm, and keeping on marchin’.
Every morning Grace and I rise with the sun and divide up our food--usually dried fruit and cornmeal mash, potatoes and beans. We have a few clay bowls our parents made us from a streambank. Every so often we get lucky enough to encounter one with perfect soft mud that’ll harden nicely after a few hours in the sun. Then after we get everyone fed, we start right up walking, unless we’re at a stop; then we’ll be working.
Other than Grace and I, there’s also Rosy Li, Little Lucy, Kate, Billy, and Henry. We girls outnumber the boys five to two. When we were little, it was a thing of pride. Made us feel especially important, and that’s a valuable thing when you’re just a little kid.
Yeah, everything in our life is just about perfectly suited to us. Except for one thing: Malinda Glen.
Malinda Glen is the reason we don’t have the rest of our family. She’s convinced we’re all some kind of demon children, the way we travel and wander, singing and dancing and working just like our parents. She wants to convince everyone else there’s something wrong with us too. I’m not exactly sure why she wanted those people to kill my daddy and my mama. They never would do anything wrong--at least not enough to kill for. Whatever the reason, as the oldest of my cousins, it’s my job to make sure no harm comes to them. And it’s for that and my parents that I hate the old hag Malinda Glen.
This morning we’re up just outside of town. We found work here yesterday, best as all of us can do. Rosy Li and Billy are down at the bakery, helping with the advertisements. Little Lucy, Kate, and Henry are helping a widow with her calves; for a time we had one on a rope that gave us lots of good milk and cream. Grace and I are singing the next few nights in the square. All we sing are some old songs my mama wrote, and I’ll play my daddy’s guitar. The locals look enthusiastic enough, I just hope their enthusiasm is enough to keep them safe from Malinda’s tales; she’ll be here within the day--she always is.
The market in this town is one of the best I’ve seen this season. Long stalks of rhubarb and kale are laid carefully in boxes, baskets of all sizes are overflowing with plums, peaches, cherries, and pears. The apples are in large wooden crates they unloaded from a wagon. A circle of women sit together stringing beans, and another of children are husking corn. I’m here with Grace just to find out what the town is like, though other than the colorful market, it seems like every other one we’ve been to.
“Caroline!” Grace whispers, nudging me with an elbow. I glance down at her hand, then follow my eyes to where it’s pointing--at a perfect bundle of blue calico. “That’s like the song.” I nod, understanding the reference. Her mama made up a story once about this magic blue calico that made the wearer more beautiful than any other woman. So this girl--named Clara June--found it one day being sold in the market like any other old swath of fabric. She bought it and began to sew the prettiest dress out of it with lace and ruffles, and a huge skirt that flew out when she twirled. My mama did tribute to this little story and wrote a song about it.
My blue calico
This here pretty thing
Made me wanna go
And do everything
My love, he’s a farmer
‘Thought me pretty before
But now he says I’m beautiful
Much more than ever before
So with my blue calico
My love told me to go
He said to do everything
In this pretty thing
So when I’m finally home
From that long roam
I’m gonna find him and say
That his love makes me want to stay
Now I’m married to the farmer
He still says I’m a charmer
But all I say back
Is that only he can be my farmer
The song has a few more verses, and they’re more about the blue calico, but it’s a song that’s not quite fit for performing. It also happens to be Little Lucy’s favorite song. Often before, she’s twirled around in the small dresses she has that were all mine, then Grace’s then Rosy Li’s, pretending she was in that blue calico and married to the farmer.
I know what Grace is thinking right now, the way she’s staring wistfully at that fabric. And I want to be able to get it too, but unlike Clara June, we don’t have a lot of spending money. Usually we only earn enough for our food and supplies on the road. We’ve had the same changes of clothes for years now, and even though Little Lucy and Kate’s are much too big for them, we’ve hemmed up the skirts and done the best we can so they seldom complain.
But maybe this blue calico could be an investment. We could hem it up and then let it down, then pass it on to Kate, then we can use the fabric for bags or another quilt. So Grace and I come to an agreement that we’ll use the money from tonight to buy the calico tomorrow.
The performance goes smoothly that evening, and Grace and I sing three ‘old mountain airs’, then invite Rosy Li--performer-in-training--to do acapella with the valley song. The small crowd of people cheer, and, combined with the money Little Lucy, Kate, and Henry earned, make enough for a beautiful dress with ruffles out of that blue calico.
In the morning when I go to buy it, a small part of me dwells on the part about wasting all that good fabric on ruffles. But Little Lucy will love it so much, it’s worth the cost. Besides, we can stay here a little longer to earn more--only by a day.
As soon as I have handed over the handful of coins and a few bills to the woman at the counter, I hear a mean voice screech, “Well Caroline, look at you! Buyin’ all that fancy stuff just to make a show! I bet the young men around here would just die for it.” My cheeks flush in anger, and I don’t give that old lady the dignity of an answer. I just turn my back and walk away--quickly. Earning enough money might have just become a lot more difficult. I set my jaw and begin to think of how much punishment that evil old witch deserves. I think of insults that I know should never have crossed my mind, but what else am I supposed to do? Turn around and answer with a smile, “Oh you know that lovely old song Mama used to sing? This here’s for Lucy.” That wouldn’t do a-tall!
Since Grace and I have the mornings and afternoons off, we begin the work on the dress right away, and decide that with Malinda’s arrival, we should find a small job for ourselves too. Within just a few days, thanks to determination, hard work, and bleeding fingers, the Flock is ready to leave this town and Malinda behind with Little Lucy twirling gleefully around in her new blue calico. All for the rest of the day, she hums and sings the song, running her fingers through the ruffles over and over again. She makes Henry and Billy both pretend to be farmers, and by some miracle both comply without a complaint. Maybe the sight of their little sister and cousin leaping and singing more joyfully than she has for a long time softened their hearts.
That evening around the fire when we have all our quilts on the ground, Little Lucy asks for the story of the Blue Calico. Grace tells the bulk of it in animation, and every once in a while I’ll help her out when she begins to nod off. When the story is finished and most everyone is asleep, I find myself staring at the stars, bashfully thinking of a ‘farmer’ I met in the town, when Little Lucy breaks the silence.
“Caroline, why does that Malinda go everywhere we go?” I prop myself up on an elbow, and, glancing around to determine if anyone else is awake, answer slowly, “I think it’s because she has no one to love her.” That, in a way, I think is true.
“Do you think if she had the Blue Calico then someone would love her?”
“I think the Blue Calico would only help if on the inside she was pretty.”
“I think every girl is pretty on the inside, and every boy is handsome on the inside.”
Little Lucy turns over so she’s facing me and answers, furrowing her eyebrows, “I do. But it’s confusing because if Malinda was pretty on the inside then she would be nice to us.”
“Well then maybe… I don’t know, Lucy. I’m too tired to think about something serious like this. How about we talk about it in the morning?” This is true. My mind is drifting, and my eyelids have been glued shut for a while now. Little Lucy whispers an ok, and rolls back over. Before I am completely gone in sleep, though, briefly I wonder if the Blue Calico couldn’t make Malinda good… Maybe it represents something that we all can use…