It don’t take no high school education to figure out I’m in a pickle.
First off, there’s cow shit on my boots. Dirty boots is a sign of a shoddy upbringing. Since I mostly brought up myself, I can guarantee you I ain’t no low class woman.
I ain’t no fool, neither. The good Lord give me plenty of brains, then shoved me out of the womb a-buckin’ and a-rarin’. I come into this world with my eyes wide open and I ain’t shut ’em in twenty-six years. I aim to see what’s coming my way, and if I don’t like what I see I’ll dodge or run or dig in my spurs and beat the living shit out of it.
But I sure didn’t see this coming. How did this happen? Did I blink? Is that how I ended up flat on my back in a bunch of piney woods not being able to feel a thing, not even my own skin and bones? I’m laying here with my eyes wide open under one of them cloudless skies the good Lord strews through Alabama in the summertime and I ain’t got a single urge in my brain. Not even to get up and saddle my horse.
Since I can’t figure out no reason for all that, I might as well lay here till the good Lord gives me a clue.
Now, I ain’t no religious nut, but me and God come to a understanding thirteen years ago.
I was setting in Doe Valley Baptist Church listening to the preacher shout, “The road to redemption is straight and narrow,” after which he passed around the collection plate. Dollar bills began dropping like faintin’ goats. Then Brother Lollar commenced hollering about tithing, which is just a fancy way of asking poor folks to part with their butter and egg money. Twenties began drifting into the plate, and it looked to me like the road to redemption was paved with greenbacks.
I just about resigned myself on the spot to eternal damnation. Then lo and behold the preacher waxed eloquent about a option called endowments.
Now, I had two of them suckers setting on my chest. I knew on account of my science teacher. The week before he’d invited me to his house to look at the stars through his telescope. While I was on his back porch trying to find the man in the moon, he sneaked up behind me, told me I was “well-endowed,” then proceeded to try to feel both of ’em. I run back into the kitchen, grabbed the nearest weapon and whacked him over the head with his own corn bread skillet. He’s the one ended up seeing stars.
Be that as it may, setting in the Baptist church with sweat rolling into my endowments, I figured that finally me and redemption might make a nodding acquaintance.
As soon as the shouting was over, I asked the preacher how I could use the gifts nature bestowed on me for the Lord. After he got his jaw back in the right place, he laid his hands on my head and prayed for “the soul of this pitiful, unfortunate orphan.”
I ain’t no orphan—I got a daddy—and I sure as hell ain’t pitiful. I walked out and marched myself back up Doe Mountain and never looked back.
Daddy found me sulking in the hayloft. “Pony,” he said to me, which is my name on account of being so little everybody said I reminded them of a Shetland pony, “ain’t no use fumin’ at God. He didn’t see fit to give you no riches, but He give you a brain and plenty of grit. What you do with it ain’t up to that preacher, it’s up to you.”
Me and God had us a understanding that day. I promised if He’d understand why church was gonna be nature from here on out, where ain’t no bird nor tree ever looked down on me, I wouldn’t never let Him down about using what He give me. I reckon God was okay with that bargain, because I done proved my daddy right a million times over.
Now, I ain’t what you’d call a woman of the world, but I done traveled a good bit and seen how things is north of the Mason-Dixon line. And let me tell you, I ain’t seen nothin’ I can’t handle if I set my mind to it.
I try wrapping my mind around laying here stiff as a poker, but don’t nothing come to me except the scent of Cherokee roses—seven star-white petals, seven tribes of displaced Cherokee, the tears of a grieving nation turned to flower. I feel a rushing across my skin like the flow of cool blue water, the kiss of greening spring winds, the brush of a starling’s wing. Right before my eyes a wall of roses springs up in the piney woods, blankets the trees, swings from the branches and covers the ground.
This ain’t happened but once in my life—the day I kicked free of my mother’s womb, the day she died. His heart split in two, my daddy took his chain saw and cut down my mother’s climbing Cherokee roses. She was Morning Star and she’d planted them roses as a reminder that half the blood running through her veins was Cherokee. Daddy raved through the woods like a madman till there wasn’t nothing left standing but him and the trees stripped of scented vines.
Satisfied there wasn’t a single rose left to remind ’em of his loss, he marched out of them woods with tears streaming down his face. The midwife laid me in his arms, a screeching bundle of kicking wildfire. When he turned back around to show me that we was starting over—just me and him—ever’ one of them Cherokee roses had sprung back to life.
As I watch now, the Cherokee roses start dancing, a-swinging and a-swaying like a wild wind’s shaking ’em. But the air is so still you can’t see nothing move except them roses, not even the wind over a eagle’s wing.
My heart strains upward, trying to rise, and rose petals drift down and cover me like snow, like stars, like the tears of my ancestors.
I figure I must be dead.
If that’s the truth, there ain’t nothing I can do about it. I might as well hang around and see what happens next.
© 2011 Peggy Webb
The Tender Mercy of Roses
At twenty-six, Pony Jones is a record-breaking legend of the rodeo circuit. And when the beloved young star’s body is discovered in the northern Alabama woods, it’s Pony’s spirit—invisible to the eye but not to the sixth sense—that guides the living to clues to her murder. Swept up in a whirlwind mystery of intense emotion are her grief-stricken father, Titus, bent on retribution; and Jo Beth Dawson, a hard-drinking former detective with an otherworldly connection with Pony—and an urgent compulsion to uncover the truth. The Huntsville rodeo leads Jo Beth to Titus, and what the unlikely partners find is more shocking than murder itself: long-buried family secrets that will bring them to search their souls for redemption . . . and tie the three of them closer than they could imagine.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Set on the rural border of Tennessee and Alabama, The Tender Mercy of Roses chronicles the murder and search for the killer of popular rodeo cowgirl Pony Jones. Pony is found in the northern Alabama woods amidst ethereal circumstances with white Cherokee roses covering her body. Furthermore, the woman who discovers Pony’s body, Jo Beth Dawson, was once a well-respected detective in the very town where Pony was murdered. Haunted by Pony’s ghost, Jo Beth undertakes the journey of a lifetime to find Pony’s murderer and come to terms with her own past.
QUESTIONS & TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
- The novel opens with the ghost of Pony narrating the circumstances of her death. What is your initial reaction to Pony’s character? Do you like her? What do you learn about her life? About her murder?
- Discuss the signs from the universe that tell Titus his daughter has died. What do you make of these primal images? Do you connect them to Pony’s mo