Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride
Story © by Delia Sherman, may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission. • Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February, 1990. • Quilt photograph of the 2009 Crystal Coast Quilters' Guild Donation Quilt.
Nanny Peters? You ain’t never heard of old Nanny Peters? My land, if that don’t beat all!
Well, you set yourself down right here, and I’ll tell you. Nanny Peters was half ox, half prairie dog, with just a touch of the Rio Grande for leavening. She could hoe forty acres of beans, birth twenty calves, and set a good dinner on the table by noon, all without breakin’ a sweat. She had good, strong horse sense, and could tell a skunk from a woodchuck even on a dark night.
And cool! That woman was so cool, she didn’t need an icehouse—she jest put the milk under the bed, and it’d keep a week or more. Why, she didn’t even turn a hair when a big, sandy-white snake slithered in the front door one day, bold as brass. Nanny, she was scourin’ the pots after a bean supper, and that snake sashayed right up to her with his mouth wide open, showin’ fangs like the horns on a Texas Longhorn.
Nanny hears him slidin’ along on the floor (on account of the scales on his belly, see). So she waits for him to get real close, and then she jest grabs that snake ahind the jawbone and wraps him three times around her fist and commences to scour her good cast-iron pot her mama give her. She scrubs and scrubs with that snake until there warn’t a lick of crust left in the pot, and the snake didn’t have no more scales on his back than a baby has on her bottom—no, ma’am. He was madder’n a wet hen, though, and drippin’ pizen and leavin’ burnt marks on the floor and all.
Well, Nanny ain’t havin’ none of that. She lets go the end of his tail and cleans the chimney with it, the snake givin’ her considerable help by whoppin’ around against the bricks. By the time the chimney’s clean, the snake’s feelin’ pretty humble. So Nanny tells him to expect more of the same should he think to call again, and then she takes and heaves him out the back door.
Now, old Nanny Peters bein’ pretty strong in the arm from hoein’ and scrubbin’ and such, that snake sailed smack-dab across the state and landed five miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was half-bald down the back and all covered with ashes, and his tail was cut to shreds from frailin’ it on the chimney bricks, and his skull was all flatted out on account of he’d landed on his head. He got better by and by, but he warn’t the same snake he’d been—no, ma’am. His head stayed flatter’n a hotcake, and his new scales grew in patchy. What’s worser yet, his tail healed in hard ridges that clattered together and kep him awake at night.
And that, jest in case you was wonderin’, is why there’s rattlesnakes.
But that’s not what I set down to tell you. Now, this here’s the story, so you listen close.
Nanny Peters was a great quilter. In fact, some say she invented quiltin’. She could piece a double-size “Road to Texas” or “Tippecanoe” while the bread was risin’, tack the top and the battin’ and the back while the oven heated, and quilt it solid before the crust turned brown. Something elegantifferously complicated, like “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” or “Double Wedding Ring” might take her a mite longer. Her seams was so straight that folk came from far away as Houston to check their yardsticks by ’em, and her stitches was so tiny you couldn’t hardly see ’em, not even with a magnifying glass. And strong! My land, when the calico and battin’ wore out, there’s still be little white chains of stitches left, like a skellerton, and you could use it for a fancy bed throw or maybe a pair of lace curtains.
Nanny’s specialty was weddin’ quilts, and this was the reason for that. Let a couple spend their weddin’ night under one of Nanny’s quilts, and they was set for life. Whatever kind of rip-staver a man had been before his weddin’ night, he was a changed man ever after. If he’d been a boozer, he’d take the pledge. If he’d been a gambler, he’d clean forget the difference between a deuce and a three-spot. A brawler’d get religion, a spendthrift’d pinch pennies till they squealed, a layabout’d bounce to work like a cougar, and as for a ladies’ man! Why, he’d rather crawl into a nest o’ wildcats, heels foremost, than be catched lookin’ at another woman.
This bein’ the case, it won’t come as no surprise that girls got in the way of asking Nanny Peters if she’d kindly make them a weddin’ quilt. Why, it got to be that not a girl in the parish would walk down the aisle until she had that quilt safely folded in brown paper and laid in her linen chest. Some Saturdays the girls’d be lined up from Nanny’s front door clear to Amarillo, beggin’ her for a quilt—nothin’ fancy, mind you, just “Log Cabin” or “Round the World” or “Drunkard’s Path” and they’d wait for it, if ’twas all the same to her, seein’ as the weddin’ was next week. And Nanny almost always obliged ’em, providin’ they was willin’ to help with the cuttin’ out.
But every so often, Nanny’d look at a girl, all bright and shy and eager to be hitched, and Nanny’d shake her head and say, “No.”
Sometimes she’d say it sad, with a pat on the girl’s shoulder or a cup of fresh coffee to make the “No” go down easier, and sometimes like she was too busy countin’ clouds jest now, and would be so long as that girl was askin’. Some of those girls Nanny said “No” to married their men anyway, and every last one of ’em ended up plumb rasmsqaddled: dead, or so put about by their menfolk’s bodaciousness that they might as well be dead and save theirselves the shame. It got so Nanny’s “No” was enough to break off an engagement, even if the couple’d been courtin’ twenty years.
More than one girl tried to talk Nanny into changin’ her mind, but when Nanny Peters said “No,” it stayed said. Argufyin’, cryin’, shoutin’, and bullyraggin’—none of it budged her an inch. Only one time Nanny Peters ever came a country mile near changin’ her “No” to a “Yes,” and that’s the story I want to tell you.
But first, I got to tell you about Cora Mae Roberts.
Cora Mae Roberts, now, she was pretty as a picture, with eyes like Texas bluebonnets and curls so yaller that if her bonnet fell off while she was feedin’ the chickens, you’d go plumb blind lookin’ at her. But only if the sun was shinin’—they wasn’t as yaller as all that when the sun was ahind a cloud. Her biscuits was like buckshot, her stitchin’ like a picket fence, she could outscream a catamount, and she didn’t have the sense God gave an armadillo—but every single man in the county was after her, from the widowman who owned the feedstore to the deputy sheriff who hadn’t nowhere to sleep but the jailhouse. By the time Cora Mae was sixteen years old, they was lined up five deep around her daddy’s ranch house, offering her everything from the moon to dresses from Pittsburgh if only she’d marry them.
Now, some of Cora Mae’s suitors was good men, but some of them was more like coyotes on two legs. And the worst varmint of them all was one of her daddy’s cowhands, a rip-tail roarer could whip his weight in wildcats and ride through a crab apple orchard on a flash of lightning. He was so hard he could kick fire out of flint rock with his bare toes, and he had a thirst for whiskey would put a catfish to shame. His name was Jim Cleering, and he was the man of all men that Cora Mae Roberts wanted to marry.
Jim warn’t long on patience or temperance or even on readin’ or writin’, but his worst enemy’d admit he was a pretty critter. He was so tall he didn’t know when his feet was cold. There wasn’t no bunk long enough for him, but he didn’t care nothin’ ’bout that, ’cause his shoulders was so wide he couldn’t get in the bunkhouse anyhow, so he jest slep’ in the barn and scairt away the rats. His jaw was square as the jailhouse cornerstone and twice as hard. He was hairy as a bear and proud as an unbroken stallion, the yaller flower of the Texas plains.
And if he warn’t, there warn’t a man still alive would say so.
Nanny Peters said so, though, and said it so loud you could hear it through three counties. “That man’s no good,” she told Cora Mae. “He’s got more stalls than your daddy’s stable, and if you can’t see that, you’d miss a buzzard settin’ on a dead cow. He’ll spend your daddy’s money and whup your tail until it’s tough as saddle hide. Ain’t a quilt around could reform that man, and that’s a gospel fact.”
Well, Cora Mae wanted that man, and she wanted that quilt to tuck him up in, and she warn’t going’ to leave Nanny’s house until she had it.
First she cries, whoopin’ and hollerin’ and pourin’ salt water out her eyes until you couldn’t tell the difference between Cora Mae Roberts and a four-star Texas thunderstorm. But Nanny jest fetches her bucket and a couple yards of petticoat flannel for a nose rag and leaves her to it.
Then Cora Mae screams, and, as I was sayin’, she could outscream the hungriest catamount. On this occasion she extends herself some, and her screamin’ was louder than three coyotes and a whole tribe on Injuns, every one of them on the warpath. But Nanny jest rocks in her rockin’ chair, sayin’ less than nothin’.
Then Cora Mae cusses, and I most teetotaciously hope you never hears the like of that. The words she said’d burn the ears right off your head and singe your eyeballs naked, for she’d learnt ’em off her sweetheart, and Jim Cleering, he had a gift for profanity.
Well, Nanny sets and listens for a spell, until Cora Mae says a word made Nanny’s hair stand straight out of her head, scatterin’ hairpins every which way.
“Gal,” says Nanny, real pleasant-like. “Gal, that ain’t no way to address your elders.” And quickern’ a mockingbird after a fly, she takes the bucket Cora Mae’s cried into and douses Cora Mae with salt water, takin’ the starch right out of her yaller curls and sendin’ up clouds of steam where the cold water met the air she’d heated up with her cussin’. And while Cora Mae was drippin’ and gaspin’ like a landed catfish, Nanny takes her broom and sweeps her right on out the door.
But that’s not the end of the story, not quite.
One thing you have to give Cora Mae, she warn’t no quitter—no ma’am. She’d set her heart on tamin’ Jim Cleering with one o’ Nanny’s quilts, and she wouldn’t rest until she was sure that colt was broke to the saddle and a quiet ride for a lady. She’d do it by fair means if she could, but she wouldn’t stick at foul.
So Cora Mae thought and thought until her pore brain was smokin’ like a prairie fire and then she come up with what she thought was one bodaciously smart trick. She’d wait for a full moon, and then strip herself stark naked and roll around in the waller until she was all caked with sticky, smelly, sandy-brown Texas mud. Then she’d stick chicken feathers in the mud, and possum teeth and a couple of rattlesnake rattles and such, and she’d creep up to the foot of old Nanny Peters’s bed and plumb scare a quilt out of her.
Come the full moon, and Cora Mae Roberts was ready. She rolled in that waller and in the hen litter, stuck possum teeth on her buttocks and a rattlesnake rattle in her navel, caught some glowworms and stuck ’em in her hair, and she crep’ through the winder of Nanny’s shack and commenced to wail and moan.
“Nanny Peters. Nanny Peters. This is the magic speakin’ to you,” she moans. Nanny sets up in her bed and reaches for her spectacles. “That so?” she says calmly.
Cora May, mighty put out that Nanny ain’t quiverin’ and beggin’ for mercy, wails and moans a mite louder. “You made a mistake, Nanny Peters, a terrible mistake, and if you don’t make it right, I’ll haunt you and haunt you until the day you die.”
“That’s so. And I’ll give you a taste of that hauntin’, beginnin’ right now!”
With that, Cora Mae commenced to shake mud and feathers and chicken dirt, not to mention possum teeth and rattlesnake rattles, all over Nanny’s bed and Nanny’s clean floor.
And what does Nanny do? Does she squeeze that girl into jelly, or knock out five teeth and one of her eyes, or tie her fingers up in twenty-three separate knots? No, ma’am. Nanny, she takes a double-size blue-and-red “Rob Peter to Pay Paul” from the chest at the foot of her bed, wraps it in brown paper, and hands it to Cora Mae Roberts.
“Here you are, Cora Mae,” she says. “I hope this here quilt breaks Jim Cleering for you, ’cause he’s in powerful need o’ breakin’, and that’s a gospel fact.”
Two weeks later, give or take a day, Cora Mae Roberts married Jim Cleering and went to bed with him under the blue-and-red quilt pieced in the pattern called “Rob Peter to Pay Paul.” Three weeks later Jim Cleering was in the Silver Garter, twenty dollars in the hole to Wildcard Pete the gambler and too drunk to find his gun when the shootin’ started. Cora Mae was home nursin’ a broken jaw, which didn’t stop her screamin’ fit to be tied when they brought Jim home on a board with a bullet through his lung.
It was mighty tragic. Cora Mae never got over it. Of course she married lots of men after Jim: marryin’ was one of her weaknesses, along with whiskey and cussin’. But she took the quilt back to Nanny right away after Jim’s funeral, and she wouldn’t take another one, not even though Nanny swore up hill and down dale that quilt hadn’t had nothin’ to do with Jim breakin’ her jaw and getting’ himself killed in the Silver Garter.
And I believe Nanny. I do indeed.