Walking Stick

Kelli Ford

Anna Maria heard the train whistle in two long bursts and listened closely for the screeching brakes. She walked onto the front porch and leaned heavily on the rail, trying to see down past the bridge over Marble City Creek. Maybell Tune was already standing at the edge of her own yard, across the street from Anna Maria’s little green, shingled house on Main.

“O-sio,” Anna Maria yelled over, cupping a hand to her ear. “Think he got one?” A green kerchief, tied at the chin, covered her head. She reached beneath it and adjusted her hearing aid.

“We’ll know shortly, if the Cheaters come running. They got a sixth sense about these things.”

“I ought to go down and see, an’it?”

“Better, before they get the liver and backstrap.”

Anna Maria disappeared into her house to get her pots and knife. Her daughter Lula sat at the kitchen table covering a big rectangular piece of cardboard with tin foil. Two fat unaddressed envelopes with the name J.R. Smith written on them sat next to her. J.R.’d left Lula and the girls for another woman many months back. The four of them had moved into the tiny house. Since then, Lula had been baking anniversary and birthday cakes for money. All day long, sugar, flour, and eggs, counting other people’s years with the beautiful roses she squeezed along the edges of their cakes. Anna Maria’s own husband had died two years before with lung cancer. It was a house full of women and soon-to-be women. Anna Maria rummaged through the kitchen drawers.

“What are you looking for?” Lula asked.

“Good knife. Joe kept them sharp.”

“Did they hit a cow?”

“Think so.”

“Gracious, Mother.”

“It’s good meat. Fresh,” Anna Maria said, dropping a butcher knife and a thin fillet knife into her apron pocket along with some rags and balancing two big roasting pots on her hips. “Got to eat, Lula.”

“I’d eat dirt first.”

“Joe stayed with dirteaters down in Mississippi. Bad for the teeth, an’it?” Anna Maria said and laughed. By the time Joe had died, he didn’t have a tooth left in his head. He liked to scare the girls by taking his false teeth out and chasing them around the house.

Justine, the middle girl ran into the kitchen. “Are you going to the tracks, Granny?” She pulled a chair from the table, stood on it, and pulled a big bowl down. “Can I come?”

“You’ll do no such thing. We have church tonight,” Lula said. “Now get down from there.”

“Please, Mom. Granny doesn’t mind, do you, Granny?”

“You heard me. You are not a Cheater, and no daughter of mine will eat roadkill.”

Justine pushed the chair back to the table and plopped into it, propping her head upon her fist. Beneath her breath, she muttered, “It’s trackkill.”

“What did you say,” Lula asked.

“Nothing,” Justine replied.

“Do not talk into your hands.”

“I wasn’t,” Justine began, but Anna Maria interrupted her.

“Maybe we cook later,” Anna Maria said to the girl and left the room in a rattle of tin pots.

Lula looked at the clock. “Be back in time for service, Mother.” The screen door slammed shut, and she finished taping the foil to the cardboard cake tray.

Once outside, Anna Maria spoke to Biddy Cheater who was walking past with a knife and pans of her own. Three dirty little boys, all about the same age trailed after her, each carrying a bowl.

“O-sio. Do-hi-tsu?”

Biddy Cheater hurried along, anxious to be the first one at the train tracks. She yelled, “Os-da,” over her shoulder but kept moving.

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. The cow would be there or it would not, she thought as she limped down the road. But the thought of fresh liver and onions tonight made her walk just a bit faster. As the Cheaters moved down the hill, Anna Maria turned her hearing aid back down and settled into her thoughts.

As a teenager, Lula had refused to speak Cherokee after going away to the Indian school in Chiloco, and the grandkids didn’t even know the language. Anna Maria, too, had been sent to Chiloco. But she had resisted English. She ended up with poor grades and many welts on the backs of her legs in return.

She had only begun to feel comfortable with English after marrying Joe, an Irishman. Her last name had been Thirsty. With Joe, it became O’Connelly, but he thought it best to drop the “O” to blend in. Her accent was a strange mixture of Cherokee, rural Oklahoma-speak, and an Irish lilt, and she still mixed up a lot of words. People laughed at her, and mostly she laughed with them. The Cheaters didn’t laugh.

A car pulled along beside her, and Sister Louise from church leaned over to roll down the window. “I declare, Anna, where are you going with all that stuff?”

Anna Maria readjusted her hearing aid. She cocked her head, pointed to her ear, and smiled faintly.

“I said, ‘Do you need a ride?’” the woman in the car yelled.

“Think I’ll walk.” Anna Maria smiled and moved the pots to her other hip. As she straightened, she leaned toward the car. “Thank you.”

“What about church tonight?”

She looked down the hill. Biddy Cheater and the boys were getting smaller. “I’ll tell Lula go to Drain’s store and call you.” She shifted the pots again, repeated, “Thank you,” and turned back toward the tracks.

“I’m going that a’way, Anna. Why don’t you get in?”

Anna Maria hesitated and then opened the car door and eased into the seat. It was a small car.

“Want to put that stuff in the back?”

Anna Maria pointed to her ear and shook her head, smiling. She gripped the pots tightly.

“Where to?”

Anna Maria pointed straight ahead, and Sister Louise shifted the car into drive and tried again. “Has Sister Lula found an address for J.R. yet?”

Anna Maria shook her head, holding the door handle tightly with one hand as the car bounced along the road.

“She’s been such a blessing for the church. They say the Lord worketh in mysterious ways. What with all her door-to-door mission work and the beautiful songs she and those girls sing.”

Sister Louise looked over at Anna Maria whose eyes were fixed on the potholes.

“Who knows what good she could have done if J.R.’d seen fit to act up a few years sooner.”


Anna Maria liked the little rock church in Marble City. Occasionally the little children’s choir sang “Amazing Grace” or “I’ll Fly Away” in Cherokee, and every other Sunday, Pastor Tommy Polecat delivered the sermon in Cherokee. Just a smattering of Marble City Indians attended the church, nobody else. The services were short, and afterward everyone gathered outside at the picnic tables to share squawbread, deer or squirrel meat, wild onions and scrambled eggs, Dr. Pepper, and whatever else happened to be in the cupboards. Sometimes the Cheaters showed up carrying a glass gallon pickle jar filled with sassafras root tea. Sometimes they showed up with nothing, but they never attended the services beforehand.

Lula had started asking her mother to go to the Free Holiness Church in Vian over a year ago. Anna Maria noticed that Lula’s love for the church had begun to intensify when she started thinking J.R. was running around on her. To Lula’s invitations, first Anna Maria said she liked the rock church just fine. Then she said she had to do the wash. Next she couldn’t get a ride. When J.R. left for good and the neighbors found Lula in their yard at four a.m. wearing nothing but her pink satin nightgown, Anna Maria had given in. Since then, Sister Louise or another kind church lady showed up at her house four nights a week, and of course they all attended both services on Sunday now.

Twice now, the church had taken up a special offering for the family. Still, Lula had to rely upon commodities, like Anna Maria had for years. Anna Maria knew it embarrassed her, and that almost as much as she hoped for heavenly salvation, Lula hoped for J.R. to come back to his family and his job as foreman at the lime plant so they could go back to their little brick house across town. Through the thin walls Anna Maria had heard Lula praying that the mysterious ways would be fewer and further between.


“Why can’t I go with Granny?” Justine whined.

“Do not question me, young lady. If you feel good enough to go to the train tracks with your grandmother, you feel good enough to march yourself right to school.”

“It’s chicken pox, Mom. They said another week.” Justine swung her foot, kicking the table leg.

“Not another word or I’m getting the belt. Do your homework.”

Justine sagged her shoulders and stuck out her lips.

“Straighten up now,” Lula said as the girl clopped down the hallway. Justine allowed every little emotion to move through her body and pass across her face. It was not pretty. From the end of the hallway came the sound of a door being almost slammed.

Lula lurched out of her chair and winced as her knee made a popping sound. With loose hair falling around her face, she worked the leg, feeling joints rub against each other. Lula knew she whipped Justine too hard sometimes, especially when the girl set her face to stone and refused to cry, but Lula knew no other way. This time, she decided that it wasn’t a slam that she heard after-all. Instead, she rested her hands upon the edge of the chipped porcelain sink and put a cup under the faucet.

Her hands were strong and wide. An oven burn crisscrossed the back of her left hand. She dropped her head into her palm for a moment and rested her eyes, remembering Chiloco. Girls had envied the small mole above her lip and used pencils to try to create their own. Boys commented on her fair complexion, called her beautiful. She did not know when she last heard anything of the sort.

The sound of the running water changed. Lula saw that her cup was running over and had been for some time. For some sad reason, this made her smile, and she watched the water run down the drain for a long time before she wiped her face, smoothed her bun with wet hands, and opened the cupboard for flour. There were cakes to make, thank goodness.


Justine shared a room with her two sisters and Lula. She slept on a pallet and her two sisters slept with their mom. At one time, they’d been the only family in Marble City with an air-conditioner in their car. Since her dad drove off with the air conditioner blowing in Velma Shifflett’s face, nobody had one.

Justine lay down on the bed with a history book for a few minutes but got up and went to the window when she heard laughter. She folded her arms over the window seal and watched Maryland Cheater and her two younger sisters walk home from school. Maryland wore the yellow shirt with big, pink puffy letters that said “UNIQUE” across the front. She always wore that shirt. It was a hand-me-down from Justine. Lula, really. Just before her daddy had left, Lula gathered up all the girls’ short-sleeved shirts and bell-bottom jeans and took them down to Cheater Lane. Now the girls wore long-sleeves and long skirts. If God didn’t like to see her arms, she didn’t know why God would want to see Cheater arms, but her mom had said something about “those less fortunate” and loaded the car with the precious boxes. She remembered how Maryland Cheater had run out into the dirt yard, grinning when they dropped off the boxes. After that Maryland started telling people they were go-hu-s-di-a-na-da-dv-ni, cousins. Justine’s sisters got mad, but Justine hoped they were.

She snuck into the bathroom and filled her hands with hot water. Then she splashed her face until it burned. She dried her face on a towel and crept into her room, got under the covers and laid the history book on her chest.

“Mom!” Justine yelled and then listened. “Mom,” she said as forcefully as she thought she could.

Lula walked into the room. “Are you working?”

“I’m not feeling too good.”

“You shouldn’t be moving around so much.” Lula sat on the edge of the bed and put her palm to the girl’s forehead. “You’re warm.”

“My belly feels kind of funny.”

Lula looked at the clock. “The girls are riding to church with the Lawsons.” She squeezed Justine’s arm. “I need to go call Sister Louise to see if she can pick us up. Maybe you’ll feel better by then.”

“Can I have some water, please? I’m thirsty.”

Lula rose from the bed and went into the kitchen. Justine hid a smile beneath a heavy quilt.


Anna Maria raised her hand but Biddy Cheater did not look over when the car passed. There would be others coming for the meat soon. Not so many anymore, but still a few.

After the first couple of attempts at conversation, Sister Louise had given up. She found Jimmy Swaggart on the radio and let Anna Maria go off into her own little world.

“Here’s good.” Anna Maria looked down the tracks. She could see one of Olson’s Herefords lying off to the side. It looked like the train had slowed in time to leave something good.

The woman pulled the car over. “Anna, can you get back okay?”

“Good. Thank you,” Anna Maria said. She gripped the top of the car door tightly and pulled herself up, still holding the pots with the other hand.

“See you tonight,” Sister Louise said, but Anna Maria had already shut the door and was moving down the tracks.

She thought about Justine. She was a good girl. Anna Maria wished she was here to help carry the pots back. The girl liked to look out for Anna Maria; she was always grabbing her hand to help her step over things or putting Anna Maria’s hand upon her shoulder. Anna Maria called the girl her little a-do-la-nv-ss-di: walking stick. It’d been good staying home with her while she’d been sick. But now she was better.

Anna Maria stepped on a big white rock and winced. The ties were too far apart. She looked over her shoulder, but there was no one in sight. When she reached the cow, she edged down the gravel hill sideways one step at a time. The dumb wa-ka had been knocked back into the pasture. Just as she reached the bottom, the gravel slid, and she slipped down onto one knee. “Ah-yo-ha,” she muttered beneath her breath. Her knee was bloody, but she did not drop her pots.

She put her brown hand upon her knee and pushed herself back upright. The cow looked good. And it was warm. Anna Maria set down the pots and began to work quietly. Her hands curled from arthritis, and she was missing half of her ring finger on the left hand. She had lost it in the belt of the heavy Singer with a pump pedal at Chiloco.

First, she took the liver. Then one of the backstraps. The other she left. She pulled tendons taut and sliced through them, leaving yellow chunks of fat for flavor. The work went quick and smooth, as if Anna Maria were a woman half her age. Next she took a roast from the rump of the cow. It was a young one too; the meat would be tender.

Biddy Cheater and her boys walked up just as Anna Maria dropped the roast into the pot with the rest of the meat. Warm blood pooled around the cow and flies buzzed. The boys dropped the bowls and ran, whooping down to the creek below the tracks. Biddy saw that the liver was gone. She nodded to Anna Maria who pointed to the bloodied cow with her knife.

“Wa-do,” Biddy said, kneeling to cut out the other backstrap. Like Anna Maria, Biddy’s hands seemed to know what to do on their own. Her eyes wandered and her voice called out to the boys from time to time, but her hands were steady, cutting chunks of flesh, swatting flies.

Anna Maria looked at the sun and wiped her hands. It would take a while to get back. There was church, and her knee was beginning to stiffen. She gathered her pots and started toward the gravel embankment, back up to the tracks. She heard the boys, yelling in her own language down at the creek. Without thinking she turned, walked back to Biddy and dropped the liver in her pot.

Biddy looked up at Anna Maria. Then she wiped the hair from her face with the back of her hand and again softly said thank you: “Wa-do.”

Anna Maria turned and started the long walk back home.


When Justine heard Lula return from the store, she stuffed the hot rag she had covering her face and neck between the bed and the wall. She rubbed her face hard with the quilt until it reddened.

Lula sat on the edge of the bed, and put the back of her hand to the girl’s forehead. “Maybe I should stay with you.” She looked into Justine’s eyes and stroked her cheek.

“But you’re supposed to sing with the girls tonight.”

“I know.” Lula stood to look out the window, flicking her fingernails with her thumbnail, as she did when worried. Like the ticking of a second hand, Justine was used to the clicking sound. She held her breath. Lula glanced at the clock again. “Your grandmother should be home soon. She won’t mind staying.”

Justine exhaled, almost smiling. Lula picked a dress from the closet and went to the bathroom to change. Soon a car honked outside. She walked into the room smelling of powder and Aqua Net hairspray, her bun perfectly in order.

“Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you.”

“I expect you to stay in bed. Read if you start to feel better.” Lula bent to kiss the girl on the forehead. “I love you.”

“You too.”

Justine listened for the car door to slam and waited in bed until she was sure her mother was not coming back. Then she popped up and dug a sleeveless Donavan shirt from beneath the bed and changed into it. She felt silly in the homemade polyester skirt and tennis shoes; she wished she still had a pair of her jeans.

She walked onto the porch and stood on her toes, looking down toward the tracks. It would be dark soon. She started to run. She ran past junk tires, an old rusted bicycle, a half-buried bed frame and mattress. Her black braids bounced on her shoulders. She hoped she hadn’t missed everything, but she was glad she was going to miss “Journey for Heaven.” She’d grown so sick of that song after the long hours spent at the Lawson’s piano practicing. She jumped high into the air mid-stride, like a deer, and yelled, “Thank the Lord for chicken pox!” As she rounded the last corner before the tracks, she came upon her Granny.

Anna Maria was moving slowly. The pots that she carried so easily when empty now seemed to pull her closer to the gravel road with each step. She had one under each arm, wedged into her hips, like overgrown babies. Justine ran to her and took one of the pots.

“A-do-la-nv-ss-di,” Anna Maria said, smiling. She sat down on the side of the road and Justine sat next to her, looking up into her face, waiting. “Where’s Lula at?”

“Church,” Justine said, softly, picking up a handful of pebbles.

“She say for you to stay home?”

“Uh-huh.” Justine threw a pebble across the road at a brown beer bottle. “But I just wanted to come see. I feel okay.”

“We carry these back and you go right to bed, okay.”

“Please don’t tell.”

“You go right to bed.”

Car lights rounded the corner. Justine stood and pulled her Granny up with both hands. It was hard getting up for Anna Maria. Her knee was bruised and stiff. Justine picked up the pots and handed one to Anna Maria.

Sister Louise’s car stopped and Lula stepped out. Justine dropped the pot, and the backstrap tumbled. Tiny bits of gravel and dirt coated the meat.

“Justine Irene Smith.” Lula’s brown eyes were wide, and her voice shook. “Get in this car right now.”

Justine kneeled to the ground. She kept her eyes on Lula, but picked up the meat. She picked the flecks of gravel off one by one.

“Now!” Lula yelled. She stepped toward Justine and jerked her hard by a braid. The girl lost her footing. She held on to the meat as Lula pulled her toward the car, dragging her on her side through the gravel. Justine kicked her feet to keep up. “You will not disobey me,” Lula said, bending down to Justine’s face.

Justine did not cry or speak. She looked into Lula’s eyes and raised her chin; her bottom lip stuck out.

Lula pulled the girl up and slapped her cheek, leaving the imprint of her hand. Still, the girl did not cry. Lula raised her hand again.

Suddenly, Anna Maria appeared between Lula and Justine. She seemed bigger and younger now. “She’s just a girl, Lula.”

“She is my daughter, Mother. Get out of the way.” She still held Justine by the hair.

“Lula.” Anna Maria put her hands on each of her daughter’s shoulders. “No.”

Lula pushed Anna Maria’s hands away and tried to shove her aside with her free hand. Feet shuffled, but the old woman did not move. Her hands dug into Lula’s shoulders. “Mother,” Lula pleaded, her teeth clenched, and let go of the girl.

The silhouetted light from the car made the two women one shape. Justine heard her grandmother say, “Get in the car.” Justine rubbed her face, still clinching the backstrap. Again, Anna Maria said to her, “Get in the car. Go to church now.”

Anna Maria let go of Lula’s shoulders and put her hands on her cheeks. Her nails still had flecks of blood on them. Anna Maria squeezed her daughter’s face. Lula closed her eyes and lowered her head toward the ground.

“I forgot my Bible,” Lula said softly. She could not seem to catch her breath. “I couldn’t find her.”

Anna Maria stroked Lula’s face.

“She just left.”

Justine dropped the meat back into the pot and straightened her shirt. Lula did not seem to see her anymore. The girl held her bare arms with her hands and walked past the two women and slid into the backseat of Sister Louise’s car.

A tear ran down Lula’s face and across the back of her mother’s fingers. Anna Maria smoothed the tears away with her thumb. After a while, Lula raised her head and turned to the car, and Anna Maria let her go.

Lula leaned into the passenger side and looked at Justine who glanced at her mother, then quickly stared into the dark window. The girl sniffed, and her breath jumped, catching in her nose. Lula looked at her for a long time and did not speak, her breath filling the car, coming more slowly and deeply. Justine would not look back. Lula turned to the front, and she saw herself in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were red, and she had dark bags under them. Pieces of coarse, gray hair had fallen from her bun. She shut the car door.

“I think I’ll walk with you, Mother.”

“You got church.”

“I’ll walk home.”

In the quiet, the two ladies picked up the pots, and the taillights disappeared into the distance. As they walked, Lula began to talk. She did not talk of church or cake orders. She talked of things she had not even said in prayer. She talked about the way that moving about in the world alone can make a body feel separate from every living thing. The places filled by her faith and the spaces left empty. She spoke of a great fear that all of her belief was not enough and that nothing would ever change except that over time she would grow grayer, more alone, and more afraid. Anna Maria put her arm through Lula’s and leaned on her daughter, walking very slowly. Lula spoke long and low and did not stop when they made their way into the yellow glow of the porch light where Justine’s head was outlined in the window. Anna Maria could not find the right words to say to Lula, but she turned her hearing aid up so loudly that it began to whistle.

Kelli Ford
Kelli Ford

Kelli Ford was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and now lives with her husband, Scott Weaver, in Austin.  She is a Dobie Paisano fellow and has published work in Fifty-Two Stories, jmwwand SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. You can find her on the front porch or at http://kellijoford.blogspot.com/.