— Excerpt —
Excerpted from Genuine Sweet by Faith Harkey. Copyright © 2015 by Faith Harkey. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Genuine Sweet. That’s me. And since everyone always asks how I came by such an unlikely name, I might as well tell you now.
Twelve years ago, on a night so dark the midwife couldn’t find her way through the woods to our house, my ma gave birth to me. They say it was a long labor, and a hard one, and her body just tuckered out, so she died. But before she died, Ma held me in her arms and looked down at me and smiled.
“She’s a genuine treasure,” Ma said.
Pa, whose family name is Sweet, was only slightly drunk when he added, “Ten fingers, ten toes, and ugly as get-out. A genuine Sweet.”
Gram swatted Pa on the head and told him to hush. “All newborns are a little soggy. They’ve been floating in goo for nine months.” Turning to Ma, she asked, “What’ll you call her, Cristabel?”
Ma glanced at Pa, who she loved very much even though he was dumb as a post when he drank, which was most of the time. “Genuine Sweet. Genuine Beauty Sweet.”
I usually don’t tell people about the “Beauty” part because, as you can see, I’m not one. Big buckteeth and more freckles than you’ll find stars in a backwoods sky. But you don’t seem like the teasing sort, and besides, you say you’re here to know the whole story, and I believe you.
I guess the other thing you’ll want to hear about is how I came to be in such an unusual line of work. There aren’t a whole lot of twelve-year-old wish fetchers, and even fewer who end up in a muddle like mine. So here’s the truth, plain and simple. My gram used to say this, by the way. I never take credit where it’s not due. She said, Necessity is the mother of invention.
See, in small towns like Sass, Georgia, towns where one logging company employs three-quarters of the citizenry, you don’t find a whole lot of fresh opportunity. So when Pa Sweet showed up drunk to work one day and nearly cut off Bill Hasting’s right hand with the circular saw, there weren’t too many other jobs for him to choose from. He did apply for the part-time security opening at the old folks’ home, but as you might imagine, no one was too pleased with the idea of leaving the safety of all those seniors to Dangerous Dale Sweet, as he’d come to be called.
Me and Pa were broke. Gram kicked in as much as she could from her Social Security check, and moved in with us to help make ends meet, but in the end, we were hungry most of the time, and even chubby Gram was starting to look a little pinched.
One night, as I lay in bed, my stomach rumbling something fierce, I tried to think of an idea, anything to bring in a little extra cash. I was no scholar, so a career in tutoring the younger kids was probably out. And as for babysitting, who would ever hire Dangerous Dale Sweet’s daughter?
About then, I started thinking of Gram’s apple spice cake, which, if you like sweets, I won’t let you leave without the recipe for it. It’s light and heavy all at once, just the thing to fill up an empty and — I’ll say it — forlorn-feeling belly. So, there I was, thinking about that cake. With a glass of milk on the side. Warm milk, maybe, with a sprinkling of nutmeg on top — and all of the sudden I remembered something.
It had been some months prior, a few days after my last birthday, before Pa lost his job. Gram and I had been snacking on leftover apple spice cake, which still had holes in it from where my twelve candles had gone.
“Now that you’ve come to your womanhood, there’s something you ought to know,” Gram had said.
I set down my fork to listen. As I mentioned, this was before we got to be so hungry that not even a black bear could have come between me and a piece of cake.
Gram reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a yellowed piece of newspaper. She unfolded it gingerly, so it wouldn’t tear. The headline read, macintyre girl grants boy’s last wish. “That’s Flo MacIntyre, my mama, your great-gram.”
I read the short clipping. It mentioned a crowd of people gathering to watch Great-Gram MacIntyre sing to the stars, which, somehow, had something to do with a sick boy who’d died happy.
I shrugged at Gram, baffled.
“You and me,” Gram began slowly, “and your ma, too — all of us MacIntyre women — we’re wish fetchers.” The way she said it, I could tell she felt she’d offered me the keys to a real treasure chest.
“Really?” I said, trying to rally some excitement. I knew I’d failed, so I went ahead and admitted, “I don’t, uh, I don’t know what that is.”
“No. No, I reckon you wouldn’t.” She used her tongue to fiddle with her dentures. “All right. Think of it this way. Some folks are born knowing how to play the guitar. The first time you set the box in their hands, they can play you a tune. Right?”
“And some people can crochet a doily like nobody’s business. Your great-great-uncle Felix was that way, Lord bless him.” She folded the clipping and set it back in her pocket. “The women in our family, we have a certain shine, too. We can draw down the magic from the stars. We can grant wishes.”
“Like the genie in the bottle?” I asked with a little laugh because, truth to tell, I didn’t believe a word of it.
But she kept on.
“A genie is a made-up thing, an old story. Besides, genies were always trying to trick people,” said Gram. “Wish fetchers are real. The underlings of angels, my ma used to say, with humbler clothes.”
We didn’t say much more about it then. It had been a nice story, I figured, but not much more than that, and surely Gram had been able to tell I hadn’t been in a snake-oil kind of mood that night.
So, as I said, that’s what I was thinking of on that hungry, hungry night some months ago. Apple spice cake and the clabberheaded notion that I might have wish fetching in my blood. Foolish, really.
Of course, I’d never known Gram to lie . . .
And we were a fourth-generation Sass family, after all. The town was full of folks who had family shines. Everyone knew Mina Cunningham was a pain lifter and the Fullers could soothe bad dreams. But granting wishes? That was hanging the basket mighty high.
Just then, a mouse so familiar I’d named it Scooter skittered across the floor. Our house had more cracks than it did walls. It wasn’t bad enough we were hungry. Winter was coming, and without money to pay the electric, we’d soon be cold. Dangerous cold. I was scared.
But wishes — that would remedy everything. Not just now, but forever.
All right, then. I’d play the huckleberry. But what should I wish for? At first, I wasn’t sure. Maybe for my pa to wake up and get sober and fix things before they broke any worse. Not real likely. There was a better chance of my dead ma showing up at the door with angel’s wings and a basket of money.
Food. House repairs. Electricity through the winter. All the things we needed. It pretty much came down to cash.
Simple enough, I figured.
Now. How would a body go about fetching a wish? In the end, I couldn’t think of any other way but to say it out loud.
I took a deep breath. In the moment before I spoke, my belly lurched. First, because my wish might actually come true. Second, because I knew it probably would not.
I wish, I wish — oh, please — I wish . . .
“I wish-fetch myself one thousand dollars!” I spoke into the night.
I know what you’re thinking. Why only a thousand? But I reckoned if I really was a wish fetcher, I could always wish up some more. Better to start small.
The amount ended up not mattering a whit. I could have wished for a million. The outcome would have been the same.
But remember, now, I was desperate. There was no way I was going to give up after the first try.
No, what I needed was a little schooling.
I got up out of my bed — which was the living room sofa — and went into Gram’s room — which used to be my old room.
“You sleeping, Gram?” I whispered.
Gram’s dentures clacked. “Who’sit! Who’sit!”
“Shht. Gram. It’s just me.” I sparked a match and lit the candle beside her bed. “I need to ask you something.”
“You scared the golly out of me!” Her face looked a little green in the candlelight.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to.”
“Well, what is it?” Gram sat up in the grumpiest manner she could muster.
“Do you think . . .” I looked at the flickering of the little candle flame.
My stomach rumbled. I stuck my fist in my gut to shush it. “Did you mean what you said, after my birthday, about all that wish-granting stuff?”
Gram blinked. “I did. I do.”
I nodded, chewing on that. “Do you think you might teach me to grant wishes?”
She smiled just a little. “I think I could.”
“And then I could wish us a better life? With money and food and all?”
“Ah,” she sighed. “I see.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“A wish fetcher can’t grant their own wishes, Gen,” she replied.
I pondered that for a while.
“Well, you can do it, too, right? What if you grant me and I’ll grant you and we can both of us grant Pa? He could use a double dose of wish, surely.”
She shook her head. “Can’t.”
I flared my nostrils. There’s few things that bother me as much as a person who gives up easily. “Gram, you are hungry, ain’t you?”
A pause. “Yes.”
“You wanna be hungry any longer than you absolutely have to be?” I asked.
Just then, her belly made a sound like an angry cat.
“No,” Gram admitted.
“Then shouldn’t we at least try?”
She thought this over.
“Lemme tell you a true story.” She wrapped a blanket around my shoulders.
“A mess of years ago,” she said, “there was a man, a wish fetcher who lived in the city of Fenn. It was a big city, one of the grandest in all the South, mostly because of this man, who spent his days granting the good-hearted wishes of the people.” She pointed a finger at me. “Good-hearted wishes. Let that be the only kind you ever fetch, you mark me?”
“So, here’s this man,” Gram went on, “granting wishes. And one day he wakes up and realizes everyone in Fenn is getting everything they want — except him! He’d fetched wishes for loving wives and housefuls of kids, good jobs and good health, and what did he ever get from it? He lived comfortably enough, sure, but he had no wife, no kids, no job but granting wishes, and, sure as sunshine, he came down with a bad cold every August, no matter what.”
“See! That’s just what I mean!” I interrupted. “Why couldn’t he grant his own wishes? Nothing bad, just good things.”
Gram held up a finger. “But he did. He broke the wish fetcher’s first rule and wished himself a wife and two apple-cheeked young’uns. And they were happy, and he went on granting wishes for other people, too. But then his tub sprang a leak, and it was all too easy to fetch a wish to fix it. And when his oldest daughter started to turn fat, it was easier to grant her beauty than it was to teach her to eat right. Wishes and wishes, faster and faster they came, until his whole life was built on wishes, and he wasn’t fetching any for anyone else.”
“But I wouldn’t—” I blurted.
“He never thought he would, either,” Gram said. “One day, he had a fight with the mayor, and it suddenly seemed to make ever so much sense just to wish himself mayor. Another day, when the egg lady’s chickens stopped laying due to cold, rather than wait for warmer weather along with everyone else, he wished up his own eggs, and started to sell those, too. Afore you know it, the chicken lady was out of business. Soon, the man wasn’t just the mayor, he was the boss of the whole town. He sold the best of everything, because he didn’t have to fashion it or grow it or even give it much more than a thought — he only had to wish it up. And people loved him.”
Gram crinkled her eyes. “And they hated him. Resented him. You know what that means?”
“Even his wife and kids started to resent him because they thought he should fetch them the skill to grant wishes, too. Why do you think he didn’t?” Gram asked.
“So he’d be the only boss?” I replied.
“I think so.” She was quiet for a time. “In the end, he died suddenly, and the whole town was ruined because nobody remembered how to grow crops or raise chickens or hammer iron. People went hungry or had to move away to cities where they could buy things other people still knew how to make. Fenn became a ghost town. And the man, his name was cursed for all time.”
I considered Gram’s story. “It doesn’t have to turn out that way.”
She gave me a fierce look. “Maybe not, but you heed this, Gen Sweet. Them what breaks that rule pays a price. Unless you promise to never, ever fetch your own wishes — or talk other people into asking for things you want for yourself — I won’t teach you diddly. You understand?”
“But what good does it do to grant other peoples’ wishes when we’re starving?” I demanded.
“Good given away always comes back to you, Gen. Don’t you know that by now?” she asked.
“So, you’re saying that if I do good things, I’ll get good things?”
“Yes, but that’s not why you do them—”
“Gram!” I whisper-hollered. “We got to do something! Spend winter in this house? With hardly any food and no heat? We could die!”
Gram gave a little nod. “I guess we could.”
I could feel my eyes bulging. “Well, then?”
She folded her hands in her lap and seemed to be thinking hard.
“All right. Let’s see if we can nudge the Lord just a little,” she agreed. “Never hurts to do a good deed, anyway.”
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