Excerpt from Sweet as Cane

Read the first chapter—

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“Joe Monroe cut off his toe
And hung it up to dry;
All the girls began to laugh
And Joe began to cry.”

Cane Walker sang the lullaby to her subject. Click.

The pulse light made the baby shine like a glowbug. Cane was careful not to disturb the Irish linen christening dress with the silk lace trim. She already had one of those in her collection. But the silver locket with the dogwood design on the front and a tobacco leaf engraved on the backside had just the right weight. She lifted it off Baby Dunnet, but it caught on the neck of the gown. Dang, if Miss Dunnet hadn’t pinned it to the collar. The child remained steady. Cane hated it when her subjects and the setting she had created were disturbed — even by her own hand.

Click. She thought she should have at least one photograph of herself in the act of thievery; even so, she turned her face away from the camera. Her doctor’s coat, which she wore to look professional, hung loose. Her long, muddy-brown hair and thin, poised fingers were in full view. Small hands and skinny fingers were needed for her kind of work. It was easier to grasp a reedy neck or scoop up a powdered bottom.

The silver oval fell into her pocket and clinked against the knife she’d taken from Ulla Trunk’s father the night before. Ulla’s father had large hands and sausage fingers that had been in the sun too long. At the moons of his fingernails he had shoots of tough black hairs sticking out like wires. He’d scraped the insides of her sinner box after he’d jumped on top of her. She wished she had been photographing Mr. Trunk’s body. Her foot still ached from kicking him.

Later she would add the new items to her case of antiques and whatnots from her clients.

Click. Baby Dunnet had eaten those red chirp-berries, but he probably would have died anyway. Cane had been hardpressed to get the stain out of the child’s three pointed teeth. Baby teeth were so pure and easy to remove, though she let these ones stay since they had a religious look about them: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. She had used a bit of cleanser on a tiny Q-Tip that the dermatologist from Raleigh had given her to swab the pus bumps that flared up on her own face now and then.


Cane’s mother, Darleen Walker, had done a good job of preparing the body, except for the teeth. Darleen, the only mortician in the greater Marrow area, owned the Sweet Hereafter Funeral Home. Cane’s mother always did the babies up right. A bit overdone Cane thought, but the parents were weepypleased, saying their children looked better now than they had when they were alive.

Cane’s side of the business was brisk. It seemed like more babies were dying than living, but the doctor said it wasn’t half as bad as the Spanish Influenza of 1918. Cane never did understand why people wanted to show off photographs of their misfortune. Most of her customers set her photographs out for special occasions with their best china. She kept copies of her work in an album, but she didn’t parade them around like circus curiosities.

Miss Dunnet’s odds so far had been in favor of death. In fact, they say she died a little bit herself when she married Henry Lyon, so most folks still called her by her maiden name, as if to keep her alive. Cane had photographed two other Dunnet babies. She figured this would be the last attempt, since Miss Dunnet was no longer a Georgia peach and a live one squeezed out between the first and second deaths. A little boy Miss Dunnet named King.

Cane had once years ago told another customer, Mr. Benjamin Ladder, that he shouldn’t breed ever again. He was grieving too hard to notice her impertinence. She had just repeated to him what her mother and some of the other folks in town had told her, not even in a whisper. But when Cane heard the sound of her words fall out of her mouth and crack on the floor, she felt sad for him. His first child was blue, so blue that the only thing Cane would take from the infant catafalque where the baby lay was a letter Mr. Ladder had written to his son. And the folded note wasn’t touching the child’s skin. She was sure that baby was still a little bit alive. The expression on his face kept changing, even when she asked her mother to set his mouth. Mr. Ladder’s baby was trying to tell her something she didn’t want to hear. But that was long ago, when she had just started working next door to her mother. She had been too young to draw a paycheck, but her mother had gotten the former photographer to sign-on Cane as an apprentice.

Click. The Dunnet child was all done. Cane lifted it off the black velvet cloth attached to the backboard of the portable display case. She paused a moment and rocked it back and forth, singing softly before she slipped it into the applewood coffin Miss Dunnet’s brother had made special for the occasion.

Cane shoved the casket with her good foot through the adjoining room to her mother’s place of business. She wondered if the bridal-wreath bath she took late last night had reconnected her inner skin.


“Lullabye” used with permission from The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Duke University Press. All rights reserved.