My Start as a Mystery Writer

by Janice Hornburg Issue: Spring 2015
To a girl going on thirteen, summer vacation
spent tracing the branching back roads
of my grandmother’s genealogy was a boring
hodgepodge of libraries, courthouses, and graveyards.
I wanted to visit Dollywood, but Nonna insisted
on exploring her roots.

Every few miles, she’d roll down the window,
ask in her city voice, “Do you know of the McCarty family?”
Men whittling on country-store benches, or leaning
against paint-peeling porch rails, answered around cheek-wads
of tobacco, “Ain’t from around here, air ye?”
I slumped down in the backseat.

A murder of crows lifted from the skeleton of a dead
oak as our Lexus rolled to a stop in the dirt driveway
of the old McCarty place. I climbed out of the car,
eyes following the rowing wing beats
until birds vanished behind a ridge.

We tramped through waist-high weeds.
Weathered gray boards barely held up a rusty tin roof,
kudzu choked the chimney. One by one, Nonna tested
each sagging step before letting me climb onto the porch.
“Opal McCarty was my best friend. I used to play here
almost every day.”

I tried to imagine Nonna having a play date.
It did not compute. Front-door hinges creaked
as we stepped into a twilight zone of broken furniture
and scattered scraps of cloth. Kudzu waved sickly-green
fingers through shattered panes, moth-shadows flitted in corners.

“I was engaged to Benny McCarty.” She stooped, lifted
a fragment of rotting blue denim that maybe once was a jacket.
“He had a right nice farm with a little one-room cabin,
but the great depression come.” She smoothed the denim
against her body; eyes soaking up shadows.

“He held onto the farm—our nest egg—
‘til Sherriff Hicks nailed eviction papers to the door.
Benny come over here to beg his Pa for mortgage money.
Thought he would save us, but old man McCarty,
so stingy he’d squeeze a nickel ‘til the buffalo bellered,
point-blank refused.

“Opal and I were in the kitchen baking cakes
for the wedding reception when we heard the shotgun blast.
Old man McCarty fell right over here.” She kicked
aside a pile of rags. I bent close, and the rusty shadow
of a stain spilled across scarred pine boards.

This was way better than my favorite murder mystery!
I trailed Nonna out of the gloom. “What happened next?”
She slapped at creased linen slacks, dust motes haloed
her features. “Benny was convicted of first-degree murder.
I moved away, married your grandfather.”

I finger-counted months between wedding date
and Mother’s birthday, watched through car’s rear window
until the house morphed into a green galleon,
chimney mast sinking fast beneath verdant waves,
conjured up an imagined life as the barefoot
grand-daughter of a murderer.


Janice Hornburg is a native Texan who transplanted to East Tennessee in 1993. She attended Houston Baptist University, and is a clinical research scientist involved in the FDA approval of new drugs. She is a member of the Poetry Society of Tennessee—NE Chapter, the North Carolina Writers’ Network, and the Lost State Writers’ Guild. For her poetry, she has won first-place awards from the Poetry Society of Tennessee, The Poetry Society of Texas, the Poetry Society of Virginia, the Watauga Branch of the National League of American Pen Women, and Green River Writers. Janice’s chapbook, Perspectives, was released by Finishing Line Press in May 2013. Her work was published in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Gretchen Moran Laskas Volume V, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee. Other poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Chapter 16, Town Creek Poetry, and Still: The Journal (Feb. 2015).