The Lord giveth and most women piss it away. Perhaps this is why they lack the equipment to aim. Some women piddle their life away in a slow incontinent dribble while squatting in the shadow of a man. Others are so busy trying to overshadow men they miss the mark. Most manage to cover up their little messes like a cat scratching in a litter box, but a few always get caught with their pants down. For this reason, Lorna Wilde bestowed upon her daughters the wisdom her mother bestowed upon her, “Never wear holey underwear.” Being enterprising young women, the Wilde sisters never wore underwear at all.

The sisters dove head first into this world on fire with life and expectation. When the doctor spanked their baby butts for it, they squealed with delight. Hair black as midnight, eyes blazing blue, they were so bright white hot they hissed when you touched them.

In school they knew the answer before the question was given, broke the hearts of boys they never noticed, were the envy of rich girls who had it all. Could have had any man they wanted. Could have been anything they set their mind to. But like their mother and their mother’s mother before them, the Wilde sisters took the path of most resistance. At every crossroad in life, there is always one right choice. Inevitably, Wilde women go left.

They trace their poor sense of direction to the day their great-grandmother left Cyril Rudolph waiting at the altar. As the organist played the Wedding March, Fidela stared at her reflection in the beveled bride’s mirror and saw her future – a pampered life of luxury with a man who worshipped her – and promptly jumped out the window.

Fidela fell from grace into the arms of Bodine Wilde, a part-time riverboat musician and a full-time scoundrel. Leaning out the church window, Cyril caught one last glimpse of his beloved running toward the river as if the devil were after her, rose petals scattering from her bouquet and wearing nothing but bloomers and a whalebone corset.

Cyril Rudolph was a decent man who deserved better. Decent men have the farthest to fall. After all the guests had offered their condolences, he stood alone at the church altar, humiliated and in such pain he did not think he could bear it. Tears running down his face and fists clenched so tight his nails drew blood, he turned his head to heaven and threw open his arms. “Let her suffer as I suffer,” he charged through gritted teeth, “in this life and the next!”

The only difference between a prayer and a curse is the one who stands to profit.

Cyril’s words hissed like steam in the hallowed air and rose to the rafters. They echoed off the arched oak beams and whispered back to him from the balcony where his beautiful young slave rocked back and forth in the shadows, her slender black fingers braiding a pale strand of Cyril’s hair pulled from his horsehair brush as she chanted the words that would set her free.

A cloud passed over the sun and the azure eyes of Cyril’s stained glass savior seemed to close. The eternal flame flickered in its red globe and the stone church grew dark as the end of days. Cyril knew what he had done, but he didn’t care. If Fidela did not love him and him alone, it was only right that she be damned. Love turns to hate like wine to vinegar.

Fidela spent her days dragging Bodine Wilde out of bars and the arms of other women. When she wasn’t nursing a squalling baby, she was expecting one. When she wasn’t swollen like a tick, she was working like a dog. But an odd thing happened. Instead of Fidela breaking, she grew stronger. Her back ached and her fingers cracked and bled, but her constitution hardened like cast iron. Cyril’s words had tangled with the black woman’s whispered spell in the church rafters. While Fidela would always be possessed by love, she would never be any man’s slave.

One woman’s crumb is another woman’s cake. Cooing, preening, and parasols twirling, women flocked to Cyril. But he would have none of it. Cyril Rudolph was wed to revenge. Hate burrowed into his core like a worm into an apple, rotting his soul from the inside out. His hair turned white, his eyes faded to ice blue and spite surged through his veins like venom. Every night he stood alone at the church altar and renewed his vow. “She will never share her bed with a man who loves her like I do,” he prayed through gritted teeth. “Bring her back to me. Bring her home.” And every day Cyril paced back and forth at the dock waiting for his prayer to be answered.

To prove his faith and to pass the time, Cyril set out to build Fidela a home to come home to. It was a mansion the likes of which none had ever seen in these parts, an antebellum castle of sorts with marble mantels shipped from France and mosaic tiles from Italy. It took two years for the glass dome to arrive from Europe and twenty-six men with mules and pulleys to lower it into place.

A house possesses the personality of its owner. Despite all the expense and attention to detail, the chapel of Cyril’s devotion was as inviting as the snap of a whip. The heavy doors had locks on the outside as well as in. Every tree, shrub and patch of tall grass dense enough to crouch behind was sheared to the ground. And the wrought iron mullions on the windows were scarcely wide enough to pass a tin plate through. His beloved’s Bastille perched on the highest hill in the county, glaring down at the river. Every night Cyril lit a lantern in his bedroom window, a dark star to guide Fidela home. It seared a red spot in the black sky and the locals took to calling it the Devil’s Eye.

Eventually a business dispute involving five queens and a pair of Colt revolvers left Bodine Wilde floating face down in the Tennessee River. Fidela didn’t have the money to bury her husband. And so she filled his pockets with stones, kissed his cold lips and watched his handsome face fade to the muddy bottom.

Cyril was eagerly waiting at the dock the day Fidela came home. But when she stepped off the riverboat every jaw dropped. Fidela Wilde was hanging on the arm of an even worse rascal than the one she’d run off with in the first place.

Despite living fast and hard, Fidela had scarcely aged a day since she left. Nothing stuck to Fidela long, not even time. She was laughing as she walked by Cyril, gay as a drunk on a sinking ship. Their eyes met and she smiled. What was meant to be kindness, Cyril took for pity. But the truth was Fidela did not recognize the withered old man standing on the dock. Nothing remained of the Cyril she once knew.

In the end, Fidela took four good-looking, good-for-nothing husbands to her bed. How many she interviewed for the position is anyone’s guess. But she never gave Cyril so much as the time of day. Fidela would never share her bed with a man who loved her as he did. In cursing Fidela, Cyril had cursed himself.

The sins of the mother are visited upon the daughter. From that day forward, every Wilde woman has been born with a sliver of the Devil’s mirror in her eye. A gentle boy with love in his heart sends her running for the hills. A clean-living, hard-working, church-going man turns her frigid as an icicle hanging off the eave.

Wilde women are drawn to wild men, men who would sooner chew their arm off as slip a ring around their finger. Dangerous men with trouble in their eyes make a Wilde woman’s lips part. A man who answers to no law but his own makes her legs fall open like a nutcracker.

When a woman looks into her mother’s eyes she sees her future. When she looks into her daughter’s eyes she sees her past. But when she looks into the eyes of the man she shares her bed with, she sees the life she has chosen. Love lifts a woman up or drags her down. When a Wilde woman dies, they don’t have to dig a hole.

 

Excerpted from The Wilde Women by Paula Wall. Copyright © 2006 by Paula Wall.

No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Prologue, THE WILDE WOMEN