The Tea-Olive Birdwatching Society

The Tea-Olive Birdwatching Society
Augusta Trobaugh

June 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-095-4

Coconut cake, grits, poisoned turtle stew and bird-watching...the ladies of tiny Tea-Olive, Georgia share a lot of interests, including murder.
Our PriceUS$14.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Retired judge L. Hyson Breed, a Yankee, picked the wrong Southern woman to trick, bully and steal from. The members of the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society plot revenge after the judge’s marriage to their friend, Sweet, turns out to be a greedy grab for her land and for control of their town. To the rescue: Beulah, Zion and Wildwood (all named after hymns, as is Sweet). The only problem? The wannabe murderers are southern matrons from a more civilized generation. How does one remain polite even while planning to kill a man and get away with it?


Augusta Trobaugh is the acclaimed author of these southern novels

also from Bell Bridge Books








"Any reader would want to join theTea-Olive Bird Watching Society if it meant a having friendships that share troubles and sorrow with tireless support and care, and the bonus of southern hospitality, with the pleasure of meeting over high tea with generous helpings of sweet treats." -- Sharon Benjamin, The Too Real Housewife

"Delightful.” -- BOOKLIST


"Readers will laugh at the antics of steel magnolia vigilante justice as the tea-toting, bible-quoting ladies fumble and bumble in their endeavor to protect their cohort and town . . . . the classic good rural vs. evil-urban premise makes for a fine, polite (sort of like a southern contemporary Arsenic and Old Lace) . . . tale.” -- Harriet Klausner Book Reviews


Chapter One

From the last will and testament of Love-Divine Brockett King, executed and read by Mr. John Anderson, attorney, one week after her funeral:

"I leave all of my property and holdings to the Tea-Olive Public Library, with my attorney arranging for the sale of my property and the distribution of the funds to the library. However, there is one exception to this gift: that little wooded area we’ve always simply called ‘the woods’ is to become the property of the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society. The woods comprise approximately the thirteen acres, more or less, between Highway 64 and the edge of my yard, bounded on the north by Singing Creek and on the south by that present roadway to my house. I hope that from now on, the bird-watchers—all of them my friends—will call it the King’s Wood Bird Sanctuary (named for my late husband, the Reverend James King, may God rest his beautiful soul!) and that it be owned jointly by all present and future members of the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society, of which I have been an active member since its inception all those many years ago. I ask that my executor arrange for surveying the area and assisting the bird-watchers in establishing a deed. Should the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society ever cease to exist, the woods will become the property of the town of Tea-Olive, Georgia, with the provision that the city managers will maintain it as a bird sanctuary forever.

Also, if for any reason in the future the library ceases to exist (something I can hardly imagine), any remaining funds will revert to the town of Tea-Olive itself, to be used for the betterment of the community, according to the decision of the town council.

Note to the Ladies of the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society: Please protect this little sanctuary I have left to you all. You know my heart on this subject, and I trust that you will convey my wishes to all future members. I fear that the cancerous-growth development of the cities around us will one of these days reach our own little town in these sweet hills below the Appalachian Mountains, and these acres must be protected. I cannot face my Maker (as I am sure to do soon) without having made everlasting provisions for the human friends and the feathered friends who have brought me so much joy, and this provision will assure that only appreciative, loving eyes will be cast upon the birds. Lastly, I thank all of you for being my friends—thank you for the many hours of bird watching we have enjoyed together, the endless cups of tea sipped around one another’s kitchen tables and the fine singing in church on Sunday mornings.

One last thing I need to say: I’ve had everything any lady could ever ask for. I was born into a loving family; I married the great love of my life and had him by my side for almost fifty years, and I have been fortunate in having such good friends in the bird watching society, as well as in my community and my church. I have truly been blessed. So if anyone ever asks what my last words were to you, tell them I said this: ‘Thank you all! I sure did have a good time.’”



Chapter Two

When he finished reading the will, the attorney glanced at the three women who were sitting in his office in quiet attentiveness, with their ankles crossed and their motionless, gloved hands resting in their laps. Somehow, their appearances comforted him in a primal manner, perhaps inspiring a memory of his own mother, and he smiled as he inhaled the clean aroma of soap and bath powder as it wafted around the room, circulated by the fan in the high ceiling of the office in the ancient courthouse.

He was surprised by the depth of his appreciation for these women—these ladies, in the greatest sense of the word, an honorary title bestowed upon gentle Southern women who did good works in the community, attended church and Bible study regularly, behaved appropriately at all times and set good examples for the few younger women who lived in the small town of Tea-Olive, Georgia. He allowed himself the luxury of studying the women for long moments, noting the peaceful yet somewhat bruised gazes of their eyes and knowing that, as delighted as they must be about Love-Divine’s gift to their bird watching society and to the town library, each of them was still mourning the passing of a good and dear friend.

Finally, he allowed himself to reach for a sealed letter that had been packaged with Love-Divine’s will and handed it across his desk to Love-Divine’s closest friend, Beulah-Land Everett (more simply called Beulah by most people), who handled it with a hesitation that came from accepting what would become the voice of her dear friend from beyond the grave. Beulah put the letter into her purse, while two other members of the bird watching society—Wildwood and Sweet—looked on silently. They appropriately concealed their happiness at gaining the woods for the bird watching society—and, as manager of the local branch library, Wildwood was also particularly surprised and happy about the gift to the library. But they said nothing, retained somber faces, and glanced from time to time at Beulah, deeply appreciative of Beulah’s strong leadership abilities.

Beulah was certainly a strong-willed and physically well-rounded woman (some would have called her pleasingly plump, but not to her face) who prided herself on her general practicality and insistence on wearing sensible shoes. All of the members of the society were women who were at the center of activities in the small town of Tea-Olive, Georgia. But because Beulah was also the president of the bird watching society, she received special deference from the other members, particularly on the day when the society had received such a wonderful gift from Love-Divine. Too, they were all longtime volunteers in the local library’s Homework Helper Program, a free service for academically at-risk youngsters, and members of the Service Saints at the Baptist church, a Bible-study group of ladies who balanced their study of Holy Writ with services to the needy in the town. The Service Saints took meals to shut-ins, provided transportation to the elderly for doctor appointments or grocery shopping and held bake sales once a quarter, with the funds going to the church.

As the ladies sat in the attorney’s office, they all seemed to glow with that special shine of women who do good for the community and who love the Lord with all their hearts. On that day, two members had been unable to attend the reading of Love-Divine’s will: Memphis, who ran a small tearoom and was unable to close up her shop because of the early lunch customers her tearoom usually attracted, and

Zion, who owned a small herd of Jersey cows and sold milk, cream and butter out of a small creamery in her own home just outside of town. But truth be told, the other members hadn’t really expected Zion to show up. She always had so much work to do, and whenever they did manage to convince her to attend some function or the other, she spent the entire time sighing and rolling her eyes and fidgeting in her chair, such was her impatience to "get back to the barn,” as she explained it.

"When I’m there, I’m in the right place,” Zion said. "And besides, the only reason I said I’d be in the bird watching society is because you all can’t yak all the time! You haveto be quiet!”

And none of them were offended by Zion’s blunt directness. She had a terrible growl in her voice most of the time, but they all knew that deep down, she had a good heart.

All of the ladies, save for Memphis, had been born right in Tea-Olive and therefore bore hymnal names. Perhaps that would seem odd to strangers, but it had long been a tradition that girl babies were named after lyrics of hymns in the Baptist Hymnal and boy babies were named straight out of the Bible. So the men were John and Paul, Peter and David, Matthew and Aaron. And the ladies were named Grace (for the hymn "Amazing Grace”), Joy (for the hymn "I’ve Got Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy, Down in My Heart!”), Beulah (for the hymn "Dwelling in Beulah Land”), Wildwood (for the hymn "The Church in the Wildwood”), Zion (for the hymn "We’re Marching to Zion”), Love (for the hymn "Love Lifted Me”), Love-Divine (for the hymn "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”) and Sweet (for the hymn "The Sweet By and By”). But the sad thing was that no one knew exactly how that tradition started, and if there had ever been anyone who knew, they were long committed to the red earth and eternal silence.

Memphis was the exception to the tradition of hymnal names. During the Korean War, her mother—one of the many Graces ("Amazing Grace”) in town—was expecting a child, so she went to stay with her aunt in Tennessee while her husband was overseas. When the war was over and he came home, they returned to Tea-Olive with a baby girl named Memphis. As soon as people in town heard her strange name, they went through their hymnals, trying to find a hymn with the word Memphis in it. But to no avail. And her mother’s whimsy at naming her after the city where she had been born followed her throughout her life in Tea-Olive and made her something of a novelty.

After the attorney had finished all the business and closed the folder on his desk, he gazed amicably at Beulah, Wildwood and Sweet and cleared his throat. "I have a cousin in Augusta who’s a surveyor,” he offered. "If you like, I’ll call him and set up a time so he can come out and take care of business for you ladies.”

"Thank you,” Beulah whispered.

"And now,” the attorney said, standing up and bowing slightly to the three women, "I will start trying to liquidate the remainder of Miss Love-Divine’s estate so that the funds may be transferred to the library, as she so stipulated.”

"Do you have any idea of how much it will be?” Wildwood ventured, speaking the words gently and keeping her eyes cast down.

"Not really,” the attorney confessed. "There’s the farm, of course, and we will have to get it put onto the market. But being so far out in the country, I’m not sure that it will bring a sizable amount. There are also some investments. The Reverend King, as you know, was a frugal man.”

"Well,” Wildwood added, letting her eyes meet those of the attorney, "whatever it is, the library is certainly grateful to her.”

"Put the land on the market?” Beulah asked, with alarm in her voice.

"Yes. Sell it. Liquidate the estate,” the attorney said.

"But you wouldn’t sell it to a developer, would you?” Beulah’s suddenly louder voice seemed to vibrate in the small office.

The attorney smiled. "No, ma’am. Not to a developer,” he said, and then, studying the pained expression on Beulah’s face, he added, "It’s such a small farm—not even a working farm at this point—that I’m sure no developer would want it.”

"I’ve heard there was one—a developer, that is—snooping around about the old Maxson place, and it’s not far from here.” Beulah’s voice sounded out her deep concern.

The attorney shook his head. "That’s a much larger tract of land, as I understand,” he explained. "But growth is going to come to us, sooner or later,” he said softly. "When the cities start overflowing, people start wanting homes farther out. And, too, development brings jobs, you know.”

"Oh, I know,” Beulah said with misery in her voice. "But it brings other things, too. Things we don’t want—heavy traffic, strip malls, and...” She stopped, lowering her voice to a whisper: "Nude dancing clubs—such as that.”

"And new schools and new churches and perhaps even a new library,” he said, smiling and nodding his head toward Wildwood.

"Come on, Beulah,” Sweet said, taking Beulah’s arm. "I’m sure John will be as interested in protecting our little community as we all are.” Beulah cast a suspicious glance at the attorney. She knew that Sweet was an eternal optimist who always expected everyone else to be as honest and kind as she was.

Beulah was not so optimistic. She knew for a fact that sometimes a dark curtain can ripple in an invisible breeze and give us a glimpse of unlikely monsters.

When the women had exited the courthouse, they hesitated on the sidewalk.

Wildwood glanced at her watch. "I have to get to the library, but we’ll get together and figure all this out.”

"It’s nice she left so much to the library,” Sweet commented.

"Oh, indeed it is!” Wildwood let a little bit of her elation show.

"Well, I’ll let you all know when the surveyor is going to come out,” Beulah said. "I’m sure we will want to follow him around, so we will know exactly what belongs to the society. Let’s all just pray—pray hard—that no developer will buy it. Now, I have to get on home. I’ll call you tomorrow.” As the women prepared to take their leave, they went into a gentle flurry of air kissing each other’s cheeks and waving with fluttering fingers.

How shocked and repulsed those good, churchgoing, Bible-reading ladies of the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society would have been if they had known that in only a few short months, they would find themselves in the unthinkable position of plotting to commit a murder. But even when they found themselves caught up in such an unlikely and horrific plan, they never were able to use the word murder, because of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill.” So that later, they called it by far more gentle names, names that belied the brutal truth of the matter. They couched that terrible resolve in more positive terms: saving our friend, doing what has to be done, living up to our duty.

Beulah saved her private letter from Love-Divine until she was in her own sweet sanctuary—sitting at her own kitchen table and with a tall glass of iced tea in front of her. She slit open the heavy linen envelope and withdrew the creamy pages, folded just right and with Love-Divine’s copperplate handwriting going across the pages in perfectly straight lines.

"My dear Beulah-Land...” the letter began, and already Beulah was smiling, for Love-Divine was ever formal and correct, and she always used Beulah’s full hymnal name.

"You know now of my leaving those little woods to the bird watching society, and I trust that you are pleased with this arrangement. Of course, the majority of my estate goes to the library, and I know Wildwood will be grateful for that. As you well know, the Homework Helper Program is dear to my heart!

As for this letter—I simply want to thank you, once again, for that long trip to the coast you took me on last month. You knew how very much I wanted to see the shorebirds for the first and last time in my life, and I am ever grateful. It was a long drive you made, with your trunk all loaded with lawn chairs and a picnic lunch and blankets for spreading on the sand and with me piled up in your backseat, resting as well as possible and looking like a nine-months-pregnant lady! Isn’t it strange how that happened? All my life, I wanted a child, and when I was young, I even used to pretend that I was expecting a child! You are the only person in the whole world who knows that little secret. Even my own husband didn’t know, of course. But I loved my pretend-swollen stomach, loved that a pretend baby was growing in it. That life was in the making! I use to rub my hands all over it and even sing to it! That seems so strange, now that I’m older. And here at the end of my life, the swollen stomach still isn’t life at all. It’s death. I have a hard time remembering that, and maybe I shouldn’t try to remember it at all. Maybe it’s a great comfort for me to know that death will come to me from the very place where life could have arisen, had it been God’s will. Maybe you understand what I am saying, as you never had children either. And I think that wanting a baby so much is what got me interested in birds. They are so much like babies—small, fragile, fine-boned. But children grow up to be bigger, stronger people, while birds never do! They are always fragile, and we must never, ever hurt them. We must protect them, admire them and appreciate them.

But I’m probably making you sad with these words, so let me go on to what I wanted to say the most: I will never forget that wonderful day we spent at the shore, watching all of the birds I had never seen with my own eyes: the lovely little spotted sandpipers, the royal terns, that juvenile white ibis, the marbled godwit, and finally, that wonderful snowy egret. And all those beautiful seagulls hovering over us, riding the ocean breeze like little kites and shrieking at us for tidbits of our sandwiches. I remember the smell of the ocean and the sand we got in our shoes, and I remember licking my lips and tasting salt on them. Bless your heart, you made all that possible for me, and I will never—ever——forget that day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, dear, dear friend. Love, Love-Divine Brockett King.”

Beulah refolded the letter carefully and put it back into the envelope and leaned it up against the sugar bowl, where she could see her full hymnal name written in Love-Divine’s beautiful handwriting. And after all, it was Love-Divine herself who got the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society established. Such a simple start it had been: One early spring, a mourning dove had made her nest in a low tree right outside of Love-Divine’s kitchen window, and after every inevitable spring afternoon thundershower, she would look out at the bird, making sure it was OK. During the storms themselves, Love-Divine watched the bird being pelted with heavy, warm raindrops and flattening herself on the nest as lightning flashed around her and the loud rolls of thunder shook the very roots of the nesting tree. And what struck Love-Divine the most was that the bird never left the nest, no matter what. She just flattened her small body against the forces of nature that are a part of the always-tumultuous Southern springtime, incubating the eggs and zealously guarding them, insuring the soft, distinct cooing of her offspring for the future. From that small miracle, Love-Divine developed a great love for all birds, and that was why she organized the bird watching society.

The women who formed the society had more in common than just an appreciation for birds of all varieties and the good works they accomplished in the community: Each and every one of them had experienced devastating loss or terrible betrayal in their life, and to a member, they had learned to live with that. They shared yet one more common denominator: childlessness. Though they never spoke of that barrenness, each one of them retained a memory of sweet expectation, as they waited for long years for fruition from their own bodies. That shared memory was still among them, whether they were older and simply dreaming about what they had missed—Sweet, Beulah, and Zion—or whether they were relatively young and still hopeful—like Wildwood—or young but successfully distracting herself—that was Memphis.

Sweet was the only member of the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society who had never been married. Both Beulah and Zion were widows, as had been Love-Divine. Wildwood was what folks in Tea-Olive called a grass widow, a kind euphemism for a divorced woman and a term that was meant to salvage some of her dignity. Wildwood was the only divorcée in the whole town, and women who believed so strongly in traditional marriage sometimes gazed at her in an ever-so-slightly reproachful manner, but some of the women gazed at her in admiration—gazed openly upon a woman who had chosen to reject her own husband. No one ever knew exactly what had caused Wildwood to do something so unorthodox because she never spoke of it herself, and of course, no one would have broached such a sensitive subject herself. In fact, when they started using the term grass widow to describe Wildwood, none of them really knew where that expression came from. But Wildwood, ever the good librarian, sensed their curiosity, so she made sure to leave the library’s large The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language open to the page that explained the term, placing a small sticky note to indicate the term itself. She knew full well that if only one person noticed that term and read its definition, the word about the meaning of grass widow would spread through the town. And she was right.

Memphis had been married for several years to a young man from the flatlands of South Georgia before he was killed in a tragic automobile accident. At that point, she returned to Tea-Olive, and when she came back home, she never spoke of the tragedy, simply explaining in a good-natured tone that she much preferred living above the gnat line, a term that separated their own North Georgia community from similar, but gnat-infested ones in South Georgia.

All of these good women felt a great need to nurture, which they satisfied by taking care of one another and by watching the many birds that nested around their town, fixating every spring on the various nestlings and watching as the migratory birds flew away in the fall.

With Zion as the single exception, they were all active in the Homework Helper Program at Tea-Olive’s small branch library, where they patiently helped small children who gripped their pencils too tightly, worried their bottom lips over arithmetic problems, and took an agonizingly long time in sounding out unfamiliar words. Through all of that, they were patient and loving, even when some of the children—those from homes in which personal hygiene was not encouraged—smelled like small, terrified animals that had been hiding in dank burrows far belowground.

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