Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872
Joel Knox is traveling to his father’s at Skully’s Landing. He has never met his father, and after his mother dies, he lives with his Aunt Ellen in New Orleans. She treats him kindly, but he feels abandoned. When a letter comes from his father asking Joel to live with him, he wants to go. Ellen allows it, saying she loves him and to come back if he becomes unhappy. On his eventful trip, he meets the twin adolescents Idabel and Florabel Thompkins, neighbors to his father.
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Joel’s father is ill, and Joel has to wait to meet him. He meets Amy, his stepmother, and Zoo, who nurtures him. Exploring the grounds, he sees a “queer lady” staring down at him from a window. At dinner with Cousin Randolph and Amy, he mentions the lady. Randolph says that to Joel she is a ghost. While Amy plays the pianola, Randolph holds Joel’s hand. He finds that distasteful.
Joel writes Ellen, telling her he hates the Landing. As he puts stamp money in the mailbox with the letter, he notices Little Sunshine giving Zoo a charm. Joel, headed for the twins’, asks the hermit for a protective charm. Little Sunshine tells him to come to the Cloud Hotel for one. At the twins’ house, Idabel and Florabel begin brawling, and Joel leaves. Back home, the mail arrives; he assumes his letter to Ellen was delivered, though he finds his coins spilled on the ground.
Joel finally meets his partially paralyzed father who, seemingly, has lidless eyes. He begins feeding and reading to him, but feels nothing for him. By now, Joel and Idabel have become friends. One day as they fish and talk, Joel learns Idabel yearns to be male. Feeling tender, he kisses her cheek. She beats him up, but he forgives her. One day in Randolph’s room, Joel notices a snapshot of Randolph, Ed, another man, and a woman. Randolph tells a sordid story about the group’s relationships, which explains how he realized his homosexuality, how he happened to shoot Ed, and how his cousin, Amy, a nurse, came to help him with Ed and bring him to the Landing.
Idabel asks Joel to run away with her. She and Florabel had fought, and Idabel had broken her twin’s teeth and nose. Joel agrees to go, but gets a sword Zoo had given him and says they first have to go to Little Sunshine’s and get his charm. As they cross Drownin’ Creek on a rotting log, Joel spies a cottonmouth staring at him, and freezes. Already, he feels stung with the snake’s poison, seeing in it the adults who had betrayed him, especially Ed’s staring eyes. Idabel grabs his sword, steps past him, and kills the snake. Having survived the snake, Joel refuses to go after the charm, saying he no longer needs it.
After dinner, Randolph sends Joel to his room for a bottle of wine. There, he sees a letter Randolph is writing and realizes that Randolph, not Ed, had sent for him. He tells his father good-bye, and runs off with Idabel. They plan to stop, in their flight, at the fair in town. On their way to town, Idabel and Joel see a black couple tenderly making love. Instinctively, Joel knows such a union defines “making love”: It means “withness.” Idabel flees, hating the sight. Joel wants to tell her he loves her, but knows not to.
At the fair, they meet Miss Wisteria, a twenty-four-old “midget” who looks like Shirley Temple. Joel watches Idabel fall in love with her. The three ride the Ferris wheel. On Joel’s turn riding with Wisteria, a thunderstorm comes and rains descend. From high above, he watches as Idabel flees for cover. Lightning outlines a man whom Joel thinks is Randolph. On the ground, Joel runs, searching for Idabel. He finally falls asleep in an old house and becomes ill and delirious.
Joel awakens, in his room at the Landing, with Randolph nursing him. As he gains strength, Joel decides he likes being dependent. He feels Randolph is the only person who cares for him. Ellen, he thinks, has rejected him. He wants to stop the calendar and stay forever in Randolph’s room. Then one day, Randolph rushes in saying Little Sunshine wants them, and they have to go. Joel argues, but fruitlessly.
When they reach Cloud Hotel, it is obvious Little Sunshine has not sent for them. They spend the night, and the next day walk home. When they reach home, Amy tells Randolph she had followed his instructions. She had told the people from New Orleans that he and Joel were on a hunting trip. Randolph and Amy go inside, and Joel asks Zoo about the people. She tells him a lady with a deaf girl has come. Joel says he has a deaf cousin in New Orleans. He yearns for New Orleans, wondering why Ellen has rejected him.
Joel sits a long while in the garden, finally looking toward the house. The “queer lady” is staring down at him from Randolph’s window. She beckons. Joel, with a brief backward glance, goes into the house.