History as Literature | September 01, 2001
The Jill-Flirted Mare
“Here she is, Packsaddle Bridge,” Dad announced, and as I looked down through a knothole in the bridge floor I caught a glimpse of a narrow stream far below. “Right down there,” he said, “is where our Uncle Cager lost his team in the quicksand before the bridge went in.”
Almost three in the spring of 1933, I was sitting in the back of Dad’s lead wagon looking out over the tailgate when the distinctive clip-clop of the horses’ iron-shod hooves struck the heavy wooden timbers on the long, arching span over the South Canadian River in western Oklahoma. This is my first memory, the only part of the four hundred-mile trek from northern Kansas to the Needmore community in western Oklahoma that I can recall.
I remember nothing about the following year, when we lived in a tent, and almost nothing of our six-month stay in an old, abandoned schoolhouse after we came home from town to find the tent torched by a man Dad had got the best of in a trade. But getting ready to move to the Missouri Ozarks made a strong impression on me. Dad liked to describe the country where his folks lived as “the land of a million smiles” and “the land of milk and honey.”
Especially exciting was butchering day, when all the women and girls were herded inside Grandpa and Grandma Green’s house. They had to stay there until the yearling steer had been killed, skinned, and gutted. Going on five, I was plenty big enough to stand with my older brother, Fred, eight, and hang on to the fence outside the barn lot, watching, while Dad and Mama’s three teenaged brothers did the job that women and girls were not permitted to see.
Instead of dropping dead when Dad shot him, the dazed steer shook his head, then raised his tail high and raced wildly around the enclosure. “Catch him! Catch him!” Dad yelled, and the long-legged, high-stepping middle boy managed to overtake the bawling, wide-eyed animal and grab its tail while it pulled him around and around the lot, before collapsing in a corner. There the boys held it, and Dad cut its throat with the heavy, curved butcher knife that Fred handed him. As I craned my neck to get a good look at the gushing, bright blood and the animal’s dying spasms, I heard Dad say, “I hope all that excitement didn’t taint the meat.”
After Mama’s brothers helped Dad hoist the steer to a limb on a nearby scrub oak with wire stretchers and a singletree off Grandpa’s garden plow, they watched as he carefully skinned the animal, tied a stout string around its anus, then split the pelvis with an ax before plopping the guts into a washtub. Following Dad’s directions, the boys carried fresh buckets of water from the cistern and sloshed out the still steaming carcass.
Mama’s tedious job of cutting up the meat before packing it in half-gallon jars in Grandma’s pressure cooker failed to hold my attention. Nothing I’d seen in women’s work excited me anything like seeing the botched killing of the steer.
Before we moved to Missouri, Dad and Uncle Homer (whose real name was Oklahoma Territory Green) rode west into Texas, where Dad traded his two well-broke teams for a blemished bay mare and a spoiled paint bronc, drawing seventy-five dollars to boot. The new horses, one gentle, the other spooky, were jumped into the back of the one-ton Ford truck from the pond bank, then tied to the front rack and penned with wooden panels.
A jumble of things followed, including Dad’s square wooden box filled with the beef Mama had canned, the four-foot narrow pine box containing its precious cargo of perishables, several backless chairs and two sets of iron bedsteads and springs. Two thin, straw-filled mattresses covered with comforters were put down in the left-hand corner behind the horses, as far away as possible from the truck’s exhaust. There we, the four youngest–Joyce six, I four, Wanda three and Jay one–huddled safe with Mama under the gray tarpaulin.
The three men got to ride in the cab. There was Uncle Calvin, the drinking driver, owner of the truck, and Dad, of course. Fred, snug and smug in the middle, had earned his honored spot almost two years earlier by driving the second team, pulling a faded blue circus wagon across Kansas and half of Oklahoma.
The trip to Missouri took a lot of the starch out of the snorting bronc, Old Casey. Crowded in her corner, old Bird, the small bay mare, barely moved. After the twenty-hour February ride under the flapping tarp, accompanied by a tailwind and a skiff of snow, we welcomed the sudden rush of warm air, heavy with the smell of burning coal oil and peach pie juices, that spilled out of the open door of Grandpa and Grandma Holmes’ house.
We soon moved to the Wise place, a half-mile east, where Dad worked the mismatched team daily. He constantly curbed the plunging, wall-eyed outlaw while clucking approval to the steady mare. She was reliable and good; I wondered how she was blemished. Close-mouthed, Dad wouldn’t say. Finally, too curious to keep quiet, I risked his anger: “What’s wrong with old Bird?” Redder in the face than ordinary, Dad ignored my question. Then it hit me. It was her farting. She farted too much, especially when we went to town. Out on the farm, where rude noises abounded nobody minded, but the closer we got to town, the louder she sounded, bringing grins and snickers from perfect strangers. Meanwhile I, sitting in the back of the wagon, grew increasingly hard of hearing as I stared straight ahead.
On the way home once, I asked, “What makes her do that?” Dad’s curt, “She’s been pasture bred and she’s jill-flirted,” told me nothing but shut me up. More questions would have brought the belt.
Months later, a strange wagon pulled up in the barn lot. “Mr. Holmes?”
Wary with strangers, Dad nodded. “Call me Clay.”
“We’re the Gilhams, father and son, from up on the county line. We heard you’re a trader.”
“I’ve been known to trade. What’s on your mind?”
“Do you have any horses you’d swap?”
“I doubt it,” Dad answered. “My team there in the barn suits me pretty well.”
The older Gilham’s eyes brightened when he saw Old Casey. “Would you trade your spotted horse?”
“No, he’s my riding horse.”
“What about the little mare? Would you trade her?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I might if I thought it was a fair trade,” Dad answered in a flat voice.
“Bring her out here in the light so I can see her better. But before you do there’s something I need to say. Mr. Holmes, we’re Gilhams and we’re Christians. If there’s any cheating to be done, we’d rather be cheated than cheat.”
“I’m just like you, only different,” Dad said. “If there’s any cheating to be done, I’d rather cheat than be cheated.”
Dad brought the mare out, farting every step, where Mr. Gilham looked her over but didn’t raise her tail.
“How does she work?”
“She’s a good worker. You can put her anywhere.”
“How would you trade her for my offside gelding?”
Dad examined the scrawny horse with care, taking special pains with his mouth, feet, and legs as he asked, “How does he work? Is he sound? Will he balk?”
Assured, Dad continued, “I’ll tell you what. With a little extra feed I think your horse will match my paint better than the little mare does. I’ll trade with you, even up, and you can change them right here.”
“You’ve got yourself a trade,” said Mr. Gilham, smiling broadly as he stuck out his hand.
Dad shook, limp handed, and the Gilhams quickly exchanged the two animals and drove off. That fart, fart, farting fading into the far distance was the sweetest sound I ever heard.
Within the week a tight-faced pair of Gilhams, announced by familiar sounds, drove up in the yard. The older man sputtered, “Mister, you didn’t tell us that mare was jill-flirted.”
“No,” Dad replied evenly before waving them off. “I didn’t. The man I got her from didn’t tell me, and I thought he wanted it kept a secret.”
Within six months after we’d moved to the Wise place, the owner stopped and told Dad he had a buyer for the farm, “And if you folks’ll move right away I’ll give you back the two hundred dollars you paid me for the year’s rent.”
“I don’t care,” Dad told him. “My tomato crop’s already burnt up. We’ll be out of here as soon as I can locate another place.”
The eighty-acre Bowers place, atop a long hill two miles east, was the same size as the Wise place, and, according to Dad, the only advantage to moving there was the hundred dollars a year Phil Bowers was asking for rent. On his return from looking the farm over, Dad told Mama, “It doesn’t have much in the way of outbuildings–I could throw a grown cat through any side of the barn–but the three-room house is tight, and you’ll be glad to know there’s a cellar out in back.”
“Good,” Mama said. “Is it big enough for a bed? You know how scared I am of cyclones and thunderstorms.”
“Yeah, it’s a full-sized cellar.”
“I’ve prayed about it, and I think we’d better take it,” Mama said. “What do you think?”
“It’s likely as good as we’re gonna get,” he replied. “The boys can help me haul water until I can build a windlass so we can get started on digging a cistern.”
“We’ll make do,” Mama said. “The Lord will provide.”
After we had moved to the Bowers place, on the coldest and worst night of the year, Dad unexpectedly put all five of us kids in his and Mama’s bed in the bedroom, while Mama slept in one of our beds in the front room. “Now behave yourselves and be quiet,” he told us. “Your mother’s sick, and I’m going to the Old Lady Johnson’s for help. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
We knew, from the few times we’d been in bed with the boys at one end and the girls at the other, that we could have a lot of fun tickling and goosing one another, but Dad’s fierce look scared us. Besides, all thoughts of under-the-covers shenanigans vanished when we heard the unmistakable cry of a baby. Unbeknownst to us, Mama had got up to use the slop bucket, and when she grunted, the newborn baby fell headfirst into the bucket. The mingled sounds of the baby and Mama’s crying confused us; we hadn’t known she was pregnant, and we’d never before heard her cry; but after Dad and the old granny woman finally got up the ice-covered hill to the house, the sniffling sounds subsided and Dad came in and told us we had a new baby sister.
Afterwards, I wondered if the baby had cut her upper lip on the sharp bail of the slop bucket, but Mama said that wasn’t it. “I marked her months ago, when I hit my upper lip on the doorjamb,” she insisted. Even later, when doctors at Children’s Hospital explained that a harelip was a congenital defect, Mama still believed she’d marked the baby.
Dad never said whether he was afraid they’d have another disfigured child–Mama’s youngest brother’s wife bore two sons with cleft palates–or whether he simply thought six kids in twelve years was enough. Whatever the reason, he started practicing a form of birth control Mama and all her family strongly opposed. “The Bible plainly says that spilling a man’s seed upon the ground is an abomination unto the Lord,” Mama argued, and she and Dad fought pitched battles night after night.
One morning, following an especially bitter exchange, Dad split a bigger-than-usual pile of wood for the cookstove, then marched stiffly off to the barn, where he bridled Old Bess, grabbed a gunnysack to sit on, and mounted up. “Mind your mother,” he told us kids, before he turned to Mama and said, “I don’t aim to come back.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. “If you’re not back in a week I’ll put the kids in an orphans’ home and leave too.”
The instant Dad was out of sight down the hill, I ran to the barn and climbed up in the loft, where I waited until I saw him far below on the crippled mare, headed west and then north over Crane Creek and out of sight, beyond where the one-armed Hutchinson and his family lived.
Although I didn’t expect to ever see Dad again, near the end of the week Wanda first heard and then saw him riding up the hill swinging a hand bell announcing his arrival. “Dad’s home! Dad’s home!” she yelled, and all of us except Mama ran out to meet him.
“Here,” he said, handing down a sack from the mare’s withers. “It’s a little late, but better late than never.” Inside the sack were tiddlywinks for Joyce, rag dolls for Wanda and Lottie Jean, and rubber balls for Fred, Jay and me. He also had enough oranges for everyone, including Mama and himself. Best of all, shortly after he got home, Dad caught the mumps, they went down on him, and he no longer had a reason to spill his seed upon the ground.
Then another big change occurred. I was asleep in the smokehouse, where Fred and I slept in all but the coldest weather, when Fred roused me to announce that Dad had just been saved at the Osie revival. As Fred told it, Brother Keith and Brother Ericson had taken turns preaching until Dad finally relented and went forward. “And I got saved, too!” Fred crowed. “Mama thinks from the way I shouted, I got the Holy Ghost!”
“What’s the Holy Ghost?”
“I’m not sure, but Mama said that lots of times people who get it end up preaching.”
“You’re too young to preach.”
“I’m not either,” Fred said. “I’m eleven, going on twelve, and I’m going to go to Africa and save the heathen.” As he babbled on about his new plans, and I drifted off, I wondered if Fred would quit grabbing my little fingers and bending them all the way back.
The next morning Fred didn’t mention Africa, and he was as mean as ever. Dad was more subdued than usual, and when we sat down to eat breakfast, instead of Mama’s short, “Bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies, in Jesus’ name. Amen,” Dad stumbled through a longer prayer that sounded as if he was thinking out loud.
After several such halting attempts, Dad turned the praying back over to Mama. “You go ahead,” he told her, and I never saw him pray again. He sometimes attended church, and he closed his eyes when others prayed, but he didn’t take to religion the way Mama had hoped he would. To hear Mama tell it, Dad was in danger of backsliding when he started slipping off and visiting with Buck and Thelma Reavis and other godless people in the community who never attended church.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” she’d say as he headed out.
“Maybe so,” Dad once answered, “but at least we laugh and enjoy ourselves, which is more than what happens around here.”
Following Lottie Jean’s birth, Mama got sick and lost considerable weight. After she gradually recovered her strength, she sold enough popcorn seed and white cakes to WPA workers who parked in our yard to send off to Sears, Roebuck for a severe, off-white dress. When she’d altered the dress and put it on, Dad asked, “Is that your new dancing outfit?”
“Dancing outfit my foot,” she growled. “It’s my preaching dress.”
“Preaching dress? Since when?”
“Since right now. I’ve felt the call for a long time, but I didn’t do anything about it until Brother Keith encouraged me to fill in for him on fifth Sundays and other times when he can’t make it.”
“You know how I feel about preachers,” Dad said, “Especially women preachers.”
“I aim to do the Lord’s will,” she replied. “And if you don’t like it you can lump it.”
Mama ordinarily hated to have her picture taken, but she posed proudly, if self-consciously, holding her Bible in her left hand, before she set out on foot wearing her new ready-made dress on her first preaching assignment. Sallow faced and skinny as a shikepoke, Mama had glistening black hair, hooded eyes, a prominent nose and cheekbones, and a tightly compressed gash of a mouth that betrayed the one-eighth Indian blood she’d inherited from her papa’s full-blooded Creek grandma, Narcissa, an early transplant from Alabama to Indian Territory.
Acutely aware of how she looked, Mama had improvised a strip of leftover material into something like a scarf to help hide the goose-egg sized goiter growing off-center at the base of her long neck. I halfway expected the goiter to disappear after she went forward and got prayed for at a special healing service, but it kept right on growing. Maybe Mama’s faith wasn’t as strong as I’d thought it was. But if shedidn’t have enough faith, who in the world did?
In the evenings, after the rest of the family had gone to bed, Mama spent long hours reading her Bible on the kitchen table, with its faded red and white checkered oilcloth. Any time one of us kids got up to use the slop bucket in the front room or to get a drink out of the long-handled dipper in the water bucket on the washstand in the kitchen, we’d see her hunched over next to the dim coal oil lamp, slowly tracing the strange-sounding words she muttered as she committed long passages to memory. As for Dad, whether asleep or awake behind the closed door in the bedroom, he was bound to be resting in his usual position, face up, stiff and straight as a board on the far side of the cold bed.
In the irregular times when Mama got to preach–never enough to suit her, we could tell from her feverish, dissatisfied look–Dad stayed home with the baby. The rest of us kids went to church with her. Many of her sermons followed a grim and predictable routine of describing sinners caught in the clutches of an avenging God. But at her best and scariest, she put aside her anger and gradually worked herself into a joyous and ecstatic state marked by outbursts of whooping and hollering and even speaking in tongues, something entirely too rich and out of control for most of the staid churchgoers. Only two or three women in the congregation, including Dollie Fenton, who later preached on the radio, tried to match Mama’s shouting, but they couldn’t hold a candle to her carryings-on.
When it came time for the altar call, Wilma Wilkin pounded on the piano and led the congregation in singing “Come Home” or some other doleful hymn, while Mama searched out the worst sinner she could find. When she was lucky, the two dyed-in-the-wool old infidels in the community, Amos Shockley and Buck Earnhart, were present, and she, fearless in her righteousness, would march back and take on first one and then the other.
Once when she had Amos cornered on the back row, I was watching him shift back and forth on his gimp leg when, to my surprise, someone took hold of my hand. Faye Hilton, our nearest neighbor woman, stood in front of me, crying. “Don’t you want to come forward and be saved?” she asked. “Your dad and brother got saved at the revival. Now it’s your turn.”
“No, I’m not old enough.”
“How old are you?”
“The Lord said to suffer the little children to come unto Him. Besides, your mother was five when she got saved. Don’t you want to be like her?”
“I don’t think so.”
By slipping up on me unexpectedly Faye had caught me before I’d had time to think out my objections. All I could do was shake my head, hang on to the school desk, white knuckled, and think that I hadn’t had enough fun, hadn’t sinned enough to warrant giving it up forever. Even so, I was weakening and would likely have given in, had I not suddenly remembered: Jesus Himself hadn’t started His Father’s work until He was twelve. I didn’t have to become a Christian yet. I had four more years to sin and have fun. This time, when I said no to Faye, she believed me.
Shortly after I escaped salvation, Fred was tormenting me, grabbing my little fingers and twisting them all the way back, as he often did; but instead of running from him when I pulled loose, I grabbed him and shoved him down on the rough wooden floor in the front room as hard as I could. Before he could get on his feet, I had him in a tight armlock around his skinny neck, an armlock which, for the first time, he couldn’t break. As he bucked and twisted, I held on in desperation while Dad and Mama, their eyes averted, said nothing.
At last Fred pleaded, “Turn loose. You’re hurting me.”
“You’ve got to say, ‘Calf Rope’ first.”
“Okay, ‘Calf Rope,'” he whispered, admitting defeat, and when I turned him loose I felt even better than when I’d avoided being saved. I felt confident that from now on, if I could get hold of him I could whip him.
After we moved to the remote Snuffer place, Mama’s increasing bulk made it impossible for her to continue wearing her preaching dress. With nothing else fit to wear to church, she fell into a deep funk and let herself go. She quit wearing her waist, a strange-looking undergarment she’d made out of white cotton sugar sacks. On wash days, after the girls hung the clean clothes out to dry on the top wire of the barbed-wire fence separating the yard from the barn lot, I noticed that Mama’s waist, with its long, flapping strings, was no longer on the line. One evening I carried an armload of wood into the kitchen, where Mama, caught up in one of her reveries, stood next to the cookstove stirring the gravy. Imagine my surprise when I clearly saw her bare left breast through the hole in her raggedy old dress. Instead of looking away, I pulled the bill of my cap down, and then slowly threw one stick at a time into the woodbox, all the while checking her out.
At first I was struck by the symmetry and beauty of her full breast, but as I continued to stare, I felt an overwhelming and gut-wrenching mix of desire and revulsion. I’d seen little pink titties before, as well as various shades of brown ones, including my own, of course, but I was shocked to see Mama’s coal-black nipple. I’m not sure how long I stood there, transfixed, but it couldn’t have been long . Mama would have knocked me into the middle of next week with a stick of wood if she’d had any inkling that I’d turned into a peeping Tom–and that she was the one I was watching.
Mama’s increasing size and shabbiness not only kept her from going to church; according to her bitter account she didn’t step foot off the place for over a year. That’s not quite true, because when she and Dad were having a particularly hard time getting along, she sometimes left the house in a huff and walked a mile north to the Old Lady Parvin’s, where she stayed several hours or even overnight, until things cooled off.
Later, when Dad took off, supposedly for wheat harvest, there was a freer-than-ordinary atmosphere around our place. Mama let us make tunnels by putting the bedcovers over the kitchen chairs; she jacked up the potato soup with onions, something Dad never allowed when he was there; and we could smile and laugh as we worked, again something strictly taboo when Dad was there. Dad was the hit of the party when company came, but as soon as company left, he turned sour.
While he was gone we sometimes went overboard, ripping and tearing around in our newfound freedom until Mama lost patience. As she corralled us she tended to become harsh–too harsh–reaching for the razor strap hanging behind the kitchen stove. If we felt especially daring when she overreacted, we circled her, dancing around and around, making absolutely certain we were out of reach, chanting: “She’s a mean old sow, she eats her pigs. She’s a mean old sow, she eats her pigs.”Our outlandish chant often caused Mama to laugh, after which she’d throw down her strap, and the dangerous situation would be defused. We never rubbed it in or pushed our luck after she conceded. We knew better than that.
Dad was still gone the last of November. Few neighbors were brave enough to question Mama about his whereabouts, but when the Old Lady Parvin asked, Mama glared and mumbled something about him following the wheat harvest into North Dakota. Although everyone knew the wheat harvest was over, no one dared dispute Mama’s word.
Maybe she didn’t know where he was. She rarely mentioned him, and when one of us kids returned from the mailbox, she didn’t seem to be expecting a card from him. Naturally, none of us had enough nerve to come right out and ask: “Where’s Dad? When’s he coming home?”
Since Fred didn’t have to work on Thanksgiving and I didn’t have to go to school, he and I were free to take Old Tuffy and the single-shot .22 and go hunting.
“We’ll try to kill something special for Thanksgiving supper,” Fred said.
“All right,” Mama replied. “I’ll have the potatoes on.”
As usual, Fred carried the gun. Because he was fifteen and I was eleven, he got to take the first shot any time we had plenty of shells. But because I was the better shot, he often deferred to me. We were on Lester Meadows’ place, where Fred cut sprouts for a dollar a day, when he hissed, “Listen, Old Tuffy’s hit a trail.”
“Yeah,” I whispered, “and it sounds like he’s circling this way. Shouldn’t I take the gun?”
“Not yet” was hardly out of his mouth when a large jackrabbit, something we’d heard of but never seen in Missouri, hopped into the clearing and stopped. Quickly, shaky as always, Fred raised the gun and fired. To my amazement the rabbit fell over dead.
“How about that?” Fred laughed. “You thought I’d miss him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and so did you,” I answered.
“Here you go,” Fred directed. “You can carry him. Won’t Mama be proud?”
“Yes, she will,” I answered, and I gladly carried the jackrabbit, two to three times the size of a cottontail, the half-mile home.
We were barely in the front yard when Wanda shouted, “Look, Mama, look!”
Mama busted out laughing, “Why, it’s a jackrabbit, the first since we left Oklahoma. You boys clean it while I heat up some water. We’ll have ourselves a feast.”
Fred held the rabbit spraddle-legged while I skinned it. But something was wrong. Big worms as long as my little finger and fat in the middle worked alive in the rabbit’s upper legs and back.
“Mama, come quick!” I yelled, pointing at the wrinkled grubs.
“Throw that nasty thing away,” she said. “No self-respecting family eats meat with warbles in it.”
Later that evening we ate potato soup with onions. For anyone still hungry, there was plenty of cornbread and milk. Next morning Old Tuffy’s belly bulged. He’d eaten our Thanksgiving treat, worms and all.
In addition to willingly handing over to Mama the dollar a day he made cutting sprouts, Fred came up with the idea of making some extra money by getting a head start on other hunters and trappers in our area. Some six weeks or so before hunting season opened, Jay and I helped him dig a round pit, a holding pen about six feet in diameter and less than three feet deep, with walls sloping back at the bottom to prevent possums from climbing out.
Although Jay and I helped, it was Fred who best remembered where all the likely looking hollow trees were located in various nearby stands of timber, and it was mainly Fred who climbed the trees and stirred the leaves in the dens, in search of the grinning, hissing creatures. Fred was adept at tormenting the possums with a stick until they rolled up into balls and pretended to be dead, after which he’d grab them by their rough, hairless tails and drop them on the ground. Then Jay and I quickly put them in a towsack so Old Tuffy wouldn’t damage their hides. A few of Tuffy’s teeth marks would cause the fur buyer to offer no more than a quarter for a hide he’d ordinarily pay fifty cents for.
After one especially good Saturday haul, we had dropped several possums into the crowded pit when Mama came out to watch. “Whatever you boys do, don’t tell anyone about this,” she said. “We sure don’t want the game warden to slip up here and arrest you.” I didn’t know what a game warden looked like, but the thought of being on the bad side of the stocky, unsmiling constable who sometimes showed up at local pie suppers gave me bad dreams.
The evening before hunting season officially opened, Jay and I had watered the possums and fed them a big bait of ripe persimmons, when we decided to have some fun by poking them with long poles to make them hiss and growl, bare their white teeth dripping with spit, then finally sull up and play dead.
Fred was up early the next morning helping Mama do chores before going to work when we heard him yell: “The possums are gone! The possums are gone!”
Sure enough, the pit was empty of everything except one of the poles that Jay and I had been playing with the previous evening. One end of the pole was in the center of the pit and the other lay on the upper edge.
“I bet one of you boys left that pole there,” Fred said.
“We did not,” I argued.
“You boys shut up,” Mama said. “What’s done is done. Ever since we started breakin’ the law I’ve been afraid something like this might happen. We need to start rendering unto Caesar what’s Caesar’s, like Jesus said.”
That night, the first legal night of hunting season, we heard Efton Robbins’ good spotted hound barking treed time after time in the woods west of the house, on the tract of land old-timers called the Nine-Forties. After Bobby Lynn Wilkin told him what he’d heard at school about Fred’s escaped possums, Efton walked the mile and a half to our house one evening carrying a towsack filled with stretched hides. “Here,” Efton said to Fred as he emptied the sack on the front porch. “From what I’ve heard, I figure I owe you at least half of what I caught across the road the other night.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Fred said, but I could tell from the way he looked at the six pelts on the thin, curved pine boards that he was going to accept Efton’s offer.
“Just be sure you bring my boards back after the hides are cured,” Efton said. “By the way, have you heard from your dad lately?”
“No, not lately,”Fred said. “Much obliged, Efton.”
When Efton left, Mama gathered the six of us around the kitchen table. “I think the Lord knows that from now on we aim to obey the laws of the land,” she said, “and He sent Efton over here with them possum hides as a sign. Let it be a lesson to all of us.”
Before I went to sleep I wondered if Jesus kept as close a watch on possums as He did on people and sparrows.
A few days after Dad showed up in December, he and Fred and I removed the box from the wagon and went to the woods, where we worked hard cutting and piling red and white oak poles for firewood between the bolsters of the running gears. We had the poles piled high and were ready to start to the house when Dad’s normally red face turned gray and he slumped to the ground, moaning. Fred and I hardly knew what to do–we were way back in the timber–but we improvised a pallet of sorts with our denim jackets, then helped Dad climb up on the poles, and as I walked alongside the wagon, making sure Dad didn’t fall off, Fred skillfully maneuvered the team and its load along the narrow trail. Once he miscalculated, hubbing a tree, and the load shifted, crushing the rifle’s walnut stock, but Dad wasn’t hurt, and we made it home safely.
We helped Dad inside, where he stayed in bed week after week. There was no talk of seeing a doctor, just as there hadn’t been a few years before, in northern Kansas, when he was bedridden all winter. The doctor he’d seen as a child in the state of Washington, where he’d had rheumatic fever, had said that he would have recurring spells and only bed rest might help.
Joyce cheerfully ran errands and cared for Dad after school and on weekends, but Mama, hard-faced and capable, did the bulk of it. We especially dreaded the nights when Dad screamed, “It wouldn’t hurt any worse if someone stabbed me in the back with a knife!” Scared and confused, I wondered why I never heard Mama praying for Dad. Dad was gruff, hateful even, but did that mean he had backslid and couldn’t be healed? Or had Mama herself lost faith because her goiter had kept growing since she’d twice proclaimed it healed before she quit attending church?
Maybe it was my fault. I knew God worked in mysterious ways. Was He punishing me because I’d refused to go up front at altar call on the night Mama thought I was under conviction? The rest of the kids were saved early, but I wanted to do some serious sinning before I became a Christian, even if it meant jeopardizing Dad’s health.
The holiday season looked bleak until Grandpa and Grandma Holmes showed up with toys, a week before Christmas, in Grandpa’s black ’34 Chevrolet coupe. I especially remember the Chinese checkers. After noticing soft blobs of fresh paint clinging to the holes on the underside of the board, I guessed that Grandma, resourceful and upbeat as ever, had managed to find second-hand toys, which she’d painted in her slap-dash way with her favorite colors, lavender and purple. Even better than the Chinese checkers were the gaudy red and green popcorn balls piled high in Grandma’s gleaming copper boiler. The sticky balls, hard and knobby as Fred’s fists, were just the ticket, even if some of us kids did make ourselves sick by eating too many before dinner.
Mama had announced ahead of time that since the Snuffer place was too far out of the way for Santa Claus to find, there was no point in putting up a tree; but she changed her mind after Joyce said she thought it would be nice to have a place to put our unexpected gifts from Grandma. Finding a cedar tree wasn’t easy, but after Fred finally spotted a scraggly three-foot-tall specimen, he and I took turns carrying it home. The hardest part was making a cobbled-up stand for holding the prickly tree in place in the empty, closed-off dining room.
Mama was in charge, as the seven of us strung buckbrush berries and popcorn on alternate rows of sagging strings. We cut out idiot-faced look-alike paper dolls from the previous year’s wish book that we had retrieved from the toilet. Now masquerading as angels, they added their comic effect to the gaily decorated cedar. By the time we were finished, only an occasional glimpse of green showed where the sharp smell came from. The transfigured little tree, with its rough, triumphant star fashioned from crinkled tinfoil, leaned cockeyed against the east window.
Mama’s high Christmas Eve spirits were greatly subdued the next morning, and when I opened the door to look at the tree it was gone. Whether she and Dad had gotten locked into one of their late-night arguments, or she simply couldn’t bear to continue the subterfuge, I never knew. She’d thrown the tree and its trappings into a snowbank on the east side of the house, where drifting snow soon covered it. There it rested until spring, when chirping English sparrows announced its resurrection.
All of us kids were sober-faced as we ate breakfast Christmas morning, but afterward, when Mama opened the long, mouse-proof wooden box we used as a bench behind the table, our bitterness over the banished tree disappeared. Even Grandma’s wonderful red-and-green popcorn balls took a back seat to the huge white cake, overflowing with coconut frosting. Mama had saved up almost enough money to buy ingredients for a coconut cake, and when the Raleigh man had come by, despite Dad’s angry protest from his bed, she’d traded an old hen for what she lacked, a small brown bottle of pure vanilla.
The weather turned bad after the first of the year, and a winter storm dropped eighteen to twenty inches of snow, with waist-high drifts in places. Unlike most winters in the Ozarks, when warm spells tended to quickly melt whatever snow fell, cold weather hung on, and additional snow built up, making it impossible to go to school.
At first it was fun to keep all the stock confined. All the stock included half a dozen Jersey cows and three or four half-Guernsey yearling heifers, plus two small, perhaps eight-hundred-pound mares and two half-Percheron colts that might eventually weigh eleven hundred pounds each. In addition, there were game chickens and guineas to care for, as well as various goats and pigs. Dad’s four horses, tied fast in the shed next to the hay barn, barely tolerated the nanny goats that crowded around and underneath them, and the nervous horses trampled and killed several newborn kids. Although I was too big and too tough to cry over a dead goat, it was never easy for me to pick up a frozen kid and toss it over the hill out of sight, far enough away so the bleating nanny couldn’t smell it and continue her grieving. Our nannies, part Toggenburg, part Angora, weren’t heavy milkers, but I preferred the sweet-tasting, easily digestible goat milk with its ever-so-faint billygoat smell over cows’ milk any time. Maybe my preference for goat’s milk came, as Mama thought, from way back when, as a baby, I couldn’t tolerate either her milk or cow’s milk.
The novelty of caring for the beleaguered animals wore off quickly, turning into mere drudgery. And as the bad weather hung on, our scant feed supplies shrank at an alarming rate. The mixed timothy and lespedeza hay packed in the haymow was the most easily accessible, but following Dad’s warnings, we doled it out a few pitchforks at a time. When Mama countermanded Dad’s instructions, it was hard to know what to do. We knew that a man was supposed to be head of his household, but sometimes Mama’s judgment seemed better than Dad’s.
After milking the cows in the stanchions, Fred and I often hung up our buckets and then searched along the sides of each cow’s backbone for boil-like swellings, sure signs of warbles, which infested the animals. With practice, we became adept at pressing firmly downward with our thumbs and popping the grubs out of the cows’ backs.
“I get dibs on Old Pet,” I told Fred when we first started looking for warbles, and since she was special, I always saved her for last. The first calf in a string of extra-good muley heifers out of Old Frankie, who herself was sired by Wiley Wise’s naturally polled Jersey bull, Old Pet was the best cow Dad had ever owned. Heavier boned, deeper bodied, and straighter backed than most Jerseys, she was cream colored all over. Old Pet’s bag was extra big, her tits were just right, neither too big nor too little, and she could be counted on to give twice as much milk as any of the other cows, except for Old Frankie.
The prize cow had a couple of drawbacks, though. She was reluctant to let her milk down, and once she let it down she was hard to milk. Dad’s technique of milking, using forefinger and thumb, was slow and ineffectual, and Fred, too fidgety to sit still for the few minutes it took to milk a cow, couldn’t be depended on, which left Mama, the best milker of us all, to do the job. Later, when I’d mastered Mama’s furiously thorough style of milking, the folks relaxed and let me take over.
I became immensely fond of Old Pet. While I was both intrigued and repulsed by the increasingly numerous and colorful accounts I heard from fellow farm boys who more or less openly admitted, and even bragged about, their exploits with animals, I was in a bind. As long as Dad was bedfast I didn’t worry about him, but Mama was always nosey, and she was quite capable of slipping around and spying on Fred and me and then beating us with Dad’s leather horsewhip if she thought we were up to something she and Jesus didn’t approve of. More than once she had described how her mother had beat her brother Reuben with a braided blacksnake whip, “within an inch of his life,” as she approvingly put it, for some awful but unnamed transgression.
Prepubescent, and ignorant past belief or understanding, I was finally scared away from Old Pet by my fear of monsters. One dark night, after seeing what I thought was a witch wearing a cape perched in the top of a blackjack tree, I asked Mama, “Do you believe in witches?”
“I most certainly do,” she replied. “Don’t you?”
“Maybe. I think I saw one tonight. Where do witches come from?”
“They come from the devil. Witches do the devil’s work, and angels work for the Lord.”
“Was Jesus an angel?”
“In a way He was,” she said, “but He was more than an angel. He was flesh and blood.”
“And God’s a spirit?”
“That’s right, the Holy Spirit. Why do you ask?”
“I just wondered.”
“You’re asking entirely too many questions, young man.”
Mama would have skinned me alive if I’d asked her what I most wanted to know: If a cross between a human and an animal was bound to be a monster, as I feared, and a cross between the devil and a human was a witch, as Mama had said, what about a cross between the Holy Spirit and a human? Was Mama’s sweet Jesus just another kind of boogerman meant to keep kids in line, something like Old Santy’s job at Christmas time?
Early in the spring, after the weather broke but before Dad was able to get around, his rich sister, Anna, and her husband, George, from western Oklahoma came bearing two little cans of chop suey, which they insisted we have for supper. Mama heated it up, and we all tried it, but it wasn’t fit to eat. Mama’s leftover fried mush was much better. After supper George and Anna loaded us kids in their new car and took us to the Princess theater in Aurora, where they treated us to our first picture show, Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die. It was a grand experience, marred only by Mama’s disapproving looks upon our return. Even though Mama hadn’t seen any picture shows, she knew they were the work of the devil.
Next morning after chores and breakfast, Mama, George and Anna stood by Dad’s bed in the downstairs bedroom, where the four of them held a lengthy, whispered discussion. From our vantage point outside the open door we, the oldest kids, gleaned from bits of conversation that George and Anna, childless, were bent on trying out two of us kids, with the idea of adopting if everything panned out.
It sounded as if they were leaning toward picking Wanda and me. Fred, their first choice, was immediately vetoed, and Joyce was soon out of the question. Quick to please and hard-working, they would have been anyone’s pick. The folks sounded reluctant to part with Wanda and me, but they were weakening when Anna, trying to cinch the deal, said, “With four kids left, you surely wouldn’t miss two of them.” Outraged, Mama ran them out of the house and off the place.
After they were gone, Dad cried great heaving sobs, as if he were a big, hurt baby. That was when I learned that a grown man could cry. Mama didn’t cry, not then or later, when we overheard Dad and her agreeing that it looked as though they’d have to give up all six of us. I wondered how living in an orphanage would feel, and whether the authorities might send Fred to reform school, where older and meaner kids went.
By late spring Dad was able to help with the extra-big garden Mama had put out. Before the garden started producing, he traded a small ruptured pig he’d sewed up for a big rank billy goat, which we butchered but couldn’t eat. The long-whiskered billy goat, with his huge swinging balls, stank when he was alive, and none of us, not even Mama or Fred, could stand the stench steaming out from under the lid of the cast-iron dutch oven. As we disposed of all traces of the goat, Dad said he should have known better than to try to get ahead of Clovis Friend in a trade. We later ate possum with sweet potatoes–the sweet potatoes were much tastier than the possum–and Mama boiled five fledgling screech owls that Fred and I shot. Although they were young, the owls were stringy and tough. Even Old Tuffy turned up his nose at the prospect of eating screech owl.
The folks heard there was relief for the poor at the county courthouse in Cassville. At Mama’s urging, Dad reluctantly hired Joe Madewell, who took us in his touring car through the open range, on a farm-to-market road, to the square, where we lined up with many others needing help. I felt small and ashamed, but I dared not say anything. Our round of cheese, big as a washpan, looked and tasted good but I ate too much and puked out of the back of the open car on the way home. Grapefruit–oversized pale oranges, I first thought–were bitter as gall. The stiff blue chambray shirts were fine, but the work shoes had dead giveaway toes, and the overalls had stripes wide as a convict’s. At school Monday morning everyone would know. Oh well, who cared? Some of the others students would be wearing the same outfits.
After the weather had moderated and Dad had gained enough strength to be up and about most of the time, I became increasingly aware of how severely limited my opportunities for sinning were. I might have practiced my lying since I was so poor at it, but the returns looked slim. Not that I had reservations about lying. It just didn’t seem to pay.
But then the combs of the old hens started getting red, a sure sign they’d soon be laying. Although some of the hens returned to the henhouse to lay, most hid their nests in the barns, either under the mangers in the milk barn or in the hayloft of the log barn. I left the eggs alone in the henhouse, that kind of stealing was too flagrant, but I searched out every hidden nest I could find and soon had a bucket of eggs stashed under loose hay.
It would be a long walk to Osie, three miles each way, but maybe I could go on Saturday when Dad rode Old Barney to Aurora. I could give Fred and Jay the slip, as I sometimes did when I hid out and read a book instead of going hunting with them. As I uncovered the milk bucket brimming with eggs, I saw with horror that a hard freeze the night before had cracked every last one. Emmitt Hilton wouldn’t buy cracked eggs, so what was I to do?
A few days earlier I heard the the folks discussing how few eggs the hens were laying. Later Dad heard a racket in the henhouse, after which he chased off Mart Johnson’s redbone hound. Dad said little, but he picked a tiny hole in each end of an egg, sucked out the white, then carefully blew arsenic through a straw next to the yolk in the shell. Finished, he sealed the holes with paraffin and placed the altered egg in the nest where the broken shells lay.
While Dad kept vigil the hound returned. Again there was a commotion in the henhouse, but Dad quietly waited until the dog left before he examined the disturbed nest. “I believe that’ll break him of suckin’ eggs,” he said.
A couple of days later Mart mentioned that he’d found his dog dead in a manger.
“What do you reckon happened to him?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know,” Mart answered. “He was a young dog.”
“That’s too bad,” Dad said.
As I looked at my bucket of ruined eggs, I thought about Mart’s dead dog. Dad surely wouldn’t kill me if he found out, but he would likely give me a terrible whipping with the leather plow lines doubled, the same way he’d whipped Fred for a much smaller offense.
I thought about hiding the broken eggs in the woods. But then, remembering that Mama sometimes cooked with cracked eggs, I trudged to the house, bucket in hand, practicing the lies I’d been neglecting. “Look, Mama,” I said. “I found a huge nest in the loft. Last night’s freeze must have broken the eggs. Can you still use them?” From her narrowed eyes I could tell that she and God knew. But they didn’t have proof.
“Yes, I can use them.” My lie held.
After this narrow escape I backed off, but I still needed money. Then good luck came, and I didn’t have to steal or even lie this time. I was in the brooderhouse checking on a hen with a clutch of eggs that Mama thought was overdue, when, sure enough, baby chicks peeped out underneath her. When I lifted the hen, I saw that all the eggs–perhaps ten–were hatched except for a big, odd-shaped one resembling double-yolked eggs I’d seen.
After hurrying to the barn, where I quickly threw hay to hungry animals, I shirked other chores and raced back to the brooderhouse. When I lifted the hen off the chicks again, the big egg moved, and I saw that the last chick had almost finished pipping. Suddenly the shell split, and there lay an awkward, struggling, spraddle-legged, two-headed baby chicken. Strictly speaking, it had just one over-sized head, but two beaks and four eyes. As I watched, astounded, the grotesque creature gained strength. Soon it pecked at crushed oats and drank from an upended glass jar, first with one beak and then the other.
By midday all the rest of the kids had come to see my odd find. They wanted to hold it but I, remembering the fates of earlier handled chicks, wouldn’t allow it. Even Dad and Mama took time to look. With nightfall approaching, I left my post, confident that the clucking hen would take good care of my prize. That night I didn’t walk in my sleep, as I often did, but I slept fitfully and I had a dream in which I dreamt I was rich. Everyone passing down our road, whether in a car, on foot, or ahorseback, stopped and gladly paid a nickel to see my wonderful two-headed chicken.
Early the next morning before breakfast I raced to the brooderhouse, where the mother hen sat in a corner with her feathers fluffed out protectively over her new brood. Lifting the hen with one hand, I gently stirred the chicks as I looked for my precious freak. It was gone. Looking around, I saw it a few feet away, flattened, with dark blood oozing from a deep hole in the top of its head. I picked it up tenderly, then ran to the house to show Mama.
Mama knew everything. When I held out the limp chick she nodded approvingly, “Mothers know when something’s wrong with their babies, and they know what to do.”
As I stood in front of her, shaking, Mama had the same faraway look I’d seen many a time when she stood late in the evening in the dim light, watching over her brood of six. Only now, instead of lingering over the cruel scar on the baby’s upper lip, she stared at my big head.
I dropped the dead chick and ran like hell.
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