Authors: Robert Newton Peck
“I s’pose you thought it be your calling to tell her.”
“Sure did. But one thing certain-of the two men, Miss Malcolm tends to favor Ethan Allen. Which one do you like, Papa?”
“Can’t say honest that I take to either one.”
“Miss Malcolm sure does. She says that seeing we live in a free country like Vermont, we all better be proud as pie over Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. That’s his baseball team.”
“The pursuit of history sure has a foggy sound to it,” said Papa, watching the chain thicken round the capstan post. “Makes no sense to me.”
“Well, it all makes clear to me. Except the part about Ethan and his baseball team. They won at Ticonderoga.”
“I know of that.”
“So does Miss Malcolm. I was getting poked in the back by Will Stoddard, so I didn’t rightly get the straight of it. But I do recall this much. In the middle of the night, old Ethan took his team crosslake
to Ticonderoga, and they stayed the night in a fort.”
“Thanks be praised all the history I need’s in our Family Bible tucked away under the bed in the Bible Box. And in the Book of Shaker.”
“I guess it’s history that calls us to move this here cratch for Pinky, eh Papa?”
“A long time ago, somebody broke the Shaker Law and put up a cow and a pig together, and they had one walloping fight.”
“Maybe so,” said Papa.
“I wonder who won.”
“A boar’s got a blessed mean mouth.”
“I question who’d win if Ethan Allen met up with Abner Doubleday. I can conjur who Miss Malcolm would root for.”
“That’s for certain. She says that ’cuz we’re all Vermonters, we have to be proud of our yesterday just like today.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I think it means to be proud to live in Vermont, and proud of Ethan Allen. As well as that other fellow she talks on, the one who lives in a white house.”
“Lots of folks in Learning live in a white house.”
“I think Miss Malcolm means Calvin Coolidge. We have to pride him too.”
“Say we do. He’s our President.”
“Miss Malcolm said she voted for Calvin Coolidge, which is why he’s a President. She says that every working soul in Vermont voted for him.”
“Did you vote for Calvin Coolidge, Papa?”
“Aren’t you a Republican? Just about everybody is in the whole town of Learning.”
“No, I’m not a Republican. And I’m not no Democrat. I’m not nothing.”
“Because I’m not allowed to vote.”
“Me either. You have to be twenty-one to vote. I’m only twelve.”
“Reckon I’m soon looking at sixty.”
“Then why can’t you vote? Is it because you’re a Shaker?”
“No. It’s account of I can’t read or write. When a man cannot do those things, people think his head is weak. Even when he’s proved his back is strong.”
“Men who look at me and do not take me for what I be. Men who only see me make my mark, my X, when I can’t sign my name. They can’t see how I true a beam to build our barn, or see that the rows of corn in my field are straight as fences. They just see me walk the street in Learning in clothes
made me by my own woman. They do not care that my coat is sturdy and keeps me warm. They’ll not care that I owe no debt, and that I am beholding to no man.”
“Is that why you can’t vote, Papa?”
“Yes, boy. That’s the reason.”
“Doesn’t it make you heartsick?”
“No. I take what I am. We are Plain People, your mother and aunt, and your sisters, you and me. We live the Book of Shaker. We are not worldly people, and we suffer the less for not paining with worldly wants and wishes. I am not heartsick, because I am rich and they are poor.”
not rich, Papa. We’re …”
“Yes we are, boy. We have one another to fend to, and this land to tend. And one day we’ll own it outright. We have Solomon here to wind up a capstan and help us haul our burdens. And look here, he’s almost done pulling that cratch where we want it pulled to. We have Daisy’s hot milk. We got rain to wash up with, to get the grime off us. We can look at sundown and see it all, so that it wets the eye and hastens the heart. We hear all the music that’s in the wind, so much music that it itches my foot to start tapping. Just like a fiddle.”
“Maybe so, Papa. But it seems to me what we have most is dirt and work.”
“True enough. But it be
dirt, Rob. This land
will be all ours, in just a few more year. As to the work, what matters is that we have the back to do it. Some days I get the notion that I can’t knife even one more of Clay Sander’s pigs. Yet I always do, ’cause it’s got to be done. It’s my mission.”
“Papa, is that the mission they preach on at Meeting?”
“It is. And every man must face his own mission. Mine is pigs. And I be thankful to be in the picture.”
“The picture of Vermont, boy. Do you know what makes Vermont a good state?”
“It’s simple as beans. Here in this state we know just two things. We can turn grass into milk and corn into hogs.”
“I guess that’s as true as a taproot.”
Walking his circle, Solomon snorted as if to say he blessed the whole business.
“They sure is a passel of corn and meadow land in these parts,” I said. “If’n we turn all this and all that to milk and hogs, blessed if we’d ever keep up with it. Or just keep it in sight.”
“Probably wouldn’t, be we all dreamers like you. Now old Solomon’s a dreamer, too. But yet he walks
his circle. And just look how he’s drug that corn cratch. Plenty far.”
I couldn’t believe it. Just while Papa and me were talking, Solomon drug that old corn crib into place and moved it a ways that was twice as long as Papa was tall. And then Papa added some fresh-cut timbers to winter-tight the cratch for Pinky.
“You using fresh wood?”
“Don’t it got to season before you build with it?”
“Indoors, yes. But you can wood up a wall to stand outdoors and fresh wood will season itself.”
With a handturn, Papa sunk holes into the fresh planks at both ends, and into the old wood beyond. In each hole he used a mallet to pound in a trunnel peg of white oak that he had soaking in linseed oil. And the sty was done.
Pinky slept in it her first night with us. So did I, because the way I figured it, she’d be lonesome in a new place and away from her big fat old ma. So together we nestled down into all the clean straw, under what was left of Mr. Tanner’s old horse blanket.
With Pinky next to me that night, I guess I must have been the luckiest boy in Learning.
The next day was Sunday.
Of course the four of us went to Shaker Meeting—me and Mama, and Papa, and Aunt Carrie. We went in the wagon, and Solomon pulled it. All the way to Learning and all the way home. It was a real good sunny Sunday, perfect all around. And the best part was, I sat in Meeting where I could see Becky Tate and she couldn’t see me.
That afternoon, Pinky and I went for a walk up on the ridge that parts our land from Mr. Tanner’s. We didn’t go too near the spot where old Apron and I met up. I don’t hanker to ever see that place right away quick; and if it’s never, you won’t hear a howl from me.
One nice thing about April, there were little rivers about everywhere. Where the spruce cover was thick, you could still see a patch of snow here or there,
and the ground was still hard as winter. But only in spots. Most of the land lay open to sun; and it was soft and brown, ready to be mated with seed.
Pinky rooted around in the leaves and found her very first butternut, left over from fall. She sniffed it a while with her little pink nose, and then she tried to crack it with her teeth. She couldn’t do it, but it sure wasn’t from lack of trying. So I put the butternut on a flat rock, and smashed it with another stone. And fed the meat of the butternut to Pinky. We looked around for more, and found a few. Pinky seemed to take to them, because each time I’d stop to crack one, she’d almost always have her nose in the way of the rock.
One of the tiny rivers was only about as wide as my hand, but the current was swift. It was a perfect spot to build what I liked to build every spring.
“Pinky,” I said, “you ever see a flutterwheel? Well, I’m going to make one, so you watch real close and careful.”
I found two tiny fork-sticks, which I pushed into the mud (fork up) on both sides of the stream. Then from one fork to the other I put a basswood axle, with a dab of mud in the crotch of both forks to grease its turning. All was needed then were three or four paddles that I stuck into the axle. By pushing the two fork-sticks deeper into the mud until the water
touched the paddle blades, the flutterwheel finally turned. The strong current of the tiny creek made it turn round and round.
Pinky watched it for a moment or two, but didn’t find it near as comely as butternuts.
She sure was my pig. As I lay on the ground on a brown carpet of spruce needles, Pinky would wander off by herself. But never very far. No farther than you could kick a barrel with just one good kick. (The barrel on its side and rolling.) One time she went a little farther from me. And a big black crow over her head in a hickory tree let out a bark that made her jump and squeal like she’d been stuck. She come running to me like the Fallen Angel was after her. She never stopped squealing until she was in my arms, with her slobber all over me. I let her feel the warm of my shirt next to her. She was my pig.
Only minutes after the crow spooked her, she was wading in the water not too far from where the flutterwheel was turning. She came close to stepping on a frog. And when it jumped, so did she. You couldn’t tell which one was more scared of the other, the frog or Pinky. All the frog took was just one jump, and set there. Like he was waiting for her.
He didn’t wait long. Pinky got her gumption up in no time and went close enough to smell him. This time when he jumped, she pulled back a bit. But didn’t spook. Not Pinky. I guess she knew he wasn’t anything more than a little old hopfrog and that he wasn’t anything to run from. She kept right on chasing him, and he kept right on leaping. It was fair to see.
He got so busy keeping away from Pinky that he made a big misdo. He plumb forgot about that old black crow that was sitting up above, just watching that game of tag. It didn’t take that wise old bird long to see himself a meal. He dropped out of that hickory tree like a big black stone, landed with his feet splashing the water, and took one sharp clear peck at that frog. Hit him dead-center.
By the time Pinky jumped away, I saw the last of Mr. Frog. He just disappeared with his white belly up, right into the beak and the gullet of that crow. He tasted good, you can bet. I’d ate the legs off a big fat bullfrog on many a summer, so I know. Just like chicken, only you got to skin ’em first. Unless you skin ’em, they’re real slimy. And you can only eat the hind legs. The front ones you just have to throw to the chickens.
Funny thing about that. I was cleaning a mess
of frogs one time, with Papa. I said: “Papa, ain’t it a caution that we can only eat two legs off a frog, ’stead of four.”
And he said: “Rob, here’s what you do. You catch a real big bullfrog and make friends with him. And teach him to jump backwards. That’ll make his front legs big as the hind.”
You know, I actually tried it. I went to the sump the next day and caught me a bullfrog and spent the better part of a morning trying to learn that old frog to jump backwards, so he’d build up his front legs. But you think he’d do it? Not even once. Papa wasn’t one to smile every year, but he sure did then.
Before I knew it, there I was, telling that frog story to Pinky. I don’t know whether she found it as mirthful as Papa, but she seemed
enjoy it some.
“Pink,” I said, “how about it? You want a frog for supper?”
She just looked at me with her funny little eyes, which could of meant yes. So we left the flutter-wheel turning and come down off the ridge, heading for the sump. It was the same swale hole that I latched the frog that I never learned to jump backwards. Maybe they’d be more and I could give Pinky a taste of froglegs.
We got to the sump okay, and started to turn over a few rocks looking for frogs. But there just didn’t seem to be many around. Or any. Pinky watched me wading around looking among the rocks and marshgrass, so she thought she’d try her luck. Poking her little pink snout down between two stones at water’s edge, she found something on the very first try. It was somebody who could jump backwards all right, but it weren’t no frog.
She squealed! ’Cuz clinging to her nose was one powerful looking crawdad. In school, Miss Malcolm calls ’em a crayfish, but if one ever gets hold of your toe, it sure feels a lot more like a crawdad. And that old crawdad on Pinky’s nose was really giving her what for. I pulled it off, and threw it back in the pond. But she kept squealing. I reckoned it gave her snout a good pinch.
From high on the ridge, Pinky and I could look down and see Mr. Tanner’s farm. It sure looked prosperous next to ours. The barn was long and white-painted, and there were white fences along the lanes.