Authors: Robert Newton Peck
On the near side of the big white house was a small meadow. That was where we could see Apron and her two bull calves. Just a look at that big Holstein made my arm hurt. The stitches were still in it, and I guessed they’d be there until Hell
froze and got hauled to the ice house. If Mama had any plan to remove her sewing, she sure hadn’t told it unto me. I didn’t bring it up, and wasn’t going to. Just in case those stitches hurt half as much coming out as they did going in. I couldn’t say for sure just how you took thread out of somebody’s arm, but it would probably mean some cuting. And I wasn’t about to step forward for another dose of that.
It was good to look down from the high and lonely and see Bob and Bib tagging along after Apron. Bob was the one named after me. My real name was Robert Peck, but lots of times I got called Bob. That’s what Jacob Henry called me.
I was named after Robert Rogers, who was quite a man with the Indians in these parts. He’s dead now. But there was a time when there wasn’t an Iroquois in Vermont or in New York State that didn’t hear the name of Major Robert Rogers and start to fearing. Some said he was a Shaker, born and bred. Just like Papa and just like me. But he didn’t wear Shaker clothes. He wore Indian clothes most of the time, Robert Rogers did. He wore buckskin shirts and trousers; and no stockings, people said.
Major Robert Rogers was a very famous man. So famous that if you row crosslake to Ticonderoga, there’s a big rock slide named after him. Indians
were chasing him along the shoulder that’s west of Lake George, and Robert Rogers slid down that slide to escape. That’s how he got away. That’s why he’s so famous, according to Miss Malcolm.
“Pinky,” I said, “do you know I was named after Major Robert Rogers, and that he was a Shaker just like me and you?”
Be it if Pinky was at all brightened to knowing that, she sure hid it good. She just kept rooting around in the ferns and not finding a thing. So I just kept saying to her about Robert Rogers.
“That’s how he got away, Pinky. ’Course from everything I’ve heard and read in history books, Robert Rogers didn’t have to run from the Indians at all. He could of turned and fought ’em off one by one, and killed every last one of them. He could of pushed ’em all right down that rock. Rogers Rock, it’s called.”
When my grandfather was still alive, I told him about Robert Rogers and all. And I said how much Major Robert Rogers hated Indians. And that’s when Grampa said that he didn’t hate them all. Because a number of Indian women in these parts had children that looked a bit like they was sired by Robert Rogers. They all favored him some.
Anyhow, he sure seemed to be a regular guy. So I was real proud to carry his name.
“Come on, Pinky,” I said. “It’s getting close to
chore time. I got to feed you and Daisy and Solomon. And if’n I’m not to home come chore time, Hell won’t have it. Papa gets mighty stirred up over that. Right he should. Chores are my mission, not his.”
I ran down off the ridge toward our farm as fast as I could, just to see if my pig could keep up with me. She could. I ran all the way across the North meadow, clear to the crick. And even there I didn’t stop. I just jumped it. Sailed through the air and landed yonder. Pinky didn’t jump from one bank to another. But she sure waded it fast as fury. Splashed right through and made all the silver jump up around her hoofs.
“Come quick,” said Mama, who was standing at the barn door. Just inside was a nest in the hay, right next to the warm wall near Daisy. Down in the hay was our barn cat, Miss Sarah, and three of the prettiest kittens you’d see anywhere. One was calico like her. (And if it lived it would be a female too. Male calicoes die.) Another one was a tiger buff, and it was easy the biggest. The third one was almost all white with buff colored markings on its back and rear leg. They was a trio to behold.
Miss Sarah was real happy about it too. She lay there purring and purring and purring, like her motor was running and wouldn’t stop. And those three kittens with their wet milky noses all buried into her belly, all sucking away to beat mercy.
“Look, Pinky,” I said, lifting her up so she could see Miss Sarah and her litter.
“No matter how many times a barn cat has her kits,” Mama said, “it’s always a wondrous thing to see,”
June come. I sure was happy as today was the last day of school.
It was hot that afternoon. But I came racing home with my final report card all folded up in my pocket. The weather was dry as dust, and I was glad to be walking across pasture on the soft green meadowland, instead of kicking rocks the long way round which was by the dirt road.
Way off to my right side, a wagon was coming down the long hill, headed for town. I didn’t know the team or the driver. As the wagon moved along the dirt road, it blowed up clouds of dust that seemed to hang in the air behind it. Looked like the wagon was chased by a long dusty-gray snake. The driver had his coat took off, riding in his shirt with his sleeves rolled up. It looked like Isadore Crookshank who sat the seat, but I couldn’t tell for sure.
I watched the wagon until it went out of sight around a roadbend. And soon the snake had gone, too. It was like the wagon hadn’t passed by at all.
From a quarter mile away I could see the corn cratch that Solomon moved with the capstan. And its new boards from one end to the other, like stripes, to fill in what used to be the open space between slats. Closer, I could see Pinky moving about, chasing one of the chickens.
“Pinky,” I yelled. But she was too far away to hear. So I ran again. But not too far, as it sure was a hot day for June.
Now that I was near, I called to Pinky again. This time she heard, and come to meet me. Boy! She was growing. I’d had her just ten weeks and already she was about my size. I lay on my back on the grass so she could come up to me and I could see her face. It always looked to me like she was smiling. In fact, I know she was. Lots of things smile, like a flower to the sun. And one thing sure. I knew that just like I could smile to see Pinky, she sure could smile to see me.
I got up, running toward the house. Pinky followed, but not as fast as when she was tiny. Her weight gain was good, but it slowed her down some. Just as we got to the fence, I saw Mama on the front stoop, waving for me to come up to the house. I’d
hoped she hadn’t took notice of me rolling on the meadowgrass in my school clothes.
“Rob,” she said, as I came in the house, “look who’s here.”
There she was, sitting in our good chair, and wearing one of her big dresses with all the colorful flowers on it, and smelling so good with perfume that it almost made me sick. There she was, Aunt Matty.
She lived in town, in Learning. Once a month or so, she’d come to pay call on Mama. She wasn’t my real aunt, like Aunt Carrie. But I guess she was a distant cousin twice moved; which to go along with my reckoning means that she used to live in two other places before she moved to Learning. Anyhow, she wasn’t my real aunt. Just a friend of Mama and Aunt Carrie, so that they got out the good cups to drink tea out of. But I called her Aunt Matty. Or sometimes Auntie Matt. Her real name was Martha Plover.
“Hello, Aunt Matty.”
“Well, look at the size of you. You’re growing like a weed.” Aunt Matty always said that, and yet it always made me feel good.
“Thank you,” I said.
I should have excused myself right then and there, and changed my clothes for chores. But instead I made my big mistake of the day. And it
could of been my big mistake of the whole darn summer.
Like a fool, I pulled out my report card.
I showed it to Mama and to Aunt Carrie. They couldn’t read hardly at all, but they knew what an A looked like. I’d got A in geography, spelling, reading, arithmetic, and history. The only other mark I got was a D in English, which I didn’t bother to point out. So when Mama and Aunt Carrie saw all them A’s they said I was a good boy.
The trouble kicked up when I showed my report card to Aunt Matty. She could read. But as it turned out, she couldn’t read the letter A, no matter how many she saw. All she could read was D, where I got a D in English.
“You got Din English!”
The way Aunt Matty took on, it must have been the first D anybody ever got, because it sure gave her the vapors. I thought she was going to die from the shock of it. Like she seen a ghost. There it was. A big black D, as big and black as Miss Malcolm could make it, right there on my old report card. And it was more than poor Aunt Matty could bear. She let out a gasp, and her hand went to her throat like she was spasmed.
“D in English,” she said again, to make sure that there wasn’t a soul who missed it.
Well, I thought to myself, I’ve done it. Brung disgrace
on my family’s house. Appeared a D in English was so dark a deed that no one could live it down.
“’Course it’s not the end of the world,” said Aunt Matty. “There
Remedy! There was a word that struck a fever. Mama had give me a spoonful of remedy for one thing or another almost every winter and spring. It made you go to the backhouse a lot. Morning, noon, and night. Sometimes twice each, and it was no picnic to have your butt burn like Hellfire.
“All he needs,” said Aunt Matty to Mama and Aunt Carrie, “is a tutor.”
At this, I heaved a breath of well being. I sure knew what a “tooter” was. Jacob Henry had one. Its real name was a cornet, and he played it in the school band. But what Jacob called it was his “tooter.” So I was some relieved, now knowing that I weren’t going to get marched to the kitchen, took by the ear, and forced to gag down a tablespoon of remedy. A cornet was bad, the way Jacob played it. But it sure beat a remedy that you had to swallow now and run after.
“Fact is,” said Aunt Matty, “I will tutor him myself.” That was when I busted out laughing fit to kill. Aunt Matty, big and round in her flower dresses and all her beads, was strange to look at as
she was. But to see her blowing on a cornet, with her cheeks all puffed out the way Jacob’s got, was too much to stand. A sight like that could lead the high school band in a parade. Auntie Matt and her silver cornet, highstepping down the main street of Learning every Four of July. It was more than ribs could take.
That’s when I should of known better. Seeing me laugh was more than Aunt Matty could bear. Anyone who got a D in English had no right to joy. It was her next words that stopped the laughing for time to come.
“D in English! It’s no laughing matter. Next thing it’ll be an F, for Failure. And you know what that means. Expulsion. He’ll be put back a grade. So there’s no time to lose. I’ll start to tutor him today, and right now. Come, Robert.”
Up jumped Aunt Matty, grabbing me with one of her chubby hands and her big old floppy pocket-book with the other. I could tell she meant business. As she drug me into the parlor, all her bracelets were rattling as if to say so. Well, it was all right with me. If Aunt Matty wanted to play the cornet, I was partial to it.
“Grammar,” she said, pushing me with some force into a hardwood ladderback chair. “That’s where you’re falling down. Before I married your
Uncle Hume, I was an English teacher. And that’s where we’re going to start. Living in this house and all its Shaker ways, it’s a wonder you can talk at all. You’d get better than a D in English if you were a fearing Baptist.”
That was it! That there was the time my heart almost stopped. I’d heard about the Baptists from Jacob Henry’s mother. According to her, Baptists were a strange lot. They put you in water to see how holy you were. Then they ducked you under the water three times. Didn’t matter a whit if you could swim or no. If you didn’t come up, you got dead and your mortal soul went to Hell. But if you did come up, it was even worse. You had to be a Baptist.
And here I was, alone with one. Bless the dear old goodness there weren’t a pond in our parlor. It sure would be a painful caution to have a Baptist the size of Aunt Matty hold you under. Even to think of it made me gasp for breath, and I made a throaty noise.
“You all right?” asked Aunt Matty, digging around inside her big pocketbook. She came up with a tiny whitelace hanky, not much bigger than a stamp.
“Here,” she said, “blow your nose. You can’t learn English with an acting sinus.”
“Now then,” said Aunt Matty, as she snatched back her hanky, giving it a sick look, “we’re going to have a little test on grammar. You tell me, Robert, which sentence is correct. Ready?”
“It was I who he called. It was me who he called. It was I
he called. And, it was me whom he called.”
I just sat there, dumb as a post. I guessed I didn’t have brains enough to dump sand out a boot. If she’d asked me if’n I was Robert Peck, I don’t guess I could of answered a good stout yes or no.
“I don’t know, Auntie Matt. They all sound fair enough to me.”
“Just as I suspected from the first.”
“The first what?”
“It’s just an expression, Rob. But it’s just as I feared. You don’t know grammar, because you don’t know how to