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Authors: Lee Smith

Tags: #Historical, #Adult

Fair and Tender Ladies (34 page)

BOOK: Fair and Tender Ladies
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This here is it,
I said.
It is where they lived all right. They planted those roses,
I said.
So Joli and me sat down and ate our peaches and they were so good, the best peaches ever, the juice ran all down my face and I didn't care. Bees buzzed everywhere among the roses and the long sweet grass. They say there is blue grass over in Kentucky but I have not seen it.
Joli laid back in the grass. She looks like a girl yet even though she is a full grown woman, almost nineteen. She has a sweet sharp pointy face and those big gray eyes.
What all kind of stories did they used to tell?
she asked me.
So this is a statue too, me in the grass at the old Cline place with Joli, roses blooming and bees buzzing all over. That day was like a day out of time, frozen fast. I was a girl again, that day. Joli and me were like girls together. I started telling her some of the old stories. It's funny how clear I can recall them. It is like they sit in a clear calm place in my head that I never even knew was in there. I told Mutsmag, Old Dry Fry, and how Jack fooled the smart red fox. Joli left a few days later, crying, mad at me for sending her away. Oakley drove her into town.
Then came fall, then winter, one of the hardest winters we have ever had, and I lost the baby I was carrying then, that day last summer when Joli and me went up Hell Mountain and sat in the grass. It was a boy, we buried him up on Pilgrim Knob.
And now for Oakley. The statue of Oakley is always working. Its back is always bent, its face is always turned away. For it aint no way to make a living from a farm. And you know, I must of
that somehow, it must of been down in my mind the same as those stories are, in the still place where you just know things. I must of knowed it from childhood, from watching it kill Daddy first, then Momma. But that is the thing about being young—you never think that what happened to anybody else might happen to you, too. Your life is your own life, that's how you think, and you are always so different. You never listen to anybody else, nor learn from what befalls them. And the years go so fast—oh lord, it seems like yesterday that we were plowing this field for the first time with Sal, who has been dead now seven years. It seems like yesterday that me and Oakley planted those taters in the dark of the moon. Well, we still plant them that time of the month. And Oakley still gets a deal of pleasure from this land, moreso than me, for when his work is done of an evening then it is
for he don't have to mend the clothes or can the corn or feed the baby. I don't mean to sound like he lays around, neither—not like some. Oakley's statue is bent over like I said, working. But his face is turned away. So it would be hard at first to say what he might be doing, for he don't talk much and as times have got harder and harder, he has turned his hand to many a extry job. So he has lost the love of it that he used to have.
For instance, we don't grow cane now, as it was a pleasure crop. In the fall when it got ripe, Ray Fox Senior and Delphi Rolette would come up here and help Oakley cut it, and then cut the stalks out of the blades. You know it has the prettiest spike of red seeds that stand at the top of the stalk when the cane is ready—oh you remember, Silvaney, don't you? We used to grow cane up here in the old days too, before Daddy got sick, when we were little. And you and me and Beulah and Ethel would take those spikes and stick them in our hair for fancy hats. Well, Joli and Martha done the same, and Ethel got us to save her a pile of them to take down to sell in the store. She says that people in town will use them for decoration! I can't see that. But Ethel has got a good eye for what will sell. Ethel can sell
Stoney says. He says she could sell a bucket of mud if she took it in mind to, and I reckon she could! Anyway, we used to cut the stalks and save the spikes for Ethel, and borry the cane mill from Mister Gurney on Dogleg Branch, and then the men would dig the ditch and place rocks from the creek along the sides to hold it, and cut up wood to feed the fire, and then I'd scour the vat and we'd haul it in place, and word would go out everywhere—
A big stir-off!
Early that next day, Oakley would hitch up Sal and we'd all take turns walking her around and around while the mill crushed the cane and the green juice ran out in the trough. We carried it bucket by bucket to the vat, and Oakley started boiling it. It takes nearabout a day to boil it down. Meanwhile folks came from far and wide with their jars and bowls, to take some home. The children skittered like waterbugs all over the place, real excited, darting in to the fire to skim off the yellow foam with a spoon. They'd eat it till they got sick! We had fiddling too, and singing, and a lot of drinking, and dinner on the ground. We'd come out with about 8 gallons of molasseys, when all was said and done.
Not enough,
Oakley says now,
to warrant so much time and trouble,
for then we would split those molasseys with the Rolettes and Oakley's daddy, of course. So after a while when times got hard, we stopped putting in the cane patch. But I miss it. I miss the stir-offs, and storebought molasseys is not the same. I loved the taste of that hot yellow foam and the ginger biskits that Edith Fox used to make with those molasseys, and I loved the notion of a day so different from all the rest.
You know what Granny used to call molasseys?
the long sweetening.
Reach me some of that long sweetening, honey, she'd say at the breakfast table. I can just hear her now.
So we don't hold the stir-off any more.
Too much trouble,
Oakley says, turning his face away.
But I remember so well one night in October when we had been back up here for about four years, we held it on the night of a big full moon—we had got going late because Sal had busted one of her sweeps—that is the long pole you hitch the mule up to—and so it was well into the night when the molasseys got boiled down good and thick. Oakley was there by the fire, stirring it with a long wood paddle and laughing at some men that had gathered around drinking. His face was red in the firelight, and the moon was red too when it come up at last over the top of Bethel Mountain. It was a windy, chilly night. I stood right outside the firelight, watching. Early Cook, who was a real old man by then and has passed on since, Early sat right up close to the fire in our daddy's ladderback chair and ate out of a vat with a tiny little spoon. He was so busy eating that he never once cracked a smile at the stories told. But Oakley! Oakley was laughing and laughing, stirring those molasseys. Then all of a sudden he looked around. His face got bright and full of yearning in the light.
he called.
I hung back watching, I don't know why. Oakley looked from face to face around the stir vat.
Dreama, do you know where Ivy is?
He asked his sister who has always been a little bit hateful to me purely out of spite, since she loves Oakley so.
Dreama said.
Oakley hollered.
He hollered real loud and then I came running and Oakley caught me up and kissed me on the mouth right there in front of Dreama and his daddy. But I could feel him shaking under his old wool shirt.
Oakley, whatever's the matter?
I said.
I lost you for a minute,
Oakley said. He held me tight.
We made us a baby that night I believe, a baby which did not come to term and is buried now up on Pilgrim Knob, that was the first one we buried up there. Now I have got two little babies on Pilgrim Knob. I never gave them a name. But I remember losing them and getting them both, I remember everything. I remember the fire and the moon and Oakley's face, and exactly how we made that first little dead baby that very night, what I have come to call in my mind, the night of the long sweetening. It is like a curse, to remember as good as I do.
So you see why I am sad that we have stopped the stir-offs.
And you see that it was not always like this, with Oakley's face turned away.
But he has had a lot to contend with, it is true. For a man that likes farming as much as Oakley does, not to be able to do much good at it is awful.
But it is not you,
I keep trying to tell him.
It is the times. It is the economy.
We did good to get out of the mines when we did, that's a fact. It is worse over there. Why it used to be that a man couldn't make but a dollar a day in the mines, and the days they could work was precious few. It is a mighty big difference between the old days—those boom days—and these sorry times now. People from the coal camps are moving out in droves, going to Detroit, going back home to stay with their relatives and try to farm again. Like us. But they have mostly forgot how to do it, and so there's lots that are worse off than we are. At least we got out while the getting was good, which I keep telling Oakley and it is true.
Violet and R.T. are still up in West Virginia with the union, it is no telling when they will ever come back down here. So it looks like we have got Violet's Martha for good and I am so glad. Martha is simple but she's a fine hand to help out, I don't know what I would do without her. Martha runs and hides if a stranger comes up the holler, but she will come when you call her out. And loves a baby! She is so good to LuIda and little Maudy.
Oakley says,
The depression dont make no difference up here.
May be he is right too. But he and others have turned their hands to trapping and hunting sang these last years. Trapping pays pretty good, you would be surprised. A muskrat will bring a dollar, a mink up to 12 or 15. Gray foxes are easy to catch, but a red fox is hard to get and brings up to forty. A couple years back, Oakley got a red fox and didnt tell me, and came back from town with a new blue dress for me. He had picked it out himself at the Family Shop. It was blue velvet, too short and real impractical, but I never said a word, except Thank you. Oakley uses double spring traps because if you shoot, you mess up the hide. He is good at trapping. Most men around here, they wont do it despite of the money, they have not got the patience. They like to shoot too good. And you have to skin whatever you get, and case the hide. If takes time. It is the kind of work Oakley is good at, and likes. Oakley moves slow. He has got all the time in the world. The better you case the hide, the better grade you will get on it from the companies. Mostly Oakley takes his hides down to Ethel and Stoney's store and they pack them off to Sears Roebuck for him.
He goes after sang too, mostly in October when the leaves turn yellow so you can find it. Not that it is easy even then. There's some folks will follow others, to see where they get their sang. I have heard tell of one man leading another astray apurpose, so as not to let on where his secret place is. A man is mighty close-lipped on where he finds his sang. For a big bunch of it will bring a pickup load of meal and flour, bacon and salt and other goods. Just to look at it, you wouldn't think it would be worth a penny. It is a no-account plant with three large leaves and two littluns. But it is the root they use, and the root is shaped like a human body, like a little man. It gives me the creeps. It is the Chinese people that want it, lord knows what they do with it. Granny used to boil up sang to clear out your throat if you had a roomy cough as I recall, and also she said it would cheer the heart, comfort the bowels, and help the memory. Well, lord knows I don't need no help with the memory! My memory works overtime anyway. I just can't bring myself to boil up any sang, because I think about all those creepy little Chinese people liking it so, and somehow this puts me plum
of it. I feel like it is foreign stuff. So when Oakley has been out sanging, I tell him,
Sell it all.
And you know, now as I am writing all this down, I wonder if this is what has made Oakley turn his face away, him going off by himself so much up in the mountains after hides and sang. For a man can lose the habit of talk and the habit of looking at you. Oakley looks down at his hands, whittling. A man can work so hard he gets caught way down inside of himself.
Another thing Oakley does is go around on carpenter work, particularly in the winter, building steps for some and sheds for others, and fences and gates, and what not. But you have got to watch him on this because he is like to do it for free, and will for sure if it is a widder woman or somebody bad off in any way, or somebody in his church. And while it is true that Oakley would give you the shirt off his back, it is also true that he would give the shirt off his back to
This makes me feel bad. And I feel like Oakley works so hard, and stays so busy, that he has not got time for me! If he's not working, he's going to church. Ever time they crack the door now, there goes Oakley.
Come on and go with me Ivy,
he says.
Martha can keep the babies.
You can't go if you are carrying a baby, of course. So I have got out of it a lot, that way! So sometimes now I go and sometimes I don't, but I'll tell you, I can't tell the difference. I swear I can't. I would not say this to another soul, Silvaney, It don't make me feel better nor worse, to go to church, except I get tickled sometimes at this Reverend Ancil Collins whose idea is that you have to get shut of your actual mind when you preach, just open your mouth and it will all come to you. He throws the Bible down on the floor and wherever it comes open, he takes his text. I was thinking the other day, I would love to know what Mister Brown would think of that! For he was a preacher too.
But I have not thought of Mister Brown in years and years, and thinking about him and her has made me weepy and given me the all-overs. For they were young when they lived here, and I remember I thought they were so old. Well, I am old now! I am older than they were then. It does not seem possible.
And sometimes I feel
old. I would a lots rather sit on the porch and think and look out at the world, than to go to church. I don't know why I have never got the hang of it. I guess the most religious thing about me is that I do say my prayers when I go to bed, you remember that little prayer our momma taught us which she learned in Rich Valley as a child.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.
Do you still say this too? I think it is such a pretty prayer. But I would just as soon sit in the breezeway looking out at Bethel Mountain, as to go to church. I would just as soon sink into this soft warm darkness where I have been for years. I will rock my sweet Maudy and hum perhaps, and watch LuIda play with this babydoll that Miss Torrington sent, it has big blue glass eyes like marbles, and eyelids that open and close. LuIda is so cute with her babydoll. It is like, she's got her baby, and I've got mine. I don't know where Bill and Danny Ray are. Up to no good, I reckon, I can't keep up with those boys! In fact I can't keep up with a thing it seems like. Oakley ought to take more of a hand with the boys. I can hear Martha singing in the kitchen. But if I was to go in there, she'd shut up. She won't sing if you are in there with her. Martha loves the radio down at Ethel's and will sit by it for hours, and then can sing anything she hears on it, all the way through, and remember all the words. You can hear her singing all over the house. Yet if you ask Martha what month it is, she hangs her head and doesn't know. She sings so pretty now. My back hurts. It may be that I am going to start bleeding, whenever I bleed I get the blues.
BOOK: Fair and Tender Ladies
5.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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