Authors: William H. Armstrong
WILLIAM H. ARMSTRONG
To Kip, Dave, and Mary
“A man keeps, like his love, his courage dark.”
—Antoine de Saint Exupéry
FIFTY YEARS AGO
I learned to read at a round table in the center of a large, sweet-smelling, steam-softened kitchen. My teacher was a gray-haired black man who taught the one-room Negro school several miles away from where we lived in the Green Hill district of the county. He worked for my father after school and in the summer. There were no radios or television sets, so when our lessons were finished he told us stories. His stories came from Aesop, the Old Testament, Homer, and history.
There was a lasting, magnificent intoxication about the man that has remained after half a century. There was seldom a preacher at the whitewashed, clapboard Baptist church in the Green Hill district, so he came often to our white man’s church and sat alone in the balcony. Sometimes the minister would call on this eloquent, humble man to lead the congregation in prayer. He would move quietly to the foot of the balcony steps, pray with the simplicity of the Carpenter of Nazareth, and then return to where he sat alone, for no other black people ever came to join him.
He had come to our community from farther south, already old when he came. He talked little, or not at all, about his past. But one night at the great center table after he had told the story of Argus, the faithful dog of Odysseus, he told the story of Sounder, a coon dog.
It is the black man’s story, not mine. It was not from Aesop, the Old Testament, or Homer. It was history—
That world of long ago has almost totally changed. The church balcony is gone. The table is gone from the kitchen. But the story remains.
W. H. A
THE TALL MAN
stood at the edge of the porch. The roof sagged from the two rough posts which held it, almost closing the gap between his head and the rafters. The dim light from the cabin window cast long equal shadows from man and posts. A boy stood nearby shivering in the cold October wind. He ran his fingers back and forth over the broad crown of the head of a coon dog named Sounder.
“Where did you first get Sounder?” the boy asked.
“I never got him. He came to me along the road when he wasn’t more’n a pup.”
The father turned to the cabin door. It was ajar. Three small children, none as high as the level of the latch, were peering out into the dark. “We just want to pet Sounder,” the three all said at once.
“It’s too cold. Shut the door.”
“Sounder and me must be about the same age,” the boy said, tugging gently at one of the coon dog’s ears, and then the other. He felt the importance of the years—as a child measures age—which separated him from the younger children. He was old enough to stand out in the cold and run his fingers over Sounder’s head.
No dim lights from other cabins punctuated the night. The white man who owned the vast endless fields had scattered the cabins of his Negro sharecroppers far apart, like flyspecks on a whitewashed ceiling. Sometimes on Sundays the boy walked with his parents to set awhile at one of the distant cabins. Sometimes they went to the meetin’ house. And there was school too. But it was far away at the edge of town. Its term began after harvest and ended before planting time.
Two successive Octobers the boy had started, walking the eight miles morning and evening. But after a few weeks when cold winds and winter sickness came, his mother had said, “Give it up, child. It’s too long and too cold.” And the boy, remembering how he was always laughed at for getting to school so late, had agreed. Besides, he thought, next year he would be bigger and could walk faster and get to school before it started and wouldn’t be laughed at. And when he wasn’t dead-tired from walking home from school, his father would let him hunt with Sounder. Having both school and Sounder would be mighty good, but if he couldn’t have school, he could always have Sounder.
“There ain’t no dog like Sounder,” the boy said. But his father did not take up the conversation. The boy wished he would. His father stood silent and motionless. He was looking past the rim of half-light that came from the cabin window and pushed back the darkness in a circle that lost itself around the ends of the cabin. The man seemed to be listening. But no sounds came to the boy.
Sounder was well named. When he treed a coon or possum in a persimmon tree or on a wild-grape vine, his voice would roll across the flatlands.
It wavered through the foothills, louder than any other dog’s in the whole countryside.
What the boy saw in Sounder would have been totally missed by an outsider. The dog was not much to look at—a mixture of Georgia redbone hound and bulldog. His ears, nose, and color were those of a redbone. The great square jaws and head, his muscular neck and broad chest showed his bulldog blood. When a possum or coon was shaken from a tree, like a flash Sounder would clamp and set his jaw-vise just behind the animal’s head. Then he would spread his front paws, lock his shoulder joints, and let the bulging neck muscles fly from left to right. And that was all. The limp body, with not a torn spot or a tooth puncture in the skin, would be laid at his master’s feet. His master’s calloused hand would rub the great neck, and he’d say “Good Sounder, good Sounder.” In the winter when there were no crops and no pay, fifty cents for a possum and two dollars for a coonhide bought flour and overall jackets with blanket linings.
But there was no price that could be put on Sounder’s voice. It came out of the great chest cavity and broad jaws as though it had bounced off the walls of a cave. It mellowed into half-echo before it touched the air. The mists of the flatlands strained out whatever coarseness was left
over from his bulldog heritage, and only flutelike redbone mellowness came to the listener. But it was louder and clearer than any purebred redbone. The trail barks seemed to be spaced with the precision of a juggler. Each bark bounced from slope to slope in the foothills like a rubber ball. But it was not an ordinary bark. It filled up the night and made music as though the branches of all the trees were being pulled across silver strings.
While Sounder trailed the path the hunted had taken in search of food, the high excited voice was quiet. The warmer the trail grew, the longer the silences, for, by nature, the coon dog would try to surprise his quarry and catch him on the ground, if possible. But the great voice box of Sounder would have burst if he had tried to trail too long in silence. After a last, long-sustained stillness which allowed the great dog to close in on his quarry, the voice would burst forth so fast it overflowed itself and became a melody.
A stranger hearing Sounder’s treed bark suddenly fill the night might have thought there were six dogs at the foot of one tree. But all over the countryside, neighbors, leaning against slanting porch posts or standing in open cabin doorways and listening, knew that it was Sounder.
“If the wind does not rise, I’ll let you go hunting
with me tonight.” The father spoke quietly as he glanced down at boy and dog. “Animals don’t like to move much when it’s windy.”
“Why?” the boy asked.
“There are too many noises, and they can’t hear a killer slipping up on them. So they stay in their dens, especially possums, because they can’t smell much.”
The father left the porch and went to the woodpile at the edge of the rim of light. The boy followed, and each gathered a chunk-stick for the cabin stove. At the door, the father took down a lantern that hung on the wall beside a possum sack and shook it. “There’s plenty of coal oil,” he said.
The boy closed the door quickly. He had heard leaves rattling across the frozen ground. He hoped his father didn’t hear it. But he knew the door wouldn’t shut it out. His father could sense the rising wind, and besides, it would shake the loose windowpanes.
Inside the cabin, the boy’s mother was cutting wedge-shaped pieces of corn mush from an iron pot that stood on the back of the stove. She browned them in a skillet and put them on the tin-topped table in the middle of the room. The boy and the three younger children ate their supper
in silence. The father and mother talked a little about ordinary things, talk the boy had heard so many times he no longer listened. “The crop will be better next year. There’ll be more day work. The hunting was better last year.”
This winter the hunting was getting worse and worse. The wind came stronger and colder than last year. Sometimes Sounder and his master hunted in the wind. But night after night they came home with an empty brown sack. Coons were scarcely seen at all. People said they had moved south to the big water. There were few scraps and bones for Sounder. Inside the cabin, they were hungry for solid food too. Corn mush had to take the place of stewed possum, dumplings, and potatoes.
Not long after supper, Sounder’s master went out of the cabin and stood listening, as he always did, to see if he could hear the cold winter wind beginning to rise in the hills. When he came back into the cabin, he took off his blanket-lined overall jacket and sat behind the stove for a long time. Sounder whined at the door as if he were asking if someone had forgotten to light the lantern and start across the fields of dead stalks to the lowlands or past the cottonwoods and jack oaks to the hills. The boy took Sounder some table scraps
in a tin pan. As Sounder licked the bottom of the pan it rattled against a loose board in the porch as if somebody were walking across the floor.
Later, when it was time for the smaller children in the cabin to go to bed, Sounder’s master got up, put on his overall jacket, and went outside. He did not take the lantern or Sounder or the boy with him. The stern order to the coon hound to go back under the porch came in through the cabin door, and Sounder’s whining continued long after the footsteps on the frozen path had died out.
Inside the cabin, the boy’s mother sat by the stove, picking kernels of walnuts with a bent hairpin. The woman watched each year for the walnuts to fall after the first hard frost. Each day she went with the children and gathered all that had fallen. The brownish-green husks, oozing their dark purple stain, were beaten off on a flat rock outside the cabin. On the same rock, the nuts were cracked after they had dried for several weeks in a tin box under the stove. When kernel-picking time came, before it was dark each day, the boy or the father took a hammer with a homemade handle, went to the flat rock, and cracked as many as could be kerneled in a night.
The troubled whimper of a child came through the little door that led to the shed-room where the children slept.
“You must go to bed soon,” the mother said. “Your little brother gets addled in his sleep when you ain’t in bed with him.”
The boy reached into his mother’s lap, where the golden half-kernels lay in the folds of her apron. She slapped his hand away. “You eat the crumbs from the bottom of the hull basket,” she said. “I try to pick two pounds a night. That’s thirty cents’ worth. Fifteen cents a pound at the store if they’re mostly half-kernels and dry. The man won’t pay if they’re all in crumbs.”
Sometimes the woman told the boy stories she had heard at the meetin’ house. “The Lord do powerful things” she would say. The boy liked it when she told her stories. They took away night loneliness. Night loneliness was always bad when the younger children had gone to bed, or when the father was not in the cabin. “Night loneliness is part fearing,” the boy’s mother had once said to him. But the boy was never afraid when his father was near.
Perhaps she too felt the loneliness that came with the wind as it passed the cabin outside, and the closeness of a world whose farthest border in
the night was the place where the lamp light ended, at the edge of the cabin walls. So she told the boy a story of a mighty flood which the Lord had sent to wash away all the evil in the world. When the story was over, she sent the boy to bed and continued picking out kernels and adding them to the neat mound in the folds of her apron.
The boy pressed his head deep into his straw pillow. The pillow was cold, but it felt smooth, and it smelled fresh. He had the same feeling he got when he rubbed his face against the sheets that hung on the clothesline every Monday. His mother washed his pillowcase and sheet every week, just like she did for the people who lived in the big house down the road. He buried himself deep in his side of the straw tick; he felt where the wooden slats of the bed crossed under his body. He rolled close to his little brother and tucked the edge of the coverlet under his body to keep out the cold that seeped up through the straw ticking. His little brother’s body warmed him.
He heard Sounder whimpering under the porch. But Sounder was warm because the boy’s father had put two burlap sacks under the porch for the time when the hard frosts came. The boy thought there must be two pounds of nuts in the
pile on his mother’s lap. His mother always said “Two pounds is a good night’s work if you can start early and there ain’t a sick child to rock.”
He wondered where his father had gone without Sounder; they always went together at night. He heard the thump, thump, thump of Sounder’s paw hitting the underneath side of the porch floor as he scratched at a flea in his short tan hair.
The boy dreamed of the stalk land covered by the Lord’s mighty flood. He wondered where the animals would go if the water rose over the foothills. “Cabins built on posts would just float like boats, porch and all,” he assured himself in a whisper. If they floated from the far ends of the land and all came together, that would be a town, and he wouldn’t be lonely anymore …
When the boy awoke in the morning, he went to the window. He remembered his dream of the flood covering the stalk land. He called the younger children. His breath steamed up the windowpane. He wiped the steam away with the bottom of his fist. His dream had not come true. There was no floodwater rising in the bottomland.
Except for frost on the ground, everything looked just the same as it had yesterday. The younger children looked, saw nothing, and asked, “What is it?”
The big blue-enameled possum kettle was boiling on top of the chunk stove. It had two lids and doubled for cooking and heating. The boy felt the brown paper bag of walnut kernels on the shelf behind the stove. “Yes,” he said to his mother, “I think there are two pounds.”
He stood close to the warm stovepipe, turning one cheek and then the other to its glowing warmth. He circled his arms in a wide embrace around the pipe and rubbed his hands together. The warmth ran up his sleeves and down over his ribs inside his shirt and soaked inward through his whole body. He pulled in deep breaths from above the stove to catch the steam escaping from under the kettle’s lid as it bounced up and down, breaking the rhythm of the bubbles that went
lob, lob, lob
on the surface of the fast-boiling pot.
In a skillet on the second stove lid there were pork sausages! He sniffed the thin lines of smoke curling up from under the edges of each of them. Pork sausage was for Christmas. But he knew it wasn’t Christmas yet. His mother put a pan of cold biscuits on the lid of the possum kettle to
warm. She was humming to herself. The lid stopped jumping up and down, and the steam began to whistle softly as it squeezed from under the lid.
The smell that came from under the lid wasn’t possum. It was ham bone. The boy had only smelled it twice in his life, once before in his own cabin, and once when he was walking past the big house down the road. The sausage and ham-bone smells filled up the cabin and leaked out through the cracks in the floor and around the door. They excited Sounder, and now he was scratching at the door.
Sounder hadn’t had much to eat yesterday. Besides a few scraps, he had had one cold biscuit. When flour was scarce, the boy’s mother would wrap the leftover biscuits in a clean flour sack and put them away for the next meal. Then they would be put in a pan, sprinkled with a little water to keep them soft, and warmed over. The boy called to Sounder to stop and go away. His mother stopped her humming and said, “Shush, child, you’ll wake your father.”