The dry spell was upon them and nothing grew fast except weeds. Weeds were dependable growers. Eve envied the way they could shoot up a little each day, balancing their parts. Eve was twelve with feet that had grown an entire shoe size since winter, a neck getting skinnier and breasts not doing anything at all. The sun bored a hot spot through the crown of her hat as she hoed between cornstalks and tried out a new story on her brother, Beetle, who was nine.
"She saw him first in the month of July." Eve hacked down, pulled back, turning a fresh black trough in ground baked gray. "He appeared one day, walking through the wheat-field before it was ripe." She had seven more rows to hoe under a cornflower blue sky. The sun sat high and blister white at noon. "Mary was passing by with her handmaidens."
"What's a handmaiden?" Beetle said.
"A servant girl. Rich women had them."
Beetle sat on the ground in the string beans, pulling sweet clover, ribwort and lamb's quarters. "What did rich men have?"
"Ask everything at the end, Beetle. It's rude when you don't."
He shook the dirt off a clump of weeds and tossed them in a feed-sack. "Then what?"
"The field was green, like this valley. It was as big as our valley, too. And Mary Magdalene saw him walking alone. His step was different from other men's so that even when he moved, his body put out the stillness, like it was controlled by something else. She stared at him, because men didn't walk the earth like that. She wanted to know him so she raised up her hand. She had soft hands, smooth and white. She never washed clothes or hulled walnuts or got calluses. She was beautiful and she didn’t have nothing to do but be beautiful."
Beetle shook his head. "She did things with men. Preacher said. Bad things."
"She's only doing what I say with the people I say. It's my story so be quiet. She called but he ignored her. He didn't even look back. And she felt mad. Men didn't ignore her. And then she felt cold, as if he'd left her in a snowdrift just by not looking at her. The next time she saw him, he was sitting under a cypress tree in her garden. She thought he was stone like the statues in Antioch. Mary looked out at him and she could hardly move, he was so beautiful. She clothed herself in the raiments of Damascus—"
"She got dressed in beautiful clothes. She felt drawn to him. Maybe it was her feeling alone, or maybe his fragrance, like a flower she couldn't see. She went out to the garden in woven sandals, sandals a Roman captain gave her --"
"Why'd he give her new shoes?"
"She let him kiss her, okay?"
"If it was me, I'd make him give me more than that. Like a lot of money. Five dollars."
She ignored him, accenting her story with soft chops of her hoe. "And when he looked at her, she felt worse than naked, like he could see inside her, like he recognized something. She was scared. The sky was gray, like when Northerlies come. She said, I have incense to burn for you and a silver basin for your feet. No, he said, and she thought she heard the voice of the sea in one word, and the voice of the wind and the trees. And when he said it, it was like life speaking to death, because she was a woman who'd lost her soul, but when he looked at her she became something pure."
"Preacher said Satan got a hold of her and put seven devils in her and she didn't even want to be shed of one."
"Shhh. He said to her, you have many lovers and yet I alone love you. Other men love themselves when they're with you. Other men see a beauty in you that will fade. He looked at her forever, like the seasons look upon the field, and he walked away."
"That’s awful. Why don't you ever tell good stories? Tell the one about the hag that hides behind the moss rock in the woods and eats the nose right off a man's face."
"Because you already know that one. I want to tell you something you don't know."
“I like knowing.” The dinner bell rang out from the house in the vale behind them. Beetle stopped pulling. “Think it’s time?”
It wasn't time. She hacked fast at dry ground with strokes that raised dust.
"Stop. Mama's ringing for us.” He jammed his crutch upright. “We got to go." He grabbed a bean pole and pulled himself up.
Eve used her shoulder to wipe sweat from her cheek. She watched her little brother maneuver his spindly legs. His left was only crooked. The right leg was twisted hard in and didn't reach the ground. That side had the shrunken hip socket that didn't grow. "Hurry, Evie. Push me in the wheelbarrow."
She knocked the hoe against her shoes to loosen dirt. Thick, ugly shoes. Her feet had grown so fast this year that her mother accepted hand-me-down-boys'-shoes from the Osbury's across the hill. "I can't push you.”
He climbed in the homemade wooden tub and laid his crutch crosswise bridging the sides. "Just this time."
"I'm too tired."
"Come on, you ole freckle-face. Kerry Osbury says a cricket spit tobacco on you when you was sleeping."
"Kerry says no man's going to marry a girl with feet bigger'n his."
She grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow and wrenched to one side, dumping him out onto rocky ground.
"Ow." He rubbed his elbow. "I'm telling."
The house bell on the porch rang again, louder, more insistent. "Get in," Eve said, irritated. Pushing hard, she trundled him forward up over uneven ground to the top of the rise. Hills rose on either side of the small vale like green walls that narrowed vision to what lay ahead, the plowing, planting, tending, picking. Growing on rolling slopes were hickories, pin oaks and long boughs of maple leafed out in lush-smelling greens. At the bottom of the slope, a wide flat hayfield grew winter feed for the cow and mule. Their little brown house sat between a big, flatboard barn and cattail pond where willows drooped long beards, their gray-green tendrils nearly touching the ground.
The big iron wheel squeaked as Eve pushed. "Go fast," Beetle said. She started down the rise, skipping at first. Her hat blew off and flopped down her back on its strings. The heavy wooden weight pulled her into a full run and Beetle was churned like butter in a tub. He squealed, sharp little peals that sang through the rumbling percussion of the rolling cart. She laughed, too, until she ran out of breath at the edge of the yard. With a grunt, she got the wheelbarrow across the grass and bumped the big iron wheel against the side of the porch, lifting the handles until Beetle was dumped onto the porch like a sack of feed.
Their mother appeared in the doorway. "Quiet," Mama said. "Your dad's gone to Jesus."
“No.” Eve shook her head. She would have felt it. If Daddy was gone, she would have known. She handed her brother his crutch and went through the door past her mother. “He’s right here,” she said.
Her father was flat on the pencil-post rope bed behind the curtain in the corner. Getting closer, she saw how his hands had been propped one atop the other on his stomach, about midway between his suspenders. It looked so neat she knew her mother had done it.
She moved close to her father, so close that her mother called out a little warning sound, as if he were a hot stove. Eve touched his hand. He wasn't warm at all. He was damp. The basin her mother had used to wash him sat by the bed with a wadded up rag in the gray-water. A smell hovered around the bed, acrid, like sweat, turning to sweet, like clover. Daddy was wearing his Sunday shirt and pants, socks, but no shoes.
Eve didn't know what to say. "His sock has a hole."
"It won’t show."
Eve was watching her father's chest. "He's breathing."
"You're seeing things, Evie." Her mother’s voice was tired.
Eve laid a hand on her father's chest and waited for it to rise. She waited a long time. His hair was combed over the caved-in spot on the side of his head where the bandage used to be.
"You never believe me," Mama said. “Just like your father." She pitched the gray-water and told Beetle to hitch the mule so they could get the preacher.
"No. I hate that mule." Beetle was so shrill that Eve got goose bumps. "He killed Daddy."
"He's just a dumb animal," Mama said, going into the corner behind the curtain to put on her corset. "Kicking's the only thing he knows, besides pulling."
Eve did not venture that she knew why Old Woolsey had kicked her daddy off the earth.
Mama came out, buttoning her shirtwaist work-dress and pinning up her hair. "Evie." She said it softly. "Let your daddy be."
Beetle was good at hitching the wagon because Old Woolsey liked his slow steady pace for each step of the harness and tack, or, perhaps, because the mule was wary of Beetle’s crutch. It was hard to know what a mule was thinking by the look in his eye. Mules hid their brain.
Mama drove them straight to their only neighbor, the Osbury’s. Mama went in and talked to Mr. Osbury alone. Eve and Beetle made faces at Kerry and his two ornery brothers until Mama came back out. She looked more thoughtful and worried than she went in, her strawberry hair massed thick and full on her head like an unruly crown. Her mother always walked proud before others, no matter what they whispered. But Eve realized suddenly that her mother wasn’t pretty anymore. Eve wasn’t sure what to call a woman who had lost something young and handsome in herself. Searching seemed the best way to describe her right then, like Mary Magdalene in the garden, searching. Looking for the promise.
They drove for half an hour more, past the small chapel, and stopped at the yellow-white parsonage house in the field. Mama let Eve and Beetle accompany her in. The preacher’s wife gave them water and a slice of day-old bread with fresh butter, probably from the Pilford’s in Akron who had Holsteins. The congregation shared its bounty with the preacher without much fuss, but he and his wife seemed to get just as much of what was scarce. Eve could still feel the sting of betrayal when Mama gave the preacher half a loaf of fresh-baked soda bread when he visited last fall. It had raisins, a rare sweet in the house. Eve’s father didn’t approve of Mama’s giveaways. Daddy was a big man with no appetite for deprivation.
On the way home from the preacher’s house, Mama let Eve take the reins in the flats beside the creek. The day was ending. A whip-poor-will sang its name and wouldn’t stop.
“Mr. Osbury’s coming tomorrow with one of his boys,” Mama said abruptly. “To help us dig the grave.”
“We don’t need help from a stinking Osbury,” Eve said.
“’Fraid we do. The preacher don’t dig.”
That night, Eve dragged her blanket out to the porch and sat at the edge, looking out from under the banister at the moon. Little crescent moon, just a sliver of what it was going to be, enough light, though, to keep her awake and thinking about the hole in the house she had to walk around just to get to the door, a big invisible hole in the floor that swallowed up the lightest little things. It had just swallowed up the funny bluebird song Daddy sang in the morning when he shaved. It swallowed up the crooked grin he did at the end of a Kit Carson story. It swallowed up the way he used to smile at her when he was thinking what a pretty girl she was turning out to be. He'd never said it but she knew what he was thinking. They talked a lot without words, without Mama understanding. Mama was always frowning inward too much to see what people were thinking. She didn’t know that you had to smile to make a window, and then you could see through to anywhere. Daddy had taught her that without saying anything. The hole in the house had just swallowed everything else Daddy could teach her. Eve tried to be angry, but she was too scared of the hole.
She tiptoed into the house and found the box of stationery which her aunt in Lexington had sent on her birthday last April. She lit a lantern and made a nest in the blanket on the porch. There was part of a sentence on the first sheet of stationery, a half-hearted start of a thank you letter to Aunt Gotha, never finished because, somehow, it would have been disloyal to Mama. There was bad blood between them, bad blood everywhere on Mama's side of the family with Daddy the cause. Eve knew this because Daddy talked a lot about his family back East and Mama never more than two words at a time about hers. She had done something she shouldn't, marrying Stewart Singleton. What, Eve didn't know.
“Thank you very much for remembering my birthday in the spring. I wish I knew you, really knew you. I'd like to know more people in the family. My family's getting smaller and smaller. We're down to three. My daddy passed today. We're pretty much alone out here. It's ten miles into Akron. The Osbury's live two miles over the hill, but all they've got is boys and no mother, she died. I've got no one to talk to except my brother, Beetle, and he's a boy, too. He's a pretty good boy sometimes. You'd like him. He's resourceful with his limitations, Daddy says. That's a compliment. Daddy's generous with them. He bet me that Beetle could beat him in a race, and I lost because Daddy made it a milking race and our old Guernsey doesn’t like to be milked by anybody but Beetle so I had to fix dinner for the two of them because I lost, and Mama was gone to church that night. A mule kicked Daddy in the head Tuesday week ago and Mama rolled him down to the house in our wheelbarrow, just like I do Beetle. Daddy never woke up all week. He didn't wake up for good today. It's funny, how you won't miss him. You hardly knew he was here. I'm going to miss him forever."
Eve put the writing aside to keep it dry. She heard Beetle's crutch bang the side of the door. He came out, dragging his blanket. "Light's too bright," he said, shielding his eyes from the lantern.
"Put the blanket over your head," she said.
Beetle's sleepy head sank against her back as she wrote. "We need rain. The fields are dry. Daddy bet me it was going to rain by Sunday but I won. We'll probably have enough feed corn for the hens and the livestock, but the garden is a sorry sight. Beetle and I were out in the field working the corn today and I told him a story. You might like it. I’d guess you to be a religious woman because Mama is, very proper with good schooling, too. She's always on us about good spelling and nunseating. She's better than our school teacher.” Eve wrote about her mother using the front and back of each sheet of paper, writing edge to edge with no margin because every sentence came out linked to the next, like cars coupled on a track. “Mama’s out here alone with just us now. She does not have any nice clothes left. She sold them to pay for shoes for me and a trip to a doctor in Cleveland for Beetle. I don’t know what all she sold. We can sell some of the pickles we put up. The preacher’s wife says Mama should sell them at the harvest fair. I’m not too worried. Daddy taught Beetle how to set a rabbit trap. If we run out of pigs, he said, we can eat rabbit. Of course, when Daddy said that, Beetle and Mama looked at one another with a pact. There won’t ever be a bunny rabbit et at our table. Mama and Beetle, they’re tender about that. Me, I’d eat what I have to. I’m a good worker. I’ll go hunting if I have to.”
Her mother appeared at the door with a blanket around her shoulders. She settled herself in the rocker, their father’s rocker, at the opposite end of the porch. She was seeing something in the blackness of the yard, or maybe beyond in the swollen shadows of the hills that intersected the field. She stared a long time, then began to rock so slowly, it was as if moving hurt. She rocked back twice in Daddy’s chair, unable to do more, then looked straight out into the night where there was nothing clear to hurt anyone’s eyes.
Eve left her blanket wadded up to pillow her brother’s head. “I’m writing to Aunt Gotha. Your sister.”
Her mother turned her head to look at her but Eve was not sure what she saw. “I can help you crib the corn his year,” Eve said. “I can do it myself.”
“You can’t do everything, Evie. He shouldn’t have made you think you have to.”
Her mother’s voice could turn quick as a cold rain coming on. There was a chill about her. Eve sat on the floorboards where Mama couldn’t see, hugging her knees.
“He made a bad bet on the mule, didn’t he?” Mama said.
Eve did not answer.
“Mr. Osbury told me,” Mama said. “Stewart bet he could teach Old Woolsey to jump a three-foot fence just like a horse, saddled, from a running start.”
“Mr. Osbury shouldn’t have took the bet. Everybody knows mules hand-jump a fence.”
“Mr. Osbury’s a gentleman,” Mama said. “He wouldn’t accept the proposition.”
“Daddy believed in Old Woolsey. That’s all.”
“Your dad went all the way into town to take bets on him.”
Eve scrambled up off the floor and stood squarely in her mother’s line of sight. “He believed!” Eve shouted. “He believed things are possible.”
Her mother’s gaze into night did not waver. “Stewart believed he had a gift for making everything alright. Your aunt Gotha was right about him, about everything. You should write and tell her that.”
“I can’t do that. You said she said bad things about Daddy.”
“She won’t listen to me. If you don’t write for me, she won’t take us in.”
Eve was so struck with anger that she rocked her mother’s chair forward with a hard push from the back. Mama almost fell out. “We’re not leaving,” Eve said. “Daddy’s right there. He’s not even cold. He can hear you right now, talking about turning tail and running away.”
Mama moved into and out of a shadow cast by light from the window and sat on a step in the darkest part of the porch.
“You always hated it here,” Eve accused her. “We can work the farm on our own.”
“No, we can’t.”
Beetle’s voice came out of the covers so clearly, Eve realized he had never been asleep. “She’ll have to marry Mr. Osbury,” he said.
The idea hit Eve with the force of a fall. She felt her chest go flat for lack of air. She could barely say, “You’re crazy.”
Beetle shrugged. “He’s alone. We’re alone.”
“But Mr. Osbury raises mean boys,” Eve said.
“He’s alone with them, Evie,” Mama said. “It’s hard alone.”
“How would you know? You haven’t been alone.”
Mama did not stop looking out at whatever she could not see.
There was a silence, a long spell of night that filled Eve with a vision of the future. She tried not to yell at her mother. “Mr. Osbury’s not going to give you sandals and raiments. He doesn’t talk like a man who knows how to tell you you’re pretty. Daddy did. At least he gave you that.”
Her mother got up, wrapped the blanket tighter and stepped down into the yard.
Eve watched her until she reached the drooping willows and moved out of the light of the crescent moon. Her mother was gone in the shadow of the willows, opening a great distance between them.
Eve gathered the three sheets of stationery she had written. She could barely find her place on the page. “I’m writing to ask you to take us in because if you don’t, Mama will have to marry a man with ornery boys so she can keep the homestead going and us fed. If you let your sister marry a man like Mr. Osbury, you’re no real sister at all.”
Eve signed the letter but hovered over her signature, knowing she was taking a chance insulting Aunt Gotha. She wrote a postscript. “I hope you know I am scared to death.”
Eve sat in Mama’s rocker with the letter folded, waiting. Nothing moved at the edge of the yard. A screech owl trilled a long, monotone call into the night.
Beetle’s voice was sleepy but clear. “You better go after her, Evie.”
Eve looked into the dark beneath the willows. She jumped up and ran with the searching desperation of a terribly old child.
The boards of the porch were just as wide as a mail slot. The folded letter dropped quick and neat between two boards and landed in the unseen softness beneath the house.
Author’s Commentary: It takes an artful child to survive bad luck. I’m interested in how both young and old invent their way out of hard-scrabble lives and prescribed roles.
Lois Wolfe is a former journalist, editor and college English teacher. Her short fiction and poetry can be found in Appalachian Heritage, Mid-American Review, Prime Number Magazine, Levee Magazine, and Coastlines. She has also published book reviews in The Miami Herald, literary criticism on cognitive approaches in writing, and a novel—Mask of Night (Doubleday-Bantam). A native of Appalachia, she lives in North Carolina and the Florida Keys. She leads the Marathon Writers Workshop in Marathon, FL.