I'm starting a new story and since I haven't had any exceptionally deep thoughts about womankind recently, I thought I'd post the first few pages. It's loosely based on the life of my great-grandmother Carmel, and I'm hoping this attempt takes since I've tried to write about her several times. Any comments are appreciated!
There was a new man in town. I heard it from Papa, who brought the tale from the men who leaned up against the posts by the schoolhouse and watched passersby. They weren’t as watchful as the men who lined up by the tavern, but they were more reliable because they didn’t drink except out of their hip flasks. And mostly their liquor was homemade, which Papa said worked out better for them in the end.
This new man, I wanted to get a look at him because people didn’t come to stay very often in the hills. Way back when the land was settled, people thought the mountain where our farm lay was golden land, priceless. But farming ain’t what it used to be, I’ve heard Papa tell Mama. He stood by the stove in the wintertime when he was bit through with frost and went on about the cursed land, cursed right down from the time of Adam. I believed him that the land was cursed, but I think maybe it didn’t have anything to do with Adam. I think maybe it was just because of Papa.
The week before the new man came to town, I lay awake in my bed until I couldn’t see the moon in the sky anymore, and still Papa didn’t come home. Not until the chickens were beginning to stir in their coop did I hear the steady tread of the mare’s hooves on the road up the hill, and then I heard the front door open, because Mama had been wakeful all night, waiting for him. My heart sank into my toes, which were wiggling in the early breeze atop the covers, and I knew that no matter what Papa swore, over and over, even if he stacked up Bibles till they tipped over and clattered to the floor, he would never get free of the bottle.
I lay still and cold as I heard Mama’s voice rise hushed over the early light, even though we hadn’t got neighbors anywhere close by, and nobody was going to hear my Papa riding home drunk. But Mama kept her voice down, and I watched the sloping profiles of my sisters as they lay sleeping beside me. She was doing it for them, because Stella and Ruby still thought Papa got sick in the night. I wished I still believed that, and for a moment I listened tightly to the sounds, imagining that he was just sick. Mama’s gentle grunts as she lifted him from the horse, Papa’s sudden, sodden words, the accidental slam of the door, shuffling across the floor and a creak as Papa dropped into bed. That’s right, he was just sick. Poor Papa, getting sick like that.
There was silence for a few minutes, and my eyes rolled over the planks in the ceiling above my head as I wondered what my Mama was doing. And then her soft footsteps crept through to the door, and I could hear the clink of the bridle as she went to stable Annabelle. Faithful horse, bringing Papa home. I felt my blood heat and my eyes clench tight shut, waiting for the sweep of rage to pass me by on its way through my body. My little sister Ruby probably would have prayed for deliverance from the anger, but I wasn’t about to let it go. I was holding on as tight as I could, because I knew what kind of help it could give. The kind of help my Mama didn’t have, because she couldn’t summon enough anger to cure my Papa.
But Papa was better the next week. When he told my Mama the news, he cast a look in her direction that told me he hadn’t been hanging around the wrong side of the street, and then he let it out about Harry by the schoolhouse, and Mama smiled at him. I piped up quickly, easing up my fingers on the spoon I held.
“What kind of man is he, Pa?” I asked.
Papa fixed me with his brown eyes and shook his head. “Don’t know yet. Men say he’s in town looking for work, but there ain’t much round here to keep a man.”
“Is he young, then?” I asked. I glanced at Elsie, but she sat eating silently.
Papa nodded. “About all I know of him. From somewhere north, maybe Cuttersville. What he’s doing here I couldn’t say.”
The information barely registered before I looked again at Elsie. My older sister was approaching twenty years of age, and in the hills that was too old for a girl to be unwed. I made a note to speak with her later and pressed my Papa further.
“What’s he look like?”
Papa shook his head again. “Quit your questions, girl, I ain’t never seen the man.”
He said it hard, but I saw the twinkle in his eye. He knew I’d got the anger in my blood, and he knew it would keep me warm. He was proud of that.
I let my mind pass over Papa’s news as I was doing up the dishes afterwards, and my Mama clicked her tongue at me. She couldn’t abide to see my hands idle. When the water in the bucket had started to grow cold I finished wiping up as quickly as I could, but when I turned around, Mama was looking at me with her hands on her hips.
“You asked an awful lot of questions about that young man, Carmel,” she said.
I laughed. “Well someone’s got to marry Elsie.”
Mama came closer to me, and I thought for a moment she was going to put her hand on my arm. But then she passed me and picked up the dishtowel, and I saw that she was just going to give the table another wipe. She was silent, and I felt anger bubbling below my bellybutton, because she never spoke what was on her mind. But I was fifteen, and I knew better than to let my words out when they weren’t needed. So I bit them down and then I was out the back door, into the yard where the chickens Ruby was herding let out cackles of dismay at my fast feet.
“Where you going?” Ruby called after me, but I didn’t answer her. She could figure it out, if she wanted. Probably everyone knew by then where I went when I wanted to be alone. My steps took off up the line of trees, pattering softly because I wouldn’t wear the boots Mama told me I should. Behind me the white clapboard house stood soft against the brush of trees surrounding it, and to my right the fields stretched out over the gentle slopes of North Carolina hills. But ahead of me, up the mountain, the ridge of trees that separated one field from another stood like a line of schoolboys paying attention, and I cut through them and ran headlong into the waving grass on the southern slope of the hills. That ridge was too steep to grow anything but grass for the cows, and I gave them a wide berth as they crop steadily. Our cows paid me no mind, unless I’d got Ginger with me. Then they laid back their ears and listened up.
I used to hide in the trees along the ridge of that hill when Mama called for someone to help her bucket the water and bring it up to the house, or when Papa set us to bringing the cows down the slope. I didn’t hide much once I found my fifteenth birthday, but I still set off up there when I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. And my thoughts that day were all for my sister Elsie.
I knew why she didn’t want to speak about another man. I’d seen her down behind the smokehouse, making eyes with George, the man who’d been working on the farm for almost six years. That included his time in the service, when he went off and fought in the war and came back with bad breathing and a hitch in his walk. The winter before, just after he’d come home and I was taking him some soup, he showed me the scars along the side of his neck where he’d clawed at himself in a frenzy because he couldn’t breathe. I asked him what it felt like when the gas leaked through his mask.
“Like I’d swallowed liquid fire,” he said. “Like my throat was coming apart in pieces and hurrying up to come out through my nose.”
I wrinkled my own nose, but I wasn’t scared by his words. I was never afraid to talk about what people felt in their bodies. When Stella was born I watched the whole thing, and stood by with the scissors the doctor had sterilized to cut the birth cord. But Elsie wasn’t like me. She was more like Mama, and when she heard George talking to me her eyes filled up with tears and she turned to the window to wipe them where George couldn’t see. He saw, though, and his face got all concerned.
“Wasn’t so bad, Elsie,” he said. “They took me right away to the field hospital, and I ain’t none the worse for it.”
He was right. He was only lying in bed because Mama and Elsie told him to, and he was up and working again the next day. He limped and his voice came out in a thin little rasp, but he was just as strong as he was before he left. And I knew something else. He’d always been in love with Elsie, always. Before he went away to fight the Germans he used to watch Elsie from across the yard, or over the dinner table. Ever since his parents sent him to work he’d been watching Elsie and wishing she’d watch him too.
I reached the top of the ridge and lay down flat on my belly to watch the farm. The light was turning purple around the edges of the sky, and I could feel the chill breeze of early summer begin to dust up with the fading light. Maybe rain, too, though there weren’t clouds up yet. I could smell something on the air, and I knew the feel of rain when it came. Papa would probably be getting the cows in early, penning them up before one of us had to wade through the running hills.
The barn door was open, and as if I’d conjured him up with my thoughts like a circus man, George walked out into the yard. He was with Walter, my older brother, and though he wasn’t but seventeen he’d got the walk of a man. My Mama didn’t know it, but I’d seen him hanging around by the schoolhouse with his friends, and I knew it wasn’t but a few steps from there to the public house and if he started down that road, there’d be no coming back. Just like Papa. But I liked to see Walter with George because George didn’t drink nothing. Maybe because the only thing he ever thought about was Elsie.
My mind moved back to the things I heard them saying behind the smokehouse, and I blushed a little when I remembered that George had taken her hand in his. Elsie blushed too, but she didn’t mind it. She liked it, I could tell. And that was when I realized that she’d been sweet with George for a while, and she wasn’t going to get any less sweet. I had run back up to the house and found Ruby, and we tried to make sense of the fact that all it took for George to win Elsie’s affection was a war injury. He was still the same George, except now he limped. And he had a nice voice before, kind of deep with a little ache to it when he was tired.
“Maybe she just liked nursing him,” Ruby said, but I shook my head.
“She only got to nurse him for one day,” I said. “He was up and working about the next day.” But I guess I could see the romance in being sweet on a man who got hurt during a war, and I shrugged. “You can’t tell Mama,” I said to Ruby. “She might not approve.”
“Mama and Pa like George,” Ruby insisted. “They treat him like a son.”
I thought about her words and twirled my braid against my cheek. “Think he could run his own farm?” I asked. “Walter likes him just as much as Mama and Pa, but I heard him talking about the gimp in his step and saying that he might never be able to own his own land.”
Ruby was too young to have an opinion about this, and Mama soon called me downstairs to fetch her the bacon I was supposed to have brought back with me. But as I watched George and Walter I made up my mind that if Elsie didn’t take George, I would. Even if he did limp, he liked to laugh and he could tell good stories. And he didn’t drink.
Tired of watching the tiny figures, I rolled over on my back and gazed up through the branches climbing over my head. Another thing about George I liked was that he could tell the name of any tree I could find. Even Papa didn’t know as many trees as George, and he said it was because his Granny used to take him through the forest and teach him the names of everything they saw. My smile faded a little as I thought about that. George’s granny could cause trouble for Elsie and George, even though she was dead. George’s granny was a Cherokee.
I used to wish I had an Indian for a granny. I couldn’t remember either of my grannies, because my Papa’s mother died early on, and my Mama’s granny lived clear over the mountains in South Carolina. When George told us stories about his granny his voice always crept low and soft, and he didn’t speak of her when he was around my parents or any other grown-ups. It wasn’t until I was twelve that I understood why, and then I felt my welcome anger creeping up into my belly. What was so wrong with an Indian for a granny? If she could tell George the names of the trees and the difference between the wild herbs, I didn’t see what difference the color of her skin made.
But I thought Mama and Papa might not mind if Elsie married him. It had been a long time ago that George’s grandfather married his Indian bride, and things were different. Even in Birch Pass, people were starting to change their ways. There were even strangers moving through town.
I sat up quickly, because I remembered the reason I began to think about Elsie and George. The new man in town was a young man, Papa said. I began to think of all the reasons he might be in town, as I sat in the thickening dusk. He couldn’t be a schoolteacher, or we’d have all known it. Besides, we had a schoolteacher. He might have been looking to work in the general store, or one of the other shops, or even maybe open up his own business. But that didn’t seem likely, because if he had been enterprising he’d have gone to a bigger town where people needed lots of stores. Birch Pass barely kept the general store, feed store, tailor and tavern in business, and the hotel only had one bedroom right next to Mr. Wicker’s own room. He even let his cook go because she wasn’t cooking enough meals to keep herself.
So he was hoping for work on one of the farms. I grinned lopsidedly, letting my breath out in a scoff. He couldn’t have been a very bright one, that young man. Most of the farms around the mountains were small enough for family to keep them, and it was too late in the year to help with the planting and too early to help with the harvest. Anybody with sense would know to go north to the farms in the valleys the stretched toward Shenandoah, or even a few miles east out of the toughest of the hills. Unless he had kin nearby, there wasn’t any reason to stay in our part of North Carolina.
He might have kin around. I pulled my braid into my mouth and sucked on the end as I turned over this new thought. Maybe his Mama was dying, and he had twelve little brothers and sisters to care for. His Pa would be dead already, naturally, and he’d be the only man big enough to make enough money to support his family. Or maybe he had a young bride in a little cabin somewhere, and she was about to birth their first child, and their barn had burnt down with all their feed and livestock in it. He was bound to need some charity, but he was probably too proud, and he wouldn’t accept anything but good honest work.
I smiled to myself and squinted into the deepening dusk. I couldn’t tell whether Walter and George were still in the yard, and I could just barely make out the edges of the barn in the thick of dark descending. The house, hidden behind a crop of trees, was lost to me. I thought about sitting up on the ridge until it was really dark, and waiting for Pa to come looking for me. If I sat still enough, he probably wouldn’t find me at all, and I could stay out all night and sleep under the stars like George’s grandma. Maybe I’d climb a tree and sleep curled up on a branch.
But I’d tried to sleep in a tree, and I knew that it never worked out quite like I wanted it to. Before I knew it I was comparing the sharpness of the branches of a tree to the softness of my bed, and I stood up to brush my skirt off. Leave the stars to the Indians, and the trees to the birds. I wasn’t giving up my bed. I put my hands to my arms to brush away the goose bumps, and then I heard my mother’s voice rise over the hushing of the cicadas.
“Car-mel,” she called, throwing her voice up into the hills, “Car-mel…”
I started down the ridge toward her voice, and it seemed to me then that I was walking down out of the clarity of my thoughts into the reality of life—a thick web of it, up to my throat and smelly. But when I rounded the hill and saw the flicker of light in the windows, the feeling passed, or at least eased a little. Besides, my Mama was at the door, and she gave me a smile as I walked in.
“First call,” she said. “Very kind of you.”
Open and Unafraid
David O. Taylor