THE mines on Little Carr closed in March. Winter had been mild, the snows scant and frost-thin upon the ground. Robins stayed the season through, and sapsuckers came early to drill the black birch beside our house. Though Father had worked in the mines, we did not live in the camps. He owned the scrap of land our house stood upon, a garden patch, and the black birch that was the only tree on all the barren slope above Blackjack. There were four of us children running barefoot over the puncheon floors, and since the year’s beginning Mother carried a fifth balanced on one hip as she worked over the rusty stove in the shedroom. There were seven in the family to cook for. With the closing of the mines, two of Father’s cousins came and did not go away.
‘It’s all we can do to keep bread in the children’s mouths,’ Mother told Father. ‘Even if they are your blood kin, we can’t feed them much longer.’ Mother knew the strings of ‘shucky’ beans dried in the fall would not last until a new garden could be raised. A halfdozen soup bones and some meat rinds were left in the smokehouse; skippers had got into a pork shoulder during the unnaturally warm December, and it had to be thrown away. Mother ate just enough for the baby, picking at her food and chewing it in little bites. Father ate sparingly, cleaning his plate of every crumb. His face was almost as thin as Mother’s. Father’s cousins fed well, and grumblingly, upon beans and corn pone. They kicked each other under the table, carrying on a secret joke from day to day, and grimacing at us as they ate. We were pained, and felt foolish because we could not join in their laughter.
‘You’ll have to ask them to go,’ Mother told Father. ‘These lazy louts are taking food out of the baby’s mouth. What we have won’t last forever.’ Father did not speak for a long time; then he said simply: ‘I can’t turn my kin out.’ He would say no more. Mother began to feed us between meals, putting less on the table. Father’s cousins would empty the dishes, then look sourly at their plates. They would wink, and thrust their brogans at each other under the table. They would chuckle without saying anything. Sometimes one of them would make a clucking noise in his throat, but none of us laughed, not even Euly. We would look at Father, his chin drooped over his shirt collar, his eyes lowered. And John’s face would be as grave as Father’s. Only the baby’s face would become bird-eyed and bright.
When Uncle Samp, Father’s greatuncle, came for a couple of days and stayed on after the week-end was over, Mother spoke sternly to Father. Father became angry and stamped his foot on the floor. ‘As long as we’ve got a crust, it’ll never be said I turned my folks from my door,’ he said. We children were frightened. We had never seen Father storm like this, or heard him raise his voice at Mother. Father was so angry he took his rifle-gun and went off into the woods for the day, bringing in four squirrels for supper. He had ‘barked’ them, firing at the tree trunk beside the animals’ heads, and bringing them down without a wound.
Uncle Samp was a large man. His skin was soft and white, with small pink veins webbing his cheeks and nose. There were no powder burns on his face and hands, and no coal dust ground into the heavy wrinkles of his neck. He had a thin gray moustache, over a handspan in length, wrapped like a loose cord around his ears. He vowed it had not been trimmed in thirty years. It put a spell on us all, Father’s cousins included. We looked at the moustache and felt an itching uneasiness. That night at the table Father’s cousins ate squirrels’ breasts and laughed, winking at each other as they brushed up brown gravy on pieces of corn pone. Uncle Samp told us what this good eating put him in mind of, and he bellowed, his laughter coming deep out of him. We laughed, watching his face redden with every gust, watching the moustache hang miraculously over his ears. Suddenly my brother John began to cry over his plate. His shins had been kicked under the table. Mother’s face paled, her eyes becoming hard and dark. She gave the baby to Father and took John into another room. We ate quietly during the rest of the meal, Father looking sternly down the table.
After supper Mother and Father took a lamp and went out to the smokehouse. We followed, finding them bent over the meat box. Father dug into the salt with a plough blade, Mother holding the light above him. He uncovered three curled rinds of pork. We stayed in the smokehouse a long time, feeling contented and together. The room was large, and we jumped around like savages and swung head-down from the rafters.
Father crawled around on his hands and knees with the baby on his back. Mother sat on a sack of black walnuts and watched us. ‘It’s the first time we’ve been alone in two months,’ she said. ‘If we lived in here, there would n’t be room for anybody else. And it would be healthier than that leaky shack we stay in.’ Father kept crawling with the baby, kicking up his feet like a spoiled nag. John hurt his leg again. He gritted his teeth and showed us the purple spot where he had been kicked. Father rubbed the bruise and made it feel better. ‘Their hearts are black as Satan,’ Mother said. ‘I’d rather live in this smokehouse than stay down there with them. A big house draws kinfolks like a horse draws nit-flies.’ It was late when we went to the house. The sky was overcast and starless.
During the night, rain came suddenly, draining through the rotten shingles. Father got up in the dark and pushed the beds about. He bumped against a footboard and wakened me. I heard Uncle Samp snoring in the next room; and low and indistinct through the sound of water on the roof came the quiver of laughter. Father’s cousins were awake in the next room. They were mightily tickled about something. They laughed in long choking spasms. The sound came to me as though afar off, and I reckon they had their heads under the covers so as not to waken Uncle Samp. I listened and wondered how it was possible to laugh with the dark and rain.
Morning was bright and rain-fresh. The sharp sunlight fell slantwise upon the worn limestone earth of the hills, and our house squatted weathered and dark on the bald slope. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drilled their oblong holes in the black birch by the house, now leafing from tight-curled buds. John and I had climbed into the tree before breakfast, and when Mother called us in we were hungry for our boiled wheat.
We were alone at the table, Father’s cousins having left at daylight for Blackjack. They had left without their breakfast, and this haste seemed strange to Mother. ‘This is the first meal they’ve missed,’ she said.
Uncle Samp slept on in the next room, his head buried under a quilt to keep the light out of his face. Mother fed the baby at her breast, standing by Father at the table. We ate our wheat without sugar, and when we had finished Mother said to Father: ‘We have enough corn meal for three more pans of bread. If the children eat it by themselves, it might last a week. It won’t last us all more than three meals. Your kin will have to go to-day.’
Father put his spoon down with a clatter. ‘My folks eat when we eat,’ he said, ‘and as long as we eat.’ The corners of his mouth were drawn tight into his face. His eyes burned, but there was no anger in them. ‘I’ll get some meal at the store,’ he said. Mother leaned against the wall, clutching the baby. Her voice was like ice.
‘They won’t let you have it on credit,’ she said. ‘You’ve tried before. We’ve got to live small. We’ve got to start over again, hand to mouth, the way we began.’ She laid her hand upon the air, marking the words with nervous fingers. ‘We’ve got to tie ourselves up in such a knot nobody else can get in.’ Father got his hat and stalked to the door. ‘We’ve got to do it to-day,’ she called. But Father was gone, out of the house and over the hill toward Blackjack.
Mother put the baby in the empty woodbox while she washed dishes. Euly helped her, clearing the table and setting out a bowl of boiled wheat for Uncle Samp. I went outside with John, and we were driving the sapsuckers from the birch when Uncle Samp shouted in the house. His voice crashed through the wall, pouring between the seamy timbers in raw blasts of anger. John was up the tree, holding on to the scaly bark, so I ran ahead of him into the shed-room. Mother stood in the middle of the floor listening. The baby jumped up and down in the woodbox. Euly ran behind the stove.
I ran into the room where Uncle Samp was and saw him stride from the looking glass to the bed. His mouth was slack. A low growl flowed out of him. He stopped when he saw me, drawing himself up in his wrath. Then I saw his face, and I was frightened. I was suddenly paralyzed with fear. His face was fiery, the red web of veins straining in his flesh, and his moustache, which had been cut off within an inch of his lips, sticking out like two small gray horns. He rushed upon me, caught me up in his arms and flung me against the wall. I fell upon the floor, breathless and not uttering a sound. Mother was with me in a moment, her hands weak and palsied as she lifted me.
I was only frightened, and not hurt. Mother cried a little, making a dry sniffling sound through her nose; then she got up and walked outside and around the house. Uncle Samp was not in sight. She came back and gave John the key to the smokehouse. ‘We’re going to move up there,’ she said. ‘Go unlock the door.’ I helped Euly carry the baby out of doors in the woodbox. We set him on the shady side of the woodpile. We began to move the furniture out, putting the smaller things in the smokehouse, but leaving the chairs, beds, and tables on the ground halfway between. The stove was heaviest of all, and still hot. The rusty legs broke off on one side, and the other two bent under it. We managed to slide it out into the yard.
After everything had been taken out we waited in the back yard while Mother went around the house again, looking off the hill. Uncle Samp was nowhere in sight, and neither Father nor Father’s cousins could be seen. Then she went inside alone. She stayed a long time. We could hear her moving across the floor. When she came out and closed the door, there was a haze of smoke behind her, blue and smelling of burnt wood.
In a moment we saw the flames through the back window. The rooms were lighted up, and fire ran up the walls, eating into the old timbers. It climbed to the ceiling, burst through the roof, and ate the rotten shingles like leaves. John and I watched the sapsuckers fly in noisy haste from the black birch, and he began to cry hoarsely as the young leaves wilted and hung limp from scorched twigs. The birch trunk steamed in the heat.
When the flames were highest, leaping through the charred rafters, a gun fired repeatedly in the valley. Someone there had noticed the smoke and was arousing the folk along Little Carr Creek. When they arrived the walls had fallen in, and Mother stood there among the scattered furnishings, her face calm and triumphant.