Job's Tears

I

THE fall had been dry and the giant milkweed pods broke early in September. Lean Neck Creek dried to a thread, and all the springs under the moss were damp pockets without a sound of water. Father had sent me over from Little Carr in April to help Grandma with the crop while Uncle Jolly laid out a spell in the county jail for dynamiting a mill dam. I was seven and Grandma was eighty-four, and we patched out two acres of corn. Even with the crows, the crab grass, and the dwarfed stalks we made enough bread to feed us until spring, but when the grass was gone there would be nothing for the mare. The hayloft was empty and the corncrib a nest of shucks.

Uncle Luce sent word from Pigeon Roost that he would come to help gather the crop early in September. Grandma’s bones ached with rheumatism and she was not able to go again to the fields. She sat in the cool of the dogtrot, dreading the sun. We waited through the parching days, pricking our ears to every nag’s heel against a stone in the valley, to the creak of harness and dry-wheel groan of wagons in the creek bed. Field mice fattened in the patches. Heavy orange cups of the trumpet vine bloomed on the cornstalks, and field larks blew dustily from row to row, feeding well where the mice had scattered their greedy harvesting. We waited impatiently for Uncle Luce, knowing that when he came we should hear from Uncle Jolly, and that Uncle Luce would take the mare home for the winter.

‘It’s Rilla that’s keeping him away,’ Grandma said. ‘Luce’s woman was always sot agin’ him doing for his ol’ Mommy. I reckon Luce fotched her off too young. She was n’t nigh sixteen when they married.’

We waited for Uncle Luce until the moon was full in October. The leaves ripened, and the air was bloated with the smell of papaws where the black fruit lay rotting upon the ground. Possums came to feed there in the night, and two got into a box trap I set above the barn. We ate one, steeped in gravy with sweet potatoes. I shut the other up in a pen, Grandma saying we would eat it when Uncle Jolly got home. She was lonesome for him, and spoke of him through the days. ‘I reckon he’s a grain wild and hardheaded,’ Grandma said, ‘but he tuk care of his ol’ Mommy.’

One morning Grandma said we could wait no longer for Uncle Luce. She took her grapevine walking stick and we went out into the cornfield. We worked two days pulling corn from the small, hoe-tended stalks. When all the runted ears were gathered she measured them out into pokes, pulling her bonnet down over her face to hide the rheumatic pain twisting her face. There were sixteen bushels. ‘We won’t be needing the barn this time,’she said. ‘We’ll just sack up the puny nubbins and put them in the shedroom.’

With the corn in we waited a few days until Grandma’s rheumatism had been doctored with herbs and bitter cherry-bark tea. Then there were the heavy-leaved cabbages, the cushaws and sweet potatoes to be gathered. The potatoes had grown large that year. They were fat and big as squashes. Grandma crawled along the rows on her knees, digging in the baked earth with her hands. It was good to see such fine potatoes. ‘When Jolly comes home he ’ll shore eat a bellyful,’she said.

I ran along the rows with a willow basket, piling it full and spreading the potatoes in the sun to sweeten. Once I ran into a bull nettle, and it was like fire burning my bare legs. I scratched and whimpered. Grandma took a twist of tobacco out of her apron, chewed a piece for a few minutes, and rubbed the juice on the fiery flesh. ‘You ain’t big as a tick,’ she said, ‘but you’re a right smart help to your ol’ Granny.’

The days shortened. There was a hint of frost in the air. The nights were loud with honking geese, and suddenly the leaves were down before gusts of wind. The days were noisy with blowing, and the house filled with the sound of crickets’ thighs. There were no birds in the bare orchard, not even the small note of a chewink through the days.

Before frost fell we went to Grandma’s flower bed in a corner of the garden and picked the dry seeds before they scattered. We broke off the brown heads of old maids and the smooth buttons of Job’s tears hanging on withered stalks. ‘There’s enough tears for a pretty string of beads,’ Grandma said, ‘and enough seed left for planting.’

Later we pulled and bundled the fodder in the field, stripping the patches for the mare in her dark stall. ‘If Luce don’t come, Poppet is going to starve afore the winter goes out,’ Grandma said. ‘It’s Rilla hating me that keeps him from coming. Oh, she’ll larn all her children to grow up hating their ol’ Granny.’

Uncle Luce came after the first frost. He came whistling up the path from Dry Neck with the icy stones crackling under his feet. Since the gathering, Grandma had been in bed with rheumatism in her back, getting up only to cook. Uncle Luce was filled with excuses. Rilla was sick, and it was getting near her time. His four daughters had had chicken pox. ‘I’m hoping and praying the next one will be a boychild,’ Luce said. ‘A day’s coming when I ’ll need help with my crap. Girls ain’t fitten to grub stumps and hold a plough in the ground.’

Grandma noticed Uncle Luce’s hands were blackened with resin, and asked if he’d been logging. ‘I had to scratch up a little something to buy medicine for Rilla,’ he said. ‘My crap never done nothing this year. It never got the proper seasoning. I reckon I ’ll be buying bread afore spring.’

‘I was reckoning you’d take the mare home for the winter,’ Grandma said. ‘I was thinking you could ride her back to Pigeon Roost.’

‘I hain’t got feed for my own mare,’ Luce said. ‘ I ’ll be buying corn for my nag afore another month. I reckon Poppet has already eat up more than she’s worth. She must be twelve years old. The day’s coming you’ll need another nag to crap with. It would be right proper to take ol’ Poppet out and end her misery,’

Grandma raised up in anger. ‘Luce Baldridge, if you was in reach I’d pop your mouth,’ she said. Then she lay back and cried a little. Uncle Luce went over and shook her, saying he never meant a word about old Poppet. He would n’t shoot her for a war pension.

Uncle Luce did n’t say a word about Uncle Jolly until Grandma asked him. She waited a long time, giving him a chance to tell her without asking. ‘You hain’t said a word yet about your own brother,’ Grandma said. ‘It’s about time you told.’ Then we learned that Uncle Jolly’s trial had come up the last of September, and he had been sentenced to the state penitentiary for two years. ‘I’ll get one of the boys to move in with you next March,’ Uncle Luce said. ‘Toll would be right glad to come. He’s renting land, anyway. And his wife would be a sight o’ company.’

‘No,’ Grandma said. ‘We’ll make out. My children I’ve worked and slaved for have thrown their ol’ Mommy away. Now that I can’t fetch and carry for them, they never give me a grain o’ thought. I’ve been patient and long-suffering. The Lord knows that.’

She was crying again now, thinking how Uncle Luce had waited until the crop was gathered to come, thinking how Rilla had n’t come to see her for three years, and how Uncle Jolly was shut up in jail.

‘I figure you’d fare better with Toll than Jolly,’ Luce said. ‘Toll is solid as rock and never give you a minute’s trouble. Jolly is a puore devil. He jumps in and out of trouble like a cricket. I hope the pen will make him pull his horns in a little.’

Grandma’s voice trembled as she spoke. ‘Jolly is young,’ she said. ‘He just turned grown last year. He ain’t mean to the bone, and he’s the only one of my boys that looks after their ol’ Mommy. I’m afeared I won’t live till he gets back. I pray the Lord to keep me breathing till he comes.’

Grandma was quiet again when Uncle Luce got ready to go. She brought out a string of Job’s tears she had been threading. ‘It might pleasure Rilla to have them,’ she said. ‘It might help with her time coming.’

II

During the short winter days the sun was feeble and pale, shining without heat. Frost lay thick in the mornings, and crusts of hard earth rose in the night on little toadstools of ice. Footsteps upon the ground rang metalclear, and there was a pattern of furred feet where the rabbits came down out of the barren fields into the yard. My possum rolled himself into a gray ball in his pen, refusing to eat the potatoes I brought him, and then one morning I found him dead. His rusty, hairless tail was frozen as stiff as a stickweed. The marc grew gaunt in her stall, and there was not a wisp of straw left underfoot. I gleaned the loft of every fodder blade, and the crib of shucks. I filled the manger with cobs, but she did not gnaw upon them, choosing instead to nibble the rotting poplar logs of the wall. I led her down to Lean Neck every day, breaking a hole in the ice near the bank. After a few days she would not drink, and I began to take a bucket of water to t he barn. I fed her a little corn — as much as I dared — out of our nubbin pile in the shedroom.

The cold increased and the whole valley was drawn as tight as a drum. The breaking of a bough in the wood shattered the air, the sound dropping like a plummet down the hills, striking against the icy ridges. In the evenings I took an old quilt out to the barn and covered Poppet. I dug frozen chunks of coal out of a pile beside the smokehouse for the fire, and when it seemed there was not going to be enough to last the winter through I went out on the mountain beyond the beech grove and picked up small lumps where the coal bloomed darkly under the ledge. The fire was fed from my pickings until snow fell, covering all trace of the brittle veins.

There were days when Grandma was too sick to get out of bed. I baked potatoes, fried thick slices of side meat, and cooked a corn pone in a skillet on the fire. We used the coffee grounds until there was no strength in them. When the meal gave out I shelled off some corn and ran it through the coffee grinder. It came out coarse and lumpy, but it made good bread.

As Grandma got better she would sit up in bed with a pile of pillows at her back. She slept only at night. During the day she was busy listening and counting. She knew how many knots there were in the ceiling planks. She could look at a knot a long time, and then tell you a man who had a face like it. Most of them were old folks, dead before my time, but there they were. There was one knot that looked like Uncle Jolly. Grandma used to look at it by the hour. ‘I’m afeared I’ll have to piddle my days out looking at this knot,’ she would say.

One day she counted the stitches in the piece-quilt on her bed. They ran to a count I had never heard. ‘I learnt to figure,’ Grandma said, ‘but I never learnt to read writing. My man could read afore he died, and he done all the reading and I done the figuring. We always worked our learning like a team of horses.’ We had no calendar, but Grandma worked out the number of days until Uncle Jolly would get out of the penitentiary. ‘It’s nigh on to six hundred and fifty-five,’ she said when the counting was done. The time had not seemed so long before. Now it stretched along an endless road of days.

There were hours of talk about Uncle Jolly. Grandma said he had held no old grudge against Pate Horn. Grandpa used to log with Pate before he died.

Uncle Toll had married one of Pate’s daughters. It had been the dam he built across Troublesome Creek that Uncle Jolly had n’t liked. The fish could n’t jump it, and none could get up into Lean Neck to spawn. He sent Pate word to open up one end of the dam until the spawning season was over. Pate did n’t move a peg. Uncle Jolly went down one day and set off two sticks of dynamite under the left bank, blowing out three logs. He went down, with daylight burning, to blow that dam up.

‘Jolly ought not to done it,’ Grandma said. ‘It looks like the Lord is trying my patience in my last days when I’m weak and porely.’

Sometimes she would tell about the things Uncle Jolly had done as a boy. ‘Once he got a hollow log and tied a strip o’ dried bull’s hide over it,* she said. ‘Then he got a hickory limb and sawed on it. It sounded like a passel o’ wildcats tearing each other’s eyeballs out. Cattle all over the country jumped the rails and tuk down the hollows. The horses and mules kicked barn doors down and lit out. Oh, he never meant no harm. It was just boymischief.’

Near the middle of December the mare stopped eating the nubbins of corn I took her. She would mull her nose in the bucket of water without drinking, and roll her moist eyes at me.

I opened her stall door and let her wander out into the midday sunlight. She did not go far, lifting her leaden hoofs through the snow, and turning from the wind. Presently she went back into the stall and stayed there with her head drooped and her eyes half closed. One morning I went out and found her stretched upon the ground. Her nose was thinly sheeted with ice. She was dead. I latched the stall door and did not go back to the barn again that winter.

III

January was a bell in Lean Neck Valley. The ring of an axe was a mile wide, and all passage over the spewed-up earth was lifted on the frosty air and sounded against fields of ice. Icicles as large as a man’s body hung from limestone cliffs. Grandma listened to the little sounds when her work was done. She was better now. At times when the wind was not so keen she cooked on the stove instead of the fireplace, but it was hard to keep warm in the drafty kitchen.

One Sunday Grandma heard a nag’s hoofs on the path to the house. It was Uncle Toll from Troublesome Creek. He brought a letter from Uncle Jolly and he read it to us. His face was dull with worry. Uncle Jolly was coming home. There had been a fire in the prison. ‘Mommy, do you reckon he broke jail during that fire?’ he asked. ‘He ain’t nigh started his spell.’

‘Jolly is liable to do anything he sets his mind to,’ Grandma said. ‘He always had his mind sot on looking after his of Mommy. I reckon he’d do anything to get out.’ And now there was no joy in his coming. There was nothing to do but wait, and those three days before he came seemed longer than any count Grandma ever made.

Suddenly he was there one morning, hollering to us from the yard. There was Uncle Jolly. He had slipped up on us, and even Grandma had not heard him come. He stood there before the door, his eyes bright as a thrush’s. He had on a black suit, and a black hat with the crown pinched up sitting at an angle on his head. We sat looking at him, awed and not moving. He jumped into the room and grabbed me up in his arms, pitching me headlong toward the ceiling and bumping my head against the rafters. It hurt a little. He jerked Grandma out of her chair and swung her over the floor. She was laughing and crying together. ‘For God’s sake, Jolly,’ she said, ‘don’t crack your of Mommy’s ribs.’

Then he was all over the house, prying and looking. He opened up the meat box and sniffed into it. He thumped the pork shoulder we had been saving. ‘Ripe as a melon,’ he said. ‘It smells like kingdom come.’ He reached elbow-deep into his pocket and drew out a knife. It was a big one. With a single blade open, it was nearly a foot long. There was a blue racer carved on one side with a forked tongue. ‘I made that in the workshop,’ he said. ‘They never knowed I was making it.’ He swung it through the air, striking toward me. Plunk it went into the pork shoulder. Unde Jolly was devilish like that. Grandma was already sifting out meal, and he cut off a half-dozen slices of meat to fry.

Uncle Jolly found the corn in the shedroom. He picked up one of the runted ears and pinched a grain. ‘Is this all you raised?’ he asked. ‘We got some mighty pretty cushaws,’ Grandma said. ‘The sweet taters done right well, too.’

‘The mare will starve on this corn,’ Jolly said. ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to buy of Poppet a sack of sweet feed mixed with molasses and bran. I reckon her teeth is wore down to the gum.’

He began to gather up some ears to take to the barn.

‘Just you wait, son,’ Grandma called. ‘Just you wait till we get dinner over.’ Grandma looked hard at me. I did n’t say a word.

When we sat down to the table, Uncle Jolly began to eat with both hands. ‘I ain’t had a fitten meal since I left Lean Neck,’ he said. He loaded his plate with shucky beans and a slice of meat, talking as he ate. ‘I stayed at Luce’s house last night,’ he said. ‘ Luce and Rilla’s got another girl-child born three weeks ago.’

Grandma laid her fork down and stirred in her chair. ‘Is Rilla getting along tolerable?’ she asked.

‘Rilla is up and doing,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘They named the baby after you, Mommy. They named it Lonie.’

Grandma blinked and made a little clicking noise with her teeth. ‘It’s good to have grandchildren growing up honoring and respecting their ol’ folks,’ she said.

‘Oh, Uncle Jolly,’ I begged, ‘tell us about the jail fire and how you got out.’ Uncle Jolly swallowed, the raw lump of his Adam’s apple jumping in his throat. ‘It was the biggest fire ever was,’ he said. ‘It caught the woodshop and tool sheds, and it was eating fast. It might o’ got the jailhouse if I had n’t stayed there and fit it with a waterspout. Everybody else run around like a chicken with its head pinched off. Then the Governor heard how I fit the

fire and never run, and he give me a pardon. He sent me word to go home.’

Grandma settled in her chair. ‘It was dangerous, son,’ she said. ‘ It might o’ burned up the jail. Whoever sot that fire ought to be whipped with oxhide. Some folks is everly destroying and putting nothing back. Who lit that fire, son?’

Uncle Jolly’s mouth was too full to answer. He dropped his eyes and swallowed. ‘I sot it, Mommy,’ he said. He took another slice of meat, and heaped more beans on his plate. Grandma sat quiet and watching, her blue-veined hands clasped in her lap. Her face was sad, but her eyes were bright with wonder.

‘You know what I done coming up Troublesome Creek this morning?’ Uncle Jolly asked suddenly. ‘I pulled another log out of Pate Horn’s mill dam. There’s a good-sized hole now. The perch will be swarming into Lean Neck this spring.’