Mole-Bane

I

OUR house burned in March and we lived that spring in the smokehouse, sleeping in two beds pushed close into the corners, and with strings of peppers and onions hanging from the rafters overhead. We planted our garden early, using the seeds Mother had hoarded, but it was long before the vegetables were ready for eating. Mother cooked under a shed Father built against the house. There was no abundance of food and we ate all that was set before us, with never a crumb left. Father told us the mines were closed in the headwaters of the Kentucky River and there was hunger in the camps. We believed that we fared well, and did not complain.

Father’s face was thin as a saw blade, and it seemed he had grown taller, towering over us. His muscles were bunched on his arms, blue-veined and not softcushioned now with flesh. He went hunting, searching through the sedge coves and swampy hollows, never wasting a shot. We ate squirrel and rabbit, broiled over hot coals, for there was not a smidgen of grease left in the stone jar. The handful of bullets was hoarded in a leather pouch. Never more than three were taken for the rifle-gun, and Father rarely missed.

With spring upon the hills, it was strange now to go out and kill in the newbudded wood. The squirrels moved sluggishly, carrying their young. Rabbits huddled in the sedge clumps, swollen and stupid. Once Father brought a rustyeared rabbit home, setting Euly to clean it. When she came on four little ones in its warm belly, she cried out in fear of what she had done, flung the bloody knife into the dirt, and ran away into the low pasture. She stayed there all day crying in the stubble, and never ate wild meat again.

We had come through to spring, but Mother was the leanest of us all, and the baby cried in the night when there was no milk. Mother ate a little more now than the rest of us, for the baby’s sake, eating as though for shame while we were not there to see, fearing that we might not understand, that we might think her taking more than her share.

The garden grew as by a miracle, and the blackberry winter passed with the early April winds, doing no harm. Beans broke their waxen leaves out of hoeturned furrows, bearing the husk of the seeds with them. Sweet corn unfurled tight young blades from weed mould, timid to night chill, growing slowly and darkly. Crows hung on blue air, surveying the patch, but the garden was too near the house. Our shouts and swift running through the tended ground kept them frightened and filled with wonder.

Before the garden was ready, Mother and Euly gathered a mess of plantain and speckled jack and we had saletgreens cooked with meat rind. The beans were still young and tender, and the potatoes thin-skinned and small. We watched the beans grow, measuring them day by day with joints of our fingers, and dug under the potato stalks carefully with our hands so as not to bruise the watery roots. We picked off the potato bugs and scraped their egg patches from the leaves. Fletch saved the bugs in a fruit jar, pinching off buds to feed them when we were not looking.

We went out into the garden in the cool of the evening, turning the vines to look for beetles on the underleaves. Father would pull off a bean and break it impatiently between his fingers, looking hungry enough to eat it raw.

‘I figger they’re fair ready for biling,’ he would say. ‘It’s time we had a mess.’

‘They ain’t nigh ready,’ Mother would say. ‘When a bean snaps like you’d broke a stick, hit’s time. They ain’t had their full growth.’

One morning we found the heaped trail of a mole across the garden, damp with new earth. Father was angry, stamping the ridge of its path with his feet, packing the ground down hard where it went among the bean vines. He whittled two green walnut sprouts, shaved the bark until they were brown with sap, and drove them in the farther ends of the trail.

‘That walnut juice ought to git in its eyes and turn it back,’ Father said, laughing a little savagely, and rubbing his hands in the dirt.

Euly begged Father to dig the mole out. ‘If’n I had me a moleskin, I’d make a powder-rag out o’ it,’ she said. ‘When I get me some face powder, I’d have a mole-rag to rub it on with.’

Father looked darkly at her, and she ran out of the garden, ashamed of her vain-wishing.

II

On the day the men came from Blackjack, Mother was washing clothes, and Father swung the battling stick for her on a chestnut stump. Euly saw the men first as they climbed the hill from Little Carr Creek, and she ran to tell us. ‘They’s three men a-coming, and they got mine caps setting on their heads, and two of them has got pokes.’

We went around the smokehouse and looked down. They were still a quarter off, and their legs were awkward like a hound’s against the steep climb. Mother went back to the tubs. Father waited, shading his eyes from the sun-ball, trying to see who they were. And he knew them long before they turned over the last short curl of the path, and he knew why they had come.

‘Hit’s Fruit Middleton, and Ab Stevall and Sid Pindlar,’ Father said.

The men came into the yard, looking at the gray pile of ashes and the charred ends of rafters where our house had burned.

‘We heered about your burning,’ Fruit said. ‘Hit’s a puore pity with times so hard, and all the mines closed up tight as a jug. We’d a come and raised you a house, but we heered you was living in the smokehouse and gitting along peart.’

‘We’re so packed-up inside we do all our setting out here on the ground,’ Father said. ‘We got one chair, but it’s holding a washtub.’

‘Aye, God,’ Fruit said. ‘We’ve done so much setting these last eight months it’s like pulling eyeteeth climbing that hill.’

‘ Setting and hearing our bellies grow,’ Sid said, dragging the poke he held back and forth across the ground. ‘The grace o’ God tuk us through the winter. We’ve come out skin and bone. We would a planted a garden if they’d been any seeds. They was et up, and anyhow there ain’t a fitten place to drap seeds in the camp with all the beasts scratching and digging.’

The men glanced out across the garden, now thick with growing, and with the furrow-ridges lost among the leaves. Father slouched down, looking worried.

‘We was thinking you could spare us a mess o’ beans out o’ your patch,’ Fruit said. ‘Our womenfolks and children are right mealy in the face.’

‘Begging comes hard for us who’s used to working for our bread,’ Ab said.

‘The beans ain’t half-growed yet,’ Father said. ‘They ain’t nigh filled out.’

‘We hain’t asking you to give us nothing,’ Fruit said, the wrinkles around his eyes drawing tight. ‘You’ll be paid when the mines open. Aye, God, we ain’t asking for handout. Our folks need some green victuals.’

‘They ain’t nigh ready,’ Father said again, and he trod up and down in his tracks without moving from where he stood. Then he looked off down the hill, saying quietly and sadly: ‘I got my first hungry folks to turn down. I never yet turned a body down. Go out and see what you can find fitten to eat.’

The men walked out toward the garden. Mother was hanging clothes behind the smokehouse and she saw them jump over the split-paling fence, their pokes flaring up in the wind. Father went around to the washtubs, standing there helpless, not knowing what to say. Mother began to cry silently, saying nothing.

‘You can’t turn down folks that’s starving,’ Father said at last, and he knew his words sounded foolish and with no weight. He began to hang a tubful of clothes on the line, spreading them out clumsily until it sagged, and the shirt sleeves were barely clear of the ground. He tightened the line, drawing the raveled cord with all his strength.

The men came out of the garden after a spell. They came with their pokes bulging at one end. We knew they had picked every bean, that not one was left.

‘Our womenfolks will be right proud to taste a mess o’ green victuals,’ Fruit said. ‘You’ll shorely git your pay when the mines open.’

Sid held his poke up and laughed. ‘You got a right fair garden,’ he said. ‘I seed a brash o’ blossoms on them vines. In a leetle time you’ll have all you kin eat.’

They had turned to go when Ab suddenly pulled something out of his pocket and threw it upon the grass. It was a dead mole.

‘I dug this varmint out o’ the garden patch,’ he said. ‘ I seed where he’d holedup under a pile o’ dirt and I scratched him out. They ain’t nothing that can tear up a garden like a mole varmint. You ought to plant a leetle dog-tick around. Hit’s the best mole-bane I ever heerd tell of.’

Ab hurried down the hill to catch the others, the rocks rattling under his feet. Euly grabbed up the mole and was gone with it before Father could stop her, running swiftly around the house. And Mother ran too, swinging her arms in dismay, for she had heard the clothesline break, and the clean garments now lay miserably in the dirt.