The Ploughing

IRAN into the fields one April morning, thinking to climb to the benchland where Uncle Jolly was breaking new ground. The sky was as blue as a bottle. A rash of green covered the sheltered fence edges, though beech and leatherwood were browner and barer still for the sunlight washing their branches. I began to climb, hands on knees, the way being steep. I went up through a redbud thicket swollen with unopened bloom and leaf, coming at last to where Uncle Jolly was ploughing. The bench spread back to a swag, level as creek land, set up against air and sky and nothing. Uncle Jolly had already broken a half acre of furrows in the rooty earth with the horse-mule Uncle Luce had loaned him.

‘Whoa-yo,’ Uncle Jolly said when he saw me. He drew rein and leaned against the plough handles, blowing. He whistled a long redbird whistle. His forehead was moist, his shirt stuck to his back. He’d been hustling the mule, and was glad of the rest. ‘ Hain’t you got a sup o’ water?’ he asked.

‘I never thought,’ I said. ‘I come up to learn to plough.’

A drop of sweat hung on Uncle Jolly’s chin. ‘Hell’s bangers!’ he said. ‘This fence rail of a beast would pull you clear over the plough handles.’

‘Now, no,’ I said. ‘I’m a mind to learn.’

He grinned, scratching into the thick of his hair. ‘A chap never larnt too young,’ he said. ‘Just you fotch a jug of spring water, then I’ll try you a furrow.’ He hung the reins about his neck and leveled the plough. He dug a brogan toe into the black dirt. ‘Aye God, this land’ll make,’ he said. ‘Hit’s rich as sin.’

I brought the jug of water. Uncle Jolly crooked a finger in its ear, swinging it up on his shoulder. He drank loud swallows. Water ran down his neck; it drained thread streams under his collar.

He lowered the jug and stuck his tongue out. ‘Seems a bull frog’s swum here,’ he said. ‘Hit’s sort o’ wild.’ He took another drink. I reckon he drank a quart. ‘I allus liked a wild taste—the wilder the better,’ he said.

‘What’s this mule’s name?’ I asked.

Uncle Jolly sat the jug by. ‘ Banged if I know,’ he vowed. ‘Luce told me, but I can’t recollect. Ought to be named Simon Brawl, he’s so feisty.’

A flock of goldfinches circled the new ground, their gay song sowing the air. Per-chic~o~ree, per-chic-o-ree, per-chic-oree. They settled at the field’s edge and it was as if the dry stickweeds had suddenly burst yellow blooms. They pecked at seed heads; they rattled empty pods of milkweed stalks.

Uncle Jolly glanced over the ploughed land. The furrows were straight as a measure, running end to end without a bob. ‘Hain’t many folks know how to tend dirt proper,’ he said. ‘A mighty spindling few. Land a-wasting and awashing. Up and down Troublesome Creek, it’s the same. Timber cut off and hills eating down. Hit’s alike all over — Boone’s Fork, Little Carr, Quicksand, Beaver Creek, Big Leatherwood.’

‘I want to learn proper,’ I said.

‘What’s folks going to live on when these hills wear down to a nub?’ Uncle Jolly complained. He lifted the plough, setting the point into the ground. I stood there, not knowing what to do. ‘Best you walk betwixt the handles and get the lay,’ he said. I got between, holding the crosspiece. Uncle Jolly grasped the handle ends and clucked. The mule didn’t move. He whistled and shouted, but the mule paid no mind. Uncle Jolly grinned. ‘This fool beast won’t move less’n you call his name, and that I can’t remember.’

He tried a string of them. ‘Git along, Jack! Pete! Leadfoot! John!’ He reached down and caught up a handful of dirt, throwing it on the mule’s back. The mule started, skin shivers quivering his flanks.

‘It’s like that every time I stop,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘A horse-mule stubs pine-blank like a man.’

The earth parted; it fell back from the shovel plough; it. boiled over the share. I walked the fresh furrow, and balls of dirt welled between my toes. There was a smell of old mosses, of bruised sassafras roots, of ground new-turned. We broke out three furrows. Then Uncle Jolly stood aside and let me hold the handles. The mule looked back, but he kept going. The share rustled like drifted leaves. It spoke up through the handles. I felt the earth flowing, steady as time.

We turned the plough at the end of the third row. ‘This land’s so rooty,’ Uncle Jolly said, ‘I’m going to let you work over what I’ve already broken. You can try busting furrow middles. Strike centre, giving left nor right, and go straight as a die.’

I grasped the reins and handles. ‘Get along,’ I called, big as life. The mule didn’t budge. He lifted his plugged ears and looked back at me, sly and stubborn.

‘He’s a regular Simon Brawl, all right, with steelyard peas for hoofs,’ Uncle Jolly said.

The mule started after I threw dirt on him. He went down the first row pearl enough, ears standing end-up, for Uncle Jolly began singing at the top of his voice.

‘Oh, I had a little gray mule,
His name was Simon Brawl,
He could kick a chew terbacker out o’ yore mouth
And never tetch yore jowl.’

I ploughed three furrows, and pride swelled in me as sap blows a willow bud. It was like being master where till now I’d only stood in awe; it was finding strength I’d no knowing of. When I doubled back on the fourth row I saw Uncle Jolly sitting on the ground, leant against a chestnut stump amidst the stickweeds, his eyes closed to the sun. The mule saw Uncle Jolly too, and his ears drooped. He began to walk faster. The harness rattled on his bony body. The furrow crooked a bit and I got uneasy.

‘Hold back thar,’ I shouted, but he didn’t mend his way.

At the fifth row’s end I looked anxiously at Uncle Jolly, hoping he would take over. One glance and I saw he had gone to sleep. I was ashamed to call. The mule hastened the furrow, the plough jiggling, scooping dirt, running crooked as a blacksnake’s track. I jerked the lines. I shouted all the mule names I’d ever heard. The share hooked a root and the reins pulled from my hands. The plough jumped a furrow, rising alivelike. And then I called Uncle Jolly, being at last more frightened than ashamed.

We no longer bore north and south. The mule cut northwest, southeast, back and forth, catty-cornered. My feet flew over the ground. We ploughed a big S. We made a long T, crossing it on the way back. I reckon we made all the book letters. We struck into the unbroken tract, gouging a great furrow, around and around, curling inward, tight like a watch spring. I couldn’t shout or raise a sound. There was no wind left in me.

A voice sprang across the bench. ‘Hold thar, Bully!’ The mule stopped in his tracks, and I went spinning over the plough. I got up, unhurt. A bellow came out of the stickweed patch; it was a laugh near too big for a throat to utter.

I looked in time to see Uncle Jolly rise to his feet, then crumple to the ground. He threshed among the weeds, his arms beating air, laughing in agony. He jerked; he whooped and hollered. He got up twice, falling back slack-jointed and weak. A squall of joy flowed out of him.

And when Uncle Jolly got his laugh out he came across the field, weaving drunkenly. The mule watched him come, lowering his head, acting a grain nervous.

Uncle Jolly sniggered when he reached us, and I saw a fresh throe boiling inside of him, ready to burst. The mule raised his head suddenly. He licked his yellow tongue square across Uncle Jolly’s mouth.

‘I bet that-there’s a wild enough taste,’ I said, scornfully.