A Likely Exchange

by JESSAMYN WEST

1

IT WAS an October morning, and in the kitchen on the lamplit table an October breakfast was set out. Jess gazed at the meal of leave-taking; the red tablecloth gone rosy with many washings, the food itself, ham and quince jelly, cream gravy and soda biscuits, rosy beneath the clear flame of the lamp.

The kitchen was sweet with the smell of wood smoke. It was dark in the kitchen, but the light from the fire in the cookstove moved like a morning tide across the scrubbed floor-boards. The lamplight deepened the wide-awake gleam of Eliza’s black eyes, and put a kind of hoarfrost glitter on Enoch’s straw-colored stubble.

Jess smelled and looked. He chewed and swallowed. He gave the table a lick that lifted the halffilled cups out of their saucers. He gazed from wife to hired man.

“Tell me,” he asked of each, “what makes a man leave home? What’ll I find in Kentucky better’n here? What’s the sense of traipsing off? Leaving my home? Crossing the boundaries of my own state? A fool notion. I’ve a mind to stay.”

Eliza knew this was a way her husband had of being two places at once; of keeping his knees under the breakfast table, and at the same time feeling wheels moving him along some lonely pike. But she could never answer him from a like duality. Her feet, and mind too, were one place at a time. Here, this October morning, they were in the kitchen of the Maple Grove Nursery.

“Jess,” she reminded him, “thy valise is packed. Thee always goes to Kentucky this time of year. How’d we make out if thee didn’t sell thy nursery stock?”

“Make out?” asked Jess affronted. “Why, when the Lord made me, I hope He didn’t say, ’Here’s Jess Birdwell, a little nurseryman.’ The Lord,” said Jess, taking a fine long draught of Eliza’s good coffee, “said, I don’t misdoubt, when He made me, ‘Here’s Jess Birdwell, a man.’ ”

Eliza looked about with dismay. This talk of what the Lord had or hadn’t said could, and like enough would, last till midmorning. Jess, perhaps, didn’t have any set time for reaching Kentucky, but time for a woman was no such pliable commodity as it was for a man; time for a woman was rigid, and marked with the names of duties.

The hired man reared back in his rush-bottomed chair, squinted his green eyes. This was a fine way for a morning to start: a little speculation, a little tossing about before you settled down to the hog wash and wood splitting.

“The Lord,” Enoch said, addressing Eliza, but squinting beyond the lamplight as if Omniscience itself might be planted just a little to the left of the cookstove, “brings forth possibilities. A raw lump — a man. But whether a nurseryman or not, He don’t say.”

Eliza loved the name of the Lord, but hearing it in Enoch’s mouth at this time of the day didn’t add a thing to it. Jess picked his hired men for two reasons: to help with the work and to forward the talking. Sometimes he’d get a man who could do both, but mostly they favored one or the other. Enoch leaned considerably toward talking.

“Jess,” worried Eliza, “if thee didn’t sell thy nursery stock—”

Enoch interrupted her. “Play on a flute,” he told her. “He’s got a wonderful turn for music. Raise silkworms. Concoct pieces for the paper. Train horses.”

Jess looked at his hired man. “Train horses.” Was it a dab? A reminder? Was the fellow laughing up his sleeve at the way Reverend Godley’s Black Prince had run circles round Red Rover?

“Train horses,” repeated Eliza, happy to have the conversation veer, without her turning it, to a point where she could put in, offhand-like, further advice about that animal Red Rover. “Jess is finished with fast horseflesh,” she told Enoch. “Red Rover gave him his fill of that.”

“Red Rover wasn’t so plaguy fast,” Enoch reminded her.

“Fast-looking,” said Eliza. “A constant temptation.” She turned to Jess. “Thee keep thy eyes open for a likely exchange,” she told him once again.

Jess grew restive. What Red Rover had done wasn’t a thing that chewed well early in the morning. He pushed back his chair. “It’s getting on,” he said. “I ought to be to the Ohio by noon. Sunup,” he complained, “and my chin still in the gravy bowl. Enoch, thee hitch while I get my traps together.”

“Thy traps,” said Eliza firmly, who hadn’t finished on the subject of Red Rover, “are together. Thee promised,” she began, and her husband nodded soberly.

Jess aimed to please his wife whenever it was humanly possible, and getting shut of Red Rover would be one of the most satisfying ways of doing so he’d been offered in a coon’s age. Ever since he’d disgraced himself, after that unseemly brush with the Reverend Marcus Augustus Godley’s Black Prince, by lighting into Red Rover with his hat in front of all the Bethel Methodists, the sight of Red Rover in his stall was no salve for his eyes, either.

And for another thing, he didn’t plan always to move up the pike a tail to Godley’s comet. But if he was ever to get out in front of that procession it would take another animal than Red Rover to do it. No horse had ever looked so much like traveling and had traveled so much like standing still. With one trade (exchange, Jess called it talking to Eliza) promising thus to give two people so much pleasure and for such different reasons, Jess didn’t have, as far as he could see, the slightest call for considering himself married to Red Rover.

Outside, the big red gelding let forth his great conceited neigh. Jess listened wryly. “Never knew a nag promise so much and perform so little.”

“Thee get shut of him,” Eliza urged again. “There’ll be no end of brushings and clockings so long as thee’s got such a racy-looking animal.”

“He can clock,”Jess conceded, “but he sure can’t brush. Got a sup more coffee, Eliza?”

“Thee won’t reach the Ohio till doomsday, at this rate,” Eliza said, but poured the coffee.

“Banks of the Ohio on doomsday morning,” Jess ruminated. “Couldn’t pick a prettier place to be. The Indiana side just below Madison.”

Eliza put an end to that. She leaned across the table and blew out the lamp. It was no longer night in the kitchen now. Together, Jess and Eliza walked out into the gray fall morning, laden with paraphernalia of the journey.

2

JESS journeyed Kentuckyward talking — talking to himself, talking to his horse, remarking on this and that to the absent Enoch and Eliza.

Saying to Eliza: A clump of Chiny asters set in star shape, deep colors in the center and lessening toward the edges — just outside of Madison; there’s something thee would fancy.

Saying to Enoch: This Red Rover’s nothing to depend on, I grant thee. Running against Reverend Godley’s Black Prince, he had less get-up than a gourd vine. But he carries me along like a chip now, nobody pressing him.

Saying to himself: Landscape foams up round about me like a painted picture where every brush stroke’s got meaning. Meaning bursting out of weeds and fence rails. Full of meaning I can’t read. What’s the message? What’re they saying?

Saying to the horse: Friend, thee’s taught me a lesson: come to say to me, “Jess, don’t let appearance be thy god.”

He traveled through the tissue-fine day, through sunshine, fine but thin. Lean against it and it would give way, he thought. But it was real. No alloy. Pure gold leaf.

He crossed the Ohio a little after noon and thought of doomsday and smelled fried ham. In midafternoon he still could hear the whistle of the steamboats passing down the broad Ohio, and as he drove between rows of shocked corn saw, instead of the corn, that great surge of water and the boats it bore: white-pillared swans, floating verandas.

He turned in at driveways, sent the buckboard up known lanes and under admired trees. Patted growling dogs until porch floor-boards resounded beneath their thumping tails. Talked to women churning outside at the close of day, tasting the last of sunshine. Rang the bell that brought the farmer up from the fields. Spread out his order books and showed them the pictures. The churn, with the butter half-come, and the wagon, half-filled with husked corn, waited while he showed the pictures and said the names.

“Shaffer’s Colossal — bids fair to eclipse anything in the raspberry line. Gooseberries — Smith’s Improved, grown from the seed of the Houghton; sweet. May Duke — fine for dwarfs and pyramids. Flemish Beauty. Grimes Golden. Fall Wine.”

“Give me five of those,” they’d say. “Nothing so pretty as a cherry in bloom, fruit or no fruit.”

“And the fruit, too,” the wife would add, leaning on the churn dasher. “Puts me in mind of home — in Pennsylvania. Cherries on each side the driveway, red among the leaves.”

They’d shake his hand at leave-taking. Friend Birdwell — a good man, notional, a Quaker, a plainspeaker.

He drove on. At nightfall he pulled up his big red gelding at a driveway he’d never turned down before. Not that it didn’t look to be a likely place for selling first-class stock; a fine, big farm well kept up, mostly corn and tobacco, but some thrifty fruit trees, too. What had kept him from turning in was the sign on the barn. A man who d spread his history out so publicly went against Jess’s grain, both as Quaker and as man.

But that gold evening Jess let the reins go slack and leaned forward peering at the red barn and the white painted sign that ran from gable to gable above the big double doors.

“Otto Hudspeth,” the sign said. “I was borned in 1817. I was married in 1837.” Jess read the sign aloud, tickled to think of the big know-nothing farmer who’d had it painted.

“Know-nothing,” he said to himself after a while. “By sugar, thee’s come to let appearances be thy god, Jess Birdwell, for sure. Judging a man without ever setting eyes on him.” He slapped the lines lightly across Red Rover’s glossy rump. “Thought thee’d cured me of that, friend,” he said, and turned the red horse into the driveway.

3

THE big farmhouse was set at the end of a long double line of locusts, and there wasn’t a thing about the layout that wasn’t up to Maple Grove standards. Before Jess could light down, the Hudspeth hired man came out. The family, he said, was off to a shindig, but Jess had better stay the night. Mrs. Hudspeth had just bought a forty and she was figuring on putting in some orchard stock.

“Mrs. Hudspeth?” Jess asked.

“The old man passed on a couple of years back,”said the hired man, who looked himself to be straight out of Genesis — certainly no nearer than Leviticus or Deuteronomy. “Airs. Hudspeth and the girls run the place.”

Jess was staring up at the sign.

“Yep,” said the hired man, “the old man had that painted there.”

“Mite touched?” asked Jess.

“No more’n you,” said the hired man. “Not as much, maybe. I ain’t acquainted with you, mister.” The evening wind parted his beard. “What’s the most important thing’s happened to you, mister? Getting born. Without that, where’d you be?” He paused to let it sink in. “What’s next? Getting married. If you married the right woman. Maybe you didn’t — like me.” His look got more humane, quite full of fellow feeling.

“Thee’s wrong there,” Jess said, not wanting any slight put on Eliza. “I married the right woman. Pretty as a Summer Sweeting. A Quaker preacher.”

The hired man gave a squint and moodily combed his patriarchal fringe with his fingers. “Well, every man to his fancy,” he continued. “You agree them’s the first things. Gettin’ born. Gettin married. Got any objection to a man’s saying so with his own paint on his own barn? Got any remarks you’d like to make to me about it?”

“Nope,” said Jess, fighting being against his principles as a Quaker and, Quaker or no Quaker, not being of a mind to be laid out by a hired man over a sign painted on a Kentucky barn.

Calmed, the hired man was as clever as could be: helped put up Red Rover, cooked a tasty supper of fried grits and side meat, and out of pure courtesy, having eaten earlier himself, kept Jess company at the table with a jug of corn whiskey.

Jess had a fine night of sleep in the spare chamber on a clean tick full of rustling cornhusks, but was awakened early next morning by a sound he couldn’t place. Clack, clack, bang . . . bang, it went. Jess knew farm noises inside and out, forward and backward, but this one stumped him. Clack, clack, bang . . . bang. It was too much for his curiosity. He scamped his morning prayers to get down to see what was taking place. The minute he opened the back stairs door into the kitchen he saw what it was.

An old lady sat at the kitchen hearthside — a big old lady, thin as a siding, but wide in the shoulders and so tall her head stuck up above the tidy of the rocker she was sitting in. The old lady was smoking a pipe, and she kept her makings in the Dutch oven which was built in one side of the fireplace. Every so often she’d knock her pipe out on the side of the fireplace, open up the iron door of the Dutch oven, get out her tobacco, bang the door shut, fill her pipe, open the door, bang it shut. Clack, clack, bang . . . bang.

Jess went up and paid his respects to her. Mrs. Hudspeth was an old lady like a stove poker, stiff, straight, and black; but she had the same look the stove poker has of having spent a life near the fire and of being tempered by it.

Jess breakfasted with Mrs. Hudspeth, the hired man, Jacob, and Mrs. Hudspeth’s four daughters.

“Make the acquaintance of my girls, Mr. Birdwell,” Mrs. Hudspeth said. In respect of sex, Jess allowed, they were girls, but in respect of age and size he couldn’t have found a more unlikely name for them.

“Meet Opal, Ruby, and Pearl, Mr. Birdwell,” said Mrs. Hudspeth. Fifty-carat jewels, every one of them, Jess calculated.

“Meet Bertha,” said Mrs. Hudspeth, “my baby.” Jess wondered al the shift in naming. After three, he figured, girls maybe didn’t seem so precious.

The girls were all so big, so hearty, and such powerful smokers that before breakfast was over Jess felt himself wizening up like a cabbage leaf under a hot sun.

He was the first one at the door when Mrs. Hudspeth said, “Let’s have a look at ray forty, Friend Birdwell, and see what stock you think’d do best there.”

As they stepped toward the barn Mrs. Hudspeth announced, “We’ll drive my mare Lady. Give your animal a rest after traveling. I had a look at him this morning. As pretty a looking horse as I recollect seeing. Got style.”

“Well,” said Jess, giving Red Rover his due, as he would the devil, “he’s a treat to the eyes, that’s certain.”

4

HE SAW why Mrs. Hudspeth was so appreciative of handsome horseflesh when her hired man came out leading Lady. Jess looked that mare up and down, and being a man with a pretty turn for words, he began assembling some that might do justice to her when he came to recount the meeting to his hired man, Enoch.

Lady! She didn’t look like any lady and it was much as a bargain to say she looked like a horse. It wasn’t that she was poor or run-down or spavined or wind-broke, or bloated or had the heaves or was wall-eyed or balky, or was a stump sucker or blind in one eye, or sway-backed or galled or tree-shy. No, Enoch, she was none of these things — nothing so easy to lay the tongue to. It wasn’t anything thee could say in one word, or two.

But that mare wasn’t hung together right. She looked like she had cow blood in her, or moose blood, or buffalo blood. She was an oddity and she looked like she knew it. She had a long thin neck with a head hung on the end of it like a club. Had a body like a barrel, with muscles on shoulders and haunches like clumps of sweet potatoes. When they worked she looked like she had moles burrowing under her hide. She was rangy for a Morgan; for that’s what she was — half Morgan. Thee couldn’t miss the Morgan color of her, nor the Morgan look out of her eyes, gentle and proud all at once — and kind of shamefaced, too for being put together the way she was. Looking in her eye, thee was all for her — otherwise not. Otherwise, Enoch, like seeing something in a distorting glass.

Putting together this how-it-looked for Enoch in the future, Jess forgot to be civil then and there. The old lady reminded him.

She said to him sharp, after watching him stare a spell. Ain’t you people over’n Indianny ever seen a Morgan mare before?”

Jess saw the staring didn’t set well, but the best he could say was: “Morgans. Thee’s a favored woman, Mrs. Hudspeth. Morgan’s always been my favorite breed. Never had the good fortune to own one, but I always hankered to.”

That smoothed Mrs. Hudspeth over so that when they started for the forty she was in a good humor, smiling broad, and holding the reins like a born driver.

Soon as that mare Lady struck her hoofs to the pike, Jess knew the Lord was going to particular pains to teach him a lesson he needed learning: not to judge man or beast by outward show. He reckoned the world turned round a mite faster when that mare swung into her stride, started pushing the pike from underneath her big, ugly feet. She stepped out like Going was her mammy’s name, and Fast her pappy’s.

Jess kept his talk where it ought to be — on nursery stock — and he found the old lady mighty near as knowledgeable as himself. When he talked Maiden Blush, Grimes Goldens, and Wealthies, she came right back with Winesaps, Winter Pearmains, and Rome Beauties. When Jess mentioned the Pewaukee, Mrs. Hudspeth matched him with facts about its pedigree; knew it was a seedling from the Duchess of Oldenburg.

They were talking fruit at a 2:40 clip when a rig drew up from behind them. Jess looked around and saw a big roan hitched to a light spring wagon with his driver urging him on like he’s Dan Patch himself with the record at stake. Jess figured the man’s wife must’ve had a sudden seizure and he was off hell-bent for the doctor.

But the old lady muttered, stiffened her arms, and leaned back on the reins. “Can’t get out on the road without this happening,” she said. “It ain’t dignified. Gives the men the idea my girls ain’t nothing but jockeys in skirts.”

Mrs. Hudspeth planted her long, bony legs against the dashboard and leaned back hard, but Lady took the bit in her mouth and lit out. Her long neck stiffened like a ramrod, the muscles started running up and down her hams as smooth as sap, her stride lengthened until she was skimming the road like a swallow.

Jess was gathering up information faster than he could salt it down.

“Let her out,” he yelled. “Thee’s holding her in. Loosen thy grip. Thee’s hanging round her neck like a millstone, Mrs. Hudspeth,” he bellowed. “Loosen up, loosen up.”

“I got no mind to,” the old lady snapped, still leaning back, and still sawing. “I’m going to learn this mare she’s got no call to be always out in front. She’s a good beast, but she’s got to learn to be passed. She’s got a fancy she’s Maude S. Me and my girls always hittin’ it down the pike like the devil’s on our tails. No style. It don’t appeal to the men.”

Lady was running like she’d rather split her mouth in two than be passed, and Mrs. Hudspeth was leaning back like she’d rather have her arms pulled out of their sockets than not have her way, and the wind was whistling past Jess’s big Quaker hat like he was riding the whirlwind. But the roan was gaining. Jess hung on to his hat and ventured a backward look. The roan looked to be a natural runner, and he was getting encouragement from a buggy whip.

That decided Jess. It went against his principles to see an honest trying horse so punished: it would encourage the spread of evil in the world to let a man win by any such means.

He took the reins from Mrs. Hudspeth’s hands. The old lady was strong, but so was Jess and he had the considerable advantage of knowing what was up. He had the reins and was doing the driving before she’d got the lay of the land.

Soon as Jess had loosened Lady’s reins and spoken to her with admiration, she distanced the roan; she sped away from him like she’s the arrow and he the bow. With the roan behind her, Lady settled down to a nice Sunday pace. You could see she was feeling mighty good.

5

JESS wasn’t. It would have pleased him greatly to have got the reins back in Mrs. Hudspeth’s hands — but he didn’t see any way of doing that without reminding her of how she’d lost them in the first place.

He figured the tactful thing to do was to go on talking fruit, as if nothing had happened. “Thee’s a wide choice of apples, Mrs. Hudspeth,” he said. “Thy soil and the climate hereabouts would be favorable for Jonathans or Winesaps.” But the old lady was of no mind to talk apples.

“For a man,” she said, “that’s a suitable thing to do — best another man in a race on a public road. But it ain’t a fitting action for a woman. Not for a marriageable woman like one of my girls, anyway. Men ain’t got any heart for courting a girl they can’t pass— let alone catch up with.”

“Thee say this mare’s never been passed?”

“One time only,” the old lady answered truthfully, “with two of my daughters on the reins at once. They couldn’t stop her, but they slowed her down enough to get passed — but the man who distanced them was Sheriff Bascom. A married man. Grandpappy to boot. It didn’t get ‘em anyplace. I been figuring for some time to get a fitting animal for those girls of mine to drive. Something a degree more maidenly acting.”

Jess drove in silence, thinking.

“You own a stylish animal, Mr. Birdwell,” said Mrs. Hudspeth finally. “It got racing notions?”

Jess shook his head. “No ma’am,” he said. “Nothing to worry about on that score. Not that it can’t pick up its heels, but racing’s a thing it’s got no stomach for. None whatever, he said with the emphasis of remembering.

They were both thinking the same thing, but the old lady said it first, as a woman will.

“How’d a trade strike you, Mr. Birdwell?”

It struck Jess as being well-nigh providential. “It’s something could be thought on,” he replied cautiously.

“Lady ain’t got but that one fault,” Mrs. Hudspeth told him, “and you seen that. A forceful man like yourself, Mr. Birdwell, could learn her better in no time if you’s a mind to.”

Jess agreed, “If I’s a mind to,” he said.

“She won’t be passed. Otherwise she’s fault-free — half Morgan, a prime healthy animal, just turned four and a willing worker.”

Jess hemmed and hawed to hide the way his heart was beating.

“Thee’d oughtn’t be hasty, Mrs. Hudspeth. Thee’s never seen my gelding in action.”

“I’m a judge of horseflesh,” said Mrs. Hudspeth.

“Thee can’t rightly say,” said Jess, feeling for his words and trying to be delicate, “that thy mare’s a handsome animal.”

“Well, no,” the old lady allowed. “There might have to be a little to boot.”

That finally was the way it was. Next morning Jess had Lady, and he had a little to boot and an order for nursery stock that filled three pages in his neat account-book handwriting. He drove out under the big sign he’d stared at so many times in passing.

“Otto Hudspeth,”he said. “Thee’s done me a good turn, Otto. I wish thy daughters well — and if getting passed will help them, they’ve got the right animal.”

The fine weather held right through the trip home, cloudless and serene. Jess proved more than once, and to his pleasure, the rightness of Mrs. Hudspeth’s claims that Lady wouldn’t be passed. She wouldn’t and she wasn’t — not by anything Jess encountered homeward bound, anyway.

As he was drawing near the Ohio once more, Jess began to think of Eliza. He’d just had a satisfying little brush with a fast iron gray—nothing very lasty, but satisfying — and he was recalling Eliza’s parting words.

“Thee get shut of that racy-looking animal,” she’d said, and here he was coming home behind a mare who had more racing sense in one of her lop ears than Red Rover’d had in his four legs, two hams, and handsome mulish head. Racy-looking, he thought. That’s what Eliza said. That’s what she’s set against.

Jess slapped the reins over Lady’s back. “Thee may not,” he told her, “fulfill the spirit of the law, but Eliza can’t say thee don’t fulfill the letter. Never saw an animal less racy-looking in my life.”

Jess was smiling very contentedly when from a hilltop he caught sight beneath him of a shining loop of the Ohio, and beyond it saw the blue hills of Jefferson County.

“Home tonight, Lady,” he said, and Lady moved along as if the words pleased her.