AN ATLANTIC STORY
by JAMES STILL
WE’LL have to do something about that child,” Father said. We sat in the kitchen, eating our supper, though day held and the chickens had not yet gone to roost in the gilly trees. Elvy was crying behind the stove, and her throat was raw with sobbing. Morg and I paused, bread in hand, and glanced over our shoulders. The firebox of the Cincinnati stove winked, the iron flowers of the oven throbbed with heat. Mother tipped a finger to her lips, motioning Father to hush. Father’s voice lifted: —
“I figure a small thrashing would make her leave off this foolish notion.”
Elvy was six years old. She was married, to hear her tell it, and had three children and a lazy shuck of a husband who cared not a mite for his own and left his family to live upon her kin. The thought had grown into truth in her mind. I could play at being Brother Hemp Leckett, climb onto a chopblock and preach to the fowls; or I could be Round George Harks, riding the creeks, killing all who crossed my path; I could be any man body. Morg couldn’t make-believe; he was just Morg. But Elvy had imagined herself old and thrown away by a husband, and she kept believing.
“A day will come,” Elvy told us, “when my man’s going to get killed down dead, the way he’s living.” She spoke hard of her husband and was a shrew of a wife who thought only of her children; she was as busy with her young as a hen with biddies. It was a dog’s life she led, washing rags of clothes, sewing with a straw for needle, singing by the half hour to cradled arms, and keeping an eye sharp for gypsies. She jerked at loose garments and fastened and pinned, as Mother did to us.
Once we spied her in the grape arbor making to put a jacket on a baby that wouldn’t hold still. She slapped the air, saying, “Hold up, young’un!” Morg stared, half believing. Later she claimed her children were stolen. It wasn’t by the dark people. Her husband had taken them — she didn’t know where. For days she sat pale and small, minced her victuals, and fretted in her sleep. She had wept, “My man’s the meanest critter ever was. Old Scratch is bound to get him.”
And now Elvy’s husband was dead. She had run to Mother to tell this thing, the news having come in an unknown way. She waited dry-eyed and shocked until Father rode in from the fields in middle afternoon and she met him at the barn gate to choke out her loss.
“We’ve got to haste to Biggety Creek and fetch my chaps ere the gypsies come,” she grieved. “They’re left alone.”
“Doornail dead?” Father had asked, smiling to hear Biggety Creek named, the Nowhere Place he had told us of once at table: Biggety Creek where heads are the size of water buckets, where noses are turned up like old shoes, women wear skillets for hats, and men screw their breeches on, and where people are so proper they eat with little fingers pointing, and one pea at a time. Father rarely missed a chance to preach us a sermon.
“We’ve got to haste,” Elvy pled.
“Do you know the road to Biggety Creek?”
Father keened his eyes to see what manner of chap was his own, his face lengthening and his patience wearing thin. He grabbed his hat off and clapped it angrily against his leg; he strode into the barn, fed the mules, and came to the house with Elvy tagging after and weeping.
“Fix an early supper,” he told Mother.
Father’s jaws were set as he drew his chair to the table. The day was still so bright the wall bore a shadow of the unkindled lamp. Elvy had hidden behind the stove, lying on the cat’s pallet, crying. “Come and eat your victuals,” Mother begged, for her idea was to humor children and let them grow out of their notions. But Elvy would not.
WE KNEW Father’s hand itched for a hickory switch. Disobedience angered him quicker than anything. Yet he only looked worried. The summer long he had teased Elvy, trying to shake her belief. Once while shaving he had asked, “What ever made you marry that lump of a husband, won’t come home, never furnishes a cent?” Morg and I stood by to spread the leftover lather on our faces and scrape it off with a kitchen knife. “I say it’s past strange I’ve not met my own son-in-law. I hunger to shake his hand and welcome him to the family, ask him to sit down to our board and stick his feet under.”
Father had glanced slyly at Elvy. “What’s his name? Upon my honor I haven’t been told.”
Elvy looked up. Her eyes glassed in thought. “He’s called Razor.”
“Given name or family?”
“Ask him to come,” Father urged in mock seriousness. “Invite him up for Sunday dinner.”
Elvy had promised that her husband would come. She had Mother fry a chicken, the dish he liked best, claiming the gizzard was his chosen morsel. Nothing less than the flax tablecloth was good enough, and she gathered spiderwort blossoms for the centerpiece. An extra chair was placed, and we waited; we waited noon through, until one o’clock. Then she told us confidentially, “Go ahead and eat. Razor allus was slow as Jim Christmas.” She carried a bowl of soup behind the Cincinnati stove to feed her children. In the evening she explained, “I’ve learnt why my man stayed away. He hain’t got a red cent to his pocket and he’s scared o’ being lawed for not supporting his chaps.”
Father had replied, “I need help — need a workhand to grub corn ground. A dollar a day I’ll pay, greenback on the barrel top. I want a feller with lard in his elbows and willing to work. Fighting sourwood sprouts is like going to war. If Razor has got the measure of the job, I’ll hire him and promise not to law.”
“I ought never to a-took him for a husband,” Elvy confessed. “ When first I married he was smart as ants. Now he’s turned so lazy he won’t even fasten his gallus buckles. He’s slouchy and no ‘count.”
“Humm,” Father had grunted, eying Morg and me, the way our clothes hung on us. “Sloth works on a feller,”he preached. “It grows roots. He’ll start letting his sleeves flare and shirttail go hang. One day he gets too sorry to bend and lace his shoes, and it’s a swarp, swarp every step. A time comes he’ll not latch the top button of his breeches — ah, when a man turns his potty out, he’s beyond cure.”
“That’s Razor all over,” Elvy had said.
Father’s teasing had done no good. As we sat at supper that late afternoon, listening to Elvy sob behind the stove, Morg began to stare into his plate and could eat no more. He believed Elvy. Tears hung on his chin.
Father’s face tightened, half in anger, half in dismay. He lifted his hands in defeat. “Hell’s bangers!” he blurted.
I whispered to Morg, “Razor is a lie-tale.” Morg’s tears fell thicker. I spoke small into his ear, “Act it’s not so,” but Morg could never make-like.
Father suddenly thrust back his chair. “Hurry and get ready,” he ordered, “the whole push of you. We’re going to Biggety Creek.” His voice was as dry as a stick.
Elvy’s sobbing hushed. Morg blinked. The room became so quiet I could hear flames eating wood in the firebox. Father arose and made long-legged strides toward the barn to harness the mules.
We mounted the wagon, Father and Mother to the spring seat, Elvy settling between; I stood with Morg behind the seat. Dusk was creeping out of the hollows. Chickens walked toward the gilly trees, flew to their roosts, sleepy and quarrelsome. Father gathered the reins and angled the whip to start the mules. “Now, which way?” he asked Elvy. She pointed ahead and we rode off.
The light faded. Night came. The shapes of trees and fences were lost and there were only the wise eyes of the mules to pick the road when the ground had melted and the sky was gone. Elvy nodded fitfully, trying to keep awake. We traveled six miles before Father turned back.