by JAMES STILL
WICK JARRETT brought the invitation of his eldest son, Ulysses. “ He’s wanting you to Come enjoy a hog-kill at his place next Thursday,” Wick said. “ Hit’s to be a quiet affair, a picked crowd, mostly young married folks. No old heads like me - none except Aunt Besh Lipscomb, but she won’t hinder. ’Lysses and Eldora will treat you clever. You’ll have a master time.”
Thursday fell on January 4, a day of bitter wind. I set off in early afternoon for Ulysses’s home-seat on Upper Mule Creek, walking the ridge to shun the mud of the valley road. By the time I reached the knob overtowering the Jarrett farm my hands and ears were numb, my feet dead weights. A shep dog barked as I picked my way down and Ulysses opened the door and called, “Haste to the fire.” I knocked my shoes at the doorstep. “Come on in,” Ulysses welcomed. “Dirt won’t punish our floors.”
A chair awaited me. Before the living-room hearth sal Ulysses’s cousins, Bless and Leander Jarrett, his brothers-in-law, Dow Owen and John Kingry, a neighbor. Will Harrod, and the aged midwife, Aunt Besh Lipscomb, who had lived with Ulysses and Eldora since the birth of their child. From the stoveroom came sounds of women’s voices.
“Crowd to the fire and thaw,” Ulysses said, “and pull off your jacket.”
“ Be you a stranger?” Aunt Besh asked.
“Now, no,” Ulysses answered in my stead. “He lives over and across the mountain.”
“He’s got a tongue,” Aunt Besh reproved. And she questioned. “Was I the granny-doctor who fotched you?”
Ulysses jested, “Why, don’t you remember?”
Aunt Besh said, “I can’t recollect the whole push.
The fellows chuckled under their breaths, laughing quietly so as not to disturb the baby sleeping on a bed in the corner.
The heat watered my eyes. My hands and feet began to ache.
“You’re frozen totally. Aunt Besh declared. “Rid your boots and socks and warm your feet. Don’t be ashamed a front of an old granny.”
“Granny-doctors have seen the world,” Ulysses said.
“Hush,” Aunt Besh cried, and as I unlaced my boots she said, “’Lysses, he needs a dram to warm his blood.”
Ulysses shrugged. “ Where’d I get it ?”
“A medicine dram. Want him to catch a death cold?”
“I ought to got a jug for the occasion,” Ulysses said. “We’re all subject to take colds. I forgot it plumb.”
“I’d vow there’s a drap somewhere.”
“This is apt to be the driest hog-kill ever was, Ulysses said.
“Humph,” Aunt Besh scoffed.
I had my boots on again when the wives gathered at the fire. Eldora took up the baby, scolding Ulysses, “You’d let it freeze. Its nose is ice.” And Ulysses said, “Men, we might’s well allow the petticoats to hug the coals a spell. Let’s gel air.” We followed him through the front door, and on around to the back yard. The wind tugged at us. We pulled our hnls down until the brims bent ears.
Ulysses led us into the cellar-house. “Look sharp,”he invited, “and see how I fare.” We noted the baskets of Irish and sweet potatoes, cushaws and winter squash, the shelves loaded with conserved vegetables and fruits. “Anybody give out o’ victuals,” he went on, “come here and get a turn.” Will Harrod glanced about impatiently, and Dow Owen uncovered a barrel. Ulysses said, “Dow, if you want to crack walnuts, the barrel’s full.” Pless and Leander Jarrett took seat on a meat box and grinned.
“Ah, ‘Lysses,” Will Harrod groaned, “quit stalling.”
“Well, s’r,” Ulysses said, “I’ve got a little stuff, but it’s bad, my opinion. I’d hate to poison folks.” The bunch livened. Pless and Leander, knowing where to search, jumped off’ the salt box and raised the lid; they lifted a churn by the ears. Will said, “Say we drink and die.” Ulysses cocked his head uncertainly at me. I said, “Go ahead, you fellows.”
A gourd dipper was passed hand to hand, and Will, on taking a swallow, yelled joyously. Ulysses cautioned, “Don’t rouse Aunt Besh. We’d never hear the last.” The gourd was eased from Dow Owen’s grasp, Ulysses reminding, “A job o’ work’s to do. We’ll taste lightly right now.” A jar of pears was opened to straighten breaths.
We returned to the fire and the wives laughed accusingly, “Uh-huh" and “Ah-hah.” Leander’s wife clapped a hand on his shoulder, drew him near, and sniffed. She said, “The sorry stuff and don’t deny it.”
“Pear juice,” Leander swore. “Upon my honor.”
“You’ve butchered the swine quick,” Aunt Besh said scornfully. No attention was paid to her and she jerked Ulysses’s coal tail. “Are ye killing the hogs or not ? ”
“Can’t move a peg till the women are fixed,” Ulysses answered.
“It’s you men piddling,” one of the women reported. “We’ve had the pots boiling an hour.”
Eldora spoke, “Who’ll mind the baby? I won’t leave it untended.”
Aunt Besh said, “Don’t leave me watchdogging a chap.”
Pless’s wife volunteered to stay with the baby. She was the youngest of the wives, sixteen at the most.
“Aunt Besh,” I lysses petted, “you just set and poke the fire.”
“Go kill the hogs,” Aunt Besh shrilled.
“She’s the queen,” Ulysses told us.
Ulysses got his rifle. “John,” he said, “come help.” They made off.
There being two hogs for slaughter we waiterl until the second shot before rushing toward the barn, men through the front door, women the rear. The hogs lay on straw, weighing between 850 and 400 pounds. The wind raced, flagging blazes beneath three iron pots. An occasional flake of snow fell.
We men scalded the carcasses in a barrel; we scraped the bristles free with knives while the women dabbled hot water to keep the hair from “setting.” The scraping done, gambrels were caught underneath tendons of the hind legs and the beasts hefted to pole tripods; they were singed, shaved, and washed, and the toes and dewclaws removed. Ulysses and John served as butchers, and as they labored John questioned; —
“Want the lights saved?”
“ Yes, s’r,” Ulysses replied.
“Fling them away and Aunt Besh will rack us. The single part she’ll eat.”
Will Harrod laid a claim: “The bladders are mine. I’ll raise balloons.”
The shep dog and a gang of eats dined well on refuse.
The wind checked and snow fell thicker. The women hurried indoors, carrying fresh meat to add to the supper they had been preparing nearly the day long. Ulysses and John hustle their jobs, the rest of us transporting hams, loins, shoulders, and bacon strips to the cellar-house. No hog-kill tricks were pulled. Nobody had a bloody band wiped across his face; none dropped a wad of hog’s hair inside another’s breeches.
John complained to Ulysses, “The fellers are heading toward the cellar-house faster’n they’re coming hack.”
“We’ll join ’em in a minute,” Ulysses said.
WHEN I entered the living room Aunt Besh asked, “Got the slaughtering done finally?” And seeing I was alone she inquired, “Where’s the crowd?”
“They’ll come pretty soon,” I said, removing my hat and jacket and brushing the snow onto the hearth. “We put by the sweetbreads,” I added.
Aunt Besh gazed at me. Pless’s wife clasped the baby and lowered her face. Aunt Besh said, “Son, speak while ‘Lysses hain’t. here to drown you. Was I the granny-doctor who fotched you into life?”
“Aunty,” Pless’s wife entreated, “don’t embarrass company.”
“Daresn’t I ope my mouth?” Aunt Besh blurted.
I said, “Who the granny was, I never learned.”
“Unless you were born amongst the furren I’m liable to ‘a’ fotched you. I acted granny to everybody in this house, nigh everybody on Mule Creek.”
Pless’s wife blushed. She stirred on her chair, ready to flee.
“There’s a way o’ telling,” Aunt Besh went on. “I can tell whether I tied you or not.”
Up sprang Hess’s wife, clutching the infant. She ran into the stoveroom.
“I wasn’t born on Mule Creek,” I explained.
“Upon my word and honor!” Aunt Besh cried. “Are ye a heathent”
Eldora brought the child back to the fire, and she came laughing. The husbands tramped in, Dow walking unsteadily, for he had made bold with the churn flipper. Will dandled two balloons. Hearing mirth in the stoveroom John asked, “ What’s put the women in such good humor?”
Aunt Besh watched as a chair was shoved under Dow, and she began to wheeze and gasp. Presently Ulysses queried, “What’s the trouble, Aunt Besh?”
“My asthma’s bothering,” she said. “ The cold’s the fault.”
“Why, it’s tempering.” Ulysses remarked. “It’s boiling snow, but the wind’s stilling.”
“My blood’s icy, no matter.”
“ I’ll wrap you in a quilt.”
“ I’ll punch the fire.”
“Devil,” Aunt Besh blurted, “can’t you understand the simplest fact?”
Eldora scolded, “’Lysses, stop plaguing and go mix a cup of ginger stew to ease her.
Ulysses obeyed, and Aunt Besh raised her sleeves nnd poked forth her arms. “See my old bones,” she whimpered. “ There’s hardly flesh to kiver ‘em. I’ll need good treatment, else I’m to bury.” Tears wet her eyes.
“Aunty,” Will comforted, “want to hold a balloon?
“Keep the nasty thing out o’ my view,’ Aunt Besh said.
Ulysses fetched the stew dram in hot water, dusted with ginger and black pepper. Aunt Besh nursed the cup between quivering hands and tasted. “’Lysses,” she snuffed, “your hand was powerful on the water.”
Supper was announced and Ulysses told us, “ Bise up, you fellers,” and Eldora said, “You’ll find common victuals, but try to make out. We tarried, showing manners. Ulysses insisted, Don’t force us to beg. Go, the breads smoking. After further prompting we trooped into a narrow gallery lighted by bracket lamps, which was the dining room. John hooked a wrist under Dow’s arm, leading him. Aunt Besh used the fire-poker for walking stick.
“ Why don’t you cat with us women at the second table?” Eldora asked Aunt Besh.
“I don’t aim to wait,” Aunt Besh said. “I’m starving.”
We sat to a feast of potatoes, hominy, cushaw, beans, fried and boiled pork, baked chicken, buttered dumplings, gravy, stacks of hand-pies, and jam cake. Ulysses invited, “Rake your plates full. If you can’t reach, holler.”
As we ate, laughter rippled in the stoveroom. Leander’s wife came with hot biscuits and her face was so merry Leander inquired, “What’s tickled you leymales?” She made no reply.
John said, “They’ve been giggling steady.”
“We ought to force them to tell,” Lcander said. “Choke it out.”
“If you’ll choke your woman,” John proposed, “ I’ll choke mine.”
“Say we do,” Leander agreed. “And everybody help, every body strangle his woman, if he’s got one. But let’s eat first.”
A voice raised in the stoveroom: “You’ll never learn, misters.” The laughter quieted.
“We’ll make them pray for air,” Leander bragged loudly. He batted an eye at us. “We’ll not he outsharped.”
“Cross the women,” Ulysses said, “and you’ll have war on your hands.”
“Suits me,” Leander said, and Pless and John vowed they didn’t care. Will, his mouth full, gulped, and nudged Dow. Dow, half asleep, side nothing.
Of a sudden the women filed through the gallery, their necks thrown, marching toward the fire. Only Eldora smiled.
Ulysses said, “You big talkers have got your women mad. But I didn’t anger mine.”
“Ah,” Hess said, “they know we’re puttingon.”
“Eat,” Aunt Besh commanded, “eat and hush.”
Dow nodded in his chair and Ulysses arose and guided him to a bed.
WHILE we were at table the wives hid the churn, and when they joined us in the living room later in the evening the four estranged couples sat apart, gibing each other. Ulysses tried making peace between them. The wives wouldn’t budge, though the husbands appeared willing.
John sighed, “Gee-o, I’m thirsty, and his wife asked sourly, “What’s agin pure water?" “Hit’s weaky,”was the reply.
Finally Ulysses threw open the door. The wind had calmed, the snowing ceased. Moonlight behind clouds lighted the fields of snow. Ulysses said, “Maybe the way to end the ruckus is to battle. Who’s in a notion to snowball-fight ?”
“Anything to win the churn,” Leander said.
“The churn’s what counts, Pless baited, the women don’t matter.”
“A light would break the deadlock,” Ulysses declared.
The four wives arose.
Will groaned, “I’m Loo full to move,” and John testified, “ I can’t wiggle.”Pless and Leander were as lief as not, yet Pless reminded, “Me and Leander are old-time rabbit rockers.”
Ulysses urged, “Tussle and reach a settlement.”
The wives pushed John and Will onto the porch and shoved them into the yard. “Get twenty-five steps apart,” Ulysses directed, “and don’t start till I say commence. He allowed the sides to prepare mounds of snowballs.
I had followed to witness the skirmish, as had Eldora and Dow’s wife. Behind us Aunt Besh spoke, “Clear the door. Allow a body to see.”
Ulysses halloed, “Let ‘em fly,” and the wives hurled a volley. A ball struck Will’s throat and he appealed to Ulysses, “Rocks, unfair.” Aunt Besh hobbled to the porch, the better to watch; she shouted and we discovered the side she pulled for. Will and John fought halfheartedly, mostly chucking crazy; Leander and Pless, deadeye throwers, practiced near-hits, tipping their wives’ heads, grazing shoulders, shattering balls poised in hands. The women dodged and twisted and let fly.
Will sat in the snow when the hoard of balls was exhausted, and John quit —quit and yanked up his collar. Leander and Hess stopped tossing and batted the oncoming missiles.
The women crept nearer, chucking point-blank. They rushed upon Will and before he could rise to escape had him pinned. They stuffed snow in his mouth and plastered his face. Then they seized John, a docile prisoner, rolling him log-fashion across the yard. And they got hands on Pless. Pless wouldn’t have been easily caught had not Leander grabbed his shoulders and shielded himself. Leander stood grinning as snow was thrust down Pless’s neck.
Leander’s feet wouldn’t hold at his turn. It was run, fox, run around the house, the women in pursuit. He zigzagged the yard, circled the barn, took a sweep through the bottom. They couldn’t overhaul him. His wife threatened, “Come take your punishment, or you’ll get double-dosed.” He came meekly, and they buried him in snow. They heaped snow upon him and packed and shaped it like a grave. He let them satisfy themselves until he had to rise for air.
The feud ended and all tramped indoors goodhumoredly, the wives to comb rimy hair, the husbands to dry wet clothes and accuse Aunt Besh of partinlily. Hadn’t Aunt Besh bawled “Kill ‘em” to the women? An argument ensued, Aunt Besh admitting, “Shore, I backed the girls.”
The husbands fire-dried, chattering their teeth exaggeratedly, and their wives had the mercy to bring the churn from hiding and place it, in the gallery. The dipper tapped bottom as its visitors heartened themselves. Aunt Besh eyed the gallerygoers. “I got chilled a-watching,” she wheezed.
I lysses said, “I don’t, hear your gums popping.”
“Are ye wanting me to perish?” she rasped.
Eldora chided Ulysses into brewing a ginger stew, and Aunt Besh instructed, “This time don’t water hit to death.”
It was Leander who remembered to inquire, “Now, what tickled you fey males back yonder?”
The women turned their heads and smiled.
The night latened, and Aunt Besh dozed. Husbands and waves, reconciled, sat side by side. The balloons were kept spinning aloft. Apples were roasted on the hearth, potatoes baked in ashes; and popcorn was capped and pull-candy cooked.
Past one o’clock Eldora made known the retiring arrangements. Aunt Besh would sleep in her chain on account of asthma. Two beds in the upper room would hold five women, two in a lower provide for six men. Ulysses and Eldora, occupving the livingroom bed, could keep the child near the fire and attend Aunt Besh’s wants in the night.
My roommates sauntered off. When I followed they were snoring. John, Will, and Dow lay as steers strawed to weather a blizzard; Hess and Leander, my assigned bedfellows, were sprawled, leaving little of the mattress unoccupied. I decided to go sleep in front of the hearth, though I waited until the house quieted, until smothered laughter in the upper room hushed.
I found the coals banked, the lamp wick turned low. Aunt Besh sat wrapped in a tower of quilts and I thought her asleep. But she uncovered her face and spoke, “See if there’s a drap left in the churn. I investigated, and reported the churn empty. She eyed me coldly, as she might any creature who had not the grace to he born on Mule Creek. “I’ll endure,” she said.