A Southern writer whose short stories and whose first novel, MOUNTAINS OF GILEAD,appeared under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint, JESSE HILL FORD, after a year of travel in Norway, has returned to his home country in Humboldt, Tennessee.
WEDNESDAY was a trellis of rose vines. See the trellis at the end of Grandmother Rickman’s long painted wooden porch. Saturday was rain dripping off the eaves of the porch. Coy was four years old.
Uncle Dan was coming Saturday. Dan was Grandmother Rickman’s brother. When was Saturday? When was rain? he thought. He went through the screen door and back through the long hallway into the kitchen.
Governor was in the kitchen. Governor was old. He was the only person in the house who called the boy Coy Rickmans. Coy Rickmans wasn’t His name; no, his real name was Coy Rickman Turner, not Coy Rickmans.
“Now you done let Foxy in the kitchen, Coy Rickmans. What if Miss Annie and them was to see?”
“Will it rain today, Gov?”
“When will it rain?”
“Tomorrer,” the Negro said. “What if Miss Annie and them come back here and see Foxy? What will you do then, Coy Rickmans? Ain’t you had enough whippings about that dog? Next they fixin’ to wimp me for you bringin’ Foxy in the house.”
Governor was fooling. He was too old to get whippings anymore. Governor fed chickens and polished silver. Coy sat down by the big iron stove. The fox terrier sat beside him — Foxy, who walked on three legs because one leg had been hurt. Foxy was old too. Sometimes when Foxy ate bones a tooth broke and fell out of his mouth onto the ground. Sometimes Foxy’s tongue stuck out the side of his closed mouth.
“I don’t like Uncle Dan,” Coy said.
“Don’t say that, Coy Rickmans. He’s your kin peoples.” Governor went on polishing Grandmother Rickman’s silver water pitcher. The polish was a nice smell, but silver polish was shoe polish was gasoline was all good things to smell — and turpentine — but nobody could eat or drink these smells because it would put them to sleep, Coy thought.
“Don’t you know kin peoples is the best thing any mens got? Ain’t many little white boys got the kind of folks you is, Coy Rickmans. Naw, sir. You too young to be talkin’ and can-yin’ on that way. He the very last brother Miss Annie got left. Why don’t you quit worryin’ your mind about him?”
Uncle Dan was lean-faced, bald-headed, wore gold-rimmed glasses, and laughed more than other people. His skin was loose and red and wrinkled, and the veins showed through, black and dangerous, on the backs of his hands. He was full of mischief and didn’t have a wife. Grandmother Rickman would tell how as a little girl she would faint when she cried. Dan would knock her down — yes, wouldn’t he hit her right in the stomach and she would faint dead away!
Oh, he was always full of mischief. He would slap his leg when Grandmother Rickman would tell that story and would offer Grandfather Rickman a cigar; but Grandfather Rickman didn’t smoke cigars, and he would very politely tell Uncle Dan no thanks.
Grandfather Rickman was always quieter than usual when Uncle Dan was in the house. Sometimes Grandfather Rickman came back to the kitchen with his crossword puzzle so he could work at it in peace without being bothered by Uncle Dan, though he never said a word about not liking Uncle Dan. Not to Governor, not to Coy, not to anybody in the world.
Yet Coy knew that neither Governor nor Grandfather Rickman liked Uncle Dan. Nobody in the world liked Uncle Dan except Grandmother Rickman. Long ago Uncle Dan had tied firecrackers to Foxy’s tail. Long ago he tied a tin can to Foxy. Why, every visit didn’t he used to have a new trick to play on Foxy! Foxy got so smart he would run and hide under the house when he saw Uncle Dan’s car roll up. Once Uncle Dan ruined a perfectly new suit of clothes he had just bought in Birmingham, crawling under the house to drag Foxy out and rub pepper in his nose.
Uncle Dan always told this story on himself, and when he was done telling it he would jump up suddenly and make for the front door and say, “Where’s Foxy?”
Every time he did, Coy would cry and Uncle Dan would laugh. “Someday I’ll catch that old dog!” he would say, rubbing the black veins on the backs of his hands, lighting a cigar, and grinning around it.
Grandfather Rickman would take Coy up in his lap. “He’s only kidding, Coy,” the old man would say. “Big boys don’t cry! You know he’s kidding.” And Grandmother Rickman would say, “Dan doesn’t bother Foxy because he knows you love him, Coy.”
“That’s just because I can’t catch him,” Uncle Dan said. Coy screamed at him and told him he was the devil. Grandfather Rickman whipped Coy for sassing Uncle Dan and for saying “devil.”
HE’S the devil,” Coy said, pulling at Foxy’s ear.
“There you go,” said Governor. “There you go. You fixin’ to get started on that word and let some of them hear you.”
“Uncle Dan is the devil, devil, devil.”
“Now, Coy Rickmans, that ain’t the nice little boy I know cussin’ and carryin’ on that way.”
“When is he coming, Gov?” Coy asked.
“Saturday,” Governor said.
Coy left the old Negro and went into Grandmother Rickman’s bedroom. Foxy’s toenails clicked over the floor. Coy crawled under the bed. Foxy followed him and lay beside him on the cool floor. “Why don’t you let me take that old dog and have him put to sleep” Uncle Dan had said. “You know how old he is — he’s thirteen years old! Look at him, how crippled and stiff.”
“No,” Coy whispered. “You can’t have him.”
“Aw, come on, you don’t care anything about that old dog. Why, the doctor can give him a shot of something and he goes to sleep in just a minute.”
“No,” Coy said, tasting Uncle Dan’s kidding now. Yes, a whole mouthful of it so he couldn’t say another word, but kept looking away from the red, grinning face. This was kidding. Uncle Dan was kidding. Kidding went down inside and jerked the stomach. It swelled the mouth.
“What’s the matter — can’t you take it? You got to learn to take it. Everybody has to learn to take it. I might give you a nickel if I said something about that dog just one time and you didn’t cry. You really think I’d hurt that old mutt? Huh?”
“Cat’s got his tongue,” Grandfather Rickman had said. “He knows you’re kidding though. Don’t you, Coy?”
Coy could still nod, so he nodded. That was just before Uncle Dan said good-bye and left, on the way to Atlanta. He would stop at Royal again Saturday on his way back to Birmingham. Uncle Dan kissed Grandmother Rickman on the cheek and shook hands with Grandfather Rickman. Then he found a nickel behind Coy’s ear. “Can’t you say good-bye?”
I’ll tell him good-bye and he won’t take Foxy. He won’t start the kidding again, Coy thought. But when he looked up at Uncle Dan he couldn’t say it. His tongue hurt all the way down in his throat, but he whispered it. Coy looked at Grandfather Rickman and grabbed his hand to make the kidding leave. If it don’t leave I’ll cry again. He held on, he pulled down with all his weight and held Grandfather Rickman’s hand until the blue car finally left and Uncle Dan was gone.
Atlanta was the iron deer standing up the street in the Kilgore’s yard where Coy and Foxy and Grandfather Rickman passed it on Sunday when they went for walks in the afternoon. Sunday was leaves on the ground.
“No ma’am, I ain’t seen Coy Rickmans since a while ago,” said Governor in the kitchen. “Coy?” Grandmother Rickman called.
Foxy struggled to be up, but Coy held him where he was, and they lay under the bed a long time after she had quit calling. “I expect Coy Rickmans is playing with Foxy somewheres,” Governor said. “Want me to look under the house, Miss Annie?” Grandmother Rickman said no.
IT RAINED just as Governor said it would. God squatted with his hand on the water faucet so people in Royal could have Saturday; God with his black beard who turned on the Alabama moon. Alabama was a still June bug with little brown ants crawling in and out of it.
The rain stopped. The flies left the porch to go play again. The eaves dripping, dripping into the shrubbery; God suddenly turned the sun on again. Coy left the porch. Standing on the warm sidewalk he looked back. Foxy got up slowly and came after him, holding the hind foot up, hopping on three legs. Coy followed him across the lawn to the ditch and watched the water push twigs past for a while. Finally it showed the red sand ditch bottom again, and the water was gone down to the Bad Place, where the devil lived.
It’s Saturday, Coy thought. He crossed the ditch, crossed the red sandy street, and crawled beneath the barbed wire. A little wind stirred the corn. He walked down a long straight row. Vines with tiny white blossoms twined about the stalks. The corn leaves dripped; the field ended and there was a deep ditch, purple and green with blackberry vines. The dog went ahead, following the rim of the ditch to a place in the vines separated by a path. The dog stopped. Coy looked. Then he stepped into the path and fell, rolling and skidding over the thump in his heart, betrayed by damp, slick ground; eyes closed, teeth clenched until he struck sand, opened his eyes, and touched his stinging cheek. Kidding, he thought. Don’t cry and find the nickel. He had given the nickel to Grandfather Rickman to keep for him, but before giving it up he had to look at the buffalo and the Indian again. Now he felt behind his ear, then the other ear. The nickel was not there. Had the nickel shaken loose and dropped in the sand before he could find it?
“Look for the nickel,” he whispered and dug a hole in the damp sand between his knees. The dog came down the steep path and sniffed at the hole. Water seeped into the bottom of it.
Coy stopped digging. Governor was calling. “Coy Rickmans?” A thin yellow iodine sting of sound, a scratch, little as germs; yes, the littlest of all had to be put to sleep with iodine. Did they feel it? We could be pieces of sand, he thought. Foxy is. “Coy Rickmans?” came the cry again. Coy is. “Coy Rickmans?” Nothing could find two pieces of sand. Pieces of sand would never answer.
“I hate him. He’s going to put Foxy to sleep with a doctor’s shotgun. I don’t want Foxy to go to sleep. Gov.”
“Did he say that? Naw, but he kiddin’.”
“I can’t take it.”
“Sho you can. Didn’t he give you a nickel?”
“I still can’t take it. I’m gonna bust, Gov.”
“Lemme wash your face. Listen, what you worryin’ your mind for? Listen to me. Straighten up and listen.”
“You ain’t nothing but black, Gov. God called you to come in out of the sun and you wouldn’t come. That’s why. You got burnt black.”
“Sonny boy. Sonny, listen to me. They want to teach you to learn to take it. You can’t call no mens the devil. You can’t go around losin’ your temper and callin’ kinfolks the Bad Man.”
“If he takes Foxy I’ll get your ax, Gov. I’ll chop him up to stove wood.”
“Naw, you won’t. I ain’t gonna let him take Foxy, Coy Rickmans. Mr. Rickmans, he won’t let him take Foxy either. And Miss Annie, she won’t let him. And your daddy and mama in Tennessee, they won’t let him. But it’s one more thing.”
“He got to go sometime or another. We all got to. Foxy ain’t gonna be here always, climbin’ in bed with you and hidin’ down under the covers from Miss Annie.”
“Where will he go?”
“They mostly goes to the woods. Don’t keer to have nobody see. So they goes and hides in the woods. They go off and do it all alone.”
“But I’ll bust, Gov. If Foxy goes off I’ll bust.”
Coy waited, filling the hole, smoothing the sand over. Governor didn’t call again. They crossed the ditch, the dog climbing the path into the pinewoods. Then they left the path. The woods changed. Not pine trees now, not pine needles, but leaves that made noise. Sunday leaves, but no, it is Saturday, because they don’t change it. It rained, so it’s Saturday and they can’t change it now.
The fox terrier hopped ahead over the leaves, stopped, and then began to sniff the ground. He entered a cane thicket, out of sight. One moment out where Coy could see him, then not there.
“Gone,” Coy whispered. “Hiding.”
He ran to the cane and pushed into it. “Foxy? Foxy?” he called. “Foxy!” Be mad at him, make him come back, he thought. “Devil,” he whispered, standing in the midst of the cane. “Devil, devil, devil.” If he could only whistle. Gov could whistle. Gov was black, but Gov could whistle. Coy tried to make his voice sound like Gov’s whistle, but no, it didn’t sound good enough. Foxy didn’t come. Kidding, his throat was kidding again. He cried for a while until the kidding went down. He hushed and walked on through the thicket and saw Foxy. Yes, Foxy! He screamed at the dog. The fox terrier was rolling, standing up and lying down again and rolling. Doing it, then — he had come here to do it alone and never come back, hiding!
Coy’s heart pounded. Near the dog was a white broken tree, fallen beside a stump in the midst of a stand of ironweed. Going forward a bit, Coy stopped again, assailed by an unfamiliar smothering stink, sudden, powerful, dark as veins. Something — but he would know it. The dog stood up, looked at him, and rolled again. Coy walked to the place, a desolation of bones, a patch of hide, flies. Where the flies come to play, he thought. Then he saw the head, the horns. “Cow,” he whispered.
The old dog at last seemed satisfied. They walked then. They came to the highway and walked along the gravel shoulder beside it. Now and then Coy smelled the dog, the cow. Yes, Foxy had hidden back in the woods, Coy thought. He had done it alone too, and would never have come home if Coy had not found him.
A car pulled off the highway. A man got out of it and walked back to meet them. It was Vilous Lee, the butcher Grandfather Rickman went fishing with, still wearing his apron, yes, and blood spots on it. Grandfather Rickman’s friend, but a strange man.
Vilous Lee put Coy and Foxy in the back seat of his car and drove back to Royal. Grandfather Rickman stood in the yard by the ditch. He crossed the ditch and took Coy out of the car and carried him into the house.
“They were walking by the road,” Vilous Lee said. He lowered his voice. “The dog rolled.”
“Ah, I’m sorry about that.”
“The dog was already in the car before I smelled it.” The butcher laughed and wiped his hands on his bloody apron. Then he left.
“Come on,” said Grandfather Rickman.
Coy followed him to the kitchen. “Are you going to whip me?” Coy asked.
“Here he is. Clean him up, Gov. Foxy rolled.”
“At lease we has him back,” Governor said. He filled the sink and took Coy’s clothes off and put them on the back porch. “Phewee!”
“Miss Annie and your Uncle Dan still out lookin’. You bound to have a whippin’ for runnin’ off,” Governor said. “Miss Annie almost called Tennessee, but Mr. Dan, he talked her into waiting.”
“Uncle Dan can’t get Foxy,” Coy said. “You wouldn’t let him. Nobody in the world would let him. Foxy tried to go to sleep in the woods, Gov. I made him come home.”
“Uh-huh,” Governor said.
“He won’t go back again, will he, Gov?”
The black man pulled the plug and let the sink drain. He lifted Coy down and began drying him. “Not right away,” he said thoughtfully. “But then once a dog find a place — yes, he might go back.”
Oh, yes, that’s where old dogs went, Coy thought. The flies went there too after the rain stopped, and if Foxy went away without him Coy would follow the flies. “Flies play there, Gov,” Coy said.
“I bet they do,” Gov said. He peered out the window. “Here come Miss Annie and Mr. Dan. Mr. Rickmans is gone out to tell them you’re okay and safe. Don’t get your mind worried again now, Coy Rickmans. It’s just a whippin’.”
But it wasn’t. Gov was fooling. Coy knew what it was. It was a cow. A cow was the place Grandfather Rickman and Vilous Lee kept their minnows. A wooden trough sunk in the ground beside the coal shed, with little fish going around in it, and some that had gone to sleep floating. The little fish slept that way, floating at the top, white and peaceful as milk, waiting for Grandfather Rickman to come throw them away.