This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 1 "Good Times and Growing Pains." Find more from that issue here.
In a small square garden to the side she grows peas and beans of all kinds, cabbage and turnips and mustard greens, pumpkins and gourds. The wide fields beyond the house are twenty years fallow, grown up with sage grass and sapling pines.
In her yard she keeps a dozen pullets — dull hens, shale red — and two ragged white roosters. At the last of the sun each day, she brings out water and grain in two broad buckets and pours it for them. It is these times she is most seen, walking bent to the pull of the buckets.
She is a big woman, above six feet tall. Not fat, but wide-shouldered, humped by hard lifting, with large bowed legs. She moves slowly about the yard. With a thin pink eyelet sweater and her gray hair circled in braids, sun in the loose fanning wisps, she looks like a misshapen queen from a faroff place. She has always been here, or near here. Born in one of the coves, she married in the mountain.
Of land, she owns the Hyche forty (Hyche, her name), the old Lee place, some twenty acres, and all of the Gilliland bluff with its Seven Room Rock — a cluster of tiny caves in the sheer sandstone face, where Indian bones are discovered time and again by young men who live in the cove.
Her house is on the mountain’s north end. It sits off the paved road on a rise of clay, just up from a blue pond the shape of a nearly-straightened horseshoe. Seen from the road in summer the pond is all high reeds, hidden green around. In winter, when they go thin and brittle, a whipping of the wind shows diamonds through them, flashings of the blue water. It is so shallow a tall man could walk across it.
The sons of her three brothers are all moved north. The brothers too. She is widowed, lives alone. But the people of the mountain, no kin to her, say “Aunt” when they talk about Pluma. Never “Granny” or “Old Pluma” though she is old, older than any of them.
In the story, she is a girl:
Steam from the cookpots. New brush brooms swept full of dust. Saved-up lace, sewn by hand to the edges of the curtains. A milkglass bottle of gift perfume, touched like flowers inside the neck of her dress. Standing in the doorway, watching the rolling afternoon fields, wanting Tom Hyche to come up for supper. Feeling him past the next ridge, wherever he is working, feeling his progress, feeling him come. Finally seeing him, coming far off, leading the mules.
This is her life the weeks since March, the wedding.
Tom Hyche bends over the washstand, splashes water on his face and neck. The day has been hot, and his open shirt is dark with sweat. The water turns field-brown in his hands, drips into the white basin.
He feels blindly to the hook where towels always hang, finds none. She is suddenly by him with a new towel, just warm from the iron, and lays it on his wrists. He wipes his eyes free and with a wet hand reaches out to pinch her belly, make her smile. “Well, bless you,” he says politely. She pushes his hand away. She smiles, still.
He is a big man, the only man in the mountain taller than Pluma. Tom Hyche is spare of fat, but with arms and legs like logs. Yellow-tan hair hangs shaggy on his ears, and the sun has bronzed him reddish all down to his waist. His face is guileless, boysmooth, plain as a bundle of husks.
“I have got some yams your daddy brought,” she says from the stove. Late sun slants in sharply, carries yellow across the floor planks. He says nothing, sits at the table and watches the fields. She spoons out bowls of beans and stew-meat, a plate of cornbread, a pan of sweet potatoes daubed with butter. She carries them all to table and then sits down.
She knows cooking. It has been half her life till now. The other half she has spent beside her older brothers in the field rows: planting, plowing, hoeing like a man.
Old people, the first settlers in the cove, still tell the story of the father she has no memories of. All she sees of dead Lige Collier now she sees through the eyes of old men who were there that day.
When Pluma was born, the only girl of four children, her father celebrated with whiskey. He had been six days drinking on the bright Sunday noon when he charged through the Crossroads Church reunion driving a wagon full of his friends, all drunk. “This horse can’t beat a train, I’ll eat it,” he shouted, and whipped the horse toward the railroad tracks down in the flats. All the church crowd watched, powerless to help him. The whistle was already blowing.
His friends, seeing the fast engine coming, bailed out of the wagon one by one and tumbled safely to the edges of the road. That left Lige, driving, and one man in back, who grabbed with terror at the brake pole and locked the wheels. The wagon slid sideways onto the tracks, where it stopped. The force of the engine splintered the wagon and ripped the two men. It carried them for almost half a mile.
Virgie Collier, Pluma’s mother, died left Pluma, by then eleven years old, and the boys — twelve, fourteen and sixteen. All the first woman-things, the crampings and the sickness, came to Pluma while she hoed and cooked and swept. She had no time for the new feelings, for the blood.
Tom rakes his plate clean, wipes up the bean juice with a piece of bread. “Making a little time, now,” he says. He nods toward the open door, to the fields. The sun gone, the land sits in a dark blue haze of heat. The woodstove ticks down in the corner, cooling toward night.
He eats the bread and follows it with a glass of tea. “Got all of it broke up but that little dogleg piece in the bottom forty. Tomorrow’ll get that.” He runs his tongue against all his teeth, finding crumbs, and looks through the window at the sky. He has eaten from all the dishes except the sweet potatoes. On the floor, yellow dust shows in the last light. It lies vaguely shoe-shaped, fallen from his soles where he sits. A white cloth napkin, the first Pluma has owned, lies untouched beside his plate.
Tom Hyche had been a friend of her brothers since she could remember. For years they had all set traps for crayfish, hunted coon, hidden in canebreaks to smoke the wide sticky leaves called rabbit tobacco. His father, John Thomas Hyche, was the first settler on the mountain’s steep north face. A small, fierce, wiry man, the way he came there is a legend:
Young John T. Hyche walked in from North Georgia, leading a sick horse, without a cent in his pocket. He set to work, cleared land, laid claim to it. Now, these years later, he owns almost a quarter of the whole mountain. At his age, John Hyche still plows until dark. He carries his dried corn in a wheelbarrow down the slopes to the mill, by torchlight. He is up before daylight, hammering boards for still another shed. He has given the land Tom farms now, has given the land their house is on. John’s wife died the month that Tom, their only one, was born. John Hyche works his land alone, as he has always done.
A few weeks before Pluma’s last brother was to marry and move out, Tom Hyche showed up at service in the little Crossroads Church where Pluma went. He came home with her and William, stayed for dinner and most of the afternoon. The next Sunday he was back again in church, at Pluma’s bench, though he was never known to care much for church before. By Christmas they were telling they would marry, and on New Year’s Tom staked the foundation for their house.
They sit by the door, in the rust light of a coal-oil lamp. A fog has come into the yard. The stars and the moon, pearl grey and ringed with vapor, are spread above the black trees. Familiar crickets start up in the dampness beneath the steps. Pluma’s bare feet are drawn up under her long skirt. Her hands lie folded in her lap.
“Listen!” she says. She touches his knee to quiet him. Two throated notes sound, from woods somewhere far off:
Tom whittles a piece of wood, trailing the shavings down the steps. He stops and closes his eyes to hear better.
Naked to the waist, he is doubly red in the warm light. He uncreases his eyes and then smiles to show he has heard. “Mmmm,” he says, and nods to her. He whittles again, flicking dry curls out the door. His eyes are on his work.
“Pretty,” she says.
She leans to him. With one finger she skims over the crisp yellow hairs of his arm. She touches his wrist, closes her fingers around his knife, takes it from him, lays it by the door. He follows her soft walking, beyond the oil lamp, to the next room’s dark bed. In the empty lamplight, his dusty unlaced shoes sit on a mat of reeds she has woven for them, picked from the pond nearby.
Their first night and the few after, he had torn her, soft as he tried to be. By long years’ work, she was trained to stiffen, clench her jaw to any task, and so to his bed. Now she has learned how to move with the force of him, in time to his hard whiteness below. Let him be a wind, she tells her mind, and go as he moves. Sway soft to it, away, to it. She has learned his bed.
July has the longest days. He planted right, by the signs. They sprouted well, and plenty of rain has come. But they are browning now: the leaves of corn, the bean vines, the squash. Their edges are dying, and Tom spends more hours in the field. He plows, he hoes, he plows again, digs out all the grass and weeds.
He sits on the front steps at noon, dark in the shade of the house. He is wet from head to foot with sweat. He drinks from a jar of water at his side, wants no food. The fields, past his black shape, are a blinding clay gold.
Pluma stands behind him in the door. “It all beats me,” she says gently. “If there was too much fertilize—”
Tom spews water from his mouth. “Unhhh-uhh,” he rasps out, not looking around, and then speaks more quietly. “No, it was done right.” He still doesn’t face her.
She walks to the hot stove, pulls the boiling pots off to one side. She goes to the steps, squats behind him. “It don’t have to be your daddy,” she says. “There’s plenty of people out elsewhere you could ask.”
He spits again. Without turning around, he gets up walking fast toward the fields. Carrying the warm jar of water by its neck, he goes out of sight beyond the ridge. Pluma looks down at the back of her hands. She has blistered her wide knuckles on the stove.
Two weeks pass and nothing changes. On a morning when Tom is gone into town to buy medicine for a mule’s yellowed eye, Pluma ventures for the first time into the fields. She has stood at the edge, in the grass. She has watched her husband point to far humps of it like describing constellations in the night sky, but she has not walked in any field since her family’s, in the cove.
A cloud has cooled over the sun, and the dust-shaking wind of the morning has settled. She remembers how to walk in a field. How to walk, with the soft crusts of dirt giving way.
She kneels down where a row of corn has withered down to brown stalks. She rakes the row with her fingers, pinches the dirt clods and rolls them in her palm. In the dirt she sees fine white root-hairs, cut free and turned up in the plowing. The sun has dried them hard as ivory. She sees now how deep the blade of the plow has run.
He didn’t know, she says inside her mind. He was trying to get the weeds all out, and he cut too deep. He tried too hard, she says. He didn’t know.
The heavy plank door of his tool shed creaks as she goes in. The air teems with dust. Red wasps thud at the planks, lazy in the heat. She finds the plowstock, the high angled blade, propped in a corner in its chains. She crouches beside it on the cool dirt floor, picks up a hammer and clangs the thick side of the blade. The blows send hard-caked field dirt flying from its fastenings.
She hammers at the wing nut, trying to free it. It is frozen on with rust. Her hammer rings the shed full of clanging. The fastener moves. She pounds it again with the blunt peen hammer, narrowing the angle of the blade.
The door behind her darkens. Her hammer falls silent. She turns and sees the dark log shape of him, leaning humped in the door.
“I wondered if maybe the blade was going too deep,” she says brightly, swallowing, patting back the hair that has fallen into her face from the laboring. “They say that sometimes it can cut at the roots, when it goes deep, and I was wondering. . .”
His face is in the shade of the roof. Only his eyes show, caught in a narrow stripe of sun from between two boards. His eyes don’t change. His hand tightens on the dry brown sack he carries. It crackles like leaves in a fire. He stands for the longest time, says nothing. Pluma goes out past him, toward the house, to start cooking their noon meal.
The first year’s crops are enough for canning, but none is left to sell in town. When fall ends, Tom Hyche sells five acres to Algie Lee, whose land is next to his. The money is used to buy a mule for the one that died in October, and to buy enough lumber to build a bigger corn crib for the next year’s harvest. He is planning ahead for larger things.
It was during those weeks of ice that Pluma, feeling her hard flat belly and its regular rhythms, told herself without words that there could be no children from him.
The first warm days of March, while building the new corn crib, Tom hurt his back. It has kept him most days in bed, or at least not lifting any tools to work. Selling a small piece of land to the Lees, Pluma pays for the first weeks’ labor of two boys from the cove, hired to break land for the planting. She goes into town for the seed herself, watches the boys close as they sow it, telling them, remembering the way. She stays with them, through the days, to make them work.
Late in a day she walks up from the farthest ridge, seeing the house in a haze of gold pollen. Behind her, just in hearing, the boys at their plows are laughing at a joke one has told. By the first of June we can send them home, she tells herself again. They are not much good. Things will be better then. He will be healed.
Tom Hyche sits on the steps in the soft light. He wears work pants and the thin blue shirt from pajamas she made him for Christmas. A chipped white cup is in his hands. All day he drinks a warm, thin tea he has started brewing for himself. Coming up from the fields, she sees him there, watching her. He smiles, drinks from the cup.
Carroll Dale Short
Carroll Dale Short lives outside of Quinton, Alabama, in Shanghi, the community in which he was bom. He is married, with a four-year-old son, and works for The Birmingham News. His recently completed first novel, The Sowing, evolved from this short story. (1977)