For a few days every month Momma looks tired. The chickens start to lay away and won’t come near the house – the rest of the time, they are forever trying to get into the kitchen. Momma sometimes lets me have a dip in the cookie jar if I manage to keep them out a whole day. Once I told her I’d kept them out when I hadn’t, and after I’d eaten my cookie, she found some poop right by the door, next to the orange box I’d been sitting on. She gave me a hiding, not for letting the chicken in, she said, but for telling a lie. I didn’t care; it was a really good cookie, and I was hungry.
The same time Momma gets tired, Daddy gets all crackly. It’s like he can’t set down, he just paces the floor, rubbing at the back of his neck, over and over. Momma watches him the whole time, like something bad will happen if she takes her eyes off him for a second. He doesn’t work the farm much for that few days; just paces and rubs and sits and drinks whiskey. Momma says the whiskey helps Daddy to sleep at night. Well, I know he doesn’t sleep at night during the crackly times, because I can hear him and Momma shaking the bed until way past midnight. My best friend Katy told me after school one time that if my Momma and Daddy keep on shaking the bed that way, then sooner or later I’m gonna have a baby brother or sister, like she has. Katy gets a new brother or sister most every summer.
Well, Katy told me that three summers ago, and no baby has come yet, so it seems my Momma and Daddy are doing it wrong; either that, or Katy is a liar. If a baby did come, it could help me keep the chickens out of the kitchen and I’d share my cookies with it. It would be better than being up here on my own. Even Katy isn’t allowed to come any more; Momma says she’s a bad influence. I only see her at school, and she’ll only talk to me when Becky March isn’t looking.
My Daddy is a farmer. When he isn’t drinking whiskey, he’s a real good one. I like to help him out – lambing time is best. Sometimes Daddy will get me out of bed in the middle of the night and I pull on my boots and sweater and follow him out into the field where the ewes are birthing their lambs. I hold the lamp for him while he helps the lambs get born – he’s so gentle when he pulls them out. I can tell he loves them. He showed me how to clear the slimy stuff out of their mouths and away from their noses, so they can breathe, and out of their eyes so they can see. Sometimes Daddy has to blow into their mouths to get the breathing going. That’s when I think my Daddy is like God, breathing life into the beasts of the field. They stand up on their little bent legs and go straight to their Momma’s teats for milk – I asked Daddy once how they know where to go. He said it’s an animal’s instinct, to know how to survive. I said, well, what about human babies, do they know how to survive? He said they might have done at one time, but now it’s all been spoilt clean out of ‘em.
I told Momma what he said and she smiled, but in a thin way. She said, ‘I don’t know if I’ve had all the surviving spoilt out of me just yet.’ And then she was quiet for a spell, and her mouth went all straight, and I kind of wished I’d never said anything.
Sometimes I go to school, sometimes I don’t. It depends how busy we are. Momma likes me to go; she says book learning’s my best hope. I don’t know what she means, but I know I like to look at the books in the classroom. They have pictures of all the things we have on the farm – the chickens, the lambs, the trees, even a tractor. Only, in the books the colors are brighter. Nothing is dusty or broken. I look at those pictures and I think, someone must think my life is real nice, otherwise why would they paint pictures like these and put them in a book? And that makes me feel real proud when I’m in the yard with the other kids, even when my clothes look poorer than theirs and my lunch pail is just a brown bag with a boiled egg and a cold baked tater in it.
I think it’s real important for a person to have a thing to feel proud about, even though my Momma tells me pride is a sin. The thing I feel most proud of is my Daddy when he’s not drinking whiskey. I used to like to ride on his shoulders, but nowadays they look too slumpy to carry me, so I don’t ask anymore. I figure he looks like he’s carrying enough already.
The thing my Daddy is most proud of is his guns. He has two locked up in a special cabinet in the front parlour – a big old revolver and a shotgun. He uses the shotgun most times. There’s an old cigar box full of cartridges in the cupboard, and another box inside that. I saw it once when Daddy took his shotgun out to go after a coyote and forgot to lock the cupboard door. It was so pretty; carved wood, with little brass hinges. I asked Momma what it was, and she shook her head a little and said, ‘Nothing you need fret about.’ Then she crossed herself when she thought I wasn’t looking.
That made me real curious, so after that I always made sure to test the door after every time Daddy took his shotgun out. It took a few months, but one night during lambing there was a howl and he grabbed his gun real fast. Momma was in the kitchen, so I snuck out the box and opened it.
Inside it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw; six silver bullets, all smooth and polished, nestling all secret on red velvet. They must be the richest things in the house, and they’re hidden all away. Typical Momma. If I ever get to own them silver bullets, I’m gonna put them on display on the mantelshelf so that everyone who comes can see how I’m not poor. One day I plan on taking them to school to show Becky March she ain’t the only one with pretty things.
The thing I don’t like most about school is when Becky March says things like ‘hillbilly’ to me. The first time she said it I didn’t know what a hillbilly was, but I knew it must be a bad thing because of the way her eyes looked when she said it. When I got home that afternoon I asked my Daddy if we were hillbillies and he looked real mad and said, the hell we were, we were landowners. Momma stood up real straight and said, ‘Your Daddy was given this farm as a reward for a heroic deed, he saved a man’s life,’ but before she could say any more Daddy told her to hush her mouth and she went all red in the face. Then he went and poured himself some whiskey and I felt bad for Momma.
I didn’t tell them when Becky March said we were backwards. I know what that means all right. But I sure enjoyed telling her that my Daddy is a hero, even if she just laughed.
When Momma gets tired, I don’t go to school. I stay at home and I help out. I feed the chickens and I make sure they’re shut away when it starts to get dark. I don’t have much to do with the sheep, but I go around and look at them a little, just to make sure they’re all okay and not stuck in a hedge or escaping nor nothing.
Daddy is no good at these times. He just carries on with his pacing and his whiskey drinking. He walks around out in the yard, keeps on looking at the sky. I reckon he’s waiting on it getting dark so he can get to shaking the bed with Momma.
The pacing goes on for a week or so, then, when the moon gets fat and big, Daddy goes away for a whole night. Momma always goes to see him off, and she leaves me in the house on my own. I don’t think he goes very far, because she’s always back before it gets dark. Then she locks the doors and bolts the shutters, and goes to Daddy’s gun cabinet and takes out the big old revolver and puts it on the table. She doesn’t go to bed on those nights. She sits in the kitchen, facing the door, drinking black coffee from a pot she keeps going on the stove. The whole house smells of burnt coffee for days after Daddy’s been away.
I don’t know where my Daddy goes, but he’s sure tired when he gets back. He’s always covered in bruises and scratches, like he’s been fighting wildcats. Momma sits him on a kitchen chair and she bathes his cuts in witch hazel. She never seems mad with him – not like Katy’s momma is when her daddy has been out all night raising Cain. One time, Katy told me her momma made her daddy sleep out in the barn for a week after he came home with a hickey. My Momma doesn’t seem mad at all – she goes all soft in her face, like someone is stroking her neck for her.
I think Daddy might be a little bit shamed after he’s been away though, because he always goes and cleans the big barn out for Momma once he’s rested awhile. There’s always blood and sometimes feathers in there, and once or twice I’ve seen him bring a dead lamb out, all torn up. I think that must be where Daddy kills the animals for our table.
Momma never lets me go in the big barn. She says it’s too dangerous, but one time I sneaked down while they weren’t paying attention and I saw some leather straps hanging from an iron ring on the wall, and some real long chains, all coiled up like sleepy rattlesnakes.
After all that happens, I have to creep about the house for a day or two while Daddy has his long sleep. Then things are okay again for a good while. Daddy works the farm and Momma sometimes sings, and I have to go to school most every day. Daddy doesn’t touch a drop of whiskey, and the bed shaking doesn’t happen every night.
I always say my prayers at bedtime, but when it’s the quiet time, Momma comes in and says them with me. I guess she has more time. I do pray to God like she taught me, but when she’s gone, I send my own secret prayer to the moon. I pray real hard that it stays small, ‘cos I know that when that moon starts to get big again, it always brings trouble with it.
Image by stux via Pixabay