Grandpa Jacob thumped the Meerschaum pipe against his boot heel, knocking the ashes out of it onto the worn wooden porch. He pulled a leather tobacco pouch out and carefully tamped a fresh load into the ornately carved bowl. I scooted closer to his rocker so I could smell the fruity blend. Mama warned us not to get to close to Grandpa when he was smoking after he knocked live ashes on Jonah and set him on fire last summer. It wasn’t a big fire, just singed his hair a little, but Mama still worried.
“Clouds gathering. Going to be an early night,” said Papa as he tightened the nut on the bolt he was using to fix a hole in Mama’s favorite soup pot. Mama wanted to buy a new pot from the peddler who had been by last week, but Papa insisted he could fix the pot and she didn’t need a new one. He had carefully rounded out the tiny hole in the pot and found a bolt that would fit the new hole. I was just happy that he had carefully wiped the grease from the bolt on his handkerchief before he fixed Mama’s pot.
THUNK! Papa slapped the pot down on the porch, beaming with pride at his workmanship. I wondered how Mama would feel about her new old pot which now had a curious wobble to it as it rocked on the round bolt head. She would probably be pleased although she had insisted she could live with the sizzling and Papa didn’t have to fix it. If not pleased, at least quiet. Mama never complained about anything. She seemed to be content with what life handed her or didn’t hand her. I thought about the last trip to Graham’s General Store. Papa looked at tools. Grandpa looked at tobacco. Mama looked at a pretty bolt of cloth with tiny blue flowers the color of her eyes. Me and my seven brothers and sisters stared at the row of penny candy jars on the counter top.
Papa laid a new pair of pants on top of the counter with Mama’s groceries. I saw her frown slightly. Her lips moved almost silently as she added her bill. The frown deepened. “Fourteen eighty-seven,” she sighed softly. Her hands caressed the cloth once more before she replaced it on the shelf. My head came nearly to Mama’s waist. I counted the patches on her dress just as she had counted money a moment before. Then I replaced the peppermint stick in the jar and went back to stand behind Mama.
“Lizzie. What are you doing? I told you all you could have a candy.”
My curls bounce around my shoulders when I shook my head. I normally wore my hair braided at home, but Mama insisted all of us girls must have our hair curled when we went to town. She spent hours washing our heads and putting in rag curls the night before, then carefully unwinding them the next day. With us all properly ringletted, ribboned, and pinafored, we were pronounced acceptable. It was Mama’s poor luck to have five girls. It didn’t take nearly so long for her to give the men folk and boy folk haircuts.
“I don’t really like peppermint, Mama. It makes me kind of sick to my stomach.”
“Nonsense. Peppermint soothes the stomach.”
I shook my head again and walked out to the wooden steps. I was still sitting on the bottom step when Grandpa came out of the store. He sat down next to me and refilled his pipe. We sat in silence. I waved once at the Jenson family as they rode past in their new buckboard. The wheels were still bright green. I don’t think ours had ever been green.
“You ought to go sit in the rocker, Grandpa. It’s kind of hard sitting here.”
He nodded wisely and drew on the pipe. Wisps of smoke rings floated away into nothingness. “Aye. The first step is always the hardest,” he said at last.
I nodded. Grandpa was always saying wise and profound, or was it confound, things. I always got my founds mixed up, but Mama said he said found something things.
“Why do you think that is, Grandpa?”
“Just the way it is, girl.”
I thought about that for a while. There were a lot of things that just were. I was lucky to have a very wise grandfather who knew about these things even if he didn’t know why they were. It was enough that he understood how the world worked.
We all loaded up into the wagon a few minutes later. Mama put on her duster to cover her dress and pulled out the dusters for us girls. I dreaded putting that hot thing back on. Melissa groaned when she saw Mama shake her duster out. Mama looked at us for a moment and folded the duster back up. “Lizzie, we need to wash when we get home so I’m not going to make you wear these.” My sisters sighed in relief.
“Yes, Mama. I’ll help wash.” I knew her statement was just for the benefit of anyone who might think she was being too soft on us and not raising us properly. I didn’t really understand how wearing a duster to keep your dress fresh worked. It kept the dust off, but we sweated so much the dresses were soaked by the time we got to town. They might have made more sense in the winter when it was cold, but then there wasn’t much dust. I had to think about this for a bit. However, it would be another time. We had to butcher the hogs we got home and there would be no time for laundry. I had not only escaped the duster, but also the laundry. It had been a good day.
We were butchering chickens today. Stella and I set out the canning jars while Grandpa sharpened the axe. What we couldn’t eat today would be canned by nightfall. Papa and the boys set up the cast iron pot so we could dip the butchered chickens in the boiling water and make the feathers turn loose. Stella and I were in charge of scalding and plucking chickens. The boys brought the flopping bodies to us in the Irishman’s buggy as Grandpa called it. I wasn’t sure why a wheelbarrow was called that, but I was sure it was something I needed to know. It was one of those pieces of knowledge you packed away and at the proper time you revealed your vast wisdom for all to see. I had to be careful, though. Grandpa said not all people could digest too much wisdom. It, according to him, was like casting pearls in wine.
“Martha, please pay attention to me,” Mama said for the third time. “If you don’t learn how to gut a chicken you won’t ever get a decent husband.”
I wasn’t sure what gutting a chicken had to do with getting a husband, but I thought this was probably something I should remember. I heard the sucking noise as Mama pulled the entrails from the rooster who had flogged me last week. Normally, I would have felt a tiny bit of remorse for the victim, but in this case I just stuck my tongue out at him. What’s good for the goose is good for the rooster, as Grandpa always said. Martha looked a little green around the gills. I wasn’t sure she wanted a husband that badly. I wondered if men usually asked a woman if she could gut a chicken before they married them. I had never heard Seth Thompson discuss chickens with Mama and Papa. He seemed very interested in Martha, but not overly concerned with chickens. Maybe he just wasn’t interested enough to marry Martha.
Seth was a cowboy for the Rocker B ranch next to us. Cowboys might expect a woman to know how to gut a beef instead of a chicken.
Martha had been in a sour mood since she heard the Rocker B would be delaying their trail drive this year due to the late spring and bad weather. She looked forward to going and helping Mrs. Banyon cook for the cowboys. Mama and Martha always helped cook for the crews and Mrs. Banyon even paid them. I figured Martha was irritated because it would be a while for her to get that money for the straw bonnet she wanted. Then it occurred to me, maybe Seth just assumed Martha could gut chickens right since she got paid to cook.
“Where are my big tongs?” Mother called from the kitchen.
Papa stuck another chicken neck down between the two nails driven into the chopping log in a vee shape and chopped the head off. I watched in disgust as the chicken got up and took off running. I made up my mind right then there were worse things than not finding a decent husband. Being a spinster teacher suited me just fine.
Papa straightened up, stretching his back. “I put the tongs and the big ladles in the wood shed. No sense cluttering the kitchen with things you don’t use that often.” Papa had been keeping busy the last two weeks rearranging things for Mama to make things more convenient for her while he was gone on the trail drive. He normally only had time to get crops in and then leave with the other cowboys. This year was different. The swollen rivers had delayed the drive a few weeks and Papa had put the time to good use helping Mama. I wondered why Mama hadn’t thought of all the ways to make things more convenient before. Maybe she was just too busy to be organized.
Jonah dashed past after another headless chicken that was trying to escape. It ended its escape attempt in some mesquite brush with the one who had made a run for it a few minutes ago. Grandpa was sharpening the first axe now to put a new edge on it. He stopped pumping the pedal of the grinding wheel and puffed on his pipe a bit as he watched Jonah gathering the chickens. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the brush,” he said and resumed sharpening the axe. I looked down at the chicken I was holding. Seemed to me like a chicken was a chicken regardless of where it was.
Mama returned with the tongs to fetch the chicken Stella had dropped in the pot. I was pretty sure it was half-cooked by now and wondered what kind of effect the feathers would have on the flavor. The only thing that stank worse than wet chicken feathers was chicken guts. There were worse things than being single. Butchering chickens was one of them.
“How much schooling do you need to be a teacher?” I asked.
“Most teachers got off to a college somewhere,” Mama grunted. She was still trying to fish the chicken out of the bottom of the pot. The bedraggled rooster finally emerged from his watery grave on the end of Mama’s tongs. Mama glared at the sodden mess. I was sure she would have killed the chicken for causing so much trouble if it hadn’t already been dead. She flung the it out of the way and dropped the tongs on the ground in disgust.
“Did you go to college, Mama?”
Mama brushed a wayward blonde curl away from her face before wiping her hands on her apron. “No, Lizzie, I didn’t. I never learned how to gut a chicken until after I was married either.”
I wondered how Mama had managed to marry Papa if that was true. Perhaps there was hope for Martha after all. Papa’s new Blue Tick puppy found the discarded chicken and tried to drag it under the porch. The rooster was still steaming so the pup howled in pain, but he refused to give up his prize.
“Willie, go get that chicken away from that ignorant dog before he blisters his mouth,” Mama shouted.
I could see the two of them under the porch fighting over the chicken. It was a very strange tug-of-war. Willie said something he shouldn’t have said when he bumped his head on the porch floor.
“Willie Franklin Johnson. I don’t know where you heard that, but we do have an appointment with a soap bar when I get done.”
Mama rapped his ankles with a nearby broom and he yelped in pain, but I didn’t hear that word again. I wasn’t sure why Mama objected to Willie calling the dog a son-of-a-bitch. What else would the dog be a son of? I would have to ask Grandpa about it, but I decided to do it when Mama was out of earshot. I had my mouth washed out with soap when I called my little brother a name my mother didn’t approve of. It was a phrase I had heard Grandpa use so it should have been safe. It wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t with Mama. I wondered for a bit if I should rethink my opinion of Grandpa’s wisdom after that. Mama said later that men folk sometimes used colorful language that ladies shouldn’t use and that I should just refer to it as bull pies and not the other word. In either case, I was not to call my brother a piece of that again. That is another thing I need to ponder. Every bull pie I have ever seen is kind of brown or maybe green when it is fresh. Why does that make it colorful language? Brown and green aren’t much as far as color goes.
Willie was still fighting with the pup over the chicken. He had wrapped a towel around the legs to keep from burning his hands, but the pup was built of sterner stuff and just howled and whimpered in pain as it held fast to the scalded bird.
Grandpa looked over his glasses at the two as he shook his head. “I swear that dog is dumber than a box of rocks.”
“Don’t talk bad about that pup,” Papa objected. “Mr. Banyon gave me that dog. He sells them hounds all over this country.”
“Don’t make him any smarter,” Grandpa replied, refusing to change his opinion of the dog.
“He’s smart enough to know he wants that chicken and besides the price was right.”
“Penny wise and hound foolish if you ask me,” Grandpa replied.
Papa stomped away. Not many people got the best of Grandpa in an argument. I think it was because he was just too wise for most people. He would say some profound or confound thing and people would just stare at him in wonder.
As usual, it took us the better part of the afternoon to finish butchering. Mama always fixed chicken and dumplings for supper and fried up a big bait of chicken for the next day. The rest got canned for the winter. It was time to start setting hens and that meant the old hens who had quit laying and a few selected roosters had pecked their last.
I loved Mama’s chicken and dumplings, but I never had much of an appetite for them after we had been killing chickens all day. I sat in the stairwell to the upper story with my doll, Samantha. She had real hair and a cloth body, but her arms, head and legs were porcelain. Her face was dirty. I thought about going to the wash pan and cleaning her up, but Mama would probably put me to work cutting up chickens if I crossed her path. I spit on the corner of my apron instead just as Mama did and wiped the smudges away.
There was a terrible clatter behind me followed by the hollow clanging of a pot bouncing across the floor. I jumped up and ran into the kitchen. Mama’s newly repaired pot was lying near the door and supper was scattered everywhere. Chunks of carrots, onions and chicken littered the floor. Papa was staring at the cooking disaster.
“What happened,” he asked. “Are you all right?”
Mama knelt to pick up the food and I stole the opportunity to grab a cloth from the washbasin. I wiped Samantha’s face and then set my newly scrubbed baby aside and began wiping up the spilled broth.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Mama huffed and threw the chunks of chicken out the door to the herd of cats waiting anxiously on the porch. Cooking disasters were always accompanied by the frenzied gathering of cats. I was never really sure if assembling was a forewarning of calamity or if they were just very smart and knew that food would soon be flying out the door.
Mama surprised all of us when the pot went flying out the door after the ruined chicken. She turned to Papa as she finished drying her hands on her apron. “The bolt you fixed my pot with was too big and made it wobble. So, now instead of a little leak that sizzles a bit I have a one-legged pot that rocks. Girls, please cut up a couple of chickens and let’s get to frying. I’ll change the dumpling dough a tad and make biscuits as soon as I get cleaned up.”
We finished fixing supper without further event and even I was hungry by the time Mama heaped the platters with the golden chicken. Papa had decided to go chop wood and stay out of Mama’s way while she cooked.
“Jack! Come in for supper,” Mama called and rang the dinner bell. I watched him come out of Mama’s smoke house. He was kind of sooty looking with white rings around his eyes where he had been rubbing them.
“What were you doing in the smoke house?” she asked when he stepped on the porch. Her voice sounded fairly suspicious and accusatory. It was kind of like when she had sniffed Willie and determined he had been smoking.
“The coals were going out. I didn’t want to ruin a whole house full of meat.”
“That’s the same amount I always use,” she answered. “I’ve never ruined any meat before.”
“I just added a little wood, Mary. It’s fine. Quit worrying so much.”
We bowed our heads for grace as usual. Mama looked more like her old self. The frown that had been on her brow most of the day was gone. There did seem to be a certain strength to her that I hadn’t noticed before. Mama had always reminded me of her favorite lilac bush. Lovely and hardy and always there, always making something beautiful in a place that lacked much beauty. Tonight it was like she had taken on a bit of the mesquite as well.
“Dear Father in heaven,” she started just as she always did. “We give humble thanks for your many blessings. I thank you for my family and our health. We ask you to bless this food and fill us with strength so that we may glorify you always. I would also like to thank you on behalf of the cats for their chicken supper. The pup is thankful, too and I’m sure he will enjoy his chicken when the blisters heal if the cats don’t eat it first. Amen.”
Papa glanced sideways at her, but said nothing.
Platters and bowls of food passed around from hand to eager hand. Mama put out a fresh crock of butter on the table. She let me pick out the butter stamp since I was the one who had churned the butter the night before. I had picked out a rooster and stamped the butter in several places in honor of the chickens I knew would be losing their lives the next day. My biscuit steamed as I pulled it open. The fresh butter melted into the fluffy, white mound. I closed my eyes and bit into my all time favorite food. The only thing that made hot biscuits with butter better was hot biscuits with butter and Mama’s bullberry jelly. Several people were choking and sputtering. I understood immediately and spit my biscuit out. Only Mama continued to eat the biscuit in her hand.
“Mary, what in the name of blue blazes did you do to the biscuits?” Papa demanded.
Mama continued to chew. It seemed like a test of some sort. She was determined to prevail. To not give in. To persevere under the direst of circumstances. To prove to herself and the world she would never give up. I wasn’t sure what all that meant, but I had heard her talk about that when Mrs. Warren had taken over her husband’s business after his death. If there ever was a woman who was under dire circumstances, I was positive it was Mama at this very moment.
She set her knife down on the table after she had finished eating her biscuit. No one had taken another bite. We just watched in horror and a morbid fascination as she continued.
“It appears someone switched my salt tin for my sugar tin,” she said calmly.
Papa threw down his napkin. “Mary, you had them mixed up. You had the sugar in the wrong tin. I suppose I’ll have to take you through the kitchen and show you what I have changed so you know. If you’ll just pay attention to what I’ve done everything will be much more efficient.”
“Yes, Jack. Please do show me how you’ve rearranged my kitchen before you leave. Just so you know. The reason the sugar is in the salt tin is because that tin has the tighter fitting lid and it keeps the ants out. Ants don’t care about salt so it doesn’t matter as much if the lid is a little loose.”
Mama’s voice was strangely cool. It sounded like marble. That didn’t make much sense to me, but it did remind me of the cool marble slab Mama kept for rolling dough on. It didn’t make sense and yet it did in an odd sort of way. Maybe I was becoming wise like Grandpa.
Willie pointed out the door at the smokehouse, which was now pouring out thick, black smoke. We all dashed outside. Mama grabbed up the Irishman’s buggy and sprinted to the smokehouse. Papa shouted at her to stay away, but she yanked the door open and rushed inside. Papa followed her and the two of them started tossing hams and slabs of bacon out to us. We filled the buggy and backed it away from the smokehouse. Mama choked and sank to the ground, tears cutting streaks through the black soot. Papa put his arm around her, but she shoved him away. Martha kept stepping on Mama’s hem, putting out the flickering edges.
Mama’s blonde hair was now a smoky black color, which matched her face. The blue eyes flashed another kind of fire as she glared at Papa. Then she stood up and marched to the tool shed. Her hem was still smoldering a bit, making her look like she was some kind of wraith descending on a black cloud out of one of those stories Martha liked to read. Tools flew out of the shed. Occasionally Mama grunted and panted as she dragged something very heavy out and heaped it on the growing pile outside the door. She was looking for something, but none of us was quite sure what and no one seemed brave enough to ask. Whatever she was searching for apparently wasn’t there. She then strode over to the barn and began chunking things out.
“Mary! What in the name of heavens are you doing?” Papa shouted at her from a safe distance.
Mama glared at Papa again and went back in the barn.
“Insanity, woman is thy name,” Grandpa muttered.
Insanity? I looked at Mama and then back at Grandpa. Mama was insane? Mama couldn’t be insane. Can a person go insane in a few minutes? I thought back over the day and realized it might be possible.
Mama lugged Papa’s saddle out of the barn and dropped it on the massive pile of harness and leather and tools and who knew what. “I am going to help you, Jack. I am going to rearrange your tools and your barn so it will be more efficient,” she screamed. Her hands were on her hips now. “I want to repay you for all the help you have given me this last two weeks. I want you to be organized.”
“I don’t think you should have rearranged her kitchen, son,” Grandpa said. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorched.”
“Scorned, Pa. It’s hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Grandpa lit his pipe and drew deeply. “Well, she looks a little scorned too, but she is definitely scorched.”