Unto the Sons, the Daughters
Originally published in The Baybury Review, Vol. 1, Issue 2.
She stood over the kitchen sink, scrubbing the pans inside it with a tattered pink sponge and hands made red from work and hot water. She glanced at the clock above the kitchen table – quarter to ten. Outside, a full moon painted the just-thawed ground black and blue, gray and white.
At least the kids were in bed. Oh, they were agitated tonight! The worst she'd ever seen them. Little Gil, especially. Old enough to know something was going on, both of them were, but still too young to understand what. Her daughter was just nine and sweet as she could be; Little Gil was six and every bit his father's son. She finally had to give them shots of whiskey to calm them down. Take it in one gulp, like medicine. That's a boy. That's a girl. She'd taken one herself for the same reason.
Earlier that night, just after dark, Big Gil had stood at the back door watching his son cry to go with the other men and smiling proudly at the fit he was throwing. Still too young. Not this year. Maybe next year. Maybe the next. How could he lie to the boy like that! Knowing it would be another ten years, ten years at least, before she would ever allow it, ever hear of it. And who would stay home and wipe his tears each spring when Gil went on the hunt? None other than his mother.
She rinsed out a large roaster and placed it on the table where the soup kettle and stock pot already steamed. Her big mixing bowls and even a wash tub from the basement. She would need them all, and every woman nearby was doing the same tonight and so there was no one to ask if she could borrow. They were all busy with the same washing and rinsing. Nothing to do but prepare, and when that was done, nothing to do but wait.
And then, when the men were home again, the work. The cutting and the cleaning and the cooking.
Was it twenty-three years since she'd first helped her mother with this job, that spring after she started her monthlies? No, twenty-four. How important and grown up she'd felt that year, joining the women in their work, even though they were all stuck in their kitchens and her mother had suddenly become nervous and tight-lipped.
Her father smelled of mud and men that first spring when she ran to his arms, innocently, ignorantly, and been held too tight for too long. Until she began to squirm and whimper and mother hurried over and lifted her away from him. None of that. There'll be none of that. You won't dare. Her finger shook in his face like a loaded gun. He grinned and grabbed for her anyway, and then for her mother, who stood between them and batted his dirty hands away with a scowl. Days later, when he was back to himself and feeling sorry for how he'd been, he bought her a doll, not realizing she was too old for it.
There were only a few bagfuls that year, and the things had been split open with paring knives and put to soak in salted water within a couple hours. At first her father watched on with approval as they worked, wiping his nose with one hand and smoking cigarettes, which he never did otherwise. By the time they were finished he'd gone to bed with his clothes on. In there like that. Dirtying up that bed. Those sheets. The finger wagged in his direction again, harmless now, then returned to the others and their work of slicing and rinsing under the kitchen faucet.
When it was all done her mother laid down on the sofa and she went into her room where she could not sleep. Later she heard her father wake and take her mother back to the bedroom with him.
Gil wasn't much different, though on the whole she imagined he was nicer about it than most of the others. He was a good man, otherwise. Just two nights ago he'd cozied up to her while she was at the sink, wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled his rough cheek against her neck. I'm gonna apologize now for what I'm gonna do later, he whispered. There was honey in his voice, and he spread some of it on her earlobe with his tongue. Don't you worry about it, darlin'. Don't you worry about a thing.
Past ten-thirty now. The later it got the more there would be. One year he came to the back steps with grocery bags and buckets of them, piled high and covered with bugs and dirt. They ate them for more than a week. Fried, mostly, dredged in salt-and-pepper flour, with butter, on sandwiches, and in eggs, at breakfast and dinner and supper until the last were gone for another year.
Some women liked the taste, though few would admit it. She had never been able to abide their gritty bite, but would not admit that either. Her daughter disliked them, too, and so she made the girl's portions even smaller than her own. But everyone was expected to have some. At least a little.
The men ate them greedily until there were no more, and then they cussed the lack and spent their time talking about the spring to come or a spring that had passed. The boys, too. Though some were like the girls and turned their noses up and were a worry to their fathers. But not Little Gil. He would eat plateful after plateful while her husband made a sport of every one. He'll be good. He'll be a getter. You wait. You just wait and see. There was no need to wait. She could see already.
Everything on the table was dry now. She stacked it all together, quietly. Wash tub, roaster, kettle, pans. Bowls beside. Then she wadded up the wet dish towels and took them to the hamper. On her way back it was past eleven.
Was that a truck in the driveway? She tiptoed to the back door, quick and careful, looking for headlights on the garage, listening for an engine or the voices of rowdy men. There were none. But she stayed, watching anyway with the doorknob in her hand, until she turned it and swung the door toward her, and then the squealing screen door beyond it toward the outside, the darkness and still-cool spring air.
It smelled wet, of things just beginning to stir after being cold for a long time. Her breath made tiny plumes that mushroomed and disappeared in front of her. She looked past the muddy back yard to the barn and then the woods beyond. Somewhere inside them the men were gathered, waving long flashlights and old railroad lanterns, talking loud and calling out to one another, dragging their feet through rotting leaves and wet earth, snapping fallen branches, scanning the ground and crouching down to dig with their hands wherever the slick gray heads poked up above the muck.
More than that she didn't know, could only imagine, would never ask. Not after the year her father had come home with his nose bloodied and his clothes torn. Leering at both of them until her mother finally put him to bed like someone putting a bad cat outdoors. None of your damned business girl! she'd said when she returned to the kitchen, her hair a mess. You don't want to know. Isn't what comes home each year bad enough? Her mother whipped her that night for the asking and never once spoke of what the men did out there in the woods, what it did to them. Not even after she was engaged to Big Gil. His mother had been the one to do it, in hushed tones, with downcast eyes.
The men hunted each spring, she said, but that was only part of it. Something else went on, something none of the women knew or understood. But a smart girl could come up with a notion, based on what she saw. The best thing was to clean and cook whatever Big Gil brought home. To let him have his way for a while but to keep the children out of it and not ask too many questions or put up a fuss if she could help it. If she could do that each year, it would be easiest on everybody in the long run.
At first she'd been proud to be doing for her own husband, to take her place as Gil's wife and feel a part of something bigger, something mysterious and powerful. Until the children were born, and she saw how these things were passed down from generation to generation, unto the sons, the daughters. Her own girl would be ten this summer. What would she say to her when the time came for telling? How could she explain something she understood so little herself?
A breeze rolled out of the woods, rippling her dress and raising goosebumps on her bare legs and arms. The things grew fat in this weather, soaking up sun and air and water during the day. Five or six years ago Gil had brought one to the house bigger than her hand, and asked that she cook it right away and eaten it that night, then kissed her with the moldering taste of it still on his tongue while she could only shudder and let him have his way and hope the children didn't wake from the noise.
The men came back so hungry! Hungry for what they'd brought home and hungry for what was waiting there for them. She crossed her arms around her breasts and shivered, then turned back to the screen door and stepped inside, careful not to let it slam behind her and wake the children. She hoped they would stay in bed when Gil returned, and she hoped that would be soon. Not because she longed to see him. Only because she wanted it over. Over for another year.
Other than the kitchen, the rest of the house was dark. She sat down at the table and waited in the quiet, which was broken only by the clock ticking past 11:30 and then on to midnight. She dared not go to bed herself or she would never wake up when Gil came home, and who knew what would happen then?
Her mind drifted, to the kids in their rooms, out past the old farmhouse and down the lane, then over the gravel roads that cut the countryside into squares and led to other houses where other women sat, waiting for their own men and grown boys to come home. And once they had, the women would work and then they would whisper, among themselves, mornings and afternoons, over backyard fences, at the market, on street corners and in kitchens. Anywhere away from the men.
Each year it was the same. Corr Burgess's wife always moaned about Corr not bathing until the last of them were eaten. Lee Jackson's would playfully invite them all to dinner and then Colby Ross's would pick up the thread, giggling and saying not to expect her. Earl Penry's woman would just smile and smooth her dress out over her hip (and later, the rest of them would talk about her, too). Old Abe Gleason's second wife, normally a bright little girl, would seem quiet and tired because Abe always came back looking to fight.
A shriek, sharp and familiar, came from the back door, and then she heard Gil's voice, loud and laughing, calling out good-byes to the other men in the truck whose engine she could now hear plainly, too.
She had gone to sleep! She stood up quickly, glanced at the clock and then the back door. It was after one and Gil was walking in, though she wouldn't know it by looking. He was bent over, his face turned up to meet hers. It was smeared with dirt, his hair, too, and a thin line of blood ran from one nostril and down past the corner of his mouth. His eye was blackened as well, and the white of it had gone red.
His jacket was torn, his hands muddied. In them he held two potato sacks, bulging and dragging on the floor. He let go of their tops and they slumped away from him, spilling their contents onto the floor where they scattered, into corners, under chairs.
"There's more outside," he said, his voice thick with pride and exhaustion. He turned toward the door, still hunched over, and she followed him through it. Outside she found… no. Bags and sacks of the things in the moonlight. On the stoop and down the walk a ways. Filled to their tops and then stacked up on top of that. Baskets and buckets. Pillowcases. Boxes. They were even piled into Gil's upturned hat. Dozens and dozens of them. Hundreds. More.
At first all she could do was look at them, so gray and silver in the night. When she finally bent down to pick up a sack she felt Gil's hand on her bottom, large and warm. "It was a good year." For you, she thought, but said nothing. There was no point in agreeing or in arguing. There was nothing to say. Nothing to do but take the damned things into the kitchen and get started in on them.
She was careful not to let the screen door slam shut behind her, but Gil never thought once about it and before the last of them were carried in Little Gil was up. He ran right to the biggest bunch, eyes wide as two open mouths. He picked up one as big as an apple and went to take a bite out of it, never minding the black dirt and grass clotted on it or the bugs that had surely crawled inside.
"Stop that!" It was the only thing she could think of to say, and before she knew what she was doing she'd run to him and slapped the thing out of his hand. Everyone gasped the way they did when one of the kids spilled a glass of milk at the dinner table.
The thing fell to the floor with a sound like a big wet sponge. It flattened a little when it landed, then split open into three pieces. Sure enough, half a dozen beetles the size of her fingernail were marching busily around inside. Then the juices began spreading out onto the linoleum, like egg whites run through with pink and black.
She turned to get a towel to wipe up the mess and all Big Gil said was, "Let him eat." He reached out to a nearby bag and picked out a tiny one, then smiled and winked at them both as he chewed through it whole. "Leave the boy be."
Thinking about what he had in his mouth made her want to vomit or scream, but she held both back in hers. Little Gil smiled at his father's approval and set about imitating him. He picked out another and took a bite from it, then winked and chewed as the juice ran down his arm and onto the floor in dime-sized drops.
She knew then she wasn't going to vomit or scream after all. She was just going to cry. She was going to cry for all of them and all of it. For how it changed Gil and how she changed to account for it, for the joy it brought him and the grief it brought her, for whatever it meant to him and everything that meant for her. She would cry for him, and for her, and for all the other men and women who were looking at one another right now and trying to make sense out of what they saw in front of them.
At first she thought the wail was hers. It was only when it grew, like the county firetruck's siren, that she realized it was her girl, standing in the other door.
Her eyes were shut tight but her mouth hung open like a jack-o-lantern's and tears made shiny lines on both sides of her face. How long had she stood there? What had she seen? Did Gil see her there and say nothing? The poor thing was nearly hysterical! She was crying, scared and crying, and her mother knew just how she felt.
Gil sat back in his chair, a stony look on his face for them both. His red eye swung from her to the girl and back again. Little Gil also stopped, hand to his mouth.
They could take care of themselves, she thought, and another wail pierced the silence as though to confirm her decision. Both of them could take care of themselves. Big Gil would likely feed the boy and roughhouse with him until she put them both to bed. The other could wait, though Gil wasn't going to like it. She would put it all up later, after she was through with this.
She put down the towel and ran over to her girl. She scooped her up in her arms and thanked God she still wasn't too big to do it.
She was nine, she thought, carrying her back to the bedroom where she would talk to her and calm her down and tuck her back in. She would explain to the girl what she'd just seen, as best she could. She would tell her about it, as much as she knew. She would try make sense of it for her, as much sense as there was.
The girl was nine, after all, and old enough to know.
Copyright 2008, C. Michael Cook