Sarah, the sky that overlooks you and me, it opened up again today. The light that fills up the dogwoods is the same that curdles the cemetery gardenias. This has become summer once more, so you probably remember how things are colored, and then erased, without me telling you.
We have taken to planting crops again after last year’s calamitous conditions. Mostly it is cabbages, but also some acres of hay for the last two horses. You should see their shaggy stances, the hollowness of lean shoulders, the awful grief in their countenance. They will be confiscated by the army soon, Pa says, if we can keep them out of rifle range.
Lord, a soul can grow tired of salt pork and dooryard plantain, and sometimes you need to take a meal with neighbors (the Sowers, do you remember them and their dour Baptist leaflets?) to affirm you’re not being poor alone. The men will likely share homespun tobacco, the women will exchange recipes, the boys (and Alice) will tear up the yard grass with their raw feet, because that is the nature of this life.
We are each blessed in our own way, according to Pastor Paul, who joined up the fight last summer. Have you seen him? He promised he would write, but so far he has not, not yet.
“Maybe he was killed,” said Cousin Ivy.
Do you remember sassy Cousin Ivy, from the Elridge side of the family?
“Maybe they ain’t found his body yet, so he ain’t on any list of the dead,” she said.
“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I told her.
“Maybe he’s too busy fighting to be writing. He got any kin around here?”
“No, don’t think so. I think he’s from Miss’ippi someplace. Seems like he was a solitary sort of preacher.”
“Maybe he found himself a woman, and she’s more interesting than writing back a letter.”
“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I said again.
“You ain’t very romantic, are you?”
“I never said either way,” I said. “And what if I ain’t, what’s it to you?”
“Then you are a bother to me,” she said. “Hand me another nightcrawler, these muds ain’t biting today.”
“That’s because you tore up the top of the river with your poor casting,” I said. “You, being a girl, don’t know how to properly fish for muds.”
“And you, being a boy, don’t know how to properly shut your big ole mouth,” she said, and she thumped me hard upon my ear.
I pretended it didn’t hurt, and that raised a smile from her, so we settled back companionably, and we cast out and didn’t say much for a little while.
“Your pa mention the war to you?” she asked.
“Little bit,” I said. “Not much. He wanted to join up, but his leg….”
“You almost sixteen, ain’t you?”
“Yeah. Couple more weeks.”
“Gonna join up?”
“Yeah. If they’ll take me.”
“You don’t look too weak,” she said.
“Stronger than you.”
“Probably not. But they ain’t taking girls. Not yet.”
“Maybe not ever,” I said. “That just don’t sit right with me.”
“And why not?” she asked.
“I’m not trying to be smart, Ivy,” I told her. “I just think it’s… it’s too mean a thing for a girl, that’s all. War is just plain mean.”
“I can be mean,” she said.
“No, you can’t be. Not that mean. I’d rather go instead of you.”
She looked at me, curious to my serious. “You ain’t mean enough, either, Cousin Jim.”
Something grabbed hold of her line, and she tugged hard enough to hook it. She was laughing the whole time, and I didn’t want to think about the war anymore. It was a big ole mud– at least six pounds, I’d say — and it would feed her folks well. Then I hooked one, and, after a while, she pulled in another two. I could smell the sweat on her neck, and I swear it was perfume, the smell of gardenias.
And now the hounds watch me and Pa settle in for the night. I slouch next to him as he smokes, and he watches me scrape the fishbones from his supper plate into the weeds. The dogs whine. They have already fed.
“You been spending time with your Cousin Ivy?” he asks. He is hitching up his trousers and he tucks in his undershirt after they are hitched.
“Been with her today by the river,” I tell him. “She caught three and I brung in two.”
“You know what I mean, Jim.”
“Daddy, she is my cousin.” I ain’t called him Daddy in three or five years. “She is also a dependable friend.”
“She is your cousin twice removed, a cousin to a side-cousin. You are allowed to be with her, if she is your preference.”
Charlotte-Bee, our eldest hound, howled at something near the barn, but that dog is half-blind, so we often ignore her.
“Weren’t planning,” I says. “To be with her, I mean.”
“That side of the family is slow,” he says. “They ain’t deep thinkers, is my best way of saying it. The girl herself may not be slow, but she has inherited their dispositions. Probably she will turn mean. Her daddy has that meanness, you know that. And you ain’t exactly a boxful of cleverness yourself, boy. She would have you eating out of a flower pot and drinking out of your shoe if you was so inebriated by her femininity. You understand?”
“Daddy, she’s my cousin,” I say again, for emphasis. “And she don’t look at me that way.”
“But you look at her that way, yessir, and if your Mama was still here, she’d already be ironing the wedding napkins and sprucin’ up her hair for such an event.”
“Ain’t no such event to participate in,” I say, and he spat into the weeds, hitched up his drooping britches, and no more was said about that.
Sarah, the rain fell again today, exhausted, and its silver collected in our big pond.