Dark Holler, 1922
On the evening of the third day of labor, the woman’s screams filled the little cabin, escaping through the open door to tangle themselves in the dark hemlocks that mourned and drooped above the house. The weary midwife, returning from a visit to the privy, winced as a series of desperate shrieks tore through the still air of the lonely mountain clearing.
Pausing to readjust her loose dress and collect her strength for the battle ahead, she glanced up at the brooding trees and shook her head. “Seems like all them cries and moans is going straight up into them old low-hanging boughs—just roosting there like so many crows. And the pain and grief, it’ll linger on and on till every wind that stirs’ll be like to bring it back—miseries circling round the house again, beating at the air with their ugly black wings.”
The country woman frowned at such an unaccustomed flight of fancy. “Law, whatever put such foolishness into my head? I’m flat wore out, and that’s the truth—else how would I come to think such quare things? But hit’s a lonesome, sorrowful place fer all that and a sorrowful time fer poor Fronie. Here’s her man not yet cold in his grave and her boy tarrying at death’s door—ay, law, hit’s a cruel hard time to birth a child—iffen hit don’t kill her first.”
Hurrying back into the small log house, the midwife pulled on the clean muslin apron that was the badge of her calling. The screams broke off and the expectant mother lay panting on the stained and stinking corn-shuck tick, her breath coughed out in hoarse rasps. Long dark hair, carefully combed free of tangles in vain hope of easing the birth, fanned in damp strands around her death-pale face. The anguish, the fear, the anger that had passed like a succession of hideous masks over the laboring woman’s gaunt countenance were replaced by an otherworldly absence of all emotion.
Then a great ripple surged across the huge belly swelling beneath her thin shift, and the woman’s face contorted once more. Her mouth gaped but nothing more than a strangled croak emerged. Gasping with pain and frustration, she twisted her misshapen torso and clawed at her heaving belly.
The midwife caught at the woman’s hands and held them till the contraction passed. “It’ll be born afore sundown or they’ll be the two of ’em to bury,” she whispered to the frightened girl standing at the bedside.
“I ain’t never seen no one die.” The girl’s wide eyes brimmed with tears. “My daddy, he was already gone when they fetched him home from the logging camp. Miz Romarie, I’m bad scared. . . .”
The midwife patted the girl’s bony shoulder and then reached for the bottle of sweet oil that stood on a nearby stool. “We ain’t got time fer that now, Fairlight. You catch hold of yore mama’s hands whilst I see kin I turn the babe and bring it on. Hold ’em tight now, honey.”
Black night had come and owls called from the sighing hemlocks as the exhausted woman bent an expressionless face to her red, squalling infant. At last she spoke. “It’ll allus be the least un, fer there won’t be no more. Reckon that’ll do fer a name—call it Least.”Chapter Two
Dark Holler, 1927
What the Lord in His wisdom has done to me don’t seem neither right nor just. To bear nine children and then to lose them as I have. And my husband Hobart gone too. They ain’t none left on the place save Little Brother and the least un—and she not yet five years of age and naught but a hindrance and a worry. Brother’s a good worker, I give him that, but me and him can’t seem to agree—he says I’m too hard and lights out of here for ball games and singings and whatnot every chance he gets. Though he’s not but sixteen, I do believe that if he would marry and bring home a stout girl, a hard worker to help here on the place, hit would settle him some.
I am plumb wore with all the work there is to do. Brother and me topped the corn by moonlight last night—laid by all them tops for cow feed come winter—and today I can’t hardly go. My hands is red and cracked and the joints is swole till they look like they belong to an old, old woman.
I feel like an old, old woman too. Forty-six years of living and no more to show for it than a farm that’s getting away from me, a child what ain’t right, and a boy what’s never happy lessen he’s going down the road. Ay, law. I have heard the preacher say this life is a misery and we best think on the world to come. Ha. Reckon first we got to get through this world the best we can.
The peddler come by this evening just after dinnertime. I needed some domestic in the worst way—Least is near bout growed out of her dresses. She would just as soon run naked but it ain’t fitten. I’ve cut up and made do with what few rags Fairlight left behind, but even those is going fast.
“What fer ye, Missus?” the peddler says, when I come out to his wagon in the road. My house is the onliest one up this way; naught but the graveyard lays beyond. Mr. Aaron, the peddler, is nigh as dark and lean as his mule. First time I seen him, I thought he might be one of them niggers I have heard tell of, but he said no, his folks was from Roosia, not Afriker. I don’t know nothing of such places, having no schooling to speak of, but I figger they must be over the water somewheres.
I go catch me five young cockerels I’ve been fattening and trade with the peddler for a length of domestic and a paper of needles and some thread. Mr. Aaron feels of the birds and pokes out his lips.
“Not bad,” says he, and pushes them into the coop he has in the back of his wagon. “What more fer ye?”
I think about it. Hit’s a two-mile walk down to Tate Worley’s store, and last time I traded there, Tate was plumb hateful. The peddler might be a little dearer but he wouldn’t be as like to talk about my business.
“I’ll take a half a pound of coffee beans and some baking powder, iffen ye got hit,” I say. Then when he begins to rummage in the back of his wagon for the goods, I say, careless-like, as if I’d just remembered, “I believe I’ll try a bottle or two of that Cordelia Ledbetter’s Mixture. I been told hit’s a right fine tonic and I am most wore to death with this hot weather.”
He reaches into a crate and pulls out three bottles. “All the ladies speak highly of this nostrum,” he says, solemn as can be. “It’s a very popular item.”
I take the bottles with their pretty lavender labels and lay them in my apron with the other things. I can hear a rustling in the big boxwoods planted along the branch. I declare I hate them things so bad, with their smell of graveyards and cat piss. I’d take an axe to them if it weren’t for the trimmings man who comes ever December and buys great bundles of greenery for rich folks to stick up in their mansion-houses.
Mr. Aaron is skirmishing round in the wagon bed, setting his goods to rights, and he don’t seem to notice when I flap my hand towards the house and whisper, “Least, you get yourself back inside!” I am purely shamed for anyone to see the child, dirty and quare as she is.
She wiggles out from under the boxwoods, and just as I’d feared, she has stripped down to her drawers. They are black with dirt and so is she. I flap my hand again and she takes off fer the house but just then Mr. Aaron lifts up his head.
“Little boy or little girl?” he asks. His black eyes is shining.
“Hit’s a girl,” I say, wishing she’d moved a mite quicker. “She took my scissors to her hair back of this . . .” but I can tell he ain’t paying no mind for he’s turned away and is rooting around in a big old poke. At last he brings out a piece of red and white stick candy—like what we used to give the children at Christmas.
“For your young un,” he says, pointing it at me. “A pres?ent.” He nods his head up and down when I don’t offer to take the candy and pushes it at me. “No charge, Missus.”
Excerpted from The Day of Small Things by Vicki Lane. Copyright © 2010 by Vicki Lane. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.