The man plainly don’t know it’s time to sleep, she thought, rolling slowly over on her good hip and sucking her bottom lip far back between her teeth. Her right leg, swollen from the milk fever of this pregnancy was hot to the touch. An old woman’s problem. Most of the women on the mountain who had this sickness were in their thirties. Never figured on having it at 18. The man behind her leaned closer, balanced himself on an elbow, then reached down with the other hand and grabbed below her nightgown and busied himself with his pleasure, while she, out of habit, began counting to herself. Sixty-one, sixty-two. He lost his balance and his aim and tried again. Sixty-three was comin’. She slipped her hand up to grip the bed’s iron headboard and waited. He most always had trouble when the countin’ got into the sixties.
Absently, she studied the Venetian blind she had bought at Monkey Ward’s over in Marshall the previous Saturday. It was hitched up on one side (he couldn’t get that right either) high enough to let in a good view of the mountain rising up in their own backyard and the creek running across their farm. Seventy-five. A breeze moved the blind and banged it harshly against the window frame, keeping time, she thought tiredly, with the man’s spasmodic rhythm.
Her unattached hand moved over her belly, stretched nine months tight with baby, and she scratched a tender spot. This would be a big one, just like all the men in the family. Tall as trees and strong as bulls. For a minute, she thought about the one who had got this on her, and she frowned. Well, Daddy had put seed in mama when he was in his sixties—that’s when I came along—and he had others as well. Seven in all.
But this man hadn’t spit anything out anyone could point a finger at, except this what I’m growin’. And now, he’s nearly Daddy’s age. Why, he might not even have enough health to make a strong baby. Its teeth or bones might be soft or somethin’ else. Somethin’ worse. It might be weak in the head or. . . . A sharp pain ripped her side, then was gone. Maybe the baby heard her thinking and didn’t fancy it. The mattress lurched.
Lord, how I wished he’d hurry up and finish or die try in. Either way, she’d have to be up soon. She looked over at the Big Ben, with its long, glowing green fingers. Every morning she would wind it and place it near the window, so it could soak up the sun that made it shine in the darkness. Ten-thirty at night. Maybe three hours sleep, then start breakfast, then feed the chickens, then. . . . The thought of tomorrow’s work pressed on her, squeezed at her heart. A jumble of thoughts filled her mind, and she couldn’t seem to stop them. Her arms and legs ached. Every day it’s the same—feed him, feed his dogs. One day he works the graveyard shift, goin’ in to the mines at midnight and stayin’ until three. He comes in wantin his breakfast. Or he’s up at the crack of dawn and wants his breakfast. Either way, his day starts at four o’clock and would for a long time. On this mountain, men worked until they couldn’t work no more.
The sweat on her back made her itch. Her whole left side was one big cramp. All this work going on with its steady rhythm reminded her of how he handled that plunger last week when the old commode spilled over. In, out, in, out, over and over, forever it seemed, until something had popped. He’d sat back on his haunches, grinning, the water swirling around and around the bowl, ending in a big burp. I might have to use that pot soon. My back don’t feel right somehow.
He must have sensed something, because he stopped. She waited. Nothin. She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Still nothin. She let go of the headboard, tried to move her aching leg and thought about the preacher’s message Sunday week. . . and the sermon last month and the month before that. All the time tellin’ us to obey our men. Wonder if this is what he had in mind? She sank into her side of the bed, moaning with gratitude that it was over, then lay still. Now they could get some sleep. Minutes slipped by. She heard the clock ticking, ticking, and finally she let herself settle in. Then she heard him spit on his fingers.
He spit again, and suddenly he pulled her up, and she was on her knees. Peculiar. . .looks like I’m about to address the Almighty. She thought that might be a good idea right about now; she knew what was coming. Grabbing the headboard with both hands this time, she turned her head back to where she could see out the window. Now, where were we? One hundred and one?
From that particular spot on the bed, she could see plainly the night sky spread out above the pines and cotton woods. Though the moon was all but hidden from her sight by the clouds, it had enough strength to shine out here and there, but the stars weren’t peeping out at all. Looks like more rain tomorrow. Lots of it. The mine might be flooded, and then he’d be home all day. She bit her lip until she tasted blood.
She felt hands groping between her thighs, and heard a few mumbled things she took to be his romantic talk. Then he pulled back a hand, spit again, then jabbed both thumbs in, knuckle to knuckle, then yanked them apart and began in earnest. His fingernails, split and black from working coal out of the mine, snagged her flesh, and she winced and caught her breath. He heard her, took it for desire, and she felt him dig his fingers deeper into her bottom, holding her tightly. Like a pig who’s about to be branded. His breath was on her neck, hot and sour. Somewhere a dog yelped. His pants had been thrown carelessly across the footboard, and the belt buckle clanged against the cold metal of the bedpost as the mattress convulsively heaved. To her it sounded loud as buckshot. She bit her lip harder and kept counting. One hundred twenty-two. He’d probably live that long.
For the better part of an hour, she watched the world outside from a sideways angle, then up and down, shifting, fastening her eyes on the man in the moon when she could see him. More often than not, she studied the oversized apple tree standing at the base of the mountain next to the creek. Her tree. It had been there as long as she could remember. When she was little, she’d had a wooden seat nailed up in it, and she’d climb up, pull a few green apples off the limbs, open her handkerchief full of salt and Mary Janes and settle back to read. She would stay all day if she could get by with it. She was the only one in her family who liked books, besides her mama, and she would have gone on to school beyond sixth grade if her mama hadn’t been sick. She remembered the last day she went to school. . .the day Daddy came to get her. Remembered it like it was yesterday.
It was during spelling. Her Daddy was standing in the doorway, explaining something to the teacher. She couldn’t see him, standing there with the sunshine behind him, but she had heard his words. She had to come quick. Her mama was sick, and that was that. He was real sorry.
That was when she was 12. Then, two springs ago, her Daddy had promised her to this man. His wife had died, and he needed someone to look after him. Her Daddy had waited until her little sister was big enough to take her place at home, then he had sent her packing to his friend, telling her that she had new responsibilities. A man would do almost anything for another man and not nearly as much for a woman. . .leastwise a daughter. But, Daddy had given them some of this land, called it her dowry, and now she was going to have a baby. What more could she expect? Looking over her shoulder, she thought she’d be pleased to take a little less than she normally got, all things considered.
Outside the window, she could hear rain splattering on the already muddy ground. One hundred-sixty. Above them, rain rat-a-tatted on the tin roof. Always liked the way it sounded. Made you sleepy. The green hands, luminous through the dark, said 11: 30. Don’t take this long to churn butter.
Far up in her apple tree, she could hear the tinkle of wind chimes her Daddy had bought her at Mount Mitchell when she was around eight. Then she had been all freckles, with unruly red hair that her mama kept in braids. She pushed out her bottom lip, fish-like, and blew a strand of still unruly red off her sticky face. Her Daddy and brothers had often said that she had never been pretty, but on the day when her Daddy bought the chimes for her because he just wanted to, he had said, not because she had begged, well, she had felt beautiful. It was the nicest thing he ever gave me. . .this husband included.
The chimes had seen all kinds of wonders these years gone by. Her Daddy had fastened them on the tree with wire, so they wouldn’t blow away. And they hadn’t. In fact, the bark had grown over the wire. Now the chimes belong as much to the tree as to me. And I can always tell what’s brewin’ by just listenin’. Sometimes, when a storm moves over the mountain, they clang together until they sound like they will break. But on a night like tonight, they play rain songs. Like they was cryin’ up there in the tree. Maybe for me. The baby twitched and seemed to jerk though she couldn’t really tell. They were up to two hundred with no end in sight.
His breathing was slower now, but the bed still was bouncing like a frog leg in hot grease. She listened to Crabapple Creek and the night.
“Them frogs are callin’ right steady, hear? I said, hear ‘em? The frogs. Makes me think we’re in for a good bit more rain. What you think?” she asked, between gritted teeth.
“Umph!” He belched (she thought of the commode and the water going down the drain), and pressed his face to her face. How loose his skin felt, like it wasn’t attached to his head or neck at all. He tried to kiss her but was panting too hard. She realized, without it mattering one way or another, that he was down to three front teeth, and didn’t have all that many in his jaws. Last month, he had six in front. Did he swallow them at night or just spit them out with his tobacco? The rain was pickin’ up outside. Sounded like gunshots on the mud.
“Would you just listen to that rain? The weatherman in Mount Airy was callin’ for a gullywasher. We might get up to nine inches overnight.”
“Nine inches sound good to me. Sound good to you?”
He squeezed her bottom, made another swipe at her mouth, missed, trailed his rubbery lips and three teeth down her neck and shoulder. She listened to the frogs. Her tongue felt too thick to make questions. Still, she tried. Stop and talk a minute. Just a minute.
“We’ve had nothin’ but steady rain these past two weeks. Think it’ll let up or keep comin’?” “Keep on comin’, I reckon’. Keep comin’.”
The bed began to squeak like a rat in a trap. . . caught but not killed. She turned her head away from him and fastened her eyes on her apple tree, which in the sparse moonlight, seemed to bounce up and down on the hill. He lurched around for a moment, lost his place, found it and resumed. They might get twelve inches tonight if it didn’t let up.
“I heard over the radio that the water at the dam is over the red line. What you think it means?”
“Ain’t thinkin’ ” he grunted.
The baby kicked and she gasped. The frogs were screamin’. He pulled her upright, then fell on her, began rooting, and pushed her backward and down, until her head was flat against the footboard.
“Shut up that yellin’ girl. God ain’t gonna save you from this. You’re my wife.”
Then he was talking into her neck again, saying things she couldn’t catch, not that it mattered, pinching and prodding until, all at once, he fell back heavily, sucking in mouthfuls of air and wheezing out again. He lay there in a cloud of corn whiskey fumes, and she knelt where she was. In a minute or two, he patted the small strip of mattress beside him, draped his other arm over his face and almost instantly fell to snoring.
She felt like celebrating; but she continued kneeling, belly dragging the sheets, then rolled over. Sweat trickled down her arms, back, legs, and hair was plastered to her breasts and face. She thought for a moment that she’d like to go wash in the creek with the frogs. They were reasonable clean, compared to some other creations. She eyed the man on the bed for a long time.
Big Ben on the nightstand said midnight. Four hours for sleepin’, and then all the work would start again. She rubbed her belly. It felt odd. . .too still and heavy like a sack of coal. Then she noticed the bottle of whiskey beside the clock. If he was to sleep a little longer in the mornin’, it wouldn’t be so bad. He was already drunk. . .half a bottle was empty. More than half. It had been full earlier that evenin’. She slid, painfully, out of bed, poured a long drink into a canning jar, lifted his head and put it to his lips. He drank. Like a baby at the breast. Pure instinct. Plain and simple. She checked to see if he was playing possum. “You in there?” she whispered.
The frogs and the rain all answered, “pour more”—which she did, tipping his head full back and pouring it nice and slow, right on down, being careful not to tap the glass against any one of those three teeth. She couldn’t figure if two drinks were enough, so she gave him five, finishing the bottle. Her Daddy wasn’t a drinking man, and she didn’t know what would work, but she thought five would do. Five eggs make the best poundcake.
He coughed, and she jumped, and the bottle teetered on the edge of the table, then smashed on the floor. She waited. Even the frogs seemed to have ceased singing, and she could no longer hear the chimes ringing in the apple tree. When he didn’t move, she eased around the bed, slowly inching her weight down and away from him toward the side of the bed, trying hard not to make the springs pop. Maybe I’ll sleep late tomorrow after all. Tomorrow. The very idea seemed too huge to think about. Nothing about tomorrow seemed important anymore. The only thing that was real was this weariness. Her bad leg began to twitch, and the fever in it seemed to seep up into her head and chest. The heat gathered around her heart, making it beat so fast that spots floated behind her eyelids. She so wished she could dream tonight, when he was at last quiet and the rain was falling.
She rubbed her palms over her belly, and hummed low—a lullaby her mama had sung to her when she was sick or heartbroken over some little something. She wanted to dream about her baby: She tried to imagine its face, the color of its eyes. She laced her fingers below her bulging stomach and pretended to cradle it, waiting for it to kick, waiting for it to push out under her heart. Waiting for something. Her hands began to tremble. For a minute, she thought the old man had moved, and her mouth went dry. Tomorrow it would still be rainin, and the mine would be closed, and he would be here.
It was where she knew it would be—high up on the shelf behind the Karo syrup. She strained until she had it in her hand. Slowly, awkwardly, she made her way back up the stairs until she stood by the bed. She was careful not to step on the broken glass on the floor, careful not to make a sound. It took what seemed an eternity to get the new bottle opened. . .an eternity to delicately position his head in the crook of her arm. The rest was not hard. He drank slowly, a quarter of the bottle. . .a half. . . Some of the whiskey trickled out of his mouth, onto her bosom. But most went down and stayed down.
She did not know how long she sat on the edge of the bed, cradling the old man’s head. She had drained the bottle, and he was perfectly still. Now she could sleep in the morning. She hugged the thought to her, walked back to her side of the bed and lay down on the least tangled, least touched part of the bedding she could find and tried to relax. She thought of the baby again, and reached out to grab the top of the cradle that stood next to the bed. She rocked it gently back and forth, the pain in her body and in her heart easing. Gradually, the ticking of the clock and the sound of the rain seemed to become a blur, softer and softer, and the singing of the frogs faded into the night. The rocking slowed until the cradle only occasionally moved, then was still. Except for the sound of her deep, even breathing, the room was quiet.
At four o’clock, the bell of the alarm clock rang furiously, then less urgently, until it was spent. Sounds of thunder rumbled over the mountain, and the roosters crowed in the pale morning light. But she didn’t hear it. The other side of the bed had cooled, but the chill didn’t penetrate her dreams. Far, far away she was, in her apple tree, hearing only the song of chimes and the laughter of a child.