I was seven on the twelfth of April, and I remember thinking that the hills to the east of Little Carr Creek had also grown and stretched their ridge shoulders, and that the beechwood crowding up their slopes grew down to a living heart. Mother told me I was seven as we ate breakfast. Father looked at me gravely, saying he didn’t think I was more than six. Mother said I was seven for sure. Fletcli looked down into his bowl of boiled wheat, for he was only five and stubborn. Euly laughed, a pale nervous laughter edged with a taunt. She was going on thirteen and impatient with our childishness.
I knew then it was good to be seven, but I did not know how to think of it. Mother held the baby up and he looked at me, making an odd little cluck with his tongue sucked back in his throat. And I thought that if I could know what the baby was thinking, I would know what a large thing it was to come upon another year.
After breakfast I went out into the young growth of stickweeds beyond the house, believing my whole life was balanced on this day, and how different it must be from any other. I walked on down into the creek bottom. Blood-root blossomed under the oaks and I sat down on a root knoll, giving no thought to picking the flowers as Euly would have done, knowing they would droop almost at the touch. Sitting there I thought that I would grow up into a man like Grandpaw Baldridge, learning to read and write, and to draw up deeds for land.
Being so full of this thought I could not sit still. I went on around the hill where wild strawberry plants edged into an old pasture no longer used, for we had no stock and the rails were tumbled and rotting. I ran through a budding stubble, feeling the warm tickling on the soles of my feet. Euly and the birds had been in the strawberry patch already. Bare tracks were there on the grassless spots and the fruit was pecked and torn. A few berries were left, half-green and turning. Euly had been there, saying to Mother there might be enough for a pie sweetened with molasses, but she had gobbled them all down.
I sat on the rail fence. Blackbirds called up the hill their hoarse tchack, tcliach, tchack. Young crickets drummed their legs in the grass—young, I knew, for their sounds were thin and tuneless.
Suddenly there was laughter, long and thin and near. I searched the weed-filled gullies, looking at length into a poplar rising full-bodied and tall at the lower end of the pasture. Euly was swinging in the topmost bough. Fear for her choked me. I called to her to come down, half envious of her courage, but more afraid than anything. She laughed, swinging faster and holding one hand out dangerously.
Fletch was over the hill. He heard us shouting and came up the slope, setting his feet at an angle to climb the steepness with his short legs. His hands were clutched against his pockets.
I ran to meet him, and Euly came down out of the tree to see what Fletch had. He reached one hand into a pocket to show us. It came out filled with partridge eggs, broken and running between his fingers. Euly’s face became as white as sycamore bark. She began to cry, knotting her fists and shaking them about. Then she opened one hand swiftly, slapping Fletch on the cheek, and was gone in a moment, running silently as a fox over the hill.
Fletch squalled until he was hoarse, the eggs and tears mixing on his face. I had to find him a pocketful of rabbit, pills to get him to stop.
I remember that on the day I was seven Clabe Brannon came for Father. His mare was in labor, and he had come for help, bringing an extra nag for father to ride. Father was handy with stock and knew a lot of cures. He knew what to do for blind staggers, the studs and bloats. He knew how to help a mare along when her time came.
Fletch and I had just come from the strawberry patch when Clabe rode up. Father came out of the garden where he had been hoeing sweet corn. Clabe was in a hurry and would not get down, but Mother fetched him a pitcher of cool spring water. Father got on the nag and the stirrups were too short. His legs stuck out like broomsticks. Mother laughed at him.
“Biggest load’s on top,” she said. “You’d better give that nag a resting spell afore long.”
“Size don’t alius speak for strength,” Father grinned. “This here nag could carry me twice over and never sap her nerve.”
Father looked down at me, standing there laughing with Mother. “Think I’ll fotch this little dirty mouth along for ballast,” he said. He reached down, pulling me into the saddle behind him, and I went up over the hind quarters limp with surprise, for Father had never taken me along before. We rode off down the hill, but I did not look back for all my joy, knowing that Fletch’s face was shriveled with jealousy, and knowing that I was seven and this thing was as it should be.
We went along up Little Carr Creek, the nag nervous with our unaccustomed weight, her flesh shivering at the touch of Father’s heels, and her hips working under me like enormous elbows. Her hind feet bedded in sand and Father clucked. She jumped, almost sliding me off. Clabe took the lead at the creek-turn, reining his mount back and forth across the thin water, keeping on firm ground.
We were soon beyond any place I knew and white bodies of sycamores stood above the willows. The hills were a waste of fallen timbers. Sprouting switches grew from the stumps, and the sweet smell of a bubby bush came down out of the scrub.
“That there is Stob Miller’s messing,” Father said. “He’s got a way o’ leaving as much timber as lie takes out. A puore fool woulda knowed white oak is wormy growing on the south side o’ the hill and mixed up with laurel and ivy.”
And we went on. I counted four redbirds flying low in sumac bushes, and there was a wood thrush repeating its alarmed pit pit somewhere. Around more turns there were patches of young corn high on the hills in new-grubbed dirt. Chickens cackled up in the hollows. Sometimes I could see a house set back in a cove, and even when I couldn’t see for the apple trees and plum thickets, I knew people lived there by the home-place sounds coming down to the creek. I knew a big rooster walked in the yard, and there were hound dogs under the puncheon floors and stock hanging their heads over the lot fence.
“They’s liable to be a colt a-coming over at Clabe’s place,” Father said. “How would you like to have a leetle side-pacing filly growing up to ride on?”
“If’n I had me one I’d give nigh everthing,” I said, “but I’d want it to be a man-colt.”
“Clabe might not want to git shet o’ him though,” Father said. “I reckon he wouldn’t want to promise off a colt afore he was weaned.”
“Reckon I could git that colt?” I asked, my heart pounding, and knowing suddenly there was nothing I wanted more than this. To have a colt, living and breathing, was more than being seven years old; it was more than anything.
“There ain’t no sense trying to see afar off,” Father warned. “It’s better to keep your eyeballs on things nigh, and let the rest come according to law and prophecy.”
We crossed the shallow waters of the creek, back and forth to firm sandbars. Silver bellied perch fled before the nag’s steps, streaking into the shallows under the bank. Father looked down at them, laughing at their hurry. “Skin your eyes and see the fishes,” he said.
Clabe’s wife came out on the porch to meet us, her spool legs thrust down in a pair of brogans. Two children hid under the porch, looking out with dirty faces, and an old hen pecked in the yard, bare of feathers behind the wings. Guineas stretched their long necks through the fence palings.
“You was a spell a-coming,” Clabe’s wife said. “It’s a wonder the mare didn’t bust afore you got here.”
We went around the house to the barn. The hip-roof was broken and sagging. Oates, Clabe’s boy, waited for us in the lot, watching the mare. He was older than I, taller by a half-foot, and he had buck teeth. Two of them stuck down in the corners of his mouth like tushes. He grinned at us and I thought, looking hard at him, that he had a face pine-blank like a possum.
The mare lay beyond on the ground, her great eyes moist and sorrowful. Clabe had thrown down a basketful of shucks, but she had rolled away into soft dirt where the pigs had rooted. Father walked up to her. She trembled, though not moving in her agony, and a spasm of flesh quivered her flanks. He put his hands on her neck for a moment, then the mare thrust her moist nose into his palms, and let her slobbering tongue hang out between yellow teeth.
The mare began to strain, drawing her muscles down into cords, and I saw two small hoofs. Father stood over her, looping a grass rope around the colt’s thin legs. I knew then the pain of flesh coming into life, and I turned and ran with this sight burning before my eyes, and my body cold and goose-pimpled. Standing behind the barn I was ashamed of my fear, though I could not go back until it was over. My humiliation was as loud as the guinea fowls crying in the young grass at the lot gate.
“It’s a natural thing,” I thought. “It’s a natural thing and me running away. It’s there and a-going on if’n I see it or not.”
I did not go back until Father called me. Oates was watching and hadn’t turned a hair. The children were on their knees looking between the fence rails.
The mare was standing now, mouthing the loose shucks on the ground. The foal rested in a pile of wheat straw. His spindling legs were drawn under him and the straws were stuck over his damp body. A horse fly sang around his nose, and he swung his head, having already learned their sting. He looked at us gently and unafraid, then closed his eyes and drooped his head on the ground. I hungered to brush the dark nose, to get near enough to touch the smooth flanks.
“If’n I had me this colt, I’d do a plenty for it,” I thought. “When his teeth growed out, I’d pull a mess o’ pennyrile and feed him ever day till they wouldn’t be a bone showing. I’d take a heap better care o’ him than Clabe Brannon, or Oates, or them dirty-faced children. I’d do a puore sight.”
Oates walked up to the colt, but the mare drove him away, blowing through her nose, and lifting her heavy lips until her yellow teeth were bared, The colt lay still, its heavy lids closed.
“Colts ain’t no good without proper raising,” Clabe said, beginning to bargain with Father. “When he’s weaned off, I’d be right glad if you take and raise him. He ought to make a fine stud-horse.”
“He’s looking a leetle puny to me,” Father said. “I figger he might o’ got hurt a-borning. He ought to be standing up and walking around by now.”
“I’d like the finest kind to give you something for helping out,” Clabe said. “I shorely would, but they ain’t a cent on the place. I ain’t doing much crapping this spring. .Tist a couple o’ acres. We et up a passel o’ the seeds afore planting time.”
“I ain’t charging my neighbors nothing,” Father said. “I ain’t a regular horse doctor, and got no right to charge. Anyhow, I don’t reckon I’ve got a grain o’ use for the colt.”
Words were great upon my tongue, but with Clabe and Oates there, I could not speak them. My hope seemed a bloated grain of corn on a diseased ear, large and expectant, yet having no soundness beneath.
“I’d be right glad if you’d take him,” Clabe said, knowing Father was stalling.
Father looked at Clabe. “If you’re so powerful shore you want to git rid o’ him, I’ll drap around some fine pretty day and fotch him home. Some far day when he’s weaned off and hain’t bridle-scared.”
Clabe and Father went into the barn. Oates spoke to me, showing his tushes. There was anger in his face, sitting dark as a thunderhead in his eyes. I knew he was angry about the colt, not wanting to give him up, “Paw’s got a dram hid in the loft, I reckon,” he said. He walked toward the lot gate, turning to look back at me, and I followed, going out by the pen where two razor-backs waded up to their flanks in slop mud. We went out into an old apple orchard, walking side by side. There were mushrooms growing pale and meaty under the trees. Oates kicked them as he walked, shattering the woody flesh of their cups.
“I heerd tell mushrooms is good eating,” I said, stepping carefully among them. “I’d like to try a mess cooked up in grease.”
“They ain’t nothing but devil’s snuffboxes,” Oates said, drawing his lips down sourly. “They’re poison as rattlesnake spit.”
A wren was nesting somewhere in the orchard. We heard her fussing in the thick leaves, and we heard a cat sharpening her claws on the bark of a tree.
“Looky yonder at that there pieted cat setting in the crotch o’ that tree,” Oates said, his tushes breaking from his lips. “Paw wouldn’t take a war pension for her, but she ain’t worth a tick. She wouldn’t catch a rat if’n they was a cheese-ball hung around hit’s neck. Oncet I took holt of her tail and wrung it right good. Now she has to climb a tree to sit down. You’ve seed nothing like that, I bet.”
“I heerd tell of a boy who’s got a store-bought leg,” I said. “He whittles on it for meanness, and oncet he driv a sprig in with a hammer, and a woman had a spell and fainted.”
“That hain’t nothing,” Oates said, his lips turned accusingly. “I seed a man with one eye natural, and the other hanging down on one side of his face in a meat-sack like a turkey gobbler’s snout. Ever time he winked that sack would jump a grain.”
“I couldn’t stood to look at it,” I said. “It would be a pity-sake to have an eyeball growed like that.”
Oates stopped under a tree, his eyes hard and his voice nettled. “I heerd tell you Baldridges is spotted round the liver,” he said.
“It’s a lie-tale you heerd,” I said.
“It’s a gospel truth,” he said. “I seed you run away when the colt was a-borning. And I brung you down here to show you nobody’s going to take him, now nor no time coming.”
I stood there looking at him, my eyes watering with anger, and for the moment I saw nothing except his tushes sticking out of his mouth, white and hateful, and his hands doubled into a rusty knot. Then he struck me in the face, and I struck back, wildly though with all my strength. We fought, swapping blows silently. Oates’ nose began to bleed. He stepped back, his face twisted in fury. He searched the ground around us, picking up a stick of apple-wood fallen from a tree.
“I’ll kill you graveyard dead,” he said.
I did not move, and the stick fell swiftly upon my head, shattering in my ears like thunder. My knees doubled under me. Oates spoke, but I could not rise, and his words came as out of a fog, having no meaning at the moment though the words were clear and separate. Later, I knew what he said, looking back and remembering.
“Hain’t no yellow-dog coward Baldridge going to git my colt,” he said. “That there one’s belonging to me, and I’d break its neck afore I’d let him be took off.”
After a little time I stood up, feeling the knot on my head. Oates was gone. The wren was worrying among the leaves, cluttering and fussing, knowing the cat sat in the tree crotch motionless as a charm. I walked toward the barn, not caring now whether I crushed the mushrooms underfoot.
Father stood with Clabe in the lot, looking at the colt. It was stretched upon the ground, its legs dry and stiff. The mare whinnied, rubbing her nose over the colt’s body. I saw its eyes were open and staring. There was no life in them. The colt was dead.
“He musta got hurt a-borning,” Clabe said.
Father was ready to go. He looked at my swollen face, though he said nothing, and we set off walking down the creek, keeping to the left bank where the cows had broken out a path in the shape of their bodies.
I walked along bitter with loss, comforted only by the cruel wisdom that the colt had been spared Oates’ rusty hands. Being seven on that day, and bruised and sore from fighting, the years rested like an enormous burden on my swollen eyes. We went on, not stopping or speaking until we saw our hill standing apart from all the others.