Elaine Fowler Palencia, of Champaign, Illinois, grew up in Morehead, Kentucky, and is the author of two Appalachian short story collections, Small Caucasian Woman and Brier Country. She is working on a third collection, which will include “The Gilead Violets.”
The Gilead Violets
I can’t abide weeds. Rocky pastures. Shackly barns. People that don’t keep their property up, don’t keep the wood box full. Layabouts and never-sweats that wouldn’t take a lick at a snake. That kind of business. When I was at myself, I had the best looking farm on Grassy Creek: clean fencerows, grass cut in the orchard, no volunteer trees springing up in the pastures like unwanted neighbors. There was some as was jealous.
“Oh, Mort is always majoring in minors,” they’d say. “Mort can’t jerk it by. He wouldn’t have to work so hard if he’d let some things slide. A man with that many apple trees has enough to do already.”
Well, I did a dang sight better than anybody up here and I won’t stand for disorder. Man was given dominion over this earth to keep order. I don’t like things that won’t behave, man or beast, and I won’t tolerate it. Besides, not a one of them naysayers ever amounted to a hill of beans. And it wasn’t easy, raising them kids by myself and keeping the place up. Their mother was always do-less, when she was living. I’m no complainer, but life hasn’t been easy. And I have been hurt. Oh, I have been hurt.
My three boys were no trouble. Oh, one of them might take a wild hair and go to drinking or smash up their vehicle or such. A couple of them were bad to fight in school, but that’s just boys. They knew my word was law. Rough as a cob, like me, but good workers. You can get an awful lot done by putting your shoulder to the wheel and keeping it there. Many’s the time we picked corn all night to be ready to sell at the market in Blue Valley by seven a.m. They’ve all gone off, though. Didn’t stick with farming.
Theda wasn’t but two when her mother died. As a child she was a pretty little thing, hair the color of sourwood honey in the winter that sunbleached to gold in summer and light gray eyes sparkly as quartz. Knew all the cards in a pack before she was three and recited every word of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” in a school program when she was six. By the time she was ten she could bake a peach pie with crust that would melt in your mouth. I’m not lying.
And where I went, she went. She’d follow me like a puppy. My little trip-tropper, I called her.
Of a winter when we got cabin fever, we’d go for a ramble. One January afternoon, I never will forget, we were walking around the lake and it went to snowing. Great huge flakes that stuck to everything like cotton, coming down so thick you couldn’t see to put a foot in front of you. I swung her up on my shoulders so’s we could go faster, and she was laughing and having a big time catching the snowflakes on her tongue. Then all of a sudden she let out the most pitiful wail, like a drownding kitten.
A greenbrier vine had caught her around the neck like a noose. I didn’t see it hanging low, you understand, on account of the blizzard. Oh, I’d have cut off my hand before I’d have hurt my precious. The drops of blood looked like a necklace of red beads on her little white neck and the sight pret’near brought me to my knees. Thank the Lord it didn’t leave a scar, only the surprise and fright of it.
But she was brave about it like she always was, wanting to be “a big boy” like her brothers, she’d say. She followed them to school when she was four and told Miss Applegate she could read.
“If you can spell dog, then you can stay,” said Miss Applegate.
Theda, she thought for a while and then said, “Dog’s an awful big word. Can you give me a littler one, like puppy?” Miss Applegate was so tickled, she made a place for her up front.
We had good years and they flew by, as good years will. One thing and another, Theda finished high school a year early. She was that smart. There was just her and me at home then, and Joey, after he come back from ‘Nam. Of an evening she’d read all manner of books to us. It kindly took Joey’s mind off things, the way he was tore up and all, and his bodily wounds not being the worst of it. His mind was what wouldn’t heal. Born Free was one book she read to us, because Joey liked animals. And them creepy-crawly stories of Edgar Allan Pope, which Theda found them in her mother’s trunk. After she finished a story, Joey’d peel us some oranges and I’d pop corn in that old iron kettle we had. Then we’d play dominoes till bedtime. We could have gone on like that forever. Like a family should.
But Theda wanted to go to college and she was an argufier, which she got that from her mother. I had to tan her jacket more than oncet for smarting off at me. It only got worse as she grew older. “It’s a simple matter of logic,” she’d say, and go at us, not caring what she said about religion or the government or how we lived. I expect she learned that logic business from some teacher at the college. If I’d of known how much it would change her to go, I’d of shackled her in the smokehouse ruther than let her go down there and get the big head. I have nothing against education, as I kept school over at Brushy Creek in my salad days. You might question that, but I’ve got the certificates to prove it. Theda could have done with less learning which we read in the Bible is the root of all evil.
She argued me into letting her go down there, wouldn’t give me no rest till I said yes; but come to find out, she already had fixed it up to ride with Nancy McQueen so I didn’t actually have nothing to say about it. She was aiming to make a nurse and I will say, she could lance a boil or sew up a cow where it got into the barb wire as good as anybody.
I never wanted anything but the best for her. Everything I’ve done was all for her. But she was too previous, always in a hurry, always afraid she was missing something. Just like her mother in that regard, which you couldn’t trust that woman out of your sight for fear she’d take some strange notion “to better herself” or try to change me. “You can’t improve on this model,” I’d tell her. “After they made me, they broke the mold.” What would it have hurt Theda to stay home a couple of years longer and help out here? Didn’t she owe me something? Didn’t it cost me to raise her? I’ve got it down in an account book, every cent I spent on her and the boys, and she was the dearest by far. But I paid for everything she needed, cash on the barrelhead. I never owed anybody in my life except the bank, nor did my daddy. We were so happy, the two of us. Three, with Joey.
But no: directly she got a job at Casey’s in her spare time to have money for school. Started bringing home that old frozen pizza for supper instead of cooking real food—-said she didn’t have time. Instant coffee and bangles for breakfast. No more biscuits and gravy: said they were bad for us, which I’d like to know what good is a bangle. No more stories at night, no more singing hymns with the radio after breakfast on Sunday morning. Anybody can see how I’ve been hurt. Like a knife in my chest.
Directly she started coming home late from work. Always had an excuse: somebody was sick and she had to fill in, her boss asked her to do inventory, and I don’t know what all. But I figured out what she was up to. Joey, he did, too. She tried that business in high school but I stopped it then. She was too good for any around here. I wouldn’t let them have my little girl, no sir.
Whoever he was, he wouldn’t bring her to the house. She’d come walking over the hill from the lumber road, cut through the trees and come out near her mother’s grave up above my Grimes Goldens. I’d be out working and here she’d come, stepping dainty as a doe and humming to herself.
“Hi, Daddy,” she’d say, and keep going towards the house, no time for the old man. Where was the little girl who used to climb up in my lap and say, “Tell me about when you were a little boy?”
Life got worse and worse between us, especially after Joey had to go back to the VA. Things got on his mind so bad, they had to put him away for a while. We didn’t fight, me and Theda. That would have been better than the coldness between us, which she didn’t even feel. In her haste to get on, she’d forgot her old dad. Those were terrible days, without a bit of color in the world. I took on a hired man but the farm was getting ahead of me. She might as well of been gone already for all the help I got out of her. Things had to change, but you can’t fault this old jaybird for what happened.
It was early of a summer evening, the air soft and blue, with skylarks a-playing against the western sky and the Gilead violets in bloom along the house foundations. My wife’s people brought those flowers from Virginia long years ago when they settled hereabouts and Gilead was just a couple of houses and a mill. Yellow violets of a type you don’t see anywhere else, which is why they come to be called Gilead violets.
I was up on the hill with the sickle, cutting weeds back from the fence in the upper pasture. I abominate a messy fencerow. I got in the habit of working up there late in the day, where I could see her coming. I so feared for her, you see, whenever she was out of my sight. Directly I saw her through the trees, carrying her bag of books. She’d taken to pinning her hair up but it’d come down on one side and her cheeks were red as poppies. I could just figure what she’d been up to with some boy that had a car and I determined to have it out with her.
I called her over and kept cutting, as if nothing was the matter. I recollect my head had commenced to hurt. I’d been having sick headaches ever since she started to college.
“Who’s your friend?” I said.
“What friend?” she said.
“The one that brings you home.”
“You mean Nancy?” she said, innocent-like.
“The boy. Why don’t you bring him to the house?” I said.
She took a comb out of her hair and kind of tossed her head to flip her hair over her shoulders, the way her mother used to do.
“You wouldn’t be nice to him.”
I kept cutting. The blood pounded in my temple veins. “Nice. To a sneak-thief,” I said.
“He’s not a thief.”
The blood throbbed in my ears so’s I could hardly hear. “I allow he’s stolen something from you, you little tramp,” I said.
“Oh!” she cried, like she’d stepped on a snake. “How dare you say such a thing? That’s nasty!”
Nasty. A word like that, to me.
“I’m your father!”
“It’s my business!”
The blood come over my sight as I swung up and around with the sickle.
She was ever like her mother. That was the trouble. I never meant to hurt them, but they were unruly, disobedient. You see that, don’t you? How I was treated in my own home. My castle, where a man is king. No jury in the land would convict me, after the way those two women done me.
But the violets. The next spring, a patch of them come up right on that spot. Every spring and fall I grub and I grub to root them out, but I must miss some roots because every year they come up again. People have stopped asking me how she’s doing in Detroit, but the flowers keep coming. It likes to drive me crazy, this way she keeps getting to me. From the house, even when it’s overcast, they look like a patch of sunlight up on the slope above the orchard, or a mass of golden curls. Yes, yes, I know: it’s a terrible thing that happened. But I ask you if I deserve for them flowers to bloom, as much as I’ve already suffered.