Jane Hicks is the author of Blood and Bone Remember, the 2006 Appalachian Book of the Year, and has been widely published in magazines and journals such as Shenandoah, Iron Mountain Review, Appalachian Heritage, Blue Ridge Country, Sow’s Ear, and many others. Her writing has also been anthologized in books such as Talking Appalachian, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Literary Lunch, and others. A native of East Tennessee and a retired teacher, she lives in Blountville, Tennessee. "Frost Season" is an excerpt from Hicks's novel-in-progress Ruling Days.
Thin spirals of peel dropped into the basket at Cassandra’s side. Like Granda, she made it a point of pride to peel the apple in one long spiral. The whetstone had shaped her blade to a thin crescent like a sliver of moon. The breeze fanned the trees out across the ridge top. Today, they flaunted autumn.
Cassandra and little Thalia spent the morning helping their neighbors pick apples from the old orchard on their land and then moved over to her own little orchard. Tomorrow, she and Mrs. Frost would make apple butter to seal in crocks for the long winter ahead. The batch of apples in her lap was for drying and she could almost taste the fried pies.
The light fell long and golden across the tree tops. It was frost season. Beauty teetered on the brink of death. The bright blue days grew shorter and any night now, the frosts would come. Cassandra felt the call of seasons like a memory. She knew to tighten up against winter. Her root cellar was filled with crocks and cans, her smokehouse full of hams and bacon. Herbs dried in her kitchen and quilt tops laid ready for quilting on those cold days ahead.
She could hear Thalia in the garden, checking on her pumpkin crop. Mr. Frost had given her the pumpkin seed. After checking the almanac, he helped Thalia ready the little planting mounds in the back row of the garden. Cassandra doubted the notion that the moon could make any possible difference in how plants grew on earth.
“The moon is in the second quarter and growing,” he explained. “We want our pumpkins to grow fast. Then we want to plant in the Breast, the Crab, so to be doubly fruitful.” He showed her the almanac and how he read the signs. Thalia listened as if she could really understand the arcane lore. Cassandra shook her head. She knew her Granda devoutly believed in planting by the signs, as did most of her neighbors back home.
“To everything there is a season,” he quoted. Cassandra knew the verse from Ecclesiastes. This furthered her doubt that an Old Testament scribe could know anything about pumpkins in east Tennessee.
She heard a wagon clattering and clanking on the main road. Now, often as wagons, she heard automobiles chugging and bumping by. In the five years she had been here, much had changed in the world.
The clanking came louder. At the bottom of the hill, she could see a mule-drawn wagon turning the curve. She could swear that Pat Howard drove the team. Cassandra hadn’t seen the blacksmith since she moved here. What she first thought to be a child was Granny Peters huddled beside him. What in the name of heaven was she doing over here?
Cassandra carefully unloaded her lap and put the knife over the doorframe where Thalia couldn’t get it. She took off her work apron and met them in the yard.
Pat stopped the wagon and the mules shuffled in their traces. A rider was following them. Cassandra could see Saul Thornton rounding the curve and a shiver of revulsion ran through her. He was her childhood nemesis, the one that tattled on everything she did, pulled her hair, and hissed nasty names under his breath. She and other girls knew he hid outside their houses and spied on them. When they were older, he had tried to court Cassandra. She had heard he was a preacher now and snorted at the thought.
Saul was a poor rider, sitting upright and stiff in the saddle, heading up the hill at a determined pace. Always a “stout” boy, as the old folks called it, Saul was now grotesquely fat, jiggling as the horse stepped.
“So this is where you hide your pitiful face!” He lumbered down from the horse and started toward her as fast as his bulk would allow. Pat helped Granny Peters down, and then took a large basket from the floor of the wagon. With one swift motion, he handed Granny Peters the basket and turned to grab Saul’s arm.
“I done told you not to start.” He glowered at Saul. “I’m sorry, Miss Cassandra. He must have hid around your daddy’s cabin and followed when we started out. By the time we saw him, we were almost here.” He took off his hat. “This is sad and sorry business we come about.”
Granny Peters held out the basket she now carried. “Your sister,” Granny sobbed.
“My what?” Cassandra took the basket that held a sleeping baby.
“Yes, Miss Cassandra.” Pat turned his hat in his hands. “Your mama was brought to bed with this little one.” Pat reached to steady Cassandra. The nightmare grew dark around her. Surely any minute she would wake.
“This is the Lord’s punishment for her living with that sorry, sinful fiddler! Fiddlers are the Devil’s own,” thundered Saul. His chins quivered with rage.
Pat turned and gestured for him to be quiet. The gesture left no doubt what would happen if he didn’t.
“I did my best.” The midwife wept softly into her handkerchief. “She was just too old to be having a baby. She cried for you. Your daddy took it bad. He sent us with these things.”
She could see her mama’s big trunk, her dressing table, and tied to the back of the wagon, a goat. For the baby, she thought. Cassandra sank to her knees. Thalia rounded the corner of the house, curious of the noise
“Whore! I knew you was a whore! The little bastard proves what I thought all along!” Saul exploded. He suddenly stood over Cassandra. “All this talk about teaching school over here. Lies!”
When Thalia ran to her mother, Saul grabbed her little arm. Pat was quick. His fist smacked the preacher’s fat jaw. Saul went slack and dropped to the ground.
“You touch one of them again and I’ll bash your brains in.” Pat glowered at Saul for a moment and then helped Cassandra up and to the porch.
Granny followed and creaked into one of the slat back chairs, still clutching her handkerchief. She wept, drinking long gulps of air to stop the sobs.
Cassandra sank into the chair where she had been working up apples. She lifted the infant from the basket and the baby squirmed against her. Thalia hugged Cassandra’s arm and eyed Saul fiercely.
Pat returned to the wagon and brought a box of things for the baby and a box of bottles with stiff black nipples. He unloaded the little cherry dressing table and heavy trunk and brought them onto the porch. He returned to the wagon and came back leading the goat. “I’ll milk her for the baby. Where do you want her put?”
Cassandra motioned absently toward the barn. She repositioned the baby and rocked her body to quiet the little one. “Tell me, Granny Peters.”
Between sobs and moans, the old woman told her, “Your daddy come got me four days ago. I didn’t even know your mama was expecting...Lord have mercy. She was forty-six. Would have thought she was past all that nonsense. Your daddy was fit to be tied. He like to have tore his hat apart, twisting it in his hands like men do.” Granny heaved a long breath. “Your mama had the baby easy enough, but she wouldn’t quit bleeding. I sent your daddy for the doctor, but it was too late. She called and called for you, kept saying she was sorry. We laid her to rest yesterday morning. Your daddy packed up her trunk, bought that goat, called me and Pat to come. We loaded the wagon, thinking we was all coming to you. As we was leaving, he handed us directions, waved, took his fiddle, and went the other way. Last we seen of him. His heart was broke.”
“Heartbroken? He walked off and left the mess he made, like always, Granny.” So he was still mad at her, Cassandra thought. Not even a letter for me. He didn’t even send for me to come to the funeral. The old, cold hate coiled in her chest after all these years.
The baby started to whimper and root around for a breast. “Look, Thalia, a baby has come to live with us.” Cassandra held the blanket for Thalia to see. Thalia poked the baby with a grimy finger. Out in the yard, Saul moaned and sat up.
“Stay down there,” Pat ordered. Saul obeyed. The blacksmith brought a pail of milk onto the porch. “I’ll put this stuff in the house, Miss Cassandra.” He took a dolly from his wagon and moved the heavy trunk into the house, then the dressing table. “We best get on the way back before that lard bucket in the yard gets going again.”
He helped Granny up from her chair and to the wagon. Pat pulled Saul up from the ground. Saul staggered to the tailgate of the wagon and crawled in. The preacher glowered at Cassandra, but kept his peace.
“Wait,” Cassandra called. “The baby. What’s her name?”
“Eulalia,” called Granny. “Eulalia Claire. It’s such a sorrowful sounding name for a baby.”
Pat tied the horse to the wagon, climbed up, and reined the mules around. They clattered down the road, around the curve, and were gone.
“Well-spoken,” murmured Cassandra. “Your name means well-spoken.”
The baby started to cry again. “Well, little girl, let’s get you fed.”
With Thalia trailing behind, she picked up the milk bucket and took it to the back porch work table where she fixed a bottle. She settled into the old rocker with the screaming baby.
Thalia brought her little chair close to watch. She soothed her doll and rocked. Cassandra began to hum a bit of a lullaby. From inside the blankets, solemn blue eyes, so like her mother’s, stared back at Cassandra as if she were listening earnestly. As she drank, those eyes slowly closed.
“Thalia, your Grandmother Lydia loved you very much. She was so beautiful. You have dark hair like hers. This is her baby. This is your aunt.” Thalia, like always, was serious, all big dark eyes and curls. She could be unnaturally quiet for a four-year old child, seeming to understand far beyond her years.
“Where’s Grandmother? Did she send me a pretty letter?” Lydia’s letters to them had been in her flowing copperplate script. She drew little pictures for Thalia or sent her poems. The letters were manna. They had to be sent in secret on Lydia’s trips to Elizabethton or through Grace in Johnson City, so no one in the community would see where Cassandra had moved. Her father had forbidden her mother to write or visit. Cassandra was dead to him.
“No letter this time. She got very, very sick and died, Thalia. She sent us her baby to love.” Eulalia now slept the blissful sleep of new babies. Cassandra gently put her in the basket. Thalia carefully wrapped her doll and laid it beside the baby, then crawled into Cassandra’s lap.
“Did she die like Nell? Did they bury her?” Nell had been their barn cat.
“Yes,” Cassandra was trying hard not to let the tears go, else she frighten Thalia.
“Mr. Frost said all things have a time to die and go to Heaven.”
Bless Mr. Frost for the thousandth time. “That’s right.” They rocked easy for a while, far past dark.
Cassandra remembered the apples on the front porch and the milk on the back. Thalia helped her spread the apples onto the screen behind the cook stove for drying while Cassandra strained the milk into jars and took them to the springhouse. Thank goodness the back porch had been cool enough to keep the milk from spoiling. They undressed and washed in lamplight. The morning and apple butter would come early. There would be a new routine to their lives.
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