Mindy Beth Miller lives in Hazard, Kentucky, where she was raised and her family has lived for generations. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Spalding University. She was the recipient of the 2008 Jean Ritchie Fellowship in Writing, the largest monetary prize for Appalachian writing. Her creative work has also been featured in Appalachian Heritage and The Louisville Review. She is currently writing her first novel.
for Paul Davidson
Joel pressed his hand onto the glass and couldn’t believe his eyes. He stared at the flat land of Maine just out the window and felt like he could see everything. No round backs of earth pushed upward to the sky, nothing stood in the way of the sun. Filmy screens of light flashed onto his face and he squinted, shading his eyes so he could watch the sunrise. He turned back, dog-earing a page in his small Testament, and dropped it into the sack at his feet. The train rattled and shook, jarring his body in the seat. It wouldn’t be long now.
He looked down at his cousin, Delilah, asleep on his shoulder. Her chestnut hair smelled like coconut shampoo, which reminded him of his mother back home in Low Gap. His mother’s long hair always smelled sweet like that. He looked around at the other passengers and wondered what they thought of him and his cousin—their rich, caramel-colored skin and sharp cheekbones, their long, skinny arms and legs. And Delilah’s swollen stomach.
He studied the layers of clothes she wore and the black and green checkered coat, knowing that she had tried to hide her belly. She was about five months along but had stayed so sickly that the bump on her tiny girl frame could have passed for a simple case of teenaged chubbiness. When she was standing, her baggy clothes concealed her pregnancy from the eyes of others. However, when Delilah was sitting down, as she was then, the fact of her predicament became all too obvious. Joel scratched his fingers through his hair. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to help her and that people would judge her, look down on her. He reckoned that he looked like the daddy sitting there next to her, even though he wasn’t. A pretty woman in a smart blue hat gaped at them from across the aisle, and then, turned back and shook her head. Joel stared at Delilah’s sleeping face and thought about her short life that was so full of mistakes. He felt his cheeks burn under his eyes, a knot of sadness and disappointment forming in his throat.
The conductor brushed past their seat on his way down the aisle, announcing the next stop in a rough, booming voice that startled him.
“Delilah,” Joel said, nudging her side. She breathed in deep through her nose and scooted around, repositioning her head against his arm. “Hey,” he said. “You gotta wake up. We’re almost there.”
She clutched his arm, her fingers tight against his skin. He looked at her for a moment. She was so tiny next to him, like an oversized poppet doll. The slight bulge of her belly hooked his eye again. He wished that Delilah had never come, that she’d stayed behind like she was supposed to. There was no time to look after her, to worry about the worst that could happen where they were going. But Delilah always went and did any little thing that came into her head. He wanted to shake her awake, tell her that none of this would be his responsibility. She felt like a clump of hardened earth attached to his side.
He nudged her once more, a bit harder this time. Her eyes—light blue, the color of homesickness—opened and widened, finding his face. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Lord God, all this flat land,” Delilah said, leaning forward to gaze out the window. “I figured once we got here it’d be more like home. But it’s just flat.”
Joel didn’t say a thing to her. He couldn’t help but think of the horrible time his Aunt Betty had had giving birth. He watched Delilah. There was the hint of a smile on her face, the glow of excitement on her skin. He figured that she had no idea, or at least gave little thought to, the mess they were in. She was still a child, just a couple of months past fifteen. He felt sick looking at her. She shamed him. Anyone who caught sight of her belly would know what she’d done to end up like that. He shook his head, wishing that he could turn his back on her and not feel one bad thing about it.
His whole purpose in coming to Maine was to work hard, to be a man. He’d wanted to break free of everything that tied him to home. With Delilah there with him, he couldn’t. He’d never been able to get shed of her. Even when they were little, he’d had to hold her little fat hand in church or protect her from being teased in school. She’d always followed close at his heels. He felt responsible for her, never quite able to shove her away from him. He felt helpless to do anything about it. There were times when he’d imagine climbing to the very top of some high mountain, relieved to see Delilah and everybody else in his family so far below him.
The train’s whistle blasted and the brakes hissed. Joel watched smoky clouds of steam rise in the cold air. Something moved in his stomach, so he gripped his red button-up shirt tight in his fingers. He imagined that a hummingbird was caught in there, trying to peck its way out. He remembered his mother saying to him, “Be my eyes. Write to me and tell me every little thing that you get to see.” He felt like they had come to the edge of the world, a place he had dreamed of and maybe walked through in his sleep.
When the motion stopped and he could stand, he snatched up his sack of clothes and held onto Delilah’s arm. His whole body felt stiff from sitting so long. For two whole days he’d seen nothing but the inside of a train. It felt good to stand and stretch. All of the people squeezed close to each other, inching toward the steps going down. Outside in the crisp air, Joel sucked in a freezing breath and saw a white sign hanging from the station: ISLAND FALLS. He couldn’t believe they had come this far. A radio played somewhere behind him, recounting the surrender of Japan in a loud, nasally voice. It was all anyone had been able to talk about for months. Then, the warm tones of Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” burst out into the chaos surrounding him. Most of the people crowded beside the train, so Joel placed his hand on Delilah’s back and led her over to stand with him, blending in.
“What are we doing now?” Delilah whispered. She was so tense that she squeezed the top of her cloth sack in her hands as if she were wringing a chicken’s neck.
“We’re about to find out what’s going to happen to us,” he said. He set his bag down and shoved his hands into his pockets, tightening them into fists to warm them.
He stared at a group of men talking to each other. They stood in a closed circle and took quick looks at all of them from time to time. He picked up his cloth sack and twisted the top of it in his hands, aware of the press of bodies around him. An anxious expectation rumbled through the crowd and people rose up on their tiptoes to see or pushed in between those in front of them. Even though he felt a few shoves, Joel just rubbed his chin and pulled at the tiny blonde hairs that had sprouted there in the last few days. A large man in overalls stepped toward them, looked them over, and moved the lines of young men and women into groups.
“We appreciate you coming all this way,” the man said with a turn of his tongue that Joel had never heard before. It sounded foreign, something like German or French, and very proper. He wandered down each row, tapping shoulders and pointing to where each person needed to stand. “I’m dividing all of you up based on which farm you will be going to.” He paused and clasped his hands together. “Friends and family might not end up together.”
Delilah drew closer to Joel and wrapped her arm around his waist. He watched as she touched her hand to her belly and clutched a wad of his shirt in her hand. As the man neared them, Joel slipped his arm around her shoulders. He did not want to be parted from her, the only person he knew in this strange, wide open place. Besides, she needed him, and he couldn’t stand to think of her being alone. The man stopped in front of them, his tiny black eyes like chips of flint.
“The two of you married?” he said, wiggling his forefinger from one to the other.
“No, sir,” Joel said. “We’re just cousins.”
The man studied a piece of paper that he pulled from his pocket, scribbling something onto it. Joel noticed that the man’s eyes hadn’t even grazed Delilah’s belly. He was afraid that if the man looked hard enough, he’d find out and send her home for sure.
Delilah latched onto the man’s wrist. “You have to let us stay together,” she said, unable to hold it in. “We’re all each other’s got in this whole big world.”
She was holding onto the man’s wrist with such force that he glanced down at her hand. Joel saw that the skin on the man’s arm was reddening from her grasp. She let go of him. “Well, all right,” he said, scanning the groups he’d made. “I’ll have to send you to W.A. Tilley’s farm. He has a big crop this year and needs all the hands he can get.”
“That’s good, sir,” Joel said. “We’re grateful to you.”
They walked fast to join the others, carrying their little sacks over their shoulders. Joel climbed up and into the back of an old green work truck. He and another young man pulled Delilah over the tailgate and helped to get her situated on the metal bed. The truck rocked and jiggled over the dusty road, hitting bumps that pitched their bodies from side to side. Joel remembered the curvy roads of home and closed his eyes, seeing it all in his mind again as if he were right there. And he kept them shut tight so no one would notice the tears he felt coming.
He squatted low, piling the potatoes into his large basket. The rows stretched so long that Joel thought the field itself seemed to drop off and disappear on the horizon. Sometimes, he stood up to straighten out his back and wipe dirt from his eyes on the backs of his brown cotton gloves. This was on purpose so he could see Delilah. She crept along on her knees, gathering the fat, lumpy potatoes, easing back at times to dab an already wet sleeve to her forehead. He wondered if anyone had figured out she was pregnant. She was so thin—her bony elbows stuck out and the plumpness around her middle didn’t look entirely uncommon.
“Where you come from?” a man said. Joel looked at him. The man appeared to be just a few years older than him, maybe twenty, and his skin had a gray shade to it. His clothes drooped from his body with a belt pulled taut around his waist.
“Kentucky,” he said and crouched over to dip his hands back into the row of potatoes. “Not too far from Hazard.”
“I thought you were an old hill boy like me,” the man said, reaching out to shake hands. “Name’s Coy Hall. From Topmost.”
They heaved their full baskets over to the barrels and emptied them, hearing the potatoes roll in like a drum thumping. Joel’s arms ached, the little muscles twitching in his wrists and shoulders. He breathed hard and yanked off his gloves, his fingertips bright red and numb. He puffed air into the sides of his closed hands and shivered, a biting wind blowing across the field as the day faded. Everything looked washed in a warm brown light, but he could smell the cold settling into the dark, thick soil under his feet.
“She your sister?” Coy said, nodding toward Delilah. Joel said no and explained their journey together, that they were cousins who’d come north to make money for their families. Coy took a pouch of tobacco out of his pocket and worked a clump of it between his fingers, forming it into the shape of a mulberry and positioning it in his jaw. “That’s not the only reason she come though, is it?”
“What do you mean?” Joel said. He watched her struggling to lift her basket, the veins in her arms showing. He almost went to her, but another girl ran to help her. He couldn’t keep from worrying over Delilah. They’d grown up together, so he felt the need to watch over her as if he were her big brother.
“I heard some of the girls talking about it,” Coy said. “They figure she come here to hide awhile. But they’re worried, too.” He fiddled with his coat, holding it together around his neck. He’d taken a few steps away from Joel when he turned back and said, “Not one of them’s ever delivered a baby.”
His voice was low, but it seemed to carry out far in the quietness. The orange sky burned above the dark silhouettes of pines and birches. Joel stood there, waiting for Delilah to waddle down the field to grab hold of his arm. The bare earth cracked and trembled around him, the heaps of discarded, entangled roots and vines glowing white in the dimming of the day. He sensed her smallness next to him and that familiar smell, the scent of hickory and the old rooms of home that they brought with them on their clothes and skin. He glanced down at her trusting smile, feeling as if they were the last in a long line of forgotten people.
The music sounded sweet in Joel’s ears. The hand clapping and singing flooded the bedroom inside Tilley’s farmhouse where he’d lain down for the night. It wasn’t loud enough to wake everyone, but the simple beauty of those voices was too much for Joel to ignore. He got up, making his way to the back door where he stepped out into the thickening darkness. He trudged across the impossibly long farmyard to where the other potato field workers were and watched the reddish-orange firelight dazzle the ground and their faces. They began singing a new song, so he sat down on a fence post and joined in, his deep voice picking up the sad, slow tune of “Knoxville Girl.” Out of the ten seated there together, six were from the hills of eastern Kentucky. The others were from Ohio and Pennsylvania. He figured they’d never heard or seen the beat of those Kentuckians before. Some of them turned up brown bottles of Schlitz and hollered out, jumping up to dance when the singing turned to “Cripple Creek.” He stood and clogged with them, kicking up dust from his shoes.
He loved times like these, listening to all of the old mountain words that told even older stories. To be there with all of them, hearing them say things in their way, was like a late evening spent outside on the front porch. His eyes followed the sparks that sailed upwards from the fire like angry lightning bugs, flitting right into the black slate sky. He felt a tingle in his legs and face when his feet came to rest.
He stepped close to the fire and ate a baked potato. The chunks of the potato softened in his mouth and the taste was just like how the ground smelled, of deep earth when it is damp and cold. He stared into the blackness that stretched out over the flat, never-ending fields. The world there was so much bigger than the world he’d left. He couldn’t help but feel misplaced in it. He remembered telling his daddy, “There has to be more out there than hollers and hoed ground. And I intend to see it.” He could see that whole conversation in his head, almost as if he had been hiding in the barn all those years ago, just watching.
There were no high hills in that part of Maine. He always caught himself looking up, expecting to see them. Joel felt their absence dig at him, causing a sick feeling right down in his gut. It was as if he had been uncovered, left vulnerable. He thought he was like some secret thing suddenly revealed in the palm of a hand. He gritted his teeth and blinked, pretending to cough. He dropped the hull of the potato into the fire and heard it sizzle.
His eyes searched the faces in the wavering light and noticed Delilah perched on the top of a wooden crate. She took quick sips out of a Mason jar. Joel couldn’t believe how careless she was being. He moved toward her, stepping over outstretched legs and stacks of kindling. She tilted her head back and laughed, whispering into the ears of the girls sitting next to her, and accidentally sloshed some of the liquor onto her clothes.
“Delilah, what the hell are you thinking?” Joel said. He gripped her hand and pried the jar from her fingers. “Daddammit, you know you oughtn’t to act like that.”
Delilah shot up onto her feet and slapped his face. The bones in her hand hit hard on his cheek, her long fingernails scratching his skin a little. One of the girls sitting there made an audible gasp and held her mouth open. Delilah’s eyes were big, her nostrils flared. She looked at him as if he’d struck the blow and not her. He wanted to scream at Delilah, hold her by the wrists and push her down onto the hard ground. But they weren’t little children anymore—he couldn’t fight with her. Instead, he lowered his eyebrows and tightened his mouth, stomping off away from everyone. At that moment, he hated her. She had no business being in this place with him, and he did not want to take care of her. He heard her behind him, the thud of her shoes pounding across the rocks in the slender, dirt path.
“You don’t tell me what to do,” she said. She grabbed his elbow and pulled him back. He ripped his arm loose.
“I’m trying to look out for you,” he said, raising his voice. “You’re going to have a baby, Delilah.” He stepped closer to her. “You act like you ain’t got a lick of sense.”
“What I do is none of your business,” Delilah said. “I ain’t hurting anything. I’m just trying to have a good time is all.”
“You don’t get to be a dumb little girl anymore, Delilah. You can take care of yourself, but you won’t,” Joel said. He stared hard into her face. “How in the world are you going to look after a baby? You embarrass me.”
He could tell that hurt her. Her eyes glistened in the dark.
“I can’t stand you,” she said. “You just want to be rid of me. You don’t care a thing for how I feel.” Her voice was cracked and desperate. “I don’t need you. I can do for myself.”
He turned away from her, and said, “You don’t appreciate a thing, Delilah. I ain’t got nothing for you anymore.”
“Oh, go ahead, you’ve never cared what you said to me,” she said, almost screaming. “Even back home, you always thought you was smarter than me, like you had this whole world figured out.” She moved close to his side. “Well, look at you now. Nothing special.”
“At least I ain’t a whore.”
He thought he’d feel a great release when he said that, but it just stayed in his mouth like black tar. He looked at her face, a shrunken yellow moon in front of him, and stared straight into her wild eyes.
“Do you know why I come here, Joel?” she said and crossed her arms. “It wasn’t for the trip.” A few tears slid down over her mouth. “I come because I didn’t feel safe at home without you.”
Joel faced her and cocked his head. “What are you talking about?”
“Toby,” she said and stamped her foot. The name sounded as if it were being ground between her teeth.
“What about him?” he said.
“Don’t tell me you believe that story mommy told about me and that boy from town,” she said. Her voice sobbed as the words came out, “It was him, Joel. He did this to me. I didn’t want it. I didn’t.”
Joel wanted to smack her mouth. “You’re telling lies,” he said. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her, hard. “He would never hurt you. Or anybody.”
He could see Toby in his mind. His russet-colored hair. His skin sometimes caked with coal dust. The little dances he would do to make everybody laugh. Out of all of his daddy’s friends, Joel loved him best. But Delilah had never liked him. He remembered how she used to leave a room whenever Toby walked into it. He recalled how she would glare at anyone who spoke highly of him.
“You better not be making this up,” he said, the words squeaking from his throat.
“It’s true,” she said. She took a step back from him. “Mommy and Aunt Betty’s the only ones that knows.”
“If he really did that to you,” Joel said, shaking his head, “why didn’t you say something to me about it? Why didn’t you tell me things was different from what they was telling?”
“Because I thought you knew me better than that.”
She swatted his arm and hit him on the head. Her face looked sharp and unnatural. When he put his arms up, she hit him a few more times and marched away. He watched her hair bounce up and down with her firm steps, recognizing the seething temper that marked all the women in his family.
Joel climbed back up the stairs, creeping over to the little cot by the window that was his bed. Many of the other field hands were in the large bedroom asleep, wrapped up in quilts and extra clothes to keep out the cold. His breath stuck in his throat when his back touched the cot’s stiff canvas. He worked the pain out and tucked his arms behind his head. He couldn’t believe what had happened. He shut his eyes, tight, and tried to forget everything for a moment. But instead, horrible, disgusting pictures streaked through his mind. He imagined Delilah running through the yard with Toby at her heels, and right when she needed him most, he was off somewhere in the holler dreaming about a world beyond the mountains. He pounded his thighs with his fists and tore at his hair. A silent cry tingled in his open mouth. He didn’t know how much she’d been hurting, how much she’d been hurt. He hoped she would understand that.
He closed his eyes again and willed himself to think about good things. He thought about his family and what it must be like at home. He imagined the sound of the creek and the tap of falling leaves floating down onto the ground beneath the straight, tall poplars. He couldn’t help but feel that nothing would ever be the same again. An image flashed into his mind of when he placed his hand in the new cement under the bridge, using his fingertip to carve in his name. He liked to know that it was still there.
He heard his name, but it came to him like the high call of his older brother, App, echoing out across the tobacco fields. A warm breath swirled in his ear and he looked up at Delilah who was kneeling next to him. She cupped his chin and examined his face. She must have found a tiny cut she’d left behind, so she brushed the tip of her thumb across it. He squinted from its sting. Her hand smelled like cherries.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. He could see little straight pieces of her hair sticking up in the moonlight.
“I am, too,” he said. He couldn’t bring himself to look into her eyes, so he just stared at his hands.
She took a handkerchief from her pocket and peeled it open, showing him the tan chunks of pull candy inside. He propped himself up on his elbow and plucked one up, popping it onto his tongue. Its creamy sweetness burst out, melting, with just a hint of the way his house had smelled in the taste, like black walnuts. She smiled at him. “You know I love ye, don’t you?” she said.
He reached out and caught her nose between his fingers, wiggling it and pretending to twist it off of her face—a game they’d played when they were little. She laughed in that soft, broken way that she had. In their whole life, he had never been separated from her for more than a day. He thought of this, grateful for her plain, unchanging face.