Chapter 1: The Farm
The first thing you learn growin' up on a farm is never to stand behind the cows.
They don’t look it, but they’re meaner than Pa when he’s drinkin' and a hell of a lot tougher. They look all soft and pit’ful, with those big brown eyes and soft pot bellies, but I been kicked more than once by Sissy and Maybella, and none of ‘em have been gentle and polite like you might think.
I dodge up and away from Sissy’s foot as she tries to get a ‘nother good swing in, barely brushin' past her dirty old hoof and savin' myself a bruise in the gut. “Ole shit,” I mumble, cus that’s what she is and everyone ‘round here knows it. She’s so old that she ain't even good enough to make a pale of milk. All she does is poop, eat, and kick.
I think she’s a waste of good space and good feed, but Jenny loves her and Pa is soft on Jenny, which means we have to keep her or Jenny will cry and then Pa will get all flustered and then we’ll have a big ole mess on our hands which I’ll have to deal with, and the good Lord knows I don’t want that.
I already have enough to deal with. I’m only fifteen and I’m already lookin' after all the cows and chickens and pigs and horses, while Pa and Greg, who should be doin' this cus he’s the oldest son, don’t do shit with the money my work makes but buy more whiskey and get drunk in front of the kids every night.
Sissy lets out a pissed moo, like she hears my thoughts and she agrees with my words. Sissy don’t like Pa treatin' the kids like that. She like the kids better than me cus the kids are the only ones that take the time to come on out to the field and pet her and brush her scraggly, matted pelt. ‘Specially Jenny. Don’t know if Sissy and Maybella would stay clean if it weren’t for Jenny.
She’s here now, runnin' up the hill in her ratted out boots that are hand-me-downs. She got them three sisters after Rachel, the oldest girly. She’s lucky they haven’t fell apart yet.
By the time she’s up the hill, she’s huffin' hard, face red and splotched. Her blues eyes shine out a that red face like the stars in a clear night sky.
Normal kids wouldn’t get all tired out from runnin' up one measly hill. But Jenny is ‘fragile’, which is codespeak for sick in the body.
She’s a skinny one cus of it. Her arms stick out like bones from her dress, tentin' the dirty fabric up round her armpits and waist cus it’s least two people too big on her tiny body.
I watch her gasp in air, and don’t say nothin'. Jenny don’t like it when people talk about her bein' ‘fragile’.
When she’s done huffin', she walk over to Maybella, takin' out her special brush and comin' down Maybella’s hide so that it look halfway presentable. She don’t say nothin' to me. I reckon she’s embarrassed about her ‘fragileness‘. Even tho she’s only six, she knows when to keep her mouth shut bout things.
‘Nstead, she hums to fill the empty words. She’s got a nice voice. It’s the way a kid’s should be -- nice and sweet and clear. She don’t sound anythin' like Pa and Greg, after they get busy drinkin' and start singin' cus they be so happy. It ain't nothin' like that.
“Heard any news in the market?” I ask her, half to just say something’ and half cus I want to know what folks are sayin’.
She smiles up at me, as if she was waitin’ for me to ask. “Mrs. Mindy’s chickens are layin’ faster than she can collect eggs, so she sellin’ ‘em cheap. Only a nickel an egg. Mr. Cane finally has to close down his farm. Couldn’t pay without no crops growin’. An’ the Petersons’ got a new rope swing for their lake. Saw ‘em playin’ on it when Rachel and I were walkin’ back here.”
Petersons had money. They were rich folk, had a house by the lake and runnin’ water and everything. I knew them well ‘nough to want to go down there and try out the swing myself.
Jenny had the same idea. “Can I please please go down there with you?” she asks me. She got this talent of makin’ her eyes grow real big and sad when she wants something. Pa always falls for it, even tho he tells her that manipulation is a sin.
But I’m too smart to fall for that, and even Jenny knows it. When I glare at her, she drops those eyes real fast.
“You’re too fragile,” I tell her. “You’ll break all your bones if you go on it.”
She shook her head, all hot and angry. “Will not!”
“What you two talkin’ ‘bout?”
I turn around and Henry’s there, leaning up against the rotten wood fence.
Henry’s my favorite, and he knows it. Maybe it’s because we’re closest in age, him being just sixteen. He looks like me too. Same short, white blonde hair and blue eyes that match Jenny’s. He’s tall and bony like me too. Stringy muscles are on both of us from workin’ the fields.
“Jed won’t lemme go play on the Peterson’s rope swing,” says Jenny, face all twisted up. She’s doin’ the eyes again. Henry is softer than me, so I know he’ll fall for ‘em.
Sure ‘nough, Henry looks at me with a confused expression. “C’mon, Jed. Just a swing, right?”
“She’s fragile,” I grunt to him. “You wanna see her fall off that rope swing and break her neck? Be my guest.”
Henry rolls his eyes, but I can see that he agrees with me. Neither of us is takin’ chances with Jenny.
Jenny look at me with a red face, not from runnin’ up the hill but from bein’ mad about not gettin’ her way.
I sigh, lookin’ away from her and goin’ back to groomin’ Sissy. She accepts my silence as a final ‘No’, then forgets about the whole thing like it’d never happened.
She goes back to her hummin’, still happy as a clam even tho she can’t go down to the lake like the rest of us kids will.
Henry chuckles at her mood swings behind me.
“Pretty singin‘,” I grunt to her. I feel bad about sayin’ no and Jenny likes it when people complement her. Henry nods in agreement next to me, leaning up against Sissy and tiltin’ his face toward the sun.
“I think I wanna be a famous singer,” she tells the two of us, right then and there. Same way a person tell ‘nother person that the sky is blue or wheat is growin’ well. Then she go back to brushin' Maybella, as if nothin' happened.
She don’t understand. At least, not yet. She don’t get it that once you are born on the farm, you don’t get to leave the farm. Once you are born poor, you are always poor. She’s just a baby, so she don’t understand that just like me, she’s gonna live her life on this here farm. She gonna eat meals at that same old table every single day, she gonna learn how to knit just like Momma used to ‘for she died. She gonna marry ‘nother poor man, one who’ll drink just as much as Pa. She’ll have some babies of her own.
And then once she used her life up, she’s gonna die on this farm.
But I don’t want to be the one to tell her that, same way my brother Henry didn’t want to be the one to tell me. But ‘ventually, he had to.
I’d say that’s probably the second thing you learn growin' up on a farm -- that all your growin’ up will ‘mount to nothin’.