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Coming of Age in Pine Forest

Part One: Source and Root

Chapter One

            Out here where there are no streets, no signs and no addresses, you forget all names ‘cept the one God calls you. Nature is God’s language and I heard its voice clearly. All I can say is, blood will out. Blood will out cause I’ve been round the world and schooled away most of my accent and here I am, back in the goodliest land under the cope of heaven.

            My people have been in these parts of North Carolina since afore it were just one Carolina and Tennessee were but the State of Franklin. We have our share of river sand in the records, but I graduated magnolia cum laude afore I caught sophistication and left Pine Forest. I tried to bump into northern culture and society enough that it would scrape off my Piney Woods tinge. All I got were abrasions.

            But now, I’ve returned, eye-eatin’ my past. I’se thirty afore I came home. Afore I considered this a home to return to.

            It seems like my life really started one peculiar day a stranger came. It was the last summer afore I started school in town. I was tryin’ to enjoy this summer mightier than the others I’d had because of its special nature, but it felt no different as yet.

            That mornin’, I sat on the wooden fence surrounding our property. I faced the only road in or out. The road was rough dirt most of the year and impassable in winter. But if anything excitin’ happened, it came down the road first. I wanted to meet adventure halfway. Still being early morning, I had seen nothin’. Adventure probably slept late.

            Finally, I saw someone approachin’ on foot. I was delighted.

            “I’m not to be trusted with ‘lasses or honey,” I announced as an icebreaker when the woman drew near.

            “What?” The woman was a stranger to me, but she looked like Ma, so I liked her.

            “Nor sorghum that I like. Too messy,” I continued.

            “Oh,” she replied. This woman wasn’t so good with children. I decided I would train her. I pressed on.

            “But Pa gave me this!” I held up my worn and grubby length of sugarcane.

            “My, that does look good!” The woman set her suitcase down in the dust of the road. She also dropped the high-heels she had been carrying in her other hand. They were coated with dust. I glanced at her feet. The stockings she wore were filthy and had millions of runners striping her legs. She looked me over.

            “Want some?” I offered her the stick of cane.

            “No, no thank you.” She pressed her hands into her lower back as she looked around. Not another person or vehicle or dwelling in sight. Just pine forests, tobacco fields and sugarcane as far as the eye could see. She removed a paper from her skirt pocket and consulted it.

            “Do you know where you’re goin’?” I asked.

            “Yes, I’m tryin’ to find the Webb place. My sister told me she moved since I was last here. Are you a tenant farmer’s daughter?”

            “No!” I cried, having heard Ma speak of this person. I leaped from the fence. “I’m Egan Ainsley Cade Webb and you’re Amanda Cade Carlton, my long lost aunt and you’re gonna live with me!”

            Amanda dropped to her knees in front of me. “Thank heaven I’m finally here! You’re Egan?” She squinted at me. “I met you last year before I moved; do you not remember?”

            “A year is a long time,” I said solemnly.

            “Yes.” Amanda put her hand to her forehead, “yes, it is. I can’t recognize you under all that dirt.” She checked her watch. “How did you get filthy so early?”

I shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”

My aunt removed a tissue from her skirt pocket, spat on it and tried to wash my face.

“No!” I cried, wrenching myself free. “I don’t have to be clean. Leave me alone.”

Amanda sighed. “You’re not my lady to raise. Where’s the house?”

“At the end of the road, of course.” I rubbed my nose and cheeks with my sleeve. “That way, come on!” I ran ahead. But she was so old she couldn’t keep up. I ran back to her. She was way over sixteen, maybe even over twenty. I decided not to hold her hand; old people were shy sometimes and didn’t like to be rushed.

            “How old are you now, Egan?” Amanda asked.

            “Eleven, but I know a lot for my age. It is 1965, and we live in Pine   Forest, North Carolina, I know our ZIP code and phone number.”

            “Very good.”

            “I know a lot more than that,” I boasted.

            “I’m sure.”

            “Why are you comin’ to live with us?”

            “Well…didn’t your Ma tell you?”

            “No. Did you get in trouble?”

            Amanda’s eyes sharpened, but then she relaxed. “Grown-up trouble.”

            “Permanent grown-up trouble?” I needed to know how long she was staying.

            “You could say that.”

            “Good! Then you can play with me. You’ll be here a spell.” I skipped in a circle around her.

            “We’ll see.”

            I knew what ‘we’ll see’ meant. Grown-ups’ polite way of saying No.

            We walked silently the rest of the way. The wild rhododendrons nodded along the fence. Goodness, purity and fertility rose from the dark earth like an invisible mist. Amanda gasped when she saw the house. I puffed with pride. It was an enormous colonial affair with pillars and gardens and verandahs and whatnot right out of a storybook.

            “I didn’t know it would be so…large. Who all lives there?”

            “Just us,” I answered. “Ma, Pa, Gram, Auntie J, Big Bubba, and me.”

            Amanda squared her shoulders. “Let’s go in!”

            “Around back. Front door’s for Sunday company.” I burst through the back screen door. “Look what I brung, Ma!” I cried. Ma was cleaning the stove.

            “Sissy! I’ll swan!” Ma exclaimed, then stepped out of Amanda’s embrace. “Don’t hug me, I’m coated with honey.”

            Amanda leaned against the huge kitchen table. “What happened?”

            “I was trying to prevent these jars of honey from going to sugar so I set them on the pilot lights to gradually melt; and the jars broke!”

            “Two quarts of honey on the stove?” Amanda asked incredulously, eyeing the jars with their bottoms cracked off.

            “Yes, stupid of me, wasn’t it?” Ma’s laugh tinkled. “Well, it’s not that much and it’s mostly cleaned up, so it’s all right.”

            “Do you need help?” Amanda’s offer wasn’t sincere.

            “Naw, I’m just makin’ breakfast. We’ll talk about Richmond. Why haven’t you set down yet?” Ma poured Amanda a cup of coffee. “Ma! Julia Louise!” She called.

            I sat at the table, suddenly sleepy. Quiet on my insides. Ma was cooking my oatmeal. Gram entered, noticed Amanda, grunted, sat down and helped herself to coffee. Amanda still stood next to the door like a banished child.

            Gram was like a old country doctor. She was desiccated and withered; her head and body had the appearance of being a dried apple stuck on a Popsicle stick. Her cure for everything was to give it time. ‘Give her some time and it will be better.’ ‘Give him some time and he will come around.’ What was so unsatisfying about that was it left everything so maddeningly unsettled. I needed answers and results as soon as I stamped my foot. Gram telling me to give anything time just made me plum crazy.

            I laid my head on the table. Big Bubba and Pa were out working already.

            “God isn’t even up yet!” exclaimed Amanda as she staggered into a kitchen chair at last. She looked pale.

            “You peaked, gal?” Gram growled.

            “Yep, sorta puny, Mama.” Amanda eased herself around in her chair until she was comfortable. I smiled tiredly at her.

            “Sissy, if you don’t feel well, go lay down this minute.” Ma finished wiping the stove with a flourish and then slammed three black iron fry pans on top of the burners, loaded them with eggs and meat and then poked and prodded the contents of the pans as they started to sizzle.

            “No, no, Lovey, I’m awright.”

            “Looks like you et supper afore you said grace, Sister,” Gram pronounced.

            “We haven’t had breakfast yet, Gram,” I put in. I wanted to take up for Amanda. Gram was overly mean to her, I could already tell. Amanda didn’t know how to maneuver Gram yet.

            “Mama, keep your nose out of it,” Amanda replied dully.

            Gram drank her coffee disapprovingly. “Maybe you should let Reverend Tucker speak to you,” she said.

            “Old sin-killer? I had my belly full a that,” Amanda answered.

            “On the contrary, you got your belly full a trouble,” Gram countered.

            “Mama!” Ma scolded, staring at me. Ma set my oatmeal on the table. “Now, punkin, you can have honey or sugar with this, but if you choose honey, you must take a bath after.”

            “I want sugar then,” I said. “Is it cool enough to eat yet?”

            “No, wait a bit, Dumplin’,” Gram told me. She reached for a biscuit Ma had just taken out of the oven. Gram’s palms were so callused she could pick up a red-hot coal without feelin’ it. She broke open the biscuit, buttered it, sugared it, set it on her coffee saucer and poured the rest of her coffee on it. “Nothin’ like a good soaker to get the day started right.”

            “La la la la la la la!” Jewel sang, sitting down. “Good mornin’, everyone! Such a beautiful day! I love mornins! Don’t you wish it could be mornin’ all day? Ha, ha! Oh, this food smells so good! Lovey, I just don’t know how you do it. Mmmmm, I love sunrise, don’t you all? A gorgeous blessing is what it is.” Jewel smiled at all of us until she saw Amanda and screamed.

            Amanda was pointing a .38 at Jewel’s head. Gram refilled her coffee cup. Ma added more bacon to the pan. Definitely awake now, I sat mesmerized by the gleam on that gun from the kitchen lights.

            “Jewel, I think you’re the tackiest, trashiest, most triflin’ no account mess of bones I’ve come across. I’m livin’ here now and there will be no cheery chatter at the breakfast table.” Amanda let that sink in and then tucked the gun into her pleated skirt pocket.

            “Sissy, I swear…” Jewel started but stopped as Amanda’s hand disappeared into the pocket again. I wondered what else she had in those pockets.

            “Give it some time, you two,” Gram droned, sipping her coffee with deep contentment.

            “No shootings at breakfast, it’s rude,” Ma added.

            “You sure got yourself some backwoods hair, Sissy. You pay somebody to do that to you?” Jewel recovered, asked Amanda.

            “Jewel, honey, you know my hair is natural. I have no truck with those beauty pits you go to,” Amanda replied.

            “It shows,” Jewel said, preening herself. “Lord knows you couldn’t get any permanent wave like yours twice in a row. It has gotta be real.”

            “Quit yer pickin’,” Ma ordered mildly, as if she had done this a thousand times. “Now, Sissy, bacon, sausage, or links?”

            “Gak,” groaned Amanda and rushed out.

            “Good morning, Sunshine!” Jewel sang to Amanda’s disappearing back. “She don’t have her wigs on yet,” she laughed as she reached for the newspaper.

            “Child, your oatmeal is cool enough to eat now,” Gram told me.

            And it was.


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