I’m stirring a pot of stew, wishing I had a bit of ham for flavor ’cause grits and carrots make a bland mix. Baby’s pulling on my skirt, wanting some now now now. My girls be digging for potatoes though I told them there ain’t nothing but stones out there. It’s been hard, our first winter on this hill with nothing put up. We’re eating corn grits three times a day, with a wormy turnip or dried apple for interest.
My cousin Jack sets hisself down on the stool and tugs on his boots. Jack and my Mam had the same grandpa. After my husband’s accident (fishing, fell in, drowned ‘cause he never learned to swim) the children and I had nowhere to go but the old home place. If you picture a falling-down shack hanging on the side of a hill, you correctly vision Pappy’s bequest to his only two living descendants: Jack and me. We share a house and seven rocky acres. Jack’s simple–can’t read nor write but fifteen years older’n me so I can’t tell him nothing. Last week Jack got out of jail after six months for selling moonshine.
“Where are you going?” I ask him.
“To fetch a pail of water.”
“We don’t need no pail of water,” I say. “The cistern’s full after last night’s rainstorm.”
Lightning and thunder had went on for hours, terrifying Pig. Pig’s still jumpy this morning when I take him the slop bucket. Pig’ll eat anything you can imagine and some stuff you’d think weren’t food at all—paper, hair, dirt. There’s not much by way of tasty scraps for him these days.
“Cistern water’s no good for brewing.”
“Are you crazy? Did you learn nothing from jail time?”
“I won’t sell it. I’ll give it away this time. Trade.”
“Trade for food, right?”
“What?” Can’t he hear my stomach rumble?
“Marijuana, dummy. I need seeds, fertilizer. Trade shine for money and buy what I need to grow it. Fellow I know made twenty thousand selling weed.”
“Your cellmate?” I am too famished to argue the obvious, that trading for money is selling. Besides, I know Jack. Big on talk, not so much on follow-through. I can’t see him weeding no pot plot.
Jack looks out the window. His brow is creased like he’s thinking. Unlikely.
“If you’re needing something to do, Cat’s hidden her kittens again,” I tell him.
He snorts. “The girls’ll find ‘em.” He picks up the pail and strolls off.
I been extra low since my brown Jersey cow disappeared. Last I saw, she were in the cowshed, munching on hay. Jack says she were stolen. Only the devil would steal a cow from a hungry family like mine. The children miss her sweet creamy milk. Baby’s not gained a pound since he turned one years old, and you can count the girls’ ribs through their undershirts. It’s a race to see what comes first, the month of April or someone dying.
I lean on the sill and look out at the mud, daydreaming about my garden. I’ll sow tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans for puttin up. Fill the cellar with sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots. In the fall, I’ll plant my greens. We’ll not be hungry next winter. What I couldn’t do with a bit of money. If I had money I’d buy Leghorn pullets, they’s good layers.
But Jack’s wanting to go for water makes me suspicious, since his motto is why do today what I can put off forever and he applies it to every minute of his life except meals, naps, and taking a crap.
So I follow him up the hill, a good piece behind. The mist is heavy, dampening my arms and face. He’s hiking at a good pace, not his usual amble. When he gets to the well, I crouch behind a stone wall and watch. He lifts the cover off the well, reaches in, and pulls out a brick. Takes out a cloth purse and pours silver dollars into a pile! Clink, clink, clink.
I knew he were up to something!
Only one way he got that money. He’s sold my cow, while the girls shiver and starve in their rags. I think about that money and my brown Jersey’s sweet creamy milk. I think about our supper—grits with a carrot. I think about Baby’s little stick arms, and I jump over the wall, grab the brick, and lay it hard upside his head. He flies tail over teakettle down the hill.
It’s believed he stumbled, broke his crown. That were a possibility, the grass were wet. Coming down the hill I myself slip, the coins jingling heavy in my pocket.
I soak brown paper in cider vinegar and wrap his head, but he never opens his eyes. He breathes his last at midday. The girls cry for Uncle Jack until I promise ’em biscuits for supper. Pig eats the paper.
In the afternoon I go to town and buy a brown Jersey cow. Get a good price cause I’m a widow, and there’s money left over for sugar and flour and six Leghorn pullets. At supper I spread butter on our biscuits and pour milk gravy over the grits. Baby eats until he can’t move. I swear the girls grow an inch on the spot. We all enjoy the feeling of a full belly. Nothing’s better than sweet creamy milk from a brown Jersey cow.
Karen Pullen’s short stories have appeared in Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, bosque (the magazine), Phantasmacore, Sixfold, and several anthologies. Her mystery novel COLD FEET was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013, and she edited the collection Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing (Wildside Press, 2013). She lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.