Moonlight filtered through the oak and maple branches onto the old road creating silver-dollar patches that danced on the ground. Katie walked down the middle where the weeds grew tall to avoid the tire ruts. The earth was cool on her bare feet, but sweat beaded on her forehead in the humid night air. Katie shifted her burden from one arm to the other. It seemed to grow heavier the closer she got to her destination. The sound of her heartbeat filled her head and, combined with the hum of cicadas and bullfrogs, created a deafening roar in her ears. Her own voice sounded muffled when she said, “Jeremy, we almost there? I’m hurtin’ purty bad.”
Jeremy slid off the tailgate of the old pick-up truck when it stopped at the end of his drive. His home looked the same but after the summer spent away everything seemed fresh. The September air was crisp after the heavy heat of August and he could smell the pungent odor of apples ripe and fallen from the tree. The weeds had grown tall around the porch, making the place look unkempt. The smell of apples drying wafted through the open kitchen window, and he felt his heart might burst with the joy of being back.
“Momma, I’m home!” he called toward the front door. Immediately he heard footsteps across the hardwood floors of the three-room cabin.
“Lawl, Jeremy, ain’t they been feedin’ you none?” Momma exclaimed as she threw open the front door and rushed down the porch steps to hug him. Once he was properly seated at the kitchen table Momma set to gathering a plate and a glass and reached into the warming cabinet for the left-over biscuits. All the while she talked. She told him all the news of the community, the weddings, the deaths, the babies born. She talked about Daddy taking that job with the TVA, and Cousin Katie coming to stay with them since Uncle Donald had passed away. She stopped suddenly at that point and said, “Broke your daddy’s heart in two,” dropping her head as if in prayer. But just as quickly she continued on, “Katie’s been a big help around the house since Daddy is gone all the time and left all the work to me.” Her hands never stopped moving as she mixed up a batch of cornbread for the afternoon meal. “Now that your home I reckon we’ll get a lot more of the cannin’ done.” Jeremy nodded in agreement, his mouth full of cold biscuit that was too tough, and leftover country ham that was too salty.
Katie saw white dust kick up from the graveled road in the distance so she lowered her skirt back down past her knees and waded out of the creek. She’d made quite a habit of coming to the creek to cool off after chores were finished. Her aunt knew no better and assumed because she’d been raised in town she was just slow to finish her work. The creek offered a welcomed sanctuary from the constant badgering and ridicule she faced at the hands of that woman.
Before her father died Katie had been allowed to wear cut-off jeans and play Elvis records every night after dinner. Now skirts were the only “proper” clothing for a girl, and the radio was only played on Sundays, and even then, only tuned to the gospel station. Her aunt said she’d been “raised up a heathen” and that her momma leaving and her daddy dying had been the Lord’s way of bringing Katie back around to Him. How she loathed that woman, and ached to have her daddy back. She yearned for the eighth grade to begin so she could read books other than the Bible.
She made her way back to the house, careful to wipe all the creek mud from her feet and ankles so her aunt would remain blissfully ignorant of her idleness. She saw a young man walk up to the porch steps and pause. She paused in unison with the man, careful to stay hidden in the brush. She watched as her Aunt Donna greeted the stranger, and became aware that this was her cousin, Jeremy. She’d met him once before when she was four or maybe five years old. He was only a boy of about eight or nine then but he was a man now. He wore overalls, and the thin shirt underneath them had been cut away at the sleeves. His muscles looked strong and they glistened slightly in the sun. His hair was too long, probably hadn’t had a good cut in some months, but she liked the way the dusty blonde locks curled around his eyes, and the way he brushed them back with his hand. His smile was perfect and white, and, Katie noticed, caused two perfect dimples in his cheeks. It was hard to tell the color of his eyes, but Katie imagined them to be green like her daddy’s eyes had been.
He walked inside with his mother and Katie felt herself blush a little on the inside, the same feeling she’d gotten when Bobby McIntire had kissed her on the way home from school that day. That day almost a year ago, back when her daddy was still alive, back when everything made sense, back when…back when…
Katie came out of her daze when she heard her aunt mention her name and canning. God! How she hated canning! Stifling hot, and her fingers hurt and ached for days from picking and breaking and peeling… But Katie had to let go of her anger when the smell of potatoes frying in lard reached her. She suddenly realized she was hungry and her stomach lurched as if it would jump out of her and march into the kitchen and feed itself. She reluctantly made her way up the porch steps and into the kitchen. Jeremy was seated at the table; Aunt Donna was stirring an enormous pot of pinto beans. “There she is,” her aunt said, “Lawl girl, I thought you’d starve before you got them animals fed. I reckon you remember your cousin Jeremy?”
“Yes ma’am, a little.” She stood just inside the door eyeing him, now that she was closer she could see he was tanned and his hands were calloused from hard work. He looked at her and nodded a greeting and she saw that his eyes were not green, but blue like ice. She’d never seen eyes like those before. She felt her ears grow hot and her stomach lurched forward again, but this time it was not out of hunger. He smiled his perfect smile and said, “Nice to see you again Katie.”
“Hello,” was all she could muster at the sight of him.
“Girl, stir them potatoes!” Aunt Donna barked, causing her to jump. She quickly turned to the stove and began to turn the potato slices in the heavy cast iron skillet.
Jeremy couldn’t help but smile as he watched his young cousin sheepishly stand just inside the door. She now had her back to him at the stove, and eyed her carefully while his mother added more wood to the oven. Her thin summer dress was made from a swatch of fabric his mother had bought many months ago. It was yellow with small blue flowers, it cinched her waist with a bow in the back that was coming undone, it was unlike anything the girls in Memphis had been wearing this summer. It was sleeveless and he could see tan lines marking her shoulders. She was small and thin and her dark hair was waist length and braided down her back. The braid was also coming undone. She wore no shoes and crisscrossed her bare feet as she stood stirring. He noticed that the hem of her skirt was wet, it lay just below her knees and when she turned to move the potatoes from the burner, the sun shining through the kitchen window struck her in such a way that he could see through her dress and tell that she wore no bra, and her panties were small and white. He laughed quietly to himself at the thought of what his mother would say if she noticed. He could see now in Katie’s large brown eyes a quiet defiance of the woman. It didn’t bother him, he knew that had he been born a girl his life would’ve been very different. He quite enjoyed the view, her thin body gave way to budding breasts and a supple rear-end. He caught himself starring at her before anyone noticed, and chastised himself silently for thinking impurely about a girl, a girl who was also his cousin. He stretched his arms far above his head and said, “Reckon I’ll go wash up before dinner Momma,” and made his way out the door.
As he made his way to the side of the porch through the brush that lined the small creek he noticed tiny footprints in the mud of the banks. He laughed out loud to himself and began to unfasten his overalls and remove his shirt. The creek water was cold and waist deep at some points. He dove under, scrubbing with his hands under his arms and his hair in order to wash away the sweat and dust of the long drive home. By the time he walked back up to the house he was dry. The sun had risen high and it was getting hot. Dinner had been laid on the table, and Momma had even used her nice blue table cloth. Katie and Momma were already seated and waiting on him. He took his place at the table and they joined hands. As always, Momma said the blessing:
“Lord we ask you to bless this meal to the nourishment of our bodies, and that you keep us free from the sins of drinking, gambling, fornication, idolatry, and blasphemy. We ask that you protect us, O Lord, from those that would seek to turn our sight from you and damn their eternal souls to Hell. Amen.”
Jeremy opened his eyes and looked across the table at Katie just in time to see her roll her eyes. He bowed his head once more to conceal a grin. They all fell silently upon the meal of pinto beans, fried potatoes, cornbread and fresh tomatoes from the garden peeled and sliced.
When the meal was done, Katie and Aunt Donna began clearing dishes and Jeremy made his way out to the barn. He’d be sleeping in the loft since Katie was sleeping in the bedroom that was once his and it was in need of a good cleaning. “Aint fittin to put the girl in the barn, you being a grown man. The Lord tells us to look after the orphans,” his mother had said. It was probably the kindest thing she’d ever said about Katie, and he couldn’t agree more.
As evening drew near, Jeremy was tired and sore from the long ride home and the work of cleaning the loft. He was anxious to settle down and rest in the cool twilight of the day, and he was wondering when he could sneak a cigarette, a bad habit he’d picked up in Memphis. The barn was cool and he could listen to the sounds of the night and be alone there. He unpacked his clothes into an old chest of drawers and made up the old bed with a sheet and quilt his mother had sent him out of the house with. Aside from the hay piled up, the loft was like any other room with a bed, a chest of drawers and a pot-bellied stove positioned at the front of the loft, the end nearest the cabin. Through the cracks in the floor he could see the horses in their stalls, and their smell filled the building and he breathed it in and felt at home. The barn was positioned at the end of the drive slightly uphill from the tin-roofed cabin. The first floor of the barn contained two horses, and a chicken coop. A pig pen was built to the south side. Two beef cattle grazed in the field behind the barn, and from the tiny door that swung open from the loft, Jeremy could look out over them and beyond. It seemed he could see all the Great Smokey Mountains from this vantage. It was not quite fall, but the leaves had taken on a dried yellow color and Jeremy knew that within a couple of weeks the hills would resemble a great patchwork quilt as they burst into the full spectrum of autumn. He sat there on the hay rolling a cigarette and wondered what the winter would bring. Past the pig pen the garden grew big and ripe. One of the cows and a hog would be slaughtered come November, and what meat he didn’t smoke he’d have to take to the neighbors and keep in their freezer. Almost everyone in the county had a freezer of their own, but Jeremy and his Momma and Daddy just never seemed to have the money. Electricity had reluctantly been installed only a few short years ago. Maybe now that he was home and Daddy was working again, there would be more money and their little part of the world would catch up with the rest. Jeremy sat and watched the sun began to sink in a sea of pinks and blues behind the hills. His heart skipped a beat when he heard his father’s truck rumble up the drive. He rushed down the ladder and out of the barn to greet his father.
The old pick-up clamored up the graveled drive, bouncing and swaying, rattling the contents of its bed as it hit the deep ruts that had been washed out by the rains of many seasons. Bud was a large man, standing over six-feet tall with a barreled chest and large belly. His arms were muscular and tanned from the sleeves of his t-shirt down. He wore overalls that were stained with oil, and mud and bits of mustard from his bologna and cracker sandwich. He climbed out of the old rusted Ford and made his way up the porch steps and into the cabin. The smell of supper filled the front room and his wife stood at the sink washing vegetables from the garden. His niece, Katie, was sewing at the old Singer in the sitting room. “School be startin’ Monday girl, you sewing up a new dress?”
“Yes sir,” said Katie, not looking up from her task. Bud sensed she had been unhappy here, and he hoped that days at school and away from Donna would ease her discomfort. He loved his wife and knew she was a good woman, but he also knew how overbearing and judgmental she could be of the younger generation. Bud felt that rock and roll and girls in pants were just part of the change of the world and neither he nor his wife could do anything about it. Bud took his seat in the rocking chair and began to read his Bible by the lamp light and wait on supper to be finished. Just then, Jeremy burst through the door and yelled “Daddy!” Bud jumped up and smiled ear to ear at the sight of his son home after the long hot summer away in the big city. He grabbed him in his arms and hugged him tightly, patting him hard on the back. As they all sat down to supper at the table Jeremy said, “Here we are, all together.” Katie gazed out the kitchen window at the green blue hues of the sky near where the sinking sun was already blocked by the hills in the distance.
Katie’s normally olive skin was pale and her eyes looked larger than normal, and almost sunken back in her face. Her hair clung to her cheeks and forehead, and beads of sweat ran down her face and chest. Jeremy could smell the blood and the oil from the lamp as he stepped into the damp cellar. The moistness from the sweat, and breath of the women hung on the walls, and the heat from the summer night lingered even below the ground. Katie looked at him sweetly pleading, he stood on the second to last step and opened his mouth to tell her everything was going to be ok, but before he could make a sound her sweet pleading look twisted into something otherworldly and she screamed. It was a loud and primal sound and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. For a moment he considered turning around and running out of the cellar and into the darkness. He considered running and never looking back. It was at that moment he noticed the dress she was wearing. Through the lamp light and the sweat and the blood he saw it was yellow with small blue flowers.