Relative

 

            Janie knew where to find him, up at his sitting place. “Best sittin’ spot in the whole holler” is what he called it. “Top o’ the world,” he always said, even though it was only partway up the mountain. She gathered her skirt and tromped through the dead leaves left over from fall. Past ash and slippery elm, past the big hickory with the arrow he carved in it, pointing the way to the sittin’ spot. She could hear her son, Jasper, behind her, trying to keep up on his short legs. She sure regretted his coming but too late now to send him back. It would take too long to carry him back down herself; best just let him come. He could busy himself while she talked to her daddy. And talk to him she must. Damn the old man. How dare he scold her and smack her, then take off as if he hadn’t a care in the world. In truth, he didn’t. All’s he had to do was make babies to grow up and plow his fields. He ruled his roost with an iron hand. She and her mama, Lilly, skittered around him, fearful and walking on eggshells. But every once in a while, Janie would get up the gumption to backtalk him. She just never knew how he might take it. Glenn MacClusky might laugh at her and quote a poem or slap and curse her. Like today. Today there was no poetry, no Bible verse, no laughter. This morning there was a cold, hard hand across her face and Glenn’s cold, steady voice. “I reckon it’s time agin, Janie.” He walked away, up the mountain.

            But today she decided to finish what she started. As she climbed through the woods, listening to Jasper struggling behind her and the watery gurgle of a wood thrush, she remembered Jasper’s birth another spring four and a half years ago. He struggled then, too.

            She had been propped up in the bed her daddy had made. Her mama wiped her brow. It was a typical labor in the beginning, but when 12 hours became 18 and then a full day, it became worrisome. Glenn paced the porch like a wildcat, chugging down whiskey and quoting Ezra Pound. “When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man, His smile was good to see…” Glenn was a strange man among the holler folk. He had taught himself to read and held proud and tight to the fact. He had a love of Pound and Dylan Thomas, using money he made from selling moonshine to buy mail-order books.

            As Janie’s hours in labor increased, Glenn refused to let Lilly send for the holler midwife, so they were on their own. Lilly had used every herb she knew and was out of ideas. She had put a knife under the bed to ease Janie’s labor and even encircled the house with salt to ward off evil. Janie had almost passed out from pushing, from trying not to push, from trying not to pass out, and on it went for hours. It was going to be a breech birth, and Lilly wasn’t sure if she could manage to get the baby out safely. At last, a tiny foot jammed out, and Lilly got a good grip and brought the boy into the world with barely a whimper.

            “He’s here!” Lilly shouted. Glenn slammed the screen door, came in, and towered over the bed. “Good-goddam, girl! ’Bout time!” was all Glenn could manage.

            Janie hugged the baby to her and whispered, “Don’t mind your daddy, boy. He jes’ rough ’round the edges. You git used to it.”

            Lilly took up the bloody towels and sheets and hurried past Glenn to the washtub outside. Then Glenn leaned over and looked the baby straight in the eye and quoted Dylan Thomas, in his own way, from Fern Hill:

So it mus’ ha’ bin after the birth o’ the simple light
In the firs’, spinnin’ place, the spellboun’ horses walkin’ warm
Out o’ the whinnyin’ green stable
On to the fields of praise.

            Then he said, “You be Jasper. Jasper Glenn MacClusky.” With that, he walked back out to the porch and sat down and rocked and looked away to the mountain.

            Now here Janie was, three miscarriages later (at least that’s what Glenn thought), and neither her private parts nor her heart could take it anymore. Her daddy was just going to have to understand Jasper was all he was going to get from her. Crazy, that’s what it was, anyway. Making babies on his own daughter.

            She reached the last stand of fir, trotted past the big granite rocks they used as markers, and there he was, sitting in his spot, smoking his pipe as if he did indeed own the whole world he looked out on. She turned around to make sure Jasper had made it up with her. He held up a handful of hickory nuts he had gathered along the way. “Look, Mama, for them squirrel Granpa-daddy say up here.”

            “Okay, Jas. I got to talk to Granpa-daddy for a bit. Whyn’t you go on over there that clearin’ and see if you cain’t get some squirrels to come to you whilst me and Granpa-daddy visit.”

            “Alrighty, Mama. Hey, Granpa-daddy. We come visit. I be seein’ you in a bit. Mama goin’ visit you firs’.”

            Glenn turned around and watched Janie and Jasper walk the last few steps up what served as a trail and come forth into the clearing near the edge of the cliff where he sat. Jasper turned left where the clearing broadened with wildflowers and carefully spread his hickory nuts on the ground. He was getting taller. Damn the girl, though. Why she losin’ her babies, he couldn’t figure out. Janie wasn’t but 18. She ought to have plenty of babies in her yet. He was the one getting old. He was the one who needed to worry. Jasper wadn’t yet five year ol’. The boy still had the whole farm to learn, and he was goin’ to need help. Glenn had envisioned a life like Jacob, with at least two wives and maids. But though he’d read about such a thing out in Utah, he weren’t Mormon, and even in the holler, folks didn’t take kindly to more ’n one wife. That’s why he’d had to use Janie. That wasn’t so uncommon round these parts. Though more ’n likely, it was a gal’s brother ’stead o’ her daddy. But Lilly only gave him Janie, and then her parts done give out. Doctor had to take everything out of her, said else she would die. Hell, he didn’ aim to lose Lilly. But he sure didn’t understand why Janie kept losin’ her babies these last couple years.

            “Hey, gal, hey, Jas. Whatchya’ll doin’ up here?” Glenn spoke as if there’d been no argument this morning.

            “Daddy, we need to talk some more.” Janie huffed a bit, out of breath from the climb. She sat down just a few feet behind and to the right of her father. Glenn turned and faced her.

            “Hell, gal, ya shore made a long trip up here. What ya need to talk more ’bout?”

            “I ain’t havin’ no more babies, Daddy.” Janie tried to steady her voice.

            Glenn’s voice was rock solid. “You right, you hain’t been havin’ no babies. How come? Why you been losin’ ’em, anyway?”

            “I done tol’ you, I jus’ hain’t been able to carry ’em past a couple months no more, Daddy. But I don’t mean that. I mean I ain’t goin’ to try no more. You ain’t goin’ to git on me no more to make me try.”

            Glenn took his pipe from his mouth and examined it closely. Then he looked hard at Janie. “Whatsat you say, girl?”

            “I reckon you heard what I said, Daddy.” Janie anticipated him standing, and she was ready. She was on her feet a split second before him and backed a bit away. Still, his 6’2” frame towered over her.

            “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?” Glenn quoted Jacob from Genesis.

            Janie hadn’t listened to her daddy read the Scripture all her life for nothing. She quoted Rachel (though she knew the last part referred to Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid). “‘God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son.’ And that’s all you’re gittin’ offa me, old man! It just ain’t right in the first place. I can’t even go outta this holler. What kinda life Jasper gonna have, people knowin’ his daddy his granpa?”

            If Glenn was surprised at his daughter’s tirade, his stony face did not show it. “What bizness you got outta the holler? What bizness Jasper got outta the holler? Ever-thang ya’ll need rightchere in this holler.”

            It was now Janie knew she must do something. She knew her daddy wouldn’t hurt her too much for fear she wouldn’t ever get pregnant again. But he could hurt her bad enough. She shoved at him with all her might. And this did take him by surprise. His foot slipped on loose rock, and he skidded back on the cliff.

            “Janie, whut the hell you doin’!”

            “You ain’t never gonna touch me again, Daddy.” She heaved the words out, heavy as rocks, and shoved him again, but not before he could grab her arms and bring her down to the ground right to the edge of the outcrop of rock. His feet were already dangling off, his weight heavy and pulling on her.

            “Janie, git me up now, you hear? You quit this nonsense.” Glenn’s breath came hard and fast. Janie had never seen her daddy scared. She took no small pleasure in the fact.

            Suddenly Jasper was near them, calling, “Mama! Granpa-daddy! You fallin’!”

            “Jasper! You stay there! Don’chu move, boy!” Janie screamed.

            The boy froze, silenced. Glenn tried to scream, too. “Jasper, go get Granny!” But the wind caught his breathless words and carried them down instead of across the cliff. Janie tried to shake his hold and push him farther out. He was almost loose. It had to be several hundred feet down the cliff, maybe even a thousand. The drop went in and out of the mountainside, near a wash and a stand of white pine. And they weren’t even halfway up the summit. If she could get him off of her, he wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of surviving. And it was her only chance, even if she ended up in Hell for doing it. Her life was already hell anyway. Why shouldn’t she have just a little peace here on earth before she had to worry about eternity? And who knows if all that was true, anyway? She’d take her chances. She tried to pry his fingers from her wrist where they clung like the fingers of the dying man he was.

            Glenn looked up at her. She could tell his strength was giving. There was sheer rock against the cliffside so he could not get a boot-hold. He opened his mouth, the words barely audible:

Th’ force thet through th’ green fuse drives th’ flaw’r
Drives mah green age; thet blasts the roots of trees
Is mah destroyer.
An’ I am dumb to tell th’ crook’d rose
Mah youth is bent by th’ same wintry fever.

            She guessed Dylan Thomas just from knowing the man and the rhythm. At that, he let go. But not without Janie losing her balance and swinging over the edge also. She didn’t fall with him, though. Somehow she managed to cling to the outcropping her father had sat on not 20 minutes earlier. She heard Glenn hit against the side of the cliff, but not a sound came from his lips. Janie wondered where he landed. Maybe he fell into the wash. The pines might have broken his fall enough to save him. Could he still be alive? She prayed with all her might that he was not. She had no idea what she would tell her mama or Jasper.

            Jasper. She called to him. “Jasper? Boy, c’mon over here real slow like, okay?”

            Janie couldn’t see too far up over the edge of the rock. But Jasper crept up near enough so she could see his face. “Mama?” he said softly. “Where Granpa-daddy?”

            “He…he done fell, honey. Listen to me real careful, Jasper.” It was sure hard to talk from this position. “I want you go back down th’ mountain and git Granny and bring her back here. Cin you do that? Don’ stop fer nuthin’. Go straight to the house and git Granny. Okay?”

            “Yes’m. You want me run?” Jasper’s green eyes, Glenn’s eyes, were big and bright. Janie was doubtful the boy could run down the rough mountain trail without falling. And she was doubtful she could hold on for as long as it would take him to get down and her mother to get back up to the cliff with him.

            “Just go, Jasper, fast as you can, but don’t fall or git hurt, you hear?” The boy took off down what there was of a trail, and Janie was alone with her labored breath. Somewhere a hawk’s cry broke the silence of the sky. It was already mid-morning, and the sun was coming around to this side of the mountain. Soon she would be in full heat. Her hands were already damp with sweat. She scrunched her fingers against the rock as best she could without loosening her grip so she could use rock dust to dry her hands. She felt with her feet for anything that felt like a toehold against the cliff, just as her daddy must have done.

            “Lord Almighty! Well, I reckon y’all are punishin’ me now after all. Don’t matter that man done got babies on his own daughter. You gonna make me pay. Don’t make no sense, God.” Janie would have preferred to yell at God, but she whispered the words so as not to waste energy. “Jes’ please take care of lil’ Jasper and Mama. And if I gotta drop, make me drop t’other way, away from Daddy. If’n I’m gonna end up in Hell, I don’t need to be near that ol’ coot for all eternity. That’s fer damn sure.” At that, Janie tried to raise herself up on her elbow and managed to get her left forearm on the flat of the cliff rock. A glimmer of hope danced in her eyes. She was a strong girl. Despite her daddy’s need for farm boys, she had been the extra plow hand since she was ten. She made a fist and pressed hard to push her weight up on her arm and scootched herself up a little. But without a toehold for at least one foot, she had no leverage to get her 145 pounds up and over. She wished she could get her skirt off and toss it up on the ground; that would take some weight off, and it could help her mama when she got there, if she was still holding on; they could use it instead of rope. In her rush to send Jasper down the mountain, she hadn’t thought to tell him to have her mama bring rope. She wondered what the boy would say to his granny. What he would say about what he saw. What did he see, anyway?

            As Janie thought all this, she thought of her daddy down the mountain somewhere. She wondered at the brazenness of him, having his son know him as his daddy and granddaddy. And what that would mean to Jasper when he grew up. She wished she could take him out of the holler and far away from here and give him a new life story. But that could probably never happen now.

            The sun was getting warmer. Her head was hot. Her arms ached. She had held on longer than Glenn, and she didn’t know how much longer she could keep holding. The rock edge had cut into the bottom of her forearms where they lay hard against it. She still poised herself partway up with her weight on her left forearm and was afraid any shift would cause her to lose that delicate balance. She gingerly felt with her right foot for anything that might hold her weight. Then, she found it. A small jut of stone she had not felt before. Just enough to put her boot tip on and lift herself. She managed to heave her breasts over the edge and scootch up to her waist. This in itself tired her immensely. She lay, breathing hard, with almost half of her body on the flat edge of the cliff. If she could just get her leg up and over. She swung her right leg out, balancing most of her weight on her left arm, tipping to that side. Her boot caught a rock edge but not enough to hold; her leg swung back down, almost dragging her body back off with it. She cried out, “God Almighty! Jes’ let me die then!” She wanted to pound her fist on the rock but daren’t take her hand away. “Why you doin’ this to me? What you ’spec me do, God? Run ’way from him? You know better ’n that. He kill me before this if’n I did.”

            She knew she shouldn’t waste her strength ranting at God. She quieted herself for a few moments, then once again swung out her right leg up and over the rock. This time it landed and caught. With a great sigh of relief, Janie rolled hard as she could away from the rock ledge. She looked to the right over at the edge and saw sky and mountains stretching beyond. She looked to her left toward the woods and saw the young leaves of ash and hickory, maple and beech, haws and oak. All luminous and vibrant. She looked on everything around her as someone coming back to the land of the living from the land of the dead. Then Janie lay there, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed. She lay there, sobbing still, when Jasper’s little legs came crashing through the brush, his granny close behind.

 

THE END

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