|Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1995|
by R. B. Mullinix
Early last spring when Grandma Mullinix came, I had a little bit of a cold, and Grandma allowed I needed an enduring poultice on my chest. Sometimes a kid at Hopedale School smelled like Vicks' salve, but Grandma didn't hold with such temporary remedies, and the Kennedy kids wore assafatiddety bags around their necks all winter, but Grandma thought anyone who put those around a kid's neck had been touched by the moon, instead of just reading its signs. Grandma always used things that worked, and worked hard, and kept working. She fixed up a skunk-oil poultice and tied to my chest, and buttoned up my shirt and patted my poultice. "That'll open up your chest and keep it open," she said. It did, too, and pert'near the whole schoolhouse.
Now, Grandma was a medicine woman, a serious one. She had studied medicines. I betcha she had personally tested every possible concoction of plant and animal and earth her old Osage hands could scrape off, dig up, and squeeze out. By name and by taste, she knew every drugstore and hardware chemical. She must have stood in the moonlight at some sacred tribal place and begged for power. To have known all the things she knew, she had to have had special powers--unnatural ones. The odors she bathed us in, plastered to our chests, dripped into our ears and eyes and noses--she had gone to perdition and the proprietor there had given her the trade secrets to get her to leave. I know she had.
Grandma didn't believe in sweetening up medicine with honey or sugar or battery acid either.
Grandma had another power too. She could pin you down with her black eyes, pin you down and hold you and rummage around in your insides to see if a part might soon need her medical attention. She didn't believe in waiting for someone's liver or gallbladder to get sick before she doctored it.
During that spring visit, Grandma treated every ailment I had and every one Mom and Dad and my five brothers and sisters had and every one she thought we might get. That took her about a week. Then she looked over Orville Benton that Dad had hired to cut stave bolts. Orville, like a lot of old squirrel hunters from around here, had been a sniper in World War Two, and ever since an artillery shell had blown a tall tree out from under him two or three years earlier in France and he came crashing down through the smoke and limbs and met a lot of mud and rocks raining up at him, he'd been walking around like solid ground wouldn't hold still. So while Grandma was fixing up something for his head, Orville told Dad he reckoned he'd go over to Ben Andrews's for a few days to dig a cellar and he'd be back in a week or two to finish cutting the white oak. I thought, "Anyone digging a cellar when the ground's froze harder'n blue flint needs something doctored."
After Orville went to the smokehouse where he slept and got his belongings in his tow sack and walked off down the road in his old Army coat, Goob said, "The next time Grandma comes, I think I'll do the same thing, just run off."
Iva Lou, that thought she had to outboy any boy, said, "I dare you." Goob didn't say anything, but if Oral Wurstenberger had got a law through the Arkansas legislature saying we had to run off before Grandma came, it wouldn't have been as solid a warrant as Ira Lou's dare.
|One morning in July, five or six months later, after morning milking and separating were done and Mootch and Hog and Goob had gone off to do men's work, Mom sent me to weed the garden. I didn't appreciate weeds the way Mom thought I ought to, partly because she thought pulling weeds and milking were about all an eight-year old could do, but the garden had horn worms and moles and snakes enough to keep me from being too distracted by the weeds. If, once in a while, a squirrel or rabbit came close enough for me to shy a barrage of overripe tomatoes at it, or an old tom cat came close enough for me to splatter his dignity under a rotten cabbage, the day became more tolerable. If it was a brother instead of a cat, or Iva Lou, I always found a chore away from the house for a while.|
I heard a cream can hit the back of the pickup and knew Dad was going to Harrison. I straightened up and looked toward him, hoping he needed me to go to town with him for something. He went back into the cellar for another can of cream. I stood looking his way, stripping the leaves off a jimpson weed, watching until he had loaded the last can.
Guess I'll be going," he called out toward the house in case Mom wanted anything from town she hadn't already told him to get.
Mom came out on the back porch carrying my two-year-old sister Isadora on her hip and without even looking my way yelled, "Rubin Bartholomew, get back to work." To Dad, she said, "Why don't you stop at Mathison's and see if they've got any fresh backbone. You know how your mother likes backbone and sauerkraut."
I froze. I had to hear what was said next. "Alright," Dad said. "Maw'll want to stop at Stevenses too." I knew then what all that stuff about backbone and Stevenses meant. Stevenses was a drug store, and Grandma had followed her nose to things there that smelled and tasted worse than anything she could find in the woods and fencerows, so she bought a few things there to go into her big hookrug doctoring bag.
I tore across the garden in the direction of the big tobacco barn where I knew Goob--that's George Gordon, my sixteen-year-old brother--was renailing loose roofing all the way to the forty-foot-high peak and Hog--that's what we called my fourteen-year-old brother, Douglas Haig--was replacing sagging tier poles inside. I hit the slanted brace on the garden comer post just about square in the middle with my right foot, intending to land on top of the comer post with both feet the way Mootch could, and yell at Goob from there, but that brace pole was springy and I bounced all the way over the comer post and 24 into the bull pasture. I hit the ground running as hard as I could, cause I knew I had to cross that bull pasture in less time that it takes one of the brahmas or the jersey bull to focus his beady little eyes on me and to catch me. At the far corner, I hit the brace just fight and landed flat footed on top of the corner post without falling off. "Grandma's comin'," I yelled.
Goob quit hammering on the tin and stuck his head over the peak of the barn. "Whadjusay?"
Goob pitched his hammer and nail bag over the barn peak and vaulted over onto his butt and commenced sliding. When he came off the barn he always slid down, but he usually aimed his drop off the sixteen-foot high eave at the manure pile outside Dad's horse- stall window. He didn't even take time for that. He probably beat the hammer and nails to the ground, and inside the barn, Hog would already have come swinging down through the tier poles like a big monkey and done a double flip the last twelve feet to the ground, but I didn't wait to see. I'd already hit the ground running to find Mootch.
As soon as we finished milking, Mootch had taken off on the Fordson to take the mail bag down to the railroad crossing to hang on the mail hook---my mom was postmistress for Self, Arkansas. Dad had told Mootch to go ahead and hook onto the mower after he took the mail down and to start mowing the alfalfa. Mom said that George Gordon and Douglas Haig were too young to go climbing all over the barn or to saw sawlogs by themselves and that Joseph Muench--that's what she called Mootch--was too little to hook the tractor up to implements and run them by himself, but the last time she was here, Grandma said, "Well, it ain't killed 'em yet."
Shoot, Mootch was already twelve and could handle machinery almost as good as Johnny Rittlespurger who invented a rock picker that worked some of the time.
I figured Mootch had already left the railroad track, but I ran up onto the post pile behind the hen house and jumped as high as I could to look down toward the track. I didn't see him, so I cut a sharp left, hit the ground at full speed and slid under the barbed-wire fence by the road, and came up running toward the hay bottoms. It was a half mile, but I made it in five or six minutes. I could see Mootch's legs sticking out from under the tractor's rear end.
"Grandma's coming," I yelled from two hundred yards away.
Mootch twisted out from under the tractor and stood up on his knees like a groundhog and waited until I got closer. "What?"
Mootch grabbed his throat with both hands and went "Gyaa-aa-aa-aa-yuck!" and fell over writhing on the ground. Then he jumped up and we both lit out for home.
In five or six more minutes, Mootch and I raced right through the bull pasture back to the tobacco barn. Goob and Hog were already back there too, with a tow sack full of iron skillet and canned beans and crackers and a jar of lard they'd got out of the smoke house and a twenty-two and a couple dozen limb lines wrapped around a wooden shingle. Iva Lou, Mootch's twin, except she was a girl, ran up with a box of eggs wrapped in old newspaper, a half gallon of strawberry preserves, and about half a big ham sliced and a couple unsliced loaves of bread she had fixed up in the kitchen without Mom seeing her.
"Iva Lou, you can't go," Goob decreed. "I can too," Iva Lou decreed back. "No you can't," I said.
Iva Lou brought her black eyes around on me like she was swinging a wagon tongue, and I didn't argue the point.
"I don't see why she ought to stay here if we don't," Mootch said. He and Iva Lou fought like two mad cats sometimes, but they stood up for each other against the rest of us too.
Hog the peacemaker said, "We ain't got time to argue about it. Let's go."
"Go on. I'll catch you," Mootch said and tore off back toward the cellar.
To keep out of sight of the house, the rest of us headed off behind the hen house and through the witch hazel and wild cherry thicket for the railroad track, that would give us a straight shot to Bear Creek, even though we'd been warned to stay away from the railroad or a hobo would steal us and kill us. Mootch caught us before we got to the railroad. He had eight or ten big chunks of lye soap in an old bucket with enough water sloshing around in it to begin softening up some of the soap.
"Thought we might as well soap the tracks while we're going that way," he said. "The railroad never has paid for that cow they run over." None of the rest of us answered. No one needed to.
It took us most of four hours to cover the three miles to Bear Creek. I didn't enjoy myself as much as I should because I kept seeing weeds and brush that Grandma would make medicine out of. And when Iva Lou took out her pocket knife and cut some milkweed and told Mootch to rub the sap on his warts, I wondered if we might not just as well have stayed at home.
At Myrtle trestle, we slid down the fill to the creek and headed up toward the Blue Hole where the creek had gouged out a deep hole beside and under a house-sized rock that had rolled off the bluff above. Mootch lit out like a rabbit and yelled, "Last one in's a mule's tail." We raced up the bottom through cane and Johnson grass and greenbriar thickets and through shallow places in the creek and hit the Blue Hole like the swine of Gadarene. Gosh, that water was cold. For an hour or so we swam and scrambled up onto the big rock and dived and cannonballed off and splashed water at and ducked one another. Then me and Goob took half the limb lines upcreek and Hog and Mootch and Iva Lou the other half downcreek and tied out the limb lines and caught grasshoppers and crawdads and hellgram-mites and baited the hooks. Goob and I were back in Blue Hole a good ten minutes before the others got back. For another hour we swam and played at drowning each other some more before we got out and stuffed ourselves with ham and bread and strawberry preserves. Then we yawned and lay back on the gravel bar in the sun, and yawned some more,
and would have watched white clouds float across the blue heavens if we hadn't had to squint so much against the sun. The gravel was hot enough to fry an egg on, and in our wet cloths, we could feel the heat below radiate up to meet the direct rays of the sun somewhere in our middle and burn every care out of us we ever had.
It took another two minutes for us to hear Dad's old bobtail truck come bouncing down the creek road and for Dad to instruct us on what would happen to us if we didn't get back to the milk barn before he could get there in his truck.
We got there. We milked the cows and drove the old hides out to pasture to fill up again. We went in to supper, and to see Grandma.
We sat down to supper. Mom said a grace short enough to keep Hog or Mootch or Iva Lou from grabbing something before it was over. We passed dishes and platters around and helped ourselves, all except Grandma. She never sat down till everyone else had filled their plates. Then, with our plates full and our bellies rumbling, we had to wait until Grandma walked around the table, reached between Goob and Iva Lou and got the potatoes, walked back around the table to her plate, and served herself. She walked back around the table and set down the potatoes where she got them. Then she reached between me and Iva Lou and got the backbone and kraut, and she kept that up, one dish at a time, right down to the bread, till she got everything she wanted. Then she sat down to eat. No one ever accused Grandma of being dependent.
When Grandma finally sat down, the rest of us quit watching her. We started eating, with our heads down, so she couldn't see our faces. But finally Dad forgot and took a drink of water. Grandma's eyes pinned him like a bug.
"You look a little bilious, son," she said. "You got the jonders?"
"No, No, I'm alright," Dad said. "I'm feeling fine. Yessiree."
We all knew what he was in for, no matter how fine he said he felt--he'd be eating so many raw cucumbers he wouldn't have time to say what little he ever had to say anyway.
Pretty soon it was Hog's turn. Between slow bites, Grandma had been looking at his skin color.
"Your bowels been working regular, boy?" "Yes, Ma'am," Hog declared, "every morning, just like a Waterbury clock."
We all knew what that meant too. Hog was going to get a cup of tea, made of a sliver of mayapple root. The only problem with Grandma's constipation medicine was that it not only loosened the bowels, it dang near set a body's soul free.
"You big boys need another dosing for them risings on your face and shoulders," Grandma said.
She was talking to Goob and Hog. Both had pimples now. The last time Grandma was here, she rubbed stuff on Goob that smelled so bad the milk cows bellowed and kicked in their stalls when he came into the barn, and the skin on his face stretched so tight his cheekbones looked like biscuits.
Then Grandma looked Iva Lou over pretty good. "You about to come into your womanhood, girl?"
Iva Lou, and me and Mootch too, looked up at Grandma with questions on our faces. Goob and Hog just kept eating.
"Never mind, girl. I'll talk to you later." Mom grinned. Then she sobered up and looked at a cup by her plate that had some brown stuff in it that looked like molasses, and we all knew that, before the rest of us came in, Grandma had fixed up something for Mom to take with a meal, something she had boiled down from a big panful to a little cupful. Mom picked up the cup and tried to pour it down, but it was too thick to go down easy. Mom tried hard to make us all see how quick and easy it was, and she did a pretty good job not to shudder or grit her teeth or throw up. Grandma watched her, and looked satisfied.
When she got around to examining me, Grandma found that I had weak and crooked bones and teeth. Then she said I was stunted for my age, probably from unthrifty stomach and bowel movement and maybe thin blood, and weakened lungs from the croup I had last winter, and then she thought my eyes weren't quite straight. She allowed she could fix them all, and I wished I had drownded this evening in the Blue Hole or had a hobo steal me off the railroad. But I hadn't. I was here and Grandma was here, a situation that would cross anyone's eyes.
I had to take Grandma's medicine, enough of it to drive the whole Osage nation to Oklahoma, which I thought may have been what happened to them.
Grandma stayed a week. Part of the time she was stinking up the house with sulfur or aconite or old roots like poke and golden seal and yellow dock, sometimes with Iva Lou watching her and helping. The rest of the time Grandma wasn't asleep, which wasn't much, I had to carry a grubbing hoe and axe and drawknife in a tow sack and follow Grandma through the brush and fence rows and fields digging up weeds and bushes and peeling trees. We even went to Tharp's and picked up fresh sheep pellets, and I had to catch an old ewe and hold 'er while Grandma palpitated her and held a bottle under her tail till the old ewe filled it with what Grandma was going to drop into someone's ears for earache medicine.
"Everything in the world," Grandma would say,"was made for some good use." I guess during her visit she tried about all those uses on one of us or another. And I guess it must have done some good cause none of us got bedsick before she came back to prepare us for the winter. Hog ran his hand through a hayfork pulley when he tried to yank a kink out of the rope before it got to the pulley, but that ain't being sick.
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