|Vol. VIII, No. 4, 1995|
by R.B. Mullinix
When Hog went off to the Marines, I tried every way I could think of to follow him. I yen got an old bible and filled out a family tree in it that showed I was born in 1935, though I was only twelve in 1950, but the Marine recruiter must have thought I was small for my age for the Marines and said I needed to grow a little first. The Navy recruiter at Chick's Barber Shop just laughed. Heck, I even tried the Army and they wouldn't take me. That didn't stop me. I carried that old bible with me in a sack and Dad thought it was books for the library when we went to Harrison off and on for two years. Mom began to have hopes I was going to be a preacher. None of it did any good. I had to stay at home and milk cows.
Hog wrote a few times from San Diego and Pendleton. His last letter from California said they'd finished boot camp six weeks quicker than was usual and were shipping out the next day. His next letter said he'd landed in Korea at a place called Inchon. The last one said they were headed north toward Chosen Dam. He never wrote from Korea after that, and as months and a year, then two years, passed, sometimes Mom would look a little grim about the mouth, but she never said anything. She continued to write him twice a week at the last APO address she had.
We had troubles of our own at home. We lost the old homeplace at the mouth of Sugarloaf Creek on White River.
Great-grandpa Mullinix settled there around 1850, cleared the bottom lands of timber and cane, and built a two-story log house. We were all born in that house -- my grandpa and his twin brother and sister, my father and [ his three brothers and four sisters, my three brothers and two sisters. Our first days had been quickened by sight and smell and sound of the land and river. After Hog came back, I started to understand what we'd lost.
The bankers and realtors had got the politicians to get the government to build Bull Shoals Dam. They said the dam was for flood control. Heck, nobody with any sense built a house or barn close enough to a river or creek to be bothered by a flood. Besides, except for tearing out a little fencing or drifting leaves and logs onto fields, no White River flood ever hurt a farm. It might rearrange things a little, but it didn't hurt anything. Grandpa fought as long as he could and fiat refused to move, until Buck Wade, the Boone County sheriff, had to come to prize him out of the house.
When Buck came to get him, he stood beside the sheriff's car and took a long look at the bottom lands his pa had cleared and farmed till he died in the traces. He looked back at the house and up at the cemetery. "A man ought to be buried beside the river," he said, and turned and got in the car.
My aunts and uncles and neighbors whose parents and grandparents had been neighbors went in all directions --some further up Sugarloaf, some up or down White River, some even out onto prairie land flat as a dried-up pond bed, some up onto the ridges. Uncle Lloyd said the U.S. government wasn't going to flood him out again and went to Alberta in Canada but didn't like how flat it was and ended up on the Spillamachee River in British Columbia. Some gave up and quit trying and moved to town.
Load after hay and cattle truck and pickup load, of trunks and plows, chickens and dishes and dogs, bedsteads and curry combs, we packed and loaded and moved.
On the last day, we got up early and milked and loaded the last of the cows. We ate a cold
breakfast because Mom had to let the cookstove go cold. We loaded it, climbed in, and rode
stiff-backed as a circuit-tiding preacher across the bottoms and up to the top of the first ridge.
There, both cow truck and pickup rolled to a quiet stop and all eyes turned back. We saw a whole
valley left lonesome as a lost dog --schoolhouse, cemetery, homeplace after homeplace, and
beyond all the fiver shining in the sun. Maybe the only thing that kept us from being turned to
pillars of salt is that the government ain't god. The stop didn't help. We just rolled on.
It was miles before anyone said a word. Maybe because she was the only one of us not born at the mouth of Sugarloaf, or maybe because moms have to learn to be comfortors, even of dads, Mom tried to force us out of our miseries. She yelled one of her quotations from when she was a schoolteacher out the side of the cab. "How is it that you bend your eye on vacancy?"
It took several seconds for Mom's yell to work through, even to Mooch. He yelled back, "Cause when we crossed that last cattle guard we knew we'd been booted out of Eden and would have to earn our cornbread and beans by the sweat of our brow instead of lolling around on beds of ease the way we always done here."
We sat like we had lost all our Wasday. Wasday was a word Isodora invented for the time when everything happened that she had heard people talk about, most of it before she was born, some of it long before any of us were born.
We moved on. We got on. Ever once in a while, the ripple and murmur and rush and roar of Sugarloaf and White River would echo in our minds and whisper of things we'd lost.
Dad and Mom had bought an old place at Self, Arkansas in a big pocket valley a way up Bear Creek from White River. It had a better house than we'd had before. Like the homeplace it had a summer bunkhouse for us boys and occasional hired hands. It had good hayfields and pastures and hunting and fishing. It was a good place. But it wasn't where we were born. It didn't have trees and solid walnut doors and rosebushes remembered for this great-grandpa or that grandma. It didn't have the spot in the big bottom where Great-grandpa Campbell had sat down against a gatepost and died. It didn't have a mill and millpond. It didn't have the river.
Sometimes, in the summer, the upland hay fields got so still and quiet you could almost hear the heat shimmer across the flats. Dad'd gaze off kind of vacant and you'd know he was remembering the old place, seeing the river roll through deep places against bluffs, eddy past the mouth of Sugarloaf, gathering the stuff it fed and created with, pushing whole shoals ahead of it, cutting, cutting toward the heart of things.
In March, nine months after the Korean war was over, we woke up one morning and found Hog's duffel bag on the front porch. We'd been expecting him because one of the Brittain boys came home and said he saw Hog in San Diego waiting for discharge. We just didn't know when. Hog was stretched out asleep in the bunkhouse. He had covered himelf with a white USN hospital blanket.
For six days, Hog never said more than a handful of words. He stayed in the bunkhouse, and Mom wouldn't let Mooch or me stay with him. Dad said his eyes looked as hollow as two piss holes in the snow. Mom said, "He's thin, thin as a wish. He doesn't walk fight either." He came in to eat, but he stayed by himself most of the time.
"Wasday,' Isodora said, "you used to live with us."
"I remember," he said, almost in a whisper, and stroked her hair. There was no change in pitch or tempo in his voice from word to word. It was like water dripping, or someone softly strumming one guitar string over and over and over. In the house, he'd sit and hold Isodora on his lap and look at her, and stroke her hair. Sometimes a thought would strike him, and he'd stop fight in mid stroke, his hand poised, his mind off in another world. Then in a few seconds or half a minute he'd continue like he'd never stopped.
He watched us. His eyes followed Mom from the time she entered a room until she left it, across the yard, out into the garden to pick beans. At the table, where it couldn't be missed, we'd feel his gaze, like an anvil. I'd look up and he'd be staring at me or Mootch or Iva Lou or Dad or Mom. Once, while Dad was peeling and eating an apple, he watched Dad's hands the whole time. He'd watch Dad a minute. Then he'd hold his own hands out in front of his belt and look at the palms, then turn them over and look at the backs, then the palms again, then back at Dad's, then his. It would've been kind of creepy, except his eyes always had a deep wondering look, like a pup when it sits waiting for you to get up and go do something.
After he'd been home six days, Hog said he was going fishing. Iva Lou was the first to say she was going with him. Even Isadora set in to go and she was only five. Hog said, "R.B. will go." I was the nearest he could get to having someone with him and still be alone.
We had been bed partners, as Goob and Mootch had been. That had made us real close, maybe because we just got to know each other's habits. In a large family in a small house, your bed partner is the one you tell what you're going to do someday. I've wondered if when kids are bed partners their thoughts don't mix together at night while they're asleep and they end up with the same dreams.
"What about school?" I said, afraid Mom wouldn't let me go.
Mom looked at Hog. "I don't think it will hurt you to miss a day or two."
"Where you going?" Dad asked.
"Sugarloaf," Hog said.
"You sure you want to go down there?"
Hog's head was already down. He kind of jerked it lower in a nod.
We packed eggs and potatoes and bacon grease and a tarp for a tent onto Dad's old hay truck. Meat we'd get from the creek and White River. When we started to leave, Hog said, "You drive." I was so tickled to, I didn't even wonder why.
We stopped at the old Parrish place to pick catalpa worms for bait and went on, on to Lead Hill where we turned down the ridge road toward the mouth of Sugarloaf. On top of the hill above the old homeplace, I slammed on the brakes and slid to a stop. Below us, where the mill and store and post office had been there were only foundations and greasy-looking streaks where ashes had washed down into the deep blue hole under the mill foundation. The bridge was gone, all except the big cut-rock piers. As far up and down the creek and fiver as eye could see, not a tree or a bush stood for fifty or sixty feet above the water level, just raw dirt ridges like wagon spokes leading here and there to big ash heaps where all the timber had been bulldozed into piles and burned. Across the creek, upstream a ways, up against the hillside above the big bottom, the foundation of Great-grandpa's house was lost in a jungle of overgrown Johnson grass and cockleburs. On the hillside above the secondary bottom, in a patch of raw clay where a dozen cedars two-foot through the trunk had stood, little rectangular holes in the ground and mounds of dirt alongside marked the eternal resting places of great-grandpas and -grandmas, Mullinixes and Campbells and Olivers, and the other people who settled the valley, before a government contractor dug up their bones with a backhoe.
Hog turned back toward the truck and muttered something about Chosen Reservoir. I climbed into the truck and said, "Let's get out of here and find a good clean hog pond."
We stopped in Lead Hill in front of Jack McCroskey's grocery and feed store, except the new sign on the front of the store read Schilger's Grocery and Bait. We bought bologna and bread from Schilger who had sold his farm in Iowa and bought the store and sat waiting for floods of fishermen and tourists. His bologna was only a little bit dried out on the cut end.
In the truck, I said, "Where we going?" "Buffalo."
In the hay truck, it took us three hours going through Yellville to get to Frank Skaggs's place on the Buffalo River down by Evening Star. Frank's Mom's brother. I started to stop at the house to tell Uncle Frank we were going through and to visit a while. Hog said, "Don't stop. Don't stop," so I just drove on past the house, through the barn lot to the edge of the second bottom. "Stop. Stop." Hog whispered.
He never said anything more. He just sat with one hand on the dash, tense, looking out the windshield.
From where we sat, the second bench sloped down to an eighty or ninety acre bottom, bright green with winter wheat well over shoe top high, that spread all the way to the river. Above the green, a road raised above the field level ran straight across the bottom to the river and divided the green from the upper end of the bottom, plowed chocolate brown, waiting for corn planting. A flock of crows were doing a rich business scratching and pecking in the plowed earth. Above the bottom, Uncle Frank's side of the river gave way to bluff that faced the MacMurray bottoms on the other side. From the base of that bluff, the river swung in a great arc around Uncle Frank's. The arc would have been bigger except it had had considerable trouble moving the bluff that rose from the lower edge of the MacMurray fields to over 500 feet high directly across from where we sat.
Half way up the bluff, a ledge showed where the river had once found a little softer rock to work on for a while, a million years or so maybe, give or take a little, and had worked its way back under an overhang wide enough to park school buses under. Swallows and rats and mice and snakes nested in little holes the river and wind and rain had made. Coon and bobcat denned in bigger holes, and sometimes coonhounds would go in after 'em, and usually come out with an ear or two redecorated. Above the overhang eagles that preferred the Buffalo River to the upper Mississippi in the summer had piled brushpiles for nests. On top, pine trees grew right to the lip and over it.
I drove down to the gate and through it and around the sides of the green wheat to the riverside. Before I turned off the switch, Hog swung from the door to the ground. I jumped out, too, all in a rush to get the camping and fishing stuff out and get some lines set. By the time I rounded the truck to where Hog was, he had his shirt off. "What are you doing?" I asked. He didn't act like he heard me. He was folding his shirt.
It was March, and chilly. That water was always cold. Wading in and out of the water with clothes and shoes on to set limb lines or even falling in and getting wet once in a while was one thing, but just thinking of going swimming on purpose shriveled me up. "You'll freeze your nickers off," I said. He laid his neatly folded shirt on the seat. He took off his shoes and set them on the floor board. He dropped his pants below his butt and sat down on the running board to pull them off. He pulled the right pants leg off over his sock. At the sight of him, all the muscles in my chest bunched up in my neck and almost strangled me.
Hog folded his pants and put them on top of the shirt. He took off his green skivvy shorts, folded them, and walked past me toward a circle of rocks where many a fire had been built. I managed to turn my head enough to watch him. He got to the fire circle and placed his folded skivvies in the center of it, so careful it was like he was afraid they might break. He walked on toward the riven Six inches above his fight ham a red blotch larger than a fried egg glared back at me. Half way down his right thigh another one glared from a deep, empty socket. He stopped at the edge of the water and unbuckled his fight leg at the knee, laid it on the gravel bar, and hopped one legged out into the fiver.
I think it was that stub hitting the water that jarred me out it. I tore out like mad toward him. I was afraid. By the time I got three or four big jumps out into the water, he had stopped. I stopped too, so scared I didn't know whether to pray or go blind. With his arms straight out from his sides, his face turned toward the sun resting on top of the bluff, he eased himself down into the water until he was sitting, the water at his uptilted chin. He just sat them, looking up at the bluff that loomed 500 feet above him. He swayed ever so slightly in what little current there was on the shallow side of the river.
I stood kneedeep in the fiver and watched him, maybe a minute, maybe a quarter hour. I don't know. Then I knew he had closed his eyes, and I wasn't afraid any more. Through the murmur of the river that flat whisper came, and I wished I could think he was singing to some god I knew, unless it was the bluff itself. "Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee .... ".
I turned and walked out of the water, skirting where Hog's leg lay. I tried not to look at it, but it was too much like trying to walk past a big copperhead.
I built a fire on top of Hog's skivvies because I knew that's why he put them there. Hog hadn't moved. I made up and baited a throw line and carried it to the upper end of the bluffhole and threw it out. When I got back to camp I sat by the fire and waited. I wasn't worded about him. Then I thought not worrying was crazy, because sitting in that water without moving as long as Hog had been there could kill a man. Then I thought, "No, Hog's crazy, just about crazy enough to know what's good for him." I let it go at that.
Hog sat out there for nearly an hour after the sun had dropped behind the bluff. He got up, hopped to the gravel bar, blue as a picked goose, strapped on his leg, and walked to the truck. He took a set of Dad's longhandles out of his duffel bag and pulled them on and buttoned them up to the top and came and sat down on a block of wood. ! made bologna and egg sandwiches and boiled a pot of coffee with river water.
While worlds and suns whirled past in a cold, brittle sky and the river murmured and chuckled along, Hog sat muffled in night. There was so much I wanted to know, but I couldn't find a question that seemed right. We sat until I could see frost glinting on grass and some of last summer's old cornstalks in the edge of the fire light. Then I crawled into the quilts and blankets in the tent and left Hog sitting by the fire.
When I woke up, I smelled sweet, foggy, river-bottom morning, and fish frying. Hog was hunched over the skillet watching two small catfish bubble in the grease.
"How'd you know where the line was?"
"Knew you'd throw out ...."His mind drifted off again, like smoke.
"....at the upper or lower end. Didn't figure you'd try a bluff line by yourself. Tried upper first."
I went to the brush and came back and grabbed a towel and headed for the river. "Last one in's a hog's butt," I taunted. I think Hog stiffened in mid-turn of a piece of fish. I looked for some softening at the comers of his mouth, some hint of the old Hog."Not now."
I figured if Hog could sit in that water as long as he did, I could take a quick bath. I did, and when I came out goose bumps popped out on my goose bumps before I could drag on my clothes and get back to the fire. The catfish and eggs reminded me of a Huck Finn line someone spouted every time we had catfish on the river bank, or any other time we had fish. It reminded me too that I hadn't heard the line from anyone since we had to leave Sugarloaf. I had to try it. "Jim, this is nice. I wouldn't want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot cornbread."
Hog stopped chewing. I'll bet that's the first time he'd heard that line in a long time, if he heard me.
After breakfast we hunted bait, digging up clumps of grass for the redworms in the roots, pounding stumps with a post to force nightcrawlers out of the ground, kicking over cow piles for the grubs and worms under them. We seined shallow holes along the bank for little perch, with Hog on the bank and me sweeping half circles in the water. We waded the branch above the bottom and as Hog eased rocks up on edge, I grabbed crawdads when they shot backwards out from under the rocks. Hog had to put a rubber boot on his right leg to wade.
We baited and stretched the throw lines, two long ones at the foot of the bluff hole and a long bluff, where Hog had an awful time walking. I thought that would be it, that Hog wouldn't be able to set limb lines, but almost as soon as we got back to camp, he started hooking limb lines onto his belt and putting bait in bags and the bags in his pockets.
"You reckon you can handle it?"
There were no two ways about it. Hog couldn't set limb lines with that leg on. We walked across the bottom to the river, a half mile above the bluff hole. There, Hog took off his leg and hopped into the muddy cut below the gravel bar. His one leg sank into the silt, pretty deep I guess, because when he tried to hop another step, he just kind of hoisted his body up in the water and settled fight back in the same place, like his boots were nailed down. He tried again, with the same effect. He tried again, and was still stuck. Then, he sank down in the water to his neck and got his whole body into it, and when he unleashed himself he came halfway out of the water and came down about as graceful as a cow jumping into a dip tank.
I tried not to laugh, but I couldn't help it. I yelled, "If you keep that up, you'll scare off every fish for a mile." A gob of river mud, thrown hard enough to hurt, splattered across my chest and face before I got my mouth shut. Before I could get my hands on a gob of mud, Hog had taken a couple of back strokes and one-legged kicks and shot to the lower end of the cut. He grabbed a willow limb there, whipped out a limb line, and tied it on and baited it.
For the next half hour, I just followed him. He hopped through shallow spots. He lunged through waist-deep water and side-kicked through deepen He hopped onto slick rocks he couldn't see and slid down and busted his butt and inhaled and coughed up riven He grunted his way up steep muddy banks on hands and knee and stub, and when he slid back down, he just clawed and groaned his way back up.
He tied limb lines onto everything hanging over the water and even onto some roots under water until he ran out of lines and took mine. Long before he had hopped and slid and splashed and clawed his way back to camp, he was used up, threadbare as the seat of a lawyer's britches, but he kept going, hook after hook. I kept wondering where he got the strength. He was about as strong as a January corn stalk before he started limb lining. It didn't make much difference. In three quarters of a mile, he had tied out about all the lines we had, enough to have covered three or four miles of good spots.
Hog crawled out of the water and stood up and started hopping slow, deliberate, his arms flailing for balance, toward the fire. His hair was full of mud and fiver moss. "You gonna make it all right?" I asked.
I went back to get his leg. When I got back, Hog was sitting out in the water again, the same place he was the day before. But this time, he had his clothes on, and was using a bar of soap on his clothes and his hair. He was looking up at the bluff, too, and talking to it.
I laid his leg down by the edge of the water and went to drag up more wood. After I got a good armload of dead limbs up, I went back to drag up a long sycamore the river had washed off the bank somewhere in high water and left in a drift as it went down. Head down, like a mule, I was struggling to jerk it out of the drift, when I felt someone take hold of the log behind me. It kind of scared me and I jerked my head around. I was so surprised I almost dropped it, which threw most of its weight on Hog, just as he was about to skip onto his good foot. I strained back into the load, while he got his good foot back under him. For us to drag together, he had to push off with his good foot, then limp-step on his bad one till he could get his good foot in place again, like he was waltzing on one foot and jigging on the other.
I was starved after not eating any dinner, and I knew Hog had to be, too, after knocking half the water and mud out of the Buffalo tying out those limb lines. We sat down and ate what was left of the fish we'd had for breakfast. Hog looked like the frayed end of a wet rope. I said I'd run the throw lines and get us some supper. Hog heaved onto his feet and headed up the bottom. By the time we got the lines pulled out, baited, and thrown back in and got back to camp, it was dark, and we had enough catfish to last us two or three days, and a couple of carp and a hog sucker to cut up for bait. We cleaned two cat for supper and tied the rest out in gunny sacks in the river. Before I got the dishes and skillet washed, Hog went to the tent to get ready for bed. He took off his leg. The stub was rubbed almost raw. Looking at it made me a little sick, but I couldn't keep from it sometimes. He saw me and grinned, the first grin I'd seen since he got home, but it was odd and crooked. "If Betty Grable had a gam like that, wouldn't she be something!"
The next day I expected we'd take up the lines when we ran them and go back home. I had already missed two days of school. But Hog didn't say anything about it, and I didn't either. We ran the lines and rebaited, night and morning, and Hog flopped and slid and crawled and clawed his way up and down the banks and came out mud caked each time. "I can see where you got your name," I told him once, "and it wasn't from your middle name, either." That time, his gob of mud splattered through my hair.
We did the same thing again the next morning, Saturday. We rebaited and caught fish, and Hog slept, from the time we finished running the line until four o'clock. I was about to go run the lines when he crawled out of the tent. "You got all the chores done?" he said.
"Not much to do," I said. "The hardest part was listening to you snore in there like a mule with the swenty."
We ran the lines and rebaited and added more catfish to the gunny sacks. At supper, I said, "Hog, we've got to go home."
He looked stunned. Finally, he said, "After while," in that old low whisper, and sat examining his hands.
Sunday morning, Hog still didn't offer to take up the lines when we ran them. We rebaited. We were bait hunting again when Uncle Frank came around the edge of the bottom field in his pickup. He had his church clothes on, and he didn't get out.
"Hog, I'm glad to see you back. You're a sight for sore eyes, especially your mom's.
"How about a mess of lawyers?" I said. "Their heads are the biggest part of 'em and their mouths the biggest part of their heads. We've got a couple gunny sacks full of 'em." "Bring a mess on up to the house. Etta's cooking dinner, and she'll expect you to come and eat. Then you better get back down here and get ready to go home. While we were down in Evening Star at church, Etta called up the Union Church and got your mom, and she seemed a little worded. Said she didn't know you were down here." He let out the clutch and said, "Come on and eat," and went on around the field toward the house.
I was ready to go eat a good dinner. Hog stood looking at the fire a minute.
Then he began to walk, kind of slow and absent, toward the river. I waited, to see what he would do.
At the edge, he stood a minute, looking toward the far side, where deep currents eddied against the bluff. He bent over and pulled his right britches leg half way to the knee, like he was going to take off his leg. Then he stopped and put it back down and straightened up. He stood there, looking across the river. He raised his head, slowly, so slowly he could have been counting the layers of rock that a million years had deposited, and in a million years the river had cut back through. Way up, so far they looked like sparrows, his eyes followed a pair of eagles soar around in a circle like they had no place to go, nothing to do.
I knew inside himself he was seeing that bluff and river, seeing the river cut through all that rock. He saw and heard generations of eagles and mink soar and chatter away, over and in the river, while ages of cedar and scrub oak and vine reach at soil in tiny cracks. He saw roots clutch and spread till they and the wind, and fire and ice, split the rock they cling to and all tumble down. He wasn't just seeing it happen, he was feeling it too, had been feeling it since he sank down in the water, and the river had done, was still doing, the same thing to him, cutting through the dirt that had hardened into rock. I knew, too, it would never cut all the way through, because Hog was a man now. I didn't want to think about that.
His eyes came back down the bluff, just as slow. At the bottom, a pair of mink chased each other in and out of slabs of rock that on Wasday were a part of that bluff up there somewhere. It was rutting season for the mink.
"We could have gone noodling over there in those rocks," he said, to no one in particular, but I heard him all the way across the gravel bar.
He came back up the bank and pulled in a sack of fish. We went on up to eat dinner.,
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