Inside the house, heat radiated from the oven in the kitchen. The old cast iron woodstove in the basement burned warm and steady. Outside, a thick layer of fresh, white snow had started to blanket the brown grass and the empty trees. It didn’t often snow in the holler before December, but this year, flakes fell wet and heavy onto the newly cold earth. The gray, bright light of a winter morning peeked through the windows, and from his perch at the kitchen table, still in his pajamas, a little boy sat cradling a half-eaten bowl of grits in his hands.
“You go on along and brush your teeth as soon as you’re done,” said his mother. “I know you forgot last night.”
“I did not,” the boy answered.
“Oh, yes you did, James Henry Cumbow. Your teeth’ll fall out if you’re not careful.”
James Henry shuddered. He liked his teeth right where they were, thank you very much, even if he did sometimes forget to clean them. He watched his mother brush a raw turkey with melted butter, and then sprinkle on salt and pepper. His mouth watered.
“After you brush your teeth and comb your hair, you can walk on down the holler and watch.”
“I did so brush my teeth last night,” he insisted. And added, “I can really go watch this year?”
“I reckon you’re big enough,” his mother said.
He jumped off his chair and ran for the bathroom. He’d never brushed his teeth faster. From the kitchen, he heard his mother yell, “And wear your old gloves! I’m not buying more if you get your new ones dirty.”
James Henry dressed in a layer of long underwear, and then faded blue jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt. From the top of his closet, which he could just reach, he grabbed an old wool hat and last year’s gloves. He made his way back out to the kitchen, and hurdled toward the front door.
“Remember, now,” his mother said, “by the time y’all are done, dinner’ll be ready and on the table. Don’t be late. Tell your daddy, too, when you get down there.”
“I will, Mother,” he said, and grinned at her as he opened the door and stepped out into the cold.
James Henry had seen eleven Thanksgivings, this being the eleventh. Every year, before anyone else woke up, he’d watched his father walk down the holler and join his uncles and older cousins and all the neighbor boys in a tradition he’d at first found frightening, but now thought of as fascinating and necessary. Slaughtering the hog would feed all of them for months.
“And well, too,” his mother would say.
“It’s messy work,” his father warned him, every year. “And it’s hard.”
“You’re not old enough to help yet,” his mother told him. “And anyway, it’ll scare you.”
He was scared, a little, as he made his way through the falling snow down toward the barn and the smokehouse.
He was scared, and his hands trembled in their threadbare gloves. But he was excited, too, and he could feel the electric zing of it all the way down to his fingertips. This year, he’d join the ranks of his elders, and he wouldn’t be just a kid anymore.
He spotted his father first, standing outside of the hog’s pen with his Uncle Virgil and with Larry, an older boy from up the hill. Beside them, there were metal buckets full of steaming water, and a table with knives and gloves.
“Hiya, James Henry,” Larry said.
James Henry elbowed his way into the circle to his father’s side, and said back, “Hey, Larry.”
“Isn’t he a little young to be down here?”
Larry hadn’t addressed that to James Henry, but to his father, who looked down and said, “Your mama let you come down here?”
“Yes, sir,” James Henry answered.
“She tell you you’re ready?”
“Yes, sir,” James Henry answered again.
“Then you can stay,” his father said.
“Yes, sir,” James Henry said, and smiled big and wide at Larry, who’d started to look down at the ground.
“Well, that’s your choice, Porter,” his Uncle Virgil said to his father, “but I wouldn’t let my boy down here quite yet.”
James Henry crossed his arms and glared right at Virgil. “I’m old enough,” he said. “And quit talking about me like I ain’t here.”
Virgil just laughed.
James Henry didn’t much care. Let him laugh at me, he thought. I’m still here. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see his father smiling down at him.
“You’re old enough,” Porter said, “and you can stay down here as long as you want to.”
With that, Porter walked toward the barn, and James Henry followed him.
“Daddy,” he asked, “how old were you your first time?”
“I reckon I was about nine,” Porter replied. “Maybe younger. Times was different back then. Little ones had to grow up fast.”
“How about Mother?”
“Your mama didn’t grow up in the holler,” Porter said.
“Where’d she grow up?”
“Philadelphia,” Porter said, “and then she moved down here for me, after the war.”
“What did she do before then?”
“You’ll have to ask her,” Porter answered, “because I ain’t got time to answer all your questions just now.”
James Henry was quiet.
“You ain’t done anything wrong, James Henry,” Porter added. “We just have to get to work if we want to be done by dinner.”
“Oh,” James Henry said. “I see. Can I help?”
“You’re just watching this year. But you can stand right over there while I get things ready.”
James Henry nodded, and wandered over into a dark corner of the barn. He watched for a while, as his father gathered up some extra knives and a couple of saws, but Porter always worked in silence.
“Yeah?” Porter answered, but didn’t turn around.
“Can I go outside for a while? It’s not started yet, right? I won’t miss anything?”
“As long as you’re at the pig pen in about ten minutes, you won’t miss nothing.”
James Henry said, “I won’t go too far,” and then jogged out of the barn and towards the smokehouse. He took a moment to stop and scratch one of the barn cats on the head, and then kept on moving, over to the hog’s pen. Larry and Virgil weren’t there anymore, and so he got to take a good, long look at the hog.
He’d seen hogs before. They were fat and muddy, and didn’t move much, from what he could tell. But this hog – this one was special, because it was chosen for the slaughter, and it would feed everyone, and he’d never gotten to see one of those up close on the day before.
“I bet you’re scared,” he told the hog. “Or maybe you don’t know what’s coming.”
The hog sat in silence.
“I’m not scared,” he said. “I’m big enough to not be scared.”
Silence from the hog.
“I reckon you are, too,” James Henry added.
He reached out a hand to pat the hog’s head, but stopped when he heard footsteps behind him.
“It ain’t a pet, James Henry,” Larry said. “Stop fussing over it.”
Behind Larry were Porter and Uncle Virgil, along with a few other men and older boys. Robert, who helped with the stalls, and Tilson, who was only two grades above James Henry. And his Uncle June, too, carrying a rifle.
James Henry shivered. He knew what came next.
Porter walked up behind him and said, “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to.”
James Henry stood right where he was, and kept his eyes open.
“Suit yourself,” Porter said.
When the shot came, it was quick.
Porter put a hand on James Henry’s head, rubbed at the top of his wool hat and said, “Why don’t you go on back to the house now?”
James Henry watched what was going on around him. The snow fell, and the wind picked up. The men moved fast, methodical. James Henry thought they looked a lot like the bands he saw sometimes on TV, like each man had his own part and his own instrument. It looked a lot like work. Like when mama cut up a chicken for dinner, or when daddy brought home a buck to clean.
James Henry stayed, and his father didn’t try to change his mind. He stayed and he watched, and once the job was mostly done, he walked back up the holler.
When he opened the door, his mother greeted him, told him to go change and wash his face and hands. The house smelled like meat and gravy, and the woodstove still burned away down in the basement. He stood in the doorway, staring out into the room.
“You doing okay?” His mother stooped down and put a hand to his chin. She turned his face right and left, and wiped a smudge of dirt off his cheek.
“I thought…” he started, but didn’t know quite what to say next.
“What did you think?” His mother moved back to the stove, stirred at a pot of green beans.
“I thought I’d feel different,” James Henry said, once he finally found the right words.
“Oh, honey,” his mother said, “it’s just what we have to do to live. It ain’t all that special.”
“Then why’d you make me wait so long?”
“Because,” she said, and sighed, “part of being old enough and big enough and grown enough is understanding exactly what I just told you.”
“It was messy,” he said. “And it smelled bad.”
“I remember the smell my first time, too,” his mother told him. “And I got sick. I didn’t grow up on a farm like you and your daddy.”
“How old were you?”
“Twenty-two, and you were in my belly.”
“You got sick?”
“I did. And I didn’t eat bacon again for two years. You like bacon, right?”
James Henry nodded, and then walked into the bathroom. He washed his face and hands, and changed into clean clothes. When he came back in the kitchen, his father was home, and his mother was setting the table.
And when they sat down to dinner together a little later, James Henry got to say grace.
Thank you for reading! This is the eleventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.
Here are the first ten stories, if you’d like to read them:
And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!
The last story of 2021 will be posted at the end of December.
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