A PLEASANT REPAST
After the War of Secession, the South was hurled into an incredible poverty that lasted well into the next century, but the Everette family hardly felt the difference. They were as destitute now as they were prior to it.
Ellis set his feet on the cold, bare floor and crossed the room to look out the window. An orange glow lit up the eastern sky while the brilliant edge of its source broke over the horizon.
He pulled on his boots and walked past the kitchen where his stepmother Leanne, only months older than his own fifteen years, rolled a glob of biscuit dough in her floured hands. His father brought her home a few months ago, only two weeks after burying his second wife whose death had been a bit more mysterious than his mother's had been.
Ellis leaped from the porch without touching the stairs and proceeded out to the corncrib to check on his trap. The night before, he filled a bucket three quarters full of water and sprinkled some cotton-seed meal on top. A satisfied grin crossed his face when he glimpsed a lump of wet fur bobbing in the murky liquid. Leaving it for the time being, he went back to the house to rouse his three little brothers for a squirrel hunt.
No decent family would consider a hunt of any kind on a Sunday, but the head of the Everette clan never imparted much respect for the Sabbath.
The boys returned early with half-dozen squirrels on a string. Ellis held it up for his Leanne to see through the kitchen window.
He put his brothers to work dressing them while he returned to the corncrib. He lifted the large, limp, wood rat by its tail letting most of the water drain off before he wrapped it in an old piece of burlap and carried it back to where the boys were working.
“Where'd you get that? It's huge!” exclaimed little Ambrose.
“Yep! Just the right size, I'd say,” grinned Ellis.
“For what?” asked Abraham.
“For the King, of course. Only the best for the King, right?”
“Oh, no!” Abraham gasped. “You're not gonna give that to Daddy to eat, are you? What if he catches you?”
“He's too drunk to catch anything, the old bastard.”
“Yeah! The bastard!” aped tiny Andrew, and clapped his hands together.
The boys burst into laughter.
Leanne popped her head out the door. “Y'all quit that dirty talk!”
Ellis quieted the little ones and lowered his voice to an intimate level. “Listen, y'all. Don't let Leanne know what we're doing. She's so scared of him she'll blow the whole thing to kingdom come, even if she knows he's got it coming! And we all know he's got it coming, right?”
The boys nodded unanimously.
“Then, y'all just hush up about it and let me handle it.”
After a little while the boys finished cleaning the game and Ellis took it inside.
“Here you are, Leanne.” She bore a black eye from his father's last drunken tirade. Each time he saw it he felt as if a scab of stifled anger was being picked at and afraid that one day, the festering rage beneath would explode.
“Now, you make sure Daddy gets this big one.” He handed the rat over separately. With the head and tail removed, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the rat and the squirrels.
“This big one here has more fat on it. That makes it the most tender and we don't want him raising sand over how tough the meat is, right?”
“I'm sick of waiting on that old buzzard.”
“Hush, now. He's gonna hear you,” hissed Leanne. Ellis knew the dance he was doing around his father's patience was becoming dangerous. He glanced over his shoulder at Leanne. The split in her upper lip intensified the ever-present pressure inside him.
The temperature had risen to more than eighty degrees with an equally high humidity and it was still morning. If Ellis didn't know it was mid-October he'd have sworn it was July. He clucked at the mule and adjusted the buckboard's position under the shade of an ancient oak to keep the family from wilting.
Finally, Kyle appeared dressed in his Sunday best. His hair, slicked back with oil, was nearly as glossy as the high polish on his black leather shoes. Ellis knew his father wouldn't be accompanying the rest of the family to Sunday Services today. And, he suspected, neither would the recently widowed Mrs. McNeil.
Kyle climbed onto the seat next to his oldest son. “Okay, boy. Let's go,” he ordered.
Ellis snapped the reins and took a quick glance at his father. The flesh had returned to his old man's long bones and the dark, leathery tan acquired while serving two years on a South Alabama chain gang had faded. Ellis remembered feeling as if he was beginning to serve his own sentence when he and his young brothers were returned to their surviving parent and his mother's murderer.
“You can leave me at Odell's,” said Kyle. “I don't feel like listenin' to no preacher hollerin' and bangin' his fists this mornin'. Gives me a headache.”
Apparently, the new widow didn't give him a headache.
Odell Carpenter was a local entrepreneur who opened his juke joint on Saturday nights and sold the product of his homemade distillery during the week. Odell didn't observe the Sabbath either. He was open any time day or night. Kyle was one of Odell's regular customers in the old days and as his newfound albeit short-lived, passion for religion cooled, it came as no surprise to anyone to see him resume his patronage.
“Haw, Jake,” Ellis called to the mule as he yanked on the reins to make the sharp left turn up Odell's drive.
“You can drop me here,” said Kyle. “No use trying to beat Old Jake up this hill.”
Ellis choked back a groan. He knew the widow woman must be nearby.
“And,” Kyle added as he hopped to the ground, “You don't have to come and wait for me after church neither. Only, make sure you come back to pick me up for supper.”
Ordinarily, Ellis would have resented the disruption of his afternoon and the imposition of an extra trip, but today he was happy to oblige his father.
Leanne set the food on the table and the platter of meat in front of Kyle.
“Hmm, squirrel. Ain't had none of this in a while,” Kyle said, as Leanne selected his portion and finished filling his plate with vegetables.
She set the plate down in front of him and said, “The boys picked this one special for you.”
Ellis felt his heart pound in his throat but managed to keep his expression flat.
Kyle looked at each of the boys. Then, his gaze settled on Ellis.
“Where'd you get 'em?”
“Back up in them pecan trees near the road,” said Ellis. His voice belied his anxiety.
Kyle picked up his fork and tore a piece of the roasted flesh from the bone. He chewed. He swallowed. He paused for a few moments.
The boys held their breath.
“That's the best squirrel I ever had,” said Kyle, and nodded at Ellis.Ellis beamed. He glanced around the table at his motherless siblings and battered step-mother and thought the only thing that could make this meal better was if his father choked on it.
Author: Aimee Dearman
Aimee writes: "I am a nurse and mother of three. My work has appeared in Tom’s Voice, Joyful! online and Menda City Press. My first novel, Closing The Door, is under review and I am currently drafting my second, Blue Dirt Filling Station, a fictional memoir based on my days as a gas station attendant at the only service station operating in the black in Blue Dirt, (fictional