Below is a new draft of a piece I posted way back in June. I received some good feedbakc from readers, some of which I heeded, some I ignored and some that still has me scratching my head trying to figure it out. Let me know what you think about this rewrite. Thanks!
The late afternoon sun had peaked and was resting a brief spell before falling over the western rim of the River Gorge. Two young boys, one a head taller than the other, stood facing each other under the canopy of a giant tree just north of the small gray log cabin. Over the boys’ heads, bright green, oblong leaves, tapered to sharp points and edged with delicate barbs drooped from limbs several feet out of reach. Beneath their bare feet, the shaded ground was heavily littered with years of debris from the tree, contrasting the rest of the yard that was dominated by plantain, dandelion, and scattered clumps of grasses kept knocked down by a sling blade. Between the house and the river, a fall garden was still producing a few collards and some winter squash. On the lee side of the house, a lonely, narrow dirt road with no name passed by. Beyond the road, a dense wood grew up a steep escarpment to the vast craggy plateau beyond.
The taller of the two boys, an eleven year old named Kimball, stood with outstretched arms, hands cupped together. “Hull go!” he yelled at the other.
The shorter boy, Jimmy, who was three years younger than his cousin, waited for him to finish whatever it was he was yelling at him. Everything in the River Gorge was new, strange, and sudden to Jimmy including whatever Kimball was yelling, and the confusion of it all left him overflowing with emotions he didn’t recognize. Several times that day, he hadn’t known whether to cry, scream, or run. Each time he managed exactly what he did now—he stood and waited for something to either change or make sense. He wasn’t frightened or uncomfortable with his cousin or his surroundings. To the contrary, he felt a certain comfort in having a companion who was not an adult, but not as young as he was, either, and Jimmy knew he would be lost without him. “Hull go!” Kimball yelled again.
The boys looked like they could be brothers—both had sandy blonde hair and blue eyes but Kimball’s hair was shaggy, unlike the close cut worn by Jimmy. Along with the height Kimball had on Jimmy, he was significantly broader in the shoulders, and more muscular. Perhaps the biggest difference between their appearances, however, was their skin. Kimball’s hands were calloused and rough, his feet toughened from summers running barefoot around the cabin and the woods of the River Gorge. He was weathered. On his right forearm was a long, jagged scar about which Jimmy had not yet found the courage to ask. Without a shirt, Kimball’s deeply tanned arms, neck, and face contrasted his white torso. Jimmy, by comparison, was pale, soft, and weak.
“Hull go!” Kimball yelled again, this time slower, with heavier emphasis on both words.
Jimmy looked at Kimball’s cupped hands and wondered what he was hiding—some captured critter, a frog perhaps, or a lizard, or if maybe a secret treasure. Either way, he wished he would stop yelling at him and just show him what he was hiding. His words “Hull go” made no sense, and he didn’t know how to respond. As difficult as his first day in the gorge had been, at least he spoke the same language as his cousin. Now he wasn’t even sure of that, and he felt himself breaking. He did not want to cry in front of his cousin.
When Kimball saw Jimmy’s upper lip beginning to quiver, he remembered the serious talk his parents had with him the night before about this new family member. “Everything will be new for him here,” Mama had said, “and it’s up to you to make him feel at home, to be extra nice to him, to be his teacher. He’s more than a cousin now. He’s your brother, and he has been through more than you can imagine. You have a big responsibility, Kim.” Kimball knew Mama meant business when she addressed him as Kim. She reserved the shortened name for serious talks—grown-up talks, and right then, standing before his new brother who was on the verge of tears, Kimball knew it was time for him to be more grown-up than ever.
Kimball looked at the wet eyes before him and smiled gently as he opened his hands to reveal four shiny brown nuts, each about the size of an average striker marble but roughly onion shaped and flat on one side.
“When I say ‘hull go,’ you’re supposed to guess how many nuts I have in my hand. If you get it right, you get the nuts. That’s how the game works. Since you didn’t know that, you can have them this time,” he offered.
Jimmy sniffled and wiped his eyes, then opened his hands. Kimball dropped the nuts into his shaking palms, one of them tumbling over his fingers, onto the ground. He quickly knelt to pick it up, looking nervously at Kimball, afraid he might have done something wrong.
“It’s okay if you drop them,” Kimball said gently. “You can’t hurt them. You try it now. Hide some nuts in your hand and when you say, ‘Hull go,’ I’ll try to guess how many you have.”
Jimmy turned around and fumbled with the nuts.
“Hull go!” he yelled excitedly as he wheeled back around, eyes now sparkling, hands cupped together tightly in front of him.
Kimball looked down at Jimmy’s hands and gave his best thoughtful look before offering, “Three?”
“Nope. Guess again,” said Jimmy with a giggle, clearly pleased that he had fooled his cousin.
“No guessing again. That’s not how the game works. Show me how many you have.”
Jimmy opened his hands to reveal one lone nut, then reached in his pocket to retrieve the other three.
“The rule of the game is that if I guess wrong, I have to give you the difference between how many I guessed and how many you have. Since I guessed three, and you only have one, I have to give you two more.
Jimmy’s smile broadened as he realized he had just won a game, even though he really didn’t understand the rules, or the point of it all.
Kimball knelt down and very gingerly picked up an oddly-shaped, somewhat bulbous, spiky brown and green ball, about the size of his fist. There were many other balls like it among the leaf litter and twigs on the ground beneath the tree. Some were closed up tight, others had slight openings. Even more were split wide open into four lobes connected in the middle, resembling a thick, woody flower. On the inside, they were a light cream color and reminded Jimmy of dogwood petals—soft and inviting compared to the protective outer shell that more resembled a cactus. Looking at the spiked exterior, he made a mental note to never step on one barefoot.
Kimball flipped over the one he had collected, and carefully pried it open to reveal three shiny nuts just like the ones Jimmy had tucked in his right front pocket. He turned it over, and the nuts dropped onto the ground. He picked two of them up and handed them to Jimmy, added to his growing treasure.
“I’d say you have… four.”
“Nope! I win again!”
For twenty minutes they called numbers, and traded nuts back and forth. Eventually, when both of them had big piles of nuts on the ground in front of them, Jimmy asked the question he had been thinking the whole time. “What are they?”
“Porcupine nuts,” said Kimball, pointing up at the canopy. “From the porcupine tree.”
Jimmy’s eyes widened as he looked first at the giant tree, then at the growing pile of nuts at his feet. He had heard of porcupines, but he had no idea they grew on trees.
“When will they hatch?” he asked excitedly.
“They don’t hatch. You eat them!”
Jimmy’s brow furrowed.
“You eat porcupines?”
“They aren’t porcupines. They’re the nuts from the porcupine tree.”
“Well, where are the porcupines, then.”
“There ain’t no porcupines. There’s just nuts.”
Jimmy didn’t understand how there could be porcupine nuts without any porcupines, but he couldn’t think of the right questions to help him figure out the mystery before him, so he just listened.
“I heard Papa talking with Sheriff Saylor. He says there won’t be no porcupine nuts much longer, cause of a fungus.”
“A fungus. The Sheriff says its from China and it’s gonna kill all the porcupine trees. He said that the ones up north was already dead, and it was just a matter of time before it comes here. Papa don’t know what he’s gonna do when them trees is gone. That’s what I heard him tell the Sheriff.”
Jimmy picked up one of the nuts and stared at it intently for a moment, then put it in his left pocket, away from the rest. If Kimball had asked why he separated that one from the rest, Jimmy would have been unable to articulate his thoughts, or maybe he would have been too embarrassed to articulate them. But for some reason, he felt a need to protect one nut from whatever that thing China was sending after it. Or, maybe, he just needed to protect something—anything. Jimmy didn’t understand that need but, at least for the moment, it was being met.
The light was almost gone when a voice called out from the cabin and the boys turned around to see Mama standing in the shadows just outside the door. “Come on in for supper, boys!”
The boys stuffed their pockets with the bounty of nuts they had collected and ran toward the cabin. Papa was already seated at the small, square table in the middle of the room when they came inside. A single oil lamp in the middle of the table provided ample light for the room that wasn’t big enough for much more than the table and four chairs, a small wood stove, and a few shelves with just enough pots and dishes. Opposite the stove, a stone fireplace that had provided both heat and open flame for cooking before the stove came, and still provided some heat in the winter. On the far wall, a simple ladder went through a hole in the plank ceiling to the sleeping loft. A narrow doorway next to the ladder led to a recently added bedroom for Kimball’s parents, leaving the loft for their son, and now for Jimmy too. Though small and sparse, the cabin was solid and well-chinked. The floor didn’t creak as the boys stepped inside. Kimball turned out his pockets, dumping his nuts into a basket by the door. Jimmy followed suit, keeping the one nut safely tucked away in his left pocket.
“You boys been playing Hull Go?” Papa asked.
“Kimball taught me,” said Jimmy. “And I won!”
“Is that right…” Papa chuckled. “Well you better keep an eye on that Kimball. You win a few games against him and get comfortable, then he turns around and wins all your nuts before you know what hit you.”
Jimmy looked up suspiciously at his smiling cousin as they climbed into chairs.
“We can roast some of those chestnuts tomorrow,” said Papa. “You’ve never had a roasted chestnut, have you, Jimmy.”
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders timidly.
“He don’t know what chestnuts are,” offered Kimball.
“Ah,” said Papa. “Porcupine nuts,” he clarified with a wink. “We’ll roast porcupine nuts, Jimmy, and you’re gonna love them.”
“Tomorrow, we’ll cross the river, and gather chest… uh, porcupine nuts up on Chestnut Ridge. That’s where the big trees are. Have you ever been in a boat, Jimmy?”
Jimmy shook his head.
“Well tomorrow will be another first for you, then. Just wait ’til you see the trees up there. Some of those trees are so tall you can’t see the top of them, and they are loaded with nuts.”
“Maybe, they are,” said Kimball. “If the fungus ain’t got them yet.”
“Don’t talk like that!” said Papa. His serious tone caught Jimmy by surprise.
From the stove, Mama pitched in. “Now Kimball, your Papa said that the blight hasn’t reached Chestnut Ridge and that it might not…”
“But I heard you talking to Sheriff Saylor…”
“Never you mind what Sheriff Saylor said. The blight ain’t here yet, and until it comes… if it comes,” Papa corrected himself, “If it comes, well, we’ll deal with it when it does.”
“But what about China…?”
“You heard your Papa,” Mama said. “And you have more important things to worry about, like eating this pigeon.” Mama brought a cast iron dutch oven from the stove and set it on a mat in the middle of the small table, then took off the lid. Thick steam curled around the lid as she pulled it away, and with it, the rich smell of pigeon breast and potatoes escaped from the big black pot.
As they dug into their meal, the boys told Mama and Papa all about their day exploring the woods behind the cabin. Jimmy tried to remember all the things he had learned. He recollected that poison ivy had three leaves and some red in the middle, and the vine was hairy, and how Kimball showed him where the raccoons live in the oak tree. “And Kimball showed me the where the older berries grow down by the river,” he said, “but there ain’t none left this year. We’ll have to wait ’til next spring, if the birds don’t get them first.”
“Not older berries, elderberries,” Kimball corrected gently, trying not to laugh and looking at his Papa for approval.
“I mean Elderberries. And I showed him where the spring comes out of the rock, where Uncle Buddy had his still before he got arrested.”
“He doesn’t need to learn about everything on his first day” Mama chimed.
“That’s okay,” said Papa. “Out here in The Gorge, Jimmy, people have to find ways to make a living however they can, and sometimes that means doing things the law doesn’t approve of. Your Uncle Buddy was just finding his way, in his own way.
“My Papa told me about him,” said Jimmy. “He told me that Uncle Buddy didn’t deserve to be in jail. He said his liquor wasn’t good enough to get arrested for and that if he had made the good stuff and sold it to the white folks he wouldn’t have been arrested. Papa said that he only got in trouble cause he was selling to the negroes. That’s what Papa said.”
Jimmy was surprised to hear himself saying so much, and even as he spoke he knew he should be quiet, that this was not a story he should be telling, even if he didn’t know exactly why.
“Well, your Papa was probably right about that but, deserved or not, that’s where he ended up, and we’re gonna make sure we don’t end up there with him. That’s why tomorrow we’re gonna fill that boat up with porcupine nuts and after we cure them, we’ll take them to town and sell them at the curb market. The law don’t mind us selling porcupine nuts.”
After supper, Mama brought out what Kimball had been careful not to tell his cousin. For Jimmy’s first night in The Gorge, Mama surprised him with the last apple pie of the season, and all four of them had generous slices.
When the pie was dispatched, the boys loaded up the dishes in a basket and walked back to the spring where first they washed the dishes, then washed themselves. Kimball bit his tongue and did not say anything more about the infamy of that spring, nor did he point out the galvanized tank a little farther into the woods with all the hatchet holes in it. There would be time for more of Uncle Buddy’s story later.
It was bedtime when they walked back to the house, and climbed up to the loft. Kimball was exhausted from a full day of exploring and teaching his cousin. Jimmy was exhausted from the weight of the world.
In town Jimmy had a proper spring mattress on a frame all to himself, but in the gorge he shared a dense tick on the floor with his cousin, and he was glad to not be sleeping alone.
“Do you miss your Papa?” Kimball whispered in the dark. “Mama said I shouldn’t bring up your Papa, but I figure you might want to talk about it. You don’t have to.”
“Yeah, I miss him. But not Miss Caroline. She wasn’t my mama, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why you came here to live with us.”
“I’m glad I’m here, but I miss my Papa.”
“Well my Papa says he’s your Papa too now, but that you don’t have to call him that if you don’t want to. He understands.”
Jimmy didn’t say anything more, but he knew he was lucky to have another Papa. After the funeral, Miss Caroline had told him that it would be okay to start calling his uncle “Papa” that his own Papa would understand. But Jimmy wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.
Kimball rolled over and was quickly breathing the smooth, easy breath of a worn out boy, leaving Jimmy, for the first time that day, feeling alone and lonely. He wished his cousin would wake back up.
Jimmy laid on his back in the dark. The quiet of the gorge was new to him and it made him feel even lonelier. He closed his eyes and pictured the small house he lived in with his Papa and Miss Caroline. He had his own room there, with a window that faced the neighbor’s house. At night he would hear dogs barking in the neighborhood, and sometimes he would wake up to the sound of men stumbling home late from a poker game or one of the speakeasies that had opened in the couple years since they made liquor illegal. He wondered why anybody would want to drink something that made them loud and unsteady, and why his Uncle Buddy was willing to take the risk he did to make it. He thought Miss Caroline made sense when she said that prohibition was a good thing. She said nothing ever came to no good when a man takes to drinking. His Papa didn’t agree with his wife, but he didn’t argue with her.
In the four years she was married to his Papa, he never called Miss Caroline his Mama, even though he knew she wanted him to. He liked her alright, and he knew his Papa loved her, but she never felt like his Mama. Jimmy was only four when his Mama died giving birth to his little sister who died a few hours later. His Papa married Miss Caroline a year after that. And now his Papa was dead too.
Nobody asked Jimmy what he wanted to do. After the funeral, he was told by Miss Caroline that he would be living with his Aunt, Uncle and Cousin in the River Gorge and that was that. His Uncle Tom and Aunt Dorothy were dropped off in town by Mr. Selma who lived farther back in the gorge. They drove back to The Gorge in his Papa’s Ford. Miss Caroline had made sure all Jimmy’s things were packed in the trunk before they arrived, and goodbyes were short.
As Jimmy stared at the low, angled ceiling, he wondered if Miss Caroline would keep living in their house, and if he would still have a room there if he visited, or if he wanted to visit at all. He rolled over on his side, closed his eyes, and slipped into a dream.
He was standing at home plate, looking out at the field. The sun was bright overhead and he pulled his hat down to shade his eyes. His Papa stood on the mound wearing a gray uniform with a red 34 on his chest. Beyond the diamond an outfielder with shaggy blond hair stood beneath a giant tree. The tree’s limbs were loaded with spiky green balls that weren’t quite round and were stitched together with red laces. The outfielder picked a ball from the tree and threw it to his Papa who held it in his glove for a long time before leaning forward and staring intently at the catcher. He shook his head once, then shook it again, then nodded. Then he wound up, and hurled the strange ball toward him. The ball corkscrewed through the air in slow motion, headed straight toward the middle of the plate, waist high. No matter how hard he tried, Jimmy couldn’t swing the bat. His arms felt like they were being held down, pinned to his sides by an invisible force. As the ball reached the plate, it opened up into a white flower, spinning like a pinwheel. From the middle of the flower, three nuts spiraled out over the plate. The flower gradually slowed and floated to the ground between his feet.
“Strike one, strike two, strike three… Hull Go! You’re out!” Jimmy turned to look at the umpire who had just called him out on one pitch. The umpire, a porcupine dressed in black and white striped pajamas, looked over the catcher’s shoulder. The catcher opened his glove and three tiny pink porcupines crawled out of the glove, up the catcher’s arm, and down his back. The umpire knelt down and opened a pouch in the front of his pajamas. The tiny porcupines jumped in. The catcher pulled off the pajamas and left them piled on the plate, then scurried across the diamond and out to the tree in center field. He climbed up the trunk until he came to a large round hole where an old limb had broken off, and disappeared inside.
Jimmy looked around. The sun was gone and a quarter moon dimly lit a suddenly empty field. He was the only one there. He picked up the striped pajamas from the plate and put them on. From somewhere up in the tree, a whippoorwill called out its own name.
He searched for the bird in the canopy, but the song seemed to come from everywhere at once. He didn’t know where to look. When the bird stopped calling, the baseball field was gone and he was standing in the middle of a dense forest in his striped pajamas. There was just enough moonlight coming through the trees for him to find his way and he started walking, but the ground was littered with the spiked hulls of porcupine eggs that pierced his bare feet. He sat down, leaned against a tree, and began to cry. A hairy vine growing up the tree was soft against his face, and he nuzzled against it and closed his eyes.
Kimball was already out of bed and downstairs when Jimmy woke up and climbed down the ladder. “Papa’s loading the boat. There’s a biscuit on the table for you,” Kimball said. “Mama packed a lunch for us. Come on! Papa’s waiting!”
Jimmy grabbed the biscuit off the table and the two boys ran out the door and down to the river where Papa was standing in the back of the boat holding onto the sixteen-food pole that would propel them across the river. They stepped into the front of the boat and sat down beside each other on a wooden bench. “Hold on!” called Papa. “We’re shoving off!”
There wasn’t much to hold onto in the front of the boat, plus Jimmy had a biscuit in his hand. Kimball laughed. “Papa just likes to say that, so we’ll think there’s danger. Ain’t nothing to worry about.”
Jimmy looked up and down a river that was mostly shrouded in a low, dense fog like clouds floating on the current. The boat slid softly across the water, a cloud swirling behind it. He took a bite out of his biscuit, and reached down with his left hand to feel a single porcupine nut in his left hip pocket.