Done Keep Still
by Norman Nason
The old mule towed the wagon along the craggy road at the foot of the hills, stopping and baying where the path forked at an abandoned barn, ears twitching. Years before, the cupola had collapsed through the roof, and the gray timbers of the east wall had long since yielded to the wind, causing the ruin to sag as if a giant hand had pressed down upon it.
The light rain stopped, and the family members each drew back the hoods of their raincoats when the sun shown cheerfully through the gap between clouds and the horizon. Eyes of blue sky opened and reflected in the puddles. The driver, a soft-spoken man of 36 years, was weathered and strong from time spent working his farm. He and his wife rode together, thighs touching, while their daughter scratched the belly of a long-eared hound in the wagon’s bed behind them.
A cluster of rectangles converged in the distant plain—a small town, easily missed—with white smoke ascending from chimneys, and windows mirroring specks of yellow morning sun. A red-shouldered hawk flew high overhead, casting its shadow on the shallow grasses, searching for prey. The man nudged the mule toward the light, and the animal, sure now of his master’s intent, pressed against his harness and set the wheels in motion once more.
In prior months the family had been busy with necessary but not unpleasant tasks of running a farm. There were clothes to launder and hang to dry on lines strung among the flowering fruit trees, a flat-faced cow and goats to milk, butter to churn, fresh-feathered hens to feed and brown eggs to gather. The sow had given birth, and her pen needed constant cleaning. Firewood was collected from the nearby forests, split and stacked. Roof leaks were repaired, and fences were mended.
As spring approached the man and his old mule plowed the fertile field slowly but methodically, then the whole family planted seeds for sweet corn, radishes, carrots, onions and garlic, zucchinis, butternut and yellow squash, spinach, mild and hot peppers, celery, peas, turnips, lettuce, kale, cabbage, and hay for the livestock. Young potatoes were cut and buried for propagation, and many kinds of cooking herbs were grown, including basil, thyme, oregano, and rosemary.
Late afternoons when the sun was hot and low, the woman sewed and sang from the front porch swing while admiring the flowers she had planted in neat rows around the perimeter of the house—and her favorites, red and pink geraniums sprouting from terra-cotta pots along the entryway. She sang while gazing with admiration out across the pasture toward rolling hills dotted with lichened boulders, and long shadows of hickory, chestnut, and scarlet oak trees.
“White folks, white folks
Make a lot of noise,
Talk about their pleasures,
Talk about their joys;
And white folks, white folks
Don’t take it ill
If when you talk
I done keep still.”
That summer the man fished the streams and hunted the hills, catching bright rainbow trout and crayfish, rabbits and squirrels. When seeking birds, he and his hound eased though the cover of brush in a zig-zag fashion, stepping quietly, pausing frequently on the uneven terrain so a hiding ring-necked pheasant holding tight might lose confidence and take to the skies. And they walked the edges—fence lines and ditches—habitat transitions between corn fields and rolling hills and grasslands. They made a good team. The hound knew the man's hand-signals and to stay upwind; when to track and when to rush the bird out of heavy cover, so it would break and fly.
If the man shot too close, he’d miss the pheasant or it would be mangled and inedible. So he’d wait a beat until the bird was 20 yards from the muzzle, then draw up his twin-barreled 12-gauge, read the angle, aim ahead, and shoot. When there were two, he bagged them both.
He brought his daily catch home to his wife and child, who transformed them into soups and stews—sometimes cooking indoors and sometimes outside in a cast-iron pot over an open fire. There would be cornbread with honey, sides of potatoes and beans, and home-brewed switchel to drink—a concoction of molasses and water, with just a touch of ginger and apple cider vinegar. To this, when often it suited him, the man alone occasionally added a little rum.
Their child attended school at the segregated community schoolhouse, happily making the two mile trek three mornings each week, books in hand and hound at her side. On Sundays she accompanied her mother and father to church, and sang gospels with her friends in the youth choir.
When night fell the family played card games by lamplight, told stories about past relatives, or simply warmed themselves before the fire. The woman taught her daughter how to knit and sew, and the young girl was becoming quite good at it, able to make her own dresses.
“I need buttons,” she said one evening, lowering her sewing to her lap.
“Muttons?” her mother asked, grinning. "You need muttons, girl?"
“BUTTONS,” she repeated. “Ain’t got no more.”
“Well then, we just got to get some. That right, husband?”
“If Jesus is my savior,” he said.
Once in town the hound leapt from the wagon to the muddy ground, tail wagging, sniffed the hitching post, and was followed by the man, who swept his daughter from the wagon, ribbons rustling like pink leaves in her curly hair. Then he helped his wife—earthy as almonds and dark as milk chocolate—down to the damp boardwalk.
The man tied his hound to the wagon with a rope, patted him on the head, told him to stay put, and left a few slices of jerky to occupy him until they returned.
With autumn upon them and winter approaching, a few necessities needed replenishing, so once inside the General Store the family selected supplies: Two bags each of rice, flower, and beans; salt, matches, candles, cooking oil, three cans of coffee, two sacks of potatoes, sewing needles, and several bolts of pale yellow yarn.
“And don’t forget the buttons!” said the little girl. She stood on her toes at the counter, inspecting a jar filled with jaw-breakers, while the proprietor took stock of their selections and tallied them up.
“I’ll have one of them nickel-candies,” her father said to the proprietor.
“They’s dime-candies,” the proprietor said.
The man looked at the candies, then at his daughter, then drew a breath. “Sign says nickel-candies,” he said.
“Dime-candies now,” said the proprietor.
The man felt his wife’s hard-nudge upon his thigh. He looked down at her fiery, pleading eyes, circled her lovely oval face, then rested back on her eyes again.
“All right then,” he said, almost whispering.
He reached into his pocket, withdrew a dime, and smacked it on the countertop.
Once outside, the man helped his wife to her seat, then loaded the goods they purchased onto his wagon while his daughter rubbed their mule’s muzzle.
“Daddy,” she said, “where’s Buddy?”
The rope had been cut. The man raised his head and scanned the street, but couldn’t see their hound anywhere. With the rains only having just stopped, the street was empty of pedestrians and nearly silent, except for a few crows cawing on telephone lines. He lifted his daughter into the wagon.
“Keep an eye out,” he said to his wife.
He drove the wagon down the muddy street, whistling, calling the hound’s name. He passed the town’s only motel, the striped barber’s pole, the feed store and land office. Finally, he stopped the wagon beneath a large oak, still dripping with rain water. On the corner was a blacksmith’s shop, gray and sooty, with its large sliding door ajar. Inside, a flash of orange flame, and in the shadows stood the silhouette of the blacksmith: motionless, silent before the fire of his forge.
The man saw that beside the dark figure—squirming, choking, hanging from a rafter by the rope around his neck—was his hound.
The image burned him; taunted, beckoned.
Swelling with fury, he shot to his feet. Instantly, his wife flung herself upon him.
“Don’t you go, nigger!” she wailed, spittle flying, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Don’t you go! You ain’t gonna do that! Sit your black ass back down here! You got family to think about!”
His daughter too grasped at his pant legs and pleaded. But he was too enraged to hear them, too far gone.
Peeling his wife away, eyes fixed and cold, he leapt down from the wagon and toward the flames.
“Go home!” he commanded.
Reaching the shop's interior—dark, but for the glowing forge—he slid the heavy door shut behind him, and did not look back.