Brad punched me in the ribs, hard, twice.
“Get yer ass up, lazybones. Time fer fishin’,” he said as he sprang from our bed.
I raised my head just enough to look out the open window. The July sun was beginning to chase the shadows from the entrance to our barn, about thirty yards away. In the chicken pen beside the barn, Rufus, our Leghorn rooster, was strutting about, much like Brad just now, and calling the whole avian nation to duty at his command.
Before I could so much as wipe the sand from my eyes, Brad had pulled on his jeans and a faded blue T-shirt with a gold WV logo on the front. “Well, what the hell you waitin’ fer? God made the whole damn world faster’n you can git out of that bed, little brother. Now move it!”
As big brothers go, Brad was as good as any, I suppose, maybe better than most. By age fourteen he had a joyful coarseness about him. And a swagger too. Whenever he decided to do something, he just did it. In the time others might spend thinking about what to do or talking about it, he had the task done. He didn’t doubt; he didn’t hesitate; he just did whatever it was. Of course, Dad often said Brad didn’t think nearly as much as he ought before he acted. But he acted a lot. For certain, there wasn’t another boy in the county, maybe no man either, who could match him for invective. He mostly practiced on me—just to keep sharp, he said.
Still, he taught me things. From him I’d learned to gear up my fishing rod—how to tie the sinker and the leader with its sharp hook onto the line, and where to attach the bobber and how to adjust it. Then where to dig the red wrigglers and how to pin them on the hook so the fish would bite. Also, secretly, he was teaching me how to cuss. “Just listen and learn,” he said. “Be patient. When you’re old enough and good enough, I’ll give you the sign to cut loose.” At age ten I was still waiting.
As soon as I was dressed, we tip-toed down the steps from the loft over our sisters’ bedroom and into the kitchen. There Brad took a brown bag from the refrigerator and grabbed the keys to the pickup from a hook by the backdoor. And outside we went.
“But what about breakfast?” I asked in a low voice, probably whining.
“What about it? Think you’ll starve if you miss one bowl of corn flakes? Besides, I got lunch right here.” He shook the brown bag in my face. “Packed it up myself late last night. Put ham biscuits and boiled eggs in this sack. Got a jar of sweet tea, too. Put it in the picnic hamper that’s waitin’ for us in the truck. Now, ain’t that enough?”
“Well, shouldn’t we feed the chickens and gather eggs ‘fore we go?”
“Hell, no. Let the girls do that. We done it for six days straight. Won’t hurt them to do it for one.”
Now the girls were our sisters. One between Brad and me named Susan, who was the smartest person in our family, at least when it came to avoiding work. She was prim and proper and could already turn the head of just about any boy she passed. But, to hear her tell it, her dainty hands were not meant for handling eggs soiled with chicken poop. Since we farm kids all rode the school bus into the city, Brad said he half expected her just not to come back with us one day. “Maybe she’ll take a job decoratin’ cakes ‘n cookies in a bakery,” he said. “She’d like that. Cake icing’s the only thing other than bacon grease that can make her lick her fingers.”
Our other sister, two years younger than me, was Razzle. She was an entirely different story. Actually, her name was Rachel but her first grade classmates had altered that to Razzle, and somehow the new name stuck, even in our family. Razzle was eight at the time and had aspirations of becoming the female Brad. She even looked something like him—that is, if he’d had pigtails or she hadn’t. She too was under his tutelage and waiting for his signal to cut loose, whereas Susan had no interest at all in the art of cussing. While waiting for her signal Razzle was busy stocking her vocabulary of forbidden words. When she wasn’t doing that or helping with farm chores, she was pushing for girls’ rights—well, at least her own rights—in her third grade class.
“Now when her cussin’ and her protestin’ come together, Razzle’s gonna be a pistol,” Brad prophesied. “Just you wait and see. She’ll be front page news. TV news at six, for sure.” He took great pride in being our teacher.
I should point out that our parents were really very good people and so didn’t deserve any of this. They always did the right thing by us kids. We weren’t rich, but had plenty to eat and grew most of our food right there on the farm. As for clothes, Razzle and I only got hand-me-downs if they still had plenty of wear left in them. Otherwise, new clothes somehow showed up when we needed them, even if it wasn’t a holiday. Also, Dad kept after us about our schoolwork. And every Sunday morning, Mom spiffed us up and marched all of us off to Mass in town at St. Benedict’s, Dad included. Grandma Lucy went with us, too. Mom also made us know—not just recite now but know—the Nicene Creed. Brad, however, had composed a comic version he called the Nicene Greed. Saturday nights, in the barn, he’d warm us up for Sunday Mass with a recitation.
Nevertheless, Father Richter had chosen Brad to be the crucifer at St. Benedict’s in what amounted to the greatest misjudgment of character in human history. Dad thought it was funny. Mom thought it was a divinely appointed miracle and had high hopes that the office would somehow improve Brad’s behavior. It never did.
By now we’d reached the pickup parked beside the barn.
“Ain’t Dad gonna be upset with us takin’ the truck?”
“Naw, not him. Dad understands stuff. Hell, he was a kid once himself before he met Mom and got all gushy over her. Least ways that’s what he told me. Besides, I left him a note on the breakfast table. Put it there last night.”
“What’d it say?”
“‘Gone fishin’. Back by noon.’”
“That’s it? We’re only fishin’ til noon?”
“Of course. We got chores to do after that. Damn, Charlie, if you ain’t the dumbest kid alive. Mom and Dad must ‘a found you by the road somewheres cause there’s no way you’re real kin to the rest of us.”
We climbed inside the truck.
“Oh yes, I am,” I protested.
“Am what?” Brad stepped on the clutch.
“One of us!”
“And just how the hell do you know that, little man?’
“Cause I got your hair and your eyes. Just look, they’re the same. Same as Mom’s too.” I thrust my head towards Brad and then tilted it back and opened my eyes wide for him to examine.
Brad bent his face close to mine, squinted as though trying to bring the evidence into focus, and then got a super serious look on his face, like a doctor about to tell me I was going to die of some horrible disease. He grabbed a hank of my hair and tested it between his fingers. Then he looked at my face again, focusing on my eyes, but didn’t say anything.
“See, ain’t they the same?” I said.
He settled back into the driver’s seat and put the key into the ignition switch. “Don’t mean nothin’,” he replied. “Cept that somebody in our family, way back in time, ‘fore they came to Locust Hill, must’a done somethin’ real bad for us to deserve you. That’s the only possible explanation.” Logic, like everything else, was no real match for Brad. He just smacked it aside with a stiff backhand.
“So why are we takin’ the pickup instead of just walkin’ down to the crick like we usually do?”
“Cause I’m takin’ you to see where the Whitaker hermits live and that’s too far to walk.” Brad turned the key and the engine fired up.
“The Whitaker hermits! Nobody goes down that way. You sure ‘bout this?”
“Of course, I’m sure. Why, ain’t you up to a little adventure?” He backed up the truck, pulled the long gear shift arm into low gear, let out on the clutch, and away we went down our gravel drive toward Ridge Road.
“But they’re supposed to be mean as the devil, both of ‘em. An’ they don’t take kind to people messin’ around their place. That’s why they’re hermits.”
“Well, my, my! Where’d you get all that information?”
“From kids at school. That’s where.”
“Yep, them fourth graders are real reliable sources of local history, all right. Tell you what, then, I’ll just stop right here so you can git out an’ walk back to the house. Then you can gather up them eggs and feed them chickens you’re so damn worried about. That okay?” The pickup shuddered to a stop sending gravel and dust flying up around it. We were just about to the end of our property, nearly ready to pull onto Ridge Road.
“No, I ain’t afraid. Just keep agoin’. I’m just tellin’ you, in case you didn’t know all about them hermits.”
“Well, little brother, it just so happens that the best fishin’ hole in the entire county is not but a few yards from their cabin. And that’s where we’re agoin’.”
In those days Ridge Road was just as much gravel as the narrow lane leading to our farm. It would be another ten years before the county would get around to paving it. In the meantime, all that gravel made for a slow, jittery ride. A steady plume of yellow dust billowed from the tires as we went. I watched it in the side mirror.
Brad was a careful driver even though it was still a struggle for him to see over the pickup’s high set hood. If a small animal, or even a small kid, had darted out in front of us from the tall dusty weeds that lined the road, Brad wouldn’t have been able to see it. Still it wasn’t all that unusual for a fourteen year old to be driving on these roads. Farm kids—both boys and girls—commonly drove trucks and tractors from field to field in order to help get the work done. Most families around us had patchwork farms, with one field here and another down the road somewhere. So nobody thought much about kids driving on these roads. Besides, the police rarely came to our part of the county. Didn’t have any need to. Fact is, I was busting to get my turn at driving, too, which I anticipated even more fervently than Brad’s signal to start cussing. But I was still way too short to try. Seemed like cussing would come first.
After about three miles we pulled across the road into one of the turnarounds that farmers in our area used to stage their equipment for working the fields. Brad wheeled the truck clear around until we were facing the direction from which we’d just come.
“There,” he said, setting the emergency brake. “Now if ole man Cunningham or any of his people need to use this turnaround to mow their field ‘fore we get back, they’ll have plenty of room. Course, as early as we are, we’re lucky we didn’t wake up some teenagers still usin’ it for parkin’.”
“Parkin’? Why would they be parkin’ way out here?” I asked.
“Never mind. You’ll find out soon enough.” Brad threw open the driver’s door and climbed out.
“Is parkin’ one of those things like cussin’ that you have to get a signal for?” I asked, jumping down from the truck cab.
“Sort of,” Brad said with a smile as he slammed the driver’s door and walked to the back of the truck. “Here, you take the fishin’ poles an’ the bait can, an’ I’ll tote the picnic hamper.”
We lifted our gear out of the truck bed and set off down the hill in search of the fishing hole.
The hike to the fishing hole was a good quarter mile and passed through some of the prettiest scenery in the county. Lost Creek meanders through the Locust Hill countryside taking its good sweet time before it joins up with the Ohio River, not far below where we were going. Along the way it bubbles and gurgles and disappears at times, diving into a cave here before coming out again down there, maybe several hundred yards away, all crystal clear and cold from being underground so long but mostly without fish. In other places, though, it widens out and pools up allowing plankton and other food to settle into its brown water. In those pools Lost Creek is deep and quiet and full of fish.
The footpath down to the creek was narrow and by this time of the year was bordered by a great variety of vegetation, much of it taller than we were. In particular, fleabane occupied the border of the Cunningham’s cornfield. Its white tufts and raggedy long leaves jutted out from rigid stems. Hogweed was about too, just waiting to give us a blistery rash if we got too close. You could barely see the corn tassels in the Cunningham field for all the tall weeds. More to our liking were the chicory and Queen Anne’s lace that lined the path and the occasional sassafras trees and locust saplings that stood on either side of us like sentinels to be sure we didn’t stray into the corn fields and vegetable patches.
At one point a red fox with her four kits crossed the path ahead of us. The vixen stopped and gave us a wary look while gathering her rambunctious kits behind her. As soon as she had them all together, off they went again, out of sight, down a tiny path of their own making through the tall weeds.
After a while Brad sang out ahead of me, “Right down there’s the spot, Charlie!” He pointed to a clearing between a pair of shagbark hickories. The morning sun behind us sent the shadows of the trees across a wide meadow of short grasses and wildflowers that stretched right down to the creek bank. We could feel the cool morning air at our backs as it retreated from the sunny road now above us, withdrawing to the creek as the heat of the day gained strength.
In the meadow a small flock of wild turkeys was gathered. The hen and poults were drinking from the creek, while the tom was standing guard. At our approach they all rushed from the bank and ran off upstream, running, hopping and flying at times with great commotion. All, that is, except the tom. He stood his ground, puffing himself up and staring hard at us until his family had disappeared into the tall grass bordering the meadow. Only then did he rejoin his family. We crossed the now vacant meadow and put down our gear. All the while Brad, who had barely noticed the turkeys, kept looking across the creek to his right.
“Now we have to be real quiet, Charlie,” he said in a mock serious tone. “Don’t want them hermits to get after us, now do we?” Then he looked back at me and added, “They been known to eat little boys like you, you know, ones ten years and younger, cause they’re so tender.”
“Do not!” I protested, hopefully. I should have mentioned before that Brad was one of the biggest liars in our county. Maybe even in the whole state, if you don’t count our politicians.
“Their cabin’s right over there.” He pointed to the right. “See? Behind that big willa tree. Leave the stuff here and we’ll sneak over that way and see if we can spot ‘em.”
“You talkin’ ‘bout spyin’ on them hermits?”
“Damn sure am. One of the main reasons we come here, ain’t it?”
“But what if they see us?”
“If you keep quiet, they won’t suspicion nothin’. If you don’t, they’ll have you for lunch an’, well, guess I’ll just go back home. Suppose I’ll have to do your chores, though. So follow me, keep low, and keep quiet.”
We crept along the creek bank to a dense patch of cattails and other weeds not far from which the hermits had slung across the creek a small footbridge made of wooden slats and rope. From our blind of cattails we could see their cabin, set back about twenty feet from the creek on a high bank. The hermits had an honest-to-goodness log cabin. The chinking appeared to be fresh, but small patches of moss were growing on the side of the metal roof facing us for it was shaded from the morning sun by the willow tree. On the other side of the cabin a corn field ascended a high hill before disappearing from sight. In a sunny spot behind the cabin was a fair size garden. The vines of pole beans twisted and wiggled in the morning breeze atop their green leafy tripods. Other indistinguishable vegetables grew at their feet—all inside a loosely-woven wicker fence intended to foil the numerous rabbits, groundhogs, raccoons, possums, deer, skunks, rabid dogs, feral cats, and God know what other critters that shared the countryside with us. In front of the cabin was a narrow porch, also shaded by the willow, while a path of flat stones led from the porch’s wooden steps to the footbridge in our direction and up a slight grade and through a grape arbor to an outhouse in the other direction. We could also hear horses neighing softly in morning conversation and chickens cackling. One hen was roosting on a corner of the porch in a small patch of sunlight.
After we had watched and waited a bit, one of the hermits finally emerged from the cabin, shoving aside the screen door, which then banged closed behind him, pulled shut by a long spring, but not before two coon hounds bounded out also. The hermit was a huge man with great broad shoulders and a long brown and white beard and long white hair that fluttered a bit in the morning breeze. He wore faded denim overalls with a faded red T-shirt. On his feet were thick brown boots of the type everyone in our area calls shit-kickers. In his hand he held a broad brimmed straw hat, tattered and frayed along the edges of its brim. After looking up the path to the outhouse, the hermit tossed the hat down on the porch, apparently thinking he didn’t need it yet. The smaller hound immediately began to sniff the hat but then jumped off the porch, joyfully trailing the hermit up the outhouse path. The larger hound started to do the same but stopped and lifted its nose to take the air, turning its head now and then in our direction. It walked to the edge of the porch closest to us, still testing the air and growling softly, but soon lost interest and hurried off to catch up to its companions. We heard the door of the outhouse slam shut—an action we couldn’t really see since the grape arbor obscured our view. The small hound roamed the area, sniffing the ground before finding a suitable spot to urinate, while the large one seated itself on one of the stepping stones, again facing our direction and occasionally testing the air some more, its nose moving methodically side to side.
“I think we better sneak back to the fishin’ hole,” Brad whispered softly. “I’m afraid that big hound suspicions us.”
So we crept back without drawing any further attention from the hound. At the fishing hole we baited our hooks and got our lines into the water.
“Watch my line for a minute,” Brad told me. “I’ll show you a neat trick.”
With that, he walked back across the meadow to the woods, returning a few minutes later with two forked branches.
“Here,” he said, giving me one of the branches. “Do this.” Whereupon he pushed his branch, forks upright, into the soft creek bank, placed his fishing rod in the fork, and stretched out beside it. “Now,” he continued, “all you got to do is listen for the plop of the bobber in the water and the whir of the line goin’ out when a fish bites.”
Seemed like a sensible idea, so I did the same, stretching out near the picnic hamper. Soon we were both dozing more than fishing.
With the cool morning breeze retreating down the hillside to the creek, it was quite pleasant just to lie there and wait for a fish to bite—so pleasant that, half asleep, I pretty much lost track of the time–until I felt something warm and very wet on my cheek. I jumped up with a start, accidentally kicking the picnic hamper and sending it tumbling into the creek. It was the small coon hound licking my face! The dog jumped back from me and bowed while barking playfully. Before I could respond to the dog, I heard another sound—the deep boom of a big man’s voice.
“What the hell you boys doin’ here?” It was the hermit, standing behind us, looking even taller than before, and now cradling a shotgun in his arms. The bigger hound was seated at his feet, adding a few barks and growls of its own to the little one’s ruckus. .
Brad bounced up like a jack-in-the-box on a swivel, shooting up and twisting around all in one motion. “Fishin’. That’s what we’re adoin’,” he said, just as lucid as though he’d been awake the whole time.
“Oh? Fishin’, huh? An’ what’s that floatin’ there in my crick?”
Brad looked around and saw the picnic hamper floating away. “Well,” he said with a much more subdued tone, “that was our lunch. But this ain’t your crick.”
“Well, if’n it is or if’n it ain’t, your lunch damn sure don’t belong in it. Now git it out of there, little mister sassy.”
By now the hamper was half-sunk and snagged along the bank. While Brad retrieved it I fessed up. “Sorry, Mr. Hermit, I must’a kicked the hamper in the crick when your dog scared me.” The little hound was still dancing around me, bowing and barking, apparently annoyed that I hadn’t started playing with him yet.
“So you ketch any fish, boys?” The hermit almost smiled when he said this.
“Naw,” said Brad, with disgust as he looked into the hamper. “We just got started.” Then he turned to me. “Guess, we’re gonna miss out on lunch as well as breakfast, Charlie.” He held up two soggy ham biscuit.
“Sorry,” I whimpered.
“You sure made a proper job of those, boy,” the hermit said with a laugh.
“Your big hound there nosed us out, didn’t he?” Brad said.
“He sure did. Roscoe here’s the best hound we ever had,” the hermit replied, reaching down to pat the big hound’s head. In response the hound looked up at its master and squirmed at bit. “He kin always find a coon—or a pair o’ poachin’ boys. That’n over by you, little mister.” The hermit pointed in my direction. “He’s just a’learnin’ what this’n’s ateachin’ ‘im.” The little hound gave up on me and trotted back to the hermit and nuzzled the big hound.
“Weren’t sure what I was gonta find over here when I follered Roscoe over the bridge, so I brought muh twelve gauge.” The hermit patted his shotgun with genuine affection. The big hound looked up at the hermit again after hearing its name.
“Say, damn if you boys don’t look like Kellerman kin. Am I right?”
“Yep, we’re Kellermans. What about it?” Brad set the hamper down in the grass like an act of defiance. “That okay with you?”
“Wouldn’t do me much good if it weren’t, now would it?” The hermit’s grainy face puckered up in another laugh. “Your Grandma Kellerman—her name Lucy, Lucy Johnson ‘fore she married?”
“Yeah, I think Johnson’s right. Why?”
“I believe it’s so, cause you’re just as damn sassy as she was. I went to school with her. Courted her some, too. How she be these days?”
“’Bout as contrary as an old woman can be, I guess.”
“And her husband, how’s he?”
“You mean our Grandpa Kellerman? Why, he died ‘bout two years ago. Cancer.”
“Sorry to hear that, son. Really am. Then Lucy—your grandma, I mean—she’s livin’ all alone now?”
“Yep, but lives right close to us, so we’re back and forth a lot.”
The hermit paused and seemed to sink into deep thought, until Brad gave the picnic hamper a swift kick. That brought the hermit back from wherever his thoughts had taken him.
“Tell you what. If you boys’ll follow me an’ the hounds cross the footbridge yonder, I’ll see ‘bout gittin’ yuns some breakfast. My brother Will makes a mighty fine one. How’d that be?”
Brad looked at me and then at the hamper before replying, “Reckon that’d be fine, if it’s not too much trouble. We didn’t eat ‘fore we set out this mornin’ and we damn sure can’t eat this.”
We followed the hermit and the large hound across the footbridge, one at a time. The bridge tilted and swung in a different direction with every step. The small hound was still jumping around me, wanting to play, until we took our turn on the bridge, then it scampered ahead of me. The hermit waited for us on the other side.
“One thing you should know ‘for we go inta the cabin. My brother Will’s not normal. Had brain damage when he was borned. So he’s slow to catch on to things an’ repeats hisself a lot. But don’t laugh at him, please. That sets him off, an’ I’ll be days gettin’ him back to what’s normal if you do. Okay, will yuns do that fer me?”
“Sure,” said Brad. “We ain’t gonna to laugh at him, are we, Charlie?”
“Nope,” I said. “I’ll be real quiet.”
“Oh, you kin talk, just don’t laugh at him, that’s all I’m a askin’,” the hermit assured us. Then he called out to his brother, “Hey, Will! We got company fer breakfast.” Then we went in.
The cabin consisted of a single large room with a broad plank floor, swept clean, but worn smooth in many spots. Light filtered in between curtains at the back windows, but the willow’s shade still left the front of the room relatively dark. Along the left wall were two beds, each set below one of the cabin’s two side windows. Both were neatly made up and tucked in on the sides, army style. Along the right wall was a large stone fireplace with a carved mantle. A coal scuttle and a set of pokers stood by, ready for use, although on this hot day no fire was needed. Still, it was easy to see that the fireplace could heat the entire cabin, when needed on a cold West Virginia night. Various knick-knacks decorated the mantle’s ledge, including a bronze-framed picture of a man and woman, seated on a farm wagon full of hay with two children, both boys. One boy, the smaller one, was seated on the woman’s lap. The older boy sat between the man and the woman with his hand on the man’s knee.
Just beyond the fireplace was a worktable with various cast iron pots and skillets and ceramic bowls on it. In the right rear corner was an old iron stove, a wood-burner, and below one rear window was a sink with a pump handle. Standing between the stove and sink was the other hermit, Will, stooped, shorter than his brother, though dressed the same, except for a Cincinnati Reds ball cap on his head. His face was flatter than his brother’s, almost pie-shaped, with the eyes widened and protruding just now in a state of surprise that seemed to verge on terror as he looked at us.
After placing the shotgun back in a well-stocked gun cabinet, the hermit said, “Don’t worry, Will. It’s okay.” Then he walked over to his brother and hugged him. “You made aplenty to eat already. These here are Kellerman boys. Just say hello to ‘em.” As he said this the older hermit turned toward us.
“Kellerman? Kellerman boys?” Confused, Will looked up at his brother, who still had one arm around Will’s shoulders.
“Yep, Kellermans. Their folks live here in Locust Hill, too. They’re Lucy’s grandkids, ain’t you, boys?” We nodded. “An’ you ‘member Lucy, don’t you, Will, from a long time ago?”
“Lucy, yes. Pretty Lucy! Lucy’s boys, Buck? These Lucy’s boys?”
“No, these boys here are her grandkids, Will. Lucy’s old now, like us. These’re Lucy’s son’s boys. But never no mind, just tell ‘em hello.”
“Hello, hello, boys.”
“Hi there, Will. How are ya?” Brad cut through the awkwardness, walked right over and shook Will’s hand. I said nothing but followed and did the same.
“So what you gonna feed us, Will?” Brad asked, keeping up his chipper tone while looking at the items on the work table. “Smells awful good!”
“Biscuits! Them’s biscuits. Biscuits done now!” Will’s fearfulness and confusion had quickly given way to excitement, nearly a frenzy, as he pointed with great pride at the biscuits he’d baked, jammed together in a cast iron skillet. “Now got gravy too. Got gravy right over here.” He pointed at another skillet, a smaller one, simmering on the iron stove. “Git ‘em together now. Git ‘em together!”
“Now wait, Will. Slow down. Don’t git so ajeetated,” his brother cautioned, placing his hand on Will’s shoulder again. “Let’s let our guests wash up first and then git some biscuits on their plates. Then I git yours and mine. Then we’ll pour some of your good gravy on all of ‘em. That okay?”
With that, Brad and I stepped over to the sink and washed our hands with a coarse bar of grey Lava soap. Brad worked the pump first while I washed up, then I did the same for him. Meanwhile, the big hermit took out two white plates edged with gold that had nearly faded away and some drinking glasses from a china cabinet beside the rear door. He handed them to us and then took a long spatula from a hook at one side of the work table and dug out several biscuits for each of us, dropping them on the plates we held out to him like street beggars. A fragrant, floury steam rose straight from the biscuits.
“Tell you what, Will. Why don’t you go out to the springhouse and git some fresh milk for the boys while I’m adoin’ this? Unless you boys want some of our strong coffee. Either of yuns drink coffee yet?”
“Too hot fer it t’day,” Brad replied as though he normally guzzled coffee by the gallons.
“I’d like some of the milk, please,” I added, looking at Will.
Will jammed his Reds cap back on his head and shuffled out the back door while his brother picked up a thick towel, wrapped it around the handle of the gravy skillet and began pouring its thick, creamy white contents over our plates. The gravy was dense with red chunks of ham and dotted with black pepper. Its savory odor, too, quickly rose from the plates.
Once Will returned and filled our glasses with the milk, we all situated ourselves at the dining table. The big hermit had pulled up two extra chairs from the bedroom area for us to sit on. For the first time I noticed the front part of the cabin, which was a bit brighter now. It was bare, save for two easy chairs with a small round table between them. On that table was a large black leather-bound book, probably a family Bible, the kind with names listed by generation, births and deaths recorded after each name, entered by different hands at different times. Our grandmother Lucy had just such a Bible for the Kellermans in her living room, some of the older listings in German script. An old Stromberg-Carlson radio, a floor model, stood next to one of the front windows. Its antenna wire snaked from behind it up the wall to the top of the window. There was no TV.
When we were all seated, the big hermit bowed his head and commenced to say grace, “Almighty and Pahrful Lord, thank ‘ee for this day an’ this here food. May we use ‘em both wisely. Amen.” Will added another amen and then a second, both much louder than necessary in the small cabin, while Brad and I just crossed ourselves. Seeing that, the hermit laughed and said, “I plum fergot you boys is Catholic. Should’a had one o’ yuns says the grace. Bet that’d be different.”
“No, not really,” Brad replied.
Maybe because I was so hungry from missing breakfast or maybe because of the strangeness of the situation—but those biscuits and gravy to this day were best I’ve ever eaten. When we’d cleaned our plates—and we left not a spot—Will got up and said, “I’m gittin them berries now, Buck, gittin them berries.” Soon enough he had four bowls of blackberries and cream with honey in front of us. These too were delicious.
When we’d finished the berries, the big hermit leaned back in his chair, looked at his brother, and said, “Will, ain’t it time fer you to pick beans fer supper? Git ‘em ‘fore the sun gits too hot an’ they wilt an’ you along with ‘em.”
Will was off like a shot, grabbing his Reds ballcap again from the hat rack beside the fireplace. “Pick beans, Will, gotta pick beans,” he shouted, “’fore it gits too hot. I do it, I do it.” He reached under the sink, pulled out a pail, and headed out the back door.
The big hermit slumped a bit in his chair and grinned. “That boy loves to keep busy,” he said. “An’ he’ll talk t’ me ‘bout you all bein’ here for the next year, maybe two.” Then a great sadness seemed to come over him, suddenly, just as it had when we were standing by the creek when he’d asked about our Grandma Lucy. He was staring at the middle of the table and stroking his beard with his left hand, slowly and methodically, just below the chin, as though he were trying to pull words into his mouth—to tell us something he couldn’t say otherwise.
Brad broke the spell again, just as he had earlier when he kicked the picnic hamper. “Can you tell us how you an’ yer brother come to live down here in this holler? We hear so many stories ‘bout it, but don’t think most of ‘em are true.”
The hermit looked at Brad sadly, then at me, then started his tale. “Next year’ll make fifty years we been down here at Lost Crick. I was nearly twenty when we built this cabin, Will was twelve. Still, he helped me build it. I made him. Was good for him to do it, too.” Now the hermit’s mind seemed to have moved completely to another world, though he still sat before us, still stroking his beard. “Built it cause I was worried ‘bout him. Soon I’ll need t’ leave it for the same reason.”
“Leave it? Where you goin’?” Brad asked with great surprise, but this time he couldn’t break the hermit’s spell. Instead, the hermit continued to stare into the table, but what he was seeing wasn’t there.
“When Will was borned, he nearly strangled on the cord. Didn’t get no oxygen. Doctor thought he’d die, but he didn’t. An’ we was so happy ‘bout that. Still, he wasn’t right. The older he got, the more you could tell it. Took him forever to walk and to talk. An’ he couldn’t do neither very well. What was really hard was when he was old enough to go to school. He wanted to be with other kids, just to play and be like ‘em, but our parents wouldn’t let him go cause kids always made fun of him. An’ when Mom and Dad’d haft tell him no, that would send him inta tantrums that’d last for hours. He’d cry and couldn’t stop till he was so tared he couldn’t cry no more. So he had to stay home.
“Then one day when Will was nearly twelve, Mom and Dad took him over to town to see ole Doc Morgan. He’s most surely dead by now, but he was Will’s doctor then. Our family wouldn’t have no other. On the way home they got hit by ‘nother car—one goin’ way too fast. Killed Mom and Dad outright, both of ‘em dead right there on Shawnee Highway at Ridge Road. The police brought me Will. He was cryin’ so hard, they didn’t know what to do with him. They couldn’t talk to him and just wanted to get him off their hands as quick as they could.
“I was courtin’ Lucy in them days. Planned t’ build us a house ‘cross the crick there. That meadar yuns was standin’ in would’a been our back yard. But when I took Will in my arms to comfort him that day, I knew right then what I had to do. After the funeral, the hardest part was tellin’ Lucy.” The big hermit’s hands were fists now, clenched on the table in front of him. He placed his forehead on them and sobbed a time or two. Then raised his head slowly and continued.
“Well, my plan’s worked for these fifty years. First thing I did was sell the land on tother side of the crick to the Cunninghams. They’d always wanted it anyway, since it’s right ‘side their own fields. Then we commenced t’ buildin’ this cabin, Will and me. When we had it done I sold our parents’ house. That way we had plenty o’ money to live on, an’ I could watch over Will without havin’ t’ go into town t’ work.”
He stopped again and seemed to be in great physical pain. Then he grasped his beard below chin with both hands. I thought he was about to tear it out before he began to again. “Now, boys, I’m ‘bout whipped. I confess it. I’m gettin’ old and cain’t do fer Will the way I should much longer. I got to plan somethin’ new ‘fore the worst happens an’ he’s left all alone down here in this holler. He wouldn’t last long by hisself.”
“I might be able to help,” Brad put in. Both the hermit and I looked at him in surprise. Brad had broken the spell for sure this time.
“What do you mean you can help?” the hermit asked, leaning toward Brad.
“Well, not me really, but Father Richter could. He’s our priest over at St. Benedict’s, in Parkeston.”
“Yes, I know that church,” the hermit said. “Lucy use t’go there.”
“She still does,” Brad said. “Goes with us. Anyhow, I could ask Father Richter. He might could do somethin’ for you. He’s always workin’ out these kinda problems to help people. I’d be glad to ask him. I’ll see him tomorrow morning.”
“Well, if you kin do that, I cain’t tell you how much I’d appreciate it. But Will and I have trouble goin’ into town these days on the horses. Too many damn cars. An’ after what happened in our family, I won’t have us no car. So your Father Richter, he could come out here?”
“Sure he could. He’s always comin’ out this way anyhow to rat on me to my parents an’ check on Grandma Lucy. Really, you’d be doin’ me a big favor if you gave him somethin’ else to worry about other’n me. Besides, this here’s just the kind of thing he loves doin’.”
About that time Will came in the back door with a pail full of green beans and announced, “I got ‘em, Buck! I got ‘em. Beans for supper! Beans aplenty.” He took off his Reds hat again and hung back on the rack. Then he got out a big blue bandana from his pocket and wiped his face. “Gittin’ awful hot, Buck. Gittin’ awful hot. Sure is.”
Brad looked at his wrist watch and jumped up. “Holy smokes, we better get goin’! Charlie and me still got farm chores to do back home.”
“Well now, don’t rush off,” the hermit said in a plaintive voice.
“No, really we got to. Fact is, we’ll be late by the time we git there now. But Charlie and me sure do ‘preciate the good breakfast. Don’t we, Charlie?”
“Yup, sure do,” I said. Then, without waiting for Brad’s lead this time, I went over and shook Will’s hand and then the big hermit’s. Brad did the same.
But the big hermit held on to Brad’s hand and said, “When you git home will you do me another favor, Mr. Brad?”
“Reckon I will. What is it?”
“Tell your Grandma Lucy that Buck Whitaker says hello. Will you do that fer me?”
“I will. You bet I will. But, hell, why don’t you do it yerself? She ain’t but three or four mile up the road from here, an’ she’s always tellin’ me how lonely she gits since Grandpa died. She’d welcome some company, I reckon. Fact, I know she would.”
“Naw, I cain’t do that. Been too long, way too long. But you can tell ‘er fer me.”
“Ain’t never the wrong time to do the right thing,” Brad said, and finally their hands parted.
I remember being astonished at Brad’s answer. At that moment it was as though two hawks that had quarreled over the same territory, wheeling about, flashing beaks and talons, intent on harming each other, had finally come to rest on the same branch, the cause of their fury completely forgotten.
“An’ I’ll talk with Father Richter tomorrow, too,” Brad added. “Give him somethin’ to worry about other’n how straight I hold the cross.”
“I ‘preciate it. Really do,” the big hermit said. His resonant voice seemed tired now, hollowed out, exhausted, I suppose, from both remembrance and foreboding.
We crossed the footbridge again, gathered up our gear, and started across the meadow. When we reached the woods, Brad stopped and looked back. The hermit was still standing on the cabin-side of the bridge, the hounds sniffing at his feet. He waved to us. Brad waved back, so I did too.
After we got home Dad wore us out with reprimands about where we had been, why the chores hadn’t been done, and why leaving a note is not the same as asking permission. Plus, now it was twice as hot as it would have been if we had done the chores on time. But by late that afternoon we’d gotten everything pretty much caught up and so went in the house to wash up for supper.
At the supper table Dad continued to scold us some and Mom joined him. Brad wore a contrite face, the same one he always did with Father Richter, and responded with subdued “yes, sirs” and “no, mams.” So I did the same. Pretty soon the steam went out of the discipline, blown out the window by the pedestal fan we used to cool the kitchen.
Just about the time we were finishing supper, the telephone rang and Mom, being the closest, went to answer it. We could hear her in the hallway: “What did you say, Lucy? Well, I’ll be! You want to talk to Bradford? He’s right here. You sure? Right now? Okay, I’ll tell him.”
She returned to the kitchen with a perplexed look on her face.
“What was that all about?” Dad asked her.
“That was your mom, Hon. She wants you to come over right away.”
“Why? Something wrong? Plumbing problem again, I’ll bet—that kitchen faucet.”
“Well no, not that.” Mom smiled. “Lucy was both laughing and crying so hard it was difficult for me to understand her. But I think she said two gentlemen just rode up to her house on horses. And one of them has something he wants to ask you. Now does that make any sense?”
As Dad got up to go, Brad nudged me with his elbow and winked. Mom and Dad didn’t notice, Susan didn’t care, but Razzle looked at us and asked, “What?”
I never got to be the big brother in the family, except some to Razzle, but I learned that hot summer in Locust Hill just how wonderful they can be.
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)