By Dean Penland
The first I knew of it was when the Old Man grabbed my leg and pulled me out of my bed and onto the floor.
“Git yer clothes on, and git downstairs to breakfast. Dress warm; it’s cold out.”
I looked out the window at the blackness. It warn’t even close to dawn yet. I sprang up from long practice (being yanked onto the floor was how I usually got waked up) and put my britches and flannel shirt on over my long-johns. I knew what day it was, but I warn’t holding out much hope. It was the first day of deer season, and at eight years old, I had figured I was long past the age when I should have been allowed to go on the hunt.
But just as likely, one of the cows had got out and was wandering, which meant my ass was fixing to git lit up. Had I double-checked the latch on the gate the night before? I couldn’t remember for sure.
I come down the stairs like a condemned criminal walking his last walk to Old Sparky. I was sure proud, though, when I noticed the Old Man’s belt was around his waist, and not sitting on the table, waiting for me. I sat down, stabbed a sausage onto my plate and scooped some eggs & grits on top.
I reckon by now, y’all need to know that when I say the Old Man, I am talking about my father. He warn’t really old; he was maybe 36 or 37, lean and fit, but he had old, old, ancient eyes. He would look off every once in a while and, furtively glancing, I could see Aeons of time and space pass in those dark brown orbs. ‘The Thousand-Yard Stare,’ Hambone called it once, but when I asked what he meant he told me that it warn’t time for me to hear it yet. I had never called him ‘Father’, ‘Daddy’, or ‘Dad’, ‘cept maybe when I was a baby, just mainly ‘Sir’; he always called me ‘boy.’ But he was the only family I had; his two brothers were dead and my mama didn’t live with us because he was only quiet when he was drunk and mean as hell otherwise. I had no siblings, but I warn’t lonely. There was a pack of young’uns ’round my age that lived in the next holler, just up from the Colored church. Back then, I knew more Black folks than I ever did White. I was part Scot, part Cherokee, part Black and part God-only-knows. Everyone’s blood was colored red, the Old Man always said, and I knew that was fact the time he back-handed me across the face and my nose gushed crimson.
“Hurry up and eat. Go git Hambone and I’ll git your rifle ready.” My blood thrilled; with
that sentence, I knew I was going with the men, going to the mountain, going hunting! And not for squirrel or rabbit or quail; I had been taking them with a slingshot or a .22 since I could walk. I was after the most noble game the great state of North Carolina possessed, the White-Tailed Deer. Sure, there was bigger and meaner game out there, the Black Bear and the Russian Boar that stalked the highlands; nothing, however, matched the sensation of tracking a big buck with his throat all swolled out while he was in rut, wary and hateful and dangerous in equal measures. We didn’t hunt from stands; that was how city folk did it. We stalked our game, just like our ancestors had done on the mountain for thousands of years.
I swallowed my food whole, gulped down my coffee, and ran out the back door, grabbing my mackinaw as I went. The air was so cold it hurt to breathe, but it was clean and fresh and holy and dancing and life-giving, like only winter air can be, so I gulped it in like a desperate man finally crawling to a puddle in a desert oasis. I pulled my coat on and ran off across the field, hollering at Otis to come with me.
There was one thing me and the Old Man absolutely agreed on, that being that Otis and the other dogs, and Hambone, and his family, and the rest of our people, was the only folks we knew that was worth a damn. Hambone was my father’s lifelong best friend, and a distant relation, and as a 5-year-old Treeing Walker, Otis was the best coon hound for 5 counties around. The Old Man and Hambone spent every night they could get away following Otis and Sula, Hambone’s Bluetick bitch, across the mountains, bringing back fat coons every morning. It’s a mite greasy, but coon is good eating, ‘specially when the Kelvinator’s empty and it’s still 6 weeks ’til slaughtering time.
I crossed the old bridge over the creek and ran up the road to Shiloh Crossing, where the majority of the black community lived. I seen the light was on at Hambone’s and that he and his wife were bringing some stove wood inside. I grabbed an armful and barged in.
“Morning, Mr. Hambone! Morning, Miss Luella!” I sang out.
“Morning, young squire!” “Hello, Mr. Jack!” They replied.
I wasn’t all that smart, but I had learned early on that ALL adults were referred to as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Miss.’ Worst beating I ever got in my life was when I called the town drunk “Ralph” instead of “Mr. Ralph” in hearing range of my father. “He may be a drunk, but he’s a man, BOY,” my father spit at me when I had stopped wailing. “He served his country, and he saw things I pray you never have to see, and you will show him the respect he’s due.”
The ‘Mr.’ was self-evident, but the mystery of why we called every Southern lady, whether single, married, or widdered, whether three or a hundred and three, ‘Miss’ was one of those immutable laws that just became part of our being while growing up in the South. Now as to what I would have called Northern men or women I didn’t know, as I had never met any; we all just referred to them as ‘those people.’ I saw a Yankee once; he was a traveling salesman passing through town, but I sure as hell warn’t going to be the one who people saw talking to him. He looked like a regular enough fellow, but by GOD, my people hated him.
“You hungry, Mr. Jack?”
“No ma’am, I et before I come over.”
“Well, here. I saved you a stick of chewing gum.”
“Well, young squire, let’s git to moving before there ain’t no deer left.” Hambone had called me ‘young squire’ as long as I could remember, and I loved him for it. I didn’t have much, but I cherished that nickname.
He was a self-taught, educated man who had never spent a day in a schoolhouse, and he was the preacher at the Colored church. I always sat with Miss Luella and the young’uns whenever she cornered me into coming to service, which was far too often for my preferences, but I loved to hear that man preach and sing. He always had a day-old copy of the Charlotte Observer with him, as well as his bible, and he would read one or the other in the hot afternoons while I dozed at the crick when the fish warn’t biting.
Miss Luella turned off the porch light, and we walked out into the dark morning. I studied him as we walked down the steps. Hambone was a titan of a man, immensely tall and muscular, and hands-down the blackest man I had ever met, with the exception of perfect, brilliantly white teeth and snow-white hair that was as fine and soft as virgin cotton still in the boll. He was the handsomest man I had ever seen, and my chief ambition was to grow up and be a Scottish/Cherokee Hambone. He looked like what I imagined Adam, the perfect human, formed by the divine breath of God, had looked like, and I worshiped him as much as I feared the Old Man.
I had asked him one time why he had white hair so young. He had laughed and said it had happened when he warn’t much older than me and had fought a Grizzly Bear. “I fought that bear for three years before I got the best of him, and by then, my hair and his fur had turned pure white,” he joked. “Oh, that’s a crock of shit,” I replied.
That was when I learned that the Old Man didn’t have an exclusive license when it came to tanning my ass. Like I said, Hambone took his religion real serious-like, and he loathed vulgar language. I knew he hated all vulgarities and lowness- words like ‘Nigger’ or ‘Spic’ or ‘Cracker’- the words the uptown folks used to describe us and the Mexican families that come through during picking time. I hated it because there was a pretty girl with black hair and black eyes named Antonia that I had seen for the last two Septembers. She was sixteen and had the deepest dimples in her olive cheeks and I was in love with her and was going to marry her the next September and I was ready to knife-fight any man or beast that dared to insult her.
Ham had told me only low-class trash hated people because their skin color was different. I thought about that for a moment and said, “Well, I guess I don’t hate anyone then, cuz I’m a mongrel!”
He laughed and said, “You’d be surprised just how many people are, young squire.”
We headed back to our house to meet the Old Man and to pen up Otis. He was impatiently waiting on us. My father was very temperamental unless he was moving, doing, being. Standing still was a great sin to him, whereas his best friend would sit and rest every chance he got. The Old Man never got put out with Hambone, but I knew that I was to move with a purpose any time he was around.
As we walked up, Otis ran and leapt at the Old Man like a puppy. The only time I ever saw him completely relaxed and happy was when he was working with his dogs. They idolized each other. Otis sat and quietly whined.
“I know, buddy. You can’t come with us, though… you have to stay and protect the house! I’ll be back later today.” Otis looked at the Old Man intently; it was as if he understood every word his beloved human had said. Me and Otis got along right well, but he would kill any creature alive, me included, that threatened harm to the Old Man. He had that effect on all dogs, even those that warn’t his.
I penned Otis up and we started off. The Old Man reached in his pocket and pulled out a plug of Red Man, cut off a chaw and handed it to Hambone. “’Thankee,” Hambone said. The Old Man nodded and then cut off a chaw for himself. I warn’t going to ask for one; I had snuck one about six months earlier and had spent the rest of the day vomiting, certain that I was going to die.
“I swear, Carl, you treat them dogs better than you treat most men,” Hambone chuckled.
The Old Man didn’t answer for a bit. Then he said, ‘It’s because they’re pure. And right. And good.”
Hambone laughed. “Do tell, O wise one.”
The Old Man grinned. He did grin, every now and again, usually when Hambone was ribbing him. I had never seen him smile, though. “Those dogs, those cows in the field, those pigs in the sty, the birds in the trees and the fish in the waters– they do exactly what they were designed to do. Man is the only creature that has decided to spit in God’s eye. We can pretend we are good and upright and all that horsesh–”
“Sorry. But deep down, we’re just evil. I wonder why he doesn’t just smite us all and start fresh. That coyote that killed my calf a few months ago? I ain’t mad about it. It didn’t do it out of meanness, or for sport. It killed that calf so that it could live, and so that it’s young could live. There ain’t no wrong in that. Men killing men, though… or robbing, raping, stealing… we are abominations.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t heard the Old Man say that many words in a week, let alone in the space of a few minutes. Hambone just smiled, though.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal.”
“Nope,” said the Old Man. “Not me. I’ve seen enough death and done enough killing to do me for twenty lifetimes.”
I forgot to mention that the Old Man hadn’t ‘hunted’ since he had come back from Vietnam. In their youths, he, his brothers, and Hambone had hunted, fished, and trapped everything that could be hunted, fished, or trapped. Nowadays, though, he was content just to scout for his friend, to sit on the bank while Hambone fished and read his paper or bible, to listen to the hounds bugling as they struck a fresh scent, or to help tote deer back off the mountain when the day was done, but he would not kill any creature.
I guess it’s good that Hambone owned the slaughterhouse and handled our livestock, though, or we would have been like those hippies that only ate carrots and such.
We walked in silence for a mile or so. Then Hambone exclaimed, “And who in their right mind names a dog Otis?”
The Old Man grinned again. “I like ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ and I’ve already had dogs named Aunt Bea and Ernest T. Bass.”
“HA HA HA,” Hambone threw his head back and laughed from deep inside himself. It sounded like them big church bells ringing, the ones I heard on Miss Eunice’s TV when she watched her church shows on Sundays. Miss Eunice didn’t hear so well so everyone up and down the road got to hear her church shows. Now I didn’t know who Ernest T. Bass was, but if he made Hambone laugh like that, he must have been a funny fellow.
Just then, my blood ran cold. Otis ran up, wriggling and wagging his tail. The Old Man’s grin vanished immediately; he slowly turned and stared at me. I hated that look; I had seen it all too often. It was a flat, lifeless regarding that showed no emotion. I would rather he had glared at me with storms in his eyes; that basiliskian gaze was as if I meant nothing, as if I was nothing.
He spoke through gritted teeth. “I reckon I’ll go back and make sure to LATCH THAT DAMNED GATE.”
After 36 years, Hambone knew this was not the time to say anything about any language. Instead, he softly said, “We’ll walk back and attend to it, Hoss. Just walk on ahead and we’ll meet you down at the flats.”
He looked at me for another eternity; then, without a word, he turned and continued to walk toward the mountain. He didn’t look back.
I remained frozen for a minute, and then I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, young squire. I needed some more walking this morning anyways. Wife says I’m getting fat!”
We walked a few steps as my eyes filled with tears. I then fell to my knees and started beating the earth with my fists. I was silent; he was still within hearing distance and my fear of him won against my rage. But in my mind, it was his face I was beating, and I warn’t going to stop until I had beaten him to death.
“I HATE HIM I HATE HIM OH GOD I HATE HIM I WISH HE WOULD DIE I HATE HIM GOD PLEASE LET HIM DIE AND BURN IN HELL!” I whispered as loudly as I dared. My whole body shook violently, full of venom and bile and grief.
I felt their presence then, on either side of me. A sweet dog tentatively licked my hand on one side, and two huge, enormously strong arms wrapped me in a hug from the other. I couldn’t breathe because I had worked myself into a frenzy, but I held that dog and those arms with all the strength of my body and my soul, terrified to let go because I feared I would tumble off the precipice of sanity if I did.
“What did I do to him? Why does he hate me so much? Why can’t I ever be good enough? At least when he hits me, I know he feels something! But when he gives me that look, I just want to die.”
Hambone was silent, and just held me until I quit shaking. He then reached into his back pocket, pulled out his handkerchief and dried my tears. It amazed me that a man so big and so strong could have such kind hands. I had watched him slaughter hogs; those hands dealt death every day. He would stand in the pit to drain the blood, and as it flowed, he would hold a coffee cup under the stream until it was full, and then drink the entire steaming cup down. Made him strong, he said. Made me puke, I knew.
It warn’t slaughtering hands that dried my tears, though. It were hands that loved me.
“Thankee, Mr. Hambone,” I said. I slowly stood up and only then did I notice the tears in his eyes.
“Oh, Mr. Hambone! Don’t cry! Why are you crying? You don’t have no reason to cry.”
He stood and sweetly smiled. “When the people I love hurt, I cry.”
“Please don’t. I don’t hurt anymore, see?” I begged him.
He lifted me up and set me on his shoulders. He then took Otis by the leash and started heading back to the farm with a fast, mile-eating pace. I felt like a giant, looking down from on high, condescending to notice all the puny mortals who cowered before me.
“I know you’re still hurting, young squire, but I’m going to let you in on a secret. Your daddy been hurting for a long, long time.”
“Nuh uh!” I said.
“Oh, yes. I reckon if you’re old enough to hunt deer, you’re old enough to know some things about your daddy. Now understand, a lot of what I tell you ain’t going to be pretty. Tell me, what do you know about the war?”
“Well, it was on the other side of the world, and you and him and Uncle Ed and Uncle Don and a whole lotta other guys went over there and beat the gooks.”
“Umm, I mean the bad guys. Then y’all come home, and Uncle Ed and Uncle Don died and he got real mean and started drinking and Mama left. Then he started hating me.”
He stopped and swung me down, and then knelt so we were face to face. “Alright, let me stop you right there. Your daddy don’t hate you. He loves you more than anything in this world.”
“Hah! What a load of sh-”
“Stuff. If he loved me, he would act more like you. We would go fishing and swimming and we would laugh and carry on and he wouldn’t make me feel like… like…”
“Like you’re not worth nothing?”
“Yeah. Exactly.” Hambone always knew just what I was thinking.
He held out his hand. “Walk beside me and listen.” I placed my child’s hand in his massive one and tried to match his stride. He noticed and shortened his. “What would you say if I told you that before he went to war, your daddy laughed and sang and carried on like a fool and every woman in 35 miles was in love with him, even the married ones, because he was so sweet and kind and happy?”
“I’d say you done lost your mind.”
He smiled in the darkness. I loved looking at his teeth. “I’m telling you the honest truth.”
“Well, I hope you ain’t lying, cuz you’re a preacher and God ain’t gonna be real happy with you if you are.”
We had reached the farm, and I made sure that Otis was penned and the gate was absolutely, 100% latched, and we started walking back toward the mountain.
“Well, I’m not lying. Every girl around here had their heart set on your daddy, but he never even looked at another girl after he met your mama. Me and Donny and Ed kept on chasin’ women- I wasn’t a preacher back then, you see- but if he wasn’t over at your Grandma’s house visiting her, he was at home, working with them dogs. You know a dog knows a persons’ character better than that person knows it himself, right?”
“Well, yeah. Everyone knows that.”
“Did you ever stop to think about the fact that every dog for fifty miles loves your daddy more than they love their own people?”
I stopped. He was right. “I never thought about it that ways.” I started walking again, thoughtful-like. “So what happened? Why did he change? If he loved Mama so much, why did he start treating her so bad?”
“The war changed him, just like it changed every man that went there. You know them bad scars he’s got on his back and legs?”
“The ones he got when he was a kid and fell in the gravel pit?”
“Is that what he told you? I wondered. He didn’t get them as a kid; he got them when he was a prisoner in Vietnam.”
“Your daddy was a real special kind of soldier, one who got a lot of extra training and went on really, really hard missions. Well, on one of them, he got caught by the enemy, and got put into a prison and beat real bad. You ever been switched before?”
“Only that once by Miss Luella. I don’t plan on ever getting one of them again.”
He laughed. “I don’t blame you. Now, imagine getting beat with switches that are as big around as a man’s thumb, called bamboo, by a whole lot of men at the same time, for days without them stopping.”
I couldn’t. My 8-year-old mind couldn’t fathom the depravity needed for a man to treat another man in that manner.