Hard Scrabble Singings
by Luisa Kay Reyes
Colt felt the hunger gnawing in his stomach. Normally, he was adept at simply ignoring the feeling of his stomach devouring itself in a feeble effort to obtain some sort of nutrition. But today, it was accompanied by a light-headedness that was making it nearly impossible for him to concentrate.
Colt stared out the window of the wooden school building. Their recess for lunch would begin soon, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Although, his lunchtime fare was the same as always: a plain lard sandwich.
“Spell Roosevelt,” the teacher said, catching Colt in the middle of his reverie.
Colt turned his head back toward the front of the classroom, in a bit of surprise.
“Spell Roosevelt!” the teacher repeated, a note of disapproval tinging her voice.
“R-O-O-S-E-V-E-L-T!” spelled Willadeene proudly from the seat behind him.
“Well done,” the teacher said, which led to Willadeene smiling broadly at her approval.
Not that Colt could see it, given she was sitting behind him. But, somehow, he sure enough could feel it, even so. For Willadeene was always eager to outdo Colt whenever she could in school, given that he was the closest thing she had to an academic rival in the single room country schoolhouse.
Colt merely shrugged his shoulders. Of course, he knew how to spell Roosevelt. Why it was pronounced as though it were related to the prized flower, he knew not. But, these days, the name “Roosevelt” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. For there was something called the Great Depression going on all over the country, with many hanging their hopes on this one man to help deliver them out of the misery of poverty that was seeping into the nation. Why folks were letting themselves get so excited, Colt knew not. After all, the one constant, in these hills and hollows that comprised the woods of Southern Biggs County, was hard scrabble, hard hearts, and hard times.
At last, the teacher announced recess for lunch, and the students all excitedly rushed outside to enjoy the sunny day while eating their noontime fare. Colt decided to join his younger sister, Viola, underneath one of the shade trees to eat their lard sandwiches.
“Are you well?” she asked him when he joined her.
“Of course,” Colt replied, a bit surprised by her question.
“Then why did you tarry so in spelling today?” she asked him. “You’re usually quick with those big, fancy words.”
“Oh, that,” Colt stated with a faint sigh. “I just wasn’t thinkin’ about no spelling words today. That’s all.”
And at precisely that moment, Willadeene, with her head turned up just a little, walked past them holding up her sandwich. Sure enough, even from afar, one could tell it was filled with plenty of meat in it, not just lard like the ones he and Viola and the other hard scrabble students had. But Colt was too hungry to let Willadeene’s boastful ways bother him for the time being. He held up his own plain lard sandwich, and took the biggest bite of it that he could. To say that it tasted good would be a lie, but to say that it helped his hunger some would be a truth.
Thankfully, it was Friday. When school let out for the day, Colt joined his sister Viola for their daily walk home.
“Ouch!” Colt said out loud as he accidentally stepped on a sharp twig with his bare feet. The twig managed to scratch a part of the soles of his feet that hadn’t already been scraped raw several times before.
Colt picked up the twig and broke it in half. Walking barefoot during the school week was common for them and many of the others, so it wasn’t unexpected. This particular twig just hurt more than usual. Nevertheless, Colt and Viola continued their way homeward with Colt trying to step a bit more lightly than usual on his hurt foot.
“How does Willadeene manage to have both shoes for school and meat in her sandwiches?” Viola asked after a moment. “She goes to school, same as the rest of us,” she added in a genuinely inquisitive tone, her light brown eyes held in a wide-eyed wonder.
Colt laughed a little before his thoughts turned pensive. “She’s one of the lucky ones. Her daddy has a job. He works for the railroad.”
“Oh,” was all Viola could say to that. She was still young and not certain what all had been happening. She’d heard enough over the years to make out that “fussin’ and fightin’” was the biggest claim to fame many of the grown men had around these parts. One day, their Pa had wagered on some cock fights with a hefty supply of liquor on hand, only to end up fussin’ and fightin’ so much he made the cocks look tame and didn’t outlive them.
Viola sighed, and Colt merely shrugged his shoulders.
Saturday came with Colt and Viola trying to help their mama with the chores as much as possible. They had but a small, ramshackled cabin to call home, but it was what they had, so it was best to patch it up where it needed fixing. On Sunday, Colt decided to set out early in search of a good piece of lumber that could be used to patch up the latest hole that had appeared in their rustic abode. Too early, it turned out—Colt quickly hid his lean frame behind some bushes along the red dirt road that people used on their way to Church. Somehow, he just didn’t much care to be seen. He and Viola were strictly forbidden from going to any Sunday meetings. They didn’t really know why, but their mama had sternly forbidden it with the phrase, “Church just isn’t the place for people like us.” It was a phrase she repeated over and over, until they finally ceased asking her.
Thus, Colt safely hid while watching the ladies walking past in their best pastel-hued, calico-printed, flour sack dresses. Some of them were accompanied by a few of the school kids and their younger toddler-aged siblings, skipping along beside them. Surprisingly, a few of the weather-beaten men he knew from these environs were managing to give an air of country-respectability in their clean overalls.
When, suddenly, the sound of horses’ hooves came approaching. Old Widow MacLean rushed by in her late husband’s peddler’s cart—It was quite the rickety old thing, but proud of it she was; she blithely stirred up a flurry of red dust that made everybody cough while she was riding past them. Only this time, as she rounded the bend, a rattlesnake hissed nearby and scared one of the horses. In an instant, the cart overturned, throwing Old Widow MacLean flat down on the red dirt.
Colt jumped from behind the bushes to try and calm down the horses, lest they drag her off in such a manner. Old Widow MacLean accepted his aid none too graciously, for the only thing she could think about was the humiliation of being seen sprawled out in the dirt in such an ill fashion. Colt was not troubled in the least by her ungratefulness, expecting little else. Then, while reaching to help her back up into the cart, his eyes beheld the most glorious sight he had seen since he was a small babe in his dear mama’s arms—a casserole dish, full of green beans and bacon, had spilled onto the ground. With his hands trembling, he fought the desire to let Old Widow MacLean fall back down so he could devour the unexpected culinary delight before the large black ants of the forest took note.
“Thank Heavens the chicken and dumplin’s didn’t spill out too much,” Old Widow MacLean said once Colt helped her back into her seat comfortably. She glanced into the back of the cart. “It wouldn’t do to show up at a singin’ empty handed.” And off at a breakneck speed she went, without so much as a thank you or a by-your-leave.
Blinking his eyes from the dust from Old Widow MacLean’s cart, Colt wasted no time in leaning down and grabbing a fistful of the green beans. The trembling he had felt in his hands now spread throughout the rest of his body, as he was beside himself—to actually taste a bit of bacon seemed like the closest thing to Paradise he could think of. What a treat.
“May I have some, too?” Viola interrupted as she came bounding up the way. A few people were still walking by, but the delicious taste of the green beans and bacon caused Colt to lose all reservations over being seen. At least for the present.
“Willadeene was telling me about these at school,” Viola said. “She told me that for all of Old Widow MacLean’s ornery ways, she sure does make a good mess of beans.”
“What I wouldn’t give to eat some more of these!” Colt exclaimed while handing Viola the last few of the bits and pieces of bacon and beans he had managed to grab.
“It isn’t impossible, you know,” Viola said, her light brown eyes widening upon tasting the savory vegetables.
“Sure it is,” Colt replied, letting his shoulders droop. “For us, at least.”
“I reckon you’re probably right,” Viola responded, despondently. But then, inspired by a surge of optimism at the thought of eating something besides lard, she continued with, “Willadeene was telling me at school last week that at the ‘Shady Grove Christian Harmony’ singing next Sunday, singers don’t have to bring a dish.”
“Oh, that Willadeene. Filling your head with such nonsense. You know very well Mama won’t let us go to church,” Colt said, with a touch of bitterness that surprised even him. “And besides that, we can’t even sing Christian Harmony.”
The light of optimism that had briefly lit up Viola’s trusting eyes disappeared. “But, Willadeene said she could teach me,” she muttered softly under her breath. The harshness of their reality set in once again, prompting her to hand back to Colt the last piece of bacon that she held with her fingers.
Colt watched Viola as she took off with her feet scuffling along in the dirt. Most of the hard scrabble folks around these parts had any illusions drummed out of them long before they were Viola’s impressionable young age. So he felt it was good for Viola to be confronted with the reality of struggling just to barely survive. It was best to adjust to it sooner rather than later.
But then he heard Viola start to softly sing a little melody, “A Billy Goat, was feeling fine. He ate six shirts off of Sal’s clothesline...” And Colt felt it come over him, too, this strange light of hope that he had seen in her eyes. The hope that something could be different for once.
“How?” he yelled at her, to make sure she could hear him.
“How what?” Viola turned and asked him in return.
“How do we sing Christian Harmony?” he queried further.
“I don’t rightly know,” Viola answered. “But Willadeene told me a triangle means Do”.
The next week at school, Colt and Viola begged Willadeene to escape with them during recess to learn all about the art of shape-note singing. Thankfully, Willadeene was sent to singing school every month by her parents, making her quite the little expert in the Christian Harmony acapella style. And she relished this notion of feeling important enough to be teaching Colt something. After all, it didn’t harm her reputation any for the other schoolkids to know that her parents were able to spare her from daily chores on the weekends long enough to send her to singing school.
With the arrival of Sunday morning, Colt felt himself tempering his excitement with some apprehension.
“Don’t worry,” Viola came up to him with her eyes sparkling as she took note of his hesitation. “I told Mama we were meeting up with Willadeene to go over some of our lessons for school. She said it was okay. And since we’ve been working on Christian Harmony at school, it is actually true.”
Relieved that this first hurdle was out of the way, Colt and Viola set about on their way to Shady Grove. The morning sun bore through the leaves of the trees and came down on them hard as they made their way along the dirt paths through the forest. The first hill they encountered led to Sardis. He had heard tell it was a Methodist Church and the Tates went there. The next hill they passed led to Old Zephi. A Baptist Church, he had heard, one that he hoped to go to one day since it had a spring nearby that lots of people said produced really good healing waters. The Haywards, he had heard, were the ones who went there.
“I sure hope we get to Shady Grove before noon,” Viola interrupted his thoughts as they kept trudging along. “Willadeene says that’s when they serve the food.”
“I know,” Colt replied, wiping perspiration off of his brow, and commiserating with Viola and the temptation to turn back before they expired in the humid heat. But, those green beans. He just couldn’t get those savory little vegetables out of his mind. All week at school—as they ate their sandwiches filled with nothing but the same old lard and were told to be grateful for it—he hungered for Sunday so he could taste something new.
“Just remember, a triangle means Do,” he said to Viola with a teasing grin. And onward on their mission they went.
The hills leading to the various churches in the woods seemed to get higher and higher as they continued strolling past. And this last one, the one that Willadeene had told them led to Shady Grove, seemed like the highest of them all. Feeling weak from the long walk in the heat, coupled with stomachs that were clamoring for some nutrition, Viola and Colt hung their heads with a groan at the sight of it. Yet, they’d come too far to acquiesce to defeat now. Slowly but surely, they climbed up the path that led to the top.
Just as they were reaching its peak, they saw it: a white clapboard Church that seemed to rise out of nowhere, with some cement tables lining the cemetery to the side of it. Some of the tables were already covered with tablecloths where people were planning to set out the food. Viola and Colt looked at each other. Spent from their long walk they might be, but seeing those tables made them forget it. They took off at a gallop the rest of the way to the Church.
Upon reaching the front of the building, Viola and Colt quietly opened the doors and tried to tiptoe their way to the Holy Square.
“Where we’ll never grow old…” The song was being led by a tall, imposing, white-haired, elderly man standing in the middle of the square in the front, the place where all of the singers sat with their books in hand.
Even though Viola and Colt were tiptoeing as silently as possible—creak!—the wooden floors made a loud sound. All of the singing stopped.
“I told you they was comin’!’” Willadeene proudly exclaimed to her grandfather, the older man leading the singing at the front.
The rest of the room remained silent.
Colt and Viola stood in place. It seemed like every eye in the room was staring at them, and they weren’t quite sure why.
Unbeknownst to them, while they were a bedraggled looking pair to begin with, their trek through the woods in the hot Southern sun had compounded the matter in a most awful sort of way. Their stringy hair, full of perspiration, clung to their dust-splattered faces, and their tattered clothing was barely discernible beneath the layers and layers of red dirt that had accumulated upon them.
“They can lead ‘Twilight is Falling,’” Willadeene finally broke in. “I’ve been teaching it to them,” she continued, her chest puffing out with pride.
Her grandpa glanced disbelievingly in her direction, not really wanting to encourage any ridiculous folly. However, as he took in his red-headed granddaughter’s endearing smile, he became powerless to do anything but yield to her suggestion.
“Come on up,” he said, with a reluctant command while motioning for Colt and Viola to walk to the front. “Number two-forty-eight,” he called out, more firmly now, in a deep booming voice to the rest of the folks sitting there as they looked for the page number in their books. “Words only.”
Silently, Colt and Viola made their way to the front. They either knew most of the people in the sanctuary or knew of them. But had they been in a room full of complete city slicker strangers, they couldn’t have felt more out of place.
“What do we do?” Viola whispered to Willadeene, who was feeling most eager to show off her teaching skills.
“Just set the key and then sing,” she said. “And move your arms up and down with the beat like I taught you.”
“Twilight is falling soft o’er the sea,” Viola and Colt sang softly at first. “Shadows are stealing dark on the lea,” they continued, growing ever more confident with every verse. “Borne on the night winds, voices of yore,” they were feeling at home now. “Come from the far off shore.”
“I’ve had it!” exclaimed Old Widow MacLean from the far corner of the room. She let her Christian Harmony book slide out of her hands, and it landed with a thud on the wooden floor below. “I ain’t singin’ any praises to the God above alongside a pair of no account Cluetts,” she said while standing up to leave in a huff.
Viola and Colt stared at each other. They hadn’t even noticed Old Widow MacLean sitting there when they walked in. And the mention of their last name made them wince.
“Nonsense,” came a strong voice from a distinguished-looking gentleman sitting on one of the pews alongside the Holy Square. “They are Wrights, too. And since when is a Wright of no account?”
Viola and Colt stood frozen in place as they saw Old Widow MacLean glare at the gentleman and angrily sit back down.
“Please go on,” a young lady in the back said after an uncomfortable pause. “Y’all’s voices are lovely.”
Seeing Willadeen’s granddad nod in approval, they continued on leading the chorus: “Far away beyond the starlit skies, Where the love-light never, never dies…”
“Well, it is about that time,” Willa’s grandpa interjected when the song was over. “Brother Daniel, will you lead us in the blessing?” A tall, white-bearded man stood up and led them in a small prayer before the feast was to begin.
“Y’all did it!” Willadeene said enthusiastically once the blessing was over. “Of course y’all had it easy. You just did the words and not the notes.”
“Thank you, Willadeene!” Viola said happily.
“When do we eat?” Colt asked, unconcerned about little else at the time being.
“Right now, you hungry little billy goat!” Willadeene said. “Come follow me.”
She led them outside to the gray cement tables they had noticed earlier. Only now, the cement tables were taking on a new form. The matrons of every family were laying down their colored tablecloths while spreading out their casserole dishes and cakes along the tops of the tables. Never in any of the books at school, or in his wildest imagination, had Colt ever seen so much food in his entire life.
“I always like to scout out which dishes I’m going to try first,” Willadeene said while pulling them alongside her, something which Colt and Viola felt was kind of needless. For they were ready to eat it all. But Willadeene persisted. She showed them, one by one, which red velvet cake was the best. Which sweet potato casserole to try first. Whose green beans with bacon could nearly rival that Old Widow MacLean’s. The lima beans, black-eyed peas, and slices of tomatoes she usually liked best. The egg custards to try. The huckleberry cobblers to indulge in. And the cornbread that was the most delicious of them all.
Taking their places in line once the plates and dishes were all laid out, Colt, Viola, and Willadeene piled their plates higher and higher with more and more food. Viola hid some rolls of cornbread in her pockets for later. Colt understood now why so many of the Christian Harmony songs talked about their Heavenly Home, with mansions bright and fair in the hereafter. If they had food like this there, he felt ready to go there, too.
Once the noon hour set aside for the dinner was over with, many of the folks piled back inside the church for the afternoon singing. Everyone was a bit sleepy after the hearty meal, but eager to keep on singing, even so, with Viola and Colt being welcomed now as part of the singers.
“I wish all of the singings were like that,” Viola said once the afternoon singing was over, and she and Colt started reluctantly plodding back home. “Where singers don’t have to bring a dish.”
“Me, too,” Colt said. “I never knew so much food existed!”
Wearily they traipsed along the rest of the way back home.
To their surprise, upon reaching their rudimentary home, there was an automobile in the yard. Their mama was standing on the front porch waiting for them with the distinguished gentleman from church standing beside her.
“So,” she said, her face bright red, “y’all went to church. Haven’t I told you never to go to church?”
Had they been gagged with a spoon, Viola and Colt could not have stood there in a more hushed state, their heads hanging down low.
“Hush now, Elsie”, the gentleman said. “It is time to let bygones be bygones. Just because you ran off to marry that no account Cluett doesn’t mean these young‘uns have to suffer for it, too. You’ve learned your lesson.”
Their mama lowered her eyes in agreement.
“And besides, it seems to me these little ones have more Wright in them than Cluett.”
Viola and Colt looked at the gentleman quizzically. That was the second time that day that the name Wright had been mentioned, and they knew not what it meant.
“Children,” their mama said as she stood up to embrace them. “This is your grandfather, Doctor Wright. My daddy.”
Viola and Colt were overwhelmed. Their mama had never talked about her side of the family, ever. In fact, they didn’t know she even had a family, much less the well-known Doctor Wright. Why, it was said that even people from Europe came over to study medicine under him. Not knowing what else to do, Viola dipped down into a curtsy before him.
Doctor Wright let out a chuckle.
Truth to be told, it was a bit ironic. Old Widow MacLean had been a Daugherty before she married. And all of the Daughertys were known for being good singers, in the shape-note singing circuit. Only she had married a MacLean. And, suffice it to say, the MacLean blood won out in her progeny, with not a one of the seven of them being able to sing a note on key. Doctor Wright reckoned he couldn’t blame Old Widow MacLean for being all fired upset at Shady Grove today. He’d set things right by her, and make sure she could walk into the next singing carrying the biggest ham the county had ever seen.
Doctor Wright, himself, had been furious when Elsie eloped to marry that no account Cluett—so much so that he had cut off all communication with her whatsoever. He only gleaned about her what he could from the folks down at Keaton’s Country Store. And Elsie had been so furious at his fury, that she had returned his non-communicating favor.
But now Doctor Wright could see that there was hope in his grandchildren. He was getting on in age, and could use some smart, young apprentices to help him with his doctoring.
“Your mama has been worried about you, Elsie,” he said. “It is time for you to come home.”
Elsie took a look around at their meager surroundings, and she realized that he was right. She knew her daddy could be hardheaded like she was. But, more than once, she had worried she wasn’t doing right by Colt and Viola.
“Pack your things,” she said. And reaching her arms in a group hug around her daddy, Colt, and Viola, she said, “It is time to go home.”
About the Writer
Luisa Kay Reyes has had pieces featured in The Raven Chronicles, The Windmill, The Foliate Oak, The Eastern Iowa Review, and other literary magazines. Her essay, “Thank You,” is the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Her Christmas poem was a first-place winner in the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. Additionally, her essay, “My Border Crossing,” received a Pushcart Prize nomination from Port Yonder Press, and two of her essays have been nominated for the “Best of the Net” anthology. One of her essays was recently featured on The Dirty Spoon radio hour.
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Photo: Poor mother and children, Oklahoma, 1936 by Dorothea Lange. Public Domain.