Life at the Mill
All three of us learned how to swim before we learned to walk, or at least that’s what momma always told everybody. There were times when we might go visit someplace new, and we usually worried all of the grown-ups there half-to-death, the way we jumped out of the car and ran over to a swimming pool dressed only in our underwear, and then one, two, three, we each dove in head first.
After staying under water for awhile, we popped up to see nervous adults standing nearby, ready to dive in and save us.
Momma thought it was funny when people panicked like they did, and later, she would look around with a worried face and say things like,
“I’m not sure if all of my children are here; the gator might have got one of them.”
And people would laugh while daddy smiled at her. He usually always wore his hat and acted grand, like he knew everyone around.
They said they killed an alligator when we first moved here. Our grandma came to the big party they threw afterwards, and she even ate some of it, but she thought it was cow meat at the time. But when she asked for another piece, somebody told her what it was and she nearly got sick. Later on that same day, daddy told us she sneaked back and got some more.
Momma fixed the mill house up really nice. Most of the stuff came from the city, and sometimes we got to go with her. Her and Maria got mad when I made up a story about the ambulance picking up daddy one time.
She doesn’t live here much, being so smart and all, but I like my big sister most of the time. Some nights she plays on momma’s piano, and other nights she goes off with some people I don’t know. One time a bunch of them came and had a big party here in the house. I found a thing one man had been making music with later, laying back in her bedroom up on the bed. It had lots of strings on it, and it made nice sounds when I hit them, so I went to find a hammer, thinking it would be even louder. I had fun banging on it for awhile, but I took off and hid after I busted the wood parts, and I never saw it again after that.
Maria finished school two years ahead of the rest of her class, and now she’s off going to some music conservatory down in Glenville. I guess that’s why she plays the piano so good, but she can act mean as a snake sometimes, and she is always back-talking momma. She mostly treats daddy real nice and they talk together like she is all grown-up . I tried hiding in the back seat of Buck’s car last week, that time when he came by to get her, but she caught me just before they left and run me off. I really wanted to go with them, but she really didn’t want me to. Buck laughed at the both of us like he didn’t really mind.
Momma cries a lot and I don’t know why. Her and daddy are always fussing when he is home. I came in the other day from swimming, and there she was, sitting on the floor in front of our record player, listening and leaning against the cabinet while she sobbed her eyes out. I didn’t know what to say to her; I just got scared and went back outside.
I think momma is pretty brave from what happened in the woods last month. She takes the girls and me for walks a lot, and points out to us the names of things, like fairy castles and dogwood flowers. She tells us about the poisonous snakes and what birds are making what sounds, and where to find gooseberries, but the wild hog surprised us all that day.
It came out of nowhere, and the next thing I remember is being on the run to the mill, her leading and pulling us along like little rag dolls waving in the breeze. We managed to get inside behind the big front door, and there she was, trying to pull it shut while the hog tried his best to get his head inside and bite her legs. We stood behind her, screaming while he snorted and slashed and foamed from the mouth, but after momma broke a broom handle across his snout, he backed off just enough for her to slam the door tight.
It got real quiet in the dim foyer, but then when I heard her moaning, I saw a trickle of blood running down one of her legs. She was even braver to get those shots in her stomach after that, too.
Some boyfriend flew over the millpond this summer and dropped a long, bright orange thing in the middle of the lake. We stood out on the dam and watched as it sank out of sight, looking just like a dying, twisting sea serpent. Maria said it was an Army target made out of silk, and she acted impressed. I felt sorry to see the dragon go, so later, my other sisters and me took daddy’s boat and went searching for it, but we never found anything.
Most of the time we stay near the mill house with his boat, and slap the water with a paddle, just to get each other wet, or turn the boat upside-down and then get underneath it and yell a lot. We like the way our voices echo inside the dark space, but if momma is trying to take a nap she tells us to stop, so we kick our feet and move out to deeper water where the coon tail moss grows. We don’t know what kind of creature lives down in the moss, but whatever it is, it scares us, so we don’t stay out there too long. While momma hangs clothes out on the line after she gets up, we run from one end of the over-turned boat to the other, tilting the half-submerged vessel this way or that, screaming like drowning victims aboard their sinking ship.
Sometimes we paddle to the far end of the lake. It gets shallow where the dead trees are, and the girls don’t like it much back in there, but I do. There is little noise at all, except for the distant drumming of a woodpecker, or the splash of a turtle coming off a log as we pole our way slowly through the haunted parts. Most of the woods surrounding us are too full of thick brambles to go on foot, plus there are lots of snakes.
Once, up in the high woods near our big tree house, we went exploring up a shortcut that leads to Louie’s fields, and I stopped to climb a small tree. While I was up there hanging upside down from a branch, I saw a huge one crawling around the base, so I yelled at Alma and Donna to run. They took off scared and ran back to the house.
I hollered after them to go get momma quick, and then I unhooked myself and climbed higher to wait. It got real quiet, being all alone up in the tree, with the huge brown serpent resting at the bottom. I stared down and watched to see if he would either move away or try to climb up after me, and I looked for the longest time. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, and listened for any sounds of a rescue until I couldn’t stand it any longer.
But after inching my way down the trunk, I saw that the imagined serpent was simply a meandering fat root belonging to my tree. When I got home later, the two girls sat up under momma’s clothes line, playing contentedly with their dolls.
My big sister whipped me only once, and I hated her for it. She had took off out the door, complaining to momma that her body felt like she had fell off a roof, and was going up to Louie’s to see one of his daughters, just to get out of the house. I took off after her, and had caught up just before she turned the bend in the road. But when she saw me coming, she yelled at me to go back home, so I stopped but stood my ground.
I stayed there while I watched her disappear around the corner. My friend Geeter lived in the same house too, and since this was my place as well as hers, I began following again, but not so close this time. I found a long stick and picked it up, and then started dragging it in the sand to kill time. I could let Maria get way down the road before she had to made the next curve, and then I could run to catch up. But I got distracted with the stick and the wondrous marks it made. The way it wiggled as it trailed behind me gave me an idea.
Some time later I looked up and saw Maria headed my way. I could hardly wait to show her all of my beautiful snake tracks I had drawn across the lane, so I stood still while she came closer. I had managed to get maybe three words out when she grabbed the stick out of my hands, and she used it on me all the way home.
That night, as I lay in bed and listened to the frogs, I felt like I had fell off a roof, too.