CURWOOD: It’s the Living on Earth holiday storytelling special, I’m Steve Curwood. I’m here with Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage, Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s Poet Laureate, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, a storyteller from Tennessee, and writer Pickney Benedict. We’re swapping stories and songs about the hunger so many of us feel to be back home this time of year. And my guests are taking us home to Appalachia.
In a moment, we’ll hear from Pickney Benedict, telling his story “Mercy,” but first, Larry, we’ve just heard Irene’s poem “Home” and I wonder if you could talk a little about the relationship between Appalachian music and poetry?
GROCE: Well, I certainly agree with what Irene says, that it’s rhythm that a lot of this stuff is about. The song you heard before played by Dwight Diller and John Morris; Dwight is a big believer, and when he teaches Appalachian music, the heart and soul of it is rhythm. You have to have the rhythm inside of you before the notes mean anything. It’s your own rhythm and, of course, that reflects the rhythm of the people that you’re around the country that you’re in.
CURWOOD: Yeah, talk about rhythm, I remember a couple of years ago I went up into the hills outside Chattanooga to hear an entire evening of foot-stopping and picking and plucking, as well as close harmony of the voices bouncing off each other. And one of the performers was Jamie Dailey, who’s now with the bluegrass band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Larry, you got some of that music?
GROCE: Yeah, Doyle was a guest on Mountain Stage about a year ago, and I think Jamie was singing the lead on a tune that I recorded here. It’s called “Julianne.” I think it’s a contemporary bluegrass song…
SINGING: Julianne, what are you doingmaking plans on leaving me?Have I made your life unhappy?Is this how it’s gotta be?
Will you be here in the morningwhen the rooster starts to crow?Will my tears be all uncalled for,Julianne, I’ve got to know.
Dress yourself in silk and satin,put some ribbons in your hair.But don’t say you’re gonna leave me,it’s more than I can bear.
Go and have your night of dancingif you like those country songs.But when all the fun is over,Julianne, come on home.”
CURWOOD: I think if you could sit still listening to that music you gotta be paralyzed.
GROCE: Yeah, it’s great fun. It’s great music. And you can tell like in that song right there the whole idea of “come on home.” That occurs so much in the tunes of bluegrass songs and old time songs and country songs.
CURWOOD: Now, Pickney Benedict, I want you to tell us the story that you call “Mercy.”
BENEDICT: Sure. This is an excerpt of a new story, and it’s told in the voice of a ten-year-old boy. And his old man is a beef farmer. And it’s kind of ringing bells all over the place as we talk about this ‘cause it’s all around their farm, they used to be surrounded by folks who did similar sorts of work, but those folks have been forced to sell out over the last few years. So, this boy and his father no longer know their neighbors, and they’re not longer beef farmers around them. There’s a swine farm to the east now, there’s sheep farms, there’s a great big house that somebody’s built on what used to be an old charolais farm.
And the unbearable, or at least unbearable to the dad, has happened: the farm to their south, which used to be a beef farm, is now a farm where there are miniature horses. And the old man just, he can’t stand it, because the horses, he says, you know, he can’t imagine what their use is. You can’t ride em, you can’t work ‘em and you can’t eat ‘em, he says. The son really has kind of fallen in love with the horses. He watches them play and he feeds them. And he’s picked out one favorite horse, which is – they’re mostly pintos, but he’s picked out one little sorrel that he likes a lot. And he’s called that one Cinnamon. And so the story picks up and its called “Mercy.”
“He surprised me watching the horses. I was in my usual place on the fence and he must have caught sight of me as he was setting out hay for the angus. I had brought treats with me and was engrossed, and I didn’t hear the rumble of his tractor – that’s his old man’s tractor – as it came over the hill. When he shut down the engine, I knew I was caught.
‘What are you doing?’ he called. The angus that were following the tractor and the hay ranged themselves behind him. I kicked at Cinnamon to get her away from me, struggled to get the cubes of sugar into my pocket. Crystals clung to my fingers. He strode to me, and I swung my legs back over to our side of the fence and hopped down. It was a cold day and his breath rolled white from his mouth.
‘You’ve got plenty of leisure,’ he said. His gaze flicked over my shoulder. A number of the miniature horses, Cinnamon at their head, were dashing across the pasture. ‘What makes them run like that?’ he asked.
I hesitated a moment before answering. ‘They’re just playing, I told him. They spend a lot of time playing.’ ‘Playing. Is that right?’ he said. ‘You’d like to have one, I bet. Wouldn’t you, boy?’
I pictured myself with my legs draped around the barrel of Cinnamon’s ribs, my fingers wrapped in the coarse hair of her mane. I recalled what it felt like when she had thrust her muzzle against my hand, her breath as she went after the sugar. I pictured myself holding out a carrot for her to lip into her mouth. I pictured her on our side of the fence, threading her way among the gigantic bodies of the angus steers. I knew I would be a fool to tell him I wanted a miniature horse.
‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
He swept his eyes along the fence. ‘Wire’s in pretty bad shape,’ he said. ‘Bastards aren’t doing their job. Looks like we’ll have to do it for them.’
He shucked off the leather work gloves he was wearing and tossed them to me. I caught one and the other fell to the cold ground. ‘You keep the fence in shape,’ he said. ‘And remember: first one that comes on my property, I shoot.’
I made my daily round of the fence, patching up the holes the horses had made. They were relentless and I became relentless, too, braiding the ends of the bitten wire back together, hammering bent staples back into the rotting posts. The sharp end of a loose wire snaked its way through the cowhide palm of the glove on my right hand and bit into me. I cursed and balled the hand into a fist to stanch the blood, and then I went back to work.
The horse field was utterly skinned now, dotted with mounds of horse dung. Because the trees were bare, I could see through the windbreak to the principle barn of the place, surrounded by dead machinery. I don’t believe a single animal had been sold. I couldn’t tell if anyone was caring for them at all. Their coats were long and matted, their hooves untrimmed, curling and ugly. A man—I suppose it was a man, because at that distance I couldn’t tell, just saw a dark figure in a long coat—emerged from the open double doors of the barn, apparently intent on some errand.
‘Hey!’ I shouted to him. My voice was loud in the cold and silence. The figure paused and glanced around. I stood up and waved my arms over my head to get his attention. ‘This is your fence! ‘
He lifted an ungloved hand and waved back at me.
‘This is your fence to fix!’ I called. I pounded my hand against the loose top wire. ‘These here are your horses!’
The hand dropped, and the figure turned away and strolled back again into the dark maw of the barn.
Most days I hated them. I cursed them as they leaned their weight against the fence, their ribs showing. I poked them with a stick to get them to move so that I could fix the fence. They would shift their bodies momentarily, then press even harder. The posts groaned and popped. I twisted wire and sucked at the cuts on my fingers to take the sting away. I filched old bald tires from the machine shed and laid them against the holes in the fence. The tires smelled of dust and spider webs. This was not the way we mended fence on our place—our posts were always true, our wire stretched taut and uncorroded, our staples solidly planted—but it was all I could think of to keep them out. The horses rolled their eyes at me.
And I tossed them dry corn cobs that I retrieved from the crib, the one that we hadn’t used in years. The horses fell on the dry husks, shoving each other away with their heads, lashing out with their hooves, biting each other, not in play but hard enough to draw blood. I pitched over shriveled windfallen apples from the stunted trees in the old orchard behind the house. I tried to get the apples near the sorrel, near Cinnamon; but as often as not the pintos shunted her aside before she could snatch a mouthful.
‘You know why we can’t feed them, don’t you?’ my old man asked me later in the day. We were breaking up hay bales which were warm and moist at their center, like fresh-baked rolls. The angus shifted their muscular shoulders and waited to be fed. I could sense the miniature horses lining the fence, but I didn’t look at them.
‘They’d eat us out of house and home,’ he said. ‘Like locusts.’
I could hear the hooves of the horses clacking against the frozen ground.
One morning, the fence didn’t need mending. It had begun to snow in earnest the night before, and it was still snowing when I went out to repair the wire. The television was promising snow for days to come. Most of the horses were at the fence, not moving. The rest were lying down in the field beyond. I looked for the sorrel. All of them were covered in blankets of snow and it was impossible to tell one from the next. Each fence post was topped with a sparkling white dome.
As I walked the fence, I took up the stick I had used to poke them and ran its end along the fence wire, hoping the clattering would stir them. It didn’t. A number of them had clustered at a single point, to exchange body heat, I suppose. I rapped my stick against the post where they were gathered, and its cap of snow fell to the ground with a soft thump. Nothing. The wire was tight with the weight of them.
I knelt down, and the snow soaked immediately through the knees of my coveralls. I put my hand in my pocket, even though I knew there was nothing there. The dry cobs were all gone, the apples had been eaten. The eyes of the horse nearest me were closed, and there was snow caught in its long delicate lashes. The eyes of all the horses were closed. This one, I thought, was the sorrel, was Cinnamon. I put my hand to its muzzle but could feel nothing. I stripped off the work glove, and the cold bit immediately into my fingers, into the half-healed cuts there. I reached out again.
And the horse groaned. I believed it was the horse. I brushed snow from its forehead, and its eyes blinked open, and the groaning continued, a weird guttural creaking and crying, and I thought that such a sound couldn’t be coming from just the one horse. All of the horses must be making it together. They were crying out with a single voice. Then I thought as the sound grew louder that it must be the hogs to the east, they were slaughtering the hogs and that was the source of it, but it was not time for slaughtering, so that couldn’t be right either. I thought these things in a moment, as the sound rang out over the frozen fields and echoed off the surrounding hills.
At last, I understood that it was the fence, the wood of the fence post and the raveling wire and the straining staples, right at the point where the horses were gathered. I leaped backward just as the post gave way. It heeled over hard and snapped off at ground level, and the horses tumbled with it, coming alive as they fell, the snow flying from their coats in a wild spray as they scrambled to get out from under one another.
The woven-wire fence, so many times mended, parted like tissue paper under their combined weight. With a report like a gunshot, the next post went over as well, and the post beyond that. Two or three rods of fence just lay down flat on the ground, and the horses rolled right over it, they came pouring onto our place. The horses out in the field roused themselves at the sound, shivered off their mantles of snow, and came bounding like great dogs through the gap in the fence as well. And I huddled against the ground, my hands up to ward off their flying hooves as they went past me, over me. I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop them. Their hooves would brain me, they would lay my scalp open to the bone.
I was not touched.
The last of the horses bolted by, and they set to on the remains of the broken round bale, giving little cries of pleasure as they buried their muzzles in the hay’s roughness. The few angus that stood nearby looked on bemused. I knew that I had to go tell my father. I had to go get him right away. The fence—the fence that I had maintained day after day, the fence I had hated and that had blistered and slashed my hands—was down. But because it was snowing and all around was quiet, the scene had the feel of a holiday, and I let them eat.
When they had satisfied themselves, the horses began to play. I searched among them until finally I found the sorrel. She was racing across our field, her hooves kicking up light clouds of ice crystals. She was moving more quickly than I had ever seen her go, but she wasn’t chasing another horse, and she wasn’t being chased. She was teasing the impassive angus steers, roaring up to them, stopping short of their great bulk; turning on a dime and dashing away again. They stood in a semicircle, hind ends together, lowered heads outermost, and they towered over her like the walls of a medieval city. She yearned to charm them. She was dancing in the snow.
As I watched her, she passed my old man without paying him the least attention. He wore his long cold-weather coat. The hood was up, and it eclipsed his face. He must have been standing there quite a while. Snow had collected on the ridge of his shoulders, and a rime of frost clung to the edges of his hood. In his hand he held a hunting rifle, his Remington seven millimeter magnum. The lines of his face seemed odd and unfamiliar beneath the coat’s cowl, and his shoulders were trembling in a peculiar way as he observed the interlopers on his land. I blinked. I knew what was coming. The thin sunlight, refracted by the snow, dazzled my eyes, and the shadows that hid him from me were deep.
At last, the sorrel took notice of him, and she turned away from the imperturbable angus and trotted over to him. He watched her come. She lowered her delicate head and nipped at him, caught the hem of his coat between her teeth and began to tug. His feet slipped in the snow. Encouraged by her success, she dragged him forward. I waited for him to kill her. She continued to drag him, a foot, a yard, and at last he fell down. He fell right on his ass in the snow, my old man, the Remington held high above his head. The sorrel stood over him, the other horses clustered around her, and she seemed to gloat.
It was then, as the Remington left my old man’s hand and dropped to the ground, that I saw the bolt of the rifle was open, the breech empty. It was then, as the hood of his coat fell away from his face, that I saw my old man was laughing. He was laughing to beat the band.”
CURWOOD: Boy, Pinkney Benedict, you call that story “Mercy” and you sure can tell it. I was all set to hear that gun go off. How did all this hit you, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, huh?
LAWSON: I got focused on the tough character of my old man. In him there is this façade to be rough, tough and to keep everything in its place, to know how to manage everything. And underneath that rough, tough exterior is this incredible person who secretly loves these animals dearly and finds great connection to them. But to a kid he would have to maintain this rough, tough exterior. And the real twist for the story for me is when you see the rough, tough guy take on the heart of a child.
BENEDICT: Well, I wouldn’t say it out in public, but since it’s just all us friends here together (LAUGHS), I mean my dad – I was scared to death of him. Love him to death, but scared to death of him. Then you get a little bit older and you find out, well, you know, he’s just a guy, he’s a very funny guy, and that kind of thing.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you all for taking this time with me today to tell the stories of Appalachia. Pinckney Benedict is author of “Dogs of God” and “Wrecking Yard” and teaches at Hollins University in Virginia. Pinckney, thanks for being here today.
BENEDICT: No, it was my pleasure, thank you.
CURWOOD: Irene McKinney is Poet Laureate of West Virginia and the author of the new book of poems, “Vivid Companion.” It’s published by West Virginia University Press. She also teaches at Virginia Wesleyan University. Irene, it was a pleasure, thank you.
MCKINNEY: Thank you very much, I liked it.
CURWOOD: Patsy Hatfield Lawson is storyteller who grew up in Hancock County in upper Tennessee and is a professor of psychology. Patsy, thanks so much for taking this time.
LAWSON: A true treat for me.
CURWOOD: And my public radio colleague here, Larry Groce, who is with West Virginia Public Radio and of course the host and artistic director of Mountain Stage, distributed by PRI, Public Radio International. Larry, thanks so much for being on the show today.
GROCE: Well, thank you very much, Steve, it’s my pleasure.
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