Martha Belle Remembers The Fire, 1890
by Pamela Bradley
My Poppy was the best ol’ daddy that ever was. Mommy, on the other hand, would fuss at us all the time. She worked me especially hard and she’d whup me with a hickory stick, but not Poppy. He was a quiet man, always smilin’ at us chil’erns and makin’ hard work seem like fun. He’d give us rides on his plow sometimes. We’d feel like we’z havin’ the best ride at the county
fair, when really our weight was pushin the plow blade deeper into the ground to make them furrows. We was actually helpin’ him dig the rows but it was the most fun we could have had. It was always fun to take turn about workin’ with Poppy. There was so many of us, nine chil’erns eventually, that turn about with Poppy didn’t come around nearly often enough.
I was one of the oldest ‘uns in the family, so by the time I was five years old I was in charge of two littler ‘uns. I was to feed ‘um and wash ‘um and rock ‘um to sleep. And keep ‘um from fallin’ off the side a the mountain in the day time or from puttin’ the lye soap in their mouths that Mommy made for washin' the clothes.
I remember once havin’ to take care my sisters when I really wanted to help Poppy. He was clearin’ the brush off his land by collectin’ all the branches and leaves into a big fire on the ground. He was throwin’ in so many tree branches that the fire was shootin’ up high in the air and the smoke was enough to choke you to death. Mommy had told me to keep Effie and Alta Clare away from them flyin’ sparks. I remember wantin’ to help Poppy in the worst way to drag them branches over to his fire. I wanted to help him a lot more than I wanted to chase babies away from the fire.
I tried my best to do what Mommy wanted me to do. I’d grab them babies by their arms and lead ‘um away from the fire. But it attracted ‘um like moths. And they’d be runnin’ back towards the flames quick as I could pull ‘um away. No sooner than I’d grab a hold a Effie and lead her off, there’d go baby Alta Clare crawlin’ fast as she could to be about the fire.
I’ll never forget liftin’ the baby up that last time before I spun around and found that the front a my dress was on fire. I put Alta Clare down so hard that she started cryin’ and I started runnin’ with my only dress in flames. There was a terrible burnin’ pain climbin’ from my knees to my belly. All of us chil’erns was yellin’ and cryin’. I was runnin’ and hollerin’ for Poppy to come put the fire out. I didn’t yell for Mommy. I knew she’d whup me for ruinin’ the dress she sewed me. I’z runnin’ in circles through the woods, battin’ at my dress, when I felt somebody come up behind me and knock me to the ground. Poppy had throwed his self and an old blanket on top a me.
By then I’z screamin’ and thrashin’ and out a my mind with a terrible pain over my whole belly. My skin was burnt clean away and my innards was showin’ at the surface, I heard ‘um say later.
It was like the pains a hell that the preacher warned us about at church! I could smell my own flesh a burnin’ and my dress was clean gone. Poppy carried me into the house and laid me on the floor and told Mommy to do what she could for me till he come back. He took off runnin’ and I took to cryin’ loud and slingin’ my arms and legs around. I’z so scared without Poppy.
Mommy was white as a ghost, kneeling there tellin’ me not to look down at myself and that I was really burned bad in that brush fire and that Poppy had gone to get help. That was the only time I ever remember Mommy tryin’ to be nice to me and pushin’ my hair back real gentle like. I was freezin’ and sweatin’ and burnin’ up all at the same time. Mommy tried to wrap me up and hold my arms down so that I wouldn’t roll over on my belly. I felt like I was goin’ out a my mind with the pain that just kept comin’ and comin’, hotter and deeper.
Poppy was runnin’ back inside the house in no time it seemed with a bucket a somethin’ he had mashed up for my belly. He told me to try to lay still while he patted a homemade poultice into my open belly and on to my legs. While he worked on me he talked. “Martha Belle,” he said, “look at me while I talk to you. I’m goin’ a make a deal with you, my little girl. Iffin’ you can lay still here on this blanket till we get you all better, I’ll take you huntin’ with me. Just you! None of the other young ‘uns. We’ll go up top a Frozen Head Mountain and stay till we catch us some good eatin’ to bring back. We’ll take us a dinner bucket full a bisquits and ham and we’ll not come back till we’ve been swimmin’ in the creek and picked a mess a wild blackberries and pulled us some a them pretty wild flowers that grows up there. We’ll take my rifle and we’ll bag us somethin’ for dinner and bring it back home.”
“But you have to get better first. So I’m puttin’ this here mashed up tree bark poltice on you. It’ s somethin’ I remember my Poppy knowin’ about when any of his young ‘uns would get burned. You have got yourself a powerful burn here. You are goin’ to have to promise me that you’ll lay right still. No tryin’ to get up. No playin’, no fannin' around. Just layin’ right here till I tell you you’re all right. Do you understand that? I won’t let nothin’ happen to you, my girl, iffin’ you can just lay right here for a long time.”
That poltice was cool on my skin. I listened to Poppy’s words and tried to not fidget while he talked to me. I remember shakin’ my head, “yes,” that I could lay still for him. There’d be nothin’ in this world better than a whole day with Poppy up on Frozen Head. It was the prettiest place I knew and just thinkin’ about it took me away from my deep, hot burns. I knew I could lay there for Poppy. I pictured the cool creek runnin’ over big rocks on Frozen Head and right soon the coolness ‘a that tree poltice knocked me right out into sleep.
I don’t think I woke up for a long time. When I did I noticed my little sisters standin’ around me lookin’ scared. They weren’t wrestlin’ and laughin’ and fightin’ like they usually was, just standin’ there lookin’ down at me and suckin’ on their hands. I reakon they thought I’z about dead. Effie brought me her little piece a blanket that she slept with, probably thinkin’ it’d help me feel better. Effie was always sweet like that but I didn’t much want to talk to her. I just wanted to lay still and get better and get to huntin’ with Poppy.
Mommy would walk over ever once in a while and shoo the little ‘uns away from me. She never talked to me about my burnin’ accident but I reckoned by the way she was actin’ that she felt like she caused it, her makin’ me watch the babies around a fire. She tried to be as nice to me as she could. But I knew that niceness was goin’ to be over as soon as I got up off my blanket. Mommy just never took to me like she did the other chil’ern. She was always sayin’ I looked so much like her mother-in-law that it was a darn shame. And I reckon she didn’t think too much a her mother -in-law who stayed behind in Ireland when Poppy decided to leave the old country. With all the work Mommy had to do up there on the mountain by herself she needed me to heal up fast and watch them babies for her. So I let her wait on me as much as she would, bringin’ me dippers full a water, and spoonin’ me my dinner.
It was Poppy who would turn up ever evenin’ with a new mess a that tree poltice. My eyes would light up to see him comin’. He’d put that poltice on me and talk while he did it so’s I wouldn’t mind the stingin’. He’d remind me of our trip we’z gonna take up to Frozen Head and he’d tell me about his chores of the day or about who he talked to or funny things that some ‘a the animals had done - like the mornin’ he went to milk the two cows we had and saw a line a baby cats and a dog and a skunk ahead a him pushin’ each other out ta the way for a turn a that momma cow’s milk. He told me about the snake that surprised him as he left the house ‘a the mornin’. Snakes would slither along close to our house where it was cooler and Poppy would have to take a hoe to ‘um to be sure they wouldn’t be back later. We had poisonous snakes around back then.
With him talkin’ to me like he done, I don’t remember dreadin’ that poltice and I don’t remember havin’ a lot a pain. Poppy sure knew how to deal with a sick child!
I made it through all the stages a healin’ - the blisters, the oozin’, the new skin comin’ in, and all the itchin’ that goes with gettin’ new skin. And I laid right there on that blanket for months they told me with ever body waitin’ on me till they had become tired a me a layin’ there. Till finally one day Poppy come in of an evenin’ without his tree poltice in the bucket. He announced to ever one that I was all healed up and that tomorrow we was goin’ huntin’. He asked Mommy to pack us a lard bucket with biscuits and ham. And told her to have a pot boilin’ for when we come back down the mountain side with dinner in a sack.
The oddest part about really goin’ up the mountian with Poppy is that I can hardly remember the trip or what we done. I reakon I held on so tight to the dream a goin’ on that trip that when Poppy really took me I had already been there over and over in my dreams. I had dreamed of the cool, honeysuckle air and tasted the warm blackberries, and seen them fish jumpin in the creek. I had held Poppy’s hand so many times as we crossed over giant tree roots in my imagination that I just about ruint my real trip. But I know we went. It made the others so jealous they was about ready to throw theirselves in a brush fire so they could get the same treatment!
That is just about my favorite memory of my Poppy - him knowin’ just how to make me better and knowin’ just how to talk to me so that I would make myself better. And him comin’ faithfully ever night with that tree poltice. I never talked to him about my accident after we had our trip to Frozen Head. And I never knew what that certain tree was that he scraped to make a poltice. But I’ll tell you something that’s true. I’ll never know if it was because a the poltice or the healin’ powers Poppy had , but I never even got me a scar from that burnin’.
Pamela Bradley, an East Tennessee native, is working to complete the coming of age tales of her 1962-63 school year spent in the hills at the home of her great grandmother. Pam writes about life in a small coal mining town.
E-mail Pamela Bradley at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2003, Pamela Bradley, All Rights Reserved