By Joan Shaddox Isom
October is sliding into November. I'm ten years old, sitting alone in the loft of the hay barn. Rain beats gently on the tin roof as I watch the birds that have flown in through the hay window. They're perched on the beams and picking at their wet feathers. I'm melancholy for no particular reason, but I'm savoring the feeling, holding it to me, trying to figure it, things, out.
I'm relishing these days and nights. At bedtime I look out at the corn fields, their twisted stalks reaching towards the moon like witches fingers, or maybe I study the new ground high on a slope west of our house, recently cleared for my brother Carl's strawberry patch. He'd left two trees for some reason, maybe because they'd be needed to shade the strawberry pickers to come, or maybe he merely liked the trees. But they are more than trees to me. The one on the right is a tall witch with a pointed hat silhouetted against the evening sky. She's offering a cup of tea to the goblin tree on her left, and he is bowing as he takes it. I don't point out the tableau to anyone in my family. It's a secret, like the tree with a curved space at its roots, a space that fitted my body exactly. Long before I'd read of Viviane and Merlin I would curl into that hole and tell myself stories, my dogs lying in the grass nearby, panting and waiting patiently.
No one else seems to notice the magic of the season. Adults gripe about the rain, the cold coming on. My friends mourn the loss of warm days at the swimming hole. But these days, I dawdle to school in a mellow dream, past chinquapin trees, spreading their sticky burr clusters across my path. I pound them against rocks to get out the shiny little cousins to the larger chestnuts. They are so sweet and good that I'm late for first bell some mornings.
Last Friday, Teacher copied a picture on her Hexograph, a glutinous slab of something that absorbs a certain dark purple line from the pattern she puts on it. Every month she makes 35 identical pictures. This month's is a witch on a broom silhouetted against a full moon. I'm hoping November won't be a turkey. Not much you can do with a plain brown bird. (Don't bear down on your crayons! You'll break them! Try to color lightly, and stay within the lines.) I dare to draw a cat on the broom stick. Teacher looks at it but says nothing, twisting her mouth to one side. I scribble out the cat and ruin the picture, take out my Big Chief tablet and start trying to draw a dog trotting. I can't get the legs right. Teacher comes by and thumps my head. (We don't waste our tablet paper on scribbles, do we class? No, Miss Woods.) The first graders have finished coloring and are droning their ABCs from the giant flip chart at the front of the room.
I put my head down and daydream about rich colors: gold against black, orange and red and rust against a color I would later know as "eggplant." Thinking about these hues lifts my mood, making me close to happy, taking me away from the classroom with its smell of boiled eggs and peanut butter from the lunch room, from the odor of the oil that turns the wooden floors black. I turn my head a to look at the schoolroom windows, decorated with anemic pumpkins. Mine is not displayed. I did not color lightly.
Lightly goes against my grain. "She has a light touch," people say about my mother's pie crust. My own attempts at pie crust resemble a hunk of meteorite. Don't tug at the cow's teats! Lightly, lightly, I'm told while learning to milk. Don't peel that apple all away-your peeling is 'way too thick. Don't hold that chicken carcass over the fire too long! Singe it lightly to get the pin feathers off. I long for contrasts. I want to find and chomp down on the most tart apple ever picked, taking the biggest bite out of it that anyone has ever taken, screwing up my face at the sourness, smacking as loudly as I want, juice running down my chin. And when I'm finished, I want to splatter the core against a rock. I want my brother's giant pumpkin, the one that grew so large because of the tricky irrigation system he and my father devised by diverting some of the spring branch water into the small pumpkin field. I dream about it, what kind of face I would carve. Then I would have a party, put out all the lights and let the jack-o-lantern's fiery face burn through the blackness. I want to bear down on my orange crayon and make a color so rich, so warm and vibrant. Nothing in between. I want a black to set off a rich, yellow-orange moon, punctuated with yellow stars. But I know without checking that the crayons in the communal box are all stubs. I can never find a black one long enough to do my sky. I wish for black construction paper so I can color and cut out yellow stars to paste on the background, but our art supplies consist of glue, sticky stuff in a bottle with a rubber tip (Glue only the corners, lightly), stubs of crayons and a once-a-month seasonal picture arriving in the Grade Teacher, our link to the outside.
Imagine living in a hollow so isolated, so dark, with the single other visible light the faint gleam of a kerosene lamp in the neighbor's window. Imagine your house a stone's throw from an ancient Cherokee burial ground. "Watch out for the gravedigger," the Bradford kids warned us. "He's like a big old cat, and he comes out at night and lays on top of the tombstones, after," they said darkly, "he's done his work. And," (this part always filled me with a delicious horror) "his tail is so long it touches the ground!"
I hurry home from school these chilly afternoons, chasing my already elongated shadow as dark comes on early. After chores (shelling corn and feeding chickens (my job), milking the cows (my brother's job), we listen first to the war news, the highest priority for the battery radio (we have two brothers overseas), and then we're allowed to listen to The Lone Ranger, and maybe Captain Midnight. Later, there is homework at the oilcloth covered kitchen table, an Aladdin lamp for light. After the radio is turned off, the silence intensifies, interrupted only by the "Lost Boy," a small train that runs nightly on a spur of track from Tahlequah to Westville, the train so named for its whistle which echoes through the dark hills like a sobbing child far from home. No cars on the dirt lane (gas is rationed), maybe just the sound of a lone horseman galloping by. And then silence.
Five decades later, another autumn, and I'm looking at the night sky, searching for that full moon the calendar has predicted. Harvest figures loll on front porches, surrounded by pumpkins destined for Thanksgiving pies. I remember my brother's prize pumpkin. Today, while looking for items for our annual Church rummage sale, I noticed a pumpkin carving set still in its blister pack, sophisticated little knives and saws that I'd purchased years ago, thinking I might someday use. I toss them into the sale basket, remembering my mother's huge butcher knife not conducive to delicate carving, but I made do with it, whittling out brazen eyes and leering mouths (no margin of delicacy) in a season that contained few shades of gray, no vacillation, in a age when everything was clear-cut, when men were either good or bad, patriot or spy, when we swallowed disappointment with hardly a whine (No! You cannot have that pumpkin! It's going to the county fair!)
Grateful to have lived long enough to learn that "nothing in between" belongs to the past, a part of me still longs to experience another autumn evening, permeated by the scent of kerosene from a smoking old lamp, mellow apples piled in baskets, musty ears of corn still in the shuck, a crackling wood fire. Dad would be mixing up his cold prevention medicine (we never knew the exact ingredients). Mother would be yawning and saying, "It's time you kids got to bed," promising to be along soon to pile on extra quilts to ward off the chill in the air. And I'd go, curling into a shivering ball before getting up the nerve to stretch out my cold legs and feet, finally drifting into a dream of the season, but uneasy in my sleep, perhaps something warning that winter and adulthood would soon claim me.
Joan Shaddox Isom is the author of The First Starry Night (Charlesbridge) and co-editor of The Leap Years: Women Reflect on Change, Loss and Love (Beacon Press). Her work has appeared or is pending publication in journals and magazines such as Nimrod; Negative Capability; Quarterly Journal of Ideology; The Indian Historian, and others. Isom's plays have been published and are performed widely.© 2003, Joan Shaddox Isom, All Rights Reserved