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C. J. Stevens

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Cunningham
By C. J. Stevens
Thursday, July 21, 2005

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A farmer's wife and her dual emotions

CUNNINGHAM



Joe Gibbs could smell bacon and hot biscuits as he came into the kitchen from the barn. He placed the milk pails on the counter by the sink and pulled off his frock.

“I’d like my eggs fried hard this morning,” he told his wife.

Dorothy looked up from the stove and nodded.

“Break the yokes,” he smiled. “I don’t want those eggs watching me while I eat.”

A little joke might get her in a better mood, thought Joe as he moved closer to the stove. And she sure could do with some sweetening.

The wife stared at the spitting grease that surrounded his three eggs.

“How come we’re having hot biscuits?” he asked. “We haven’t half finished that johnnycake you baked.”

“You said it tasted salty and was too crumbly.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Well you did.”

Joe’s puzzled look became a scowl.

“Are you telling me you threw it out?”

“No, I’m not saying that at all,” she replied. “If you must know, I gave it to Cunningham.”

“You wasted all that johnnycake on the hog!”

He knew the word hog irritated his wife, and in recent weeks he had used it intentionally whenever he got the chance. Joe Gibbs never forgot what his father once told him. “You don’t give names to animals you eat. Not to a rooster, a lamb, even the old sow. Your job as a farmer is to look after livestock, not get familiar.”

His wife had made a mess of things againthe second time in three yearsand now they were too often at each other. All the old closeness was gone. They didn’t laugh together anymore. Gibbs knew it wasn’t going to be easy, whatever the outcome.

“Oh Joe,” cried Dorothy the day he brought the piglet home, “he looks like a little albino with those pink eyelids and snowy hair! You can tell he has personality. Just look how he smiles at one!”

Gibbs didn’t like the way his wife was scratching the pig’s ears. He knew what was happening. She had made just such a fool of herself when he purchased the Hereford calf. Silas, she called it, and gave the beast special feedings of grain and clover. She was out in the barn with it at least twice a day, even curried the animal like a horse. But what he hated most was the way she talked to itfirst in baby language, with gushes and coos, and as the calf got bigger it became a child, her child.

“I’m out of chain saw oil,” he told her one cold autumn morning. “Take the car into town and get me some oil and do the grocery shopping.” Then when he saw her driving down the road, he slipped a halter on the bull, and loaded him on the farm truck. Great sides of beef were hanging in the shed when she returned. The paralysis of her shock was so intense she tried to convince herself that Silas was still alive. Finally, when she wandered back from the barn, she told him that what he had done without her consent was heartless and cruel. She accused him of being mean-spirited, not someone she could ever trust again. They didn’t speak for days, and he had to get his own meals. Finally, there was an agreement, a grudging truce: Gibbs would go to the slaughterhouse and exchange the meat for Western beef.

“I love the way his little tail goes in circles,” laughed Dorothy as she held the piglet high. “And those eyesyou can look way inside them! I think I’m going to call him Cunningham. It’s such a funny, perfect name for a little piggy.”

“Like hell you are!” roared Joe. “I want you to keep your ass out of this pigpen! I’m not going to lose good money on another animal. Don’t think I’ve forgotten what happened the last time. This pig is here on this farm to be fattened, and by God when he’s big enough, he’ll be slaughtered and eaten, consumed by you and yours truly!”

“Don’t make things more difficult between us, Joe,” she said turning to him. “I promise not to fuss when it comes time, Honestly, I won’t get involved the way I did with SilasI understand that now. Just let me bring him scraps from the table occasionally. I won’t be a nuisance and hold you back.”

It wasn’t much of an apology, Gibbs told himself, but the woman did understand that she had been unfair to him. When a farmer’s wife doesn’t back her husband, the entire farm operation is threatened and all the hard work gets wasted. Still, he wasn’t going to be small about it. “We’ll see how it goes,” he said, “from day to day. But you’ve got to be sensible this time.”

Dorothy did seem levelheaded to Joe in the beginning. She wasn’t constantly running back and forth between the house and barn. She said little about the animal, and though he wouldn’t admit it to her, he really didn’t mind the leftovers. Any extra feedings cut grain expenses. When the three garden rows of early mustard greens matured, Gibbs helped his wife pull several wheelbarrow loads for the pig.

“That porker is firming up nicely,” he said one day when Dorothy came into the barn with a pan of potato peelings. “I bet he’ll dress a good two hundred and fifty pounds come November.”

His wife made no comment, and Gibbs didn’t see the sad lines of worry on her face as she leaned over the railing of the pen to scatter the peelings in the trough.

“I’ve decided I’m not going to pay big money this year for the smoking of hams and bacons,” he went on. “I’m going to build me a smoke house, get me a couple of crocks for pickling, and I'll do it all myself. I’m not even going to take that pig to the slaughterhouse. I’ll dress him right here in the barn. We’ll cut up our own roasts and chops, and I’ll get you to make that headcheese I like so much.”

The wrinkles of worry tightened into lines of resentment as she listened. Gibbs was too caught up in this new enterprise of husbandry to notice.

“And next year I’ll get me two, maybe three piglets, and we can smoke hams and bacons to sell. I bet we could make enough out of that to pay our property taxes. Hell, if we planned it right, we could have a lucrative business and even wholesale to grocers.”

Dorothy Gibbs turned her back on her husband and rushed from the barn. A killing scene rose in her mind, so real and hideous that she could hear the terrified screams of dying animals and smell the scalded flesh of carcasses being hoisted from vats of boiling water.

What in God’s name is the matter with that woman? Gibbs wondered. What’s got into her now, rushing off like that? She didn’t even give me a chance to finish what I was saying, and I think I’ve got the beginning of a wonderful idea here. We’ll probably have to sell the cows with a business like that, but we could raise Herefords and market beef too. This is something that deserves consideration.

Gradually, Gibbs sensed that something was troubling Dorothyshe still got his meals and kept the house clean but there was now a barrier, a distance between them. It was as if she wanted him elsewhere, not out of her life but away from herself. The woman didn’t seem to care what he was doing or planning. She’ll get over whatever female hassles are pestering her, Joe decided. I’ll bide my time and let her tell me when she gets the hankering.

Them one morning while mixing pig mash and cornmeal, Gibbs had a startling thought. She’s more interested in that damned hog than mealways traipsing from the house with her leftovers. In fact, now that I think of it, the only time she brightens up is when her Cunningham is mentioned.

Joe Gibbs stood by the pen with the steaming pail of mash. The animal had tipped over the trough again and was now frantically trying to climb the rail for its swill. “Get the hell back!” Joe shouted as he brought the mixing paddle down sharply on the pig’s snout. “Get back or I’ll pound your damned head off!”

Joe set the pail on the walkway, away from the rail, and went into the tie-up for the hoe he used to clean out behind the cows. When he returned to the pen, the pig was hooking its front legs between the slats of the fence and was trying to break the boards. There was something about the animal’s motion that infuriated himhe wasn’t about to spend half the morning repairing a fence. Joe brought the blunt end of the hoe down on the swine’s back with all his strength. A shrill scream rolled from the pig as it fell backwards in pain. Its lopsided mouth was no longer smiling, and the creature’s dazed look of terror caused Gibbs to strike again. “You’ve got to keep the upper hand with livestock,” he heard his father’s voice. “A mean-spirited bull, a wild colt, a destructive goat, every critter on a farm has got to be taught who’s boss.” Joe quickly tipped the trough upright with his hoe, slopped the swill, and left the barn in a better mood.

The lifestyle of a farmer’s wife had appealed to Dorothythe long days of preserving jellies and canning vegetables, weeding the garden, picking raspberries, hoeing corn. When she first married Joe, he had difficulty keeping her out of the hayfield. “You can’t be everywhere at once,” he told her. “Meals must be put on the table and the broom kept busy we both have our work cut out for us.” But what she liked best about her new life was being around livestock, the involvement of feeding and caring. When a cow’s udder got snagged on barbed wire, it was Dorothy who worried needlessly; Joe was the practical one. “Bag balm rubbed on twice a day usually heals a torn teat,” he assured her.

One season overtaking another and each demanding its own specialty and ritual of work bonded her to the farm. Then as the months went by and daily routines draped themselves in the gowns of habit, Dorothy became aware of discordant notes, contradictions that made this new style of living less satisfying.

“Our hens are barely keeping us in eggs,” Joe complained one morning. “I’m going to get us fifty chicks and set up a brooder in a corner of the shed.” She loved watching them under the lights, these fluffy yellow balls with feathers of fur. Whenever she had time, Dorothy would slump on the floor by them and listen to their peeping cries. Their tiny lives were a marvel to her as she became more aware of their fragility. She was also mindful of their vulnerability and tried to turn away from herself when her conscience got bruised on the thought that one day these dear creatures would be old hens unable to produce. It was all so impossible, she realized, so over-whelming. They, too, one by one, would be taken out to the chopping block, and Joe would bring them back to her for the plucking of feathers and the singeing of pinfeathers and the baking and basting.

There were compensations that nearly made her forget these terrors and she welcomed them: a newborn calf trying to stand, the steamy warm smell of the tie-up in winter, the comforting sound of a cud being chewed, swallows feeding their young under the eaves of the barn, the first time Silas was let loose in the pasture, the way Cunningham nibbled at her boots when she got into his pen to spread sawdust.

Dorothy met Joe at the county fair. She was looking at two calves in the livestock tent when she heard a voice say: “I can see you like my bossies.” He wasn’t a tall man, but there was a wiry leanness about him that attracted her. She noticed the roughness of his hands and the shy way he smiled. “I’ve got two more just like them back in my barn,” he told her. “They’re the only little girls I’ve got at the moment.”

She had never met anyone quite like Joe. Her suburban background and eastern college schooling gave her little perspective in evaluating the painful hunger she saw in his eyes. It was more than intensity that flashed there when he spoke of the things he liked and disliked. It was her love of animals that welded her emotionally to the metal of his rural steadiness; he was straightforward, unpretentious, practical qualities she understood and admired. “I’ve got a hundred and forty acres of land to look after,” he said when proposing, “and a barnyard full of livestock. Life on a farm never gets easy, but it’s more fun than the city.”

First Silas, now Cunningham, she thought as she stood by the rail with a bowl of apples one late October afternoon. On and on it goes, year after year. There is so little time to keep them, to care for them. You get their trust, share their simple-hearted warmth, and then it’s “to market, to market.” Why, why such phony euphemism? It was plain slaughter, murder, reasoned Dorothy as she fed the fruit one at a time to prolong their stay together.

It’s not all Joe’s fault, a voice told her. You share in the blame. You promised not to hold him back this time. Fair is fair. Don’t pretend what looms ahead comes unexpected. It’s all part and parcel in the scheme of farmingbacon, chicken, lamb chops, beefsteaks. Even calf‘s liver, the voice added perversely. If you can’t take it, leave the place, forget Joe. But Dorothy didn’t know if she could or would. The two courses of action were too intricately woven into the everyday costume of her emotions. If only she could stand naked before herself, there might be some way to accept or reject what she must one day face.

There were now only two apples left in the bowl. Cun-ningham’s front legs were hooked on the top rail, his head held high, his pinkish eyelids draped over warm eyes, his mouth wide and smiling. “Cunningham,” she said aloud, “I shouldn’t have given you a name. It was a stupid, cruel joke.”

The white short hairs of the pig gleamed as a shaft of late afternoon sunlight plunged through the solitary window of the sty. She tucked the last apple into the waiting mouth, set the bowl down, and began scratching the purse-like earsfirst gently, then vigorously, as if she wanted to impart what couldn’t be expressed in her words. “Good-bye pig,” she said turning away, forgetting the bowl. There were no tears or smiles to offer in the parting. There was only Dorothy Gibbs closing the door of the barn; a woman walking toward a farmhouse to cook her husband’s dinner.


 

       Web Site: John Wade Publishing

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Reviewed by Cles Wilson 2/15/2006
What a refreshing but sad story. An excellent piece of writing. I could vividly see everything :)
Reviewed by April Smith 7/21/2005
This was so sad to read. I could never live on a farm becuz of my intense love for animals, even realizing that WITHOUT these animals I would not be eating! You've captured the emotion so perfectly. Thanks for sharing! April
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 7/21/2005
excellent story, c.j.; very well done! bravo!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in tx., karen lynn. :D
Reviewed by Michelle Mills 7/21/2005
Well you know I have a soft spot in my heart for pigs CJ. This is a fine piece of work, with extra attention to the everyday details surrounding farm life. I found it fascinating...great work, and a treat to read. You have such a gift. Blessings, Michelle




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