Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Issue #40 -- November, 2012

By Jane Hammons

The sun is high, the morning bright. Robby Six-Killer plays mumbleypeg by the side of the road. He spreads his fingers wide and drops into the V between his pinkie and ring fingers the hunting knife Cherry Elder took from her pa. The handle is heavy and pearly white, the curved blade long. It can't stand upright in the dirt, dry as ash. It used to be that the earth was dark and a little bit wet. When the dust came in black clouds, it killed his mother who coughed a lot anyway because she had TB.

Cherry Elder gave the hunting knife to Robby's brother, Jimmy, because she wanted to marry him. Jimmy already had a knife, so he gave it to Robby. Grandfather says the knife’s too big for a little boy. Jimmy says he’ll grow into it, but Robby knows that if his mother was alive, she'd take that knife away from him. He puts the knife across a fat stick, places the rock near the end of the blade, hits the handle with his small fist, and catapults it across the path that leads to the river. It clunks against the wheel of Grandfather Six-Killer’s wagon.

Cherry climbs the old dogwood that used to flower before everything dried up and blew away. Everyone is going to California, leaving her behind. She’d tried to get Bill Rivers to stay. She opened wide for him. More than once. And she’d tried to trap Jimmy Six-Killer, too. Rivers would have been the best name. Six-Killer would’ve done. Jimmy Six-Killer isn't smart but he isn't dumb either. He took the knife. She hasn't seen him since. That's how it goes. Cherry gives. They take.

Her pa took her fishing in the Neosho. Fishing is what he called it. But they never came back with a fish.

Did her ma ask why? No, she did not. So the little wad of sin growing inside Cherry is going to come out a sister-daughter or a brother-son.

Her pa said he couldn’t help what he done. Cherry hasn't told anyone, but she couldn't help it either when she got him drunk like she's seen women in the movies do with a man. Then she took that knife, cut a big smile in his gut, and rolled him down the riverbank. Anybody looking for her pa can go drop a line in the Neosho at the place near the bend where it meets the Canadian.


Robby looks down the road that leads to the highway and sees another truckload of white folks. The third one today. They get closer and he recognizes Norrie Road’s wild hair that sprouts red in all directions. Grandfather looks up from the back of the wagon where he has been icing the trout they caught and walks around to the front of it. He rakes his fingers through the thinning mane of Worship, the old chestnut who whinnies as the truck draws near. Grandfather used to be a blacksmith and likes a horse better than a car. "Good riddance," he says to the loaded-down, beat-up truck as it rattles by.

"Lazy redskins." Mr. Road grunts. "Got nothing to do 'cept fish and wait for a government check. 'Croppers like us got to go, but the 'skins got their allotments. They get to stay." He squirms in his seat. The upholstery is worn, the wire coils hard on his bones. "Ain't right."

"Looks to me like Mr. Six-Killer’s got a good catch," Norrie says. "He sells fish to the diner over in Porum. Once me and Robby gutted 'em for the cook. Got a nickel and a soda each." Up until this moment, Norrie's been ready to go to the place where oranges hang like gold from trees and tight heads of lettuce big as basketballs line the fields. But when she sees her friend Robby at the side of the road, she gets a pain in her chest and needs to say goodbye.

"I’m going where the ocean is," Norrie hollers to Robby. When her brother Ben slows down for a rut in the road, she jumps off the back of the truck and runs the short distance to where Robby stands.

"Take this with you." He unclips the sheath from the belt loop on his jeans and slides the knife into it. He holds her chapped hand in his for just a second before he lets go. “You might need a knife where you're going." Robby doesn’t know anything about California, but he believes what he says could be true.

"I'll skin you a shark." Norrie's head is full of dreams. Ben signals her with a honk of the horn. “I’ll bring it home,” she says, her voice suddenly a squeak. Robby’s home isn’t hers. She doesn’t have one anymore, but she means what she says. She turns and runs so Robby can’t see the tears in her eyes. She slips the knife into the deep side pocket of her overalls before she climbs back onto the truck. 

"What business you have with them?" asks Doug, her oldest brother, just out of jail for punching some guy to death.

"No business of yours." Norrie presses the sheath still warm with the morning sun that Robby stood in and takes comfort in its shape against her thigh.

Ma smacks Norrie on the back of the head. "Don't smart off."

"I ain't," Norrie says. Ma doesn't understand anything. And neither does Doug. Self-defense but still he killed a man. Now that he's back, Ma treats him like he's some kind of a saint because he's been gone and because he got old there in the state pen. Too bad they didn't leave yesterday, she thinks. They could've gone to California without him.


Grandfather Six-Killer waits quietly while his grandson watches the little redhead leave. "Time to go," he says when the truck is no longer in sight. He boosts Robby up to the seat of the wagon and gives him the reins.

As they head home, Grandfather tells Robby that the dust is the white folks' fault for stripping the earth bare, rutting it with plows, and killing the bluestem, buffalo, and grama grass. The earth got mad and spit dust back at them.

Robby asks Grandfather Six-Killer how come if the earth was mad at white people, it killed Cherokee and Chickasaw and Choctaw, too.

Grandfather says anger is like a flood. It washes over everything.

Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley. She has work included in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W. W. Norton 2010) and is the recipient of a Derringer Award for Best Flash Story. Her fiction has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Crimespree Magazine, decomP, kill author, Shotgun Honey, and Verbicide Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Gritty and unforgiving as the dust itself. Great story, Jane.