2010 Annual Competition Winner - "Son of the Soil"
Son of the Soil
Jonah was a farmer and a farmer’s son and all the big-city swindlers and small-time hucksters couldn’t change that. He was born at the homestead and delivered by Father’s own big hands, because after all a boy was smaller
than colt or calf and plenty of those came into the world by that same leathered strength. He grew straight and tall like sun-kissed corn and when Father plowed or sowed he ran in his shadow, from the chestnut to the sulfur-rocks, and when the bell rang for dinner he ran home the chickens. He had Father’s crooked smile, tousled hair, his straight and honest jaw, but Mother’s hands. They were soft, white-palmed, and never once shirked a day’s work.
Day came when Father reckoned it time Jonah had responsibilities that weren’t feathered and flighty and so he brought him to their broody mare. He put those soft hands on her belly’s swell and said her next foal was Jonah’s. Jonah danced with delight, for to be a farmer’s son was a fine thing but a horse was truly something to crow about. When her time came it were Jonah’s calming hands rubbing sweat from her flanks, easing the passage of the limp, knock-kneed youngling that floundered out. When he brought the colt round the stable he saw the farm-dog had been busy as well. So he rubbed down the colt, brought greens to the mare, then came back to soothe the collie as she birthed her litter. In all his days Jonah would never forget the sweat-scent and the placenta’s loose feel , watching the acrid amnios pool in the dirt and reeds while he whistled Yellow Rose.
Wherever Jonah was you could count on Brash to follow. The collie’d littered seven but six were given away, for food was hard enough to come by and Jonah ate enough for a dozen pups. Whenever Brash got rat-bit or scraped his belly jumping a fence, he’d come yelping to Jonah and Jonah’d look in his eyes and tell him “Be calm,” bandage his paw or wipe the blooded coat, and the dog would calm, and though he was in many a scrape and scarper his wounds never festered nor fouled. And when he rode Bold the clip-clop from iron on hardscrabble came from shoes he’d nailed himself, as Bold’s hide glowed from oil Jonah’d applied, as his muscles strained on fresh fuel Jonah’d swathed and bundled, and everybody knew Bold would never flounder.
Jonah rode Bold one autumn morn, paying respects to the folk next farm over. He sauntered past the fence and Brash tumbled into a heap and a tumble of mutts. Jonah tied Bold to the post and greeted the wife at the door with the clamor behind him. It was a cool day but her brow poured sweat and her hand quivered and the curve of her belly told him why. The men were in the fields so he collared two or three brats and ran them for the Doctor while he guided her to bed. His hands were firm, and after all a girl was smaller than colt or calf and he’d seen plenty of those into the world with those same, soft hands. By the time Doctor hung his coat and set aside his bag Jonah’d swung the child upside-down, slapped her rump, and set her to suckle. Doctor busied himself and blustered but he knew, and Jonah knew, all was well. They shared a cigar on the porch with the proud menfolk and Doctor said that Jonah ought to look to his future, but Jonah knew that he was a farmer and a farmer’s son and he tipped his hat and rode into the evening whistling Yellow Rose.
Time came that winds dried up and crops all shriveled and Bold was sold to stud to put food on the table, along with half the farm besides. The clouds were spare and white but Jonah’s father said they’d carry on, and sure enough on the south field by the sulfur-rocks they plowed a bubbling trench one hot night and the next day came drills and towers and men, hard men, quick to blows, slow to forgive.
Jonah was an oilman and an oilman’s son and no city-folk or rancher was going to change that. He dug in the dirt with Father in his shadow, hauled block and tackle, and kept his hands gloved. The men made fun at first but Jonah just grinned and kept on, and when they came to him it was those soft hands that splinted twisted ankles, bound cracked ribs, popped joints back into place. One night in the south field fire broke out with a boom and a blast and flames played up and down the tents. Jonah grit his teeth and while others hauled water he hauled men, cooled seared lungs and peeled skin, set coal-black bone. Doctor came round with Brash nipping his heels, took one long look at men laid out like logs, belted a stiff drink, and set to work. By morning worst was over with no man dead, and the two men shared a cigar while Jonah whistled Yellow Rose, and when Doctor rose he left his bag with Jonah.
Time came that fire broke out all the world over and Jonah became a soldier and a soldier’s son, no matter the women’s tears and hearts they left behind. He marched with mud and hard men but he’d known both and grinned and kept on. And the other soldiers made fun of Jonah’s soft hands, but it was to him they came with shrapnel and phosgene, with torn and shredded limb, with the last requests of gutshot men, echoing out of a hell of bullets and screams and steel. He’d crawl up and down the trenches, gun at his back, hands at the ready. And when he lay down to sleep, Doctor’s bag beneath his head, he thought to the future and he whistled Yellow Rose.