Dust clouds covered the figures in the garden plot on the sunny slope above Bigjim’s house. The clay and rich brown soil was dry so it fogged as the workers prepared it for planting.
By midmorning, Littlejim was near the lower edge of the cornfield. He had the reins draped around his shoulders as he struggled to control the big plow dragging into the earth behind Scott and Swain. As he reached the end of the cleared area, he stopped the horses and walked around to the moldboard. Opening a latch, he turned the moldboard so the soil would be turned in the opposite direction as the horses again crossed the land.
Farther up the slope, Bigjim wrestled with the wooden harrow, its metal stakes tearing the earth and smoothing it behind the horses’ hooves. Finally, near the highest point of the slope, Banjer Brown followed the horse pulling a single-foot layoff plow which laid off the soil into neat straight rows.
Littlejim reached the lower edge of the cornfield and stopped the horses. Despite the chill wind that blew down from the ridge, his face was wet. He slipped the horses out of their traces and pulled the plow over to the shade of a tree.
Mama and Nell trudged up the hill carrying water jugs, two bags of corn, and several hoes. Littlejim took one of the hoes and the bag of corn from Mama. They walked to the top of the slope.
“Ready for planting, Jimmy?” Mama asked with a smile.
“Papa hasn’t found anything wrong with the plowing yet,” said Littlejim.
“That is good,” said Mama. She walked over to Bigjim and lifted the water jug. He stopped the horses and took a long drink. Then he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and called, “Giddiup.”
Mama offered Littlejim a drink of water, then she met Banjer Brown at the end of his row to share with him.
At the top of the slope, Mama slung the bag of corn over her shoulder and began to drop the grains of corn into the row. She dropped two grains, then took a step. Two grains more and took a step. Nell followed, covering the corn with a thin layer of soil.
Soon Bigjim picked up a bag of corn and joined his family. Without a word, Littlejim began to cover the corn his father had dropped.
“Tarp’s coming to cover for Banjer,” said Bigjim finally. “With him, we ought to be done by dinnertime. Have to get this corn in the ground. It’s Good Friday. Corn has to be planted no later than Good Friday or it won’t have time to ripen before first frost.”
Nell asked, “Why does Mr. Osk always say that corn must be planted by Good Friday even if Good Friday comes on Sunday?” She looked puzzled.
“Because Good Friday can’t come on Sunday, Nell,” said her brother, laughing. “He’s making fun. Good Friday can only be on Friday.”
“Oh,” said Nell, laughing, too.
Bigjim ignored their mirth. “The signs are in the heart next week. Plant then and the corn will make small ears,” he said.
“What does Papa mean, the signs are in the heart, Mama?” asked Nell.
“Your papa believes in the signs from the stars written in the almanac. I planted the cucumbers last week when the signs were in Gemini, the twins. Most people on the Creek plant by the signs.”
“I don’t understand,” said Nell.
“The sun and stars make certain signs in the sky,” said Bigjim. “These are signs from God about planting and harvesting. Signs were used in the Bible, so’s we ought to keep using them. We plant corn today because it’s an old moon. That will keep the corn from growing too tall and making small ears.”
Littlejim stared at his father’s back. He had seldom heard Bigjim talk for such a long time. His father must think the signs were important to talk so long about them.
“Dinner’s already made this day,” said Mama. “It’s in a basket at the spring by the horses.”
“Then we’ll finish after noontime dinner,” said Bigjim, pointing to the lower rows.
“I want to plant some pole beans along with the last few rows of corn,” said Mama.
Littlejim knew that most of the Creek folks planted their beans and corn together so the beans could climb the cornstalks for support. That way two crops could be tended at the same time. By the time the corn was ready, the beans had been harvested and most of the vines were dried up. But by planting them together, two crops were cultivated at the same time and the land grew twice as much food.
Finally, they stopped work and the family washed up in the stream for dinner. Bigjim started a fire, and Mama filled the coffeepot. She set it on the fire to boil and placed a skillet on a rock at the edge of the flame. Lifting sliced bacon from a bowl, she placed it in the skillet. Soon it began to sizzle.
Littlejim warmed his back by the fire. The April wind still held a chill in it. The fragrance of bacon and coffee teased Littlejim’s tongue, and his mouth began to water.
Mama lifted a bowl from the basket. Inside it were buttered wedges of cornbread. Then she brought out a towel in which were wrapped the first of her spring onions. Finally she unwrapped a towel full of small dark green leaves. Bigjim stopped stirring sugar into his coffee to look.
“Branch lettuce!” he said, a smile widening his mustache. “Where did you get branch lettuce?”
“First of the spring,” said Mama. “Nell found it growing at the edge of the Bad Branch yesterday. She picked it this morning for our dinner.”
Mama chopped the spring onions and tore the branch lettuce into bite-sized pieces and placed them in a large bowl. When the bacon was crisp, she tore it into tiny pieces and sprinkled it on top of the lettuce and onions. Then she poured the hot fat over the mixture. Littlejim could hear the sizzle as the lettuce was wilted. Mama stirred and then divided the delicacy on the plates she had brought.
She placed the bounty on a colored cloth. When Littlejim and Nell had filled their cups half full of coffee, Mama poured milk from a pitcher to the tops. The hot liquid warmed Littlejim from the chill wind.
“Branch lettuce marks the spring. Warm days are ahead,” said Banjer Brown. “First I’ve seed this year.”
Littlejim almost said, “It’s seen, not seed,” then he remembered his manners. Mama said that even if you knew better, it was not seemly to correct folks.
“One of nature’s best bounties,” agreed Mama. “To give us such good greens when the snow is barely past should make us think of spring. It is so good to taste something green after the long winter!”
“Fine goods,” was all Bigjim could say, sopping the last morsel with his buttered cornbread. “If the weather holds, we should have ‘ros’ nears’ by July Fourth,” said Bigjim.
Almost no one on the Creek roasted the ears of corn. Everyone boiled them in a black kettle over an open fire. But fresh corn on the cob was called “ros’ nears” by everyone Littlejim knew.
“Just in time for the dinner on the ground on Grassy Ridge Bald,” said Mama, smiling at her husband.
“Now, Gert. We always go to the singing and the dinner on the ground,” said Bigjim. “But I don’t want to hear any more about my son a-speaking there.” He took a big bite from his chunk of cornbread.
Littlejim looked at Mama and took a sip of coffee to soothe the lump in his throat.
“We shall have corn for the July Fourth dinner on the ground,” said Mama smiling. “Other things will follow.”
Mama winked at her son and reached into her apron pocket. She brought out a cloth tied in a small bundle.
“Have a sweet cake, James,” she said.
Littlejim smiled. A sweet cake would tempt his father to kindness when nothing else would.
The boy lay back under the pine tree and thought about the July Fourth dinner on the ground. He could almost taste the buttery kernels of “ros’ nears” as he thought about them.
“Maybe I’ll eat some of this corn on the day I read my essay,” he thought. “Maybe that’s what I’ll do that day.”
He remembered how angry Papa had been when they talked at the dinner table. But he decided he had to send his essay to the competition, no matter what Papa said. If his words did not make it to be printed in the Star, he would just have to face his papa’s anger.
Ever since the day Adam McGuire was killed at the sawmill, Littlejim had been thinking about what the man had said about coming to a new country to make his home. That part was written already. Maybe finding a place where you belonged, like Mama said, was what it meant to be an American. He would just have to think on it some more.
“Woolgathering again?” barked Bigjim, startling his son out of his thoughts. “Time to get to work if we’re going to get this corn planted by sundown.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Littlejim quickly.