Zip. Zip. The plane made smooth cuts across the small strip of wood Littlejim held in his papa’s vice. In his mind he could see the waterwheel he was building. He could see the clear water of the Bad Branch turning the wheel as it turned faster and faster. Littlejim often saw pictures in his mind, and those pictures included all the things he wanted to build, especially that little waterwheel.
Now that he had his own woodworking tools he could create all the things he saw in his mind. Once he had thought that if he could build something very fine, he would win Papa’s approval and his father would think he was a man. Now he knew better. He built things because it made him feel so good in his heart. But, he thought, if his papa saw words his son had written in the Kansas City Star, then he would surely be proud of his son.
Before Christmas he had not been able to work on his waterwheel since the day last fall when Papa caught him using the tools in the shed where they were stored. Bigjim had given his son a switching for messing with his fine woodworking tools.
“My tools,” said Bigjim, between lashes of the willow switch on Littlejim’s skinny legs, “my tools are for to do a man’s work. No call for a fool boy to think they’re playpurties. You durstn’t touch them again. This’ll teach you.”
Littlejim bit his lip to keep back the tears until Papa left the woodshed to put a big lock on his toolshed door. Then he folded his arms on the stack of stove wood and cried. His legs still stung every time he remembered that day.
He heard a voice through his thoughts. “Jimmy. Jimmy. Where are you?” called Mama.
Littlejim could see just the top of her dark curly head over the washbasin beside the kitchen door.
“Right here, Mama,” he called. He carefully placed each of the tools into its place inside the small metal box.
“My little love, I need a cabbage head from the root garden and a slice of ham from the smokehouse,” Mama sang out.
She usually sounded as though she were singing. Her speech had a lilt, a sing-song quality that was different from the flat twang of most of the voices of the Creek folk.
“Coming, Mama,” he called. Littlejim hid the box on the top of one of the rafters of the woodhouse. Then he ran up the hill to the door and into the kitchen. Onions, bunched in bouquets of white globes, hung from the rafters. Strings of beans that were dried in their hulls, the kind the mountain people call “leather britches,” hung beside them. Long strings of dried apples hung from the frame of the window, making a fragrant curtain of brown dapples as the evening sun shone through them and giving the kitchen a warm, pungent smell. A wreath of shiny red peppers hung near the outside door.
Nell sat in the corner by the big, black cookstove. She was swallowed in one of Mama’s aprons. Her little fingers struggled to push the big flat needle through the hard rinds of the orange pumpkin slices. The tabletop was almost covered with slats of pumpkin to be strung, then hung up to dry. Mama would make pumpkin pies from the slices of dried pumpkin. Littlejim’s mouth watered when he thought of Mama’s pumpkin pies.
“Why are you drying pumpkin this time of year?” he asked.
Mama shook the grate of the cookstove. “Some of the pumpkins in the root cellar started to rot, probably from the warm rains. We must not let good food go to waste.”
Littlejim handed her three sticks of stove wood from the woodbox standing beside the outer door.
“Thank you, Jimmy. Bring me the buttermilk from the springhouse first, please. I must get the cornbread into the oven. Jim is always hungry when he comes in from the woods. Hurry now.”
Mama stood on tiptoe to kiss Littlejim’s head. He was taller at twelve years than she was, but he still liked to have Mama kiss the lock of dark brown hair that usually hung down over his eyes. Littlejim rushed out the door and ran down the path to the springhouse. He pushed the door open. The moss on the rocks beneath his feet was slippery. Carefully, he lifted the cloth cover from the brown pitcher of buttermilk and picked it up. He peeked under the wooden cover of the butter box, cooled by the tiny spring that trickled through the dark dampness. Nine round balls of butter lay cooling on the board.
Mama saved the extra butter she made from the milk of Old Jerse, the cow, and the eggs from her Dominiquer hens to trade for extras at Mr. Burleson’s store. Usually, Mama used the butter and egg money to buy special treats for Littlejim, Nell, and Baby May, just as she had done the last time they went to the store. She bought cocoa for hot chocolate and white flour for sweet cakes, cookies, and gingerbread. Sometimes she bought a fuzzy brown coconut for Littlejim to shred the white meat for holiday cakes. Often she spent her butter and egg money for fabric to make the children new shirts and dresses.
“Soon I’ll have my little waterwheel made. It will look just like the big one that runs the big saws at Uncle Bob’s sawmill. Then I can see how fast the Bad Branch will make it run,” said Littlejim to the stream that bubbled up from the ground, then ran under the far wall of the springhouse. “I surely would like to finish it soon, but this week I guess I’ll have to work at the sawmill.” Bigjim liked for his son to work in the sawmill, but he felt that Littlejim was too old to help with women’s work in the house.
“’Tain’t manly,” Bigjim’s voice growled through his mustache.
Littlejim liked to help Mama. He often wished his papa were more like his mama, but that was not to be.