At dark the family sat around the supper table in the big kitchen, the fire from the cookstove warming Bigjim’s back.
“Papa,” said Nell, “is Littlejim going to win the essay competition? Do you think he will get to give his speech at the singing next summer on July Fourth?”
Littlejim stopped his fork loaded with ham and cabbage in midair. He watched his father with eyes wide with fear. Even Baby May in her highchair made of laurel twigs stopped digging her spoon into her cup of cornbread softened in sweet milk to look at her father. Milk trickled down her chin. Mama wiped it off.
Bigjim placed his knife and fork on the table. He poured some coffee from his big cup into the saucer, lifted the saucer to his lips to cool it by blowing on it, and finally drank it down. Across the cherry table, Mama closed her eyes and sighed. Try as she might, she had never been able to stop her husband from sassering and blowing his coffee. Then he pushed back his chair and wiped his mustache on a coarse napkin. The children had not moved since Nell spoke. Even Mama sat quietly, her hands in her lap.
“What competition do you be meaning?” intoned Bigjim. “You know full well that I don’t hold with my family a-making plumb fools of theirselves by speaking in front of their neighbors.” He leaned back in his chair. His dark eyes glistened in the soft light from the kerosene lamp in the center of the table.
“My son disobeyed me and made his speech at the Christmas tree, knowing I am displeased with sich goings-on. What essay air you talking about now?” said Bigjim.
Nell began to talk quickly, her words running into one another in her haste. “Today Mr. and Mrs. Vance came driving up to the school in a wonderous autymobile without any horses to make it go.”
“Spawn of the devil, them contraptions,” spat Bigjim, folding his arms tightly to his chest. “Go on, child.”
“Well, Papa, they asked Mr. Osk if we could write an essay and enter it into a competition. They are giving a prize and the winner gets to make a speech at the July Fourth singing next summer. Mrs. Vance even said Littlejim might win and it might be printed . . .”
Littlejim interrupted his sister. “She only asked me if I wanted to write an essay. She didn’t say I might win.” “She as good as said . . .”
“That true, boy?” Bigjim turned to face his son.
“Well, sir, she asked me if I would like to enter. That’s all,” answered his son. Littlejim knew better than to let his father know how important entering the competition was to him.
Bigjim put his elbows on the table. Mama shook her head and sighed. But his father continued to stare at the boy. One long finger shot out in Littlejim’s direction and pointed at his son.
“Don’t let me hear of you a-wasting your time with such tomfoolery. You have work enough to do around the farm with me away so much. Besides, they’s a war goin’ on across the seas. It ain’t fittin’ to be frolicking when our men from right here on the Creek are dyin’ in a war and all. My son darsn’t disobey me again to make a fool of hisself. Do you mind what I say?”
Bigjim had spoken. His family knew that to argue was of no use. He picked up his knife and fork, speared a piece of ham, and pushed some cabbage onto the fork with his knife, but before he could get the food to his mouth, Mama pushed herself up to her full height in her chair. Even then, Mama’s head was hardly as high as Littlejim’s skinny twelve-year-old shoulders.
“James,” she said sternly, “how will our son’s essay or his making a speech affect the war with the Kaiser? Now that I’d like to know.”
Mama looked just like one of her Dominiquer hens who got all puffed up and mad when Nell and Littlejim tried to rob the nest of eggs. Her cheeks were very red. Talk of the war with the Kaiser upset Mama. Her parents had come from Germany when she was only a little girl.
“When the children were little, I held to your Freewill beliefs. They are older now. It is not fullsome that they should not be a part of the church and community doings like other folks.”
Littlejim watched his parents’ faces while keeping his own blank. He could not allow Papa to see his disappointment. Papa held to the Freewill beliefs, even though he hardly ever went to church. Most Sundays he spent hunting or jawing with the other Creek men. The Freewill Church was called by some the “footwashing” Baptists, because they sometimes had a service where it was told up and down the Creek that they washed each other’s feet like Mary Magdalene had washed the feet of Jesus. Littlejim wondered if that was true.
Mama attended the Missionary Baptist Church up at the head of the Creek almost every Sunday morning. Usually she took the children with her. Bigjim rarely went to church, but when he did, the whole family went with him.
The only time Littlejim had ever heard his parents “have words,” as Mama said, those words had drifted up the loft stairs from the front room after his parents had gone to bed one Sunday night. They were angry words. The words he had heard were “Freewill” and “Missionary.”
Littlejim looked around the table at Nell and Mama and Baby May, all sitting very still. Then Bigjim pushed his chair away from the table.
“Gertrude!” thundered Bigjim. The children jumped. Papa had never yelled at Mama before. He yelled at them but never at his tiny wife.
“Gertrude,” he said again. “I will not hold with young’uns of mine a-wasting their time with tomfoolery and a-making plumb fools of theirselves. Last time it was holding Christmas celebrations in that house of God. That is over and done with, but this family won’t be a part of sich again.”
Bigjim glowered across the table at his tiny wife. Mama seemed to get taller in her chair.
“James, the church we attend had nothing to do with this. Our boy has a way with words. He is a born scholar. Osk told me so. It’s sinful for him not to enter the competition. My fadde taught us a man should use his talents or he would lose them.”
Bigjim stood up. At better than six feet, he towered over his family table.
“What’s sinful about it?” boomed Bigjim. “Why, womern, he’s a-making a plumb fool of hisself in front of the whole Creek with speeches and sich. A boy his age should be out aworking on the farm, a-cutting timber, and a-hunting, not doing womern’s bookish things. He should be a-doing manly things. Of course, it ain’t like he was “much of a man.”
“Of course, he’s not much of man, James,” she said quietly. “He has only seen twelve summers.”
“When I had seen twelve summers, I was a head taller than he is and I didn’t have time for books. I was already in the woods making man’s wages,” Bigjim muttered.
Littlejim had heard his papa tell of the hardships of his youth so many times he could almost repeat the story by heart. That did not make his father’s words about him any easier to hear.
Bigjim pushed back his chair. His face seemed carved in stone. He walked to the door of the front room. “I’m a-going to read the Star. It come today, I reckon.”
Bigjim was proud that he received the Kansas City Star every week. Reading it gave him an opinion to say when the men gathered at Uncle Bob’s sawmill to settle up on Saturday or at the jawing of a Sunday morning. Littlejim often watched by the light of the kerosene lamp as his father labored to figure out the words. Papa had only finished the Primer at school, and his son knew that reading was hard work for him.
Littlejim looked across the supper table at Mama, then at Nell. Two tears slowly slipped down his little sister’s cheeks. Mama was still chewing although she had no food in her mouth. Baby May had stopped slurping her bread and milk.
“Littlejim,” said Nell, “why didn’t you tell Papa about the Star? That might have made him let you write the essay.”
“What about the Star? asked Mama.
“The winner of the essay competition for the whole country will be printed in the Star. I really would like to have something I wrote printed where Papa would see it,” said Littlejim. “I have decided to write the essay, no matter what Papa says.” He swallowed hard. His heart was flying inside his chest. He had never dared to defy his father before, and now he feared Mama’s disapproval, too.
“That would be a great achievement,” said Mama. “I would be very proud to have my son’s speech printed in a fine newspaper like the Star. James would think that a fine thing, too, I believe.”
“The other prize is ten dollars, and that’s a lot of money,” said Littlejim. “I could maybe buy my own team so I could help Papa in the woods.”
“Or ten dollars could be used to send my fine scholar of a son away to school where he could learn all his mind could hold,” said Mama.
Littlejim had never thought of that. He had always dreamed of being a logger like his papa.
“And you get a Bible, too,” said Nell. “Mr. Vance is going to give it.”
“I already have a new Bible,” said Littlejim. “I won that at the Christmas tree. I would give the Bible to you, Nell, so you could have one of your very own.”
Nell smiled shyly at her big brother across the table. “Goody, Littlejim. You are sure to win, and I won’t say a word to Papa either.”
“Jimmy, you are a scholar. It is fitting that you should enter the competition. We will have to find a way around your father’s stubbornness. You must not be angry at your father, my little love. He misses his lack of schooling sorely. We shall see what we can do. Now finish your good dinner. I did not cook this good food to feed to Lilac!”
Littlejim picked up his fork. He felt encouraged. He knew in his heart that he had to write the essay, but if Mama thought he should, too, then he had to find a way to enter the competition.