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She is just a teenager when her brother dies in her arms. The following year, she marries Hank and moves down into the valley. Julie and Hank discover that the modern world is complex, grinding ever on without pause or concern for their hard work. To survive, they must ...
She is just a teenager when her brother dies in her arms. The following year, she marries Hank and moves down into the valley. Julie and Hank discover that the modern world is complex, grinding ever on without pause or concern for their hard work. To survive, they must find out whether love can keep chaos and madness at bay.
With Julie, Robert Morgan has brought to life one of the most memorable women in modern American literature with the skill that led Fred Chappell to say "Gap Creek is the work of a master."
Morgan’s talent for gracefully illustrating the practical details of rural life is astonishing. Gap Creek’s beauty is found in its depiction of the dazzling Appalachian landscape and its people. Yet with all its lush, rustic imagery, investing emotionally in Gap Creek is quite a chore. The inhabitants fall so quickly from one tragedy into the next that the reader develops an immunity to their misfortune. Nonetheless, Morgan succeeds in painting a heartfelt picture of southern life.
“His stripped-down and almost primitive sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank Williams’s best songs.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Gripping storytelling, indelible sense of time and place . . . Morgan turns the stories of prosaic lives into page-turners.” —The Raleigh News and Observer
"I've got to leave room to set the other one on," I said.
"You won't need room if that tips over on you," Ma snapped. She had changed back to her old self.
Instead of answering I started carving up more fat at the table. I sliced twenty times this way and twenty times crossways. The fat sliced easy as clotted cream or thick jelly. My left hand was so slick with grease I couldn't pick up anything but the blocks of fat. I raked the knife across the board harder than I needed to, to show how determined I was to get the job done and ignore Ma.
There was a little blood on the fat and on the board also, and I hardly noticed when I felt a nip at the end of my middle finger as I held a slab down to slice it. But when I saw the bright blood on the white fat I knowed I'd cut myself. A drop fell from the end of my finger, and then another. "Oh no," I said.
"What have you done?" Ma said.
"Just a nick," I said.
"Don't get blood on the lard fat," Ma said.
I grabbed a dishcloth and wiped the grease off my finger. I'd cut a place on the tip about the size of a pinhead. But it kept bleeding bright red drops. I cleaned off the left hand with the cloth and tore a strip from a fresh linen rag. I bound up the finger as best I could to stop the bleeding.
"That's what comes of being in a hurry," Ma said.
"I'll have to be more careful," I said. I wasn't going to take the time to get mad at Ma, and I wasn't going to stoop to the level of her snideness. With the bandage on my finger I finished slicing up the second pan of fat and then lugged the heavy canner to the top of the stove. But as I slid the container onto the stovetop I pushed it too far to the right and hit the canner already there. The boiling fat rocked like a wave had been sent through it. I backed away and seen a tongue of boiling lard spit up and over the rim as the wave sloshed on the side of the canner. The flung grease hissed on the stovetop and turned to crackling bubbles and smoke. But there must have been enough grease so that some of it busted into flame, for I seen fire on top of the stove. That might not have amounted to nothing, except the rocking and sloshing continued in the canner and the hot oil spit out again and leapt right into the flames. With a whoosh the fire flared on the stovetop. I think it would still have been all right and just burned there sizzling on the metal except a little more grease sloshed out of the pot and the fire caught onto that and followed the splash back into the pot. That was when the fire blazed up in the canner itself. All the hot oil caught at once and the flames jumped to the ceiling, lighting the kitchen.
"Oh my god," Ma said.
I looked around for something to throw on the flames. There wasn't a blanket or quilt anywhere. There wasn't anything bigger than a dish towel.
Now a grease fire is a worse kind of fire than usual. A grease fire hisses and jumps from one spot to another. There was grease all over the stove and all over the kitchen. The flames darted from one spot to another.
Ma run out to the back porch and got the water bucket. I'd heard that throwing water on boiling grease is the worst thing you can do, and I hollered for her to stop. But she flung the bucket of water right onto the flaming pot. You would think cold water would put a fire out, but the dousing exploded in a hiss and made the boiling lard splash in all directions. The flames followed the leap of the splash. The water just spread the fire. Flames landed on the second canner of fat and on the dishpans full of fat on the table. The whole kitchen seemed to turn to flames before my eyes. The curtains on the wall caught fire, and heat blistered my face.
"We'll have to get out," I yelled to Ma. I pulled her toward the back door. Smoke was already so thick you couldn't see much but the flames in the kitchen.
Mr. Pendergast come running in with another bucket of water.
I guess he must have been to the spring. "Don't throw no water," I hollered. But he flung the water right on the fire, making even more smoke and steam.
"I've got to get my money," he shouted.
"What money?" I said. It was so hot I could barely stand in the doorway.
"My pension money," he yelled.
"You come back," I said, and grabbed at his arm. But he had already jerked away. He dropped to the floor and crawled under the smoke. I knelt down where I could see, out of the worst smoke, and watched him work his way to the right of the stove.
"Get back here," I hollered.
"You better stop him!" Ma screamed.
I knowed Mr. Pendergast kept a can of kerosene sometimes used to start fires behind the stove, but I had forgot about it. He reached into the corner behind the wood box and brought out a pint jar. And I think he would have made it out except for this explosion that flared up behind the stove. It must have been the kerosene catching fire. I screamed as the flames covered Mr. Pendergast up.
"Let him go," Ma shouted. But I couldn't just leave Mr. Pendergast laying there in the fire. I had to try to help him. He was screaming and the fire seemed to be right on top of his head.
"Take his foot," I hollered to Ma, but she was already out the door and on the back steps coughing and trying to get her breath. "Grab hold of his foot," I said.
I took hold of Mr. Pendergast's feet and yanked as hard as I could, and he moved a little. I was coughing too and felt smothered from the smoke. I jerked harder and got Mr. Pendergast halfway out the door. And then Ma took one of his feet and helped me pull him onto the porch.
Mr. Pendergast's hair was burning, and part of his shirt was burning. I didn't have nothing but my apron, and I put my apron over his hair and snuffed out the flames. I burned my hands a little, but got the fire out. And just then Ma brought a bucket of water still warm from the washpot and throwed it on his shirt. We rolled Mr. Pendergast over on the wet porch and seen how bad his face and forehead was burned. The skin looked black on his forehead and scalp where his hair had been. His eyebrows was burned off and the skin on his cheeks looked red and peeling, and bloody in places under the soot.
I was thinking we had to put something on his face and on his back where his shirt had burned. What you put on burns is butter or lard or some other kind of grease or oil. There was butter in the spring house, but the lard was burning up in the kitchen. And then I thought, No, I'd better try to put the fire out first. If I can I've got to save the house. I stood up and looked in the door.
"You stay out of there," Ma Richards hollered. "Nothing you can do."
Smoke poured out the door and out the windows. You couldn't see nothing in the kitchen. I couldn't even see any flames. That made me think nothing was burning but the lard, and maybe that could be put out. I looked around the porch and seen a pile of tow sacks by the hoes and shovel and mattock. They had been used I guess for taking corn to mill or carrying leaves to put in cow stalls. I grabbed up eight or ten sacks and run to the washpot.
"What are you doing?" Ma Richards called.
"Putting out the fire," I hollered back. I plunged the sacks into the pot and pulled them out streaming warm water. With my arms around the dripping sacks I run toward the back door.
"You stay out of there," Ma yelled.
I leaped up the steps and run past Mr. Pendergast into the smoking kitchen. The smoke was so thick I couldn't see much. Bending close to the floor I walked to the stove and throwed wet sacks on the burning canners, and then the smoke boiled up worse and I couldn't hardly see what I was doing.
I run back out to the pile of sacks and got eight or nine more and carried them to the washpot.
"You stay out of there!" Ma screamed. But I didn't pay no attention to her. I carried the hot dripping sacks against my chest and hurried through the back door. I figured if the house could be saved I had to try. I'd started the fire, and I had to stop it. I stepped across Mr. Pendergast laying on the porch. He was starting to wake up from the smoke swoon, and hollering.
Fighting my way into the smoke, holding my breath and bending down low as I could, I put sacks on the burning grease on the table. I flung sacks on the burning can of kerosene and used the rest of the sacks like a shield to walk up to the burning curtains and jerk them down and smother them.
I started coughing, and every time I coughed I breathed in more smoke. Smoke burned my eyes so I couldn't see nothing. I put a hand over my eyes and started toward the door. To keep from breathing smoke I held my breath, and it felt like my chest was going to bust. The longer I held my breath the more it felt like my chest was ready to explode. And then I couldn't find the door. Smoke was everywhere and my eyes stung so I couldn't see. And I couldn't breathe for coughing and smothering myself. The smoke was so thick I couldn't tell up from down, or remember where the door was or where the table was. I was so weak I couldn't hardly stand up. My knee knocked against something hard, and my head banged on a sharp corner. There was nothing to breathe but smoke, dirty, greasy smoke.
Somebody pushed me and lifted me, and the next thing I knowed I was hobbling and tripping down the steps out into the yard where the air was cool. It was Hank helping me outside. The air was fresh, but every time I took a breath I coughed, and smoke burned in my lungs and in my throat. I bent over and felt something wet leap in my throat, and found I was throwing up on the ground. I was trying to throw up all the smoke I had swallowed, but puked out tenderloin and grits and butter, now sour and bitter. I had to throw up everything. I heaved until tears come to my eyes and I was so weak I was trembling.
"What in the world happened?" Hank said.
"Julie bumped a canner and the lard caught fire," Ma Richards said.
When I was empty I stood up straight and wiped my mouth and brow. "You could have been killed," Ma Richards said.
"The fire is out," Hank said. He looked through the doorway into the smoke. "You put it out just in time, before the floor or walls caught." He stepped out on the porch fanning the smoke with his hand. I looked through the back door and seen the smoke was settling in the kitchen. The top half of the room was already clear. And I seen Mr. Pendergast laying on the porch floor groaning. His face looked awful with its burns, but he was still holding the pint jar, and in the jar was dollar bills and coins like sliced pickles. A silver dollar had rolled out of the jar onto the porch.
After Papa's death things hadn't changed as much as you might think. For Papa had been sick a long time, and I was already doing most of the outdoor work, me and Lou, and sometimes Mama helped. You didn't get Rosie much out in the fields or woods. She was a house worker. When things had to be done in the fields or woods, Mama would complain, and then she would tell Lou and me to go do it. But it was up to me to see that things got done. In any house somebody has to take the burden. Mama would say, "Julie, don't you think it's time to plant the taters," and I'd say, "Mama, I've done dropped the taters yesterday, and I'll plant corn today." She had never got over the death of Masenier, and then Papa died, and it seemed to leave her wore out, like she didn't feel up to trying no more. Wasn't anything for me to do but take over and get out and do the work, whether I liked it or not.
There was this Spanish oak that had fell in a storm the winter before, on the bank of the road. It fell in the wind on the night Papa died, but I had been too busy in the fields all summer to cut it up. So it laid there and dried out and seasoned a little, which made it easier to saw.
The first time I saw Hank I was too embarrassed to speak. But that was just because I was took by surprise. Because it was the last thing I was expecting, to fall in love. It was late summer after Papa died in early spring, and Mama and me was sawing the Spanish oak right on the bank of the road where it comes up from Crab Creek.
I reckon there's nothing awkwarder in the world than the sight of two women in long dresses at either end of a crosscut saw. It was still hot and my hair had come unpinned when I wiped the sweat off my forehead. My face was hot and there was big rings of sweat under my armpits. I was so busy working I didn't hear the horse until it snorted and kind of cleared its throat. And when I looked up and brushed a strand out of my eyes, I saw this wagon hitched to a chestnut mare. The wagon stopped and this man, really almost a boy, a big, strong boy, stood in the bed holding the reins.
"Howdy," he hollered to Mama, not paying much attention to me.
"How do," Mama said, standing up. She had took to saying "How do" the way Papa used to.
I can say without doubt the man in the wagon was the handsomest I had ever seen. His hair was black and he had this high rounded forehead. And already he had a soft mustache that hung around the ends of his mouth. He was tanned dark from working in the fields all summer. But the thing that caught my notice first was his shoulders. He had the straightest, widest shoulders, and you could tell how powerful he was, and how much he could lift. It was the way he was made, and not that he was such a terrible big man.
"I'm looking for the Willards that are selling sweet taters" he said.
"You ain't there yet," Mama said and pointed on up the road.
"Figured I had a ways to go," the man said.
"Where you coming from?" Mama said. It was not what she would have said when Papa was alive. She said it the way Papa would have.
"All the way from Painter Mountain," the main said. "I'm Hank Richards."
"I'm Delia Harmon," Mama said. "And this is my daughter Julie."
"Pleased to meet you," the man said and tipped his hat.
That was when I felt myself get red in the face. The sweat run down my temples, and I felt myself blushing all over. Because it wasn't till that second that I remembered I didn't have any shoes on. I was saving my shoes for winter and I didn't want to wear any heavy work shoes if I was just going to be standing in the leaves and sawing. And it was so much cooler to go barefoot. But at that instant I knowed I didn't want Hank Richards to see me barefoot, like a little girl or a pauper. It was bad enough that he had seen me pulling a crosscut saw.
I wiped the hair off my forehead and tried not to look at him. And trying not to show I was moving, I worked my feet into the leaves. My dress was long and I hoped the mayapples on the bank would help hide my dirty feet. It was like I was caught naked, though there wasn't anything bare except my face and hands and feet.
"I was sorry to hear about your man," Hank said.
"We have to believe the Lord knows what he's doing," Mama said.
"Hard as it is," Hank said and shook his head. I could see he was talking like a grown-up man, which he wasn't used to doing. And he was talking to Mama for my benefit, or at least partly for my benefit. I seen he had stopped for my benefit too, for he must have knowed perfectly well where the Willard place was. I was so pleased at the thought I must have blushed even more.
But I seen that Hank wasn't going to speak to me. He was just going to talk to Mama so I could get a good look at him, and he could steal glances at me, and I could hear his talk.
"Mr. Harmon was a mighty fine man," he said and shook his head to show he understood how hard it was to make sense of things that happen.
"He worked as long as he could," Mama said.
"He was a man you could count on," Hank said and spit tobacco juice over the side of the wagon. The horse stepped sideways and he hollered, "Whoa there."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Mama said.
"I don't get up this way too much," Hank said.
"You ought to come to church here sometime," Mama said. "We're having a singing a week from Sunday."
"Might do that," Hank said. "I might just do that."
"Come to church and then come on home with us for Sunday dinner," Mama said. She said it just like Papa would have.
"I'd admire to do that," Hank said and looked right at me.
"Do you like to sing?" Mama said.
"Better than I like to eat peaches," Hank said.
"Come by some evening and we'll raise a song around the fireplace," Mama said.
Hank lifted the reins and rippled them across the mare's back. It was time for him to go on. He had stopped in the road and talked as long as was polite. "You all come see us," he said.
"We don't never get as far as Painter Mountain," Mama said, "unless we're going to Greenville."
"You're welcome if you do," Hank said and tipped his hat, first to Mama and then to me. And as he did he looked right at me, right into my eyes, and I felt a jolt go through me like lightning from the back of my neck to my groin, and my knees trembled. I was so thrilled I looked right back at him. I couldn't look away.
Now a look can tell you more than hundreds of words, if it's the right look at the right time. A look can go through your face and eyes right inside you. The look Hank give me lifted me off my feet and burned into my heart. I was a girl that never had been around boys much, been too busy working and worrying about Papa. I guess Papa had been the man I had been in love with, in a way, more than any other person.
But I don't know why Hank's look stung me so deep at that instant. We don't ever know why we fall in love with one person as opposed to another. Let's say I was just a healthy girl that once Papa died was ready to fall in love. You can say it any way you want to, and it still comes out to mean the same thing.
I looked right back at Hank, and I couldn't take my eyes away from him. I'd never done anything so bold before, but I couldn't help it. The look may have lasted only a second, but it felt like we was fixed on each other and couldn't break loose. I'd never felt so scared or so inspired. Hank's look filled me with something that was sweeter than the sweetest sleep when you are tired. He flicked the reins again and the horse stepped up the road. I watched the wagon creak and rattle on the rocks, and Hank's straight back where he stood holding the reins.
"There's a young man that's proud of hisself," Mama said when he was out of hearing.
"I reckon so," I said. Mama looked at me and seen how I was blushing. I never could hide a thing from Mama. And she must have seen that look Hank and me had traded.
"Don't go getting ideas," Mama said. "You're not but seventeen, and you know we need you on the place."
"Wouldn't dream of it," I snapped. But I wasn't thinking about what I was saying. I was watching Hank's straight shoulders as he rode through the spotlights and dapples of sun that come through the oak trees, and I was wondering if he had seen my bare feet. I wiggled my toes in the leaves.
"Take hold of that saw," Mama said. "We've got to finish this log."
"Yes ma'am," I said.
The very next Sunday Hank come to church on the mountain. He wore a gray suit of clothes, like he was fron town. He must have just bought the suit, for it looked brand-new. I saw him standing outside the church when we arrived. The other young men and boys was slouching on one side of the door and Hank was standing on the other by hisself. The Willards always said they wouldn't let boys from any other community come to court girls on the mountain.
Hank touched his hat as I walked past him up the steps. I didn't know if I should speak to him or not, since that would tell all the other boys he had come courting me. I glanced at Hank and walked by quick, but I had seen that look in his eye, like there wasn't nobody in the world except me and him. Something thrust up in my heart like water busting from a fountain.
All through preaching I could feel Hank's eyes on the back of my head and neck. He had come in and set down on the last bench with the backsliders and sinners and most of the boys in the community. I reckon they elbowed and shoved each other, and throwed lit matches in each other's laps during service like they always did. They didn't get a bit of good out of preaching, and the rest of us ignored them.
Soon as service was over I dreaded to go outside, for I didn't know what would happen. Would the Willard boys get in a fistfight with Hank? Would they let him get away? I knowed they was rough, mean boys and I was afraid for him.
But soon as I come out the church door following Mama and Rosie, there stood Hank with his hat in his hand like a peddler. "How do," he said to Mama. "How do, ma'am."
As I stepped by him he said, "Miss Harmon, may I have the honor of walking you home?" He said it just like he was a lawyer, an educated person from town. Everybody in the churchyard was listening. I couldn't think of what to say. "Why sure" wouldn't sound right, and "Yeah" wouldn't sound polite. All the other girls, and the Willard boys, and Mama and Rosie, and the preacher, was watching. Nothing I could think of to say sounded right. So I just nodded and Hank held out his arm for me to take.
As we walked out of the yard I could feel the pressure of all eyes on me. It was like a high wind coming at my back, pushing the cloth of my dress against my skin. I don't know if I was blushing or not. In the bright sunlight it didn't matter.
Don't ask me what we talked about walking down the road toward our place. I was just aware of holding on to Hank's strong arm. I think he talked about playing the banjo, and about how to make a banjo out of the skin of a cat. I think he asked if I sung alto or soprano, and I told him alto. He said he'd thought so. Mama and the other girls walked along behind us so we didn't have a chance to kiss, even if we had wanted to. People in those days didn't kiss anyway unless they was already serious.
We walked up that road and I thought about what those Willard boys might try to do. And I thought about how Lou and Rosie would tease me. And I thought about how even if Hank never did come back I would always remember how he had walked me home. A handsome boy from Painter Mountain had walked me home from church.
Back at the house Hank took his hat off and set on the porch talking to Carolyn while the rest of us helped Mama put dinner on the table. Mama had cooked her chicken before church and kept it warm in the oven. Mama asked Lou if she would take the bucket to the spring for some fresh water. It was a good thing I had killed and plucked the chicken that morning, because we didn't always have chicken on Sunday. I had hoped Hank might show up at church, and come home with us.
When we finally did set down to eat, Mama asked Hank to say the blessing. He set at the head of the table where Papa had set, and bowed his head. "Lord," he said, "for what we are about to receive make us truly thankful, and for the struggles of this life make us strong and worthy, and for the beauties of the world make us humble and grateful."
It was an eloquent blessing, unlike any I had heard before, I looked at Hank just as he raised his head and caught his eye for a second. He didn't wink, but it felt like he had winked.
Everything went all right at the dinner until I had to go to the kitchen for the coffee. The chicken and rice and peas and peaches was good. And the cornbread was hot and just soft enough. Hank eat plenty of everything.
"Mr. Richards, you should have brought your mother," Mama said to Hank.
"Ma wouldn't go anywhere but Painter Mountain to church on a Sunday," Hank said.
"She would certainly be welcome," Mama said.
"Have you ever rode the train?" Carolyn said. Carolyn had not been able to take her eyes off of Hank since he got to the house.
"I took the train all the way to Chattanooga one time, looking for a job," Hank said.
"Did you sleep on the train?" Carolyn said.
"It's not polite to ask too many questions," Mama said.
"I didn't sleep in a berth," Hank said, "but I took a nap in my seat." We all laughed.
"Have you ever been to Greenville?" Rosie said.
"I go every year, me and my brothers, to sell hams and molasses," Hank said.
"I would love to ride the train to Mount Mitchell," Carolyn said. Carolyn was wearing one of the pink lacy dresses Mama made for her, the one that had smocking on the front.
Finally Mama said for me to go get the coffee off the stove, and she asked Rosie to bring in the coconut cake she had made. Rosie loved to make coconut cakes, even when she was a girl. And nothing goes better with coffee than coconut cake.
There was still a fire in the cookstove, and the coffee was boiling. I took the pot off the stove and carried it to the dining room. But as I got close to the table I wondered if I should pour the first cup for Mama, who was a woman and the oldest person at the table, or for Hank, who was our guest at Sunday dinner. I couldn't make up my mind, and that flustered me. I took a step toward Mama and then stopped.
"Julie, pour some coffee for Mr. Richards," Mama said. That settled it, but the damage was already done. My hand was shaking when I held the heavy coffeepot over Hank's cup. Coffee come out of the spout too fast and splashed out of his cup and on his knee. He jumped when the hot coffee touched him, and I must have screamed as I stepped back. I hit the buffet as I jerked around and the pot fell to the floor, throwing out a scarf of smoking coffee.
"Oh, Julie," Mama said.
Hank stood up and knocked the drops of coffee off his pants. "It's nothing," he said.
"Are you burned?" I said.
"Not a bit," he said.
Mama run to the kitchen for towels, and I helped her wipe up the spilled coffee.
"I'll wash your pants," I said to Hank.
"It's just a spot," he said.
I finished mopping up the coffee and carried the pot and wet towels to the back porch. Through my carelessness I had ruined everything. Everything! I figured Hank would just get his hat and go, as soon as it was polite. He would get away from all us girls gawking at him, and Carolyn flirting, and Mama calling him Mr. Richards. I knowed there was a lot of girls prettier than me closer to Painter Mountain, girls not so clumsy and nervous.
But I was wrong. Hank did get his hat, but he said, "Julie, show me where the spring is. I need a drink of cold water after that fine, hot dinner."
There was no way I could refuse to show him where the spring was. I wiped my hands on a dry towel and hung it on the nail by the stove.
"Somebody can bring a bucket of fresh water from the spring," Mama said.
"I want to drink it cold from the ground," Hank said.
It was the brightest day you ever seen outside, bright as only early fall can be. The grass and leaves on the trees and even the bare dirt appeared to sparkle. I don't know if it was the light, or the fact that I was falling in love, that made everything shine. The world was lit in a new way, and I was lit up in every finger and toe and part of me.
Our spring was down the hill behind the house, below the big walnut tree. The spring was hid by laurel bushes so it was always in shade. It was the boldest and the coldest spring on the mountain. Water pushed out from the sides of the spring, boiling up the white sand on the bottom and stirring the flecks of mica. There was little lizards around the edges of the pool, showing how pure the water was.
Hank took the coconut shell off the stick by the spring and dipped out a drink. He offered it to me and I shook my head. He drunk the water slow, like he was savoring the flavor and the coldness. "This here water tastes like it comes out of rock," Hank said, "like it's been running through rubies and emeralds."
It was pretty the way he put it.
"I wish I had a ruby; I would give it to you," Hank said.
"I don't need no ruby," I said.
Hank dipped up another drink, and then replaced the coconut shell on the stick. "Now my mouth is sweet," he said. He looked into my eyes and stepped closer. He took my hands and raised them, first one and then the other, to his lips and kissed them. Nobody had ever kissed my hands before. Then he put his hands on my elbows and pulled me closer to him.
"You are an unusual person," he said and looked right into my eyes. I couldn't think of any way I had been unusual except to splash coffee on his britches, but I didn't say that. He leaned closer and nudged my lips with his lips. It tickled, and made my lips tingle. He rubbed his lips sideways across mine, and I thought how gentle and careful he was, for such a big, strong man. I wondered if Mama or Rosie or one of my other sisters was watching us from the back porch. And then I remembered the laurel bushes was between us and the house. Hank pressed his lips to mine and the feeling was sweet, sweeter than the fresh water from the spring. Then he nibbled at the edge of my lip, at my upper lip and the corners of my mouth. He run the tip of his tongue along my upper lip. It was a feeling I'd never had before.
When Hank put his lips full against mine and placed his arms around my shoulders, I left I was being gathered up in a spin and cut off from the air and light around me. It was like his arms made a separate world around me. His arms and lips and the feel of him against me made us apart from the woods and spring and bushes. We was our own world just by being together.
The feeling of the kiss went all over me. The kiss went through my arms and legs to the tips of my fingers and toes. That was the strangest part. Hank kissed my lips and run his tongue around my lips, and I felt the sweetness in the back of my head and down my back. So this is what kissing is, I thought. And I thought, This is not me. This is better than me. This is better than I deserve. And I thought, No, this is what I have been waiting for; this is what the future is going to be like.
Hank kissed me and we turned around like we was dancing real slow. We stepped around, but I wasn't hardly aware of stepping. I felt the trees and laurel bushes and the spots of sunlight was all circling. Everything was turning as Hank kissed me. My eyes was closed and I floated with the turning.
When Hank took his lips away and breathed, I caught a breath too. I took a breath and opened my eyes. And looking over his shoulder at the woods I seen somebody standing among the bushes above the spring. It was the oddest feeling, to open my eyes after my first kiss, after an otherworldly kiss, and see somebody staring at us from among the oak trees. It was like waking up from a sweet dream and finding somebody studying you.
I knowed it was one of the Willard boys. I think it was Clarence. He must have been watching us all that time. I couldn't know how long he had been watching. But if he was watching us, the rest of them must be watching us too. There might be half a dozen Willards spying on us.
"I want you to be careful," I said to Hank. I didn't mean to spoil everything by telling him we was being watched.
"Careful about what?" he said.
"You just be careful as you go down the mountain," I said.
And then I heard a squirrel bark. But it wasn't a regular squirrel. The bark was too steady, and a little too loud. It was one of the Willards making the noise, teasing us. And then I heard a bobwhite call, and thought it sounded like a bobwhite, the call was too loud. It was another one of the Willards answering the first.
Hank must have seen the worry on my face, for he started to listen. Just then a turkey gobbled further up the ridge. "There's a lot of varmints about," he said and laughed.
"Don't you leave here by yourself," I said.
Hank pulled his coat back and showed me a pistol stuck in his belt.
"They may have guns too," I said. I knowed the Willard boys carried pistols with them, especially Webb. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons they would walk along the road with a .22 and shoot at rocks and cans.
"Don't you worry," Hank said. "Worry never made anybody live a second longer."
We walked around the edge of the yard and Hank held my hand. I think he wanted whoever was watching to see us together. I showed him the garden where the tomatoes was so ripe and many they had broke down the vines. And the summer squash had got so big they looked like yellow geese laying in the weeds. The tater vines was dead and the bean vines had turned yellow.
We walked to the edge of the cornfield where Lou and me had already cut the tops and pulled the fodder. "Who did all that work?" Hank said.
"I did some," I said. "And Lou helped, and Mama did some."
Hank looked at me and run his finger along my cheek. "You will make somebody a good wife," he said. I couldn't look into his eyes. I couldn't hardly bear for him to look at me. For I knowed that more than anything in the world I wanted to be married to Hank Richards. I wanted to live in a house with just him and me, and I wanted to help him work in the fields and raise chickens and pick apples to dry in the sun for winter. It seemed too much to hope for that I could be with him day after day, day and night. It was too perfect to think on. Nothing ever worked out that perfect in this world. And if I wanted it too bad it would never happen. The world was made so people never got what they wanted most. Or maybe they wanted most what they couldn't never get.
"You will make somebody a good husband," I said. I hoped he didn't think I had cut all the tops in the cornefield by myself. I was a little ashamed of all the hard work I had had to do.
"Who is going to help you kill hogs?" Hank said. We had ambled close to the hogpen and the mud of the pen sent its stench over into the sweet smell of the garden.
"I guess Lou and me and Mama will do it," I said.
"I could come up and give you a hand," Hank said.
"You don't have to do that," I said.
"You'll need help lifting the hog," Hank said.
I didn't protest, because I wanted him to come whenever he would. And I didn't want him to think I was able to kill a hog and cut it up all by myself. We walked by the grape arbor where the bees was busy on the ripe Concords.
"Did you ever make wine?" Hank said.
"Papa used to make blackberry wine for his rheumatism," I said. "But nobody else ever did drink any."
"Pokeberry wine is better for rheumatism," Hank said. "It warms the joints and soothes them."
When we got to the front porch Mama come out and said she had made a fresh pot of coffee. She asked Hank did he want any.
"That would be perfect," he said. "I've got to leave soon, but a cup of coffee will set me up for the road."
Mama brought out two mugs on a tray and we set on the swing on the front porch. I never had coffee except in the morning, but I took the cup just to be sociable. Maybe it was because I was excited and in love, or maybe it was because I wasn't used to drinking coffee in the afternoon, but after a few sips it felt like lights was going through my veins to the ends of my fingers. And the yard and front porch got even brighter and clearer. Everything was so clear it hurt my eyes to look at it. And Hank was so handsome with his black hair and downy mustache and brown eyes and high forehead, it sent a pain through me just to glance at him.
I thought I heard Carolyn giggle inside. She must have been watching us through the window. She was nearly fourteen, and too big to giggle like that. But she was spoiled and I reckon she was jealous because Hank had come to see me and not her.
"What if I was to ask you --," Hank said. But just then there was a whippoorwill call on the hill above the road. Since whippoorwills never call till after dark, it didn't fool us. It was one of the Willard boys all right.
"That bird has got its clock wrong," Hank said.
"If you was to ask me what?" I said.
There was a dove call, slow and mournful, from the same place the whippoorwill had called from. "Those birds are singing up a regular chorus," Hank said.
"Those birds ought to be jailbirds," I said.
Next it was a mockingbird on the hill, sounding like the other birds, and a rain crow and a robin. And then a fox barked up there too. "The woods is full of noise," Hank said.
"If you was to ask me what?" I said again.
There was another bobwhite call, and a fox bark, and then a wildcat scream. "What if I was to ask you to be my wife?" Hank said. I couldn't believe what was happening. I had only walked home with Hank the first time that morning. Some girls had to wait months, even years to get engaged. I had first laid eyes on Hank less than a week before, and here he was asking me to get married. It felt like I was dreaming it all.
After we kissed and held hands and looked into each other's eyes for what must have been an hour, ignoring the birdcalls from the hill, and Carolyn's giggles behind the window, Hank said he had to go, if he was to get off the mountain before dark. He didn't want to be caught on the mountain after nightfall. "Might step on a snake," he said.
"I'm afraid for you," I said.
He kissed me on the forehead. "Just do what I tell you to do," he said.
"What do you want me to do?" I said.
"I want you to hold my hat," he said. He took off his wide-brimmed black hat, and he went to the front door and thanked mama for the dinner.
"I hope your pants ain't ruined," Mama said.
"A spot of coffee won't ruin good cloth," Hank said.
"You come back and see us soon," Mama said.
"I'll do that," Hank said.
Out in the yard Hank handed me his hat and told me to stand by the front gate and hold it for him.
"Where are you going?" I said.
"I'll be back," he said and winked. And taking off his coat and tucking it under his arm he headed down the trail to the outhouse. The outhouse was hid behind the arborvitae, and it was right at the edge of the pine woods. I heard the door of the outhouse slam. I smiled, thinking how delicate Hank had been about mentioning where he was going.
I held the hat and stood there beside the boxwood by the gate. Mama had swept the yard and sprinkled sand on it, but chickens had already tracked the sand and stained it. I would have to carry more sand from the branch for next Saturday. Shadows was getting longer across the yard, and I felt the coolness of evening in the air. A crow cawed in the pines on the hill. A dog barked down the mountain.
After a few minutes I started to wonder what Hank was doing in the outhouse. Was he sick? Had a spider bit him? It was embarrassing that he had gone there and was staying so long while I held his hat by the road. I looked at the soft felt hat. It must have been a seven and three-quarters size, for Hank had a large head. Mama come out on the porch and said, "Is he gone?"
I shook my head and pointed toward the outhouse. Rosie and Carolyn come out on the porch behind Mama and looked toward the arborvitae. I hoped Hank wouldn't step out and see them all looking at him.
I held the hat and looked down the road, but didn't see anybody. And then I looked up the road and saw the road that way was empty too. There was a dove call on the hill, and then another bobwhite call. I looked at the hat in my hand, and I looked toward the arborvitae. And then I smiled, because I knowed Hank had already slipped away into the trees and was far down the mountain. I was even more thrilled than I had been, to think he was safe, and that he had been so clever.
"Well, what happened to him?" Mama said.
"He's done gone," I said.
"He'll have to come back for his hat," Carolyn said. "A gentleman don't go anywhere without his hat."
Shadows was already reaching across the yard. There was crow calls from the trees on the hill. I tossed the hat up in the air and caught it. It was the happiest day of my life.
Marriage was different from what I ever expected. Like all girls I imagined something wonderful, and it was wonderful, in most ways, but in different ways from what I had thought. Mama had always said that marriage is like everything else: it is work, hard work.
As I expected, Mama was angry when I told her I was engaged.
"You don't hardly know that boy," she said.
"How well am I supposed to know him?" I said.
"Well enough to know his mama's name," Mama said.
I didn't say nothing. I never was good with talk when somebody was upset. Besides, there was nothing I could say to convince Mama.
"When are you getting married?" Lou said.
"Next month," I said.
"Where are you going on your honeymoon?" Carolyn said. She was always reading stories in magazines about courtship and honeymoons.
"I don't know yet," I said. "He has only just asked me."
"I'll say," Mama said. "You only met him last week."
"I'll bake you a coconut cake," Rosie said.
"Who is going to do the work around here?" Mama said.
"The crops is already in this year," I said. "It's not like Rosie and Lou and Carolyn is helpless."
"This is a fine come off," Mama said, "after your Papa died in the spring. And you not much more than a youngun." But I don't think Mama was as mad as she acted. Or if she was she got over it. Maybe she seen the advantage of getting one of her girls married off. Or maybe she seen there was nothing she could do to stop it. "I just hope he's a good man," Mama said, "though he's really just a boy."
"He's eighteen years old," I said.
"That's what I mean," Mama said. "You're both just younguns."
Copyright © 1999 by Robert Morgan
2. Even though two of her sisters are older than she is, Julie is the one everyone counts on. "Everything that was hard fell to me, and everything that nobody else wanted to do fell to me." Why? What is the author saying about Julie? About those who depend on her? About the time and place in which she grows up? "Because you're the strongest one in the family. And because everyone has to do what they can," is her mama's explanation. What do you think of that philosophy? In what ways do people live up or down to what is expected of them?
3. When Julie helps her father carry her dying brother down the mountain, "it was the prettiest night you ever saw...It was the first time I ever noticed how the way the world looks don't have a thing to do with what's going on with people." Talk about both the beauty and the impersonality of nature in the novel. What is the author saying about the cycle of human life? Where does religion fit into Julie's world view?
4. Before Julie meets Hank she thinks about falling in love with "a strong man that knowed what he wanted and could teach you." Contrast this image with what she finds in Hank. "I don't know why his look stung me so deep at that instant. We don't ever knowwhy we fall in love with one person as opposed to another," she says. Is this true? Is it something a young girl might think, but that a mature woman might have a different perspective on? Talk about the importance of chemistry in a love relationship. Is it more or less important to you than shared interests and values? Why? What do you think of love at first sight?
5. Julie imagined her marriage would be something wonderful, but finds it different from what she expected. Her mama's view of marriage was simple: "Like everything else it is work, hard work." Do you think marriage is hard work? Contrast the way Julie responds to their hard life with the way that Hank responds. How do you think the different outlooks of Mama and Ma Richards have contributed to their offspring's readiness for the responsibilities of marriage?
6. Throughout the novel, we are given very detailed descriptions of the difficult and often unpleasant chores that Julie performs -- from butchering a hog to laying out Mr. Pendergast's body after he dies from the fire. Does this help you to understand just how hard life was in Appalachia at the turn of the last century? Do you find Julie's capacity to endure despite unrelenting sorrows inspirational? Depressing?
7. "It was like we formed a special kinship in the kitchen," Julie says after sharing some unexpected pleasant moments with her mother-in-law. She experiences similar intimacy in her kitchen cooking a meal with her sister Lou. Discuss the special place that the kitchen can hold in women's lives. Julie experiences a similar bonding experience with two new women friends from church who bring her homemade jelly and clothes for the baby she is expecting. Why do you think the author has Julie find sustenance from women during the harsh winter and so little emotional support from her husband?
8. When Hank realizes Julie has been conned out of money by a lawyer, Hank smacks her across the face and cruelly insults her. Discuss Julie's reaction to his temper. When they make up in bed, Julie thinks "In the dark what mattered was we was together and naked...We would always find a way to live, a way to get back, as long as we could love." Do you share Julie's faith in their love? Why?
9. When Gap Creek rises and floods their house, something snaps in Hank who, shotgun in hand, threatens to shoot himself, and maybe Julie, too. "I ruint your life...I ought to kill us both," he shouts. As the disasters continue to pile up that bitter winter, Hank slides into a deep depression broken by fits of rage. Do you wonder why Julie continues to stick by him? What do you think of Hank?
10. All alone in the house with the nearest neighbor a mile and a half off, Julie goes into premature labor with no one to help her. She finds a way to deal with the agonizing pain and fear by simply looking at it as hard work. Discuss the concept of childbirth as the work women were "meant to do." Do you think this view of her role exalts or diminishes a woman?
11. When Hank arrives home to discover that Julie has given birth, there is a dramatic change in him. He lovingly tends to his sick wife and baby, does all the chores, and, as Julie observes, "It was like Hank had got a lot older." Why do you think he is now ready to take care of his family? Do you think he is able to become strong because, for once in their marriage, Julie is in a weakened state? Or do you think the strength, faith, and gentle nurturing of his young bride have finally rubbed off on him? Is the change in Hank believable?
12. In her fevered state after childbirth, Julie is visited by her dead father in a vision and he tells her she will live and continue to work and love. How does Julie use work to get her through her grief when her baby dies? A continuous thread throughout the novel, work is always hard and necessary, sometimes ennobling, and often the only path to survival. Talk about the various functions that work serves in the novel. In our lives? What is your own view of work? If we didn't need to work for the material benefits it provides, what would its value be?
13. Novelist Robert Morgan is also a prizewinning poet, and critics have praised Gap Creek for its "starkly beautiful" imagery and "simple but luminous" prose. The New York Times Book Review says Morgan's "stripped-down and almost primitive sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank Williams's best songs." What do you think of Morgan's writing style? Can you think of any other fictional characters -- in novels or in movies -- whom Julie reminds you of? Do you enjoy reading this kind of fiction? Why or why not?
Posted February 27, 2001
After the final disgusting scene in the first chapter I knew I shouldn't waste my time on this all too self-possessed effort to depress and wear on the reader. I've always been leary of 'Oprah Picks' but this one takes the prize. Do the editors at Oprah's show pick such bad novels on purpose? From the death of her little brother from worms (which is unneccesarily graphically portrayed) to her struggles against her strange husband (whose character annoyingly is never really explained or developed thoroughly by the author), the protangonist, a young woman in her late teens named Julie, is slapped hard incessantly by her circumstances. I just wanted a break from it. Although it was an easy read (day and a half, thankfully no longer) I found myself wishing that the protangonist would just go home to her mama and forget about Gap Creek. She and her bizarre husband eventually do, but it's too late to save the effort. Try a different novel. Don't waste your time on this one.
27 out of 36 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 23, 2005
Beyond boring. Floods, fire and famine all while they stay in the same house. My book club read this book , only one person liked it, the rest almost stoned her for suggesting this book.
22 out of 27 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 13, 2001
I wish they had a 'zero stars' option for this book. A real snoozer--I kept waiting for something to happen, but it never did. How many pages-long descriptions of pig slaughter and floor scrubbing does one reader need? I get tired enough thinking about my own housework; I certainly don't care to read about someone else's boring chores, no matter how hard the chores may be! And what's with the weenie men? They all either die untimely deaths, whine incessantly, or dump all their workloads onto Julie. Give me a break! Apparently, I have more faith in men than Mr. Morgan has.
15 out of 18 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 23, 2011
This book was so depressing. The couple never got a break. I read this book years ago and it is the only book i have ever owned that I put in the trash. I couldn't pass that saddness on.
13 out of 17 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 23, 2011
This Free Friday book has a perfect price on it. I wouldn't spend money on this book and recommend reading it only if you are desperate for reading material. A friend loaned this to me a long time ago and I read it then, but remember that it was not a happy read.
I will say one thing about the book, it does make an impression on you! It describes poverty in a way that I'll never experience. I can't remember many of the books I've read, but this one I do.
12 out of 15 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 11, 2009
A very compelling book! The life lessons contained really give you perspective on your own life. All of the stuggles that the main character goes through leave you deep in thought as to what god really has in mind when you descend this earth. It shows that the light at the end of the tunnel may not always be what you expect, but it's what you need to continue to go on. I highly recommend this book. It's a great read that you don't want to put down.
11 out of 14 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2001
This is a very moving portrait of a young woman's will to survive tragedy and pain in the 1900's in the Appalachian mountains.Robert Morgan writes in very realisitic manner. The reader becomes the heroine. I could not put this down.
10 out of 12 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 3, 2008
I was definitely disappointed. With a good book, readers find themselves unable to put the book down. With this book, I found myself taking breaks from it. While some parts touched me, it wasn't enough for me to gasp or really feel what the characters were feeling. The way the book was written was too monotone and there wasn't excitement pouring out of the words where there should have been. Gap Creek may seem fit for others, but overall, I felt the book moved too slow. The ending also totally sucks.
9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 11, 2000
After living in the mountain foothills only a 20-minute drive from the Gap Creek area for the last 35 years, I found Mr. Morgan's characters a little too educated for the times. Also, I felt that it was obviously written by a man trying to express a female point-of-view, which he was not able to accomplish to my satisfaction. I was left with an uncomfortable feeling after finishing the book. 'The Perils of Pauline' for the new millenium.
9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2009
Posted October 9, 2005
There was this long drawn description of someone preparing a pig. That kinda threw me off. I sort of like this book. it did have it ups and downs. I probably won't read it again!
8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 3, 2001
I enjoyed this book very much. I like books about strong women of the 19th century. I couldn't put it down and was sorry when it ended. I want to know more about Julie and Hank. This book gives me a deep appreciation for the hard work of my ancestors.
8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 13, 2011
Posted June 19, 2007
Posted December 9, 2000
I was so involved with what was happening to Julie that I could not stop reading this book until I finished it! I loved it and passed it on to my daughter. I am familiar with the general area the book deals with and remember it with fondness, as Rober Morgan writes about waterfalls and valleys surrounded by mountains. It's my favorite place on earth to visit on vacations. The story is great.
7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 22, 2012
I started the book and thought that I would like it. Nope. It started out okay and then got depressing and then it abruptly ended. I have the ebook version (a Free Friday book) and I think that it is missing pages and chapters. I did some investigating and saw that the "hands-on" books had about 100 pages more than the ebook edition (227 pages for the ebook compared to 329 for the "real" book). I guess that you get what you pay for--in my case it was nothing. I wouldn't read it again. The storyline was too depressing.
5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 27, 2011
I'm amazed at the negative reviews I have read here. This was a spellbinding book and the main character, Julie was an amazing example of courage. I found it hard to believe that it was written by a man, particularly the parts dealing with childbirth!
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Posted September 24, 2011
Posted April 9, 2011
Posted April 27, 2001
I feel this was a true portrait of what life could have been at that time in the country! These people where real and did the best they could . They learned to help each other. I laughed and cried with them through their many ups and downs. I recomemend this book highly!
5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.