Read an Excerpt
William Henry IS A FINE NAME
By CATHY GOHLKE
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
THE JUNE SUN SMOLDERED uncommonly hot, so hot
that William Henry and I chose to forget our chores, borrow
hot cornbread and cold cider from Aunt Sassy's kitchen, and
take off for Tulley's Pond, home of the best smallmouth bass
this end of Cecil County. By late afternoon we'd swatted a million
mosquitoes, snagged somebody's old wagon wheel, and
hooked a few sunnies not worth the fat to fry. It was getting
late and we were about to give it up and go on home to chores
and supper when Jake Tulley showed up on the opposite bank
William Henry elbowed me in the side.
"You boys be trespassing." Jake knew our names as well as
he knew his mama's, but Jake was a year older and calling us
"you boys" made him feel smug.
"Trespassing?" William Henry's eyes opened wide, showing
all their white in his black face. He turned to me and in a
voice that held all the shock of a September snowstorm, said,
"Robert Leslie Glover? Is we trespassing? Is that what we're
"I thought we was fishing." I kept my face straight.
Jake pushed a greasy hank of hair off his forehead and
hitched up his pants. "I guess whipping your pa for trespassing
last week wasn't enough, William Henry. We'll see who thinks
he's funny when I tell my pa that darkiesand white trash is
stealing our fish."
I felt William Henry's muscles tense beside me, but his
mouth never twitched. "Why, Mr. Jake, we meant no harm! We
was just passing the time with these fishing poles while we
waited for a fresh crop of ivy poison!" William Henry could
talk himself out of a whipping or work, but even I looked at
him like he was crazy when he said that.
Jake lifted his chin. "What are you talkin' about, William
"I'm talking 'bout ivy poison, Mr. Jake. Last summer when
you caught that fearful rash I felt so bad I figured I just had to
help find a cure."
Jake eyed him suspiciously. I still kept my face straight,
wondering what William Henry was up to now.
"Well, I took myself on down to Granny Struthers. She
don't usually get mixed up in white folks' ailments and cures,
but she told me that all a body need do not to ever get the ivy
poison rash again is to eat a whole handful of fresh young ivy
poison sprouts. Mind you, Mr. Jake, that only works if you ever
had it real bad-at least once. Like you, sir." The "sir" and "Mr."
and the know-nothing smile on William Henry's face reeled
Jake right in like he was aching to bite bait.
"You sure about this?" Jake winced into the sun.
Everybody knew Granny Struthers had the gift for all kinds of
outlandish cures that mostly had to do with plants and mostly
worked. Maybe Jake thought he was onto something big-him
being white and all. "You sure you're not making this up to get
out of being whipped for trespassing?" I felt William Henry's
muscles tense again and I knew he was thinking of his pa,
who'd only taken a shortcut across Tulley's fallow field.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Jake. I mean, no sir, I'm not tryin' to spoof
you. What would I be doin' sittin' in this bed of ivy poison
myself if it hadn't worked for me? But I wouldn't want you to
try it, Mr. Jake. No sir, I wouldn't." William Henry solemnly
shook his head. Jake frowned and strained his eyes toward us.
He was squint-eyed and couldn't have spotted ivy poison if he
was half as close.
Jake pressed his fists into his hips. "And just why not? I'll
be bound it's good enough for me if it's good enough for you!"
"Oh, it ain't that, Mr. Jake. No, sir. It's just that this is a
highly scientific experiment and Granny wants to make sure it
works on poor folks of color like me before she'd ever try it out
on you fine white folks. After a time I reckon she'll take the
cure on up to those Philadelphia lawyers, then they'll confer
with them kings of England and it'll get to be known all over.
Then'll be the time for you to try it, Mr. Jake." William Henry
nodded, looking as wise as Judge Mason up in Elkton, and
went back to his fishing.
Jake stood, undecided. He shifted his weight from one
dusty bare foot to the other. Finally he said, "If it's good enough
for Philadelphia lawyers it's good enough for me." He yanked
up the nearest handful of ivy poison leaves and stuffed them
into his greasy mouth. William Henry feigned horror and I
didn't need to pretend at all. I knew we were in for it now. But
William Henry shook his head slowly and whispered, just loud
enough to carry across the pond, "That Mr. Jake is bound to go
down in scientific history."
Jake hitched his britches as he gulped the last mouthful of
sticky leaves, then slurped a handful of pond water to aid the
process. He swiped his sleeve across his mouth and stood tall.
"You boys go on home, now. I won't tell on you fishin' this
time. But mind you don't come back here again!"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Jake," William Henry said. "Thank you, sir."
We scooped up our string of sunnies and stick poles to head
home. William Henry stopped in his tracks and turned. "Mr.
Jake? Would you like these fish? It would be our honor for you
to have them-you a gentleman of learnin' and all. Nobody
need know we caught them. They can be yours."
Jake's mouth watered. His ma dearly loved fresh fish and
Jake was no good at fishing. He didn't know how to sit still and
never used good bait. "Why, I expect so. I guess it's fittin' since
they be from my pa's pond. You don't tell my ma you caught 'era."
"I'd not think on it." William Henry waded straight across,
and from waist-deep water handed up the catch of sunnies,
pulling us off the hook.
Jake strutted off in his most kingly strut. William Henry
kept a solemn face till we'd walked a quarter mile down the
road, then we both broke out in rip-roaring, doubled-over
We whooped and hollered, tripping over each other as we
tore through the woods. "That'll teach those Tulleys to mess
with Joseph Henry!" William Henry's laugh cut the edge of
"You don't reckon it'll kill him, do you?" I didn't want to be
run in for murder.
"No, I'm half sorry to say. I'll go by Granny Struthers later
and tell her the Tulleys be needin' her help." He shrugged. "It'll
keep him miserable for a time, but Granny'll fix him up." That
eased my mind, and we took off running again.
By the time we dropped on the banks of the Laurel Run,
tears ran and our sides ached. But ours was minor suffering, all
things considered. We knew we'd be late for evening chores
and in trouble, but the moss bed under the beech tree called
our names. Besides, this was the first time in forever that
William Henry and I had escaped our mothers and outwitted
Jake Tulley all in one fine day.
William Henry was my best friend. His ma and pa, Aunt
Sassy and Joseph Henry, worked for Mr. and Miz Heath, same
as my pa, only my pa was foreman of Laurelea. I taught William
Henry to read when we were little. Everything my ma and
Miz Laura Heath taught me I practiced on William Henry by
scratching it in the dirt behind the barn. Pretty soon he could
outread and outwrite me and liked it better. So when Mr.
Heath loaned me a book I just passed it on to William Henry,
who inhaled it by candlelight. He'd return it a few days later,
giving me the gist and a few particulars. Then, when Miz Laura
or Mr. Heath questioned me, I could reel off the facts and figures
enough to make them believe I was up and coming, I felt
a little squeamish about deceiving those I loved, but figured it
was the lesser of two evils and that I'd get around to being a
genuine scholar someday.
William Henry and I talked about anything and everything.
That day I asked a question I'd puzzled over for some
time. William Henry might not know the answer, but there was
no one else I dared ask. "What do you reckon ladies wear under
"Don't suppose they wear nothin'," William Henry
replied. "Why would they?"
"Oh, I think they must wear something. I've seen lots of
white things hanging on Ma's wash line that I've never seen her
wear on the outside. I reckon they're down underneath, but I
can't think why she'd bother."
"My mama don't wear nothin' under her dress. She says
that old kitchen's hot enough, I guess white folks wears extra
things. Maybe that pale skin keeps them cold."
I knew William Henry was messing with me. "Well, I'm
white and I don't wear nothing extra. If I had my way I wouldn't
be wearing nothing at all right now, it's so all-fired hot."
"Well, you're different, Robert. I'd say you're pretty nearly
colored in your druthers." William Henry lay back against the
creek bank, sucked the juice from a reed, and chuckled to
I turned my back on him. He ought not get so uppity and
"Last one in chops wood!" William Henry screeched.
Quicker than a firefly flickers, he stripped down to his sleek
black skin and dove headfirst into the run. I was still vexed, and
then more so because I had to chop wood. But that was fair and
it was hot, and I'd have done it to him if I'd thought about it
first. So I stripped down, took a running start, grabbed the rope
hanging off the big beech tree, and swung out over the middle
of the run. For one glorious moment I stopped dead, straddled
the air bowlegged, then dropped straight down into the cold
June water. We whooped and hollered and nearly drowned
each other before the quitting bell rang outside the Heaths'
house. We hadn't finished our chores and now we'd be late for
supper, too. William Henry could talk his way out of anything,
but my tongue failed me whenever I lied, and I could feel my
face heat up like a smithy's fire.
William Henry flew over the ridge, pulling his pants up
with one hand while shoving the other through a damp blue
By the time I reached my back porch stoop, I'd straightened
most of my buttons, slicked my hair with my fingers, and
was as sweated as if I'd never cooled myself in Laurel Run. I
shoved two crusted feet in my shoes and held my breath as I
creaked open the back porch door. If there's a way for a half-starved
boy to slide unnoticed to a table loaded with steaming
cornbread, ham, fried potatoes, and cold canned peaches, I
didn't know it.
I slid in and bowed my head to pray. That might soften
Ma and give me a minute to catch my breath. The Lord might
also appreciate being noticed.
I raised my head to find Pa surveying my shirt collar. His
mouth drew a line, but the blue lights in his eyes caught mine.
I knew then that I wouldn't get licked and that Pa knew exactly
where I'd been. It was lucky Pa remembered being a boy.
"Robert Leslie Glover." Ma used my full name whenever I
stepped out of line. "Yes, Ma?"
"Supper was served at six o'clock."
"Where are your socks, Robert?" How she knew I didn't
have socks on when my feet sat under the table, I didn't know.
"Right here, Ma." I pulled two powerfully dirty socks from
my back pocket and held them out for her over the ham platter,
thankful I hadn't left them down at the run.
"Robert! Not at the table!" Ma's mouth turned down and
her brow wrinkled. It was a shame, for Ma was young and pretty,
but frowning aged her.
"Sorry, Ma. I thought you wanted to see them." I stuffed
my soggy socks down the insides of my shoes.
"'Mother,' Robert. Not 'Ma.' And I prefer to see socks on
your feet, where they belong. Why ever did you take them
"Well, Ma-Mother-you know how Miz Laura likes her
flower beds weeded. Well, me and William Henry-William
Henry and I-"
"William Henry, again!" Ma was fit to be tied.
"Caroline," Pa cautioned her, but cocked his eyebrows
toward me. He'd understand swimming at the run with William
Henry anytime, but he'd not tolerate a lie. Ma, on the other
hand, wouldn't understand swimming, especially skinny-dipping
in broad daylight. She didn't like me larking with William
Henry, and she believed that sticking bare feet in cold spring-water
before the middle of July was next to taking your life
from God's hands into your own, and that was surely a sin and
tempting the Lord ever so severely all at once. I swallowed, felt
my face heat up, and started again.
"The truth is, Mother, that it was so hot today that everything
I wore began to itch me something fierce and I feared I'd
break out in a rash from the heat in my body and the wool in
my socks mingling together, so I took them off and kept them
safe and clean-clean as possible-in my pocket." Pa picked
up his fork. He knew it wasn't the whole truth, but he let me
off just the same and I thought well of him for it. Ma studied
my face, then tugged with little patience at the tatted edges of
her cuffs. Pretty soon she sighed, eased her brow, and passed
me the cornbread.
Ma was no ordinary woman. She loved me in her way, but
a war seemed to be forever waging inside her, a war I couldn't
Granny Struthers, who lived near the bend in the run,
told me that Ma was raised at Ashland, a big tobacco plantation
in North Carolina, the only child of a well-to-do planter.
Ma was just ten when her mother died in a buggy accident. A
spooked horse ran wild, throwing the buggy against a tree, ripping
the seat apart and crushing Grandmother. Grandfather
shot the horse in the head and beat the driver, an old family
slave, near to death. After that he gained a fearful reputation
with a whip among the slaves, men and women alike. Granny
Struthers figured Ma suffered most for losing her mother at
such a tender age, but vowed Marcus Ashton may as well have
followed his wife to her grave for all the love he gave his
daughter after that.
Ma had missed out on family but she'd had everything else
in this world. Granny Struthers said Ma grew up talking the most
proper kind of southern English and spreading a host of silver
spoons and forks beside her dinner plate. She'd been waited on
and fussed over by slaves every day of her life. Even Ma said that
falling in love with Pa in his military uniform at a Washington,
D.C., ball was the first thing she ever did by herself.
But Grandfather wouldn't take a Massachusetts man for
his daughter, not even a West Point graduate. He feared all
Northerners were "dyed-in-the-wool abolitionists." Still, Pa was
smitten, so he wrote to Isaac Heath, a family friend in Maryland,
asking for a job. He left West Point and Massachusetts
both and took the foreman's job at Laurelea, about halfway
between his home and Ma's. Then Grandfather swore Pa was
no better than a deserter and dirt farmer, living low. Ma ran off
and married Pa anyway. Grandfather disowned Ma, swearing
that he was no kin to any Yankee abolitionist and that the day
she set her slippered foot off North Carolina red clay soil was
the day his only child died. When I was born Ma wrote her pa
a letter, begging him to come. He never answered.
That's when Ma settled in at Laurelea. Miz Laura and Aunt
Sassy took her under their wing, taught Ma how to cook and
get along the way regular folks do. Even so, Ma bristled around
anybody of color. She hated being taught how to do by Aunt
Sassy. I figured it was just the way she was brought up, owning
slaves and all. But sometimes her ways shamed me in front of
William Henry and Aunt Sassy. I knew her ways shamed Pa,
who'd had to learn a new way of life, too. Sometimes, he took
little patience with her.
Granny Struthers told me all this one day when I stopped
to see her for herbs for Miz Laura's garden. Granny Struthers is
no real kin to me. She's William Henry's granny for real, Aunt
Sassy's ma. Granny's as black as the crow that flies, like William
Henry. She has a way of knowing things that folks don't speak
outside their four walls, and of what's on a person's mind before
he speaks it.
The mantel clock bonged seven-thirty. Supper was long
cleared. I'd finished filling the wood and kindling boxes, and
hauled water for morning. Daisy hadn't liked that I was so late
milking her, and let me know with a sharp crack of her tail
against my cheek. I'd skimmed the cream for Ma and set the pail
to cool in the springhouse. My chores were finally finished.
Sleepy summer sounds of wood thrushes and night owls
drifted low on the evening breeze. A Carolina wren sang its
lullaby. I stretched long on the hearth rug, my hands locked
behind my head, and stared up into the beams of the ceiling.
Pa tamped his pipe, lifted his heavy black Bible off the shelf,
and sat down by the west window so the light could find his
page. Ma folded her mending and placed it square in the basket
at her feet. She pushed a pesky curl, the color of chestnuts
just ripened, from her forehead, closed her eyes, and gave herself
over to listening.
I never minded the evening read. I loved the music in Pa's
voice when he took up the Book. Words didn't sit still on the
page in black, block letters for him like they did for me. They
leaped into the night sky, casting shadows among the fire
dancers, conjuring battles and bloody sacrifices. Long, treacherous
journeys, spoils of war, and riches beyond anything I
could imagine in daylight played through the air while Pa read.
Excerpted from William Henry IS A FINE NAME
by CATHY GOHLKE
Copyright © 2006 by Cathy Gohlke.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.