The Henshaw family moved to the wild country of DeSoto County, Mississippi with the departure of the Chickasaws in 1836. They farmed the rich land, hunted the rivers and streams, and struggled against slave robbers and outlaws. They were aided by their fast friend Push-pun-tubby, a member of the Chickasaw nation who had remained behind after the migration of his people to Oklahoma.
Push was a wise man in many ways. He took young Herndon Henshaw under his wing, becoming to him a special friend, mentor, and spiritual guide in many sojourns into the wilderness.
Almost as soon as he became an adolescent, Hern fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a neighboring family, friends of the Henshaws since older days in Limestone County, Alabama, from which they all had come to Mississippi. The couple had a beautiful courtship before they were separated by circumstances they failed to control, until it seemed unlikely they would ever meet again.
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By Maury M. Haraway
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Maury M. Haraway
All right reserved.
Chapter OneApril, 1844.
One afternoon in the spring when he was nearing five years of age, Herndon Henshaw saw a movement within the depths of a large copse of shrubs at the edge of the yard. He walked over and peered into the darkness of the shrubs but was unable to locate the source of the movement, so he got down on hands and knees and crawled slowly into the shrubbery. The canopy was thick and closed so that the shaded floor of the copse was open soil covered with a light sprinkling of long-fallen leaves. Across the open chamber beneath the ceiling of leaves, among the supporting pillars of the shrubbery trunks, he saw a rabbit. The rabbit seemed to be an extraordinarily large one. Hern sat down to watch it.
The animal was only ten feet away and was looking directly at him, yet instead of running away, it took three small hops toward him and continued to look at him calmly. Within the dim light of the shaded chamber, its liquid, deep brown eye glowed softly and seemed to extend inward to a great depth. The guard hairs of the rabbit's coat stood in splendid separation, individual and vibrant as though each had its own life. They shone with a light that seemed not merely reflected but immanent, generated from within. The entire creature seemed the center of a palpable energy field that radiated its force like the rays of sun shining out from behind a cloud.
As Hern sat enthralled with the first rabbit, a second just like it hopped forward from the depths of the chamber and kept coming until it sat beside the first. It, too, seemed perfectly calm in its nearness to Hern. The atmosphere around Hern seemed charged and alive with energy emanating from the rabbits, the shrubbery trunks and leaves, from the very soil around him. The world had become a place far more strange and exciting than he had experienced before, though his previous experience had seemed extravagant.
He felt now that he could crawl over and touch the rabbits, feel their soft and vibrant fur, look more closely into the depths of their liquid eyes. They sat looking as he approached, as calm as before, and he believed they would sit for him, that they had been changed from wild animals to his friends by a transformation of the surrounding world. He felt the usual rules wouldn't apply anymore. Yet the relations of predator and prey are ancient and iron clad and felt with special acuteness on the prey side of the issue, and though the animals allowed him a close approach and only hopped away, finally, in a calm and leisurely manner, but hop away they surely did.
Hern didn't mind their leaving but recognized it, instead, as the proper outcome of the adventure. Regardless of the strangeness and depth of this new world of infinite things, there was nowhere wild rabbits could afford to let people come up and take hold of them. Hern said none of this to himself–indeed, throughout the episode he had said nothing whatever to himself–yet he understood it implicitly. He looked around the chamber once more in the vibrant light, then turned and crawled back into the familiar dooryard that would never again seem quite so ordinary.
It was in the fall of that same year that Hern first realized he was going to die. Not that he would die in the next few days or weeks or even years–but he was going to die just the same, and there was no way he could avoid it. This was a terrible revelation to him. He had lived previously with an implicit sense that he would go on living forever. The realization that he would not was a cold and harsh blow that he felt in his stomach with a keen sense of sadness and loss.
Hern didn't remember just what had happened to start the process, but he began thinking about dead animals. He knew he was a young person, but already he had seen many dead animals in his life. He also knew he had heard his parents speak of loved family members who had died. These facts came together in his mind to evoke a simple act of logical deduction–a simple deduction, but surely the most complicated and far reaching of his young life. Animals died. This seemed to apply to all animals. It made a rule. People were like animals, and people died, too. All people. Including him. He examined the thoughts that brought the conclusion of his coming death, and he could find no escape. He was hesitant to believe it and hoped somehow it was not true. Yet he knew it was. He could feel the certainty of that truth in the pit of his stomach. The knowledge was almost devastating.
He wandered the yard in desolation, hesitant to leave the field a loser. He longed for a reprieve from condemnation. But he knew none would come. Still he waited, until he could gain a degree of control over his dejection and heartsickness. He didn't want Mama to see him so distraught when, outwardly at least, it seemed that nothing at all had happened. Yet he knew very well that a huge change had occurred in his understanding of life and the world.
He asked Mama about it, hoping somehow his conclusions could be wrong, yet she had to confirm them, instead. At least she took his concern seriously, was gentle, sympathetic, genuinely saddened by his grief at the discovery. She told him not to worry about it. That everybody died, and it was alright. And when they did die, they could go to heaven to live with God forever. And that she just knew he wouldn't die for a very long, long time and so needn't worry about it for a long, long time. And needn't worry about it even then because of God taking his soul home to heaven.
Hern felt much better after talking with Mama. He believed everything Mama told him. He realized Mama and Pa knew they were going to die, yet they bore up to it with no trouble. They seemed immensely powerful to Hern. They could do anything they wanted. They seemed to control so much about the world they lived in. Hern could hardly imagine becoming a being as powerful as Mama and Pa. If beings as powerful as that could stand as they did in the face of death, then Hern didn't mind trying it, too.
He felt better about his own death after that, although he thought about it from time to time. He no longer had the sick feeling in his stomach at the thought. But having expressed to himself the knowledge of his parents' impending deaths, he began to have dreams based in his unwillingness to be parted with them, his fear of their loss, his sadness over their demise. In his dreams, Mama was lost somewhere in the woods and no one could find her. He knew something no one else knew that could save Mama, but he could never remember what it was. Or Pa was out swimming in a lake and he was about to go under. He was going to drown and only Hern could save him. Hern started into the water. He knew he was going to save Papa. Then he realized he couldn't swim, that after all he could really do nothing.
These dreams troubled Hern for only a year or so, then faded away. His personal concerns about death had faded much sooner. Yet from time to time throughout his childhood, in his waking thoughts and in his dreams, he returned to the revelation of the world he had discovered with the rabbits in the chamber of the shrubs.
Chapter TwoJuly, 1856.
Hern awoke in his bed in his father's big log house at the farm in Center Hill. His brothers Bob and Ben in the bed across the room and his sister Lisa in the adjoining bedroom still slept. On the other side of the house, his parents had just awakened and were getting dressed. It was early daylight and nearing sunup.
Hern had grown rapidly in the past four and a half years, since he was twelve, and he now stood just over five-foot ten. He was compactly but strongly built. His face was attractive, and although his prominent nose fit in nicely with his other features, it kept him from being conventionally handsome. He had a firm chin creased with a sharp cleft. His hair was light brown and wavy, and his hazel eyes were bright and lively–the sort sometimes described as being full of the devil.
He dressed quickly and went out to the kitchen where Aunt Lucy was rolling-out biscuit dough and preparing to cook breakfast for the family. Aunt Lucy was a large woman, though not tall, and had pleasing features that looked capable of warm affection. She had been a house servant to members of the Henshaw family for over forty years. Along with the other Henshaw slaves, she had moved here with Mitchell Henshaw and his wife from Limestone County, Alabama more than two years before Hern was born.
"Good morning, Aunt Lucy," he said. "Sure looks like a fine day coming in."
"That it do, Hern," she said, "You's up mighty early this mawnin'."
"Guess I was restless this morning to see the whole day from the beginning," he said. "What are you fixing for breakfast?" he asked.
"We 's havin' scrambled eggs and bacon, biscuits and grits." she answered. "Don't you be wanderin' off so far you misses it, you hear?"
"I'll be here for it, alright," he said.
Hern reached into the cool cabinet on the far side of the room and fetched a pitcher of milk, poured a glass and drank it, and went out the back door toward the barn.
"See you later, Aunt Lucy," he called back. "Don't be burning those biscuits."
"You hush up, child," she called after him. "I ain't study'n' you no further."
The sun was just about to come over the horizon and the sky was covered over with the warm, yellow-gold light of a dawn in early summer. The robins that had been singing loudly when Hern awakened, and as he dressed, had stopped now and been replaced by the redbirds. Three different males, already glowing a deep rich red in the early light, were singing now from high branches of trees around the edge of the open yard surrounding the house. The birds were evenly spaced about the area so that they were almost equidistant from one another, like three points of a triangle.
Hern walked down the slight slope from the house to where the big barn stood above the creek on level ground. George was in the milking parlor at work, halfway through with milking the four cows, as it was his early job to do every day. George had a pleasant face and a pleasant disposition. He was a small man, more narrow than broad and rather short of stature, but he was very strong even so, and was easily the most productive working man on the place.
"Morning, George. How does everything look to you this morning?" Hern said.
"Mawnin' Mr. Hern. Hit look 'bout the way it do ne'ly every mawnin' this time of year. How it look to you?"
"Why, I think it must be one of the finest mornings I ever saw, George. Looks like you've still got two cows to go. What do you say I 'tend to Mollie for you and you can finish up early?"
"I say that'd be mighty fine, Mr. Hern, mighty fine indeed. You got to watch Mollie 'bout bringing up that right foot an' kicking over the bucket." George said.
"I remember, George, but thanks for reminding me, anyway.
"George, I don't see why you need to call me Mister Hern. Just plain Hern suits me alright. You've known me since I was a baby, might say you had a good part in raising me to where I am now."
"I know, Hern, but you's almost a man now and it's proper I should be calling you Mister. Don't make much diff'ence down here in the barn, just us, but if we was to be out someplace where there was folks around, hit wouldn't sound right was I to call you Hern 'stead o' Mister Hern. I best be gettin' in the habit now. Hit won't make no diff'ence between us no way. Maybe it won't never make no diff'ence." George said.
Hern pulled a short milking-stool over to Mollie and slid up under her right side. He washed down her udder with a damp cloth, positioned his bucket, and started milking. He liked the sounds of the keen streams of milk hitting the empty bucket as he squeezed and noticed that George's bucket had stopped ringing and was producing instead the soft, foamy sound of a bucket that was half-full. Hern liked the smells of the milking parlor, smells of the cow's feed, the cows themselves, the fresh milk, even the dried and not-so-dried manure George had raked up next to the wall. It was a place Hern always liked to be, especially early in the morning when George was at work.
After a while, Mollie tried to kick at the bucket with her right foot, but Hern was ready for her and casually blocked her with his right leg.
"These biscuits are sure good this morning," Bob said.
"I got up early and made sure Aunt Lucy didn't burn them," Hern said.
"She don't never burn 'em anyway," Bob said.
"Say doesn't ever burn them, Bob, not don't never burn 'em," his mother Elise said.
"Yes'm," Bob said, "but she doesn't ever."
"That's much better," his mother said. She was a very pretty woman, beautiful in a friendly and warm-spirited way, and the boys adored her, as did her husband. She had light brown hair that was almost blonde, and very warm, deep brown eyes. Mitchell Henshaw was a well built man about six feet tall. He had strong features, with eyes of a deep blue and hair that was pure black.
"Bob took the last piece of bacon, Mama!" Ben said. He was five years old and the baby of the family. "He already ate three pieces and I didn't get but one."
"It's alright, honey. You go out to the kitchen and see if Aunt Lucy didn't hold some back. She knows how you boys are."
"Well Bob always takes more than he should. He always gets more than I do," Ben said.
"Bob is bigger than you are and maybe he's growing faster," his mother said. "You go on out to the kitchen, now, and see if Aunt Lucy doesn't have something for you."
* * *
Hern and his brother Bob rode over to Olive Branch in the early afternoon to attend the Fourth of July celebration. There was a big crowd of folks gathered in the town square, everyone dressed in their nicest clothes. There were tables set up with sandwiches and fried chicken and pies and cakes. People were gathered around punch bowls, and there was a politician giving a speech to a small group over near Mr. West's general store.
Bob went over to get some fried chicken, and Hern stepped up to one of the tables to get a cup of punch. A striking young woman stepped forward out of the group at the punch bowl; she walked with apparent purpose right toward Hern. She had chestnut hair and big brown eyes. She was coming right for him, alright.
"Why Mr. Herndon Henshaw," she said with a brilliant smile. "I don't believe you even recognize me."
"Please forgive me, Miss Madelyn," Hern managed to say. "I guess I'll have to admit I didn't recognize you for a minute, there. The last time I saw you, you were a little girl and now you're all grown up into a fine lady."
"Why, thank you, Mr. Henshaw. But I dare say you've changed more than I have. You must be a foot taller than when you last visited us at Robertson's."
"Well, this is fine. I'm so happy to see you again, Miss Madelyn. Tell me, how are you doing? Are your family all well, may I ask?"
"Yes, we're all fine, thank you, and may I say I hope yours are the same?"
"Yes ma'am, thank you, they are," Hern said.
"Isn't this a fine celebration, Mr. Henshaw? I'm so glad I came."
"Yes ma'am, I'm mighty glad you came, too. May I ask if you would have a cup of punch with me?"
"Why, thank you, Mr. Henshaw. I think that would be very agreeable, indeed."
"What's the matter with you, Hern? You act kind of distracted," Bob said. They were back on their horses, just starting on their way back home to Center Hill. "Who was that lady you were talking to, anyway?"
"That was Miss Madelyn McCall," Hern said. "She lives over at Robertson's Crossroads. I hadn't seen her since Pa and I stopped at her house to visit a couple of years ago. She was just a little girl then. She and I walked around her Pa's place some and threw bread crumbs to some tame ducks in her pond. That's about all I remember about it. She was just a little spit of a girl."
"Well she ain't a little spit of a girl any longer," Bob said. "Seems to me you were looking at her kind of funny. Come to think of it, you been acting funny ever since."
"I was surprised to see her, that's all. I was surprised to see how much she's grown up."
"Well I think there's more to it than that. Say, you ain't gettin' stuck on her already are you?" Bob said. He had a big grin on his face.
"Don't be foolish, now, Bob. I only talked to her a few minutes. I was just being neighborly and polite."
"That's what you say. And what I say is it might not take you even that long to get stuck on her," Bob said, still grinning.
Excerpted from Center Hill by Maury M. Haraway Copyright © 2011 by Maury M. Haraway. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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