Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Little Men

They started showing up when I hit my thirties. They may have been there before and I just failed to notice them. Suddenly, they would be there. Creeping up on dirty, bare feet; cutting glances in my direction; shy, they were, like small, feral creatures in the snow.

"What'cha doin'?"

Sometimes they brought gifts. Bull frog tadpoles in jars, deer skulls or other assorted bones, fresh trout just caught, ducks just shot or rabbits and animal skins. I have graciously accepted these offerings and let them watch as I placed the tadpoles in small porch aquariums to mature, proudly displayed the bones, cleaned the fish and dressed the game and birds. The latter would sometimes include an anatomy lesson.

"See that? You don't want to cut's a bile duct and it's connected to the liver. You have one inside you too!"

They would come by bike, by foot and once in a while on horseback. Sometimes they timed their entrance to the start of the barbecue grill. Sometimes they came with questions, sometime tears and sometimes to rescue me.

I've always called them my army of little boys. Puck's friends. My little men.

I don't know why they came. I have no idea what it is about me that draws 9 to 13 year old boys to my doorstep. There was one girl once. She was a corn-rowed tomboy with sickle cell. She would arrive on her bike with the rest of the gang wearing a backwards baseball cap and a snaggle-tooth grin. Some days she wasn't there. She was in the hospital.

When I lived in Columbia, I was in graduate school. My hours were irregular and involved long nights at the theatre. So I would be home during the day when the latch-key gangs of the Olympia neighborhood were running wild in the streets. Before long, every one's Mom had my phone number so they could call their wayward offspring home.

"Is he over there bothering you again?"

"'s okay. He's just cleaning out the tadpole nursery. Do you need me to send him home?"

"His dinner's ready."

"No problem...I'll see that he heads out right away."

Olympia was a really cool neighborhood. It was an old textile mill village with wonderful old homes dating back to the turn of the century. Most of the original people who settled there were from the Appalachians. You can find these mill villages all over the eastern seaboard. Folk from the mountains would leave in droves to work in the textile mills. Most would work through the cold winter and return home to "make a garden" in the spring. This is a fairly common story heard here. Sometimes entire families would go. Children as young as five were put to work in the mills doing dangerous things that only quick small fingers could do.

Sometimes they lost those fingers.

Most of the families here in Grassy Fork have some sort of mill heritage. Some stayed behind and settled permanently in the mill villages. These people were called "lint heads". The term started as a pejorative but now, it has been reclaimed. It's rarely used in a negative sense anymore. The interesting thing is that no matter how many generations removed from the mountains, the people who stayed seemed to hang on for dear life to their Appalachian heritage. These villages for a while, before gentrification, were little oasis' of mountain culture plopped down in the middle of major cities.

If what happened to me in Olympia had not happened, I would have gladly stayed there.

I really loved it there; my mill house looking out over the abandoned mill, my lint head neighbors, Granny Wilson with her purple hair and feral chihuahuas and my army of little boys.

Two of them, brothers, were frequent visitors. Ryan and Jeremy. Ryan was of the age where he would excitedly relate stories that I'm sure, his mother would rather not have spread around.

"Miss Rosanne! Guess what WE did! Momma an' me...we went over to her ol' boyfriend's know...the really mean one? We slashed his water bed and like went ever'where!"

The mill house they lived in was catty-corner to mine. The yard decorations were simply wonderful. For a while, a toilet graced the front yard with one of those little fishing boy statuaries seated on top of the tank and fishing into the bowl of the toilet. I thought it inspired. They hung sheets in the trees for Halloween and you never knew what was going to show up there at Christmas.

One day, as Jeremy was walking with me and my dogs, he got a quizzical look on his face.

"My Momma, she says you're a 'dite'."

I cut my eyes at him. I could tell he was confused.

"So Jeremy. Do you know what a 'dite' is?" I asked, repeating the mispronunciation.

"Well, sure!" he replied with a bit of false bravado. "I've got lots of friends at school who are boys and there's nothin' wrong with that."


I really loved my life there. I loved those people.

When I moved here, a new crop started coming up to visit. They would show up with pellet guns and bare feet. It always amazes me how the mountain children can run and scamper over the sharp rocks. I forbade them to come on the property without shoes. It took a few times to get them to obey. I still have projects that little boys like to help with. Building a rabbit trap just like the one my grandfather built for me. Holding lengths of wood steady while my circular saw rips the wood. Tending to newly hatched chicks or bottle-feeding baby goats. Gigging frogs in the pond.

It's an army of one right now. Only one amazing helper, Adam. Adam at 11 can start any two cycle engine capable of starting. He has climbed down the cliff to retrieve dogs and goats. He's helped me run fences. He's a great kid. It seems sometimes that he's carrying around a very old soul.

As I said, I have no idea what draws them to me. Perhaps it is because my own interests, my simple pleasures, have remained fairly juvenile. I enjoy gigging for frogs. I like building rabbit traps and the breathless anticipation each day as you check them. I love a walk in the woods with my .22 hunting squirrels with my dogs or fishing in the creek. I like to go down to the creek on the hottest day of the year and swim in the ice cold water. Finger painting is fun and ever so sensual (remember the squishy feel of the tempera and that amazing smell?). These things still hold great pleasure to me. I still like doing the things I liked doing when I was 10. Except eating paste. I gave that up.

Just as mysteriously, they vanish. Like the litter of possums I hand raised, they disappear into the woods of young adulthood, clambering over the fallen leaves of their experiences. Sometimes, as with Ryan and Jeremy, I never hear from them again. I can only hope that some gift from me goes forth with them. I sometimes wonder where they are. If they are on some lonely desert fighting for their lives. If they have enough to eat. How many times has their heart been broken.

I'll never know. It is my way to walk softly in this world.

But sometimes...sometimes...I hope rather desperately that they still like to watch tadpoles grow into frogs.

1 Comment:

  1. Anonymous said...
    ... wow... what an excellent tale....


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