Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mizz Emmy's Sixteenth

The day had dawned with the startling blue of a clear mid-August mountain sky. There was no breeze and the air was hazy. Days like this, everything seemed out of focus. You could barely make out Hall’s Top Mountain rising just over the treeline. The haze made everything fuzzy and soft.

But there was something different today and Mizz Emmy seemed to sense it with that extra sharpness that some pregnant women have. She saw a bird that morning she’d never seen before fishing in the creek. It looked like a cowbird with a feathery white beard. No birds sang and the crickets were strangely silent. Summer was usually a noisy time in the mountains. You noticed it because the winter was so silent. So silent that you longed for the summer days that were filled with the sounds of exploding life. Then, just as the winter days and the ice and snow seemed more than a body could bear, the frogsong started and you knew the whip-or-wills wouldn’t be far behind.

Mizz Emmy sat on the wide front porch of the blue house on the little hill by Big Creek fanning herself. She took a long drink of icy cold spring water just brought up from the spring house. Her oldest girl had just put the two-year old twins down to nap with the one year old. So this was a rare opportunity to rest.

Lord, she thought, the heat were about to kilt her. Mid -August sure did seem the dog days.

A handsome field of burley tobacco stretched out across the road and she admired the broad leaves starting to turn the color of a gold pocket watch. Nothin' much purtier than that color she thought dreamily. In a few days it would be about time to gather the children and go stake the tobacco. Hopefully she could sit this one out, she thought, as the baby kicked her from her insides. This baby, her sixteenth, was about ready to come into the world.

She leaned back in her porch rocker and dozed for a bit, her belly straining the fabric of her cotton house dress.

“Rider, coming! Rider, coming!”, came the shout from down the road where her Jimmy was fishing by the old wooden foot log. His shouting jolted her out of her doze and she rocked herself a few times to get herself out of the chair. She braced her hands on the small of her back and waited.

She could hear the sound of the horse coming fast. It was the waltz-like cadence of a racking horse moving swiftly and efficiently. She saw her Jimmy running fast on bare feet coming around the curve and the rider followed soon after and passed him.

The big racking horse came to a jarring halt in front of Mizz Emmy. She recognized the boy who had been running messages up from Hartford all summer.

“Hey, Jason…what news?”

“Storm comin’ Mizz Emmy. Big storm!” The boy panted out breathlessly.

Mizz Emmy cocked her head and knitted her brow. It wasn’t like they didn’t have storms all the time here.

Jason seemed to sense her puzzlement.

“No! Mizz Emmy …H’it’s one’s real bad. They sents me up to warn you’un’s on the creek. It’s a big ‘Cane, Mizz Emmy. And it’s headed this way!”

Her Jimmy finally made it up to the porch. He bent over and rested his hands on the knees of his overalls and panted.

“Did ja hear, Mama?” He panted out. “Big, big storm comin’…hail and rain!”

Emmy looked up into the clear blue and strangely quiet sky. Then out at the vulnerable tobacco crop. It didn’t seem possible that such a thing could happen.

“Jason,” she said, “You git along…I know you have more stops to make up the 15th. I need’s to figure out what to do.”

The boy set the horse off at a punishing clip, splashing across the creek.

Mizz Emmy grabbed Jimmy and gave him a little shake. “Listen here, I need you to git your Daddy and bring him down here. Tell him what’s goin’ on and to gather the stakes from the barn. I’m going to call in everyone and we got to get that ‘baccy staked now. We’ll like to lose the whole crop if we don’t.”

Jimmy nodded and took off running up to the north pasture where he knew his Daddy was working on the cow pond.

Mizz Emmy lumbered into the house and grabbed her rifle. She stood on the porch and shot the three blasts that signified “Trouble! Come quickly!” Then she sat down to wait.

Her oldest daughter came out at the sounds of the gunfire.

“What is it, Mamma?” She said. “Do I need to fetch Granny?”

“No child,” Emmy said, “We need to stake the tobacco. There’s a storm comin’.”

Her daughter frowned. “I’ll get changed.” She said, and went back into the house to put her dungarees on.

“Little One,” Emmy said to her belly, “Looks like you are going to need to wait a while longer.”

Soon her entire clan was gathered around her. With the nine children ages six to fifteen, plus herself and her husband, they would have a work crew of eleven. This should be enough to get the tobacco staked before night fall.

The family set off to work. It was tiring, back-breaking labor, driving the stakes in, then wrapping the leaves around the stalks with twine. The nicotine from the raw leaves seeped through their hands and made everyone headachey. But the family pulled together swiftly and surely, driven on by the specter of the oncoming disaster.

They were about midway through the field when the sky started to change. Everyone tried to pick up the pace, even little six year old Jimmy. But Emmy could feel herself slowing down with the weight of her belly making her back scream in pain. Yet she kept going.

The thunder started sounding in the distance when the field was three-quarters staked. It was about that time that Emmy straightened up and felt her water break. She staggered slightly and two of her daughters rushed to her side.

“Momma!” One of them cried. The two girls hovered and little Jimmy stood by nervously watching.

Emmy grabbed a piece of burlap and laid it on the ground. She hunkered down and the newborn girl just seemed to slide right out of her like an otter on a snowbank. The lightning flashed with menace and lit up the baby girl in an eerie glow.

Mizz Emmy picked up the baby and put her to her breast, tucking the small snippet of life inside her dress.


“Yes, ma’am?” The child answered in a soft voice.

“What you reckon this storm is called? Did he tell you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jimmy said. “He said h’it were named ‘Camille’.”

“Well, then. Looks like this one already come with a name. This is your little sister.”


Miss Emmy finished staking the row she was working on, before going in the house to lie down and wait out the storm.

(Hurricane Camille hit in mid-August, 1969. It was credited with 259 deaths, mostly in the Southern Appalachian region where she caused torrential flooding.) Please read the companion piece to this story on Feministe called "What it was like...".


  1. Tara said...
    She didn't cut the cord?
    Rosie said...
    How the cord was handled was not mentioned to me in the telling of the I just stepped over that when fictionalizing it. "She put the baby to her breast and just kept on working."...was what I was told. Of course, we don't cut cords when goats or calves are born. Aside from the bleeding that occurs when you cut the the umbilical cord, it creates a conduit for bacteria. So we tear it if it doesn't break during the drop. Then you dip it in strong iodine to prevent something called joint ill. I don't know how the "grannys" handled it but I imagine they tied off the cord then did something similar to what we do with baby livestock. I imagine Emmy might have just left the cord to deal with when she got back in the house where there was less danger of infection.
    kazari_lu said...
    Wow Rosie, this is amazing.
    My dad grew up on a tobacco farm. He tells of a woman disappearing at lunchtime to have her baby, but still turning up to finish the day's picking.
    Of course, he would never have known the details.
    CLD said...
    I absolutely love the stories! Thank you so much for sharing them with us. This one made me laugh out loud at the ending. Great story-telling.

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