Laura Hunter

Hard as a Rock

Imagine a stick-sized child, maybe five, with feathery brown hair. She wears a dress made from a standard McCall’s pattern: puffed sleeves, gathered skirt, Peter Pan collar and a bow tied in the back at her waist. She meanders about in the yard of her Aunt Macie’s neighbor Boots, waiting, while her mama visits inside.

This day, like any other Virginia summer day, begins cool and lightens late as if the sun has trouble climbing over the encircling mountains. It is warm, but not Alabama hot. It will cool again in the evening, and the little girl will don a sweater and nuzzle next to Aunt Macie until the two fall asleep.

A shallow river ropes around the block where clapboard houses sit on what appears to be a narrow jetty that juts into the river. Summer after summer of visits and the child accepts the stench of sewage and mud as natural. It is the only river she knows. She could crawl down the embankment to the water. She could wade and hop from rock to rock. She could watch tadpoles scamper and fish fight against the current. But she does not go there. Her grandpapa says if she gets back in the river she will fall into a sinkhole and never come up. Or giant grey river rats will drag her under and eat her alive.

The little girl circles Boots’ house. Nothing hints at a child ever having been here. With nowhere else to go, she sits on a back wooden step and surveys the yard. Nothing to see but scant grass clumps and river rock stacked against the base of the fence to keep neighbors’ animals from digging in.

Here at Aunt Macie’s over 500 miles away from Alabama, she has nothing to play with.  At home the child has dolls, puppies and chickens. If she were home, she would scrape up some pine straw, stack it in flat, thin rows and build a playhouse where she could sit in each area, room by room. She could envision tables, chairs, beds, tea services, mud pies and baby dolls. But there are no pine trees. Nothing but an occasional maple tree and rocks. Smooth, round brown river rocks. Rocks the size of softballs.

As she sits, it comes to her. A row of rocks will make a sturdy wall. Boots has so many. She will not mind if the child borrows a few.

***

It is decided. She will scoop up her dress like a sack, fill it with rocks, carry them down the block and across the street. She will build a playhouse in Aunt Macie’s front yard. It may take several trips to get enough for a full house, but time is not a matter.

The first trip goes well. She dumps the rocks outside the fence at Aunt Macie’s. Her grandpapa watches as he swings back and forth on the porch. He stops from time to time to spit his snuff into an empty tomato can.

On the second trip, the child realizes the rocks are rubbing dirt off on her dress. She brushes it off as best she can, but she can work again at getting the dirt off after she finishes her loads.

Between loads two and three, the child takes time to block out one room with a door that anticipates another room. No doubt, this playhouse will outshine any pine straw house anywhere. Her mama will not complain because copperheads cannot hide under these curved rocks like they do under straw.

Mama will be so proud.

Back for her third load, the child busies herself packing her skirt again.

Boots’ back screen door opens, and her mama demands to know what she is doing.

“I’m making a playhouse out of rocks. See. They’re round. Snakes can’t hide under them like pine straw.” The little girl smiles.

“Put those rocks back,” her mother demands. “Put them back right now.”

“Leave her be, Margaret,” says Boots. “It’s just old river rock. There’re plenty more. Let her have them.”

“She’s got no business bothering somebody else’s stuff. Dump that skirt, girl.” Her mama starts down Boots’ steps.

The child drops the rocks and bends to put them back in place. Looking back to the two women, she says, “I’m sorry, Boots.”

“No apology needed, child.”

***

Margaret drags the child by her arm down the street. Her mother’s face fires red when she sees the room the child has made. Her grandpapa swings and nods his head. Brown snuff smudges his gray beard like dirt.

“Go inside and get the belt,” her mother says.

“I didn’t take the rocks. I borrowed them. Boots said it was okay.” The child walks backwards toward the porch trying to convince her mother she has not earned punishment.

When she steps up on the porch, she eyes her grandpapa, a silent question asking for help.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child. Proverbs 13:24,” her grandfather answers. He pauses to spit.

Coming back with the leather strap dragging behind her, the child tries again. “I didn’t steal the rocks, Papa. I was going to take them back.”

“Thou shalt not steal. Exodus 20:15. That’s what the good book says.” He continues to swing.

“Don’t sound like a good book to me. Not when it won’t listen to the truth,” she murmurs to herself.

Her grandfather stops the swing and leans forward as if he is about to tip out on the floor. “Blasphemy,” he shouts. “Daughter. You remember the number. Five lashes. For defiling the Bible.”

The child hands the belt to her mother.

“Hold that tree till I’m through,” Margaret says.

By the third strike, the child has an imprint of bark pressed into her cheek. By the sixth, she weeps aloud. The little girl has pee dribbling down her legs, stinging the strips left by the belt.

Ten lashes and the mother stops. She lets the belt fall. “Change your underpants and take every one of those rocks back and apologize to Boots.” Her mother sighs as if exhausted.

The child dries her face with her skirt. Streaks of dirt stripe her cheeks. She continues to cry from the pain in her legs and squats to dab at the sliced skin with her dress.  She hiccups from loss of breath, but she fills her skirt again with rocks. She wipes her nose and face on her forearm.

***

At Boots’ back door, the child struggles to hold her skirt with one hand while she knocks with the other.

Boots appears.

“I’m putting your rocks back, Boots. She says tell you I’m sorry I stole them. I won’t do it again.”

“It’s okay, baby,” Boots answers.

The child moves over to the fence base, bends forward at her waist and begins to unload her skirt.

Behind her, Boots gasps.  “Oh my God,” she whispers.

The child tugs her skirt down in the back so Boots can no longer see the welts and cuts that crisscross her legs. She squats like a small calico hen, her dress draped over the ground, and begins placing the rocks in their original dents. One at a time.

From the back porch, Boots watches the child’s labor.

The child returns with another skirt filled with rocks. She crouches into a small mound, her brown hair falling over her face and shoulders.

As mountain shadows move across the yard, Boots stands motionless.  Chilled air settles over the valley.  In the gathering darkness, Boots finds it more and more difficult to distinguish between river rock and Margaret’s daughter.

#

Laura Hunter, born in the Alabama hill country of Walker County, lives outside Northport, Alabama. She began writing in her mid-50s and has short stories published in the anthologies Belles’ Letters, Climbing Mt. Cheaha and. Magazine publications can be found ALALITCOM, Crave Magazine, Explorations (Univ of Alaska), Birmingham Arts Journal, Marrs Field Journal (Univ of Alabama) and Seven Hills Review. Her poetry appears in Beyond Doggerel and Ordinary and Sacred as Blood. She also publishes creative non-fiction as a freelance author, most recently in Longleaf Style magazine and in Motif: come what may. Hunter has been recognized on local, state, national and international levels for her work. Her writings reflect the perseverance of the downtrodden, those individuals who refuse to give up, even against extreme odds.