From When You Live by a River:


When you live by a river, you never ask what’s the worst that can happen. You’re always on watch—not on edge, but on watch, like standing around a cow or a workhorse, if you’re what Mama calls a big-animal person. On account of their size, you stay alert, but easy too—not like small-animal people or what she calls city: lurching between too nervous and too carefree. The river, the East Branch, was just a tributary that most of the time meandered along at her own slow pace, here and there soaking a few fields and leaving behind a layer of silt. But any moment she could rise up and show herself to be mighty, what Reverend Sims called the doings of the Lord, but what I called, being only fifteen, All-That-Ain’t-Me.

Digger, who I first knew as Uncle Willis, said I called it that because I was young, still thinking I was the center of things. He was forty-one years old and called it the World, but not the world you step over. He said the word hushed, like it was holy, his hand rising each time. He meant the World you’ve got to respond to, the World that comes and shapes your life and everyone else’s. Even though Digger was a man of religion, quoting out of the Book, he didn’t see eye to eye with Reverend Sims and wouldn’t go to church. He said the reverend treated God like One Big Holier-than-thou Shine who blinded out everything else. And Digger’s God didn’t shine. He stepped right in with the others: the river when it moved mighty, the World all hushed, and what Digger called death: God speaking.

Digger was a river person. His farm where he lived his whole life lay along her west bank for nearly half a mile. And even after he’d fall asleep sitting in his chair, he could hear the smallest sound. The dog would start up and I’d go to the window thinking maybe the water was rising, and he’d say, almost part of a snore, “Ain’t nothing but some field mouse gettin’ killed.” And there I was acting city. But I had just moved there, three days after God spoke and Digger’s wife, Aunt Addie, died.

We—my sisters and me—were called hill girls in school, everyone who lived up from the bottomland was hill. And we lived all the way at the top of Mary Smith Road in what was named Orson Hollow for the family who died there from the Spanish flu in 1918. A year later my parents moved in, and my mother, already with two young children and large with her third, scrubbed floors, walls, and ceilings with scalding water and alcohol and laid out on each windowsill a jar-top of sulfur to burn every night for a month.

They always said up there in the hollow, there were three stone for every dirt. But we always added on to the number when we worked, three stone for every dirt, then four stone, and soon, after an hour of hoeing, we were up to eighty-seven, eighty-eight stone—we never got much higher, though, we’d stop and take a drink where we kept water under a maple. There were maples everywhere, sprouting up even out of the stone walls lining the fields. And though that meant we always had a load of syrup, like everything maples made you pay. In a hard year, the corn shriveled up near the walls because the maples’ shallow roots kept the dirt on either side dry as the stone.

Farm’s so poor, Uncle Osmer would joke when the family got together for Christmas—everyone except Daddy who had gone off logging—farm’s so poor, grasshoppers need a knapsack to cross it. My uncles would laugh every time, like Osmer made it up new right then. And even after they were only chuckling a bit, if anyone repeated, farm’s so poor, that’d be enough to start them all up again, and most times, I couldn’t help laughing too. But the joke was on me, farm’s so poor was the main reason my mother gave me to Digger.