IT WAS A BRIGHT morning in early April. Birds were chirping and singing in the shady trees. A barelegged ten-year-old girl came out on the front porch. She watered the plants in the lard buckets there. She picked off a dead leaf or two.
“Ma!” she called. “The pink geranium’s a-bloomin’. Come see it. Hit shore is purty!”
Mrs. Boyer came out, drying her hands on her apron.
“Come down here, Ma, and look,” begged the girl.
The woman came down the steps and stood at her side. The girl’s brown hair was braided in two braids, looped up. Her eyes were big in her pointed face. She looked much like her mother.“Ain’t them right purty, Ma? I jest got to come out first thing in the mornin’ and look at ’em.”
“Purty, yes!” agreed her mother. “But lookin’ at posies don’t git the work done.” She hurried back up the steps.
“Did I get some blue paint and paint the lard buckets, Ma, they’d look a sight purtier, wouldn’t they?”
“Blue lard buckets!” laughed the woman. “Never heard of sich as that!” She disappeared in the house.
The girl took up a long broom made of brush—branches from a tree—and swept the yard clean. Its hard smooth surface felt good to her feet. Then she knelt in the path and began to set a row of bricks at an angle, to make a neat border. “I’ll plant my amaryllis bulbs in the flower bed right here,” she said to herself.
She stood up, her arms akimbo.
“Land sakes, somebody’s comin’!” she called. “Ma! Callers!”
“Law me!” cried Mrs. Boyer, peeping out. “The Slaters! And my breakfast dishes not done.”
The girl stared at the little procession.
Mrs. Slater, tall, thin and angular, carrying her baby like a sack of potatoes on her hip, was followed by the two little girls, Essie and Zephy. Some distance behind, as if curious yet half-unwilling to be one of the party, came a lanky twelve-year-old boy wearing a broad-brimmed black felt hat. The woman and children plowed the loose, dry sand with their bare feet. With each step forward, they seemed to slip a trifle backward, so their progress was slow. Bushy scrub oaks and a thicket of palmetto grew on the far side of the rough path, while a forest of tall pines rose in the distance.
The old Roddenberry house was not old enough to deserve to be called old. It had been built in the 1880’s, the earliest type of Florida pioneer home. Deserted by the Roddenberrys after the Big Freeze of 1895, it had stood empty for some years, but showed few signs of neglect. The sturdy pine and cypress wood which had gone into its making were equal to many more years of Florida sun, rain, wind and heat.
The house was a simple one, but by backwoods standards a mansion. It was a double-pen plank house, with an open hall or breezeway in the middle. On one side was a bedroom, on the other the kitchen. Behind were two small shed rooms used for sleeping quarters. Wide porches spread across front and back.
The Slaters approached the picket fence timidly, staring with all eyes. Mrs. Slater opened the gate.
The girl in the path spoke first.
“Hey!” came the feeble response.
The girl tipped her head and smiled. “My name’s Birdie Boyer,” she said. “Come in and see Ma.”
She led the way onto the front porch and across the breezeway. The boy did not come in.
“Can I borrow a cup o’ sugar, ma’am?” inquired Mrs. Slater.
“Shore can!” said Mrs. Boyer heartily. “Ary time you need somethin’, you call on me and welcome. That’s what neighbors is for. Mighty nice to be near enough for neighborin’.”
They sat down stiffly. An awkward silence fell.
“We had sich a heap o’ work to do, to git this ole place fixed up,” began Mrs. Boyer. “We ain’t what you might call settled yet. Them Roddenberrys …”
“They got froze out in the Big Freeze,” said Mrs. Slater. “They went back to wherever it was they come from. All their orange trees got bit back to the ground by the frost. Ain’t no use messin’ with oranges here. Hit’s too cold in the wintertime.”
“But the trees were seedlings,” said Mrs. Boyer, “and they’ve come up again from the roots. When we git ’em pruned good and the moss cleaned out, they’ll make us a fine grove.”
“I got me a orange tree,” said Birdie, “’bout so high.” She raised her hand to a height of about three feet. “I planted a bunch of seeds from an orange once. This seedling was the strongest—it come from the king seed. We brung it along with us and I planted it where the water drips from the pump. Soon I’ll be pickin’ my own oranges!”
“Yes, soon we’ll be pickin’ oranges to sell,” added her mother.
“To sell?” asked Mrs. Slater in surprise.
“Yes, ma’am. We’re studyin’ to sell oranges and strawberries and sweet ’taters and sich and make us a good livin’.”
“Sell things? Messin’ with things to sell?” said Mrs. Slater. “Then you’ll purely starve to death. Why, nothin’ won’t grow here in Floridy. The only way we-uns can git us a livin’ is messin’ with cows and sellin’ ’em for beef.”“We’re studyin’ to always have us a few cows too, and cowpen the land. We git real benefit from our cattle, usin’ ’em for beef and fertilizer, and for milk and butter too,” said Mrs. Boyer.
“Why, them scrubby little ole woods cows don’t give enough milk to bother with milkin’ ’em,” laughed Mrs. Slater.
“Where we come from,” said Mrs. Boyer slowly, “we feed our cows.”
“Feed ’em!” Mrs. Slater laughed a shrill laugh. “With all the grass they is to eat? Where you folks come from anyway?”
“We come from Marion County last month,” said Mrs. Boyer. “We come there in a covered wagon from Caroliny ’bout ten year ago.”
Silence fell. Mrs. Slater’s girls stared, tongue-tied, at the new girl.
“What’s the matter with ’em, ma’am, they don’t talk?” Birdie asked their mother.
“Ain’t nothin’ the matter with ’em but meanness,” snapped Mrs. Slater.
Birdie took the little girls by the hand and led them out to the back porch. Here, her little brother, aged two, was playing in the water in the basin on the wash-shelf. A comb hung by a string from the porch post.
“What’s that?” asked Essie, pointing.
“What—this? Why, a comb!” exclaimed Birdie. “Lemme comb out your hair.”
“We ain’t got us a comb, but Ma uses a shucks brush sometimes,” said Zephy.
The two little girls sat down on the top step. Birdie began to comb out their short, straggly hair. Combed smooth, it looked soft and pretty, curling up at the ends. In the bright sunshine, it shone like warm, glistening silver. Birdie brought the washbasin and washed their thin, pale faces. Their features were fine, their eyes blue as cornflowers.
“What’s his name?” asked Essie, pointing to the little brother.
“Robert, but we call him Bunny,” said Birdie. “We all got us pet names. My big brother’s name’s Bihu, same as Pa, so we jest call him Buzz. My other brother’s Daniel Alexander or jest plain Dan. My big sister’s Dixie Lee Francine—we call her Dixie. My little sister’s Dovey Eudora—we call her Dovey or Dove—she’s asleep now. Me—I’m Berthenia Lou, but Pa calls me Birdie, ’cause he says I look like a little bird. Sometimes he calls me his little wren.”
The lanky boy had ventured round the house and now stood staring.
“What’s your name?” asked Birdie.
“Jefferson Davis Slater,” he said gruffly.
“Purty good name,” said Birdie.
“All but the Slater,” said the boy, biting his lips.
Was he ashamed of his family? Birdie wondered. “What they call you—Jeff?”
“Naw. Shoestring—’count of I’m so long and thin. Never couldn’t git no fat to my bones.”
“Shoestring!” laughed Birdie. “That shore is a funny name!”
“Shore is!” agreed the boy, smiling. “I answer to Jeff, too.”
Birdie took the mirror off the nail in the wall and held it in front of Essie. “See how purty you look!”
The little girls had never seen a mirror before.
“Oh!” they exclaimed. “Lemme see me in it!” They stuck out their tongues at their reflections and laughed.
Shoestring sat down. Birdie reached over and ran the comb through the boy’s tousled black locks. Soon she encountered snarls. “Rats’ nests!” she cried, jerking.“Ow-w-w!” cried Shoestring backing off. “Don’t you dare rake me with that ere currycomb no more!”
The comb and mirror were not the only wonders. When Mrs. Boyer showed Mrs. Slater over the house, she exclaimed: “Sich fine fixin’s you-all got!”
“They got a bed-kiver on their eatin’ table, Ma,” said Essie.
“Hit’s a table-cloth,” explained Birdie.
As Shoestring stared at the red and white checks, his face turned sullen. Then he burst out: “Guess oilcloth’s good enough for anybody.”
“I mean!” sniffed his mother.
Mrs. Boyer took down a pretty flowered plate from the shelf.
“Don’t bother to show me no more of them fancy things,” said Mrs. Slater, backing away. “Guess we seen enough of your fine fixin’s. Guess we know now how biggety you folks is, without seein’ nothin’ more.”
“But, ma’am,” begged Mrs. Boyer, “I didn’t mean no offense.”
The Slaters marched out through the breezeway without further words.
Mrs. Boyer quickly filled a cup with brown sugar and ran after them. “Here’s the sweetenin’ you come to borrow, ma’am!”
But Mrs. Slater did not turn back or offer to take it. Down the path she strode, her baby squalling and bouncing on her hip, as she dragged the little girls along. Shoestring stalked behind, his hands deep in his overall pockets.
“We got some right purty-lookin’ plants,” cried Birdie desperately. She pulled off a geranium slip and ran after Mrs. Slater. “Hit’s a right purty pink, this geranium is, and Ma’s got a Seven Sisters rose …”
Mrs. Slater shoved the gate open. It had an old flatiron hanging on a chain for a weight. It closed behind them with a loud bang. The Slaters plowed the sand with their bare feet and vanished in the palmetto thicket.
Birdie went back to her mother, who was standing on the porch. She looked at the cup of sugar in her mother’s hand and the geranium slip in her own.
“Reckon we can give ’em to her next time she comes,” she said.