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I grabbed the scrap pail and the egg basket and shouldered my way outside. The back door slammed behind me with a satisfying “bang.”
“Ireta!” Mama called. I knew what she was going to say, so I mouthed the words along with her, but I did it so she couldn’t see. “Don’t slam the door!”
“Yes, Mama,” I said agreeably.
As soon as Henry and the girls saw me flinging the scrap bucket onto the hard, dry ground, they came honking and waddling over. My brother Cal said they were just a noisy bunch of dumb geese, but that’s because he didn’t know them like I did.
Estella and Honey Bun were moving so fast, their wings were flapping like schooner sails. When they passed Nibbles, she tried to take a bite out of Estella’s wing. Estella scolded her as she flapped on past. Lula Ray was, as usual, the last one to arrive.
Henry was flapping and tapping his big yellow feet back and forth, trying to guard all the choicest pieces before the girls could scoop them up. I watched as they bobbed their long necks down into a graceful curve, like a bend in a river, as they chuckled and gobbled up the scraps. Henry finally got wise and started snatching morsels off the ground as fast as he could, shoving the girls aside and asserting his position as leader of the gaggle.
I laughed and started doing a two-step around the geese. As I danced, I began to sing the song that Cal had brought home. When Mama heard him singing, she gasped, “Cal! Wherever did you learn that awful song!” So I paid especially close attention to the words.
“Take your lady by the hand, lead her like a pigeon,” I sang, “Make her dance the weevily-wheat ‘til she loses her religion!” Lula Ray started flapping along behind me, singing along in her deep-throated honk. Mama didn’t like the song, but it was so funny to have the geese waddling and honking along behind me that I couldn’t help myself. It was their favorite, so I sang it again. Before I was done, all the geese were doing their awkward goose-dance steps behind me. Henry was the last one, having to make sure there were no scraps left before he would join the parade. So there we were, laughing and chattering, skipping enough to kick up puffs of dust in the scruffy yard.
“Ireta!” Mama called. My feet stopped dancing and my shoulders slumped. Had she heard me singing the scandalous song?
“See you later, giggle gaggles,” I said as I trudged toward the house. Mama didn’t have her hands on her hips, so I thought maybe I was safe about the song.
“Where are the eggs?” Mama asked, looking at the empty pail and basket in my hands.
“Didn’t get them yet,” I mumbled.
Mama shook her head and clucked her tongue. The geese made a noise like that, too, but when Henry or one of the girls did it, it looked like they were laughing. There was no trace of humor on Mama’s face.
“You need to be more serious and get your work done on time,” Mama said. “Now I’ll have to go to Aunt Elsie’s by myself.” I dropped my eyes to the floor. It’s not that I really minded not going to Aunt Elsie’s. She was old, smelled funny, and expected me to sit still with my hands folded in my lap. But Mama was giving me a punishment, so the least I could do was to act suitably sorry.
“When you finally get your chores done, you need to wash these plums,” Mama continued, pointing to two buckets full of fat, purple fruit.
“Yes, Mama,” I said in a small voice.
“And see that you do it,” Mama said sternly. Then she marched out the door and was gone.
I had told Mama before that I would rather work outside with Pa than have to be inside doing the cooking and cleaning and washing. But she’d said that’s what Cal was for, and I was for helping her in the house.
I swung my basket all the way to the barn. Henry and the girls were taking a dip in the pond. I watched Honey Bun do a nosedive into the water, waggling her tail in the air until her head popped back up to the surface. Nibbles bent in close to Honey Bun’s face to see if she’d come up with anything good.
One thing I really liked about those geese was that they understood me. They never told me to be quiet or settle down or mind my manners. In gratitude, I adamantly refused to let anyone in the family talk about having a goose dinner. That is precisely why Cal brought it up all the time.
As Pa pointed out, the geese were very good at keeping rattlesnakes away, so Mama was more than willing to keep them in the yard and off the dinner table.
I searched for nests in the scant, musty hay. I knew Pa would be clearing this out soon to make room for the new hay that was standing in the fields.
I did a really good job hunting eggs, if I do say so myself. Maybe when Mama saw how many eggs there were, she’d let me take one down to the general store to trade for some candy.
I hurried into the house and slammed the door behind me, swinging the egg basket into the kitchen. When I saw the plums that still had to be washed, the smile melted off my face. The egg basket in my hand reminded me that maybe if I did a good job, and got it done by the time Mama got back, she’d be in such a good mood that she’d be sure to let me have an egg!
Cheered again, I set the egg basket down on the table and picked up a bucket of plums. I had to use two hands while staggering outside to the well pump. Positioning the bucket in just the right spot, I worked up a good flow of water. As it pulsed through the faucet, it spilled into the bucket, soon overflowing it and rolling a few fat plums out onto the ground in a lumpy purple waterfall.
With the water added to the plums, the bucket was now so heavy that I couldn’t lift it, not even with two hands. I cocked my head to one side and looked the problem over. I hated the idea of picking each plum out of the bucket, one at a time. That would be tedious. I didn’t like little picky jobs. I liked chores that were either fast or fun. The very best ones were both.
I flapped my apron up and down as I thought of what to do. If I could only get the water off the plums without dumping them out and having to pick them up again. Besides, once they’d been on the ground, I’d have to wash them again, one by one. I think I’d rather walk on rocks in my bare feet.
Then I had an idea. I could poke a hole in the bottom of the bucket. That seemed like a really good option. I started to look around for a nail or tool that would make a small hole for the water to escape, leaving the plums all together and clean, besides.
I imagined Mama coming home, smiling with delight at the whole bucket of plums, clean and shiny wet. Then, in my imagination, she dumped out the plums and discovered the hole. Her smile dissolved into a frown, and there were no eggs for me to take to the store.
At last I decided that the punishment was worse than the solution I had come up with. A hole-in-the-bucket lecture could ruin the whole rest of my day. Now I was twisting my apron in agitation, thinking so hard for another idea that was as good as the hole in the bucket.
Maybe if I left it where it was for a while, the geese would get done swimming and come over and eat the plums off the top. Then it might be light enough that I could carry it.
I looked hopefully at the geese in the pond. Estella had her head under her wing, fluffing her feathers with her busy orange beak. Henry was paddling like a fat canoe, heading for something I couldn’t see on the far side of the pond. Nibbles was upside down, her orange heels breaking the surface as she searched for something as good as Honey Bun had found. Honey Bun and Lula Ray stepped out onto dry land, shaking their tail feathers in a shower of sparkly water drops.
No, I decided. Mama would notice if the bucket wasn’t full when she got home.
Maybe Cal would carry it for me. But he was out with Pa in the fields. Even if he wasn’t, I didn’t think he would have done it anyway. Not unless I promised to do his chores for the rest of my life.
I was getting impatient. The situation was getting serious. I sighed and bent over to dump the bucket out. I guess there was no helping it. I’d have to pick the plums up off the muddy ground and re-wash them one by one. There was nothing else to do.
But as I bent over, my apron fell forward and dipped itself into the water. Annoyed, I started to bat it away, but then the perfect solution suddenly jumped into my head.
“Glory be!” I said as I pulled off my apron. I laid it over the top of the bucket and tied the strings around to hold it on. Then I tipped the bucket over and watched the purpley water push out through my bulging apron onto the ground. It worked!
I tipped the bucket back up and draped my wet, purple- spotted apron over the pump. With two hands I hauled the clean plums back into the house, and brought out the second bucket.
I was so proud of myself when at last I had two buckets of wet plums sitting side by side in the kitchen. I had done what Mama asked, and before she got home, even. Then I surprised myself and put the eggs away. She hadn’t even asked me to do that.
I was waiting outside when Mama came rattling up to the house in the buggy with two baskets beside her. “What have you got?” I asked, climbing up to see.
“Aunt Elsie gave me these old preserves,” Mama said, handing me a basket full of jars wrapped in rags.
“If we already got some preserves from Aunt Elsie, why do we have to make more?” I asked.
Ma climbed down from the wagon. “These are spoiled,” she said, “We have to empty and wash these jars, then we can use them for the plums.”
My happy mood slumped. Washing jars was boring. And Mama was real particular about getting every little speck washed out of every single jar. The rest of the day loomed ahead of me, long and weary.
“Did you wash the plums?” Mama asked, creasing her brow as she looked at me sternly.
“Oh, yes, Mama, I washed every one!” I smiled at her, delighted that I had done my part.
We each carried our baskets full of spoiled preserves onto the porch. I was glad Mama had taken the bigger basket. I was almost dropping mine.
Mama stepped into the house as I set my basket down. “Ireta!” The tone of her voice warned me that she was displeased. What had I done this time?
I walked into the kitchen, anxiously looking for the scene of my “crime.”
“Do you call these washed?” Mama asked, pointing to the plum buckets. The lovely wet shine had dried, leaving the plum skins looking dull and dusty.
“Yes!” I said earnestly, “I carried them out to the pump and filled the buckets with water, then I strained it off with my apron. I washed both buckets. I really did, Mama!”
Mama looked at me and sighed. “I meant for you to wash them one at a time and pick off the stems and leaves,” Mama said.
“Oh,” was all I could think of to say.
Mama was quiet for a minute. I bunched my shoulders together in case she was going to scold me.
“I’ll do the plums,” she said at last. My heart lifted a little. I looked up into Mama’s face. Her chin was tilted down at me, her eyebrows raised, and her eyes were too serious.
“You, young lady,” she said, apparently forgetting that I hate being called that, “will empty the jars and wash them out.” Mama dumped a bucket of plums into the washtub. A drizzle of water followed them, pouring over the purple skins and making them shine again.
“See, Ma?” I said, pointing at the trickle. “I DID wash them!”
“Yes, you tried,” Mama said, dumping the other bucket of plums onto the first. “Now dump the old preserves in these buckets. And take care not to break any jars.”
I took the buckets in my hands and trudged outside, forget- ting to slam the door on my way out.
As I worked the clamp wires off the hefty lids and poured the reddish-brown preserves into the buckets, I could smell a sharpish, moldy smell that still held a vague scent of fruit.
I splashed water into the jars as the sun soaked my back with warmth, and the spraying water kept the insects off me. All in all, since there was no getting away from it, I was glad to be doing the outside job instead of inside sorting all those plums from the leaves and stems.
When Mama called to me, I carried the wet jars piled on top of a basket of rags. I had to make another trip for the rest of the jars and the other basket.
Ma and I sat and wiped jars. I don’t know how she thought of it, but Mama started talking about her childhood. She told me how she had caught and thrown snakes at a boy that she liked. She used to tie knots in her sister’s hair because it was longer than hers and she was jealous. She told me about the first time she’d made a pie, and the crust was as tough as a board and even the dog wouldn’t eat it.
I was laughing so much that the jars were wiped clean before I even knew it. I was surprised when Pa and Cal came in for supper.
“What happened?” Cal asked, staring at us as though we’d told him we were going to Sunday Meeting in nothing but our shifts.
The intensity of his face was disturbing. I couldn’t think what he could possibly mean, but I felt compelled to give some sort of answer. I held up a jar. “We washed jars,” I said in a small voice.
“Who killed the geese?” Pa demanded, stomping up behind my brother.
The geese? My heart thudded with sudden dread as I jumped up, the jar knocking loose from my hand as it hit my chair. It crashed to the floor.
Mama didn’t even look at me. “The geese are dead?” she said.
I ran out the door, and then stopped as though a rope tied to my heart had jerked me back. Henry and the girls were all lying still and silent around the water pump. I could tell right off that they weren’t just sleeping. Their heads and necks were splattered with dark red blood, and they were lying much too still. And not a single beak or webbed foot so much as twitched when I yelled, “Nooooo!”
The invisible rope snapped, paining my heart as I broke free. I reached Honey Bun first and scooped her up in my arms. My eyes were so blurry from tears that I couldn’t locate the wound that had done her in. But as my arms pressed around her middle, I noticed that she was fatter than she had been that morning. The pickings from the pond must have been good today. At least my Honey Bun hadn’t died hungry.
With a sob, I laid her back down and checked on Estella. She was dead, too. Henry, Nibbles, and Lula Ray were all on the other side of the pump. As I headed over to them, I thumped into the old preserves bucket with my foot. It was empty. Only smears of reddish brown lined the insides.
I picked the bucket up and turned to face my wide-eyed family who had all followed me out.
“They were poisoned!” I said, my voice kind of loud in my own ears, “They ate Aunt Elsie’s bad preserves and died!”
Pa took the bucket from my hands and Mama folded me into her arms. Even Cal mumbled, “Sorry, Sis,” as I cried and cried and cried.
When I was finally done, Pa had laid Henry and the girls out in a respectable row upon the ground.
“At least they all went together,” Cal said gently. I nodded in my misery.
“Ireta,” Mama said gently, “I know that you loved those geese, and you took very good care of them. Now that they’re gone, I wonder if you think they would like us to have their feathers to make some pillows to remind us of them always.”
“You want to pluck them?” I said doubtfully.
“Yes,” Mama said. “They don’t need their feathers any more, and we do.” Mama took hold of both of my hands. “They were so fond of you. Don’t you think they would like you to snuggle up with their feathers every night?”
As I got used to the idea, it did appeal to me. I could still have part of my friends close to me. “Yes,” I said.
In the graying evening, we set to work pulling the feathers out of my former friends. When Pa stripped off Henry’s thick, cloud-soft breast feathers, a muffled honk sounded from
Henry’s beak, no louder than a sigh.
I sat straight up. “He’s alive!” I said, “Pa, did you hear that?
He’s still alive!”
“I’m sorry,” Pa said sincerely, “It’s just the gas escaping his
“What gas?” I asked as my heart fell into my feet.
“The rotten preserves built up gas inside their bellies, and
it comes out a little bit at a time as we pull on the feathers and open their airway.”
“Is that why Estella felt bigger to me?” I asked.
I sat in quiet contemplation. Pa finished with Henry and
laid him in a wheelbarrow. I was bothered by the sight of my de-feathered friends. “I hope that at least they died quickly,” I said, jumping up and running into the house.
I slept restlessly that night. I kept chasing geese and dancing with pigeons. The next morning I woke up to an exclamation from Mama’s mouth. “Well, glory be!” she said, as though she couldn’t believe it.
I sat up and looked around. There was nothing unusual in the house. But Mama was looking out the window, the curtain pulled back with one hand, her other hand resting on her heart.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Come and see,” Mama said, not taking her eyes away from the window.
Rubbing my eyes, I climbed out of bed and made my way to Mama’s side. What I saw made my eyes almost pop out of my head. I must still be dreaming. This couldn’t be real. Five naked geese were waddling around the yard, snapping at flies and any grasshoppers that were foolish enough to cross our boundary.
I pulled open the door and rushed outside. “Henry!” I called, “You’re alive!”
Henry looked expectantly at me, but didn’t see any scrap bucket in my hand, so he ignored me. He waggled his few remaining tail feathers and turned his attention back to hunting insects. Lula Ray and Nibbles were working their way toward the pond.
“Pa! Pa!” I called out, “Some of the girls are headed for the pond, and without their feathers, they can’t swim!”
Pa came running out behind me, his shirttail flapping, and headed the errant girls off their path of self-destruction. “Open the barn door!” he called.
I managed to find several sharp rocks with my bare feet as I hurried to the barn and swung the door open. The geese were scattering in front of Pa, seeming to be confused about what he wanted them to do. Estella seemed embarrassed by her condition and kept heading for the undergrowth at the edge of the yard.
“Take your lady by the hand,” I sang, not looking at anyone but Henry, “Lead her like a pigeon.” I started a little two-step with my sore feet. “Make her dance the weevily-wheat ‘til she loses her religion,” I finished loudly.
Mama had her hand to her mouth, but Henry and the girls were there at the barn door, looking expectantly at me. We always sang the song twice. I backed into the barn, singing the song a second time. Henry and the girls followed, Estella keeping to the shadows of the barn walls, Lula Ray dancing her awkward goose-step, which looked even funnier without any feathers on. Henry proudly waggled his few remaining tail feathers and honked politely for the scrap bucket.
At around the turn of the Twentieth Century, a gaggle of geese that lived at the house next door to Ireta Stevens gobbled up some old preserves, feasting on the sour, fermented fruit until they were passed out dead drunk. Their owners thought they were really dead, and could see no reason to waste the lovely soft feathers. Ireta was there when plucking the birds caused them to make small grunts or honks, but the family figured it was just the fermented gas escaping from their bellies. Since the tragedy occurred so late in the day, the geese were laid in a wheelbarrow for disposal the next morning.
When they got up the next day, everyone was surprised to see that their “dead” geese had sobered up overnight and were now running around the yard, naked except for a few tail and head feathers! Without their feathers and natural oils to keep them afloat, the geese could easily drown, so they were locked up in a shed until their feathers grew back again.
The weevily-wheat song was sung in the 1800’s and was not always approved of by sober minded-adults.