|This was a term that was unfamiliar to Julie. I wonder what’s wrong with Dale, she pondered. Dale was her favorite person, outside of Nell. Dale always welcomed her into her tiny cabin on the other side of the hill. Sometimes Julie’s ramblings took her in the direction of the cabin, and she would stop and eat the bowl of bread and milk that Dale always had on hand. At other times, she would go directly to Dale’s house just to talk, knowing that she would be given something to eat. Dale’s house was best in winterthen she would usually have something cooking on the stove sending the smell of food steaming through the two rooms. Whatever she had, she shared with Julie. Dale loved the child, this child who had ignorant and uncaring parentsnobody to care for herand it broke her heart to see Julie wandering in the wintertime without enough clothes to keep her warm and without enough solid food to put flesh on her frail body. So at every chance she shared what she had. And sometimes the food that Julie ate was the only food in the house. But Julie never knew that.
Nell finished what she was doing. “I’ve got to go back to the house now,” she said, “before Mama gets mad at me. You want to play with me now?”
“Naw,” said Julie. “I think I’ll go down and see about Dale. Can you play this evenin’?”
“If I don’t have to help Mama,” said Nell.
Julie carefully skirted Nell’s house and made her way down the other side of the hill leading to Dale’s.
The black woman had seen her coming and was waiting on the porch to greet her as she came up the path. “How’s Julie this mornin’?” she asked as Julie carefully placed her feet on the sawed portion of a tree trunk that served as the step to the porch.
“Fine,” said Julie. “Are you sick?”
“No, Honey, I’m not sick, why you ask that?”
“Well,” said Julie, as she entered the tiny cabin through the door held open by the woman. “Nell says you ain’t washin’ for them no more, and that she can’t come down to see you ’cause it ain’t proper.
“Oh, Honey,” laughed Dale, “don’t you worry your little head about that. Miss Ella New is just on her high-horse again! If everything in this old world was made to fit Miss Ella, it sure would be some world!”
“But she said yesterday that Nell couldn’t come to see you!”
“’Course she can!”
“But Miss Ella said she couldn’t!”
“Oh, Miss Ella’ll come off that. She’s just puttin’ on one of her shows. She just ain’t got ’nough money to pay me right now, so she’s just sayin’ that she don’t like me so’s she’ll have an excuse for havin’ to do her own work for a while.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Cause she thinks she is some high-born lady, and she ain’t supposed to get her hands dirty doin’ no work...”
“But my mama does her own work...”
“Honey, there’s mamas and there’s mamas. Ain’t nothin’ alike in your mama and Miss Ella.”
“But Miss Ella is real smart...”
“What you mean, smart? There’s worlds of difference in smart and smart. Now you take Miss Ella--she may be smart in that she can read books and talk good and things like that, and you think she’s smart because your mama can’t. But you listen to me, your mama may not be smart in things like Miss Ella, and your mama may not do a lot of things you would like for her to do, but where it really matters, your mama is real smart She don’t stop you from doin’ a lot of things that lets you learn. She may not help youshe may not can help youbut she lets you learn by yourself. And that’s learnin’ the hard way, but it’s good learning ’cause you won’t forget what you learn when you get it like that. No, don’t you ever wish your mama was like Miss Ella. You the lucky one, girl, to have the mama you got. It’s Nell you ought to be feeling sorry for, ’cause she ain’t gonna have the chances you’ll get...”
“But, Dale, Nell’s got ever’thing!”
“Cept a chance to learn by herself! Now, here, sit by the table and I’ll find us somethin’ t’eat.” Dale puttered around the stove and came back to the table with two bowls filled with steaming broth.
At the sight of them, Julie’s mouth watered. “What is it?” she asked.
“Oh, just a little old fox squirrel that’s been runnin’ around that scaley-bark tree down in the pasture. He makes a fine stew, don’t he?”
“Sure does!” said Julie as she ladled a spoonful of broth from the bowl to her mouth.
“Whoa, there,” said Dale. “Didn’t you forget something?”
“Yeah,” said Julie. “I’m sorry...I forgot.”
“Okay, now bow your head and let’s give the good Lord His due. Remember, if He can take care of us, we surely can remember Him a little bit.”
Julie bowed her head and listened attentively as Dale reverently mumbled the message that had been taught to her in childhood. She finished and picked up her spoon. “Dale, why do you always say Him?”
“What you mean?”
“Well, ever’ time you pray, you always call God a ‘Him’. Is God a Him?”
“Couldn’t God be a woman, Dale?”
“Ain’t no way!”
“Why not.....if you can’t see Him like you say, how do you know?”
“But how do you know?” the child insisted.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” said the woman. “Did you ever notice how hard I work and how hard your mama works? Well, sir, a man goes to work, sure, but a man comes home and rests. Now, a woman gets up in the morning and cooks breakfast, then she works all morning, and then she cooks dinner, and then she works all evenin’ and then she’s gotta cook supper. And even then her work ain’t done, ’cause she’s still got to wash the dirty dishes before she gets through. And that’s not even countin’ the other things she has to do before bedtime. But whatever else she’s gotta do, she’s gotta stop and cook.”
“But what’s that go to do with whether God’s a man or a woman?”
“Well, Honey, just thinkit’s as plain as the nose on your face. Ain’t no woman gonna plan a world where ever’ day starts with cookin’ a meal and ever’ day ends with cookin’ a meal! No, sir, God sure ain’t no woman!”
“Well, I guess not, Dale, but whatever He is, He made good squirrel!” responded the child as she emptied the spoon into her mouth.
“Yessiree,” said Dale, “Squirrel is the one thing I miss most since Tom passed. He used to keep us pretty well in squirrelsand rabbits, toobut since he died they’re gettin’ kinda scarce around here. I can take his old rifle and hunt as much as he did, but I just don’t have the eyes he had, and it’s hard for me to see a squirrel until the leaves have fell off, and by that time they’ve mostly gone into their nests for the winter.
“Couldn’t you just shoot into the nests?” asked Julie. “Looks like you’d hit one for sure if you shot into the nest.”
“Now, Julie Mathis, I’m plumb surprised at you. All of God’s little ole creatures has got to have a fightin’ chance at livin’. And what chance would this ole fox squirrel had had if I was just to shoot into his nest? As much as I wanted to cook him, he had to have a chance, too. Uh, uh, I couldn’t have eaten him if I had killed him in his sleep. But I knew if I waited long enough under that tree, he’d come out sooner or later and I would have my chance at him. I got’m, too!”
“He sure is good,” said Julie, as she pondered the wisdom of her friend.
“Finish eatin’ your stew, and we’ll go out and gather up some of the limbs that fell off the pine trees and make us a fire,” said Dale. “It’s getting’ a little chilly today.”
“Sure is,” said Julie. “I got cold comin’ over here.”
The two sat quietly, eating the nourishing broth. Dale finished first and took her bowl and spoon to the dishpan to wash them while Julie gleaned the last morsel from her bowl.
“Come on,” said Dale as she finished putting away the dishes. “Let’s go get that wood.” They crossed the yard to the edge of the clearing and began picking up the small twigs and branches in their arms. “Grab a handful of them dry pine needles, too,” said Dale. “We’ll need them to get it started since I ain’t got no coal oil.” Arms loaded, they retraced their steps toward the house.
“Dale, why we gatherin’ up these limbs when you got wood cut in the rack by the chim’ley?”
“Them’s big logs to go on after the fire is started. Ain’t no way to get a big log goin’ ‘less you start a little fire first. I’ll put one of them on in a bit.”
They entered the cabin and emptied their arms on the hearth. Dale carefully piled the needles in the center of the firebox, added the small twigs and branches, and, reaching to the mantel above her, selected a wooden match. She scratched it on the sandstone side of the fireplace and touched it to the needles. A small blue flame rose and gently lapped the twigs until they, too, caught and began burning. Dale watched it for a moment, decided it was going to burn, and went outside for a larger piece of wood from the rack. She added the log to the fire. She took a patchwork quilt from the foot of the bed and placed on the floor in front of the fire. “Let’s rest here for a while,” she said, patting the space at her side.
Julie stretched out beside her and lay watching the flames. The warmth from the burning logs and the fullness of her stomach made her drowsy, and she soon fell asleep, snuggled in the softness of the quilt.
Dale saw that Julie was sound asleep and rose to resume her housework. Several times she quietly added fuel to the fire without disturbing the child. The afternoon passed.
“Julie, Honey, you oughta be wakin’ up now.” Julie rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “It’s the middle of the afternoon; you best be getting’ home now.”
“Oh, Dale, I was sound asleep!”
“You been sleepin’ a long time...you gotta be runnin’ along.”
“Okay,” said Julie, “but I sure do like to come down here to see you. Can Nell come with me next time?”
“Sure can,” said Dale, “Anytime she wants.”
Bettye Galloway was born, reared, and educated in Oxford, Lafayette County, Mississippi. She has now retired from Mississippi state service (primarily the University of Mississippi) and as executive vice president of a drug testing laboratory.