Our first task was haying, with scythes. If you know what you're doing, and if you can keep the blade razor-sharp, and if your back is strong, you can mow a lot of hay with a scythe. A few years later I learned the skill from an old Irishman who had learned it in the old country, but then I was wholly ignorant, as were Paul and Momo. Nevertheless, we shouldered our scythes and went out to the Big Meadow. We must have tried every possible way (except the right one) to swing a scythe, and each one had as a consequence the jamming of the tip into the ground every few strokes. We'd bend it back and try to sharpen it (another skill we did not have), and then go at it again. In the end we cut a fair amount of hay. It was hauled to the barn in an old buggy, Momo in front steering (the easiest job, naturally), Paul and I pushing. Do you need to be told that Momo treated us to "work songs" as we labored in the field?
Woodcutting was the next big job. By now I was much more proficient, and we went at the work systematically. I would make the undercut with an axe, Paul and I would fell the tree with a crosscut saw, the three of us would limb it with axes and swede saws, Paul and I would saw the trunk into blocks, and Momo would split them while Paul and I cut up the limbs on a saw buck. Since we were felling in an area near the road, we would stack everything at roadside to be picked up in Paul's station wagon at noon and hauled to the woodshed. Momo was the only flaw. To split the big blocks he used steel wedges and a fourteen-pound sledgehammer - not for him the six-pound splitting maul. I didn't care what he used, but staging the grand wallops, hammer raised high overhead, was apt to result in near misses and broken handles. Since it was always broken near the head, I'd saw off a few inches and refit the shortened handle, but I could do that only so many times before I'd have to fit a new handle. During the winter I had taught myself to carve serviceable white ash axe handles, but the production of durable maul handles, able to withstand heavy shocks, eluded me. I also had some used truncated handles in the shop. Momo broke every one several times, and I could foresee the day when I would have to go to the store in the village and buy a handle - and another and another. They cost a dollar in those days, but by then all our money was gone, every penny of it. Going to town every few days to buy a new handle (with money borrowed from Paul) so Momo could flail around in the woods with a sledgehammer, all the while roaring out Pete Seeger ballads, didn't fit my idea of the Simple Life. That day had not yet come, but it loomed.
With the exception of haying, an all-day job, we worked only in the mornings. Afternoons were given over to study for Paul and me, and of course I had gardening and other chores, like refitting sledgehammer handles. What was Momo doing, you ask? In his role as Revolutionary Artist he was writing seamless imaginative fictions for the enrichment of Proletarian Culture. As a writer myself, I envied the speed at which Momo could turn them out, but even more I marveled at his self-assurance. How much doubt I endure, how many difficult choices I must make, how much crossing-out and rewriting I must do, how many drafts have been used to kindle the kitchen stove! Not Momo. Clackity-clack, clang clang, and another smasho manuscript was reeled from the typewriter ready for us to peruse, for we were all expected to read and make admiring comments (all beginning writers, including myself, subject their friends, relatives, and even passing strangers to this ordeal). The pretense was that we would criticize the stories, thus helping him to improve them, but when I pointed out that his first effort, "The Socialist Mayor of Danville," lacked the finer touches of verisimilitude when the main action of the plot depended on small-town voters electing as mayor a man whose only campaign pledge was the recognition of Red China, the resulting sulks lay heavy on the household. We bought peace after that by heaping on praise. Even on the tale in which Momo and his guerilla band attack a nest of fascist reactionaries in the Vermont hills only to discover, with mingled surprise and contempt, as Momo enters the wrecked farmhouse, BAR in hand, that it is his old mentor Jigs Gardner he has had to kill. Jo Ann's corpse lies across the kitchen sink. Ha ha. Very good, Momo. Terrific irony. Love the ambiguity, boffo surprise, keep up the good work.
Oh, I could tell you stories - but I'll forbear. To get the feel of the atmosphere, keep this in mind: Momo whipped off those dreadful creations in no time at all, just as you or I might do a grocery list. The sound of the typewriter haunted us. I recall one afternoon when Jo Ann and Paul and I were in the raspberry patch at some distance from the house, but we could hear the infernal machine. Paul looked up at the open window. "God! How I dread that sound!"
We had a funny visit one evening from Fred Brown (whose truck was stuck in the ditch in the fall) when he stopped in on his way home from a dance in Woodbury, full of gaiety, demonstrating dance steps, his bright blue eyes snapping. With him was Hank, his brother-in-law, who sat on the couch staring dully at the new shoes he had bought that day, wiggling his toes, in whom I recognized the drunk I'd helped out of a mud hole last spring. We were drinking rhubarb wine, and we gave them some. Fred enlivened the gathering for a quarter of an hour, sketching vivid glimpses of the dance and the dancers, and then he was off, taking the arm of his reluctant comrade and dancing out to the pickup, singing a raffish tune.
Mrs. B dropped in occasionally, but her timing was off. She was forced to content herself, as she stood by the kitchen counter while we were doing the dishes, with foraging in the scrap bucket we kept there for the hens. There was never much there, but Mrs. B would try to make a meal of it. One afternoon when Paul and I were having a tutoring session on the porch, she appeared and, as was her wont, launched into a mad monologue about blackstrap molasses, eight-grain bread, and Lord knows what else. I was sitting on a bench with my back against the wall, Paul was lounging on the porch rail, and Momo, who had come downstairs when he heard the jeep, was standing in the doorway. Mrs. B had stopped at Otis's yesterday when he was at supper (I'll bet he liked that), and the things that man was eating! Since I thought the biggest problem with Otis's nutrition was the amount of it he was taking in liquid form, I couldn't get stirred up about his sins against Adelle Davis. I looked down at my book, Paul yawned and stretched, and Momo was turning away when she suddenly declared emphatically, socking her fist into her palm, "What this country needs is a revolution!"
Momo turned back, Paul lowered his arms, I looked up. Was Mrs. B a secret sympathizer? A top cat in disguise? We leaned forward to catch her next words.
"Yes!" Again she smacked her fist into her palm. "A Vitamin B12 revolution!"
Paul went over the railing into the flower bed, Momo vanished, but I was stuck where I sat, unable to have the release the others were enjoying - I could hear Momo laughing his way upstairs, and Paul's giggles were only partly muffled by vegetation. I did what I could: stuffing my handkerchief in my mouth, I laughed inwardly while tears rolled down my cheeks. Mrs. B, oblivious, rattled on.
Aster was still straying. She didn't seek other cows, and she wasn't "bullin'" now she was settled, but she liked to wander. I would look up in the pasture and she would be gone, and then the work of tracking, at which I became quite skilled, would begin. She would travel for miles through the woods following old logging roads, once all the way up to the High Meadow, but usually she would wind up on the other side of the hill. Once she was gone for a day and a night, and when I finally found her she had managed to go through a fence of five strands of barbed wire. Whether that extraordinary effort did it I don't know, but I saw hanging from her vulva the embryo, not much larger than a mouse, of her aborted calf. Sadly, I led her home and put her in the stable while Paul went out to call the vet. Jo Ann had just received a check from a friend with the admonition to spend the fifteen dollars on herself. She gave it up to pay the vet. He told us not to try to breed her again; she was really too old to carry a calf. She continued to give milk, not much in winter, more in summer, until we left the Corbin place and sold her to a slaughterhouse. She maintained her wanderings to the end, and I tracked her through woods and fields many a day. There may be some old people still living in that town who remember a bearded young man trudging along leading an old cow, placidly chewing her cud, by a bit of old rope.
Momo was becoming more and more preposterous. One hot night we were sitting around the kerosene lamp reading, sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and listening to Jo Ann express her yearning for cooling drinks, iced sherbert, and other bourgeois frivolities unavailable to those without refrigeration, when Momo, absorbed in a Bolshevik polemic, suddenly slapped it on the table and bellowed, "What this country needs is a Lenin!"
"Yes, damn it," Jo Ann added sourly, "A Lenin ice."
Massive sulks ensued. But what was worse, far worse, was that Momo, in a transformation more deadly than Count Dracula's emergence from his tomb at sunset, put away his prosaic self to don the mantle of Revolutionary poet.
Yes the people the workers I am with you
Black yellow red I am with you
The machine guns stitching red kisses
On the bloated bodies of the bourgeoisie and its running dogs
Yes I am with you . . .
Line after line, page after page, canto after canto, he turned it out even faster than the wretched stories. Clickety-click bang bang, the typewriter poured forth the wholesale lots of this stupefying stuff, oppressing our spirits, driving us out of doors, anywhere to flee the fatal sound. When God shuts a door, however, He sometimes opens a window. Momo broke the last handle for the last time; it was too short to refit. Well, Momo, I said, I guess you'll have to go down to the village to buy a new one. That evening he announced his departure in a phrase, a non sequitur still a byword in our family: "When I see those hills, I gotta go." Planning to hitch hike, he said he'd sleep in barns and haystacks en route. His traveling costume: jeans, chambray work shirt, red bandanna, a sack of Bull Durham in his shirt pocket, ticket hanging out.
A few years later, driving along a back-country road in Virginia late at night in a downpour with Paul and his brother, looking for a place to put up, we saw a ramshackle barn beside the road. Investigation revealed ample hay and no roof leaks. As we settled in our sleeping bags, Paul said, "I knew it'd be O.K. - there's a sign outside that says 'Momo approved.'"
Our second year in the Corbin place was quite different from the first in nearly every way, although it looked much the same as we went about our chores in the stable, garden, field, woods, and house, moving in accustomed paths of familiar routines, carrying pails, pushing the wheelbarrow, splitting wood, leading the cow to water. The most striking difference was the sense of ease and security attendant on success. We had endured, we had survived, and now we were much better off - except for money - than we had been a year ago. I would not exaggerate: words like "endured" and "survived" can be used only if it be understood that our hardships, trifling as they were in any larger perspective, could not seem trivial to us, used as we were to a physically and mentally insulated way of life. Now we knew what a winter on the hillside was like and we were prepared for it; the woodshed, rebuilt and enlarged, was filled with seasoned wood; the pantry, which had frozen on the coldest nights, was tightened up and insulated, its new shelves laden with jars of beans, tomatoes, corn, rhubarb, pickles, raspberries, applesauce, jams and jellies, as well as bags of onions; cellar drainage had been improved, the stone wall was repaired and every dubious crack and cranny stuffed and patched. Now shelves and bins were built, filled with squash, apples, pumpkins, cabbages, sixteen bushels of potatoes, and carrots and beets in kegs of sawdust; two barrels of cider were on cradles in sawbucks in the middle of the floor. Areas of the barn left unfinished by Corbin were completed and improved, and up in the sugar bush I cut wide paths to and around every maple, stacked firewood, well-covered, next to a new stone fireplace. Harvest accounts are invariably smug, but the achievement and consequent security were undeniable.
During the summer, Jo Ann opened a campaign to secure busing for the children in the fall. The school board was unwilling to pay the four hundred dollars it would cost, and we wouldn't let Nell endure that long walk. Letters went back and forth, bureaucrats from Montpelier came out and measured the road, and there was a stalemate. In her last letter Jo Ann had tentatively suggested that we might educate the children at home, not because we had any interest in the idea, but as a way to put pressure on the board, but the district superintendent jumped at the idea and brought us the textbooks for the first three grades (later, the board would spread the lie that we had withdrawn our children because we thought they were too good for the local school, a lie that circulated widely and dogged us for years). Those desperately playful books were so repetitive, so idiotic, so boring that we went through them as rapidly as the children's progress would allow and then turned to our large collection of classic children's books, perfectly adequate for teaching primary grades. The best thing about it was the brevity of the school day once we realized the work could be accomplished in no more than a couple of hours each morning. Once again, as in the move to Vermont, our timing would be off. Home schooling would be respectable later; at the time we were widely condemned by people who knew us - it was more of our almost criminal folly. What mattered was the children were learning and happy, and so were we.
The change of greatest moment was in the people we met and associated with, but at first we saw it only as an addition, not a change, and its consequences and significance were not apparent for some time. One afternoon in August I was mowing around the potato patch when Fred Brown wandered into the field and sprawled on the grass. I had not seen him since the evening when he'd been to a dance in Woodbury. Glad to rest my back, I dropped the scythe and stretched out. Fred was leaning on his elbow, picking at the grass.
"Danville Fair's next weekend," he said in a considering tone.
I shook my head. Fred picked at the grass. "I was thinkin," he began, and stopped.
"I was thinkin I gotta have sumpin for the Fair, an whyn't you sell me a coupla jugs o' that dandelion wine?" in a thoughtful, speculative tone. Before I could even think of an answer, he sat up and said with great earnestness, "I'll keep it secret, Scout's Honor, nobody'll know but down in Toonerville, promise, cross my heart and hope to die!"
I sat up and picked some grass myself. Selling alcohol was dangerous, and if I were to do it I should be very careful and should charge plenty. In later years I sometimes pretended that it was so, and I have even bragged about my "bootlegging days," posing as Mr. Worldly Wiseman, a front to shield my soft-headedness from the sharp-eyed contempt of the truly worldly. The truth is that after a moment or two I agreed to sell him wine because I liked him and was amused by his solemn appeal, the kind of thing a kid says and you want to believe him but know you shouldn't. Nor did I charge much, a couple of dollars for a bottle of wine or cider, and I forget how much for a pint of beer, maybe a quarter. I trusted Fred, and he never let me down. From then on, I saw Fred or his brother-in-law Hank (an abject drunk) nearly every Sunday morning, and I'd sell them something, no great quantity but enough to establish a regular relationship. Alcohol was not all of it; there was more to my dealings with these men, then and later, and if I did not charge much for my wares, in the end I got much more from them than they did from me.
Not least in funny stories. Ernie and Martha Moore had sold their place to some summer people, and they conned Fred into agreeing to mow the field around the house. "I'm not payin nothin for it. All I gotta do is cut it, bale it, an haul it away. It's all gravy, pure gravy."
"Who'll do the mowing?"
He stroked his moustache. "I got a deal with Eldon," throwing out his arm in an expansive gesture. "We're going halfies."
"Eldon doesn't have a baler."
Fred was suddenly mysterious. All he would say was that he had a "lead" on one, as if a baler were an exotic rarity. This took place at the end of October, nearly two months after the first frost - and there had been several since. That grass, growing in a field that had not been seeded, manured, limed or mown for years, must have had slight nutritional value to start with, and what would it have now? Anyway, Eldon mowed it one morning, and that afternoon he passed our place hauling what looked like an old fashioned stationary baler. That night there was a full moon, and when I came out of the stable after milking I heard a steady thumping sound from down the hill. Evidently they were baling by moonlight. When I went to bed at eleven, they were still hard at it.
Fred got me out of bed next morning. He wanted wine, he wanted cider, he wanted anything I had. How'd the baling go? After all that work - and remember, it was stationary so they were carrying the hay to it - all the baler did was throw the hay out the back! He was on his way to find out from the farmer who sold it how to make it work. As he was carrying the last of the jugs out to the truck, I reminded him that I wanted the empties back sometime. "In a minute," he said, as he proceeded to poor hard cider, rhubarb, dandelion, and beet wines into a milk can. "There," handing me back the jugs.
I loved all seasons on the hill for their clarity in the dry air, for their sharp distinctions, and in retrospect, far away now in space and time, they coalesce into one symbolic cycle of Ideal Types: a specific spring becomes generalized, and so on. It is only by patient thought that I can bring back certain times and weathers. But the fall that year was such a clear, dry, bright contrast to the soggy, lowering fall of the year before that I have never forgotten it or merged it with the others; it stands out distinct in memory as in life.
Throughout the woods and copses and in the hedgerows along the road, the rich yellow shades of rock maple ruled, punctuated by slender flame-red soft maples, toned down by the pale dry yellow of birch and the beige of beech. Day after day we walked the woods in a golden haze that seemed to hold its climax even as the leaves were falling, even as the colors were gradually dimming, even as the season was consumed by the slow fire of the inexorable year. The pitilessly poignant autumn sunlight, softened for a time by the huge gesture of the leaves, now asserted the power of its thin clarity, drily painting each diminishing hue, limning with an unsentimental eye the exact shapes of things, marking what will pass and what will stay, confirming mortality in a voice of light.
When winter came in November it was comparatively moderate, not nearly so severe as the previous winter. There were sledding opportunities all around us: from the top of the pasture down through the gate and along in front of the house; across the road in the field streaking down to the gorge; the long length of the Big Meadow. When the snow was fresh and powdery, only toboggans on a steep slope would do, and then the gorge field was best. It dropped sheer right from the edge of the road, a concave slope whose gradient only lessened toward the bottom in a long easy curve sweeping to a stop at a stone wall. But it was such a long, hard climb back up that we didn't slide there much. Once the snow was packed, the pasture was for sledding, a run, long enough for a good ride, but not too long or too steep to discourage a child from climbing back up right away. It was a challenge, because you sped straight down the pasture like an arrow towards the gate, and once through, you had to turn sharp to go flying by the house right out to the snow bank at the road. The Big Meadow was a long, classic convex hill, so you began slowly at the nearly level top, gradually picking up speed as the descent steepened, until you were really flying at the bottom. Corbin's was the best place for sledding I've ever lived, and that winter, with the children free of schooling after mid-morning, we did a lot of it. *