Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in Kentucky, but spent most of my adult life In the south. I’ve come back to Kentucky now–I missed the hills.
The gray light filtering through the curtains was a gentle, yet insistent summons and at length Ray opened his eyes. He yawned and stretched, enjoying the warm cocoon of his bed for a few more minutes before rising. A lazy survey of the room revealed the clothes he had laid out last night. He sat up, suddenly wide awake. Swinging his feet to the floor, he padded to the washstand to dash some cold water on his face, then quickly got dressed.
Ray reached to take the gun from the pegs Papa had driven into the wall. He admired it as he tested its heft, caressing the shining walnut stock, running his hand down the length of the gleaming steel barrel. The shotgun was a 20 gauge, a gift for his thirteenth birthday. He wished Robert could have seen it, but Robert was gone—died last fall, something busted in his head. Ray didn’t want to think of that now, so he filled his coat pockets with shells and hurried out to the kitchen.
His parents were already up. Mama stood at the stove turning over bacon in the cast-iron skillet. She looked up and smiled when he entered the room. Papa sat at the table, a cup of coffee steaming in his hands.
“Where you off to?” his father asked, sounding surprised. Ray grinned at the joke. Why, just last night, Papa had offered to do his chores so he could get an early start.
“Eat something, now, ‘fore you go, son,” Mama said.
Ray grabbed a biscuit from a platter setting on the table and smeared it with jam. “I got something,” he called over his shoulder as he pushed out the screen door. He stopped on the stoop to pull on his cap.
“Goodbye, Ray.” Mama had come to watch him leave.
“’Bye, Mama,” he threw back at her, his mind already racing ahead to his plans for the morning.
Something in her voice caused him to turn around. She stood with her hand on the knob, worry lining her face. He hated to see his mother look like that. Laying the gun aside, he pulled open the door and put his arms around her waist.
“I’ll bring you back a big, fat rabbit, Mama,” he said, beaming up at her.
She adjusted his coat and cap for him and hugged him about the shoulders. I’ll have a big pot ready,” she said. “You go on now.”
Outside, the familiar objects of the farm were hidden in a thick, white mist, giving them a sinister and otherworldly look. As he walked forward through the fog, he cupped his hands around his mouth and called for the hound. The sound was muffled but the dog heard her master and came bounding from behind the barn. She greeted him with a flurry of wags and licks.
“Come on, girl, we’re going rabbit hunting!”
The hound signaled her approval by dancing about in circles, keen to go. Ray shouldered his gun and together they headed up the hill behind the house, the sun just appearing over the rise as they went. When he reached the top, he turned and looked at the valley below. The mist had gradually lifted as he climbed and the objects concealed by it had assumed their ordinary appearance of buildings and bushes and trees. Dew had replaced the white haze and now the whole valley sparkled as it caught and reflected the rays of the morning sun.
“Mr. Richards, Mr. Richards, wake up!”
He awoke, somewhat confused as he took in the ugly, institutional quality of the room. He did not know where he was at first.
“It’s time for breakfast, Mr. Richards. We need to get you ready right quick and go on down to the dining room.”
The determined cheerfulness of the nurse irked him.
“I don’t want any damn breakfast,” he replied.
Undeterred, she began to dress him in a business-like manner, first changing his diaper. He lay there as she ministered to him, his arthritic fingers twitching in protest. He continued to fuss at his helper, but in no time, she was pushing him wheelchair bound to the dining room. Placed at a table, he sat eating what was offered to him. The aide who fed him murmured a soothing encouragement now and then.
“That’s a good boy,” she said.
Annoyed, he turned away and the spoon jammed into his cheek, the runny oatmeal spilling down his face. The aide, hardly missing a beat, wiped the mess and spooned up more cereal. He was still upset, but hunger won out, and he opened his mouth.
The room where he ate was a vast, fluorescent-lit purgatory full of others like himself. Some few sat wailing and crying, fidgeting against the restraints that held them in their chairs. Others sat staring out of bodies from which the soul had already fled. He’d long learned to ignore them, giving their presence no more note than the furniture.
Washed and clean, he was wheeled back to his room, the drapes opened and the television turned on. The aide patted his leg as she exited.
“You call if you need anything, honey.”
He sat propped in his wheelchair in front of the television, which droned on and on.
They were far back in the hills and the hound had taken the scent. He followed along at a trot, hoping to spy their prey. Maybe he should just stay put, that rabbit would be sure to circle around and come out right where it had started, but the chase was part of the fun. The dog’s baying intensified and Ray recognized the area where she had first picked up the trail. Sure enough, old Br’er had circled back. He readied his gun at his shoulder, aiming toward the patch of brush where he expected the rabbit to break.
He woke with a start. The old lady who wandered the halls and into the occasional room had knocked over his water pitcher.
“Hell’s afire! What do you want?” he demanded.
“Where’s Mary?” she asked, looking about the room, her eyes bright and expectant.
The crazy old coot was always bursting into his room. He did not want her there.
He pushed the call button, though it would probably take forever for someone to come. Incredibly, a nurse materialized at his door before he could press the button again.
“What…” she began. “Oh. Come on, Sally,” she coaxed, taking the visitor by the arm and pulling her along.
“Where’s Mary?” Sally asked, willingly following where she was led.
As the two turned out the door, he growled out, “I’m tired. I want to get into bed.”
“All right,” his rescuer answered, looking around, “soon as I get somebody to help me lift you.”
He waited, staring at the shifting, jittery images on the television screen.
The nurse returned after a bit, an aide in tow. She grasped him by his upper body while her assistant took hold of the lower.
“Now, Mr. Richards, get ready,” she said, as with one fluid motion they pulled him up and out of his wheelchair and sat him on the bed. As the nurse pushed him flat and adjusted the covers, the aide closed the drapes and turned off the television. She cleaned Sally’s mess with a wad of paper towels, then rinsed and refilled the pitcher. Tossing the trash into a bin, she moved toward the door.
“You rest well now, Mr. Richards,” she said.
The nurse, who lingered a moment longer, asked, “Anything else you want, sweetheart?”
“Nothing,” he said, his eyes sliding closed.
He looked up when he heard someone calling his name. Shading his eyes with his hand and squinting up against the bright sunlight, he saw a boy standing at the top of the hill. He couldn’t get a clear view of his face, as he stood directly in front of the sun, its rays a halo at his back. The boy waved his arm, motioning him to come up.
“Come on,” he called, continuing to motion. “That rabbit’s probably part ways to Claire County by now. Come on!”
Confused, Ray blinked his eyes.
“Robert, he whispered. “It couldn’t be…”
The boy on the hill called again, “Doggone it, are you going to let that rabbit get plumb away?”
Robert! Then it wasn’t true that… He wiped the tears that had gathered in his eyes and began to race up the hillside.
“I’m coming,” he called. “I’m coming. Hold up, Robert!”
As he ran up the hill toward his sun-wrapped brother, the hound began to bay again, and the boys ran after her, happy as only two boys can be, forever hunting the elusive rabbit.
The nurse entered the room with her usual brisk efficiency. “Time for lunch, Mr. Richards,” she sang out, giving his shoulder a little shake. She drew a sharp breath and then reached for his wrist. Gently she replaced his hand. “You rest well now, Mr. Richards,” she said.