Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up on a farm in Lincoln County, NC– a farm too small to support a family, so my dad worked a forty-hour week in a furniture factory in addition to farming. I and my brothers and sisters hoed cotton, picked cotton, etc. Can’t get much more Southern than that! I have lived in Hickory, NC, for the past fifty years.
Pulled by a long steel spring, the door of the screened porch slaps shut; the spring twangs. Mark Cooke looks up. It’s his older sister Ruthie. She goes along the path past the toolshed to the outhouse: a narrow weathered shack, a rusting tin roof.
In the shallow drainage ditch separating the backyard from the vegetable garden, Mark goes back to his play. On his knees, he pushes a blue toy truck along the road he and his brother Craig have carved into the steeper side of the ditch. The road runs through one six-inch tunnel they have dug and over two bridges constructed with narrow scraps of board. He guides the truck rapidly around curves down to the bottom of the ditch and parks it in a miniature shed made of sticks and tarpaper. Morning sun shimmers on his sandy hair; his back feels warm under the faded light-blue T-shirt
A scream from the outhouse tears the silence. Mark springs up, a rusty red sedan dropping from his fingers. The terrified shriek comes again, the rickety wooden door of the outhouse whips open and clatters against the side of the narrow weathered building. Ruthie shuffles through the doorway into sunlight, her head bowed, eyes staring down below the skirt of her bleached-out print dress, which she holds up around her thighs. Her thin legs are bowed, her pink underpants around her ankles.
She looks up, sees Mark and yells, “Go get Mama!” Her eyes bulge, her mouth gapes, her free arm jerks spasmodically.
Snatching himself from rigidity, Mark leaps from the ditch and darts toward the back porch. He is almost to the steps when he sees his mom. She flings open the screen door, bounds down three wooden steps and runs heavily across the yard; low sunlight slanting through her thin dress and showing the outline of thickening thighs.
At the dark opening of the outhouse Ruthie, sobbing, still holds up her dress, her free hand fluttering by her colorless face and then pointing down. Her mother stoops and glances under the hem of the raised skirt. “It’s just a worm, honey. People get worms. You’ll be fine.” She steps into the dim outhouse, emerges into sunlight with a scrap of newspaper and reaches up under the raised skirt.
When his mom stands up Mark can see part of the worm dangling from the paper in her hand. It is brown, wet-looking, shiny, like the earthworms he and his brother Craig dig up behind the barn to use for bait when they go to the creek to fish for horny-heads and sun-perch. But this worm is much bigger.
His mom flings her arm and the worm sails against blue sky, flashing in sunlight, and falls into briars beyond the outhouse. Mark wonders why his mom didn’t get a stick or a hoe and kill it as he and Craig have killed copperheads found near the rock pile at the end of the cornfield. Then he realizes that the worm will quickly dry up and die in sunlight and heat, just as earthworms do.
Ruthie bends, pulls her underpants up around her knees and waddles into the darkness of the privy. “You’ll be fine now,” her mom says, standing beside the open door. “It’s good it’s out. You’ll feel better. Prob’ly gain some weight.”
Ruthie steps back into sunlight, her clothes now in place, the faded blue flowers on her print dress showing dimly. Her mother places an arm around Ruthie’s shoulders and turns her toward the house.
Coming along the path, they approach Mark standing in the dewy grass. Ruthie is pale, trembling and sniffling. Seeing Mark, she drops her head, some color breaking through the pallor of her cheeks. Mark’s mom regards him for a moment as though she is going to speak, but then looks away and guides Ruthie to the steps of the backporch.
Mark stands in the rising heat, and pictures the worm that lived in his sister’s belly, sees it again sail in sunlight like a piece of glistening brown cord. He steps into the path and walks slowly toward the outhouse, hoping to find the worm writhing in dirt or dangling on a briar, drying and dieing in the sun. He will look at the nasty thing.
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