By Esther Greenacre Hall
TWILIGHT was weaving dusky blue threads through the warp of the tree branches as Nancy Davis stepped from the back door of the log cabin that squatted like a gray toad on the bank of Dog-leg Creek. For a moment she paused, feeling herself a part of the pattern of the Kentucky forest. Only a whippoorwill’s soft call and the murmur of the water broke the stillness.
“Hit’s that still you could nigh hear the roots of growing things a-pushing through the ground,” she murmured to herself. “‘Pears like a pretty spring night like this oughter quiet my spirits and keep ’em from fester in’ fer want of a new dress. But la me! Hit’s sech a sweety dress—leastways the picter in the book makes hit seem so. Gin I had that dress I could hold up my head to be above even that proudful Mary Perkins.”
With a shake of her tousled brown head as though to brush aside troublesome thoughts, Nancy tilted up her pointed chin and in a high sing-song called out, “Here pig-wee, pig-wee, pig-wee. Here piggy, piggy, pig.” Her call trailed away over the narrow valley. She paused. Then in a loud, guttural tone added, “Ugh-ugh-ugh.”
There was a rustle at the edge of the clearing and an elephantine hog lumbered into the open. From the gourd in the crook of her arm, Nancy threw out table scraps.
“Hit’s a pure pity you hain’t got ary appetite, George Washington,” she chuckled.
“Ary sence we found you half starved last winter you been eating more of our vittles than us young-uns put together.”
“Nancy, oh, Nannie,” called a small girl from the door.
“Won’t you leave us study on the send-and-fotch book now? We’ll both be mighty keerful of it—honest.”
“Shore ’nough. I’ll get hit fer you,” answered Nancy. “ ‘Bye, Washington. Come on into the house, children.”
Inside the one-room cabin a fire flamed on the stone hearth, casting vagrant shadows on the log walls and lighting up the faces of the small boy and girl and old man as they sat before it. From the mantel Nancy took down the brilliantly colored mail-order catalogue and dropped down on a hickory stool close to the fire.
“Lemme hold hit,” cried Tom, making a grab at the book.
But Nancy hugged it close in her arms. “Fer shame on you, Tom Davis. We got to gentle this book. Never have we had sech a pretty thing afore and hit’s untelling when we’ll e’er ag’in possess one. You and Lucy stand beside me and look on whilst I turn the pages. La, Gran’pappy,” she added, smiling up at the old man, “I shore wish you could pleasure in this book, too.”
Gran’pappy blinked his faded eyes. “I shore do crave to look, too, gal. Gin my eyes could see right I’d read off as smart as you, fer I reckon I’m the onliest old body on Dog-leg Creek as can read.”
The girl nodded. “You’re the knowingest man here-abouts. Ary body knows hit’s your eyes ’n’ not your skull-piece that don’t work to do no good.”
“Haste, Nannie. Show us the play pretties.” Tom nudged his big sister impatiently. Intently the three scrutinized the toys.
“There’s one o’them engine buggies like teacher narrates about.” Tom pointed to a toy automobile.
“And there’s a store least-un. Hain’t hit sweety-looking,” cried Lucy indicating a doll pictured on one of the pages.
The toys entirely inspected, Lucy asked to turn to the clothes. “I plumb hate to look at wearing things,” Nancy said hesitantly. “Hit hurts my feelings to see clothes we need so turrible bad and can’t buy.”
Lucy’s face was wistful as she eyed the models in the dress section. “Them dresses is too pretty to wear,” she sighed. “I allow folks jest buys them to gladden their hearts by looking on them ary day. They don’t never wear them, do they?”
“Silly-wit,” scoffed her brother. “Course folks wear them. Hurry up and leave me see the overalls. They’re what I want.”
But Lucy hovered over the dresses. “That blue one’s the dress I hungers atter,” she said. “And Nannie wants that red one. Don’t you, Nannie?”
Nancy said nothing but stared at her favorite. It was a large colored style plate—red and white print with perky ruffles. “That’s jest the kind of dress I been acraving all my days—only I didn’t know it,” she thought. “Gin Mary Perkins could see me in sech a fine frock—”
She bent close to the page and read below the picture:
“One of the loveliest dresses $1.35 ever bought. Study its lines a moment! The graceful drooping bow—the graceful ripple of the new flounced cuffs, of the fashionable peplum ruffle in front, of the all-around flared skirt, the easy curve of the fitted waist! Picture the gay red background with white figures. Remember that the fabric is guaranteed washable. Sizes fourteen to twenty years—$1.35.
Some of the words Nancy did not understand. But they sounded grand, like poetry the teacher read in school. She shut the catalogue abruptly.
“Oh, Nannie, I hain’t finished looking!”
“Lemme see the overalls.”
But Nancy was firm. “Gin we look on hit much longer we’ll get to craving things so bad we won’t pleasure in ary thing we have or do.”
Gran’pappy looked at her understandingly. “Nancy’s right,” he quavered. “Hit’s a pure pity to think too much on what we hain’t got.”
Nancy stood up and put the catalogue back on the mantel.
“Shuck off your clothes, young-uns, and go to bed,” she said.
When the rest were asleep Nancy crawled out of bed and wrapped a quilt around her shoulders. “I’m weak, pure weak,” she thought as she took down the catalogue and crouched beside the hearth. By the light of the dying embers she stared at the red and white dress, reading again and again, “One of the loveliest dresses $1.35 ever bought.”
May slipped slowly into June. Every day from sun-up to sun-setting the Davis children hoed corn in the steep patch that lay high on the hillside above the cabin. The children’s legs ached. Their backs ached. The sun was a great hot hand pressing mercilessly down upon their heads. Nancy hoed with slow, even strokes. Several rows above her, Tom and Lucy lifted their hoes jerkily, stopping often to rest.
“Psst, Nannie. Thar comes Mary Perkins,” warned Lucy.
Nancy pushed back her straw hat. Sure enough. Picking her way up the slope was a girl in a crisp black and white calico. Mary’s father was the biggest moonshiner on Dog-leg. It was no wonder that Mary always had pretty dresses and even wore shoes in summer time. Nancy disliked Mary because of her superior manner, while Mary bore a grudge against the other girl for beating her in a spell-down before school closed. Their manner bespoke their mutual dislike.
“Howdy,” said Mary, not too warmly, yet affably enough.
“Howdy,” Nancy gruffly returned the greeting. She was acutely aware of the tear in her skimpy skirt and of dust on her legs and face.
“I jest been down to the store sending off an order fer some new clothes,” volunteered the visitor. “I figgered I’d need a new dress fer the anniversary celebration.”
Tom and Lucy edged down the hill. “What cel’bration?” asked Tom.
“Why, ain’t you heern tell? Thar’s going to be great goings-on in Windsor-townfireworks ’n’ a merry-go- round ’n’ speeches ’n’ the governor hisself will be thar.”
“Yes. I allow folks from ary holler fer miles around will be thar. Hit’s too bad you got young-uns and an old grandsir’ to keer fer, Nancy. I don’t reckon you’ll be going.
“Likely not,” Nancy answered.
Go to Part 2 here.