The Heavenly Table - Donald Ray Pollock
For Patsy always
For Barney, the best dog ever, who passed away October 1, 2015
IN 1917, JUST as another hellish August was starting to come to an end along the border that divides Georgia and Alabama, Pearl Jewett awakened his sons before dawn one morning with a guttural bark that sounded more animal than man. The three young men arose silently from their particular corners of the one-room shack and pulled on their filthy clothes, still damp with the sweat of yesterday’s labors. A mangy rat covered with scabs scuttled up the rock chimney, knocking bits of mortar into the cold grate. Moonlight funneled through gaps in the chinked log walls and lay in thin milky ribbons across the red dirt floor. With their heads nearly touching the low ceiling, they gathered around the center of the room for breakfast, and Pearl handed them each a bland wad of flour and water fried last night in a dollop of leftover fat. There would be no more to eat until evening, when they would all get a share of the sick hog they had butchered in the spring, along with a mash of boiled spuds and wild greens scooped onto dented tin plates with a hand that was never clean from a pot that was never washed. Except for the occasional rain, every day was the same.
“I seen me two of them niggers again last night,” Pearl said, staring out the rough-cut opening that served as the only window. “Out there a-sittin’ in the tulip tree, singin’ their songs. They was really goin’ at it.” According to the owner of the land, Major Thaddeus Tardweller, the last tenants of the shack, an extended family of mulattoes from Louisiana, had all died of the fever several years ago, and were buried out back in the weeds along the perimeter of the now-empty hog pen. Due to fears of the sickness lingering on in a place where black and white had mixed, he hadn’t been able to convince anyone to live there until the old man and his boys came along last fall, half starved and looking for work. Lately, Pearl had been seeing their ghosts everywhere. The morning before, he’d counted five of them. Gaunt and grizzled, with his mouth hanging open and the front of his trousers stained yellow from a leaky bladder, he felt as if he might join them on the other side any minute. He bit into his biscuit, then asked, “Did ye hear ’em?”
“No, Pap,” Cane, the oldest, said, “I don’t think so.” At twenty-three, Cane was as close to being handsome as any sharecropper’s son could hope to get, having inherited the best of both parents: his father’s tall, sinewy frame and his mother’s well-defined features and thick, dark hair; but the harsh, hopeless way they lived was already starting to crinkle his face with fine lines and pepper his beard with gray. He was the only one in the family who could read, having been old enough before his mother passed for her to teach him from her Bible and an old McGuffey borrowed from a neighbor; and strangers usually viewed him as the only one of the bunch who had any promise, or, for that matter, any sense. He looked down at the greasy glob in his hand, saw a curly white hair pressed into the dough with a dirty thumbprint. This morning’s ration was smaller than usual, but then he remembered telling Pearl yesterday that they had to cut back if they wanted the sack of flour to last until fall. Pinching the hair loose