Sixty Second Parent shares Part II of this Christmas short story written by Dr. Huff. In Part I, Nathan, a young boy living in rural West Virginia, and his dog Jack struggle to make it home through a winter storm.
This story, written in five parts, will be posted each week until Christmas Eve. Share this poignant story about a resilient boy as a part of your holiday celebration this year.
Light from a single coal oil lamp, mixed with the flicker of flames in the open fireplace, momentarily blurred his vision. His eyes adjusted quickly, however, and he dropped his burden onto the table that served as their dining room and excitedly spoke to his mother.
“Mam, you know it’s snowing! Big gobs of snow. Looks like a pure blizzard!”
Lettie Hamlyn smiled a greeting, her response one of relief.
“Nathan, I was beginning to worry. You ought not to stay out in such weather too long. Were, uh, were you able to get what we needed?”
Nathan nodded. Mr. Biershopple had made no comment when, as instructed, Nathan had asked for the items his mother wanted to be put on account. A bit curious then, Nathan had largely forgotten the incident in the excitement of his walk home through the storm. Suddenly, as he looked past his mother to the figure sitting beside the fireplace, an uneasy fear gripped him, and the reason for his mother’s question began to make sense.
“Come on in, Nate.” The rich deep voice from behind the bushy-bearded man spoke. “Get up close to the fire and warm yourself. You must be plumb wore out, and froze, too.”
“I didn’t know you was here, Lige.”
Nathan’s angry voice sliced through the air. His eyes hardened, and now, behind their brittle shine, the pain could be seen.
“You paying for our food now, that why momma let you in?”
His mother’s voice snapped his head in her direction so that he missed Lige’s gentle movement of hand that cautioned her to have patience.
“Mr. Lige gonna help us with the Christmas tree, Nate. We gonna have a real big ‘un this year, ain’t that right, Momma?”
Again Nathan turned, this time to his five-year-old sister, Eliza. She sat close to Lige, apparently safe in his presence. Her voice sang with energy as she spoke again, and Nathan felt cornered and defeated by her words.
“Mr. Lige is nice, Nate. He likes us all, especially you, don’t he, Momma?”
Lettie, not trusting her voice, nodded her head in agreement.
“I must be going.” Lige said, breaking the tension for everyone. His purposeful stride to the door betrayed no hint of any feeling about Nathan’s accusation, certainly, no desire to confront the boy’s resentment. Securely he fastened his coat against wind and snow and stepped quickly into the night.
Nathan stared blankly at the closed door. He sensed that being mad at Lige was wrong, but was unable to even begin to admit it. Helplessly he turned to face his mother. Her only answer to his dilemma was to hand him the bucket of scraps that sat next to the kitchen stove.
“Here, you and Eliza run to the barn and feed the cattle and slop the pigs. Mind you fasten the barn door tight. Them two calves of Brownie’s would die if they got out in this weather.”
Grateful for a task, Nathan grabbed the bucket.
“Come on, ‘Liza, git your coat and bring the basket to carry the eggs in.”
Inside the barn, lighted by the coal oil lantern Nathan carried, the frosty air responded to the noisy breathing of the animals with miniature puffs of steam. Eliza, basket in hand, climbed the stubby ladder to the ledge used as a hayloft, and found three new eggs, brown and speckled, still warm to the touch. She placed them carefully in her basket, then threw several handfuls of hay to her brother, who in turn passed it to Brownie and her calves. The pigs grunted and squealed their way through a scoop of feed mixed with table scraps that was their supper. Outside, the wind rose again to howl at the cracks in the barn’s sides and drove thin fingers of snow to rest at the animals’ feet.
“Why you so mean to Mr. Lige?”
Nathan jumped. Eliza’s question caught him off guard. Anger rose in him again, only to die unexpressed. Wearily he turned to face his sister.
“You want Lige to be your daddy?” There. The question had been stated at last, honest, direct, unadorned.
Eliza sat on the ledge, her legs swinging back and forth to the rhythm of the wordless tune she hummed. She often hummed that way when she had to be serious or when she had to face a happening she couldn’t avoid. Nathan envied her the ability to hum away the hurt and pain that had come into their lives since their father had died. Other times, though, he resented it, feeling her absorb their loss and sensing that she was letting go of the memories, which he so desperately needed to hold. Now, he knew, was such a time. He looked up at where she sat and waited.
“I wouldn’t mind.” Her clear voice stung his ears. Quickly she climbed down from the loft, gathered her basket of eggs, and moved to the door. She was a pretty child, always moving, pale blue eyes never missing the action around her. When she spoke, she had a tendency to tilt her head slightly to one side or the other. So Nathan knew she still had something further to say.
“He’s gone, Nate. Pappa ain’t ever comin’ back. No matter how much you grieve, it won’t matter. I knowed it for a long time now. Used to be I’d pray and cry and dream Jesus was bringing Pappa back. No more. It don’t work that way, I guess. Momma said we got to accept it, said it wasn’t Jesus’ fault that the coal mine fell in and Pappa got caught in it. You got to accept it too, Nate. I just know it.”
There was a time of silence. Her head straightened and the ageless strength that had seeped through her five-year-old presence settled quietly in the cold musty air. She pushed through the door, leaving Nathan to stare at the darkness beyond the circle of his lantern’s reach.
His voice trailed to nothing. Only the rattling of wind and the shuffling of the animals disturbed the stillness. Finally, he moved, picked up the lantern and empty scrap bucket, and stepped into the freshening wind. Carefully he fastened the rusty door latch with a bent steel spike and bowed his head in the direction of the cabin and its inviting light.