Over the next few weeks, I plan on posting some works in progress from my Chestnut Ridge story. The story is one that has taken a very different shape from what I originally planned–morphing from a stage show to the beginning of a novel. This slice is the beginning work on a chapter with the working title “Hull Go.” Please let me know what you think, ask questions, critique. Thanks!
Jimmy looked at Tommy, waiting for him finish whatever he was yelling at him. “Hull go,” didn’t make any sense, and he didn’t know how to respond to the older boy holding his closed hands in front of him like he had either just caught a frog he didn’t want to escape, or he was hiding something.
The two boys looked like they could be brothers—both had sandy blonde hair and blue eyes but Tommy’s hair was shaggy, unlike the close cut worn by his younger cousin. The older boy was about three inches taller and a little broader in the shoulders than the younger, but the real difference between the two was in their skin. Tommy’s hand were calloused and rough, his feet toughened from summers running barefoot around the cabin and in the woods of the River Gorge. On his right forearm was a long, jagged scar. Without a shirt, Tommy’s deeply tanned arms, neck, and face contrasted his pale torso.
By comparison, Jimmy was soft. And he viewed his wilder cousin with some envy, and respect.
“Hull go!” Tommy yelled again, this time a little slower and with more emphasis on both words.
When he saw his younger cousin’s lips begin to quiver, he opened his hands to reveal the treasure inside. Before him were four shiny brown nuts, about the size of an average striker marble and roughly onion shaped, but flat on one side.
“When I say, hull go, you’re supposed to guess how many nuts I have in my hand. If you get it right, you get the nuts. That’s how the game works. “Here, you can have them this time,” he offered.
Jimmy opened his hands and Tommy dropped the nuts into his little palms. One of them tumbled over his fingers, onto the ground, and he quickly knelt to pick it up, looking nervously at Tommy, afraid he might have done something wrong.
“Now you try it,” Tommy said, more gently than before. “Hide some nuts in your hand and when you say, ‘Hull go,’ I’ll try to guess how many you have.”
As Jimmy turned around and fumbled with the nuts, Tommy thought about the serious talk his parents had with him about the new member of their family. “Everything will be new for him here,” Mama had said to him, “and as the older cousin it is up to you to be extra nice to him, to teach him what you know. He’s more than a cousin now. He’s your brother. You have a big responsibility.”
Tommy was excited about having a little brother, and felt mature in his new role.
“Hull go!” Jimmy yelled excitedly as he wheeled back around, hands clenched tightly in front of him.
Tommy looked down at Jimmy’s hands and gave his best thoughtful look before offering, “Three?”
“Nope. Guess again,” said Jimmy with a giggle, clearly pleased that he had fooled his cousin.
“No guessing again. That’s not how the game works. Show me how many you have.”
Jimmy opened his hands to reveal one lone nut, then reached in his pocket to retrieve the other three.
“The rule of the game is that if I guess wrong, I have to give you the difference between how many I guessed and how many you have. Since I guessed three, and you only have one, I have to give you two more.
Jimmy’s smile broadened as he realized he had just won a game, even though he really didn’t understand rules, or the point, and even though and his victory was pure luck.
Tommy knelt down and very gingerly picked up an oddly-shaped, somewhat bulbous, spiky brown and green ball, about the size of his fist. They covered the ground beneath the giant tree that dominated the yard just upstream from the cabin. Some were closed up tight, others had slight openings. Even more were laid wide open, evenly slit into four lobes connected in the middle. On the inside, they were a light cream color and looked to Jimmy like heavy dogwood petals—soft and inviting compared to the protective outer shell that more resembled a cactus. Looking at the spiked exterior, he made a mental note to never step on one, and he wondered what other dangers he would encounter in his new and exotic world.
Tommy flipped over the one he had collected, and carefully pried it open to reveal three shiny nuts just like the ones in Jimmy’s hand. He turned it over, and the nuts dropped onto the ground. He picked two of them up and added them to the growing treasure in Jimmy’s hand.
“I’d say you have… four.”
“Nope! I win again!”
For twenty minutes they called numbers, and traded nuts back and forth. Eventually, when he had a big pile of nuts on the ground in front of him, Jimmy asked the question he had been thinking the whole time. “What are they?”
“Porcupine nuts. From the porcupine tree,” said Tommy, looking up at the canopy.
Jimmy’s eyes widened as he looked first at the giant tree, then at the growing pile of nuts at his feet. He had heard of porcupines, but he had no idea they grew on trees.
“When will they hatch?” he asked excitedly.
“They don’t hatch. You eat them!”
Jimmy’s brow furrowed as he pondered what he was just told.
“You eat porcupines?”
“They aren’t porcupines. They’re the nuts from the porcupine tree.”
“Where are the porcupines.”
“There ain’t no porcupines. Just nuts.”
Jimmy didn’t understand, but he couldn’t think of the right question to help him figure it out, so he just listened.
“I heard Papa talking with sheriff Saylor. He says there won’t be no porcupine nuts much longer, cause of a fungus.”
“A fungus. The Sheriff says its from China and it’s gonna kill all the porcupine trees. He said that the ones up north was already dead, and it was just a matter of time before it comes here. Papa don’t know what he’s gonna do when them trees is gone.”
Jimmy picked up one of the nuts and stared at it intently for a moment, then put it in his pocket with a determined look, as if by putting it there he was somehow protecting it from whatever that thing is that China was sending after it.
A voice called out from the cabin and the boys turned around to see Tommy’s Mama standing just outside the door. “Come on in for supper, boys!”
The two boys stuffed their pockets full of nuts and ran to towards the cabin. Papa was already seated at the table when they came inside. Tommy turned out his pockets, dumping the nuts into a basket by the door. Jimmy did the same, leaving one nut tucked away in his right pocket.
“You boys been playing Hull Go?” Papa asked.
“Tommy taught me,” said Jimmy. “I won!”
“Is that right…” Papa said. “Well you better keep an eye on that Tommy. You win a few games against him and get comfortable, then he turns around and wins all your nuts before you know what hit you.”
Jimmy looked suspiciously at his smiling cousin as they climbed into chairs at the small wooden table in the room that served as kitchen, living room, and dining room.
“We can roast some of those chestnuts after supper,” said Papa. “You’ve never had a roasted chestnut, have you, Jimmy.”
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders timidly.
“He don’t know what chestnuts are,” offered Tommy.
“Ah,” said Papa. “Porcupine nuts,” he clarified. “We’ll roast porcupine nuts, Jimmy, and you’re gonna love them.”
Jimmy was realizing that he had a lot to learn about chestnuts, about the river, and about life in The Gorge in general, but he was there to stay. He would have plenty of time to learn.
“Tomorrow, we’ll cross the river, and gather chest… uh, porcupine nuts up on Chestnut Ridge. That’s where the big trees are. Have you ever been in a boat, Jimmy?”
Jimmy shook his head.
“Well tomorrow will be another first for you, then. Just wait ’til you see the trees up there. Some of those trees are so tall you can’t see the top of them, and they are loaded with nuts.”
“Maybe, they are,” said Tommy. “If the fungus ain’t got them yet.”
“Don’t talk like that!” said Papa with a very serious tone.
From the stove, Mama pitched in. “Now Tommy, your Papa said that the blight hasn’t reached Chestnut Ridge and that it might not. We will remain hopeful.”
“But I heard you talking to Sheriff Saylor…”
“Never you mind what Sheriff Saylor said. The blight ain’t here yet, and until it comes… if it comes,” Papa corrected himself, “If it comes, well, we’ll deal with it when it does.”
“But what about China…?”
“You heard your Papa,” Mama said. “And you have more important things to worry about, like eating this pigeon.” Mama brought a cast iron dutch oven from the stove and set it on a mat in the middle of the small table, then took off the lid. Thick steam curled around the lid as she pulled it away, and with it, the rich smell of pigeon breast and potatoes escaped from the big black pot.
As they dug into their meal, the boys told Mama and Papa all about their day exploring the woods behind the cabin. Jimmy tried to remember all the things he had learned, Tommy helping him out alone the way. He recollected that poison ivy had three leaves and some red in the middle, and the vine was hairy.
“Tommy showed me where the raccoons live in the oak tree and where the older berries grow down by the river, but there ain’t none left this year. We’ll have to wait ’til next summer, if the birds don’t get them first.”
“Elderberries,” Tommy corrected gently, trying not to laugh and looking at his Papa for approval.
“I mean Elderberries.”
“And I showed him where the spring comes out of the rock, where Uncle Buddy had his still before he got arrested.”
“He doesn’t need to learn about everything,” Mama chimed.
“That’s okay,” said Papa. “Out here in The Gorge, Jimmy, people have to find ways to make a living however they can, and sometimes that means doing things that the law doesn’t approve of. Your Uncle Buddy was just finding his way.
“My Papa told me about him,” said Jimmy. “He told me that Uncle Buddy didn’t deserve to be in jail. He said his liquor wasn’t good enough to get arrested for and that if he had made the good stuff and sold it to the white folks he wouldn’t have been arrested. Papa said that he only got in trouble cause he was selling to the negroes. That’s what Papa said.”
Jimmy was surprised to hear himself saying so much, and even as he spoke he knew he should be quiet, that this was not a story he should be telling, even if he didn’t know just why.
“Well, your Papa was probably right about that but, deserve it or not, that’s where he ended up, and we’re gonna make sure we don’t end up there with him. That’s why tomorrow we’re gonna fill that boat up with porcupine nuts and after we cure them, we’ll take them to town and sell them at the curb market. The law don’t mind us selling porcupine nuts.”
After supper, Mama brought out what Tommy had been careful not to tell his cousin. For Jimmy’s first night in The Gorge, Mama surprised him with the first apple pie of the season, and all four of them had generous slices.
The boys loaded up the dishes in a basket and walked back to the now infamous spring where first they washed up the plates, cups, forks and knives, then they washed themselves. By the time they finished, it was dusk and back at the cabin they climbed up the ladder to the small loft on the south end of the cabin.
In town Jimmy had a proper spring mattress all to himself, but in the gorge he shared a dense matt with his cousin, but he was comforted to not be sleeping alone that night.
“Do you miss your Papa?” Tommy whispered in the dark. “Mama said I should bring up your Papa, but I figure you might want to talk about it. You don’t have to.”
“Yeah, I miss him. But not Miss Caroline. She wasn’t my mama, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why you came here to live with us.”
“I’m glad I’m here, but I miss my Papa.”
“My Papa says he’s your Papa, too now, but that you don’t have to call him that if you don’t want to. He understands.”
Jimmy didn’t say anything more, but he was glad to have another Papa. After the funeral, Miss Caroline had told him that it would be okay to call his uncle, Papa, that his own Papa would understand. But Jimmy wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Right now, all he wanted was sleep.
Jimmy stood at the plate and looked out at the field. The sun was bright overhead and he pulled his hat down to shade his eyes. On the mound, his Papa stood wearing a gray uniform with the number 34 in red on his chest. Beyond the diamond an outfielder, too far away to see his face, stood beneath a giant tree. The tree’s limbs were loaded with spiky green balls that weren’t quite round and were stitched together with red laces. The outfielder picked a ball from the tree and threw it to his Papa who caught the ball and stood for a minute looking at in his glove before leaning forward and staring intently at the catcher. He shook his head once, then shook it again, then nodded. Then he picked up the strange ball, wound up, and hurled it towards him. The ball corkscrewed through the air in slow motion. It was headed straight towards the middle of the plate waist high, but Jimmy’s arms felt as though they were in wet cement. He couldn’t swing the bat, and as the ball reached the plate, it opened up into a white flower, spinning like a pinwheel that gradually slowed and floated to the ground between his feet. From the middle of the flower, three nuts spiraled out over the plate.
“Strike one, strike two, strike three… Hull Go! You’re out!” Jimmy turned to look at the umpire who had just called him out on one pitch. A porcupine dressed in black and white striped pajamas looked over the catcher’s shoulder. The catcher opened his glove and three tiny brown porcupines crawled out of the glove, up the catcher’s arm, and down his back. The umpire knelt down and opened a pouch in the front of his pajamas. The tiny porcupines jumped in. The porcupine catcher pulled off the pajamas and left them piled on the plate, then scurried across the diamond and out to the tree. He climbed up the trunk until he came to a large round hole where an old limb had broken off. He disappeared into the hole.
Jimmy looked around. The sun was gone and a quarter moon dimly lit an empty field. He was the only one there. He picked up the striped pajamas from the plate and put them on. From somewhere up in the tree, a whippoorwill called out its own name.
He searched for the bird in the canopy, but the song seemed to come from everywhere at once. He didn’t know where to look. When the bird stopped calling, the baseball field was gone and he was standing in the middle of a dense forest in his striped pajamas. There was just enough moonlight coming through the trees for him to find his way and he started walking, but the ground was littered with the spiked hulls of porcupine eggs that pierced his bare feet. He sat down and leaded against a tree and began to cry. A hairy vine growing up the tree was soft against his face, and he nuzzled against it and closed his eyes hoping sleep would deliver a different set of circumstances, but he could not sleep. All he could do was cry.