Snapshots and Stories:
William Hays has been at work, a long hard days work on the farm, when he finally allows himself to have a break for dinner. The dry wind-blown Missouri soil must be worked hard to yield any crops. Horses and plows till the thick sod, a task that requires laborious work from both man and beast. Nature has been kind this year with plenty of snow early, but a recent lack of rain this spring has left the ground drier than usual. Williams hands are strong, his fingers thick. The sun has weathered his face, leaving it old, leathery and tan.
Williams horse reaches the crest of a large hill, only to be greeted by more gently rolling hills, miles of native grass, and a few trees growing in creek bottoms. He remembers moving here as a child, watching the trees steadily and slowly spread up-stream, wondering why they hadnt been there all along. His father blamed the lack of trees on the Indians and their cursed buffalo.
"Land maggots" Williams father called them, "they ate all the saplings, grasses, everything they could get their mouths on. When we finally rid that beast from the prairie the forests finally started to grow."
The horses hooves bend the strong bluestem grass, his head hung low from exhaustion. Today William worked a neighbors land, Jackson Smith, preparing his fields for crops. Lunch consisted of turnips, canned vegetables that Jackson packed for the day. Now he rides home for supper, expecting the minister and his wife for the meal. Normally the family ate its big meal at the noon hour, dinner. Today they waited until William returned home to dine with guests.
As he rides into the yard, young Hattie and Horace run to greet their father. They run beside Williams horse shouting "Welcome home, father. Was your ride a good one?" He does not answer, only looking at Hattie and remembering the last time she embarrassed him and his wife when guests were in their home. Hattie boldly talked back to her mother, asking why she had to clear the grown-ups dishes when she did not eat at the grown-ups table. Hattie was taken to the woodshed for a whipping and swore she would never talk back to her mother again.
William notices the ministers buggy near the shed, his horse already in the barn with feed. Daughter Ella is tending to the other livestock. Sarah and Nora are nowhere to be seen.
"Where are your sisters? Shouldnt they be helping you?" He shouts to Ella.
"They are helping mother with supper. I havent much left to do before washing up," she responds, walking toward her fathers steed.
William hands his daughter the reins and begins his walk toward the house without a word. Ella knows to remove saddle and blanket, brush and water his horse before putting him in a stall with feed. She busily begins her work knowing supper will not wait for her to finish.
Hattie runs to her father again asking the difference between butterflies and moths. He does not answer, only stroking his long full goatee. Williams mind is fixed on the minister and his wife, guests in his home, and washing up for dinner. Chickens scatter as he nears the house, cats chase one another as a dog lies sleeping on the porch.
"Whats for supper today, Ma?" he yells approaching the steps.
A voice from inside responds, "Chicken and dumplins."
"William, good to see you," a second voice rings out as the tired father enters his home.
The two couples exchange news of the town and surrounding county as the two eldest daughters finish preparing the meal. The minister is short and round, his face full and his head balding. A bright shiny red nose sits just off center of his face. His wife is short and round also, her hair long, but pulled back in a bun. Her eyes are bright and her skin ivory. The couple wears matching silver wedding bands on their left hands.
The house smells of fried chicken and fresh baked muffins. Ella finishes with the animals. Her steel gray dress is covered with horse hair, the very bottom stained with manure as she quickly washes her hands just in time to help her sisters with the gravy.
"Whens that chicken gonna be ready?" barks William, his patience growing short.
"Shortly, father," a voice responds from the kitchen.
Eliza walks into the dining room, her wrinkled hands holding an empty serving platter. Her dress is the same steel gray as Ellas, the same design, but spotless and starched. Her dark thin hair is parted in the middle and pulled back tight over her head into a bun. She does not smile until her eyes meet the ministers.
"Good day, Pastor. And how are you, Vivian?" The two ladies whisper as the men light cigars.
Sarah and Nora serve the two couples while Ella calls to her remaining siblings in the yard. They assemble in the outer room waiting for their parents and guests to finish eating. Hattie looks into her siblings hungry eyes, then walks toward the dining area.
The two couples are busily eating and do not see the child. After standing for a minute Hattie speaks in a soft voice.
"Father, would you please save me a drumstick for supper" she says, her eyes staring at the floor.
Williams face turns red as he clenches his teeth. Elizabeth looks to the ground as she apologizes to her guests for her daughters comments. William stands and grabs his daughter just above the elbow, tugging her toward the door. The minister and his wife carefully change the subject of conversation back to the town as William and Hattie disappear from the room.
"Ill teach you to give me lip when guests are in my house" he mumbles under his voice.
Chickens and cats again scatter as this great, hulking man almost carries the little girl by her arm toward the woodshed. The dog, who just minutes ago slept on the porch, now scampers into a hole under the porch.
The woodshed door opens, pouring light into a once darkened building as frail Hattie is pushed to the floor.
"I told you last time not to ask for anything while your mother and I are eating. You and your sisters and brother will get what food is left when we are finished." He howls. "Up with your skirt, little missy."
Hattie bends over lifting her skirt, knowing what is to follow. She dares not speak now, for she knows anything she says will only increase the punishment. In her mind she makes a promise that any child of hers will always, always, eat first.
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Master of Arts