Bramble Monkey

When she’s feelin’ down she can still taste them salty tears rollin’ down her cheeks to her lips, there kneelin’ beside the creek scrubbing the blood from her panties. That day she knew was her mama to see this blood there’d be questions, questions she was not wantin’ to answer. This was a terrible thing, a horrible thing, an ungodly thing which happened and was her mama to find out it would break her, jist snap her poor mind like if it was a green bean or matchstick. She worried more about her mama findin’ out than about the damage to her own flesh. She figured to keep the thing a secret from the whole world but she could not, so two days after Billy Wayne Cornthwaite raped her at Three Mile Creek she told her daddy what had happened.
Jonas Tucker, his wife Naomi and his daughter Lizbeth lived in the only cabin in 3 Mile Hollow. This was the same cabin in which Jonas had been born in 1901. At 18 years old he’d married Naomi Weaver and Lizbeth was born to the young couple a year later. There Jonas scratched out a living from the rocky soil. A garden, a couple of pigs, a cow, chickens, rabbits and a mule he called Handy sustained the little family, but all this required enormous labor, hard labor, lifting, pushing, bending, and pulling under a hot sun, or in the rain and snow. Back then most folks in those parts lived the same hard life. Were they to have a cow and or a mule they’d be considered well off. Jonas had both and was, by local standards very well off indeed. This he owed in large part to his secret vocation as the county’s best moonshiner. His father had taught him to cook whiskey, as his father had taught him and Tucker whiskey was highly favored throughout the county. While the whiskey he sold made life more comfortable for the little family, the Tuckers did not grow rich. Jonas distilled no great quantity of whiskey. Distribution was strictly local – his customers were his neighbors and a few men from the little town that was the county seat. There were others who cooked many more gallons of shine, but his was the best. However, the still was always a paradox. While the goods and cash the whiskey brought in eased life, in other ways, it imposed burdens – besides the energy and time to cook whiskey, there were people coming onto the property day and night to buy, and during the day there was always the interruption of his work for 20 minutes or so of conversation and a snort. With no sons and a sickly wife, keeping the stock, tending the gardens and potato patch, bringing in hay and firewood took every bit of his time and energy. And two days and nights each month he cooked mash at the still. And always the threat of arrest loomed. In his 30’s he looked 50 with gnarled hands, a bent back, heavily lined face and grey hair already creeping. Since he had no sons, from the time she could heft the bail of a feed bucket, Lizbeth was by her daddy’s side as hard a worker as any son could have been. And as she grew he taught her the skills fathers pass on to sons: farming, carpentry, hunting, trapping, fishing. When she was nine Jonas bought her a pair of rabbits which became her responsibility for feeding, cleaning, breeding and preparing for table. By the time she was 15 years old, Lizbeth could shingle a roof, shoe the mule, divine for water, play the fiddle and dress out the game she shot. Of all things in life Jonas Tucker held Lizbeth as his greatest treasure. And to Lizbeth, only God Himself was greater than her daddy.
When Lizbeth was only four years old a freak accident left her mother stuck dumb, partially paralyzed and deranged. While Jonas was away at the still Naomi had cut a bunch of rhubarb and boiled the leaves for greens. No one had told her that the leaves of rhubarb are a poison. When Jonas returned to the cabin Naomi lay on the floor quivering like a shot squirrel. She nearly died and her recovery was very slow. The oxalic acid in the rhubarb had paralyzed her vocal chords permanently, weakened her heart, and left her neck in a fixed stiff position. Later she would write out on a pad she carried her account of her vision of Jesus floating over her. As she lay on the cabin floor the Lord fetched her water and told her that every thing was going to be alright. Actually it had been Lizbeth bringing water and trying to reassure her mother everything would be set right as soon as daddy came home. From the time of the accident she was frail and the slightest upset, or notion, or change in routine would find her on her knees with her knuckles knocking at the floor and her lips silently mouthing prayers to an image a Jesus printed on the back of one of the hand fans from church. She kept this fan on a string around her neck. Sometimes you could see Jesus other times the front side showed “Tarbuck’s Funeral Home.” Daddy called it “knockin” because the image of Jesus on her fan was knocking at a door and this is what must have set her off to knockin’ at the floor. Just about anything could set her off, finding a double-yolk egg or maybe a religious tract, and there were scores of those around the cabin – a storm cloud – anything could put her on her knees knockin’ with her funeral home Jesus. And if something major came to pass as when Daddy’s little finger got mashed and had to be cut off, or when her pet cat Nicodemas got snake bit, she’d take to bed for weeks of sleep, interrupted only by meals and knockin’s. Naomi’s only pleasures in life were Wednesday night and Sunday church services and perhaps her knockins.
The little town supported a one room school house with a single, short, 250 lb. teacher, Miss Crumm who people said had colored blood on her mama’s side. Whether true or not this rumor prevented her from teaching at a better school. Most of the teaching was by older students teaching the younger. Miss Crumm was an excellent coordinator and it was a rare student who didn’t respect and admire her. One of the older students Miss Crumm assigned to teach Lizbeth reading and writing was Billy Wayne Cornthwaite, four years older. Cocky and unpopular with most of the children he missed no opportunity to belittle any girl. The children of the town looked down on their poorer rural neighbors calling them hillbillys, stump jumpers and briar hoppers. He always addressed Lizbeth as “Bramble Monkey.” The rural children felt the inferiority that children can so forcefully and ably impose. But Billy Wayne’s taunts were hateful and implied girls, particularly country girls were stupid. Although she was pretty and well-liked, Lizbeth did not like the town and was uncomfortable among townspeople. Of all townspeople she disliked Billy Wayne Cornthwaite the most. Once Miss Crumm caught Billy Wayne jerking Lizbeth’s pigtails savagely. She moved him out of Lizbeth’s circle and assigned Wanda Rae Roper as her reading coach. After school the teacher marched over to the court house and informed Sheriff Cornthwaite of his son’s misbehavior. The next day Billy Wayne told Lizabeth he’d get her for getting him in trouble at home. “Even if it takes a hunnerd years, you little bramble monkey.” Aside from school, her social life was Wednesday nights and Sundays with her mother at church. Three churches served the valley: Cavalry Baptist for the town, Grace Chapel for the farmers, and AME Holiness for the Negroes. Grace and the colored church were out of town set back from gravel roads. Folks walked or drove automobiles to Calvary. Wagons and a few pickup trucks carried the rural folk to church.
The town was the only real town in the county and was just the square with a little brick courthouse surrounded by the bank, a grocery store, a combination gas station/feed store, a dry goods store and a little café. Two families ran just about everything. The county judge, Roger Cornthwaite, the sheriff, his brother Jack, the clerk of the court and tax collector Betty Cunningham worked in the little courthouse. The basement of the courthouse served as Sheriff Jack Cornthwaite’s office and the county jail. Markham Cunningham, the tax collector’s father in law was president and majority owner of the Farmer’s Trust Bank. The Rev. Thad Cunningham was pastor of Calvary Baptist. By and large things ran smoothly. Of course folks made jokes about the Cornthwaites and the Cunninghams, but isn’t that the same in every small town? Old men had coffee at the little café then whittled and spat tobacco juice under the shade from the benches outside the courthouse. Other than trading goods and gossip the rural folks disregarded the town. 17 Miles away was a larger town, the county seat of the next county. The trek there was an all day ordeal and only folks with automobiles regularly travelled there.
On the day Lizbeth turned 14 Jonas, who now had a second hand Model T, drove her and Naomi the 17 miles to the J.C. Penny store to buy blue jeans, a dress, and shoes for both mother and daughter. While the ladies shopped he drove to the stock yard for the weekly auction. He returned two hours later pulling a borrowed horse trailer in which a two year old filly and a saddle waited for Lizbeth. A small group of ladies stood peering through the J.C. Penny store windows and looking over their heads he saw Naomi on her knees in front of a dress rack silently mouthing thanks to her funeral home Jesus for the beauty of J.C. Penny’s garments, Lizbeth patiently standing by with a hand on her mama’s shoulder. Jonas entered the store, stared down the other ladies, paid the bill and escorted Naomi and Lizbeth to the horse trailer, where once Naomi understood that the horse and saddle were Lizbeth’s birthday present she felt her knees buckle and they had to bring her home where she took to bed for a week.
Lizbeth named the filly Penny because the day her daddy gave her the horse she’d found a lucky penny and had first seen the horse at the J.C. Penny store. The night of her birthday her daddy had had a serious talk with Lizbeth.
“Darlin’ you know your mama ain’t never gonna be right. She’s been in her own world now ten years and she’s gonna stay there. Doc Barns says it’ll probably get worse with more knockin’ and bad days. He says her heart sounds like a little bitty baby’s heart. May come a time she’ll be in bed more than on her feet. It’s time you took over all the cookin’ and washin’ all by yourself. Leave her be, let her do as she feels. What we gotta try to do, me an’ you, is spare her any upset. Anything new or different is gonna git her too excited and set her off knockin’. I don’t think we should play the radio no more whiles she’s awake. I’ll talk to them ladies at church; they’re pretty understandin’ and they can keep her calm usually.”
“Now somethin’ else. You know your daddy cooks whiskey, Lizbeth, and you know that’s gotta always be secret. You’re old enough now and responsible too so it’s time I teach the trade to you. As you learn you gotta keep everything secret. You can’t say anything, nothing, to nobody, and I mean nobody. Do you understand, honey?”
“Yes daddy I do understand, and daddy I will try my very best to do you proud.”
“Tomorrow it’s likely gonna rain. Rain covers tracks better than anything. You fix up a big batch of biscuits and boil up a dozen eggs for your mama. We’ll carry some biscuits and ham with us and you and me and Handy will hike back up to the works.”
The next morning she fed and watered the stock while the biscuits baked, then wrapped a dozen with a piece of smoked ham in oil cloth. Before leaving, Jonas tied sacks of corn and sugar under an oil cloth across the mule’s back packed strips of burlap sacking in Handy’s saddle bags along with their tuck and they headed up the hollow on foot in the rain. Once beyond the cornfield Jonas stopped and wrapped Handy’s legs from to fetlocks to the hooves with burlap strips. “You and me, we’ll wrap our boots too, Lizabeth. Like this. Jist in case the rain don’t wash ever’thin away.” It was a two hour climb to the little level area where they stopped beside a spring and rested. The rain had stopped and the noon sun had come on fierce. A pair of hawks circled way up high and Lizbeth could smell fescue. Jonas stepped behind a tree and a minute later called Lizbeth by his side.
“From the spring you can’t see nothin’ over here ‘ceptin’ rocks and these two trees. But look down, honey, look over here. Nearby was a 30” wide hole in the ground.
“Great granddaddy Eli found this here cave and the spring during the Civil War. He hid hisself up here to keep from goin’ to war like his brother. There was Rebels and Yankees too ridin’ through here grabbin every man, horse and mule they could. Nobody ‘round here much cared for the war and lots of folks hid out in caves and such.” He took his black and chrome RayOVac flashlight from Handy’s bag and shone the beam in the cave’s entrance.
“I’m gonna git down then you slide on down, I think you’re gonna be surprised.”
Once in the cave’s cool sweet air, Jonas handed her the flashlight and lit half a dozen big barn sized carbide lanterns which illuminated a huge chamber the size of a large barn. From a smaller chamber between the “barn” and the cave’s entrance Lizbeth gazed at the marvelous wonder. Crystalline stalactites and stalagmites shone like giant teeth in all directions. White flowstone, like solid streams of ice, wound down through the giant chamber. A small stream flowed between two ledges. Two smaller chambers lay one to the right and one to the left. The sweet-sour smell of fermenting mash filled the air and she found it pleasing. On a wide shelf of the chamber was a cot and a chair beside the large copper still. A rick of split cordwood lay stacked behind the still which sat atop an old wood stove whose galvanized chimney led out through a hole near the cave’s entrance. Two barrels of mash covered by screen wire bubbled. Against the back wall of the chamber bags of shelled corn and sugar lay neatly stacked. With the sugar were foil wrapped five lb. packages of yeast. Everything was neat. There was a broom and a willow basket under a shelf which held jars of sorghum molasses, bottles of RC Cola and tiny bottles of iodine. “This is where daddy works, Lizbeth, he chuckled. Let’s have us a biscuit and some ham before we start work. You can have you a RC, sweetie.”
Gradually over the next three years Jonas would step Lizbeth meticulously through the many steps required to cook good sour mash whiskey. He constantly stressed keeping things clean and keeping things secret. There were four charred oak mash barrels. Two would always be working and two would be scrubbed out and in reserve. Lizbeth’s job on her first visit to the cave was scrubbing clean the freshly emptied mash barrels. Another of her tasks was to haul the buckets of dry squeezings out of the cave to toss over a ledge where 200 feet below wild hogs had fed for over 50 years. So accustomed to feasting on the spent mash were the razorbacks that they automatically gathered at the base of the ledge whenever humans entered the still area. Only after of year of watching and menial tasks would he allow her to begin proportioning the mash ingredients and show her how to test for specific gravity of the corn beer. The only easy step of the process was the final coloring and flavoring of the whiskey. The run dripped from the still’s worm clear as water into 1 gallon jugs. The gallon jug would be filled to slightly below the neck, then ¼ cup of sorghum, ¼ cup of RC Cola, and 4 drops of iodine were added. This produced whiskey the color of tea and with a smooth taste. He patiently taught and the ease at which she learned pleased her father as much as her labors.
When people talk nowadays about the Great Depression the stories recount the great privations and hardships. Events in this story occurred then, but in truth, the privations the folks in this valley suffered were fewer than those of the rest of America. In the Ozarks what couldn’t be grown or made was generally done without. Miss Crumm said that’s because life had always been tough here. “People here been so far down they could generally reach up to touch bottom.” So a shortage of money didn’t much matter to folks who never had any. Lizbeth left Miss Crumm’s school in the Fourth grade. But for years Miss Crumm had stopped by the Tuckers to buy her monthly quart of shine from her daddy. In the summer of 1930 Ginny Crumm made a business proposition to Jonas. For 10% she would manage all sales. This would free Jonas from the continual bothersome time consuming interruptions and supplement Miss Crumm’s $28 a month teacher’s pay. At $7 per gallon this worked out to a 50% increase in Miss Crumm’s income. So one night a month daddy delivered gallon jugs of shine to the school. Before Jonas had been just as pleased to accept barter for whiskey, but now that Miss Crumm was his agent everything was strictly cash. Whiskey was delivered to Miss Crumm who paid cash to daddy. As the depression set in and cash became tighter and Miss Crumm convinced daddy that quart jars and pint jars yielded a much greater profit. And so we bottled more than half our runs in quarts and pints. People bought just as much and maybe more whiskey during the depression, but they bought it in smaller quantities, just more often. By 1932 daddy was running 50 gallons a month and paying a hired man to tend our stock and gardens. Miss Crumm bought daddy’s Model T and he moved up to a Model A. Miss Crumm would drive to the next county where she could buy grain, yeast, and sugar from her brother who was a baker there. He told her that if Jonas was interested he could easily dispose of 20 gallons a month from the bakery. But he said no. Thank you, but no. The Tuckers had successfully cooked whiskey for 50 years because they’d kept the business small and secret. However a gallon of Tucker shine was included gratis in each grain, sugar and yeast buy from the bakery.
That next summer, in 1935, Naomi took a turn for the better. Oh she still knocked but she’d resumed baking and helped with the canning. That summer and was cheerful for the first time in a great while. The color returned to her face and Jonas and Lizbeth were highly optimistic. “Just don’t let there be no setbacks,” Jonas confided to Lizbeth. “Knowin’ how much she loves Thanksgiving and Christmas – if we can jist make it to the holidays maybe that’ll be enough to perk mama up and bring her back around.”
Early that fall it happened. The horrible thing. The weather had just begun to turn cool and she had ridden Penny through the lower part of the hollow into a walnut grove to gather nuts for her mother’s baking. She had dismounted and was kneeling down picking up walnuts placing them into a flour sack when a coat was thrown over her head and she was forced to the ground on her back. The attacker was strong and pinned her shoulders with his knees while he roughly groped her. She struggled but he hit her jaw hard with his fist then twisted her wrist painfully and threatened to break her arm if she continued to resist. Laying still she could smell Billy Wayne Cornthwaite’s sour breath, his sweat and the Wild Root Cream Oil on his hair. With his coat still over her head, in an instant was lying flat against her, tearing her flesh, panting and grunting like a pig. When he’d achieved his release he got to his feet, reached down and jerked his coat from her. She pulled the loose arm of the coat throwing Billy Wayne off balance and he fell over her. Lizbeth grabbed his hand and as he struggled she bit down on his thumb hard until she felt a gush of blood. He screamed and jumped up wrapping his injured hand with his coat. Lizbeth had risen to her feet and run to Penny and was mounting her when Billy Wayne snatched the reins.
“Damn you, damn you, Lizbeth Tucker. You say a word of this to anyone I will kill you.” The shotgun he’d been hunting squirrels with lay propped against a hickory tree. He pointed to it. “First I’ll shoot out your horse’s belly then I’ll come for you and shoot you in your ugly face, you goddamn white trash. Remember that, I’ll gut shoot your horse, surer’ than shit. Then I’ll come and shoot you! Keep your mouth shut, you hear me?” She kicked at the bloody hand, he screamed releasing the reins, and she rode away.
Two days later in the cave she told Jonas of the rape. She saw his eyes well up with tears and his fists clench. For the longest time he said nothing, then – “Lizbeth do you think you’re okay now? I mean should we go to Doc Barns, do you need…”
“No, daddy. I’m sore. That’s all. Real sore, and hurt, and so mad I want to kill Billy Wayne Cornthwaite. I want to kill him dead, daddy.” Much later when they were running the still Jonas spoke.
“Lizbeth, we’re in a bind on this thing. Short of killin’ there ain’t much I kin do. And was I to beat to death that worthless piece of trash it’d be the rest of my life in prison. There ain’t no justice here. His daddy is the sheriff, his uncle the judge. Everybody knows about Tucker whiskey. Knowin’ that he hurt you probably hurts me worse than you, darlin’. But not bein’ able to do anything, havin’ my hands tied like this, that, that stings like a snake has bit me and it’s put a poison inside me that aint gonna go away. You was so brave and smart not to let on to your mama. It’d set her back and maybe even kill her. They’s only three people know this thing has happened. The onliest thing we can do, dear child, is keep silent and wait, wait like a panther in a tree and hope he comes a strollin’ under our tree one day. Do you hear what I’m saying? “
She did hear, and she understood, and she too felt that surge of poison within that her daddy felt. Years later when the war broke out Lizbeth prayed and wished nightly that Billy Wayne Cornthwaite would be drafted and killed by Jap bayonets or in a Nazi torture chamber. But with his father, two uncles and an aunt on the Draft Board Billy Wayne escaped the draft. He had developed a serious drinking problem and stayed drunk most of the time. Jonas and Lizabeth had several times discussed poisoning jars of shine with wood alcohol, but considered this too risky.
Then in November of 1943, Billy Wayne’s overdue karma descended. Jonas and Lizbeth were headed along River Road to the schoolhouse at night with a load of shine in the Model A when they noticed the headlights of a wrecked car pointing skyward. They stopped the truck and there was Billy Wayne Cornthwaite’s Ford coupe crumpled like a squeeze box against a steel abutment of the White River Bridge. Billy Wayne lay face up bleeding on the crushed hood where he’d been thrown through the windshield. “My ribs is all crushed and I think my leg’s busted, Mr. Tucker. Please git me some help, please. I’m in terrible pain. I can’t hardly breathe. It’s bad, can you git me help, please?”
“Why yes, let me ask Lizbeth can she give you some comfort, Billy Wayne. You remember my daughter Lizbeth, don’t you?”
“Yesssir, but could you jist get my daddy and a am’blance, please. I’m hurtin’ powerful bad, Mr. Tucker.”
“Lizbeth, see can we help poor Billy Wayne here.”
Jonas had long ago taught her to easily snap a rabbit’s neck with a twist that required only a minimum of effort. She approached Billy Wayne whose head nearly touched the steel bridge support he’d slammed into. She gently lifted his bloody head with both hands along his jawbone and was ready to give a sharp twist when her daddy said forcefully, “No, Lizbeth. Don’t do it.” Instead he asked her to help lift Billy’s broken body and carry to the bed of the Model A where they gently laid him beneath a canvas tarp. “You’ll be outta the rain under the tarp, Billy.”
“Oh thank you, Mr. Tucker. God bless you sir, oh God I hurt. Lord Jesus, help me I hurt so bad.”
With a length of rope Jonas was able to pull Billy Wayne’s Ford back onto the road. Jonas and Lizbeth then easily rolled the coupe over the embankment and watched as it tumbled into the flowing river below. The rain picked up again and washed away all tracks. Jonas and Lizbeth got back in their truck and drove through the rain to deliver whiskey to Miss Crumm. The next morning Billy Wayne Cornthwaite’s was gagged then packed up the mountain on Handy’s back. At the still Jonas and Lizbeth untied Billy from the mule and placed him in a wheel barrow used to handle the mash. Jonas revived the unconscious young man with a cup of clear shine. Once awake he commenced begging.
“Quiet Billy Wayne,” Lizbeth commanded. Shut your mouth. You need to hear this. Pushing the wheel barrow to the edge of the drop, the sound of the rooting hogs wafted up the cliff face. “Them’s hogs, you hear’em, Billy Wayne?”
“Yeah, I can hear ‘em. How come you brought me up here, girl. You got no idea how much I hurt. You git me to a doctor and I mean right now! I mean it, I need a doctor, my ribs is cracked and my leg is broke. Now get me a ambulance. Now!”
“I don’t think so, Billy Wayne. I don’t think so. You rest easy in the wheelbarrow now and study up on them hogs down below. Me an’ daddy are gonna feed ‘em shortly, you hear?”

© Gary Ives

First published in August 2012, “The Fiction Shelf”


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