Why Poor Old Mama Took to Bed

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If it hadn’t been for poke and pawpaws and hot-water cornbread pones all of us would have starved the year poor Mama took to her sick bed and lay there a-withering away to nothing. She said her nerves had worn in two and she was about give out from all of us children, but the last one coming out with eleven toes, sapped her spirit and she was spent, spent like a two dollar bill, and climbed into bed and pulled the quilt up to her chin, allowed her eyes to water and put on a mournful face. The doctor gave her six weeks, but Mama carried on and clung to life for twenty-seven years, though some were spent in stony sleep. After about nine of those years of fretful grief and near starvation, Pappy stood in her door and declared, There lies heaped up in that bed the smoldering embers of our passion. I told her, Eleven children, woman, is plenty of critters for any home, but odd numbers gave her the willies, and she said we ought to make it a dozen, so I complied and performed the act of marital bliss as she requested. It was the twelfth one, Hack, that broke her. When he come out, right away she saw he had six toes on his little left foot. Pappy, fetch your pocketknife, she said, and had me cut off the toe. Little Hack never made a whimper, and I’ll be danged but the toe grew back. She had me cut it off again and again, but the toe kept growing back, and I said, Woman, I reckon Hack is determined to have six toes on his foot. It was her understanding, though, that eleven toes must be a sign our Hack was born with a fiend in him and the toe was an implement of doom. But if Hack had a fiend it never showed. After a spell of time I pleaded, Heckie, Hack appears to be a normal, eleven-toed boy and I see no evidence of a fiend. Well, just you wait, she said and shuddered, eleven toes ain’t normal at all, no telling what that boy will do. There was no persuading her—Heckie, my dear bride, had set her mind like a bear-trap and sprung it shut. About three years into Mama’s decline we decided we’d had enough of poke and pawpaws and cornbread pones so we branched out to grits and collards and squirrels, and one day Pappy made a tent for the butter beans and soon lean times for us was over. Young Hack turned out just fine—by three he’d taught himself to read and studied every book he could on fiends, declaring one day there was no connection in any book he’d read on the subject between eleven toes and a fiend. Perhaps Mama has been swayed, alas, by spurious superstition, he wondered. That boy’s a-talking above my head and the critter’s only three! Pappy shouted—no telling what he’ll have to say as he goes on. Well, sir, I’ve got a poem, Pappy, Hack said with a knowing wink— My name is Hack and here’s my fix, I’ve got five on one and the other’s got six. They chopped one off but it grew right back, which must be why they named me Hack. My Mama likes to moan and mourn, but, Mama, it’s just how I was born— eleven toes, eleven toes, I’m just a boy with eleven toes, I’ve got two blue eyes and a runny nose and two bare feet with eleven toes. Well, Pappy just beamed. Heckie, he hollered, if this boy’s got a fiend in him, I reckon it’s on the side of good— a bad one couldn’t make a poem and carry on with all that rhyming. We’ve got a rhymer on our hands, that’s all, Heckie, our Hack’s a rhymer, a rhymer with eleven toes. Why, he may be the only rhymer in the world that’s got eleven toes! It stands a chance, woman, our Hack might shape the world and shine it up— and that’s how Pappy left it all, when Mama had years to go in bed, before she set up in it and died.