The first sound he heard in the morning was a sharp cry. He thought he was dreaming, but he looked to the foot of the bed and saw the old upright piano his sister sometimes let him thump and he knew he was awake. Then he heard it again. It was Nellie. He could tell, for he had heard her cry out before. Something was going on this morning. He started to get out of the bed and go to the kitchen as he always did when he woke in the mornings because his mother always had his oatmeal ready for him and hot biscuits. At the door he looked into the living room. There were two strangers there and his aunt Mae. He could not account for their presence. Something was happening. But before he could investigate further his mother took him by the hand and led him back to the bed.
–Put on your clothes now and go with your daddy.
His father came into the room. He had dark underneath his eyes and he was pale. The boy went with his father past the strangers gathered about the bed that didn't belong in the living room. Nellie was on the bed. Her face was wet, he noticed. Something was going to happen. He didn't know what he should do. He thought about crying, but he knew you didn't cry without a good reason. Maybe he would stub his toe in the yard. He could cry then. His father led him to the woodpile and sat down on the chopblock.
–Are we going to cut some wood for Momma to cook breakfast with? he asked.
–Hush, his father said. Sit down and be quiet.
He sat in a pile of chips and started counting some of them.
They were of all colors. Some were red, others almost white, still others gray. Why are we here staying out here? he thought about asking.
–Your sister will be sick for a while, his father said. The boy remembered that she was sick yesterday too, but she hadn't cried out loud. He had seen her all white and groaning at the edge of the back porch when he and the collie were chasing the cats away from the little chicks his mother had in a pen on the porch. The cats had run off toward the woods back of the garden where the buckberry bushes offered shelter. The collie had crashed into the bushes and a half dozen of his mother's guinea hens came flapping out squawking and flapping as if they were being killed. They had been dusting themselves in the cool dirt at the edge of the bushes. They had their nests farther underneath. He had found one yesterday with ten eggs in it and his mother said he was to watch it carefully and when the chicks hatched out, then they would take them to the back porch and put them with the other chicks or else they would be as wild as quails and the cats or the foxes would catch them.
The morning was warming even though the sun had not risen above the line of trees to the east down by the river. The boy watched his father whose eyes were on the front door of the house. It was as if he was expecting to be called back to the house. The boy could not imagine what was going on, and he knew it was somehow forbidden for him to know.
He heard the back door slam shut and saw his aunt Mae carrying a bucket and going out toward the thicket where the guinea-hens had been. He watched her stop at the garden and pick up a long-handled shovel and then go on. She went on past the buckberry bushes. He started to get up and go after her.
–You sit back down here, his father said.
He saw the collie, the feist, and the two hounds start to trail along after her. She turned around and aimed a kick at the feist which yelped as if he were dying. He could hear her scold them. The feist lit out lickety split and ran under the house, and the two hounds tucked their tails beneath their legs and sulked back to the porch. The collie came loping happily to the woodpile.
The boy ran his hand along the dogls back and then along the chest and belly. He found a tick, bloated with blood to the size of a small grape, on the dogls chest. He put it between a red and white chip and pressed the chips together gently. There was a slight snap and a reddish stain appeared on the white chip. He let the collie smell of it. The dog shook his head hard and sneezed. It was what the dog did every time he found a tick and removed it from the dog's hide.
He could see his aunt Mae at the far edge of the trees west of the house, where the meadow began. She was digging in the shade of the old oak. He had played there last summer while his father and his cousins had cut and baled the prairie grass that was taller than his head. He would watch them bale it again later this summer, too. But he could not figure out what she was digging the hole for. He saw her tip the bucket upside down over the hole and shake it and then take a stick and rake something else out of the bucket. Then she covered up the hole. She picked the bucket up and walked back toward the house. From the backyard the two hounds also watched her.
He was getting hungry. They had been at the woodpile for a long while. The sun was up now and it was beginning to get warm. There was a swarm of gnats that kept circling the dog's head. He would snap at them from time to time, and the boy would clap his hands to smash two or three with each effort. His aunt Mae came out on the front porch.
–You all come on in now, she called to them and waited on the porch. She took the boy by the shoulder.
–I want you to see what I found early this morning when I was coming through the woods. It was in the old hollow stump down there by the river, she said.
The boy was puzzled. What is all the fuss about? he wanted to ask. Nellie was in the narrow bed in the living room still, and there was something else. At her breast was a baby. It was red in the face and puffy around the eyes, he noticed. In the old stump, he thought, that was a bird's nest. He still didn't understand why Nellie was sick. He didn't want Nellie to be sick. He didn't want her to cry. But now she wasn't. She was smiling but her eyes were closed.
–You go on now, his aunt said.
His mother had his breakfast on the stove. She served it to him and told him to eat it and then go check on the guinea hens again. The eggs might be cracking today, and he could watch the chicks peck their way out of the shells if he had the patience for it. He wondered about patience but decided that he should not ask what it was.
On the back porch he crumbled the pone of cornbread that his mother gave him for the chicks into their pen, and he had broken off a small piece to give to the collie who was watching what he was doing very carefully. The dog wolfed down the cornbread with one swallow. He walked to the edge of the garden with his hand on the collie's neck and then around to where the guineas hens had their nests. He could see the two hounds farther on at the edge of the meadow, under the oak, snapping and growling at each other. The black and tan suddenly grabbed the bluetick by the neck and shook him really hard. Then the bluetick ran back a ways and the black and tan snapped up something and ran into the woods with it. It was whatever his aunt Mae had buried, but he wasn't going to tell her about it. She would probably kill the hounds because she had told them to go back to begin with. She was a mean woman when she wanted to be. He knew how she could really get mad at his mother sometimes and at Nellie before she got sick. He saw how mad she could get the day when he had seen Nellie and a boy from town through a knothole in the side of the barn and he had run and told on her and the boy for wrestling because Nellie was on bottom and getting hurt. He didn't know what was in the bucket and he didn't want to know. He'd just get in trouble if he knew, he thought.
He and the collie sat at the edge of the buckberry bushes and from time to time peeked through at the hen sitting on the nest of eggs. She had her feathers fluffed out and her wings spread a little. Her mouth was open when she clucked and the boy could see her little back tongue.
The boy wondered whose baby it would be. Would it be Nellie's baby, like he was his mother's baby? Maybe Aunt Mae had found him in the stump, too, and brought him to his mother who was crying because she didn't have him yet. But he wasn't a baby anymore. He could shoot a bean flip now without smashing his thumb and he could already count to twenty by ones and twos.
The collie was asleep now by the boy's side and his legs were twitching as if he were chasing something in a dream. The boy didn't know what to do. He could sit here all day and watch for the chicks. He could go back to the house and watch the baby with the puffy eyes and red face. He could go find the black and tan, but he didn't want to do that. If Aunt Mae buried something, then she didn't want him to see it. The sun rose to the middle of the sky, and the boy noticed the heat wavering in thin lines between the house and the woods. He would watch a while longer, then maybe he would go back to the woodpile and gather a load of wood for his mother's box behind the kitchen stove .•••