Burning Bright - By Ron Rash



Jacob stood in the barn mouth and watched Edna leave the henhouse. Her lips were pressed tight, which meant more eggs had been taken. He looked up at the ridgetop and guessed eight o’clock. In Boone it’d be full morning now, but here light was still splotchy and dew damped his brogans. This cove’s so damn dark a man about has to break light with a crowbar, his daddy used to say.

Edna nodded at the egg pail in her hand.

“Nothing under the bantam,” Edna said. “That’s four days in a row.”

“Maybe that old rooster ain’t sweet on her no more,” Jacob said. He waited for her to smile. When they’d first started sparking years ago, Edna’s smile had been what most entranced him. Her whole face would glow, as if the upward turn of her lips spread a wave of light from mouth to forehead.

“Go ahead and make a joke,” she said, “but little cash money as we got it makes a difference. Maybe the difference of whether you have a nickel to waste on a newspaper.”

“There’s many folks worse off,” Jacob said. “Just look up the cove and you’ll see the truth of that.”

“We can end up like Hartley yet,” Edna replied. She looked past Jacob to where the road ended and the skid trail left by the logging company began. “It’s probably his mangy hound that’s stealing our eggs. That dog’s got the look of a egg-sucker. It’s always skulking around here.”

“You don’t know that. I still think a dog would leave some egg on the straw. I’ve never seen one that didn’t.”

“What else would take just a few eggs at a time? You said your ownself a fox or weasel would have killed the chickens.”

“I’ll go look,” Jacob said, knowing Edna would fret over the lost eggs all day. He knew if every hen laid three eggs a night for the next month, it wouldn’t matter. She’d still perceive a debit that would never be made up. Jacob tried to be generous, remembered that Edna hadn’t always been this way. Not until the bank had taken the truck and most of the livestock. They hadn’t lost everything the way others had, but they’d lost enough. Edna always seemed fearful when she heard a vehicle coming up the dirt road, as if the banker and sheriff were coming to take the rest.

Edna carried the eggs to the springhouse as Jacob crossed the yard and entered the concrete henhouse. The smell of manure thickened the air. Though the rooster was already outside, the hens clucked dimly in their nesting boxes. Jacob lifted the bantam and set it on the floor. The nesting box’s straw had no shell crumbs, no albumen or yellow yolk slobber.

He knew it could be a two-legged varmint, but hard as times were Jacob had never known anyone in Goshen Cove to steal, especially Hartley, the poorest of them all. Besides, who would take only two or three eggs when there were two dozen more to be had. The bantam’s eggs at that, which were smaller than the ones under the Rhode Island Reds and leghorns. From the barn, Jacob heard the Guernsey lowing insistently. He knew she already waited beside the milk stool.

As Jacob came out of the henhouse he saw the Hartleys coming down the skid trail. They made the two-mile trek to Boone twice a week, each, even the child, burdened down with galax leaves. Jacob watched as they stepped onto the road, puffs of gray dust rising around their bare feet. Hartley carried four burlap pokes stuffed with galax. His wife carried two and the child one. With their ragged clothes hanging loose on bony frames, they looked like scarecrows en route to another cornfield, their possessions in tow. The hound trailed them, gaunt as the people it followed. The galax leaves were the closest thing to a crop Hartley could muster, for his land was all rock and slant. You couldn’t grow a toenail on Hartley’s land, Bascombe Lindsey had once said. That hadn’t been a problem as long as the sawmill was running, but when it shut down the Hartleys had only one old swaybacked milk cow to sustain them, that and the galax, which earned a few nickels of barter at Mast’s General Store. Jacob knew from the Sunday newspapers he bought that times were rough everywhere. Rich folks in New York had lost all their money and jumped out of buildings. Men rode boxcars town to town begging