Wimmen Is Humans
In which the Kid discovers wimmen is funny, Jake turns poet and Aunt Margaret chooses a husband
W. O. MITCHELL
JAKE, our hired man, he didn’t answer me right away, just looked at me with his mouth making like a round hole in the middle of his face; he was sort of squinting. He looked down at Mr. Churchill Two grinning up at us, his tongue spilled out the corner of his mouth. “Well,” Jake said, “wimmen is funny all right.”
What started Jake and me talking about women was my Aunt Margaret that had come to stay with us. It was her being so fussy about Bob Dyer, when there was a fellow like Jim Matthews around, that made me come out to the pig shed that evening when Jake was getting feed for the hogs. I’d said:
“Jake, there’s something I’d like to know.”
Jake went right on opening the feed sack with his jackknife. I asked him again.
“There’s something I’d like to know for sure.” “What is she?”
“Oh.” Jake straightened up. “Is that all?” “They don’t hafta shave—they smell fine, and they wear dresses, and they’re prettier than men. Well that doesn’t mean they aren’t humans, does it?”
So Jake said, “Well, wimmen is funny all right, but I guess you could stretch a point and say they was humans.”
“Yeah, but you take how—”
“Wimmen is fussy about a lotta things that ain’t worth a whoop. Like that there cow Eglantine. Ain’t nobuddy but me kin milk her. That time I never had my blue smock on she sent me and two pails of milk clear acrosst the barn—rained two and a half inches of milk while I lay there. That’s the trouble with a woman, they don’t look past the
outsides; hate to see anythin’ that don’t fit inta the pattern. Take that there cowlick of Jim Matthews’s, and the way his good suit only fits him in spots. No woman kin stand that. She can’t stand nothin’ that ain’t just so.”
Jake always knows what he’s talking about; Miss Henchbaw she sure gets the coal oil on her fire if you even get a decimal point out of place in arithmetic.
“But, Jake,” I said, “the harness don’t make the horse—”
“Fer wimmen it does. Clothes is real important to a woman—clothes and romance.”
Jake was right again. My Ma’s always trying to get my hair into place; Sundays, just outside church, she takes her handkerchief pulled over her finger, and gives my nose and around my mouth a last rub with a little spit—mine.
“Is that what makes a person fussy about another person, Jake?”
“She sure is,” Jake said.
So it didn’t look so good for Jim Matthews; it didn’t look any good at all, not when you got
thinking of what my Aunt Margaret’s like.
^!HE’S my Aunt from down East, and my
0 Mother’s sister, and a looker too. Her hair’s blacker than new summer fallow after rain, and her eyes are like Ma’s eyes are—brown brown. She’s very small for a grown-up woman, but she’s twenty all the same. Something else about her; the feel of her cheek. Take when she was leaning over me once, helping me with those per cent questions in arithmetic, and her cheek touched against mine. 1 never knew anything could be that soft—gentle like a pony’s nose. Even if she was my Aunt I wished
1 wasn’t a kid, and her growing older all the time I kept growing up.
This summer wasn’t the first time she came to stay with us. That was why, when Jake and me and Baldy met the 8:10, there was a whole slew of Crocus boys hanging around the platform. Bob Dyer, that’s a clerk in the bank, he was there; she ran with him some when she was visiting us the time before. While Jake and me stuck her bags in the democrat she talked with Bob, and when we were leaving he said he’d be seeing her Sunday.
In the democrat she asked how Mother was; she asked about Jim Matthews too.
Me and Jake are fussy about Jim, who is very loose put together like he was joined with haywire. He’s real tall, and the sun has yellowed his hair which is all the time flopping down over one eye. Jim has a kind of rough face so that he doesn’t remind you of anyone else but him. Most of the time he doesn’t say very much, and when he says it, she comes out very slow too. He has great big hands with knuckles, and lives on his own quarter section —alone, since his mother died two years ago.
But that isn’t all there is to Jim. When Jake says he’s fussy about the sort of a fellow where there’s something inside looking out at a person, he’s talking about Jim Matthews. There’s something important inside Jim he hasn’t got a chance to say yet, and that’s how Jim is. Me and Jake kind of hoped my Aunt Margaret would take to Jim the last time she was visiting; trouble was, she took to Bob Dyer too.
He’s very different from Jim; next to Jake I guess he’s the smartest man in Crocus district. His hair doesn’t flop, or his cigarettes burn black at their ends; he wears a whole suit every day, and pulls up his pants every time he sits down. He has a this-year car, a blue one. “There’s a young fella don’t ever go light,” Jake always says. Jake isn’t too fussy about Bob Dyer, and that’s because he has a way of running down the prairie whenever he gets to talking. Jake and me don’t think he’s a patch on Jim. ,
Jake and me think a lot alike. He isn’t so fussy about Miss Henchbaw either. She figures because she teaches from a history book she knows it all, but she isn’t so smart as Jake when it comes to wars. She never fought in any Boor war; she wasn’t in the last one. Jake he’d have been over there at Dieppe with the rest of the South Saskatchewan if those fellows in Crocus didn’t keep saying he was too old. I’m fussy about Jake.
The Sunday after the Saturday my Aunt Margaret came, Bob Dyer wasn’t the only fellow to call. About ten in the morning Joe Fister showed up, he wanted to borrow our wire stretcher, and after Jake got it for him he hung around talking. He was still talking when Rick Gatenby climbed through our barbwire fence. Rick had on his blue serge suit he helped his brother to get married in this spring, he was wondering if maybe Jake didn’t have some Cobb’s Bloat Cure for Cattle, Horses and Poultry handy.
While Jake was in the kitchen, looking, Ed James and Rusty Lammery showed up—they were both home on leave. Ed claimed he needed a scythe; Rusty was looking for some axle grease. Just before dinner Holgar Christensen came after a post maul, and then the boys were calling thick as grasshoppers. They came for: harness buckles, wagon bolts, bundle forks, nosebags, squares, bucksaws. Both Johnny Totcoal and Bill Johnson wanted our brace and bit. Jake he was wondering if there wasn’t an epidemic of borrowing had hit the hired men of our district like that sleeping sickness hit
the horses last fall. Every one of them stayed to sit on the front porch to talk with Margaret.
Jim Matthews showed up just after Bob Dyer. He didn’t do so well with all those other fellows there, and Bob Dyer being such a good talker. It only took Bob one afternoon to get right back where he was with Aunt Margaret before she left last year. Jim didn’t stand a chance with him pulling out her chair every time she got up, and pushing it under her whenever she looked like she was going to sit down. She seemed to like it, and that was why I asked Jake later in the evening about how women were different from men.
AFTER that first Sunday it got even worse.
Hardly any of the boys home on leave, or the ones that had stayed to run the farms, were left to hang around the bank corner, or Drew’s Pool Hall in Crocus; they were all out seeing my Aunt Margaret. Noon Saturday they’d start dropping around; for supper there’d be three or four left over to eat; after supper they’d start coming again.
It was the second Saturday after Aunt Margaret came Jake got his first idea toward helping Jim out.
He’d just slid sidewise around Rusty Lammery’s chair on the porch, stepped over Rick Gatenby’s legs, and tripped on Ed James’s where he was sitting on the step. Me, I was right behind, and as Jake headed for the cow barn, 1 heard him mumbling: “Hired men to burn !”
For about four steps he kept up that long canter of his, then he stopped short so quick he scairt Mr. Churchill Two into yiping in all directions, and startled a Wine Dot and a Buff Orpington out of two years cackling. “Hired men to burn,” he mumbled with a kind of faraway look in his eyes while he rubbed his chin. He turned and yelled from where he stood :
“Ed !” he yelled.
Ed turned his head from looking up at Aunt Margaret like she was a fat rain cloud building up on the horizon after three weeks June drought. ‘‘Yeah, Jake?”
“That there stock trough’s real dry. Mind tyin’ inta the pump while I get these here cows milked?” “Why, sure.” Ed got off the step.
Jake started for the cow barns again, me with him—the woodpile’s that way. Jake grabbed me.
“Just a minute,” he said. He turned back again. “Rusty!”
“The kid’s feelin’ kinda peaked after all them measles he had. Would you mind lendin’ a hand with a few birch chunks fer him?”
“But, Jake 1 ain’t had no meas—”
“He’s still got a few spots left where they don’t show none,” Jake yelled. “Doc said if he got het up they might bust out again.” To me he said, “Let me handle this.”
After milking he got Holgar to run the cream separator; it was Joe Fister and Rick Gatenby threw the feed down for the cattle; Hec Brand and Bill Johnson shooed the chickens in for the night. Bob Dyer kind of messed up that nice suit of his, helping Jim Matthews to fix the gas engine in the pump house.
Jake was all set for the boys when they showed up the next Saturday. Casual he started in talking about how hard it was for one man and a kid to get much done on a farm while the child’s father was overseas fighting with the S.S.R. A little later he mentioned how his old Boor war wounds were kicking up something fearful so he couldn’t do half the things around the place he’d like to do.
Later in the afternoon, when Aunt Margaret was helping Mother out in the kitchen, he told the boys about how disgraceful Aunt Margaret thought the fence along the lower outfield was. It’s been half down ever since my Dad joined up and went to England. Fixing the fence and making Ma a lily pond were the two things he didn’t get around to doing before he left. Jake could have built the lily pond, but he’s funny about picking rocks. When it comes to rocks he’s a lot like Mrs. Bingham in Crocus when she gets near cats. Jake doesn’t
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sneeze like her, but he says even looking at a stoneboat gives him the heartburn.
It only took the boys one afternoon to put up nearly an eighth-mile of fence; Aunt Margaret sure had good fence builders calling on her; good rock pickers too. Jake organized a rock-picking bee in the south pasture the next week end. That was when Ed James and Rusty Lammery dropped out. During the next two weeks the boys quit coming one by one. By the time the pasture was done, there was only Johnny Totcoal, Holgar Christensen, and Jim Matthews left working. Bob Dyer didn’t get discouraged; he only called Sunday evenings.
It was the last Saturday of the rock picking I heard Johnny say to Holgar, “I’m sure glad we seen the last of them rocks. Even if the old coot figgers out more work, it’s the last of them rocks.”
He didn’t know Jake.
KICK GATENBY and some of the other boys were back for more the next Saturday; word must have got round the pasture was clear. That was the afternoon Jake walked over to the pump, and paced off a few steps till he was under the poplar, then turned to the boys with a glint in his eye. He said:
“Miss Margaret was just sayin’ what a difference a lily pond could make to the looks of a place. Boys, we got the rocks; there’s sea-ment in the blacksmith shop right now.” Even my Dad couldn’t have built a nicer lily pond—shaped just like a heart, spang between the stock trough and the hog pens. Jim Matthews was the only one left to finish her, and it was his idea made her a real lily pond. Jake said a person had to have goldfish for a lily pond, and I went to Jim and asked him if he knew where we could get a hold of some.
He started to say something, stopped like he’d been too soon for the words, then real slow he took another try at her. “Guess I know where you might—locate some.” “Where, Jim?”
“Well, how long’ll we hafta wait for them to come?”
He kind of tightened his mouth near the corners. “Got a piece of old window screen around?”
1 told him yes.
“Chunka stick—broomstick, say?” “Yep!”
“Right near here, in the river, we could get lots.”
“Not so gold, but they’re goldfish all the same—prairie goldfish.” I never knew that before. Me and Jim caught a whole lard pailful for the lily pond.
But even if Jake got all the boys except Bob Dyer out of the running, it didn’t do much good. Evenings in the kitchen Bob Dyer did all the talking, running down the prairie; Jim just sat there with his shirt collar riding high, and his wrists showing
red where his sleeves pulled up too far. His wrists are almost as big as my Dad’s.
He never said hardly anything except that time Aunt Margaret said, “You certainly know how to have sunsets out here. Last night was breath-taking.”
“Nice all right,” Jim answered her, his eyes stuck on the kitchen stove damper. “Sky caught fire like—”
“It takes more than sunsets to make up for the rest.” The few times Jim ever got started, Bob Dyer cut him off.
Something else had to be done. I took it up with Jake.
“Like I told you,” Jake said, “a woman’s gotta have romance. Jim he ain’t got it.”
“But, what’s romance, Jake?’ “There’s all kinds of it,” Jake said. “Music romance—dang near got tied up with a Blackfoot girl once down near the border, just because I played ‘Where Do The Flies Go In The Winter Time’ fer her on my mandolin. Powerful stuff, music romance.”
“Maybe we could kind of hint to Jim about music—”
“Nope. What he needs now is pome romance.”
“Yep. A fella writes ’em pomes about how beautiful they are, and if they don’t marry them quick they’re gonna go hang themself in the barn on a halter strap.”
“Maybe we oughta tell—”
“Nope; gonna handle her myself. Gotta make sure.”
The first one was a dandy. Jake steamed a stamp off of one of the letters he’d got from the army telling him he was too old. He signed Jim’s name at the bottom of our pome. I mailed it in our mail box out at the road the next morning. We sent three more that week ; five the next.
ALL THEY seemed to do that I ■ could see was to make Aunt Margaret look at Jim kind of funny when he came over. She seemed more interested than ever in listening to Bob Dyer, like when he was talking about buying the Davis house in town, and how it had good storm windows, and a new Pride of the Prairies kitchen range. She was real cool toward Jim.
And then Bob Dyer started going on about how terrible it was to live out on the bald-headed prairie. That was when Margaret looked over at Jim and said:
“I’ve heard that some people even become queer from the loneliness.” Jim cleared his throat. “It’s not so bad as—”
“There have been many such cases in the annals of the West,” Bob Dyer headed him off like always.
“Any recent ones around here?” Aunt Margaret said.
“Jist Old Man Froomby,” Jake said. “Thought he was that there fella—what was his name?”
“Horatio,” I said. “In the middle of the fourth grade reader.”
“Yeah. Fer two hours he held the bridge over Bison river in Crocus— last Twenty-fourth.”
“Die he?” Aunt Margaret said. “Yep. Stood off the Elks’ band, Crocus Durham Breeders, and the Presbyterian Ladies’ Mission Auxiliary. Only had a empty MacMurray’s Bluebell Brew bottle—forty ounces she was. The parade would still be there it’ it hadn’t been fer the Crocus Boor War Veterans—”
“Did it take all those men to—” “Pm the Boor War veterans fer Crocus district,” Jake said, “and Alex lie had the strength of ten. Lucky thing I happened to have Jim Benny’s two roan fire horses.”
“But how did the horses help— ?” “They was hitched up to the new chemkal truck at the time. You know they must put some awful powerful kind of stuff in that there dope 1er puttin’ out fires. Old man Frooniby he turned a kind of—” “That isn’t just the kind of queerness I had in mind.” Aunt Margaret got up. “I was wondering if there’d been any cases of younger men.” She went out of the room.
She came back with a handful of papers. They were our pomes.
“I’ve been getting the strangest letters. At first I hardly knew what to think. Listen to this!” She read:
“I ain’t so fussy about the flowers, Growed by the April showers. Crocuses and buttercups And vilets and buffalo beans And flax flowers too,
They ain’t a patch on you.
It’s you I’m fussy about,
It’s you I can’t do without.
I gotta have you like rain after ten years drout.”
She looked up at Jim, and I’d sure hate to have her look at me like that. Her head was back kind of, and her eyes like I said were dark. They were dark all right—with being mad. Even her back, the way it was straight, looked mad.
“I can take a joke,” she said, “if it happens to be in good taste. But this—these. I don’t see how anyone could—” She quit; she was so mad she couldn’t even talk.
“Why they was real—I mean it sounded real fine to me,” Jake said. “I don’t know when I heard a nicer—”
“I suppose this is your Western humor. I suppose like your winters and your summers, it’s extreme too.” “That poem didn’t seem so bad to me,” Jim said. “Did you ever see flax flowers winking like when a breeze—”
“No I haven’t!”
“We can’t all be poets.” That was Bob Dyer.
“There ain’t a thing wrong with them pomes!” Jake had got up off of the wood box.
“You neglected to mention pigweed in your list, Mr. Matthews!” “But I—”
‘Then there’s stinkweed and— and—”
“Sow thistle,” Bob Dyer stuck in.
Í NEVER saw Jake look the way A he was looking then. I guess it was the first time he was ever in a spot where he couldn’t say something to get himself out of it. And it looked like he was going to be in a worse one as soon as Jim told Aunt Margaret it wasn’t him wrote the pomes.
“There’s only one word to describe the person who wrote these,” she was saying right at Jim.
“Well now, Miss Margaret, I wouldn’t be too hasty,” Jake said. “It ain’t—he didn’t—”
“Crude! You’re a crude boor, Jim Matthews.” She didn’t mean the same kind as he fought in Africa, Jake told me later.
“I don’t think you got the right—” Jim started.
“I’m sorry for you. I don’t suppose it’s your fault that you—”
“Just a minute,” Jim cut in, and he had a look in his eyes I’d never seen there before. “I got no need for anyone to go around bein’ sorry for me. You seem to figger I been sendin’ you poems. All right, if that’s the way you feel, go right ahead and think that; only I’m not simple enough to think that you’re pretty as a crocus or a flax flower. You’d look sort of washed out beside a tiger lily to my way of thinkin’. Of course that may be the way I’ve spent my life, out here on the prairie.”
He swung around. “And I’ve had about enough of listening to you bellyaching about the prairie, Dyer. You don’t know prairie. You’re like a lot of other folks that come to make a stake outa the prairie and get out as fast as you can. It’s people like you give her a dry, cracked face with hot winds rollin’ tumbleweed over. She was one hell of a lot different when my mother and father came out. She was rich then, and she was pretty. Why,” he turned back to Aunt Margaret, “I thought I was fussy about you, but you ain’t my first love. She’s a blonde—straw blonde, my blonde.”
I looked over at Jake; his mouth was open, his head on one side, watching. Margaret she was looking at Jim too.
“She’s the kind of a woman makes a person think. You do a lot of wonderin’ on prairie—on real prairie, not rollin’ with bumps folks call foothills—
“Burnt up in summer; frozen in winter,” Dyer said.
“That’s it -flatter than pea soup on a platter, with sky over top. I ain’t never been away from it. I guess you don’t find sky like you get over prairie anywhere else—”
“You sure don’t,” Jake said. “Why I remember when I—” He quit, and I saw why, Aunt Margaret had dug him in the side.
“Maybe being a dirt farmer is a miserable life, but it’s a way to live. For a fellow like me that’s fussy about dirt and about sky, it’s the only way. Maybe I haven’t got a fine house in town; I get a kick out of things that ain’t quite so important, like—well, like hearing what happens after a meadow lark’s heart swells up and busts, like clear well water dropp—”
“A fine thing to give your wife.” “But that ain’t all, Dyer—it ain’t all at all. Look at prairie mornings. When I was a kid I useta walk bare feet through prairie grass cold with—”
“Are you going to take your wife walking barefooted—”
“Please, Bob!” That was Aunt Margaret. I never saw her look at Jim like that before.
“— And sky. Prairie sky. There’s
something else my wife will hafta hanker for. Once when I was a kid 1 dumped six bags of bluing in my mother’s wash water so 1 could get the blue that belongs to prairie sky. Take the smell of wolf willow growing silver along a crick ”
“A rather sickening— ”
“The hell it is!” Jake bust out. “Gentle honey, my mother called it. She loved the prairie she had to, t he way she came out west with my father. They didn’t have a thing, not even a map for coming across that sea of taffy-colored prairie grass. Just a compass. They come to where there were tiger lilies— millions of ’(‘in. She said that was where—and this’s where.”
.Jim turned to Aunt Margaret. “Did you ever hear a lone coyote on a winter night, making himself into a whole pack by howling?”
“Ever look in the throat of a tiger lily?”
“I’ve never had the—”
“They’re freckled — their whole flaming throat is freckled.”
“They ought to call you the Prairie Poet.” The way Bob Dyer said that wasn’t very nice.
“Yes,” my Aunt Margaret said, “they certainly should.”
The way she said it, she really meant it. She had a funny look on her face, just like the time my mother told me about how my dad kissed her in the smooth-on-barley field before they were married.
AND AFTER that night when - Jim cut loose about the prairie I saw my Aunt Margaret look at him a lot of times the same way; more than ever, after Bob Dyer had quit calling. Somehow she didn’t seem so fussy about listening to Bob Dyer talk after she’d really heard Jim Matthew go at it.
She seems to be pretty fussy about the prairie now too. She ought to be, because if she marries Jim like I heard her telling Mother, she’ll be seeing a lot of prairie from now on.
One thing kept bothering me after that night. I asked Jake about it later. I’d been lying on my stomach, by the new lily pond, watching the breeze wrinkle over top, and the minnows darting below, and I’d rolled over onto my back to get a good look at the sky. There was Jake above me, looking down. And that was when I asked him. I asked him how much bluing she took to get prairie sky anyway.
“There ain’t enough to do her,” Jake said. “All the bluing on God’s green earth won’t do her.”
He was looking sort of absentminded off to where the new fence ran along the lower oatfield. “Bin a real fine summer fer vegetables,” he said then. “Too bad yer Ma don’t have no root house.”
He looked down at me again. “I was just wonderin’, kid. You ain’t got no more aunts down east, have you?”