About the Author
Harriette Arnow was born in 1908 into a family whose roots reached back for five generations of Kentucky's history. From this rich background, she inherited a bountiful storytelling tradition that provided inspiration for her acclaimed novels: Mountain Path, Hunter's Horn, and The Dollmaker, the last considered her masterpiece and a landmark of American fiction. She dies in 1986.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
THE DOLLMAKER ONE
DOCK’S SHOES ON THE rocks up the hill and his heavy breathing had shut out all sound so that it seemed a long while she had heard nothing, and Amos lay too still, not clawing at the blanket as when they had started. They reached the ridge top where the road ran through scrub pine in sand, and while the mule’s shoes were soft on the thick needles she bent her head low over the long bundle across the saddle horn, listening. Almost at once she straightened, and kicked the already sweat-soaked mule hard in the flanks until he broke into an awkward gallop. “I know you’re tired, but it ain’t much furder,” she said in a low tight voice.
She rode on in silence, her big body hunched protectingly over the bundle. Now and then she glanced worriedly up at the sky, graying into the thick twilight of a rainy afternoon in October; but mostly her eyes, large, like the rest of her, and the deep, unshining gray of the rain-wet pine trunks, were fixed straight ahead of the mule’s ears, as if by much looking she might help the weary animal pull the road past her with her eyes.
They reached the highway, stretching empty between the pines, silent, no sign of cars or people, as if it were not a road at all, but some lost island of asphalt coming from no place, going nowhere. The mule stopped, his ears flicking slowly back and forth as he considered the road. She kicked him again, explaining, “It’s a road fer automobiles; we’ll have to ride it to stop a car, then you can git back home.”
The mule tried to turn away from the strange black stuff, flung his head about, danced stiff-leggedly back into the familiar sanctuary of soft ground and pine trees. “No,” the woman said, gripping his thin flanks with her long thighs, “no, you’ve got to git out in th middle so’s we can stop a car a goen toward th doctor’s. You’ve got to.” She kicked him again, turned him about. He tried one weary, halfhearted bucking jump; but the woman only settled herself in the saddle, gripped with her thighs, her drawn-up knees, her heels. Her voice was half pleading, half scolding: “Now, Dock, you know you cain’t buck me off, not even if you was fresh—an you ain’t. So git on.”
The great raw-boned mule argued with his ears, shook the bridle rein, side-stepped against a pine tree, but accepted soon the fact that the woman was master still, even on a strange road. He galloped again, down the middle of the asphalt that followed a high and narrow ridge and seemed at times like a road in the sky, the nothingness of fog-filled valleys far below on either side.
A car passed. Dock trembled at the sound, and side-stepped toward the edge, but the woman spoke gently and held him still. “It won’t hurt you none. It’s a car like th coal truck; we ain’t a stoppen it. It’s a goen th wrong way.”
The mule, in spite of all the woman’s urging, was slow in getting through his fright from the passing of the car. He fought continually to stay on the edge of the road, which was beginning to curve sharply and down so that little of it could be seen in either direction. The woman’s head was bent again, listening above the bundle, when the mule plunged wildly toward the pines. She jerked hard on the bridle, so swiftly, so fiercely, that he whirled about, reared, came down, then took a hard, stiff-legged jump that landed him for an instant crosswise in the road.
The roar of a car’s coming grew louder. Terrified by the strange sound, the unfamiliar road, and the strangeness of the woman’s ways, the mule fought back toward the pines. The woman gripped with her legs, pulled with her hand, so that they seemed to do some wild but well rehearsed dance, round and round in the road, the mule rearing, flinging his head about, fighting to get it down so that he could buck.
She eased her hold an instant, jerked hard with all her strength. He reared but stayed in the road. Yellow fog lights, pale in the gray mists, washed over them, shone on the red sandy clay on one of the woman’s shoes, a man’s shoe with cleats holding leather thongs, pressed hard against the mule’s lifted body as if it pointed to a place in the bridle mended with a piece of rawhide. It seemed a long time she sat so, the mule on his hind legs, the car lights washing over her, the child unshaken in the crook of her left arm while she talked to the mule in the same low urgent voice she had used to get him onto the highway: “Don’t be afeared, Dock. They’ll stop. We’ll make em stop. They dasn’t take these downhill curves too fast. They’ll have to stop. We’ll all go over th bluff together.”
There was a loud, insistent honking; brakes squealed and rubber squeaked while the fingers of light swept away from the woman and out into the fog above the valley. Then, as the car skidded, the lights crossed the woman again, went into the pines on the other side of the road, swept back, as the car, now only a few feet behind her but on the other side of the road, came out of its skid. The woman’s voice was low, pressed down by some terrible urgency as she begged under the screaming of the horn, “Crosswise, crosswise; it’ll git by us on t’other side.”
She jerked, kicked the mule, until he, already crazed with fright, jumped almost directly in front of the car, forcing it to swerve again, this time so sharply that it went completely off the road. It plowed partway into a thicket of little pines, then stopped on the narrow sandy shoulder above the bluff edge. The woman looked once at the car, then away and past the trembling mule’s ears; and though she looked down it was like searching the sky on a cloudy day. There was only fog, thickened in splotches, greenish above a pasture field, brownish over the corn far down in the valley below the treetops by the bluff edge.
“You done good, real good,” she whispered to the mule. Then all in one swift motion she swung one long leg over the mule’s back, looped the bridle over the saddle horn, turned the dazed mule southward, slapping him on the shoulder. “Git,” she said. She did not look after him as he leaped away, broken ribbons of foam flying down his chin, and blood oozing from a cut on his left hind leg where the car had grazed him.
She hurried the few steps along the bluff edge to the car as if afraid it would be off again; but her hand was reaching for the front door handle before the door opened slowly, cautiously, and a soldier, his head almost to her chin, got out. He stared up at her and did not answer when she begged all in a breath: “I’ve got tu have a lift. My little boy he’s ...”
The soldier was no longer looking at her. His eyes, blue, and with the unremembering look of a very old man’s eyes, were fixed on the poplar tops rising above the bluff edge. He looked past them down into the valley, then slowly taking his glance away he reached for the handle of the back door, but dropped his hand when he saw that the window in the door was opening.
The woman turned to the down-dropping window and watched impatiently while first a hard and shiny soldier’s cap rose above it, then a man’s face, straight and neat and hard-appearing as the cap, but flushed now with surprise and anger. The mouth was hardly showing before it spoke, quickly, but with a flat, careful pronunciation of the words. “You realize you’ve run me off the road. If you can’t manage a horse, don’t ride one on the highway. Don’t you know there’s a war and this road carries ...”
The woman had listened intently, watching the man’s lips, her brows drawn somewhat together like one listening to a language only partly understood. “I know they’s a war,” she said, reaching for the door handle. “That’s why th doctor closest home is gone. It was a mule,” she went on. “I managed him. I had to make you stop. I’ve got to git my little boy to a doctor—quick.” She had one foot inside the door, the child held now in her two hands as she prepared to lay him on the seat.
The man, plainly irritated because he had neglected to hold the door shut, continued to sit by it, his legs outspread, barring her way. His hand moved slowly, as if he wanted her to see it touch the pistol in a polished holster by his side, let the pistol speak to her more than his toneless, unruffled words when he said, “You must use other means of getting your child to the doctor.” He reached swiftly, jerked the door so that she, bent as she was, and with the heavy bundle in her two hands, staggered. Her head flopped downward to his knees, but she righted herself and kept one foot in the door.
“If my business were not so urgent,” he said, not taking his hand from the door, “I would have you arrested for sabotage. I travel from”—he hesitated—“an important place on urgent business.” The voice still was not a man’s voice, but the shiny cap, the bright leather, the pistol. It sharpened a little when he said, turning from her to the driver, “Get back into the car and drive on.” He looked once at the bundle where one small sun-burned but blue-nailed hand waved aimlessly out of the blanket folds. Then, letting the door swing wide, he jerked it swiftly so that it struck hard against the woman’s back, bent again as she searched for his eyes.
She straightened, put the hand under the blanket, but continued to stand between door and car. “I’m sorry you’re th army; frum Oak Ridge, I reckon, but I’d a stopped you enyhow.” Her voice was quiet as the voice below the cap. “You can shoot me now er give me an this youngen a lift to th closest doctor.” And even in the man’s work shoes, the long and shapeless coat, green-tinged with age, open, giving glimpses of a blue apron faded in strange squares as if it might have at one time been something else—a man’s denim trousers or overall jumper—she held herself proudly, saying: “You want my name; I’m Gertie Nevels from Ballew, Kentucky. Now, let me lay my little boy down. You cain’t go ...”
The officer had flung the door suddenly outward again. Still she did not fall when he banged it back against her, though in her attempts to keep from falling forward into the car and onto the child she dropped to her knees, her feet sliding through the gravel to the bluff edge. The officer gripped the pistol butt, and his voice shrilled a little as he said to the young soldier who had stood stiff and silent, staring at the woman: “Get in and drive on. She’ll have to drop off then.”
The other took his eyes from the blanket, still now. He saluted, said, “Yes, sir,” but continued to stand, his body pressed against the car, his glance going again to the treetops below his feet.
“Back up on the road and drive on,” the other repeated, his face reddening, his eyes determinedly fixed straight in front of him.
“Yes, sir?” the other said again, unmoving. There was in his questioning acceptance of the command some slight note of pleasure. He looked up at the tall woman as if he would share it with her. Their glances crossed, but the trouble, the urgency of her need would let nothing else come into her eyes.
She looked again at the other. “You want him to go over th bluff?” And her voice was weary to breaking, like an overwrought mother speaking to a stubborn child.
The older man for the first time looked past the woman and realized that what he had taken for a continuation of the brush and scrub pine was the tops of tall-growing trees below a bluff. He looked quickly away and began a rapid edging along the seat to the opposite door. It was only when he was out of the car and a few feet from the bluff edge that he was able to speak with the voice of polished leather and pistol handle, and command the other to back out.
The woman, as soon as the officer moved, had laid the child on the seat, then stood a moment by the door, watching the driver, shaking her head slowly, frowning as he raced the motor until the car shivered and the smoking rear wheels dug great holes in the sandy shoulder. “That’ll do no good,” she said, then more loudly, her voice lifted above the roaring motor, “Have you got a ax?”
He shook his head, smiling a little, then his eyes were blank, prim like his mouth when the other told him to turn off the motor. The woman picked up a large sand-rock, dropped it behind one of the deeply sunken rear wheels. “Have you got a jack?” she asked the officer. “You could heist it up with a jack, git rocks under them wheels, an back up on th road.”
“Take your child out of the car and get on,” he said, his voice no longer smooth. “We may be stuck here until I can get a tow truck. You’ll be arrested.”
She glanced at him briefly, smoothed back her straight dark brown hair with a bended arm, then drawing the bottom of her apron into one hand to form a kind of sack, she began gathering rocks with the other hand, going in a quick squatting run, never straightening in her haste, never looking up.
The young soldier had by now got out of the car and stood by it, his back and shoulders very straight, his hands dropped by his sides so that a band of colored ribbon was bright on his dull uniform. The woman glanced curiously at it as she dumped a load of rocks by a wheel. The officer looked at him, and his voice was shrill, akin to an angry woman’s. “Hatcher, you’re not on the parade ground.”
“Yes, sir,” the other said, drawing himself up still more rigidly.
“Get out the jack,” the officer said, after frowning a moment at the woman as if loath to repeat her suggestion.
“Yes, hurry, please,” the woman begged, not pausing in her rock gathering, but looking toward the child on the back seat. It had struggled until the blanket had fallen away from its head, showing dark hair above a face that through the window shone yellowish white, contorted with some terrible effort to cry or vomit or speak. Like the woman as she ran squatting through the mud, the struggling child seemed animal-like and unhuman compared to the two neatly dressed men.
The woman hurried up again with another apronful of rocks, dumped them, then went at her darting, stooping run along the bluff edge searching for more. The young soldier in the awkward, fumbling way of a man, neither liking nor knowing his business, got out the jack and set it in the sandy mud under the rear bumper. “That’s no good,” the woman said, coming up with more rocks; and with one hand still holding the apron she picked up the jack, put a flat rock where it had been, reset it, gave it a quick, critical glance. “That’ll hold now,” she said. She dumped her rocks by the wheel, but continued to squat, studying now the pines caught under the front of the car.
The officer stood at the edge of the asphalt, silent. Sometimes he looked up and down the road, and often he glanced at his wristwatch, but mostly his frowning glance was fixed on the car. He watched the woman now. Her hands had been busied with rocks and apron when she bent by the wheel; now one hand was still holding her emptied apron as she straightened, but in the other was a long knife, bright, thin, sharply pointed. The man, watching, took a quick step backward while his hand went again to the pistol butt. The woman, without looking at either man, knelt by the front of the car and, reaching far under with the knife, slashed rapidly at the entangled pine saplings while with the other hand she jerked them free and flung them behind her.
Finished with the pines, she went quickly along the bluff edge by the car, her glance searching through the window toward the child, still now, with the hand of one down-hanging arm brushing the floor. She watched only an instant and did not bend to listen, for clearly in the silence came the child’s short choking g...
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