Nell took her shawl from the hook by the door. She followed her skinny brother down the path to the woodshed and began to gather long sticks of wood into her little arms.
“Not firewood, Nell. It’s too long. Papa cut that for the fireplace. Mama needs stove wood, the short pieces.”
Littlejim helped the girl stack stove wood onto both arms. Then he loaded his own.
Inside, the children dumped their loads of wood into the kitchen woodbox. Mama was stirring something in an iron pot on the stove. The sweet fragrance of chocolate filled the room. Mama had sent them for wood so she could bring out the tin of cocoa she kept hidden away for special occasions.
She scooped the skin from the top of the hot milk and poured a mug for each of them. Then she lifted the walnut cookies one by one to the plate. The three of them sat at the square kitchen table. Littlejim took big bites of his cookie. Nell nibbled the brown edges. In her cradle Baby May held her cookie clutched to her chest as her head drooped to one side and her sleepy eyelids closed.
Mama held her cookie in one hand while she drank from her mug. She had a chocolate mustache around her upper lip. Nell had one, too. Littlejim quickly licked his away.
“We should have cookies every night,” said Nell.
“Then they wouldn’t be so special,” said Mama. “When we have something every day, it becomes everyday, not so special. We have Papa’s lovely hams to eat at almost every meal. In the old country, ham was saved for special occasions. We did not have it every day. That made it a very special food.”
The children munched their cookies silently.
“We have your papa’s love but he does not show it every day. He shows it in ways, not in words. That is what makes his words so special,” continued Mama. “Your papa did not learn to show love in words when he was a child. He was not given words and hugs, so he does not know how to give them.”
“And Papa was very poor,” said Littlejim.
“Not always,” said Mama. “His father was a gentleman farmer. He owned almost all the bottom land on this creek. Then the land turned bad. Crops didn’t make. Robert—your Uncle Bob—left the Creek to find work. That’s when your papa left school to work on the farm. He never had the chance to go to school. He misses that, too, I think.”
“Did Uncle Bob help Papa learn to log?” asked Littlejim.
“Uncle Bob became a lumberman down below the mountains near Morganton. When he came back to the Creek settlement, your papa went to the woods to learn to cut trees for Uncle Bob’s sawmill.”
“And Papa’s a fine logger,” said Littlejim proudly. “Uncle Bob says he’s the best in these parts.”
“Yah! He is good,” said Mama. “He makes a fine living for us all. He shows his love for us in many ways. We have one of the finest houses on the Creek—or the River Road, for that matter. He has built us four fine rooms and a sleeping loft. We have a fine barn, a smokehouse, a woodshed, the springhouse.”
Mama counted the buildings off on her fingers.
“We have a root cellar and a privy,” said Mama, “and I have the finest cookstove on the Creek. Yah. Your papa is a good man. A fine husband. A good provider. He surely loves us all.”
Mama banged her mug on the table as she set it down.
“But he does not remember that children need to hear words of love and pride! He forgets that his son is a fine scholar and we should be so proud of him!” she said.
Mama looked up, startled. Two pairs of eyes followed her gaze. Bigjim’s tall figure loomed in the doorway. He yawned and stretched. Then he walked to the table, took two cookies, and tossed both of them into his mouth at the same time.
“Ruining these young’uns again, Gertrude?” he asked.
He took another cookie and ate it in one bite. Taking two more from the plate, he leaned against the door frame and scratched his back on the corner of the frame.
“Ought to save these fine sweet cakes for Sunday dinner,” he said.
Littlejim saw his father’s eyes twinkle, and he thought he saw a smile begin through the brown beard. Bigjim seldom smiled, so his son could not be sure, but Littlejim knew that if anything could make the dour man smile, it was Mama’s walnut cookies. Bigjim was partial to sweets, especially to Gertrude’s “warnet” cookies, as he called them.
“Time for bed,” said Mama. She placed the mugs in the dishpan on the water shelf. She kissed each of the children. “Gute Nacht,” she whispered.
“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” Nell said, giggling.
Mama carried the kerosene lamp. Bigjim lifted the cradle where Baby May now lay sound asleep, half her cookie clutched in her hand.
Littlejim and Nell climbed the narrow stairs to the sleeping loft.
“But, James,” Mama’s voice came up the stairs. “What possible harm could it do our son to write an essay and give a speech?”
Littlejim could not hear the words, but he heard Bigjim’s voice rumbling up the stairs.
Finally he heard his father’s voice, “Enough, Gert, enough.”
Littlejim pulled the quilt Mama had made for him around his ears to keep out the cold. He would have to find a way to enter the essay competition. As much as he did not want to be disobedient, he knew he had to be if he ever wanted his papa to see that he was a man.
“Littlejim,” said Nell through the wall between their rooms in the sleeping loft. “Why does Papa always scold you if he loves you? He doesn’t scold me so much.”
“I don’t know,” whispered Littlejim. “Sh-h-h! Papa might hear you.”
“You must find a way to make him let you enter the essay competition,” said Nell, speaking a bit louder. “Maybe I can sing him a song when he comes in from the woods tomorrow. He likes that.”
“Good night, Nell,” said Littlejim.
“Littlejim,” insisted Nell. “I can try . . .”
“Good night, Nell,” said her brother again.
In the distance a hoot owl called. Then silence like the snowflakes falling outside the windows soon covered the valley.