She arches her back into the cup of my hand as I stroke her soft black fur. She’s so skinny I can feel each knobby bone of her spine, tiny and hard against my palm. Her name is Bootsy and she’s a feral barn cat that we feed in the detached garage. Only, I’ve run out of kitty kibble.
Food is many things. Sustenance, for one. Bootsy has come in search of it, but it’s been almost two months since I’ve seen her and all the other feral cats were gobbling it down in her absence. But no one ever comes to my place without being fed. When I saw her slinking across the front lawn as I scrubbed dishes–so black and white against the green grass–I knew where she was headed.
Bootsy paused to sit beneath one of the two great Ponderosa pines that tower above our house at 70 feet tall. She’s classy-looking with her tuxedo markings–black pants and jacket over sharp white vest and cuffs. As she sat, I felt as though she were making her presence known. Not unlike stories on the pioneering prairie when gangly Sioux boys would crouch outside a farmhouse in hopes of a loaf of bread. They never spoke, just watched, but left with their gift when offered food.
Grabbing a can of tuna, I open it and head to the garage. Bootsy is already at the door. The owners of this ranch built a cat door years ago and who knows how long she’s been using it. We were told that part of our rent was to feed Bootsy and that she was wild and don’t bother trying to pet her. The Hub worked his magic and when the Rock Climber (Cat Tamer) visits, Bootsy greets her. By proxy of their patience, I occasionally get to pet this tiny, bony creature.
Today, she accepts the tuna and my hand. This makes me think how food connects us. We share a table, break bread together and gather for family feasts. In a few days the Hub will return from his 10-day shift in Boise and when he does, I’ll be cooking for his arrival so that he’s greeted with evidence that I’m happy he’s returned home.
My thoughts go to Sarah Shull. Was she a cook? Somehow I don’t get that sense of her as homey. Unlike her siblings, she didn’t marry young and take up the expected domestic duties. Instead she worked as an accountant at her father’s store, the core of his several businesses. I assume her mother cooked and she benefited even as an adult. Later in her life when she returned destitute to Shulls Mill, North Carolina after her husband left her (she did marry after Cob was killed) she lived in a tiny cabin outside of town, alone.
Evidently Sarah did not cook in that cabin. There’s several accounts of her conveniently showing up at homes that were friendly to her–and there were but a handful–around mealtime. Toward the end of her life, family members (who had shunned her since having Cob’s illegitimate child decades prior) reluctantly set her up in a shed behind the hotel the family owned. Perhaps they gave her scraps, no one says. But she died as bony as a barn cat, shivering beneath a thin, dirty, gray blanket at the age of 98. One could almost stretch a metaphor to say that her life lacked food–love, dignity, care.
If we look at what Sarah was doing the day Hickok shot Cob, she was in the kitchen with Mrs. Wellman (the station manager’s wife). Was she cooking? Is this an indicator that she’d fallen out with Cob or was she genuinely seeking the comforts of the hearth, hanging out with the women of the Pony Express and being industrious on the prairie? After Cob is killed and Leroy pays Sarah the money Cob owed her for accounting, she left for Denver where she found work as a laundress. Not as a cook.
Yet, I’m uncertain as to what food was like in the mid 1800s. What influences would North Carolina have had on Cob and Sarah? I sometimes think food might be the advantage that Mary (Cob’s wife) had over Sarah; the older woman could cook. To learn what she would cook, I reached out to southern food historian, Michael W. Twitty of Afroculinaria. He directed me to the Library of Congress, specifically to their slave narratives and to Horne Creek Living Historical Farm. As he reminded me, corn would be big. Pork, apples, peaches, persimmons, coon, possum (Norah, I thought of you in Australia with your noisy critters), squirrel, rabbit, leafy greens, cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes included.
In the modern era there’s a few unappetizing items on the list, but it grounds me in that time, before my time. Most unappetizing is slavery. But it’s a reality that can’t be ignored–America’s original sin. And food ties us to that time and the “peculiar institution” that loomed in 1859. Hickok was an northern abolitionist and Cob a southern unionist. That adds a layer of complexity leading up to the incident at Rock Creek. I thank Michael W. Twitty for his educated response, his vast knowledge and his mission to heal what still ails us in America (take time to read his post on Ferguson).
We cannot escape food and all that binds us to it.
The September air is already cool. Rain has returned to the relief of dusty dirt and crackling grass. The horses are sassy, kicking up their heels with this change in weather. And I am thinking about food. Fall has that profound effect. The cooling air reminds us that we have warm ovens; warm ovens remind us that we like to bake, cook and eat.
It’s not just me–sales in the food industry increase September thru October with a holiday peak of food madness in November and December. By January we wake up from our food comas and hit the gym. Spring gets us gardening, summer grilling, and fall returns with its obsession of food. It’s as much a cycle of life as seasons and milestones.
I’m not sure who is more comforted by the can of tuna–me or the cat–but Bootsy is satisfied enough to let me pet her and I’m pleased to have provided food. The exchange is complete.
September 3, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include food in your story. Is it the focus or part of the setting? Does it speak (à la Larry Laforge style), smell or feel slimy? Is it sensual or practical, basic fare or feast worthy? Food is a part of every day life. It connects us, is a part of cultures and regions, and can be emotive. As Michael W. Twitty writes, “Food is also extremely culturally connected and inherently economic and political. ”
Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, September 9 to be included in the compilation.
This week I wrote two flash fictions. One continues to explore Sarah, Cob and Hickok and the other is inspired by both Michael W. Twitty’s post (where I learned about the Red Summer of 1919) and Pete’s story, Rivals .
A Full Belly by Charli Mills
Cob sprawled in the four-poster bed. He’d picked up enough carpentry skills from his father to build a solid frame. Sarah rested her cheek on his hairy chest. He snugged her close.
“There’s nothing like a full belly.” Cob sighed, drifting toward sleep. Sarah stiffened. She had eaten some stale bread sopped in milk along with a mealy apple from the station.
“Possum pie with the first sweet potatoes from the garden. Fried apple rings. Corn fritters. Cold milk from that cow Leroy brought over for Mary to make sweet cream butter.”
Sarah sat upright. “Hickok stopped by today…”
Again by Charli Mills
After the gym, the trio met up at Frutta. Meg babbled about “Baby Einstein” and Jade mistook it for the unborn baby’s name.
“Silly, it’s a learning program. Jacob Marcus Green III will have every educational advantage.”
Bre was browsing her Kindle Fire, slurping a cranberry wheatgrass smoothie. She mumbled, “…black youth killed…riots in the streets…militia called in…thousands homeless…”
“What’s that about?” Meg sipped her carrot juice sweetened with organic pressed apples.
“Sounds like Ferguson.”
“Huh?” Bre looked up to wide blue eyes set in canned-tan faces. “Don’t worry. Just reading one of those 100 Years Ago Today articles.”
Rules of Play:
- New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
- Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
- Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
- Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
- If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
- Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
- Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
- Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
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