Wild Plums

I knew about wild plums twice before I tasted any.
The first time was when the Sunday school women were going plum ming; Father hunched his shoulders and laughed without making any sound. He said wild plums were small and inferior, and told us of fruits
he had eaten in Italy.

Mother and father were surprised that Mrs. Guare and the school
teacher would go with Mrs. Slump to gather plums. I knew it was not
nice to go plumming, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to go once, so
that I would understand. The women stopped at the house to invite
mother. She explained that we did not care for wild plums; but father
said we feared to taste the sacred seed lest we be constrained to dwell
forever in the nether regions.

Mrs. Slump said, “Huh? You don’t eat the pits. You spit ’em out,” and
father hunched his shoulders and laughed the noiseless laugh that
bothered mother.

When father talked to people he didn’t like he sorted his words, and
used only the smooth, best ones. Mother explained to me it was because
he had spoken only German when he was little.

After the women had gone mother and father quarreled. They spoke
low so I would not hear them. Just before mother sent me out to play
she said that even wild plums might give savor to the dry bread of

The second time I knew about plums was at Mrs. Slump’s house
when she was making plum butter. She said she couldn’t ask us in
because the floor was dirty from stirring jam. The Slumps didn’t use
chairs. They had boxes to sit on, and the children sat on the floor with
the dogs. They were the only people I knew who had hounds. I wanted to go in. We never had visited them. We were at their house now because
father needed to take home a plow they had borrowed. Father didn’t like
to have his machinery stand outdoors. He had a shed where he kept
plows when he was not using them, but the Slumps left theirs where
they unhitched.

Mrs. Slump was standing in the door with her back toward us when
we drove up. She was fat, and wore wrappers. Her wrapper was torn
down the back.

Mr. Slump came out, and father talked to him. He was tall and lean.
Mrs. Slump came and stood by the buggy, too. Mother and father sat on
the front seat of the buggy, and Teressa and I on the back seat. Teressa
was older than I, and had longer legs. When she stretched her feet
straight out she could touch the front seat with her toes, and I couldn’t.
She bumped the seat behind mother, and mother turned around and
told her to stop. My feet didn’t touch father’s seat, so I wasn’t doing
anything and didn’t have to stop it. Teressa pinched me.

I climbed out of the buggy without asking if I might. Teressa started
to tell mother I was getting out, but waited to see what I intended to do.
I was going to walk around behind Mrs. Slump. She had no stockings
on, and the Sunday school women said she didn’t wear underclothes. I
wanted to see if this was so.

Mother called me back. Sometimes mother knew what I was thinking
about without asking me. She took hold of my arm, hard, as I climbed
onto the buggy step, and said under her breath, “I’d be ashamed! I’d be
ashamed!” Her face was twisted because she tried not to stop smiling at
Mrs. Slump while she shook my arm. I kept trying to explain, but she
wouldn’t let me. Her stopping me made me want to say the thing she
thought I was going to, but I didn’t dare.

Mr. Slump said he would bring the plow back in the morning. Father
wanted to take it home himself, then; but Mr. Slump said he wouldn’t
hear to it, being as how he had borrowed it and all. He would bring it
behind the lumber wagon the next day, and leave it in the road. They
were going after more plums and would be passing the house anyway.
The next morning after breakfast, father, mother, and I were in the
kitchen. Teressa had scraped the plates and gone to feed the chickens.
She did not like to sit still while people talked. She liked to do things that
made her move around. Mother and father were talking, and I was
looking out of the window. If I looked at the sun and then away, it made
enormous morning-glories float over the yard. Father had told me they
were in my eyes and not in the air, so I didn’t call him to look at them.

While I was watching them, Clubby Slump came up the lane in the middle of a lavender one. Clubby was bigger than I, and stupider. When
any one spoke to him, he stood with his mouth open and didn’t answer.
His hair needed combing, and he didn’t use a handkerchief. Mother said
good morning to him. He pointed to a wagon at the end of the lane. He
said, “Plums!” and ran back down the path.

Mother and father started toward the road, and I went ahead of them.
The wagon had stopped at the foot of the cottonwood lane. Mr. Slump
sat on the high board seat, holding the reins. Mrs. Slump was beside
him, with the baby on her lap. Liney Slump was between them. On the
seat behind were Mrs. Guare and two women I didn’t know. The rest of
the wagon was full of children. Mr. Slump had forgotten the plow.
“All you’uns pile in,” Mrs. Slump called to us. “We’re go in’ plumming’
on the Niniscaw and stay all night. The yungan can go driving’. There
ain’t no work driving’ you this time a’ year, so just pile in. We got bedding’ for everybody.”

Mr. Slump sat looking at the horses’ ears. Whenever Mrs. Slump
stopped talking he would say, “I tole you they’all wouldn’t go, but you
would stop,” and Mrs. Slump would answer, “There now, Paw, you

I had not known one could live so long without breathing as I lived
while Mrs. Slump was asking us to go. I could see my heart-beats
shaking my collar — a lace collar that was hanging by one end down my
chest; I had forgotten to put it on right.

I waited for mother to lift her foot and plant it on the wagon hub,
ready for “piling’ in”; for father to take her elbow, and lift. Every one
would laugh a little, and talk loud. They always did when women got
into wagons. I had never seen mother climb into a wagon, but I knew
how it would be. I wondered if father would jump in without tossing
me up first. Father got into wagons quick, without laughing or joking. I
wondered if he would forget me. The children would see me, and lean
over the end-board, and dangle me up by one arm. I thought frantically
of Teressa.

Then father was speaking, and my breath came back.
He was saying, “If you happen on a plum thicket, an outcome highly
unlikely, you still face the uncertainty of finding plums. The season has
been too dry. And should you find them, they will prove acrid and unfit
for human consumption.”

My collar hung limp and motionless. My heart was dead. Father was
spoiling things again.

Mrs. Slump said, “They make fine jell,” and Mr. Slump repeated, “I tole you they-all wouldn’t go, but you would stop.” He was gathering up the lines.

I hated to see mother’s face, feeling the stricken look it would have.
But I knew I must smile at her not to care. Strangely enough, she had a
polite look on her face. It was the look that made my fingers think of
glass. My mind slipped off from it without knowing what it meant. She
was smiling.

“Really, it isn’t possible for us to go with you to-day,” she said. “It was
kind of you to ask us. I hope you will have a lovely outing, and find lots
of plums.”

As she spoke she glanced at me. She moved closer, and took my hand.
Mrs. Slump looked down at me, too, and said, “Can’t the kid go? Kids
like being’ out.”

Mother’s hand closed firmly on mine. “I’m afraid not, without me.
Besides,” with a severe look at my collar, “she isn’t properly dressed.”
“Oh, we kin wait while she takes off that purity dress,” Mrs. Slump
suggested comfortably; but mother flushed and shook her head.
Mr. Slump was twitching at the lines and clucking to the horses. His last “I tole you” was drowned in shouted good-bys, and the wagon clattered down the road.

Mother walked back to the house still holding my hand. Once inside,
she turned to me. “Would you really have gone with those—” She hesitated, and finished, “with those persons?” “They were going to sleep outdoors all night,” I said. Mother shuddered. “Would you have gone with them?”
“Mrs. Guare was with them,” I parried, knowing all she did not say.
“Would you have gone?”
She stood for a long time looking out of the window at the prairie
horizon, then searched my face curiously. “It might have been as well,”
she said. “It might be as well,” and turning, she began to clear the
breakfast table.

The next day I played in the road. Usually I spent the afternoons
under the box-elder trees, or by the ditch behind the machine-sheds,
where dragon-flies and pale blue moths circled just out of reach. But
this day I spent beside the road. Mother called me to the house to bring
cobs, and called me again to gather eggs in the middle of the afternoon.
She called me a third time. Her face looked uncomfortable.

She said, “If the Slumps go by, do not ask them for any plums.”
Mother knew I would not ask.
“If they offer any, do not take them.”
“What shall I say?”
“Say we do not care for them.”
“If they make me take them?”
Refuse them.”

When the Slumps came in sight the horses were walking. The Ninis-caw was fifteen miles away, and the team was tired. I thought I could talk to the children as the wagon passed, but just before it reached me, Mr. Slump hit the horses twice with a willow branch. They trotted, and
the wagon rattled by.

The children on the last seat were facing toward me. They laughed and waved their arms. Clubby leaned backward and caught up a handful of plums. The wagon bed must have been half filled. He flung them toward me; and then another handful. They fell, scattering, in the thick
dust, which curled around them in little eddies, almost hiding them
before I could catch them up.

The plums were small and red. They felt warm to my fingers. I wiped
them on the front of my dress, and dropped them in my apron. I waited
only for one secret rite, before I ran, heart pounding, to tell my mother
what I had discovered.

She interrupted me, “Did they see you picking them up?” I thought of myself standing like Clubby Slump, mouth open, with-out moving. I laughed till two plums rolled out of my apron. “Oh, yes! I had them picked up almost before the dust stopped wriggling. I called, ‘Thank you.’”

Still mother was not pleased. “Throw them away,” she said. “Surely
you would not care to eat something flung to you in the road.”

It was hard to speak. I moved close to her and whispered, “Can’t I
keep them?”

Mother left the room. It seemed long before she came back. She put
her arm around me and said, “Take them to the pump and wash them
thoroughly. Eat them slowly, and do not swallow the skins. You will not
want many of them, for you will find them bitter and not fit to eat.”

I went out quietly, knowing I would never tell her that they were
strange on my tongue as wild honey, holding the warmth of sand that
sun had fingered, and the mystery of water under leaning boughs.
For I had eaten one at the road.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

× 6 = 42