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A North Carolina native, Robert Morgan, born in Hendersonville, has been nicknamed "The Poet Laureate of Appalachia." He currently lives in Freeville, New York and teaches at Cornell University. Oprah Winfrey recently selected Gap Creek, which Morgan discusses on North Carolina Bookwatch, for her national bookclub. He has received four NEA Fellowships and the New York Times named "The Truest Pleasure" a New York Times Notable.
The Truest Pleasure
"Set the canner further back on the stove," Ma Richards said. All the good feeling from the dinner table was gone from her voice.
"I've got to leave room to set the other one on," I said.
"You won't need room if that tips over on you," Ma snapped. She had changed back to her old self. Instead of answering I started carving up more fat at the table. I sliced twenty times this way and twenty times crossways. The fat sliced easy as clotted cream or thick jelly. My left hand was so slick with grease I couldn't pick up anything but the blocks of fat. I raked the knife across the board harder than I needed to, to show how determined I was to get the job done and ignore Ma.
There was a little blood on the fat and on the board also, and I hardly noticed when I felt a nip at the end of my middle finger as I held a slab down to slice it. But when I saw the bright blood on the white fat I knowed I'd cut myself. A drop fell from the end of my finger, and then another. "Oh no," I said.
"What have you done?" Ma said.
"Just a nick," I said.
"Don't get blood on the lard fat," Ma said.
I grabbed a dishcloth and wiped the grease off my finger. I'd cut a place on the tip about the size of a pinhead. But it kept bleeding bright red drops. I cleaned off the left hand with the cloth and tore a strip from a fresh linen rag. I bound up the finger as best I could to stop the bleeding.
"That's what comes of being in a hurry," Ma said.
"I'll have to be more careful," I said. I wasn't going to take the time to get mad at Ma, and I wasn't going to stoop to the level of her snideness. With the bandage on my finger I finished slicing up the second pan of fat and then lugged the heavy canner to the top of the stove. But as I slid the container onto the stovetop I pushed it too far to the right and hit the canner already there. The boiling fat rocked like a wave had been sent through it. I backed away and seen a tongue of boiling lard spit up and over the rim as the wave sloshed on the side of the canner. The flung grease hissed on the stovetop and turned to crackling bubbles and smoke. But there must have been enough grease so that some of it busted into flame, for I seen fire on top of the stove. That might not have amounted to nothing, except the rocking and sloshing continued in the canner and the hot oil spit out again and leapt right into the flames. With a whoosh the fire flared on the stovetop. I think it would still have been all right and just burned there sizzling on the metal except a little more grease sloshed out of the pot and the fire caught onto that and followed the splash back into the pot. That was when the fire blazed up in the canner itself. All the hot oil caught at once and the flames jumped to the ceiling, lighting the kitchen.
"Oh my god," Ma said.
I looked around for something to throw on the flames. There wasn't a blanket or quilt anywhere. There wasn't anything bigger than a dish towel.
Now a grease fire is a worse kind of fire than usual. A grease fire hisses and jumps from one spot to another. There was grease all over the stove and all over the kitchen. The flames darted from one spot to another.
Ma run out to the back porch and got the water bucket. I'd heard that throwing water on boiling grease is the worst thing you can do, and I hollered for her to stop. But she flung the bucket of water right onto the flaming pot. You would think cold water would put a fire out, but the dousing exploded in a hiss and made the boiling lard splash in all directions. The flames followed the leap of the splash. The water just spread the fire. Flames landed on the second canner of fat and on the dishpans full of fat on the table. The whole kitchen seemed to turn to flames before my eyes. The curtains on the wall caught fire, and heat blistered my face.
"We'll have to get out," I yelled to Ma. I pulled her toward the back door. Smoke was already so thick you couldn't see much but the flames in the kitchen.
Mr. Pendergast come running in with another bucket of water.
I guess he must have been to the spring. "Don't throw no water," I hollered. But he flung the water right on the fire, making even more smoke and steam.
"I've got to get my money," he shouted.
"What money?" I said. It was so hot I could barely stand in the doorway.
"My pension money," he yelled.
"You come back," I said, and grabbed at his arm. But he had already jerked away. He dropped to the floor and crawled under the smoke. I knelt down where I could see, out of the worst smoke, and watched him work his way to the right of the stove.
"Get back here," I hollered.
"You better stop him!" Ma screamed.
I knowed Mr. Pendergast kept a can of kerosene sometimes used to start fires behind the stove, but I had forgot about it. He reached into the corner behind the wood box and brought out a pint jar. And I think he would have made it out except for this explosion that flared up behind the stove. It must have been the kerosene catching fire. I screamed as the flames covered Mr. Pendergast up.
"Let him go," Ma shouted. But I couldn't just leave Mr. Pendergast laying there in the fire. I had to try to help him. He was screaming and the fire seemed to be right on top of his head.
"Take his foot," I hollered to Ma, but she was already out the door and on the back steps coughing and trying to get her breath. "Grab hold of his foot," I said.
I took hold of Mr. Pendergast's feet and yanked as hard as I could, and he moved a little. I was coughing too and felt smothered from the smoke. I jerked harder and got Mr. Pendergast halfway out the door. And then Ma took one of his feet and helped me pull him onto the porch.
Mr. Pendergast's hair was burning, and part of his shirt was burning. I didn't have nothing but my apron, and I put my apron over his hair and snuffed out the flames. I burned my hands a little, but got the fire out. And just then Ma brought a bucket of water still warm from the washpot and throwed it on his shirt. We rolled Mr. Pendergast over on the wet porch and seen how bad his face and forehead was burned. The skin looked black on his forehead and scalp where his hair had been. His eyebrows was burned off and the skin on his cheeks looked red and peeling, and bloody in places under the soot.
I was thinking we had to put something on his face and on his back where his shirt had burned. What you put on burns is butter or lard or some other kind of grease or oil. There was butter in the spring house, but the lard was burning up in the kitchen. And then I thought, No, I'd better try to put the fire out first. If I can I've got to save the house. I stood up and looked in the door.
"You stay out of there," Ma Richards hollered. "Nothing you can do."
Smoke poured out the door and out the windows. You couldn't see nothing in the kitchen. I couldn't even see any flames. That made me think nothing was burning but the lard, and maybe that could be put out. I looked around the porch and seen a pile of tow sacks by the hoes and shovel and mattock. They had been used I guess for taking corn to mill or carrying leaves to put in cow stalls. I grabbed up eight or ten sacks and run to the washpot.
"What are you doing?" Ma Richards called.
"Putting out the fire," I hollered back. I plunged the sacks into the pot and pulled them out streaming warm water. With my arms around the dripping sacks I run toward the back door.
"You stay out of there," Ma yelled.
I leaped up the steps and run past Mr. Pendergast into the smoking kitchen. The smoke was so thick I couldn't see much. Bending close to the floor I walked to the stove and throwed wet sacks on the burning canners, and then the smoke boiled up worse and I couldn't hardly see what I was doing. I run back out to the pile of sacks and got eight or nine more and carried them to the washpot.
"You stay out of there!" Ma screamed. But I didn't pay no attention to her. I carried the hot dripping sacks against my chest and hurried through the back door. I figured if the house could be saved I had to try. I'd started the fire, and I had to stop it. I stepped across Mr. Pendergast laying on the porch. He was starting to wake up from the smoke swoon, and hollering.
Fighting my way into the smoke, holding my breath and bending down low as I could, I put sacks on the burning grease on the table. I flung sacks on the burning can of kerosene and used the rest of the sacks like a shield to walk up to the burning curtains and jerk them down and smother them.
I started coughing, and every time I coughed I breathed in more smoke. Smoke burned my eyes so I couldn't see nothing. I put a hand over my eyes and started toward the door. To keep from breathing smoke I held my breath, and it felt like my chest was going to bust. The longer I held my breath the more it felt like my chest was ready to explode. And then I couldn't find the door. Smoke was everywhere and my eyes stung so I couldn't see. And I couldn't breathe for coughing and smothering myself. The smoke was so thick I couldn't tell up from down, or remember where the door was or where the table was. I was so weak I couldn't hardly stand up. My knee knocked against something hard, and my head banged on a sharp corner. There was nothing to breathe but smoke, dirty, greasy smoke.
Somebody pushed me and lifted me, and the next thing I knowed I was hobbling and tripping down the steps out into the yard where the air was cool. It was Hank helping me outside. The air was fresh, but every time I took a breath I coughed, and smoke burned in my lungs and in my throat. I bent over and felt something wet leap in my throat, and found I was throwing up on the ground. I was trying to throw up all the smoke I had swallowed, but puked out tenderloin and grits and butter, now sour and bitter. I had to throw up everything. I heaved until tears come to my eyes and I was so weak I was trembling.
"What in the world happened?" Hank said.
"Julie bumped a canner and the lard caught fire," Ma Richards said.
When I was empty I stood up straight and wiped my mouth and brow. "You could have been killed," Ma Richards said.
"The fire is out," Hank said. He looked through the doorway into the smoke. "You put it out just in time, before the floor or walls caught." He stepped out on the porch fanning the smoke with his hand. I looked through the back door and seen the smoke was settling in the kitchen. The top half of the room was already clear. And I seen Mr. Pendergast laying on the porch floor groaning. His face looked awful with its burns, but he was still holding the pint jar, and in the jar was dollar bills and coins like sliced pickles. A silver dollar had rolled out of the jar onto the porch.
Copyright © 1999 by Robert Morgan. All rights reserved.