The fat body of a hornworm hit my pail and Elsie dashed to catch up. I don’t know why she was rushing; it’s not like there weren’t plenty to go around. Each plant was alive with hungry mouths tearing at the leaves; the ground was littered with the dark pellets that come out the other end.
“Seems like for every worm we pluck, another ten grows behind our back.” Elsie whined.
I paid her no mind and started deeper into the tobacco fields while Elsie wrestled with her apron. The sun was barely high enough that we could see what we were doing, but already it was hot as horseradish.
“Hey Annabelle, you wanna go to the picture show this weekend?” Elsie’s voice floated over from the next row.
“No, I’m saving my money for a copy of Ivanhoe that came in at McGurty’s.”
“But Mama won’t let me go by myself and I’ll never get to see it.”
I heard a whump and I knew Elsie had just planted herself on the ground. I pretended not to pay her any mind and kept at what I was doing. The hornworms are kinda pretty when they’re small, like a tiny made-up creature from the Bible, but I wasn’t in any mood to marvel. I dropped ’em in my bucket in a steady rhythm.
“If you don’t keep picking those hornworms, you won’t have money to go, so it won’t matter,” I said nastily.
Elsie’s sigh rattled the fallen tobacco leaves on the ground and I felt a little less mean. I knew she didn’t have many girlfriends, just me, and I’m her big sister so I don’t count.
“Ain’t you been asked by a boy?” I asked. “Then you don’t need money, because they supposed to pay.”
“How am I supposed to get asked out by a boy when I always got worm guts all over my clothes?”
I looked down at my own dress. It had been washed just yesterday, but it was spattered with old tobacco juice and green streaks from the worms that got squished. The aprons Mama made me usually got the worst of it, but somehow the stains seemed to work themselves onto my dress too.
“Well, Denny asked me to go with him, and I’m just as dirty as you.”
“Annabelle! Denny asked you to a picture and you didn’t even tell me?”
“There ain’t no law that says I have to tell you everything, is there?” Truth was, Elsie had been nursing a crush on Denny Bones since as long as I could remember. That had killed any appeal he might have had for me. “Anyway, I told him I wouldn’t go.”
Elsie’s face showed between two stalks, looking like a cross mule. “Why’d you do a crazy thing like that?”
“Because you like him, Stupid. Besides, he ain’t my type.”
“Listen here, Miss Priss, just because I have to wear your hand-me-down dresses don’t mean I want your castoff boys.”
I rolled my eyes in that way Elsie hated. “It’s not like that. He only asked me because I got my bosoms first. It’s you he’s always walking home from school.”
She barged over into my row, hands on her hips. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Don’t worry, I told him yours would be busting out any day now.” Elsie’s hands flew to her chest like she was checking to see if it was true.
“Annabelle Marie, you better not be talking about me like that to Denny Bones!”
“Don’t have a kitten, I didn’t really tell him that. I told him how you’re always talking nice about him—I ‘spect he’ll be asking you any day now.”
Elsie looked all panicky and blurted, “But what’ll I wear?”
“Something with not so much worm juice on it.”
I dug a handful of squirming tobacco worms out of the bucket and threw them at her; she squealed as their swelled-up bodies burst on her clothes. Elsie dove back into her own row and I dodged as a rain of wriggly worms bounced off the brim of my hat.
We were late for school because we had to stop home and change clothes. Luckily, Mama and Daddy were out in the fields and didn’t see us sneak into the house; we would have been in trouble for sure if they’d seen what our clothes looked like after our hornworm fight. After we got on fresh clothes, I put our dresses to soak in a bucket of soapy water in the barn. The water foamed up green, there was so much hornworm juice in it.
If we were worried about Mama and Daddy giving us a hiding, it was nothing compared to what was in store for us at school. Miss Stuart, our teacher, enforced promptness with a willow switch. There weren’t enough students for a separate middle school, so grades seven through nine met in one classroom. I was in ninth grade and Elsie in seventh so we were on opposite sides of the room—there was no way to slip in unnoticed. As we went quietly to our desks, Miss Stuart’s beady eyes followed us like a crow circling an ailing calf.
When she dismissed the class for recess, Elsie and I knew better than to budge from our seats. Miss Stuart made a point to get the willow switch down off the wall and tuck it under her arm before she walked over to us.
“Now then, girls, what is your explanation for your tardiness?” She asked us like she cared about the answer, but I knew we’d get switched no matter what we said.
“Miss Stuart, it weren’t our fault.” Elsie tried, but she was just making things worse. “You know we gotta go to the ‘baccy fields afore school.”
Miss Stuart snapped that switch down onto the edge of the desk and we both jumped at the whip-crack. “Elsie Mays, when are you ever going to learn to speak properly?”
The only thing Miss Stuart hated more than tardiness was bad speech; I think it had something to do with her being a Yankee. Last term she picked on Irene Smalls so much the poor child hasn’t spoken a word in class since. Elsie usually does talk better, but she’d never been whipped by anybody but Daddy, and that switch was making her nervous. As for me, I do a lot more reading than Elsie, and after a couple of years under Miss Stuart I had learned to speak her language.
“Miss Stuart, what Elsie meant to say was that we were forced to work longer in the fields this morning, but we did our best to get here on time.” The teacher turned a cold eye my way, but I kept my face as sorry-looking as I could. “I take full responsibility for our tardiness and promise never to let it happen again.”
Before Miss Stuart could say anything else, Patty Lee Gibson showed up in the doorway. Patty Lee moved here from Georgia with her rich, widdered daddy, and I’d heard Miss Stuart describe her as a “perfectly charming child—not at all like the trash I’m usually forced to endure.” If you ask me, Miss Stuart was more charmed by Mr. Gibson and his money, but she always treated Patty Lee like she was a princess.
“Come in, Patty Lee.” Miss Stuart said. “Is there something I can do for you, honey?”
“No, Miss Stuart, it’s only that there was something I thought you should know. This morning when my daddy was driving me to school, we passed Elsie and Annabelle carrying on like a bunch of heathens in the tobacco fields. I’d swear they were throwing those filthy worms at each other.”
I glared at Patty Lee something fierce; everybody knew she had a habit of listening outside windows, so she’d probably heard us lie. Of course, Miss Stuart believed her. We ended up getting licked for telling a lie and showing up late to class.
I was real proud of Elsie, though—she didn’t howl or nothing at each flick of the switch. Miss Stuart couldn’t see Elsie’s face, but I could, and I saw she was mouthing, “I’m gonna get that Patty Lee,” over and over to herself. I could hardly keep from grinning; even though Elsie was younger than me, she was sneakier than a fox up a tree. Whatever she had in mind for Patty Lee, I was glad that somebody else would be on the receiving end of one of my sister’s pranks for a change.
We were both pretty sore the next morning, but we had to get up and pick worms just the same. Daddy wouldn’t pay us if there was no tobacco to take to market. At least this was the best time of day to be in the fields, when the damp kept the dirt down. It would dry out by ten or so and then everything would be covered in a film of dust. Sometimes the air got so thick that when I blew my nose at the end of the day, I could practically plant some corn in my hankie.
I kept a careful eye on the sun; there was no way we were going to be late to school today. Elsie lagged behind by the buckets when it was time to leave, and I snapped at her. “If you’re late this morning, it’s your own stupid fault!”
“I’ll just be a minute—you go ahead and I’ll catch up.”
I shook my head and started up the road. Afore too long, I heard her feet kicking up the dirt as she hurried to come alongside me. I gave her a look, but she ignored me with a funny little smirk on her face.
I didn’t see Elsie all recess, and she was a little late coming back. We must have still been on Miss Stuart’s bad list because she decided to keep Elsie and me in at lunchtime, even though I didn’t do anything.
The teacher dismissed everyone for lunch and gave me and Elsie a whole list of sums to do. It was lucky for Elsie that Miss Stuart stayed at her desk, or I would’ve walloped my sister—no way could I finish these and still have time to eat.
After a little while, here came Patty Lee skipping in to see why Miss Stuart hadn’t come outside to eat.
“I’m sorry, Patty Lee, but I have to keep an eye on these miscreants.” That was just like Miss Stuart, to use a word like “miscreants” that nobody but a Yankee knows what it means.
“Since you’re stuck inside,” Patty Lee said sweetly, “I’ll stay with you, Miss Stuart, and we can share lunches.”
A funny squeak came from Elsie and we all turned to stare at her. “’Scuse me, ma’am. We had beans for supper last night.”
I knew darn well we hadn’t, but now I knew Elsie was up to something. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, but her eyes were fixed on Patty Lee and Miss Stuart. I nearly split my head in two trying to watch them and Elsie at the same time.
Patty Lee was taking the waxed paper off her sandwich, and Miss Stuart brought out a dainty pearl pocketknife to cut it in two. Miss Stuart raised her half of the sandwich to take a bite, and just as she had it almost to her lips, something shifted in the filling.
I should tell you, hornworms are just like other worms—if you cut them in half, they thrash around awhile. So Miss Stuart found herself face to face with an oozing worm segment, still with the head on and clicking its mouthparts at her. She shrieked and flung the sandwich as far away from her as she could.
Quick as lightning, Miss Stuart snatched up the willow switch and started whaling on Patty Lee. They were both screaming and hollering so loud that all the other boys and girls came running in from lunch. It took three of the ninth grade boys just to pull Miss Stuart off—Patty Lee ran down the street bawling for her daddy.
By the time Mr. Gibson got over to the school, we’d all learned a lot more words from Miss Stuart, but you won’t find them in any Bible. (You might find them in Shorty Hanson’s exercise book, because I saw him copying them down as fast as Miss Stuart could spout them.)
Patty Lee’s daddy got Miss Stuart sent back to Boston or wherever she come from, and we got us a new teacher. Miss Hinkey grew up in these parts, so she’s a little more understanding when Elsie and I come late from the tobacco fields.
But I think Elsie scared Denny Bones with how rotten vengeful she could be because he never did ask her out. He took up with that quiet girl, Irene Smalls, and Elsie said good riddance. I did catch her crying once behind the barn, but she said it was because she felt sorry we were having her pet chicken for supper.
I didn’t put much store in that since she ate the most chicken out of all of us later that night— but I let her have my drumstick just the same.