Me and Homer rode up the misty bottom along a trifling creek, houses on either side, fields recently shed of corn and sorghum, cabbage and beans. After a mile, we turned right and stopped at a house where the mill and fire pit set. The mule, church tall and solid, brayed and honked and the sound bounced off the sides of the holler. Three men stood by the mill talking and spitting. When they seen us, they cut down a sapling twelve foot long and stripped it. They fixed one end of the sapling pole to the top of the mill, which had two drums of steel set not an inch apart, attached to gears. They hooked the other end to the harness bar. They hitched the mule to the harness. Me and Homer set out his stuff by the pit. The men set the mule walking the raw dirt path that circled the mill.
I asked the youngest of the men, bearded in a trucker hat, how long they’d been making sorghum there.
He spit his tobacco, said, “Aint never not.”
A second man, had a silver moustache, said, “That aint entirely true.”
Three giants come in the back of a truck, their spindly daddy driving. They brung a stainless steel pan, four foot across and ten foot long, scorched black across the bottom, had baffles let you push the juice back and forth from the back of the pan to the front. Front end of the pan had a built in spout.
The fire pit was three cinderblocks high on either side. At one end was a chimney. The other end was open. The giants piled firewood in the pit, good dry oak. They lay beer cartons and junk mail on top of the wood. They set the pan on the pit, packed it in with red clay dirt left over from the pitchers mound at the high school ball field. They put a lighter to the paper and the fire caught and grew. They filled the pan with water. The water soon started bubbling. They poured the snot green cane juice in the end farthest from the chimney, a little at first. A handful of rags separated the juice from the water. The giants used the pile of rags to push the water forward, back and forth between the baffles. A whole row filled with juice, then a second, the water at the front of the pan boiling harder.
The men stood with their elbows against the shed. They stood with their hands in their pockets. They stared into the pan. They talked about what interested them. About nothing.
The youngest giant had been making money. “Been flipping trucks,” he said. “Buy them for five hundred, take them back to Granny’s, wash them, detail them, sell them for eight, twelve hundred.”
Man said, “Your granny still sell liquor?”
The youngest giant said, “People still drinking it?”
They pulled the wood plug at the front end of the pan, let the boiling water run out into a bucket. My job was to dump the steaming bucket at the edge of the woods. When half the pan was filled with juice, a scum rose to the surface of the juice, and we skimmed the scum with blocks of wood an inch thick and a bit narrower than the space between the baffles. We lay the wood blocks on the juice’s surface, and the scum stuck to it. We scraped the scum into another bucket.
Della came from work, tended the fire, kept it like Homer said to. The juice browned as it moved forward. When it browned too fast, Homer had one of them dip the juice out, move it back in with the cooler, greener juice. They would dip into the brown, move the juice back into the green, so the cooking stayed slow, so the browning came even.
While the juice cooked, the mule made its rounds. A woman and her two young daughters come in a van with two women with guitars and fiddles. The daughters lay the cut end of the cane next to the mill. The woman sat in a chair, her cheeks red as bathroom plungers, stuck the butts of the cane between the drums of the mill. The drums crushed the cane, and the juice drained through a screen into a tub. When the tub filled, the giants took it to the garbage can beside the pit and poured it into the can.
One of the men said something about seeing a truck broke down at the mouth of a holler called Muttertown. Said, “I sure feel sorry for him. Broke down in Muttertown. Good way to get killed.”
The giants’ spindly daddy said, “Nobody never had no trouble in Muttertown was minding their own business.”
June said, “You live in Muttertown?”
The spindly daddy spit, said, “Where you from?”
June said, “Canard County. Kentucky.”
The spindly daddy lit a cigarette, said, “I married into Muttertown.”
I said, “I’d like to go there some time.”
The spindly daddy said, “I been to Canard.”
June said, “That right?”
He said, “That was a rough place. Still that way?”
June smiled, said, “Not if you’re minding your business.”
He said, “My sister went to Berea to make a nurse. We was bringing her home Easter. Stopped in Canard for lunch. Somebody’d stole her suitcases out of the truck while we was eating.”
June said, “I’m sorry.”
He said, “Don’t reckon it was you.”
Another man spoke. “We went up there, to Canard, to play football one time. They was a man sat in the end zone with a shotgun across his lap dare you to score. They’d throw rocks at you when you was leaving. Had to wear your helmet on the bus.”
The men laughed. Della threw wood on the fire. Homer stood at the far end of the pan and directed me and the giants. June hadn’t told Della about Hubert killing Little Colbert while he was on top of me, trying to make a woman of me.
Make a woman of me. Way Little Colbert put it.
Homer told us how to stir the juice. He told us how to push the juice back and forth along the baffles. He hemmed and hawed at the men, beat his bandages against his hips. It killed him not to do it himself.
Homer said, “You aint in no hurry.”
It got warm, the sun full on us when the men got to talking about politics.
The middle giant said, “They need to build that wall. They’s too many of them. I don’t mind a few. But they’s getting to be too many.”
“Like the deer,” another said.
“Like the bear,” said the third.
Their spindly daddy said, “They need a longer season on them damn bear. Mexicans too.”
Nobody laughed. Nobody called bullshit either.
I was on the opposite side of the pan from the giants’ spindly daddy. The ridge above his head was covered with Christmas trees, all lined up in rows, like quotation marks without a word to say.
I watched the sorghum. I looked into Homer’s eyes.
“Frog eyes,” he said.
“Frog eyes,” I said back to him.
The spindly daddy looked out over the bottom to the mill. He said, “Used to be when we’d do this, you’d have two three hundred people here. Different musicians playing all night long. Kids running around. Look now. Bunch of old men standing out in the cold.”
I looked around. The giants was older than me, but they was still boys, and they got quiet, looked down, tried to seem older. Two young women sat on hay bales between us and the mill playing fiddle and guitar. The two young women sang “Bam a lam. Black Betty had a child. Bam a lam. Damn things gone wild.” They sang it country style. Then they laughed.
Spindly daddy said, “World’s gone to hell.”
Homer said, “Yellowjacket.” And scooped one out got caught in the juice.
Della looked up from the fire, said, “Abraham, how’s your mother doing?”
Spindly daddy said, “Hanging in there. Sure is. There every time the church doors open.”
Della said, “Good woman, your mother.”
Homer said, “Boys, I’m gonna take me a wiz.”
Young giant said, “One good thing about pissing in the woods. You don’t have to worry about lining up next to no homo in a dress.”
Another said, “Aint that a shame we have to make a law about the like.”
Third giant said, “I heard they might take the NBA All-Star game away from Charlotte over it.”
Spindly daddy said, “Good riddance.”
The sun dipped behind the ridge. The daughters made a fire for the women playing music at the hay bales. The women sang like birds in a high tree.
I wished my friend Pinky was there. My friend Pinky could sing. Pinky’s mother had been with every type of bad man there was. A Whitman’s sampler of shitbirds. One of them made Pinky and her mother sleep in the car in the dead of winter. Pinky got through ok, but her mother got bronchitis. They prescribed her Oxy. That’s how she got hooked on pills. She always held that against Pinky. More than one of Pinky’s mother’s men had taken it on theirselves to make a woman of Pinky.
If Hubert hadn’t stopped little Colbert from getting after me, I would know more how Pinky feels. What it is like to be Pinky.
Little Colbert’s face was already red when he was on top of me, red from fighting the forest fires. It got redder still as he tried to rape me. But the blood drained right out of his face when Hubert busted him with the skillet and killed him. He got right pale then.
That was the difference between me and Pinky. I knew who would kill somebody for me. Because they had.
When my breath locked up making sorghum, Della carried me away from the pit, to the edge of the woods, set me on a bed of pine needles. The sun come in on us straight, hard and warm, filled my eyes. Della took my hands, rubbed the top of them with her thumbs, told me I was ok, told me to focus on her hands on mine. Told me to keep my eyes closed. Told me I was a miracle.
Della said, “Baby, you’re a miracle. You’re a miracle.”
My breath caught. I opened my eyes. Della looked at me happy and surprised.
Della said, “You all right?”
I said yes.
Della left me on the pine needles. I lay my head back. I put my hands out on the needles. The mill kept turning. The men’s voices burbled and broke into laughter. I slept. When I woke, the sun had left the cove and shadows covered the sorghum works. The cane was ground. The mule stood tied by a long rope to a pine tree, eating grass, stamping his foot.
I went back to the pit. A man said, “Did we wear you out?”
I said I guessed so.
They poured new juice into the back end of the pan. Finished sorghum ran out the pipe at the other end near constantly.
I asked how much they’d made.
Homer said near ten gallons.
I asked was that good.
Homer said, “Pretty good.”
I went and stood beside Della.
One of the giants was about to pull the plug and let finished sorghum run into the bucket. Homer put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, told the boy to shine his phone’s light on the sorghum. He looked. He dipped his paddle into the sorghum, watched the drops run off.
He said, “Wait for it to come in sheets.”
The boy giant dipped again and watched the boiling sorghum run.
Homer said, “Take it.”
The giant boy hesitated.
Homer said, “Boy, you’re gonna scorch it,” reached across him, pulled the wooden plug with his fingertips. The sorghum poured golden through the flashlight, through the screen.
June said hey at my ear and put a blanket over my shoulders. I left it there a minute and then took it off, folded it, put it under my arm.
I said, “I think I’m ok to go.”
Homer stepped away from the pan, said, “Girl, come fish me out a cigarette.”
He leaned over and I took a pack of Winstons out of his shirt pocket and a lighter out of his pants pocket. I stuck the cigarette in his mouth and lit it.
Homer said, “I was gonna let you make the call on when this next batch is ready.”
I didn’t believe him. He hadn’t let nobody but Della do any thinking since they’d been there.
Homer said, “I see you watching. I know you got your ideas about how its done. You can’t know you can do it until you’ve done it.”
I said, “All right.”
Homer said, “You want the boil to look like frog eyes.”
I said, “They’s a temperature too, aint they?”
He said, “Two hundred and twenty-eight degrees.”
He handed me the thermometer.
He said, “Don’t let it touch bottom. Bottom hotter than the juice.”
There wasn’t steam coming off the sorghum when it got towards done. At the end, everything started going fast.
The oldest giant said, “Old dude, that’s mine she fixing. Don’t you let that youngun ruin my sorghum.”
Homer said in my ear, “Don’t listen to him.” Said to everybody, “She mess this up, I’ll give you the whole batch. All ten gallons.”
Oldest giant said, “Well all right, then.”
Homer said, “But if she gets it right, you give me all the pork meat I can pack off in one trip.”
Man said, “One trip?”
Homer said, “One trip.”
Della said, “Daddy, there aint no call for that.” Then to me she said, “Don’t listen to them, Nicky. You don’t have to be part of their foolishness.”
Homer said, “She aint scared. Are you, baby?”
I bent down over the pan. I had the thermometer in my hand, ready to dip it in. I leaned in, and I dropped it. The thermometer busted against the scum bucket.
One of the giants said, “Now she’s done it.”
The other said, “What are we gonna do with all that sorghum?”
Homer had his bandaged hand on me. The sorghum rolled in piles. I saw the sorghum-colored frog eyes, sure as if they were peeping out the water at pond’s edge.
I said, “Set that bucket.”
Giant said, “Are you sure?”
I took the pusher from Homer. Took a dip, let it run in sheets off the end. I moved the bucket myself. Pulled the plug, raked the sorghum into the screened bucket. Left a skim of juice to cover the pan, pulled the rags, let greener juice run over the place we’d just drained. Raked it all together. Stirred.
I said, “Della, squirt the fire, would you?”
She turned a hose on the wood, sprayed, hissed, cooled. I stirred. Exhaled.
Homer twisted a chunk of cane in the foam on the screen. He handed it to the mouthy giant.
Homer said, “Try that.”
The mouthy giant knocked Homer’s bandaged hand away.
Homer grinned, stuck that cane in his mouth, pulled it out sorghum clean.
Della handed me a foam-loaded chunk of cane. I tasted the sorghum, warm and full in my mouth.
I said, “MY GOD,” before I even thought.
Everybody but the giants and their spindly daddy laughed. June put her arm around me. My face felt sticky from standing over the sweet steam all day, but I felt better. I felt myself wanting to work.
The giants and their spindly daddy got their sorghum and left. We stayed until we ran the last drop. Fourteen gallons in all. We stayed until Della had drowned the fire, until the pan was scrubbed clean, until the sorghum was split up, until the tools were cleaned and loaded in the truck.
Back at Della and Homer’s, I took me a good long shower. When I come out, I smelled my smoky sweet jeans and hoodie. Felt strong. Slept right through the buzz of Pinky’s 4am text.