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Authors: Virginia Hamilton

M.C. Higgins, the Great

BOOK: M.C. Higgins, the Great
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M.C. Higgins, the Great

Virginia Hamilton

Susan Hirschman
















A Biography of Virginia Hamilton


raised his arms high to the sky and spread them wide. He glanced furtively around. It was all right. There was no one to see his greeting to the coming sunrise. But the motion of his arms caused a flutter of lettuce leaves he had bound to his wrists with rubber bands. Like bracelets of green feathers, the leaves commenced to wave.

M.C., as he was called, felt warm, moist air surround him. Humidity trapped in the hills clung to the mountainside as the night passed on. In seconds, his skin grew clammy. But he paid no attention to the oppressive heat with its odors of summer growth and decay. For he was staring out over a grand sweep of hills, whose rolling outlines grew clearer by the minute. As he stood on the gallery of his home, the outcropping on which he lived on the mountainside seemed to fade out from under him.

I’m standing in midair, he thought.

He saw dim light touch clouds clustered behind the eastern hills.

Bounce the sun beside me if I want.

All others of his family were still asleep in the house. To be by himself in the perfect quiet was reason enough for him to wake up way early. Alone for half an hour, he could believe he had been chosen to remain forever suspended, facing the hills. He could pretend there was nothing terrible behind him, above his head. Arms outstretched, picture-framed by pine uprights supporting the gallery roof, he was M.C. Higgins, higher than everything.

M.C. smiled. Going to be my best day, he told himself. He let his arms fall, and sniffed a bracelet of cold, fresh vegetable. He bit gently into a lettuce stem, pulling at it until he had an entire leaf to chew.

Will it really be mine—this mountain? Daddy says it will one day.

He loved the mountain, its long, lingering dawns. But he frowned, squinting off at the hills with night still huddled in their folds.

Now it won’t ever be mine.

He shivered as with a sudden chill, and stepped off the gallery.

Pay no mind to what Daddy says.

“We have to leave it,” he said softly, “and that’s a shame.”

M.C. walked quickly to the edge of the outcropping where tangled undergrowth made deep shadows. He avoided looking at the side yard with its burial ground covered with car junk, and his prize like no other.

See it later, he told himself, thinking of the prize. See it when the sun is making it shine.

Slipping through the undergrowth, he took one of the paths down the mountainside. Soon he was striding swiftly through piney woods. The leaf bracelets wafted on air as though in flight, as he plunged and wove among the trees.

M.C. was barefoot, wearing carefully ironed blue jeans and a brown, faded T-shirt. The shirt was the color and fit of a second skin over his broad shoulders. Already he was perspiring. But his motions remained lithe and natural, as he moved easily among trees and shade. Pushing through pine boughs, he continued on his errand.

Bet I haven’t caught a single rabbit, just like on Thursday and Saturday, too.

He had to check all three of his rabbit traps and then get home to wait for this new dude to arrive.

They were saying in the hills that some new kind of black fellow had come in with a little box of a tape recorder. All slicked down and dressed to kill, they were saying he was looking to put voices on the tape in his box.

And now M.C. knew how he could get around his daddy and get his mama and his brothers and sister off the dangerous mountain. The idea had come to him after he heard about the dude. Two days ago, greeting the sunrise, there it began in his mind, growing and growing with each new ray of light.

Dude going to make Mama a star singer like Sister Baby on the radio, M.C. thought. We’ll have to travel with her—won’t that he something? But Mama is better than Sister Baby. He’ll make her the best anybody ever heard.

The dude had already been told about M.C.’s mother and the kind of voice she had.

What if he gets to home when I’m gone? No, too early for him. He’ll have to walk it, M.C. thought. Probably lose himself about twice before he makes it up the mountain.

M.C. lived three miles inland from the Ohio River. His rabbit traps were strung out at the edge of a plateau between Sarah’s Mountain, where he lived on the outcropping, and a low hill called Kill’s Mound. On the Mound lived the Killburn people, whose youngest son was the same age as M.C.

M.C. smiled to himself as he moved like shadow through the damp stillness. Ben Killburn was just his age but only half his size. M.C. was tall, with oak-brown skin, like his mother; yet he was muscular and athletic, like his father. He had a hard strength and grace that helped make him the best swimmer ever to come out of the hills. The first time he had tried to swim the Ohio River, a year and a half ago, he almost drowned.

His father, finding him exhausted, vomiting on the river bank: “You think that river is some mud puddle you can wade right into without a thought?”

And then, his father beating him with his belt: “A boat wouldn’t go into that water not knowing how the currents run. (
) I’m not saying you can’t swim it (
), as good a swimmer as you are. (
) But you have to study it, you have to practice. You have to
you’re ready. (
) I’ll even give you a prize, anything that won’t cost me to spend some money. (

M.C. left the path and plunged into weeds of ginseng and wild daisy in a clearing. Standing still a moment, he searched until he spied the first trap half-hidden. Cautiously he picked his way toward it, for he had placed the trap at the edge of a long, narrow ravine. Across the ravine was Kill’s Mound but he could hardly see it. An abundance of trees grew up from the bottom of the ravine, blocking his view. He couldn’t glimpse the Killburn land, or houses and barns at all.

M.C. stopped again. He gave off a soft call. Cupping his hands tightly around his lips, he pitched the call high enough to make it sound like a young turkey gobbling. He remembered that when he was a child out with his father, they often came upon a whole flock of wild turkeys. Now all such birds were rarely seen.

M.C. listened.

Deep in the ravine, there came a soft answering sound, a yelp of a hound puppy nipped on the ear by his mama.

Ben Killburn was there waiting, as M.C. figured he would be. And after M.C. checked his traps, he would have time to spend with Ben.

Calling like birds and animals wasn’t just a game they played. It was the way M.C. announced he was there without Ben’s daddy and his uncles finding out. M.C. wouldn’t have wanted to run into the Killburn men any more than he would want his own father to know he was playing with Ben. Folks called the Killburns witchy people. Some said that the Killburn women could put themselves in trances and cast out the devil. Killburn men and women both could heal a bad wound by touching, although M.C. had never seen them do it. Boys scattered around the hills never would play with Ben. They said it was because he was so little and nervous. But M.C. had played with Ben from the time he was a child and didn’t know better. When he was older, he had been told. Now he guessed Ben was like a bad habit he couldn’t break and had to keep secret.

The traps M.C. made were a yard long, a foot high and a little more than a foot wide. He had put them together from scraps of wood and chicken wire.

Better soon take them apart, he thought. Stack them, so when we move. . . .

He checked them. Not a one of them is sprung, he said to himself.

Peering through the chicken wire, he saw that his lure of lettuce was still in place and rotting from two days of heat. The animal trails took the rabbits through the weeds into the ravine where they drank at a stream, and on to Mrs. Killburn’s large vegetable gardens.

Maybe her greens have gone sour, M.C. thought. Not one rabbit come even close.

Disgusted, he held the raised trapdoor in place. He reached inside and tore lettuce loose from the first trap. He threw the rotting lure as far as he could into the ravine. Cleaning out the other two traps, he took fresh lure from his wrist bands.

Just a waste of time, he thought, shoving lettuce into the traps. But I’d sure like to taste some wild meat.

Finishing the chore, M.C. fluffed up weeds where he had trampled them down, making the traps less obvious. Then he started down into the ravine, grabbing hold of a wood post of a vine bridge. The bridge hung across the ravine to a landing on Kill’s Mound.

My bridge, M.C. thought.

One time he had kept on thinking about how often Ben’s mother had to climb up the side of the ravine to go anyplace. Usually she carried one of her babies on her hip. Slowly it had come to him what could be done.

“Vines are thick,” he had told Ben. “You get your daddy and your uncles to cut them and make a weave.”

He told Ben that wood posts had to go in solid ground on each side of the ravine. He told how to soak the vines, then loop them at the top and bottom of each post, and how to weave the vines so they’d stay tight. How to tie them.

I figured it, M.C. thought, admiring the simple lattice weave of the bridge.

Only one trouble.

Ben was so used to living the same, he hadn’t trusted a new way of doing. It had taken Ben forever to make up his mind that M.C. knew what he was talking about. When he had finally told his father, Mr. Killburn dropped everything and set to work making the bridge.

Stretching himself out, M.C. held onto the post for as long as he could. Then he let go and plunged, running, sliding and falling down into the ravine. He had to keep watch for patches of seepage, which dried up in one place only to form again in another. The patches could be soft and muddy, or bottomless like sink holes. Growth covering them was yellow-green or black with rot.

Either way, M.C. thought, each is trouble.

He made it down the ravine without any danger to himself and into the midst of it, where the stream gurgled along.

Something swooshed over his head. M.C. ducked in a crouch. He smiled and turkey-gobbled softly. Staying down, he craned his head up and around to see.

Ben Killburn had come swinging out of the trees on the opposite side of the ravine, his hands and legs spidery tight around a strong, old vine. He swung back, swooshing through the air some four feet above M.C.’s head.

“Hurry up.” Ben silently mouthed the words as he glided, rising into the trees on the Kill’s Mound side.

The ravine was an ancient place, with trees taller than most others over the hills. Once there had been a river through it. Ben’s grandmother remembered all about it. She’d put on her bonnet and ride that river meander to the town of Harenton near the Ohio River.

BOOK: M.C. Higgins, the Great
12.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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