Chapter OneSCENE ONE
Scene: Brain Pilcher's cabin. Early morning.
In a mining camp in the Red Hill section of Alabama, it is a typical miner's cabin, sparsely furnished, and dark, lit only by a faint streak of lamplight coming from a partially opened door of an adjoining room.
Bram, a huge shambling figure, barges out of the door and comes stumbling into the room, lunging forward, kicking against furniture and muttering under his breath.
BRAM: Whyncha turn the lamp on? Caint see a dern thing in here. [There is a loud impact.] Christ!
HESTER: Whaja do now?
BRAM: Stubbed my toe, by Jesus.
HESTER: Oughter be more keerful. The way you go bargin' around like nothin' human.
BRAM: Wyncha turn the lamp on in the mornins?
HESTER: Turn it on yerself. I got plenty to do. Should think you'd be uster feelin' yer way around in the dark by now anyhow.
BRAM: Where's the lamp at? Here. Got no matches!
HESTER: There's one right on the base.
BRAM [lighting the lamp]: There now. Light! [He looks slowly around him, blinking his eyes, a dull, phlegmatic interest flickering on his face. His attention focuses again on the lamp.] Kind of low on oil, Hester.
HESTER: Fill 'er up. You'll find the can settin' next to the coal bucket.
BRAM [shambling over]: Hadn't oughter leave coal oil round a stove. Mought start up a fire some night. Burn us all up in our beds. [He approaches everything, even an oil can, with an air of slow inevitability, almost like a clockwork figure.]
HESTER: It ain't by the stove. It's in the coal bucket.
BRAM [filling up the lamp]: Well, the coal bucket's settin' right by the stove.
HESTER [her voice rising with irritation]: Settin' on the other side of the coal bucket from the stove. I reckon I know 'cause I put it there.
BRAM: She's settin' right smack up against the leg of the stove. Ain't even by the coal bucket.
HESTER: Well, someone elst musta pushed it over there. Besides what diff'rince it make long as the fire caint tech it? [She comes swishing in with a steaming bowl of mush which she claps down on the bare table.]
BRAM: Might have combustion or somethin'.
HESTER: I'll combustion you if you don't leave off that grumblin'. Set down here and eat yer mush while it's hot. [She walks over and opens the outside door and then comes back to the table.]
BRAM: Mush agin?
HESTER: You kin think of more diff'rent things to pester a body with. Spare that milk. It's all we got. [She stares at Bram with a critical frown as he approaches the lamplight.] Look at yer Bram. Yer pants ain't buttoned. [He buttons them.] When was the last time you had a good shave?
BRAM [lurching into the chair]: Shaved Sunday.
HESTER: Yer a holy sight. It's a good thing you don't work out where folks kin see yuh.
BRAM: Unh. Coffee done?
[Bram turns up the lamp, pours milk, etc.]
BRAM: Bring in more milk with you. This here's all gone.
HESTER [sharply]: That whole pitcher?
HESTER: I told you to spare it. It's all we got. [She passes offstage.] If you're gonna lap up milk like that you'd better buy me a cow.
BRAM: Buy you a cow?
[This amuses him. He laughs for several moments deep in his chest, then begins voraciously eating mush, bending low over the plate, slobbering. Coming to the bottom, he raises the bowl to his mouth and drinks the remainder. He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and begins to stamp his feet under the table.]
HESTER [with shrill anger]: Quit that stompin'!
BRAM [continuing to stomp]: Git muh coffee in here.
HESTER: You quit that stompin' or I'll empty the pot on your head!
BRAM: Git it in here. S'bout time for the whistle.
HESTER [bustling in with coffee pot and tin cup]: You'll have to drink it black.
BRAM: No cream?
HESTER: Not a drap.
[Hester fills his cup. He instantly starts to raise it to his mouth.]
HESTER [grabbing his hand]: Don't drink it now. It's scaldin'. [She notices the lamp which he has turned too high.] Bram. [She turns it way down.]
BRAM: Leave it be.
HESTER: You got it turned way too high. [She dusts off the base with her apron.]
BRAM: I like it turned high. It makes a good light.
HESTER: It's a waste o' coal oil. You kin see plenty with it turned half that high.
BRAM: Caint see now.
HESTER: You're gittin' blind as a bat.
BRAM [almost in a bellow]: SUGAR!
HESTER [slamming it on the table]: Quit that hollering. Here.
[She starts to exit. Brain burns his mouth on the coffee and utters a loud yell.]
HESTER [returning to the kitchen]: There you go. I toleja it was scaldin'. Why don't you listen. [She hurries out.]
BRAM: For Chrissake gimme some water!
HESTER [fetching a dipper of water]: Not so loud! You'll wake the kids up.
BRAM: Water, water, water!
HESTER: Aw shut up! I toleja the coffee was hot. You just don't listen. Not so loud, now. Star and Joel's asleep.
BRAM: Ohh. Asleep, huh. What of it? They ought be up by now. Layin' in bed's a bad habit. That Joel, he gits lazier ev'ry day of his life. If he don't git to work before long he won't be fit fer nothin'.
HESTER: Joel's goin' to school. You know that.
BRAM: What good does school do a coal miner I'd liketa know.
HESTER: Joel ain't a coal miner.
BRAM: He's gonna be though. Everybody's coal miners round here.
HESTER: I got somethin' else in mind for the boy.
BRAM: Yes, like you had for John.
[There is a pause. Hester seats herself with her own tin cup, but does not drink. There is a tense brooding look on her face.]
BRAM: Sent him off an he never come back an you never heerd tell of the boy enny more.
HESTER: Quit harpin' on that. John's all right.
BRAM: You got no idea what become of John. I ain't neither. He shoulda stayed here. Abbey woulda put him on with me. Then you'd been knowin' where he was right now stead of gittin' them advertisements put in the Birmingham paper. Lot a good them done you with John no more able to spell out his own name than you are yours. [He laughs grimly.]
HESTER [with sudden force]: Joel's gonna git him an eddication.
HESTER: Withouten that he'd never be nothin' but what you are.
BRAM: Ain't that good enough? [Hester groans.] The company never shoulda put up that schoolhouse. I was aginst it then and I'm still aginst it.
HESTER: The company wouldn't a put it up if the state hadn't forced 'em to. They'd rather we stay as iggerunt as a litter o' pigs round here. It makes us easier for them to make use of.
BRAM: Well, we got no use fer a schoolhouse. They was right about that. It costs us money to keep the dern thing a-runnin' an that's all it ever done's fur as I kin see. Ceptin' it puts a lot o' fool notions in the minds of the young-uns and gives 'em the idea they're too good fer their own folks.
HESTER: Sure. That's the way you look at it. You're what I'd call a natcheral born slave.
BRAM: What d'ya mean by that?
HESTER: I mean you don't know what it is to be free or even want to be free. The mines have you hawg tied and you don't even care. Why, if they was to shut down the mines tomorrer, where'd you be?
BRAM: The mines won't shut down. Long as there's coal in the Red Hills there'll be us miners diggin' it out.
HESTER: In Wes' Virginny the mines shut down fer eight months.
BRAM: Who's been tellin' you all this stuff anyhow?
HESTER: Miss Wallace told me.
BRAM: Who's she?
HESTER: She's the new school teacher.
BRAM: Well, why don't she teach school an keep her nose out of other folks' business. [He shoves cup toward Hester.] Gimme 'nother cup coffee.
HESTER: If you don't quit drinkin' so much I'll have to start usin' chicory.
BRAM: Gimme full cup.
HESTER: That's all you git. I'm savin' the rest for Joel. You drank up all the milk. [She sits down again.] Miss Wallace says Joel's right quick at his books. Of course he got an awful late start, but he's already up to the second reader. She says maybe by the time he gits old enough to go the company'll be forced to put up a high school too.
BRAM: That won't never happen long as I'm here to stop it. I guess I got a say about that. When I was Joel's age I was diggin' out coal.
HESTER: And you still are.
BRAM: Damn right I still am, and I will be til the day I die so help me. You won't catch me dependin' on nobody else for the bread I eat.
HESTER: You're dependin' right now on the company for every crumb of bread that goes in your mouth. God knows what you'd do for bread if I didn't bake it myself. It's a caution the price of it down at that store. Thirteen cents for a loaf of bread now. Ethel Sunter says in Birmingham you kin git the same size loaf for seven.
BRAM: We got no place else to trade.
HESTER: Yeah, that's it. Just because they know we ain't got no place else to trade they smack on any kind of price they feel like. That's what I mean by your slavery, Bram. The company runs everything around here and you got to take what they give you and like it.
BRAM [in the manner of one propounding a great philosophic truth]: It's dawg eat dawg. That's life fer yuh. Dawg eat dawg.
HESTER: Yeah an it's the underdog that gits eaten. That's why my kids're gonna come out on top. I had hopes for you once, Bram. When we got married I thought you was just stayin' down here in the mines till times got better, but now you been down there twin'y four, twin'-five years an it's still just the same. You don't even wanta git out. And now already they call you "The Old Man of the Mines." Yeah, that's what all of them call you now. "The Old Man of the Mines." Mrs. Abbey the superintendent's wife was tellin' me so yesttiddy at the store like as a compliment, but I seen how she meant it.
BRAM: I ain't ashamed of 'em callin' me that. Them young fellers look up to me, I'm the leader.
HESTER: Why dontcha do somethin' to help 'em git some good outa life?
BRAM: Minin's not bad work. Good times it pays good money. When I was Joel's age me and muh pap was loading sixteen cars between us evry blessed day an' in them days it was real money, seventy cents a ton it was and them mules could draw damn near as much coal as these here enjins kin now. Between us, me and muh pap, we made as much as four, five dollars a day.
HESTER: Things've slumped considerable since then.
BRAM [somewhat glumly]: You kin still make a livin'.
HESTER: I wouldn't call it a livin'.
BRAM: You eat, dontcha?
HESTER: Not much. After you and the kids git finished many's the time I have to fill up on water.
BRAM: It's a livin' though.
HESTER: For my sons I want somethin' better than that.
BRAM: What else could Joel do 'round here?
HESTER: How many times do I got to tell you Joel ain't gonna stay 'round here? Him nor Star neither. They're both gonna git outa this place.
BRAM: You want 'em to go off like John done an' never be heard of agin? [He fills his pipe again.]
HESTER: Quit harpin' on John.
BRAM: He mought be dead for all you know.
HESTER [fiercely]: Don't say things to me like that. It goes right through me like a knife. [She gets up and looks out the window.]
BRAM: I'm not sayin' he's dead. I'm just sayin' that seven year's a long time to go without seein' hide nor hair, nor hearin' a word tell o' the boy. If he'd a stayed here you'd a known where he was.
HESTER: Yes, I'd a known where he was, just as if he'd had a little white cross stuck over his grave, I'd a known where he was. Down there in the ground. I caint see it makes much diff'rence whether you dig in the ground or just lie in the ground, ceptin' one would be I should think a sight more restful than the other. John, he was a smart boy. He wanted to work out on top. He didn't want to be an underground rat like you all his life.
BRAM [wrathfully]: So that's what you call me, an underground rat, for makin' you a livin' all these years. [Hester covers her face with her hands.] Whatsamatter with you anyhow? You been actin' like you was out of your head the last two three days.
HESTER: Maybe I am outa my head. It wouldn't be no wonder if I was. I got somethin' here I didn't tell you about. [She comes toward him.] Weighed on me like a rock ever since I got it. [She draws a letter from her blouse.]
BRAM: What's that?
HESTER: It's a letter.
BRAM [taking the letter and turning it curiously in his hands]: Hmm ... that's what it is. Who could it be frum you guess?
HESTER: I don't know. But it's got me scared outa my wits. Tim Adams give it to me Thursday mawnin' at the store ... I started to ask him to read it fer me. He said it come frum Pennsylvainy. But somethin' stopped me. I dunno what. I didn't have the heart to hear it read. Somethin' told me that there was somethin' wrong.
BRAM: John, huh?
HESTER [slowly]: Yes, John. He mought be up there. I dunno. Something mought've happened.
BRAM: Git Star to read it. She ought to be able to read by now.
HESTER: No, leave Star be.
BRAM: I'll git her up. [He starts to the door.] She'll read it an' then you'll have it off your mind.
HESTER: No, no. Leave her be. She just got in two hours ago. She needs her sleep ... besides I don't want to read it right now.
BRAM: Got in two hours ago! What dya mean by that? Where she been all that time?
HESTER: I toleja last night that Star was gone to Birmingham for the day.
BRAM: You told me nothin' last night.
HESTER: Then it musta slipped my mind. That letter's been all I kin think of since I got it.
BRAM [growing excited]: Where's Star been? You tell me. How come she got in so late? Did she stay out all night?
HESTER: Don't yell at me like that. Star's been visitin' in Birmin'ham with some rich girls she met there. They give her swell presents and take her out on parties and things.
BRAM: Rich girls, huh?
HESTER: They even promised they'd git her a job. Let her be, Bram let her be.
[Brain has gone into the bedroom and drags Star out by the
wrists. She breaks away from him and runs across the room,
where she stands sullenly defiant. She is a handsome, mature
girl of about sixteen. She wears a red silk kimono.]