The Token by Laura Weddle

Pearl gossips in her wonderfully idiosyncratic dialogue about her town and her neighbours; by Laura Weddle.

Say you come down to Polly's Bend to sell Cloverine Brand salve?

Well, I don't know how much you'll sell. Most of us along here don't do much for cuts and scratches 'cept maybe put on a little coal oil or rubbing alcohol. My daddy used to trap polecats and render out the grease after he'd skinned off the hides. That was a good salve, but people don't take the trouble to make it no more. Most druther have a fancy store remedy than one they could just as easy make theirself.

Somebody might buy a box from you, though, just to get one of them pictures you're giving away with it. I'm partial to that one there.

No, that one next to it of the angel flying over them children. Makes it look like God's always gonna be there to protect them. Shame how often it don't work out that way.

Why don't you set down on the step there and rest a little while till Sam comes in for supper? You can eat a bite with us. Besides, he might want to buy some of your salve to use on the cow's tits. Sometimes in the winter they crack open and get so sore she won't hardly stand still for him to milk her. Bonnie Bell Anne, Sam calls her. She won a blue ribbon one year at the county fair, and he's got it framed, hanging up in there over our bed. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks more of that cow than he does of me.

No, sir, no trouble at all. I've already got a big pot of soup beans and a skillet of cornbread cooked. I'll slice some tomatoes and onions to go with it, and bring up some cool buttermilk from the cellar to wash it down.

To me, this is the prettiest time of the day. I like to set out here of an evening and watch the sun go down. They's a kind of warm glow that settles over everthing, like a big old soft blanket. And it gets so quiet you can hear the least sound up and down the holler.

Last night old man Watkins - they live down around that bend there - was yelling at Berthy because she hadn't fried the taters brown enough to suit him, and her so stove up with the rheumatiz she can't hardly walk. Probably drinking again. Goes off ever' morning and runs the road till dark sees him home. Sorriest thing that ever had a mother. You just bet I'd a told him what to do with them taters.

I ain't saying my Sam's perfect, neither. He takes a notion for a little dram once in a while, just like the next feller. Gambles a little, too, around Christmas, when he goes to town to sell his tobaccer. But he knows better'n to lay into me like Pete does to Berthy, about anything, much less my cooking.

Here, let me pour you a little tea.

See that house on up the road there? The one with the big maple tree in front. My neighbor Stelly lives up there. I try to run up and check on her about ever day. Her husband brought her here from up around Lancaster, and she don't have no kin close by. She's in the family way and about ready to have it. Her first, if it lives. Two others was born dead and only about a year apart. She liked to never stopped crying. The second one was nearly two years ago. We all watched her for a long time after that. Didn't know what she might do to herself. Sometimes still yet, I'll see her out in the yard just gazing off at nothing, far as I can tell. Don't do no good to even speak to her at them times. She don't hear you.

Truth be told, I lost a baby once, and I was relieved. Me with one still at the breast and another one in diapers. Course I wasn't near as far along as she was - her carrying them two almost to the full time. I honestly didn't know how I was gonna manage. I never willed it to happen, nothing like that. But I tell you, I never grieved over it, neither. It was like God suddenly reached down and lifted a burden right offa my shoulders. Back then I never told another soul how I felt about it, knowing what a scandal some would make out of a thing like that. Still, like the old feller says, we can't always harness our wayward thoughts.

Stelly looks awful frail. Pale as she can be, with all that black hair down her back and her eyes like two shiny buttons of coal. She fell off a right smart after she lost them other two babies, and she couldn't stand to lose much. Ain't gained much of it back, neither, even with the few extra pounds she's carrying now.

I tell you, mister, I know her man has to travel to put grub on their table, but he ort not to be leaving her by herself this close to her time. For one thing, it don't look good for him to be gone days and nights at a time. Everbody knows how easy it is for men to get tempted by loose women, and God knows they're everwhere, just waiting to toll a weak man off. I know I don't let Sam go nowhere without me. Not that he'd ever think of doing such a thing.

Anyway, when I went up there this morning she was standing still as a pin by the screen door, staring straight ahead like she'd been charmed by a snake and couldn't move. At the same time, she was kinda patting her stomach and crooning a little song like you might sing to a baby to calm it and make it go to sleep. She jumped like she come to herself when she heared me come in.

"I heared Ethan singing last night just before it got good and dark," was the first thing out of her mouth. "I heared him stepping on the planks crossing the bridge over the creek, and all the time he was singing, 'She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes,' just like he used to when we was little. Only that one line was all the words he would ever sing. I guess he didn't know the rest. Sometimes he'd whistle it, too, but I could always fill in the words."

All this time Stelly never did look at me, and I wondered if she even knowed I was there. I raised my hand to touch her shoulder, but then I pulled it back. Something told me she was somewhere beyond touching.

"But last night he was only singing," she said.

Her voice was so low I had to strain to hear.

"Being twins like we was, and me a girl, I was always afraid he'd go off and leave me when we got older, so I'd beg him not to, but he'd only laugh. 'Oh, you're just a silly, little old girl, Stelly,' he'd say. 'You know you can't come with me when I go.'

"But then when he'd see that I was sulling up, about to cry, he'd quit teasing.

"'Now don't you worry, Sis,' he'd say. 'No matter where I am, if ever you get scared and need me, I'll come back. And when I do, you'll know that whatever it is, it's gonna be all right.'

"Last night when I heared him coming, I started walking down the hill to the creek. I didn't go far, though. Patrick's afraid I'll slip and fall in the gravel and hurt me and the baby both. So I just stood out there a minute or two and then come on back to the house."

She took her hand off her stomach and reached for the screen door like she might need it for support. Her eyes was still set as if on some far off thing that only she could see. She put her hand back on her stomach, and she had the prettiest smile on her face I'd seen since she got that way with that first baby. And she started crooning that little song again, under her breath.

"Come on and set down now, Stelly," I said, "and rest a spell. I don't think Patrick could stand it if you all lost another one."

"No, no, Pearl, don't you see?" she said.

It was the first time since I come in her house that morning that I was sure she even knowed I was there. She sounded excited as a mother bird when somebody gets too close to its nest.

"It was what else Ethan told me back then. He said, 'When I do come back, you'll know that whatever it is, it's gonna be all right.'

"Pearl, he never did come back before. Neither time before when I was that way did I hear the slightest sound out of him. Not the least hint that he was anywhere near me. And now I know why."

She was sobbing, but they was a joy to it, like she'd had the answer to a prayer. "This one is safe," she whispered.

When I realized what she was telling me, I felt like somebody hexed. I couldn't move a muscle. I knowed it was a token soon's I heared it. That's what Mammy always called it. One of them Irish words she brought across the waters when she come.

Ethan'd been in the war. France is where they sent him, I think, or maybe it was Italy. Been about four years now since they got the word. He's buried in the family graveyard up around Lancaster.


  1. I loved this beautifully told, delicate story. The mystic and the mundane are skillfully knitted together by the extraordinary dialogue: strong, vibrant and consistent. I'd love to know where the characters are located? You avoid the dangers of being sentimental, and end the narrative in a place that is both powerful and tender. Very many thanks,

    1. Thank you, Ceinwen, for your kind words about The Token. The setting for the story is rural Kentucky in the 1930-40's, and the dialect and details are indicative of that time and place. All best, L

  2. this really is a first class piece of work, atmospheric and seductive.
    the ending, i feel, is beautiful, down played but thought provoking.

    Mike McC

    1. Thank you, Mike, for those kind words!

  3. Makes me aware that there other worlds out there beside my somewhat educated Pacific Northwest suburban landscape.

  4. Very good, Doug. The setting for "The Token" is rural Kentucky in the 1930's - '40's. All best, L.

  5. The idiom is very accurate for the area of the country in which the drama unfolds. So are the sentiments expressed by the MC regarding the million notions she gabbles on about. It reflects small town Southern state America very well. My own forbears, in Southern Illinois, would carry on in much the same way that the irrepressible Pearl does. Hominess and common sense are her trademarks. Very nicely done, Laura