Penalty and Pain

They ran a mule team for plowing their fields and planting crops. Doing so was only as recent as the 1950s, but as Clarence said, “poor people have poor ways.” That was the time before they could afford a tractor, and the kids were used for brute labor. Southern farming families were still strapped for cash after the Great Depression ended, and each year’s yield paid the outstanding bank balances already past due.  from

Needless to say, tensions ran high under such dire circumstances. Having five mouths to feed didn’t help matters either. Clarence was a good provider, if not a stoic man. The financial straits of his family fell hard on his conscience, and he tended to internalize his worry. The children pretended not to notice and went along with their chores as any good God-fearing brood would. Papa didn’t talk to them much but expressed his love with homemade gifts and a hug at Christmastime. Otherwise, they tried to stay out of Clarence’s way.

James Ernest had it the hardest. He was the oldest son still at home, as Lee had escaped to the military as soon as he was of age to enlist. Little Eugene would watch their work from the safety of the back yard, his little black dog trailing along behind him. He and the mutt hung on a dull section of the barbed wire fence separating them from the back pasture.

Eugene looked forward to working in the field some day, having no idea what the toil would do to his body and his happiness. He had the naivete to glamorize the hand-blistering hard work in his imagination because of his inability to partake in his few years of life. Eugene knew nothing of the drudgery from which Lee had fled their home. He only watched from their porch where Mother tasked his sisters with housework, hoping for the day when he could join the men from sunup to sundown.

Papa barked the orders out there, and they were meant to be kept. Each week started with a day of Sunday school and church service, followed by a big family dinner with the cousins and an evening at home in rest. They geared up for the remaining six days spent earning their keep, and James Ernest came to know what was expected of him. Whereas his stature was lean, his strength increased exponentially with each calendar’s succession. He produced an adult’s capacity from a growing boy’s body, his thin arms and sinewy muscles masquerading an extraordinary ability to drive the team alone.

He called to the mules, “On, Jack!  Up now, Jenny!” James Ernest was expected to do some things all by himself during harvest when Deacons’ meetings required Papa’s attendance at the elder council held in town. Clarence was well-respected in their small rural community, and placed a lot of responsibility on James Ernest in his absence.

James Ernest knew all too well the consequences of not fulfilling his obligations. He’d left home to go fishing with a cousin late one Sunday afternoon without asking permission. The bigger mule, Jenny, grazed in the pasture by the barn and sneaked her way past the loose latch on the stall where gain was stored. They worked the animals hard, so the greedy old gal stole more than her fair ration share. By the time James Ernest returned, Papa had already discovered how Jenny ravaged the crib and ate herself sick.

Mules usually have fewer feeding problems than horses, yet she was in bad shape and could’ve been lost to foundering. A lame mule was worthless, and days missed in the field due to the beast’s illness equaled what James Ernest felt on his backside later. The others knew of his punishment, and the girls cried when they found him sobbing and sore in a barn stall afterward. They’d never seen their brother so upset, and he pridefully sniffed back his tears swearing he’d get away from the farm one day just like Lee had done. That incident, among others, stuck in the recesses of his mind.


Years later his wife would speculate why her husband turned out the way he had, what soured him along the way. In retrospect, she wondered what had gone so wrong. What was the inscrutable cause of his agony?  She’d met such a boisterous and happy young man straight out of the Army who turned into a different person in his later years — someone who let his anger go inward, one who grew sullen, introverted and gloomy. Once an admirable, competent, hard-working man, James Ernest transformed into someone — something — else. Alcohol added to his depression and agitated it into a toxic mixture that destroyed his family life.

During one specific outburst, his wife watched James Ernest’s face transmogrify into an unrecognizable fiend expelling consternation. Those hurtful words aimed to retaliate against an unknown opponent in his past but caught his wife in the cross-hairs instead.  Her weak ego couldn’t withstand his transformation and the resulting attacks. A recurring hateful ugliness ultimately cost him the love of his life.

In a more lucid state, James Ernest tried to explain away his behavior. Night terrors hinted at a disturbance deeper than any words could justify. He’d worked to overcome poverty, to gain financial independence and not live by the sweat of his brow. Reaching those goals, however, couldn’t conquer other demons of his past. He realized it was of little consequence but apologized to his ex-wife over and over.  A strong man’s facade dissolved into the countenance of a young boy.

Dejectedly he told her, “You just can’t understand … you don’t know. I can’t tell you everything Papa did to me.”

This post was generated by a weekly Studio 30+ writing prompt — Papa.  Studio 30+


  1. I think this is the kind of story I need to read more than once to really understand. Not sure if it’s me or if there may be a lack of clarity in what you really wanted to give us in reading this… I’ll read it again 😉

    p.s. I’ve had this page open in my browser since you’ve submitted it. Sorry I stalled so long on it!

    • That’s good feedback, Marie. It’s as if there was a lot more that happened in that past than was obvious, and it turned J.E. into a very sullen and depressive person. It needs more to make that obvious. Thanks!

  2. This has some moments of real, raw tragedy, and it seems that even the story itself can’t bear to come right out and say it aloud. That’s kinda cool!

    • Some things – fortunately or unfortunately – remain a mystery. And dead men tell no tales, as in Papa and James Ernest. Only the mystery remains alive.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Joe!

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