Cabbage Patch by Seán Ó Domhnaill.

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Thirteen-year-old Robin Siefert’s life was perfect in 1956. Her heifer won first place in the four-year-old Guernsey class. She immediately changed her cow’s name from Gladys to Ophelia. When the state 4-H director asked why, Robin, with microphone in hand, answered a question with a question: “Would you rather make calves with a Gladys or an Ophelia?” The 4-H director turned crimson.

In 1957 Easy Bridge farmers had their best yield since 1937. New red, blue, and silver pickups glided up and down Easy Bridge Road indicating all was well with grain and hog prices.

Then in 1958, grains barely sprouted while a desert summer turned plants brown and crispy. It became cheaper to sell off farm animals than pay top dollar for feed. The Sieferts slaughtered what was left of Ophelia, handing over 10% ground beef to Preacher Tucker. Robin Siefert and her parents—Esther and Silas—inventoried their cellar every Sunday afternoon. Over three months, the cellar averaged 19 eggs, 26 turnips, 21 apples, and 2 cabbages. Two smoked pork shoulders didn’t appear to change over time. Esther reminded Mr. Silas and Robin that ham was to be treated like a spice, a flavoring rather than the main course.

Running out of ideas, Robin invited Walter Nichols, her best school friend, to a seat at the Siefert’s “survival” roundtable. Walter immediately proved his worth by suggesting they hang the pork shoulders on a scale chain to track consumption.

While Miss Esther remained the most stoic, she succumbed to “the pure greediness of Sturdivant Cabbages less than two miles from the Sieferts mailbox.

“How can Huey Sturdivant ship his purple cabbages throughout the Carolinas while his neighbors go hungry? And did you know most of his purple cabbages were for decorating fruit bowls in kitchens and dining rooms?”

Walter raised his hand. “My dad says local and state politicians approve every license, permit, and tax break in Sturdivant’s favor since planting the first cabbage, including the prize of them all—a permit to build a dam for Sturdivant’s sole use. My dad thinks the cabbage family just uses the dam card to scare the locals like the Russians use the threat of a nuclear attack to get what they want.”

“Speaking of water,” Mr. Silas said. “I’ll keep measuring the well. Last time I checked, the sulfur fumes burned my eyes. Not sure our well will recover. I’m ready to put us on the Red Cross water truck route. And Walter, thanks for coming out to help. Even when everything is dead, there are still chores for Robin and you to do. We want to be ready when the rain returns.”

“Yes, sir. And we still have lots to explore. We see more when everything is dead or dying. Oh, I almost forgot. My dad did physicals on Doug Thatcher, Emily Boring, and Harold Teasdale—all from Easy Bridge. They joined the army to reduce the number of chairs around the dinner table.”

A month later, Easy Bridge was gifted a mid-afternoon, two-hour gully washer. Esther, Silas, Robin, and Walter dragged all the porch furniture out onto the barnyard’s last remaining patch of clover. The foursome looked skyward, letting drops the size of cherry tomatoes beat the stress from their faces.

“A surge of water like this has been known to prime a river spring,” Silas said. “Robin, why don’t you and Walter scout the river tomorrow morning.”

“We all could stand some cleaner clothes,” Ester said. “I was about to run over to Oakton’s coin laundry, but I bet lines are out the door.”

The next morning, Robin met Walter at the barnyard gate. “Mom and Dad are gathering as many clothes as they can carry. If we find something, we are going to holler down the valley. I’ve already got one place we’re going to check. Remember the bamboo grove that hogs a hundred-yard bank? We skip it because there’s no room to cast. I’ve got this feeling . . .”

“Maybe we should cross upriver and head back down.”

“If anyone can run through a dense bamboo grove it’s the two of us. Follow me.”

Robin and Walter ran like foxes chasing rabbits. Bursting into a clearing, Robin screamed, and Walter hollered.

Across the pasture, Robin’s parents heard the ruckus. Both Esther and Silas hugged bundles of dirty clothes. Esther hollered back—“robIN, walTER, we’re ComING!”

“Gotta be the bamboo grove, I figure,” Mr. Silas said. “We’ll have to run past it, cross the river, and head back toward the farm. I think we can sneak up on them.”

“Sneak? Sneak!” Miss Esther exclaimed. “I’m going to be as wild as a flushed covey of quail. I bet a dollar that I’ll be in the water before you. And to hell with banks. I’m going to rock hop.”

All Esther and Silas could see were Robin’s and Walter’s heads bobbing in the water and bodies flipping and sliding like otters.

Mr. Silas removed his boots, flopped backward while making a puppy-like yelp, and released his dirty clothes to float. Miss Esther set her bundle on a large rock and walked toward the center of the spring. Her cotton dress floated up around her like a parachute. She “ahhed” but could not speak. Breaking her silence, she whispered, “Our prayers have been answered.”

“For an hour or two. The afternoon maybe. A day if we’re lucky,” Mr. Silas said.

“Don’t forget we have laundry to do,” Miss Esther said.

“Let it soak, Mama,” Robin said.

“Us or the clothes?” Walter asked.

“Our souls. Deep, deep into our souls,” Robin said.

“Hope is what it is,” Mr. Silas said. “Brief relief is still relief.”


The singular storm disappeared in six hours. The river spring lasted a day. The river-rinsed clothes dried by morning while its memory was celebrated for weeks given Mr. Silas’s penchant for embellishing events into tall tales. Then, back to unrelenting heat, front-porch socializing shifted from 4:30pm to 4am or what became known as “Easy Bridge Coffee.”

The heat and dryness turned Easy Bridge Volunteer Fire Department’s attention from annual fruit cake sales to writing grants and seeking governmental loans for brush fire trucks to battle broom straw, scrub pines, and the wind. The old fire truck sat in reserve for increasingly rare chimney fires and rarer overheated tobacco curing barns. The new brush fire truck was too distant from hydrants, ponds, and the river. With the purchase of a tanker and a brute pump truck, Easy Bridge VFD could douse the fire or hold its place until Oakton’s VFD arrived.

The most painful community reaction was the outmigration of Easy Bridge folks moving to Oakton, Ashton, and Virginia’s Southern Piedmont.

The more complex the drought dilemma, the quicker Easy Bridge residents looked for simple solutions. It was not below the overly stressed residents to go on witch hunts to find someone—a person, a face—to blame for the crisis. And then Miss Hipple of Hipple’s Grocery lit a match among her gossip circle that Sturdivant Cabbages were to blame. Miss Hipple’s great-grandmother never liked Huey Sturdivant back in the 1850s ’cause he would never let her sell Sturdivant Purple Cabbages in Hipple’s grocery. “The nuances of my purple cabbages would be lost on both the Easy Bridge and Oakton citizenry.”


If she stood on the top step of the back porch of the Siefert farmhouse, Robin was exactly two miles from Sturdivant Cabbages, Inc. To a thirteen-year-old, the ivy-covered entrance looked like it belonged in England. Once inside, rows of purple cabbages ran parallel to the riverbank almost as far as one could see.

Standing at the elevated entrance—where Highway 27 met Easy Bridge met Cabbage Way Road—Robin and Walter surveyed the entire operation: rows running parallel to the loamy riverbank, three out of 87 rows still to harvest, knife blades flicking in the sun, tractors pulling purple trailers to purple barns, and full trucks paused on scales. Robin and Walter laughed at the sight of boyish Luther Sturdivant, the sole heir to the cabbage kingdom, in his purple shirt darting about his purple cabbage farm in his purple golf cart.

Trucks seemed to launch off the scales as they hurried to Oakton’s rail yard, Ashland’s refrigerated warehouses, or the nearby Stilbey Kraut factory.

“Never smelled the kraut factory this strong. Time for the wind to shift,” Walter said, pinching his nose.

“Something’s not right. Like cabbage rotting in the field.”

“Things rot for all sorts of reasons—not only from being too wet for too long.”

Robin and Walter walked down the entrance. The smell disappeared as the sound of engines, pulley belts, and conveyors grew louder.

Hired hands cleaned and sorted heads onto two conveyors—one to collect cabbages in purple netted bags and the other to guide loose heads into truck beds. As a filled truck pulled onto the scales, an empty truck pulled into its place to be loaded. Mr. Turner started as a sorter years ago and now manages the truck loading from the “highchair.” Susan Turner—Robin and Walter’s classmate—announced her father’s promotion to “Chute Engineer.” Her classmates cheered.

Before the pair could find Mr. Sturdivant, he found them, grabbing their hands, asking in rapid-fire fashion about their parents.

“And how would you and Walter like to make $35 working three six-hour Saturdays for the next seven Saturdays?”

All Robin and Walter heard was “$35.”

“Yes, sir!” they shouted over the machinery.

“Great! Wonderful! And if you work hard, you will become an official Sturdivant Cabbage Teen eligible for an ice cream party with pony rides at the end of the season. “Here,” he said, walking over to a large cardboard box. “Wear this Sturdivant Cabbage Teen t-shirt when you report to work Saturday.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“No need to call me sir. How about Luther?”

“You mean Mr. Luther Sturdivant?”

“No. Just Luther. And I’ll call you Robin and Walter. Alright? Good.”

The duo pulled the t-shirts over the ones they were wearing.

As Robin and Walter walked away, she said, “This guy is slick.”

“From what I’ve heard, it’s hard to believe Luther is the great-grandson of Huey ‘the Scrooge’ Sturdivant.”

“Is there a difference between ‘coming to work’ and ‘reporting to work?’” Robin asked.

“Don’t think so. He’s just trying to make us feel important. Trying to sound official.”

The orange dust from the trucks rolled over them as they hiked back to Robin’s farm. Waiting their turn to cross at the intersection, the new hires buried their noses in their inner elbow to block the skunky, acidic cloud hanging in the air. Robin pointed to the gully below. “Look! There it is. Down there. The cause of the stink.” The ravine created by intersecting roads concealed a mountain of cabbage.

Before Walter could respond, Robin slid down the bank. “Wow! Look at all of them. Hundreds!” Robin exclaimed.

A cabbage rolled down the bank. Then another and then two and four as drivers made sharp, hurried turns onto Easy Bridge Road leading to Highway 27.

“Do you think the ‘Luther’ Sturdivant knows about this?” Walter asked. “He sure seems nicer than Huey.”

“Mr. Luther lives in a world of ‘tons’ not ‘heads.’ He probably doesn’t miss a cabbage or two from every load.” Robin picked up a head rolling from above and tossed it to Walter.

“It’s perfect. Wonder how deep the good cabbages go?”

“I think the real question is not does Mr. Luther knows, but does he care if he loses a few here and there?” Robin asked. “I mean, he could fix this. All he needs to do is add slats, side and back.”

“Would cost him money. It would slow him down. Maybe more than losing a cabbage every now and then,” Walter said.

“Or paint a ‘full’ line so that the chute engineer could know where to stop,” Robin said.

“He might figure he’s better off filling every truck as full as he can,” Walter added. “Or maybe he,” Walter stopped when he saw Robin cross her arms.

“We don’t want Mr. Luther to solve this,” she said.

“Luther. Remember? He wants us to call him Luther.”


At the end of their first Saturday morning shift, Luther handed Robin and Walter five-dollar bills, gave them purple bags, and told them to take home as many cabbages as they could fit.


“Thank you,” Robin added, sidling up beside Luther. “Question?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Instead of taking cabbages off the conveyor belt, can we take ours from Cabbage Mountain?” Robin asked, making Cabbage Mountain sound familiar.

“Well, sure,” the young cabbage king said, patting her head. “Help yourself.”

Luther straightened up slowly, placing his hands above his back pockets to stretch. “Robin? What or should I say where is Cabbage Mountain?”

“We can show you.” She took his hand.

“Is it a walk away or a cart away?” Luther asked.

Not to miss an excuse to ride in the purple golf cart, Walter said, “How about a golf cart away?”

“Of course. Hop in and hold tight.”

“No wonder people like golf,” Walter shouted.

Walter and Robin jumped out, slid down the bank, and stood on Cabbage Mountain while Luther made his way, his footing unsure, as heads rolled beneath him.

“Well, I’ll be a Brassica oleracea!” Luther exclaimed. “How in the world did these get here?”

Robin and Walter were relieved. They didn’t want to believe Luther was knowingly wasteful, especially when people were going hungry.

“They roll out of trucks when the driver turns,” Robin said. “Watch. Here come two haulers.”

The first truck lost one cabbage and the second two.

“Nope. No! This won’t do. Thank you both for discovering this. I need to work on slats and the gates, but that won’t happen until next season. I’ve got delivery contracts. Time and volume demand. Can’t afford to slow anything down.”

Robin, ready with a solution, waited for Luther to finish his thought.

“Tell you what. Until I fix this, I’ll pay you $20 each to clear out all this, and you can do what you want with the good heads until the end of the season. That’s about four weeks from today. How’s that?”

“Great idea, Mr. Luther,” Robin said.

“Hurry up. Fill your bags and I’ll run you home. And you two—please call me Luther. Just Luther, or I’m going to call you Miss Robin and Mr. Walter.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No. Just yes will do.”

Robin and Walter jumped from Luther’s customized golf cart and ran up the front steps and down the long hallway arriving in the Siefert kitchen breathless.

“Cabbages. A mountain of them. They’re going to waste. Luther says we can have them,” Robin said, trying to catch her breath.

“Whoa! Just a minute young lady! What’s a mountain of cabbages? And who’s Luther?” her father asked.

Robin walked her dad through the discovery and added, “This would make a ‘Good Neighbor’ project for the church, don’t you think?”

“I’ll talk to the preacher. It’s a sin to let food go to waste any time, but doubly so now,” her father agreed.

Walter wanted to discuss discovery details and distribution options, but Robin and her father were both direct and decided.


Fifteen minutes before the church bell rang, Robin’s dad, Luther, and the minister huddled at the base of the steps in earnest conversation.

When Robin’s father walked away, Robin ran to him. “What did they say?”

“You’ll have to wait until announcements this morning,” Mr. Silas answered, patting her head.

“Consider the sparrows of the field,” the preacher began. “They neither sow nor reap. God tests our patience and our faith through trying times, and we would all agree year-long droughts have tested all of us.”

The congregation shouted, “Amen!”

“Despite the devil’s strength and presence, we all find a way to do God’s work in small and large ways. This morning, I want to share a discovery two of our youngest church members made and their first thought was, let not what God creates go to waste.” The preacher described the duo’s discovery, holding back their names to build anticipation.

“Luther Sturdivant has committed to not only giving away the ‘lost’ cabbages but to match the found heads with fresh ones from the field. Brother Luther is also giving the men of the church one hundred dollars to clean out the culvert, all in the name of our Good Neighbor projects.” The congregation applauded.

The preacher continued. “So, all brothers, please meet at the church next Saturday morning at 8 am to harvest Cabbage Mountain. And following, we’ll have a cabbage feed. Miss Hampton will set up games for the children. It will be a glorious celebration of brother helping brother, sister helping sister, and the Lord looking after the sparrows of the field. Amen,” the preacher said. “Amen,” the congregation replied with cheers, anticipating a break, a drought distraction.

Walter waited for the minister to recognize them for their discovery and for coming up with the idea of sharing, but the recognition never came.

The preacher walked down the aisle and turned to give the benediction. Walter raised his hand and jumped up and down to get Preacher’s attention, but all heads were bowed as the preacher bellowed out, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord . . .”

As the congregants dropped their hymnals in the pew racks, Walter turned to Robin to register a protest, but before he said a word, she hugged and kissed him on the cheek.

“Look what we started. Can you believe it?”

Walter felt small. It was not unusual for Robin to draw an entire Indian bowl from a small piece of pottery found in the cornfield. Was that any different from turning some lost cabbages into a Good Neighbor project? He wondered what it would take for Robin to feel special when special to her was routine.

“I don’t understand. Don’t you want some credit for our discovery?”

“We don’t own the cabbages. And look at how everyone is pitching in to help. Why would we take credit?”

“And we were supposed to clean up the mountain,” Walter said. “If not for us . . . ,” Robin interrupted.

“Don’t you mean, if it were not for Luther, my dad, the preacher, and the men and women of the church? All we did was sniff and follow our noses.”

“No. You and I—we did more than that,” Walter said.

Robin ran down the aisle and out onto the church playground.

Walter stepped into the bright sunlight, wiping his eyes.

Robin held a nondescript ball. She wound up like a baseball pitcher but had second thoughts. Robin changed her method and direction. Instead, she took three steps and kicked the ball over Walter’s head, sending it soaring over the church’s steeple.

“Hey! What did you do that for?” Walter asked. “Did you see where it went?”

“Over your head. Over the church. Someone will find it. It may even make them happy on an otherwise sad day. Dozens, maybe a hundred people couldn’t find the source of the sour smell. We did. And we turned it into a movement that may keep Easy Bridge folks from starving. More importantly, the cabbages may give them hope.”

“Does everyone like purple cabbage? How will they prosper if they’re allergic to purple cabbage?”

“Cabbage is not the savior.”

“No, what did it do for us?”

“It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside,” Robin said.

“Well, it would have made me warm and fuzzy if everyone knew who the ‘young heroes’ were.”

“Will the kid who finds the ball need to know who placed it in his path to be happy?”

“Guess not,” Walter said.

“A gift is a gift. A ball is a ball. A cabbage is a cabbage.”

“Can a cabbage be a gift?”