Fred Chappell



A YOUNG MAN, sixteen years old, was sitting hunkered on his heels in a stretch of tall yellow sagegrass. His hair was yellow like the sagegrass and the slight down sprinkled on his jaws and down his neck was yellow. And his tan windbreaker had faded from foul weather until it too was almost the color of sagegrass, just slightly darker. The wind moved in the sage and worried it over, and the young man did not move except now and then to tip back his head when he drank from the dark bottle. The liquor was yellow and flamed in his throat. The fellow was hunkered in the field, fiercely self-willed; he was like a belligerent voice.

The sun was high and hot, the color of the sagegrass, but the breeze had a cold edge on it. It was early October. The maple leaves were ruby-colored, the beech trees jerked in the wind like giant candle flames, yellow and transitory. In the clear sharp air the mountains seemed to have drifted forward, nearer now without the summer haze. The mountains were spattered with red, yellow, and blue over green. The premonitory wind had polished the sky clear as a lens.

He was drunk. In the yellowed windbreaker his chest swam in sweat and the hair on the back of his neck was damp. In his steel-rimmed spectacles (the lenses of which did not magnify), the reflected sagegrass moved restlessly and in the corner of each glass square the sun was a tiny yellow dot, the size of the pupils of his eyes. His mind was filled with yellow light and with his own presence. So weightily he existed in the field that he might have created it. When he tipped his head back the muscles in his neck distended to the size of fingers. He drank again; again.

Across a trickling ditch about thirty yards before him there was no sagegrass, but a cool smooth lawn in the deep shadow of an oak tree. A swing made of an old automobile tire went back and forth, and the female child swinging uttered mindless whoops. Her pink dress was no longer stiff with starch and it fluttered in the wind. Her legs were skinny and dirty. She swung wildly, shrieking, and already there was much in her voice that was unchildlike.

Near the swing stood the child's brother, a year younger than she, six years old. He too was blond, his hair brighter than the sagegrass, almost silvery. His movements were slow and deliberate as he tossed a baseball gently into the air and lashed at it with a dull-colored bat. When he knocked it some yards away he walked to pick it up; he went slowly and then carried it back to his position under the tree to hit it again.

At last he fouled the ball behind him. It went spinning, arcing up over the ditch and over a pond of the shadowy sagegrass. It fell and rolled forward a few feet and came to rest a yard or so before the yellow-haired fellow. He stared at it. It lay solid and self-contained, disputing his supremacy of existence in the field. He stared at it malevolently.

The boy watched the ball, and when it fell the young man could see from where he sat hunkered that the boy uttered a huge sigh. His thin shoulders rose; fell. With much difficulty he stopped the swing and helped his sister squeeze through the tire. Grasping her hand he led her to the gurgling ditch and they went down. In a moment they bobbed up again like swimmers and came forward. The girl was whimpering and the boy was reassuring her and he told her quietly to hush, keeping his voice low and steady as if he was calming a skittish mare. Still leading her, the boy began making wide steady arcs, watching his feet closely. The yellow-haired fellow watched the ball lying stubborn before him, stiffly resisting being found. He held the bottle in his left hand and did not drink; his right hand was red, wound about with a blood-soaked crude bandage. He did not move as they came closer, and it was clear that they were going to find the ball at last, although they had not yet seen him.

He stood, rising quickly from his hunkered position, as quickly as a knife blade flicked open. He towered over them, looking yellow and wild. He bent and scooped up the ball and held it aloft, and it was almost hidden in his white hand. He had shifted the liquor bottle to his wounded right hand. They retreated a few steps, the boy dragging the girl back, getting her behind himself. They both were white and so fearful they might have trembled out of existence like match flames.

"Hanh, you goddam kids!" he cried. He shook the ball in his hand. "What if you was to die? What if you was to die one day?" he cried.

The boy looked so fierce from fear that he looked like a trapped fox. He snatched a glance behind him into the cool smooth lawn; no one was there.

"One day; what if you was to die one day?" he cried. "Hanh! Hanh!" He threw the ball away into the air. It landed in the lawn, rolling forward fast to bounce against the oak tree. "Hanh! Hanh!" The yellow-haired man was laughing and shouting. Hanh! He strode toward them, whipping through the sagegrass, and went past them. He shifted the bottle back into his unwounded left hand. He had to clamber on his hands and knees up the bank to the roadbed because he was afraid of dropping the bottle. As soon as he had begun to walk he felt cooler.

The boy held tightly to his sister's arms above her elbows. She was trying to strike him, to scratch him, and she was gulping air in great murderous sobs. He kept trying to soothe her, to lead her back into the green lawn.

Then a year later almost the same thing happened. The mother and the uncle had gone off to town on some necessary errand. It was later in the season, November or December, and a silent disquieting snow lay everywhere. The smooth lawn was smoother still and it looked like a huge linen tablecloth. A smear of snow was on the bottom rim of the tire swing like a smudge of beard on a round face. They were playing in the living room around the chocolate-colored oil heater which boomed like an uncertain drum when the boy spanked it with an open hand. His sister's eyes were always on him, fearfully trusting. Now she was taller and stronger than he. They were playing together with unaccustomed noise so that at the beginning they did not hear the terrifying voice.

She heard it first. "Jan, Ja-an," she said.

He gazed at her, baffled, silent.

"It's them," she said. "I can hear them talking."

"No," he said. "It's not them. You can't hear them."

But then in a moment it really was as if it were the dead people talking. The low terrifying note, wordlessly questioning, sounded in the room, thrilling through the very walls of the house.

"Yes it is," she breathed. She began to cry silently, tears welling and remaining bright in her eyes.

The low cold note sounded twice again.

"No," he whispered, "it's not the dead ones talking."

He tore himself from a momentary trance and ran to the door and slammed it open. White coldness flooded his whole body instantly and he shuddered. Croo, croo. From the bare oak tree, on a branch above the still O of the swing, the little gray owl looked at him with mean yellow eyes. "It's an owl," he said.

She was behind him in the doorway. The tears were streaking down her feverish cheeks. "Who is it, Jan? What are they saying?"

Croo, crrrooo.

"It's just a squinch owl. He can't hurt you."

The owl blinked as suddenly as a man would snap his fingers. It cocked its head to one side and Timmie thought that it was trying to get a better look at her. "I see it," she said. "Won't it go away? Make it go away, Jan."

"Shoo!" he cried, waggling his thin arms up and down.


He ran out into the yard and scooped up snow and packed it, slapping it tight with both hands. The first snowball he threw went far away, not even touching the tree; the second ball splashed on the black tree trunk, making a shape like he and Timmie made when they squeezed a drop of ink in a creased paper. Looking slow, the little owl toppled forward, the long wings outspread. It came swooping low toward him over the smooth snow.

"Jan, watch out! Jan, don't let it get you!" She ran shrieking into the house, through the dark living room.

He ducked, crossing his thin forearms over his head and the back of his neck. The owl passed far overhead, wheeling up suddenly at the corner of the roof, and then beating its wings stoutly as it flew away through the gelid air. He watched it until it was a mere dot and lost among the spiny branches of the woods toward the east. He went into the house and closed the door, leaning the back of his head against it for a moment while his chest palpitated with jagged breathing. Through two closed doors he could hear a dim moaning. At the door to the hall he paused; the moaning had grown louder, and he was scared he might frighten her to death. "It's me," he said loudly. "It's Jan, Timmie; it's me." He went in and found her in their own small bedroom, lying on the floor behind the bed on the other side of the room. She was clutching a giant stuffed giraffe to her. She pressed the dumb head to her belly and had thrown her skinny legs over the soiled neck of the toy. The whole top of her dress front was wet from her crying.

"Hush, Timmie," he said. "Don't keep on crying and crying."

She would not stop; she couldn't stop until much later, when the mother and the uncle returned.



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