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It Is Time, Lord

by

Fred Chappell


 

CHAPTER 1

 

I WAS BORN May 23, 1931, in the house of my grandmother. No doctor could be found to attend, only a midwife from three miles away in the country. My birth was loud and troublesome; the midwife, who was but a young girl, fainted away and my father, who was assisting, had to force her again to consciousness. I lived in the room later for a long while with my grandmother. It was in this room that we took our meals and every night kept a watch until midnight, she reading the Bible, I myself reading a queer story of adventure. On the mantel above the iron stove there was a large clock, which was wound with a key stuck in two holes in its face. A brass pendulum swung inside the glass front, uttering a solidly satisfying click at each foot of its arc. My mother in the labor cried for the clicking to stop. My father opened the face and clutched the pendulum, but his hands so shook that he succeeded only in making the clicking faster. He was forced to take up a pair of scissors and a pencil and hold them on each side of the pendulum in order to halt its motion.

I was born in Gemini, which is the sign of the arms and denotes balance. We born in Gemini are fond of mathematics and science, or, perhaps, acting and oratory. We have a middling talent for commerce, are of a saving disposition, are moderate in all things. In short a fine sense of balance marks our undertakings.—Not so my sister, who is four years my junior. She was born in Leo, August 2, and they born in the sign of the heart have lofty minds and moral seriousness, dignity and firm will. Ptolemy of Pelusa hazards that one of the sign of the heart will achieve positions of honor and trust: thus, my sister has two children, and they are obedient. She never bends to them, and merely laughs at their egotistical whimsies.—She and I are temperamentally opposite. She is confident and graceful in her certainty that she always has the right in things, while I attribute my indecisiveness to my habit of weighing all particles of a problem. My two children obey me but tolerably, for I take their reasons seriously. The world my children see is very different from the world I see, but I discover in it a substance, and it is not less broad than my world. Leo, too, is a masculine sign, dry and barren, a fire sign; and so my sister has really the soul of a man, perhaps the soul of a prince. Gemini is also a masculine sign, but it is an air sign. An air sign has the disadvantage of inconstancy, as of the winds, but air is the temple of space, of infinity. Nothing so pours through me as the blueness of the sky in a cold, clear day; no eyes trouble me so much as the peculiarly flat blue eyes of babies or of ruthless blond women.

That room in which I was born had blue walls, too. They were plaster walls with tiny pimples everywhere, like a coat painted on. The ceiling was fairly high—it was rather an old house—and the single illumination was from a bulb suspended by a gilt chain from the center of the ceiling. When I was very young I liked to mount a chair and bat the bulb with a newspaper in order to watch the shadows of the furniture stagger on the floor, dart in and out beneath each object like animals frightened and bold by turns. The room always smelled of camphor, oil of wintergreen, and tonic: medicines my grandmother absorbed continually for her varied complaints.

The house was brick and there were fourteen other rooms. It was set on a hill in the center of the farm. Three barns stood together two hundred yards east of the house; behind them pasture stretched over a hundred acres of hills, below them lay the grain and tobacco fields, and a crooked creek, gradually chewing away the edges, the course being twisted and spring floods coming annually. The stream was well populated with muskrats, too, and their burrows ran sometimes into the middle of fields. The bottom fields were the best evidence of the present fortune of the farm: my grandparents could neither afford to have the creek straightened nor to leave it crooked. The buildings were all in good condition and the land well cared for, but the fence rows were grown with ragweed and locust and sassafras bushes, a sign that tenantry was unwillingly employed.

The fourteen other rooms of the house I remember as being always cold and dark. My grandmother was unwilling to give a room heat or light except when it was absolutely necessary. When I was older I lived in an upstairs room with two gable windows facing west. The room was paneled with notched pine slatting, and in the stream of the grain I would find rivers with islands, flames, tongues, heads of dogs, men, and bears. A long ridge fenced away the town from the farm and when I darkened my room for the night the gray aureole of the town lights lay along the top.

But I did not live in this room until I was fifteen, when I had already felt the first vague desires of sexual life: to sleep all night in a muddy ditch, to hang dead by the toes like Mussolini, to eat hashish—I fancied that one ate it from a bowl with a spoon, that it was of the consistency of jelly and black and bitter. And too—unfortunately—these upstairs bedrooms were furnished with dressing tables with large mirrors. For the vulgar saying that one cannot live on love is true only of romantic love, and certain persons there are who can live fatly on self-love, can devour themselves to the last gut and toenail, Narcissuses who play with themselves the game of Zeus and Selene.

And this is not on my part self-castigation for adolescent guilt. The chances are good that the remembrance is false. Pray God that it is. For the rich money of dream is generally debased by the counterfeiting of memory, and in the same manner certain reminiscences gain especial value by the significance of subsequent events. To illustrate, if a stranger approached you with a handful of diamonds, you would not attempt to judge his character by admiring his jewels. We can form no idea of the history or mind of a past century by reading its best poems, nor can we discover ourselves by the single remembrances that fasten to us.

I choose a single memory which has gathered such patina of usage that it seems much further distant than it is. My sister was three years old and she was following me to the barn. It was very cold. When the wind blew it hurt, but there was not very much wind. It hurt too when I walked fast, the cold air cutting my lungs as I breathed more deeply, and so I walked slowly.

Step for step behind, my sister whimpered. She wore only a little dress with puffy sleeves smothered in a thin blue sweater. She had long blond curls and I thought they were brittle because it was so cold and that they might splinter on her shoulders like golden icicles. It was late dusk and the moon was yellow, bulgy and low over the hills of the pasture, a soft handful of butter.

There were men in the barn I had never seen. They sat on sacks of crushed corn and cottonseed meal in the dimness. They looked mute and solid. Someone said, “That’s a little girl behind him.”

One of the men rose and approached slowly. He was tall and his gray eyes came toward me in the dusk. His hair was blond, but not as yellow as my sister’s. “Where you from, boy?” he asked.

“Home.”

“Is that your sister?”

“Yes. She’s Julia. My name is James.”

“Don’t she have something more than that to wear?”

“I told her not to come out with me.”

“You better strike out,” he said.

“She’ll freeze to death out here.”

“Strike out?”

“You better light out for home.” He rubbed his big wrists. “Hurry up and go on before she freezes to death.”

“Come on,” I told her. She was still whimpering. Her hands were scarlet, smaller and fatter than mine. I touched her hand with my finger and it felt like paper. There were small tears in her eyes, but her face was scared, not crying.

I started back. The rocks in the road were cold. Once I didn’t hear her whimpering and I looked and she was sitting in the road. I went to her and took her elbows and made her stand up. “Come on,” I said reproachfully, “you’ll freeze to death.”

We went on, but then she saw a great log beside the road, and went to it and sat. She had stopped whimpering, but her eyes had become larger. They seemed as large as eggs. “Please, come on,” I said. “You’ll freeze to death out here.”

She looked up at me. I pulled at her. Her wrists felt glassy under my fingers. “What are you doing?” I cried. “Why won’t you come on? You’ll freeze to death.” I couldn’t move her. It terrified me because I thought she had frozen to the log.

It got much darker and the moon was larger. I jerked her again and again, but she didn’t get up.

Nothing moved in her face. Two small tears were yet at the corner of each eye. She looked queer, stonelike, under the moonlight, and I thought something terrible had happened to her.

“What are you doing to her? Why don’t you leave her alone?”

My father suddenly appeared behind me, huge and black in the moonlight. He too had a small tear in each eye. He was breathing heavily in a big jacket. White plumes of breath bannered in the air.

“What makes you hurt her? What gets into you?” She raised her arms, and he gathered her to his jacket, holding her in both his arms as in a nest. She knotted herself against his chest, curling spontaneously.

He turned his back toward the moon and strode. Sometimes I had to trot to keep up, and I continued in the limplike pace until we got home.

“Open the door,” my father said hoarsely. He knocked the door with his foot.

My mother stood waiting inside and looked through my head at my sister, red in my father’s arms. “What happened?” she asked. Her mouth thinned.

I went to the brown stove and put my hand flat against its side, and it seemed a long time before its heat burned me. My face began to tickle.

“What were they doing?”

I walked to the window and looked at the moon huge and yellow behind the skinny maple branches. A dim spot emerged from the window pane as I breathed, and as I stood there it got larger and larger, like a gray flower unfolding, until it obscured the total moon.

This was winter, specifically January; spring is another matter entirely. April is even now chartreuse for me, a color which retains the dizziness and inspiring sickness of the liqueur. The new grass of April is chartreuse, and the new leaves on the long withes of weeping willows. It seems my father kept an ape, a tall, ginger-colored beast which wore a red collar about its neck, but was otherwise entirely free. The nameplate on the collar read: Modred. He had given me a long reap hook and told me to cut the lawn. The pale new grass was very short and limp. The hook would not cut it; the grass-blades bent under it, and seemed to squirm away from it. Finally I threw the tool down in exasperation. My father came out upon the porch with the ape—he was quite as horrid as Poe’s ape of the Rue Morgue—and said to it, “You’d better get him before he gets any worse.” The ape felt the back of its neck under the collar and put some lice in its mouth. Then it came down into the yard for me. I ran to a willow tree and climbed to the shuddering top before stopping, but when I looked down I looked into the face of the ape directly beneath me. It seized me by the ankles and pulled me down against its chest. I could hardly breathe. It clutched my left arm and bit away my hand. I could see the bare silver bones of my wrist. The ape looked down, and my father, who was standing at the foot of the tree, tossed it a salt shaker. It began to sprinkle salt upon my wrist.

So this is probably a dream, though perhaps it is injured by things which have since occurred or by dreams I have since received. But it is more tangible than many things encountered in the flesh. For instance, among our linens now is a washcloth with the print of a rose; nothing is more unreal than to see it floating alone, half-submerged, in the white bathwater. Or I would play chess or Chinese checkers with my grandfather and suddenly there would appear upon the squares of the board the hump and tail of Ursa Minor or the long spine of Draco. What is less real than this? We played on a marble chessboard which my grandfather had himself set in a heavy oak table he had made. To see these constellations emerge from the aggregate of pawns and knights was like seeing Atlantis raise its head out of the cold ocean, or, perhaps, like seeing in the marigold faces of human men the sudden roses of divinity: Dionysus before Acetes; Christ:

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung!

 

My grandfather and I would befuddle the eternal summer afternoons with games: chess, checkers, poker. He sat in a leather rocking chair on the open porch. By him a small table held a pitcher of water, a glass, a pint of whiskey. He drank slowly and thoughtfully. Flies strutted on his knuckles. He had a very bald head, deep green eyes, the face of Sibelius with the identical veins distent on the temples. It was a face such as the Emperor Augustus must have had: and this was how he sat, the melancholy emperor of the afternoon. He was a builder of houses and a good carpenter, but now for nearly forty years he had been able to walk only with the support of a crutch and a cane. Sometime in his twenties his legs had been completely shattered in a sawmill accident, and, because medicine in that time and place had been so very bad, he had never recovered. In the afternoons he did not like to walk. Besides games his other amusement was swatting flies. He wore out any number of fly swatters before he fashioned himself a leather one from the tongue of an old shoe. Like my sister, he was born in Leo.

Leo is summer, a lion with a hide of shaggy gold. Its haunches are sunlight, its flesh the logos of God.

Strong is the lion: like a coal

His eyeball, a bastion’s mole

His chest against the foe.

 

My grandfather and my sister are searched into by this majesty, kneaded in the glory of it. But are we merely masks of the stars and seasons? Apple trees are of summer, too, but they remain in winter, and not entirely asleep. For my grandfather lived through many winters and died in a summer. Once, I remember, he and I walked together in a December morning. We walked through the orchard in the first heavy frost of the season—or at least it now seems that it was the first heavy frost. Suddenly he said, “Look out, boy. Reach me that apple.” Above my head hung a great yellow apple, which somehow had escaped apple picking and autumn. I leaped as high as I could and felt it thud heavily in my hand. I gave it to him, and he, resting lopsided on his crutch, inserted both thumbs in the blossom end and tore the fruit into irregular halves. The meat was white as linen. The sunlight glittered on the moist flesh as on dew. Two black seeds glared from its heart. It was so cold it hurt my teeth.

Leo endures. There is summer in winter. My grandfather spent most of the winter before the cast-iron stove in the warm blue room. The stove was woodburning; the top slipped sidewise on a socket hinge and chunks of wood were thrust in. Ashes and coals fell into a long, narrow trough beneath the grates. I used to lie on my belly on the floor and gaze through a small window into this trough. Everything grew small and the dropped cinders were great boulders and mountains. The scene was illuminated by the red-orange glare of the fire above. It was as arid as sand, and live coals dropped through the grates, splashing the walls with sparks. This is the best notion of hell. When I would dream or daydream of going to hell I always wound up in the bottom of that stove.

“Don’t look into the fire so long, boy,” he said.

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for your eyes.”

“How come?”

“You’ll go blind if you keep that up long enough.”

“Is it bad to be blind?”

“You can’t see nothin when you’re blind. Man that’s blind is in bad shape. I used to know a feller in Fletcher Forks that was blind. He was sworped across the eyes with a sharp chestnut limb when they felled the tree.”

“What did he do?”

“Well, he used to log a little. Had a good matched team, used to bring hardwood about halfway down Turkey Knob and J-hook it off the mountain.”

“What’s J-hook?”

“Look here.” He held out his left arm, his hand bent toward the inside. His fingernails looked tough and oily, like a cow horn. “This here’s your hook, and this here’s your bar.” He put his right forearm against his left elbow to show me. Then he picked up his crutch from the floor. “Now, this is the log, and your J-hook goes like this and the bar this way.” He held the handle of the crutch in his half-open hand and laid his arm on one of the stocks. “You start goin down with your mules pullin the log, but pretty soon the log gets to goin faster and faster down the mountain. See how it goes? It’s heavier than your mules are, put together. Pretty soon it’s goin faster than your mules can trot, but see, you’ve already got you a chute built on top of some cleft that’s handy to where you’re haulin out, so you run on into the chute and kick your bar. When you do that it flips your hook out and the log’s free from your riggin. The log slides down to the foot of the holler.”

“What did the man do after he was blind?”

“Well, he couldn’t do nothin much. He sort of got along doin a little cobblin, although he was never any great account at it. He couldn’t make no shoes nor boots nor nothin; he could just fix em when they was tore up or wore out in the soles.”

“If you can’t cobble, what can you do when you’re blind?”

“What I was goin to tell you about this feller bein blind was he was a chinchy sort of eater. He was about like you like that, I reckon. When I worked with him, he used to take me in home to eat with him. He ate out of a wood plate he’d made for hisself. He’d cut out little dips in it for all the kinds of food. He couldn’t stand for his food to get all run together when he was eatin. He just wanted to eat one bite of one thing at a time and he figured out what he wanted to eat beforetime and if he didn’t want to eat one certain thing right then he’d wait till he did. He was the same way after he got blind, too, but he couldn’t tell nothin about what he was doin. He’d say, ‘Sary, what’s this I’ve got?’ And she’d say, ‘That’s beans, John.’ In a minute he’d say, ‘What’s this, Sary?’ She’d say, ‘That’s grits.’ In a minute, he’d say, ‘God gast it, Sary, where’s the applesauce?’ ”

He threw back his head and laughed loudly. The walls seemed to creak with the laugh. His nose was bushy with black hairs and his cheeks had blue-red veins.

This was the summer which was in winter, but winter itself was never nearly so warm or humane. It was ominous and icy, like the first sentence of Wells’s novel:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own, that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

All the days were overcast or brightly cold. At night the stars shone like frost on steel. Everything seemed constricted in winter, locked. The cold allowed me little freedom of movement; it wasn’t pleasant to stray too long from the stove. Ice sealed the puddles in the road, and the new ice which in the early morning had begun to form in the milk cans looked like broken panes of glass. I hated to leave the room at night to mount the dark stairs, to undress and lie in the freezing sheets.

Curiously, in winter I was not nostalgic for summer but for fall. As I feverishly shelled corn for the chickens, I would look at the great heaps of corn about me in the crib, remembering when we had gathered it. Most of it came from the field across the winding creek. It was gathered into the wagon drawn by the patient team. But before the wagon came it was pulled from the stalk and thrown into small piles, aligned as nearly straight as we could manage. Then the wagon came, knocking awry the stiff, dead stalks—I thought of chessmen swept from the board—and the corn was thrown in, and the wagon went creaking to the barn. We rode back. The horses paused at the edge of the creek. Uncle George, who was the tenant and not really an uncle, shouted them in. “Whoo. Whoohaw. Goddamn you, get your feet wet here. I’ll lay onto you proper. Whoohaw.”

His son, Jarvis, rode beside him on the wagon seat. “What if old Miz Albert was to hear you talk like that in front of honeybunch?”

I lay behind on the piled corn.

“He aint hearin nothin to scare him, I guess.”

The wagon squeaked and descended through the water. The water seemed darker now than in summer; it crawled and wavered around the wheels. Behind, on the sandy bank, were dark sliced wheel tracks.

This was the sort of thing I would remember in winter: coming from the fields itchy with beggar’s lice and Spanish needles, or tired and dusty, but not hot, from the final urgencies of the hayfields. Blackbirds and starlings knotted the telephone wires; the mockingbirds had already gone, and the bluejays. For after supper there would be pie from new pumpkins, sweet and coarse and stringy.

After I had shelled the corn I would feed it to the chickens, imitating my grandmother in calling them: “Here, chickchickchick chickee. Here, chickchick-chickchick chickee.” They would come running and when a good number was gathered, I would toss the corn in bright handfuls, pretending that it was money I scattered. A red hen would pick up a grain, drop it, pick it up again, bite it, drop it, lose it to another red hen, peck her, be pecked fiercely in return, peck another hen, search for another grain of corn. Then I shucked corn for the horses and the mule and fed them shorts and brought them water. Then I tossed hay down into the lot feed rack for the cows.

The cows never looked to see whence their feed came. They stuck their heads into the rack and the tossed hay fell over their horns and tangled on their broad brows. Occasionally they would shake it off. In the twilight they seemed warm and dim and eternal. If a lantern was lighted in the barn, it threw oblongs and blades of orange light into the lot.

The barns were on a hill, and I could stand in the road by them and see time itself stretching and breathing below in the bright days. In winter we pastured steers and yearlings in the bottom fields, where they grazed on the tough rye grass we had sown in midsummer. The cattle, “calves” they were called, all faced in the same direction, north-northwest, as they cropped in the mornings. About noon they all rested, lying among the broken cornstalks or on the bald spot where tobacco had grown. In the afternoon they began retracing their journey, grazing southeast toward the barns. Again, I was reminded of the black and red counters of the chess game. The steers in the fields were red-and- white or black-and-white. Or I could see the indeterminate masses of shadow laid down by clouds which flew slowly across the sky. In a flat country, the shadows of clouds upon the land are not seen: one is either in the shadow or on a level with it. But these cloud shadows are the best idea of time, for it is only islands of time which touch us, and the vehement deeps of time—think of an ocean or a wheatfield—are alien to us, even though we have floated them or sported within them from the time of our birth. Chambers Mountain, which stopped up like a cork the northern neck of the valley, gathered clouds about its high shoulders like mantles of state.

“Did you ever use to cobble for a living?” I asked him.

 He turned his graven head upon me. The green eyes rested, as if he saw me reborn. “I thought I told you once to get up off of your stomach.”

“Yes sir.”

“No.”

“Don’t you know how to, though?”

The stove was equipped with an iron footrail and he laid his swollen right foot upon it. “I’ve had to make my own shoes to do right since I was hurt,” he said. “I can do a little. I always knock down the tacks in your shoes when they cut your heels, don’t I?”

“Yes.” I thought of the queer iron foot in the milkhouse. It was about three feet high, and, set in a block of wood, it pointed toward the sky. The foot was flat and really was only an iron sole, neither right nor left. When my grandfather worked on a shoe, he fitted it over this iron foot and hammered it. A shoe tack looked small, smaller than the hour hand of a wrist watch, in his great hand. His fingers were square and hard; they seemed mostly bone.

On the mantel above the stove the pendulum clock clicked. On both sides of it sat mayonnaise jars full of pencil stubs, broken fountain pens which were used as dip pens, glass gimcracks full of bank statements, i.o.u.’s, financial notes, and there were Bible commentaries and two or three odd volumes of an encyclopedia. I had once begun to read one of these volumes; I read about the aardvark, the aardwolf, and the Aarn River, and then I stopped. I knew all about Aarn from my grandmother.

She would sit under the single bulb reading the Bible. She rocked in a small rocking chair and flat globules of light rose and set like miniature moons in her spectacles. She licked her noded thumb when she turned pages.

“Son,” she would ask, “the dogs licked the blood of what great king?”

“Ahab,” I answered.

“Ahab, did you say?” my grandfather asked. His voice said, I don’t believe you.

“No…McNabb,” said the redhaired man. “Charles.”

“I thought I must not of heard right. Ahab was a Bible king.”

 The redhaired man nodded quickly. He seemed in a great hurry. He had blue eyes, as flat as glass, the color of oceans on maps. The hair began so suddenly and tightly on his forehead it seemed like a wig. He was smoking a cigarette. He stood just over the threshold of the warm room and seemed to want to enter. “You say you don’t mind my using your phone?” he asked.

“How about the woman with you?” my grandfather asked. “Has she got a coat or somethin heavy on?”

“She’s got a coat,” he said. “How did you know she was with me?”

“I know your tracks,” said my grandfather. “Or somebody’s like yours. They’re behind the big barn. That’s where you pull your car in.”

The man stared at him. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “No, I don’t want you to call anybody on the telephone. I don’t want nobody comin to fix your car with a no-count woman in it behind my barn.”

“Wait a minute. I didn’t know you objected to my parking there or I wouldn’t have done it.”

“You couldn’t of asked me to let you, either. Not for lettin you lollygag with the town whores. Trouble is, I’ve found burnt-out cigarettes not more’n a foot away from the hay, where you’ve throwed em out. That barn would go up like gunpowder.”

“You mean to tell me you really won’t have the decency just to let me borrow your phone?” He seemed unbelieving.

L’empereur a l’oeuil mort.

“I’ll tell you ‘decent,’” my grandfather said. “I don’t see no decent feller around here. You can walk for a telephone.”

“It must be two miles, at least.”

“Thataintfar for a young feller.”

“Wait a minute…”

“Don’t tell me to wait. You’re a ragged-ass son of a bitch.”

He slammed the door. It was as if he had been snuffed out like a candle flame. We listened to his hard footsteps, and then the outer door closed. The fire in the stove hummed. Outside, the November wind blew.

“I never did like a redheaded feller,” my grandfather said.

When I answered her questions about the Bible correctly, my grandmother would smile and nod to herself in approval. “That’s right,” she said. “Now, can you tell who Abishag was?”

“No. I don’t know.”

Then she would tell me—but not just who Abishag was. She told the whole story of King David from the beginning. When she got to her question, she would stop and say, “Now that’s who Abishag was.” Then she would tell the story to the end, down to Absalom and his long yellow hair.

These nights seemed eternal. Nothing moved in the room but the hand on the pendulum of the clock until my grandfather decided he wanted water. He rose painfully out of his chair and went to the kitchen. The sound was: bup, swiss, thum: first his cane forward, then his right foot dragged across the worn linoleum, then his crutch and left foot forward together. His hands were bald and white as metal on the sticks.

The fire in the stove hummed and belched.

In the kitchen, the water waited in a chipped porcelain pail in the sink. The rectangle of the window, patched with a black angle of the roof and a few stars or the moon, floated on the water like a piece of cheesecloth. But, when I bent over it to pull the dipper up, a great black head rose from the bottom of the pail. Disturbing the dipper made the whole fabric quake and waver. I thought of how a pattern in the slatted pine paneling of my bedroom would change from the head of a snake to the head of a bear to a pathetic ghost. I would shiver because it was very cold. I could not understand how everything changed and yet was always the same in the end.

“It bucks me up,” said my grandfather in a July. “But it’s just for old men like me; itaintfor young fellers.”

“Maybe it will buck me up, too,” I said. I wanted some of the whiskey he drank during the chess game.

“I’ve told you no,” he said, “and you know better than to keep whinin. When I know you’re old enough, I’ll give you some.”

“When will I be old enough?”

“When I’ve decided you are.”

“How does it buck you up?”

“Changes a feller’s outlook a little. Changes things, swaps em around a little better.”

“I don’t see anything changed.”

“You don’t know what to look for, yet, do you?”

“I don’t see how it changes and don’t change at the same time.”

“Well, that’s one of the things you don’t know. Check.”

His knight and rook menaced my king. I moved the wrong pawn.

“Keep your eyes open, boy,” he said. “Watch what you’re about.”

“Are you goin to buy me that Canadian Mountie suit?”

“What do you want to look like your pants are full of corncobs for?”

But the patterns in the pine wall changed and the wall didn’t change. And shadows changed, but the objects which created the shadows didn’t change.

In a December my grandmother asked me not to bat that light bulb with a folded newspaper. “It makes it hard for me to see the words,” she said, licking her knotty thumb.

“Yes mam,” I said.

The bulb still swung slowly. I had been watching the shadow of the hanging edge of a tablecloth. It ran on the floor in and out from beneath the table, and it was shaped like a small black rat. I watched the straight shadow of a chair seat go back and forth like a windshield wiper. I looked under the door to watch the bar of shadow squeezed down by the swaying light. There was no shadow beneath the door. There was a pink glow as thick as a finger. I watched it a long time, and my eyes began to ache.

“What was that last chunk you put in the stove?” my grandfather asked. “It don’t smell right, someway.”

“It was just green red oak,” I said. I could smell nothing but the medicines which always odored the room. I rubbed my eyes. The pink bar under the door had turned orange.

My grandmother had stopped reading. Both she and my grandfather sat silent.

I went to the door. “I don’t know why this door’s so hot,” I said. The knob was slippery in my hand.

“Don’t you open that door. You get everybody’s coats out of that closet. Hurry up.” He held both his walking sticks in one hand, and raised himself very suddenly. “Mamaw,” he said, “put the papers on the mantel in my coat pocket.” He hobbled to the telephone. “Come here,” he told me, “and call this here number.” He pointed to a number penciled on the wall.

My arms were full of coats. “The house is on fire,” I said.

“Hurry up,” he said.

Outside, a dry snow covered the ground. The trees looked pink, and it was very cold. We walked only about a hundred yards. Through the windows, the flames looked like fine ladies and gentlemen dancing at a great ball. I had never seen so much light. Chambers Mountain blotted out the last star in the Big Dipper, and, as I watched, light suddenly filled the windows of the tenant house.

There were silent tears on my grandmother’s cheek, and a knot pulsed in my grandfather’s jaw. “Them redheaded fellers is all no-count,” he said.

“I’m going to kill that son of a bitch,” I said. I was nine years old.

CHAPTER 2

 

MY GRANDMOTHER was very tall, taller than my grandfather, who had been bent by stooping to his walking sticks. She was five feet eleven inches. She was as straight and firm as the edge of a door, and her carriage was perfectly balanced and easy. Tall as she was, she was yet graceful. Her shoulders were wide and her body of a middling slender build, so that her dresses—which she generally fashioned for herself—fell in straight lines from her shoulders. These dresses were all of solid colors: dark green and dark blue predominated among them. She was never without an apron, and in the deep pocket of this garment carried string, a paring knife, some spools of thread with a needle, a thimble, apple peelings, perhaps, a pencil stub grimy with use, a scrap or two of paper, and mail. She carried a handbag only when going to church or to market. These aprons were almost always entirely plain, the edges hemmed merely, and only occasionally had she sewn on red or yellow bias binding. Her dresses, too, were always very severely cut, though she would sometimes allow large pleats under the shoulders so that the cloth fell in large folds, heightening my impression of her dresses as judicial gowns or choir robes. She wore thick cotton hose, the color of creamed coffee. Her shoes were always black, the toes squared away, the leather decorated with perforated swirls. Going to market or to church she wore black store-bought dresses, throwing a light silver- or gold-threaded shawl over her shoulders. These were long shawls; the tasseled fringes brushed her wrist as she walked. Her hats too were black, with frowsy little dotted veils which covered none of the face. Working at home or in the fields she wore the kind of sunbonnet you find in the hillbilly comic strips.

I remember that her hair was first the vague gray of a cobweb or a glass curtain, and that it later turned stark white like bone china. Her forehead was high; her complexion good, though neither entirely fair nor entirely dark. Her face was wrinkled, especially about the eyes. Her cheeks were wrinkled, but not about her high cheekbones, where the flesh was firm and the color still pink. Her eyes were brown, with flecks of a darker brown; they were not striking eyes. She always wore bifocals with tiny, very delicate gold rims. Her teeth were of course not natural; I used often to find them lying on the window sill over the kitchen sink. Here she scrubbed them with salt or baking soda. Lying out, they seemed frightening, a dead animal. Her mouth was firm, her lips somewhat thin; her upper lip was short and slightly downy, like the lip of the princess in War and Peace. Her chin was round and smooth, her jaw line strong and straight.

Her wrists were large, the tarsal bones enlarged and prominent. The veins were enlarged, too. They were blue, very noticeable. On her hands, the skin was dry and weathered. When she twisted her hand, each pore made a tiny wrinkle, and when I touched her wrist it seemed as hard and bare as furniture. Her hands were knobby and calloused and she had great ugly knuckles. The fingernails were short, broad, square, with minuscule ridges. The fingernail of her left second finger was black and curled inward from some former accident. When her hands were cold she would hold one in the other, like a ball. And when they were wet, she would dry them by rubbing them once on the apron, flat against her thighs. This is how a man dries his hands.

She had large bones, and her frame was large. Like Sherlock Holmes, she had strength without apparent muscularity. I have often thought that her tendons and ligaments must have been extremely powerful. Her fingers, which seemed clumsy and forgetting, adapted themselves to any tool, pitchfork or paring knife. She peeled an apple by putting her thumb on the base of the sharp edge, with the dull edge against her knuckles, and the handle resting lightly in her palm. She whittled the peeling away, stroking toward her body. The chips of peeling fell in her aproned lap.

With her Sunday dresses she wore rather large brooches of intricate design, made of brass and green glass. Lying on her dressing table, they looked like exotic insects. Also on her dressing table were a brush, a comb, a bottle of hair oil, a box of powder, a tinted picture of Franklin Roosevelt, wearing a deadly sincere expression. She was very likely to use too much face powder when she dressed, perhaps because she was careless, or maybe the mirror was too dark for her to see her reflection well. Grainy patches of powder often were on her cheeks and were noticeable when she smiled.

She had a very silent smile, which drew becomingly from the gravure of her face: it did not wrinkle her face the more, but hid advantageously among the other creases. When she grinned she hid her mouth with her dry hand. The gesture seemed immoderately coy, considering her age, but she hid a gap in her teeth: she had once dropped her dental plate in the sink. She never frowned, but instead drew the corners of her mouth down, elongating the short upper lip, until her mouth was a straight line. Like most elderly persons, her face exhibited little range of expression. When she read, she raised her eyebrows.

Her movements were as graceful as the nature of farmwork permits. Gentleness moved her body. She was wholly feminine, having been born on the last day of June in the sign of Cancer, a watery, fruitful, feminine sign. She had the virtues of women: keenness of mind, moral austerity, quickness and cleverness in business matters. Cancer is the sign of the breast, and the time of Cancer is a fruitful time for all things, even noxious growths. Her proper element was autumn, the harvest season, the rainy season.

She was then taller than I now am, for I stand only five feet eight inches. I weigh about one hundred fifty pounds, have gray eyes, muddy blond hair. My hair has slight waves which my parents nursed for me from infancy and which have begun now in my thirtieth year to straighten. My face is oval and fair and forgettable. My mouth is handsome in its way, but colorless; my eyes placid. My build is rather slight; the bones are small. My hands seem feminine, almost delicate: they are very white.

My disposition is not amiable, but, rather, amenable. I am willing for any interesting undertaking, but rarely enthusiastic. I rarely anger, but can withstand a great amount of vexation: in short, I am easily put upon. But I am not often treated so, for I am retiring, if not really shy. Like Hazlitt’s Hamlet, I am more interested in my own thoughts than in the world around me, but

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be—

I have no great personal problems, because my thoughts are only accidentally concerned with myself. For me an abstract system is worth a hundred disparate data. I do not read the newspapers, I do not worry about money.

Even so, I am a very prudent person, and do not make decisions easily. To decide which necktie to wear is a source of the greatest confusion. I cannot make up my mind what I might like for dinner. I am introversive rather than extroversive, but I find myself per se uninteresting, and it seems that my self is but a key to some more important matter. Unfortunately, I am unacquainted with this other matter. What is paramount here is that I am by nature blind to a greater part of the world about; I am sealed away from the most of my life. This is an invaginate existence: much too dull to think about for its own value.

The things that interest me are faces, books, flowers, images, sports. I find no more durable pleasure than reading early Christian history, but I am excited by the imaginings of my children and the dreams of my wife and myself. I remain fascinated by my profession: I am a Methodist minister.

Among the questions one is asked before ordination in the ministry is: Do you expect to achieve perfection, with the grace of God? At least, this is the essence of the question; I have forgotten the exact words. One must answer, Yes. Again: Do you expect to achieve this perfection in your lifetime? Again: Yes. And, I have often wondered how seriously one is expected to take these two questions. In truth, I believe that perfection will work itself out—on the rare occasions when it is going to—despite anyone’s efforts and quite regardless of the grace of God. It depends on where you stand to look at the time of your life.

For instance, I once attended the hospital deathbed of an old man who belonged to my congregation. He was a very old man, a farmer, a faithful church attendant. He had been involved in a highway accident. His hair was white and his face, too, was white, drained. He spoke slowly and thickly and regarded his imminent death calmly.

“Do you have a special burden you would like to pray to God to absolve you of?” I asked.

He was silent a long time. “Yes,” he said finally.

“Would you like to tell me, or would you like to offer silent prayer?”

Long silence. “No…no,” he said. “I can’t pray…I don’t regret it…”

This is the kind of perfection that flowers despite God’s grace; it is essentially the same perfection one feels in the first breathing of spring or the first spreading of a new linen tablecloth.

My grandmother lived to see me made a minister and to hear some few of my sermons, and this fulfilled perhaps her fondest hopes. My grandfather did not survive so long. I don’t know how he would have felt about my profession. My memory vaguely hints that his attitude toward the ministry was equivocal, although his respect for the Bible was thorough and literal.

“You hear sayin now that the world’s round like a orange,” he once told me. “But it don’t say nothin about it in the Bible, and the Bible mentions about everything else, I reckon: the radio, and television, and the airplane. But it don’t say nothin about the world bein round.”

“Do you think it’s round?” I asked.

“Well, them science fellers generally know what they’re talkin about, but I don’t know. I passed a lot of flat country on my way to Oregon—miles and miles of it, farther’n I could see, but it didn’t look round to me.”

“Does the Bible say anything about whiskey?” I asked.

“It says, ‘Do not look upon the wine when it is red.’ ”

“I’ll take two,” I said. He dealt me a five and a Jack of Diamonds. The Jack had blue eyes and a stiff yellow mustache.

“How will you open?” he asked.

“Three,” I said. I laid three finishing nails in the center of the table. I sang,

“Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds,

Jack of Diamonds, I cry,

If I don’t get rye whiskey,

I’ll live till I die.”

 

“Hold up,” he said. “Who’s been learnin you that?”

“Hurl,” I said. Hurl was Uncle George’s boy.

“What’s he know about it?”

“I don’t know.”

Uncle George was about thirty-five years old, hardly old enough to be called “uncle” as a term of respect: it was merely a nickname. He was rather short, had sandy hair, gray eyes. He was as tough and warped as first-growth hickory. He usually wore overalls, a sweatshirt, and Army boots, for he had fought in the Second World War.

I remember once—I was older then—we were painting the barn roof. We were painting it a dull red, the color of a rank chicken. We bent over in the sun. A bursting sun filled the sky. Pitch, pish: amorphous areas of gray zinc, created like Asias, wobbly cats, things any-shape. I thought of the pine slatting in my old bedroom, before it had been rebuilt and painted white. Sweat dripped off our faces into the swathes of paint. I was dizzy from bending and from the odor of paint and turpentine, and when I stood the emerald landscape oozed and wavered like steam from a kettle. It was far down because the barn sat on the edge of a hill on one side. Below, the fields, where I could watch the shadows of clouds, lay squared or catty-cornered, green candy in a box. To the north, the heavy blue-green triangle of Chambers Mountain like a smoky ghost.

Uncle George said, “It’s time for me to get some air.”

We went slowly to the corner of the roof and sat. The tin burned my hams I had been working all summer, from the time school was out until now, dead August, to buy shares on a car with a friend.

“Look at that,” said Uncle George. “My crazy old hound’s moving them pups again.” The spotted dog came out of the barn on the other side of the road. A pup dangled blindly in her jaws. “I bet a pretty she takes him back out to the house. She’s moved them pups eight times in the past two weeks. She had em in that barn, and then she moved em down in the weeds next to the cow lot, and then she moved em out to my basement, and then she moved back out to this here barn.” The dog padded in the dusty road, headed for Uncle’s house.

I stuck my belly out. My back was tired from bending. I looked toward the tenant house where Uncle lived. Two lines of washing winked in the sun. “Look,” I said, “look how those sheets are flapping. But there’s not the first sign of a breeze up here.”

“I know it,” said Uncle. “Look how that tobacco’s yellowin up. Won’t be long before I have to start cuttin it.”

I knew I’d be in school by then. “I don’t care,” I said. “While I’m sitting there taking my ease, I’ll think about you cutting that tobacco. And loading it, and hanging it on those wobbly tier poles.”

He spat over the edge of the roof. “It’s all one to me,” he said.

I laughed. “Yes, I’ll think about you laying those heavy sticks on the wagon, and dragging them off, and climbing up under the roof with them.”

“Don’t worry, honey. Your time’s comin.”

“No sir,” I said. “I can’t see it. You won’t ever catch me dirt farming. It doesn’t get you anywhere. You can turn up these same rocky hills here for the next fifty years, and still never have money to stuff a sock full of nickels.”

“It’s a living.”

“That’s not what I’m looking for.”

“It’s plenty, though. By God, I was in Saint Lô, France, durin the war. They wasn’t a leaf left on the trees. It was the middle of the summer, too. And you know what happened? Them Frenchmens had cooked em and eat em all up, in salats and things.”

“That doesn’t hurt my conscience,” I said. “I’m not going to start a war. I just want to get me a good job somewhere, to make enough money to live decently.”

Uncle shrugged.

“How are we going to paint the other side?” I asked. “It’s too steep to stand on.”

“That’s why I brung the rope,” said Uncle. “I reckon it’ll just about fit you, while I stay up on the ridgepole and hang on. As long as I hold on, you aint got nothin to be worried about.”

“I’m not worried.”

The sun broke, an angry chrysanthemum molting. We painted a long while, and then he fixed the rope about my waist. We stood splay-footed on the apex.

“There goes them McNeal girls through the cornfield,” said Uncle. “I wonder what they’ve lost in the cornpatch.”

“Nothing they can find,” I said. “They’re going down to splash their feet in the water. That’s hot work, loafing around the house.”

We watched the slow progress of the girls, the tall corn shaking as they threaded their way through it toward the creek. The summer shimmered.

“Here I go,” I said. Taking up brush and bucket, I inched down the side. “I hope you’ve got a strong grip.”

“You be careful there, boy.” My grandfather stood in the road above the barn.

“Well,” I said.

Uncle was looking back over his shoulder. “Here comes old Sheba with another pup,” he said.

“You better keep your eyes peeled,” said my grandfather. “The boy’s in a dangerous place.”

I looked up at Uncle. He had given the rope two turns about his waist, and twisted it over both forearms. “I’m all right,” I said. “Don’t worry about me.”

I painted a long while, sweat soaking the back of my shirt. My wrists were shiny.

“Whoo,” said Uncle, “naked as a jaybird!”

“Who?” I asked.

“Them McNeal girls have took off every stitch. They’re dobblin about in the creek without a stitch.”

When I stood up, I stepped in the patch I had just painted. I fell on the sticky tin, and rolled off the edge. The hard rope took away my breath. Back and forth beneath me the ground ebbed as I swung from the roof, and I could smell the weeds in the sun, and see in the grasses a glitter of mica or glass.

“Are you all right, honey?” asked Uncle.

“I told you to watch what you were about,” said my grandfather.

“God damn it,” I said, “goddamnit, you old hopping Jesus.”

That night my mother went round and round me, painting with an alcohol-soaked patch of cotton at the broad raw red streak the rope had rubbed on my waist. The alcohol smelled fresh and cold, and the long smart of it felt refreshing. Short and slender­­­­­—she was but a tiny woman—she did not have to bend far over to doctor me. Smiling placidly as she worked, she was poking gentle fun, the only kind she knew, at me.

“I would think a young man on the roof of a barn would remember to be careful,” she said. “If I were high up in the air I believe I wouldn’t have but one thing on my mind.”

“It was just an accident,” I said.

“If you found yourself a girl friend, some nice young lady, you wouldn’t have accidents like that,” she said. She passed her cool hand across the back of my head. “Curiosity doesn’t always have to kill the cat.” She stepped away from me and looked at me carefully, her head cocked to one side like a catbird. She looked merry, but not unnecessarily or unjustly so. She held the bottle of alcohol in one hand, the blob of cotton in the other.—I have often remembered her like that. I was old enough to think, If it wasn’t for her and grandmother, the men in this family would have killed themselves off long ago.

“Does it burn much?” she asked.

“It hurts good,” I said.



 

END OF SAMPLE



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