“No, dear, I’ll be the one to cope with the shoes, yes? And you, why this will give you the time to go and prepare our own meal, yours and mine!”
No. She stood unsmilingly until at last Lee turned and tiptoed back to where the creature lay snoring among books and paraphernalia and, withal, the best accommodations this side of River Cahawba. Quickly he cut loose the moccasin on the boy’s left-hand side and tossed it as far from himself as he could, where it bounced against the wall. No socks. Nor did the boy seem to require them. Suddenly Lee uttered out loud, dismayed to find that the remaining foot, the one in leather, was fitted with a prosthetic device of strange nature, crude beyond imagination, the work most likely of some fellow tribesman, an iron monger possibly, or good-intentioned smith who had wanted by such means to make the legs more or less equal in length by comparison to each other. Lee dropped it at once, but then immediately gathered it up again and fastened it into place.
Of the boy’s upper parts, his face for example and head in general, they belonged to a person of whom it was difficult to make to make final judgment. Next, working tenderly, Lee lifted the lid on the right-hand side, uncovering an eye that was large, hazel, and highly clarified. It was not uncommon to come across features of this kind, hazel ones, in certain upriver counties toward the north. Thinking on this (and taking out his pipe and filling it), he was slow to drop the lid and slow, too, in running around to the other side where the eye proved so much like the first one that right away Lee began to confuse them in his mind.
Outside, his wife was where he had placed her. “I’m thinking we should have the ham tonight,” he said, “and black-eyed peas. You’re very hungry and…”
“Is he all right?”
“Fine, fine. Knows how to sleep certainly! Yes, indeed.” He hummed. “There is that little… how to say? Anomaly.”
“No, no, no, I didn’t do it. It’s one leg, you see - shorter than the other. And that will explain his limp. For my part, I think we should have gravy with the ham and gravy with the grits.”
She said nothing. Lee knew what she was thinking however.
“He doesn’t belong to us, dear. Why, he’s nearly a full-grown man!”
“What’s his name?”
“Never asked. And I will not have you plucking some adorable little name out of mid-air and foisting it off onto him like you did for…” (He mentioned here the dog, who also had come to them from out of the hills.) “Anyway, he’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous. Who would feed him?”
It nearly always gave Lee pleasure when at the end of a tumultuous day he would throw himself inside the house and, shivering with the most delicious sense of security, pull Judy in after him.
He looked upon it as his own special place, and never mind that the structure was too tall by far and excessively narrow for its height. As to the ceilings (and the house was full of them), they were so high that only with great difficulty could he actually perceive them, and even then he had to use his better glasses. But primarily it was the wallpaper he adored, hundred-year-old stuff so faded by now and so grainy that it turned one’s thoughts to classic nineteenth-century postage stamps. Many were the times he used to stand facing the wall with his lantern, endeavoring to read those old newspaper accounts wherewith the surface had been mended and patched. But mostly he was drawn to the damp places where some of his earliest ancestors had been immured.
There were a number of things that committed him to this place and marked him out, not so much as “the captain of his own destination” as rather the captive, so to speak, of self-fascination. But all this was as nothing when held up next to the objects (books) and items (musical recordings) that he had abstracted from New York City, hundreds of good things that filled the shelves that ran back and forth and extended even unto the ceiling itself where a ladder was needed to get them down. They covered the moist places, the books did, and offered tens of thousands of pages amongst which a person could hide his bills of money.
He was aware of everything - the furniture, the mice, the smell of mildew, calomel and soot. Aware, too, that the closet was full of canned foods. Climbing to the third floor, he also became aware of Judy who, often as not, would be seated on the floor among her belongings.
These were the good years. No one whom he had ever known had any desire to find him. In Africa, meantime, and points further east, sixteen wars were being carried out with sticks, rifles, and razor blades. One could do worse than pilot even such an unwieldy house as this one over the dark, deep, and unsettled sea that comprised a typical black night in the land called Alabama.
And: “Did I not say, dear,” (he said), “that our love would persist for ten thousand years?”
She couldn’t hear him, not so long as he remained in his vestibule, a narrow space beneath the stairs where he had room but for a chair, lamp, and old-fashioned radio that had gone bad except for certain highly irregular wave lengths in the extreme right-hand region of the dial. Approaching the thing with circumspect - it was as big, almost, as the refrigerator - he now switched on the motor and prepared himself for a very long wait. Thus several minutes went by, which is to say until some of the more conspicuous tubes (the machine had long ago lost its housing and was kept together with rubber bands and cellophane) until the essential tubes, as he was saying, began to blush and, finally, throw off sparks.
Somehow he had tapped into a comedy show, an uproarious affair that had originated from somewhere in Chicago shortly before the War. Coming nearer, he did his best to understand the jokes, but soon was overwhelmed by blasts of trash music breaking in from two neighboring channels. It was quite useless - each time he thought that he was at last keening in on the old songs, that was when evilness took possession of the wires.
Turning to the news, he heard two stories each about racism and price movements. Quickly he turned off the power, waited, counted and then, bending over the machine, tried to ascertain if the tubes had cooled sufficiently and whether he could find Chicago amid the static.
They ate in silence, the woman and Lee. Good years were these, now that the tedium of youth was behind them; they liked to sit for hours in the dim, gloating conjointly over what they had accomplished in the past and what they hoped to avoid in the future. And in short he foresaw for them nothing but music and dogs, nights and long walks in the increasingly depopulated countryside. Suddenly, that moment, the radio spoke out loud and clear, Lee having forgotten to turn it off. And because it was a weather report (their favorite kind of listening), and since it referred to a nearby locality and to current time, Lee chose to give heed to it and, if possible, memorize it before too much static got between the meteorologist and he.
Thunder and rain, coming from opposite directions, were anticipated on two different fronts. And someday, he knew, great balls of fire would come rolling down the valley, evaporating the Cahawba. Bending nearer, he learned that December would be upon them much sooner than he had provided for. It promised high winds, the premier danger in these parts to his all-too-narrow-and-excessively-tall home that already listed to one side.
“December,” he said, looking meaningfully at his wife.
She paled. This was the weather that each year sent her running for her mittens and ear pads and never mind that there were still 60 degrees of mercury both inside and out.
“But if you think this is chilly, just you wait till…”
“No, Lee, don’t. Please.”
“… till snow has filled the attic and little hills of frost sit athwart your nipples, then what will you do, hm?”
She shivered violently and put on an anguished expression. Lee watched calmly as she tore loose the shawl that adorned the sofa and wrapped herself in it. The radio was continuing, a lugubrious voice telling of:
“… high water in Tennessee.”
“Tennessee!” said Lee. “Oh my, now that is getting close, isn’t it?”
“How close is it, Lee?”
Not immediately answering, he began to do the mental geography in his head. These were the good years and he foresaw no true danger for them, or anyway not for so long as they remained in a county that itself lay in the shade of a thousand defunct volcanoes, a peerless defense against all sorts of weather, northern invasions, interest rates, and television beams.
He had wanted to do the dishes; instead, at the last moment, a crime show came on, emanating from the only station he could trust. Of the story itself and its outcome, he was able to recall only very little of it later on. His preoccupation was with the way the world was when first the radio waves had set out on their long journey over the fields and furrows of Illinois. Meantime in the kitchen his wife was up to her elbows in dishes and, although he could decipher no word of it, singing non-stop.
The story begins in moments from now, as soon as the aftermath arrives of something that happened one time: Remember? How in those times we used to keep watch till night, you and I, and then come outside and climb the hill? One would have thought there was
nothing to look forward to except further dimness by day and additional darkness at night and keeping steadfast vigil, you and I, from places in the house and field.
(Followed then several moments in silence.) And how we used to trudge on down to where in old times a certain one we both remember well would wait all night with his legs dangling over the Edge as he cradled in his lap that well-remembered lizard of which the county still sometimes tells? Vehement indeed was the weather in those days, and so dense (he said) with unorganized matter hurtling past that many times (and I believe him) he could have leapt across the distance and built his home upon an unclaimed star. But the rest you know - how he did one thing and another, ending up as a minor constellation in the December sky. (Again Lee fell silent. A chill was up, bringing with it the smell of unharvested apples deteriorating on the stem. He attributed it to the people who had run off in such haste toward the ever-expanding cities that now touched each other across broad distances. Working quietly, he folded the blanket more closely about the woman, uncertain whether she were sleeping or not.)
They never went about in daylight, Lee and his wife, nor set foot on land that was not their own. And because she was prone to falling unconscious and remaining that way for certain hours, he had to prod her to the hill and haul her to the summit and, gathering her head in both hands and aiming it in the right direction, describe for her ears alone the things that had come to pass in nearby counties.
“And there, did you see that? It never ends, and it never does!”
“Never. Can we go in now? The cold.”
“And there!” (It seemed to him that he was seeing more than usual, and that his powers of observation were even more acute tonight than by comparison with his accustomed standard. He saw a lot, and what he saw told him all that he immediately needed to know about a great number of things.)
“This is why we never leave the house,” he said, “except at night. And over there, that’s the reason why…”
Those airplanes leaping off the tarmac? Trying to effectuate an escape. For this he blamed the boy next door, who had chosen this time for trying out his kite, a tattered item as black as the birds who served as consorts for the thing.
Remember? How we left the hill, you and I and, traveling far, came to where the surf broke like glass on what till then had been our sovereign shore? And when as on the first day of the world we stood gazing for hours at the inordinate sun? “Because life,” you said, “must someday end.” Came then the light.
And I recall the boy reeling in the stars and kite, and you upon the shore, asleep when all was bright.
At the time of The Second Council, when 37 cities had agreed to unify and a man could grow old and die without having ever smelt “the wet smell of a wet mule in wet rain,” and women wanted to be like men, that was when large numbers began to be seen loitering on street corners wishing for life to come to an end. In such a situation as that was, one could hardly blame the better sort of people for wanting to draw apart and live where census takers and others of that kind declined to follow. Some might choose to keep a cow, to give one example or, to give several, several. Or, failing in that, might prefer to toddle on down hand-in-hand to the Edge, as if the time for changing over to other planets had not all long ago passed away. They could not know, of course, neither Lee nor his wife, that at that very moment History itself in ungainly form was broaching nigh unto their home.
Such then was the disposition of Lee and his two-person family when on the fifth day a tall and hollow-looking youth blundered in upon them from out of the hills. Groaning, Lee rose and went forward to meet him, much embarrassed to be covered up in the flour-like material with which for the past half-hour he had been powdering the dog.
“Pefley,” he said, extending his hand but then immediately drawing it back again when he realized that the boy was even more uncouth and unacceptably dressed than he had at first supposed. “Of the Alabama Pefleys, don’t you know,” he went on, noting then that the fellow carried a staff that would have sufficed alike for holding dragons at bay or vaulting over valleys. Keeping his eye on that staff, Lee called for his cane, knowing full well that the woman couldn’t hear him. Thus far the churl had said nothing and meantime Lee was growing more and more appalled at his “shoes,” a makeshift arrangement in which one foot was fitted out in leather and the other a sort of canvas with holes in it. Came now the boy’s voice, a guttural sound asking for water. Far away Lee could see his wife running toward the house where the cane was stored.
“'Water,' he says! And yet I don’t hear him offering to work for it, I just don’t.”
The older man led the way, a sixty-yard stroll to where some two or three cords of unsplit firewood lay in an asymmetrical heap. Smiling, Lee now took the cane in one hand and the ax in the other and through a series of understandable errors proceeded to offer the wrong instrument to the boy.
“And there’s another pile behind the barn.”
Dragging the ax after him, the vagrant waded into the stack and began at once to work. Encouraged by his attitude, Lee came chasing after, highly resolved that on this one occasion at least he’d get a decent payment in return for what had been asked of him.
“Lift high the ax,” he called through cupped hands, “but when bringing it down, do it with your strength.” Suddenly he jumped back, dodging a length of hickory so admirably split that it looked like surgeon’s work. It was while he was inspecting it (turning it with his cane), that another of them - he squawked out loud - came flying out of the pile and smote him on the shank. Immediately Lee raised his cane and took two steps forward before then coming to a complete halt when he remembered how much more formidable were the ax and boy as compared to himself and the cane. And then, too, he was benefiting from the boy’s energy, the sections of wood “falling apart of themselves,” as it seemed, each time he touched them with the blade that itself was so blunt and bent over that the older man no longer consented to use it.
He reckoned the boy to be approximately six feet tall in height and exactly six inches, including the expanse that had opened up during the maturation process between his pantaloons and vest. But when it came time to weigh the child, Lee could only guess at the number which kept changing back and forth in his estimation from around 260 pounds to as little as 240. It made Lee mad, remembering his own size, which had never been like this. And meantime the sticks were flying, the churl hewing, and the blade singing in mid air. Lee let several moments go by before moving to a position whence he might better view the creature's face.
It was a face of a certain kind and belonged to a person, Lee would have said, who ought never have left his upland home among inert volcanoes in the state's northeastern section - such were his thoughts when, that moment, he chanced to see Judy coming toward them with a platter of what were probably beans, bread, and the usual honey.
He thought that he might faint. The vagrant had not finished one part of the work that Lee had in store for him, and here now was Judy again throwing away their beans by hundreds upon any passing stranger with wit enough to use a spoon.
“A meal like that? Judy, Judy. Why do you want to put our guest under a moral obligation like that?”
The churl seemed not to hear. He had finished the solids at once, had drunk the honey, and now was probing with one finger into a corner of the plate where nothing remained.
“Would you like some more?” Lee’s wife asked before Lee could catch hold of her.
“More! Can’t you see he simply wants to be left alone? So he can work?”
The scoundrel was supplied with further beans, additional honey, and two full cups of high cost coffee. It was while Lee was counting up his losses that the youth tried to rise and almost came crashing down on top of them.
“He’s tired!” said Judy. “Very tired. And he wants to lie down, too!”
Lee looked at her, she in her lipstick and the red sloppy ribbon in her hair. Soon they’d have no rations left at all, with policies such as hers. Nevertheless, Lee came forward and began nudging the boy (three-fourths asleep already) toward the barn.
Later on, thinking back upon it, he was to remember the fear that came down over the child when he set eyes for the first time on those book-lined precincts with its tables and desk, its two microscopes, and the some twenty-odd framed engravings affixed to plywood walls where but until recently only mules had dwelled, living in unfurnished cells. Standing back, Lee, who had prepared this place many years ago in hopes of guests - no guests had come - examined the area with his all-too-critical eye.
“Yes,” he said, addressing the boy from about twenty feet away, “no doubt it does seem like a great many books, for someone of your sort. And yet, compared to the house” - he nodded toward the house - “this is absolutely nothing, a mere residuum as it were, or ‘reserves,’ we call it, Judy and me, when compared, I say, with what you see yonder through that middle window with the…”
The knave wasn’t listening. He had chosen the old-fashioned bedstead in the adjoining compartment, an inviting piece of equipment covered with a faded quilt showing scenes from the battles of John Bell Hood. Many times Lee had resorted to this bed when on winter nights he had craved to hear the language of the rain on a paper-thin roof. But instead of rain, and in lieu of Lee, the churl now lay sprawled at full length, overhanging the furniture in several places.
“Ah, me,” said Lee, “if only he’d been there, there at Franklin with the others.” (He pointed to the quilt, a bloody piece of work showing what had happened on a certain bad day in Tennessee.) “I believe we could have won.”
“Ssssh! He’s sleeping.”
“But oh my goodness, the ignorance. And look at that face!”
“Really, we ought to take off his shoes.”
“All right, I’ll do it myself then!”
Lee caught her. There was not the slightest chance that he would permit her into the shoes of such a one as that, an outlander and hillsperson, unclean and predominantly ignorant and so full of honey that Lee could not endure to think of what it had done to their supplies. He had little trouble, as short as she had lately become, in lifting her from the floor and, while she stood kicking and fuming, transporting her outdoors.