Authors: Howard Fast
Since in one way or another a part of each
of you is in this book, it is properly yours.
Thereby, for Rachel, Jonathan, Barry, Judy,
Norman, Jennifer, Melissa, and Timothy.
back to the house, my father and asked me did I figure that I was finished. “I figure so,” I said, and then my father said, in that way he has of saying something that cuts you down to half of your size or less:
“Slow to start and quick to finish.”
He said it plain and quiet, but it was of a piece and it reminded me that I couldn't think of a time when he had said something pleasing or gentle with love or concern; and I replied to him, but not aloudâfor which I didn't have the guts at allâ“If just once in all my born days you'd say a good thing to me, then maybe I'd show good to you, and be able to do what you want me to do, and maybe read your mind or your soul.” But aloud I said nothing, just began to walk toward the house, and his voice coiled after me like a whip around my ankle:
“I'll have you talk to me face to face, not into the air with your back to me.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, turning around.
“Draw your mother's evening water and bring it to her. Wasted steps are like wasted thoughts, just as empty and just as ignorant.”
“Yes, Father,” I said, and I went to the house and picked up the yoke and walked with it to the well. The sun was cutting. That's the time of the day when the sun touches the trees for evening time. That's the time of the day when the wind stops, and the air is so sweet you can taste it and suck it.
But that afternoon, the time of the day made me think about death, and I saw a chicken hawk in flight and waited for someone somewhere to send a load of bird shot after it; but no one did. I thought of death and was full of fear, and I just wanted to sit down somewhere and put my face in my hands and give in to the terrible frightened feeling I had; but I didn't. I have all kinds of strange thoughts and feelings of that sort, and I guess I never talked to anyone about them, except perhaps a little to Granny, because I didn't really believe that anyone in the world ever had just the same kind of thoughts.
When I drew the water from the well, I said the spell to take the curse off water, “Holy ghost and holy hell, get thee out of the mossy well.” My father once heard me say that spell, and he took me into the barn and gave me seven with the birch rod. He hated spells and said they were worse than an instrument of the devil; they were an instrument of ignorance. And I was foolish enough to answer back that if he was so sure about all kinds of superstition, why did he birch me seven times, not eight or six? That was the way it was in the whole town. When you got the rod taken to you, you got it seven times.
I should have known enough to keep my mouth shut, because he replied that he was gratified to be enlightened and laid onto me ten times more, and then wanted to know whether I deemed seventeen to be a superstitious number?
So now I said the spell quietly, just moving my lips; a spell has no meaning if you only think it to yourself and never voice it. But quiet or not, my brother Levi, who is eleven years old, has cat's eyes. He popped up and demanded a drink from the bucket.
“Draw your own water,” I told him.
“Don't be high and mighty. I seen you saying the spell. How would you like for me to tell Father that I seen you saying the spell?”
“You're a little bastard,” I told him.
“Sure, and what did you just call your mother?”
“All right. Take your drink and leave me be. Why don't you stay out of my sight. I'd be happy to God if only you'd stay out of my sight.”
I took a drink too. The water is always best, cold and crackling, when you first draw it.
When I came into the house, Mother was frying donkers, and the kitchen was full of the smell. You save a week's meat leftovers to make donkers, and then it's chopped together with bread and apples and raisins and savory spices, and fried and served up with boiled pudding. I don't know of anything better. When my mother saw me come in with the yoke, she took the water off and smiled her gratitude.
“You're a good boy, Adam,” she said.
I didn't tell her that it wasn't my idea. I needed for someone to think something good about me, and I didn't want to disturb her thinking. When I ate some of the raw meatstuff, she slapped my hand. When I sat down, she said:
“Are you going to stay here and fill my head with your nonsense?”
“What nonsense? I haven't said a word.”
“That's just it, Adam. You sit there with that look in your eyes, and just as plain as daylight I can see what kind of silly dream you're contemplating. When I was your age, if a boy had an hour between the chores and mealtime, he spent it with profit reading the Holy Writ. Granny told me how your fatherâjust about your age it wasâset himself a disciplined period to memorize three verses of Lamentations every evening.”
“And he did.”
“Well, good heavens, what on earth did he want to memorize the verses of Lamentations every evening for?”
“To profit himself. And let me tell you this, Adam,” she said. “I don't hold with the narrow views of some, but it seems to me that an expression like
is precious close to swearing. It seems to me that the King's English is abundant enough to express every necessary shade of feeling and impatience without resorting to words that have sincere meaning when used properly. Have you been fighting with your brother again?”
“Now what gave you that idea?” I didn't wait for her to tell me, but got up and began to stalk out the way I had come. She had to know where I was going.
“Just to find Granny.”
I went upstairs, and Granny was in her room making thread. When I entered, she blinked at me and said, “I see less and less. Old age is pity enough, but when the eyesight goes, the good Lord is laying a heavy burden on my poor shoulders.”
“Well, Granny,” I replied, “I don't think your eyesight is going. It's just getting dark in here because the twilight has come down.”
“Is that so, Adam?”
“Well, then, I've spun sufficiently,” she declared. “Sit down, Adam. Do you want some sweets?”
I sat down on her old milking stool, which she had decorated with paint and turned into one of the prettiest things in the house, and reminded her that there was a widely held opinion to the effect that sweets before mealtime spoil an appetite.
“Oh?” she said. “I'm sure we'd all be rich if I could devise something to spoil your appetite, Adam.” Then she went to the cupboard and got out the cotton kerchief that she always wrapped the maple sugar in, and she broke off a piece for each of us. I ate it slowly and appreciatively, and asked her whether it was true about my father and Lamentations.
“Well, what for? I mean, what was his purpose?”
“To profit himself.”
“That's what Mother said, but I'll be damned if I can see the profit in it.”
“You will be damned, Adam, if you go on with such talk.” I shrugged. “And don't act as if you don't care.”
“I think we keep saying things that we don't really mean at all, Granny.”
“Do we? And what sort of things, Adam?”
“Like being damned. Do you believe in God, Granny?”
“What a question!” She snorted with great indignation. “In all my born days, Adam Cooper, I have never seen a boy like yourself for asking questions!”
“Well, do you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well, I don't knowâ”
“Adam Cooper, you are not going to start in again with all that silly nonsense of yours, are you?”
“Just one thingâjust answer me one thing, Granny, that's all I'm asking. I just want you to answer me one thing. Why is it that they're always taking it out on me for whatever I say, like there's nothing in the world I can do right and everything I do is all wrong?”
“My goodness, the things you say, Adam!”
“Well, look at it this way, Granny. You believe in God, don't you?”
“Enough of that.”
“If you believe in God, then God gave a person brains, didn't he?”
“But just as soon as you begin to use the brains God gave you, you're being sinful.”
“That's just the sort of foolish thing you say, Adam, that's so provoking.”
“Well, just take Isaiah Peterkin, for example.”
“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes narrowing, “I am not going to be trapped into that Isaiah Peterkin thing. It just happens that I was gathering blueberries the other day, and there you were down in the gully with Ruth Simmons, instructing her about Isaiah Peterkin, and I overheard enoughâ”
“Did you see us, Granny?”
“I didn't have to see you. As if I wouldn't know that Cooper voice of yours anywhere!”
I sighed with relief, and told her that even if I had gone into it a little with Ruth Simmons, that didn't make it any less a fact.
“It just seems to me, Adam,” Granny said, “that shaking a body loose from her faith is about the most sinful thing you could do.”
“Granny, I wasn't shaking anybody loose from anybody's faith. I'd like you to tell me how old Isaiah can be as mean and wicked and two-faced as he is, and be a deacon in the church and be looked up to as a real fine God-fearing man. I mean, he can get away with anything, just so long as he says the right words about religion.”
“It's not for you to judge Isaiah Peterkin.”
“I wasn't judging him,” I protested. “Everyone knows how rich and mean he is. So how could I be judging him? Anyway, in Boston when we were there a fortnight past, there was a man talking right on the Common, and he said that the highest good was to doubt. Just like that, in those very words.”
“I never heard such nonsense. If he said that, he was nobody worth quoting.”
“He was a Committeeman, Granny.”
“I don't believe a word of it”
“Cross my heart, Granny.”
“Don't you dare cross your heart to me,” she snapped, “just like you was Roman or some other heathen sect, and don't think that because I'm old and rheumatic and grateful for foolish company that you can say anything you please in front of me. You can't cozen me with a pretense at stupidity, not in one thousand years. You're a spiteful boy, and that's why your father loses patience with you.”
“He doesn't lose patience, Granny. He doesn't have any patience to begin with.”
“And this was a Committeeman,” I said.
“So. Well, just tell me thisâwas he a Sam Adams Committeeman?”
I admitted that he was most likely a Sam Adams Committeeman, and she shrugged her shoulders and said there wasn't anything else a body could expect, seeing that Sam Adams was an atheist and so were all of his cronies. Granny had a good mind, and I guess that was one of the reasons why I enjoyed provoking her. The other reason was that she would stand for being provoked, and practically no one else would. “Now if he had said, Adam,” she went on, “that one of the paths to good was a certain amount of doubt and common sense, there might be some reason to his thoughts. Then he would have been sensible. But doubt is a negative thing and good is a positive thing, and anyone who says that both are the same thing is simply a fool, and there you are.”
“That's it exactly, Granny. When you disagree with someone, you straight out and call them a fool. But when I disagree, I get my ears pinned back.”
“I'm older than you, Adam, by a year or two.”