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Authors: Robert Stallman

The Orphan

BOOK: The Orphan
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This book is dedicated to Patricia, who introduced us.

That I may reduce the monster to
Myself, and then may be myself

In face of the monster, be more than part
Of it, more than the monstrous player of

One of its monstrous lutes, not be
Alone, but reduce the monster and be,

Two things, the two together as one....

- Wallace Stevens, from
“The Man with the Blue Guitar”

(From the
Grand Rapids Register
, May 6, 1935)

In Mount Clemens yesterday, the wild dog problem was relieved by a local farmer, Gustave Hohenrikt, who cornered a pack of stray dogs in his barn and killed four of them with a shotgun. Mr. Hohenrikt reported the dogs had been raiding his chicken and sheep pens, and he decided to take action. Reports from Bay City also indicate wild dogs are becoming more of a nuisance there. Police Chief R. B. Matthews of that city issued a shoot on sight order for all stray dogs in rural areas. The order came after several farmers in the area reported night attacks on their livestock.


(From the
Cassius Daily Post and Examiner
, May 6, 1935)

Judge John Feldman of Circuit Court today condemned to death a sheep stealer who has been raiding local pens and has a record of several previous convictions on the same charge. The indictment charges him with slaying at least eight sheep. The condemned is a large yellow hound named Rufus, formerly owned by Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Mooresby of this city. Rufus sat in the courtroom and appeared contrite as Judge Feldman passed sentence on him. The dog will be gassed to death at the County Pound, an object lesson to other canine malefactors.


I am and will be. There is no time when I am not.
This is the first lessons

My need creates my self.
This is the second lesson.

Alone is safe.
This is the third lesson.

Eyes would see nothing in the blackness of the hayloft. The dove whose nest I have just plundered cannot see me, but I perceive her panting and succulent form clearly as she sits on the steel trip bar of the hayrake that hangs from the center of the ceiling. I cannot leap that high. I want her now that my appetite is strong, and although I could easily slip through the hole in the floor and find a chicken or two, I want the dove. I wait, curled beneath the ledge where the nest is scattered. A rope hangs from the hayfork. It is fixed to the wall above my head. If I twitch it, she will fly toward her only exit, the break beneath the eaves near her nest. She. will not fly downward to the hole in the floor as a sparrow might. In the blackness she might even blunder against a wall and stun herself. I slip over to the tied rope and give it a flip. The dove flutters from the steel bar.

Each beat of her wings produces a ripple of pressure that widens to the walls of the huge loft. Blind in the darkness, she is the center of a quite beautiful arrangement of concentric waves of pressure that I sense directly. She appears transfixed, the living center of the whirlpool of her own wingbeats, bright with life in the center of a rippling web. She swerves as her mind catches hold. She heads for the break under the eaves. I could knock her down first, but it is sport to leap up and snag her in one claw. I snap her from the center of her web and bite swiftly. She is hot and good. The taste is distracting enough that the farmer traps me while I am lying back flicking feathers out of my teeth. Suddenly I sense him at the hole in the center of the floor. He carries a four-pronged steel pitchfork. He raises his flashlight as I roll behind the mound of hay I am lying on. There is not much hay left up here this time of year.

“All right, come on out of there,” the farmer says, and the intense beam of his light sweeps above me, solid and blinding in the dusty air. I close my eyes, keeping him fixed in my spatial sense. His body is chest deep in the hole. His voice is strained with fear overtones, but he is determined.

“You come out of there now,” he says, “or I’ll shut you in and call the sheriff. So now you take your pick.”

My nose wrinkles at his fear scent, although he must be twenty feet away. Now I shall use what I have been taught. Listening to the old farmer breathe, I feel for the appropriate form and concentrate my self to a tiny, isolated point like the sun focussed through a magnifying glass. My fur erects, and I see the sparkling point into which I fall, saying the name that comes to me: Robert Lee Burney. I shift.

And then the farmer sounded different, larger and menacing. I felt prisoned in heavy coverings, my spatial sense blanked out, my ears deadened, my sight depending on the beam of light that searched the walls. Fear overwhelmed me in that form. I retreated to allow the person to emerge, and Robert let out a cry that sounded strange, a helpless sobbing. The farmer stopped talking and pointed the light at the mound of hay behind which Robert Burney crouched and wept.

“Is that a kid up there?” He kept the light steady and came another step up the ladder. “Come on out and let’s see you.”

Robert got to his feet, dizzy with birth, and stepped from behind the hay. The light crashed in his eyes. He was crying and shivering, naked.

The farmer carried the little boy to the house while the two dogs wagged their tails and nosed the old horse blanket he was wrapped in. Robert shivered with cold and fear although the night was almost warm. He felt new and helpless, holding the rough liniment-smelling blanket around his skinny shoulders. The farmer’s wife stood in the open back porch door, the light behind her casting a long monolithic shadow onto the wet grass.

“What did you find, Martin? It’s a little child? A boy?”

The farmer put the little boy down, pushing him gently into the kitchen that was warm and yellow with lamp light. The long black wood-burning range was still hot. The tall woman took the blanket, turned Robert around and around, looking at him. He looked down at his own white body, hairless, funny looking feet like toad feet, skinny legs, tiny point of penis, litle bulge of belly. He was about five or six years old and scrawny as a spring possum.

“What’s happened to your clothes, child?” She seemed enormously tall, bony and rectangular, and when she asked Robert questions, she put her face close to his and opened her eyes wide so that she looked astonished. Her face was long and freckled and not at all pretty. Her nose had a hump in the middle and her lips were too wide, but her smile made Robert feel safe. The farmer was not as tall as his wife, red faced with squinted-up eyes and a heavy mass of gray hair that stood up in tufts in back. He looked so thick and solid he reminded Robert of a walnut burl. The woman kept asking questions. Where was the boy from? Who was he? What was he doing up in the barn? And at the same time the farmer was telling how he had thought it was another tramp in the hay like they’d found last winter.

Robert began to cry again. He couldn’t think about the questions. He was tired and his stomach felt strange. He began to shudder and hugged the woman’s legs for warmth. She got very motherly at that, brought blankets, made oatmeal on the stove that was still hot from supper, and there was creamy milk and brown sugar. Robert ate until he could hardly breathe. Then the farmer carried him upstairs to a bed warmed with hot water bottles. He felt secure and curled up and wondered with his last thought before sleep if the dove was in there with all the oatmeal.

I wake in the new shape and almost bolt out through the bedroom window from the shock of unfamiliar senses and feelings. It is the gray dark before dawn. My spatial sense will not work in Robert’s body, and I feel trapped with nothing but his very imperfect eyes and ears to depend on. The farmer and his wife are not in the room. They are some distance away, one of them making gurgling sleep noises. I crawl from beneath the bedclothes. There is a cloth thing around my body, a shirt. I scramble out of it and the chilly air hits me so I feel my fur go erect. No fur. I shiver. With the discomfort I shudder and I shift back suddenly and comfortably into my own form.

The room springs into being around me. The sounds of the sleeping farmer and his wife are loud and distinct, a ragged symphony of noise two rooms away. My room is small with the bed, some sort of stand with a basin and pitcher of water, an open closet with two wooden hangers in it. The bed smells of little boy flesh and mildew and house dust. The two windows are curtained with gauzy stuff pulled back and tied on each side so I can see the last stars going away into the lightening sky. I want very much to slip out and grab a late rabbit. Then I will come back and be a little boy. I creep to the door, sniff the cold porcelain knob shaped like a solid egg, turn it carelessly with a claw. Locked. I peer into the crack between the door and the frame. A short piece of iron connects the two. My irritation at being balked builds, and in a moment I will go through a window or smash through the flimsy door. Wait. Wait! But my body is not in a waiting mood. I have to shift now or lose this opportunity. Even as I concentrate my self to a point and say the name, I see a fading image of myself lunging through the door panels in a burst of broken wood, leaping down the stairs, skidding around the corner to gallop through the dining room and kitchen and sail grinning right through the back screen door, leaving a great hole whose edges point ballistically to my path of flight into the cool gray dawn. I shift.

The cold hits Robert’s skin. Nothing to do but get back in bed and sleep until the farmer and his wife get up. The windows are gray with dawn. The chickens in their house beside the back garden were shuffling on their roosts. He heard one fall to the floor like a soft bag and squawk. A cockerel rooster tried a creaking sort of cry and was cut off by the older rooster who gave a long, perfect cheer for the morning. Then it began to seem far away, and Robert fell asleep.

When he woke again, sunlight stood against the wall over his head, radiating heat from a golden rectangle, and the door stood open. He lay a minute in the covers, hearing the murmur of the farmer and his wife talking in the kitchen. He got up quietly and used the chamber pot he found under the bed. Then he slipped to the top of the stairs and waited. They were talking about him.

“What else? An orphanage, I guess,” the farmer said.

“Well we can’t just keep him. Now you know that,” the woman said. “It’s not like he was a stray puppy.”

“No.” There was a long pause. The farmer made a funny sound, a snort. “We always wanted a boy.”

“Martin!” The woman sounded amused and shocked at the same time. “Your daughters have brought you two fine sons-in-law now, and you’re proud enough of them.” The woman was laughing “And two granddaughters - too many girls, Martin?”

“I love our girls, big and little. And they’ve done well in their marriages, but it’s true.” He paused again. “You know what I mean.”

“But we don’t know what sort of folks he has. Maybe he’s wandered off from some hobo jungle or a gypsy camp.”

“Nope. I think he’s been dumped. Least I figure he’s been on his own a couple days and he don’t know much about it.”

“You’re guessing now. You don’t know the first thing about the poor little naked thing.” She seemed thoughtful. “Crept up in our hayloft to keep warm. Lucky this is a warm May we’re having. Last May would’ve froze the little tyke.”

“There’s no camps around here. Somebody dumped him like a dog. He was hungry enough, I believe, to eat a set of dove eggs and maybe the dove too.”

“For Lord’s sake, Martin. Et a dove?”

“I found that dove’s nest up in the hayloft all scattered and pieces of the bird back in the corner where the boy was hiding. That takes a pretty hungry kid.”

“Martin Nordmeyer! That little child kill and eat a dove? Some weasel snuck up there and got that bird. Why, of all the silly things you’ve ever said.” Robert could hear the woman laughing, and now the farmer too was chuckling.

“Ain’t that crazy though, Cat. Can you beat that? I forgot for a while how little the boy is. I imagine it was a weasel all right. Why he’d a had blood all over his face if ...” But then they were both laughing again, and the woman asked if he wanted some more coffee.

Robert walked on down the stairs. He was hungry.

“Martin, go get one of your clean shirts and put it on this boy. My goodness, little lad, you can’t walk all around naked like that. What’d you do with that big old nightshirt I put on you?” The woman fussed around him, got him seated at the big oak table that seemed much too large for two people, and began melting grease in a pan to fry him some eggs. The farmer brought a huge blue shirt and draped it over Robert’s back.

“Put your arms in,” the farmer said, his blunt fingers strangely delicate in touching the boy. He rolled up the sleeves neatly and buttoned it up the front so that Robert looked like the top half of some little wizened guest come to breakfast.

“There you are, son,” the farmer said, standing back. “Don’t he look better this morning, Cat?”

“He looks rested and a little less sick than he did last night. How are you, boy?” The woman bent over to look directly into his face, raising her eyebrows as if astonished. “Do you talk?”

BOOK: The Orphan
5.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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