Bright Flows the River, page 10
Guy went back to the barn, very slowly, thinking. Ma was contrary, too, if she had had him baptized so early when it was her religion not to baptize until one was a grown man of thirteen. There was so much conversation in the house about “God,” and always in a vituperative manner by his mother—and in a laughing and mocking voice by his father. He could not recall a single encounter between the two that was amiable and friendly and gay or comfortable. God seemed their major dispute. God was Peace, his mother had once told him, but Guy doubted that, if He could provoke such intense animosity between two people.
Troubled, Guy looked at the elegiac sky. More stars were becoming visible and all at once the child halted and stared up at them earnestly. Pale fire, they were remote and cold and mysterious. A profound awe came to him again, an urgent wonder, clarified and vivid. Then he went on.
Tom had hung a lantern from the wooden ceiling, though the light of the sky still filled the barn. The heifer was bellowing in evident distress. The other cows munched and the bull rumbled loudly. The barn seemed warmer; there was the strong smell here of the cows’ pads and hay and urine and thick hides. Tom was standing behind the heifer, whom he had tethered. She was crying loudly with pain, and shuddering, her young body convulsed with contractions. Tom said, “Come here, boy, I want to show you something.”
Guy approached the stall. The bell cow had also become restless; her bell tinkled nervously. Tom was standing at the heifer’s side, out of reach of her plunging hoofs. “Here, boy,” said Tom. “Careful. Circle her. Stand at her flank. Now, look.”
Guy looked. He saw, in a bloody hot aperture, two very tiny hoofs, glistening, jerking a little. The smell of blood was both startling and atavistic.
“Calf’s got caught somewheres in there,” said Tom. “Can’t get him out, just pulling. Poor girl. I think it’s his head, in the pelvic bone. No time to waste or we’ve got a dead calf.” He rolled up the blue sleeve on his right arm. He plunged his arm into the steaming aperture, level with the hoofs and legs of the calf. Guy winced. The mystery of birth was not unknown to him, for after all he lived on a farm and his father had been explicit more than once concerning sex and its functions. It was not a sly and sniggering introduction to the realities of life, though Mary, more than once, had expressed her disgust and her aversion for the whole process and had attempted to project her revulsion on her child. Guy was not revolted. Tom’s explanations had been as simple as water, as casual and forthright as if discussing food or taxes. “Trouble with your ma is, she hates life. She thinks it’s dirty,” Tom once had said, laughing humorously. “Got to watch out for the life-haters; mostly they’re very religious. They retreat to a sterile heaven where, I’ve heard, there’s no marriage or giving in marriage, and everything’s pure and bloodless and the boys and girls don’t embrace or romp. That’s your ma’s idea of heaven, anyway. I have my own opinion.”
Guy’s wincing was for the young cow’s pain. But he saw that his father, though probing with strength, was also very gentle. He was crooning to the cow, reassuring her, soothing her. She listened, apparently. At any rate, she was not lurching and kicking now, and only shuddering, understanding that Tom was trying to help her. She still bawled, but she tried to stand still. The light of the lantern brightened as the first dark approached. The bell cow was peering over the top of her stall. The other cows munched. The bull threatened.
“Just as I thought,” said Tom. “Head’s twisted in the pelvic bone. There, girl, just a minute until I turn your youngster’s head. There! Loose now. It’s all right.” He withdrew his arm, glistening with wet blood, and took the two small hoofs in his hands and gently tugged. In a moment the little body of the newborn calf was lying on the straw of its mother’s stall. Guy looked down at the miniature, creature—a bull, he saw, its hide fuzzy and matted and dripping. He saw the small head, the heaving flanks, the opening innocent eyes. Why, thought the child, he’s seeing the world for the first time, and I guess he’s thinking about it.
The scent of blood was even stronger in the barn now, and to Guy it was exciting. It was the smell of life, flowing, vigorous life. Tom was attending to the heifer. “Don’t we wash the calf?” asked Guy.
“That’s for the mother to do. Just wait a minute.”
The heifer, quiet now, turned in her stall and bent her head over the calf. She licked it, poked it with her nose. It continued to lie there, unmoving except for the rapid rising and falling of its rib cage. The heifer nudged it impatiently, muttering something deep in her throat. The calf stirred, and its eyes took on a peevish expression. Tom laughed. “He’s a boy, and he’s already pitying himself for being born and I guess I don’t blame him too much. Besides, being born is an uncomfortable experience, for the kid as well as for its mother. Now, a female calf is much quicker to get on her feet, I’ve found. Hurrying to get into mischief; can’t wait. This calf would just as soon lie there and be pampered and saying ‘Pity me,’ under its breath. But he’s got to get going in the business of life.”
The calf whimpered, but his mother pushed him more roughly with her nose. Actually sighing, the calf turned and straightened his forelegs and rested on his rear. He stared blindly about him. Now his mother poked his buttocks, and he struggled to rise on his legs with her help. Then he wobbled to her side, his mouth fumbling for her udder. Tom surveyed the scene with gratification.
“Son,” he said, “that’s truth, that’s the real swear-to-God truth, the real verity. All the rest is humbug, thinking, conjecturing, agonizing, yearning. That’s man’s curse, that he thinks but doesn’t accept disagreeable conclusions. He rejects what isn’t pleasing to him and accepts only that which pleases him and reassures him. That’s freedom of choice, sure, and I’m all for that. But why accept lies when the truth’s plain to see, no matter how painful it is? I’m all for mythos, provided it doesn’t interfere with reality, with freedom and what is. As Christ said, ‘The truth will make you free,’ but, as usual, theologians misinterpret that, too.”
After the milking had been finished, Guy awkwardly attempting also, they went out with the full pails into the evening. It was dark now, and the stars throbbed and glittered in the calm zenith. Tom looked up and quoted from Milton:
“Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
Their loud uplifted angel trumpets blow.”
Guy was only five years old but his heart lifted also, for he knew the import of what his father had said.
At dinner that night James Meyer said to Emil Grassner, “Again, I don’t know what it was I said—I wish I knew—but Jerry came suddenly and violently alive for a few seconds. That is, he actually stood up and walked a few steps, then sat down and shivered, clenching his fists in extreme agitation. But when I asked him a question he subsided and fell into a deep apathy, an apathy, I suspected, of resistance, a refusal of what he was remembering. A fear.” James paused and frowned and rubbed his bald head and stared down at the excellent sauerbraten he was neglecting. Emil watched him without speaking and detected a deep uneasiness in his friend.
James continued. “Jerry is as attached to his suffering as an unborn child is attached to the placenta. It is the only thing which keeps him alive. He draws sustenance from it. Perhaps only through painful rebirth will he enter the world.”
He half laughed. “I am beginning to wonder if banality, again, doesn’t makes life possible for the majority of mankind. Most people, God help them, are immobilized by their own banality, which paradoxically is their shield against a reality they cannot face. But when the rare intelligent man is immobilized by the general banality, or chooses it, he is to be condemned.”
“So, our patient is to be condemned,” said Emil, with a serious smile.
James hesitated. “Perhaps ‘condemned’ is too harsh a word. I don’t know.” His uneasiness increased. He shifted in his chair, looked restlessly about the small snug dining room of the Old House, where the somewhat obese diners were avidly devouring the plain and plenteous food. James said,
“Perhaps you are too emotionally involved with Guy Jerald,” suggested Emil. “It’s happened to me myself sometimes.”
James thought about it, then slowly shook his head. “No. I wish I knew what it was. On the other hand”—and he laughed without mirth—“I’m afraid it has something to do with me, all by itself. I haven’t felt this way for a long time. It’s as if I, too, am being stirred up like a cold pot of porridge, with the fire under it.”
“You’re a very successful man,” said Emil, watching him. “Your books—your practice, your fame. No wife, no children, no worries. I think you are to be envied.”
“My lovely life,” said James, almost inaudibly. Then he started. “What the hell am I talking about? I think I’ll have some brandy. The anodyne for pain—alcohol. No wonder alcoholism is now such a tremendous problem in the Western world, the affluent world, the comfortable, easy world, where everyone has everything and nobody has anything of value. Why do we need anodynes? Alcohol? Drugs? Flights into wholesale sex? Wars? What are we running from? I often remember what a general said to Napoleon, before Waterloo—The general declared that a new campaign was ‘unthinkable.’ Men were weary of war, and would not have it. And Napoleon replied, ‘Yes. They will. I will be rescuing them from button factories.’”
He mused. “Yes. Button factories, well lighted, well warmed, clean, comfortable, regulated, surrounded by ‘benefits,’ all hazards removed, all very neat and bright. Like a blasted spa, or a nursery filled with nannies with soothing syrup and nursing bottles. No wonder men are losing their minds and will resort to anything to get away from all that damned monotony and safety. I don’t always agree with Nietzsche, but he did say that man was created for war and woman to recreate the warrior. In a deeper and more psychological sense I interpret that to mean man was created for action, for exhilaration, for danger, for excitement, for color and change, for the seeking of new worlds to conquer, for the hunt, for battle, for the pitting of his strength against another strength, physical and mental. Stodgy comfort is the grave.”
“Tell the unions that,” said Emil, with a wry smile.
“Oh, I’m all for unions,” said James. “The Industrial Revolution has had its bloody and despicable side. But we’ve gone to the other extreme. Yes. Well. I’d like to know what is bothering me myself, and it has nothing to do with Jerry, poor lad.”
He added, “I am thinking, vaguely, of writing a book to be called The Decline of Western Morale. The title’s come to me but not the context. I feel a deep boiling in myself, yet the words won’t come yet. It will be like nothing I’ve written before. But then, all of a sudden, I’m not as I was when I came to Cranston, and that is why I am uneasy in a world I made myself.”
“We all make our own world, banal though it sounds,” said Emil. “I’m a great one for coining clichés, but clichés wouldn’t have existed so long if there weren’t a universal truth in them. Let’s go and look at television. So many complaints about it—but I find it restful and interesting. They do try their best, and perhaps that is the trouble.”
James said, “You know, I think God deliberately created Lucifer, knowing exactly what Lucifer would do. The Jews, the old ones, say that without evil there could be no good. It is the conflict which is the challenge, the problem, the excitement. Perfect good—how damned boring! Just as complete evil is banal.”
James awoke the next morning to a world of total white, from the shining alabaster mountains to the undulating earth, all under a turquoise sky filled with cold radiance. He thought it far more beautiful than spring or summer; it reminded him of his mother’s statue of the Blessed Mother, immaculate, clothed in blue and white, crowned with gold. For the first time in years the memory of his mother was acute and poignant to him. She had been lovely and gentle and quiet, with a face constantly simmering with kind mirth and tiny flickering dimples. His rowdy and rambunctious father had adored her and she had adored him in return, finding even his fierce moods humorous, his fierce shouts amusing. She knew him for what he was, that emphatic Austrian Jew: A completely good man, ferocious in his pursuit of justice, sentimental, roughly tender, full of ancient Yiddish and Hebrew wisdom and stories. He had a story for everything, to illustrate a momentous point, and James had suspected, even as a child, that he invented quite a number. They were often too apt. James’s mother must have known, too, for her whole face would twinkle and she would say, “Yes, love, of course, love,” with admiration for his ingenuity.
James looked at the snowy scene outside his window, and sighed. For a moment or two his ambiguous malaise lifted at the memory of his parents. A man who had had good parents was twice blessed, first when they were alive and second for the memory of them. The remembrance could often be accompanied by pain, as all happiness has its darker side, but it could also be a holy place, a sanctuary. That Guy Jerald’s childhood had not been so delightful was quite evident, though James was not one of those psychiatrists who attributed all aberrations and mental illness and despair to “childhood traumas.” Life never failed to inflict its traumas all the days of a man’s life. There was no escaping them, though men themselves increased them.
His father had been killed during one of his bolder attempts to rescue some of the fellow Jews in Germany. His mother died of grief, though James never saw her in tears. Her heart literally broke, in silence. Now the poignancy of his own sorrow became fresh again and he said, “God damn it, and we’ve got the same thing today! Call it Fascism or Communism, it is the same mortal curse.”
Was that part of his present malaise, which had nothing to do with Guy Jerald? From what had he been hiding all these years, refusing to see what was to be seen? A feeling of dull helplessness came to him. There was no longer any place to hide these days, no new continents, no fresh land, no escape, no refuge. The whole spiritual atmosphere was pervaded with millions of malignant eyes, watching, waiting. The new holocaust was coming; it was inevitable. Yetzer hara, he thought. Who would be the victims this time? The Jews again, or all freedom-loving men in general? There was a malevolent murmuring in the world, audible but to a few. “It can never happen again,” people said.
“No?” said James, aloud, as he tied his tie. He was glad he had no children, that he had never married. At least he had not been guilty of begetting new victims for the men of terrror to torture and kill and oppress and silence, and enslave, to pervert and corrupt.
If I were a father, he thought, I would feel as guilty as hell now, for being a fool in believing that the world was improving and terrorism could never smear blood on a doorstep again, or that the knock in the night would never be repeated. The history of man was written in blood, and men were not more “good” than their fathers and grandfathers. Rather, they were worse. They were like tigers in the arena who had smelled torn flesh and spewing arteries.
“You seem depressed this morning, James,” said Emil Grassner, as James sat bemused with the breakfast menu before him. James started, and smiled sheepishly. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “Nothing original, of course. It was Solomon who said, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Nothing improves, nothing changes. What is it the French say? ‘The more a thing changes, the more it is the same.’ Yes.”
He drank his orange juice. “I am just remembering something from before the war, when I was just a lad. There were two men in the world, of whom Mahatma Gandhi, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, André Gide, Otto Kahn, the historian Toynbee—that great ‘liberal,’ and the president of some large American university whose na
He sipped at his coffee. Emil waited, then said, “Who were those two paragons those eminent men so fulsomely praised?”
James gave a short laugh. “Mussolini and Hitler.”
“No!” exclaimed Emil, aghast.
“Embarrassing? Yes. But it is true. I look at the newspapers very carefully these days to find what particular man, or men, the new eminent gentlemen are praising so highly. There is an old saying: ‘Put not your faith in princes.’ But I say, ‘Beware of those who are praised by allegedly great men.’ Eminence is no guarantee against imbecility—or, perhaps, treason and something even more sinister. The world rarely praises a prophet, a noble man, a true hero. In fact, the world will destroy such, if it can. Evil instinctly recognizes evil, and where is a virtuous man these days? I don’t outright accuse the eminent gentlemen I’ve quoted as being absolutely evil; in fact, they may just have been fools, which is even worse.”
Emil was shaking his head. Then he smiled. “You’re depressing me, James.”
James found himself, somewhat to his own astonishment, replying vehemently, “I wish to God the whole damned world was depressed! There would be some hope for its survival then!”
Emil said, “There does seem to be a lot of pessimism around these days. We put a vague name on it, we psychiatrists, and blame it on a ‘too rapidly changing world,’ or something else as foolish and superficial.”
“Strange, I’m by nature a somewhat optimistic man.” James paused. Am I? he asked himself. Or have I just been cynically complacent? He said, “But for the last few days I’ve become a pessimist myself, and I don’t know why.”
Other author's books:
- Bright Flows the RiverGlory and the LightningThe Wide HouseThe Arm and the DarknessCeremony of the InnocentThe ListenerA Tender VictoryTestimony of Two Men
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