Bright flows the river, p.11

Bright Flows the River, page 11

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  The new uneasiness, without a name, returned to him and he lost his appetite, which was usually a voracious one.

  When, a little later, he saw Guy’s nurse, outside the door of the suite, she looked troubled. “Mr. Jerald was so upset this morning. He ate nothing. He did go out on the covered terrace with me, and he stared and stared at the mountains. He didn’t speak, of course. He just stared. Some ladies and gentlemen spoke to him but he didn’t answer them; it was like he hadn’t heard. Then he almost ran back to his rooms. I had a hard time keeping up with him.”

  So, thought James, we are progressing. The nurse hesitated. “Dr. Parkinson just left. He says to ask you to order something to quiet Mr. Jerald, or at least you were to ask Dr. Grassner.”

  “Let us see,” said James, and entered the suite. He saw that the sitting room was empty and dim. He went into the bedroom. Guy was crouched on his bed in the sad fetal position, but his eyes were open and he was gazing at nothing, nor did his face express any emotion. James sat down near the bed. He lit a cigar and puffed at it for several long minutes. Then he said, “Jerry, I know you know me. One of these days we’ll have a long talk together, as we used to do. It’s been too long, perhaps for me also. The years scamper away like mice, and before you have hardly glimpsed them they are gone, with the merest flicker of a tail. Do you remember—‘Tell me, where all past years are, or who cleft the Devil’s foot’? Then there comes the day when we say to ourselves, in our old age: ‘Why, I never lived!’ It’s too late then, isn’t it?”

  The merest grimace, or the ghost of it, touched Guy’s face. Then he closed his eyes, as if to sleep. But James saw the tenseness of every rigid muscle. He said, “Jerry, you were a very brave boy when I knew you during and after the war. You weren’t courageous. You were something much better—a brave man. We are all afraid of something, aren’t we? But the brave man is more afraid than the average, yet he overcomes his fear by faith or the power of his own will. Bravery is more than courage, for it knows the terror it faces. But courage is only hope that the terror is less than it appears, so take it on.”

  The closed eyes suddenly flew open, and stared, but not at James.

  “What does the Bible say?” asked James. “‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ Perhaps you loved, or love, someone now. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter who you love or how you love or when you love, for the eternal imperative is to love. Without love, you only have courage. With love, you are brave.”

  I’m talking at random, thought James. But I feel I am reaching him.

  There was still no real response from the crouched man. James thought, his life has been like the “sunless sea” of Kubla Khan. But each of us travels through the “caverns measureless to man.” How idiotic it is for any of us to pretend to know another, or to measure the caverns through which we individually wander.

  Absently, he sighed, and then said, “Yes, Jerry, you have always been brave. Until recently?”

  The white and stony lips moved soundlessly in that still face.

  “Well, anyway, kiddo, you were a brave little bastard to take on all those brutes,” Tom said to his son, now ten years old. “Your ma probably shrieked at the sight of that black eye and that cut lip and that puffed chin, but then she doesn’t know anything about bravery. She could drive off a raging young bull, or a strange dog, with a shout and a flutter of her apron, but that was only courage. She didn’t recognize the danger, or minimized it. But you—and I’m proud of you, kiddo—you knew what you faced, but you went ahead anyway.”

  “Ma called it violence,” said young Guy, wincing as he touched his wounded face. His whole body ached; his ribs felt broken.

  “Now, did she?” asked Tom, interested.

  They were sitting on the farmhouse stoop that gold and green June day in 1933. Guy could see the glittering chartreuse of distant young trees, the brown steaming earth which Tom had plowed and which was now pricked by the young corn he had planted, emerald spears rising in rows. The chickens in their flimsily contrived fenced yard were scrambling in the heated dust which rose about them in a golden cloud. The cows were black-and-white movements in the new freshening fields and the infant pigs squealed in their pens. The mule wandered around as he willed, teasing the cows and laughing at the bull, which kept charging him. The mule would prance out of the way of that charge, his high laugh echoing, and the frustrated young bull heaving sweatily and frothing at the mouth, would charge again. The orchard showed more promise than it would fulfill. The sky glowed with blue light, and the distant foothills wore cloaks of aquamarine velvet against violet mountains. The fir trees had tips of jade. Tom had planted a few rose bushes in a careless bed, and they were bursting with red and pink and white and yellow a few yards from the house. Everything was pervaded by the intense sweetness and fervid fecundity of June, and the hot sun caused the scattered poplars and sycamores and elms to blot black shadows on an ignited earth.

  Today, Guy had arrived to spend the summer with his father.

  “Tell me about it,” said Tom.

  Guy looked sheepish, then he glanced down at his fingers, which were tangled together. The knuckles were red and raw and sore. The wooden step of the stoop was warm against his buttocks. He sighed happily. He was glad to be out of the city, glad to be away from his mother and school, glad to be free. Yet, he frowned.

  “There isn’t much to tell,” he said.

  “Now, don’t be modest,” said Tom. “Your ma always said you were a quiet baby and kid, but I know better. There’s wildness in you, Jerry, thank God. And violence, too. You’ll be a fine man, that is if you don’t let life subdue and geld you, and break you to the harness so that you trot along sedately with a bit in your mouth and slapping reins on your back. Go on, tell me. And why’s your face getting red all of a sudden?”

  “Well,” mumbled Guy. “It wasn’t anything, I guess. But the kids at school don’t like me, never did—”

  “That’s good,” said Tom, encouragingly. “When people don’t like you that’s proof you aren’t what they are, for which you should give praise—to something or other. Never saw a man amount to anything whom everybody liked. The world’s approval is God’s disapproval. And wasn’t it St. John who said, ‘He that loves this world is an enemy of God’? That is, the world of men. Not the riotous earth. Well, go on.”

  “I don’t know why they don’t like me,” said Guy, with obvious reluctance. I don’t bother them. I don’t play with them. I hardly speak to them—”

  “That’s good,” Tom repeated.

  “Ma doesn’t say that’s ‘good,’” Guy said, defending his mother. “She’s always telling me that if you’re good that’s pleasing to—God. She says the world’s full of good people.”

  “More fool she,” Tom said. He pulled a long blade of green grass, and began to chew on it thoughtfully. “She’s always quoting Scripture, for her own purposes, poor soul. Did she ever tell you what someone said? ‘Why do you call me good? None but God is good.’”

  “Is that from the Bible?”

  “It sure is. A young man approached Christ and called Him ‘good Master,’ and Christ said that—‘Why do you call me good? None but God is good.’”

  “I must remember to tell Ma,” said Guy, and his great black eyes filled with laughter. “Where’s it from?”

  “St. Luke. I’ve got a Bible in the house. Read it for yourself. But tell me about the fight.”

  Guy’s face changed and again he stared down at his injured knuckles. “I—I don’t suppose it was really anything. But it made me mad.”

  Tom studied that young profile, the aquiline and sensitive nose, the strong mouth and chin, the broad forehead, the rough black hair which fell almost to the eyebrows.

  “They said something about me,” Tom remarked. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

  “How did you know?” The boy turned admiring eyes on his father, then he looked away, flushing.

  “Easy, son. You and your ma live miserable blameless lives in
that damn town. Your mother is known as a ‘respectable’ woman, ever since she left me. She works hard, pays her bills, goes to church, and does all the expected things a good woman does, the wretched dreary things. There was never the slightest touch of scandal about her. She never bedded down with another man but me. So, the fight couldn’t have been about anything but myself, anyway a fight that marked you up like that. Go on, tell me.”

  “Well,” said the boy with even more reluctance. “They didn’t think much of you as a farmer—or anything else.”

  Tom laughed, his shrill light laughter. He pulled on his ragged fair beard. He was already half bald and the ginger freckles were bright on his skull. “I can tell you the rest of it. They know all about the parties I have here, with the rollicking lads of the town, running away from their damned pure women on a Saturday or Sunday. They know all about the moonshine I buy, and the moonshine the boys bring here. They know about our girls, fine hearty girls with fat legs in rayon stockings. The town thinks I am a disaster, and so do our pucker-lipped neighbors, who spread the gossip. They know I’ve spent many a night in jail, after a particularly raucous party here. I even know the names the town calls me. Womanizer, drunk, shiftless, idle, no account, a lecher, perhaps even a thief just because I help myself, once in a while, to a peach or an apple or a watermelon from my excellent neighbors’ orchards and patches. I know it all; it’s no news to me, kiddo. So, they told you that, didn’t they?”

  “Well, yes,” said Guy. “And even worse. They said you once—you once—”

  “Raped a neighbor’s woman? Hell, son, she was more than willing, but when her husband caught us she yelled ‘rape.’ That’s a woman for you. Is that all?”

  “Just about,” said Guy.

  “And you lit into them. Why? It’s the truth that they told you. So why?”

  Guy could not say, “Because I love you, Pa. And I know what you really are.” So he only mumbled, “Well, I didn’t like it. There were six of them. I wanted to fight them one by one, but they all piled on me at once.”

  Tom nodded. “Of course. Aren’t they all upright young Christians, bursting with Queensberry Rules and fairness? So all six of them jumped you.”

  “Yes.”

  The boy had turned his head aside. Tom looked at him, ruminating, and his small blue eyes squinted in the sun. “And that’s all? Ain’t there something else, too?”

  Guy quickly glanced at his father with amazement. “How did you know?” he asked, marveling.

  “Oh, I’m psychic. The names they called me came afterwards when you objected to something. What was it?” He reached out and tumbled his son’s hair with a tender hand.

  “Well, it was that kid Elsie Braden. We were in the schoolyard, all of us. She’s just a little kid, about seven, and kind of sickly. They made her cry, and they pushed her and knocked her down and then they kicked her. They kicked her in the nose, too, and made it bleed. So—”

  “You were Sir Galahad who had the strength of ten because your heart, is pure,” said Tom. “Only, you didn’t have the strength of ten. Tell me about that little kid.”

  But Guy’s face had turned a brilliant red and he averted his eyes. “Just a kid they were picking on, all the boys.”

  “Why were they picking on her?”

  “Don’t know,” Guy muttered.

  “Come on, son, you know. Tell me. Is the kid poorer than most, in this damned Depression? Ragged, maybe, hungry?”

  “Well, no. She has pretty good clothes, and she brings a good lunch, better than the others.”

  “That’s enough to make them hate her,” said Tom. “All right, go on.”

  Guy blurted, “It’s her mother!”

  “Her mother? Where’s her dad?”

  “She doesn’t have any. Never did.”

  “I see,” said Tom, after a long pause. “And how does her mother get the money for good clothes and food, in this Depression?”

  But Guy was silent. Tom, watching his son’s bent head and averted face, lit his pipe and contemplatively puffed on it.

  Finally he said, “I’m being psychic again. The mother, poor girl, prefers to sell her body to selling her soul to Welfare. That’s it, isn’t it? Come on, son. You’re old enough for us to talk man to man. I’ve told you as much as you can take in. Now, I think it’s a damned rotten world when a woman is forced—I say forced—to sell herself for shelter and food for herself and her child, but even that’s better than charity. It’s what they call the ‘oldest profession,’ and I can’t see any harm in it, if it’s necessary to survival. We all have to live, even though it escapes me why just now. So, Elsie’s mother is a whore. Whose business is that but hers? It would be different if she was one of those women who prefer to sell themselves rather than work. But what work is around here now, in these days?”

  When Guy, still bright red, did not answer, Tom went on. “All in all, I think Elsie’s mother is an honorable woman. Many’s the whore who is a better and more decent woman than the righteous bitches who have never been hungry or homeless, and have been parasites all their lives. Our Lord had more mercy for a ‘bad’ woman, whom He would not condemn, than He had for any of the lady Pharisees, who prided themselves on their worthiness. Substitute virtue for lack of temptation and need, and you have it.”

  “Ma wouldn’t agree with you,” Guy said, and rubbed his smarting cheek. “When I told her what happened in the schoolyard—she said I was very wrong, in defending a bad woman’s child. It was all Elsie deserved, she said.”

  “Oh, she would say that, Jerry. Nothing like a good woman cursing the innocent and the defenseless. So, then when you tried to help little Elsie the other kids called me names, didn’t they?”

  “Yes.”

  “So, without considering the cost, as the courageous do, you were brave instead. You knew what you were facing, and you faced it. How many licks did you get in first before they all jumped you?”

  Guy began to laugh. “I made a few noses bleed, maybe one of the fellows lost his teeth, I mean, maybe a tooth, and I kicked one in the knee and he screamed like a girl. That’s why Ma said I was violent.”

  “Oh, so you were supposed to let them go on abusing that little girl and you were supposed to turn the other cheek and kiss them when they jumped you and beat you up. Yet again, it was our Lord who said that if a man lacks a sword he should sell his cloak and buy one. Why buy a sword? For decoration? No, to use it with violence to protect yourself first of all, and then to protect the weak. People forget our Lord was a ‘violent’ man, as God is violent when necessary. The Bible’s full of stories of rightful violence, and some, I admit, of not so rightful violence. Our Lord didn’t hesitate to use a whole lot of damned violence when He overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple, and His language, at times, was often less than peaceful. Violence is the strong color of life, when it is nobly aroused.”

  Guy looked at his father with love, his large black eyes dilating. Then the great gaze became opaque and he glanced away. He said, half to himself, “Ma whipped me for what I did. I don’t blame Ma, in a way. She has a lot of worries, the men in her house getting drunk sometimes, and sometimes forgetting to pay her. She works awful hard. She’s tired a lot, though I help her after school, and she has that old lady, Mrs. Thorope, who comes in to lend her a hand couple of times a week. Sometimes I hear Ma crying in her room.”

  “Well,” said Tom. “She’s one of those who work themselves to death out of a sense of virtue. I’m sorry for your ma. She never got anything out of life, except you, kiddo. And that’s her own fault. She denied life. Life was something dirty to her. So she takes her profit to the bank every week—and a dollar ain’t no substitute for living.”

  A squat middle-aged woman with a sour face appeared at the door, a grim woman who “did” for Tom, and who came of an even less affluent small farm some ten miles away. “What you want for supper?” she demanded in a coarse husky voice. Her eyes looked at Tom with contempt.

&n
bsp; “What you got?” he asked in reply. “Good God, woman, do we have to have a major consultation every day about what we put in our stomachs? From the looks of you seems like that’s your biggest preoccupation. We don’t care what we eat, so long’s it’s enough.” He smiled very nastily at her. “And you can bring us a couple of glasses of that wine I made, unless you’ve drunk it all up yourself.”

  The woman was outraged, and her broad flat face turned crimson. “I don’t hold with liquor, Mr. Jerald, even if you calls it wine, and I don’t even want to touch it. It’s against the law. You kin get it yourselfs. You making that sinful stuff, and the law says you can’t.”

  “If a damn-fool law says I can’t enjoy myself with a gift from God, then be damned to the law,” said Tom. “Go on back to your washtubs.” He stood up and stretched, and Guy thought of a deer he had once seen, dappled and thin and lithe.

  The woman said, “It was grape juice the Lord made. You ain’t going to give that kid any of that stuff, are you?”

  Tom looked into her vindictive eyes. “Yes, I am. And if you mention it to anybody I’ll be telling about that load of lumber your man took, feeling himself free to do it, because he is ‘poor.’ Go back to your washtubs.” He pushed past the woman and went into the house. She looked down at Guy.

  “Take my advice, sonny,” she said. “You got a good ma. Go back to her. Don’t stay with your dad.” She turned and went inside.

  Tom returned with two chipped glasses of his homemade and very potent wine. It tasted of both grapes and cherries and was refreshingly dry and even acrid. “The Jews,” said Tom, “often bless the Lord for giving them the ‘fruit of the vine.’ So do I. And it ain’t grape juice the priest drinks at the altar.” He raised his glass. “Blessed be the Name of the Lord that He has given us this gift, to raise our hearts and brighten the dark places of our lives.”

  Guy eagerly took the glass Tom gave him. He smiled and his young face became wild, as Mary called it, and gay. The man and the boy toasted each other. They sipped contentedly together and looked about them on that warm waning day.

 

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