A Certain Man
Their voices circled above him like a whirlwind, faster and faster until the gathered sound broke through him and into the empty space that belonged to God. He heard them telling their stories in snatches at holiday time, when the words were interrupted by laughter and uncles slapping their thighs, when aunts risked choking on chicken bones to get out the story of how Papa had dug the tunnel to the barn in the blizzard of ’88.
“To feed the horses?” Justine his sister asked, concerned.
“No, to get to the outhouse!” Papa replied, laughing, the pumpkin pie splotching his chin like stuffing coming out of a turkey. By next year the story had grown and when his Great Uncle Win told it to his Grandma Percy they laughed while the coffee steamed up out of their cups and life went on, yes, on: Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore.
Then, hunched over the oak table, the whole house of them, fat and thin but mostly fat, would lean on their elbows and stretch forth their pudgy hands to hold out delicate green glass plates for more apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie and someone would tell “How We Killed the Pig,” usually his older brother, Fred, already grown to be a man. Fred didn’t like to kill things so he told the story with a lot of up and down in his voice, as if to get it over with and into the open, out of the dark where maggots grew. It began in the orchard with a big cauldron of scaling water and it went on a day and a night. It went on while Mama simmered lard, while Fred and his red-haired brother and sister, Sam and Maud, stuffed sausage meat into what looked like old stockings ‘til past the time when hunks of meat were hung down the well to cool or up on hooks in the cold room. It ended when Mama cooked bacon the next morning and by the smell of it. Except usually somebody, when Fred forgot to, would digress with the story of long ago “Somebody Else’s Pig.” You see, somebody else’s neighbor boy wanted to find what was at the end of a long plank his pig would walk, so he followed the plank to the trap, which hurled him two-legged into a scalding pool. Fred woud finish off “Pig” fast, amid shrieks and laughter, even then, and they would crook their arms and hold out their coffee cups for more coffee and the steam misted up the silver coffee pot and the music came, not real music, not the kind of music other people knew, but Arley’s own music, knowing, remembering, being.
Fred never told the other story “Birds” there in the dining room with the oak table that stood on the oak floor laid down by Mama’s papa on granite foundations stingier than those their own pa would have laid. So wide, so strong were their papa’s cellar walls that Mama always said, “You keep laying foundations like that and we’ll be poor forever.” At least, that is the way it was told at church socials, where considerable talk was spent on what a good Christian his papa, Joseph Minor, was who built on solid rock. No, Fred never told “Birds” here within the bunch of them with their elbows and plates; he saved that for private walks with Arley. Then he would say, once, Once, and Arley would repeat the story inside himself, word for word, watching it as it came out of Fred’s memory and into the open between them – for what is the world but spirit? And so it would begin, Once.
“Once when I was fourteen I set out to Grandma’s in the wagon to pick up Mama and when I was unhitching the horses up by the back wall, around comes the hired man and he hands me a gun and says ‘Got too many birds here, Fred. You shoot some, I’m too busy.’ So Fred had taken the gun, standing almost in the very spot he got it, at the corner of the stone wall, the northwest corner – because Fred was very exact, exactness saved Fred from something which Arley did not yet know. Fred had stood there spreading his feet for a good stand, had leaned back and aimed up at the willow tree full of blackbirds, had shot with scatter until birds began to fall out of the tree, hunks of birds, black lumps falling already dead, no longer birds by the time they reached his feet.
“Is that when you said it, Fred?”
“I said then I’ll never shoot anything again.” And he never shot anything again.
Sometimes his second brother, Sam the red-haired one, would tell his story “The Bird” at the oak table but that was a public story of speed flying, talons at a forehead, a boy falling.
“Knocked off his feet by a bird!” The whoops of laughter then, as they trimmed the Christmas tree in the cold living room where Mama’s papa had stored the gear for the stables, the gear that was in the cellar now. Everything, you see, was lodged somewhere in the house, and the great glass eye of it was his eye, Arley’s eye. He was a boy who, as the last and smallest child, had named himself. His every utterance, or any heard above the melee, was preserved in one form or another, to be used in mockery if nothing else, even his mispronunciation of his own name, Charles.
It was always amidst plenty that Joseph, his father, told his stories of “I Was Poor,” usually when the fat of his favorite fatback-and-meat drippings was popping its spit on the stove, or after the mortgage checks had been lifted carefully from envelopes, or sometimes when Arley was staring at a roasted chicken with a crust so thick a person really had to use his front teeth to get it apart. Then the fat man with the gold chain that crossed his round belly low in summer after the planting and reaping and high in spring after a winter of sitting would tell how as a boy he.
As a boy I.
“The first year after my pa died, we didn’t ever get the wood cut,” Joseph the father would begin, spooning fatback into his fluted plate. “Pa hadn’t cut enough—too sick, it came on too fast. Sometime he just kept on doing the same task—not knowing it was done, saying to Ma.”
Ma. This was long ago, beyond the memory of the boy Arley, having taken place in the quiet around the kitchen table of an old farmhouse out in Southlee. But such was the power of their stories that things not seen could be known and never lost.