In the Fallby Jeffrey Lent
“Majestic . . . epic . . . vital . . . a necessary piece in a uniquely American mosaic.” —The New York Times Book Review
In the Fall is an extraordinary epic of three generations of an American family, the dark secrets that blister at its core, and the transcendent bonds between men and women that fuel their lives over the course of six decades.
In the twilight of the Civil War, a Union soldier named Norman Pelham, battle-wounded and near death, is found by Leah, a slave running from a different hell. After Leah nurses him back to health, Norman brings her to his family homestead in Vermont as his wife, and there they begin a family that will be shaped by their passionate devotion to each other and the consequences of their union. As her children approach adulthood, Leah is compelled to return to the South to confront the demons from which she fled many years before. Her journey will yield devastation for the entire family, transforming Norman and their two daughters forever and causing their son to turn his back on his family in favor of the anonymous, gas-lit world of bootlegging and nightclubs. Not until the next generation will the family’s secrets come to light, when their grandson is driven to retrace his family’s history and disentangle his complicated inheritance. What is revealed through this cycle of migration and return is the inescapable grip of bloodlines in a world where the cost of confronting the past is as severe as the cost of fleeing from it.
Spanning the post-Civil War era to the edge of the Great Depression, In the Fall is a richly layered rendering of a rapidly evolving America from life on the farm, through the final years of Prohibition and bootlegging, to the advent of modern times. In sentences that roll with a grave, brooding beauty, Jeffrey Lent illumines the ineluctable connections that exist between black and white, North and South, past and present, as well as the violent collisions they give rise to. In the Fall is a fierce and utterly gripping vision of an American landscape and history, and an unforgettable portrait of an American family.
“Majestic . . . epic . . . vital . . . a necessary piece in a uniquely American mosaic.” —The New York Times Book Review
“You can hear the echoes of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy in Lent’s prose. But the presiding geniuses of this dark novel . . . are Robert Frost and the artist Winslow Homer . . . flint-eyed Yankees who never saw a paradise that didn’t have a snake.” —Newsweek
“A stunning success . . . Builds like a thunderstorm coming over the horizon . . . One of the best books of 2000.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Finely observed and deeply felt. In the Fall is an absorbing novel and an auspicious debut.” —San Francisco Chronicle & Examiner Book Review
“There are passages that are written so beautifully that they will take your breath away.” —USA Today
“In the Fall contains wisdom, gravity, beauty, horror, grace.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
A Book Sense 76 Selection
The boy woke in the dark house and knew he was alone. It was knowing this that woke him. The house was not empty, he just was alone in it. He stood and dressed and went down through the house in the dark. From the kitchen, he could see the lantern light past the overgrown pasture beyond the barn. He took his jacket from the peg and held the door to settle it back into the frame without noise. Under the big hemlocks and tamaracks surrounding the house, he crossed the soft dirt track of the drive and stepped into the tangle of sumac and blackberries and young popples, keeping a clump of sumac between him and the light. He was not afraid of the dark. He was afraid of being in the house. The lantern sat on an upturned stone. His father was digging with a spade in the woods floor, piling the soil he lifted onto a canvas tarp laid next to the hole he was making. The boy heard the soft noise of dirt slipping off the spade. The hole was round, not wide but deep.
His father worked carefully, prying free stones, small rocks, with the tip of the blade. When the handle disappeared halfway into the ground his father stopped, set down the spade and from the edge of the tarp took up one of three coffee cans and got down on his knees to position it in the bottom of the hole. Still on his knees, he packed handfuls of dirt around the can and only when it was covered did he rise to finish the job. He worked slowly, transferring the soil from the tarp back to the hole. When he was done, he tamped the soil with the flat of the blade, the sound gentle blows in the night. He set aside the spade and shook the tarp for the last traces of dirt and then took up a metal-tined rake and pulled the leaves and understory trash back over the hole, raking back and forth until he was satisfied with his job. Then he moved a short distance in the woods, the boy moving with him, a soft unwatched dance within the thicket. He watched as his father dug another hole, the same careful job as the first, another small grave for a coffee can. And when this was done, they both moved again and one more hole was dug and filled and finished, covered over, hidden. When his father was done, he sat on a stone, lighted a cigarette and smoked it. The boy watched, knowing he had to get back to the house before his father but only wanting enough time and no more. The cigarette tip made an orange flare in the dark as his father inhaled and the release of smoke from his lungs would come float through the brush where the boy stood and he’d breathe in all he could—as if it were his father’s presence. The night after his little sister died and his mother still lay sick his father had sent him to bed but it had been his mother that woke him, standing at the foot of his bed with the girl held by the hand, his mother saying nothing but watching him while Claire waved to him. It was not long after this that his father came up the stairs to send the boy out with a lantern to shovel snow from the drive out through the hemlocks to the road, shoveling uselessly against the four-foot snowfall, crying as he worked, raging in an effort he already knew was for nothing. When his father came into the brittle orange and purple dawn to stop him, to still his shovel, to tell him his mother was dead, even then he would not stop, but dug at the snow as if into his own bursting heart. Seeing the two of them together, side by side in his room. A silent farewell. His mother and sister had come to him on their way out of the house to view him once more. This was enough then to be scared of being alone in the house. It was not the dark. He had no fear of the dark outside.
His father ground the cigarette against the sides of his trousers, broke the butt apart and scattered it, and still the boy waited. Then his father took up the tarp and passed it through his hands along one edge until he held the corners and draped it down before him, his arms spread wide. For a moment the tarp hid both father and lantern—a screen over the scene, the tarp backlit from the lantern—and then his father brought the corners together and folded the tarp against the length of his body, placed it under one arm and reached down with the other to gather up the rake and shovel. It was time to go. His father took up the lantern as the boy turned back to the house, moving swiftly through the dark, the house a blank silhouette against the night sky. He heard his father behind him, his wind a ragged suck as if he pulled himself forward by drawing in the air—his lungs still weak with the winter’s influenza which he’d carried into the house but risen from, just when Claire had sickened with it and then their mother. They did not have it near as long as his father but both drowned in it. The boy had not been sick at all. With the noise his father was making he guessed he could have run, and not been seen or heard, but he wanted nothing more than just to beat his father back to the house. To lie in bed and hear him come in.
Whatever was in the coffee cans, whatever was buried in the woods behind him, he did not know. Something secret laid away, something hidden deep now in the earth, out of sight, gone. Without ever having once been told, he knew it was his father’s business buried out there, not his. Curious as any boy, he still knew to leave it be.
The boy’s grandfather came down off the hill farm above the Bethel road south of Randolph early in the summer of 1862, leaving behind his mother and the youngest girl still at home along with a dwindling flock of Merino sheep and a slowly building herd of milk cows. Norman Pelham was barely seventeen, but he was well built in his homemade fine-stitched suit of clothes. His silent manner and extra height deflected any question of his age. His father drove him in the wagon and neither spoke during the hour trip to the depot in Randolph. The summer dust rose up through the trace chains and settled on the braided bobs of the team’s tails. Norman was a serious youth who doubted that the secession of near half the states in the union would be quickly resolved. Still, his death seemed remote and unlikely. He planned to do his part as well as he could, but no hero’s blood pumped through his veins. He had no desire for glory beyond traveling back up that same road one day. But he did not speak with his father of these things and his father offered nothing of his own fears that morning. Instead they tracked the course of crows over the valley and watched as men they knew worked at the first cutting of hay in the broad flat fields along the river. Some of those men rested their scythes to lift a hat or arm in greeting, some had sons already at the depot or in Brattleboro and some would soon follow. Father and son would incline their heads to the greetings with no need for words, for all knew their destination. They rode on to the strained creak of harness leather above the heavy wheels crumbling the road dust, the father’s heart clattering as if loosed from a pivot in his chest and the heart of the boy also in fearsome ratchet. There had been no argument between them, no discussions of fitness or age. The father would have gone himself but could not. The boy was not going in his place. The boy was going on his own.
In Randolph, they drew the team up away from the depot and backed the wagon around so it was headed home. The team stood with dropped heads, sweat lather foaming around their backpads. The father wrapped the lines once in a loose loop around the brake lever and stepped down out of the wagon. Norman climbed down the other side and reached behind to lift out a valise with twin straps that held a winter coat, canvas pants, a boiled white shirt, a small inscribed Bible, extra socks and a razor. All but the razor had been brought at his mother’s urging. Norman had planned to carry the razor in his pocket, confident he could always find a strop and soap of some kind. He thought the army might even provide these things. He didn’t know; there was no one to ask.
There was a crowd around the depot, which was strung with homemade bunting. His father reached out, took his hand, and they both grasped hard, then dropped the other’s hand at the same moment, as if from long practice.
“Well,” his father said, his eyes drifting over the wagon bed toward the team.
“Keep an eye on my sheep,” Norman said.
“Yuht,” his father said. And then added, “Dodge them bullets.”
“I’ll do her.”
His father nodded. “I’ll get on to home then.”
Norman raised the valise and held it against his back, with his elbow in the air. He echoed his father. “Yuht.” As he turned away and walked toward the crowd, he realized for the first time that he would be around far more people than he was used to, yet knew all he needed to do was keep quiet and he could be as alone as he liked.
He rode the train south to Brattleboro for the rest of the day. Around him, men were eating food out of sacks or bound-up in cloth. Norman opened the valise, intent upon retrieving the razor and leaving the rest behind him, and found there on top a piece of cold mutton, tied up in paper and string, and a loaf of new bread along with a half dozen hard-boiled eggs. As he peeled the shells off the eggs, he thought of her egg money going with him. After he ate all the mutton and bread, he closed the valise and kept it held tight between his feet, razor and all.
In Brattleboro the next morning he signed the muster rolls and was issued a uniform and gun as well as a dozen or more other related items. He lived in a tent with five other men from rare and unknown parts of Vermont and went through a couple of weeks of drills and simple training that struck him as having little to do with anything at all. He learned over time that he was fortunate in having officers who were neither ambitious nor career men, but who had age and experience. In early July, they rode trains south and joined the thronged mass of the Army of the Potomac. Norman now carried only his razor in one pocket and his small Bible in another. He’d saved also his extra socks.
It was late September of 1865 before he passed through Bethel on his way back to the hill farm, months after his fellow members of the 2nd Vermont had returned in pairs or small groups. Although word of him had spread beyond that group of veterans, they would not speak of him; any of them who were approached by his mother would only assure her he’d be along any day and last they’d seen him he was fine. There were still those few whose eyes rose over whatever length of road they could see from time to time to see if the figure in the distance was him. Some among them even doubted he’d come at all, but even those doubts were less of a judgment than a curiosity. They were not the sort of men to place themselves in another’s shoes and would not voice an opinion unless the matter bore directly upon them. And this with Norman did not. Still, they watched the road.
So they saw him pass along the road that Indian-summer morning with the sugarbush maples flaring on the hillsides and the hilltop sheep pastures overgrown with young cherry and maple. Word ran along the road ahead of him so near all his neighbors and townspeople saw him walking in the long easy stride of one who counted walking in months and years not miles, a rucksack cut from an issue blanket strapped to his back and by his side a girl near his own height in a sunfaded blue dress and carrying her own cardboard suitcase bound with rough twine. Norman wore his army brogans while the girl walked barefoot in the dust, her own pair of wornout boots tied together by the laces and slung over one shoulder. Norman raised his hand to greet those he saw and most nodded or waved back. And those that hung back in barn doorways or stood behind curtains he paid no attention to, satisfied to pass them by and telling himself he held no malice to those who ignored him. At one point the girl said to him, “They watching us.”
“They been watching us all along the way.”
“They has been. But these your folks.”
“All they got is the right to look.”
“No maybe about it,” he said. “They can look all they want and think what they like, it don’t matter to me and it don’t matter to you.” And he meant what he said; he’d walked through any fear he might be wrong back in southern Virginia. There was nothing cocksure or militant in how he felt, just his own certainty at having settled his fears and doubts. If there was any hesitation left in him it came from his great tenderness for her, his knowledge of the cruelty a person may inflict upon another and his determination to shield her from any damage that his own people might cast upon her. He was not simple in love but ferocious with it.
They turned off the road less than a mile from Randolph village to climb the half mile of gravel track to the hill farm where only his mother and youngest sister now waited, his father kicked in the head by the old mare as he bent to pick up a dropped dime two years before. The letter with this news had reached him just days before the battle of Fredericksburg in which men died before, beside and twice behind him as his body recalled his father’s advice and he dropped in a long swivel from his knees to rise again with the breech-loading Springfield coming up before him. His older sisters married and gone, Miriam on a farm in Iowa, Ethel to a paper-goods man out of St. Louis. As he and the girl passed the final house along the way, the farmwife was in the side yard stringing laundry, with her arms full and her mouth agape with pins, and so was unable to wave or call greeting but just watched them pass by, the neighbor boy grown war-hardened and the green-eyed girl with her African body so lovely in the fall sunshine, her skin the color and luster of hand-rubbed heartpine. Norman called out and the girl raised a hand in a gesture the woman read as saying You’re over there and I’m over here and I’m going to stay right here unless you invite me otherwise. As they continued on up the hill, Norman thought he heard the soft spatter of clothespins falling into the grass behind them.
He was wounded twice. The first time was at Gettysburg when the 2nd Vermont found the breach in the flank of Pickett’s fated charge and waded in to turn the battle, charging across the field through the offal of dead and dying men and horses, the siren of battle at full crescendo. Norman was wounded as a red-eyed cavalryman swept through them with his sabre flaring in the dying summer light and sliced Norman’s right arm deep to the bone and the sabre flew up from the blow and was coming down again. Norman had dropped his Springfield but raised his left arm as he threw his body against the man’s horse behind the long blade and drew the man down on top of him, knocking the wind from himself and leaving it to others to drag the rebel man from Norman and run bayonets through him. They saved the sabre and presented it to him when he returned to the company from the hospital at Lee’s old home outside Washington but he did not want it, still able to feel the sweat coming from the cavalryman’s mustache and chin as he came down on him, still able to smell his glaze of fear and death as they struck the earth and the sky darkened with the bodies of his comrades closing over them.
The second wound came almost two years later outside Richmond after that city fell and Lee’s army was crumbling before them. It was late in the day when the company crossed a small stream with the dogwoods blooming and the few spring leaves on the trees fine and pale, the size of mouse ears. The men they were pursuing had gained enough ground to turn their one fieldpiece upon the 2nd and fire off a final canister of grapeshot that blew apart a dozen feet from where he crouched with the others in poison ivy and trout lilies, hearing the whistle of the grape coming in. While the shell fell short, it sent something hard through the air, a piece of tree perhaps, which struck Norman in the head, tore apart his left ear and left him unconscious and alone while the company camped around him. Sometime during the night he woke and, still senseless, crawled off in the manner of a sick animal seeking better shelter in which to die. He awoke in mighty pain at dawn next to a hedgerow somewhere in Virginia, his ear a throbbing thing attached to him and his brain ill and scattered, shivering with the dew already burning off before the rising sun and his tongue thick with wanting water. He’d rolled onto his good side to keep his ear in the air and away from the ground. He slept some like that and waking again saw a girl squatting there beside him, her face serious as death itself and her hands cupping a dipper gourd of water as she asked him, “Is you dead?”
He lay there etching her against the pan of his brain: the fine raised cheekbones that brought all focus of her face to her wide eyes already bright before the sun added light to them. The fine cleft chin he wanted to hold as an apple and the lips cracked with her own fearsome journey and still lovely as if chiseled from a piece of veined rose marble. Still he could barely speak from pain but felt he must or she would flee, thinking him dead or somehow dangerous, and so he said, “I just need to lay here a bit.” Then, his head and ear booming, he asked, “Is that water you got there?”
She nodded and held the back of his head as he drank and then settled him slow back onto the ground and he slept again. When he woke later she was still there and the gourd was full again and she helped raise him up and gave him water. The sun was up but they sat in the thin shade from the hedge. She had biscuits and a hunk of ham with the mold scraped off and she fed some of that to him and he slept more. At full dusk he was awake again and heard whippoorwills calling each other off in the darkening woods. The girl stood over him this time. She said, “You got to get up and walk. It ain’t far but you got to go. Another night here fever gonna carry you off. I spent too much time to have that happen.” He saw that she had blankets looped long and narrow over one shoulder. She said, “You ain’t that bad hurt. You ain’t dead. Rise on up now.” And when he was standing, his body pressed to hers and one arm around her and one of hers around him, he asked her name and she paused, her face turned away from him down into the folds of the blankets she carried. She said, “Leah.”
“Why that’s a pretty name,” he said. “From the Bible.”
And again slowly as if gauging him she said, “I guess so. Anyway its my name.”
He wanted to tell her she was prettier than her name, any name, but the words were wrong; that, and he was still seeing her blackness, still thinking of her as the most beautiful colored girl he’d ever seen. As the land fell away with the dark, the pain in his head was made a lesser thing against the girl beside him.
They moved that way into the night, the girl leading him through fields as he struggled to find his own balance and when that would not happen finally let himself move along with her as with a current. She led him down through a woods of old oaks and into a narrow ravine with a small stream and he guessed this was where she had carried his water from. In the dark she brought him to a hidden dugout shored with logs and shielded with a thicket of rhododendron, the open front of the dugout half covered by a hand-laid drywall of stone, old enough so the surfaces of the stones were soft with moss. Inside she made a fire with flint and steel, and in the light they ate the rest of her ham and she brought more water up from the stream. She kept the fire small but with the food it warmed them. She asked where he was from and he told her and she asked where that was and he said up by Canada and she knew where that was. He asked where she was from and she thought about it and then said, “Round here.” He didn’t know if she was lying or telling the truth and knew it wasn’t his business to probe. She had every reason not to trust him and he realized how exceptional her care of him was, how great her risk had been and in her eyes still likely was. He sat with her in the cave, built he guessed by her own kind. Word of this place and others like it passed along a vein of trust, a line of knowledge outside the reach of his own race, and he looked at her, feeling he was beginning to know her. The idea of sex bloomed in his mind and he moved a little away from her and took up one of the two blankets, leaving the most room he could for her by the fire and told her, “You’ve been awful helpful. I just want to tell you that. Dawn tomorrow I’ll get out of your hair and get on and find my regiment. They’ll probably go ahead and shoot me for deserting anyway.” And seeing her eyes flare at this he said, “That’s a joke. I bet they think I’m dead. Probably think I’m a ghost when they see me.”
She made a face at him that was not quite a smile. “You’re not any ghost.”
He grinned at her. “Not yet anyhow.”
“Some strange kind of man, that’s what you are.”
“What’re you talking about?”
She shook her head and said, “Scuse me.” Her tone sudden with spleen she stepped around him, ducking low until she was outside, and he lay and watched her disappear in the darkness. When she came back she was silent and so was he. Something had been extended from both of them, some straw bridge from one to the other, but then it had fallen apart and not either of them knowing what made it fall but both knowing it was gone. As children both feeling the fault and afraid to admit it. So they said nothing.
During the night she moved him close to the scant coals and wrapped in her own blanket had spooned against his back and so he woke at bare dawn with her against him and he lay without moving until there was light in the treetops and she stirred behind him. Through both their blankets, he felt the long muscles of her thighs against the backs of his and her torso and breasts pressed tight to his back and one arm flat against his chest inside his own blanket. Only when he felt her wake fully and leave the dugout did he move at all, so that when she returned he was up with his blanket folded, moving his arms and legs to wake. She led him to the stream and there ordered him onto his hands and knees and held his head in her hands and lowered the wound into the shock of water, letting her fingers run over his scalp to clear the matted blood and woods-trash, her touch warm even in the cold water. When he stood he found his balance and she stepped back from him and as if accusing said, “Should have done that yesterday.”
Still breathless he said, “It would’ve killed me then.”
She gripped his forearm and he felt the bite of her nails and she said, “Don’t you tell nobody about this place, you hear me?” There was no protest before this fury and so he only nodded, once and short but looking straight into her eyes. He wanted again to touch her or say some words to her but she’d already turned and was walking away into the woods, looking back once with impatience or scorn, so he followed her because it was all he could do.
She led him in a straight line up the side of the ravine and through the woods again and he had no way of knowing if it was the same route they’d taken the night before or a different direction altogether. Then she led him across a field to a small height of wooded land until they looked down on a field beyond a road with the camp of the 2nd Vermont. He started forward, the smell of food rising from cookfires, and then turned back but she stayed in the underbrush and he said, “Come on down with me. There’s food.”
She shook her head.
“Come on. I guess I ate up all your food. Least you could let me do, it seems to me.”
She shook her head again and then said, “You go on, Mister Norman Pelham.” When he stepped toward her she held out a hand, palm raised out and flat to stop him. She stepped back, her hand still out, one step at a time until she placed a briar thicket overgrown with honeysuckle between them. He stood listening to her slipping away until no sound came from the woods and she was gone. He thought of following her back to the field on the other side but suddenly knew she would not be in sight. And so he stood there a long while and then turned and went down to the encampment.
When his wounds were dressed and he was fed, he told his story leaving out the part about the girl and it was listened to but only just; a rumor had come down late the night before from Appomattox Court House and there was talk of going home or going on into North Carolina where an army under Johnston was still in full fight. Others said that army was nothing but a fragment and Sherman would mop it as a barkeep would the overflow suds from a bucket of beer. Others reminded them they’d considered Lee done for before this and been proved wrong. It was all talk to Norman; even the idea of a surrender left him idly numbed and he was quiet among the men. He sat that night by the bright circle of the rail-fence fire, unable to see beyond the wall of dark but imagining her in the dugout with the small fire even as he knew she would’ve moved on from there, was likely miles away along her own route of hidden road. Norman wondered if she’d heard the rumor and what it might mean to her and once felt clearly that she was out there looking right back at him. He stood then, making a show of stretching his body, his face turned toward the wooded height, and then felt a fool, knowing she was not there. He moved out to the rim of light to pee and then back for a tin cup of the over-boiled coffee they all sat drinking. An hour after midnight a horse clattered hard down the road and the war was done for them.
The next day they passed through two towns as they made their way back toward Washington and both times the townspeople stood silent watching them with empty faces and the troops were quiet also, as if they were all at the same funeral, the viewers and the procession all indispensable. In both towns Norman’s eyes searched through the colored people but did not see her. He was already unsure if he’d recognize her until his eyes found one and then another tall woman and knew immediately each was not the one he sought. He wondered how long that surety would last and did not let himself consider why this was important.
Twice during the afternoon he saw movement off the roadside, once behind a hedgerow and once again farther off along a wooded edge, and both times he looked to the men around him to see if they too had seen anything and wondered if he’d imagined it or even why he might think it was her at all. The countryside was filled with people: men deserted and foraging from both armies, colored people some still bound as slaves and others runaway, white children competing with the deserters for what game or roots the land might offer up. There were women also, both white and black who’d come out to the encampments to offer what they had to offer for whatever they could get for it. Still he watched hard through the afternoon for another flicker of movement and saw nothing at all.
They camped that night in a well-built barn with overhanging sheds on both sides. The men tore out planking from empty mule stalls for fires, the rail fences already stripped away, and the woman of the house brought down a kettle of potato soup made with milk and butter although they saw no cow. The surrender meant something to someone somewhere but nothing yet to these men on the road and nothing yet to the people they imposed upon, except the chance to acknowledge the imposition, and so they filled their tin cups and thanked her one by one and she nodded to each and stood silent until the soup was gone and then carried the kettle back to the house.
After midnight he was walking sentry, the Springfield loose alongside him held in just one hand, his tunic unbuckled, open to more than just the spring night. In the darkness he paused and as he stood looking at those men the idea of leaving them frightened him a little. He wondered if the men there he knew from Bethel or Randolph or Royalton or Chelsea would come upon him in years ahead and nod their greeting and pass along by as if this were all nothing more but a great and forever silent part of their lives. Norman knew how glad he’d be back up on the farm with his arms bloody on February mornings from birthing lambs or his back burned and sore from lifting forkfuls of hay from the hot fields. The war was already breaking apart into fragments for his memory to hold, the odd things: the squirrel racing back along the road through the advancing troops that first day at Second Bull Run; the summer mist burning off the Potomac as they marched north into Pennsylvania two summers before; the man out on the field well before him who landed on his back and for a long moment seemed to hold the cannonball with both arms to his belly before he flew apart under it; the boy face up and his mouth open to the air, flies already pooled around his eyes as he called a woman’s name, his tone plaintive as if she were nearby and ignoring him. These sights and others, each forever etched in its own small box of his mind. Life after this was not so simple a thing as going home and carrying on from where he’d left off, and he remembered his father’s death, a news that at the time seemed just one more in a long chain of life poured out upon the ground. Now he could begin to feel it as the hole he’d forever carry forward with himself: not having the chance to not talk about the war with his father, not even having that silent presence there beside him as he birthed those lambs or dug that potato ground. He was watching his fellows and himself all at once when from behind him she said, “Norman don’t you shoot me with that gun of yours.”
He turned slow and saw her face split in half with shadow and light, her eyes wide, her nostrils flared as if to breathe him in and her lips parted like the mouth of a bell. He took a step closer and said, “I thought that was maybe you follering us.” Smiling.
“You never seen me.”
“Sho.” She snorted this at him and he almost laughed. “Something in your head I guess.”
“Well,” he said. “You were there and now you’re here.”
“I didn’t follow nothing. Been here waiting.”
She nodded. He could see she wore a different dress, once a deep green now faded to old moss.
“Waiting for what?” And he immediately wanted to bite back the words from the night.
But she only said, “Waiting for that woman to get done with her charity while you all tore up her barn. Waiting to see you walk out here sometime tonight. Waiting to see if you jump up in the air already running when you see me like you see a spook. You still got time for that I guess.”
“I’m sentry tonight. If I tore off running who knows what would happen. So I’m standing right here I guess.”
“Sentry sposed to walk around I thought.”
He shrugged. “War’s over. I guess you heard that.”
Now she shrugged. “You think that’s gonna change a thing, Mister Norman Pelham?” Before he could respond she reached out one hand and ran her fingers down his forearm, and he felt the flesh of his arm rise up to meet her. She was speaking not of her life or the lives of her people or even the people all around them but of the sudden and irrevocable breach each had made in the other. And nothing said out yet in the air between them, nothing said to make it real, as if words could do such a thing. So he only asked, “You get anything to eat today?”
“Some folks shared what they had.” She watching him now as if seeing he’d finally figured things out. Or maybe afraid he knew the words to break it apart. So he touched her upper arm and felt the chill of her skin, smooth and tight with cold. And said, “I need to find you a coat.”
“I got a coat. Out there.” Pointing out into the dark with her chin. “With my blankets and mess.” Norman shuddered with the complicated ripple of knowledge that the next minutes hours days would circuit his life; he’d learned early in the war to avoid reading signs or portents into any one small thing because the larger ones pay no attention to those small events. Hope and desire or dread are puny human attributes beside the work of a dreadful god or a careless universe but at this moment he knew his life was some way shapable. He was breathless that long moment and then Leah moved forward so her face was in full light now and he told her, “You wait right here. You wait just one minute. Please. Here, hold this.” He thrust the Springfield into her hands and turned to lope back up to the fire, where he poured out a can of coffee and took biscuits and bacon from the racks by the fire, stuffing his tunic pockets to a bulge. He was turning to leave when he saw Goundry watching him, the fervently quiet small blacksmith from Poultney now captain of the company, whose voice just carried the five feet between them.
“What’re you doing, Pelham?”
“Something to eat sir?”
“Hungry?” Goundry eyeing the tunic.
Goundry nodded. “Where the hell’s your rifle, Pelham?”
Norman inclined his head. “Back there. Right by the barn sir. I just wanted to get this food.”
Goundry nodded again. “Is your head feeling all right, son?”
“It’s fine sir.”
Goundry held him with his eyes. Then he said, “By Jesus I’m glad this thing’s done with. Get out of here, Pelham.”
He found her crouched in the shadow beside one of the mule-stall partitions, his rifle held upright between her legs, the barrel hugged against her chest. He took her hand and helped her stand and she said, “Some man came out the back of the barn and peed there so I hid down here.”
He traded her the can of coffee for his rifle and told her, “I’ve got some bread and bacon too. You know some place we could set down?”
She took him by the hand and led him over what had been vegetable gardens and then past a chicken yard, down a dirt track with a pair of empty cabins on each side, and behind these was a smaller structure made of heavy logs with no windows but with a door busted apart, pieces of timber still splinted upright by strap hinges. Inside she hung a blanket from nails over the doorway and lit a candle stub and he saw her suitcase and bedroll on the floor and a small rude bench made of a split log with unpeeled limbs splayed as legs. A short length of stout chain was bolted into the log wall, the chain ending in a manacle roughly cut open with the marks of the slipped chisel. They sat on the bench and shared the coffee and she ate some of the biscuit and the bacon he sliced off for her, ate with a vast controlled manner that made clear how hungry she was, and while she declined more than a small amount of the food he cleared his pockets and set the rest on the edge of the bench in a natural sort of way. They sat silent on the bench in the guttering candlelight, the boy younger than he thought he was and the girl older than she thought she was. He saw slight spasms running over her upper body and he unbuttoned his tunic and saw her watching him, her mouth tight and her eyes flat, and he took the tunic off and put it around her shoulders and sat there beside her with his suspenders up over his woolen undershirt. She crossed her arms to take the tunic edges in opposite hands and drew it close around her and in so doing leaned a little so her shoulder touched his and she said, “Norman, what do you want with me?”
He thought about this and only would say, “I guess I could ask the same thing.”
Without pause she said, “Ask then.”
So he did and she said, “I want to go to Up-by-Canada.”
“Vermont,” he said.
“Ver-mont,” she said, breaking the word in two parts and he thought Yes that’s right, that verde monte, that old green hill of Champlain—his Randolph Academy brought back clear by the girl’s usage—but he only said, “It’s a long ways from here.”
“Already walked one of those. I can walk another.” Then, “Less you don’t want me to.”
Norman looked away from her now, looked down at his hands joined together between his knees, his elbows and forearms flat on his thighs, and was quiet until his voice came and then he said, “I don’t know.” He could hear her breathing beside him, could feel slight movement in her shoulder against his and felt a patience from her as she waited for him and he knew what for and didn’t know how to say it and so only said, “I don’t barely know you.”
“Course you don’t,” she said. “What it takes to know a person you tell me soon’s you know. I don’t know, not me. You got brothers, sisters?”
“Sisters,” he said, “three of em.”
But she kept right on talking as if he’d said nothing. “Your mama and daddy. You known those people all your life but you don’t know what they really all about inside. And you think they all gonna sit around waiting for you to know, Norman? You think even they themselves know? Not like they like to, I tell you that. You and me sitting here strange as can be to one another but here we are, ain’t that right? And what you call that? You call that a accident? I walked maybe three hundred miles to meet up with you Norman and didn’t even know it was you till I seen you laying there under that briar clump and how’d I know then that you’d wake up to be you? I didn’t. You know what I’m telling you Norman?”
All he could do was nod his head, just once.
She said, “I look at you, you know what I see? Norman?”
“I got no idea.”
“I see a man gentle right down in his soul. All the way down.”
Then she was quiet and when she spoke again her voice had lost a little edge and he heard it right away, a little less certainty and he felt this loss in his chest like hot water. She said, “So me. You look at me what do you see? Norman?”
His face furrowed like a spring field, wanting to get this just right. He had no idea what to say and kept looking at her hoping she’d wait for him, hoping she’d be patient. Hoping he’d find his way not out but through this.
She didn’t wait. She said, “You see a little nigger girl wanting to eat up your biscuit, your bacon, whatever you got? You see me thinking my taking care of you once overnight is something I can trade for lots more than that? Or maybe even just nigger pussy ready for you to say the right words, do the right thing? That what you see, Norman?” And she was reared back away from him now, sitting still on the bench, upright as if at a great distance, her back arched like a drawn bow, eyes burning wide open as her soul welled up but not at all ready to pour out without something back from him. He watched his hands turning one over the other, the fingers lacing and relacing until he realized she was watching him do this. He slid around and lifted his right leg over the bench so he sat spraddle-legged facing her front on. With his face collapsed in sheer terror, he said to her, “Leah. All I see is the most lovely girl I’ve ever seen.”
She stood off the bench away from him and said, “I told you the truth, Norman. I told you the truth. But you lying to me if that’s all you see.”
And without even thinking about it he said, “What I see is the most lovely girl and one fat wide world of trouble. Trouble for both of us. That’s what I see.”
And now she stepped back over the bench to face him and said, “You got that right. You got that just exactly right.” He reached and took one of her hands and sat looking down at their hands lying one into the other, the small slip of warmth between his fingers, her life lying up against his, and still not looking at her he said, “Don’t you ever talk that way to me again Leah.”
“What way?” Her voice low, already knowing, needing to ask, needing him to tell her.
So he said, “That nigger—this nigger—that business.”
“White men talk any way they want to a colored girl.”
“Am I white men to you then?”
She reached her free hand and took his other hand and put it against her breastbone just below her throat and told him, “My daddy’s a white man, Norman.”
“I figured something like that,” he said; in truth he hadn’t thought that far. So again without thinking he said, “He doesn’t talk that way does he?” His hand warming to the heat of her, his brain on the buttons down her dress-front.
She tilted her chin to look at him. “My daddy has never even said my name to me.” Her voice tight with disgust, venom, a loathing that was distinct and almost covered all what sadness she had but that he knew was there, knew it the same way she believed his soul to be gentle. He scooted toward her on the bench and she brought her knees in tight to the bench to let him come close and he put his arms around her and she laid her head against him and he sat there, holding her like that.
From the bench to her blankets on the floorboards of the little stockade was not a long way to go but they took a long time moving there, seeming to travel down inch by inch in a locked body motion that neither led nor followed but went with them trembling. Once down, they wrestled with limbs made slow and heavy, his fingers thick with the buttons of her dress and her breasts out then, nipples like summer black-caps against thick honey, and she shuddered under his tongue. She astride him and with one hand he swept the dress up over her hips and opened his flies with the other, but she arched away from him even as he strained toward her, his thumb once traveling down the length of her as she opened under, the wet there breathtaking. Still she held off from him, their mouths smothering each other, tongues each hot and sharp to the other, almost struggling until she broke away, rolling over to lie beside him, her legs still spread and her dress open to the waist, and she said, “If you’d got it in I would’ve let you.” He rolled over on top of her and as he entered she said, her voice now a wet thing in his ear, “I could just melt all over you,” and with that he was done, thrusting from the small of his back and her soft cries falling into his ears like thin slices of bird-flight entering his brain. She reached down and held him to her after he was finished and told him, “Don’t leave, don’t go.” So he stayed until he slipped from her and still he lay there, the wet between them sealing one to the other. Neither one now wanting or able to leave.
Walking up that final half mile of rough track above Randolph with the farmhouse not yet in sight, the crown of the elms over the house stretched ahead where the road cut an opening through the trees, the girl already thought she knew something of the place to which she’d come, having walked through half the state just to get here, as well as all the rest of the north that lay behind them now. The boy paced slow with so much home after so long finally in sight, both with those long days and too-short nights behind them; those and the weeks they spent outside Washington where after Lincoln’s assassination Norman waited with his company through a mourning for the president. They stayed through most of May to walk together one final time as a military force down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac, Norman waiting with great agitation while Leah disappeared into the swamped springtime of the capital, a place at odds with itself, wildly festive with the war’s end and murderously foul from the dead president. After four long days, she reappeared with lye-burned mottled hands and a pure gleefulness nothing could diminish; she was working in the basement of a hotel scrubbing linens and ironing them to a slick starched stiffness but earning cash money, in fact a sum that gave Norman pause; during the years of the war he’d come to think of money in the abstract and at those random intervals when his pay arrived he wired it through to his sheep account at the bank in Randolph. Those first six weeks passed and they went their own way, disregarding the packed trains leaving for Philadelphia or New York or Boston and walking up the country through the lush and easy summer, sleeping in woods or fields with hedgerow cover and buying food when they needed it. At times they had to fend off dogs and small boys with their name-calling and meanness strident and forgivable for their age and ignorance. Only once, outside Port Royal, New York, did a man on horseback block their passage, inquiring the price of the nigger whore. And Norman brought the man down from his horse, an easy job after that long-dead cavalryman, and thrashed him there in the dust of the road, three other men off in the distance watching and not involving themselves. It was not the watchers but Leah who stopped him, who began kicking him in the muscles on the backs of his calves and screaming at him until he gave way. They continued up the road, leaving the man lying and his horse standing off some distance in a field, blowing its nostrils clear, and Norman and Leah walked by the watching men and Norman met their gaze and wished them a good day. So they walked to Vermont, to home for both, and told each other stories along the way. Outside a river town in northern Massachusetts they married each other standing naked in the moonlight in the Connecticut River, the water end-of-summer low and syrup-colored even in the night, the rings thin gold bands he’d bought three days previous and carried as they watched and waited for the right place and time. Late the following day they crossed into Vermont and Leah grew quiet, her animation screwed now to a tight focus, watching around her as if careful observation would offer keys or clues to the place she would assume among this landscape. As if her silence before this spectrum offered her protection against any hostilities or animosity.
They came up that first sharp knee of the home-place hill and the land opened out not so much in a bowl as a series of wide ledges that held the farmstead: the haymeadows and sheep pastures and the high field where potatoes were grown, the orchard just above the house and barns, to where the sugar house stood flanked by the bush of great maples rising in crown over it all, the final pitch of the hillside steep again at the top amongst granite outcroppings and ranks of spruce. Norman’s gait gained with the sudden leveling of the track and the place there before him, his feet for the first time in years striking ground as if each separate egg of gravel and patch of dusty hardpan were known through the soles of his boots, Leah still apace beside him, her head high and her gaze steady before her, her eyes sweeping at first to draw it all in but settling on the house under the elms. Without looking at him she said, “Reckon they seen us yet?”
As she spoke a figure broke out from the apple trees heavy with ripe fruit. Norman saw the baskets under the trees and the narrow picking ladder and thought Cider—could not smell it yet but could taste it—and then the girl hurtling down the road toward them, short-legged and strong, twice the little girl he’d left behind, still small but grown, her schoolgirl breasts rising against her shirtwaist like young apples as she ran toward him, her voice calling out his name.
Beside him Leah softly echoed her. “Nawmin.”
The girl spied Leah and gathered herself down to a walk and Norman saw the moment when she misstepped, saw her head cock like a puppy’s at something strange, and yet she came on, her eyes on Leah even as Norman stepped the last three feet and pulled her against him. Before he could speak she said, “Seems to me, a man or stout boy would’ve been more useful around, you had to bring one of them home.” And she stepped back from Norman then, her eyes already wiser as she looked Leah up and down.
“Maybe you’ll find out, Miss Quickmouth,” Leah said, “that I’m a good bit stouter than you like.”
Connie shrugged this away. “There’s work enough to share,” she said. “I guess you already learned how to work.”
“Worked all my life. I learned how to let my mind work for me too. Sometimes before I opened my mouth. I know my manners.”
“Ain’t no la about it. There was, you’d be behaving different.”
“That’s enough,” Norman said.
Connie said, “You’re a feisty one.”
“I wasn’t, you think I’d be here? Since your brother forgot himself, my name’s Leah.” She held out a hand. Connie looked at Norman and then back at the hand.
Norman said, “My little sister. Constance. Connie, we call her.”
Connie let Leah take her hand and then both women let go. Norman said, “Where’s Mother?”
Connie said, “Up to the house.” And looked at Norman as if just thinking of something. She half turned and looked back at him. “You don’t look like I remember.”
He nodded. “You’ve grown some too.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He nodded again, both brother and sister using this time to take measure of the other, recognizing each as familiar stranger to be learned anew, some parts of each never to be glimpsed. Norman strove for the ordinary, some tentative linkage to all that lost. “You making cider?”
“Getting ready. Pressed some last week a little too rough. Sheep liked the pomace though.”
“Jug of cider’s about the only thing I can think of that might clear all this road out of my throat.”
She grinned. “You’ll have to help then.” And glanced again at Leah.
Norman said, “I believe I recall how to crank a press.”
“You’ll want some dinner first.”
“I could run help get things started.”
“Sure,” he said. “You do that. Carry your news along with you.”
“You home is news enough.” Her eyes cut once more to Leah; then she turned and flew up the road.
“So tell me Norman. That the easy part?”
“I guess,” he said. “She didn’t intend meanness. You’re a shock. You have to allow that for folks. Otherwise you’ll just be disappointed every time.”
They went a little ways and Leah said, “Tell me you love me,” and he did and she reached to take his hand. Norman took stock of the sheep in one high meadow, of the milk cows in higher grass of better pasture close to the barn and also of the broken axle off the wagon that sat upright against it like no one knew what to do next. There were other things, simple benign neglect adding up in his mind, an accounting freed of blame, more in the nature of inventory. Halfway to the house he felt her fingers begin to slip from his and he took a firm grip to hold her there beside him. He thought her only nervous and when she wrapped his hand tight with hers he thought she was fine again. He did not look at her. And so could not see the fear pass over her face or the swift knowing that ran through her, that the woman in the house ahead of her would take one look and read the weakness there that trembled constant as water running, the pith of despair and turmoil of her soul. She said nothing. Together they skirted the front of the house around to the side entry through the long woodshed and small toolshop into the kitchen, where he knew his mother and sister both waited. Leah walked alongside him.
His mother was an old woman. She was stooped over the oven of the range and she turned to place a beanpot on the table where Connie sat silent. His mother placed her hands flat on the table and looked at Norman as she said his name. Her face was fierce and worn like treebark, her hair pulled back tight as always but dappled gray like a Percheron. Her hands on the table thick with raised veins and spots the color of new rust. She’d grown old in three years.
So he only said, “Beans.”
She demurred. “It’s Saturday you know. They was for supper. But it happened I started them early yesterday. Before milking. So they’re ready. I haven’t steamed the brown bread yet, you’ll have to make do with loaf-bread. There’s pickle.”
“Leah, my mother. Mother, this is Leah.”
Leah said, “Missus Pelham.” And her body swayed beside him as if almost to dip a curtsy. “Pleased to meet you.” Erect now, not moving.
Mrs. Pelham remained behind the table, a guarded patience upon her face as if she’d seen wondrous and terrible things before and was waiting for this one to reveal which it was. She had never seen a black woman. And meeting her for the first time not in the village but here in her own kitchen. Brought by her warrior son. The woman was with him. That much was all she knew. So she inclined her head and responded. “I’m sure. You two set. I’ve got buttermilk and spring water and that’s it. No cider, fresh or hard. I’ve not put any barrels up these past two years. Too much work for just the girl and me, without anyone to drink it. So you’ll make do. But set; you must be famished walking all the way back up here.” Her eyes on Norman as she added, “Other men rode trains at least part of the way.”
Stretching for the beanpot, he said, “I should’ve got back here to help you. I wanted to see the country. Thought I might not get the chance again. And I figured you and sprout here was capable.” And then added, “So we took our time.”
“You took your time.”
“Yes ma’am.” Grinning at her, not yet realizing he couldn’t be both the boy-child miscreant and the unassailable man. He dug the spoon to the bottom of the pot and lifted the seasoning onion up through the beans and divided it half onto his plate and half onto Leah’s, then scooped beans onto his own plate and handed her the spoon.
Connie said, “Could be others might like some of that bean-onion.”
“Could be,” said Norman. “Could be some been eating bean-onions while others ate stale biscuit and bacon in the mud and rain. Sprout, you’ve grown up.” To see if he could make her blush. She did not, but her eyes clouded with hostility.
She said, “I started to the Academy this fall.”
Mrs. Pelham said, “Connie, go bring up some buttermilk.”
“Not for me,” Norman said. “Spring water’s all I want.” Eyeing it where the iron pipe ran in through the wall, ending over the soapstone sink, the line laid the summer before the war by Norman and his father from the spring high on the hill above the house, the water fed by gravity, running in a steady thin stream year round, draining through clean cheesecloth clamped in a small pouch over the end of the pipe. He said, “I’ve drank more mud than water, enough so that spring ran in my dreams.”
“Perhaps Lee would—”
“Leah,” she said.
“Yes, that’s right.” Mrs. Pelham said, agreeing to nothing. “Perhaps Leah would care for buttermilk.”
“Thank you, no. Water would be fine. But I could get it.” She started to rise.
“Set. There’s no servants here but we can take care of a guest.” Inflecting slightly on the last word and moving to the sink, filling a pitcher and placing it on the table, this time coming around to stand behind them and reach the pitcher through, placing it between them. She stayed there, her hand on the pitcher until Norman looked up at her, her eyes stark with brightness, a faint flutter around her mouth as she gazed on the bright slender band on his left hand. Her voice a husk, stripped of fluid as she said, “Oh Lord, Norman. What have you done?”
Leah swung her head sideways to look up but Mrs. Pelham was gone, her skirts swept by her movement. She opened the door of the small parlor and closed it after her. The sound a small clap in the stillness. Leah released a held breath. She said to him, “Go after her. Go talk to your mother, Norman.”
“No.” Connie stood up fast, her chair a rough scrape backwards. “No. I’ll go. You two just set there. Set there and eat your damned beans.” When he spoke her full name, she turned back as if his speaking had not lessened her angry confusion but charged it further, her small face pinched upon itself, her curls tossed adrift by the speed of her movement. “You waltz on in here in your own sweet time without a word about Father or how we made out alone here and set down to eat up the supper in the middle of the day and that’s not enough, no sir, not for you, but you drag along home with you this . . . this . . . colored woman and set her down at the table to feed her while your own mother stands waiting a kind word or embrace from you, feeding her up our supper—”
“That’s enough,” Norman said. “Leah’s my wife. We’re married.”
“That’s right.” His tone meant to settle the matter.
“Norman Pelham,” his sister said all in one breath, “you’ve lost your mind,” as she walked a mannered step through to the closed parlor and shut the door behind her soft as nothing at all.
“They not delighted with me,” Leah said.
“That’s all right,” Norman said, wondering not only why he’d failed to write his mother some warning or caution but why he’d not even thought to. And stranger still, he felt a tingling of excitement at this failure, excitement real as his balls tightening. He looked at the woman next to him and said, “I am.”
Sunday morning Mrs. Pelham and Connie hitched the mare that killed his father to the high-seated two-wheeled cart and took it to town: to church and, Norman was sure, much more than a usual simple worship and social. It would be late afternoon before they returned. He spent the morning at his father’s old desk, reviewing what passed for accounts and then writing a letter to the horse trader in Chelsea. He would not keep the team with the killer mare. This done he began a close count of the sheep, walking over the high pasture and tallying with a pencil stub on a sheet of brown wrapping paper, always watching Leah as she went back and forth outside, working at the tub, scouring their clothes with lye soap and hand-wringing them before draping them onto the lilac and hydrangea that bordered the back of the house. The clothes from the height of land small bright flags that served to bring the careless summer over him so that he did not fret over the number of ram lambs or the three ewes he absolutely could not find but allowed himself a fine moment at the edge of a stone ledge looking down over it all; this was his and he was needed here and he’d returned to it. He came down off the hill before the middle of the day to find Leah and led her back into the house, up the stairs to the attic where the night before he had taken her, instead of to his old room down just from his sister’s and close to where his mother lay not sleeping. They’d climbed up the small cramped stairs to pull out and shake loose an old feather ticking where they made their bed, and now he was on his back in the empty house with her above him, Norman deep with solace as her face pitched and roamed over him, he watching the steady come and go of mud daubers along the rafters. In the afternoon he stripped down the broken axle, readying it for the smith and then went through the barns, taking stock of the small lay-in of hay and the dairy tie-up, having already run his eye over the five cows in the pasture, small brown and dun Jerseys that all looked poor to him. He’d never cared for cows but accepted the five were there to stay and likely more of them. Then he walked through the empty pig shed and scattered shellcorn to bring out the ranging hens, the flock greater and older than it should have been. They’d be eating a lot of stewed hen this winter. He killed a young roasting rooster and took it to Leah, who sat on the ground in a clean skirt and shirtwaist under the appletrees, her legs bared to above her knee and her chin wet with apple juice. He held up the rooster and said, “It won’t hurt to have supper ready when they come back.”
“Un-uh,” she said. “I’m not messing with her kitchen.”
He said, “There’s potatoes and carrots and parsnips on the hill. There’s winter squash on the old manure pile by the barn. You could bake a pie from these apples. There’s fresh cream in the pans down basement. It’s your kitchen.” He dropped the rooster on the ground next to where she sat. He said, “It’s my farm.”
He climbed the track up the hillside, passing the sugarhouse, not willing to look inside at the buckets with rusted hoops and rotted staves, continuing on through the sugar bush, the ancient maple trunks thick-barked and dense, some capable of holding five or six buckets, from there following the track around the shoulder of the mountain into other mixed hardwood of beech and birch, ash, ironwood and hickory. The woods a carnage of color, the early autumn-smell sweet as if death could be that way. A partridge blew out of the litter beside the track, and Norman flinched without hesitation. He wondered if everything would somehow always remind him of the war. If a partridge could ever be just that again.
He came around the mountain above the wildland of a small gore and walked another quarter of a mile before coming upon Ballous’. A shake-sided one-story dwelling more cabin than house but for the length of it. Backed up against a granite outcropping the builder had used as backside for the fireplace and chimney. The front door open to the afternoon and Ballou himself seated there, as if waiting for Norman. Dressed in green woolen pants, leather braces up over red underwear, the clothing not so much dirty as having gained a texture from the forest loam, sawdust, deer and fish entrails. His long hair greased behind his ears and his face sharp-shaven, features like a fisher-cat. Smoking a long-stemmed clay pipe, the only one Norman had ever seen, the stem and bowl the color of antler from handling and tobacco stain.
“Heard you was back.”
“Yuht.” Not surprised the news had leapfrogged up the mountain.
“One a them boys hellcattin down to Randol’ last night, chasing some little skirt come weaseling back at dawn with word a you. Boys no good for nothin but they got to do her, young like that. Not me, no. Not no more. One old woman is much for me, right? You be learned that soon, eh?”
“You been keeping my mother in wood?”
“Yuht, sure. No complain?”
“Nope. Not at all. Just there’s only two-three cords back behind the house.”
“She been buying as she needed. Pretty much.”
“Uh-huh.” Angry but not sure at whom. “You got any yarded up?”
“Got plenty down. Not sawed and split.”
“Not too hard to get to?” Norman watching him.
Ballou grinned, feral amber teeth. “All I cutting here on the backside a you. What I want your wood for, I got all this?” Spreading his arms.
Norman ignored this, certain come winter or spring he’d find stumps in the far reach of his own land, knowing Ballou enjoyed selling her own wood to his mother. He said, “I need ten cords for the winter.”
“Them nigger women don’t know no snow. Got to keep em warm and it take more than what you got, eh, Norman?”
“Henri, you got that much wood or not?”
Ballou sucked his pipestem. “How soon you want this ten cord?”
“Can’t be done.”
“Your boys around?”
Ballou looked around the yard as if to spy them there. He shrugged. “Out the woods somewhere.”
“You got plenty of help then.”
Ballou fired the dead pipe. The smoke smelling like the day itself. When it was well lighted he said, “October fifteen. Ten cord.”
“Split and stacked.”
Ballou spit. Agreeing.
“I pay when it’s done.”
“Half and half. I got to have something keep the boys out the woods.”
“Five cords, half. The other five, the rest.”
Ballou shrugged. “You want some tea?”
“Thanks, Henri, but I got to get on. I got lots to do. Give my best to your Missus.”
“That war, she bad, eh?”
Norman nodded. “Yuht.”
Ballou gazed off, done with it. He looked back at Norman and said, “Well get on with you then. The boys and me we start this week. Come a load and meet your own Missus, eh?”
Norman went back around the mountain, the afternoon failing, the light rich as butter. The two-wheeled cart was out in the yard before the open barn doors, resting its horseless shafts on the ground. Connie came from the barn and picked up the shafts and backed the cart around into the barn, Norman guessing she’d arrived home and left the mare to stand in the yard while she went to change from her good clothes before coming back out to stable the horse and wheel the cart away. Wondering if his mother was milking. He decided to leave them alone, all three of them, for a little while, feeling some things might be worked out better with him absent. The kitchen showed a clear smoke rising with heat vapors at the chimney top. He settled at the base of a maple, his back against the rough soothing ridges of the trunk and his knees up. He could still see the farm.
Intending to sort his plans and purposes for the coming days, not only what must be said and done but also what must be established, for whatever lapses might be made then would be lapses with them forever; he knew this, and knew also that payments would be extruded, the least of them in cash or kind. Telling himself he’d known these things, these costs, all the summer long, right down to the first day that he woke to her looming beside him. Telling himself no event lies or falls unconnected to others and that will is only the backbone needed to face these things head on. Determined then to pay attention. As if his father spoke, calling for him to look sharp.
Gazing out over the bowl of his small fortress, watching a wedge of geese tracking over the far ridge following the branch of the river south, Norman found himself thinking of Ballou: the man as wild goose pursuing his own course without concern of what others cared or thought of him. Norman’s father ever bastardizing his name even to his face, as if his unwillingness to commit body and soul to a patch of rock-studded ground was crime enough without the taint of otherness about him already; the French Canadian unreliable but content to live on the unclaimed wildland above the small gore. Ballou was out on snowshoes all winter long running traplines and felling trees if a market appeared on the horizon, the rest of the year happy to fish, hunt and attend horse races or run hounds. Ballou was among the first of only a few who paid out hard money in gold coin for substitutes for his three boys, not waiting for the draft. Offering no explanation, his smile tight and scornful as if he saw the others fools not to appreciate that life was short and bittersweet enough without being blown apart to serve some other men’s ideas of how things should be. Norman felt that he and Ballou had just executed a short and easy turn of dance with one another: firewood bought; money paid. And Norman now deflated with the effort as if it had stripped some layer from his soul. Knowing the worst men could do to one another wasn’t the clear gore of Marye’s Heights or the wreckage of Petersburg but the relentless small decades of generations of Sweetboro, North Carolina. Which all the efforts of battle might change but not erase from the thinking walking talking breath of the woman down the valley before him. What was he to say, Rest easy now? With both of them knowing however far the distance and unlikely the location she would never, and so neither would he, assume that some peace or ease was theirs to hold the way others assume that peace could be held. Live quiet, was what she’d said. But without knowing exactly what they were headed to, he knew while it might be possible it could never be certain. He wondered if that was why Ballou paid that gold money, as much to save his sons as to announce his intention to live quiet. Would make it so with all the fiber and gut he could string out of himself to ward off everything else. Whatever good it might do.
What she told him about Sweetboro she’d told him only after they’d left Washington and were traveling north through the war-blown countryside of northern Virginia and through the western arm of Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Camped in the barn of a man they’d met along the road, the man with a yoke of young balking oxen that Norman stepped forward and helped goad. The man who did not offer his home but his barn-loft with good bright barley straw, the man with a woman a head taller than he who stood at the half-door of her kitchen and watched Norman and Leah cross the yard to the barn, the door holding back three round-faced boys no more than six to ten. The man crossing from the house in the summer evening with a crock of sauerkraut baked with spare ribs, a fresh wheat loaf on top that steamed when they broke it open. Leah watching his back until he closed the kitchen door behind him again and only then reaching to eat.
Norman said, “You don’t care for that feller much.”
Her mouth brilliant with grease she said without pause, “It’s not him. I don’t trust his woman.”
Norman almost asked what to trust and then stopped himself, letting his quiet run along under him as he ate his supper. It was the first hot food he’d had not prepared by the army or purchased out the back door of a rooming house or hotel. Since Washington there’d been a wariness, a caution near skittish of strangers about her that she’d not so much hidden as simply acted upon without direct reference, making clear she’d prefer camping in hedge or thicket than asking at a house. She wouldn’t linger in towns or around groups of people, especially groups of men; she would startle at the sound of galloping horses approaching on the road. Recalling the town in Maryland where a police officer had hurried toward them, cutting it seemed across the street to meet them and how Leah had folded herself against Norman’s side even as the man passed them with no more than a glance. In the pale green twilight he carried the crock back to the kitchen door and thanked the woman, returning to the barn to lie in the straw opposite Leah atop a spread blanket. He said, “Why’s that woman bother you?”
As though she was not sure she was going to tell him she said, “The way she look at us. Everybody look. But some people, like this woman, seem like she trying to line my face up with something else, something she heard or been told or maybe even some picture she seen somewhere. Or like she memorizing me, like she want to get every little line down right. It’s more than not liking me cause I’m me or even that I’m me with you.”
Norman was quiet awhile, thinking everything she said was true and sure also it was not. When he spoke again it was dark with the summer stars out the open loft door of the barn showing bats slipping out from under the ridgeline, cutting slim arcs against the night sky. He said, “You going to tell me the rest of it now or you want to wait some while longer?”
“Whatever it is that gets you so spooked around strangers. Whatever it is you done wherever it is you come from. Something makes you think somebody’s watching for you. Or might be.”
“You got that all figured out.”
He shrugged even though he guessed she couldn’t see it. “I guess you’ll tell me when you’re ready. Although it might not hurt if I knew what it was we’re looking out for. Or not.”
“I’m not keeping nothing from you Norman.”
“Didn’t say you were.”
“I just ain’t told you everything yet is all.”
“I guess there’s plenty about me you don’t know too.”
“You hush up Norman. Trying to talk to you.” He could not see this but knew she was frowning in the dark. Then she began speaking and her voice gained a flatness he hadn’t heard before, without passion or tone, the voice older than she, as if the voice of the place she spoke of, the voices held there and rising from that place through her.
She told him of Sweetboro: the late February afternoon alone in the kitchen of the house, with her mother Helen and the old woman Rey not three dozen steps out the back door in their cabin, Leah alone heating flatirons on the stove and pressing the clothing of the white people, all now gone to Raleigh but for the younger son somewhere in the house behind the kitchen door. The white people were clutched near to panic with disarray: firstborn Spencer dead almost a year defending Petersburg and the younger Alex just fourteen run off two months before and returned almost immediately with his right arm gone to the elbow, the pus-stained wrappings among what Leah ironed because everything the white people wore in any way when washed was also ironed. Alex would not leave the house, as if his arm lost was somehow not enough, that it was disgrace to have come back at all. Mebane took his wife and two daughters to the capital where life was only less grim because there were more white people to share it with. Leah was not so much happy with the white people gone as no longer caring; the rumors of the past four years she’d learned to ignore, but what was clear was the state of the white people and she knew things had in some fundamental way already changed, even if she still stood with rising steam burning her nostrils as she pressed their underclothes.
Mebane the youngest son of a youngest son who went from the coastal plain rice fields below Wilmington to Chapel Hill and then for no reason clear to anyone, brought his bride to Sweetboro where he practiced law and spent much of his time traveling the thirty miles southwest to Raleigh while she kept house with Rey and another slave, Peter, a man brought to tend the stable and the flower gardens that fell in steps between the house and the redclay street. His wife became pregnant almost immediately with Spencer, but four years passed before Alex was born and it was during this time that Helen was bought from Mebane’s brother. Seventeen years ago: Helen at the time two years younger than Leah now was. Mebane would still from time to time pass through the kitchen to nod at Helen before passing out the back steps to wait for her in the cabin, his eyes never more than glancing off Leah like fingers flicking a fly, his eyes the same wetglass green as hers. Other times he’d come to her mother at night, less cautious, taking no notice of the girl or the old woman behind their curtains, his rut then loud and jubilant. Where Leah first heard the words that other white men and boys would direct at her. Where she would lie awake without moving, her face stiff as if held together by will, the breath under her ribs a small sharp thing, waiting for him to finish and leave, waiting for the smell of him to drain out of the night before falling back to sleep. As the February afternoon folded without notice to dusk, the rain still steady down and the kitchen steaming with warmth, her right hand slid the iron back and forth and her left moved fanlike both before and behind the iron. Something pleasant in the sway of her torso over the board, pleasant in the slight clutch of leg muscles anchoring her over it all. Happy to be left alone, to feel left alone. And so only a little less happy when Alex came through the connecting door from the dining room across from where she stood, thinking he would come and go and she would still be alone in the short evening.
He sat at the table across from where she worked, his good arm up on the table, palm flat, the stump of the other flat against his side, the cauterized tip still swaddled with bandage that seeped a clear pus that yellowed in the cloth. He was a pretty boy, with a pouched lower lip and his father’s ginger hair swept back in ordered waves from his forehead. His skin was smooth, made more so by faint feathers of beard. His crumpled clothes gave the idea he no longer cared how he looked. She continued ironing, not looking up at him, pressing the same shirt slowly over with a cool iron. She couldn’t help but wonder about the missing arm, where it was, what had happened to it. She only knew it had been removed, what fragments and pieces of it were left. She still thought of it as a whole thing. Sure a part of his soul had been lost with that arm. Wondered where that hand was and what it grasped for. His other hand on the table, fingers drumming now. She knew he was waiting for her to look at him. It was too hot in the kitchen and she broke sweat.
“What’s to eat?”
She didn’t look up, her arm still moving. “Same as always. Field peas, turnips, collards, some cornbread. All of it cold though.”
She shrugged, still not looking at him. “It’s what they is. You want better you should’ve gone off with the rest of them.”
“Yes,” he said. “I spect they’re eating oysters and champagne. Beefsteak maybe.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “All I know is what’s here.”
His fingers drummed hard and fast on the tabletop, then stopped. “Get me something to eat.”
“You already ironed that thing three times.”
She stayed quiet.
He said, “Get me some dinner.”
“I’m busy. You feed yourself.”
“Look at me.”
“I done looked at you. You still able to feed yourself, I can see.”
He slapped his hand on the table hard. “Goddammit, I said look at me.”
She stepped away to the stove and placed the cold iron on it and brought a hot one back and set it on the end of the board. She took up the shirt and folded it and placed it on the pile and dipped to lift another from the basket and laid it over the board. Then she looked at him and said, “What you want, Mister Lex?”
A shroud of darkness ran over his boy’s face, not strong enough to break the softness of his skin but something laced through the muscles beneath the surface, a tautness there; and for the first time she feared him. This fear angered her and so angry at the manchild before her she only said again, “What you want, Mister Lex?” This time the title over her tongue the juice of a bitter weed.
“You know what Mama told me before they all lit out for Raleigh?”
She said nothing. His eyes dark, wet.
“She told me there was nobody but myself to blame. I said I was just trying to do my part. She told me I was a fool, my part wasn’t anything I thought it was, nobody’s part was what they thought it was anymore. She said we all had new parts coming and not one of us could know what they was. But we could be smart enough to figure out to wait until they was revealed. And me sitting there like this and her telling me that. Like she was angry at me. Like she somehow blamed me. Like she blamed me for the future somehow.”
Leah said, “She a tough woman,” and didn’t know she knew this until she said it.
His eyes shot from her face as if she’d said nothing. He said, “It was mostly old men and boys like me. What men there was was worn out. Cold like you never known. Grown men barefoot in the wintertime. When the fight come each one lit up with a rage. Men furious wild with right. One minute you’re red as bears’ eyes and the next you’re flat on the ground with the world all gone to pain and men climbing over you running and you thinking about your daddy sitting on his fat ass down there and knowing it’s men like him that keep this thing going at the same time you know somehow it’s men like him keep it from working. My arm wasn’t nothing next to that. It made me sit up and puke. It still makes me want to puke.”
She was ironing again. She didn’t want to talk about his father. She said, “Seems to me your mama was maybe right.”
“What’s that mean?”
Picking her way. “It don’t mean nothing. Just, things change. Folks get used to most anything.”
He was quiet a little while, watching her. She was wet under her arms and could smell herself and guessed he could too. After a bit he said, “Know what I saw coming back down home?”
She folded the shirt and turned to the stove with the iron and set it there and turned back, standing now before the stove, a pace away from the table. “What’d you see?”
“Come across a pair of wagons. Hooped over with canvas covers, a skinny old team of oxen hitched up to each wagon. The wagons filled up with house stuff, feather ticks and furniture, nothing too big but all of it looked nice what I could see. Old men and little children and women in the wagons. Six men bareback on mules carrying pitchforks and hog-butchering knives, one with a scythe. What do you think of that?”
“I don’t think nothing. Lots people moving round now.”
“They was all niggers. A whole troop of niggers. Heading north in broad daylight. In ox wagons with pilfered belongings. Going what? Six-eight miles a day? Some great old escape. A dash to freedom. Two of the ones on muleback rode up with their rusted weapons with edges whetted to shine like water and sat there and asked me what I was doing. ‘What you wanting here white boy,’ they said to me. ‘Jus keep moving on,’ they said. ‘Jus keep one foot front of the other and you’ll get your little white ass on home.’ And I didn’t say nothing to em, just kept walking right on by those spavined mules and them old wagons and them oxen near dead anyhow and didn’t look back at em, the whole time feeling those pitchfork tines running right on through my lungs, knowing they was looking at me like they’d like to do that. I went on all day until it was dark and never met anybody looking for em at all. Them out there in broad daylight, brazen as that. Like they was riding angels not oxen to the skinny bosom of Lincoln himself. Like there wasn’t near the whole state of Virginia to get through and it filled up with thousands of men all too happy to shoot runaway niggers. They going along serious but easy too, like it was just what they was doing. I bet them women and old men setting up there on those ticks even went along singing. What do you think about that?”
She stepped away from the stove and went and stood before the door where it was cooler. Now just down the side of the table from him. She felt her breathing, a tremble along her ribcage. His eyes wide, focused on her, each an even distribution of mockery and anger. Back in the house a clock struck six, the tones each separate and round with brass clarity. She could picture the clock, the cherubs twining to reach from the pedestal to hold up the sphere of time. She said, “Ain’t no business of mine what those folks up to.”
“I wasn’t asking what you thought they was up to.”
“What you asking then?”
“What do you think?”
She pushed off the door and took a step toward the table, toward him, and stopped. She folded her arms over her chest and said, “Why you messing with me? Why you can’t just leave me be?”
He ran his fingertips over the boards of the tabletop like stroking the strings of an instrument. Then he put his elbow on the table and held his chin with his hand. “Free,” he said. “That old freedom song. That old road north. That what you want, Leah?”
She shrugged her shoulders, still holding herself. The sweat chill against her now, the smell rising now fear sharp as chopped onion.
He went on. “How do you think that would be? I bet you ain’t even thought that far. I bet you think you get up north and those folks sweep you up like long-lost cousins and set you up pretty in a little house and bring you food and clothes and pretty little things to set around the house, little knickknacks. And take you on into their church and let their god sweep down onto you and raise you up to providence? And let their sons walk out afternoons with you and bring you home and feed you dinner and then let them marry you. You think it’s going to be like that? Or maybe you think you’ll just set right here and we can swap places. You all would move on in here and wear my mother’s clothes and maybe even set up on the back gallery and look down at her on her hands and knees weeding out the vegetable patch, and Daddy would drive you all whenever you took a whim to go downtown and pass some new law what white folks could or could not do. Maybe you think it’s going to be like that. Maybe you think that old stick rail reading off a piece of paper in another country going to change things here and maybe you think this sweet country that’s home to you and me both is falling apart and you’re going to get whatever you want. I bet that’s it. I bet that’s what you think it will be. I’m right, ain’t I? Stand there like a free woman and speak the truth to me for once in your life, like a proud free woman would do. Come on now.”
“I don’t think nothing about it.” And then bold and scared by his words she said, her voice low to a mumble, “I reckon I’d work. Work like I do now, maybe here, maybe some other place. I don’t know. But for myself. So my work all my own. But I don’t know a thing about it. You and me both, Alex, we don’t know what’s coming, what it mean.”
His face blackened over, and she knew he’d wanted to hear something else from her, some fear of clinging to what she knew. And thought how young he was and clear and bright with danger. Thinking of those glistening pitchfork tines he’d spoken of.
He still held his chin but his legs were spread long out beside the table, crossed at the ankles. His stump lying flat against his side. He said, “You’re a stupid bitch. Ain’t anything going to change. Not one goddamn thing. It might get all rearranged but it ain’t going to change. You’ll still be a nigger girl and the rest of the world’ll still be white. Nothing going to change.”
She nodded as if agreeing, all the while sure he was wrong in some way she couldn’t explain to him. So all she said was, “We’ll see, I guess. Comes to that.”
He nodded back and she saw he was not agreeing either. He looked at her, a long pause until her feet became sore with wanting to move under his look. Then he grinned at her and said, “So tell me: When old Spence was home last two Novembers ago did he screw you? I’m just curious. He talked about it. Said you was ripe and ready for it. But he never said he had. So did he?”
And she was rigid again upright between table and door, sweating again and thinking of Spencer. Slender tall and well made with his mother’s frame but their daddy’s ginger hair and hawked nose. His eyes also. It was Spencer the one the summer she was twelve who found her crouched in tangled honeysuckle and briar canes in the grown-over lot off a lane three streets away, found her in the high green summer dusk with her arms locked around her knees rocking and leaning against the red oak growing in the side of the lot, away from the cellar hole of the house burned out before either of them were born, found her with her dress torn and blooded and streaked with the red clay, the clay matted also in her hair and grimed on her face, caked there like mud with her crying, rocking back and forth and shaking and crying in the hot summer-still dusk, everything around them very quiet but for a dog barking some streets away. She heard him coming, heard him calling her name just above a whisper so she knew he knew where to find her and why and so she sat still and did not run, her head still down on her arms but waiting for him as he stepped through the tall grass and briars straight on to the tree not to the cellar hole as if he’d thought it through since hearing whatever he’d heard. Knowing she’d be there, as if he’d asked himself how far he’d go and where that would be if something like that happened to him. And came to her and knelt down with a boy’s clumsy tenderness and held her head against his thin chest until her fresh crying stopped, Spencer not speaking but crooning soft like to a child and after her crying stopped he lifted her to her feet and led her through the lanes and backyards, cutting through as straight a line as he could to home and still avoid anyone out in the evening. His colt’s legs slowed to a cautious easy pace for her until they came through the back garden gate off the lane and her mother came off the stepstone before the cabin door and ran to her. Spencer then followed to the cabin door and reached to touch Helen’s shoulder and say, “I just want you to know I didn’t have nothing to do with this. I went and got her soon’s I heard word of it.” And her mother turning swift and saying, “Leave us be! Don’t you talk to nobody about this, not your daddy, not nobody!” And her mother talking nonstop after the door closed in her hushed whisper of white boys, white men, as she lifted the dress from Leah and bathed her standing naked no longer bleeding in the center of the cabin, her hands gentle against the harsh bitten-off flow of her words, each word dropping like a small fleck of the dried blood from Leah’s thighs. Leah not listening but crying silent and remembering only that he’d come as soon as he’d heard.
And Spencer home that last time two Novembers ago, silent and restless around the house and yard as if he no longer knew how to relax around people. The day Leah found him sitting one knee crossed over the other on a stump of firewood behind the garden shed, when she came from the garden to hang the fork she’d been using to dig the Irish potatoes for dinner the next day, Spencer wearing only the trousers from his uniform and an open-necked white shirt of his father’s, the pants already worn and patched but nothing like the wornout home-dyed stuff she’d see on men in the years to come. He was smoking a short thin cigar wrapped in black leaf, leaning back so the stump tilted under him and blowing the smoke out into the quiescent golden air of late fall, and she saw he was waiting for her and he said, “Hey girl, how you been?” and took the fork from her and hung it on the nail. She told him she’d been fine and asked about him, but he only stepped to her and took her by the upper arms and held her with her back against the shed wall and leaned and kissed her, his mouth soft, pliable against hers, lips easy against her and she held her mouth still against his kiss not stiff or remote but as if just waiting until he figured out he was doing the wrong thing. He lifted his lips from hers and grazed against her cheek, the soft ends of his mustache slipping along the folds of her nose as if they belonged there and the moment his mouth was gone from hers she wanted it back and she reached her mouth up to find his, her mouth open once she covered his and he groaned against her as his body slipped forward and pressed over the length of her and she moved a little against him. He drank at her mouth as his hands came off her shoulders across where her throat spread to her breastbone and down to hold her breasts through the cotton shirtwaist, the weak sun coming into her eyes spangling over his shoulder and the air sweet as lying down and she closed her eyes as a sound came rising up from deep below her lungs and sliding from her mouth into his and he stopped, his hands falling from her as he reared back his head and looked at her, his eyes wide with pride and sadness, longing gone hollow as if he stood outside himself watching not just himself but the both of them and he placed his hands on the shed and pushed away from her, pushed his body back to stand over his own feet and not against her anymore and he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry Leah. I’m so sorry.” Stood like that looking at her and her looking back at him for a long moment and she not saying anything and when he saw she would not and seemed to know all that was running through her he turned away, his eyes at the last terrible and sad, and he went to bend by the stump and pick up the gone-out cigar and walked down along the garden to the back gate and out into the lane. She stood where she was, her legs trembling and her mind hot with not being able to think, watching after where he’d gone and after a moment she could smell faint the smoke floating back, a sieve of scent from him already gone and she looked at her hands, still smeared with clay from picking out the potatoes and rubbed them against the front of the apron over her skirt and then wound her fingers tight together and wrung them, watching the edges of the joints turn a pale whiteblue against the pressure, and out loud she said “Stupid” and walked back out to the garden to lift up the basket of potatoes and go to the kitchen.
And stood now in that same kitchen facing his younger brother and thinking what he’d said of Spencer was likely true, knowing enough to know people held many versions and forms revolving like trials around their own true self; but saw now that there was something wrong with that brother’s eyes, too wet, too dark, too wide, as if his brain worked at unusual speed and his eyes raced to keep pace with the workings behind them, and with great and true calm she said, “Spencer always was good to me. Was a gentleman. Treated me right. Treated me like a sister.” Her own eyes steady on him as she said this, feeling undistorted and stalwart to something she couldn’t put name to but emotion, one of love and memory combined, sentiment from her as pitch to amber from a loblolly pine. Knowing the manchild before her would not understand this or would not be able to allow understanding and was patient with serenity before his reaction.
Which was simple and nothing more than what she expected. Some part of her as he stood even thinking it was what she wanted. As if unknown but inevitable. As if that door finally glimpsed. He crossed swift to her and she saw and heard and felt each footfall in her chest as if synchronized to her heartbeat. When he stood before her she saw a waver once in his eyes and she thought Go on and the waver was gone. The wounded soldier a head shorter than she before him.
He struck her with his one balled fist hard just below her ribcage and she fell forward toward him and the fist came off her and raised to clip her chin, snapping her teeth together and a sound came from her, a drawn half-cry, half-sob, and he caught her as she sagged, grasping her wrist and turning it under itself as she was spun with her back to him. He pressed her wrist up deep below her shoulder blades and she felt the joint of her shoulder strain. He held it there and pressed up behind her and moved her forward toward the table, she still bent forward with no wind. Then her torso was flat against the table and he dropped her wrist to reach down and lift her skirts over her hips, her cheek harsh against the oiled planks, smelling the taint of old food, her nose burned raw by the shove down. All the time Alex not speaking, his breath ragged and raw like a rusted crosscut blade moving through punked timber, his hand swimming over her bared rear and then down between her legs, opening her. His fingers were soft from his weeks in bed or sitting upright in a chair, and she was wet under them and ashamed and shocked by the betrayal of her body, as if her body was somehow to blame. She knew it was not but still felt it open to him. Then his hand was gone and he used it to open the flies of his trousers, Leah hearing the buttons pop open with the soft snick of fabric. She got both hands flat against the table and didn’t just come upright but backwards also, her right elbow leading to drive into his open crotch, to strike hard into his scrotum. He sagged away from her, mewling sounds from his lips and it was only then she realized he’d been chanting the whole time, words not to her but to himself, words meant to carry him forward: ‘little nigger bitch, little nigger bitch.’ She was upright now and stepped to the stove and turned back, raising the hot iron over where he was still crouched, both his arms over his crotch as if that was what was wrong with him, as if that was what she meant to hurt and she brought the iron down against the side of his head, not even as hard as she meant to. His head seemed to bounce from his shoulder and raise up again to face her, a cry just starting from his lips when she brought it down again, the edge of it catching hard and deep just above his ear. This time she saw it split his scalp, saw the fine auburn hair part and render up torn whiteness like marrow that then ran quick with blood, not gushing but filling his hair and draining down onto his face. He tried to raise both arms to stop her, and then tried to cover the bloodflow from his head but only the one hand reached there, a small ineffectual cap over the flush of blood. Then that hand fell away, lank against him and his head tilted back as his eyes rolled up awful whites toward her. His head was a mat of blood and his pants were tangled down around his thighs. Her breath was hot with great infrequent blasts, and she stepped back and set the iron back on the stove. The smell of burned hair and blood rose from it. She looked at him. He lay not moving. She stepped forward and words came more hiss than sound, “Fuck that white fuck,” and she raised her foot and kicked him hard in his open slack genitals. It was full dark outside and the light was dim from the one lamp on the table. She bent and cupped the chimney and blew out the wick. She went out the door into the sleeting rain. She pulled the door shut hard and silent behind her.
She moved fast, not running, not yet, past the cabin with her mother and Rey and around the garden, the rain wetting her quickly. She went around the stable, empty of horses all gone to war, to rap hard the door of the small attached shed, the one paned windowglass lit low from within and a voice called for her to enter, the voice so low as to be missed in the rain but she was straining for it and pushed the door and stepped inside. The old man sitting at what had once been a cobbler’s bench in the center of the room, his bed off to one side and a small table and single chair the only other furniture. A small fire in the grate. One wall hung with harness, this the fancy set he and Mebane had hid from the requisition officers, the brass buckles and ornamental rivets like gold in the low light. He had a bridle on the pommel of the bench, polishing the brass with an ash slurry and fine cloth. He kept working as she came in but with his eyes on her, not speaking, waiting for her.
“I got to go Peter.” Only now aware not only of her heart hammering but a feeling over her as if she would break into a thousand parts if she paused. As if her skin was thin frost over an upsurging hot liquid.
“That so.” His hand still worrying a small circle with the rag. Studying her, his face blank.
She wanted to swallow before she spoke and could not; she crossed to the bucket and raised the dipper and drank and faced him again. “I got to go now, Peter.”
He nodded and said, “Bad night to travel.”
“Mister Lex lying over there in the kitchen dead. Knocked me round and tried to stick his thing in me and I busted his head open with a iron. So you pardon me but it seem like a fine night to travel.” Saying it put it behind her. She grew calmer, rapturous with motion, as if her nerve cells were already out before her in the wet night. Watching Peter fold his polish rag slow and evenly and place it on the bench before him. Then he stood. His eyes on her hard and fierce, not angry but clenched wide open. He did not speak. He stepped to the connecting door into the stable and from the back of the door took down a heavy greatcoat, ragged at the collar and cuffs and torn once low in the back. She’d never seen the coat before; it was the navy wool of the Union army. He laid it over the small table and from under his bed came out with a pair of boots and two pairs of socks and said, “Set down and get this on your feet.” While she put the boots on he found a sack and put three cold sweet potatoes still black with fireplace ash in the sack and folded it over and lifted the coat as she stood and put it around her shoulders. He put the sack in one of the coat pockets and told her, “Carry your shoes out and drop em in the lane back the garden. Don’ carry em far. Leave em right by the gate. Your mama find em in the mornin’. Cut crossways and don’ let nobody see you, white or colored. Get down in the bottom under the train trestle, opposite end of the bottom from that. Couple big oak trees there, you know?”
“Wait there. Anybody there, cut back up through and get to the colored burying ground. But they ain’t gon’ be anybody down in that bottom. Wait there or the burying ground until a man come find you. Won’t be long, maybe a hour but it seem like a long time. Just wait there.”
And then she paused, arrested now, alone. And said, “You ain’t goin take me?”
“Gon’ to go clean your mess child. You don’ need me hold your hand.”
“Peter—” she started but he cut her off.
“Get on out of here,” he said. “You ain’t got no time at all to spare right now. Just git. Watch your step. Watch out around you. Git.”
And so like that she left there, left her mother without farewell but to pause with a wet face in the rain a moment outside the gate, looking back at the pale windowlight of the cabin, left the white man both father and owner of her who behaved toward her as if she were nothing more than a dream of herself; but mostly she left Peter. That last fall before the war, following the summer she was raped, Peter took her one evening to his shed where he boiled water and made her peppermint tea. He sat on the edge of his bed facing her, she in the only chair holding the hot tin cup of tea just letting the smell rise up through her nose and flood through her as he talked to her, talked as no person ever had, explaining to her with words simple and precise what was happening in the world beyond her that was her world also and never telling her what she could or might think of these things but only how he felt and saw and believed. She sat listening as to a madman or someone speaking a tongue unknown to her and he finished as she drained the last of the tea. That might have been the end of it but for what he did next: rising and sliding the bolt in the door, he brought out a thin broken-spined primer and made her come sit on the bed beside him as he opened the book and read the first simple page to her. He then used his finger to trace out the words and the sounds and made her repeat them after him, over and over until it was memorized, just that first page with its poor printing of two children hand in hand at the top of the page. Then he closed the book and took her to the fireplace and knelt at the hearth and scraped back a layer of ash onto the bricks. He spread it thin and even and began to trace letters for her there, making her say them, making the sounds, having her say cape and cart over and over until he could ask her and she could make the sound without the word and know how it fit. That night ended with her promise solemn to die before telling anyone of what they did there. Daytimes he still ignored her although she watched him now, watched the dip and twist of his grayed head as he moved with the horses or in the flower gardens, knowing he knew she watched him and those odd evenings he’d sign to her and she’d slip away from the cabin and go to him and drink that sweet tea and learn to read. She used up the first book and after that another, several years more advanced, and after that pieces and fragments of newspapers, some only weeks old and others several years out of date that he’d burn after she mastered them. In the second year, he made her begin to trace the letters herself and make sentences of her own. And some evenings, when the reading and writing was done with, he told her also what he knew of the world beyond them, telling her news of the war and what he heard from the north or heard about the north, his authority never questioned, never given as absolute but as knowledge greater than any she might have otherwise.
But it was not until the wet February night when she left through the freezing rain without looking back once she dropped her shoes outside the lane gate that she understood it had only been for her. She’d always assumed that he shared something both could dream of or hold to, but she’d been wrong to think that. It was only for her that he held out what slender things were his to give and that night knew he would take no thanks for it. So she went through that night knowing it was love he sent her away with, sent her toward what would be the first of many meetings in the dark with strangers who might lead her a ways until they could point to a landmark or a sleeping place for the daylight hours. Other times only someone who passed on directions and landmarks and if she was lucky a bundle with some food in it. She passed the first of two months of living by darkness and lying by day in some shelter: brambles, brush, woods, twice a hayloft and once a thin pallet of blankets under a bed in a slave cabin. All as if with Peter standing far back at the beginning watching her move ahead, moving north and all as if she was racing down a long twisted channel of night straight into Norman lying bleeding and stuporous in the noontime heat and light. At first she was afraid of him because the wound to his head seemed a duplicate of how she’d killed Alex. Then, as she crouched watching him, she felt as if he’d been sent to her as restitution, as if the world were offering her atonement and rescue all at once. Knowing she could not walk away from this, feeling as if all her life had folded over itself to bring her to this moment, to this man, this lying near-dead Union man. And so she went to the creek in the woods three fields away and brought back the gourd of water to drip into his mouth and smear onto his lips until his tongue began to work and his throat to swallow.
She told him all this plain and simple and true as she could. Everything as it happened. But what she did not tell, what she did not trust yet enough to tell, was some part of her responsible for it all. Something in her she could not name or touch but which ran through her deep and solid as a vein in rock-that something in her had drawn all this upon her. That something in her cried out into the nameless dark for punishment of some sort. That she deserved all misfortune that came her way. She did not think it was her race or even the circumstances of her life thus far. It was, she thought, something wrong in herself.
He came down from the sugar bush into the blue-dusk bowl of the farm and entered the barn basement tie-up where his mother was up in the loft, forking down hay to the stalled horses. He let the five milk cows free of their stanchions and followed their shit-caked hindquarters as they filed out into the night pasture and slid the door shut after them. He took up the yoke over his shoulders and carried the double buckets of milk out of the barn, wordless meeting his mother as she came down the ladder from the loft and saw what he was doing. He crossed the yard into the cellar of the house, the stone-vaulted chambers cool and moist. In the cooling room, he poured the milk out into the long pans and laid them out by the well square-sided with even slabs of granite, the water in the well from the same source-spring as what flowed into the kitchen overhead. Here he could smell food and heard girl-voices warbling with laughter over his head. He skimmed the cream from the morning pans and dropped the clots into jars and fastened the bails and lowered the jars into the water to sit overnight. His mother came in behind him and spoke his name. He turned to her and said, “I was remiss not letting you know. I failed you not getting home sooner. Whatever spree I was on I still ought to have let you know. Truth is I never thought to.”
She nodded, meaning she knew that much. She said, “Father passed, I’d thought they’d send you home.”
“Would’ve I’d asked.”
She nodded again. She studied him, as to fathom, to reconcile the man before her. Then she said, “You surely brought a surprise.”
“Surprise to me too.”
She cleared her throat. Pronouncement, he thought. She said, “Father left things clear. We need to set down together.”
He nodded. “I’ve money in the bank.”
“I know it.” She paused and then went on. “I always expected you’d find some girl soon’s you were home. I always supported the abolition. Little it was but I did my part, knitting things that went forward to those folks journeying on toward Canada. You didn’t know that. It was quiet, you know. But Norman, this.”
He looked down, studied the earth-packed floor. The smell of the room sweet and sour at once with the new milk and cream and the dank wet coming through the stone foundations and the faint cleanth rising from the water. His eyes off his mother he looked up to the low rafters and said, “I brought her.”
His mother looked now up. She said, “She’s taken over my kitchen. Just like that.”
“That was me. I told her to fix a supper for us. Whatever it is is all my doing. And by Jesus I could eat that chicken all myself. You can’t imagine how it smells to me.”
His mother nodded. And was crying now, silent, the tears running over her face. Her hands wrung before her, tugged and clenched and twisted in her apron. He stepped the two feet and reached and laid his hand flat on her forearm. The first time he’d touched her since arriving home. Then laid his other hand on her other arm. She looked up at him, her eyes great and wide and wet. She said, her voice husked, “You recall that old song, Norman? I used to sing it when you were a baby, me jolly and disbelieving.”
He looked down at her and shook his head. “I don’t recall you singing.”
And she held his eyes and her hands curled up over his arms and her voice low and pliant with her whisper sang,
“We’re gettin ready for the mother-in-law,
gettin ready for the fray.
When she puts her face inside this place
we’ll make the old girl feel quite gay.
There’s a little ell room on the third floor up
where the beetles up the wall do climb.
Mother, mother, mother,
Mother, mother, mother.
We’ll have a lively time.”
He wrapped his arms around her back and drew her against him, feeling her now as an old woman the same way he’d seen her the afternoon before. She came against him and laid her head sideways against his chest and he stood high craned over her, holding her and feeling as awkward and rough as if he’d been new split from some great tree, some man made from some material and propped up for all to see. He held his mother close against him, his breath warm against her shoulder coming back onto his face. He thought again of the woman waiting upstairs for him and of all she’d left behind and also brought with her to this place. It was her courage somehow that allowed him to hold his mother so close and long against him.
1. In the Fall begins with an enigmatic Prologue. What is the significance of the three buried coffee cans filled with the proceeds from bootlegging? Why do you think the author chose to open his novel with this scene?
2. Devastation grips the Pelham family, and Foster agrees that “life is a misery” (p. 525). However, in the midst of brutality and sorrow, love blooms. Is life a misery for these characters or is their love transcendent?
3. What is it about Leah’s encounter with the African Behemoth that drives her back to Sweetboro to understand and uncover her past?
4. Jamie considers that “a structure is in place before you even begin to think and it reveals itself not when you want it to or think you’ve keyed it but when it wants to, capricious” (p. 307). Within the world of the novel, is there an over-arching structure in place, or do characters’ lives seem to unfold randomly? How much control do they exercise over their fate?
5. Slavery—both literal and figurative—plays a dominant role in this novel. What enslaves these characters? How do they find freedom?
6. What binds Leah and Marthe to each other?
7. Jeffrey Lent writes that “the truth was not a line from here to there, and not ever-widening circles like the rings on a sawn log, but rather trails of oscillating overlapping liquids that poured forth but then assumed a shape and life of their own, that circled back around in spirals and fluctuations to touch and color all truths that came out after that one” (p. 268). How is this vision of truth enacted in the structure of the novel itself?
8. Discuss the motif of waiting in In the Fall.
9. In the Fall is riddled with secrets. To what extent do these characters reveal themselves and the details of their lives to those they love? What is their capacity to truly know and understand one another? Must there always be secrets kept and distances maintained between people?
10. The three primary romantic relationships in this novel—Leah and Norman, Joey and Jamie, and Daphne and Foster—originate amidst upheaval. Do circumstances inhibit or enable these burgeoning romances?
11. Mebane asks Foster if he is a poet, and Foster responds, “No sir. I’m just after the truth” (p. 454). What is the distinction between a poet and a truth-seeker?
12. What signs emerge in this novel? What do they presage? Which signs are overlooked, and what is the result?
13. As a slave, Leah learns to read at her own peril; each night of her adolescent life, Pru records the events of the day; it is through Abigail’s letters that Foster learns about his father’s family in Randolph. For these characters, what are the powers and limitations of the written word?
14. Mebane tells Foster that “some men are on a clear course from day one; others make themselves as they go. Then there are those few who drift along” (p. 464); the last line of this book is the question Daphne poses to Foster, “you think we need maps?” (p. 542). Aside from the obvious, what is she asking?
15. Abigail overhears her mother saying that “it was cowards finally who believe they can lay down one life and pick up another and not have them meet again” (p. 184). What do you think the future holds for Foster?
16. Why do you think the author chose the title In the Fall?”
Recommended Further Readings
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee; Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane; The USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos; Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier; Roots, by Alex Haley; Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs; Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, by William J. Kennedy; The Border Trilogy, by Cormac McCarthy; Ordeal by Fire, by James M. McPherson; Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara; The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by Sojourner Truth
Jeffrey Lent’s Favorite Books
Dalva and The Road Home, by Jim Harrison; A Goat’s Song, by Dermot Healy; In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje; Postcards, by E. Annie Proulx; The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald