Authors: Ernest Hebert
Also by Ernest Hebert
THE DARBY CHRONICLES
The Dogs of March
A Little More Than Kin
Whisper My Name
The Passion of Estelle Jordan
Live Free or Die
Howard Elman's Farewell
The Old American
Never Back Down
I Love U
New Hampshire Patterns
with Jon Gilbert Fox
University Press of New England
Hanover and London
University Press of New England
Â© 2005 Ernest Hebert
All rights reserved
First University Press of New England paperback edition published in 2014.
was first published in 2005 by Dartmouth College Press.
For permission to reproduce any of the material in this book, contact Permissions, University Press of New England, One Court Street, Suite 250, Lebanon NH 03766; or visit
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014940332
hen he reached the ledges, where the trees fell away, the sky opened and he could see quite clearly. Moonlight washed over the granite. It was getting cold. Winter was returning. He hiked over the rocks until he reached the Indian camp. Lilith was only a few feet away, curled on her side, under the cover of hemlock branches.
“Lilith?” He crawled into the lean-to. He felt the blood on his hands; he could feel it soaking into the soil. He'd seen blood like this before, from the burst arteries of deer shot with high-powered rifles.
“Frederick. Frederick? Is that you?” Her voice was soft as the hemlock boughs.
The baby was at her breast.
A ray of moonlight fell on the infant's face. “Beautiful,” Frederick said.
“You came back. I didn't think you would. I thoughtâhe's gone, gone forever.” Her voice was soft as the sound of mist.
“I came back to take care of you.” He knelt by her. He knew he was too late.
“Frederick, I'm happy. For the first time in my life, I'm happy.” She put her hand on his beard, and then it slipped away. She shut her eyes.
He slid his hand between the baby and Lilith and put it over her heart. He could feel the child's strong, steady heartbeat and Lilith's weaker beat. He knew that even at the end dying creatures can hear clearly, so he whispered, “I love you.”
She opened her eyes for a long moment, and then they closed of their own accord. Each heartbeat was weaker than the last, and then there was none. The child's heartbeat continued strong and sure, and his son drew in life from his mother's breast.
PART 1 The Storm
UP FROM DOWN
ear Mother, now that I am about to die in this terrible blizzard, all my powers of telepathy have returned. I remember everything. I remember being born under the lean-to thirteen years ago. I remember the comfort of suckling on your breast. I remember I could not quite read your mind, because you were already between worlds. I know what you were feeling, though, because I am there now. I'm no longer cold, mother, just tired. I'm curled up in the snow waiting for you. I'm afraid when I get to your heaven I'll forget this world or I won't care, so before you come for me, while I can still remember, I want to tell you all that's happened since you died giving birth to me.
It's June of 1985, middle of the night. I'm two months old, not sure whether this new existence is worth the trouble. Sudden light wakes me. Dad leans into my crib. His breath is rich. He runs his fingers through his beard and stares down at me. He steps back, pauses, lurches this way, then that, reaches into his pocket and pulls a snapshot out of his wallet and holds it in front of my eyes. “Birch, this is your mother, Lilith,” he says, the words slushy. “It
was taken just before she was pregnant with you. She was nineteen.” At this moment I cannot say what I'm looking at. I can't even tell up from down. Even so I memorize the shape and colors and sounds. Maybe someday I'll know what they all mean.
Grandma Elenore comes into the room.
“You woke him,” she says.
“He's not fussing. He's got eyes like a little man from outer space.” Dad laughs nervously.
“It's one o'clock in the morning, and you're drunk as a skunk,” Grandma says.
“Don't worry, I won't spray.” Dad totters back from the crib, and now the light is in my eyes again. I'm thinking that if only I knew up from down I'd recognize the “you” he was trying to show me.
“Are you all right?” Grandma Elenore says to Dad.
“I'll be fine, just fine, couldn't be better if my hair was on fire,” Dad says.
I live in the “guest room” of my grandparents' mobile home. It has a creamy ceiling with warm, bright globes, a maple wood dresser, and a picture on the mauve wall of Jesus and his sacred heart. I have questions. Why do lights go on and off for no apparent reason? Do shapes exist in the dark, or do they come into being only with the light? Which way is up and which way is down?
I drift off to sleep to a young woman's voice. Though I have yet to learn language, I understand her in the dream. It's you, isn't it? Your first visit following your death. You say, “You, me, your father, we are one.” If, as Grandma Elenore says, there are three persons in one God, can there be three persons in one me?
When morning comes I wake to the fragrance of a woman kissing me. I think for a second it's you, mother, but it's Grandma Elenore. I'm in the crook of her plump bicep. In smell and feel, not to mention sight, it's like riding in the bite of a pearânice. We're moving toward the kitchen in slow steps, accompanied by Grandpa Howard, a mug of coffee in his hand. I scrunch up my face to exert mind control over Elenore in order to hurry her along, but the attempt fails.
“Isn't he cute?” she says, whistling through her buck teeth in that maple syrup manner of elders that even at my young age makes me want to puke.
“God creates them that way so you don't flush 'em,” Howard says.
“Our Freddie is having a nervous breakdown,” Elenore says.
“Seems more like a two-month drunk to me.”
“I'll admit he does a day's work, I'll admit that, but he goes out every night to the
He's going to get himself busted for DWI.”
“He's had it hard. Lost his girlfriend, blames himself.”
“You're too easy on him, Elenore.”
“Why did that girl have to go up there in those rocks and bleed to death having her baby?”
“I can't imagine.”
We arrive in the kitchen. Grandpa puts his cup down with a wham and a spill. Grandma places me on my back on a towel on the kitchen counter. I try to roll off but have no luck. Immobility is one of my many frustrations at this age. I smell cake; I smell the cutting board.
“I don't think it's grief. I think it's more like guilt,” Elenore says. “I know because I feel it myself. She came here. I could have helped that girl.”
“You could do no such thing. He ran off, that's why he feels bad,” Grandpa Howard says.
“Any boy can make a mistake.”
“Boy? He's pushing thirty. He left her because he thought somebody else got her pregnant.”
“But he came backâFreddie came back!”
I hear the alarm in my grandmother's voice, and it troubles me. What does alarm mean? I expect the warm, bright ceiling globes to dull any second. But they don't.
“Too bad he was late in arriving at her side,” Howard says.
“That's why he's drinkingâbecause he was late in arriving.”
“I think he just likes to knock down a few.”
“Why did she go up there, why there?” Elenore raises her eyes in the general direction of the ledges. Good question, Mother.
Why did you go up there? It's the one question we all want answered. Maybe you'll tell me when you take me to heaven.
“Bad judgmentâit could happen to any of us,” Howard said. “Anyway how could she know that she would be a bleeder?”
“Or maybe she really did want to die. I have prayed, and I still don't know what to think.”
I hear the sadness in my grandmother's voice. I have grasped the notion, but I lack the vocabulary to express myself. I try to invent my own words but only succeed in producing a series of gurgles.
“Isn't he precious,” Elenore says, then the tone changes. “Freddie can't raise Birch without a woman around.”
“Seems like he don't want to try.”
“It's, I don't know, unnatural for a man to bring up a child alone,” Elenore says. “How can a man be both womanly and manly at the same time, unlike a woman, who can be manly when she has to, but still be womanly?”
“Maybe he just doesn't take to fatherhood.” Howard rubs one of his big, rough hands across my head. “Poor little guy. He's got his mother's complexion and blue eyes. He'll likely tan like her too, all gold.”
“I bet he grows up to look like Squire Salmon, tall and handsome.” Elenore pronounces your maiden name correctly,
which is the way Howard says it.
“Good point,” Grandpa Howard says. “We sure don't want him looking like me and Freddie. Two bulldozers is plenty for one family. Thank goodness he has my hair.” Grandpa Howard runs his hand over his bald head and laughs.
“Cut it out, Howie. Let's get going with breakfast. The boys will be here in a few minutes.”
By “boys” Grandma Elenore means Grandpa Howard's trash collection crewâDad, 28, Pitchfork Parkinson, 37, and Cooty Patterson, senior citizen.
Grandma Elenore perks coffee, makes homefries, and scrambles a dozen extra-large eggs in half a stick of margarine in an iron fry pan. She serves bacon or whatever leftover meat is hanging
around the fridge. Grandpa Howard's self-appointed job is to make toast and lay out the table with five plates, silverware, coffee mugs, and glasses for orange juice. The table always holds salt and pepper shakers, sugar, Coffee-mate, peanut butter, paper napkins, and Grandma's strawberry preserves in a mason jar.
Howard never uses the toaster. He rips open a loaf of Wonder Bread and spreads the slices on an oven rack under the broiler coil. He always makes perfect toast, and he always makes too much, requiring the Elmans to eat dry toast at noon and evening meals, because throwing out food is unthinkable.
Meanwhile, Dad hides out in his pickup truck camper parked in the driveway. It's where he sleeps and sucks his brew. He spends as little time in my company as possible. He'll wait for Pitchfork and Cooty to show up in Howard's older trash collection truck before coming into the house. Pitchfork lives with his mother and retarded sister in the town of Donaldson, so it's no trouble fetching Cooty at his cabin.
Pitchfork will stop at Ancharsky's Store and buy some Life-Savers, a grinder, a Pepsi (he's given up on Coke since they changed the formula), and a
newspaper. On his way out Pitchfork will check the bulletin board at the town hall for bargains on used cars, tractors, firewood, notices of grange meetings, quilting bees, wild game suppers, births, deaths, EMT classes, and so forth.
Cooty remains in the cab of the truck. He loves the rumble of the idle, the smell of exhaust fumes mixed with the aroma of garbage. Cooty has no ambitions or desires. He is content to enjoy his own thoughts and what comes on the waves of his senses. Or anyway that's what everybody around here believes.
Breakfast at the Elmans' is served every weekday morning “at more or less six o'clock sharp,” as Howard is fond of saying, and at more or less six o'clock Pitchfork pulls the Old Honeywagon into the yard and parks it in front of the New Honeywagon. Pitchfork, the big man in his prime, and Cooty, the frail little older man, take their seats at the Elman table and dig into the food without even a hello. Howard gives his men breakfast, calls it a business meeting, and deducts the costs of the food from his income tax. Lagging behind is Dad.
That particular morning he sits down at table and looks at nobody.
“Pick him up and love him,” Elenore says.
“Afraid he'll drop him,” Howard says.
“He wasn't afraid last night. Go ahead,” Grandma commands.
Dad plucks me off the counter, nuzzles me with his shaggy beard, quickly withdraws. I smell last night's drink on his breath. He hands me back to Grandma Elenore.
“He stinks,” Dad says.
“Isn't it about time you learned to change a diaper?” Elenore says.
Howard laughsâa cutting laugh. “That'll be the day.”
Dad tries to speak but can't get any words out.
Grandma Elenore dismisses Dad with a wave of her hand.
Elenore whips off my diaper, washes my behind, powders it, puts on a new diaper, and hands me to Dad, who hands me to Howard, who hands me to Pitchfork, who hands me to Cooty. I like breakfast time, being passed from arms to arms, the various breaths, the fast-moving shapes in the background, and voices shouting and laughing all around me. I remain in the cradle of Cooty's ancient arms.
Pitchfork digs right in, eating the way he drives. In two minutes he's done, ending with a self-inflicted thump in the chest to force a belch.
“Isn't that disgustingâso inelegant.” The words come from the cat (more about him later).
“Hey, I made toast,” Howard says for the umpteenth time.
“That's all rightâI like the bread soft,” Pitchfork says.
I feel Dad tense up, fatigued by the banter between Howard and Pitchfork.
Pitchfork sips coffee, scans the newspaper, and reports his findings.
“Oil Can Boyd won another one for our Bo SoxâOil Can, that's my man,” Pitchfork says, because he likes the way “can” sounds with “man.”
“How did Rice do?” Howard asks.
“One for three, a double,” Pitchfork says. “I can't stand that guyânasty attitude.”
“That's because he reminds you of Howie,” teases Cooty.
“No, I like Howie. He gave me a job.”
“Ignoramus,” Howard says out of the corner of his mouth.
Pitchfork's feelings are hurt, and he folds the newspaper.
“Show a little sensitivity,” Elenore says to Howard.
“I like Jim Rice,” Howard says as if he has not heard Elenore. “He's an honest man. Pitchfork, I'm sorry I called you an ignoramus. Not that I take it back, mind you.”
The cat comes over to me and Cooty, who squinches his ears. For years the Elmans had unneutered cats and for years they would wander off and disappear, getting hit by cars or ending as meals for coyotes. Elenore brought a kitten home after responding to a desperate note on the bulletin board of Ancharsky's Storeâ“
kittens! Call Soapy Rayno.” Howard named him Spontaneous Combustion. Against Howard's wishes, Elenore had Spontaneous Combustion fixed as soon as it was medically permissible. From that day on, as far as Spontaneous Combustion was concerned, the Great Outdoors was a vast and potentially dangerous toilet. He does his business and hurries back into the mobile home. On occasion when he's trapped outside he'll yowl let me in, let me in, until one of his servants complies with his demands. You see, Spontaneous Combustion regards himself as king and us humans as his subjects.
He transfers his thoughts to my mind. “You look like something the human dragged in,” he says.
“How come I can talk to you but not to them?” I say.
“Because you're a superior being, which is the only reason I choose to communicate with you. Enjoy your powers while you can. Your IQ will drop a few points each day of your life. Eventually you'll flatten out to normal human level, at which time you will no longer interest me.”
“I don't plan to lose my telepathic powers,” I say.
“We shall see. Meanwhile, what am I going to do with you? You are too big to eat and too helpless to wait on me. Human babies are the most totally useless creatures in the lamina kingdom.”
“You're just jealous because I get all the attention.”
That momentarily shuts him down. I watch him slink among feet, waiting for something eatable to come his way.
“Howie,” says Pitchfork, “I won't have to take your truck home no more. I'm getting my own vehicle.”
“Watch out, Trooper John.” Howard raises his eyes heavenward.
“A Ford Falcon with seventy-seven original thousand miles.”
“Who's selling it?”
“Chester the poacher.”