Tall, straight walls and south-facing windows that would have filled, each bright day of the world, with light. A broad porch that looked down a slope to a strong-built toolshed and sprawling pasture beyond. A good stream. Handsome shade trees. Evidence of an orchard. Heaven’s great gifts. All things laid out fine and right. And so it might have been a pretty place. And so it might have been that once upon a time. But now the paint on the house had peeled. Now more than one pane of window glass was cracked or absent outright and the filigreed overhang above the porch sagged. The steep roof was missing shingles and the twisting, forking, leafless skeleton of a colossal wisteria vine shrouded the entire west side of the house all the way up and over the chimney. Most of the toolshed was drowned in parched ivy and the shade trees had lost limbs and the pasture was yellowed and weed-riddled and void of all but one unhappy milking cow.
A man sat on the wagon bench beside the teenage boy who was considering all this. The man held the reins in one shaking hand and a small bottle in the other. He cleared his throat and coughed and said the garden had formerly been a point of pride for the inhabitants of the property, that people had come each year to gaze and wonder. What the boy could see on this late morning made that hard to imagine. Giant white and blue hydrangeas covered in sickly blooms ran rogue, climbing roses had marched out into the little orchard and just about strangled the boughs, vast bunches of mint and horseweed grew insolently along the fence rows, Queen Anne’s lace was general, and orange daylilies crept everywhere in such profusion that they appeared to the boy like sinister invaders from another planet. The man set the wagon brake, looped the reins, and cleared his throat again. Instead of speaking, he took a quick pull from the bottle. Inside the bottle was a mixture of herbs, sugar, and laudanum. Grimacing at what he allowed was a great bitterness, he held out his free hand, saw it was somewhat stilled, and released a sigh. He lay the hand briefly, gently on the boy’s back; tucked the bottle away; retrieved from his road bag an enormous pistol; jumped down from the wagon; and said, “Well, Nephew, we’re home.”
So confidently did the man, the boy’s maternal uncle, then stride along the bottom of the lawn, which was choked all over with seed-tossed dandelion and wild rhubarb and a manifest virulence of bindweed, to the shed, where he pulled a low stool and a bucket out of the disordered murk within, and then, having set the pistol carefully on a post, climb with them over the fence into the pasture, where he plunked down beside the complaining cow, that the boy could almost believe they were home, perhaps from some modest errand, one that had taken them to the other side of the county and quickly back again. The cow shuddered and lowed as his uncle leaned his head and shoulder against her heaving flank. When he had the bucket filled, he drank messily from it, milked more, carried the contents over to the fence where the boy stood waiting, and offered him some.
The boy shook his head. His uncle shrugged and drank again.
“We always kept three cows,” he said. “Even through the war, there dwelled a trine of sisters in this pasture. It was your grandmother who started it. She called them the Three Fates. Those three ladies were standing along this fence the last time I was here. Last time you were here, too, for that matter.”
The boy, who had grown up in a hinterland orphan house and knew less about his past than could populate a thimble, waited for his uncle to say more, but his uncle only wiped at his mouth and squinted his eyes in the direction of the house. “I thought he might just come out for his milk. We’ll have to deliver it.”
“Deliver it to who?”
“To whom. Which is to him that lives here now but did not yet live here then.”
“That sounds like a riddle.”
“It is a riddle. That’s just right, Nephew. All of this is. And at last, we’ve arrived at the part that counts.”
His uncle was a drunk who had once been a judge and had sprung the fact of his existence on the boy not ten days prior. His calling card had been a tintype enveloped in emerald velvet of a handsome woman cradling a baby with one arm and pulling a small girl snug against her with the other. The small girl had her head leaned on the woman’s hip and her hand on the baby’s foot. The accompanying message had said the boy should come into town if he wanted to know what had befallen the two that had hold of him. This promised explanation had been the point of their several-days’ journey south.
His uncle had imbibed his way through the first few days and then, out of respect for his sister, the boy’s mother, who’d believed in temperance, he had stopped and so the shakes had started and the tonic had come out. The boy, with more than a few religious bones in his body, had said he didn’t see the difference between the sins of the big bottle and the sins of the small. His uncle had replied that, whatever the boy could see, there was a difference. He had learned this in the war and confirmed it in courtrooms and, most relevantly, in bygone discussion with the boy’s mother: it was true.
“What about my sister,” the boy had asked, “what did she think?” They had been looking together at the tintype during this exchange. First the boy had held it, then his uncle, then the boy again, then his uncle once more. It had taken a long while for an answer to be made. The answer was that he didn’t know what the little girl’s opinion on the matter had been. That she was too small when she had gone to her reward.
The steps creaked and the porch planks bowed as the two walked up and over them. His uncle held the bucket of milk by its handle in one hand and banged at the front door with the butt of the pistol in the other. When after some spell of distant warbler and chickadee song no one answered, he simply turned the knob and shoved in.
The house had much the same look and aspect as the garden and the yard and what the boy had glimpsed inside the shed. There were bits of worn-to-ruin furniture but only just a scattering of them. There were things set where they shouldn’t have been: a washbasin in the ash-choked fireplace, a Babelian stack of illustrated magazines in the middle of the floor. There were strips of gum paper hung from the ceiling to which many a fly, some so ancient they’d resolved into mere obsidian smudges, had trothed its plight. The kitchen alone was in shape. Dishes stacked neat. Counters wiped clean. Floor swept. A simple vase with pink and red zinnias picked from some healthy portion of the garden in the center of the table.
His uncle moved from room to room, quickly, milk sloshing out of the bucket as he went and leaving, it occurred to the boy, a trail that could be followed. In case of need. In case of disorientation. But what manner of journey was this? His guide seemed aimless despite his speed. Adrift in the valley. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not weep. Yet if I do?
In the doorway of one room, which resembled the staging ground for an abandoned canning operation that all but obscured a half-collapsed bed, his uncle stopped. He wasn’t disoriented, had never been lost. How could he get lost in the house where he grew up? The milk wasn’t a trail. It was just wet marks on an old floor. “Here,” he said.
“This was her room. This is where you started. This is where you were born.”
“How do you know?”
“That this was her room?”
“That this is where I was born.”
“Because I was here.”
The boy found his hand climbing up to his chest. To a divot there, a crater just above the heart. Special qualities had been ascribed to the spot over the years and rumors had been let to run. Of late, the good reverend who owned the orphan house where the boy had been raised had preached that the voices of the beloved dead would speak through the cavity to those who knew how to listen. The boy had been made to sit on a stool on a rise above the crude chapel. Banners had been hung. Many had come and dropped a coin and pressed their ears against his soft, puckered skin. Some had afterward muttered deprecations. Others had wept.
His uncle again placed his hand against the boy’s back. This time, though, there was the pistol in it.
“It was an easy birth. Or at least she said it was. And it’s true it was over in a blink. I’d ridden for the doctor but we about didn’t need him. It was raining that night. A soft rain. Cool and pleasant. It was splashing down past that window the first time you opened your eyes.”
The boy looked at his uncle, then once more at the bed.
“Why are we here?”
“I wanted you to see this. That’s part of it.”
“Of the riddle.”
“Yes. An important part.”
“Well, I’ve seen it.”
“There’s one more thing.”
“A small thing. We just have to check upstairs. Just have to make sure. And then I’ll tell you the story about how you came to have that dent in your chest.”
The boy’s hand dropped to his side. “It’s not a dent. It’s a scar.”
“I know what it is.”
His uncle sniffed loudly, lowered the pistol, stepped out of the doorframe, started up the stairs, and then stopped. The boy came and stood below. It took a slurry of half seconds for his eyes to adjust, as the garbage-strewn bedroom of his birth had been curtainless and bright and the stairwell was plunged in dark. When they did, he gave a start. There was a woman on the second-floor landing.
“Do you see her, too?” his uncle asked.
“I see her,” the boy said.
As they watched, the woman hefted up a musket that had been leaning against the wall beside her. With some effort, for it was seemingly larger than her own vanishing frame and of ancient vintage, she held it pointed down in their direction.
“Please do not pull the trigger on that, ma’am,” his uncle said, “for its barrel is cracked and if it is in fact loaded it may well explode and do you harm.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. When she spoke, the sound that came out of her pursed lips was deeper and richer than the boy could have imagined. It was like a small hole in a hill that opened onto a great cave, or a puddle that proved out to be a whole pond. “Isn’t that what you’re here for, to do me harm? And I have to listen to you explain things about it to me, too?”
“I don’t know you. You’re not why we’re here.”
“You can say that. Standing uninvited on my stairs. Don’t make it true.”
“It is, though.”
The yellow dress the woman had on was worn thin and none too clean. Her face and hands matched the dress. As did her long, black hair. She looked a little like the boy felt. And like the world was. She jerked her chin over her shoulder at a doorway that lurked in the shadow behind her. “It’s him you’re hunting, I expect.”
His uncle took in his breath. Tugged up on the bucket. Spilled milk on the steps. His voice cracked like one of the old floorboards. “Is he in there?”
“What’s left of him is.”
“What does that mean?”
“Means what I said.”
“Well, I’m here to talk.”
“With a pistol in your hand and a bucket of my milk.”
“We did knock.”
“And that’s supposed to comfort me?”
“I’m guessing if the barrel of your firearm were intact this might have been a different kind of conversation.”
“Who says it’s my only firearm.”
The woman shrugged. “Were you in the war?”
“You look it. It’s why I’m deciding not to quarrel.”
“I’m glad of that.”
“I had a man in that fight.”
“Did he fall?”
The woman didn’t answer. She set the gun against the wall. Leaned it carefully. “I’m not surprised he keeps a gun won’t shoot. Just about this whole place won’t shoot. It’s been lounging here every day since I come.”
“Is he kin to you?”
“Why? You worried about my feelings? You aiming to put a bullet in him after all?”
His uncle held his pistol up in the air, made a show of fanning out his fingers away from the trigger and lowering the hammer, then tucked the weapon crosswise into his belt.
“I’m betting you could still pull that out plenty fast enough if you were inclined to,” said the woman. “Even with the shakes.”
“Was my hand shaking just now?”
“Mister, all of you is shaking. This carapace keeps corn liquor in a jug on the back steps, if that’s what you’re short on. I don’t want that pistol going off because your fingers won’t behave.”
“He has a tonic,” the boy said.
“A tonic, is it?” The woman squinted. “Anyways, I reckon I know who you are.”
“That would make one of us.” The boy’s uncle laughed. The sound was hollow and humorless and meant only for himself. The woman didn’t join him, nor did the boy.
“You’re the judge,” she said. “The one who used to live here. He said you would come. When he was still saying things.”
“Both of us lived here.”
“Then I expect you better both climb on up.”
The woman retreated. His uncle glanced a second over in the direction of the kitchen—in the direction, the boy supposed, of the hypothetical corn liquor—and then went up the stairs. One of them had an ugly crack across its middle that the boy behind him avoided but his uncle did further damage to.
At the orphan house, pictures of Jesus and the apostles and Joseph and Mary hung in the stairwell yet there weren’t any pictures on these walls. The Lord is my shepherd, He leadeth me. I shall not want. But he did want and it wasn’t the Lord he had to walk after. It was his uncle. Sloshing milk at each step.
The woman when they passed her was somewhat older and considerably smaller than the boy had surmised. In truth, she was tiny. Or perhaps she seemed so only in comparison to the man they found behind the shadowy door. There was such a length to him that a chest padded with rag linens had been shoved up against the end of the bed to accommodate the considerable overhang of his feet. He was as wasted as he was tall. His flesh looked to have fallen away, sucked into the mattress, dripped deep into the floor. His beard was the filthiest thing the boy had yet seen. The woman stood in the doorway in the light thrown by a pair of small windows with half their glass missing. The blue-blush curtains were pulled but what breeze there was dandled at them, made them dance. The boy felt grateful for those few ounces of wind, which carried with them a freshness of mint, for living alongside the diminished giant in that room was a terrible smell.
“You can’t catch it,” the woman said. “We had a doctor out here early on when he couldn’t stop coughing and he said it was cancer. Taking knife and fork to his lungs. He can gulp down air all he likes but it doesn’t do much. Set a pillow on his chest now and he’ll pass. It’s been a week since he could sit up. A month since he could stand.”
There was a chair by the bed and on a small, water-stained table a bowl with a damp rag beside it. His uncle, who hadn’t yet said a word, sat, set the pistol on the table and the bucket of milk on the floor. He leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands.
“Is there anything you want to say to him?” he asked the boy without taking his eyes off the man.
“I don’t know who he is.”
“I don’t, either,” said his uncle. “That’s the damnedest thing about it.” He lifted up the rag and dipped it in the bucket and reached out and dabbed with the creamy milk at the man’s lips.
“You mind that I’m sharing some of this with him?” he asked the woman. She didn’t answer and he dipped the rag again.
The lips were gray and fissured. Blood emerged from them in channels to dribble into his beard. The milk didn’t make the sight any prettier.
“No, I don’t know who he is except that his name is Willard Tompkin and he was born in Jackson County, Arkansas, to Bess and Angus Tompkin, originally out of South Carolina, and that he worked many a year as a stonemason, and that he was just old and lame enough in one of those long legs to avoid service when Fort Sumter fell. Does that sound about right to you so far?” He glanced at the woman, who again didn’t answer. “The facts—both relevant and irrelevant—aren’t what I’m short on. There were plenty on both sides who weren’t perfect in one way or another who put on a uniform but not him. He couldn’t by his own determination go to the fight but he nonetheless saddled up with and subsequently led a well-known cadre of fear-spreading irregulars, some of them veterans, throughout the latter portion of the war. I feel confident about that, and I feel,” he said, now looking at the boy, “some good way past confident that it was he twelve years ago this month and maybe even this day who handed you to me.”
“Handed me how?”
His uncle sat up straight, curled his fingers around an imaginary small object, and extended it to the boy. “Like that, or it might have been another way. I don’t suppose it matters now. Or maybe it does. Maybe it matters more than anything. The fight had been over for months. There were ten of them, his men. Their ranks had swollen since the disbanding. Their faces were covered up to their eyes. Only, you can’t cover the face of a giant, can you? Doesn’t do much.”
He paused. Picked up the rag from his lap where he’d dropped it and dipped it again but then seemed lost for a volley of seconds in his thoughts as the milk dripped back into the bucket. His expression mirrored the one he’d worn through the rooms below.
“It’s time for the story now,” he said. “That’s where we are. That’s where we’ve arrived. Do you want to hear it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’d best decide. This is your chance.”
“There isn’t anything good about this story, is there?”
“There is not.”
“Would you want to hear it, if you were me?”
“I’m not you.”
The boy thought about this, then turned to the woman. “Would you want to hear it?”
She glanced at the bed, at the broken mountain there, and out the windows and shrugged. “It’s just like he said.”
The boy turned back to his uncle. “You told me we came here so you could show me where I was born and where they died.”
“I’m not sure that’s exactly how I said it. But this is where you were born. And where you were born is where they died. And the way they died is they were murdered. And this breathing corpse was here that day, too. ‘For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.’ You know that one, I expect. That’s in the ninetieth Psalm.”
“It’s the ninth verse.”
“Yes. The ninth of the ninetieth. That is what I’m offering you. Do you want it?”
“Did he kill them?”
“Yes, I believe he did.”
The boy took another minute, then went and leaned his back against one of the windows. He looked at the dying man, who seemed a mile long. The curtain touched at his neck as he leaned there looking. “Tell it,” he said.
“Tell it, I will. I’ll work to avoid any preamble. But I might fail. I know myself too well to propose otherwise. Preamble was essential to my work in the courts. In some cases, preamble was all my work was. Preamble to freedom. Preamble to death. Could you stand it if I fell short today?”
The boy nodded.
His uncle sucked air through his nose, reached down into the bucket, and dipped and lifted the rag up again and dabbed. The man didn’t move. Offered not even a faint flickering of his closed eyelids to indicate he might have escaped off elsewhere into dreaming. The woman, meanwhile, seemed to have found interest in something about the dresser drawer. Gazing her way, his uncle said, “That drawer sticks when you pull on it. Always did. It’s a fault in the wood. You can’t shave it straight, though Lord knows how I tried. My daddy, this boy’s grandfather, had some fine qualities. But in the things he made you always discovered a flaw. That was my daddy. It’s lucky it was his daddy who built this house and him merely a few of the furnishings. Otherwise, this bed and Willard Tompkin here would likely have long ago fallen straight through the floor. Anyway, I never liked the sound that drawer made when tugged open and I’d appreciate if you left it and whatever it is you might want to take out of
The woman shifted her lips to speak but stopped and let her arms drop to her sides, then crossed them over her chest and stepped back into the rectangle of the doorway.
“That was not preamble. Don’t count it as such,” his uncle said to the boy.
“Good. Here we go. It was the middle of the day. It was sunny. God’s lantern burning a light to banish all shadow. A light to break your heart. Speaking of, the trespasser Tompkin had put some patch on your chest but that’s all he’d done, there hadn’t been any doctoring involved. That was left to me. To clean and care. The wound looked like a little mouth when I first saw it. I’m not surprised it likes to talk. That there’s a whole haunted house in there, that people pay money to put their ears to and listen.” He had been addressing the boy but directed the last part to the woman. She said nothing, only frowned.
“What do you think about that?” he asked, reaching down and hefting the bucket onto his lap. It was a big bucket. And despite the drinking and spilling and dabbing, still much encumbered by the cow’s mighty unburdening. “You’ve been held by this behemoth. Can you frame a picture of it in your mind? Of how small you looked in his titanic embrace?” As he spoke this time, he looked neither at the boy nor at the woman but across the bed to the far wall, where hung a simple wooden cross. Sprigs of colorless dried flowers were threaded over its arms.
“I don’t understand any of what you’re saying,” said the boy.
“I don’t, either, and yet it is your story. And mine, too.” And with this, his uncle stood so suddenly as to startle both the boy and the woman and to send some of the milk spilling out onto the doomed man’s covers. “I don’t understand but I want to understand,” he said, and with one arm grabbed the headboard and slid the bed out and away from the wall, bringing the chest with it, and then walked with his bucket sloshing around to the other side and did the same.
“Mister,” said the woman, who was again studying the drawer, but the boy’s uncle held up his hand and said, “I intend no injury. I ask now only for the latitude to consider what it is I don’t understand from all its sides. So that even if, as I suspect will be the case, I end up merely gazing at the blank wall of an enigma I will never know the true name of, it will not be because I missed out on some angle or aspect. If I could see through wood and wool, I would crawl under this bed, which my father also made so that it was never quite comfortable, which pleases me now even if this man we don’t know and who is laid out here before us is past feeling. I would do so and gaze upward at the problem and if I could easily hang myself from the ceiling and gaze down upon it I would do that, too. For I would like to know what and who he is. Borrow an angel’s eyes. Parse his essence. I would like that very much. I have wished for it these many years. The girls lay already dead on the ground when he handed you to me, you understand. Lay there lit by the sun. All through this story, they have been dead. They were covered in their own bedsheets. He must have sent his men into the house to fetch them. Maybe he went himself. One big sheet and one small. Show her the picture of what Mr. Tompkin and his band of merry men took mortal liberty with.”
It was a moment before the boy understood that a request had been made and another before he could translate the request into motion. The tintype seemed a small thing in the world of that room, much smaller than a peach pit, than an apple pip, even. There in the midst of the tale that was not, at least not in any regular sense, being told. That was coming out in fits and starts. The woman accepted it with her dirty fingers, opened the case, snorted in a deep breath, handed it back, and looked up at them.
“Mr. Tompkin out of Arkansas here said he did not know how it had occurred. That he and his men in their face coverings had found the three of you. All curled up together. Right out there in front of the house. One wrapped snug against the other. Your mother was the first shield wall but she did not hold. The ball went through two backs—one big, one small—before it reached your chest and stopped. You were facing them, is what Mr. Willard Tompkin told me. The little girl was holding the littler boy tight. Your mother was holding you both. Neither of them let you go even after they were dead.”
His uncle paused, his voice fluttering at the end, leaned down, and dabbed at the giant’s unmoving lips, then went on.
“Malefactors of the worst stripe had done it, Mr. Tompkin here told me after we had established who I was to them, to you. They had ridden off. Vanished into the sunshine. Who knows who they were or where they had gone. The sound of the single shot had brought Mr. Tompkin and his boys, who just happened to be riding nearby. Had brought them at a gallop. I learned later when I had on my robes that some of them had come over from Tennessee, in addition to Arkansas. They had strayed into my jurisdiction. When I still had a jurisdiction. They had strayed and I deposed them and I tried them and I delivered sentence. The others, I looked for, tracked down. This wasting Goliath was the only one I didn’t have to . . .”
His voice fluttered once more, faded away. The surface of the milk shivered along with the hand that held it. An orphan had died one early winter two years before of pneumonia and had lain covered by a blanket while a coffin was made. The boy and some of the other orphans had sneaked into the root cellar and peeked under the cloak. Gazed upon their bunkmate’s slack face. The boy had allowed himself to be goaded into touching the cold hand. He reasoned that he would have done the same had he come upon his own dead family. Taken their hands. And in that very moment, the good reverend had found them. They had expected whippings but he had surprised them, allowed that the departed had an undeniable pull, tugged back the sheet and held the lantern close, traced his fingers over the glistening skin, wondered if maybe the sheen was the soul embering itself away. The reverend could surprise. He was not always one thing. Sometimes, he wasn’t even the other. The boy’s uncle was speaking again.
“That gun out in the hallway that won’t do what it was manufactured to? That gun he kept leaning out there like a ward against malediction? That’s the very Springfield I grabbed out of his hand that cloudless noontime and sniffed the barrel of and smashed against the woodpile next to where he had knocked them down. Do you know what that barrel smelled like, what it felt like? Like sulfur and hot metal, like an instrument that had been most recently discharged. A weapon of that kind makes a righteous blaze. You look up and down the line and, until the smoke gets too heavy, see nothing but wands of fire. One of the men I later interviewed told me that the rifle hadn’t been meant to go off, that they had other things in mind that day. That they were still some distance away, not even done coming up the lane. That your mother must have been walking with the two of you from the shed, maybe after tending to the Three Fates. That Mr. Tompkin had dismounted and stumbled—on a rock or a root, who could say—and the gun had deployed and somehow hit all three of you. From fifty yards out. That he hadn’t lifted a weapon made for a war fought by others and taken aim at his leisure and fired at the back of a woman fleeing through the grass with a little girl in her arms and a babe in hers.”
The boy’s uncle began to walk then, the bucket swaying beneath his fist, around the bed. He gazed down at the man as he went. Several times, he looked to be set on saying more yet remained silent all the while. The floorboards creaked. The milk sloshed perilously. Once or twice, he lifted up the bucket as if he were preparing either to pour out what was left of its contents onto the ruin below him or, though the filthy rag still swam in its depths, to drink from it again. The boy couldn’t decide which would be more terrible; and when his uncle had made half-a-dozen slow ovals without uttering anything still, the boy pushed away from the window, drifted past the woman and down the stairs, past the bedroom of his birth and out of the house. In the yard, he retched, long and loud. Then he crossed over to a pump he’d seen lurking near the rogue hydrangeas and coaxed cool water from it. The pump stood in the shade of a blighted crab apple. He sat. He closed his eyes. Time passed. His uncle came up beside him and worked the pump and took his own drink and the boy kept them closed.
“What did you do with the milk?” he asked.
“Left it sitting at the foot of the bed.”
“Because he asked me, on that wretched day when I set out away from this place with you in my arms, with guns still leveled on me and loaded and you squalling, what it was I would feed you. That bucket is the answer. I can no longer put a bullet in him that would mean anything but I can show him that. And show him you.”
“So you did mean to shoot him.”
“I suppose I did.”
“Then you’re what she suspected.”
His uncle swallowed hard. Then he inhaled gravelly and let the air loudly back out. “Do you want to hear more?”
“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.”
“Then He will judge me. Do you want to hear more?”
The boy nodded.
“I was nearby. There’s more for you. I had been nearby for three days. Gathering the busted parts of me. Piecing them together. Working up to making an entrance. Man returns in glory from the long fight.” His uncle paused. “Was mainly whittling, of all things. Whittling ponies. War hurts, changes. It takes a while to get back home.”
There was the sound of the pump working again, the squeak and clank of the handle and the good, deep sluicing of water, then the suck and gasp of drinking from cupped hands.
“I wasn’t but a mile away, out at old Bernard Johnson’s. That name doesn’t mean much now. Won’t mean anything to you. The Johnsons were good people. Quaker at their roots. Your mother called on them often. They looked in on her, too. On all of you, when they could. It was one of them who told me he’d just heard a shot over this way. I was preparing myself. Whittling. I’m repeating myself. The war was over and those men, that man up there, were enacting retribution, up and down the Ozarks. I knew there were elements like them about. I knew and yet still I waited. I’d been in some hard scraps. I’d seen things. A few more days in a whole sea of them, I thought. What could it hurt?”
Every now and again, the boy would flick open his eyes and quickly close them once more. Through the purple and red blotches this action made manifest on the backs of his eyelids appeared the dirty hands of the woman holding the now-useless musket on them, and then the gray-tinged hair of the first woman who had pressed her ear to his chest on the hilltop above the orphan house. “Grant me thy law graciously.” She had muttered this as she walked away, smelling of sweat and sweet verbena, her dress darkened under the arms. “I praise you,” she had said. I praise you. What had they done with the bullet—the one that had not quite reached his heart? Was it in the pocket of the man dying upstairs?
“Retribution for what?” he asked.
“I’d like a turn now, if you would grant it,” his uncle replied. “I’m sorry I said what I did about ghosts and haunted houses. I got carried away. That was my old room we were standing in. I carved that cross and hung it on the wall and prayed to it every night of my youth. I was whipped in that room and knew love there, too. And today I find, in my childhood bed, the man who murdered my world.”
The boy slowly stood and unbuttoned the front of his shirt and felt the soft sweep of his uncle’s ear and—after a minute, maybe more—heard a deep sigh. When he opened his eyes, he saw his uncle sitting in the dirt with his head in his hands.
“Retribution for what?” the boy asked again, and again his uncle didn’t answer.
Presently, the woman in the yellow dress came out of the house and down the front steps with the big pistol held by its barrel and the jug of whiskey. She set the pistol on the bottom step and the jug at his uncle’s feet. She worked the pump and splashed at her face and rubbed hard at her hands. A brace of goldfinches had landed in the crab apple and were hopping from branch to branch. If the woman saw them, too, and credited the concordance, she gave no sign. She said, “He’s a murdering criminal and a son of a bitch I never could stand but I’m grateful you didn’t make any more mess up there than you had to. If I show you where they’re buried, will you take that wagon of yours and leave?”
They went first single file, the woman leading the way around the pasture, the cow drifting beside them for some steps before stopping, chewing, and staring, then the boy came up alongside the woman, his uncle having fallen behind. The latter was carrying a shovel he’d plucked from the shed and the cracked Springfield. The jug of whiskey sat on the wagon bench, its cork unpulled. He had, though, sneaked a restorative sip from his little bottle and was now, some twenty or thirty yards off the pace, singing softly to himself.
“Is it true?” asked the woman.
“Is what true?” The boy responded in this manner not because he wished to be evasive—she had glanced at his shirt front, had probably watched them from a window—but because it seemed to him as they walked to the place she said she thought his mother and sister were buried that the enigma his uncle had evoked at the dying man’s bedside, of which the boy’s own story was part and parcel no matter how much more he now knew, was everywhere around them, and that her feet and his fingernails and his uncle’s shaking hands, that the glistening rocks in the little stream they waded and the tattered clouds above and the wedge of moon rising already through the afternoon blue to the east and the tufts of grass seed afloat on the air and the wren and lark and warbler frazzlings and the whiskey in the wagon and the badly made drawer and the hand-carved cross on the wall might somehow also be fit antecedents for her query.
The woman did not explain or repeat herself, or make any sound at all.
“Yes,” said the boy. “I think so. I’m told so. I don’t know. Would you like a try?”
The answer came almost before he had finished the question. “Oh, hell no,” she spat with a shudder so sharp it seemed to make the air that surrounded her shudder, too. “I got my tea leaves read by a gypsy about coming over here from back home to set up housekeeping with what you saw back there, that crazy old man with his black past and his future darker still, and the gypsy took a look at the mess she spilled out onto the table and told me that this, living here, in the ruin of your mother’s house, was the best thing I ever would do with my life. Who in sweet Jesus knows what I’d hear next if I leaned in on you and took a listen. So thank you, young man, but hell no.”
They entered a wood, rocky clay and creepers underfoot, dense-leaf oak, tupelo, and white ash enclosing. Feeble lines of light dragging themselves down through the thick branches. The boy’s uncle hastened his clip to flank them. When the woman pointed at a place between the spreading roots of a great swamp oak, he asked her if she was sure and she said, “It was the first thing he showed me when I got here. Didn’t say what it was but didn’t show me much else, either, so I sensed an importance.” She sighed and glanced back in the direction of the house. “Them poor souls.”
“Poor souls indeed,” said the boy’s uncle. The singing was finished. He threw his hat and the Springfield to the ground and set to digging. The boy relieved him and then he relieved the boy. The dirt here was soft but there were roots to fight and even in the shadows it was hot. The boy blinked his eyes and prayed as he worked the shovel.
He hit board first. The little box appeared to be sitting atop the larger. For a dizzy moment, he had a half vision of a third box, even smaller, atop them both. As he faded from his feet and sank to his knees, the woman hurried to her neat kitchen to fetch them cups, which she filled at the pump. She brought food, too, but neither could eat.
The little box came up easily. It took them another half hour of widening and hefting to get the bigger one out.
The woman left them then, and the boy’s uncle sat cross-legged with his head bowed and his hands lying palms up on both boxes. After a time, he told the boy to take leave, too, as he was going to pry open the lids, he was going to do this because he did not know where their heads were. When he and the boy reburied them—out in the open, where daybreak would find them and cast the promise of its light onto the dark that was now their home—they would lie with their faces oriented to greet the sun.
He had asked, he said, when he bridled his emotions and assessed the woeful scene to be allowed to bury them before he left but he had been denied. He had been but one wreck of a man against ten and he had argued anyway and they had put one of their lead balls in him, too. Had he already said that? It was Tompkin who had quieted their weapons. Who had told him to take his nephew and go. He had made his vow in reply. That he would grant the giant one year for each apostle and then return—with the boy to bear witness—and kill him. At this, the giant had pulled a heavy pistol from his belt, emptied its cartridges to the ground, handed it over, and said, “Bring this with you when you do.”
The boy asked if it was this very pistol that had accompanied them all the days of their journey and that now sat on the front steps of his mother’s house.
His uncle made no signal of hearing him. “After he had given it to me, he made a remark, meant no doubt to mock, about how a man ought never to go unarmed in unfavorable atmosphere. I suspect he thought we’d both be dead before we’d made a half mile and he could have it back. But we didn’t die, did we?”
“No, we didn’t,” said the boy.
His uncle held up a pair of carved wooden ponies, pulled from his coat pocket, and said he intended now to make the gift he hadn’t then, those dozen years before, been able to.
“I’ll give them both to her, if you don’t mind, though one of them was whittled for you.”
The boy said he did not mind, that he would be proud for her to have both, and also that he would not move an inch, that if the coffins of his mother and his sister were to be opened and gifts given he would stay. Of course, he would.
“The coffins of your mother and your cousin,” said his uncle.
And then he wept.
After they had opened the boxes and gazed a moment together upon the wreck of bones within and offered the pair of horses to one and a trine of favored orange daylilies to the other and sealed the boxes back up, his uncle smashed the Springfield over and over against the oak and tossed the pieces into the emptied hole and spat on them and left them uncovered to be taken, as he said, by heat and rain and rot. Then he and the boy brushed off the boxes and carried them to a sunny glade by the stream where tall clover grew and an old cherry bent and swallows worked their speedy way through the afternoon air. There, the cherished remains were set to rest together again, though side by side this time, and toward the light.
After the boy’s uncle had carved their names into simple wooden crosses and set them upright in the soft soil and tried to speak and failed, the boy recited the Lord’s Prayer and what he could remember of Psalm 139, which was not enough to be proud of. They stood for a long while in silence, beside the fresh markers and the piled dirt. Without looking up, his uncle said that his wife had died in childbirth and that he had done his best for a fair stretch but when war called he had given up his law practice and placed his daughter in the care of his sister and gone off to the fight. He had come back when he could and so had by chance been present for the boy’s birth and, on a separate permission, for his daughter’s fifth birthday. He had loved her more than he had ever loved any other person or thing on earth though in truth he had known her but little. He had not met the soldier of some variety who had been the boy’s father. It had to be said that his mother had been hardly acquainted with the man, either, and also that he’d been killed fighting for his heart’s nation, which was the South.
“My father was a Confederate.”
“Not the only one around here.”
“And my mother?”
“She didn’t take a side.”
“Could you do that?”
“Some could. Plenty tried.”
“And what about him?”
They both gazed over at the house. From where they stood, and with the late afternoon sun lighting its face, it didn’t appear quite so ruined.
“Confederate to his teeth. If he hadn’t wanted this place for his own, he would have torched it.”
“Because you chose the North?”
His uncle didn’t reply. He didn’t have to.
After the horse had been watered and fed and brushed, and they had spent time in the stream in the boy’s case and at the pump in his uncle’s, they settled onto the wagon bench to take their leave of the woman, who promised the graves would be looked to.
“Better than all this sorry shipwreck, I hope,” said his uncle.
“That bastard up there made me swear when I got here I wouldn’t touch a thing. Said the house and lands got to mirror the taint of their master, or some such horseshit. He said I could scrub it all up or burn it all down when he was dead.”
“The kitchen was an exception.”
“It was. I got some spine in my body.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You going to take that pistol of yours?”
His uncle had not touched it again. He said, “There ought to be at least one working firearm on a spread like this.”
“Like I said, who says there isn’t.”
“Anyway, I’m not taking it.”
“You’re a strange one.”
His uncle raised his eyebrows and shrugged and then spoke in a stern voice that the boy imagined must have served him well when he was still a judge. “He must not be buried here, not anywhere on this property. Not anywhere near them.”
“He won’t be. He’s still got people. They can fetch him. Take him down and dump him in the ocean for all I care.”
“Who are you? To him, I mean.”
“His wife. Or his servant. More like nothing at all past years of work and a piece of paper in that old drawer you wouldn’t let me open says this house and its acres belong to me when he takes his last.”
“I thought you were looking for something to shoot me with.”
“I know what you thought.”
“And no matter what kind of paper you have, from a legal standpoint, which wouldn’t take ten minutes to prove over at the county courthouse, all of this is his if he wants it,” his uncle said, pointing a visibly shaking finger at the boy.
“I don’t,” said the boy.
The boy looked out toward the two fresh graves, then up at the house, nodded a farewell to the woman, and said, “Hell yes.”
His uncle celebrated their departure by uncorking the whiskey jug. He was drunk all that evening and for the next several days. When they came finally to the turnoff for town, the boy climbed from the wagon. His uncle, who had been driving despite his condition, tugged on the reins and set the brake.
“Is that it then, Nephew?”
“I expect so.”
His uncle asked if he might have one last look at the tintype. To clean his memory of what they had seen in the boxes. When he had the emerald case in hand, he fumbled it onto the bench, then had so much trouble with the latch that the boy reached up and undid it for him. He looked for a good long while, closed it, and handed it back down.
“I thank you,” he said.
“You could have kept me,” said the boy.
“I’ve been much worse than this, son.”
“Don’t call me that.”
His uncle nodded and sagged to the side.
“What did they say?” the boy asked.
“When you put your ear to my chest.”
“What I expected they would.”
“Which was nothing.”
“All I heard in there was your heart, Nephew.”
They parted then. The boy looked back once. His uncle, who would throw himself from the roof of his boarding house the following week, sat slumped atop the wagon bench gazing after him.
The following summer, after the reverend had been arrested for fraud of several stripes and the orphanage shut down, the boy journeyed back to the house near the pasture and the stream. The woman had stayed true to her word. Not a single weed had taken root around the graves. The house had been cleaned out and fresh paint applied. The cow was happy. The woman was thinking of getting her some company. “The Three Fates,” said the boy. “Two’ll do,” said the woman. He slept in the room where he had been born. The woman said it was his whenever he wanted it. Somehow, in the coming years, the pistol became his, too.