An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge ~ A Classic American Short Story by Ambrose Bierce
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners–two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest–a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground–a gentle acclivity topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway of the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators–a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieu tenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good–a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move, What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift–all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by–it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and–he knew not why–apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only toe, happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”
“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.
“About thirty miles.”
“Is there no force on this side the creek?”
“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”
“Suppose a man–a civilian and student of hanging–should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”
The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tow.”
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened–ages later, it seemed to him–by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fulness–of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!–the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface–knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought? “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. “Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf–saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat–all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieu. tenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly–with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquillity in the men–with what accurately measured inter vals fell those cruel words:
Farquhar dived–dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.
The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”
An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!
A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
“They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me–the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”
Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round–spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men–all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color–that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream–the southern bank–and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Æolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape–was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great garden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which–once, twice, and again–he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue–he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene–perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon–then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
Good Country People ~ A Classic American short story by Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)
Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other, was no longer there in spirit. As for getting anything across to her when this was the case, Mrs. Hopewell had given it up. She might talk her head off. Mrs. Freeman could never be brought to admit herself wrong to any point. She would stand there and if she could be brought to say anything, it was something like, “Well, I wouldn’t of said it was and I wouldn’t of said it wasn’t” or letting her gaze range over the top kitchen shelf where there was an assortment of dusty bottles, she might remark, “I see you ain’t ate many of them figs you put up last summer.”
They carried on their most important business in the kitchen at breakfast. Every morning Mrs. Hopewell got up at seven o’clock and lit her gas heater and Joy’s. Joy was her daughter, a large blonde girl who had an artificial leg. Mrs. Hopewell thought of her as a child though she was thirty-two years old and highly educated. Joy would get up while her mother was eating and lumber into the bathroom and slam the door, and before long, Mrs. Freeman would arrive at the back door. Joy would hear her mother call, “Come on in,” and then they would talk for a while in low voices that were indistinguishable in the bathroom. By the time Joy came in, they had usually finished the weather report and were on one or the other of Mrs. Freeman’s daughters, Glynese or Carramae. Joy called them Glycerin and Caramel. Glynese, a redhead, was eighteen and had many admirers; Carramae, a blonde, was only fifteen but already married and pregnant. She could not keep anything on her stomach. Every morning Mrs. Freeman told Mrs. Hopewell how many times she had vomited since the last report.
Mrs. Hopewell liked to tell people that Glynese and Carramae were two of the finest girls she knew and that Mrs. Freeman was a lady and that she was never ashamed to take her anywhere or introduce her to anybody they might meet. Then she would tell how she had happened to hire the Freemans in the first place and how they were a godsend to her and how she had had them four years. The reason for her keeping them so long was that they were not trash. They were good country people. She had telephoned the man whose name they had given as reference and he had told her that Mr. Freeman was a good farmer but that his wife was the nosiest woman ever to walk the earth. “She’s got to be into everything,” the man said. “If she don’t get there before the dust settles, you can bet she’s dead, that’s all. She’ll want to know all your business. I can stand him real good,” he had said, “but me nor my wife neither could have stood that woman one more minute on this place.” That had put Mrs. Hopewell off for a few days. She had hired them in the end because there were no other applicants but she had made up her mind beforehand exactly how she would handle the woman. Since she was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything – she would give her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge. Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she had kept them four years.
Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too. She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who had achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.
When Mrs. Hopewell said to Mrs. Freeman that life was like that, Mrs. Freeman would say, “I always said so myself.” Nothing had been arrived at by anyone that had not first been arrived at by her. She was quicker than Mr. Freeman. When Mrs. Hopewell said to her after they had been on the place for a while, “You know, you’re the wheel behind the wheel,” and winked, Mrs. Freeman had said, “I know it. I’ve always been quick. It’s some that are quicker than others.”
“Everybody is different,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“Yes, most people is,” Mrs. Freeman said.
“It takes all kinds to make the world.”
“I always said it myself.”
The girl was used to this kind of dialogue for breakfast and more of it for dinner; sometimes they had it for supper too. When they had no guest they ate in the kitchen because that was easier. Mrs. Freeman always
managed to arrive at some point during the meal and to watch them finish it. She would stand in the doorway if it were summer but in the winter she would stand with one elbow on top of the refrigerator and look down at them, or she would stand by the gas heater, lifting the back of her skirt slightly. Occasionally she would stand against the wall and roll her head from side to side. At no time was she in any hurry to leave. All this was very trying on Mrs. Hopewell but she was a woman of great patience. She realized that nothing is perfect and that in the Freemans she had good country people and that if, in this day and age, you get good country people, you had better hang onto them.
She had had plenty of experience with trash. Before the Freemans she had averaged one tenant family a year. The wives of these farmers were not the kind you would want to be around you for very long. Mrs. Hopewell, who had divorced her husband long ago, needed someone to walk over the fields with her; and when Joy had to be impressed for these services, her remarks were usually so ugly and her face so glum that Mrs. Hopewell would say, “If you can’t come pleasantly, I don’t want you at all,” to which the girl, standing square and rigid-shouldered with her neck thrust slightly forward, would reply, “If you want me, here I am – LIKE I AM.” Mrs. Hopewell excused this attitude because of the leg (which had been shot off in a hunting accident when Joy was ten). It was hard for Mrs. Hopewell to realize that her child was thirty-two now and that for more than twenty years she had had only one leg. She thought of her still as a child because it tore her heart to think instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times. Her name was really Joy but as soon as she was twenty-one and away from home, she had had it legally changed. Mrs. Hopewell was certain that she had thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language. Then she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed without telling her mother until after she had done it. Her legal name was Hulga. When Mrs. Hopewell thought the name, Hulga, she thought of the broad blank hull of a battleship. She would not use it. She continued to call her Joy to which the girl responded but in a purely mechanical way. Hulga had learned to tolerate Mrs. Freeman who saved her from taking walks with her mother. Even Glynese and Carramae were useful when they occupied attention that might otherwise have been directed at her.
At first she had thought she could not stand Mrs. Freeman for she had found it was not possible to be rude to her. Mrs. Freeman would take on strange resentments and for days together she would be sullen but the source of her displeasure was always obscure; a direct attack, a positive leer, blatant ugliness to her face – these never touched her. And without warning one day, she began calling her Hulga.
She did not call her that in front of Mrs. Hopewell who would have been incensed but when she and the girl happened to be out of the house together, she would say something and add the name Hulga to the end of it, and the big spectacled Joy-Hulga would scowl and redden as if her privacy had been intruded upon. She considered the name her personal affair. She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her. She had a vision of the name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace and to whom, presumably, the goddess had to come when called. She saw it as the name of her highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga. However, Mrs. Freeman’s relish for using the name only irritated her. It was as if Mrs. Freeman’s beady steel-pointed eyes had penetrated far enough behind her face to reach some secret fact. Something about her seemed to fascinate Mrs. Freeman and then one day Hulga realized that it was the artificial leg. Mrs. Freeman had a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden deformities, assaults upon children. Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or incurable. Hulga had heard Mrs. Hopewell give her the details of the hunting accident, how the leg had been literally blasted off, how she had never lost consciousness. Mrs. Freeman could listen to it any time as if it had happened an hour ago.
When Hulga stumped into the kitchen in the morning (she could walk without making the awful noise but she made it – Mrs. Hopewell was certain – because it was ugly-sounding), she glanced at them and did not speak. Mrs. Hopewell would be in her red kimono with her hair tied around her head in rags. She would be sitting at the table, finishing her breakfast and Mrs. Freeman would be hanging by her elbow outward from the refrigerator, looking down at the table. Hulga always put her eggs on the stove to boil and then stood over them with her arms folded, and Mrs. Hopewell would look at her – a kind of indirect gaze divided between her and Mrs. Freeman – and would think that if she would only keep herself up a little, she wouldn’t be so bad looking. There was nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn’t help. Mrs. Hopewell said that people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not.
Whenever she looked at Joy this way, she could not help but feel that it would have been better if the child had not taken the Ph.D. It had certainly not brought her out any and now that she had it, there was no more excuse for her to go to school again. Mrs. Hopewell thought it was nice for girls to go to school to have a good time but Joy had “gone through.” Anyhow, she would not have been strong enough to go again. The doctors had told Mrs. Hopewell that with the best of care, Joy might see forty-five. She had a weak heart. Joy had made it plain that if it had not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about. And Mrs. Hopewell could very well picture here there, looking like a scarecrow and lecturing to more of the same. Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it. She thought this was funny; Mrs. Hopewell thought it was idiotic and showed simply that she was still a child. She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense. It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she grew less like other people and more like herself – bloated, rude, and squint-eyed. And she said such strange things! To her own mother she had said – without warning, without excuse, standing up in the middle of a meal with her face purple and her mouth half full – “Woman! Do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!” she had cried sinking down again and staring at her plate, “Malebranche was right: we are not our own light. We are not our own light!” Mrs. Hopewell had no idea to this day what brought that on. She had only made the remark, hoping Joy would take it in, that a smile never hurt anyone. The girl had taken the Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, “My daughter is a nurse,” or “My daughter is a school teacher,” or even, “My daughter is a chemical engineer.” You could not say, “My daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans. All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.
One day Mrs. Hopewell had picked up one of the books the girl had just put down and opening it at random, she read, “Science, on the other hand, has to assert its soberness and seriousness afresh and declare that it is concerned solely with what-is. Nothing – how can it be for science anything but a horror and a phantasm? If science is right, then one thing stands firm: science wishes to know nothing of nothing. Such is after all the strictly scientific approach to Nothing. We know it by wishing to know nothing of Nothing.” These words had been underlined with a blue pencil and they worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish. She shut the book quickly and went out of the room as if she were having a chill.
This morning when the girl came in, Mrs. Freeman was on Carramae. “She thrown up four times after supper,” she said, “and was up twict in the night after three o’clock. Yesterday she didn’t do nothing but ramble in the bureau drawer. All she did. Stand up there and see what she could run up on.”
“She’s got to eat,” Mrs. Hopewell muttered, sipping her coffee, while she watched Joy’s back at the stove. She was wondering what the child had said to the Bible salesman. She could not imagine what kind of a conversation she could possibly have had with him.
He was a tall gaunt hatless youth who had called yesterday to sell them a Bible. He had appeared at the door, carrying a large black suitcase that weighted him so heavily on one side that he had to brace himself against the door facing. He seemed on the point of collapse but he said in a cheerful voice, “Good morning, Mrs. Cedars!” and set the suitcase down on the mat. He was not a bad-looking young man though he had on a bright blue suit and yellow socks that were not pulled up far enough. He had prominent face bones and a streak of sticky-looking brown hair falling across his forehead.
“I’m Mrs. Hopewell,” she said.
“Oh!” he said, pretending to look puzzled but with his eyes sparkling, “I saw it said ‘The Cedars’ on the mailbox so I thought you was Mrs. Cedars!” and he burst out in a pleasant laugh. He picked up the satchel and under cover of a pant, he fell forward into her hall. It was rather as if the suitcase had moved first, jerking him after it. “Mrs. Hopewell!” he said and grabbed her hand. “I hope you are well!” and he laughed again and then all at once his face sobered completely. He paused and gave her a straight earnest look and said, “Lady, I’ve come to speak of serious things.”
“Well, come in,” she muttered, none too pleased because her dinner was almost ready. He came into the parlor and sat down on the edge of a straight chair and put the suitcase between his feet and glanced around the room as if he were sizing her up by it. Her silver gleamed on the two sideboards; she decided he had never been in a room as elegant as this. “Mrs. Hopewell,” he began, using her name in a way that sounded almost intimate, “I know you believe in Chrustian service.”
“Well, yes,” she murmured.
“I know,” he said and paused, looking very wise with his head cocked on one side, “that you’re a good woman. Friends have told me.”
Mrs. Hopewell never liked to be taken for a fool. “What are you selling?” she asked.
“Bibles,” the young man said and his eye raced around the room before he added, “I see you have no family Bible in your parlor, I see that is the one lack you got!”
Mrs. Hopewell could not say, “My daughter is an atheist and won’t let me keep the Bible in the parlor.” She said, stiffening slightly, “I keep my Bible by my bedside.” This was not the truth. It was in the attic somewhere.
“Lady,” he said, “the word of God ought to be in the parlor.”
“Well, I think that’s a matter of taste,” she began, “I think…”
“Lady,” he said, “for a Chrustian, the word of God ought to be in every room in the house besides in his heart. I know you’re a Chrustian because I can see it in every line of your face.”
She stood up and said, “Well, young man, I don’t want to buy a Bible and I smell my dinner burning.”
He didn’t get up. He began to twist his hands and looking down at them, he said softly, “Well lady, I’ll tell you the truth – not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I’m real simple. I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it. I’m just a country boy.” He glanced up into her unfriendly face. “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!”
“Why!” she cried, “good country people are the salt of the earth! Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round. That’s life!”
“You said a mouthful,” he said.
“Why, I think there aren’t enough good country people in the world!” she said, stirred. “I think that’s what’s wrong with it!”
His face had brightened. “I didn’t intraduce myself,” he said. “I’m Manley Pointer from out in the country around Willohobie, not even from a place, just from near a place.”
“You wait a minute,” she said. “I have to see about my dinner.” She went out to the kitchen and found Joy standing near the door where she had been listening.
“Get rid of the salt of the earth,” she said, “and let’s eat.”
Mrs. Hopewell gave her a pained look and turned the heat down under the vegetables. “I can’t be rude to anybody,” she murmured and went back into the parlor.
He had opened the suitcase and was sitting with a Bible on each knee. “I appreciate your honesty,” he said. “You don’t see any more real honest people unless you go way out in the country.”
“I know,” she said, “real genuine folks!” Through the crack in the door she heard a groan.
“I guess a lot of boys come telling you they’re working their way through college,” he said, “but I’m not going to tell you that. Somehow,” he said, “I don’t want to go to college. I want to devote my life to Chrustian service. See,” he said, lowering his voice, “I got this heart condition. I may not live long. When you know it’s something wrong with you and you may not live long, well then, lady…” He paused, with his mouth open, and stared at her.
He and Joy had the same condition! She knew that her eyes were filling with tears but she collected herself quickly and murmured, “Won’t you stay for dinner? We’d love to have you!” and was sorry the instant she heard herself say it.
“Yes mam,” he said in an abashed voice. “I would sher love to do that!”
Joy had given him one look on being introduced to him and then throughout the meal had not glanced at him again. He had addressed several remarks to her, which she had pretended not to hear. Mrs. Hopewell could not understand deliberate rudeness, although she lived with it, and she felt she had always to overflow with hospitality to make up for Joy’s lack of courtesy. She urged him to talk about himself and he did. He said he was the seventh child of twelve and that his father had been crushed under a tree when he himself was eight years old. He had been crushed very badly, in fact, almost cut in two and was practically not recognizable. His mother had got along the best she could by hard working and she had always seen that her children went to Sunday School and that they read the Bible every evening. He was now nineteen years old and he had been selling Bibles for four months. In that time he had sold seventy-seven Bibles and had the promise of two more sales. He wanted to become a missionary because he thought that was the way you could do most for people. “He who losest his life shall find it,” he said simply and he was so sincere, so genuine and earnest that Mrs. Hopewell would not for the world have smiled. He prevented his peas from sliding onto the table by blocking them with a piece of bread which he later cleaned his plate with. She could see Joy observing sidewise how he handled his knife and fork and she saw too that every few minutes, the boy would dart a keen appraising glance at the girl as if he were trying to attract her attention. After dinner Joy cleared the dishes off the table and disappeared and Mrs. Hopewell was left to talk with him. He told her again about his childhood and his father’s accident and about various things that had happened to him. Every five minutes or so she would stifle a yawn. He sat for two hours until finally she told him she must go because she had an appointment in town. He packed his Bibles and thanked her and prepared to leave, but in the doorway he stopped and wring her hand and said that not on any of his trips had he met a lady as nice as her and he asked if he could come again. She had said she would always be happy to see him. Joy had been standing in the road, apparently looking at something in the distance, when he came down the steps toward her, bent to the side with his heavy valise. He stopped where she was standing and confronted her directly. Mrs. Hopewell could not hear what he said but she trembled to think what Joy would say to him. She could see that after a minute Joy said something and that then the boy began to speak again, making an excited gesture with his free hand. After a minute Joy said something else at which the boy began to speak once more. Then to her amazement, Mrs. Hopewell saw the two of them walk off together, toward the gate. Joy had walked all the way to the gate with him and Mrs. Hopewell could not imagine what they had said to each other, and she had not yet dared to ask. Mrs. Freeman was insisting upon her attention. She had moved from the refrigerator to the heater so that Mrs. Hopewell had to turn and face her in order to seem to be listening. “Glynese gone out with Harvey Hill again last night,” she said. “She had this sty.” “Hill,” Mrs. Hopewell said absently, “is that the one who works in the garage?”
“Nome, he’s the one that goes to chiropractor school,” Mrs. Freeman said. “She had this sty. Been had it two days. So she says when he brought her in the other night he says, ‘Lemme get rid of that sty for you,’ and she says, ‘How?’ and he says, ‘You just lay yourself down acrost the seat of that car and I’ll show you.’ So she done it and he popped her neck. Kept on a-popping it several times until she made him quit. This morning,” Mrs. Freeman said, “she ain’t got no sty. She ain’t got no traces of a sty.”
“I never heard of that before,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“He ast her to marry him before the Ordinary,” Mrs. Freeman went on, “and she told him she wasn’t going to be married in no office.”
“Well, Glynese is a fine girl,” Mrs. Hopewell said. “Glynese and Carramae are both fine girls.”
“Carramae said when her and Lyman was married Lyman said it sure felt sacred to him. She said he said he wouldn’t take five hundred dollars for being married by a preacher.”
“How much would he take?” the girl asked from the stove.
“He said he wouldn’t take five hundred dollars,” Mrs. Freeman repeated.
“Well we all have work to do,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“Lyman said it just felt more sacred to him,” Mrs. Freeman said. “The doctor wants Carramae to eat prunes. Says instead of medicine. Says them cramps is coming from pressure. You know where I think it is?”
“She’ll be better in a few weeks,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“In the tube,” Mrs. Freeman said. “Else she wouldn’t be as sick as she is.”
Hulga had cracked her two eggs into a saucer and was bringing them to the table along with a cup of coffee that she had filled too full. She sat down carefully and began to eat, meaning to keep Mrs. Freeman there by questions if for any reason she showed an inclination to leave. She could perceive her mother’s eye on her. The first round-about question would be about the Bible salesman and she did not wish to bring it on. “How did he pop her neck?” she asked.
Mrs. Freeman went into a description of how he had popped her neck. She said he owned a ’55 Mercury but that Glynese said she would rather marry a man with only a ’36 Plymouth who would be married by a preacher. The girl asked what if he had a ’32 Plymouth and Mrs. Freeman said what Glynese had said was a ’36 Plymouth. Mrs. Hopewell said there were not many girls with Glynese’s common sense. She said what she admired in those girls was their common sense. She said that reminded her that they had had a nice visitor yesterday, a young man selling Bibles. “Lord,” she said, “he bored me to death but he was so sincere and genuine I couldn’t be rude to him. He was just good country people, you know,” she said, “—just the salt of the earth.”
“I seen him walk up,” Mrs. Freeman said, “and then later – I seen him walk off,” and Hulga could feel the slight shift in her voice, the slight insinuation, that he had not walked off alone, had he? Her face remained expressionless but the color rose into her neck and she seemed to swallow it down with the next spoonful of egg. Mrs. Freeman was looking at her as if they had a secret together.
“Well, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go ‘round,” Mrs. Hopewell said. “It’s very good we aren’t all alike.”
“Some people are more alike than others,” Mrs. Freeman said.
Hulga got up and stumped, with about twice the noise that was necessary, into her room and locked the door. She was to meet the Bible salesman at ten o’clock at the gate. She had thought about it half the night. She had started thinking of it as a great joke and then she had begun to see profound implications in it. She had lain in bed imagining dialogues for them that were insane on the surface but that reached below the depths that no Bible salesman would be aware of. Their conversation yesterday had been of this kind.
He had stopped in front of her and had simply stood there. His face was bony and sweaty and bright, with a little pointed nose in the center of it, and his look was different from what it had been at the dinner table. He was gazing at her with open curiosity, with fascination, like a child watching a new fantastic animal at the zoo, and he was breathing as if he had run a great distance to reach her. His gaze seemed somehow familiar but she could not think where she had been regarded with it before. For almost a minute he didn’t say anything. Then on what seemed an insuck of breath, he whispered, “You ever ate a chicken that was two days old?”
The girl looked at him stonily. He might have just put this question up for consideration at the meeting of a philosophical association. “Yes,” she presently replied as if she had considered it from all angles.
“It must have been mighty small!” he said triumphantly and shook all over with little nervous giggles, getting very red in the face, and subsiding finally into his gaze of complete admiration, while the girl’s expression remained exactly the same. “How old are you?” he asked softly.
She waited some time before she answered. Then in a flat voice she said, “Seventeen.”
His smiles came in succession like waves breaking on the surface of a little lake. “I see you got a wooden leg,” he said. “I think you’re real brave. I think you’re real sweet.”
The girl stood blank and solid and silent.
“Walk to the gate with me,” he said. “You’re a brave sweet little thing and I liked you the minute I seen you walk in the door.”
Hulga began to move forward.
“What’s your name?” he asked, smiling down on the top of her head.
“Hulga,” she said.
“Hulga,” he murmured, “Hulga. Hulga. I never heard of anybody name Hulga before. You’re shy, aren’t you, Hulga?” he asked.
She nodded, watching his large red hand on the handle of the giant valise. “I like girls that wear glasses,” he said. “I think a lot. I’m not like these people that a serious thought don’t ever enter their heads. It’s because I may die.”
“I may die too,” she said suddenly and looked up at him. His eyes were very small and brown, glittering feverishly.
“Listen,” he said, “don’t you think some people was meant to meet on account of what all they got in common and all? Like they both think serious thoughts and all?” He shifted the valise to his other hand so that the hand nearest her was free. He caught hold of her elbow and shook it a little. “I don’t work on Saturday,” he said. “I like to walk in the woods and see what Mother Nature is wearing. O’er the hills and far away. Picnics and things. Couldn’t we go on a picnic tomorrow? Say yes, Hulga,” he said and gave her a dying look as if he felt his insides about to drop out of him. He had even seemed to sway slightly toward her.
During the night she had imagined that she seduced him. She imagined that the two of them walked on the place until they came to the storage barn beyond the two back fields and there, she imagined, that things came to such a pass that she very easily seduced him and that then, of course, she had to reckon with his remorse. True genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind. She imagined that she took his remorse in hand and changed it into a deeper understanding of life. She took all his shame away and turned it into something useful.
She set off for the gate at exactly ten o’clock, escaping without drawing Mrs. Hopewell’s attention. She didn’t take anything to eat, forgetting that food is usually taken on a picnic. She wore a pair of slacks and a dirty white shirt, and as an afterthought, she had put some Vapex on the collar of it since she did not own any perfume. When she reached the gate no one was there. She looked up and down the empty highway and had the furious feeling that she had been tricked, that he only meant to make her walk to the gate after the idea of him. Then suddenly he stood up, very tall, from behind a bush on the opposite embankment. Smiling, he lifted his hat which was new and wide-brimmed. He had not worn it yesterday and she wondered if he had bought it for the occasion. It was toast-colored with a red and white band around it and was slightly too large for him. He stepped from behind the bush still carrying the black valise. He had on the same suit and the same yellow socks sucked down in his shoes from walking. He crossed the highway and said, “I knew you’d come!”
The girl wondered acidly how he had known this. She pointed to the valise and asked, “Why did you bring your Bibles?”
He took her elbow, smiling down on her as if he could not stop. “You can never tell when you’ll need the word of God, Hulga,” he said. She had a moment in which she doubted that this was actually happening and then they began to climb the embankment. They went down into the pasture toward the woods. The boy walked lightly by her side, bouncing on his toes. The valise did not seem to be heavy today; he even swung it. They crossed half the pasture without saying anything and then, putting his hand easily on the small of her back, he asked softly, “Where does your wooden leg join on?”
She turned an ugly red and glared at him and for an instant the boy looked abashed. “I didn’t mean you no harm,” he said. “I only meant you’re so brave and all. I guess God takes care of you.”
“No,” she said, looking forward and walking fast, “I don’t even believe in God.”
At this he stopped and whistled. “No!” he exclaimed as if he were too astonished to say anything else.
She walked on and in a second he was bouncing at her side, fanning with his hat. “That’s very unusual for a girl,” he remarked, watching her out of the corner of his eye. When they reached the edge of the wood, he put his hand on her back again and drew her against him without a word and kissed her heavily.
The kiss, which had more pressure than feeling behind it, produced that extra surge of adrenalin in the girl that enables one to carry a packed trunk out of a burning house, but in her, the power went at once to the brain. Even before he released her, her mind, clear and detached and ironic anyway, was regarding him from a great distance, with amusement but with pity. She had never been kissed before and she was pleased to discover that it was an unexceptional experience and all a matter of the mind’s control. Some people might enjoy drain water if they were told it was vodka. When the boy, looking expectant but uncertain, pushed her gently away, she turned and walked on, saying nothing as if such business, for her, were common enough.
He came along panting at her side, trying to help her when he saw a root that she might trip over. He caught and held back the long swaying blades of thorn vine until she had passed beyond them. She led the way and he came breathing heavily behind her. Then they came out on a sunlit hillside, sloping softly into another one a little smaller. Beyond, they could see the rusted top of the old barn where the extra hay was stored. The hill was sprinkled with small pink weeds. “Then you ain’t saved?” he asked suddenly, stopping.
The girl smiled. It was the first time she had smiled at him at all. “In my economy,” she said, “I’m saved and you are damned but I told you I didn’t believe in God.”
Nothing seemed to destroy the boy’s look of admiration. He gazed at her now as if the fantastic animal at the zoo had put its paw through the bars and given him a loving poke. She thought he looked as if he wanted to kiss her again and she walked on before he had the chance.
“Ain’t there somewheres we can sit down sometime?” he murmured, his voice softening toward the end of the sentence.
“In that barn,” she said.
They made for it rapidly as if it might slide away like a train. It was a large two-story barn, cool and dark inside. The boy pointed up the ladder that led into the loft and said, “It’s too bad we can’t go up there.”
“Why can’t we?” she asked.
“Yer leg,” he said reverently.
The girl gave him a contemptuous look and putting both hands on the ladder, she climbed it while he stood below, apparently awestruck. She pulled herself expertly through the opening and then looked down at him and said, “Well, come on if your coming,” and he began to climb the ladder, awkwardly bringing the suitcase with him.
“We won’t need the Bible,” she observed.
“You never can tell,” he said, panting. After he had got into the loft, he was a few seconds catching his breath. She had sat down in a pile of straw. A wide sheath of sunlight, filled with dust particles, slanted over her. She lay back against a bale, her face turned away, looking out the front opening of the barn where hay was thrown from a wagon into the loft. The two pink-speckled hillsides lay back against a dark ridge of woods. The sky was cloudless and cold blue. The boy dropped down by her side and put one arm under her and the other over her and began methodically kissing her face, making little noises like a fish. He did not remove his hat but it was pushed far enough back not to interfere. When her glasses got in his way, he took them off of her and slipped them into his pocket.
The girl at first did not return any of the kisses but presently she began to and after she had put several on his cheek, she reached his lips and remained there, kissing him again and again as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him. His breath was clear and sweet like a child’s and the kisses were sticky like a child’s. He mumbled about loving her and about knowing when he first seen her that he loved her, but the mumbling was like the sleepy fretting of a child being put to sleep by his mother. Her mind, throughout this, never stopped or lost itself for a second to her feelings.
“You ain’t said you loved me none,” he whispered finally, pulling back from her. “You got to say that.”
She looked away from him off into the hollow sky and then down at a black ridge and then down farther into what appeared to be two green swelling lakes. She didn’t realize he had taken her glasses but this landscape could not seem exceptional to her for she seldom paid any close attention to her surroundings.
“You got to say it,” he repeated. “You got to say you love me.”
She was always careful how she committed herself. “In a sense,” she began, “if you use the word loosely, you might say that. But it’s not a word I use. I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.”
The boy was frowning. “You got to say it. I said it and you got to say it,” he said.
The girl looked at him almost tenderly. “You poor baby,” she murmured. “It’s just as well you don’t understand,” and she pulled him by the neck, face-down, against her. “We are all damned,” she said, “but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.”
The boy’s astonished eyes looked blankly through the ends of her hair. “Okay,” he almost whined, “but do you love me or don’tcher?”
“Yes,” she said and added, “in a sense. But I must tell you something. There mustn’t be anything dishonest between us.” She lifted his head and looked him in the eye. “I am thirty years old,” she said. “I have a number of degrees.”
The boy’s look was irritated but dogged. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care a thing about what all you done. I just want to know if you love me or don’tcher?” and he caught her to him and wildly planted her face with kisses until she said, “Yes, yes.”
“Okay then,” he said, letting her go. “Prove it.”
She smiled, looking dreamily out on the shifty landscape. She had seduced him without even making up her mind to try. “How?” she asked, feeling that he should be delayed a little.
He leaned over and put his lips to her ear. “Show me where your wooden leg joins on,” he whispered.
The girl uttered a sharp little cry and her face instantly drained of color. The obscenity of the suggestion was not what shocked her. As a child she had sometimes been subject to feelings of shame but education had removed the last traces of that as a good surgeon scrapes for cancer; she would no more have felt it over what he was asking than she would have believed in his Bible. But she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away. “No,” she said.
“I known it,” he muttered, sitting up. “You’re just playing me for a sucker.”
“On no no!” she cried. “It joins on at the knee. Only at the knee. Why do you want to see it?”
The boy gave her a long penetrating look. “Because,” he said, “it’s what makes you different. You ain’t like anybody else.”
She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence. This boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her. When after a minute, she said in a hoarse high voice, “All right,” it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.
Very gently, he began to roll the slack leg up. The artificial limb, in a white sock and brown flat shoe, was bound in a heavy material like canvas and ended in an ugly jointure where it was attached to the stump. The boy’s face and his voice were entirely reverent as he uncovered it and said, “Now show me how to take it off and on.”
She took it off for him and put it back on again and then he took it off himself, handling it as tenderly as if it were a real one. “See!” he said with a delighted child’s face. “Now I can do it myself!”
“Put it back on,” she said. She was thinking that she would run away with him and that every night he would take the leg off and every morning put it back on again. “Put it back on,” she said.
“Not yet,” he murmured, setting it on its foot out of her reach. “Leave it off for awhile. You got me instead.”
She gave a little cry of alarm but he pushed her down and began to kiss her again. Without the leg she felt entirely dependent on him. Her brain seemed to have stopped thinking altogether and to be about some other function that it was not very good at. Different expressions raced back and forth over her face. Every now and then the boy, his eyes like two steel spikes, would glance behind him where the leg stood. Finally she pushed him off and said, “Put it back on me now.”
“Wait,” he said. He leaned the other way and pulled the valise toward him and opened it. It had a pale blue spotted lining and there were only two Bibles in it. He took one of these out and opened the cover of it. It was hollow and contained a pocket flask of whiskey, a pack of cards, and a small blue box with printing on it. He laid these out in front of her one at a time in an evenly-spaced row, like one presenting offerings at the shrine of a goddess. He put the blue box in her hand. THIS PRODUCT TO BE USED ONLY FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE, she read, and dropped it. The boy was unscrewing the top of the flask. He stopped and pointed, with a smile, to the deck of cards. It was not an ordinary deck but one with an obscene picture on the back of each card. “Take a swig,” he said, offering her the bottle first. He held it in front of her, but like one mesmerized, she did not move.
Her voice when she spoke had an almost pleading sound. “Aren’t you,” she murmured, “aren’t you just good country people?”
The boy cocked his head. He looked as if he were just beginning to understand that she might be trying to insult him. “Yeah,” he said, curling his lip slightly, “but it ain’t held me back none. I’m as good as you any day in the week.”
“Give me my leg,” she said.
He pushed it farther away with his foot. “Come on now, let’s begin to have us a good time,” he said coaxingly. “We ain’t got to know one another good yet.”
“Give me my leg!” she screamed and tried to lunge for it but he pushed her down easily.
“What’s the matter with you all of a sudden?” he asked, frowning as he screwed the top on the flask and put it quickly back inside the Bible.
“You just a while ago said you didn’t believe in nothing. I thought you was some girl!”
Her face was almost purple. “You’re a Christian!” she hissed. “You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all – say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re…”
The boy’s mouth was set angrily. “I hope you don’t think,” he said in a lofty indignant tone, “that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going!”
“Give me my leg!” she screeched.
He jumped up so quickly that she barely saw him sweep the cards and the blue box back into the Bible and throw the Bible into the valise. She saw him grab the leg and then she saw it for an instant slanted forlornly across the inside of the suitcase with a Bible at either side of its opposite ends.
He slammed the lid shut and snatched up the valise and swung it down the hole and then stepped through himself. When all of him had passed but his head, he turned and regarded her with a look that no longer had any admiration in it. “I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things,” he said. “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way. And you needn’t to think you’ll catch me because Pointer ain’t really my name. I use a different name at every house I call at and don’t stay nowhere long. And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga,” he said, using the name as if he didn’t think much of it, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” and then the toast-colored hat disappeared down the hole and the girl was left, sitting on the straw in the dusty sunlight. When she turned her churning face toward the opening, she saw his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake.
Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, who were in the back pasture, digging up onions, saw him emerge a little later from the woods and head across the meadow toward the highway.
“Why, that looks like that nice dull young man that tried to sell me a Bible yesterday,” Mrs. Hopewell said, squinting. “He must have been selling them to the Negroes back in there. He was so simple,” she said, “but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.”
Mrs. Freeman’s gaze drove forward and just touched him before he disappeared under the hill. Then she returned her attention to the evil-smelling onion shoot she was lifting from the ground. “Some can’t be that simple,” she said. “I know I never could.”