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By Isabel Zuber
PicadorCopyright © 2002 Isabel Zuber
All rights reserved.
The moles, he noticed, had made a progress and left ridges between the graves, even tunneled right over them. His grandfather would have been out with castor beans and poisons, his father with his steel trap jammed down above the little animal runs, set and poised to fall like a miniature portcullis, spiking the unwary. Roland smiled. It amused him to think that in this case the moles were having the last say in the matter.
Other than the mole runs, all was in order in the cemetery, grass cut, weeds pulled, markers upright. All that could be done was done. He could go. His mother had once commented that the place seemed a gracious, inviting spot and that it made her think of music. He had no idea why she would feel that way about an ordinary graveyard. She was a mystery to him.
Roland lived in town now, was married, and taught at the college. But he was one, as his acquaintances and relatives would tell him, who had not gotten above his raising. His visits to Faith were fairly regular, first to the cemetery, then to the store, then on to other calls as his quest or an invitation took him.
Sherwood, the longtime store owner, sat in a morris chair by the front window, so bulky and seemingly immobile that Roland could picture him sitting there all through the night watching the road for wrongdoing and misadventures. The man was past remembering all of the community happenings to tell Roland and repeated some of those he had told him before. Still he would usually think to say, "It's too bad about John, your dad," though sometimes he forgot that too. His elderly niece did nearly all the store's work now while Sherwood observed comings and goings. Her reactions to Roland were not predictable. She could nearly fawn over him. "And how is your dear lady wife these days, why don't you bring her to see us?" Or she could scowl at Roland and look sour when he came in and if there was no one to serve she would go into the stockroom and stay until he left.
Today Sherwood did remember something.
"Eli's boy has something for you. Told me to tell you to stop by."
This was to be a scowling day. The niece's expression seemed to say, You will have to tell him. She headed for the stockroom.
ELI'S "BOY." CARL, was the age of Roland's father but still running the post office, as his father had before him.
"But maybe not for much longer," he told Roland. "They've gotten to consolidating everything, schools, post offices, and who knows what else, maybe places themselves. We could lose our souls." He picked up a stack of the circulars, calendars, and catalogs that his patrons left behind and moved them from one end of the narrow table under the window to the other. The table and just such a stack, the mailboxes, and all of the post office supplies had been in the little low room on the Younces' porch for as far back as Roland could remember. Carl was a puttering-around man like his father, but he seemed far less sly.
Eli Younce, Roland's father used to say, had hidden out during the war from the rebels and Union folks alike, especially the Confederate Home Guard. He had a secret hiding place dug out under his house that couldn't be seen even from the cellar and he'd hole up in there with a jar of water, or something much stronger, whenever recruiters were about. As a child Roland had thought of that frightening gravelike place as being built exactly like a coffin and under the floorboards of the post office room he himself trod, though of course it would have been at the earlier Younce house.
"There was no fight in him," John Bayley would say. But there seemed to have been plenty of deviousness.
"HE HAD THEM squirreled away," Carl said. "I didn't find them until long after he passed. There was some more mail besides, but I don't know what's become of the other folks." He looked over Roland's shoulder. "Didn't seem right to throw them out, you being so close by and here so often."
"Thank you," said Roland. "I wonder why he didn't forward them."
"Maybe he didn't know your address after you moved."
Fifteen old-fashioned small envelopes, nearly square, addressed to his mother and postmarked years earlier. As he handled them Roland wondered if they had been steamed open and resealed. Did not know the address? Letters had come to them from Faith. No way not to have known. He thought his hand might shake. He'd not expected anything like this.
"Or maybe he thought she'd be back and he'd give them to her."
I bet. "Anyway, thanks again. I appreciate your holding on to them and letting me know.
"I thought you ought to have them but I don't want no danger to his reputation. You understand? Our being cousins and all?"
THINKING ABOUT ELI and his odd craftiness, Roland wandered off, following Cove Creek down to where the man had once lived. It seemed an appropriate place for secrets.
The Younce family's old homesite on the creek bend was marked now only by two stone chimneys, the low foundation wall, and the cellar hole. No house had been rebuilt on the place after the fire. Eli had long before moved closer in to the community when he became postmaster and let the place out to rent. Tall weeds and a tree or two were growing within the crumbling masonry.
The house had been burnt down when Roland was a boy by a storekeeper rival of Sherwood's who was a stranger to Faith, an odd soul who never did well there. The man had also stolen Roland's father's horse but was never caught and punished for either the theft or the arson.
Below the ruin was a narrow wooden footbridge across the stream. Roland sat down on it, dangling his feet over the brown water. He opened the envelopes.
They contained love letters to his mother, postmarked from two places out West he had never heard of, signed only with the initial M, letters from a man who, though he tried to joke and make light of trials now and then, was clearly lonely and unhappy to the bone, making his way by himself.
I know you said not to write, would not even give me your address. All I know is the name of that little place where you once lived. Perhaps this will reach you if they send it on. I cannot help it. I am without companions here and think of your sweet face all the time. Heaven and earth would not be too great a price if we could be together....
I think of you fondly. Yours, in the sure and precious hope that we shall meet again to be parted never. M.
He had no idea who had written them. Possibly someone his mother had known when she lived and worked in town before she was married, someone who had loved her long ago.
Would she have wanted to see these foolish things? Should she have seen them? There was a great deal he didn't know about his mother.
The letters were much the same, and all ended the same way, except the last.
None of my letters to you have been returned to me and I have sent my address. I have no way of knowing if you ever received any of them and I've not had one from you. I write this last time to tell you that I'm to be married to a Mrs. Bonham, Ellie, a homesteader in her own right, with land that lies next to mine. She is a widow with two small sons. So it seems I shall be a family man after all.
I remember you with great fondness. Yours in the hope that, since probably not again in this world, we may meet in the next.
Roland looked at the water for a while, then tore the letters into little squares and watched them float away downstream like a laundry of tiny handkerchiefs.
bread and salt
On a bright, breezy day children run up the mountainside through the tall sweet grasses, cross circles of soft ferns, run so hard it takes their breath, so fast their small bare feet scarcely touch the ground. They scream back at the hawks overhead, waving their arms. They sing to meadowlarks nesting among the weeds. They wave stern swords and stick flowers behind their ears.
They have been running there always. Look for them.CHAPTER 2
Perhaps his father could be in hell. His spirit had come back from the dead, stood at the foot of John's bed and asked him for a deck of playing cards.
He wore the brown coat that he had been buried in two years before and had a puzzled, rather pained expression. Eternity, the spirit said, was very dull and he needed something to help pass the time.
But there was no time in heaven. John was only ten but he knew that a thousand years in God's sight were but as yesterday when it is past. Could his father not be in heaven after all in spite of the good words preached at the funeral and the things that his mother said? But surely not in hell. Hadn't his father been a decent and honorable man? He woke to wonder how he could get the cards without his mother knowing and how he could pass them on to a ghost. He went about dream-troubled all day. He knew he could not speak to her about the visit since there was a chance such a confidence might provoke one of her spells of agitation. Was there something between heaven and hell he knew not of, and who on earth could he ask?
He missed his father, thought of him nearly every day. The man had been thin but, until the fever, strong as anything, and the hardest of workers. He called John "my boy," might swat him on the rear, but never beat him. In a good and playful mood he would pick up John and wool him briskly, or he might walk around the yard carrying his son upside down by his ankles. Moving through the world with the sky at one's feet was a marvel, but all the blood in one's head was quickly too much. John's cries to be righted were always heeded with a laugh and a hug. His father had never done those things to his sisters. They were too little. Already those little girls didn't remember much about their father at all.
If his mother, Hannah, would stop long enough for him to ask her without saying why, she would certainly tell him that his father was in heaven and he should never, ever doubt it. But she was so busy trying to do everything he could hardly ask her anything at all, much less discuss eternity with her. Most of the time it did not even seem she remembered that, according to his father's last wishes, John had been left the head of the house. His mother went with him to the gristmill, the sawmill, the store, letting him go alone only to school and the post office.
"Always buy the best you can afford," his mother would say, which seemed odd to him, seeing as how they could afford very little, in fact, almost nothing at all.
"Cheap is dear."
"Don't let them ever sell you spoiled hay, warped or knotty lumber, or seed grain with a nose to it. And watch out for short measures." His mother did not actually shake her finger at him but he felt as if she did. "There're honest men and there are those that will cheat you blind, no matter how deserving you may be. I get down on my knees at night to pray you'll grow up to know the difference."
SHE CRIED AT night as well as prayed. He heard her.
But by the light of day she neither cowered nor mourned. She stepped right out. She would walk up to a group of men, not hanging back at all, and talk to them in a loud, forceful voice, the way she sang at church, making them talk to her. When the piece of land they had to sell off was surveyed she walked the line with the survey crew, inspecting every stake, its placement down to the inch.
"It's from the ash to center of the big sugar maple on the ridge and not one bit more," she said, "certainly doesn't include the spring. It wouldn't be worth my while. I'm getting little enough as it is. You know what's agreed."
She also told off the hired hand, letting him know what she thought of his parentage and his mental ability. At that John cringed, afraid the man wouldn't come back to work anymore, but he did.
He was of two minds about his mother. On the one hand, she had usurped his rightful place, but on the other, he was often grateful for her strength and protection.
She was teaching him and at some point his managing duties would begin. He was learning all the time.
And then she went and married the Widower Shull with no forewarning at all. One day she and their neighbor, whose wife had died of consumption in the spring, drove into the county seat and came back wed. John hadn't suspected a thing, not even when his mother went off with her hat on instead of her scarf. Everything changed.
The families were brought together and John was not to be head of the house after all. Perhaps he and his sisters had lost what little inheritance they had as well.
One day he was beaten for the first time. Somebody left the gate open and, though only two of the cows wandered but a short way and were quickly reclaimed, John was punished for it. He was not even sure he was the one who had failed to close and latch the gate.
"A little hickory tea is good for the memory," said that man Shull who wasn't Widower anymore.
YES, I WILL work as I am told. But I will also watch and wait, learn what is needful. A time will come and I will know it.
And he would make sure when he had land that he never had to sell any of it.CHAPTER 3
Thinking of something that happened when she was very small was to her like finding a jewel in the grass; better even, since jewels in the grass turned into nothing more than flecks of mica and drops of dew. But the thoughts were colored crystal windows. You picked one up, held it to the light from whatever source you had and a tiny scene leapt to full-sized life. All at once there Anna was beside her father, riding high in the swaying buggy on a green and gold day. She was so short-legged her feet didn't touch the floor and every curve around the mountain moved her toward or away from her father.
In the valley the road ran straight and open, the earth dark with damp, with new-leafing forest to one side and to the other a grassy bank and meadows edged by rail fences of fresh split wood. A spring wind with the coolness of a shower promised, or just past, blew across their faces. Where they were going and when they would arrive she did not remember.
T. A. Stockton, Anna's own papa, sat tall and dressed in his best suit and white shirt, not a hair or dust mote to be seen on the hard-brushed black wool, not a single scorch mark on the bleached linen though her mother used an iron hot enough to raise steam from her testing spit and the sprinkled clothes. He wore his red silk kerchief tied around his neck and drove as always, holding both the reins and the whip. He would not put the whip down, would never put it in the socket. He might have been saying something serious to her. She had forgotten his words, not having heeded them. Perhaps they had only been about the early flowers that were blooming beside the wet ditches. He ought, he often said, to know the names of all the plants and what they were good for. His mother had tried to teach him, hoping he might make a doctor. His mother, he would tell her, had been a fine horsewoman and an herbalist of note, more practiced in both than her mother, Tina, could ever hope to be. Tina did not know enough of the true English names for such things and never had advantages like a well-trained saddle horse. His mother could "kill or cure," he would say. It always sounded backwards to Anna.
Shouldn't it be cure or kill? she wanted to ask, but did not, knowing how he would have looked at such a question, turning and glaring down at her challenge, his thick eyebrows nearly meeting. His face was always fierce, cut across twice, once by his eyebrows and again by his mustache. He would look like the man with the pistol in his belt, Major DeHaven, her mother's first husband. Major DeHaven actually was much younger, but he was frowning that way in the picture her mother kept in the paper-covered box, along with the letter from the major's commander and a strip of fern-sprigged muslin from a wedding dress. He had been an officer. Her father, who had carried a rifle, had had no real rank that she knew of, only his fierce upright carriage and his anger. She wondered, if Major DeHaven had lived, would he have frowned at her like that? Or would he have smiled and told her funny things? But if the major had not been killed in his very first battle, she would most certainly not be who she was.
Excerpted from Salt by Isabel Zuber. Copyright © 2002 Isabel Zuber. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
MOUNTAIN CITY, 1918,
FORT LAUDERDALE, 1987,
SOURCES FOR EPIGRAPHS AND VERSE,