In this, Wendell Berry’s fifth novel and ninth work of fiction, Andy Catlett revisits his own ninth year in the summer of 1944 when his beloved uncle is shot and killed by the surly and mysterious Carp Harmon. This is his Uncle Andrew, after whom the boy is named, someone who savored “company, talk, some kind of to-do, something to laugh at.”
Years later, still possessed by the story, Andy seeks to get to the bottom of all this, to understand the two men and their lethal connection.
“Berry deftly balances Andy’s investigation into the town’s past with an equally moving realization not only of the sustaining value of memory but of the manner in which they are shaped in enduring ways by what they love . . . a sharp portrait of a town nursing its secrets over decades.”
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It was early July, bright and hot; I was staying with my grandmother and grandfather Catlett. My brother, Henry — who might have been there with me; we often made our family visits together — was at home at our house down at Hargrave. For several good and selfish reasons, I did not regret his absence. When we were apart we did not fight, we did not have to decide who would get what we both wanted, we did not have to trump up disagreements just to keep from agreeing. The day would come when there would be harmony between us and we would be allies, but we had many a trifle to quarrel over before then.
Uncle Andrew, who often ate dinner at Grandma Catlett's, was at work up on the river at Stoneport, as he had been for a week already. He had refused to take me with him. This was in the summer of 1944, when I was nine, nearly ten. The war had made building materials scarce. My father and Uncle Andrew, along with Uncle Andrew's buddies, Yeager Stump and Buster Simms, had bought the buildings of a defunct lead mine at Stoneport with the idea of salvaging the lumber and sheet metal to build some barns. The work was heavy and somewhat dangerous; it was going to take a long time. I could not go because I was too short in the push-up. I felt a little blemished by Uncle Andrew's refusal, and I missed him. Now and again I experienced the tremor of my belief that the adventure of Stoneport had been subtracted from me forever. But I was reconciled. As I was well aware, there were advantages to my solitude.
No day at Grandma and Grandpa's was ever the same as any other, but there were certain usages that I tried to follow, especially when I was there alone. That afternoon, as soon as I could escape attention, I knew I would go across the field to Fred Brightleaf's. Fred and I would catch Rufus Brightleaf's past-work old draft horse, Prince, and ride him over to the pond for a swim. And after supper, when Grandma and Grandpa would be content just to sit on the front porch in the dark, and you could feel the place growing lonesome for other times, I would drift away down to the little house beside the woods where Dick Watson and Aunt Sarah Jane lived. While the light drained from the sky and night fell I would sit with Dick on the rock steps in front of the door and listen to him tell of the horses and mules and foxhounds he remembered, while Aunt Sarah Jane spoke biblical admonitions from the lamplit room behind us; to her, Judgment Day was as much a matter of fact, and as visible, as the Fourth of July.
I was comfortable with the two of them as I was with nobody else, and I am unsure why. It was not because, as a white child, I was free or privileged with them, for they expected and sometimes required decent behavior of me, like the other grown-ups I knew. They had not many possessions, and the simplicity in that may have appealed to me; they did not spend much time in anxiety about things. They had too a quietness that was not passive but profound. Dick especially had the gift of meditativeness. Because he was getting old, what he meditated on was the past. In his talk he dreamed us back into the presence of a supreme work mule named Fanny, a preeminent foxhound by the name of Strive, a long-running and uncatchable fox.
There had been, anyhow, only three of us at the table in Grandma's kitchen that noon: Grandma and Grandpa and me. After dinner, Grandpa got up and went straight back to the barn. I sat on at the table, liking the stillness that filled the old house at such times. The whole world seemed stopped and quiet, as if the sun stood still a moment between its rising up and its going down; you could hear the emptiness of the rooms where nobody was. And then Grandma set the dishpan on the stove and started scraping up our dishes. She had her mind on her work then, and I headed for the door.
"Where are you off to, Andy, old traveler?"
"Just out," I said.
She let me go without even a warning. The good old kitchen sounds were rising up around her. As I went out across the porch I heard her start humming "Rock of Ages." When she was young she had been a good singer, but her voice was cracked now and she could not sustain the notes.
I went down through the field we still called the Orchard, though only one old apple tree was left, and then into the Lower Field, across the part of it that had been cut for hay, and then followed the dusty two-track road around the edge of a field of corn. I saw the ground hog that I planned to shoot as soon as I got old enough to have a .22 rifle. Grandma always put dinner on the table at eleven-thirty, and so it was still close to noon. My shadow was almost underfoot, and I amused myself by stepping on its head as I went along. I was wearing a coarse-woven straw hat that Uncle Andrew had bought for me, calling it "a two-gallon hat, plenty good for a half-pint." The sun shone through holes in the brim in a few places, making little stars in the shadow. I walked fast, telling myself the story of myself: "The boy is walking across the farm. He is by himself. Nobody knows where he is going. It is a pretty day."
On the far side of the cornfield I went through a gate into the creek road and then through another gate into the lane that went up to the Brightleafs' house. There was a row of tall Lombardy poplars that somebody had planted along the little stream that flowed from the Chatham Spring. When I got into the shadow of the first poplar I stopped and called, "Oh, Fred!"
Nobody answered. All around it was quiet. I walked the stepping-stones across the stream and went up to the house, knowing already that nobody was home but not wanting to believe it. I went all the way up to the yard fence and called again. It was a fact. Nobody was there, except for Jess Brightleaf's old bird dog, Fern, who had a litter of pups under the front porch, and Mrs. Brightleaf's old hens who looked at me from their dust holes under the snowball bush and did not get up. It was hot and sweaty, the kind of afternoon that makes you think of water.
Everybody was gone, and for a minute or two I felt disappointed and lonesome. But then the quiet changed, and I ceased to mind. All at once the countryside felt big and easy around me, and I was glad to be alone in it.
I looked at the sugar pear tree, but no pears were ripe yet, and I went on down to the spring. Some of the Chathams had lived there once and had left their name with the good vein of water that flowed from the bedrock at the foot of the hill. But the Chathams probably had not called it the Chatham Spring; probably they had called it after somebody who had been there before — maybe after an Indian, I thought. People named springs after other people, not themselves.
The Chatham Spring was cunningly walled and roofed with rock. There was a wooden door that you opened into a little room, moist and dark, where the vein flowed out of the hill into a pool deep enough for the Brightleafs to dip their buckets. The water flowed out of the pool under a large foot-worn rock that was the threshold of the door. The Brightleafs carried all their household water from the spring.
I opened the door. When my eyes had accepted the dimness I could see the water striders' feet dimpling the surface of the pool and a green frog on a glistening ledge just above the water. I fastened the door and lay down outside at the place I liked best to drink, which was just below the threshold stone where the water was flowing and yet so smooth that it held a piece of the sky in it as still and bright as a set in a ring. The water was so clear you could look down through the reflection of the sky or your face and see maybe a crawfish. I took my hat off and drank big swallows, relishing the coldness of the water and the taste it carried up from the deep rock and the darkness inside the hill. As I drank, the light lay warm on my back like a hand, and I could smell the mint that grew along the stream. When I had drunk all I could hold I put my nose into the water, and then my whole face.
The Chatham Spring had never been dry, not even in the terrible summers of 1908 and 1930 and 1936. People spoke of it as "an everlasting spring." There was a line of such springs lying across that part of the country, and all of them had been cared for a long time and bore the names of families: Chatham and Beechum and Branch and Bower and Coulter. There were days, I knew, when my Grandfather Catlett would ride horseback from one to the other, arriving at each one thirsty, to drink, savor, and reflect on the different tastes of the different waters, those thirsts and quenchings, tastes and differences being signs of something he profoundly knew. And I, as I drank and wetted my face, thought of the springs and of him, my mind leaning back out of the light and into time.
* * *
From the spring I went back to the creek road and across and through another gate and up the long slope of an unclipped pasture. I could see my grandfather's steers gone to shade in a grove of locust trees on up the creek. I walked a while through the ripened bluegrass stems and the clover and Queen Anne's lace, and then I came to a path that led up to a gate at the top of the ridge. There was a fairly fresh manure pile in the path, and I stopped to watch two tumblebugs at work. They shaped their ball, rolled it onto the path, and started down the hill with it, the one in front walking on its forelegs and tugging the ball along with its hind legs, the one in the back walking on its hind legs and pushing the ball with its forelegs. For a while I lost myself in poking around on my hands and knees, looking at the other small creatures who lived in the grass: the ants, the beetles, the worms, the butterflies who sought the manure piles or the flowers, the bees that were working in the clover. Snakes lived in the field too, and rabbits and mice and meadowlarks and sparrows and bobwhites, but I wasn't so likely to come upon those by crawling around and parting the grass with my hands.
After a while I went on up to the gate, and through it, and across the ridge to the pond. That field was the one we called the Pond Field. Grandpa said that when he took over the farm as a young man, that field had been ill used and there were many gullies in it. He had made the pond by working back and forth across a big sinkhole, first with a breaking plow, and then with a slip-scraper in which he hauled the loosened earth to the gullies and filled them. And thus he restored the field at the same time that he dug the pond. A breeze was moving over the pond, covering the surface with little shards and splinters of blue sky. I shucked off my sweaty clothes and laid them in the grass.
Fred Brightleaf and Henry and I were absolutely forbidden to swim in the pond, or anyplace else, without a grownup along. We were absolutely, absolutely forbidden to go swimming alone, without at least another boy on hand to tell where we had drowned. My poor mother, terrified by my transgressions, attempted to keep me alive until grown by a remedy known in our family as "peach tree tea"— a peach (or lilac) switch applied vigorously to the shanks of the legs. This caustic medication inflicted great suffering on me and on her, and produced not the slightest correction in my behavior. If she had been able to whip me while I was swimming, then the pain might have overridden the pleasure and destroyed my willfulness. But since her punishment was necessarily distant from my immersions, the pleasure outweighed the pain and lasted longer. Back there at the pond by myself I could maintain for at least awhile the illusion that I was no more than myself, Andy Catlett, as ancestorless as the first creature, neither the son of Bess and Wheeler Catlett nor the grandson of Dorie and Marce Catlett and Mat and Margaret Feltner.
I crossed the rim of deep cattle tracks at the edge of the pond and waded in, feeling the muddy bottom grow soft and miry underfoot. When I was in knee-deep I launched myself flat out, smacked down, went under, came up, and swam my best overhand stroke out toward the middle. If Fred and Henry had been there we would have raced. Being alone, I took my time. When I got out to the deep place I sucked in a big breath and dived. Way down where the water was black and cold it was revealed to me that if I drowned before I lived to be grown I would be sorry, and I kicked and stroked at the dark, watching the water brighten until my head broke out into daylight and air again.
I swam back into shallow water. This partial concession to my mother's fears made me feel absolved without confession, forgiven without regret. I turned over on my back and floated for a long time. Looked at from so near the surface of the pond, the sky was huge, the world almost nothing at all, and I apparently absent altogether. The sky seemed a great gape of vision, without the complication of so much as an eye. Now and then a butterfly or a snake doctor or a bird would fly across and I would watch it. But what really fascinated and satisfied me were the birds high up that, after you had looked into the sky a while, just appeared or were just there: a hawk soaring, maybe, or a swift or a swallow darting about.
There were three joys of swimming. The first was going down out of the hot air into the cooling water. The second was being in the water. The third was coming out again. After I was cooled and quiet, a little tired, and had begun to dislike the way my fingertips had wrinkled, I waded out into the breeze that was chilly now on my wet skin. I stood in the grass and let the breeze dry me, shivering a little until I felt the warmth of the sun. And maybe the best joy of all, a fourth, was the familiar feeling of my clothes when I put them on again.
For a long time then I just sat in the grass, feeling clean and content, thinking perhaps of nothing at all. I was nine years old, going on ten; having never needed to ask, I knew exactly where I was; I did not want to be anyplace else.CHAPTER 2
What moved me finally was hunger. I thought of the bowl of cold biscuits that Grandma kept covered with a plate in the dish cabinet. If she was in the kitchen when I got there, she would butter me two and fill them with jam. If she was not in the kitchen, I would just take two or three from the bowl and eat them as they were, and that would be good enough.
When I came over the ridge behind the house and barns and started down toward the lot gate, I was pretending to be a show horse. Our father had taken Henry and me to the Shelby County Fair not long before. We had watched the horse show in the old round wooden arena, and I had brought home a program that I read over and over to savor the fine names of the horses. And often when I was out by myself I did the gaits.
It was not apparent to me how a two-legged creature could perform the slow gait or rack, but I could do very credible versions, I thought, of the walk, trot, and canter. And so I was a three-gaited horse, light sorrel, very fine in my conformation and motion and style. And I was the rider of the horse I was. And I was the announcer who said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please ask your horses to canter."
I saw my grandfather then. He was on Rose, his bay mare, coming around the corner of the barn toward the lot gate. He let himself through the gate and shut it again without dismounting, and started up the rise toward me. He was eighty that summer; his walking cane hung by its crook from his right forearm. He had the mare in a brisk running walk. From where I watched, except for the cane, you would have thought him no older than my father. Afoot, he was clearly an old man; on horseback he recovered something of the force and grace of his younger days, and you could see what he had been. He rode as a man rides who has forgotten he is on a horse.
As we drew near to each other, I slowed to a walk and then changed to a trot, which I thought my best gait, wanting him to be pleased. But his countenance, set and stern as it often was, did not change. He reined the mare in only a little.
"Baby, go yonder to the house. Your daddy wants you."
"Why?" I knew he wouldn't tell me, but I asked anyhow.
"Ne' mind! He wants to talk to you."
He put his heel to the mare and went by and on up toward the ridgetop. He rode looking straight ahead. The wind carried the mare's tail out a little to the side and snatched puffs of dust from her footfalls. I watched until first the mare and then he went out of sight over the ridge.
I did not enjoy transactions that began "Your daddy wants to talk to you." I did not cherish the solemn precincts of the grown-up world in which such transactions took place. But I had no choice now, having heard, and I went on to the house. In my guilt I supposed my father had somehow learned of my trip to the pond.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A World Lost"
Copyright © 2008 Wendell Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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