فصل 09

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فصل 09

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It was getting dark when I got back to the house. All the way up the path I thought of how long it would be until I got the tickets from Aunt Mae and what we would do until they came. The wind was really up strong now. It was cold too, and when I got near the house I began to run. I closed my eyes because I knew the path by heart and didn’t open them again until I felt the cinders crunching under my feet.

When I got into the house I closed all the windows because the wind was blowing through every room like it was the outdoors. I lit the old stove in the kitchen and opened a can of corn and put it in a pot. Then I wondered where Mother was. I opened the back door and called out into the wind, but then I remembered she never answered a call from somebody, and anyway, she always came inside when it was dark. The dark scared her.

She was probably upstairs, so I didn’t think about it. When the corn was hot, I poured it in a plate and put some butter on it and got some bread and ate. The wind whistled around the corner of the kitchen, and I heard the pines in Poppa’s clearing slapping each other with that sort of swishing sound they made. I could see the hill in the morning with needles and small branches everywhere and leaves from the bushes pressed up against everything. The cinders would be all covered with green things from all over, and the little animals would be acting wild. The wind always made them that way.

When I finished, I put the plate in the sink with all the other dishes. I looked at all the greasy plates and glasses, and I thought of how I was going to have to wash them all and wished Aunt Mae didn’t take too long to write about the tickets. Then I stood there and thought how she just went off and didn’t think about me taking Mother on a train, and I thought of leaving the valley. I was going to leave the valley for the first time, but Aunt Mae never told me anything about what to do about the things we had in the house, and there were a lot of other things you had to do before you could just pick up and move, and I didn’t know where to write her a letter about what I was supposed to do. I looked up at the old greasy bulb on the cord. It never seemed to burn out, but it was the one we used all the time. I never remembered seeing anybody change it. And I thought that I was really alone with Mother like that bulb hanging from a cord it couldn’t get off of.

As I went into the hall, the wind pulled the front door open and slammed it again. I felt the cold breeze blow past me on its way back to the kitchen. I had put a little latch on the door to lock it at night because there were a few more people around in the hills with all the new houses, and I went over and tried to hook it, but a screw was loose or something and it wouldn’t work, so I just hoped the wind didn’t get in again.

The stairs were all worn so that you had to put your feet where everybody else put theirs when they went up. Every step had two spots, both along the side, where the wood was about an inch lower than it was in the middle and at the end of the steps. Sometimes to be different I’d walk right up the center of the steps where nobody ever did. I did that now. I walked right in the middle where the wood looked like it was new. There were sixteen steps up to the top floor. I counted them as I walked up. Thirteen. Fourteen. I wondered what I was going to do around the house waiting for a letter from Aunt Mae. There wasn’t anybody to talk to, and I never had read books like Mr. Farney said people should learn to so they could make themselves smarter and have something good for when they were lonely and didn’t know what to do with themselves. Fifteen. There was something wet on the step right in a puddle in one of the worn places on the side. In the dark I couldn’t see too well, but there was a little light from down in the kitchen, and I could see it wasn’t water. It was too thick and dark. There was some more on the top step too, so I put my hand in it and rubbed it between my fingers, but I didn’t know what it was. It looked sort of brown in the dimness.

I got to the top and started down the hall, but I stumbled over something that felt hard against my shoe. I stopped and tried to see what it was, but I couldn’t make out anything in the dark, so I felt my way over to the lightbulb we had on the wall. When I pulled the cord and looked around, I saw something that I didn’t think was real. Mother was laying out in the hall with blood coming out her mouth. It had flowed over to the steps because that was the way the floor leaned, and that was what I had felt in my hand. I looked at my hand. Blood was stuck in the cracks in my fingers and was starting to get dry where it was thin. I wiped my hands on my pants and went over to where she was. Just looking at her made me scared. I thought she was dead, but when I got down and touched her arm it was still warm, and I could hear her breathing loud. The blood was getting all stuck in her hair and was making a little shallow pool around her. I put my hand over her mouth to try and stop more from coming out, but when I took my hand away after a while, all that I had been holding in poured out all at once and made a little wave down the side of her face and neck and made the border of the pool on the floor get wider.

My mind couldn’t seem to tell me what to do. I thought I felt my chin start to go in like it did when I was little, but I knew I was too old to cry. What I had to do was to try to think what I was supposed to do with her like that. Somewhere I had heard you shouldn’t move people who were like that, but I couldn’t let her stay on the floor because it was getting cold. I bent down near her face and began saying, “Mother, Mother,” but she didn’t move, so I put my hands under her, one by her back and one by her legs, and I carried her into the room where she slept. Mother was so skinny and her skin was so stretched-looking, but she was heavy, and once I was worried I was going to drop her. All the way into the room blood dripped from her dress and kept pouring from her mouth. Her hair was hanging down, and it was all white near her head, but it was red where it was in the pool on the floor, and blood dripped off the ends of it too.

I put her on the bed and put an old blanket over her mouth so it would soak up the blood. After I did this, I sat down on the edge of the bed and I poked at her. Her arm was right next to me, so I ran my hand along it and took her hand and held it. I wondered what was wrong. This was the first time I thought about it long enough to wonder. Blood coming out of her mouth. I rocked the bed a little bit and called her name, but she didn’t answer. The wind just kept blowing around the house, and the front door slammed hard again and sounded far off.

Now I was afraid, and I didn’t know what to do. Where could I get a doctor, and what would I pay him with? We needed the money I had in the house to eat. Doctors were expensive, especially for something like this that looked like it would cost a lot. We never did have a doctor up at the house, and I didn’t know where to get one. I thought maybe if I kept Mother quiet, she would be better in the morning. The blood had stopped flowing, so that looked better, but it was all over the bed now, and it was starting to get sticky on the sheet. I went and got a wet rag and wiped her face and neck and got all the blood off that wasn’t too stuck.

As I wiped around her mouth, I looked at her. This wasn’t Mother, all brown and dried out and covered with sticky blood. I ran my hand on her forehead like I used to when it was white and soft, but it was dry and hard and dark. She was breathing hard, and sometimes it sounded something like a sigh, a sort of choking sigh. The bed looked too big for her, so small and dry in the light that came through the door from the hall, the dim yellow light that made her look even worse.

Then I was crying, and I didn’t want to. I had to think of what I was going to do with her here and Aunt Mae gone. My mother was dying. I knew it, and I couldn’t do anything about it. The wind just blew cold and strong against the window in the room. It was the only other thing besides me and Mother up there on the hill. I held my hands up to my eyes like I was afraid somebody would see me and think I was too old to do it, and I cried like I never cried in my life, even when I was little. I couldn’t stop, and I tried to catch my breath, but all of the things that had gone wrong came into my mind, and I put my head up against Mother on the bed and held her in my arms and cried on her hard chest like I did when it was full and round.

I felt her tremble. Something made me look up at her face, and her lips were moving. I tried to understand what she was saying, but they just moved for a while without making any sound, dry and cracked and with blood caked on them. The wind began blowing stronger and louder, so I got up closer to her face to hear, and she said, “Frank,” and the breathing stopped, and she laid still in my arms.

All that night I stayed in the room where my train was. The wind howled and whistled and shook the house, and I was frightened. My mother was dead in the next room with a blanket over her. It was cold in the house, in the room where I was and in the next room too, but I guess it was colder in that room.

The night seemed like it would never get light again and like the wind would never stop. I sat down on the floor next to the rusty train and felt the wind blow in through the cracks in the wall and the openings around the window. My arms got full of little bumps, and I felt them on my legs too. I don’t know why, but I kept thinking about Jo Lynne and the night in the new houses, and I wondered what she was doing now and where she was. But all the time I was still frightened and thinking about what I was going to do, too.

What would I do about burying Mother? I didn’t know where I could write to Aunt Mae. She would tell me what to do, but I couldn’t get her. And I thought about how much it cost to bury somebody. I didn’t hardly have any money but what Mr. Williams gave me in the envelope, and that wouldn’t do anything. If you didn’t have the money to bury somebody, the state took care of them and buried them in some place in the capital without a name on the stone. Mother couldn’t go there, and I couldn’t wait a week to hear from Aunt Mae. You couldn’t wait a week to bury somebody, either.

The light came up at last, first thin and pink, and then red and strong. I got up and went downstairs because I was hungry. There were some eggs in the kitchen, so I fried one and ate it, but I had let it in the pan too long, and it was brown on the bottom and tough. The yellow tasted creamy and good, but I had to chew the white a long time before it would break up and I could swallow it.

When the day was in full, I saw it was going to be an early winter day with a bright blue sky and a cold breeze blowing through the hills. The sun was out, so I put on my coat and went and sat on the back steps. I wanted to be out of the house so maybe I could think about what I was going to do, but my mind wouldn’t settle on one thing. I thought about a whole lot of different things while I sat there, and I could only get one thing clear.

I got the shovel that Poppa bought when he started to plant the clearing. It was under the house, all rusty, and had spider webs on the handle, so I wiped it off with a piece of paper before I used it. Back in the clearing I couldn’t decide where to start digging. There were a lot of places that looked good. I finally picked a place between two pretty pines where it was dark and the wind was combed out until it was just a slight breeze. The clay was soft, so it was easy to dig. The only trouble I had was with roots, but there weren’t too many of them, and they broke off pretty clean when I hit them with the shovel blade. The breeze blew some needles and cones down into the hole, and some bush leaves. And it blew more things up against the pile of clay that was building up where I shoveled it. I hit some rocks too, but they weren’t big ones, just little gray chips.

By the time I finished it was getting warmer, but the breeze was still up through the pines. I could see by the sun that it was just about noon. There weren’t any shadows in the hole now except for the ones the pine branches above made, and the trunks didn’t have any dark twin hanging behind them. The morning was over. I felt hungry again, so I went in the house and found another can in the kitchen. It was just tomatoes. I ate them out the can without heating them, and they needed salt.

It was colder in the house than it was outside. I had left the windows closed, and the cold air from the night was still all over everything. I would go upstairs in a little while, I thought, and get her, but I’d rather just sit in the kitchen now a while. Just as I was finishing a glass of water, I heard something moving around on the front porch, and the door opened. Aunt Mae kept Poppa’s old gun in the kitchen in case somebody or some animal came around when she was there with Mother. I never knew why, because they didn’t have any big enough animals in the hills and no people ever came up near the house, but I took the gun from behind the stove now, although I never had used one in my life.

By the footsteps in the hall I knew it was a man. Then he coughed and broke the still and cold of the house. I got the gun and put it by the kitchen door and went into the hall.

“Hello there, Robert.”

It was the preacher.

“My name’s David.” I wondered what he was doing in the house.

“David. Pardon me. It’s just so long since I’ve known your family at the church.”

I didn’t say anything, and when he saw I wasn’t going to talk, he went on again.

“Well, I see your aunt has gone away, son, and I might as well get down to brass tacks, as the expression goes. I’m here on behalf of the state, son. Now, you know your mother needs a better place to stay, and you can’t take care of her here by yourself. When your aunt was here it was different, but now with her gone. . .”

“What do you want?” I kept my eyes on him, but he was looking all over the place and never looked at me.

“Now, I have my car at the bottom of the hill, and I’m ready to take her off to a very nice place not far from here. You know where I’m talking about. She’ll be happy there, son. This is no place for her to be with just a boy and all. Get a few of her clean dresses together, if you will. Now, is she upstairs? Go get her down here. I’ll just sit in the front room and wait.”

“She isn’t going with you. She isn’t here,” I said as he started to walk to the old couch. He turned around.

“Now, son, maybe you don’t understand. It’s for your own good, and for the town too. As a Christian, I want to see that what’s done is the best for all. I’ll go up and get her myself.”

He walked over to the stairs and started up, but I called to him.

“She’s not up there. Anyway, you can’t come in here like that. Get out of here. You hear me, get out of here. Get off those steps, damn you, before I come pull you off and get the sheriff. Get the hell out of this house, you bastard, I know what you. . .”

“I won’t listen to any more of your profanity, boy. Keep your peace and be grateful that someone has enough interest to work for you and help you in the name of the Lord!”

He started up the steps again, and I ran back in the kitchen and got the gun. I aimed and fired just as he got to the top. The gun kicked me up against the wall, and when I got my balance again, I saw him falling forward. He didn’t scream or anything like I had expected from the movies. He just fell there at the top of the steps and laid quiet.

I dropped the gun and stared up at the top of the steps. He didn’t move. He was sprawled out with his head and hands in the hall upstairs and his body down on the steps. The back of his head was beginning to get red, a bright sort of red.

When I got up enough courage to look at it, I walked up the steps to where he was. I had shot him through the back of the head right near where his neck began. The blood pumped out in little spurts and flowed from the hall onto the top step, where it made a new pool in one of the worn-out foot spots over Mother’s blood that was caked from the night before. I stayed up against the rail on the other side of the steps and didn’t get near him, and I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. When the blood didn’t stop, I turned my head away and looked down in the hall near the kitchen where the gun was on the floor. Then I looked back at him. The blood had stopped, and I felt sick in the stomach. I had killed somebody.

The cold in the house made me shiver even though I had a coat on. I ran down the upstairs hall and went into the room where the train was and slammed the door. I tried to open the window to let some of the warm outside air in, but it wouldn’t move. My legs were tingling up and down the inside, and I felt it grab me right up between them. Outside the pines were blowing in the breeze. The sun was all over everything, and the sky was that bright clear blue that hurts your eyes if you look at it. But it was cold and dark in the house, and I wanted to get outside in the warmth and sun. I had to do something first, though.

It was cold and darker, I thought, in the room where Mother was. Under the cover I could see her shape, but not too well. The only parts that stuck up were her feet and head. The rest was sunken in and looked like just part of the mattress, but I knew she was there, and it made me scared. Without taking the old blanket off, I put my hands under her and picked her up. She was heavier than I thought she would be, and her cold and stiffness made me want to put her down and wash my hands and get out of the house.

As I carried her past where the preacher was, the blanket dragged through the blood and made a trail down the steps until I got to the kitchen door, where it stopped leaving a red trail but just made the floor damp. I had to put Mother down to open the back door, and the blanket fell away from her legs, and I saw them stiff and cold and brown. Before I picked her up again, I threw the blanket back in place so I wouldn’t see any of her. The hard brown flesh made my stomach turn over.

When I had filled in the hole back in the clearing, I threw leaves and needles and scattered things over it so nobody would know where it was and disturb it. Then I saw that the mound still showed, so I got the shovel and leveled it off and threw the dirt all over. Then I put some more branches and things over it, and I thought it looked the best I could make it.

I went and threw the shovel way under the house and was going off, but I went back to the clearing and got down on my knees where the things were all scattered, and I prayed, and the pines began to make longer shadows over the place. Then I knew I couldn’t stay any longer.

The envelope Mr. Williams gave me was in my coat pocket, so I went out of the clearing and looked back once and went on down the path. I walked through town and said hello to people I knew, but I didn’t look back at our hill or the house or what was in it. Nobody had heard the shot. The house was too far away from anything else, and they always had hunters up in the hills.

The man at the train stop said there was one coming in in about half an hour, but he didn’t know where it was going. I sat down on the bench there and waited.

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