THE SOUND OF GUNSHOTS, LIKE BONES SNAPPING.
New York: its relentless clamor, harsh metallic rhythms and hammering footsteps; its subways and shoeshines, gridlocked junctions and yellow cabs; its lovers’ quarrels; its history and passion and promise and prayers.
The city swallows gunshots effortlessly, as if they were no more significant than the beats of a lonely heart.
No one heard it amidst such a quantity of life.
Perhaps because of all these other sounds.
Perhaps because no one was listening.
Even the dust, caught in a shaft of moonlight through the third floor hotel window, moved suddenly by the retort of the shots, resumed its errant but progressive path.
Nothing happened, for this was New York, and such lonely and undiscovered fatalities were legion, almost indigenous, briefly remembered, effortlessly forgotten.
The city went on about its business. A new day would soon begin, and no death possessed the power to delay it.
I am an exile.
I look back across the span of my life, and I try to see it for what it was. Amidst the madness that I encountered, amidst the rush and smash and brutality of the collisions of humanity I have witnessed, there have been moments. Love. Passion. Promise. The hope of something better. All these things. But I am faced with a vision, and now I see it wherever I turn. I was Salinger’s “Catcher,” standing there on the edge of a shoulder-high field of rye, aware of the sound of unseen children playing among the waves and sways of color, hearing their catch-as-catch-can laughter, their games --- their childhood if you will --- and watching intently for when they might come too close to the edge of the field. For the field floated free and untethered, as if in space, and were they to reach the edge there wouldn’t be time to stop them before they fell. So I watched and waited and listened and tried so hard to be there before they went tumbling away off the precipice beyond. For once they fell there would be no recovering them. They were gone. Gone, but not forgotten.
This has been my life.
A life spooled out like thread, strength uncertain, length unknown; whether it will cease abruptly or run out endlessly, binding more lives together as it goes; in one instance no more than cotton, barely sufficient to gather a shirt together at its seams, in another a rope --- triple woven, turk’s-head closures, each strand and fiber tarred and twisted to repel water, or blood; a rope to raise a barn, to fashion Portuguese bowlines and deliver a near-drowned child from a flooded runoff, to hold a roan mare and break her will, to bind a man to a tree and beat him for his crimes, to hoist a sail, to hang a sinner.
A life to hold, or to slip through uncaring and inattentive hands, but always a life.
And given one, we wish for two, or three, or more, so easily forgetting the first gift unwisely spent.
Time travels straight as a hopeful fishing line, weeks gathering to months gathering to years; yet, with all this time, a heartbeat of doubt and the prize is gone.
Special moments --- sporadic, like knots tied, irregularly spaced as if crows on a telegraph wire --- these we remember, and dare not forget, for often they are all that is left to show.
I remember all of them, and more besides, and sometimes wonder if imagination hasn’t played a part in designing my life.
For that’s what it was, and always will be: a life.
Now that it has reached its closing chapter I feel it is time to tell of all that has happened. For that’s who I was, who I will always be... nothing more than the storyteller, the teller of tales, and if judgment is to be made on who I am or what I have done, then so be it.
This, though, will stand as truth --- a testament if you will, even a confession.
I sit quietly. I feel the warmth of my own blood on my hands, and I wonder how long I will continue to breathe. I look at the body of a dead man before me, and I feel that in some small way justice has been served.
We go back now, to the beginning. Walk with me, if you will, for this is all I can ask, and though I have committed so many wrongs, I believe that I have done enough right to warrant this much time.
Take a breath. Hold it. Release it. Everything must be silent, for when they come, when they finally come for me, we must be quiet enough to hear them.
RUMOR, HEARSAY, FOLKLORE. WHICHEVER WAY IT LAID DOWN TO rest or came up for air, rumor had it that a white feather indicated the visitation of an angel.
On the morning of Wednesday, July twelfth, 1939, I saw one, long and slender and unlike any kind of feather I’d seen before. It skirted the edge of the door as I opened it, almost as if it had waited patiently to enter, and the draft from the hallway carried it into my room. I picked it up, held it carefully, and then showed it to my mother. She said it was from a pillow. I thought about that for quite some time. Made sense that pillows were stuffed with angels’ feathers. That’s where dreams came from --- the memories of angels seeping into your head while you slept. Got me to thinking about such things.
Things like God. Things like Jesus dying on the cross for our sins that she told me about so often. I never took to the idea, never was a religious- minded boy. Only later, with years behind me, would I understand hypocrisy. It seemed that my childhood was littered with folks that said one thing and did another. Even our minister, the circuit rider, Reverend Benedict Rousseau, was a hypocrite, a charlatan, a fraud --- one hand indicating the Way of the Scripture, the other lost amidst the boundless pleats of his sister’s skirt. As a child, I never really saw such things. Children, perceptive as they may be, are nevertheless selectively blind. They see everything, no question about it, but they choose to interpret what they see in a manner that suits their sensibilities. And so it was with the feather, nothing much of anything at all, but in some small way an omen, a portent. My angel had come to visit. I believed it, believed it with all my heart, and so the events of that day seemed all the more disparate and incongruous. For this was a day when everything changed.
Death came that day. Workmanlike, methodical, indifferent to fashion and favor, disrespectful of Passover, Christmas, all observance or tradition, Death came to collect the tax, the due paid for breathing. And when Death came I was standing in the yard amidst the scrubbed earth and dry topsoil, surrounded by carpetweed and chickweed phlox and wintergreen. He came along the High Road I think, came all the way along the border between my father’s land and that of the Krugers’. I believe He walked, because later, when I looked, there were no horse tracks, nor those of a bicycle, and unless Death could move without touching the ground I assumed He came on foot.
Death came to take my father.
My father’s name was Earl Theodore Vaughan. Born September twenty-seventh, 1901, in Augusta Falls, Georgia, when Roosevelt was president, hence his middle name. He did the same for me, gave me Coolidge’s name in 1927, and there I was --- Joseph Calvin Vaughan, son of my father --- standing amidst the carpetweed when Death came to visit in the summer of ’39. Later, after the tears, after the funeral and the Southern wake, we tied his cotton shirt to a branch of sassafras and set it afire. We watched it burn down to nothing, the smoke representing his soul passing from this mortal earth to a higher, fairer, more equitable plane. Then my mother took me aside, and through her shadowed and swollen eyes she told me that my father had died of a rheumatic heart.
“The fever took him,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “It came down here, winter of ’29. You were naught but a babe, Joseph, and your father was racked with phlegm and spittle sufficient to irrigate an acre of good soil. Once the fever grips your heart, it weakens it so you can never recover, and there was a time, maybe a month or more, when we were biding the hours until he died. But he didn’t go then, Joseph. The Lord saw fit to leave him be for a handful of years more. Maybe the Lord wanted to wait until you were grown.” She reached into the pocket of her apron and took out a gray rag to wipe her eyes. My mother possessed the hangdog demeanor of a ruined bareknuckle fighter, broken-spirited and defeated on a Saturday night. “The fever was in his heart, you see,” she whispered, “and we were lucky to keep him for the years we did.”
But I knew that the rheum hadn’t taken him. Death took him, coming down from the High Road, heading back the same way, leaving nothing but His footprints in the dirt by the fence.
Later my thoughts of my father would be fractured and distended with grief, thinking of him as Juan Gallardo perhaps, as brave as that character in Blood and Sand, though never inconstant, and never as handsome as Valentino.
The farmers from adjoining tracts, Kruger the German amongst them, drove his body along the country blacktop on a flatbed truck where my father was buried in a plain, warped coffin. Later they congregated, dour and suited, in our kitchen, amid the smell of onions fried in chicken fat, the aroma of Bundt cake, the scent of lavender water in a pottery jug by the sink. And they spoke of my father, airing their reminiscences, their anecdotes, telling tall tales within wider narratives, each of them embellished and embroidered with facts that were fiction.
My mother sat wordless and watchful, her expression one of artless simplicity, her eyes deeper than wells, dilated pupils as black as pitch.
“One time I watched him all night with the mare,” Kruger said. “He lay there ’til sunrise feeding the old girl handfuls of crow corn to stop the colic.”
“Tell you a story about Earl Vaughan and Kempner Tzanck,” Reilly Hawkins said. He leaned forward, his red and callused hands like bunches of some dried foreign fruit, eyes going this way and that as if forever searching out something that held a purpose to evade him. Reilly Hawkins farmed a tract south of ours, had been there long before we arrived. He welcomed us like long-lost even on our first day, raised our barn with my father, and took nothing more than a jug of cold milk for his trouble. Life had sculpted him a patina, features crazed with fine wrinkles, eye whites close to mother-of-pearl, kind of eyes washed clear and clean by tears for fallen friends. His family, too, was gone and nearly forgotten, from war, or fire or flood, others from accident and foolish misadventure. Ironic now, how impulsive moments --- in and of themselves nothing more than efforts to affirm and grace existence with a rush of vibrancy --- resulted in death, like Reilly’s younger brother, Levin, all of nineteen years old, at the Georgia State Fair. There was a half-drunk and garrulous stunt pilot who owned a Stearman or a Curtiss Jenny and crop dusted in season. Reilly had goaded and cajoled Levin into taking a flight with the man. Words went back and forth between the brothers like some pas-de-deux, a precision two-step, a tango of dares and provocations, each phrase a step, an arched foot, a bowed back, an aggressive shoulder. Levin didn’t want to go, said his head and heart were built for ground-level observation, but Reilly kept at it, worked his fraternal angle despite knowing better, despite the haunt of sourmash around the pilot, despite the closing evening light. Levin conceded, went up on a wing and a prayer for a quarter dollar, and the pilot, braver than he was adroit, attempted a bunt followed by a hammerhead stall. The engine died its death at the apex. Long breathless silence, a rush of wind, and then a sound like a tractor hitting a wall. Killed the pair of them, and left the pilot and Levin Hawkins like two helpings of scorched roadkill. Plume of smoke three hundred feet high and still a ghost of it come morning. The assistant, a kid no more than sixteen or seventeen, walked around for some hours with no expression on his face, and then he too disappeared.
Reilly Hawkins’ folks died soon after. He tried to keep the small farm together after they passed on, both of them brokenhearted after Levin’s death, but even the hogs seemed to look sideways at him like they understood his guilt. Never a word of blame in Reilly’s direction, but old man Hawkins, chewing ceaselessly on his Heidsieck champagne tobacco, would watch the older brother, watch him like there was a debt to be repaid and he was waiting for Reilly to offer up. His eyes would twitch back and forth like a quit smoker in a cigar store. Never a word spoken, but the word always present.
Reilly Hawkins had never married, some said because he couldn’t give children and had no shame to admit it. I believed that Reilly never married because his heart was broken once, and thought that to have it broken a second time would kill him. Rumor said it was a girl from Berrien County, pretty as a Chinese baby. Figured not to risk such a venture as he had other reasons to live. Choice between some wide mouthed girl from an over-stretched family, girl who wore cotton print dresses, rolled her own cigarettes and drank straight from the bottle --- that, or loneliness. Seemed to have chosen the latter, but of this he never spoke directly, and I never directly asked. That was Reilly Hawkins, the little I knew of him at the time, and there was no guessing his purpose or direction, for more often than not he seemed a man of will over sense.
“Earl was a fighter,” Reilly said that day in our kitchen, the day of the funeral. He glanced at my mother. She didn’t move much, but he eyes and the way she glanced back was permission for him to continue.
“Earl and Kempner went up beyond Race Pond, over to Hickox in Brantley County. Went up there to see a man called Einhorn if I remember right, a man called Einhorn who had a roan for sale. Stopped in a place on the way just to take a drink, and while they were resting a brute of a character came in and started up hollering like a banshee in a war bonnet. Upsetting folk he was, upsetting them and getting people riled and ornery, and Earl suggested the man take his business outside and into the trees where no one could hear him.”
Reilly looked once more at my mother, and then at me. I didn’t move, wanted to hear what my father had done to calm this brute of a character near Hickox in Brantley County. My mother didn’t raise her hand, nor her voice, and Reilly smiled.
“Cut a long story down to size, this brute tried to level Earl with a roundhouse. Earl sidestepped and sent the man flying out through the doorway into the dirt. Went after him, tried to talk some sense into the devil, but the man had a fighting heart and a fighting head and there was no reasoning with him. Kempner went out there just as the man came up again and went for Earl with a plank of wood. Earl was like one of these Barnum & Bailey acrobats, dancing back and around, fists like pistons, and one of those pistons just connected with the big man’s nose, and you could hear the bone break in a dozen places. Blood was like a waterfall, man’s shirt was soaked, kneeling there in the dirt and howling like a stuck pig.”
Reilly Hawkins leaned back and smiled. “Heard that the old boy’s nose never did stop bleeding... just kept on running ’til he was all emptied out.”
“Reilly Hawkins,” my mother said. “That was never a true story and you know it.”
Hawkins looked sheepish. “No disrespect, ma’am,” he said, and bowed his head deferentially. “I wouldn’t want to be upsetting you on such a day.”
“Only thing that ever upsets me is untruths and half-truths and outright lies, Reilly Hawkins. You’re here to see my husband away to the Lord, and I’d be obliged if you’d mind your language, your manners, and keep a truthful tongue in your head, especially in front of the boy.” She looked over at me. I sat there wide-eyed and wondering, wanting to know all the more gory details regarding my father: a man who could right-hook a brute’s nose and deliver death by exsanguinations.
Later I would remember my father’s burial. Remember that day in Augusta Falls, Charlton County --- some antebellum outgrowth bordering the Okefenokee River --- remember an acreage that was more swamp than earth; the way the land just sucked everything into itself, ever hungry, never satiated. That swollen land inhaled my father, and I watched him go; I all of eleven years old, he no more than thirty-seven, me and my mother standing with a group of uneducated and sympathetic farmers from the four corners of the world, jacket sleeves to their knuckles, rough flannel trousers that evidenced inches of worn-out sock. Rubes perhaps, more often uncouth than mannered, but robust of heart, hale and generous. My mother held my hand tighter than was comfortable, but I said nothing and I did not withdraw. I was her first and only child, because --- if stories were true, and I had no reason to doubt them --- I had been a difficult child, resistant to ejection, and the strain of my birth had ruined the internal contraptions that would have enabled a larger family.
“Just you and me, Joseph,” she later whispered. The people had gone --- Kruger and Reilly Hawkins, others with familiar faces and un- certain names --- and we stood side by side looking out from the front door of our house, a house raised by hand from sweat and good timber. “Just you and me from now on,” she said once more, and then we turned inside and closed the door for the night.
Later, lying in my bed, sleep evading me, I thought of the feather. Perhaps, I thought, there were angels who delivered and angels who took away.
Gunther Kruger, a man who would become more evident in my life as the days went on, told me that Man came from the earth, that if he didn’t return there would be some universal imbalance. Reilly Hawkins said that Gunther was a German, and Germans were incapable of seeing the bigger picture. He said that people were spirits.
“Spirits?” I asked him. “You mean like ghosts?”
Reilly smiled, shook his head. “No, Joseph,” he whispered. “Not like ghosts... more like angels.”
“So my father has become an angel?”
For a moment he said nothing, leaning his head to one side with a strange squint in his eye. “Your father, an angel?” he said, and he smiled awkwardly, like a muscle had tensed in the side of his face and would not so easily release. “Maybe one day... figure he has some work to do, but yes, maybe one day he’ll be an angel.”
ALONG THE COAST OF GEORGIA --- CROOKED RIVER, JEKYLL ISLAND, Gray’s Reef and Dover Bluff --- roads that were more half-bridges and causeways wishing they were roads, every now and then skipping stretches of water like flat stones spinning from the hands of children; a flooded swell of islands, creeks, sounds, salt marshes and river inlets, trees shrouded in Spanish moss, split logs bound together to navigate a corduroy track across the deeper swamps, while the flatlands in the southeast rose gradually across the state to the Appalachians. The Georgians grew rice, and then Eli Whitney came with the cotton gin, and field hands harvested peanuts, and settlers tapped the pines for curing rope, caulking the seams of sails with pitch and turpentine for paint. Sixty thousand square miles of history, a history I learned, a history I believed in.
A tablet-arm chair; a one-room schoolhouse; a teacher called Miss Alexandra Webber. A wide-jowled open prairie of a face, eyes cornflower blue, simple and uncomplicated. Her hair was flax and linen, and forever she smelled of licorice and peppermint, and something beneath that like ginger root or sarsaparilla. She gave no quarter, expected none in return, and her depth of patience was matched solely by the spirit of her anger if she felt you had willfully disobeyed her.
I sat beside Alice Ruth Van Horne, a strange, sweet girl I found myself caring for in some inexplicable way. There was something simple and affecting in the way she twirled her bangs as she concentrated, every once in a while glancing back at me like I had the answer she couldn’t find. Perhaps I gave her the impression I understood this thing she sought, perhaps for no other reason than appreciating her attention, but when she was absent I was aware of that absence in some manner other than physical presence. I was eleven, soon to be twelve, and sometimes I considered things that would not have been appropriate to share with others. Alice represented something that I did not fully understand, something that I knew would be altogether too difficult to explain. For the four years I had attended the school, Alice had been there, ahead of me, beside me, for one term seated at the desk behind. When I looked at her she smiled, sometimes blushed, and then she would look away, only to wait a moment and look at me again. I believed her sentiment was uncomplicated and flawless, and I knew that one day, perhaps, both of us might recall it as a perfect memory of who we had been as children.
Miss Webber, however, represented something else entirely. I loved Miss Alexandra Webber. My love was as clear and simply defined as her features. Miss Webber conducted her classes along Robert’s Rules of Order, and her voice, her silence, everything that she was and everything I imagined she would ever be, was an anodyne and a panacea following the death of my father.
“Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne... who has heard of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne?”
Silence. Nothing but the sound of my heart as I watched her. Seventeen of us were crowded in that narrow plank board room, and not one raised their hand.
“I am disappointed, “Miss Webber said. Apparently she had come all the way from Syracuse to teach us. People from Syracuse breathed different air, air that made their heads clear, their minds sharp; people from Syracuse were a different race.
“Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, born in 1722, died in 1792. He was a British general during the Revolution. He found himself surrounded by our troops at Saratoga on the seventeenth of October, 1777. It was the first great American victory and a truly decisive battle of the war.”
She paused. My heart missed a beat.
I damn near swallowed my tongue.
“Where have you gone to, Joseph Vaughan... surely you’re not on this earth?”
“I am, miss, y-yes... yes, of course I am.”
The sound of cupped laughter, like the ghosts of trick-or-treat children. Children I knew from Liberty County and McIntosh, others from Silco and Meridan. Alice was amongst them. Alice Ruth Van Horne. Laverna Stowell. Sheralyn Williams. They came from all around to learn of life with Miss Alexandra Webber.
“Well, I am very pleased to hear that, Joseph Calvin Vaughan. Now, in order to demonstrate how much attention you have been paying this afternoon, you can stand beside your desk and explain to us exactly what happened at Brandywine, Southeast Pennsylvania in the same year.”
My précis was stale and insubstantial. I was instructed to stay late and wash the blackboard rags.
She stood over me, at first I believed to ascertain whether I would shirk my duty, perhaps to reprimand me further for my lack of concentration.
“Joseph Vaughan,” she started.
The schoolroom was empty. It was mid-afternoon. My father had been dead the better part of three months. I would be twelve in five days.
“Our lesson today... I had the definite impression that you were bored.”
I shook my head.
“But you were not paying attention, Joseph.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Webber... I was thinking about something else.”
“And what would that have been?”
“I was thinking about the war, Miss Webber.”
“You have heard about the war in Europe?” she asked. She seemed surprised, though I would not have known why.
“Who told you?”
“My mother, Miss Webber... my mother told me.”
“She is a cultured and intelligent woman, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know, Miss Webber.”
“Believe me, Joseph Vaughan, any American woman living in Georgia who knows about Adolf Hitler and the war in Europe, I’ll tell you now that that woman is a cultured and intelligent person.”
“Yes, Miss Webber.”
“Come sit down, Joseph,” Miss Webber said. I looked up at her. I was a handful of years younger and perhaps half a foot shorter.
She indicated her desk at the front of the classroom. “Come,” she said. “Come sit here and talk with me for a moment or two before you leave.”
I did as I was told. My skin felt too big for my frame. I could feel my skeleton struggling as it dealt with such flexibility and inexactitude.
“Tell me another word for a color,” she said.
I looked at her, my puzzlement evident.
She smiled. “It’s not an exam, Joseph, just a question. Do you know another word for a color?”
“A hue, miss.”
“Good,” she said, and smiled wide. Her cornflower eyes blossomed beneath a Syracuse sun.
“And another word?”
“Yes, Joseph, another word for a color.”
“A shade perhaps, a tint... something like that?”
She nodded. “And can you think of another word meaning many?”
“Many? Like a host, a multitude?”
Miss Webber tilted her head to one side. “A multitude?”
“Where d’you find a word like that, Joseph Vaughan?”
“In the Bible, Miss Webber.”
“Your mother has you read the Bible?”
I shook my head.
“You read it yourself?”
“Why?” she asked.
“I wanted---” I could feel the color flushing my cheeks. How many words for such a feeling? I thought.
“You wanted what, Joseph?”
“I wanted to learn about angels.”
I nodded. “The seraphim and the cherubim, the celestial hierarchy.”
Miss Webber laughed, and then she caught herself. “I’m sorry, Joseph. I didn’t mean to laugh. You merely surprised me.”
I said nothing. My cheeks were hot; like the summer of ’33 when the river dried up.
“Tell me about the celestial hierarchy.”
I shifted awkwardly in the chair. I felt something like embarrassment. I didn’t want Miss Webber to ask about my father.
“There are nine orders of angels,” I said, my voice catching at the back of my throat like it had encountered a crab net. “The seraphim. . . fiery six-winged creatures who guard God’s throne. They’re known as the Sacred Ardor. Then there are the cherubim, who have large wings and human heads. They are God’s servants and the Guardians of Sacred Places. Then there are thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, and then come the archangels, like Gabriel and Michael. Finally there are angels themselves, the divine intermediaries who protect people and nations.”
I paused. My mouth and throat were dry. “Michael fought Lucifer and cast him down to Gehenna.”
“Gehenna?” Miss Webber asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Gehenna.”
“And why did Michael fight Lucifer?”
“He was the lightbringer,” I said. “That’s what his name means. . . lux means light and ferre means to carry. Some people call him the morning star, other people call him the lightbringer. He used to be an angel. He was supposed to bring his light forward and show God where Man had sinned.”
I glanced toward the door. I felt stupid, like perhaps I was being tricked into talking about things. I looked back amiss Webber and she was just smiling, her expression one of interest and curiosity.
“He brought his light and showed God where Man had sinned, and he collected evidence, sort of like a policeman would. He then told God, and God would punish people for what they’d done.”
“So what was wrong with that?” Miss Webber asked. “Seemed like he was just doing his job.”
I shook my head. “He did at first, and then he became more interested in pleasing God than in the truth. He started tricking people into doing bad things so he could tell God all about it. He brought temptation to Man, and was tempted himself. He started to tell lies, and God got real mad at him. Then Lucifer tried to start a mutiny amongst the angels, and Michael fought with him and he was cast down to Gehenna.”
I stopped talking. My mouth had run away with itself. By the time I realized where it was going it had crossed the horizon. The dust left in its wake parched my throat and made me cough.
“You want a drink of water, Joseph?” Miss Webber asked.
I shook my head.
She smiled again. “I am impressed, Joseph. Impressed that you know so much of your Bible.”
“I don’t know much about the Bible,” I said. “Just a little bit about angels.”
“You believe in angels?” she asked.
I nodded. “Of course I do.” It seemed strange to me that she would ask such a question.
“And why did you want to learn about angels, Joseph?”
I swallowed my fear loudly. It made a lump like a walnut in the front of my throat. “Because of my father.”
“He wanted you to learn about angels?”
“No, miss... because Reilly Hawkins told me that if my father worked real hard he might become one.”
She paused for a moment. She looked at me, perhaps more closely than before, but she did not smile, nor did she laugh. “He died, didn’t he?”
“When did he die, Joseph?”
“July the twelfth.”
“Just a few weeks ago?”
“Yes, Miss Webber, about three months ago.”
“And how old are you now, Joseph?”
I smiled. “I’ll be twelve in five days.”
“Five days, eh? And you have brothers and sisters?”
I shook my head.
“Just you and your mother?”
“Yes, Miss Webber.”
“And who taught you to read?”
“My mother and my father... my father used to tell me it was one of the most important things you could ever do. He said you could stay in a one-room shack in a two-horse town for the whole of your life, but you could see everywhere in the world right there in your mind’s eye so long as you could read.”
“He was a wise man.”
“With a bad heart,” I said.
She looked momentarily taken aback, as if I’d said something out of turn.
“I’m sorry---” I started.
She raised her hand. “It’s okay.”
“Maybe I should go now, Miss Webber.”
She nodded. “Yes, perhaps you should. I’ve kept you too long.” I edged along the chair and stood at the side of the table. I took my small heart in my hands, fragile like a bird in a straw-built cage. “It was nice to talk to you, Miss Webber,” I said, “and I’m sorry for not paying attention about Brandywine.”
She smiled. She reached out her hand and touched the side of my face. Just for a heartbeat, a fraction of a second. I felt energy surging through me, energy that filled my chest, swelled my stomach, gave me a feeling like I needed to pee.
“Never mind, Joseph... I can imagine you were some place a whole lot more important.” She winked. “Go,” she said, “away with you now, and keep your mind’s eye open.”
My birthday was a Saturday. I rose to the sound of Negroes singing in Gunther Kruger’s field. On the stoop was a brown paper wrapped parcel, my name printed in clear and unmistakable letters --- JOSEPH CALVIN VAUGHAN. I carried it inside and showed my mother.
“So open it, boy,” she insisted. “It’ll be a gift, perhaps from the Krugers.”
The Long Valley by John Steinbeck.
Inside it bore the inscription: Live life with a bold heart, Joseph Vaughan, as if life is too small to contain you. Best wishes on this, your twelfth birthday. Your teacher, Miss Alexandra Webber.
“It’s from my teacher,” I said. “It’s a book.”
“I can see that it’s a book, child,” my mother said, and, drying her hands on her apron front, she took it from me. The cover was stiff board, the pages smelled like fresh ink, and when she handed it back to me it came with the entreaty to care for it well.
I held the book in my hands and pressed it close against my chest, almost afraid to drop it, and then I paused before I opened it. I closed my eyes and thanked whatever had inspired Miss Webber to demonstrate such an act of generosity.
The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.
I carried the book outside, sat there on the porch steps, the sound of the black people in the fields, the smell of pancakes and a new morning all around me, and I read --- page after page, flying by words I neither understood nor cared to understand, because there I found something that challenged and frightened me, that excited me with a rush of fever and passion that I could not describe.
Later I told my mother that I wanted to write.
“Write to whom?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I want to write a book, write several books. I want to be a writer.”
She leaned over me, pulled the covers up around my throat and kissed my forehead.
“A writer, is it?” she said, and smiled. “Then it seems to me you better start carrying a pencil.”
On Friday, November third, 1939, Alice Ruth Van Horne’s body was found. I knew her better than anyone in my class. She had green eyes, and hair that was neither gold nor red nor brown but the myriad colors of a thousand fallen leaves. When she laughed it sounded like some exotic bird had mistakenly flown in through our window. In her lunch pail she brought sandwiches, which I knew she’d made herself. The crusts were cut off and wrapped separately.
“Why d’you do that?” I asked her one time.
“You want one?” She held out a thin, brown twig.
I shook my head.
“Try it,” she said.
I took the thing gingerly, smelled it.
She laughed. “Try it,” she repeated.
I tasted something warm, a little like cinnamon. It tasted quite wonderful.
She tilted her head to one side. “Good, huh?”
I nodded. “Real good.”
“That’s why they’re separate. You don’t taste them so much if you leave them on the sandwich.”
She was found naked in a field at the far end of the High Road, where Death must have begun his journey when He came to collect my father. Seemed that Death had not come to take Alice --- she’d saved Him the trouble by walking out to meet Him. Her lunch pail was found beside her. It was late in the day, long after school, and there was nothing inside the pail but empty wrappers and the smell of crusts.
She was eleven years old. Seemed someone had stripped her and beaten her, done things to her “that no normal human being would do to a dog, let alone a little girl,” Reilly Hawkins said in our kitchen, seated there beside Gunther Kruger who’d brought a clay pitcher of lemonade from Mrs. Kruger, and my mother told him “Hush, Reilly, I don’t want to be talking about such things while the boy is here.”
Later the boy they spoke of went to bed. I waited until the house had ceased its creaking and stretching, and then crept away from my room and hung like a ghost amidst the shadows and memories at the top of the stairs.
“They raped her,” I heard Reilly say. “Little girl, nothing to her. And some animal raped her and beat her and choked her to death, and then left her in the field at the top of the High Road.”
“Seems to me it’s gotta be one of them nigras,” Gunther Kruger said.
My mother turned on him, her words firm and unrelenting. “Enough of such talk, Mr. Kruger. Even as we speak your countrymen are allowing a tyrant to push them into a war that we have all prayed would never happen. The Polish government is exiled in Paris. I heard that Roosevelt will have to help the British to buy guns and bombs from America. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people are going to die. All because of the German people.”
“Such a viewpoint is unjust, Mrs. Vaughan... not all Germans---”
“And not all Negroes, Mr. Kruger.”
Kruger fell silent. The wind had turned and collapsed his sails. He drifted aimlessly toward the shoal of embarrassment and did not look back toward the opposing vessel.
“And I frown on such talk in my house,” my mother said. “We’re not ignorant people. Adolf Hitler is a white man, just as Genghis Khan was a Mongol and Caligula was a Roman. It is not the nationality, nor the color, nor the religion. It is always just the man.”
“She’s right,” Reilly Hawkins said. “She’s right, Gunther.”
Kruger asked if Reilly or my mother wanted more lemonade.
I crept away to my bed and thought of Alice Ruth Van Horne. I remembered the sound of her voice, the way she smiled at the most foolish things. I remembered a game we had once played in the field with the broken fence, a game where she had fallen and scuffed her elbow and I had walked her home to her mother.
She was a sweet-tempered girl, always cheerful it seemed.
I remembered the way she looked at me, the way she smiled, turned away, looked at me once more... always waiting for an answer that I never gave.
I cried for her.
I realized that my memory of Alice, a memory I believed would always be flawless, would now be nothing more than a shadow on my heart.
I tried to imagine the kind of human being who would do such a thing to Alice Ruth. Whether such a person was a human being at all.
When I woke my pillow was still damp. I believed I must have cried in my sleep.
I figured that God made Alice an angel immediately.
The following morning I cut an article from the newspaper, and hid it in a box beneath my bed.
CHARLTON COUNTY JOURNAL
Saturday, November 4th, 1939
Local Girl Found Murdered
On the morning of Friday November 3rd, the body of a local girl, Alice Ruth Van Horne (II), was discovered in Augusta Falls. Alice, a student of the Augusta Falls Junior School, was discovered by a local resident. Sheriff Haynes Dearing was quoted as saying, “We are at once alert for the presence of any vagrant or unknown person in the area. With immediate effect we are implementing a county-wide state of emergency for any suspicious person or persons. The murder of a young girl, a member of our own community, in such a brutal fashion, has given us all a reason to be aware of any uncommon or noticeable occurrence in our midst. I would ask all citizens to refrain from panic, but to be alert to the whereabouts of their children at all times.” When asked for more details of the investigation into this horrific murder, Sheriff Dearing refrained from making further comment. Arthur and Madeline Van Horne, the murdered girl’s parents, have lived in Augusta Falls for eighteen years. They attend the Charlton County Methodist Church. Mr. Van Horne farms his own property within the Augusta Falls town limits.
I tried not to think about how it would feel to be beaten and choked to death, but the more I tried not to think the more it filled my mind. After a few days I let it go, which seemed to be what everyone else in Augusta Falls wanted to do.
And there are times I remember --- summer days mostly; hazy, fat with air and sunshine, and Mr. Tomczak dragging his Victrola gramophone out into the yard, and Bakelite records as heavy as plates; and the adults kind of unbuttoned themselves, and despite the fact that no one had any money, and more than likely never would, it didn’t matter because there was a richness in friendship and community.
And the kids out in the fields playing catch-and-kiss, and someone had a crate of beer for the dads, and someone else made watermelon juleps for the ladies.
My mom would put on a summer frock, and one time she waltzed with my dad, and he wore his smile like a medal he’d earned for valor, for fidelity, for love.
And the days I remember are days that have gone. Slipped away silently into an indistinct past. Not only gone, but forgotten. They are days I believe we will never see again. Not here, not in Augusta Falls. Not anywhere. Everything awash with the heady delirium of spontaneous celebration, a celebration for no other reason than being alive. And the sound of something familiar but distant --- a baseball game on the radio, the clunk-snap-hiss of emerald Coca-Cola caps --- and all of a sudden the past is there. Technicolor and Sensurround: Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor. And then a welcome silence after an endless noise.
And spiked through these memories, like rusty jags of metal, are other memories.
Always the girls.
Girls like Alice Ruth Van Horne, whom I had loved simply as only a child could.
Their lives like twists of damp paper, screwed tight and tossed away.
And then something would happen --- something quiet and beautiful --- and I’d start to believe there was hope that the world might set itself to rights.
It did not. Not then.
Perhaps in some small way what I have now done will redress the balance.
Perhaps now the ghosts that have haunted me all these years will slip away.
Their voices will fall silent --- finally, peacefully, irrevocably.
In my hand I hold a shred of newspaper. I hold it up, and through the thin paper, now smeared with my own blood, I see the light from the window, the silhouette of the dead man before me.
“See?” I say. “You see what you did?”
And then I smile. I am growing weaker. I perceive some sense of closure.
“Never again,” I whisper. “Never again.”
“YOU PICK A WORD,” MISS WEBBER SAID. “YOU PICK A WORD and then you think of as many words that mean the same or similar thing. They are called synonyms. You write them in your notebook, Joseph, and when you wish to make a sentence you look in your notebook and use the most interesting or suitable words you can find.”
She stepped around the desk and eased into the tablet-armchair beside mine. The classroom was empty. I had waited behind on her instruction. It was two weeks before Christmas and the final days of school.
“You have heard of the Monkey Trials?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Some years ago, 1925 I think, there was a biology teacher called John T. Scopes. He came from a town called Dayton in Tennessee, and he taught his pupils about something called evolution. You know what evolution is, Joseph?”
“Yes, Miss Webber. The idea that we were all monkeys in the trees a long time ago, and before that we were fish or something.”
She smiled. “Mr. Scopes taught his pupils about the theory of evolution instead of the theory of creation as it is taught in the Bible. He was taken to court by the state of Tennessee, and the prosecuting lawyer was a man called William Jennings Bryan, a famous orator and three-time presidential candidate. The man who defended Mr. John Scopes was Clarence Darrow, a very famous American criminal lawyer. Mr. Scopes lost his battle and he was fined one hundred dollars, but at no time did he relinquish his position.” Miss Webber leaned a little closer to me. “At no time, Joseph Vaughan, did he say what he believed people wanted to hear. He said what he thought was right.”
She leaned back. “You’re wondering why I’m telling you this?”
I said nothing, merely looked back at her and waited for her to speak further.
“I’m telling you this because we have a Constitution and the Constitution says we should say what we feel, and maintain our right to speak the truth as we see it. That, Joseph Vaughan, is what you should do with your writing. If you want to write, then you should write, but always remember to write the truth as you see it, not as other people wish it to be seen. You understand?”
“Yes,” I said, believing I did.
“Then, during your Christmas vacation, I want you to write me a story.”
She smiled. “That is something you have to decide. Choose something that has some meaning for you, something that you feel provokes an emotion, a feeling... something that makes you angry or hateful, or something that makes you feel excited perhaps. Write a real story, Joseph. It doesn’t have to be long, but it has to be about something you believe in.”
Miss Webber rose and stood over me. Once again she touched my cheek with the flat of her hand. “Have a good Christmas, Joseph, and I will see you at the start of 1940.”
Gunther Kruger was the richest man in Charlton County. The Kruger house was twice the size of ours. In the parlor they had an Atwater Kent crystal radio, and the Kruger family --- Gunther, his wife, their two sons and one daughter --- would sit before it with headphones and listen to music and talking that traveled from Savannah, all the way through Hinesville and Townsend, Hortense and Nahunta. Those sounds crossed the Okefenokee Swamp and did not sink. It was magical and strange, an aperture into a world I could not fathom. In the kitchen they had a Maytag washing machine and a Sunbeam Mixmaster, and Mrs. Kruger, who wore coarse woolen skirts, would make wienerwurst and potato salad and talk to me in her pidgin-English accent.
“You are a sceercraw,” she would say, and I would frown and tilt my head and say, “Sceercraw?”
“For sceering buds,” she said. “Like he is med of stigs and olt clodes, yes?”
“Sticks and old clothes,” I repeated, and then smiled widely. “A scarecrow!”
“Yes,” Mrs. Kruger chimed. “Like I have set, a sceercraw! Now eat before the buds come or you weel sceer them. Ha ha!”
I started visiting with the Krugers a week or so before Christmas. Oftentimes Mr. Kruger would not be there, and my mother would tell me to stay only until Mr. Kruger returned from whatever business he was engaged in. “The man has enough children around his feet,” she said. “He returns home, you say your thank-yous and come home, understand?”
I understood. I did not wish to outstay my welcome. Besides, Elena Kruger, all of nine years old, with too many teeth for her mouth and ears like spinnakers awaiting a Gulf Stream, seemed to have her heart set on goading me into violence each time I was there.
It took the patience of Job to restrain myself from horsewhipping Elena Kruger for her catcalls and slanderous indignities. Her brothers, Hans and Walter, seemed oblivious to her invasive behavior, but she was there --- needling and hankering, baiting and badgering --- from the moment I arrived until I heard Mr. Kruger’s rich tones of welcome when he came in back through the kitchen.
She was a sweet enough child I’m sure, but to a twelve-year-old boy a nine-year-old girl seems the worst kind of harpy. Her voice was shrill, like a rusted spike jabbing my ears, and though later she would mellow and soften, and in her own way become really quite sensitive and beautiful, at the time she was like bitter-tasting medicine for an illness long gone. Elena Kruger was as welcome as a pitcher of fizzy milk, each belch a little more sour.
Only once did I see her bruises. It was late afternoon, days before Christmas, and Mr. Kruger was not yet back from the fields with Walter. Mrs. Kruger called for her daughter to help her in the kitchen, and
Elena went. I stood in the hallway that separated the parlor from the back half of the house, and from there I could see through the doorway. Elena was told to turn up the sleeves of her blouse, and turn them up she did, all the way to her shoulders, and there, in numerous colors --- purple, sienna, yellow, and carmine --- bruises were punched and painted along the upper halves of her arms. The impression given was of some forceful and terrible grip placed on her, large hands holding her upper arms, perhaps shaking her, perhaps doing nothing more than keeping her still.
“Epilepsy,” my mother said when I told her what I’d seen.
“You mustn’t say a word. Not a word, mind,” she stressed. “Elena Kruger has epileptic fits, grand mal seizures they are called, and both her mother and father have sometimes to hold her tight to the mattress or the floor to stop her injuring herself.”
I asked why she had fits; my mother smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “Why does one man have a crooked leg, or an eye that doesn’t work? Who knows, Joseph... it is the nature of things.”
I imagined strong hands holding Elena down, hands that would prevent her shuddering and trembling across the floor, how her skirt would soil, how she would perhaps bite down on six inches of roughhewn leather belt to prevent her severing her own tongue.
After that Elena’s needling and name-calling never bothered me as much. I just had to picture the terrifying violence of such a physical affliction and my heart, small and insubstantial though it was, went out to her. She already hurt more than she could ever hurt me, and I believed if I took some of that hurt she might get better. I was naïve, foolish perhaps, but it seemed to make sense at the time. I believe that was the point at which I began to see her in a different light, and though she had two elder brothers --- Hans at twelve, and Walter at sixteen the better part of a man --- I felt some fraternal pull toward her. She seemed fragile and disconsolate, adrift in a world where the words of her father, her brothers, seemed to hold sway. I imagined her as some gentle, lonely soul, a soul without tether or anchor, and I determined that I --- in some small way --- would attempt to make her life somehow happier.
Christmas came and went. I wrote my story, “The Broken-Field Run,” about Red Grange, and how he used to catch the ball and take off down the field like a long dog after a short rabbit. I had seen him at the movies one time, a Saturday afternoon matinee with my father: an RKO Radio Pictures newsreel, a half-hour Pete Smith Specialty, and then a short before the main feature. Red Grange, perhaps the greatest runner in football history, legs like steam pistons going one after the other. I used words like fleet and mercurial, athletic and Herculean. Miss Webber changed them to words she thought everyone would understand, and then she stood ahead of the class and told everyone to close their eyes.
“That’s right,” she said quietly. “Close your eyes, and don’t open them until I’m done.”
She read my story to the class. I wish she hadn’t. My heart, thundering like a traction engine, could have powered a steamboat all the way from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a feeling I would never forget, and it almost served to dissuade me from pursuing my dream to write.
When she was done there seemed to be a small chasm of silence into which I fell. No one said a word. Miss Webber reached out her figurative hand and rescued me from that chasm.
She did not compliment the story, nor negate it. She did not hold it up as some sort of example to the other children in the class. She merely asked who had been able to see Red Grange as he struck out on his broken-field run.
Ronnie Duggan raised his hand.
So did Laverna Stowell. Virginia Grace Perlman. Catherine McRae, her brother Daniel.
I kept my head facing forward and my eyes inside it. The color swelled in my cheeks.
Soon there were more children with their hands up than those without.
And then Miss Webber said, “Good, good indeed. That is called imagining, and imagining is a vital and necessary ability in this world. Every great invention came about because folks were able to imagine things. You should nurture and cultivate your ability to imagine. You should let your head fill up with pictures of the things you think about and describe them to yourself. You should make believe... ”
I listened to her. I loved her. Years later, a very different time, I would think of stopping my work, and then I would remember Alexandra Webber and let my head fill with pictures.
I would make believe, that’s all, and somehow things would seem less dark.
February came. The weather turned. Gunther Kruger visited with my mother, told her that they were driving the length of St. Mary’s River to spend a day at Fernandina Beach.
“We would very much like it if you would both accompany us,” he said, and my mother --- barely glancing at me --- explained to Mr. Kruger that she was most grateful, but unfortunately would not be able to come.
“Joseph, however, would be thrilled,” she said. “I have promised Mrs. Amundsen that I would do the butter-churning with her, and if we miss it today the milk will turn---”
Mr. Kruger, ever the gentleman, raised his hand and smiled widely. He saved my mother the embarrassment of explaining her refusal. “Perhaps next time,” he said, and then told me that they would be leaving from the Kruger house at six in the morning.
“Do not send any food, “Mr. Kruger told my mother. “Mrs. Kruger will make enough to feed the five thousand and most of their relatives.”
The following morning it was raining, lightly at first, and then heavier. Nevertheless, we drove along the edge of St. Mary’s River all the way to Fernandina Beach, and by the time we arrived the sun had broken forth and the sky was clear.
It was a rare day. I watched the Kruger family and they seemed to represent some ideal, some standard against which all families should have been judged. They did not fight or argue, instead they laughed frequently, and with no clear reason to laugh. They appeared as some symbol of perfection in an indiscriminately imperfect world.
By the time we left the sun had softened its temper and was considering retirement. The haze of late afternoon hung like a ghost of warmth around us, its arms wide and embracing, and when we carried the baskets and blankets to the car Mr. Kruger walked beside me and asked if I had enjoyed the day.
“Yes, sir, very much,” I said.
“Good,” he said quietly. “Even you, Joseph Vaughan... even you must have some memories to cherish for when you grow older.”
I did not understand what he meant, and I did not ask.
“And Elena,” he said.
I turned and looked up at him.
He smiled. “I want to thank you for your patience with her. She is a delicate child, and I know you spend time with her when perhaps you would rather be roughhousing with Hans and Walter.”
I felt awkward and embarrassed. “I-it’s okay, Mr. Kruger, no trouble at all.”
“You mean a great deal to her,” he went on. “She speaks of you often, Joseph. She has found it difficult to make friends, and I thank you for being there for her.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, and set my eyes straight to the road ahead.
For more than nine months I had watched the wound heal. I believed there would always be a scar, right there beneath my skin, invisible to anyone but myself, and the scar would remind me of what had happened to Alice, that winter of 1939 --- the things I’d overheard from the landing as Reilly and my mother spoke in the kitchen.
For more than nine months Augusta Falls had made believe that what had happened was a dark and awkward dream. Something had happened somewhere else, not here in their own town, and they had heard rumor of this terrible thing and thanked God that it had not happened to them. They had dealt with this thing in such a way, and they had survived. They had made it through the shadows and come out the other side.
For nine months they told themselves everything was going to be okay.
But it was not.
Laverna Stowell was found murdered in the late summer of 1940. She was nine years old, would have been ten on August twelfth, three days after the discovery of her body in a field near the outskirts of Silco, Camden County. She was found on a Friday, just like Alice Ruth Van Horne. She was naked, nothing but her socks and a single shoe on her right foot. I knew this because I read a newspaper report the following Wednesday. I cut out her picture and the article beneath.
CHARLTON COUNTY JOURNAL
Friday, August 9th, 1940
Second Girl Found Murdered
On the morning of Friday August 9th, the citizens of Augusta Falls were once again witness to a terrifying discovery. The naked body of Laverna Stowell, daughter of Silco couple Leonard and Martha Stowell, was found naked but for her socks and a single shoe on her right foot. The second murder follows the November death of Alice Ruth Van Horne. Camden County Sheriff Ford Ruby refused to comment, but did allow that a dual-county operation would be established by himself and Charlton County Sheriff Haynes Dearing. Miss Alexandra Webber, teacher at the Augusta Falls School where Laverna Stowell was a student, said that Laverna was a bright and outgoing child who had no difficulty making friends. She said that the children had been informed of this situation, and prayers would be said at each morning roll call for the forthcoming week. Already citizens of Augusta Falls and Silco have met, and a town meeting to discuss the possibility of united action will be arranged. Sheriff Haynes Dearing once again stressed the importance of citizens in both towns and surrounding areas remaining calm. “There is nothing worse than panic in such situations. I am here to reassure everyone that there is a police procedure employed in any murder investigation, and it is the duty of the police to establish and carry out this procedure. If people wish to assist they can be alert to any strange or unfamiliar individuals, and also take care to ensure the safety and welfare of their own children at all times.”When asked if any progress had been made in the investigation of the killing of Alice Ruth Van Horne, Sheriff Dearing refused to comment, saying that “all details of an ongoing investigation need to remain confidential until the perpetrator has been arrested and charged.”
I held the cutting in my hands and felt my eyes fill with tears. I imagined how I would feel if it had been Elena. I cried again, but this time there was something else beneath the sense of loss: fear. A bone-deep jag of fear that pierced me, and around it was a sense of anger, of near hatred for whoever had done this thing. Laverna had come each day from Silco in Camden County, and though I’d shared no more than half a dozen words with her outside of Miss Webber’s class, I still believed that somehow I had failed her. Why, I did not know, but I believed that both of them --- Alice Ruth and Laverna --- had been my responsibility.
“You can’t blame yourself,” my mother told me when I explained my feelings. “There are people out there, Joseph, people who do not see life the way that we see it. They grant it no importance, no value, and they are almost incapable of stopping themselves when it comes to such terrible things.”
“There must be something we can do.”
“We can be watchful,” she said. She leaned closer to me as if imparting a secret not to be shared with the world. “We must take to watching for ourselves, and watching for everyone else. I know you feel responsible, Joseph, that is your nature, but responsibility and blame are not the same thing. You should be responsible if you feel it is your duty, but you must never blame yourself. You cannot punish yourself for the crimes of another.”
I listened. I understood. I wanted to do something, but I did not know what.
Two men came. They wore dark suits and hats. My mother told me they were from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, that they had been assigned to assist Sheriff Dearing. They crisscrossed the state asking forthright, indelicate questions, and from what I overheard from the kitchen it seemed that people quickly began to resent their presence. Dearing had apparently requested that he accompany them, but agents Leon Carver and Henry Oates declined his request, said it was Federal business, that objectivity was the key. I saw Carver once, a tall and imposing man, whose nose looked like a clenched fist scattered with purple veins. With eyes set back far into his head beneath heavy brows, he appeared to be squinting out of a permanent shadow. I did not speak to him, nor he to me. He watched me like I could not be trusted, and then turned his back. They stayed in Augusta Falls for three days, then they headed south, made a wide clockwise circuit through the surrounding towns, and then disappeared. We heard no more, and they were never mentioned.
Later I spoke to Hans Kruger.
“Boogeyman,” he said. “There’s a boogeyman out there and he comes to eat children.”
I snorted in contempt. “Who told you that?”
“Walter,” he said defensively. “Walter told me it was a boogeyman, someone who’s come back from the dead and needs to feed off living people to stay alive.”
“And you believe that horseshit?”
Hans hesitated for a moment.
“And he says these things to Elena?” I asked.
Hans shook his head. “No, he doesn’t say these things to Elena. I have to tell Elena so she knows---”
I grabbed him suddenly by the collar of his shirt. He tried to step back but I held on tight. “You don’t say anything to Elena!” I snapped. “You leave Elena alone. She’s frightened enough as it is without you telling her horseshit stories about things that don’t even exist!”
Walter appeared around the corner of the house. “Hey! What is this here? You boys should not be fighting!”
Hans ducked away, wrenched himself free of my grip and ran back to the front of the house.
I stood there feeling ashamed, a little frightened by Walter.
“What’s happening here?” he asked.
“I told him not to tell boogeyman stories to Elena,” I said. “I don’t want her to be frightened. Hans said he was going to tell Elena about the boogeyman.”
Walter laughed suddenly. “He did, did he? Let me sort that out, okay?”
“Don’t hurt him, Walter.”
Walter placed his hand on my shoulder. “I won’t hurt him, Joseph. I’ll just teach him a lesson.”
“It’s not a boogeyman. It’s a person who’s doing these things, a terrible person.”
Walter smiled understandingly. “I know, Joseph, I know. Let the police take care of it, okay? The police will find out who is doing these things and stop them. You let me take care of Hans and Elena.”
I said nothing.
“Okay?” he prompted.
I nodded. “Okay,” I said, but I did not mean it. Walter was out with his father, working the farm, earning keep for the family. I had decided to look after Elena, and nothing would change my mind.
“Now go,” he said. “Home with you. I will speak to Hans and make sure he doesn’t frighten his sister.”
I turned and ran back to my house. I said nothing to my mother. I stood at the window of my bedroom and looked across at the Krugers’ house. I believed that if anything happened to Elena I would never be able to forgive myself.
After the Federal people left, sheriffs from each county --- Haynes Dearing, a man in his mid-thirties, already looking older than his years, and Ford Ruby --- had a sit-down meeting at the Quinn Cumberland Diner, a respectable and clean establishment on the north side of Augusta Falls owned and run by two widows.
Haynes Dearing was a Methodist, attended Charlton County Methodist Church. Sheriff Ford Ruby was Protestant Episcopal and frequented the Communion Church of God in Woodbine, but despite their differences regarding John Wesley and scripture interpretation, they considered that the death of a little girl was more important than religious distinctions.
The death of a second little girl brought them together, and they pooled their resources. There was even talk of a man coming from Valdosta, a government man with a lie machine and a female assistant, but no one ever showed. Sheriffs Dearing and Ruby, deputizing pretty much every man that could walk a straight line unaided, searched the woods and banks around Silco, even went back and searched the far end of the High Road once more, just to see, just to be sure. Of what, I did not know, and I did not ask, for once again there were hushed conversations in the kitchen of my house.
Nothing ever came of the searches, and finally, inevitably, Haynes Dearing and Ford Ruby went back to arguing about John Wesley and the scriptures, kept on arguing until they concluded it had been a mistake to work together, to even think they could work together, and they vowed such a thing would never happen again. By the end of August I no longer heard mention of Laverna Stowell. Perhaps she was an angel too, she and Alice Ruth Van Horne, and maybe my father, if he’d managed to keep his hands clean and worked hard enough to make the grade, was sitting right alongside them. Perhaps I convinced myself that the nightmare had now really ended. Perhaps I believed that some itinerant vagabond, crazy and brutal and vicious, had passed through our lives and now had disappeared. For some unknown reason he had visited twice, but this I did not consider. The truth and what I imagined might be the truth were not the same thing. I wondered if some other county, some other state, was now losing its children to this boogeyman. I kept my eyes wide and my ears alert, even at night; the sound of animals moving between our house and that of the Krugers sometimes woke me, and I would lie there chilled and afraid. After some time, steeling myself for what I might see, I would slip from beneath the covers and make my way tentatively to the window. I saw nothing. The night unfolded before me in a cool, static monochrome, and I would wonder if my imagination wasn’t feeding my mind with small and fragile lies. I hoped with all I possessed that the nightmare had passed, but deep down, right there inside my heart, I knew it had not.