Fiction Fiction 2008

Stand By Me

What Jarrat had in his life were sorrow, stubbornness, silence, and work. So when his sons needed him most, their daddy didn’t have much to offer.
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Photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard

When Jarrat married Lettie in 1921 and bought the little place across the draw from our home place and started to pay for it, in that time that was already hard, years before the Depression, he had a life ahead of him, it seemed like, that was a lot different from the life he in fact was going to live. Jarrat was my brother, four years older than me, and I reckon I knew him as well as anybody did, which is not to say that what I knew was equal to what I didn’t know.

But as long as Lettie lived, Jarrat was a happy man. As far as I could see, not that I was trying to see or in those days cared much, he and Lettie made a good couple. They were a pretty couple, I’ll say that, before this world and its trouble had marked them. And they laid into the work together, going early and late, scraping and saving, and paying on their debt.

Tom was born the year after they married, Nathan two years later. And it seemed that Tom hadn’t hardly begun to walk about on his own until Nathan was coming along in his tracks, just a step or two behind. They had pretty much the run of the world, Lettie and Jarrat being too busy for much in the way of parental supervision, at least between meals.

The hollow between the two places, that most people call Coulter Branch, before long was crisscrossed with boy-paths that went back and forth like shoestrings between the boys’ house on one ridge and the old house on the other, where I lived with Mam and Pap. The boys lived at both houses, you might as well say. They’d drop down through the pasture and into the woods on one side, and down through the woods to the branch, and then up through the woods and the pasture on the other side, and they’d be in another place with a different house and kitchen and something different to eat. They had maybe half a dozen paths they’d worn across there, and all of them had names: the Dead Tree Path, I remember, and the Spring Path, and the Rock Fence Path.

And then, right in the midst of things going on the way they ought to have gone on forever, Lettie got sick and began to waste away. It was as serious as it could be, we could see that. And then, instead of belonging just to Jarrat to pay attention to, she began to belong to all of us. Dr. Markman was doing all he could for her, and then Mam and the other women around were cooking things to take to her and helping with her housework, and us others were hoping or praying or whatever we did, trying to help her to live, really just by wishing for her to. And then, without waiting for us to get ready, she died, and the boys all of a sudden, instead of belonging just to her and Jarrat, belonged to us all. Nathan was 5 years old, and Tom was 7.

And I was one of the ones that they belonged to. They belonged to me because I belonged to them. They thought so, and that made it so. The morning of their mother’s funeral, to get them moved and out of the house before more sadness could take place, I put a team to the wagon and drove around the head of the hollow to get them. Mam had packed up their clothes and everything that was theirs. We loaded it all and them too onto the wagon, and I brought them home to the old house.

Jarrat wasn’t going to be able to take care of them and farm too, and they didn’t need to be over there in that loneliness with him. But Pap and Mam were getting on in years then. Pap, just by the nature of him, wasn’t going to be a lot of help. And Mam, I could see, had her doubts.

Finally she just out with it. “Burley, I can be a grandmother, but I don’t know if I can be a mother again or not. You’re just going to have to help me.”

She had her doubts about that, too. But it didn’t prove too hard to bring about. I belonged to them because they needed me. From the time I brought them home with me, they stuck to me like burrs. A lot of the time we were a regular procession—me in front, and then Tom in my tracks just as close as he could get, and then Nathan in Tom’s the same way. The year Lettie died I was 34 years old, still a young man in my thoughts and all, and I had places I needed to go by myself. But for a long time, getting away from those boys was a job. I’d have to hide and slip away or bribe them to let me go or wait till they were asleep. When I wanted to hunt or fish, the best way to be free of them was just to take them with me. By the time they got big enough to go on their own, we had traveled a many a mile together, day and night, after the hounds, and had spent a many an hour on the river.

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Wendell Berry is a farmer, an activist, and the author of numerous essays, poems, novels, and short stories. He has received the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award, among other honors. He lives in Kentucky.

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