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.

It came about, anyhow, that in just a couple of years the old house was emptied of everybody but me. It took me a while to get used to being there by myself. When I would go in to fix my dinner, or at night, there wouldn’t be a sound. I could hear the quiet. And however quiet I tried to be, it seemed to me I rattled. I didn’t like the quiet, for it made me sad, and so did the little noises I made in it. For a while I couldn’t bring myself to trap the mice, I so needed to have something living there besides me. All my life I’ve hunted and fished alone, even worked alone. I never minded being by myself outdoors. But to be alone in the house, a place you might say is used to talk and the sounds of somebody stirring about in it all day, that was lonesome. As I reckon Jarrat must have found out a long time ago and, like himself, just left himself alone to get used to it. I’ve been, all in all, a lucky man, for the time would be again when the old house would be full of people, but that was long a-coming. For a while there it was just Jarrat and me living alone together, it seemed to me, he in his house on one side of the hollow, me in mine on the other. I could see his house from my house, and he could see mine from his. But we didn’t meet in either house, his or mine. We met in a barn or in a field, wherever the day’s work was going to start. When quitting time came we went our ways separately home. Of course by living apart we were keeping two houses more or less alive, and maybe there was some good in that.

The difference between us was that I wasn’t at home all the time. When the work would let up, or on Saturday evenings and Sundays, for I just flat refused to work late on Saturday or much at all on Sunday, I’d be off to what passed with me for social life, or to the woods or the river. But Jarrat was at home every day. Every day. He never went as far as Port William except to buy something he needed.

If you work about every day with somebody you’ve worked with all your life, you’d be surprised how little you need to talk. Oh, we swapped work with various ones—Big Ellis, the Rowanberrys, and others—and that made for some sociable times along, and there would be good talk then. But when it was just Jarrat and me, we would sometimes work without talking a whole day, or maybe two. And so when he got the government’s letter about Tom, he didn’t say but two words. We were working here at my place. After dinner, when he walked into the barn, carrying the letter in his hand, he said, “Sit down.”

I sat down. He handed me the letter, and it felt heavy in my hands as a stone. After I read it—“killed in action”—and handed it back, the whole damned English language just flew away in the air like a flock of blackbirds.

For a long time neither one of us moved. The daily sounds of the world went on, sparrows in the barn lot, somebody’s bull way off, the wind in the eaves, but around us was this awful, awful silence that didn’t have one word in it.

I looked at Jarrat finally. He was standing there blind as a statue. He had Tom’s life all inside him now, as once it had been all inside Lettie. Now it was complete. Now it was finished.

And then, for the first and last time, I said to Jarrat, “Let’s go.” The day’s work was only half finished. Having nothing else we could do, we finished it.

What gets you is the knowledge, that sometimes can fall on you in a clap, that the dead are gone absolutely from this world. As has been said around here over and over again, you are not going to see them here anymore, ever. Whatever was done or said before is done or said for good. Any questions you think you ought to’ve asked while you had a chance are never going to be answered. The dead know, and you don’t.

And yet their absence puts them with you in a way they never were before. You even maybe know them better than you did before. They stay with you, and in a way you go with them. They don’t live on in your heart, but your heart knows them. As your heart gets bigger on the inside, the world gets bigger on the outside. If the dead were alive only in this world, you would forget them, looks like, as soon as they die. But you remember them, because they always were living in the other, bigger world while they lived in this little one, and this one and the other one are the same. You can’t see this with your eyes looking straight ahead. It’s with your side vision, so to speak, that you see it. The longer I live, and the better acquainted I am among the dead, the better I see it. I am telling what I know.

It’s our separatedness and our grief that break the world in two. Back when Tom got killed, and the word came, I had never thought of such things. That time would have been hard enough, even if I had thought of them. Because I hadn’t, it was harder.

That night after supper I lit the lantern and walked over to Jarrat’s and sat with him in the kitchen until bedtime. I wasn’t invited. I was a volunteer, I reckon, like Nathan. If it had been just me and I needed company, which I did, I could have walked to town and sat with the talkers in the poolroom or the barber­shop. But except that I would go to sit with him, Jarrat would have sat there in his sorrow entirely by himself and stared at the wall or the floor. I anyhow denied him that.

I went back every night for a long time. There was nothing else to do. There wasn’t a body to be spoken over and buried to bring people together, and to give Tom’s life a proper conclusion in Port William. His body was never going to be in Port William again. It was buried in some passed-over battlefield in Italy, somewhere none of us had ever been and would never go. The word was passed around, of course. People were sorry, and they told us. The neighbor women brought food, as they do. But mainly there was just the grieving, and mainly nobody here to do it but Jarrat and me.

There was a woman lived here, just out the road, a good many years ago. She married a man quite a bit older—well, he was an old man, you just as well say—and things went along and they had a little boy. In four or five years the old man died. After that, you can imagine, the little boy was all in all to his mother. He was her little man of the house, as she called him, and in fact he was the world to her. And then, when he wasn’t but 9 or 10 years old, the boy took awfully sick one winter, and he died, and we buried him out there on the hill at Port William beside his old daddy.

We knew that the woman was grieved to death, as we say, and everybody did for her as they could. What we didn’t know was that she really was grieving herself to death. It’s maybe a little hard to believe that people can die of grief, but they do.

After she died, the place had to be sold. I went out there with Big Ellis and several others to set the place to rights and get the tools and the household stuff set out for the auction. When we got to the room that had been the little boy’s, it was like opening a grave. It had been kept just the way it was when he died, except she had gathered up and put there everything she’d found that reminded her of him: all his play pretties, every broom handle he’d ridden for a stick horse, every rock or feather or string she knew he had played with. I still remember the dread we felt just going into that room, let alone moving the things, or throwing them away. Some of them we had to throw away.

I understood her then. I understood her better after Tom was dead. When a young man your heart knows and loves is all of a sudden gone, never to come back, the whole place reminds you of him everywhere you look. You dread to touch anything for fear of changing it. You fear the time you know is bound to come, when the look of the place will be changed entirely, and if the dead came back they would hardly know it, or not recognize it at all.

Even so, this place is not a keepsake just to look at and remember. You can’t stop just because you’re carrying a load of grief and would like to stop, or don’t care if you go on or not. Jarrat nor I either didn’t stop. This world was still asking things of us that we had to give.

It was maybe the animals most of all that kept us going, the good animals we depended on, that depended on us: our work mules, the cattle, the sheep, the hogs, even the chickens. They were a help to us because they didn’t know our grief but just quietly lived on, suffering what they suffered, enjoying what they enjoyed, day by day. We took care of them, we did what had to be done, we went on.

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Wendell Berry lives and farms with his family in Henry County, Kentucky. His most recent novel, published by Counterpoint, is Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006).

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