Fiction Fiction 2011


“I knew that all the things we’d gathered there so many years would be scattered and gone. All that had held it together would come apart and be gone as if it never was.”

And then in a little more than a year we had Althie. And then I lost a baby. And then six years went by, and then it was Nance, and then Sissy, and then Stanley, named after his grandpa and nearly spoiled to death by all the others. And after him, no more.

“Getting ’em’s one thing, and raising ’em’s another.” Grover made a saying out of that. You get ’em here, and then you have ’em to take care of and worry about.

Althie, I’ll say, was the best—the best one of all of us. The three littlest ones were raised by her as much as by me. She would be carrying them around and looking after them. Playing at being a mother, I thought, sort of doll-playing, but I pretty soon realized that when she was with them I didn’t need to worry. She put them first, and was always watchful.

And she hadn’t hardly got them of mine raised before she married Tommy Greatlow from down here at Hargrave and started raising her own.

She’s getting old herself now, and her health is bad, her heart, but she drives in here every day to see how I am and what she can do for me. Her heart is poorly now, maybe, because she’s given it away all her life to anybody that needed it, always doing for somebody. She and Tommy are still out there on their good farm in the river valley with the world dug up all around by the sand-and-gravel company. And they’ve got one boy, looks like, who’ll stick there and go on with it. He’s thirty-two, Tommy Junior is, a good boy, good to me.

The others, Althie’s, but mine too, are gone, long gone, scattered off to city jobs all over the country. When the time came for me to leave the old place, Althie and them of course couldn’t take it on, for they already had all the land they could look after, and having to depend on the Mexicans part of the time, as it was. The rest of them, children nor grandchildren, couldn’t even think of it. There was nothing in it for them, as they sometimes pointed out to me, nothing anyhow that they wanted.

The worst time in all our family-raising was when Billy was gone in the war. He was wild to fly, and he got into the Air Force. He was a gunner on one of them biggest bombers. He’d get the pilot, when they was supposed to be training, to fly low over our house and all over the Port William neighborhood, bringing everybody outside to look up, scaring the livestock, looked like almost touching the treetops, taking chances for the fun of it. “Boys!” Grover would say. “That’s boys for you!” He said if their brains were dynamite they wouldn’t have blowed their hats off. And with a war to fight.

And then they went off overseas into the fighting, taking chances then sure enough, and Billy, you could tell from the little he wrote home, still excited about flying. I wonder if he could actually imagine then, at his age, that he actually could get killed. But I could imagine it, and I did. They were getting shot at, and the fighter planes going at them like the little birds after a hawk. Billy was on my mind, seemed like, even in my sleep, all through the war. And afterwards I realized I hadn’t been young since it started.

Grover and I had had, I reckon, our share of troubles before that. Troubles, you know, that will come. And he could make me mad enough sometimes with that grin of his that I could have knocked him in the head with the skillet. But with Billy gone in the war, I saw something about Grover I’d not seen before. I’d be watching him, and I saw the worry and the fear slide across his face behind that grin, and I knew, I knew forever that, without talking about it the way I did, he was grieving and afraid, wearing it through, day by day just like I was. And then I’d say “Come here,” and he would come, and we would hold each other.

When Billy came back, his head was full of stuff it had never had in it before. He went away to college, and into a suit and into business, and after that was away and away. He set the example, I reckon, for the younger ones. When their times came, they went too. I’ve worried about them all. You can get a plenty of that. Finally you see you’ve had enough. You’ve said enough goodbyes. You need one for yourself.

After we decided on the sale, and the children came as they got a chance to see about me, I told them to take what they wanted out of the house, and they did, a few little things, keepsakes. And then I gave the best piece of furniture in the house, an old cherry dresser, to Coulter and Wilma Branch. I just made them take it, because I’d depended on them ever since Grover died, and they’d been nothing but good to me. They’d lived all that time as tenants on the next farm, and I’d pretty much made family of them. All the rest had to be sold, all the farm machinery, all the tools, all the old bolts and nuts and washers and metal pieces that my dad and then Grover had saved in case of need, all the furniture and other household plunder. The cattle that Coulter had been taking care of on the halves, they had already gone off to the sale barn. Everything else, everything that would come loose, was auctioned off the day of the sale. The farm too, it had to go.

The sale was on a bright March day, warm for the season. The children all came home for it. Far off as they were in distance and in mind, they knew, they couldn’t help knowing, it was a day that ended something that mattered, at least to me, and so they came. But Althie was the one who looked after me and stayed close, because she was Althie, and was used to me needing her. The others put in the day standing around, looking starched and uncomfortable even with each other, getting recognized by people they didn’t recognize or couldn’t remember.

Althie got me there early, and led me across the yard—me with my two walking canes, Lord help me!—to the easy chair that they’d carried out with the rest of the furniture and set under the sugar tree in the front yard. That was where they had the wagons that were loaded with household stuff and the hand tools and the odds and ends. When she got me settled in the chair and the afghan she’d brought tucked around me, Althie brought one of the straight chairs that had been in the kitchen and sat beside me. All through the sale, until it was over, her hand would always be touching me.

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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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