Going Home

I

I WAS tired of books! Tired of looking at books, talking about books, dusting books, selling books. I had reached a point when I no longer saw the world through my shop window, — arrayed with books, — but through the medium of a printed page whereon the letters tripped over each other before my bewildered eyes.

‘Get back to Mother Nature!’ ordered the doctor.

Mother Nature! She sounded very comforting. Where was she? Surely she was not much use under a sidewalk. Then I began to think of a village on the River’s edge where I had spent my summers as a child. That was the place for me. I could sit on the ample knees of the matron who had held Adam, and lay my head upon her rocky breast. She sounded hard and real, and I wanted reality.

The next week I was speeding along the highway, with a map on my lap and a red circle around the almost imperceptible dot that marked my destination. I sighted the River early in the afternoon, and with an almost empty gas tank drew up to the first garage on the outskirts of the village. There was a sign swinging triumphantly in the breeze that I thought I remembered. I sniffed. No, the smell of a tire being vulcanized was not what I expected. I felt a twinge of disappointment. It was n’t tires, that old smell; it was — it was — horseshoes!

I leaped out of the car. The old blacksmith’s! Now I remembered. It was the same old black tar-covered building, where the forge had shot hot showers of jewels, and patient horses had stood at the rack, waiting their turn and swishing flies. What a change, I thought, and what an uninteresting one!

But I was n’t getting much service. I blew the horn, wondering if I should tie the car and let it wait its turn at the rack; but no — a sleek-haired young man came out and asked me if I wanted straight gas or super.

I went inside while he filled the tank. Many recollections swarmed over me. In the shadow of an unused corner, I could imagine that I still saw the beaming smile on the blacksmith’s dirty face. He had all gold teeth, which lent advantage to a blacksmith’s smile, and when I was a child I was devoted to him. Beside his shadowy image stood an old barrel that had once held nails, and on that barrel, for one long, glorious afternoon, I had sat, to watch the red horseshoes whiten in puffs of steam from the cooling tank, while Bill told me stories of horses and men, and the muscles ran up and down his shoulders like the mice on the rafters. My brother, I remembered, had been told to take care of me, but he had gone off swimming with the boys, and I sat on a barrel of nails till he came back. I have had harder seats. For a moment I fancied I saw a small person in a gingham frock hold out a sunburned finger for the horseshoe-nail ring Bill turned at the forge. I was feeling for the ring when the garage man came in, and my illusion vanished.

‘Where can I get a room?’ I asked.

‘A room?’ queried the garage man.

‘Yes, a room,’ I replied tartly. Had he not dispelled my illusion?

‘Oh, a room? You mean a room to stay in?’

‘I’m sure I don’t know what else one could do with a room.’

The man looked at me as if I were best disposed of promptly.

‘Over there at the white house with the green on it.’

I looked in the direction indicated, and saw a gray house with dark shutters. Perhaps it used to be white with green on it, I pondered. Perhaps the garage man had been happy there. Perhaps even garage men have illusions. Feeling more gently toward him, I paid him with thanks, and drove to the farmhouse on the hill.

The nearer I got to the house, the smaller and grayer it became. It was not a farmhouse, because it had n’t any farm, but it was a house, and a house had to have rooms. I knocked, and a tall bony woman answered my summons. I told her I wanted a room. To my relief, she knew at once what I wanted a room for, and led me to it. I shan’t say much about it, for it was n’t enough of a room to talk of, and I was about to say that I thought I had better go nearer town when she opened the shutters and I saw the River. That settled it for me. We fixed the price, and I asked the hour of meals.

‘We has breakfast at sundown,’ she replied, ‘and dinner at sunup, for my man, he’s a fisherman, and they works in the dark.’

So saying, she left me to unpack my small bag and to wonder at the whimsicality of fishermen. But not for long. Outside the window, the River shimmered in the autumn sunlight, and trees painted like Indians played Narcissus on the banks. The blue tint of the surface waters broke over sand bars to let the bronze tone of the undercurrent come through and mingle, and as the stream plunged headlong between distant islands a flock of terns swooped from the sky and rested a split second on the rushing waters. I could not tell how wide it was, though it looked vast. I had the satisfaction of knowing that the River, at least, could not diminish in immensity now that I was grown.

II

I could n’t bear the room when the River was going so fast, so, without changing my clothes, I went out for a walk before breakfast. My landlady was taking in the washing.

‘You’re a stranger here, ain’t you?’ she asked.

I said I was. A sense of tremendous freedom descended on me at the thought that no one could tell my family name. Why is it so uplifting to separate one’s self from all the past and be, for infinitesimal moments of liberty, merely a human being, glad to be alive? I like my past. I rejoiced that I could slip back into the security of its recognitions, but I was the freest vagabond in Missouri as I strode down the railroad track.

In less than a quarter of a mile I came to the village. Here the track ran straight to the station, and as I was not interested in stations I turned off to the road and sat down beside it to contemplate my Mother Nature, who nestled not only me, but also rivers and villages and hills. For what I had not remembered was the curious structure of the village, with its two straight streets, which lay parallel to the railroad track, between the River and a hill. It was an immense hill, or looked to be as I sat at its base and stared up at it. The rough varicolored limestone, whose more crumbled strata made scant hold for dwarfed foliage, stared grimly down at me. I turned from the forbidding rock to the River’s kinder smile, only to realize the metallic lustre of the water’s substance. There was rock in that water, and surely, from the gleam in the shadow, there was water in the rock. They are one, I thought, this River and this hill; man and wife as Adam and Eve were. And, being a little startled at the austerity of the idea, I got up and hurried to the streets of men.

The same place. Was it really smaller, or had I drunk from an enchanted vial and grown out of all proportion? Gulliver never felt more out of place. The boarded-up windows of the cider plant were sullen and despairing. With the exception of the filling stations, the street was just as I remembered it. There reared the old hotel, with its little iron balconies and the row of chairs under the porch. There stood the bank, and the undertaker’s, and the flagpole in front of the post office. The cars, parked at angles where the horses used to wait, struck me as a personal affront. So did the way the people on the sidewalk stared at me. Perhaps the way I stared back affronted them. I thought I recognized one or two, but they had not seen me in ten years and could not know who I was. The little picture of Blake’s that hangs over my desk hung over my thoughts as I passed down the street. ‘What is Man?’ I almost asked aloud, as if the caterpillar pictured in the baby’s bonnet were there to answer.

‘I need only mention my name,’I reflected, ‘and half the village will ask me to dinner. But without a name tag I have n’t even a presence.’

A man rode past on a rebellious horse. I almost waved to him, for I remembered him well. I wondered if I should have recognized him had he not been on horseback. A train roared in. The little crowd at the station surged toward it. The horse plunged and reared. A troop of boys ran yelping past with a dog yapping at their heels. I watched the train disappear by the willows, and turned into the street nearer the hill. I remembered the houses as being much larger. When I came to the creek by the library, I paused on the bridge to think.

A bullet-headed boy of about fifteen joined me. His overalls were minus one necessary shoulder strap, but so small a deficiency as that could not dim his smile.

‘Hello,’he said, ‘who are you?’

‘I’m a stranger,’ I replied, as if my identity were the fondest secret of my life.

The boy whistled between his teeth, and regarded me with puzzled, unlit eyes.

‘Does it hurt?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said, ‘it feels great.'

‘That’s nice,’he answered. ‘How did you get here?’

‘I fell from the moon.’

His staring credulity was terrible to see.

‘Here,’ he said at last, ‘you better take this crawfish.’

Thrusting the slimy creature into my hand, he set off at top speed, his bare feet pelting the sidewalk. I dropped the filthy offering back into the creek, and looked for Betty Foy, not without trepidations as to her words to me for terrifying her kindly offspring. His friendliness shamed me and I resolved to make up with him. As he was no longer in sight, I contented myself with recollecting the tranquillity of Dostoevsky’s Idiot, and strolled on.

Across the street stood an old brick church. The locust trees hid the greater part of its façade, so that I had to stand at the front door to see all of it at once — a difficult way to appreciate architecture. It was a fine, restrained Gothic, with a belfry that held pigeons, and a rose window that might have been lovely if it had been washed.

Why I should have recollected it on the church steps I can’t say, but an old story I had heard in years long past flashed into my mind. It concerned a doctor of this village, who, when he became too old to ride horseback, nailed a triangular chicken coop to a breaking cart, cinched his saddle to the apex, and behind the tamest of tame steeds used to go posting about the country roads as though he fancied himself Young Lochinvar of the Middle West. I never saw him, but I have often lain awake at night when the wind howled and thought of the doctor posting down the dark on his besaddled chicken coop.

‘There won’t be anything left to equal that, ’ I thought. ‘The world is too standardized.’

Yet, before I had finished thinking it, a figure appeared around the corner that seized my attention. I stood on the top step of the church, flat against the door, and I watched him come and I watched him go — an overalled figure, lanky and stooped, with a big floppy straw hat shading his eyes, pulling after him a child’s wagon filled with milk bottles. I don’t know why it struck me so humorously, but as the sign at the back of the wagon wobbled its legend, ‘Milk Delivery,’ out of sight, I felt that the goats of Naples were not the equal of this.

III

I had much to see before my sundown breakfast, and the middle of the afternoon was come. I left the church and went hastily up the quiet, shady street where the distant moo of a tethered cow mingled with the squawks of chickens and the shrill cries of the playing children. I came to a house singular in that it had no flower bed, not even a vine on the porch, where a woman wrapped in a fringed red shawl sat and rocked and sat. Some former image of my mind, forgotten till now, came back to me, and, settling like a cloud over the rocking figure, coincided with it and rocked on. Mrs. Carstairs! And while all the world and the River were going their separate ways, she had sat rocking, day in and day out, ever since Bill the Blacksmith had given me a horseshoe-nail ring. The creak of her chair sounded in my ears like the refrain, ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.’ I did not wait to say ‘Amen,’ but I could not help wondering what she would do in her coffin, unless one might be invented that would rock.

Across the street from her, in the yard of a wee little house surrounded by hollyhocks, sat an old man with a long white beard, a bald head, and an ancient sword suspended from his belt, holding in one gnarled, crippled hand a cord that prevented a white gander from gobbling bugs in the yard next door. Him I recalled in the robustness of an earlier time, and, nodding to him as I walked on, I remembered the tales I had heard of his combats which won the Civil War, and the one great story of the gander.

It seems that once upon a time a grandchild of the Veteran’s came to pay him a visit. This child proved itself to be an unworthy descendant of its noble predecessor, for it resented the gander’s nibbling at its bare toes and hit him with a stick. The Veteran heard the hisses of his outraged pet, and, seizing the grandchild by the scruff and the seat, bundled it into a passing hay wagon and ordered it taken home to its mother.

‘The brat was a-botherin’ Ulysses!’

A cow, its mellow bell tinkling as a small girl led it down the street, made me aware that I had passed the city limits and had reached the country again. Before me stretched a white road, whose gracious curve uphill invited me to all sorts of adventures. Roads curving uphill always have enchanted me, I know not why, unless I have, perhaps, a faint hope that some day one of them will go high enough to reach Heaven. Heaven, at that moment, was a great blue bowl, as intense there in the centre as the blue flame of a spruce fire, and as soft on the horizon as the fleece of the lambs the little clouds pictured over the hill. I started to climb. Wild rosebushes, their blooming long past, sprawled at the roots of the mock-orange borders that shaded the road, while the ironweed and the goldenrod blazed back at the sun, and the woodpeckers and squirrels made the most of their harvesting. I reached the top and looked back. Down the winding way I had come up, the road at the foot of the hill was out of sight, and I stood on the top of my world, as aloof as I have ever wished to be.

‘If I died now,’ I thought with secret exultation, ‘no one would know what to say on my tombstone!’

A delicious shiver went through my spine, for I felt akin not to someone, but to everyone — a member of the family of Adam, alone under the sky.

Below, the River ran thinner and bluer, and I leaned through the mockorange bush to watch the black smoke of a steamboat twist upward like a Chinese dragon.

The dilapidated cabin crowning the hill puzzled me. I crossed the road, and when I laid my hand on the gate an apparition rose to my mind like Aladdin’s genie. Loving Henry! He stood before my imagination as plainly as I used to see him stand by this gate, one hand where mine rested, the other holding the brim of his tattered hat — taken off with a flourish that would have delighted Lord Chesterfield. Loving Henry, with his fine manners, his black face framed in gray burnsides, and his seven wives!

‘You old rascal,’ I apostrophized his shameless ghost, ‘it took you three weeks to die! Three weeks — while we did the cooking and our cook stood guard between your wives and your last jug of rum. “Sistah Ella, you sho’ is a good ’oman. You’s de onliest ’oman I knows dat I kin trus’ to gimme mah las’ mouf-ful ’fore I goes!” And I’ll never forget your funeral, Henry, for all your wives wore mourning, and each one fainted in turn at your grave, and they wept in chorus.’

In the rustle of the wind in the bushes, I could almost hear his chuckle. Perhaps I did. His ghost would be a goblin spirit, for not even the black angels pictured in his Bible could whiten his soul. And yet he had been very kind to a little girl.

From his ruined cabin to the farther slope — there is always a farther slope in the River country, for the hills follow each other inland as waves put out to sea — lay a winding, weed-grown path that a wagon passed over perhaps once a year. There was not another house in sight. In the cornfields on either side the haphazard clumps of stalks waited the harvesting. No longer proud as Indians, the corn bowed its captive head, and the land that had been its own all summer gleamed palely gold after the reaper’s coming. Between the fences and the trail at my feet, the sumach took possession, and I marched between the bushes, escorted by a scarlet guard. My approach, quiet as it was, disturbed the refection of a flock of blackbirds, who rose in a cloud on both sides and temporarily halted my progress. How they scolded me! Hundreds and hundreds of them! Almost afraid, I put my fingers in my ears and ran down the red-bordered aisle while the angry birds flapped over my offending head and threatened me with I know not what dire end. At last I escaped, but whether I frightened them or whether they considered pursuit of me poor sport compared to the looting of the cornfield, I can’t say. When I looked back, the black cloud of them had again settled over the golden field, and a discussion of my intrusion was continued in offended caws.

I was tired. Panting, I dropped beside an old tree and fanned my hot face with my hat. When I had caught my breath, I looked around, for I had run a long way, past the cornfields to a place where even the wagon tracks ended and the open woods began. As I looked, it seemed to me that the warm autumn air, laden with the pungent smell of apples and hay, blew the wood closer about me as a gesture of welcome. I felt curiously at home. There was a little hollow that particularly attracted me. I thought how thrilling it would be to lie in it at night and watch the stars, and then. I recalled with a shock that brought me to my feet that this was the hollow where my pony had broken his leg and died before we knew.

Pegasus! Surely you knew I had not forgotten you, my darling! Did your small, iron-shod feet ring on a heavenly roadway, and were the clouds I often saw spread winglike over me your angel acquisitions? I could not want a better guardian spirit than your own. The sun that turned your chestnut flanks to satin bronze was not more staunch than you, small brother of the wind and friend of mine.

A crashing in the underbrush broke in upon my revery, and a little spotted pig witli a rag around his neck ran snorting at me. I drew back in disgust, for, much as I esteem pig on the platter, pig on the hoof does not make desirable company.

‘Shoo!’ I cried, for the little beast began nosing at my shoes in an unpleasantly chummy manner.

‘Shoo! Get away, you hateful little brute!’

I whacked him with a stick.

He backed off and looked up at me. His little shiny eyes expressed all sorts of disapprobation at my rude reception. In fact, even his tail told me that he was plainly disappointed in me. I was not the sort of person he had expected me to be. I was unworthy of his confidence. And with that last crushing shot he turned haughtily away, and trotted into the wood.

IV

I started on my way — in the opposite direction. I was nearly over the hill crest when I saw a colored woman coming toward me. She was muttering to herself, and holding around her an old worn coat, too long and too wide, and her gray hair was escaping in thin wisps from under the battered felt hat that shaded her half-blind eyes. I knew she was half blind, for she squinted terribly, and felt her way from tree to tree, like a poor lost witch whose magic is used up.

‘Who dat?’ she cried out, trembling.

‘Only a lady having a walk.’

‘Honey,’ she quavered, stretching out a hand grotesque in leanness, ‘is you-all seen Meriky?’

‘Meriky?’ I asked. ‘Is that your son?’

‘No, he ain’t my son! Think I’d bo lookin’ for dat no-’count boy, me an’ my blind eyes, in dis-yer woods? He’s no-’count, dat boy ob mine! Honey, don’ you-all know what he done? He done ’fuse to come home! Dat’s what he done! I sended him to school an’ I sended him to college, worked my fingers to de bone takin’ in washin’, put my eyes out ob my haid sewin’ in de candlelight, an’ now he ’fuse to come home! Goin’ to stay an’ be a p’ofessor. Who he think goin’ chop de wood? Who he think goin’ mend de roof? Talk to me ’bout my son —’

Her words rambled off unintelligibly, and we stood staring at each other, a little confused by the outburst.

‘But Meriky?’ I asked.

£0h, Meriky!’ she responded, her thin cheeks wrinkling in smiles about her toothless mouth. ‘Honey, Meriky’s de sweetest, cutest, bestest little pig in do whole worl’. Dey tells me he got a little spot on he lef’ ear an’ a little spot on he right laig. He can talk same’s a person. I ain’t never lonesome when I got Meriky! He ain’t never goin’ to school. Honey, did youall see him?’

I never felt more chagrined! To think that this paragon of pigdom had been within my grasp and I had not realized how infinitely more desirable he was than educated sons. America! America! You made me feel small and ashamed!

‘I saw him go that way, Aunty,’ I said, ‘and I’m sure he can’t have gone far.’

‘Lord bless you, chile! You-all sho’ is a big help! If he gone dat way, he knows de way home. I sho’ly thanks you. ’Cause you know, honey, if dat little pig was to leave me I would n’t have nuffin lef’. An’, honey, ain’t it a shame my eyes is too dim to see de little spots on Meriky, an’ yet dey ain’t blind ’nuff to get me a pension?’

I bid her farewell, and resolved to inquire next day for the truant bacon, but now I must get on, for the woods were all about me and I had a long way to go. I was glad of it. The hard maples were red and yellow-gold, and the wind in the dry oak leaves rustled over my head. Once in a while I saw clumps of bittersweet not yet opened, and here and there flames of scarlet ivy ran up the black trunks. I caught snatches of sky and snatches of River between the colorful branches. There from the hill crest I could have sworn the River was the bluer. There was very little underbrush. I dogtrotted along a cattle path until the hill grew perceptibly steeper, and I knew I had crossed the ridge of the first rise and started up the high one just behind the town. I don’t know how I knew it, for I could n’t have told myself how they joined an hour before. But this had been my playground once, and ever since I had passed the place where Pegasus died I felt I had come home.

‘I’ll have to see the old place — what’s left of it.’ And there in the friendly wood I was glad that no one knew me and so could not talk of the past.

The first streak of red was in the west when I reached the top of the River’s hill and stood on the edge of jutting rock to salute the sun’s descent. Behind me yawned the pit where the Indians had buried their dead. Before me and below, I saw the village and the train track, and the River in all its majesty, mirroring around its islands the glory of the sky. The smell of smoke was in the air. In that hour of mystery I could have fancied myself dead and a spirit for centuries, for with the immensity of the sky, and the odor of smoke that rose heavenward from summer’s funeral pyre, and the sparkle of colored waters that sped seaward below, I forgot who I was and what I was, and sat cross-legged and enchanted, to breathe deep and admire.

What did it matter how kingdoms rose and fell, what books were written, or whether music soared, birdlike, upon the air? When all of these and more had passed away, the River and the hill would still be here. Perhaps, when our chatter was over, I might hear them converse. I wondered which would speak first and what they would say of man.

But man, I have found, has a way of speaking for himself. I had not gone far down the hill when a black hand reached out of the twilight and seized my arm. I stopped in terror. An old Negro, bent and gray, with a gun on his shoulder and a pack on his back, held me in a vise-like grip, and peered at me with intensely living eyes.

‘Missy,’ he chuckled, ‘I allays knowed you’d come back!’

My breath returned — slowly.

‘Uncle Nick!’ I whispered. ‘How did you know me?’

‘How I know you? Law, chile! Don’ I know how your fambly walks? Toes on de groun’ an’ eyes on de sky! Know you! I orter know you. Been in your fambly longer ’n you has.’

That was true. Uncle Nick had been a slave of my mother’s father, and I had thought him long dead.

‘Missy,’ he asked pleadingly, ‘you ain’t got a little whiskey, is you?’

I regretted the oversight.

Nick shook his head.

‘ When I was your grandpa’s slave, I could git all I wanted. Now I’se free I can’t git nothin’. What’s de use ob bein’ free?’

I deplored the condition, but promised to ease it all I could. We had a few words more and had started on our separate ways when he called me to stop.

‘You take dis rabbit fo’ your supper, Missy. You won’t git nothin’ to eat at dat place like you used to at home.’

I thanked him, took the rabbit by the proffered hind foot, and went on. ‘At home!’ he had said. As if I were not at home! What more could I want than woods like these, and one old man to hail me by my name? The past rose up from the twilit forest to claim me. Each step I took down the hillside carried me farther and farther into the shadowy realms of the years before, and little tendrils of memory that had hung dry and limp sprang up and bloomed. It was not alone that I returned to the gray house with dark trimmings. My old friends were thick about me in the dusk, and as I paused on the threshold I saw Pegasus race over the River with the other clouds that roam the sky. I was late to breakfast of sausages and apple pie, but I bore Nick’s rabbit in propitiation.