Now waiting quietly for his father to come, Jarrett noticed the clear icy sunset and black trees, the feeling of frost and a more bitter coldness still to follow. He looked down between the hills and could see the old man, not hurrying, but coming on with purpose — Rilke’s head muffled in his scarf and with hands behind his back. His father would talk warily and come by wound paths to his question, and after a long history of past and future winters, and what a man might or might not expect, would ask what it was that Jarrett intended to do now. And when he finally asked he would be a mouth speaking for all who had known his son or heard of him or seen his name on the post box.
. . . What will you do now? What are your plans? We want to know. . . . Come, come! Tell us everything. We want to know everything. We want to know how a man feels over such things. . . . Act for us. Tell us just how you did it and why. Quick, show your mind. Talk, so we can see what has happened to you. . . . Our eyes are on you . . . our ears waiting. . . . Will he swear? Hate? Give up? Go out of his mind? . . . What next? What now? How has he taken it all? . . .
And in the time of Rilke’s slow crawling up the creek road Jarrett tried to find in the words he was used to saying some that would make it clear but give no more than he chose to have them know — the truth being simple enough but hard to explain. The old horror of the inarticulate; the feeling of being imprisoned — mouthless and stricken dumb. The same helpless irritation that had come when he talked to Léonie — trying to tell her he loved her, and having no words; his tongue clay, yet sure that in his living, in the five years of their life together, he had proved it to her in other ways and she had believed him. But now to old Rilke there could be no doing — answer and explanation must be told in words, or else only silence and let him think what he might, and say what he chose, or let the hungry ears go unfilled.
In the autumn of drouth last year their son had died; and in the spring of this year following, the barn, struck in the April storms, had poured up fire like a torch and burned his horses. The sound of their thudding against the mangers was loud in his ears still when he remembered; but Léonie had held him back from the doors, threatening to follow if he went inside, and, in the wet morning after, had toed the black ashes, turning over the charred bones, thanking her dark gods that she had more of him left than this, and told him in half mockery that she was more sure of their resurrection than his own. Léonie had never whined. She had always seen — as in that morning — the unborn barn covering the black charnel heap; had held his arm and said they were better rid of the old — and not with any bright, sickly bravery, but with conviction.
They had built it over again, Léonie crawling its roof in the hot spring sun, stretched like a lizard along its ridge, and staring off down into the valley with her nails half driven; naming for him the lands that touched their own, — there being only one tenanted and the others deserted now, — and boasting her hawk eyes that could see a snake coiled in the creek road, and the shift of a leaf in Jordan’s pasture.
‘Jordan has stony land,’ Jarrett said. ‘He eats to plough, but no food’s enough.’ He wondered aloud what a man living as Jordan lived — alone since he came a year ago — worked for, and felt sorry in a vague and contented way. ‘He lives on hope,’ Léonie had said. ‘A man can get on alone.’
Jarrett had shifted himself in thought to Jordan’s land, looked up at their ridge and saw the barn rising around its ashes and saw themselves as Jordan might see them — two specks crawling along the roof boards, black ants in the mild sun, moving near together, and not standing here in a rocky pasture, alone and thin as one of his crowded trees. ‘He gets on,’ Jarrett said, ‘ but it don’t mean anything. I knew what it was like to be alone.’
Léonie looked down on him, resting now on the roof edge, and smiled, and then out again across Jordan’s land with its crumbling barns and stony fields. ‘Jordan fiddles — goes to the dances — reads. A man could fill up a life with reading. Maybe he works too hard to be lonely. Work is a sort of dog — worrying a man out of himself.’
‘That’s so,’ Jarrett said, ‘but it’s not enough, I tell you.’ He knew that she wanted him to say more and say what he meant, but the words stuck down. She had waited and sat watching him as he hammered the nails, with a slow precision, and yet not unaware of the smoky spring around them and shrikes nesting already in the bare thorn trees. Out of his eye’s corner he saw Jordan, a small dot, come out of his house, and moving fast down toward the hog lot. The man waved both his arms, and his shout came up in a loud thin sound as out of a pipestem. ‘Ten more!’ he shouted, and Léonie laughed. Jarrett grinned down at the man’s excited running. ‘He ll have more hogs than he can take care of soon. Then he’ll have to slave to take care of all that he’s slaved to get.’
‘What you have to fight to hold on to is n’t worth while,’ Léonie said. ‘It’s too covered with mud of the scrapping.‘
‘Jordan don’t think so,’ Jarrett had answered her. ‘He’s had to fight for all that he’s ever had. Nothing’s ever come to him easy.’
‘Nor to you either,’ Léonie said. ‘You never got the whole of anything. Nothing ever came free to you. Always a little too late or moulded over outside! ’ She had sounded almost fierce, and Jarrett looked up surprised, saw her face red and strained. ‘I’d like something to come just once easy! Something that was n’t fought for and fought over and discussed back and forth till it’s full of holes!’
The sound in her voice he had n’t understood, and he looked at her wondering and uneasy, thinking how little he knew her after all. . . . ‘There are some things nothing can spoil — that have n’t come only half or turned out imitation. . . . You’re one of those things, Léonie. You’ve always been worth the fighting for and the nights of waiting. You’ve never let me down.’ . . . She did not answer, and he had realized that the words had only been spoken in his mind, and she sat staring down over Jordan’s land waiting for him to speak. . . . ‘I’d give you that — whatever it is,’ he’d said. ‘Not much comes without scratch, though.’ He wondered why the hard red still stayed in her face and she kept it turned away, sliding herself off the roof presently and going up to the house, although it was early for noon.
Everything she had said he remembered afterwards, mixed with the warm slow haze over the barn and his own unspoken words, which tormented him because they were never said.
This had been in the spring, and not until June did he realize the change in her. He did not watch after her when she went nor ask anything at first, having no desire to know. And not until later was he sure. They went to the dances and suppers together, driving hours in the muggy heat over storm-gullied roads and almost too tired to dance when they got there. He had seen she was not particularly happy even then, but knew she would give no reason till she chose. Jordan went everywhere, playing his violin loud and badly, dancing fast and easy, but thin as a starved hawk clattering, and without him the socials would have died — tasteless as the poor ice cream or prayers. Beside him Jarrett felt like a moving clod, but would have gone a long way to watch him and hear him talk, and felt the nights wasted when Jordan stayed away.
August was full of storms; gray clouds like sagging webs, dark and dirty, swinging across the sky; hay rain-ruined, and the tree bark green with moss. The thistles grew high along the fence between his land and Jordan’s, and when Jarrett spoke to him of it Jordan had said he would cut to-morrow, but found no time. He looked worn out and scarred, and Jarrett, conscious of all his unused strength and enormous body, pitied him in a way. ‘I’ve got less than fifty left,’ Jordan told him. ‘I’ve got to lay by enough this year to hold me over the winter. This is good land, Jarrett — all I own’s sunk down in it!’ When he talked of next year his eyes were excited and brilliant like green stones, vaguely exciting Jarrett too, as at prophecy of great things. He had a way of talking that made what he said come alive, infecting even men who had no reason to hope and years of drouth behind them. ‘Clover,’ Jordan had said, ‘yellow all over the place. Catch roots even on top of these boulders — cover’m over like moss. Pulverize even rock and make lime for the land. You wait! It’ll take the place like weeds. Crack every damned rock in the pasture!’
Jarrett had grinned. ‘Rye’s good for your land,’ he said. ‘Put that in your other fields.’ He waved his arm out toward the acres beyond the scrub-oak clump, half hidden behind the hills.
‘ God! ’ Jordan said, his mouth changing and hard, the flare gone out. ‘How’ll I get it all done?’ And then before Jarrett could answer, ‘And for what if I do? What for? What use all the trouble to us?’
‘ I’ve got reason enough,’ Jarrett said. He saw Jordan’s small fierce eyes on his face as though the answer would be of some great value to him. ‘I don’t think over these things much. Léonie’s reason enough, I guess.’ He did not guess — he knew, but it sounded too full of sentiment to say as fact.
‘Léonie’s a good excuse for all work,’ Jordan answered. He smiled to himself and cut off a thistle head with his knife. Afterwards Jarrett remembered and wondered if even then Jordan had known the meaning of what he said or had only talked at random.
It had come to him in small ways — not told with sound and fury, but with more certainty. If she had come to him, saying it aloud in the late August nights: ‘What ever was has died, Jarrett — turned limp — gone out. I love Jordan more than I ever loved you — even in the beginning.’ If she had shouted it to him he would not have been more certain — as a man knows by a single print the passing of a fox, or death by the finding of one bone.
He had known, but pretended at first he was not sure. ‘She’d tell me,’ he said. He argued this way to himself, but knew it was only a stupid hope, made out of his own despair, and with no roots. He knew Léonie. Her strange honesty and devious falsehoods, her way of refusing to see things as they were until too late to deny or escape, and the way she had of carrying her heart on a pole and thinking it hidden from all eyes.
On a night in August, hot and full of dust after a week of drying sun, Jarrett had stood by the stalls, his hand on the gate in the dark, holding the chain unfastened and fumbling without thought of what he had started to do, his mind walking back and forth over the worn and raw thoughts. He could see the house lights and the shadow of Léonie, moving black in the lighted window, restless and shoving the dishes on the stove. . . . Go back and eat . . . watch her and love her and know that everything is gone stale — changed.Your turn is over—blotted out. . . . Now remaining only to eat and to work and to watch her. . . . And then hate came over him like a scald of water until he would not have known himself, as though he were drunk or mad, and he lashed out with the chain, crushing its links against the gate and savage to hurt some living thing — whatever was near at hand. When Léonie came to the door and called him, Jarrett had turned and blundered off down the field, taking blindly and without intention the path broken between his land and Jordan’s.
There was no light in the house, and when Jarrett knocked open the door he was confused with the darkness and stopped. ‘Who’s there?’ he heard Jordan ask, and there was a match struck on the wall. Then he saw him straining up from the bed, the match wavering back and forth in his hand, and by its light his face hollow as a goat skull, with a hot stain in the skin. ‘Well, thank God!’ Jordan said. ‘Thank God for someone coming! I’m burnt up like a cinder. Get me a drink some place, Jarrett — out of the bucket, there. . . . My dancing’s about done for, Jarrett. Man’s days are as grass — soon over. . . . The hay prickles, though. I’m not drunk —’
‘What’s the matter?’ Jarrett had cut in on him. ‘What’s happened to you?’ He reached for the pail of water and dipped a glass; lit the lamp, the chimney so black it gave off only a blurred and smoky light, and held the water to Jordan’s mouth.
‘It’s fever or something,’ Jordan said. He fell back on the dirty sheets and snarled with the pain. ‘I wrenched my back on one of those Hell-left boulders yesterday. I’ve seen all colors since — fancy stars and things whirling — big gray oceans of nothing. . . . Say, Jarrett, does a man die of this pain?’
‘You won’t die of it,’ Jarrett said. ‘Pain don’t kill. I’ve got to get you a doctor, though. You look like Lazarus risen.’
Jordan twisted his mouth in a grin. ‘I got to have something quick.’
Jarrett stumbled over the torn rugs and the clothes dropped wherever Jordan had stood, swore, and went out; heard Jordan call out some painful thanks, cut off with a sharp sound like a knife in his throat, and ran on toward his house.
Remembering now the months after that evening, August and the early autumn . . . September . . . and October . . . and now December, Jarrett said aloud to the bent head of his father, still crawling slowly beyond earshot, his eyes on the creek road, ‘You’ll ask me how things went those months — ask me how I came to do what I did, and you won’t understand when I answer, not knowing Léonie, not knowing me, nor how it was between us. You ’II ask how I took it — but there’s no answer to that.’ The only answer being both anger and acceptance, the alternate rage and reasoning, and the final emptiness for which he had no words or comparison except some dim idea of an ancient Hell.
He had brought the doctor to Jordan that night and found that his back was wrenched from the plough’s jerk, that it was a matter of long rest and slow healing; and Jordan had sworn in helpless fury, desperate and damning his useless body. ‘What’ll I do, Jarrett? Who’ll truck my hogs? Who’s going to twitch up my land this late? God, Jarrett, it’s like we were little living pegs — stuck places — jumping out — and stuck back further each time. There’s something don’t want us to get ahead! ’
‘I’ll truck your stuff when it’s time,’ Jarrett had said. His mind, moving with slowness and blurred with the confusion of finding Jordan there helpless, could see only the one thing that he had to do.
All September and October, Jarrett kept back the acid words, the dragging of truth into light, since things can be known and lived with but remain sterile until spoken aloud, and be bearable only while never put in words. He waited for some miracle of change — some resurrection of what seemed completely dead. Léonie went with him over to Jordan’s; brought food and was alone there sometimes while Jarrett ploughed up the scattered acres, wrenching the earth as though it were a living thing and could feel his hate. The double work was too much, but Jarrett was used to too much, and worked with a kind of dogged persistence, denying thought. There had been no one else to do it. He alone could keep Jordan’s work from ending up in blue ruin. Neither he nor Jordan had any money to hire a man, nor was there anyone fool enough to plough on shares and wait an uncertain spring.
Jarrett tried to keep his mind numb. There was this to be done. There was no way out. He hated Jordan, but knew there was no reason in his hate. That a man should love was no reason that he should die alone, be hated, and have all the months of his work wiped out. But it was something he could not lay aside. He could not hate Léonie, though, nor hold himself in such great value that her turning to Jordan seemed a strange and incomprehensible thing. He could understand, but it made the suffering no less. Between them they kept up a mild and surface peace, Léonie because she thought Jarrett did not see, and he because there was still the prayer for some accident of change before his whole acid cup was passed.
. . . October into November somehow. A year of strong rains and the buckeye trees torn early; the crows whirling and shouting above his woods, blattering some unknowm judgment among them. Some purpose and sense in what they did, but a confusion of sound he could not read. The elms gold for a week and leaves falling in flaming circles of light under the maples.
Mild some days, as though the oaks’ sullen fire had warmed the air, and then a north wind fierce in the shivered leaves. Alone Jarrett found intervals of peace, — not happiness, but an absence of feeling that almost amounted to it,— and wondered why he dreaded that complete aloneness which he knew would come sooner or later. The inevitable winter of love, differing only from earth’s season in that after it there would be no spring. Even on Jordan’s land he could forget for a while the jangle of warped thoughts and feelings that made his life then with Léonie a quiet, decently covered torture. She had worried over his working, tried in small ways to please him, but only with kindness. The old small fiery excitement she had always shown in surprising him was gone, the shadow of it coming back only in unguarded moments, after she had seen Jordan or thought up some new thing she could take to him. And it was plain to Jarrett that this was only the little after-light of some smothered match. When he had first told her that he would work on Jordan’s land, he could not translate the surprised, incredulous look on her face. ‘It’s all there is to do,’ he told her. ‘ Who else? What other way?’
The unbelief and suspicion had gone out slowly. ‘I don’t see anything else,’ she had said after a while. ‘Nor any but me to make his food. . . . Jarrett —’ He waited, but if she had meant to say more she changed her mind and let it go; seemed frightened and turned away.
Jordan himself got better with painful slowness. He railed to Jarrett, cursing God or whatever it was that had knifed and trapped him. At times he was curiously humble, and then again arrogant with despair and pain — the debt of gratitude more than he could express or return. ‘You ought to get all I can spare out of this, Jarrett. Take eighty per cent off of the hogs. Take whatever weeds’ll grow out of this rock. I owe you the whole farm by now!’
Jarrett had grinned sourly. ‘You’re welcome to keep it, Jordan. Your land’s no gift. Fit only for fox holes and the hawks.’
Jordan hauled himself up against the window ledge, stared off over the fields that Jarrett had ploughed — bare scars between the gullies and foothills, the pastures still red with weeds and broom sedge. ‘I’ll pay you back some way, Jarrett — God knows how!’ Jarrett had turned and gone out without answering. ‘Give back what you took — not what I ’ve given you!’ he wanted to shout, but knew when the anger was past they would seem only loud and foolish words, Jordan not having stolen, any more than to live is theft of air. Between his anger and his words there stood always the question, Why should she love me more than all other men? What claim have I? And he would follow it with telling himself that he did not want her if she did not want to stay; but knew this was a lie, and that seeing her plainly for what she was, and all the things baffling and inconsistent in her, he still loved and was sick with the change — the swift dying — the natural dying, and yet no easier to stand because he acknowledged it.
By November, Jordan was able to move around, but do no work, and wandered restlessly between stove and window like a gaunt beast, or read to fill up the days. Late in the month, Jarrett trucked his hogs, was gone two days driving and arguing prices in the yards. He got for Jordan the highest he could, but it still seemed somehow not proportionate to the time and labor their raising had taken, and he came back angry, willing to side with Jordan against the world.
The cold came early that month, the ponds scummed with ice and a wild freshness in the wind that turned harder as the day went on. The first thin snows plastered against the northern bark, and when he came back it was already turning bitter, the land beginning to lock. He found Léonie sitting by the window, the lamp unlighted and the room cold. She stood up when he came and kissed him. He could see her face only vaguely, but her voice sounded tired and heavy. She poked up the stove and struck a light, asking about his trip, as though recalling herself with effort. Jarrett showed her the money. ‘Not much,’ he told her, ‘but as much as I could pry loose.’ Léonie looked at the money and then faced him, holding herself quiet and not moving nervously as she had always done before, reminding him of some small animal — mink or weasel — in her restlessness.
‘Jordan’ll need it,’ she said. ‘They were worth more maybe, but anything’ll help now. He’s going to sell out and go.’
Jarrett had stood there stoned, not believing her words or that he had understood their meaning. ‘Sell out?’ he repeated stupidly. ‘Go where?’
‘Back, to what’s left of his people, I guess,’ Léonie answered. ‘Back somewhere three states away.’
Jarrett groped for some understanding, clearly conscious of the look in her face, but slow to grasp all that might lie behind her words. ‘What’s he quitting for now, Léonie? Why now when he’s almost well?’
‘He says he can’t stand to have you working for him any longer. He —’
‘He took a long time to make up his mind,’ Jarrett said. ‘He’s stood it a good while now!’ He felt ashamed of his blurted words, but let them be — a new and worse fear come suddenly to him.
‘I know,’ Léonie answered, not angry or defiant. Her white thin face drew hard, and he saw she looked chilled — her eyes almost black and the hollows under them stained dark. ‘You’ve been sick, Léonie! What’s wrong? What’s happened to you?’ He put out his hand to move her toward a chair, but she turned away and then broke suddenly into a painful crying — hard, unaccustomed tears, as though only dust or shale had been behind her eyes till now.
Jarrett put his hand hard on her shoulder, turned her around to face him. ‘In God’s name, Léonie! You tell me the truth. I’ll listen to anything you say.’
She had stopped soon, as though too tired even to cry, and sat away from him, talking now with a sort of hopeless freedom, seeming to feel that what she said did not matter any more. Jarrett listened to hear in words what he had already known and lived with hourly. When he asked her why she had waited so long to tell him, she looked up at his face surprised. ‘What use to hurt you for nothing, Jarrett? I thought to get over it. I thought it was only because he was new and not clearly known. But it’s more than that. It’s everything. I’d take him if he never got well again. Nothing can change it. I can’t live torn up in half this way any more — using you like the keeper of an inn — and Jordan only two acres away beyond us! ’
‘What’s Jordan say?’ Jarrett asked. He had come to this hour so often in his mind that there seemed little left to surprise him. He forgot that to her his answer would come as from one to whom it had never been told before. His quiet seemed to her strange and cold.
‘Jordan sees only his going as the way out —’
Jarrett shook his head. ‘That’ll mend nothing, Léonie. I’m not going to fight or shout. I don’t want to hold on to what’s not mine any more. Marriage is n’t a trap, Léonie. I want you to have what you want — something that was n’t fought over and muddied before you got it.’
It was a long speech for Jarrett. He felt miserable, as though somehow appearing a simple fool; wished that there had been time to write out a speech saying more, and saying more clearly what he meant. What he felt no words would have said, nor would he have wanted her to know. ‘You do what you want to do, Léonie — I’m not trying to play God or act heroic. It’s only sane. There’s too much suffering already to make up more. One’s less than three. Why all of us turning rancid and hungry? You go, if you want, with Jordan. It’s only right as I see it now.’
‘It was only right as I see it still,’ Jarrett told his father. ‘What else should I do? Roar like a bull? Call myself betrayed? Shake out our marriage like a chain? Marriage is n’t a trap, I told her. It’s all I can say again to you. I loved her — that’s why I let her go. That’s proof enough, is n’t it? She wanted something that was n’t fought over — that did n’t come hard and spoiled. I let her have it easy. Why scratch at a thing you have to give up in the end? Well, what do they say? What do they want to know?’
Old Rilke looked over at him — grim, pitying, but with a gleam of malice in his old eyes. He shoved aside Jarrett’s question, put off his answer as though saving it for a more fitting time, and asked him again, ‘What’ll you do now, Jarrett? Stay on — alone like Jordan used to? What’ll you live for now that you let her go ? ’
‘There are other things. I’ve done what she wanted — there’s a sour consolation in that. I ’ve got other things to do — other things to live for!’ He moved his arms in a wide arc, defining dumbly the great number and width of these consolations, but suddenly dropped his hands and sat staring as one not sure of what these things might be — or if they existed after all.
There was gray light now on his halfploughed fields. Sleet up north and the land locking. Acres of unshocked corn stiff as wind-rattled iron. . . . ‘Well, what do they say? What do they say about me ? ’
Rilke answered his questions then, his mouth open with righteous gall — the delight of knifing with moral reason. ‘You want to know what they say about you? What they say about you letting her go and working for Jordan like a serf? They say that you must have owed Jordan something — that you were afraid of him, they say. You don’t love and you never loved her, or you would n’t have let her go! Meek as a blind old sheep, they say you are — meek as a blind old ram. And that’s the damned truth, Jarrett. Meek and dumb as a grave!’
He got up and wound his wattled old neck in the scarf, grinned at Jarrett’s tired stubborn face, the angry look in his eyes. ‘That’s God’s own truth, Jarrett. Those’re the words they said. “Meek and dumb as a grave!”’ He walked off stiffly down the path, easing himself along the stones and fumbling with his stick; left Jarrett alone on the steps, staring grimly after the bent old back.
‘Let’m say what they say,’ Jarrett muttered. ‘Let them think what they choose. I know’