The Meetinghouse



ONE of Jess’s bad times came upon him the night before he was to start south delivering nursery stock. Spring had been late that year, and the April nights had the frostiness of a season working toward greater coldness, not greater heat. The stars still held to their winter’s outlines, sharp and frigid; the breath on the night air was long and white; and the body was only truly warm in bed or close to a fire.

Jess stepped in from the porch, where he had gone for a look at the sky, and went to the fire. There, with fingers opening and closing, he seemed to be trying to roll warmth into a ball to take to bed with him.

“Eliza,” he said, “it comes over me that this trip I ought to have a last look at the Meetinghouse where my parents worshiped.”

A last look. That told Eliza all she needed to know. She dropped the carpet rags she’d been sewing into her workbasket and went to Jess’s side. “Jess,” she said, “Jess.”

Jess was a man who ordinarily looked outward and whose health permitted him to do so; from inside himself came none of those quaverings or raspings which cause others to question how they do, set them to examining liver and lights to discover how these organs are holding up in the long seesaw to fend off mortality. And for this reason he was more vulnerable than most. Some small defection, a grain or two too much of quinine, or a rising on a sensitive spot — and a remembrance of man’s thin hold upon life swept in upon him.

Or in perfect health, standing on a small lift of ground in spring, giving his team a breather after plowing an uphill furrow, or in his own bed in the fall, the house creaking in a rising wind, he would think of young men dead before their time: David’s son, bright Absalom; John Keats, the poet. His own little Sarah. A conviction of mortality would settle down upon him and he would walk back to the house with his team, or down the stairs in the morning, a man from whom life was ebbing. And once this pall had settled, there was nothing in all logic to lift it from him.

Why should it not be so? Why should he, Jess Birdwell, nurseryman, past middle age, the father of children, be spared when young men were taken? Young men whose feet had not touched a fraction of earth’s arc and whose tongues were still burdened with saying how even that small segment blossomed. It was unreasonable to expect it. In all reason and with much sorrow Jess would look about him with eyes that said farewell.

“Jess,” asked Eliza, “what is it?”

It was a hard thing to put into words. Outwardly it was so trifling, so picayunish even, that Eliza might miss its meaning, fail to see what its course would likely be, that it might be fatal — since it was only that the wen, which, walnut-size, curved the skin at the base of his skull, was now growing.

“Preparing to strike inward toward the brain,” Jess said, touching it with solemn fingers.

“Has thee seen a doctor?” Eliza asked.

“No,” Jess said. “Seems like I couldn’t bear to hear it put into words.”

For Eliza, who had borne seven children and been near death, not once, but often, though always too busy at the time to ruminate upon it, these seizures of her husband were very strange. Resigned and even cheerful as Jess often was, the days, for the time his conviction held, were bleak. He had said farewell to the finite — to her and Maple Grove Nursery— and it was sorrowful and upsetting for Eliza to eat breakfast with a man who already looked at her as from under a headstone.

Eliza yearned toward Jess, but there was little she could say. His disease was like measles: lacking gentle treatment, it struck inward, festered in silence. Nor did any reminder of bygone attacks, surmounted and lived through, help. Those deliverances had been Providential, and a Providence which let young men die must in time loosen its hold upon even the undeserving middle-aged. It was in the nature of things —sad to be sure, but not unreasonable or unexpected.

“Jess,” said Eliza, looking up into his big-nosed, well-fleshed face, “I don’t recall thee ever looking in fuller health.”

Jess shook his head. “Its being so deceptive,” he said, “is what makes it so dangerous. Far gone,” he told her, “before thee gives it a thought.”

“In my heart,” said Eliza, who felt that organ to be the seat of Jess’s troubles, and her own as capable as his of discernment, “nothing speaks to me of it.”

Jess was gentle with her. He would spare her, in so far as it was possible, the pain of his going. “As for man,” he reminded her, “his days are as grass. As a flower of the field he flourisheth. But the wind passeth over it and the place thereof shall know it no more.”


HE SET out before sunup. He headed down pike into darkness and cold, leaving Maple Grove Nursery, the windows yellow with lamplight, behind him. He drove east and south. His fingers often left the lines to see how his wen did. There was no pain about it, but his heart would harden like a dornick as he felt its unnaturalness beneath the skin. He, a live man, to die. He extended his hand, recalling its cunning, marveling at the way stiff, unpliable bones could be so cushioned and strung together as to be capable of music, of grafting a tree, of lifting a foal from its mother’s torn flesh — and that hand to be dust. And the enemy present, carried with him as a passenger — the live hand feeling its outlines, recognizing the source of its dissolution.

The way of his journey was laid out for him. He was delivering nursery stock ordered the fall before and he could not now ask himself which lane he’d fancy to turn up, which pass by. It was all settled, a foregone matter — the names in his order book and the trees themselves, well-balled and covered with burlap, behind him in the spring wagon. Already the ground which would nourish their thread-like roots was prepared and waiting, and even now farmers were saying to their wives, “ Call me up to the house if Birdwell, the nurseryman, comes. He’s due any day now.”

The names of his customers and the numbers and kind of stock they had ordered were all there, written down six months before when he’d had no inkling of what delivery time would bring. For Jonas Rice, twenty-five Rambo, twenty-five Ben Davis. For Dade Douser, six Early Beatrice, six Stump the World. For Eli Morningstar, two May Duke, six Flemish Beauty. For Abel Sander, Jr., twelve Early Harvest.

Jess journeyed deep into spring, the meaning of his wen traveling with him, spreading out web-like to encompass landscape and people. He saw objects two ways now — both as more beautiful and as more pitiable. Those which would stay, endure beyond men, — stones, trees, the moving air, — had new beauty, that of their own endurance and of his leaving; but men and women were more pitiable, his trouble added to their own until their cups were filled with sorrow, pressed down and running over.

Jess journeyed on in his spring wagon. The wagon itself often seemed to be standing still while scalloped hills and sun-yellowed winter wheat moved past him bringing him without effort of his own to the houses, the voices, the footsteps crossing the creaking floor boards before the doors swung open and greetings were said. So deep was he settled inside himself and his own affliction that he was hard put to separate the remembered from the imagined, his mind so busy running forward to the anticipated sorrow that he lost track of boundaries, saw no difference between yesterday and tomorrow.

At Jonas Rice’s, the gate was off a hinge and hung aslant so that beneath the broken arc of its swing a brown furrow had been plowed in spring’s green. A shingle blown from the roof in some past high wind still lay in the yard, tiptilted now by the blunt, pushing leaves of a Chinese lily. On the porch a plank had rotted through and the trash from bygone sweepings was heaped almost to floor level in a faded cone. This, where in the fall there had been high plans, spruceness, and the big order.

Jonas Rice himself let him in. “It’s our young’un,” he told Jess. “It’s Jasper. Taken with the littledisease, the doctor says, and no hope held out for getting shut of it.”

Jasper lay in the parlor-bedroom in a dark bed which, with rooftree and siding, would have made a house of rooms for him. He lay like the tiny little goody inside an out-size nutshell. The head and footboard of the bed curved like a sleigh, and Jess thought, driving along afterwards, “A poor peaked little grain of Rice for such a big conveyance.”

“Seven years old,” said Jonas Rice, “and dwindling backward toward the cradle. The little-disease, the doctor names it — shrinking backward to where he started from and not a thing to be done to stop it.”

Mrs. Jonas Rice stood by the bed and smoothed the coverlid above her son, all the neatness and care which the rest of the house lacked centered here.

“Jasper’s body,” she said, “is wasting toward nothingness, but it don’t touch his mind. The littledisease, the doctor names it, but Jasper’s got the bigdisease, I say, if you reckon mind and heart. Nothing he can’t read or remember, and a heart set on goodness. Say the psalm for Mr. Birdwell, Jasper.”

Out of the nut-sized face, the small voice: “‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.’”

Wheels beneath him once again, Jess repeated the words Jasper had said, “‘The Lord is my shepherd;I shall not want,’” and remembered the way he had heard it said when he was a boy: “‘The shepherd I shall not want.’” A good and holy One, the Lord, no doubt, his child mind had reasoned, but not a Man you’d choose for a shepherd — His mind on other things and coming home at night, half the flock missing and no notion where He’d lost them. Why people were so fond of saying the Lord was a shepherd they didn’t want, he had no idea. Nor Jasper, either, like as not, lying in his big bed, dwindling back toward his beginning.

A pullet touched by spring and in love with dying beneath a horse’s hoofs, it seemed, flew up and down in front of the spring wagon. “The little-disease,” Jess meditated, “is what we’re all bit by.” His fingers traced the outline of his wen — recoiling. “Man’s a sizable hulk reared-up on his wagon seat and pulled about the earth by horses; dead, no more’n a spoonful of dust — not enough, spread thin, to take the print of a small-sized horse track.”


OLD Eli Morningstar took delivery of his two May Dukes and six Flemish Beauties in a V of his land, leaning on the fence post of the angle. They were good trees, flourishing — the May Duke in season bearing a firm, well-fleshed cherry; the Flemish Beauty, a pear whose taste was summer in the mouth. Jess forgot for a minute his trouble, in pride of the trees he had grafted and raised, but they were nothing to old Eli Morningstar. He set them aside as if they had been canes or switches — or a dried cattail, cut down and brought to him by a child.

“Mr. Birdwell,” he asked, “how’re you grounded in regards of religion? I have no mind to shake any belief of yours.”

“Grounded deep enough,” Jess said, “so’s nothing thee can say will matter.”

“When I’s a child,” Eli said, “I believed as a child, but now I’ve come to maturer thinking.”

Jess looked into old Eli’s eyes. They were like the screens a man sets across his windows, reflecting nothing, but hiding whatever lies beyond from sight.

“God’s only begotten son,” said old Eli, leaning across the fence rail in his earnestness. “Why only one, Jess Birdwell? Why only one? And why a son? Whyn’t a daughter? Something fishy there, Jess Birdwell, and the more you think on it, the plainer it becomes. Something mighty fishy.”

“‘Something mighty fishy.’” Jess sat on his wagon seat and the weather warmed about him. A wind dropped down from the high sky like a shallow-winged bird, able to beat the air only a few times before tiring. The yellow spokes of the spring wagon flashed in the sun; the steel rims ran quietly through sand or noisily across gravel. Trees were leafed out, sallow now in their beginnings as they would be again in the time of fall. Small flowers — bedstraw, buttercup, and dogtooth violet — were opening; and the dogwood, not small, lifted a spangle of white stars high in the spring woods.

“Me, only, decaying,” Jess said in sorrow, hoping to find some change in his wen, feeling it always the same.

Dade Douser’s big house lay open to the midday sun, light shining on the fancy carpets and lace curtains.

“Dade Douser,” said his widow, “passed on six months ago. Short time after you were here. But we want the trees, my present husband and myself. My present husband is a master hand for fruit trees.”

Jess, like any other man, had had his thoughts about women, but they never made up for him, out of whole cloth, women like Mrs. Douser.

“Mrs. John Henry Little,” she reminded him.

Judging by outward appearances was a sin Jess had tried to wean himself from — and Mrs. Little, for all she looked like an overripe peach, likely to spatter if shaken loose from the limb, might be a spiritual woman beneath the billowings of flesh. Though crab or quince, Jess thought, while puckerish, were more to his taste and had better keeping qualities once summer was past.

“Meet John Henry,” said Mrs. Little as her husband, sleepy-eyed and in his sock feet, came to the door.

Jess had met John Henry before; last year he had been the Dousers’ hired man. “He’s younger’n me,” said Mrs. Little gustily, “ but a thousand years are as one in the sight of the Lord.” She did not let her stockiness hamper her a whit in twining herself over and about John Henry’s slab-sided frame. “A master hand with fruit,” she said, “and at sweetheartin’.”


JESS watched the rich farm lands roll past the spring wagon. “Flesh,” he thought, “is the Lord’s invention, and there’s no call for me to fault it. God knows my own flesh is dear enough to me: that of my own body and that got by marriage and begot out of marriage. Dear enough. Nothing in me so fine-haired as not to be able to stomach Victoria Cinderella Douser and her John Henry.”

The sky was a deepening blue, and the sun each day seemed to hang nearer earth. Jess took off his coat and hunched his shoulders sunward, eager to meet it halfway, put its heat so deep into his bones that some of it, at least, would go to his grave with him, live beneath the sod and warm, in another spring, some needy root. He had come to the end of his list: three more deliveries — Scully’s peach trees, Mrs. Mayhew’s two gooseberry bushes, the Sanders’ Early Harvests —and he could turn toward Fair Hope Meetinghouse and there reconcile himself as best he could to the promise his flesh bore.

He came to the Sanders’, where he planned to stay the night, the dusk of a clearing evening after a day of showers, an unsettled day fairing off just at nightfall as it often will. He had lodged here on his fall trip, found the house commodious and the Sanders, young people without children, clever to company. Nightjars were calling as he drove up the lane, and the wheels of the spring wagon turned now and then through water. Apple trees bloomed in the dusk, the last of daylight seemingly sucked up into their white petals. He mounted the doorstep with a feeling remembered from forty years before: that a house was a strange place to come to after a day in the sun. There was no reply to his knocking, though he could see a flicker of light through the windows on each side of the door, and presently he made out a woman’s voice bidding him enter.

The room he stepped into was not strange at all — nothing amiss, things set two by two, every chair in line with its brother, even the fire smoldering in an orderly way, no coal out of place. Beyond the center table with its unlit parlor lamp and albums, a little glass lamp, lighted and turned low, burned on the wide sill above a cot bed.

“Mrs. Sander,” Jess asked, “is thee sick?”

“I’ve been poorly for a time,” Mrs. Sander said, “and I had a kind of sinking spell this afternoon — but not sick. Just poorly.”

Jess stood looking down onto the neat bed and onto Mrs. Sander, so neatly disposed, beneath a kind of knitted throw, that she scarcely curved its surface, feet and hipbones alone lifting the covering to show that the head with its great pile of black hair was not bereft of a body.

“Thee’s wasted,” Jess said, then bit his tongue; but he was shocked at the young face fined down to nothing but eyes, cheekbones, and mouth.

“The fever eats off the fat,” Mrs. Sander said, “but I don’t reckon it takes anything you really need. Trims you down, takes what there’s no need lugging around, and makes you spryer. The fever burns fat, I reckon, the way a wick does coal oil.” Mrs. Sander lifted a hand fever had burned down to its essentials, turned the lamp higher, and smiled. “Except for my own mother,” she said, “I don’t know’s there’s a person I’d be more pleased to see than you, Mr. Birdwell.”

Jess, who had a mind now for his tongue, continued to stare. “Poor child,” he thought, “the wick’s sucked the lamp so near bone-dry, there’s nothing left but the empty bowl and a final spurt of flame.”

“If thee’s poorly,” he said, “I’d oughtn’t spend the night. Trouble thee, maybe. Put thee out.”

“Put up your horses, Mr. Birdwell,” said Mrs. Sander. “I was laying here pining to speak with someone.”

Jess smiled. “To tell thee the truth,” he said, “they’re up. Thee and thy husband were so clever to me last fall I been looking forward to staying here again. I brought thee a little present, too,” he said. “Four of the Prairie Queen roses thee said thee’d like.”

“Prairie Queen,” said Mrs. Sander in her voice which was half breathing, half words said. “Have you ever seen the prairies, Mr. Birdwell? I’ve often thought of them. High and even, they must be, like a hayfield, running on without end, and a strong wind always blowing so it would be easy to breathe.”

“Yes,” Jess said, “I’ve seen the prairies. Like a dry ocean, the grass moving like waves.”

“And a queen, Mr. Birdwell,” Mrs. Sander said, starting to laugh and stopping, because laughing made her cough. “You ever laid eyes on a queen yet, Mr. Birdwell?”

“No,” Jess said, “no queen yet. But if I did she’d be black-haired like thee and Eliza.”

“How’s Eliza?" Mrs. Sander asked, hiding her pleasure in talk. But before Jess had time to answer, she said, “Eve lost my manners, Mr. Birdwell. Ask you questions and keep you standing. Draw up a chair.”

Jess brought a chair to the cot side. “Eliza’s flourishing,” he said. “Full of health and good works. And thy husband? Is Abel about?”

“Abel’s away for the minute. Stepped off for a spell.” Mrs. Sander lay quiet for a time. Then she said, “You’re like as not famished, Mr. Birdwell, delivering trees all day and feeding on chips and whetstones. And I’m in like case. Empty and famished. As soon as a little more of this faintness ebbs off, I’ll cook us up something tasty.”

Mrs. Sander’s cheeks were burning and her black eyes, with little flesh about them to diminish their size with its greater curves, blazed with excitement. “We’ll have us a real social time, Mr. Birdwell. If you had let me know you were coming, I’d had the house redd up.”

“Redd up,”Jess said. “Why thing’s as neat as a beehive now. Any neater and I’d have been afraid to set foot inside. Would’ve bedded down for the night on the doorstep, scared to cross the threshold.”

Mrs. Sander began to laugh again, then stopped. “Soon as it passes off,” she said. “I got plenty of gravy-timber and fruit down cellar. I don’t know how it is. In the mornings I’m spry as a two-year-old, but by sundown something gives way—and I’m a hundred.”

Jess stood up. “How is thee,” he asked, “long about noon?”

“Twenty-three,” she said, “at midmorning.”

“Thy name’s Lydia, ain’t it?”

“Lydia Ann,” Mrs. Sander said.

“Lydia Ann,” Jess said, “thee’s young enough for me to be thy pa, and now I give thee an order. Thee’s to lay there while I cook us up a bite. I’m a master hand at cooking. All I need to know is where to find matches, lamp, and kindling. The rest I’ll root out for myself.”

“I’ll do it,” Lydia Ann said. “I’ll lay here and it’ll be a treat. The kitchen fire’s not died out, and the woodbox is full.”

When Jess brought the food in, Lydia Ann said, “You wasn’t storytelling, was you! A real master hand.” The side meat was hot and crisp, the gravy brown and just thick enough — neither soup nor pudding. There were soda biscuits to put it on, and fried potatoes on the side.

“Cake,” said Lydia Ann. “You never baked a cake!”

“No,” said Jess, “I didn’t. That was a present to me a ways back from a lady, and I figured it was just the thing to go with thy canned pears.”

“I never knowed food could taste so good. Cooking it, my appetite goes with the smelling and stirring.”

“It’s a pity,” Jess said, “thy husband’s not back to eat with us.”

“He’s where he chooses to be,” Mrs. Sander said. “He’ll not be back the whole night, more’n likely. Abel can’t bear sickness, he says, A weak chest turns his stomach — the hacking, you know — and worse. He’s found someone sound in wind. And limb too, I reckon,”


THEY were finished with their eating and Jess carried the empty dishes into the kitchen, thinking, “Here’s the two of us, brought together under one roof on the same night. Outside, calm as forever, trees blossoming, owls hooting; and inside, us two sickening. Trying to learn to loosen our hold on what we’ve spent half a century getting acquainted with.”

The words “half a century” gave him pause. “Jess Birdwell,” he asked himself fiercely, “what call’s thee got to lump thyself with that girl? She’s had no half century. She’s had no children, got no one to do for her. Thee’s got Eliza, strong enough to stomach any misfortune that’d come to thee and never flinch. Leprosy or plague would never daunt Eliza. Thee’s got no pain, no fainting spells, no need to lie lonely through the nights. Thee’s an old fool, Jess Birdwell, saying ‘the two of us.’ Leave thyself out of this. Beside that girl, thee’s traveling a flower-edged path. Think on her for a spell and ask God to forgive an old codger et up with his own troubles.”

He clattered the dishes for a while, shook down the ashes, blew his nose, and came back, shamefaced, into the sitting room. He thought Lydia Ann might feel downcast or bashful because of what she had said, but her words seemed to have passed from her mind.

“Recruit the fire, Mr. Birdwell,” she said. “Let’s have us a big blaze.”

Jess laid new logs on the fire. “Oak,” he said. “Hard and long-burning,”

“I hope you’re not thinking of turning bedwards, Mr. Birdwell. I hope you’re set for visiting. I lay awake so much of nights, it’d be a treat to have someone to talk to for a change.”

“Turning bedwards?” asked Jess. “ Why, I wouldn’t care if I didn’t shut an eye this night. What’s thee think on, nights thee can’t sleep, Lydia Ann ? ”

“Times when I was a girl, mostly.”

“Not so far back,” Jess said smiling.

“Far back seeming. Another person, almost. Happy and well.”

“Ah, yes,” Jess said. “Those years. Sound flesh and nothing to ever give the heart a jupe. Morning to nightfall, nothing but pleasure.”

“I had a white dress, aged eight or ten, with strawberries printed on it as if they’d fallen there. A long dress, to the ground, not suited for work or best.

A thing I’d taken a freak for and my mother made it up. Working nights, with little money or time, because I’d taken a freak in that direction.”

“Yes,” Jess said.

“I’d sit in a swing and it covered me to the toes, and I’d ride like a lady through the air, it blowing out on either side. Me and that mess of strawberries swooping through the air.”

“A pretty picture,” Jess said. “One to think on.”

“My mother made it working nights, going without something herself. When you study on it, there’s much loving-kindness in the world, Mr. Birdwell.”

“Much,” said Jess. “At this hearthside, too.”

“At a pie supper once, twelve boys took it into their heads to have my pie or none. They all bid on it, paid the price of a whole pie for a sliver, and the thirteen of us ate together. They made a song about me, those boys did, and sang it. It was midwinter and I remember watching it snow outside the schoolhouse while they sang. And one boy said anything I made was too precious to eat. So he put his sliver in a matchbox and said he’d keep it forever.”

“What kind of pie was it?” Jess asked.

“Sweet potato.”

“Likely gone bad by now.”

The moon came up, and its light lay across the clean rag carpet. The oak log fell apart and Jess set another on the fire. A cricket reached the hour for playing — first tuned, then bowed its fiddle. Mrs. Sander turned on her side so that she faced the fire.

“In the Pigeon Roost country,” she said, “quite a far step from here . . .”Or, “Once I had a cat who slept every night under the bedcovers, curled round my feet ... a gray cat, a tabby with long white whiskers . . .” And after a while, “Promised to love and cherish . . . but a two-timer from the beginning. . . .

“The doctor,” she whispered, “says — but I know better. Just a poorly spell, and I’ll pick up with summer weather. . . .

“A thing I’d like to know,” she said, “is the names of all the rivers, or maybe all the trees. They’d be nice to say over in the night.”


A COCK on a near-by farm, roused by moonlight into thinking morning had come, crowed and a Sander cock answered him. “I’m downright unmannerly,” said Mrs. Sander. “Talk all night myself, and you the company. And there’s things I’d like to hear you speak of, Mr. Birdwell. Places you’ve been and how you’ve fared.”

“Where’ve I been,” Jess asked, “and how’ve I fared?” He stood up at the bedside. “Well, I’ll tell thee, Lydia Ann, I’ve been a good piece — ” And he thought, “I’ll tell her how I do. Let her see how it stands with me. It’ll maybe comfort her to know suffering’s ladled out to all, not any one man’s burden to bear alone.” And he laid his hand to his wen — and found it loose and easy beneath the skin, the size it had been for twenty years, not growing, not striking inward, a trifling little lump, less than eggsize, harmless as a summer squash, and not to be thought of twice by a man in his senses.

“ You feeling dauncy, Mr. Birdwell? Did you maybe stand up too fast?”

“No,”Jess said, “I maybe got to my feet just in time.”But he didn’t take his hand down from his neck, making sure his deliverance didn’t lie in any manner of feeling his wen, but in its real nature: a small lump, the same as his father’d had before him, a wen and no more dangerous than a freckle.

“You got something wrong with your neck, Mr. Birdwell? Got a crick in it?”

“I got a crick in my head,” Jess said, “ but like as not the healthiest neck this side of the Ohio. Other side either, for that matter.”

He was walking about the room, testing the new and innocent meaning of his wen, crossing and recrossing the bar of moonlight that silvered the rag carpet. He put two logs at a time onto the fire and used the poker so that a stream of sparks flowed upward like a column from a fountain.

“You’ve come to a kind of waking-up spell, haven’t you?” asked Mrs. Sander.

“Yes,”Jess said, “I have for a fact. Wide awake. Thee asked me where I’d been and how I’d fared. I’ve been quite a step, Lydia Ann, and fared mighty well the whole ways. If a man had fared any better’n me, it would have unsettled his mind. I’ve had two eyes and seen sights so pretty there’s no words to duplicate them. I’ve drunk the wine of astonishment, Lydia Ann, standing still, gazing. I’ve had two feet and no better land anywhere to walk on. Green plush grass in spring, and leaves like a carpet in fall. I’ve smelled white clover in haytime and quenched my thirst with live spring water. I’ve earned my bread in the sweat of my brow, and still do, hard-scrabble like any other man, but making out. I’ve had for wife the one woman I’d choose, and been free to lift my voice to God — though mighty backward, I reckon, in making out what He’s had to say to me. I’ve fared so well,” Jess said, moving his hand off his trivial wen and up across his jaw, already in need of morning’s shaving, “that a jot more and I’d be crying.”

He was crying already, if tears make crying, but he was smiling, too, and pacing back and forth.

“It’s like a party we’re having, isn’t it, Mr. Birdwell?”

“Yes,” said Jess, “it is. And I’d give thee for a party present, if I could, a share of the ease I’ve had in my faring. Thee could put it in a matchbox, like the piece of pie, to keep forever.”

Mrs. Sander smiled at Jess as if she knew that his wish to make that gift was real. He was standing now before the fire, seemingly finished with speaking, and Mrs. Sander, not yet ready for sleep, asked him another question.

“You’ve said how you’ve done,” she told him, “but not where you’ve been. Name the places, for me to remember when you’re gone.”

Jess turned from the fire and named the places: east as far as Philadelphia; north to Chicago; south to Natchez, Baton Rouge, Louisville; west past unnamed clearings and settlements. While he named the places, said what business had called him there, and told how the cities stood, on the bluffs overlooking the water or spreading across the upper reaches of a valley like a dam, — Mrs. Sander slept. Jess found another cover and laid it across her, thinking, “Deserving don’t cut much figure in this life.” He banked the fire and came back to sit by the cot. As soon as a little grayness seeped into the room he went outside, noiselessly, hitched his horses, and turned homeward.

Eliza had had a strong feeling all day that he was coming, and was waiting for him at the bottom of the driveway when he turned in at nightfall. Jess helped her up onto the seat beside him.

“Thee make out all right, Jess?” Eliza asked, anxiously feeling about for the right words.

“Yes,” Jess said, “I did.”

“How’d thee find thy customers?”

“Different ways,” Jess said. “Marrying. Sickening. Meditating on the Lord. Taken with the littledisease.”

“Thee,” Eliza asked hesitatingly, “got to Fair Hope Meetinghouse ? ”

“No,”Jess said, “I didn’t. I turned homeward soon as the last order was delivered.”

“I thought thee said — ” Eliza began.

“I did,”Jess answered with some asperity, “but boards don’t make the only meetinghouses, Eliza. Here’s a spot, too, for praying and learning,” and Jess tapped his solid chest.

Eliza had never doubted it. She scanned Jess’s face in the growing dark. “The swelling thee had — ?”

“Thee means my wen,” Jess told her, unabashed. “No swelling. A matter of twenty years’ standing. A trifle. A thing I never give a thought to.”

Eliza leaned back with a little sigh.

“How’s things gone here, while I been away?”

“The cold snap held for quite a spell, but it’s moderated. Lilies-of-the-valley opened yesterday.”

Jess lifted his big nose and sniffed the air of home.

“I can smell them from here, seems like,” he said.