by W. O. MITCHELL
THE first day after Mr. Candy’s visit was not the day. As soon as he lifted the sacking from the front of the piano box in which he lived, and looked out across the prairie sweeping to the horizon’s bare finality, Saint Sammy, Jehovah’s hired man, knew that it wasn’t the day. The Lord had been busy; for one thing, He had been lightening and darkening His earth by slipping the slow edges of cloud shadows over the prairie.
The second day after Mr. Candy’s visit was not the day. Saint Sammy knew it wasn’t, as he walked to the corner of the poplar-pole corral he had built on to the piano box. The second day was not the day, he decided as he walked with his left shoulder high, walking as though he had a spring under his right heel. Far to the east the Lord was occupied with a honing wind and a black dust storm that needed His attention. True, it had been on a day like this ten years ago that the Lord had come to him the first time. That had been the bad hail year when he had stood on the edge of his ruined crop, looking at the countless broken wheat heads lying down their stalks.
As he had stared, the wind, turning upon itself in sudden fury, had built up a black body for itself out of the topsoil and had come whirling toward him in a smoking funnel that snatched up tumbleweeds, lifting them and rolling them over in its heart. The voice of the Lord had spoken to him: —
“Sammy, Sammy, ontuh your fifty-bushel crop have I sent hailstones the size-a baseballs. The year before did I send the cutworm which creepeth, and before that the sawfly which saweth, and before that the hoppers which hoppeth and the rust which rusteth, and every year the drought to make sure.
“Be you not downcast, for I have prepared a place for you. Take with you Miriam and Immaculate Holstein, and also them Clydes. Go you to Magnus Petersen, who is even now pumping full his stock trought, and he will give ontuh you his south eighty for pasture, and there you will live to the end of your days when I shall take you up in the twinkling of an eye.
“But I say ontuh you, Sammy, I say this — don’t ever sell them Clydes, for without them ye shall not enter. I will take them up with you when I shall fill the air with cherubim and serubim from here to the correction line, and they shall have britching studded with diamonds and emeralds, and their halter shanks shall be of purest gold.
“Even as I did ontuh Elisha and Elijah and John will I speak ontuh you just like now. So git, Sammy — git to Magnus Petersen before he has finished of pumping full the stock trought and shall commence of stooking his oats which I have made ready for him.
“There will you find the box of Miss Henchbaw’s piano which Magnus will give on1 uh you together with his stone boat for hauling it.
“Hail, Saint Sammy!” the Lord had said. “Hail, Jehovah’s Hired Man!”
Although the second day after Mr. Candy’s visit was just such a day as the one ten years before, it was not the day. The wind was too far to the east.
The third day was not the day. That day there was no frightened feeling in the pit of Saint Sammy’s stomach. So the third day was not the day.
Nor was the fourth day. That day was the Lord’s hail day; He was mixing up a batch of hail. Hail to the Lord that was mixing hail! Hail to the little green frog that leaped to plop the stillness! Hail to his long leaf feet trailing, and his snout and the two bump eyes that nudged the slough scum! Hail to Saint Sammy, too!
TODAY, the fifth day, was the day. As he watched Habbakuk and Haggar cropping the grass by the empty wagon, and the others, Hannah, Naomi, Ruth, Hosea, Joel, Malachi, and the colts, Corinthians One and Two, in a far corner of the pasture, Saint Sammy knew that today the Lord would punish Mr. Candy. The Lord wouldn’t let him get the Clydes.
As he began to walk over the prairie toward the Lord’s corner of the pasture, he was aware of a rising wind in the grasses, and the stitching ring of crickets was in his ears like the pulsing of his own blood. He heard a meadow lark sing. A gopher squeaked.
Whatever the Lord did to him, it would serve Mr. Candy right; he ought to have known better than to fool around with the Lord and Saint Sammy. Going to church, passing the collection plate, wouldn’t help him now. It hadn’t helped the Pharisees. After the Lord had smited him for coveting the Clydes, Mr. Candy wouldn’t be called the Flax King any longer.
Today was the Lord’s smiting day. It was a perfect smiting day.
Ahead of him the sun haloed the soft heads of foxtails bending now in the growing wind; it glistened from the amber wings of a dragonfly hovering; it gleamed on the surface of the slough. High in the sky a goshawk hung, over the prairie, flat as the palm of a suppliant hand, inscrutable and unsmiling, patched with dark summer fallow, strung long with the black crosses of telephone poles marching to the prairie’s rim.
The vengeance of the Lord on Mr. Candy would be awful. Mr. Candy would wish he’d never tried to get Saint Sammy’s horses; he’d wish he had never ordered them off the Petersen pasture. The vengeance of the Lord would be enough to give a gopher the heartburn.
Saint Sammy thought of the day that Mr. Candy had called on him.
“Come ontuh me!” Saint Sammy had called as Mr. Candy crawled under the barbed wire. “Come ontuh me where I dwell in the midst-n the jack rabbits an’ badger an’ weasel an’ skunk! Come ontuh me with the creepin’ critter that hath life an’ the whole host-a them about me — minus one, Lot’s wife! Lot knew her an’ she was with calf an’ she up an’ died! The Lord hath visited me with a plague-a rheumatism, so I ain’t bin able tuh git the bresh tuh burn her!”
“I come to see was you gonna sell them Clydes.”
“Over the breadth-a the earth there ain’t no horses like mine!” cried Saint Sammy. “An’ the voice-a the Lord come ontuh me sayin’, ‘Sammy, Sammy, don’t you sell them Clydes! ‘ An’ moreover I say ontuh you, I ain’t!”
“Like I thought. Figgered to give you one chance. You ain’t takin’ it. You got a week to git off-a here.”
Saint Sammy’s mouth made a round, dark well in his beard, and the wildness of panic was in his mild blue eyes. “All-a this here land was give ontuh me, an’ the herb there-off for my critters! Magnus Petersen he — ”
“But, the Lord, He wouldn’t—”
“Blaspheemy ain’t gonna do you no good! Sell or git off. My land now. Them horses ain’t no good to anybody — way they are. You ain’t broke ‘em. You don’t work ‘em. Sell or git off!”
“But — Magnus wouldn’t —”
”Front here to the ridge there ain’t no pasture for—The Lord hath mighty lightnin’, Ab Candy!”
“Mebbe He has.”
“An’ He moves in—”
“Sell or git off!”
“The Lord hit a man I knew an’ it come to pass between the well an’ the back stoop an’ the Lord’s fearful lightnin’ burnt every stitch of clothes from off hint an’ left him standin’ bare-naked with a bucket of water in each hand — once.”
“I got no time to —”
“An’ his wife she arose an’ she went for to emp’y the slop pail an’ she was sore afraid when she saw him standin’t here an’ she yelled an’ he come to with a great start an’ he spilt the water from them red-hot buckets over hint an’ got scalded nigh ontuh death.”
“You got a week.”
“The Lord will —”
“Sell or git off!”
AFTER Mr. Candy had gone, Saint Sammy had been afraid. He went into his piano box and lay there. He plunged his hand deep into the raw sheep’s wool and binder twine bits that made his nest, and brought out the tin box filled with broken glass and pebbles and twigs and nuts and bolts and empty matchboxes and the underwear labels he had been saving for years. He counted them as he always did when troubled. Count your labels, count them one by one.
It hadn’t helped. He had put the red and blue underwear labels back, and for a long time he watched the wedge face of a field mouse just outside the pianobox opening.
When the fence-post shadows lay long over the prairie and the whole pasture was transfigured with the light of dying day, he went out to milk Miriam and turn the calf loose on Immaculate. Then he started across the prairie to Mr. Candy’s. He found him in the act of rolling gasoline barrels off his truck beside the barn.
“Whatta you want?”
“I’ve come to see would you — Ain’t there anyway me an’ my critters could dwell on—”
“Jist sell them ten head-a horses — stay as long as you please.”
“You got a week till I drill her fer flax.”
“The Lord might knock your flax flatter’n a platter full-a —”
Saint Sammy’s long arm came slowly up, and the finger pointing at Mr. Candy trembled. “The glory of the Lord come out-a the east, an’ His voice was like the wind through the smooth-on barley field!”
On Mr. Candy’s face there was a faint look of discomfort; he enjoyed the reputation of being a religious man, and for many years had served as deacon in the district’s Baptist church. “Now, don’t you go startin’ none-a that — ”
“An’ the voice-a the Lord come ontuh me sayin’, I kin do the drought in’ out an’ the hailin’ out an’ the rustin’ an’ the blowin’ an’ the hopperin’ out till Ab Candy’s good an’ tired out!’ An’ she shall come to pass —”
Mr. Candy reached behind him and knocked his knuckles against the handle of the manure fork leaning against the barn. He was a religious man, and years of prairie farming had deepened in him a faith in fate as effective as that of Greek drama. There had been a mental struggle before he had gone to Magnus Petersen about Saint Sammy’s pasture. He wanted the Clydes badly.
“Sorra an’ sighin’ shall come to Ab Candy, for he hath played the sinner in the sight-a the Lord, an’ it shall come to pass the horned owl mourneth an’ the kiyoot howleth!”
Saint Sammy’s arm had come down.
For a long time after Saint Sammy had left, Mr. Candy stood by his barn, a particularly dilapidated building that shouldered alarmingly out to one side, its gray boards warped and cracked and gaping inches.
As he walked back to his house he looked up to the evening sky, where high clouds still caught the lingering light of day and held it unexpected there. His Baptist conscience told him that the Clydes were only horses after all. A killdeer sadly called. He must remember to put lightning rods on the house and barn. About the fields, fences, buildings, there was a clarity that was not theirs throughout the day. The church could use new pews.
Clear as a coin, the sun had sunk to leave an orange stain behind on clouds above the prairie’s western line.
AND now, the fifth day, Saint Sammy in the Lord’s corner of the pasture waited for His coming. He looked down at the skeleton by the fence, with its whitened rib-bones clutching emptiness. In and out of the teeth an ant crawled, disappeared over the rim of an eye socket, reappeared, and began a long pilgrimage down the spools of the backbone. A short distance away a weasel looked out from his pulpit hole, his head and his toy cars bolt upright in Presbyterian propriety.
The rising wind was tossing the prairie grasses now, stirring Saint Sammy’s long and tangled beard, lifting the gray hair that hung womanly to his shoulders from the cap tipped forward on his head — a child’s cap with quartering creases that ran down from the cloth button at its center. A yellow butterfly came pelting past to pause on one of the dusty leaves laddering up a goldenrod’s stem, wings closed up like two hands held palms together; it untouched itself to go winking and blinking, now here, now there, echoing itself over the empty, wind-stirred prairie.
While he waited for the Lord to button the top button of His work smock, give a hitch to His “Boss of the Road” pants, and call for a whirlwind, Saint Sammy shaded his eyes with his hand and looked out over the prairie. It was there, just south of the correction line, that the heavens would be opened up, where he could see Ab Candy’s buildings squat on the horizon. Sorrow and sighing would come to Ab Candy today.
He plucked the yellow head off a flower at his feet, crushed it, and stared down at the gummy threads stringing from the ball of his thumb. The grasses tossed around him, their sibilance lost in the rising voice of the wind. High above him and all around him as he squatted in the fence corner, he could hear it utterly lost and utterly wild in its singing intensity. Calm and peace were in him now; the terror was gone as he watched the far cloud hung low on the horizon perceptibly spread its darkness up the sky. The Lord was on His way. He would smite Mr. Candy hip and thigh and shin. Saint Sammy would hate to be Mr. Candy, for there would be none to comfort him.
A tumbleweed went bounding past, caught itself in the strands of the fence, then, released, went rolling on its way. An unnatural dusk grew over the whole prairie as the wind rose, licking up the topsoil in its course across the land, filling the air with the spread darkness of dust, singing fierce and lost and lonely, rising and rising again, shearing high and higher still, singing vibrance in a void, forever and forever wild.
As far as Saint Sammy could see, around him now the long grasses lay flat to the prairie earth, like ears along the back of a frightened jack rabbit. He could feel the wind solid and real against his chest as the steady push of a giant hand. It plastered his beard around his cheek, stung his face with dust, snatched at his very breath, and tilled him with a ringing awareness of himself.
And from the darkness all around, scarcely distinguishable from the throating wind, came the voice of the Lord: —
“Sammy, Sammy, this is her and I say ontuh you that she is a dandy, for I have tried her out! Moreover I have tried her out! I have blowed over Tourigny’s henhouse; I have uprooted Tincher’s windbreak, took the back door off of the schoolhouse, turned over the girls’ toilet, three racks, six grain wagons; I have blowed down the power line in four places. I have wrecked Magnus Petersen’s windmill! In two hours did I cook her up, and moreover I say ontuh you in two hours shall she die down! And when she hath died down, go you ontuh Ab Candy’s where he languishes, and you shall hear the gnashing of teeth which are Ab Candy’s, and he shall be confounded! Thus saith the Lord God of hosts, enter intuh thy pianah box and hide for the fear of the Lord! Count your labels, Sammy, count them one by one!”
AND in the dark depths of his home, Saint Sammy did the Lord’s bidding, going over and over his collected underwear labels by the light of a flickering lantern. And when the light of the lantern had become weak and the light, of day had become strong again, Saint Sammy lifted the sacking and went out.
The wind was discreet in the grasses again; just the loose blow dirt, piled slightly higher and sharply rippled as the sand of creek beds is engraved by the water’s current, showed that the Lord’s wind had passed. A silence lay over everything. A gopher squeaked hesitantly, questioningly. A suave-winged hawk slipped his shadow over the face of the prairie, and a jack rabbit, startled, ears ridiculously erect, went off past the fence in an idiotic bounce.
Saint Sammy started for Mr. Candy’s, his shoulder high, his arm swinging wide, his walk punctuated as though he had a spring under one heel; the wiry prairie grass brushed against and clung to his pant legs; looping grasshoppers sprang sailing ahead of him and disappeared, to lift again in brief, clickering flight. Here and there the yellow petals of black-eyed Susans hung about, their chocolate domes pointing up. Once Saint Sammy picked a nodding flax flower and stared long at the stripings in its shallow blue throat.
He crossed the road before Mr. Candy’s farm.
Mr. Candy was standing where his barn had been.
Saint Sammy halted. He stared with Mr. Candy at the utter, kindling-wood ruin of what had been the barn. No stick stood. In the strewn wreckage not even the foundation outline was discernible. The barn might have been put through a threshing machine and exhaled through the blower. Certainly, the Lord’s vengeance had been enough to give a badger the heartburn.
There was awe in the old and quavering voice of Saint Sammy as it lifted in the stillness of Mr. Candy’s farmyard.
“The Lord hath blew! He hath blew down the barn of the fundamental Baptist that hath sinned in his sight! Like He said, sorra an’ sighin’ hath come to Ab Candy!”
Mr. Candy turned to Saint Sammy; he looked into Saint Sammy’s eyes, water blue, mildly wild with a fey look which said that he was childlike, senile, or gently insane. He looked at the squeezed intensity of the old man’s face, and he thought of the two sections of flax he had planted; he thought of the years of rust and drought and hail and the many wheat plagues; he thought of the thirst of flax, and he wondered at the cost of pine for church pews. He said: —
“You kin stay.”
Saint Sammy’s arms lifted as in a benediction.
“I looked an’ I beheld! The heavens was opened up, an’ there was a whirlwind a-comin’ out-a the west, liftin’ like a trumpet spinnin’ on her end, an’ there was fire inside of her, an’ light like a sunset was all around about her! Plumb out-a the midst-a her come the voice-a the Lord sayin’, ‘Sammy, Sammy, git up off of thy knees, for I am going to speak ontuh you! The prairie shall be glad, an’ she shall blossom like the rose! She shall blossom abundantly! The eyes-a the blind shall see, an’ the ears-a the deef shall hear! The lame is gonna leap like the jack rabbit, an’ the water shall spout ontuh the prairie, an’ the sloughs shall be full — plumb full!’”
Saint Sammy’s arms came down.
“Amen!” said Mr. Candy.