The Seven League Boots-Part 2
Later that night, after he had eaten again (another biscuit, this time with the gravy fresh and hot and filling him with a heat he’d not known his entire time on the mountain) they sat quietly together before the hearth fire. The Aunt in her cane-rocker and Trevor cross-legged on the floor. The Aunt surprised him by speaking first.
She said: “He was always awful proud of you.”
Trevor looked at her but she was bent over the bowl of her pipe, filling it carefully. “Was he?”
She glanced up sharply. “What kind of question is that?”
“I’ll tell you what kind. The kind that behind it’s a fishing for some flattery. Well, no sir. I’ll not say it again just for your delight.”
Trevor grinned and shifted. He held his palms to the fire then rubbed them together. Honey-yellow flames rippled in constant tiny waves upon blackened wood seamed brightly red. The bed of the andiron glowed softly orange. He frowned and stared into the fire.
“Buddy down to the mill . . . He told me about it.”
He heard her teeth clack upon the pipestem and he could feel her silent nod. She nudged his shoulder and handed him a little splinter of wood. “Light me up a punk.”
Trevor dangled kindling-scrap at the base of the flame, watching how the fire leapt to it, kissed the air all around it. “Buddy said he didn’t die right away.”
“Buddy’s a fool. Are you going to light it or play with it?”
Trevor handed the burning stick to the Aunt who held the flame over the bowl of her pipe until it was drawing. Then she flicked her wrist toward the open stove mouth. Trevor watched the flame arc past and land upon the embers. He looked back at her. “So did he then?”
“Don’t play with me here. Die right away. Did he die right away?”
Smoke spurted from the corners of her mouth and she plucked the pipe from her lips. She sat looking down into the glowing bowl a moment then asked without looking at the boy. “I don’t understand why you want to know about something like that.”
Trevor stood. He was not aware of his own motion but when next he spoke he was leaning over her, his hands gripping the arms of her rocker, his face so close to her he could smell, again, her scent of silent fire drawn from stone. “Because he was my father!” he shouted. And then he released his grip and turned toward the fire once more, the muscles of his back and neck bunched, quivering beneath the rough cotton shirt she’d scoured for him. “Jesus,” he said. He was about to turn to her, about to say things he did not mean and could never take back by any dint of sorrow or sorrowing. He had opened his mouth and was in mid-turn when the tip of the Aunt’s cane struck the side of his head hard enough to send him to his knees.
And then he was on the spruceboard floor before her with one hand covering his face and the fingers of the other probing gently at the blood welling in the rake she’d given him from temple to cheekbone. She had not stood. Her breath had not even risen but her fist gripped whitely at the cane and she glared at him saying “I don’t care who you are. I know how it is you think and you better thank the great good Lord you never said it.” Her voice was composed and precise. Trevor looked at her, nodded and looked down. “Now,” she said softly. “You go on clean that mess off your face. Get yourself glad in the same shoes you got mad in. When you come back I will tell you how it was.”
And Trevor did. He took a cloth out to the rain barrel on the porch, uncapped it and leaned over its dark mouth to drink in the sweet smell of caught rain. Even in summer the barrel still three-quarters full with only one to draw from it this past month. He soaked the cloth then held it dripping to his forehead, letting it cool him.
He stood studying the summer constellations sparkling the night sky and the filmy band of the Milky Way running through them like a dream of beauty. The water dried along his face and neck and chest where it had run. He squeezed the cloth dry and laid it flat upon the railing then went back inside and retook his place before the fire.
They were quiet together some moments and then the Aunt began to speak, to tell it again as Buddy had, only more so. Trevor watched the fire jump and crackle and destroy the wood on which it fed.
When she finished they quiet again. Trevor breathed deeply but did not cry. He turned to look at the Aunt.
“What did they do with the rest of him?”
“I said what did they do with the rest of him. The parts the saw took?”
She took the pipe from her mouth and stared at him. “Well they got the man’s foot down to Doctor Bradley’s house. Hear he’s using it for a doorstop. What kind of fool question is that?” She paused and looked at his face, then said, “They buried them with him.”
Trevor nodded. “I wasn’t sure. I just wanted to be sure. How did he look? Did he look bad?”
The Aunt frowned and looked at the floor. “They did just about the best job you could expect,” she said softly. “They did a real good job with him, Trevor.”
Trevor nodded again. “That’s good,” he said slowly. He had begun to sob quietly.
“Trevor,” the Aunt said, and paused to draw smoke into her. “Trevor,” she began again. “I will tell you something. I’ll tell it once and when I’m dead you look at the back pages of my Bible and you’ll see I got it wrote down there. Just how it was. He was in his room in back.” She pointed to the dark mouth of the dark hall. “Doctor Bradley, he couldn’t do nothing for him and the man was in such pain. But the Doctor tried so don’t you go looking cross-eyed at him when you see him on the street, because the man tried.” The Aunt paused and composed her hands around the bowl of her pipe as though to take from it some meager warmth. “I was alone with your daddy at the end because it was plain that it was the end. He said: ‘I’m awful thirsty,’ so I give him water. He said your mama’s name. I told him: ‘You are on your way now, Will.’ He nodded and closed his eyes. His eyes were closed a long time but I knew he wasn’t dead. And then his eyes come open and he says your mama’s name again. I had to stop myself looking over my shoulder for her. I touched his forehead and smoothed his hair back for him and he blinked and said to me that he didn’t hurt no more. I said: ‘That’s real good, Will.’ And then he was looking past me, like there was something to see back behind me and he said ‘Well now. That’s awful pretty,’ and then he closed his eyes and then he died.” The Aunt touched her tongue to her lips and fell silent.
Trevor nodded and stood. He stared at the fire awhile and felt the good, clean heat testing his face and then he turned and went down the dark hall.
* * *
In his sixteen years the digging is the hardest work he has yet done. Harder than the long hike into the mountains and harder than hearing of his father’s death. Throughout the afternoon, on the muggy, shadow-soaked forest floor there is the ring of the pick on stone, the scrape of the shovel blade in soil. The pick, the shovel again. It has rained since and stones have settled through the soil and the earth has tightened in its drying. Dark soil comes up on the blade and his hands are stiff and achy, cramped around the handle of the pick, the shovel, the pick again. If the pastor hears, he does not come out from the tiny white church tightly shut against the midweek heat. Trevor has brought with him water and stops his work from time to time to slake his thirst and cool his hands.
He had started in the afternoon. Leaving off the wood-chopping, he leaned the axe against the cabin wall and went to the tool-shed. Golden sunlight tilted in and dust motes whirled within the light then settled into the deep cedar-and-leather-scented shadows. His father’s rain-slicker, the stitching treated with sap, hung against the back wall. Trevor stood breathing. He could smell kerosene in the red can by the door and the still-wet leather of his father’s work gloves and the cedar wallboards and he could even smell the dim, sharp metal of his father’s varied tools. And under all these scents, his father’s odor as precise as a thumbprint, as characteristic as his creaky voice. Trevor stood in the door, then went to his room in the cabin, then came out again to stand in the shed’s door once more. Breathing and remembering and deciding without knowing he was doing any or all.
Now he stands hip deep in the earth with the loose soil mounded beside the hole, some spilling back into it so he is obliged to step out and shift it back. With the flat of the shovel he smooths the mounds and draws in it a small design with his fingertip. Trevor looks at it, sniffs, and climbs back down to begin again. The shovel, the pick.
It goes like this the day long and in the cool of the evening too. The digging. The weary action of muscles moving tools moving earth to create therein an opening, a void, a hole only recently filled back. His breath is harsh and loud and every now and again it comes exploding out of him like some blast furnace ventilated all wrong.
Down below Morrison, the millsaws stop and shortly he can hear traffic on the roads and byways as though a complete and different world is waking beyond his sight. A world different from his own and throwing it in shadow. A world of color and speed; metal and electricity. A world beside which his own pales and fades, slowly turning away to seek deeper forest, higher hills. The sound of rubber tires on dirt, on gravel, on asphalt. Wind whistling electric wires while lights snap on in parlors all about town. But the churchyard where Trevor is stays dark, turns cool. A summer breeze rustles the pine needles and sends cones softly dropping to the moss.
He was worked quietly all day and now it is as though he no longer has to dig because he can feel the coffin bulging under his boots, straining to fill the void space. Trevor begins to softly sing a little working-song. He sings and his voice is good and he is not crying nor shaking nor anything at all but digging.
A soft, hollow knock and the echo of a soft, hollow knock as the shovel blade strikes the box. The forest is quiet. Trevor stops singing. The trees stand thick to hoard the shadows, seem to bend over him as though to hide him from the sky. He leans the shovel against the lip of the grave and kneels to touch the thin soil that separates him from his father’s casket. And then he stands and runs the claw of the pick around the edge of the coffin and kneels again to bale soil out with his palms until he can feel the hinges. Trevor works with the pick to lever out the nails then finds the strap and pulls the coffin open.
Corpse-gas bursts out and forces Trevor from the grave. His eyes burn and water and bile rises up his throat. He looks around and finally rips the sleeve from his right arm, soaks it in the water he had brought and ties it off across his face so that all he can smell or taste is fallen rain from a barrel.
Trevor lights the lamp he has brought and holds it over the grave. The casket lid has fallen closed again. He swallows and climbs back down with the lamp, sets it carefully on a shelf of earth. He squats beside the casket, lifts the lid and looks within.
What lies there is not his father any longer. Hair and beard grown long, grown pale from lack of light. Skin waterless and thin-looking and tight, the bones pushing up at angles like tent-poles under weary canvas. The eyes are closed, soft and sunken deep into the skull, the shape of which Trevor can plainly see. Lips curl back to reveal white chips of teeth and the face entire is covered with a soft, white fur, more cobweb than rot. In all it is a sad face, a tired face that, perhaps, his father once wore but no longer.
And it is because of the boots that Trevor is in his father’s grave bed. He had set them under his bed and for what reason he did not know. He only knew that when he woke the next day (somewhat late so that when he came from his room red-eyed and stumbling the Aunt peered at him from over her spectacles and slowly shook her head) the boots looked somehow different, shrunken or diminished in some essential way. The right boot still bore the cut of the doctor’s scalpel and the ankle still stood by itself yet at the same time the boot sagged as though without the living flesh to warm it, prop it up, the boot entire was beginning to collapse into itself. Which had borne his father through fifteen years of working in forests and mills and which had been split and mended back time and again. Which had soles cobbled with halfpenny nails and bits of castoff leather. And the left boot too, withering and sinking into itself and bearing like war-paint the bobbles and flecks of blood where the ancient double-circular saw took his father’s right foot from its leg. One of the mill firemen had found it and borne it to the doctor thinking it could be sewn back on. And the doctor had tied the foot into his father’s only dress shoes and slipped it under the pants’ leg in the casket. It had been the boots that forced a hot spasm of grief through Trevor’s chest so that he knew, without realizing his knowing, what needed doing.
Summer then, the year nineteen and sixteen with Trevor standing hip-deep in the earth with his father’s corpse. He looks at it, assembling and dissembling the man’s death through his grave clothes. The way the right shoulder leans lower and spreads wider than it should. Where the running saw snarled into his chest. How miraculous his face untouched. How
remarkable he lay alive those long hours after.
Trevor looks at him and frowns. “What are you doing wearing those?” he asks, looking at the soft, brown dress shoes. “You never did have no use for them.”
There comes a summer moon from behind thin clouds. Huge and yellow, it sends pale columns of light between the trees. Through the sleeve tied about his face Trevor breathes the rain and carefully, carefully changes his father’s shoes for the boots.
“I never told you anything I wanted to,” Trevor whispers before closing the casket and climbing from the grave.
Not much later he is working again—this time with the shovel alone. Bending and scooping and dropping loose earth into the grave. Not digging now but filling—moving from the mound of soil to the open grave mouth and back again with unhurried repetition until the job is done.
He walks home through dark with moonlight pale silver standing in columns and hearing through the trees the constant musical sound of the river running over its bed. After a time he begins to know a great thirst but it is all right because the cabin is just there, through the trees, and the rain barrel is near and the Aunt will have a fire snapping in the hearth even in summer. Trevor sings himself a little tune as he walks and thinks of his father when his father would walk with him as a boy, holding his hands and guiding him through the forest. He feels a good, deep ache in his muscles and he feels the sweat cool on his skin and he is not tired. He is awake in the sleeping world and not tired nor even weary and it is enough.
* * *
The valley in the shadow of the mountain is quiet and dark. Above, a flood of stars seethe and shimmer while lank clouds part before a startling moon. A few cars and trucks upon the unpaved roads. Yellow headlamps in the dust rear monstrous shadows in the cornfields. It is a warm summer night and when the ground begins to throb the insects cease their singing as though to listen to the world’s own heartbeat. A small wind gathers and blows through the corn and the corn clashes and whispers like the very sound of dissension in the Garden. A louder throbbing now and metallic and you can smell coalsmoke in the air and just as you realize the train coming it is passing on its rails between the fields—the corn bowed by the wind of its passage. A long, black metal shape loud upon the valley floor, hammering the dark and trembling the ground and laying low the growing things. Moving so fast as to appear motionless below the moon, the wheeling stars. The single, outsized lamp upon the engine’s face lighting briefly the dark yards of darker houses set far from the tracks until the engine rounds the bend at the foot of Grover’s Mountain where the town of Morrison is sleeping and is gone. Slowly, the corn stands. The wind dies. The insects begin to sing again. And no one was wakened to hear it or to see it pass, not even the dogs.