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Authors: Tristan Egolf

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BOOK: Kornwolf
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Fannie, not due at school until six, could afford to burn the
midnight oil. (Not that she would have been
able
to sleep.) As burn it did: from a lamp on the table between them, Jonathan's countenance flickering.

Shaking his head in bewildered frustration, he mumbled: “It weren't the Ephraim I know.”

Images jumbled chaotically, pleading to Fannie for placement in some kind of order: the marketplace, late, her cousin impatiently roaming through motionless traffic on foot—a busload of English, passing, an altercation with someone in one of its windows, then blasphemous, truly malevolent music, “
enough to make Lucifer's blood run cold
,” an English trailer, a jolt of momentum, the sudden appearance of movement oncoming, a chorus of horns—more onlookers screaming, Ephraim undaunted, even encouraged—refusing to veer, the trailer deferring and
SLAM
ming into a telephone pole—power lines tearing in showers of sparks, ensuing confusion, panic and rage until Officer Rudolf Beaumont appeared to dispense with a loudly demanded beating—which Jonathan somehow eluded in passing (Rudolf had targeted Ephraim alone) and Ephraim's hideous, puckering grin through blow after blow of the officer's nightstick—till someone or other, one of the demonstrators, maybe, stepped forward to intervene—and a small riot later, the whole thing stopped making sense …

Fannie knew not what to make of it.

For Jonathan, only one thing was clear: the Ephraim he'd known all his life and the fiend he had been with that day were opposed diametrically—this one, a relative boon to creation, that one, the literal bane of a species. The idea that anyone might have played host to them both was decidedly hard to imagine.

He shook his head, looking down at the floor. “I don't understand,” he groaned in English.

Rainfall pattered against the roof. Outside, the evening was black and turbulent.

“—don't know what happened.” He switched to Py. Dutch: “
It's like something took over. I don't
—” He tapered off, pressing one palm to his forehead. Then, in conclusion: “
I just don't know why
.”

Something occurred to Fannie abruptly. A look of mortal dread came over her. “
You didn't tell him?
” She held her breath.

Jonathan shook his head. “
Of course not. And now I
really
don't know what to say
.”

The oil lamp flickered as, off in the distance, a rifle shot cracked through the pouring rain.

Fannie, more bothered than prompted to curiosity, tried to change the subject: “
You think they're shooting at The Devil?

Jonathan sat up. The question had caught him off guard. He looked over, trying to gauge her bearing. “
Don't joke of such matters
.”


I'm not
,” she said.

Jonathan held his peace for a moment. Then he ventured a word in reply: “
They were talking about it at market today
.”

Fannie cocked her head, unimpressed. “
They've been talking about it at market for weeks
.”


Yes, but
—” Leaning forward, he elaborated: “
The Graberses spotted it Saturday night
.”


I heard that too
,” she continued, unfazed: “
And the Hershbergers lost three cocks on Monday
.”


And now the English are writing about it
.”

She nodded.


They think it's a ruse
,” he said.

Fannie looked over. “
What do
you
think it is?

He stared at the ceiling in hesitation. Finally, he shrugged. “
I don't know
.” He bit one thumbnail, gazing into the lantern's flame. “
It might be a coy dog
.”

Fannie seemed doubtful. “
I don't think so
.”

He followed up quickly: “
Then
you
think it's real?

She didn't know how else to phrase her reply: “
I think it's something we don't understand
.”

Jonathan got up and arched his back. He walked a circle around the table. A halfhearted grin appeared on his face. He muttered: “
My grandfather says it's your uncle
.”


Your grandfather's crazy
.”


True
,” he conceded. “
But so was your uncle. Or so I'm told
.”

She looked up. “‘
Was'?

He clarified: “
Not the Minister. I mean
—”

She waved him off. “
People say all kinds of things
.”

To which he was forced to acquiesce. “
OK. I'm just thinking out loud here
.”


Of course
.” She frowned, wringing her hands in frustration. “
You think it's your gang, then?

He looked at her doubtfully. Logic precluded the need to respond: yes, perhaps the Crossbills
were
involved in this mess, to some extent—at least insofar as the pranks were concerned. As little as Jon had seen of them lately, he probably wouldn't have known the specifics.

However, could they, or
would
they have been killing chickens and goats?

Probably not.

Fannie shifted, no longer able to feign distraction. “
I just wish he'd get here
.”

And no sooner spoken than the sound of a door swinging open went up from the dark on the ground floor. Jonathan shot from his stool and leaned over the ladder. “
Ephraim!
” he called.


Is that you?
” added Fannie. Her body was tense in the stillness.

Grizelda's voice came back in reply: “I'm sorry.”

She stepped into view from the shadows, raising her lantern. Her bonnet was soaked—her upturned face, a mask of worry. She stared. “
Are you OK?
” she asked.

Fannie relaxed with a heavy sigh. “
We're fine
.”

Grizelda glanced between them. “
He hasn't arrived
,” she stated flatly.

They shook their heads.

She lowered her gaze.


Rest assured, missus—he'll be all right
,” said Jonathan, doing his best to sound comforting. “
He was released from the station earlier—hours ago. I've already checked. He's probably just been detained by the Minister
.”

Which was exactly what she feared—and certainly not what she wanted to hear. Now, at this hour, her brother was normally blacked out with drink, and her nephew, roaming.

Tonight, however, would probably be different. Surely, the old man would still be awake—and in God only knew what frame of temper.

Nights like these had always been hard on her.


Damn
,” she whispered. Then, peering up: “
You haven't told him yet, have you?
” she asked.

Fannie responded: “
No. We haven't
.”

Grizelda peered away from them, frowning.

She lowered her lantern and whispered, again, to herself in a forceful hiss: “
Damn it
.”

Slowly, she made for the door. Before leaving, she paused to look up for a final remark. She gestured toward Fannie while speaking to Jon: “
I trust you'll have her inside by midnight
.”

Jonathan bowed deferentially. “
Yes, ma'am. Of course I will. Have a good evening
.” He smiled.

Grizelda stared at him, seemingly unimpressed by his awkward show of servility. Jonathan lowered his gaze uneasily.

After a moment, she left in silence.

Once the weight of her presence had lifted, Jonathan heaved a sigh of relief. “
I don't think your mother likes me
,” he said, understating the matter, to his way of thinking.

Fannie returned to the corner and sat. She drew in her legs and embraced them, muttering distantly: “
Mother just worries for Ephraim
.”

Unconvinced, by the look of it, Jonathan got up and wandered around the room. His shadow, crossing the walls erratically, back and forth, made Fannie dizzy. Sheets of rainwater crawled down the window behind him, steadily blurring the lights of a distant, flashing radio tower.

Another gunshot boomed in the distance.

Suddenly, Fannie got up. She walked to the ladder and looked down. “He's coming,” she said.

Jonathan, gently: “
Of course he is, Fannie
…”

She shook her head. “
No, I mean now. He's here
.”

A thud went up from the ground floor.

Jonathan leapt with a start.

Fannie hushed him.

Hinges groaned. A draft blew over the floor. Footsteps.

Fannie called to him: “
Ephraim!
”—her voice like a trapped canary inside the barn.

Below, a mop of tangled hair and dripping fabric stepped into view. Glancing up, he was lost in shadow.

Fannie beckoned tenderly: “
Come
,” she said, with her arms outstretched.

Slowly, Ephraim climbed the ladder. Into the light he rose, his countenance gradually brought into stark relief.

Jonathan took a step back at the sight of him. Fannie choked in a horrified gasp.

Ephraim stood in the half-light. His right eye was blackened and swollen. The bridge of his nose had been cut. His garments were badly ripped. A pool of water was spreading around him …

He squinted toward them.

Fannie broke down. She seized his collar and jerked him about. She was sobbing convulsively—torn between hitting, embracing and throwing him out of the loft—until Jonathan got to and managed to steady her.

Slowly, he led them both to the corner. Ephraim slumped in a pile of straw. Fannie remained on her feet, standing over him, tears cascading down her cheeks. Jonathan signaled her, motioning:
Keep it together
—and pointing to Ephraim.

She sat.

Even though Jonathan did his part by ejecting the
Weckit Shet
tape (he had characterized this music as “evil incarnate”) from out of the deck of the unit he'd brought along for precisely this occasion, and, setting it off to one side for disposal / incineration by flame later on, then inserting George Jones, track one, side one, “A Good Year for the Roses,” Ephraim's favorite—even though
the opening notes thereof settled over the room as a sedative haze, lulling the almost unbearable pain to recession, if anesthetically so—there was only one thing that would ever bring Ephraim comfort, one person to quell the furnace—not Jonathan, for all of his noble intentions—not Auntie, who seldom, if ever, laid eyes on him—not the Crossbills, whatever their purposes, past and present, and not even Possum. Only Fannie, for all of their differences growing up, could bring him relief.

That was one matter which Jonathan already understood, maybe better than they. Having grown up with them, he had been forced to accept that the bond which existed between them ran deeper than even blood being thicker than water. It transcended family, love and death. In a sense, it was larger than they, and, as such: nothing would ever come between them.

For Jon, this kinship had to be frustrating.

Here, indeed, was relief for Ephraim: nestled into his cousin's embrace, with rainwater tapping the roof overhead, an oil lamp glowing softly beside them and Possum's velvet delivery crooning of imminent safety, salvation, deliverance …

Meanwhile, Ephraim had nearly gotten him, Jonathan, killed that afternoon—not to mention placing his wagon and pacer in danger, and his person at risk of a beating—for all of which, he didn't even look apologetic.

No doubt: Jonathan should have been furious.

Instead, he looked more disturbed by something—a creeping stench that had entered the room. It seemed to be coming from Ephraim. It was … Even while soaked to the bone, he exuded it.

Fannie had trouble accepting her senses. Ephraim had never been overly pungent. Somewhat
stale
perhaps, but in keeping with life as an only son, and not much of a wash keep, understandably so. Quite often, his clothing was mussed and bespattered with scratch, but his person was normally clean. At worst, he gave off the scent of manure.

This was
not
the scent of manure.

Ephraim himself seemed oblivious to it. He offered no gesture of explanation.

But Jonathan smelled it. He blinked in poorly concealed astonishment.

Fannie blushed. A feeling of helplessness overcame her—heartache and helplessness. Leading to pity. Then desperation. Then panic. Then anger:
rage
, above all, with her uncle, the Minister.

No matter what the community maintained, or how many questions she harbored herself, Fannie knew, she felt certain, that Benedictus was wholly to blame for her cousin's condition.

She would never understand how the old man could treat his only son so deplorably. Even by Orderly standards, it was criminal—far beyond biblical precepts of discipline, far beyond sparing the rod, as it were.

Yet Fannie, like Jon, could do little about it.

For now, “A Good Year for the Roses” would have to suffice for their part in restoring the peace. Despite the Ordnung's stance on it, music was good sometimes. It served a purpose. Soon enough, Fannie would have to forsake that knowledge. But not yet. Tonight it was good … For the roses, of course. And the rain. And the silence: the three of them settling down in the straw to drift in a speechless, recuperative reverie—this during what had been slated for possible anguish earlier. And just as well: moments like these were as precious as rapidly vanishing land, and weren't to be rushed.

By the end of the tape, they were sleeping soundly.

Fannie dreamed of a quartered mule.

She awoke to the crack of a rifle, later.

Still raining outside. Jon lay wrapped in a shawl, on the couch, breathing peacefully.

BOOK: Kornwolf
12.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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