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Authors: David Adams Richards

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BOOK: Mercy Among the Children
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So certainly Mat Pit had caused him — something.
Terrieux had had a few run-ins with this man in the picture. He had taken him to court twice; both times the boy was let go. And finally he had saved Mat’s life one late March night about 1964. Mathew had tried to cross the brook to escape Terrieux and had fallen through. The water beneath the rotted ice was deep and swift, but Mathew was not at all penitent. In fact he had tried to make it out himself and for the longest time refused entreaty from Terrieux to give him his hand. Terrieux suspected him of much but could prove little.
What made him give up police work was how he had almost,
almost
caused this Mathew Pit’s death. Or how the media
said
he did. How they complained that Terrieux “overreacted” and that he had harassed this child many times before. When a suspension came because of this, Terrieux gave up police work.
He remembered Mathew Pit when he stared at his eyes and blond hair. He remembered that he had a sister, and a young brother. Something was wrong with the brother. Mentally retarded, as they said then. The brother, Trenton, did not grow above four foot nine.
It was all a long time ago.
“He was different than any other young fellow—more certain of himself, more dangerous because of this,” Terrieux said.
“Yes,” Lyle said. He kept staring at Terrieux. “He — from a certain perspective — ruled our road and took that precious air from everyone else’s dreams.”
Terrieux flipped the picture in his fingers and handed it back.
“I am thinking what if you
had
failed to rescue him?”
“I almost didn’t. I lost him for a while. Then I could hear someone scraping away at the ground. It was Mat Pit trying to claw himself out of the brook. I went down with a stick and inched out so I could grab him. He hesitated a long while — but finally he gave me his arm.”
“I had to come and see you — and tell you what happened after you pulled him out of that brook. I want to tell you what happens in life, if you don’t mind.”
“Ah,” Terrieux said. “I who know nothing of what happens in life?”
“Well — that’s not what I mean, of course,” Lyle said unapologetically.
Terrieux did not respond. And then something happened to rankle him even more. The boy, Lyle Henderson, took out a giant notepad, filled from front to back with notes and quotations, and flipping to some folded newspaper articles said:
“It was the Age of Aquarius — is that what gave rise to the Pits of the world?” He smiled, a little eagerly, as if growing familiar too soon, which is a trait that Maritimers have, so used they are to everyone being a neighbour if not a friend.
“Perhaps it was.” Terrieux smiled.
At this moment the boy seemed nothing much more than a tavern thug, and Terrieux was disappointed that his past could be delved into by anyone so easily.
Terrieux picked up the photo and looked at it once again. Then handed it back again. Lyle smiled again.
When Lyle smiled his face changed just slightly to one that had appropriated enough pain to last a lifetime. It was a face that still, however, registered hope; a hope with an internal stop gap.
Here Lyle looked at his notes again — pages and pages of quotations and arrows. “Everything I relate is true. It is what I have witnessed and what has been told to me — the conversations of others even when I was not present are very near to being exactly what they were, told to me by those who remembered them first-hand, or talked to someone who knew. It has taken me almost seven years to piece together what it was all about, and I want to set it before you now. Maybe you can write about it, as a former policeman, just for interest sake, and maybe you can expose the Mat Pits of the world.”
Lyle lighted another cigarette and looked out the window at the Church of the Redeemer, settled under the cold black Maritime day.
Terrieux nodded his assent, and Lyle began.

MERCY

ONE

The small Catholic churches here are all the same, white clap board drenched with snow or blistering under a northern sun, their interiors smelling of confessionals and pale statues of the Madonna. Our mother, Elly Henderson, took us to them all along our tract of road — thinking that solace would come.

In November the lights shone after seven o’clock on the stained-glass windows. The windows show the crucifixion or one of the saints praying. The hills where those saints lived and dropped their blood look soft, distant and blue; the roads wind like purple ribbons toward the Mount of Olives. It is all so different from
real
nature with its roaring waters over valleys of harsh timber where I tore an inch and a half of skin from my calves. Or Miramichi bogs of cedar and tamarack and the pungent smell of wet moosehide as the wounded moose still bellows in dark wood. I often wanted to enter the world of the stained glass — to find myself walking along the purple road, with the Mount of Olives behind me. I suppose because I wanted to be good, and my mother wanted goodness for me. I wanted too to escape the obligation I had toward my own destiny, my family, my sister and brother who were more real to me than a herd of saints.

My father’s name was Sydney Henderson. He was born in a shack off Highway 11, a highway only Maritimers could know — a strip of asphalt through stunted trees and wild dead fields against the edge of a cold sky.

He did poorly in school but at church became the ward of Father Porier. He was given the job of washing Porier’s car and cleaning his house. He was an altar boy who served mass every winter morning at seven. He did this for three years, from the age of eight to eleven.

Then one day there was a falling-out, an “incident,” and Father Porier’s Pontiac never again came down the lane to deliver him home, nor did Father ever again trudge off to the rectory to clean the priest’s boots. Nor did he know that his own father would take the priest’s side and beat him one Sunday in front of most of the parishioners on the church steps. This became Father’s first disobedience, not against anything but the structure of things. I have come to learn, however, that this is not at all a common disobedience.

Back then, harsh physical labour seemed the only thing generations of Canadians like my grandfather considered work. So by thirteen my father wore boots and checked jackets, and quit school to work in the woods, in obligation to his father. He would spend days with little to comfort him. He was to need this strength, a strength of character, later on. He had big hands like a pulpcutter, wore thick glasses, and his hair was short, shaved up the side of his head like a zek in some Russian prison camp.

He worked crossing back and forth over that bleak highway every day; when the June sky was black with no-see-ums, or all winter when the horse dung froze as it hit the ground. He was allergic to horses, yet at five in the morning had to bring the old yellow mare to the front of the barn — a mare denied oats and better off dead.

My grandfather bought a television in 1962, and during the last few years of his life would stare at it all evening, asking Sydney questions about the world far away. The light of the television brought into that dark little house programs like

The Honeymooners, The Big Valley, Have Gun Will Travel
, and
The Untouchables
; and glowed beyond the silent window into the yard, a yard filled with desolate chips of wood.

My grandfather Roy Henderson would ask Dad why people would act in a movie if they knew they were going to be shot. He would not be completely convinced by my father’s explanation about movie scripts and actors, and became more disheartened and dangerous the clearer the explanation was.

“But they die — I seen them.”

“No they don’t, Dad.”

“Ha — lot you know, Syd — lot you know — I seen blood, and blood don’t lie, boy — blood don’t lie. And if ya think blood lies I’ll smash yer mouth, what I’ll do.”

As a teen my father sat in this TV-lightened world; a shack in the heat of July watching flies orbit in the half dark. He hid there because his father tormented him in front of kids his own age.

I have learned that because of this torment, Father became a drunk by the age of fifteen.

People did not know (and what would it matter if they had known?) that by the time he was fifteen, my father had read and could quote Stendhal and Proust. But he was trapped in a world of his own father’s fortune, and our own fortune became indelibly linked to it as well.

In the summer of 1964 my grandfather was asked by his employer, Leo Alphonse McVicer, to take two Americans fishing for salmon at the forks at Arron Brook. Roy did not want to go; first, because it was late in the year and the water low, and secondly, because if they did not get a fish he might be blamed. Still, he was obligated.

“Get them a fish,” Leo said, rooting in the bowl of his pipe
with a small knife and looking up with customary curtness. Roy nodded, as always, with customary willingness. He took the men this certain hot day in August to a stretch of the river at the mouth of the brook, where the fish were pooled. He took his boy, Sydney, with him, to help pole the canoe up river and make the men comfortable. Then in the heat of midday, he sent Sydney north in the canoe to scout other pools for fish while he spent his time rigging the lines and listening to the men as they spoke about places as diverse as Oregon and Honolulu, while being polite enough to have no opinion when they spoke of the quality of Leo McVicer’s wood and his mill.

Sydney poled back down river later that afternoon, looking in the water, and saying the fish had gone far up but that four salmon rested here, taking the oxygen from the cool spring, lying aside the boulders at the upper edge of the rip.

These men were important. They had been instrumental in helping Leo McVicer and Leo wanted to amuse them the way Maritimers do — by pretending a rustic innocence under obligation to
real
human beings who have travelled from
real
places to be entertained.

So after three hours, Roy whispered to my father: “It would be better for Leo if they caught something — if they are here to help finance the new barker for his mill.”

And with those words, and with his shirt covered in patches of sweat and dust, and with his neck wrinkled in red folds from a life under lash to sun and snow, with his blackened teeth crooked and broken, showing the smile not of a man but of a tobacco-plug-chewing child, and with all the fiery sinewy muscles of his long body, he set in motion the brutal rural destiny of our family. Asking one of the men to give him a rod, he tied a three-pronged jig hook to it, had Sydney pole above them and then drift silently down through the pool without pole in the water, to point out where the salmon were
lying. He threw the jig where the pool joined the spring and jerked upwards. All of a sudden the line began to sing, and away ran the fifteen-pound salmon jigged in the belly. After twenty-five minutes he hauled the spent cock fish in, killed it, and hooked another. The Americans were laughing, patting Roy on his bony back, not knowing what Sydney and Roy and the wardens watching them knew — that this exercise was illegal. The wardens watching stepped out, confiscated the rods, and seized the men’s brand-new Chevrolet truck.

Leo McVicer heard of this at seven o’clock, when he got back from the mill. He paced all night in quiet almost completive fury. My grandfather went back to work early that Monday, willing to explain. But Leo fired him on the spot, even though Roy had sought to please him. For that I was to learn was Leo McVicer. Never minding either that the great Leo McVicer had often poached salmon for New Brunswick cabinet members and the occasional senator from Maine who partied at his house. This of course my grandfather did not know. He was kept from knowledge of the decisions of his great friend, as he was kept out of the dark rooms of his gigantic house.

To be fired after years of faith and work broke him, and he sat, as my own father once said, “like some poor sad rustic angel confined to hell.”

Still, there was a chance — if only one — to work his way back into the fold. That summer Leo’s men were unsatisfied and twice threatened a wildcat walkout. Finally McVicer beat them to it, and locked the sawmill’s gate.

For the next two weeks things existed at a simmer between Leo and his men. They milled about the yard like atoms bouncing off each other, collecting and separating, collecting again, in pools of dusty, loitering brown-shirted figures, caught up at times in wild gestures, at other times almost grief-strickenly subdued. And within these two states there was talk of sabotage
and revenge. No trucks or wood moved on or off McVicer property, and they stood firm when a welders’ supply truck tried to enter, howling to each other and holding it back with their bodies, knowing little in life except what bodies were for, to be bent and shoved and twisted and gone against. At the end, the welders’ truck was defeated. With a jubilant shout from the men into the empty September heat, the driver turned back and a lone truck of herbicide was left unloaded in the yard.

Finally Roy Henderson asked my father’s advice. What could he do to make things better for Leo, and regain his job?

There was one thing my father advised: “Go to the men.” My father at fourteen stated, “Convince them to end their walkout.” He added that Leo would be grateful — the contracts filled, the herbicide unloaded, and Roy would be considered instrumental in this.

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