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Authors: David Adams Richards

Mercy Among the Children (3 page)

BOOK: Mercy Among the Children

Roy headed into the woods on a warm September afternoon, with the pungent smell of spruce trees waving in the last of the summer heat. Just before he arrived onsite three men cut the locks to the gate. They stormed the truck and rolled the hundred barrels of herbicide off it, busted the barrels open with axes, and dumped them all, along with forty barrels of pesticide from the warehouse, into the upper edges of Little Arron Brook. The new barker was sabotaged, a flare was lighted to engage the men in more hellery, and a fire raged.

All of this was documented by a local reporter. A picture was taken that day long ago. Unfortunately, standing on the hulking ruin of smouldering machinery, a half-crazed drunken smile on his face, was my grandfather. It made the front pages of the provincial papers. He had not exactly done what my father had advised him to. In fact he looked like a vigilante from the deep south stomping the ruins of innocence. It was how
wanted him to look.

I have this picture still. As faded as it might be, the image
is strikingly familiar, savage and gleeful, as if in one moment of wilful revenge Roy had forgotten the reason for his journey that afternoon.

Grandfather told Dad that he had tried to stop, not start, the conflagration. But his picture, even faded to yellow in an old archival room, shows him a rather willing participant in the mayhem. As if his grin leering from a newspaper at me, a grandson he never knew, was his only moment of bright majesty, caught in the splendid orb of a flashbulb, which signalled our doom for the next thirty years.

All others there that day got away when the police arrived but grandfather, too drunk to run, fell from the machine he was prancing on, and crawled on his knees to the police car to sleep.

The tire burned eleven hundred acres of Leo McVicer’s prime soft timber land; timber subcontracted to the large paper mill. After my grandfather’s picture was published, this fire became known locally as the “Henderson horror.”

“Roy is bad — his son is mad,” the saying rose from the lips of everyone.

Meanwhile Roy Henderson, illiterate and frightened of people who weren’t illiterate, had to go to court and pay a lawyer to defend him on both counts; that is, of poaching and the destruction of the barker. My father described Roy as he stood in court in a grey serge suit. He had lost his beloved television. He was confronted by a menacing prosecutor. He shook and cried. He was sentenced to three years. People teased him on the way out of court.

Sydney, at fourteen, would make him biscuits and hitchhike to Dorchester to visit. But Roy, who had never been in jail in his life, refused to eat.

“Tell Leo I will not eat unless he forgives me,” he said, sniffing, and sitting with his hands on his knees. His hair was turning grey and grey hair stuck out of his ears; his eyes were as
deep set, his brow as wide, as some rustic prophet. But Sydney knew he was no prophet. He gave Sydney this message, as the sunlight came in on his prison trousers:

“Tell him that my life is in his hands — and then see what he has to say. Tell him that the biscuits are hard now, and gettin’ harder. Go on, fella — get goin’ —”

My father left the prison, in his old red coat and torn gumboots, and ran all the way to Moncton — thirty-seven miles. He caught the train, went to Leo — not to the house, but to the office in McVicer’s store that had served our community for years. The store was a monument to the class of people it served, where calendars of halter-topped blonde and blue-eyed girls shining Fords with Turtle Wax were hidden by Leo under the counter, and where diversified products were unknown but Humphrey work pants and boots, and corduroys for children, were sold, along with erasers and scribblers and pencils for school.

“I just lost me a hundred-thousand-dollar barker — and a million-dollar lot,” Leo said, without looking at Dad but looking through some invoices of clothing that he believed he had not ordered. “Now I have to clean up the barrels that got into the brook,” Leo said, flipping the pages. “Everyone —” flip, “the Sheppards —” flip, “the Pits —” flip, “the Poriers —” flip, flip, “and everyone else said it was yer dad —
dad and no other dad — and what do you want me to do?”

“Go visit him so he’ll eat.”

“Go visit him and cheer him up so he’ll eat a good breakfast — well, damn him.”

My father went back to jail to see his dad. It was close to Christmas and snow had fallen and covered the cities and towns, the long raw southern New Brunswick hills were slick with ice.

My father pitied Roy yet could do nothing to rouse him. At first Roy did not believe that Leo, whom he had known
since he was sixteen, wouldn’t come to see him. He stood with his hands on the bars of the holding cell they had brought him to, looking out expectantly, like a child. He addressed his own child as if he was another species, a strange creature that one day had appeared in his little cabin, someone Roy himself never knew what to do with. And that is why often as not he addressed Sydney as “fella.”

“Yer saying he won’t come to see me, fella.”

“That’s what I’m saying, Dad. I’m saying that he won’t come to see you.”

“Let’s just get this straight — not that he’s busy and might come to see me some other time — or something like that there?”

“He won’t come, Dad.”

Roy’s look was one of incomprehensible vacancy, as if from some faraway land he was listening to some strange music. Then his eyes caught his son’s and became cognizant of what had been said, and perhaps also for the very first time who his son was, and what grace his son held. And realizing this he was shocked, and broken even more.

“Well I pity him then — for doin’ that — is all I can say,” Roy whispered. And he refused on principle — perhaps the only one he had left (and to prove, just once, grandeur to his son) — to eat.

A few weeks later, ill with pneumonia, Roy Henderson was taken to hospital on the Miramichi. He died there, and was buried in an old graveyard downriver, leaving my father alone.

I always said I would have done more. But my father felt he had done what he could. He never left his father alone. He walked 230 miles of road, appealing to McVicer to forgive. He fasted as his father did. He broke his fast only to take communion. He remained with his father to the end, even though it was a solitary vigil. But he would never seek revenge.

Revenge, my father believed in his fertile brilliance, was anathema to justice.

After Roy’s death Dad lived a primitive life, for what contact would he have with others? He would be teased whenever he went out to a dance; girls would string him along as a joke. He began to drink every day whatever he could find; to forget, as Sam Johnson has said, and I once found underlined in a book my father owned, “the pain of being a man.”

The pain of being a man, or simply being cold or wet or tired. The old barn was long gone. His house was built of plywood and tarpaper. Its walls were insulated by cardboard boxes. It was fifteen by twelve and sixteen feet high — so it looked like a shoebox standing on end. That is something that I like to remember. Most of his life was lived principally here.

He lived three years alone hiding from people who might do something
him — I mean send him to foster care. But no one expressed any concern whatsoever on his behalf. Except for one man: Jay Beard, who lived in a trailer up on the main road and hired Dad to cut wood. At one time Dad got a job (as illegal as it must have been) planting dynamite to blow boulders at a construction site. He was not afraid and he was also nimble. He earned what was a good deal of money for him, and with it he bought both his mother’s and father’s graves their stones.

At eighteen he was coming home from a long hot day in a lobster boat on the bay, where he worked helping bait traps. His skin was burned by the sun and saltwater and his hands were blistered by the rope and the traps. But that day he met Jay Beard, who was selling off many of his books, books Jay had inherited from his dead brother and had himself never read. Beard was actually looking for my father to sell these
books to. My father bought three hundred paperbacks and old faded hardcovers, the whole lot for twenty dollars, and brought them home by wheelbarrow.

Then in early fall of that same year Sydney, who in reading these books had given up drink, went to Chatham to see a professor about the chance at a university education. The professor, David Scone, a man who had gone to the University of Toronto, disliked the Maritimes while believing he knew of its difficulties and great diversity. Looking at my father sitting in his old bib overalls and heavy woollen shirt proved what he felt. And he commented that it might be better for Dad to find a trade. This was not at all contradictory to Dr. Scone’s sense of himself as a champion of people just like Father. In fact, being a champion of them meant, in his mind, he knew them well enough to judge them. And something he saw in my father displeased him.

“Yes, I know you have come here with your heart set on a lofty education — but look in another direction. A carpenter — how is that? — you seem like a man who would know angles.” And then he whispered, as people do who want to show how lightly they take themselves, “It would not be as difficult for you as some things in here, philosophy and theology and all of that —”

Scone smiled, with a degree of naive self-infatuation seen only in those with an academic education, shook his head at the silliness of academia, while knowing that his tenure was secure and every thought he had ever had was manifested as safe by someone else before him. My father never had such a luxury. There was a time my father would have been beaten by his own father if it was known that he read. Knowing this, tell me the courage of Dr. David Scone.

My father said that being a carpenter might be nice and he liked carpentry but that he liked books more. Outside, the
huge Irish Catholic church rested against the horizon, the sun gleaming from its vast windows and its cavernous opened doors; its steps swept clean, its roof reflecting the stains of sunlight, while on the faraway hills across the river the trees held the first sweet tinges of autumn.

“Well, then — you want to be a scholar, do you. So what books have you read, Sydney? Mystery — science fiction —Ray
— well, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, is there?” He smiled. My father was about to answer. Dr. Scone was about to listen but he was called away by the head of the department, a rather rotund priest with thick downy cheeks and a bald spot on the top of his head. Father stood and nodded at Scone as he left. Then he walked home from Saint Michael’s University and sat in his kitchen. He did not know how to go about qualifying for university. It had taken him five weeks to find the courage to do what he had done. Now he felt that the man had condescended to him. What surprised him was the fact that an educated man would
do this. He had been innocent enough to assume that the educated had excised all prejudice from themselves and would never delight in injury to others — that is, he believed that they had easily attained the goal he himself was struggling toward. He did not know that this goal — which he considered the one truthful goal man should strive toward — was often not even considered a goal by others, educated or not.

He had by that evening discovered his gross miscalculation. He was angry and decided to write a letter, and sat down in the kitchen and started to write to this professor, in pencil on an old lined sheet. But when the words came he realized a crime had taken place. (This is how he later described it to my mother.) The crime was that he had set out in a letter to injure someone else. He was ashamed of himself for this and burned the letter in the stove, sank on his bed with his face to the wall.

Later I came to hate that he did not send it, but it was noble. And what was most noble about it was that it would never be known as such. Nor did that in itself alleviate his suffering over what the professor had said, or his memory of the professor’s self-infatuated smile when he said it. That is, like most spoken injuries, Father had to sample it not only at the time it had taken place but for days and even weeks after, and again each time this well-known professor was interviewed in the paper about Maritime disparage or his lifelong fight on behalf of First Nations rights. (Which became a lifelong fight at the same time it became a lifelong fight among his intellectual class, most of them ensconced in universities far away from any native man or woman.)

The fact that my father not only was a part of the demographic this professor was supposedly expert upon but had worked since he was a boy, and had his own ideas from years of violence and privation, made the sting ever sharper and fresher each time he heard Dr. David Scone lauded for his
utter decency
by our many gifted announcers on the CBC.

Yet by his honour — my father’s honour — he could and did say nothing. Even when Dr. David Scone tried to influence my mother against him.

I know now it was because of an incident that happened when my father was a child of twelve. One day he and another boy were shovelling snow from the slanted church roof. The boy had robbed Dad’s molasses sandwich and Dad pushed him. The boy fell fifty feet, and lay on his back, blood coming from his nose and snow wisping down over his face.

My father, perched high upon the roof next to the base of the steeple, was certain the boy had died. He did not believe in anything, had hated the priest after that certain incident, that falling-out I mentioned. But still he whispered that if the boy lived he would never raise his hand or his voice to
another soul, that he would attend church every day.
Every damn day.
What is astounding is, as soon as he made this horrible pact, the boy stood up, wiped his face, laughed at him, and walked away. That boy was Connie Devlin.

I don’t believe Devlin was ever hurt. I believe my father only thought he was. The bloody nose came when the boy fell, but was nothing to be upset over, and the boy liked the attention that happens when people think you are dead. I told my father this when I heard of his pact years later. I said, “Dad, you never touched the boy — so therefore God tricked you into this masochistic devotion. God has made you His slave because of your unnatural self-condemnation.”

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