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Authors: David Adams Richards

Mercy Among the Children (30 page)

BOOK: Mercy Among the Children
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I did not understand then what I now believe. Cynthia and Cheryl were examples of how our family had failed the river. For the river was hurrying on, like the world, and had no time to stop to reflect on the greater ideas of where it was going. The music was new, the age was new, the idea of freedom for Cheryl
seemed
new as well. How could my father, who believed in the ancient quest of absolute truth, ever compete here? No wonder he was laughed at. His wisdom did not bring money, did not alleviate hardship, but caused a lack of one and a surplus of the other, and who would opt for that? Worst of all, his wisdom never told people they had no moral responsibility. It told them they had, and must at every waking moment be conscious of it. No wonder they hated him.

I found out, one cold winter night when I was seventeen, that Cheryl shared the same secrets of poverty as my sister, Autumn Lynn. Her panties were faded and ripped when I took them off; and when she had her period she often used rags from the upstairs closet.

She asked me why I fought. I told her I wanted to get even with those people who had blamed my dad and beat him.

She smiled knowingly and said, “The Sheppards beat your dad.”

The Sheppards kept their drugs at her house. So I had to be careful of her indictment. Samson, skinny and blacker looking than when my father brought him the groceries, was afraid of the Sheppards, of being caught, not only with the drugs but with whole sides of moose and deer meat the Sheppards stored in his back room and sold on the black market.

Cheryl feared the police as well, not only for her father’s but for her daughter’s sake. Too often they had been kept indentured because of what those they associated with had implicated them in. That was the secret in our world. Now moose and deer meat hung to their rafters out back.

Cheryl did not want to lose the child. And I began to realize, as she kissed me and stroked my hair (and other parts of me), this is why I was here. She wanted me to protect her family from the same shadows that had once plagued mine.

Strangely, the Sheppards were nice to me. That is because they knew where Morris was before I did. And Morris would never ruin his chances with my mom by raiding the place and implicating me in anything.

So my interest in Cheryl helped them. Being nice to me meant that they believed I either did not know they had beaten my father or, worse, I knew but did not hold it against them — which was closer to the truth.

Cheryl told me that after Dad’s beating, someone gave the Sheppards runaway money. They had both left for Ontario; that they ran like rabbits.

“Someone has to be brave and put a stop to them,” she said.

Her life, almost like Cynthia Pit’s, had been pressed out and stamped. The dizzying mathematics, history, all the multiple
questions on a sheet had been marked with an X to make her a failure. She had gone on, believing that leaving the torturous tests of the old school would make her a success. It had been just one more way to lose. All of a sudden her choices had lessened and she was scrambling in the dark. But her eyes were tender and the hope in her heart still soft.

“Of course I’ll help,” I said. But saying that and doing it were two different things, I knew.

Besides, Danny Sheppard had put his arm around me after I got community service work and hugged me, his harsh breath in my face as he asked me how I was.

“Keep a stiff pecker, boy,” he had said. “You’ll be a good lad someday.”

Did I want to ruin that feeling? No, never — no one had treated me so kindly. At least none as tough as they. To gain their approval had made me self-deluded and vain. Powerful people had finally smiled on me. I was known as a tough boy. And this is what my father had feared and years ago had cautioned me against. But I had crossed the Rubicon — or another river, or Arron Brook.

Cheryl wanted me to descend into Dante’s hell. I smiled at her, like my Beatrice, but, even after all my talk of revenge, was unsure whether I was ready for the plummet.

So one night when I left her house I made my way home by the back road. I came upon the Sheppards’ house, a huge rambling place near the water and hidden by ragged, half-bare spruces. I stopped to look into the orange light of a downstairs window. I saw Bennie and Danny Sheppard handing a toke back and forth. Scrawny, muscled, tall, and dishevelled they stood before me. I knew these were the men of the shadows, the very men from my youth, the men who had defiled my mother with their talk. I had reason to hate.

Then Mathew Pit himself entered the room, with a platter
of moose steaks, nodding at something one of them said.

All of a sudden Mat Pit, putting the steaks on the table, looked through the window and stared straight at me, his face as bold as it was inscrutable. His hands came up to his face and he continued to stare at the vagary of darkness outside. I did not know if he had seen me or not, or what I would do if he had. I knew at that moment that I had fought with young men I knew in my heart were not responsible for my dad’s beating, but the much more dangerous Sheppards I did not seek out.

Perhaps it wasn’t them, I thought. Yes, it would be hard to prove it was.

I went home that night, and saw Constable Morris’s car in my yard. It was fortuitous for him, my trouble with the law. I went inside and saw Autumn playing checkers with Percy, long past his bedtime.

“Another cup of tea, Percy, dear,” she said when I entered.

I began staying at home.

EIGHTEEN

For a long while I said nothing to him. I only listened to him. He came and went when he wanted.

“Now that he’s gone, Elly, what are you to do with yourself?” Morris asked Mom one night, spying father’s books, making a mechanical nod to my sister. We were in an awful state. We did not want to insult him, yet had our mother’s honour to protect. Nor did I want him there for a lot of other reasons.

I had stolen the chalice from the church. One Sunday I
had gone past the vestry and saw it sitting out of its dome. It was snowing and blowing and people were helping push cars out of the parking lot. I went into the vestry, picked up the chalice, and put it under my thin red jacket. I brought it home and hid it in my room, in the wall behind Dad’s books. I believed I could get a lot for it — but I soon found out how hard it was to move. The theft was on the news, and my mother said the rosary and prayed for it to be returned.

Cheryl Voteur asked who I thought would have taken it. I knew that it would not be long before people found out — and when they did, all of what was thought about my father and family would be justified.

When Constable Morris came, he sat fifteen feet from a stolen chalice the entire river was looking for — even the Baptist minister had appealed for its return. The Knights of Columbus had put up a reward, and it was spoken about at mass. People were blaming the Sheppards, and Bennie had made a statement that he and his brother would find out who the real thief was.

After hearing that, I did not go outside. It was deep in winter; the nights were frozen silent, with stars gleaming over our tiny house, shaped like a worn old shoebox on its edge.

Mom sat in the bathroom with the door locked when Morris came in. I would end up entertaining him by playing chess. I always had to manoeuvre my queen and bishop, my rook and knight into being vulnerable enough for him to take, so he could win.

He would stay for an hour or two and boast to me about his time playing hockey. He spoke about the case against us, and how he had tried to help Mom by treating her as a human being. He also said he understood I had some difficulty with my father, and he assured me that he would guard anything I wanted to tell him. So one night, in the midst of all my other worries, I said:

“I have something to tell you about Dad.”

“Oh? What?” he said.

“Do you remember when he and Mom went to visit you at the police station?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Well — here it goes,” I said. “It’s from Shakespeare!”

“What is?”

“What my father quoted,” I said, “It’s from
King Lear
— he read it when he was sixteen by himself. After his father died he lived here. He redid the walls and added a room for Mom. Didn’t he, Mom?” We were silent, listening to the wind. The bathroom door was closed and locked.

“Yes,” Mom said from the bathroom. Autumn came over and sat down beside us with a shawl wrapped about her entire body and head, and only her completely white face visible. She blinked her tiny eyelashes. Her sitting beside him seemed to rattle Morris.

“Is that a good play —
King Lear
?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a great play — Orwell has written a wonderful defence of it, because Tolstoy attacked it so mercilessly.”

“Tolstoy didn’t know what he was talking about?” Morris asked.

“No,” Autumn said quietly. “Tolstoy always knew — didn’t he, Lyle? And he knew this — that as great as he was — and Tolstoy is very great indeed — Shakespeare is greater. This is what Mr. Leo Tolstoy knew — and can you imagine, not being satisfied with being Leo Tolstoy?” She smiled at me — not at Morris.

“Yes,” mother answered from the bathroom, and then was silent.

Morris went red in the face. “Why didn’t your father say so?” he complained, looking from me to Autumn. “If he had only said so — things may have been different.”

“I don’t know,” Autumn answered. “But he never begs the truth in front of those who are contemptuous of him.”

“He didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” Mother said from behind her shield.

We all looked at the bathroom door.

“I don’t know much about plays — or things like Tolstoy,” Morris said, apologetically.

“There is no shame in that,” Autumn said, tender-heartedly, but looking only at me.

“No,” I said, “except the lowest common denominator attacked my father — those who would have burned books attacked my father. You were part of that, Constable Morris. You know that too — deep down in your heart. But my father — you could take any book you wanted, and my dad could tell you about it.”

“Shakespeare’s plays?” Morris said, sadly contemplating the books. “You have read them?”

“Of course,” I said, though I had read only
Hamlet
and
Lear.

“You people seem to have loads of education,” Morris said, with an inflection that meant,
Why do you live like you do?
and another hidden inflection that meant,
I am an enemy of that.

“Yes. Our father taught us,” Autumn answered calmly, “not to want anything, but to live just like we do.” She reached out and took my hand — oh, staged treachery of the moment. I held her hand, as if we were always holding hands; and as if this was not the first time since school we did so.

“Do you think I’ve gotten your father wrong?”

“Oh yes,” Mother said again from the bathroom.

“Completely,” I said. “But that doesn’t matter.”

“Why?”

“The case will be reopened,” Autumn said, “for we will not let it die.”

“As long as there is a breath in my body I will not allow my father’s name to be so besmirched,” I said.

“Well — so much of the accusations seemed to fit at the time — I’m sorry, Elly — but isn’t that so.”

There was no sound from the bathroom.

“Sooner or later it will be solved,” I said, eating a banana and looking at it. “They are saying that Constable John Delano is back on the river. He is known to be smart.”

“I think it will be considered terrible that this ever happened to us, and many people will be sorry,” Autumn said.

“Yes” I said. “Do you know, someone took rum and set my father drunk — and I had to tie him to the bed. Now, beyond the hilarity generated by that there is also profound indignity.”

“I know that,” Morris said, surprised that I and Autumn could speak with authority.

It was a night in late February months after Dad left. And Morris was troubled by these words. He was shocked — that all along his actions, and his motives, were easily seen through by my mom and dad. His face flushed at the name of John Delano.

“Who do you think set your father drunk?” he said.

“I know who, and I will get them,” I said, but my voice was sad.

“You should tell me.”

“I’ll tell you everything I know someday,” I said.

Morris did not come back to the house. I remember him now as a man who had no idea of the responsibility or maturity his vocation required.

Later, one night in March, when the wind was warming and I had come home from the Voteurs’, I saw him skating with one of the women from Legaceville on our community’s homemade rink, the one my community service kept flooded.

The night Morris left our house was perhaps the last happy night I spent with Autumn. She made taffy again, and we hollered and sang, and I held Percy as I danced about the floor, and Percy hugged us all and made up a song called “Mom and Me and Me and Mom.”

Autumn said everything would turn out now, she felt it in her heart, and she hugged Mom and gave me a kiss.

Still, what was I? I tried to think of what I was, and came up with the answer.

I was nothing more than a thug with Tolstoy in my pocket.

NINETEEN

What happened to my soul because I stole the chalice? It began to shrink. Not because of the saints whose memories it housed in its circular hole, or not for any threat from the heavens. But because the Sheppards over time, a time when I was paralyzed about how to react, found out I had it. Now, along with everything else, I was terrified they would turn me in for the reward. I was slightly less worried that they would kill me, as they said they would. I had been outflanked, because having been suspected in my stead, they had attained a moral
power
over me that they would never have attained over my dad.

Worse, I had puffed myself up in front of Morris. How could I now go to him and beg his help by telling him I had stolen the chalice?

There are vague and cavernous reaches in Dante’s hell where the worst sin is betrayal — but the hell I was in was not Dante’s so much as Milton’s, where Satan stood facing his son — Death.

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