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Authors: David Adams Richards

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BOOK: Mercy Among the Children
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My father never answered; he just turned and walked away.

Connie Devlin was to plague Father all his life. And it was from that day forward my father’s true life started. After that day, things happened
to
his life that showed, or proved to him at least, other forces.

What my father believed from the time his own father died was this: whatever pact you make with God, God
will
honour. You may not think He does, but then do you really know the pact you have actually made? Understand the pact you have made, and you will understand how God honours it.

TWO

My mother, Elly, was an orphan girl brought up by a distant relative, Gordon Brown, originally from Charlo.

My mom was reported to have had two siblings adopted by
other families in other places. This fact, the fact that by her own family she was left in an orphanage, and then taken to the home of Gordon Brown, had a profound effect upon her. It made her solitary as a child, and nervous. She had many rituals to keep herself safe, because she felt anyone could come and take her away, and felt also that anyone had power to do what they wanted with her life. She therefore went to church every day, praying to God, and hoped for miracles in finding her siblings and her mom and dad, whom she never stopped looking for. She was considered odd by the people — even by her adopted parents and her stepbrother, Hanny Brown; pitied and looked upon with sadness as a very unclever girl. Worse for her social welfare, she saw miracles — in trees, in flowers, in insects in the field, especially butterflies, in cow’s milk, in sugar, in clouds of rain, in dust, in snow, and in the thousands of sweet midnight stars.

“Why would there not be?” she once told my sister, Autumn Lynn.

But others of course tormented her continuously about this. No one considered her bright, and she left school at sixteen, her second year in grade eight, hoping for a life in the convent. Two years passed where my mother did chores for neighbours, babysat, and attended church. Then her friend Diedre Whyne — a girl who had a much more affluent family, who was sharp and gifted, had taken two years in one at school on two different occasions — took Mom under her wing, finding a job for her in Millbank, away from the prying eyes of the nuns at the Sisters of Charity. Thinking of the circumstances, who among us would have done differently?

In Millbank, still considering the convent, Mother met my father, when he was about nineteen or twenty. They met at the community picnic, where she was working the tables and he was helping hitch on.

To hitch on a load at a horsehaul — where a two-horse team proves its strength by hauling sleds with incredibly heavy loads — is extremely dangerous. Some men won’t do it with their own teams because the horses are so hyped on tea they bolt as soon as they hear the clink of the hook being snapped to the sled. A man has to jump out of the way in a split second or be run over. However, my father earned extra money to buy more books, and if he was not oblivious to the danger, without conceit he was not concerned by it.

The last day of that particular long-forgotten horsehaul, the horses and even the horse owners now long dead, held in a large field near the main river, Sydney went to the huge canvas army tent for water. My mother was working the table just inside, which looked exactly the same as the outside except the grass blades were covered, and saw Father approaching. The old cook rushed to her side and forbade her to talk to him, for he was a danger to people.

This woman arranged a date for my mother with her nephew Mathew Pit, home from Ontario, where he had spent two months in the Don Jail. This date was arranged and Mathew picked Mother up that evening at her rooming house and drove to the sand pile, a kind of lovers’ lane without the lane, near McVicer’s sawmill.

He had asked his younger sister, earlier in the evening how he should behave, and how he should approach this great chance. Cynthia had smiled and in a moment of sisterly diplomacy that would be for years captured in his mind, and now years and years later in mine, said: “Give it to her.”

Mathew parked, revved the engine, and, reaching over, put Mother’s white bucket seat in the reclining position, so that she was no longer staring out the windshield but staring at the spotted ceiling. He opened a quart bottle of beer for her to drink, plunking it down between her legs. All about them
the half-burned acres of land sat mute and secluded in midsummer and the old sawmill looked melancholy with its main building sunken and its huge gate rusted and locked. It reminded one of years of mind-numbing work, of cold and heat and a degree of futility seen in deserted overgrown places where life once flourished.

“McVicer has a million dollars and not one friend,” Mathew said with country cynicism. “That’s not how I’m going to turn out — here for a good time not a long time, I say —”

My mother said nothing, for McVicer had once visited her and had given her an apple, and an orange one Christmas day and a sock with a barley toy and nuts.

For twenty minutes or more not another word was spoken, and Mother’s thoughts might have been as flat, her face may have been as uncommunicative as Joseph Conrad’s Captain McWhirr, the hero of “Typhoon,” who wrote to his parents, when a very young seaman, that his ship one Christmas day “fell in with some icebergs.”

Certainly Mother must have felt that she had fallen in with some icebergs, and she was unresponsive, as he now and again reached over to keep the bottle between her legs upright.

Finally Mathew finished his own quart of beer; he did not hurry it, and supposed this is what my mother was eagerly waiting for him to do — finish. Then, with her still staring at the ceiling, and the quart bottle still plunked on an angle between her legs, he took off his shirt and showed her the two eagle tattoos on his biceps. Then he put his hands under her dress. Suddenly, after being dormant as a turnip for almost a half hour, she gave a screech.

“What the Jesus is wrong!” he said, as shocked at her screech as she herself was. “What did you think was going to happen here? For Christ sake — this is a date, ain’t it?”

Mother got out of the car and walked back and forth in the
evening drizzle as he followed her, snapping gum, with his hands in his pockets and a beer bottle dangling from his right hand, blackflies circling his broad blond head. Her arms were folded the way country girls do, her lips were pursed, as she walked back and forth trying to avoid him. Finally she went to a set of barrels and kneeled behind them.

“Please, Mr. Pit, thank you for the wonderful time but I would like to go home,” she said.

He smashed his bottle in anger and upset the barrel she was hiding behind. “Get up outta that,” he said as if hurrying a draft horse out of a cedar swamp. “This is the same stuff they use in Vietnam — to flush out the gooks.”

“Yes — that is very nice thank you very much — Mr. Pit sir I would like to go home —”

“Go home now? We just got here!”

“Yes please Mr. Pit sir thank you very much.” She kept her head down and her eyes closed as she spoke. She had been told not to sass her betters, never to think she was smart, and always to mind her manners. All of these recommendations from the Office of the Mother Superior, at the convent of the Sisters of Charity she was trying hard to remember. She was told this more than others because she was a child without a father, and without a name. A few nuns as unclever as she had rapped her knuckles raw trying to make her remember the five points of obeisance to the Lord and to her betters, and told her she could not be a nun if she was a nuisance.

But she felt, and quite rightly, that Mathew was close to hitting her. If he had hit her, Mother would have only lowered her head and whispered that she was sorry. He yelled that she didn’t understand what a good time meant, and she nodded and with head bowed walked behind him back to the car.

“I should leave you here,” he said. “Bears and bugs to eat you — pussy and all. How would you like that?”

She did not know what he meant. She looked about her feet to see if there was a kitten.

“Please Mr. Pit I want to go home.”

“You want me to drive you home?”

“Yes sir Mr. Pit.”

“Give me a kiss and I’ll drive you.”

She turned and began to walk, head down, along the old derelict road toward the highway. He drove behind her, honking the horn.

“Yer some dumb to give up losin’ yer cherry to a man like me — tell you that!” he said, his head out the window and his hand on the horn.

Finally, at the highway, she was persuaded to take a drive. She got into the back seat and sat like a child, her eyes closed, her lips recounting a decade of the beads.

Mathew phoned her six times in the next four days to ask her out again, telling her they would go to a different place. She was going to tell him she had mumps — but since she did not want to lie she told him that she “once” had mumps.

“It’s that good-for-nothing Sydney Henderson,” Mathew told her. “He has you braindead. He’s almost like a devil the books I heard he reads and everythin’ else!”

Her spurning made Mathew wretched. It was a wrong that went beyond all others. For how could Sydney Henderson —Sydney Henderson, the boy whose father tormented him in front of them, so everyone had howled in laughter, the boy Mathew had slapped at school trying to make cry (Sydney didn’t) — have caught Elly’s eye? How could God allow this to happen? Mathew did not know. He only knew he would break this spell.

By sudden inspiration Father was asked to a beach party by Cynthia, Mathew Pit’s younger sister. She had been in trouble many times (once for biting a bride’s ear), and already her face had a chameleon-like changeability seen in those
who have studied social opportunity more than they have studied themselves — a beautiful face, no doubt, wanton at times, at times hilarious, but always resolute, fixed on purpose beyond her present state, which was rural poor.

For Mathew’s sake Cynthia would break the attraction between Mother and Father. In the lazy heat of her upstairs room, beyond earshot of their mother, Mat lectured her on what she might do.

“I’m not going to do it with him — I won’t go that far. He’ll get a hand on it but nothin’ else.”

“I’m not asking you to do no more,” Mathew said with a kind of anger he almost always felt. Then something else happened, again by afterthought. He had had on his person for a month, given to him by Danny Sheppard — for the purpose of giving it to Elly — a tab of blotter acid. He had forgotten about it. Now he gave Cynthia the tab, to spike my father’s Coke. Cynthia took the blotter acid and put it in the back pocket of her tight terry-cloth shorts, without comment. This was at ten past six on a Friday evening; their large old house, with its two gables, its front door facing the back yard, smelled of stale summer heat, peeled and poled wood, and fried cod, lingering from the kitchen up the dark, forbidding stairs.

My father drank a Coke at ten that evening. By this time Cynthia, bored with his conversation to her about Matthew Arnold (who wouldn’t be at a beach party), had drifted away to one of the Sheppard boys — Danny. But Father in drinking this acid did not act out and become violent or paranoid as Mathew had hoped. Instead he walked all the way to Millbank and woke my mother by throwing pebbles at the window of Kay O’Brien’s house next door.

“Sir, you have the wrong house,” my mother said after watching him for ten minutes and deciding it must be her he was after. “You must throw your pebbles over here!”

“Why didn’t you read my notes?” he said, throwing the last white pebble into her room.

My mother could barely read, and did not wish to tell him this, for the nuns had broken the skin of her knuckles many times with the rap of a pointer. Always, to her, letters had appeared backwards and upside down.

“I have no care for notes from big important people, and I think you are being some darn forward,” she said hesitantly. “Besides, I am getting married.”

“To who?” he asked, deflated.

“To Jesus Christ,” she said.

“Maybe I can talk you out of it.”

“Don’t be improper.”

“I see some angels near you.”

“You are being funny at the Lord’s expense,” Mother said piously.

But to Father the vision was accurate. The night was drowned by soft and splendid moonlight, moonlight in every direction. It had formed a gliding path on the water from the east to his feet beneath him. It was as if he could walk on this moonbeam, see for miles, and not bother touching the ground. It was as if my mother was standing naked, with angels on her right and left shoulders.

“I walked up here because some force propelled me to —last night I never would have been so bold — I see you like this and I want to marry you.”

“Go home, please —” she said. But she did not want him to go anywhere.

“Say you will marry me or I won’t leave.”

“Go home and I will think about it. You’re Sydney Henderson, right?”

“I was when I started up here —”

“Go home — tomorrow you will know my answer.”

The next day my mother, Elly, went to see my father, Sydney, in a dry, yellow hayfield near Arron Brook. He watched her walking toward him wearing a light cotton dress and a pair of sneakers. She walked up to him, all the while speaking to men he was haying with. Then stopping before him, she took his large face in her hands and kissed him to the great merriment and cheers of all the others. So I was told. It was here Dad saw my morn as a simple human being, good though she may be. He did not see the angels ever again. He saw her as beautiful — but simply a woman, whose breath when she kissed him smelled of the radish she had been eating.

Still they were seen together as two youngsters, without money or hope for a future, backward and living precariously with no indication that they could ever better themselves.

Many people said they were grossly mismatched. The Poriers, the Pits. McVicer himself. And McVicer had the Whynes invite Mom on a blueberry-picking excursion to Wisard Point. The Whynes were as prominent as the McVicers. Prof. David Scone was a friend of Diedre, and took an interest in Elly. Scone and Diedre were both very radical, and Elly was so shy she had a hard time looking at them directly. She also felt that there was a conspiratorial feel to the trip, to where Elly was positioned in the car, to who offered her water, to the questions asked her about Syd.

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