Read Mercy Among the Children Online

Authors: David Adams Richards

Mercy Among the Children (6 page)

BOOK: Mercy Among the Children

Diedre thought this false heroics, and a grand wily scheme to escape responsibility. She turned at the door, and with it opened said “Now Elly, your last chance — I will wait fifteen minutes.”

She waited, but Mom never left the house.

The night of Cynthia’s child’s birth there was a heavy snowfall, pleasant but with a numbing cold. There were no cars moving on our highway; the grader had not plowed. Christmas was soon to arrive and people were stuck in town.

Cynthia was in labour so Mother, eight months’ pregnant with me, and Father crossed the inlet on snowshoes to help her.

Mathew, drunk for days, lay belly down on the couch. Now and then he would get up and drink from a bottle of wine. There was no one else in the house except Trenton Pit, the young retarded brother. My father once commented that the place was in a shambles. The old woman had gone at noon for the doctor and hadn’t returned. Cynthia was herself drunk. Christmas lights shone in the dark by the bed where the twenty-year-old woman lay. The string of lights had been plugged into a small wall socket and left to twinkle in obscurity as the radio played country tunes.

“It’ll be drunk when she calves,” Mathew said, leaning over and leering at my mother.

All his life my father felt ashamed when he heard men blaspheme pregnancy. He had seen much of the drunken terror of men, ridiculing women when they were pregnant.

“It’s no use to be boisterous now — you should be calm,” he said.

Now that the blizzard had swept in from the bay the last
traces of streetlights were blotted out. No doctor would make it in this storm. My mother boiled water and my father prepared as best he could to deliver the child.

At nine o’clock on the night of Christmas Eve the child was born. It was a girl. It remained still, a strange grey colour, the umbilical cord about its neck. Mathew inspected it as one might inspect a carburetor — that is, with a good deal of curiosity.

He then covered the infant in the Christmas lights that lay on the floor. They twinkled over the child’s grey naked body. Cynthia lay still. The moon came out and shone on her naked pelvis and legs.

Mathew picked it up, still covered in lights, and tossed the child up and down in the air, trying to revive her.

Father took the child, and breathing into her mouth tried to revive her. He held its nose, counted and breathed softly, and then massaged its chest.

The moon was now full on the sparkling white snow, and all the land was bathed in peace. The infant child was grey the colour of the far-off moonlit snow.

I was born January of 1970.

Autumn, my albino sister, was born a year later.


In the seventies Dad could get no work, and so went smelt fishing in the winter. I would walk beside him and watch him
haul his nets up through the great blue ice. We would leave the smelts to freeze in the sparkling air, which always made them taste much better. Far away on the ice were other fishermen’s sheds, and the glare made my eyes water, and sometimes the wind would smell of beans at five o’clock on a Saturday night.

On Saturday Mom would wax the floor, and the smell would loiter in the air and in the shadows from the lingering sun. And Autumn and I would put on our woollen socks after supper; Dad would put on an old Elvis Presley record and Autumn and I would dance across the floor until it was shiny and smooth. Sometimes Mom had me as her puck and Dad had Autumn as his, and they would heave us across the slippery floor toward the opposition’s goal. We would slide like mannequins and crash into each other like shuffleboard stones, while outside and overhead beyond our music the cold night blossomed in winter’s crystal silence.

Everything went fairly well until the winter my father was accused of stealing a box of smelts.

Connie Devlin had his nets down below my father on a flat stretch. My father had the better stretch. At dark, just when the twilight flushed across the ice and wind began to moan through the trees, my father would come off the ice, hauling his wooden box of smelts by a rope through his frozen and cracked leather mittens. Connie had a habit of not checking his nets, and my father, who I think always felt responsible for Connie, worried about the smelts.

It sounds ridiculous, two men with nothing at all fighting over a miserable nothing at all on a flat of ice in the middle of our great bay. Oh, our bay in the winter — how many memories it brings; ice breakers and seagulls and purple-tinted sky.

Yet the smelt fight reminds me strangely of
Down and Out in Paris and London
, in the hostel where two desperate men
are fighting over the one pair of clothes because one wears them to panhandle in the day and the other at night. I
those men in my blood. But you see — my father did not want to fight over a box of smelts.

“I will make it up to you,” he said to Connie.

I know now, as I should have then, that my father never stole as much as a matchbox in his life, but they were stolen. By who — well, Mathew Pit and the Sheppard brothers, Danny and Bennie, very likely. Bennie who wore a leather jacket with studs up the arms.

What I had not seen until this time is how we were marked. Oh, I had seen some derision against my father at a horse-haul or church picnic. Yet by the time she was five Autumn knew of it more than I. She was aware of how people looked at her at church — a place I soon hated, with people (all of them) I soon despised. She was the mark that showed who we were as a family, because she was an albino — precisely because of this. And she was to feel this too deeply all her life.

Men can grow up on my river, or in my province or anywhere, and see nothing of violence or anger. There is as much rich or middle class here as anywhere — I have dealt with them. But if you are born in a shack near someone who wants your land, dislikes your presence, covets your wife, is angered by your marriage, you are in a part of the world millions and millions see and have no course to redress.

I want to tell you something that is important in understanding my father and our relationship with both Connie and Mathew. I now believe Father knew who took the smelts but on principle would not say. More important, Connie Devlin knew who took the smelts as well, but was loath to jeopardize his relations with the Pits. If on their bad side they could make life terrible for him, just as they had at times for my father. Besides, the Pits were Connie’s first cousins. Connie
had to blame someone so the Pits would not suspect he suspected them. He blamed the man the Pits disliked. This is how things are done when you are afraid. Connie goes to Mathew Pit, cap in hand (figuratively speaking), and asks him what he should do.

“Hell, get the cops after the son of a bitch,” Mathew said, sniffing as he tore the backbone from a smelt. “They are always after me no matter what I do! — can’t shit and they be after me. It’s time we showed them what’s what!”

“You think I should?”


“And if I have problems with that son of a bitch will you back me? — he already throwed me down from a roof and left me fer dead.”

“Course,” Mathew sniffed.

Now I wish to tell you that the decrees against my father were not constant, or even at that time inevitable — many months could go by without one. I am telling you of the occasions that I remember. I also remember walks in the woods, and picnics and fishing trips up Arron Brook in the spring where Dad would speak about poetry and Walt Whitman and Thoreau; yet what I say here is something to measure my father by — he did not know that he, and not Thoreau, was the real article, or that his civil disobedience went to the very soul of man.

Still by that decree, Constable Morris came to our house. It was a day in late February; the snow smelled of dirt, and the trees were coated in grey ice. It was bitter cold at the door and Morris stood in a mist of damp air. He stepped inside and looked at our small surroundings. He was the authority come to show us who we were and to keep us in our place. (I remember feeling this even then.) If he told my father we were all fined a thousand dollars my mother and father would have believed him.
My father did not understand what the courts did. Not in
way. (I use his gullibility to explain his greatness.)

Connie had telephoned the police for years over things —he was an old hand at being a snitch. Say Jay Beard played his guitar on Sunday, the cops would be phoned, or if a grader was parked near his property over the weekend, or a property stake was removed. That is meaningless trifles. Now it was a box of smelts.

Morris was laughing about the smelts. But when he came in he stopped laughing. He glanced at my mother and was transfixed.

At her
I could tell this though I was only eight years old. She was so beautiful. He could not take his eyes off her. He instantly saw how ordinary my father looked compared to whom he was married to, and it surprised him. I see his face suddenly beet red, and then somewhat accusatory when looking upon my dad and the surroundings he had offered my mom.

I believe Morris’s anger with my father started at that very moment. He tried to deal with the matter objectively, but his eyes kept coming back to this woman sitting in the corner with a little albino child on her knee. As for Elly, her skin was pale, her eyes soft blue, her hair auburn that fell like cinnamon ringlets about her ears, while her smile when it came lightened man’s burden.

Who would
want to take my mother away from such a sentence? My fight against the condescension and the scorn my father suffered started at that moment. I was just not aware of it then.

“Now Sydney,” Morris said, taking out his notebook, “where are those smelts? Come on, you have some smelts, boy?” He no more than glanced at me, and then over at my mother again.

“I have smelts,” my father said, looking at Connie.

“Well then —” Morris said, smiling at my mother, “what
does your wife Elly say of all this roaring and ranting? Come on, give the poor woman a break — give those smelts back to this man, will you now, Sydney, like a good fellow — and I’ll give you a break here. You don’t want to go to court over a box of smelts, do you, wasting a judge’s valuable time?”

“No,” Sydney said, blushing.

“No,” my mother whispered, lowering her head.

“Well there now —” Morris tapped his notebook in his hand, waited for my mother to look at him, and then decided, and it was a decision that would carry a heavy consequence against us, that he could curry a certain favour with my mother, not if he believed Dad innocent, but if he
him. That is, he could influence Mother to be well disposed to him, Constable Morris, if my father had taken the miserable box of smelts and he showed leniency in that regard.

All this time Connie Devlin stared over Morris’s shoulder first at Morris’s notebook and then up at my father, his boots covered in mud and a look of startled self-righteousness on his still obsequious face.

I glared at him, seeing him as an enemy of my blood for the very first time. Morris got Dad to promise to replace the box of smelts before the season was over, and to shake Connie’s hand. At first Connie said he wouldn’t shake the hand of a coward, but Morris made them do so.

Morris smiled. “Now Connie, we’ll get those smelts back to you and we will forget all about this — it’s hard enough having to patrol this area without having to deal with smelts.” He looked at mother, and his face actually registered pain that he would have to leave her presence. I understood this feeling from other men who had seen her. She was that beautiful. Then, with Connie Devlin behind him, Morris walked back to his patrol car.

All was silent in our house for over five minutes. I looked at Autumn and she looked at me with a sad face. People were
now entering our childhood world and seeing Autumn as an oddity. And she was now, for almost the first time, realizing she was different. And no one in the whole wide world could help her with this; and when she looked my way, for help, as she did that very moment and many moments later on, I could give her none.

On occasion people had walked up the shore in the summer when they were having parties and taking the well-worn path into the timber, would sometimes drunkenly tumble upon my sister sitting in the trees beyond our house, combing the hair of one of her dolls. Once when they did, I heard them shriek and begin laughing as they ran back down the path in skirts and high heels.

“There’s an albino back there! Jesus Christ, where are we — the Ozarks?”

My mother looked at me now and sighed.

“That’s a police officer?” she said finally, as if a question.

“Yes —” My father nodded. They were again silent for another five minutes. The wind began to pick up in the trees. My mother had baked a cake, and had made molasses cookies for us, but now our feast was ruined and none of us knew what to do.

“He is still a nice man for all of that,” Elly said.

“Yes, he is,” Father agreed.

“Do you think I should have offered him tea?” Elly said, smoothing her dress with her hands.

“I don’t know,” Father said. His lips moved and he spoke under his breath calculating how much money a box of smelts would cost us.

“Well,” he said finally, “A box of smelts is nothing — and you can help me too, can’t you, Lyle — we’ll make a challenge of it and have it back to Connie by tomorrow.” He looked over at me, picked up Autumn and put her on his knee.

I told him I didn’t want to help him, nor did I think it fair to have to go out in the morning and collect a box of smelts when everyone knew Mathew Pit had stolen them.

“Son, people have treated me unfair most of my life. To beg a truth in front of them is unconscionable, because truth gives them a respect they might not deserve. Besides, to think that they will have a better opinion of me for doing so is unwise. I didn’t take those smelts. I know this, and Connie knows this. He knows who did, but he is afraid. Mathew Pit is crazy, and people know this. My greater plan now is to get the smelts and give them away and then someday it’ll turn around. I know you are only young but what I tell you is true.”

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