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Authors: Ann Patchett

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The Patron Saint of Liars

BOOK: The Patron Saint of Liars
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The Patron Saint of Liars

Ann Patchett

A Richard Todd book
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
Boston New York London
1992

Copyright * 1992 by Ann Patchett

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections
from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin
Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York
10003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Patchett, Ann.
The patron saint of liars / Ann Patchett.
p. cm.
"A Richard Todd book."
ISBN
0-395-61306-x
I. Title.
PS
3566.
A
7756
P
38 1992
813'.54—dc20 91-41584
CIP

Printed in the United States of America

HAD
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

The author gratefully acknowledges the following people
and foundations for their support in the writing of this
novel: the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Michael
Glasscock, the Millay Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo,
James Michener and the Copernicus Society, and the Henfield
Foundation. Also, Ann and Jerry Wilson, Jill Birdsall,
and Adrian LeBlanc for their help with this project, and
Elizabeth McCracken for her endless patience and hard
work, thank you.

This book is for my parents,
Frank Patchett and Jeanne Wilkinson Ray,
and my grandmother, Eve Wilkinson.

HABIT

T
WO O'CLOCK
in the morning, a Thursday morning, the first bit of water broke through the ground of George Clatterbuck's back pasture in Habit, Kentucky, and not a living soul saw it. Spring didn't care. Water never needed anyone's help to come up through the ground once it was ready. There are rivers, hundreds of them, running underground all the time, and because of this a man can say he is walking on water. This was a hot spring that had broken loose of its river to make mud in the grass, and it kept on till it was a clear pool and then a little creek, cutting out a snake's path toward the Panther River. Water will always seek out its own.

George Clatterbuck found it when it was already a pretty steady stream. It was only fitting that he should be the one, seeing as how it was his land. It was 1906. He was hunting for his family's dinner. He smelled the spring before he saw it, foul and sulfurous as spoiled eggs. He thought it was a bad sign, that it meant his land was infected and spitting up bile for relief. The water was warm when he dipped in his hand, and he wiped it off against the leg of his trousers. He was thinking about it, thinking what he ought to do, when he saw a rabbit on the other side of the field. It was as big a buck as he'd seen, and he knelt down slowly to get off his shot. He had to shoot on his knees. His father taught him that way because he was afraid the rifle's kick would knock the boy off his feet, thought George would be safer close to the ground. But since that was the way George learned, that was the only way he could ever do it, and now, here he was, grown with a family, going down on his knees like a man in prayer to shoot a rabbit.

He blew the head clean off and didn't disturb the pelt. He thought he would tan the hide and give it to his daughter, June, for her birthday. June, like many little girls, was partial to soft things. By the time he'd tied the legs onto his belt he'd forgotten about the water altogether.

It wasn't long after that times turned hard for the Clatterbucks. Both plow horses came down with colic, and Betsy, the horse George rode to town, got a ringworm thick as your thumb that no amount of gentian violet could clear. Not a week after, every last one of his cows came down with mastitis that left them all drier than bones. George had to get up every three hours in the night and bottle-feed the calves, whose crying put his wife beside herself. "Sounds like a dying child," she said, and she shivered. George didn't say this to her, but he was thinking he might have to slaughter the calves and take his losses. Bought milk was more than he could afford.

Then, if he didn't have enough to worry about, the horses broke free of the corral. George took some rope and set out to bring them back, cursing the rain and the mud and the stupid animals with every step. He found them at that spring he had forgotten, drinking so deeply he thought they'd founder. He was frightened then because he thought such water would kill them, and where would the money come from to buy three new horses? But the horses were fine. Betsy's hide was smooth where the ringworm had been and the other two were past their own disorder. George knew it was the spring that had done this, but he didn't know if it was the work of the Devil or the Lord. He didn't tell a soul when he drove his sick cows down to the water, but by the time they came home their udders were so full they looked like they might burst on the ground.

Then little June took sick and laid in her bed like a dull penny. Doctor came from Owensboro and said it wasn't the pox or scarlet fever, but something else that was burning her alive. She was slipping away so fast you could all but see her dying right before your eyes, and there sat her parents, not a thing in the world to do.

So George goes out in the middle of the night with a mason jar. He walks in the dark to the spring, fills up the jar, and heads home. He goes to his daughter's room and looks at her pale face. He prays. He takes the first drink of water for himself, thinking that if it was to kill her he'd best die, too. It is foul-tasting, worse even than the smell of it. He lifts up June's head from her sweaty pillow and pours the water down her throat, the whole jarful. He only lets a little run down the sides of her face. He wonders for a moment what it would be like to feed a child from his own body as his wife had done, but the thought embarrasses him and he lets it go. The next morning June is fine, perfect, better than new.

When the spring had saved his livestock, George kept it to himself, not wanting to look foolish, but when it saved his daughter he felt the call to witness. He went into the streets of Habit and told what he had seen. At first the people were slow in believing, but as hardships came to them and they went to the spring for help, all was proved true.

Tales of what had happened spread by word of mouth and before long people were coming up from as far away as Mississippi. The truth was stretched out of shape through all the telling, and soon the lame showed up wanting to walk and the blind wanting to see. The spring can't do everything, the townspeople said. It's wrong to expect so much.

And then one boy died right there at the water's edge. He was that sick by the time his folks brought him. He's buried in Habit now, two hundred miles away from his own kind.

One of the people who got word of the spring was a horse breeder named Lewis Nelson, who lived in Lexington. Lewis' wife, Louisa, had rheumatoid arthritis and her hands froze up on her even though she was only twenty-two. They set off to Habit to see if the water couldn't do her some good. The Nelsons were rich, and when they came to town they were looking for a hotel, but there wasn't one. George had made a vow to never make a cent off the spring, and Habit said that was only fitting. So when visitors came they were taken in with charity, many times by the Clatterbucks themselves. This put the Nelsons ill at ease, since they were used to giving charity and not receiving it.

June was seventeen that summer. She had grown up as well as she had started out. She was a kind of a saint in the town, the first one saved by the spring, but all that really meant to June was that there were few boys bold enough to ask her out, and the ones who did thought it would be a sin to try and kiss her. She gave up her room for Mr. and Mrs. Nelson and slept on the sofa downstairs.

After her second trip to the spring the use of Louisa's hands came back to her and she taught June how to cross-stitch. Her husband was full of joy. Lewis was a devout Catholic with a head for figures. He saw the hand of God in the spring and thought the thing to do would be to build a grand hotel in the back pasture. No one was ever sure how he changed George Clatterbuck's mind, but probably it was by telling him that a lot more people could be saved if there was a bigger place to stay and that George was being unchristian by denying them. It's easy to imagine that Lewis had seen how well the hot-springs hotels had done in Arkansas and Tennessee and knew there was some real money to be made. Not long after that the architects came with their silver mechanical pencils, and after them the builders and the gardeners. In 1920 the Hotel Louisa opened its doors. They'd wanted to call it the Hotel June, but June, afraid of scaring off the few dates she had left, said thank you, no.

When the roses on the wallpaper were still in their first bloom and the carpet was soft and springy beneath your feet, there wasn't a hotel in the South that could match the Hotel Louisa. People came from Atlanta and Chicago and New Orleans, some to be healed but most to play tennis on the grass courts and dance in the fancy ballroom. Lewis sent for his collection of horse prints in Lexington, and Louisa picked out velvet to cover the settees for the lobby. There were two formal dining rooms where people ate with real silver and drank champagne smuggled down from Canada. At five o'clock everyone went out and stood on the front porch to drink bourbon and soda. No one from Habit ever went inside after the opening day. It made them feel like they weren't quite good enough. Even the Clatterbucks, who were supposed to be partners in everything, kept to the other side of the woods. You couldn't see their house, not even from the third-floor rooms. The guests never knew they had ever been there at all.

 

 

The crash of the stock market in 1929 and the great drought that came over the land were so close together that it was hard to separate one from the other. Everything was coming to an end, and the spring would not except itself. Maybe there was a reason for it, that things got so hot that even the water underneath the ground felt the pull of the dry air. In no time it went from a trickle to a strip of mud and then not even that. But whatever it was, the town of Habit took its leaving as a sign, just as they had taken its arrival.

For the spring this was no hardship. It was just going back, folding into one of those underground rivers. It would break through later, years from then, someplace else. Next time people might not be around for miles. It was very possible that no one would ever drink from it at all.

Not long after all this, people stopped going to the hotel, though it would be hard to say if it was because of the spring or because they were the kind of people who had kept their money in banks. June used to walk across the field in the evenings and look at the place in the ground where her salvation had come from. She saw men in suits and women in silk dresses carrying out their own bags and taking hired cars north to catch trains.

The Nelsons tried for a long time to get the water to come back. They hired people who said they knew how to coax it out of the ground. But the spring was long gone by then. They stayed on in the hotel alone until the middle thirties, hardly coming out for anything. You could trail them as they moved from room to room, one light going off and another one coming on. People said they could set their watch by what window was bright at the time. Then one day the Nelsons packed up and left without saying good-bye.

Word came soon after that the Nelsons had made a gift of the Hotel Louisa to the Catholic Church, and this put the fear of God in everyone. It was one thing to have rich people in your pasture, but when the Clatterbucks thought of Catholics, they saw statues of the Virgin Mary going up in the yard, ten feet high. The Clatterbucks could have kept the Catholics off, since they owned the land, but nobody told them that. When the lawyers came and knocked on their door, there was nothing for them to do but look at the ground and shake their heads. A few weeks later two buses pulled up, and a group of little old women in white dresses were led or carried up the front stairs. The church had changed the name of the Hotel Louisa to Saint Elizabeth's and turned it into a rest home for old nuns.

But the nuns were miserable. They'd been dirt poor all their lives, following the word of their church. The idea of spending their final days in an abandoned grand hotel made them restless. Soon the tiny women started wandering over to the Clatterbucks' in their bathrobes, searching out a simpler way of life. The Clatterbucks, good Baptists every day of their lives, took pity on the old Catholics and overcame their fears. They served them platters of fried mush with sorghum, which were received with heartfelt prayers and thanks. It made the family feel needed again; the old women's dependence called to mind the early days of the spring when the sick were healed. They thought that God had seen again what was best.

But the church did not agree, and two years later the buses returned and took the nuns to Ohio. Mrs. Clatterbuck cried when they left, and June touched the medal around her neck of Saint Catherine of Siena that Sister Estelle had given her. She wore it all her life.

BOOK: The Patron Saint of Liars
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