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Flannery O'Connor
1925-1964

   

A Circle in the Fire

by Flannery O'Connor



   
 

Sometimes the last line of trees was a solid gray blue wall a little darker than the sky but this afternoon it was almost black and behind it the sky was a livid glaring white. “You know that woman that had that baby in that iron lung?” Mrs. Pritchard said. She and the child’s mother were underneath the window the child was looking down from. Mrs. Pritchard was leaning against the chimney, her arms folded on a shelf of stomach, one foot crossed and the toe pointed into the ground. She was a large woman with a small pointed face and steady ferreting eyes. Mrs. Cope was the opposite, very small and trim, with a large round face and black eyes that seemed to be enlarging all the time behind her glasses as if she were continually being astonished. She was squatting down pulling grass out of the border beds around the house. Both women had on sunhats that had once been identical but now Mrs. Pritchard’s was faded and out of shape while Mrs. Cope’s was still stiff and bright green.

“I read about her,” she said.

“She was a Pritchard that married a Brookins and so’s kin to me—about my seventh or eighth cousin by marriage.”

“Well, well,” Mrs. Cope muttered and threw a large clump of nut grass behind her. She worked at the weeds and nut grass as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place.

“Beinst she was kin to us, we gone to see the body,” Mrs. Pritchard said. “Seen the little baby too.”

Mrs. Cope didn’t say anything. She was used to these calamitous stories; she said they wore her to a frazzle. Mrs. Pritchard would go thirty miles for the satisfaction of seeing anybody laid away. Mrs. Cope always changed the subject to something cheerful but the child had observed that this only put Mrs. Pritchard in a bad humor.

The child thought the blank sky looked as if it were pushing against the fortress wall, trying to break through. The trees across the near field were a patchwork of gray and yellow greens. Mrs. Cope was always worrying about fires in her woods. When the nights were very windy, she would say to the child, “Oh Lord, do pray there won’t be any fires, it’s so windy,” and the child would grunt from behind her book or not answer at all because she heard it so often. In the evenings in the summer when they sat on the porch, Mrs. Cope would say to the child who was reading fast to catch the last light, “Get up and look at the sunset, it’s gorgeous. You ought to get up and look at it,” and the child would scowl and not answer or glare up once across the lawn and two front pastures to the gray-blue sentinel line of trees and then begin to read again with no change of expression, sometimes muttering for meanness, “It looks like a fire. You better get up and smell around and see if the woods ain’t on fire.”

“She had her arm around it in the coffin,” Mrs. Pritchard went on, but her voice was drowned out by the sound of the tractor that the Negro, Culver, was driving up the road from the barn. The wagon was attached and another Negro was sitting in the back, bouncing, his feet jogging about a foot from the ground. The one on the tractor drove it past the gate that led into the field on the left.

Mrs. Cope turned her head and saw that he had not gone through the gate because he was too lazy to get off and open it. He was going the long way around at her expense. “Tell him to stop and come here!” she shouted.

Mrs. Pritchard heaved herself from the chimney and waved her arm in a fierce circle but he pretended not to hear. She stalked to the edge of the lawn and screamed, “Get off, I toljer! She wants you!”

He got off and started toward the chimney, pushing his head and shoulders forward at each step to give the appearance of hurrying. His head was thrust up to the top in a white cloth hdt streaked with different shades of sweat. The brim was down and hid all but the lower parts of his reddish eyes.

Mrs. Cope was on her knees, pointing the trowel into the ground. “Why aren’t you going through the gate there?” she asked and waited, her eyes shut and her mouth stretched flat as if she were prepared for any ridiculous answer.

“Got to raise the blade on the mower if we do,” he said and his gaze bore just to the left of her. Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as the nut grass.

Her eyes, as she opened them, looked as if they would keep on enlarging until they turned her wrongsideout. “Raise it,” she said and pointed across the road with the trowel.

He moved off.

“It’s nothing to them,” she said. “They don’t have the responsibility. I thank the Lord all these things don’t come at once. They’d destroy me.”

“Yeah, they would,” Mrs. Pritchard shouted against the sound of the tractor. He opened the gate and raised the blade and drove through and down into the field; the noise diminished as the wagon disappeared. “I don’t see myself how she had it in it,” she went on in her normal voice.

Mrs. Cope was bent over, digging fiercely at the nut grass again. “We have a lot to be thankful for,” she said. “Every day you should say a prayer of thanksgiving. Do you do that?”

“Yes’m,” Mrs. Pritchard said. “See she was in it four months before she even got thataway. Look like to me if I was in one of them, I would leave off… how you reckon they… ?”

“Every day I say a prayer of thanksgiving,” Mrs. Cope said. “Think of all we have. Lord,” she said and sighed, “we have everything,” and she looked around at her rich pastures and hills heavy with timber and shook her head as if it might all be a burden she was trying to shake off her back.

Mrs. Pritchard studied the woods. “All I got is four abscess teeth,” she remarked.

“Weft, be thankful you don’t have five,” Mrs. Cope snapped and threw back a clump of grass. “We might all be destroyed by a hurricane. I can always find something to be thankful for.”

Mrs. Pritchard took up a hoe resting against the side of the house and struck lightly at a weed that had come up between two bricks in the chimney. “I reckon you can,” she said, her voice a little more nasal than usual with contempt.

“Why, think of all those poor Europeans,” Mrs. Cope went on, “that they put in boxcars like cattle and rode them to Siberia. Lord,” she said, “we ought to spend half our time on our knees.”

“I know if I was in an iron lung there would be some things I wouldn’t do,” Mrs. Pritchard said, scratching her bare ankle with the end of the hoe.

“Even that poor woman had plenty to be thankful for,” Mrs. Cope said.

“She could be thankful she wasn’t dead.”

“Certainly,” Mrs. Cope said, and then she pointed the trowel up at Mrs. Pritchard and said, “I have the best kept place in the county and do you know why? Because I work. I’ve had to work to save this place and work to keep it.” She emphasized each word with the trowel. “I don’t let anything get ahead of me and I’m not always looking for trouble. I take it as it comes.”

“If it all come at oncet sometime,” Mrs. Pritchard began.

“It doesn’t all come at once,” Mrs. Cope said sharply.

The child could see over to where the dirt road joined the highway. She saw a pick-up truck stop at the gate and let off three boys who started walking up the pink dirt road. They walked single file, the middle one bent to the side carrying a black pig-shaped valise.

“Well, if it ever did,” Mrs. Pritchard said, “it wouldn’t be nothing you could do but fling up your hands.”

Mrs. Cope didn’t even answer this. Mrs. Pritchard folded her arms and gazed down the road as if she could easily enough see all these fine hills flattened to nothing. She saw the three boys who had almost reached the front walk by now “Lookit yonder,” she said. “Who you reckon they are?”

Mrs. Cope leaned back and supported herself with one hand behind her and looked. The three came toward them but as if they were going to walk on through the side of the house. The one with the suitcase was in front now. Finally about four feet from her, he stopped and set it down. The three boys looked something alike except that the middle-sized one wore silver-rimmed spectacles and carried the suitcase. One of his eyes had a slight cast to it so that his gaze seemed to be coming from two directions at once as if it had them surrounded. He had on a sweat shirt with a faded destroyer printed on it but his chest was so hollow that the destroyer was broken in the middle and seemed on the point of going under. His hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat. He looked to be about thirteen. All three boys had white penetrating stares. “I don’t reckon you remember me, Mrs. Cope,” he said.

“Your face is certainly familiar,” she murmured, scrutinizing him. “Now let’s see…”

“My daddy used to work here,” he hinted.

“Boyd?” she said. “Your father was Mr. Boyd and you’re J. C.?”

“ Nome, I’m Powell, the secont one, only I’ve growed some since then and my daddy he’s daid now. Done died.”

“Dead. Well I declare,” Mrs. Cope said as if death were always an unusual thing. “What was Mr. Boyd’s trouble?”

One of Powell’s eyes seemed to be making a circle of the place, examining the house and the white water tower behind it and the chicken houses and the pastures that rolled away on either side until they met the first line of woods. The other eye looked at her. “Died in Florda,” he said and began kicking the valise.

“Well I declare,” she murmured. After a second she said, “And how is your mother?”

“Mah’d again.” He kept watching his foot kick the suitcase. The other two boys stared at her impatiently.

“And where do you all live now?” she asked.

“ Atlanta,” he said. “You know, out to one of them developments.”

“Well I see,” she said, “I see.” After a second she said it again. Finally she asked, “And who are these other boys?” and smiled at them.

“Garfield Smith him, and W. T. Harper him,” he said, nodding his head backward first in the direction of the large boy and then the small one.

“How do you boys do?” Mrs. Cope said. “This is Mrs. Pritchard. Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard work here now.”

They ignored Mrs. Pritchard who watched them with steady beady eyes. The three seemed to hang there, waiting, watching Mrs. Cope.

“Well well,” she said, glancing at the suitcase, “it’s nice of you to stop and see me. I think that was real sweet of you.”

Powell’s stare seemed to pinch her like a pair of tongs. “Come back to see how you was doing,” he said hoarsely.

“Listen here,” the smallest boy said, “all the time we been knowing him he’s been telling us about this here place. Said it was everything here. Said it was horses here. Said he had the best time of his entire life right here on this here place. Talks about it all the time.”

“Never shuts his trap about this place,” the big boy grunted, drawing his arm across his nose as if to muffle his words.

“Always talking about them horses he rid here,” the small one continued, “and said he would let us ride them too. Said it was one name Gene.”

Mrs. Cope was always afraid someone would get hurt on her place and sue her for everything she had. “They aren’t shod,” she said quickly. “There was one named Gene but he’s dead now but I’m afraid you boys can’t ride the horses because you might get hurt. They’re dangerous,” she said, speaking very fast.

The large boy sat down on the ground with a noise of disgust and began to finger rocks out of his tennis shoe. The small one darted looks here and there and Powell fixed her with his stare and didn’t say anything.

After a minute the little boy said, “Say, lady, you know what he said one time? He said when he died he wanted to come here!”

For a second Mrs. Cope looked blank; then she blushed; then a peculiar look of pain came over her face as she realized that these children were hungry. They were staring because they were hungry! She almost gasped in their faces and then she asked them quickly if they would have something to eat. They said they would but their expressions, composed and unsatisfied, didn’t lighten any. They looked as if they were used to being hungry and it was no business of hers.

The child upstairs had grown red in the face with excitement. She was kneeling down by the window so that only her eyes and forehead showed over the sill. Mrs. Cope told the boys to come around on the other side of the house where the lawn chairs were and she led the way and Mrs. Pritchard followed. The child moved from the right bedroom across the hall and over into the left bedroom and looked down on the other side of the house where there were three white lawn chairs and a red hammock strung between two hazelnut trees. She was a pale fat girl of twelve with a frowning squint and a large mouth full of silver bands. She knelt down at the window.

The three boys came around the corner of the house and the large one threw himself into the hammock and lit a stub of cigarette. The small boy tumbled down on the grass next to the black suitcase and rested his head on it and Powell sat down on the edge of one of the chairs and looked as if he were trying to enclose the whole place in one encircling stare. The child heard her mother and Mrs. Pritchard in a muted conference in the kitchen. She got up and went out into the hall and leaned over the banisters.

Mrs. Cope’s and Mrs. Pritchard’s legs were facing each other in the back hall. “Those poor children are hungry,” Mrs. Cope said in a dead voice.

“You seen that suitcase?” Mrs. Pritchard asked. “What if they intend to spend the night with you?”

Mrs. Cope gave a slight shriek. “I can’t have three boys in here with only me and Sally Virginia,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll go when I feed them.”

“I only know they got a suitcase,” Mrs. Pritchard said.

The child hurried back to the window. The large boy was stretched out in the hammock with his wrists crossed under his head and the cigarette stub in the center of his mouth. He spit it out in an arc just as Mrs. Cope came around the corner of the house with a plate of crackers. She stopped instantly as if a snake had been slung in her path. “Ashfield!” she said. “Please pick that up. I’m afraid of fires.”

“Gawfield!” the little boy shouted indignantly. “Gawfield!”

The large boy raised himself without a word and lumbered for the butt. He picked it up and put it in his pocket and stood with his back to her, examining a tattooed heart on his forearm. Mrs. Pritchard came up holding three Coca-Colas by the necks in one hand and gave one to each of them.

“I remember everything about this place,” Powell said, looking down the opening of his bottle.

“Where did you all go when you left here?” Mrs. Cope asked and put the plate of crackers on the arm of his chair.

He looked at it but didn’t take one. He said, “I remember it was one name Gene and it was one name George. We gone to Florda and my daddy he, you know, died, and then we gone to my sister’s and then my mother she, you know, mah’d, and we been there ever since.”

“There are some crackers,” Mrs. Cope said and sat down in the chair across from him.

“He don’t like it in Atlanta,” the little boy said, sitting up and reaching indifferently for a cracker. “He ain’t ever satisfied with where he’s at except this place here. Lemme tell you what he’ll do, lady. We’ll be playing ball, see, on this here place in this development we got to play ball on, see, and he’ll quit playing and say, ‘Goddam, it was a horse down there name Gene and if I had him here I’d bust this concrete to hell riding him!’ “

“I’m sure Powell doesn’t use words like that, do you, Powell?” Mrs. Cope said.

“No, mam,” Powell said. His head was turned completely to the side as if he were listening for the horses in the field.

“I don’t like them kind of crackers,” the little boy said and returned his to the plate and got up.

Mrs. Cope shifted in her chair. “So you boys live in one of those nice new developments,” she said.

“The only way you can tell your own is by smell,” the small boy volunteered. “They’re four stories high and there’s ten of them, one behind the other. Let’s go see them horses,” he said.

Powell turned his pinching look on Mrs. Cope. “We thought we would just spend the night in your barn,” he said. “My uncle brought us this far on his pick-up truck and he’s going to stop for us again in the morning.”

There was a moment in which she didn’t say a thing and the child in the window thought: she’s going to fly out of that chair and hit the tree.

“Well, I’m afraid you can’t do that,” she said, getting up suddenly. “The barn’s full of hay and I’m afraid of fire from your cigarettes.”

“We won’t smoke,” he said.

“I’m afraid you can’t spend the night in there just the same,” she repeated as if she were talking politely to a gangster.

“Well, we can camp out in the woods then,” the little boy said. “We brought our own blankets anyways. That’s what we got in thatere suitcase. Come on.”

“In the woods!” she said. “Oh no! The woods are very dry now, I can’t have people smoking in my woods. You’ll have to camp out in the field, in this field here next to the house, where there aren’t any trees.”

“Where she can keep her eye on you,” the child said under her breath.

“Her woods,” the large boy muttered and got out of the hammock.

“We’ll sleep in the field,” Powell said but not particularly as if he were talking to her. “This afternoon I’m going to show them about this place.” The other two were already walking away and he got up and bounded after them and the two women sat with the black suitcase between them.

“Not no thank you, not no nothing,” Mrs. Pritchard remarked.

“They only played with what we gave them to eat,” Mrs. Cope said in a hurt voice.

Mrs. Pritchard suggested that they might not like soft drinks.

“They certainly looked hungry,” Mrs. Cope said.

About sunset they appeared out of the woods, dirty and sweating, and came to the back porch and asked for water. They did not ask for food but Mrs. Cope could tell that they wanted it. “All I have is some cold guinea,” she said. “Would you boys like some guinea and some sandwiches?”

“I wouldn’t eat nothing bald-headed like a guinea,” the little boy said. “I would eat a chicken or a turkey but not no guinea.”

“Dog wouldn’t eat one of them,” the large boy said. He had taken off his shirt and stuck it in the back of his trousers like a tail. Mrs. Cope carefully avoided looking at him. The little boy had a cut on his arm.

“You boys haven’t been riding the horses when I asked you not to, have you?” she asked suspiciously and they all said, “No mam!” at once in loud enthusiastic voices like the Amens are said in country churches.

She went into the house and made them sandwiches and, while she did it, she held a conversation with them from inside the kitchen, asking what their fathers did and how many brothers and sisters they had and where they went to school. They answered in short explosive sentences, pushing each other’s shoulders and doubling up with laughter as if the questions had meanings she didn’t know about. “And do you have men teachers or lady teachers at your school?” she asked.

“Some of both and some you can’t tell which,” the big boy hooted.

“And does your mother work, Powell?” she asked quickly.

“She ast you does your mother work!” the little boy yelled. “His mind’s affected by them horses he only looked at,” he said. “His mother she works at a factory and leaves him to mind the rest of them only he don’t mind them much. Lemme tell you, lady, one time he locked his little brother in a box and set it on fire.”

“I’m sure Powell wouldn’t do a thing like that,” she said, coming out with the plate of sandwiches and setting it down on the step. They emptied the plate at once and she picked it up and stood holding it, looking at the sun which was going down in front of them, almost on top of the tree line. It was swollen and flame-colored and hung in a net of ragged cloud as if it might burn through any second and fall into the woods. From the upstairs window the child saw her shiver and catch both arms to her sides. “We have so much to be thankful for,” she said suddenly in a mournful marveling tone. “Do you boys thank God every night for all He’s done for you? Do you thank Him for everything?”

This put an instant hush over them. They bit into the sandwiches as if they had lost all taste for food.

“Do you?” she persisted.

They were as silent as thieves hiding. They chewed without a sound.

“Well, I know I do,” she said at length and turned and went back to the house and the child watched their shoulders drop. The large one stretched his legs out as if he were releasing himself from a trap. The sun burned so fast that it seemed to be trying to set everything in sight on fire. The white water tower was glazed pink and the grass was an unnatural green as if it were turning to glass. The child suddenly stuck her head far out the window and said, “Ugggghhrhh,” in a loud voice, crossing her eyes and hanging her tongue out as far as possible as if she were going to vomit.

The large boy looked up and stared at her. “Jesus,” he growled, “another woman.”

She dropped back from the window and stood with her back against the wall, squinting fiercely as if she had been slapped in the face and couldn’t see who had done it. As soon as they left the steps, she came down into the kitchen where Mrs. Cope was washing the dishes. “If I had that big boy down I’d beat the daylight out of him,” she said.

“You keep away from those boys,” Mrs. Cope said, turning sharply. “Ladies don’t beat the daylight out of people. You keep out of their way. They’ll be gone in the morning.”

But in the morning they were not gone.

When she went out on the porch after breakfast, they were standing around the back door, kicking the steps. They were smelling the bacon she had had for her breakfast. “Why boys!” she said. “I thought you were going to meet your uncle.” They had the same look of hardened hunger that had pained her yesterday but today she felt faintly provoked.

The big boy turned his back at once and the small one squatted down and began to scratch in the sand. “We ain’t, though,” Powell said.

The big boy turned his head just enough to take in a small section of her and said, “We ain’t bothering nothing of yours.”

He couldn’t see the way her eyes enlarged but he could take note of the significant silence. After a minute she said in an altered voice, “Would you boys care for some breakfast?”

“We got plenty of our own food,” the big boy said. “We don’t want nothing of yours.”

She kept her eyes on Powell. His thin white face seemed to confront but not actually to see her. “You boys know that I’m glad to have you,” she said, “but I expect you to behave. I expect you to act like gentlemen.”

They stood there, each looking in a different direction, as if they were waiting for her to leave. “After all,” she said in a suddenly high voice, “this is my place.”

The big boy made some ambiguous noise and they turned and walked off toward the barn, leaving her there with a shocked look as if she had had a searchlight thrown on her in the middle of the night.

In a little while Mrs. Pritchard came over and stood in the kitchen door with her cheek against the edge of it. “I reckon you know they rode them horses all yesterday afternoon,” she said. “Stole a bridle out the saddle room and rode bareback because Hollis seen them. He runnum out the barn at nine o’clock last night and then he runnum out the milk room this morning and there was milk all over their mouths like they had been drinking out the cans.”

“I cannot have this,” Mrs. Cope said and stood at the sink with both fists knotted at her sides. “I cannot have this,” and her expression was the same as when she tore at the nut grass.

“There ain’t a thing you can do about it,” Mrs. Pritchard said. “What I expect is you’ll have them for a week or so until school begins. They just figure to have themselves a vacation in the country and there ain’t nothing you can do but fold your hands.”

“I do not fold my hands,” Mrs. Cope said. “Tell Mr. Pritchard to put the horses up in the stalls.”

“He’s already did that. You take a boy thirteen year old is equal in meanness to a man twict his age. It’s no telling what he’ll think up to do. You never know where he’ll strike next. This morning Hollis seen them behind the bull pen and that big one ast if it wasn’t some place they could wash at and Hollis said no it wasn’t and that you didn’t want no boys dropping cigarette butts in your woods and he said, ‘She don’t own them woods,’ and Hollis said, ‘She does too,’ and that there little one he said, ‘Man, Gawd owns them woods and her too,’ and that there one with the glasses said, ‘I reckon she owns the sky over this place too,’ and that there littlest one says, ‘Owns the sky and can’t no airplane go over here without she says so,’ and then the big one says, ‘I never seen a place with so many damm women on it, how do you stand it here?’ and Hollis said he had done had enough of their big talk by then and he turned and walked off without giving no reply one way or the other.”

“I’m going out there and tell those boys they can get a ride away from here on the milk truck,” Mrs. Cope said and she went out the back door, leaving Mrs. Pritchard and the child together in the kitchen.

“Listen,” the child said. “I could handle them quicker than that.”

“Yeah?” Mrs. Pritchard murmured, giving her a long leering look. “How’d you handle them?”

The child gripped both hands together and made a contorted face as if she were strangling someone.

“They’d handle you,” Mrs. Pritchard said with satisfaction.

The child retired to the upstairs window to get out of her way and looked down where her mother was walking off from the three boys who were squatting under the water tower, eating something out of a cracker box. She heard her come in the kitchen door and say, “They say they’ll go on the milk truck, and no wonder they aren’t hungry—they have that suitcase half full of food.”

“Likely stole every bit of it too,” Mrs. Pritchard said.

When the milk truck came, the three boys were nowhere in sight, but as soon as it left without them their three faces appeared, looking out of the opening in the top of the calf barn. “Can you beat this?” Mrs. Cope said, standing at one of the upstairs windows with her hands at her hips. “It’s not that I wouldn’t be glad to have them—it’s their attitude.”

“You never like nobody’s attitude,” the child said. “I’ll go tell them they got five minutes to leave here in.”

“You are not to go anywhere near those boys, do you hear me?” Mrs. Cope said.

“Why?” the child asked.

“I’m going out there and give them a piece of my mind,” Mrs. Cope said.

The child took over the position in the window and in a few minutes she saw the stiff green hat catching the glint of the sun as her mother crossed the road toward the calf barn. The three faces immediately disappeared from the opening, and in a second the large boy dashed across the lot, followed an instant later by the other two. Mrs. Pritchard came out and the two women started for the grove of trees the boys had vanished into. Presently the two sunhats disappeared in the woods and the three boys came out at the left side of it and ambled across the field and into another patch of woods. By the time Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard reached the field, it was empty and there was nothing for them to do but come home again.

Mrs. Cope had not been inside long before Mrs. Pritchard came running toward the house, shouting something. “They’ve let out the bull!” she hollered. “Let out the bull!” And in a second she was followed by the bull himself, ambling, black and leisurely, with four geese hissing at his heels. He was not mean until hurried and it took Mr. Pritchard and the two Negroes a half-hour to ease him back to his pen. While the men were engaged in this, the boys let the oil out of the three tractors and then disappeared again into the woods.

Two blue veins had come out on either side of Mrs. Cope’s forehead and Mrs. Pritchard observed them with satisfaction. “Like I toljer,” she said, “there ain’t a thing you can do about it.”

Mrs. Cope ate her dinner hastily, not conscious that she had her sunhat on. Every time she heard a noise, she jumped up. Mrs. Pritchard came over immediately after dinner and said, “Well, you want to know where they are now?” and smiled in an omniscient rewarded way.

“I want to know at once,” Mrs. Cope said, coming to an almost military attention.

“Down to the road, throwing rocks at your mailbox,” Mrs. Pritchard said, leaning comfortably in the door “Done already about knocked it off its stand.”

“Get in the car,” Mrs. Cope said.

The child got in too and the three of them drove down the road to the gate. The boys were sitting on the embankment on the other side of the highway, aiming rocks across the road at the mailbox. Mrs. Cope stopped the car almost directly beneath them and looked up out of her window. The three of them stared at her as if they had never seen her before, the large boy with a sullen glare, the small one glint-eyed and unsmiling, and Powell with his two sided glassed gaze hanging vacantly over the crippled destroyer on his shirt.

“Powell,” she said, “I’m sure your mother would be ashamed of you,” and she stopped and waited for this to make its effect. His face seemed to twist slightly but he continued to look through her at nothing in particular.

“Now I’ve put up with this as long as I can,” she said. “I’ve tried to be nice to you boys. Haven’t I been nice to you boys?”

They might have been three statues except that the big one, barely opening his mouth, said, “We’re not even on your side the road, lady.”

“There ain’t a thing you can do about it,” Mrs. Pritchard hissed loudly. The child was sitting on the back seat close to the side. She had a furious outraged look on her face but she kept her head drawn back from the window so that they couldn’t see her.

Mrs. Cope spoke slowly, emphasizing every word. “I think I have been very nice to you boys. I’ve fed you twice. Now I’m going into town and if you’re still here when I come back, I’ll call the sheriff,” and with this, she drove off. The child, turning quickly so that she could see out the back window, observed that they had not moved; they had not even turned their heads.

“You done angered them now,” Mrs. Pritchard said, “and it ain’t any telling what they’ll do.”

“They’ll be gone when we get back,” Mrs. Cope said.

Mrs. Pritchard could not stand an anticlimax. She required the taste of blood from time to time to keep her equilibrium. “I known a man oncet that his wife was poisoned by a child she had adopted out of pure kindness,” she said. When they returned from town, the boys were not on the embankment and she said, “I would rather to see them than not to see them. When you see them you know what they’re doing.”

“Ridiculous,” Mrs. Cope muttered. “I’ve scared them and they’ve gone and now we can forget them.”

“I ain’t forgetting them,” Mrs. Pritchard said. “I wouldn’t be none surprised if they didn’t have a gun in that there suitcase.”

Mrs. Cope prided herself on the way she handled the type of mind that Mrs. Pritchard had. When Mrs. Pritchard saw signs and omens, she exposed them calmly for the figments of imagination that they were, but this afternoon her nerves were taut and she said, “Now I’ve had about enough of this. Those boys are gone and that’s that.”

“Well, we’ll wait and see,” Mrs. Pritchard said.

Everything was quiet for the rest of the afternoon but at supper time, Mrs. Pritchard came over to say that she had heard a high vicious laugh pierce out of the bushes near the hog pen. It was an evil laugh, full of calculated meanness, and she had heard it come three times, herself, distinctly.

“I haven’t heard a thing,” Mrs. Cope said.

“I look for them to strike just after dark,” Mrs. Pritchard said.

That night Mrs. Cope and the child sat on the porch until nearly ten o’clock and nothing happened. The only sounds came from tree frogs and from one whippoorwill who called faster and faster from the same spot of darkness. “They’ve gone,” Mrs. Cope said, “poor things,” and she began to tell the child how much they had to be thankful for, for she said they might have had to live in a development themselves or they might have been Negroes or they might have been in iron lungs or they might have been Europeans ridden in boxcars like cattle, and she began a litany of her blessings, in a stricken voice, that the child, straining her attention for a sudden shriek in the dark, didn’t listen to.

There was no sign of them the next morning either. The fortress line of trees was a hard granite blue, the wind had risen overnight and the sun had come up a pale gold. The season was changing. Even a small change in the weather made Mrs. Cope thankful, but when the seasons changed she seemed almost frightened at her good fortune in escaping whatever it was that pursued her. As she sometimes did when one thing was finished and another about to begin, she turned her attention to the child who had put on a pair of overalls over her dress and had pulled a man’s old felt hat down as far as it would go on her head and was arming herself with two pistols in a decorated holster that she had fastened around her waist. The hat was very tight and seemed to be squeezing the redness into her face. It came down almost to the tops of her glasses. Mrs. Cope watched her with a tragic look. “Why do you have to look like an idiot?” she asked. “Suppose company were to come? When are you going to grow up? What’s going to become of you? I look at you and I want to cry! Sometimes you look like you might belong to Mrs. Pritchard!”

“Leave me be,” the child said in a high irritated voice. “Leave me be. Just leave me be. I ain’t you,” and she went off to the woods as if she were stalking out an enemy, her head thrust forward and each hand gripped on a gun.

Mrs. Pritchard came over, sour-humored, because she didn’t have anything calamitous to report. “I got the misery in my face today,” she said, holding on to what she could salvage. “Theseyer teeth. They each one feel like an individual boil.”

The child crashed through the woods, making the fallen leaves sound ominous under her feet. The sun had risen a little and was only a white hole like an opening for the wind to escape through in a sky a little darker than itself, and the tops of the trees were black against the glare. “I’m going to get you,” she said. “I’m going to get you one by one and beat you black and blue. Line up. LINE UP!” she said and waved one of the pistols at a cluster of long bare-trunked pines, four times her height, as she passed them. She kept moving, muttering and growling to herself and occasionally hitting out with one of the guns at a branch that got in her way. From time to time she stopped to remove the thorn vine that caught in her shirt and she would say, “Leave me be, I told you. Leave me be,” and give it a crack with the pistol and then stalk on.

Presently she sat down on a stump to cool off but she planted both feet carefully and firmly on the ground. She lifted them and put them down several times, grinding them fiercely into the dirt as if she were crushing some-thing under her heels. Suddenly she heard a laugh.

She sat up, prickle-skinned. It came again. She heard the sound of splashing and she stood up, uncertain which way to run. She was not far from where this patch of woods ended and the back pasture began. She eased toward the pasture, careful not to make a sound, and coming suddenly to the edge of it, she saw the three boys, not twenty feet away, washing in the cow trough. Their clothes were piled against the black valise out of reach of the water that flowed over the side of the tank. The large boy was standing up and the small one was trying to climb onto his shoulders. Powell was sitting down looking straight ahead through glasses that were splashed with water. He was not paying any attention to the other two. The trees must have looked like green waterfalls through his wet glasses. The child stood partly hidden behind a pine trunk, the side of her face pressed into the bark.

“I wish I lived here!” the little boy shouted, balancing with his knees clutched around the big one’s head.

“I’m goddam glad I don’t,” the big boy panted, and jumped up to dislodge him.

Powell sat without moving, without seeming to know that the other two were behind him, and looked straight ahead like a ghost sprung upright in his coffin. “If this place was not here any more,” he said, “you would never have to think of it again.”

“Listen,” the big boy said, sitting down quietly in the water with the little one still moored to his shoulders, “it don’t belong to nobody.”

“It’s ours,” the little boy said.

The child behind the tree did not move.

Powell jumped out of the trough and began to run. He ran all the way around the field as if something were after him and as he passed the tank again, the other two jumped out and raced with him, the sun glinting on their long wet bodies. The big one ran the fastest and was the leader. They dashed around the field twice and finally dropped down by their clothes and lay there with their ribs moving up and down. After a while, the big one said hoarsely, “Do you know what I would do with this place if I had the chance?”

“No, what?” the little boy said and sat up to give him his full attention.

“I’d build a big parking lot on it, or something,” he muttered.

They began to dress. The sun made two white spots on Powell’s glasses and blotted out his eyes. “I know what let’s do,” he said. He took something small from his pocket and showed it to them. For almost a minute they sat looking at what he had in his hand. Then without any more discussion, Powell picked up the suitcase and they got up and moved past the child and entered the woods not ten feet from where she was standing, slightly away from the tree now, with the imprint of the bark embossed red and white on the side of her face.

She watched with a dazed stare as they stopped and collected all the matches they had between them and began to set the brush on fire. They began to whoop and holler and beat their hands over their mouths and in a few seconds there was a narrow line of fire widening between her and them. While she watched, it reached up from the brush, snatching and biting at the lowest branches of the trees. The wind carried rags of it higher and the boys disappeared shrieking behind it.

She turned and tried to run across the field but her legs were too heavy and she stood there, weighted down with some new unplaced misery that she had never felt before. But finally she began to run.

Mrs. Cope and Mrs. Pritchard were in the field behind the barn when Mrs. Cope saw smoke rising from the woods across the pasture. She shrieked and Mrs. Pritchard pointed up the road to where the child came loping heavily, screaming, “Mama, Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!”

Mrs. Cope began to scream for the Negroes while Mrs. Pritchard, charged now, ran down the road shouting. Mr. Pritchard came out of the open end of the barn and the two Negroes stopped filling the manure spreader in the lot and started toward Mrs. Cope with their shovels. “Hurry, hurry!” she shouted. “Start throwing dirt on it!” They passed her almost without looking at her and headed off slowly across the field toward the smoke. She ran after them a little way, shrilling, “Hurry, hurry, don’t you see it! Don’t you see it!”

“It’ll be there when we git there,” Culver said and they thrust their shoulders forward a little and went on at the same pace.

The child came to a stop beside her mother and stared up at her face as if she had never seen it before. It was the face of the new misery she felt, but on her mother it looked old and it looked as if it might have belonged to anybody, a Negro or a European or to Powell himself. The child turned her head quickly, and past the Negroes’ ambling figures she could see the column of smoke rising and widening unchecked inside the granite line of trees. She stood taut, listening, and could just catch in the distance a few wild high shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them.

 
           

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Last updated:
April 1, 2006
   
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