Authors: Stephen Wright
Euclid lifted the boy high into the air and set him down on the cot as he would a compactly bundled parcel of feathers. Standing squarely before him, his one sound eye fastened grimly upon Liberty’s wavering gaze, he said, “Got that blasted glim same place I found this,” then pulled off his shirt and turned around. His back was a hideous cross-hatching of hard, ridged flesh, welt upon welt in random disarray, appearing much like the cameoed burrowings of some frantic creature permanently trapped beneath the exitless skin. “Touch it,” he commanded.
Liberty refused, already gauging the distance between himself and the door.
“Touch,” Euclid insisted, shoving his disfigured back into Liberty’s averted face.
“I don’t want to.” Though his gaze, as if magnetized, kept returning to the dreadful scars.
Euclid reached out to seize the boy’s hand. “Can’t learn nothing of any account without feeling. Now, touch.”
Liberty’s fingers moved tentatively over the stubborn winding weals. They felt like dead snakes.
“That’s slavery, boy, that’s the kingdom come.”
“Can I go now?”
At a brief nod of Euclid’s head, Liberty raced up the stairs to the kitchen where Aunt Aroline, having scrubbed and polished the floor, was busy sweeping, with her usual meticulousness, the thick layer of white scouring sand into a great herringbone pattern through which the boy’s obliterating feet went madly scampering, avoiding a near collision with a table corner, overturning a stray parlor chair, frightening the cat into a blurred leap out the window, strewn sand and Aroline’s indignant cries in his wake, and on up to the secluded safety of his room where, bolting the door, he sat upon the bed in a vague displaced spell, thoughts all ajumble but presided over by one certain central fear: that his own delicate back might one day be set upon by the same malicious agencies that had so cruelly visited his friend, a notion sufficient to ice his body and glaze his brain.
Presently, though, time passing gratefully on, his darkly wrought attention began to gently unwind, and soon he was down on the floor rolling a toy wagon back and forth over the rough planks, bound for the Territory and a rendezvous with mountain men along the Green River. And not more than half an hour later he was back downstairs, dodging his aunt’s ridiculous complaints, and heading out through the meadow to the secret pond at the bottom of the ravine where giant bullfrogs dozed in the stinking mud and speckled salamanders hung suspended in the clear water as if trapped in glass. And by the following day he was away with Euclid on a huckleberry expedition at his aunt’s behest—her traditional Saturday baking ordeal drawing near—and he never again asked about Euclid’s colorless eye or mutilated back.
His own parents so frequently absent, often for painfully extended periods, embarked on what they occasionally termed their “crusade”—Liberty had sometimes pictured them sword or lance in hand, hacking away at a wrathful dragon or, side by side, clearing a bloody path through a human wall of armed infidels—he understandably had come to regard the remaining adults in the house, Aroline and Euclid, as a perfectly acceptable set of substitute parents. And, accurately intuiting that his aunt’s plentiful and intimate problems occupied a more generous portion of her day than even she might be willing to admit, the boy tended to turn to the older man when troubles plagued his mind and set his skin to itching.
“Euclid?” he asked, fiddling nervously with his line before allowing it to go slack and belly out into the wind. They had been seated quietly there on the rock for more than an hour, the sun mounting ever higher into a dizzyingly blue sky, the emerald flashings of countless dragonflies darting repeatedly across the eye. Neither had as yet detected so much as a nibble.
“Can a dead man talk?”
Euclid seemed not to have heard the question. He rubbed at his nose, spit into the water, glanced away at the far shore as if he’d just heard an interesting sound out there or momentarily expected some fascinating event to transpire among the distant pines. When he spoke, it was in the soft, uninflected voice he reserved for only the weightiest of matters.
“Dead man do what dead man wants to do. Why’s a good boy like you fussing with such truck. These here’re bones for the big dogs to worry at, and even most of them just trot right on by, don’t want nothing to do with that stink-stick.”
“Why not? I’ll tell you why not. Same reason they go whistling through the graveyard. This here is death stuff and common folk believe if you don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, you won’t catch it, but what they’s too scared to know is they already got it.”
“Never mind. That’s enough philosophizing for one day. Now, where’d you see this dead man talking anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
The laughter rolled out of Euclid in big, generous waves. “Liberty,” he said, wiping the back of a hand across his watering eye, “this must be why I like you so much. You are one fine, funny fellow.”
“Are dreams real?”
“Look out,” declared Euclid, ducking his head, “here comes another. How do you fit all these whopping thoughts into that little bitty nut of yours? Of course a dream is real. You saw it, didn’t you? No different than anything else you see. If you saw a dead man moving around in there, he was real, too. Like I say, dead man do what dead man wants to do. But if you saw one standing up and walking about and talking plain to folks, most probably that’s because he wasn’t buried right. A man can’t be buried crossways in this world. Got to be buried east to west so when Gabriel blows his horn at sunrise you don’t have to turn your head to behold the jubilee. So much conjuring you got to do to keep the spirit from wandering. You got to have the shout, all the folks walking in a ring in the proper direction. You got to put the things of the dead person on top of the grave, so many things. And if the coffin ain’t carried properly to the cemetery, the dead person’s naturally all confused and upset. Might be able to find his way back home and bring all his troubles with him.”
“Could he come here, to our house?”
“If he died here. But ain’t nobody died here lately that I know about.”
Liberty mused over these facts and said, in a quavering voice, “I think the dead man’s in the barn.”
“Well then, baby doll,” declared Euclid, “reckon we’d better head on back and take a peek. Anyway, looks like our fishy friends heard us speculating about dead folks and got spooked. But they’ll be back tomorrow and so will we.”
Though the day was rapidly approaching the near shadowless glory of high noon, the woods seemed darker to Liberty coming back than they had going out and every slight crack and rustle sounded a clanging bell of alarm.
The barn sat isolate in a clearing up behind the house, implacable as a rock, old, gray, hard-edged by the sun, a structure obviously built to contain the meanest thing, no matter its size. The open door gaped like a devouring mouth, black, abysmal, utterly toothless.
Liberty waited outside, careful to keep Euclid’s body between himself and whatever might come lunging out of those gloomy depths. He could hear Euclid’s reassuring calls as he searched each dusty stall and corner. “Nope, nothing here. Nothing there, either.” The wagon, partially visible in the shadows just within the doorway like a quaint artifact on display, appeared to have been neither moved nor touched in years. Its bed was empty.
Several weeks passed.
At last Euclid emerged from the barn, wholly intact and thankfully unharmed, shaking his head and brushing chaff from his hands. “Looks like that’s one dead man done hightailed it out of here some time ago. Stepping lightly, too, didn’t leave a single track. Don’t look so disappointed. Never know when another dead man’s likely to come traipsing through.”
“I think he went away on the train.”
“The train? What train is that?”
“The one Mother told me about, that runs under the ground.”
Politely restraining himself, Euclid responded to this news with a considerate chortle. “Whew, you sure tiring me out now, turnip. What a heap of knobby stones you chucking at me today.”
“I’ve heard it.”
Indeed, he had often imagined the polished rails gleaming invitingly away down a dank, lamp-lit tunnel, and between futile wrestling bouts with his tenacious bed linen he had ruined the sleep of many a night, lying as still as he could, his breath controlled to an almost noiseless sigh, listening with every unabated nerve of his body for the telltale clack of the wheels, the rumbling chug of the engine, the long, piercing, seductive cry of the whistle.
“I ain’t disbelieving you, Liberty, I’ve heard that blessed train, too. And so, I expect, has our dead friend, done caught himself a ride to the far place. But let me tell you, baby doll, you plan on passing along that particular route, travel light, get to the station early, don’t argue with the conductor and be kind to those you meet along the line, ’cause you never know when that bullgine might blow up or the coach jump the tracks.”
One evening in the
late spring of 1846, Liberty not yet two, the ominous detonation of a giant’s boots was heard thundering across the porch, over the threshold, down the hallway and into the parlor, where burst a big, loud, bushy man with guns at his hips and warts on his hands. He was wearing a crumpled oilskin cap of enigmatic hue and a ratty green duster. From a face dark and filthy, sprouting a black beard of such unkempt weediness it would have surprised no one had something wild emerged, a set of fierce, quick eyes blazed like coins at the bottom of a well. Through a hole in his boot you could see his sock and, through a hole in his sock, his foot. Uncle Potter. Thatcher’s cousin, actually.
Aunt Aroline immediately excused herself, retiring to the genteel solitude of her room while Liberty, fleeing the friendly attempt at an ursine embrace, took refuge behind his mother’s Windsor chair, from which crouching vantage he observed in a transport of unblinking wonderment not so dissimilar from his everyday consciousness at that age the extravagant style of this magnetic man whose mere presence seemed to fill the room to all four corners, his voice rattling nearby porcelain, every florid gesture of his body releasing into the air an almost visible trail of odor, each hardy whiff of human musk—stale tobacco, salt-rimed leather, lathered horseflesh or any one of a virtual olfactory rainbow of other, slightly less insolent fragrances—evoking in the impressionable boy whole worlds vast and complete, instantly apprehensible at a reach well below that of reason, though it would be years before Liberty would know what he knew.
And as Potter paced the worn carpeting before the dead hearth, his grandiloquence flew higgledy-piggledy in rapid volleys about the parlor—spittle-soaked verbal balls like “blood,” “injustice,” “barbaric” and “righteous” that these thin papered walls had safely absorbed a thousand times and more, and others like “Matamoros,” “invasion,” “Arista” and “Old Rough and Ready” that they had not.
Thatcher, half reclining on the balding horsehair sofa, his pale head floating within a perpetual cloud of pipesmoke, attended to his cousin’s performance with bemused silence. Roxana, too, listened without comment, pausing now and again in her knitting (a task she absolutely loathed but one nevertheless she couldn’t seem to keep herself from doing) to place a comforting hand on the hair-sleek crown of her son’s head.
Suddenly Potter ceased in midstride, glaring down at Thatcher to demand, “So what do you say? Are you willing to strike out with me or not?”
Thatcher took some time removing the pipe from his mouth. When he finally answered, he spoke in cool, precise tones seasoned with nouns like “crime,” “treachery” and “greed.”
“Damn you,” muttered Potter, and touching his cap and bowing slightly in Roxana’s direction he strode decisively out of the room, out of the house, the front door hanging open behind him, and leaped onto his waiting horse and without bothering to pause in town to formally enlist (Fishes past and present always preferring to swim upstream far beyond the finely meshed nets of state authority), galloped off for the Big Frolic on the Rio Grande—days and nights with no more sleep than what could be stolen seconds at a time upright in a lurching saddle, rubbing tobacco juice on his eyelids to keep awake, the spirited discussions he conducted with himself a source of amusement and alarm to passing strangers who tended to give this wandering lunatic a rather wide berth—through storm and flood and impossible heat and actually arriving as far as the fair city of Cincinnati, the London of the West, where he could taste on his tongue the blood in the air and harried pedestrians jostled roving herds of pigs for right-of-way through the mud and manure of the streets, and rounding a corner he was confronted by a festering sump of bone, gristle and entrails, here and there a tiny wizened tail corkscrewing up out of the bubbling muck, runoff from one of the nearby shambles, into which his skittish horse placed one dainty hoof, instantly sinking in up to the fetlock before rearing back thoroughly spooked as an unruffled Potter simply sat there atop the anxious animal, his squinting eye caught by the colonnade of black-belching stacks rising up above the housetops at the end of the street—riverboats, an entire flotilla of them, lined up in docile formation down at the wharves like hogs at a trough—and beyond, through a dreamy blue haze, the distant wooded hills of Kentucky, and Potter yanked on the reins, swung the horse savagely about and headed back in the same direction he had come at half the gait, uttering not a syllable to another living soul until those same heavy boots remounted the same planks of the same porch, pounded down the hallway and into the parlor to wait for Thatcher to lower the book in his hands so Potter could face him directly and declare, “Damn you.”
Thatcher, who had not bothered to rise from the sofa, waited a moment before replying. “There’ll be other wars,” he promised, “good ones, too, full of honor and glory and virtuous cannonading. You’ll get your chance.”
Potter turned and spat into the fireplace. “Not if I end up saddled with as many principles as you apparently labor under.”
“Looks like you already do.”
“Damn you,” muttered Potter, and, as abruptly as he had appeared, he was gone.