A stirring novel of a young man's baptism by fire during the bloody Battle of Lexington.
- Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.20(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.90(d)
- Age Range:
- 10 - 13 Years
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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1961 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
When I turned back to the house, my father called after me and asked me did I figure that I was finished. "I figure so," I said, and then my father said, in that way he has of saying something that cuts you down to half of your size or less:
"Slow to start and quick to finish."
He said it plain and quiet, but it was of a piece and it reminded me that I couldn't think of a time when he had said something pleasing or gentle with love or concern; and I replied to him, but not aloud—for which I didn't have the guts at all—"If just once in all my born days you'd say a good thing to me, then maybe I'd show good to you, and be able to do what you want me to do, and maybe read your mind or your soul." But aloud I said nothing, just began to walk toward the house, and his voice coiled after me like a whip around my ankle:
"I'll have you talk to me face to face, not into the air with your back to me."
"Yes, sir," I said, turning around.
"Draw your mother's evening water and bring it to her. Wasted steps are like wasted thoughts, just as empty and just as ignorant."
"Yes, Father," I said, and I went to the house and picked up the yoke and walked with it to the well. The sun was cutting. That's the time of the day when the sun touches the trees for evening time. That's the time of the day when the wind stops, and the air is so sweet you can taste it and suck it.
But that afternoon, the time of the day made me think about death, and I saw a chicken hawk in flight and waited for someone somewhere to send a load of bird shot after it; but no one did. I thought of death and was full of fear, and I just wanted to sit down somewhere and put my face in my hands and give in to the terrible frightened feeling I had; but I didn't. I have all kinds of strange thoughts and feelings of that sort, and I guess I never talked to anyone about them, except perhaps a little to Granny, because I didn't really believe that anyone in the world ever had just the same kind of thoughts.
When I drew the water from the well, I said the spell to take the curse off water, "Holy ghost and holy hell, get thee out of the mossy well." My father once heard me say that spell, and he took me into the barn and gave me seven with the birch rod. He hated spells and said they were worse than an instrument of the devil; they were an instrument of ignorance. And I was foolish enough to answer back that if he was so sure about all kinds of superstition, why did he birch me seven times, not eight or six? That was the way it was in the whole town. When you got the rod taken to you, you got it seven times.
I should have known enough to keep my mouth shut, because he replied that he was gratified to be enlightened and laid onto me ten times more, and then wanted to know whether I deemed seventeen to be a superstitious number?
So now I said the spell quietly, just moving my lips; a spell has no meaning if you only think it to yourself and never voice it. But quiet or not, my brother Levi, who is eleven years old, has cat's eyes. He popped up and demanded a drink from the bucket.
"Draw your own water," I told him.
"Don't be high and mighty. I seen you saying the spell. How would you like for me to tell Father that I seen you saying the spell?"
"You're a little bastard," I told him.
"Sure, and what did you just call your mother?"
"All right. Take your drink and leave me be. Why don't you stay out of my sight. I'd be happy to God if only you'd stay out of my sight."
I took a drink too. The water is always best, cold and crackling, when you first draw it.
When I came into the house, Mother was frying donkers, and the kitchen was full of the smell. You save a week's meat leftovers to make donkers, and then it's chopped together with bread and apples and raisins and savory spices, and fried and served up with boiled pudding. I don't know of anything better. When my mother saw me come in with the yoke, she took the water off and smiled her gratitude.
"You're a good boy, Adam," she said.
I didn't tell her that it wasn't my idea. I needed for someone to think something good about me, and I didn't want to disturb her thinking. When I ate some of the raw meatstuff, she slapped my hand. When I sat down, she said:
"Are you going to stay here and fill my head with your nonsense?"
"What nonsense? I haven't said a word."
"That's just it, Adam. You sit there with that look in your eyes, and just as plain as daylight I can see what kind of silly dream you're contemplating. When I was your age, if a boy had an hour between the chores and mealtime, he spent it with profit reading the Holy Writ. Granny told me how your father—just about your age it was—set himself a disciplined period to memorize three verses of Lamentations every evening."
"And he did."
"Well, good heavens, what on earth did he want to memorize the verses of Lamentations every evening for?"
"To profit himself. And let me tell you this, Adam," she said. "I don't hold with the narrow views of some, but it seems to me that an expression like good heavens is precious close to swearing. It seems to me that the King's English is abundant enough to express every necessary shade of feeling and impatience without resorting to words that have sincere meaning when used properly. Have you been fighting with your brother again?"
"Now what gave you that idea?" I didn't wait for her to tell me, but got up and began to stalk out the way I had come. She had to know where I was going.
"Just to find Granny."
I went upstairs, and Granny was in her room making thread. When I entered, she blinked at me and said, "I see less and less. Old age is pity enough, but when the eyesight goes, the good Lord is laying a heavy burden on my poor shoulders."
"Well, Granny," I replied, "I don't think your eyesight is going. It's just getting dark in here because the twilight has come down."
"Is that so, Adam?"
"Well, then, I've spun sufficiently," she declared. "Sit down, Adam. Do you want some sweets?"
I sat down on her old milking stool, which she had decorated with paint and turned into one of the prettiest things in the house, and reminded her that there was a widely held opinion to the effect that sweets before mealtime spoil an appetite.
"Oh?" she said. "I'm sure we'd all be rich if I could devise something to spoil your appetite, Adam." Then she went to the cupboard and got out the cotton kerchief that she always wrapped the maple sugar in, and she broke off a piece for each of us. I ate it slowly and appreciatively, and asked her whether it was true about my father and Lamentations.
"Well, what for? I mean, what was his purpose?"
"To profit himself."
"That's what Mother said, but I'll be damned if I can see the profit in it."
"You will be damned, Adam, if you go on with such talk." I shrugged. "And don't act as if you don't care."
"I think we keep saying things that we don't really mean at all, Granny."
"Do we? And what sort of things, Adam?"
"Like being damned. Do you believe in God, Granny?"
"What a question!" She snorted with great indignation. "In all my born days, Adam Cooper, I have never seen a boy like yourself for asking questions!"
"Well, do you?"
"Of course I do."
"Well, I don't know—"
"Adam Cooper, you are not going to start in again with all that silly nonsense of yours, are you?"
"Just one thing—just answer me one thing, Granny, that's all I'm asking. I just want you to answer me one thing. Why is it that they're always taking it out on me for whatever I say, like there's nothing in the world I can do right and everything I do is all wrong?"
"My goodness, the things you say, Adam!"
"Well, look at it this way, Granny. You believe in God, don't you?"
"Enough of that."
"If you believe in God, then God gave a person brains, didn't he?"
"But just as soon as you begin to use the brains God gave you, you're being sinful."
"That's just the sort of foolish thing you say, Adam, that's so provoking."
"Well, just take Isaiah Peterkin, for example."
"Oh, no," she said, her eyes narrowing, "I am not going to be trapped into that Isaiah Peterkin thing. It just happens that I was gathering blueberries the other day, and there you were down in the gully with Ruth Simmons, instructing her about Isaiah Peterkin, and I overheard enough—"
"Did you see us, Granny?"
"I didn't have to see you. As if I wouldn't know that Cooper voice of yours anywhere!"
I sighed with relief, and told her that even if I had gone into it a little with Ruth Simmons, that didn't make it any less a fact.
"It just seems to me, Adam," Granny said, "that shaking a body loose from her faith is about the most sinful thing you could do."
"Granny, I wasn't shaking anybody loose from anybody's faith. I'd like you to tell me how old Isaiah can be as mean and wicked and two-faced as he is, and be a deacon in the church and be looked up to as a real fine God-fearing man. I mean, he can get away with anything, just so long as he says the right words about religion."
"It's not for you to judge Isaiah Peterkin."
"I wasn't judging him," I protested. "Everyone knows how rich and mean he is. So how could I be judging him? Anyway, in Boston when we were there a fortnight past, there was a man talking right on the Common, and he said that the highest good was to doubt. Just like that, in those very words."
"I never heard such nonsense. If he said that, he was nobody worth quoting."
"He was a Committeeman, Granny."
"I don't believe a word of it"
"Cross my heart, Granny."
"Don't you dare cross your heart to me," she snapped, "just like you was Roman or some other heathen sect, and don't think that because I'm old and rheumatic and grateful for foolish company that you can say anything you please in front of me. You can't cozen me with a pretense at stupidity, not in one thousand years. You're a spiteful boy, and that's why your father loses patience with you."
"He doesn't lose patience, Granny. He doesn't have any patience to begin with."
"And this was a Committeeman," I said.
"So. Well, just tell me this—was he a Sam Adams Committeeman?"
I admitted that he was most likely a Sam Adams Committeeman, and she shrugged her shoulders and said there wasn't anything else a body could expect, seeing that Sam Adams was an atheist and so were all of his cronies. Granny had a good mind, and I guess that was one of the reasons why I enjoyed provoking her. The other reason was that she would stand for being provoked, and practically no one else would. "Now if he had said, Adam," she went on, "that one of the paths to good was a certain amount of doubt and common sense, there might be some reason to his thoughts. Then he would have been sensible. But doubt is a negative thing and good is a positive thing, and anyone who says that both are the same thing is simply a fool, and there you are."
"That's it exactly, Granny. When you disagree with someone, you straight out and call them a fool. But when I disagree, I get my ears pinned back."
"I'm older than you, Adam, by a year or two."
"You said yourself that age doesn't teach most folks a blessed thing."
"Don't tell me what I said. If you propose to remain as narrow and opinionated as you are now all the years of your life—well, that's your choice. Most folks are one thing. I should hope that my grandson would be something else."
At that moment, Mother called from below that supper was ready, and I gave Granny my arm and helped her down the stairs. Her rheumatism was getting worse and worse. As we went down the staircase, myself a little in front of her because the staircase was so narrow, she said to me:
"Don't ever talk most to me, Adam. Most folks are not Coopers, and most folks do not live in this village or in this county either. Most folks are not dissenters, and most folks would just as soon find a chain to put around their necks, considering one wasn't there already. Coopers have been teachers and pastors and free yeomen farmers and ship captains and merchants for a hundred and fifty years on this soil, and I don't recall one of them who couldn't write a sermon and deliver it too, if the need ever arose."
"Well, maybe you're leaning on the first one, Granny," I said.
On weekdays, we ate our meals in the kitchen. On the Sabbath, we ate dinner in the dining room, and Mother set the table with china and silver. We weren't rich, but Granny's mother had been rich enough for china and silver. On weekdays, we ate with plainware.
Although there were only five of us in the immediate family, our table was always set with places for six, Mother at one end, Father at the other, Granny facing the two boys. The empty chair was next to Granny. My father claimed that the empty chair was, as he put it, a manifesto of hospitality, an invitation to anyone who crossed our threshold at mealtime; and I must admit that many a guest sat there, knowing that the welcome was ready at the Coopers', the food good and the cooking beyond compare. But my father's real purpose was an audience, and if possible an argument. There wasn't anyone in his own family whom he considered really worth arguing with, and as far as plain discourse was concerned, although we were a disciplined and trained audience, he could never be wholly sure that we were listening, and if listening, comprehending.
My own opinion was that Granny could win hands down in any argument, but she would not argue with her son in front of his own children. She also felt that one of her sex tended to be unladylike and pushy when she ventured on the finer points of the divine, ordinary, and inherent rights of man—which was mainly the subject.
Tonight, however, we had no guest at the beginning of the meal, and the five of us sat down and four of us bent our heads while Father said grace. He didn't hold with bending his head, at grace or any other time, and when Granny once raised this point with him, he replied that one of the many differences between ourselves and Papists and High Church people—who were a shade worse than Papists—was that whereas the latter two sects cringed and groveled before the clay and plaster images they worshiped, we stood face to face with our God, as befitting what He had created in His own image. Granny said that there was possibly some difference between cringing and groveling and a polite bending of the head from the neck, but Father wasn't moved. The difference was quantitative not qualitative, and therefore only a matter of degree. To him it was a principle. In two minutes, my father could lead any argument or discussion around to being a principle.
So he said grace glaring across the table at the imaginary point where he placed God, and I always felt that God had the worst of it. My father couldn't just begin a meal with something direct and ordinary, like "Thank Thee, O Lord, for Thy daily bread and the fruit of the harvest." Oh, no—no, he had to embellish it. If there was no guest at the meal, God was always present, and tonight my father said sternly:
"We thank thee, O Lord, for the bread we eat, but we are also conscious of seed we have planted, of the hands that guided the plow and the back bent in toil. The ground is dry as dust, and I will take the liberty of asking for a little rain. I know that Thou givest with one hand and Thou takest away with the other, but sometimes it seems to me to go beyond the bounds of reason. Amen!"
Then he turned to his soup. Granny lifted her head and stared at him, and finally said, "Moses?"
She sighed, and we all began to eat.
"Nothing," Granny said. "Nothing at all."
"Whatever is on your mind, Mother, I would appreciate your coming out with it and saying it."
"Eat your soup, Moses," she sighed.
He was inordinately fond of soup, and during the soup he left conversation to the women and children. I did not have much to say to Levi, being occupied with my own thoughts, some of them about Ruth Simmons and also some thoughts about going to sea. If you had respectable kin in Boston, it was generally understood that one of the younger sons would go to sea and learn the trade, since there was no better way to end up with a fine house and a wife in silks and laces, and good, imported furniture as well as some standing in the community. I was not a younger son, but one day in Boston, Captain Ishmael Jamison, my uncle on my mother's side, had felt my muscles, asked me a number of questions, and finished by wondering how I would like to sign on with him as bottom junior on a voyage to the Indies. I was remembering this, contemplating it, and speculating on whether there weren't more interesting girls in the world than Ruth Simmons, whom I had seen at least every day of my life. I also kept in back of my mind a picture of my father's rage if I came out with so much as a hint about going to sea.
Excerpted from April Morning by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1961 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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