The summer of 1931 was a season of dying trees. Had we talked to any of the farmers who lived nearby, we would've understood that his blight wasn't a curse or an omen, simply the habit of a beetle and the fungus it carried. But in the particular stand of woods where we lived there was no talk of Dutch elm disease, nor any of the other plagues that preyed on bark and leaves. Instead, we took the dying trees as a personal insult, an emblem of our lives: the house in Cleveland deserted, Father out of work, and Mother going blind. The trees became a permanent feature of our landscape; stark, implacable teachers instructing us in broken dreams, admonishing us, despite the promise of better times, that most of what we hoped for in life was impossible, that to believe otherwise was impractical, even dangerous. Most things that die wither away or we put them underground, but trees stay standing, rows of barren trunks that creak and moan until the onslaught of rain and snow finally brings them down. Trees return slowly to the earth, and so the stubborn shadows of their dissolution darkened our childhood games.
Everyone we knew told us not to climb in dying trees, but Phil went up anyway, ignoring the brittle limbs, cursing when a tree refused to hold his weight. Defiance was his will. When Miss Dossin told him to stay in out of the rain at recess, he went out without his slicker. When Mother complained that too much reading was clouding her eyesight, he gathered all her books and burned them. When we lived in Cleveland, he raised rabbits, and when a rabbit got sick and died, he kept the carcass in our room until Father forced him to bury it. In those days mybrother broke rules and crossed boundaries. He gave no ground. He pushed against everything, even death.
We heard the story over and over again, first from Lethea, the midwife, and then from my mother, until every detail became part of the family history.
Lethea said that my brother and his twin sister were conceived under a full moon. "Men spring from the sun," she said, "and women from the earth. But the gift of twins, when twins are man and woman, comes from the moon, because the moon partakes of both the sun and the earth." My mother couldn't remember if she conceived her first two children beneath a full moon, but she said that Lethea possessed a time-tested wisdom, and that we'd do well to listen to anything she had to say.
What my mother remembered was that the month of June in 1915 was unseasonably hot; scant afternoon showers provided nothing more than an evening steam bath, and her twin-filled belly felt overripe, ready to burst. "Twins mean good luck," said Lethea. "Twice the light for a dark world." But my mother knew that something was wrong. The days of kicking and turning had just begun when, in a rare moment of peace, she felt something inside her drop like a stone. Her heart had fluttered and she experienced a sudden shortness of breath. Nothing more had occurred, but when the labor pains began, she felt it again, something hard turning inside her.
Lethea arrived at dusk. The contractions came at regular intervals but the twins were stubborn. "Unwilling," said Lethea. "Ornery and unwilling." She put a thin piece of wood between my mother's teeth, but took it away when it cracked and splintered, drawing blood.
Lethea talked and prayed and rubbed my mother's legs and feet. My mother screamed and wept and pushed. And then my brother dropped his head and shoulders into Lethea's waiting hands, and when Lethea cut him free, he wailed to tell the world of something he had seen.
And then came my sister with less struggle, smaller, the umbilical cord around her neck. Lethea covered the child with a towel, but my mother felt the truth, she felt it when the stone dropped inside her, and now she felt its hardness pass from her body. "Philip was born of tragedy," Mother said. "At the moment of his awakening, he lost his second self."
I was born eighteen months later, without struggle or tragedy, on a winter night noteworthy only for its calm. I was the second surviving child of what would soon be four children. My sister Margie followed me, and then Myron.
We lived in a rented house on a street named Joy, and my first memories go back to the room I shared with Phil and his pets. He kept turtles, frogs, fish, butterflies, grasshoppers, mice, and rabbits. I liked the rabbits because they were fast and mischievous, jumping off the twin beds and hiding behind the closet door.
Phil looked after his rabbits like a missionary after his flock; he tended the sick, cleaned cages, and provided fresh food with an evangelical fervor.
Some of the rabbits were sold as house pets to families uptown. Others ran away or we gave them away. In winter most of the rabbits stayed in the attic, but during hot summer months they moved under the back porch where the ground was cool and the latticework kept them safe.
Being younger, I failed to understand the full measure of Phil's devotion. My mind couldn't grasp the fierceness of his loyalty. I didn't even know that it was blood when Phil ran crying into the house, hands and face smeared, shirt and trousers stained. I thought it was berry juice. Or maybe the red across his forehead was rage. That would explain his tearing into Father's closet and taking the rifle that we were told never to touch.
I followed him outside and we crawled under the back porch. It was mossy and dark, but I could see the broken lattice and a pile of bloody fur, and then another, larger this time, and then more piles, some with something half-chewed still moving. Phil crawled from pile to pile, cursing loud enough for the neighbors to hear, laying his hand on whatever remained until he was certain that it was dead. He would not let me help him. He would not let me touch anything living or dead. When we came back into the sunlight, we didn't speak. Phil sat down next to the broken lattice, the rifle on his lap.
When Mother and Father came home, I told them what had happened.
Father went out the back door with a resolute expression on his face, but he came back into the house without his rifle. Phil refused his dinner that night. He refused to sleep. He stayed out all night waiting for whatever it was that had done the killing. He waited three nights, but it never came back.
"It killed 'em for fun," he said.
Then he sold the cages, burned five or six bags of wood shavings, and handed Mother the eyedropper and water bottles. By October, he gave away or set free every creature in our bedroom. I pleaded for the frogs and whined about the turtles for almost a week. "Forget it," said Phil. "And don't ask me again."
The winter months were slow with only people in the house, and Mother noticed the change. "It feels empty," she said. "Less trouble, I suppose, but empty."
My mother was an expert seamstress commissioned by uptown families to hem curtains or embroider tablecloths. That winter, though, the demand for her skills dwindled until in February her one order was a christening blanket for a neighbor down the street. In that same month my father brought home less money. "Customers won't come out," he said. "Streets are bad. All the ruts are frozen."
We hoped that spring would bring opportunities for work, and when the snow finally melted, Phil and I made the usual rounds, looking to rake winter-killed grass from the big lawns, but we found no employers. And then the unimaginable happened. Fred's Radio & Repair, the shop where my father worked, shut its doors. Father made the announcement at dinner. Even Phil, the least naïve among us, was caught off guard. "But you told us," said Phil, "that everyone needs the shop and always will."
Father made no reply. He looked at Mother, and then at the floor. Fred's Radio & Repair was the cornerstone of our world; its collapse suggested that the strongest foundations were vulnerable.
What followed was the first of several visits from the man my father referred to only as the landlord. Mother sold everything of value, including the silver candlesticks that came as a wedding gift from Grandmother. She sold our console radio. My father refused to leave the house for several days; he moved silently from room to room, his face pale and helpless, as if he were a condemned man.
Then, after a blur of packing and hasty farewells, Cleveland became the place my family hailed from, a memory of better days that we cherished and embellished over time.
We moved into a large tent on a half-acre lot that Father bought for twenty-five dollars. The lot was seventeen miles from Cleveland in a place called Mayfield. We had to clear trees and build an outhouse, live without electricity and running water, but the property bordered a meadow, and it sat on the high side of the Chagrin River.
Mayfield was the first great adventure of my life, exploring the woods with Phil, running barefoot across the meadow that dropped down to the river. On the border between the meadow and woods stood a line of scruffy bushes heavy with giant blackberries. Our fingers turned dark red, then purple, picking the sticky fruit. The abundance was overwhelming. We ate while we picked, until stomach cramps made us stop.
Phil and I would stay well away from the tent, keeping it out of sight, returning only when wind drove the rain in our faces or when mosquitoes rose up from the river at dusk. I didn't think about Mother and Father, their struggles or fears. I left them alone to take care of Margie and Myron.
I gave them time to plan the family's return to Cleveland. My mind, filled with the mystery and wonder of the woods, didn't anticipate the coming seasons, the shorter days, and the inescapable dangers of living without money. Phil knew something about these things, and depending on his mood, he sheltered me or taught me, tried to explain that the world was both arbitrary and just, a contradiction that to his mind made perfect sense.
We made up all sorts of outdoor games, and our unrivaled favorite was the weekly ambush of the bakery wagon. We sat next to the dirt road and listened for the first echoes of the trotting horse. "Jesus, if we only had a nickel," said Phil.
"You say that every time."
His eyebrows came together.
We crouched in the tall grass as the horse and driver rolled by, and then we bolted into the road, running behind the wagon to get the delicious smells. The air danced and swirled, wrapping us in eddies of fresh bread, butter, cinnamon, raisins, and doughnuts. The smells were stronger, even sweeter, as we got closer to the wagon. I imagined myself a bandit then, plundering the wagon's payload of ruby red jelly and golden cakes. Phil and I ran until we were out of breath.
"Next week," I said. "Let's bring Myron."
"He's not fast enough," said Phil.
"I could pull 'im."
"You'd bite the dust. You'd break your arm and he'd break a tooth. Then I'd be stuck carrying both of you back to the tent."
"You always spoil stuff."
"I do not."
"You do! You always spoil my fun. You never do anything I wanna do."
"That's not true," said Phil, cracking his knuckles. "We went swimming yesterday."
"It doesn't matter. Most of the time we do what you want."
"That's because I'm older."
"Yeah, I know, I know. Older and smarter."
"You're not stupid," said Phil. "It's just that some of your ideas are stupid."
"Because half the time you miss what's right in front of your face."
"I see plenty."
"You see those trees?"
Phil pointed. "That stretch we walked through to get here."
"What about 'em?"
"They're all dying. Some of 'em are dead."
"They are not."
"For Christ's sake. Look! Can't you see the green turning yellow? Some of 'em are standing without half their leaves! Who ever heard of leaves going yellow -- or leaves falling by the bushel -- this time of year?"
"Maybe those cold nights we had -- "
"It hasn't been that cold."
"Well, maybe they're just old."
"Some of those trees aren't much taller than you or me. I say there's something after them. And whatever it is doesn't make a sound. It's not like at night when you wake up and hear things -- like a ticking or a rustling, sometimes a snarl. Something quiet is after those trees."
When we were kids, my brother talked to me, the edge in his voice already sharp, and he frequently described a world that I did not want to accept. At the same time, his ability to see what others overlooked bound me to him. It gave him a strange power over the people he loved, and it gave me the wisdom to know that any story involving me was really my brother's story.
Phil was the first to see those dying trees, and the truth of their dying loomed larger the longer my family lived on that half-acre lot. He was the first to see that Father was an affable fool, that we would be lucky to escape the army surplus tent that Mother called our temporary home. And he was the first to see that Mother was going blind.
My mother cast a spell over men and boys. At church socials in Cleveland her dance card was the first one filled, and I remember her laughter, her blushing face, and the lush folds of her skirt swirling as she danced with Father, his friends, and sometimes Phil or me. Her body was lean and muscular, almost masculine, but still voluptuous in its movements and generosity. Every action conveyed confidence, what my father called good, old-fashioned, Midwestern self-reliance. There was a purity about her, a promise that her body and soul were safe haven, a place of healing, a sanctuary where sons and lovers could drop their defenses and perhaps show themselves to be something more than men. Maybe it was the long hair that she wore well past middle age. Maybe it was the way she turned her head, the way she curved her slim hand toward her breast or drew her legs up, sitting by the fire, and let her bronze hair stream about her knees. Maybe it was the grief of the girl in her eyes. Men loved her with a poetic passion; she stirred a tenderness in them that living forced them to forget.
Phil was my mother's first child, and he laid claim to the largest part of her heart. Not even Margie, with her piercing blue eyes and a limitless capacity for unqualified love, could displace my brother's privilege. I thought for a long time that my stillborn sister formed the bond between Phil and my mother; but I began to see that of all the children, Phil was the least like my father, and this was the wellspring of my mother's affection.
She adored Phil's stubbornness and determination, and so she held him closer, doted on him, tried to temper his strength with a love for kindness and beauty.
My mother adored flowers, pressing roses and lilies and fleabane and sow thistle between sheets of soft ivory paper. She sewed the sheets together, using thick cardboard for covers, and when we packed the house in Cleveland, she gave the book to Phil.
"Why'd she give it to you?" asked Margie.
"She can't see the flowers anymore," said Phil.
"Sure she can," I said.
"She told me," said Phil, "that the littlest ones go fuzzy around the edges."
"Will you let me look at the book sometimes?" asked Margie.
"Sure," said Phil.
And he did. Anytime Margie wanted to see the book Phil sat down with her and turned the heavy pages, trying to name the different flowers that Mother knew so well. We all found wildflowers when we lived in the woods, and we gave them to Phil and he sorted and pressed them. One afternoon Mother tried to see what we had found, squinting through her thick glasses, until Phil closed the book in frustration.
"Don't you dare think of it," she said then, her face sharp with disapproval. Phil handed me the book, and my mother's words took me back to a day in Cleveland, a day with the first smell of autumn in the air, a day filled with waiting for my mother, waiting for the news she would bring from the doctor who forced bright beams of light into her brown eyes, who made her read a strange and shrinking alphabet on distant charts. She came home at dusk saying that the doctor discovered what was wrong. "It's eye strain," she lied. "Your mother is just tired. The doctor says that if I do less reading it'll probably clear up."
Phil took her at her word and ran through the house picking up her books and magazines. Her reading material amounted to a large box of old novels, copies of The Saturday Evening Post, and a few yellowed newspapers, and when Phil came running down the steps, he tripped, tumbling in a waterfall of white pages to the foot of the stairs.
Father slammed the refrigerator. "What in God's name is that boy up to?"
"Philip," said Mother. "Come here this instant."
Phil picked himself up and collected the contents of the box.
"Philip, those are my things. Put them back where you found them."
Phil kicked open the front door. Mother jumped to her feet and followed him outside. We were all outside by the time Phil dumped the books at the curb.
"I'm telling you, Jessie," Father said, "that boy's a hellion."
"Pick up those books right now," said Mother.
Instead, Phil took a small bottle from his pocket and poured its liquid on the books. Mother, seeing the match, tried to grab his arm, but it was too late. She pulled him back from the burst of flames.
Father took off his belt. "I'll teach you to burn your mother's property." But Mother held him off, protecting Phil with her body.
"Jessie, you're spoiling the boy," yelled Father, waiting for her to step aside.
"It's his way."
"I know. He shows no respect."
"He's trying to help."
"You call this help? Pretty soon the whole damn neighborhood'll be out here. It's crazy -- "
"It's not! It's what the doctor said."
Father stopped short, lowering the hand that held his belt. Margie started crying and buried her face in my mother's blouse. Phil never said a word. He just stood there watching the pages curl and float upward, the red sparks rising into darkness.
The burning of my mother's library turned out to be a practical matter, since the recovery period for eye strain went on longer than anyone imagined, and because the tent provided no space or protection for books. But the tent's limitations seemed a small matter once my mother worked her magic.
The children's bedroom consisted of four cots separated from the main living area by Grandmother's sideboard and china cabinet. The long sofa, Grandmother's cedar trunk, and the kitchen table and chairs crowded the middle of the tent, and toward the rear was the wood-burning stove that provided heat and cooked our meals. Mother and Father's narrow room was on the other side of Grandmother's armoire and a rickety chest of drawers, where Father put two cots close together.
On hot days the air in the tent was heavy and our clothes and skin began to smell like damp canvas. But even in summer the nights were often cold and wet, the dew making the tent sag, and we were thankful for the dry heat of the wood stove. During rainy days we watched for seam leaks, setting out pots and pans. We tried to ignore the maddening howl of wind, and we prayed that stakes and ropes would keep the roof in place. If we needed anything during stretches of bad weather it was privacy. I felt on those endless days of confinement the first stirrings of resentment.
I longed to escape the watchful gaze of Mother and Father, to rebel against the petty tyrannies of my brothers and sister.
Time dragged under the steady drone of rain. Father slept most of the time, while the rest of us shivered in our blankets, talking when we could think of something to say, feeling uneasy and cramped. Boredom was a subtle taskmaster, weighing us down, making us restless, instructing us in the cruelties of impatience. When Myron hit Margie, or Phil and I started fighting, Mother would always intervene, scolding us for our failure, our lack of imagination. Then she would distract us by telling a story or singing a song. On days when she felt tired, she would pull out the Sears Roebuck catalog, the only book that survived Phil's rampage, and we entertained ourselves for hours, reading about electric trains and bicycles, making lists of all the items we would buy. At the top of Phil's list were a bowie knife and a pair of high-top boots. I wanted a black cowboy hat and a pair of chaps. We read our lists to Mother, and she folded them carefully and put them in Grandmother's cedar trunk, saying "Maybe someday, when we're rich."
When the sun returned it brought freedom, and life everywhere began again. Wagons lumbered down the muddy road, delivering ice and baked goods to the big farms. Trucks carried eggs and milk to the markets in Cleveland. We heard tractors and harvesters rumbling early in the morning, buzz saws downing trees, and the voices of men barking orders, shouting over the machinery.
About two miles down the road and masked by a row of evergreen trees was an abandoned construction site. A developer before the crash had dreamt of building an entire suburb between the farms, but he gave up after he dug four holes and poured the basement floors and walls. Rain and runoff collected in these deep, concrete bowls, sometimes as much as two or three feet, forming shallow pools that in the landscape of our games became oceans, lakes, ponds, and moats. It would've been a desolate place if not for a band of noisy ducks that, winding their way up from the river, made for themselves a giant birdbath. Margie loved the ducks, and Phil and I held Margie's hands as we walked on the narrow tops of the basement walls, following a mother and her young, throwing a few crusts of bread into the water. Then Margie thought Myron should see the ducks, so it became a routine that after heavy rain the four of us would hike down the road to watch the birds bathing and splashing. Margie played mother to Myron, holding his hand and explaining the situation. "The ducks waddle up from the river," she said, "because they like a change of scenery."
"Ma-Ma-Margie," said Myron. "I want a du -- a du -- " Myron closed his eyes. "A duck."
"We can't take a little one away from its mother," said Margie.
"But she won't m-m-miss just one."
"Do you think Mother would miss you?"
"Well what makes you think it's any different for a duck?"
Margie turned and lunged toward Myron, pretending to push him off the wall and into the water.
"What are you doing?" screamed Myron.
"I'm scaring you. You're stuttering too much. You need to concentrate more."
"L-L-Leave -- "
"See," said Margie. "Now relax."
"L-L-Leave me alone," said Myron.
We knew that Myron stopped stuttering when he was surprised or scared, so we often sneaked up on him or exploded paper bags behind his back. We thought the right jolt at the right moment would cure his stuttering forever.
"Cut it out you two," said Phil. "Or we'll go back. And remember, don't tell Mom and Dad we came here."
Keeping a secret was a challenge for Margie and Myron, but they never let on about our trips to the construction site. We knew that Mother would make us promise to keep off the narrow walls, to stay away from the concrete pits whether they were empty or filled with water. She knew about the well at Carson's Bend and made it off-limits even before we pitched the tent. So the aborted suburb became our secret place; we understood its dangers and wanted to explore its recesses with impunity. There were other dangers and secrets in the woods, and we knew that looking out for each other was our only salvation. We never went as far as the Mayfield landfill; its stench was a warning that turned us away. We imagined bizarre diseases. We imagined insanity. And there was the driedup well at Carson's Bend where years ago a farmer filling his bucket brought up an eyeball from the bloated corpse of a boy. Phil and I stopped once at the well, a circle of stone covered with thick planks, and I pictured something dark living at the bottom of the cold, waterless shaft. But more than anything else we were afraid of an old man who lived in a black shack on the other side of the river. We called him Wormwood. We heard the word first from Grandmother when she talked about the high-priced caskets that undertakers waiting for her to die wanted to sell her. "We all end up in wormwood," she said. The old man, who was our closest neighbor, walked with a stiff back and always wore a black hat, a long, black coat, and the look of a criminal caught unexpectedly in the act of a grave sin.
"Look at that wormy face," said Phil. "Old Wormwood is up to no good." I took Phil's lead. "He must eat nails for supper," I said.
The dog days ran toward September, and we became children of the outdoors, moving half-naked through the woods. On the hottest days we swam in the Chagrin, and on one of those days old Wormwood came down to the river's edge and watched us for a long time. He finally took off his shoes and socks and, sitting on a long, flat stone, put his feet in the water.
I swam toward Phil. "Let's get upstream."
"This is the best spot," said Margie.
"We'll swallow toejam if we stay here," I said.
"You're sick," said Margie. She turned toward Wormwood. "Do you really think he kidnaps little kids and cuts off their heads and keeps them in his cabin?"
"How little?" asked Myron.
"I told you before," said Phil. "He doesn't keep any heads."
"I won't use that rock after he's been there," I said.
"Maybe he's p-p-planning to c-c-come in after us."
"He can't swim," said Phil.
"That's a good thing," I said. "He'd turn the river black if he got in all the way."
"Do you think he ever takes a bath?" asked Margie.
"Once a year," I said.
We laughed, and Phil dunked Myron from behind.
Long, dark weeds like tentacles wrapped around Margie's arm and waist. "Look out," I said. "Old Wormwood's got you!" Margie screamed and whirled in the water to escape the weeds. "You see," I said. "If Wormwood keeps his feet in much longer, we'll choke."
"He's weird," said Margie.
"He wants something," said Phil.
And as the words left Phil's mouth I saw what it was. Margie stood thigh-deep in the cool stream, squeezing water from her long hair, and the soaked T-shirt tied just beneath her breasts did nothing to conceal her hard nipples. For the first time I saw Margie's breasts, large breasts for a girl who was just thirteen, and the sudden revelation of her womanhood was not wasted on Wormwood. He knelt on the rock, transfixed by the vision of my sister rising out of the water. His body was rigid, too rigid, the posture of a supplicant, and so when his lips began to move I knew that prayer and not the mutterings of a madman rose up from him like poetry. I thought I heard him asking for God's help, praying for divine intervention, begging God for just a glimpse of Margie drying herself, peeling the wet shorts and T-shirt from her body. I knew what Wormwood wanted. I looked at Phil and he too was staring at Wormwood, seeing the desire in Wormwood's face.
"Margie, come 'ere," yelled Phil.
Margie dove toward us.
"He's looking -- " I said.
"I know," said Phil, cutting me off.
Margie surfaced with a mouthful of water and shot it in Phil's face. "Do you need me to save you from drowning?"
"Let's get Myron and head back," said Phil.
"Already? Let's wait for Wormwood to leave. Then we can sit on the rock for a while."
"No. I don't think so."
"Don't ask me why, Margie," said Phil. "Let's just go."
"Yeah. There's not much sun today," I said.
"What do you mean?" asked Margie.
"Too many clouds."
Margie looked at the sky. "You're both crazy. I'm going to wait until Wormwood leaves."
Phil and I stayed near Margie, and I watched Wormwood's eyes follow her through the water, and I guessed that on days when we used the rock for sunning ourselves that he had been somewhere nearby.
I used my body to block Wormwood's view, and once he tried to look around me, craning his neck and leaning over so far that he almost fell in the water. Margie finally got tired of waiting, and the four of us climbed the bank on our side of the river.
"At least he stays over there," said Phil. We waited for Margie to finish dressing.
I knew no one we could tell, not Father or Mother, and certainly not Margie. We had no words to explain the thing that lived in Wormwood's gaze. But as the dog days drew sweat, and Margie's skin turned a glowing bronze, Phil and I watched for Wormwood at the river and in the woods, beneath stones and in the shadows of giant trees, at all the edges of our world.
September broke the heat and my dream of an endless summer. We enrolled at Mayfield School, despite the fact that we had no mailing address or telephone, and the Registrar, who was Todd Lincoln's mother, said, "This is all highly irregular." She said it more than once, and she shook her head while my mother assured her that our current situation was temporary.
We didn't see Todd Lincoln's mother very often after that. She came to school two or three times in a semester to help Miss Dossin with official paperwork. But Todd, of course, was in school from the first day, and he ran around the schoolyard pointing at us and saying our names, telling everyone that we were the new kids who lived in the tent. Some of the kids asked us what it was like, and in their voices was a sense of wonder. We were, after all, living the kind of outdoor adventure that their parents would never allow. But most of the kids looked at us like we were from another country, or they laughed and felt superior, luxuriating in the knowledge that we were worse off than they.
"Where do you get your water?" asked Todd.
"From a well on Mr. Johnson's property," said Margie. "He said we could use it for as long as we need to."
"You drink the water out of Johnson's old well?"
"We boil it first."
"What if someone went and pissed in that well."
"C'mon, Margie, " I said. "I guess Todd goes around pissing in wells."
Todd looked at Margie. "Where do you go to the bathroom?"
"In your shoe," I said.
"I'm telling Miss Dossin you said that," said Todd.
"Go ahead," said Phil, materializing out of the air, twisting Todd's arm, whispering in his ear. "If you do, I'll hurt you." Phil let his breath settle in Todd's ear, and then he let him go. Todd ran to the company of his friends and pretended that nothing had happened. He tried not to look at Phil. Power in the schoolyard shifted on a daily basis, but the indefatigable master of the schoolhouse was Miss Dossin, teaching all of her students, grades three through twelve, in one room. She was kind and beautiful, stern and demanding.
"Mr. Lincoln, take off your cap."
"My mother lets me wear my cap in the house, Miss Dossin."
"Your mother runs your house. I run this classroom. I will not ask you again."
I believe that Phil's considerable affection for Miss Dossin began at the moment Todd Lincoln took off his cap and slumped in his chair. Miss Dossin often demonstrated the expediency of being painfully direct, but she also exercised the art of discretion. She knew that my family lived in a tent, but she never said anything about it. She showed her concern for us by never asking for a mailing address or telephone number. She understood that the four of us had to stick together. She encouraged us to share each other's triumphs and failures, and she allowed us to shield each other against the teasing and practical jokes of our classmates.
On the third day of school, Miss Dossin called on Myron and asked him to read aloud. Myron shrank behind Felda Lane.
"Let's look alive, Mr. Tollman. Pick up your book and read the first paragraph of chapter one."
Margie raised her hand. "I'd like to read, Miss Dossin."
"Did I call on you, young lady?"
Margie lowered her eyes and shook her head.
"I thought not. I believe I did call on your brother."
Myron looked at Phil, taking a long time to open the book. Phil cracked his knuckles and everyone around him started giggling.
"Philip Tollman, I'm not impressed by your bone cracking demonstration. If you continue to practice that disgusting habit, your knuckles will grow bigger than boulders. And don't think for a moment that your little diversion will save your brother from reading. Myron, please stand." The situation was hopeless. Myron pulled himself out of his desk and opened the book. "Sir I-I-Isaac New-New-Newton -- " Then laughter buried the rest of the sentence.
"Children! Children!" Miss Dossin regained control. "Myron, do you always stutter?"
"Yes, Miss Daw-Daw-Dossin."
The laughter began again, but Miss Dossin cut it off. "Anyone who thinks that Myron's stutter is funny will deal with me after school." No one laughed at Myron in the presence of Miss Dossin after that. But her authority, inviolable as it was, couldn't protect Myron outside the schoolhouse. His stuttering was a soft spot in the family armor, further evidence of our inferiority. Todd Lincoln led the assault with a barrage of consonants exploding from his lips. He sprayed saliva and tied his tongue in knots for the entertainment of his friends.
"Hey, sh-sh-shit for brains," said Todd, looking to see if Phil was anywhere nearby. "How abow-bow-bout a speech?"
Todd's friends joined the fun. "Speech! Speech! C'mon Moron, give us the Gettysburg Address."
Phil sometimes broke it up; other times it was Margie or me. I know that Myron took more than we knew about.
"Come 'ere Moron," said Felda.
"His name is Myron," said Margie.
"That's what I said."
Margie's face turned red. "You said Moron."
"That's right," said Felda. "I said his name."
All this was bad enough, but then I had to make things worse. I had to give Todd and his friends -- as if they needed convincing -- more proof that the Tollmans were trash.
I woke on the first day of October with cramps and nausea. It felt like the flu, but I knew it was the fish from the night before. Phil and I had each caught one, but mine hardly struggled. It just went limp on the line. I hadn't thought much about it until I woke up with my stomach turning. Mother felt my forehead and face, and since I had no fever, she said I should go to school. I went. I started sweating by mid-morning.
"Your face is green," said Margie.
I looked at my reflection in the glass but could see no color. Miss Dossin asked me twice if I needed to go to the outhouse. I shook my head, trying to control the stomach cramps that came in unexpected waves. I was grateful when Miss Dossin assigned my grade an hour of reading; she came by my desk and rubbed the back of my neck and told me not to read. "Put your head down and rest," she said. I closed my eyes and the rustling and whispering in the room lulled me to sleep.
It was lunchtime soon, and the room filled with the smell of peanut butter, pickles, warm cheese, and milk. Then, without much warning, something warm shot up into my throat and vomit flooded my desk. It ran down the back of Cory Weiner, dripping off my hands in long, sticky strings. After that I heard my name. It was Miss Dossin's voice. She stood above the scene looking at my puke, calling it my name. "Stephen," she said. "Oh, Stephen."
I ran away from the screams and laughter and found the relative safety of the outhouse, leaving Miss Dossin and Phil to clean up the mess. My stomach felt better after I washed my face and cleaned my shirt, but Miss Dossin said that I should leave. Phil told me later that the smell was awful, so bad that Miss Dossin decided to conduct afternoon lessons in the yard.
Turning the schoolhouse into a vomitory changed my position in the established social hierarchy; I fell from town peasant to town fool, assuming the mantle of scapegoat and giving Myron amuch needed reprieve. My classmates made me the sole recipient of their invectives. They called me pukey, puke-head, puke-brain, puke-face, puke-breath, puke-shit, pukeprick, and just plain puke. When I walked into the coatroom, most of the kids held their noses. When I stood in line for the outhouse, the kids closest to me started gagging. I enjoyed a status usually reserved for the elderly or the insane.
I had to take it. I couldn't blame anyone else for what had happened, and some of the kids felt sorry for me and said that it would all be forgotten by Thanksgiving. But Cory Weiner always took the long way around me and never spoke to me again.
After a while I fancied myself a martyr, accepting the role of scapegoat as a service to Myron. But just when I began to fill myself with pride, I noticed my classmates again fixing their sights on Myron.
"Did you teach Moron your little trick?" someone asked.
"Moron's just like his big brother," said Felda.
"He doesn't know whether to stutter or puke first," said Todd.
"Get Moron over here," someone said. "Ask him if he stutters when he pukes."
My days as an object of ridicule were numbered. I was glad for relief, but sorry that my replacement was Myron. "Time," Lethea said, "purifies the most desecrated ground." I held those strange words in my mind while the weeks of October moved forward, changing the landscape with a new season, filling the woods with a firestorm of leaves.
I remember my mother squinting at the maples, not knowing it would be her last autumn of color. Phil and I, Margie and Myron too, rolled in the leaves, red and yellow covering our bodies like tongues of flame. We showered each other with oak leaves, fragile and pale, and with elm leaves, the last children of dying trees. We ran, making a swishing sound as the leaves swirled upward and fluttered.We flung ourselves into piles of leaves, sometimes face down, breathing the smoky dust of tree bark, covering ourselves with October's deep blanket.
Phil picked up leaves of different shapes and sizes and pressed them with the flowers in Mother's book. When he found out that red was Miss Dossin's favorite color, he collected all the different shades of red that he could find and made a bouquet of leaves. Then he stayed after school one day so he could give it to Miss Dossin when no one would see him.
"Did she like it?" I asked.
"You don't see it, do you?"
"You could've ditched it before you got back here." I looked out through the door of the tent; Mom and Dad were nowhere in sight. "What did she say?"
"She said ‘Thank you.' "
"Oh, c'mon. She must've said more than that."
"But you won't tell me."
Phil took a deep breath. "Because things between a man and woman are private."
"Since when are you a man?"
"Since he fell in love," said Margie, coming out from behind Grandmother's china cabinet.
"That's right," Margie exclaimed. "He's in love with Miss Dossin."
"You don't know what you're talking about," said Phil, turning away.
I was old enough to understand the attraction. A figure like Miss Dossin already lived in my waking dreams. I wanted to know what my brother felt.
"I'm gonna tell Mom you have a crush on Miss Dossin," I said.
"I will. I'll tell her unless you tell me and Margie what Miss Dossin said."
"You would, you little puke."
It was the first and only time he used my schoolhouse name. "You won't be Mom's favorite anymore if she knows you're in love with Miss Dossin."
Phil sprang on me and pinned my shoulders to the cot. He raised his open hand and I braced for the blow. Then Margie caught his arm and he froze, looking at her and then at me. I was scared. I wondered why he stopped. But the look on his face told me not to say a word. It was a strange expression, mixing anger and sadness. Phil let go of me and rushed out of the tent.
"Why did you say that about Mom?" asked Margie.
"What about me?" asked Mother, coming into the tent.
"Oh, nothing," said Margie.
I closed my eyes and thought of Miss Dossin, the girls at school, the picture of Aunt Frances in her sleeveless gown, the world of women that seemed suddenly so exotic and remote.
By Halloween my name came back. Having worn me out as a target, Todd again set his sights on Myron, intending to make up for lost time.
Everyone said that Todd saw his chance when Miss Dossin pulled Myron aside and asked him to stay after school. But it started well before that. Todd was no different than most boys. In him was the need, the sharp longing, to corner a living thing and render it helpless. Setting the trap excited him. He enjoyed each step, the design and the execution. I could picture it all as if I'd been there myself.
I imagined the conversations between Todd and his two cronies, imitating Myron's struggle to speak and laughing to hide their own fears, their own inarticulate terror. I constructed the sequence of events: the meeting in Todd's barn to think of something that would mark Myron forever as a moron, an idiot, a fool who found it impossible to make the simplest sounds. I heard their first moans of exhilaration as the plan took shape. The boys relished their exquisite preparations, breaking into the Church of St. Blaise and cutting a thin wire from a high octave of the piano. Then passing the piano wire between themselves, keeping it warm in their pockets, until the day that Miss Dossin asked Myron to stay after school so she could help him form words, form phrases without faltering and falling into frustration. So they waited for him between the schoolhouse and the woods, waited until his lesson was over, until pride rose to his throat because he managed a full sentence without stuttering. They waited until Myron was close to the well at Carson's Bend, and then they forced him to the ground and Todd's friends, big boys with strong Midwestern shoulders, squeezed Myron's jaw until the pain made him open his mouth, and they held his mouth open while Todd tried to grab Myron's tongue, failing at first, the pink tip slipping between his fingers, but then Myron stuck out his tongue, believing Todd's promise that if he did they would let him go, and Todd gently wrapped the wire around the tongue while the other boys made jokes about Myron being tongue-tied for real. Todd wound the wire three times around the tongue and pulled gently, oh so gently, and then Myron gagged and a faint line of blood ran down the wire, and the boys released his jaw and left him to find his way home.
When Myron got to the tent he could barely speak; his tongue was swollen and still bleeding. Mother stuffed gauze in Myron's mouth to soak up the blood, but she couldn't see well enough to clean the wound. Father did the work. "There's only one cut," he said. "On the side of his tongue. And thank God it's not very deep."
Mother and Father went to school the next day and talked to Miss Dossin about Todd Lincoln and his friends. The punishment involved an apology to Myron, a promise to never touch him again, and a two-week suspension.
Phil did nothing for a long time. He waited until Myron's tongue was better. He waited until Todd and his friends felt that all was forgotten, until they felt safe. And when he was certain that the boys expected no recrimination, he clipped my father's hunting knife to his belt and walked through the twilight to Todd's barn, with me close behind.
We surprised the boys, bursting in through the closed doors. Todd made a run for the hayloft ladder, but Phil tackled him and pulled my father's knife out of its sheath and held it to Todd's throat. Todd's friends had the idea to jump Phil, but when they saw the knife, they backed away.
"Keep going," said Phil. "Good. That's far enough. Now don't move. If you move, I'll cut his throat."
Phil nodded to me and I closed the doors. Todd made no sound beneath the knife.
"Your friends can't help you this time," said Phil.
I looked at Todd's friends, and when I looked back at Todd, he was off the floor. Phil held him from behind, squeezing Todd's elbows together with one arm and holding the knife in front of Todd's ashen face.
"If you stick out your tongue, I promise I'll let you go."
Todd began to cry. "Don't hurt me," he screamed.
Phil choked off Todd's air with the back of his hand. "I won't." Phil loosened his hold. "But I want you to taste my knife."
"That's right. But not like you. Not crazy enough to wrap wire around a small boy's tongue. My brother never asked to stutter -- but he was cursed by God and then by you." Phil squeezed Todd's arms until something cracked.
Todd's tongue touched the knife, and Phil drew the blade across it, ever so gently, until it bled. Todd collapsed to his knees, crying and swallowing blood. Phil put the knife in its sheath. "Todd, if you tell anyone that I did this to you, or if your friends tell anyone, I'll kill you."
Phil and I walked out into the darkness, and when the barn was no longer in sight, I asked him if he meant what he said about killing Todd. He gave me no answer, and his silence made me feel empty and absolutely alone.