For more than fifty years, Wendell Berry has been telling us stories about Port William, a mythical town on the banks of the Kentucky River, populated over the years by a cast of unforgettable characters living in a single place over a long time. In A Place in Time, the stories dates range from 1864, when Rebecca Dawe finds herself in her own reflection at the end of the Civil War, to one from 1991 when Grover Gibbs' widow, Beulah, attends the auction as her home place is offered for sale.
"And so it's all gone. A new time has come. Various ones of the old time keep faith and stop by to see me, Coulter and Wilma and a few others. But the one I wait to see is Althie. Seems like my whole life now is lived under the feeling of her hand touching me that day of the sale, and every day still.
I lie awake in the night, and I can see it all in my mind, the old place, the house, all the things I took care of so long. I thought I might miss it, but I don't. The time has gone when I could do more than worry about it, and I declare it's a load off my mind. But the thoughts, still, are a kind of company."
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The Girl in the Window (1864)
They might as well all have been the same bunch, although they weren't. Sometimes there would be enough gray uniforms or uniform pieces among them to permit them to be identified (perhaps) as Rebels. Sometimes they would be more formally recognizable as Yankees because they would all be dressed in uniforms that would be blue. Sometimes, because of their unlikeness to one another and to any living thing ever before seen in Port William, you couldn't tell who they were. Whoever they were, the town shut itself against them like a terrapin closing its shell. From the yards and porches and storefronts along the single street, people withdrew behind doors. People who had ridden into town in a wagon or on horseback got themselves and their animals out of sight, if they could. Otherwise, they were apt to have to get away on foot, their mules or horses "requisitioned," and if the younger men could get away at all before being arrested or "recruited."
The Yankees would be looking for persons disloyal to the Union, a category not clearly defined, or for revenge against perpetrators of disloyal acts, which also were not well-defined or perhaps even definable. The Rebels would be on the lookout for recruits. The others, the self-described irregulars or guerillas, would be actuated, as like as not, by some local grudge going back a long time before the war. All of them, always, were looking for any livestock that could be ridden, worked, or eaten, anything that could be eaten, anything usable as a weapon, anything portable that was worth carrying away, any opportunity for amusing themselves by any of the cruelties available to those who had abjured, seemingly forever, the laws of kinship and friendship and neighborhood.
And Port William was isolated, beyond the reach of official help, too small and divided even to consider defending itself, both too Southern and too near the Ohio River.
Doing freely, beyond constraint or compunction, the things that it seemed men would do if they got the chance, they all were trouble, trouble when they were present, trouble when they were gone, no end of trouble. She feared them all, and therefore she hated them all.
She was Rebecca Dawe, daughter of Maxie and James John Dawe, sister of Galen Dawe who had been killed by a neighbor as he was leaving to join the Confederate army at the start of the war. Her two older sisters were at home on the river bottom farm down by Dawe's Landing where their father had a store, and where the family and their handful of slaves provided more help in fact than was needed. She could be spared. And so she had come up to Port William to help her aunt Dicey, her mother's sister, with her young children, to help with the work of the household, for her greater safety as her parents saw it, and as she herself saw it for relief from isolation in the great space of the river valley and from her parents' grieving.
And Dicey needed her. Until Rebecca came, walking barefoot up from the river, carrying her shoes and extra clothing bundled in a shawl, Dicey had been alone with her three children, the oldest almost still a baby, and what she called her little dab of livestock: a milk cow, two shoats, and by now a bare dozen hens. Like some of the other houses in Port William, the Needlys' fronted a small farm, theirs going narrowly all the way back to the woods on the river bluff. Dicey's husband, Thomas Needly, the town's only blacksmith, was in the federal military prison in Louisville for an "act of disloyalty." One evening past dark, working mainly by feel, he had reset a shoe on a stranger's horse. He had charged nothing. The stranger, who was in a hurry, had not asked what he owed, and Thomas, in the circumstances and from experience, was afraid to name the price. But the stranger had been the wrong one to help out with such a favor. He was a wanted man. He was caught, and on his testimony Thomas Needly was charged with aiding him in his attempt to escape.
A small band of federal soldiers came in the night, arrested Thomas, and carried him away. Dicey did not know why they had taken him or where, or if he was alive, until she received a long-delayed letter somehow smuggled out of the prison. It was a letter much beyond Thomas's powers of writing, written for him in a determinedly beautiful flowing script by a fellow prisoner:
Mrs. Needley dr. Madam:
Thos. Needley your houseband was put in here the fed. mil. jail at Louisvle on yesterday charged with aiding a Rebble. He says say he is well & alrite & fully abled of body & mind & send cloths, &c if poss.
Dicey did send a packet of his clothes and a few other things that, not knowing, she thought might be of use. This he never received, nor did she hear from him again. Until the war ended nearly a year later, for all she knew, he had fallen off the edge of the world.
And it had been, she would think, a kind of world's edge that he had been to, for he had come back from the helplessness and powerlessness of the dead. When he stood again at his anvil in his strength, in the fierce heat and exactitude of his old work, he had, it seemed to her, the aspect of one who had returned from the grave.
In Thomas's absence, lacking his offering to the community of his needed work and its return of money, the household had become oversimplified and poor. Dicey, who had married late, was thirty, Rebecca just sixteen. They watched over the children. They kept house sparely and neatly. They gardened and foraged and traded for food, and accepted gratefully the food sent up to them from the Dawe household down in the river valley, always in small amounts as a precaution against theft and because, even at the Dawes' place, food was hardly abundant.
The dab of livestock pertained to the two women and their household only conditionally. The two shoats, their ears notched, had been turned loose in the woods, and they were Dicey's own still if they were not caught or shot by some band of soldiers or bushwhackers, and if ever she could get them penned and slaughtered when the time came. The chickens, too easily stolen from the henhouse, had been allowed to go half wild, roosting in trees and hiding their nests in the weeds or the barn, at the mercy of predators. The cow they had saved from theft or slaughter, so far, by confining her in the farthest pasture. Thomas had built in a corner next to the woods a pen of split rails and a small shed where some hay could be stored. To this pen Rebecca carried the milk bucket every morning and every evening, the children following along. And then she carried home again enough milk to drink fresh and to keep them in cream and butter and clabber. "The cow," said Dicey, who liked to say things well, "is our luck and our luxury."
This was late in the summer of 1864, and their luxuries were in fact lucky, and rare. But they were living in what Rebecca was learning fast to recognize as the human condition, in which things are most clearly known by their opposites. She and the others were most touchingly and dearly living because Galen Dawe and so many others were dead, because so many boys even as young as Rebecca had been killed in battle, cut down like weeds. They were most movingly, most consciously and thoughtfully free, because Thomas and so many others were in prison. They ate with relish their frugal meals because of the lively possibility that even they, before the coming winter would be over, could be hungry. They were gathering in and preserving and putting away, even hiding, every surplus scrap of food. There would be stuff yet from the garden. In the fall they would gather walnuts and hickory nuts from the woods. They might, with help, catch and slaughter the two hogs. But the prospect was neither bounteous nor certain.
There were times when their thoughts were carried round and round by hope and fear, courage and resignation. Dicey said, "Lord, I reckon the pore human race has come to a many a fall such as this one. We'll make it, maybe, if those creatures don't steal the food right out of our mouths."
At the start of the war she had been openly in sympathy with the Confederacy, like the rest of her family. By now all the violent ones in their bunches she called, without distinction, "creatures." It was a vital, reverberant word when she said it, for as she acknowledged with frank reluctance the belonging of all creatures to God she pointedly refused to these the classification of "human." Even at the height of her resentment and indignation she did not curse them. But she made no distinction between them and the other creatures — "supposedly," as she would say, "lower" — who conducted themselves in bunches. The state was occupied officially by the Union army. She did not indulge herself by supposing that official occupation by the Confederate army would have been better or, for that matter, different. Power — and for how long? — was the power of the bunch.
The bunches had been with them from the beginning. In the summer of 1861 a company of recruits of each side had drilled in Port William on the same day, and by their taunting back and forth had come close to a shooting scrape right there in the road. "It was almost history," Dicey said. "It would have been known as the Battle of Port William." If it had happened, it would have been as intimate an engagement almost as a family quarrel. No strangers would have been involved. Everybody in each company knew everybody in the other one. It would have been Port William's own. The town and the countryside were divided most cruelly, for the division was not among strangers but among neighbors and kinfolk. That was why in the Port William neighborhood the violence peripheral to the official war was never entirely at rest. In addition to the almost routine recruiting or kidnapping, arresting and stealing, there were barn-burnings and other acts of vandalism. Threats were shouted from the darkness, or delivered openly to housewives standing in their doorways. And there were rumors, groundless as often as not, but grounded firmly nonetheless on experience.
The effort of the day was all but over, though the sun was still well up in the sky. Rebecca and the children had walked back to attend to the cow and walked home again with the milk, giving Dicey time to set the house to rights and have a little quiet. Rebecca then had come upstairs to her bedroom, for she loved the stillness of the ordered house at the day's end, and she too needed her quiet. The house, especially the upstairs rooms, was warm beyond comfort, but she sat still by the open front window for the touch of a breeze that was there, and looked out as she liked to do. In a while they would have a supper of milk and cold biscuits and other leftovers from dinner, and then she and Dicey would sit on the front porch in the gathering dusk while the children played in the yard. By full dark all of them would be in bed — "to save light," Dicey would say, meaning candles and lamp oil.
The shadows of the house and the trees beside it had reached all the way across the road to the Feltner house shut and quiet on the other side. And then the murmur of voices from down along the few storefronts of the town became briefly louder and then ceased altogether. She heard the hoofbeats of one horse galloping away along one of the paths that led out from the town into the fields. A shiver passed over her as shivers do when somebody has stepped on the place that will be your grave. She leaned in her chair to look, and saw coming down the hill from the schoolhouse, toward the stores and the bank and the church in the town's middle, a little band of riders. They rode at a walk, looking around. When they came among the business places, now evidently shut and deserted, they stopped, bunching together, and then began riding erratically back and forth, leaning now and again from their saddles to test a latch or to pound a fist on a locked door. One of them fired a pistol into the air. They were well-armed, with holstered pistols and long guns scabbarded or lying across the saddle bows. One of them had a sheathed saber dangling at his side.
That the one had so reasonlessly fired his pistol suggested to Rebecca that they were there without a purpose, looking merely for whatever they might find. But watching them was in fact like watching creatures of another species, a flock of blackbirds or a school of shad. Everything they had done seemed to her familiar and unsurprising, but she could not in the least anticipate what they would do next. It was this sense of their oddity, their utter strangeness, that made her afraid of them. Her fear was a palpable tremor inside her, but even though she was alone she did not allow any visible sign that she was afraid. She stayed as she was, quietly watching. The breeze bore up to her window the warm smells of horse sweat and dust, and now and again the voices of the riders.
She had no idea who they were. They clearly were not Yankees of the force of occupation. But there were several other possibilities. They could have been strayed Rebels or members of the so-called Home Guard or irregulars or bushwhackers, who could have been anybody with any cause or intention. In Port William the war had a lot of sides; it was hard to tell how many or which was which. Worse, it was sometimes hard to tell who in Port William was on which side. This had made the town cautious, and as a result far less talkative than it had been before the war and would come to be again years after it ended. During the war Port William found it hard to keep to its old way of talking to itself about itself. As nearly everybody seemed to know, there were great men at the top of the contending governments and armies who foresaw and even desired that eventually the war would have an official end, but at the bottom were men who did not care if it never ended.
She would remember all her life the threatful or wanton or heartless things she saw during the years of the war, and in fact during many years following — unofficial acts of violence as surely permitted by the war as if they had been determined by policy. The war also had given her two visions of such acts which she had not seen, but which she saw in her mind in such detail that she might as well have seen them with her eyes.
She could see, she would see all her life, her brother Galen on the bay gelding known as Rex, starting to a place near Smallwood where a company of Confederate volunteers was known to be gathering. He was senior to Rebecca by eleven years and therefore, to her, a mature man. But in her vision of him, as she grew older, he became younger, until the day when, in her never-finished sorrow, the realization would come: "He was just a boy!"
He sat well on his horse. He rode alone and — as she saw, as in her vision she increasingly understood — his face had a certain solemnity as if, the hesitance and effort of his decision now behind him, he felt himself a man fated to war — though not, surely, a man fated to be killed in that moment, before he could breathe again.
The family knew who did it, though there was no witness, no avowal, no evidence that was indisputable. And so the story she knew was not the story only of her brother, but in her vision he was alone, and when she heard the shot it surprised her. Every time the vision returned to her in the night or in the daytime when she sat alone the shot surprised her — for she saw each time that Galen anticipated nothing, was aware perhaps of nothing but himself and his horse passing on their way. It seemed to her that Galen did not hear the shot. He fell at once and cleanly from the saddle, delivered out of time without even a suspicion of the cause. The ones who happened upon his body found the horse nearby, grazing along the roadside.
The second vision was from the fall of 1863, more than two years after the first. Several slaves, five or six of them, both men and women, were cutting and shocking corn by moonlight out on the Bird's Branch Road, not far from the church. In her vision she saw them plainly, working steadily along to the rhythm that their corn knives hacked into the rustling of the dry corn. They were singing. They were singing, "Freedom! Oh, freedom!" That was all the song, but they sang it back and forth among themselves. Sometimes they would fall silent, and then the song continued unsung to the beat of the knives. And then a solitary voice would lift into the moonlight, "Oh, freedom!" and then they would all sing, "Freedom! Oh, freedom!" a cry that was old and creaturely and human. Later she would imagine that there had rarely been a time, and in Port William after slavery perhaps never again a time, when the word "freedom" had been so understandingly sounded. As the singers sang, they worked. As they worked, the rows of standing corn slowly became fewer and the rows of shocks increased. Over the striking of the knives and the steady rustling of the corn and the singing, the moonlight fell as if a greater silence were thus made visible.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Place in Time"
Copyright © 2012 Wendell Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Girl in the Window (1864) 3
Fly Away, Breath (1907) 14
Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Grows (1930) 21
Burley Coulter s Fortunate Fall (1934) 27
A Burden (1882, 1907, 1941) 37
A Desirable Woman (1938-1941) 48
Misery (1943) 69
Andy Catlett: Early Education (1943) 81
Drouth (1944) 88
Stand By Me (1921-1944) 98
Not a Tear (1945) 113
The Dark Country (1948) 116
A New Day (1949) 133
Mike (1939-1950) 155
Who Dreamt This Dream? (1966) 169
The Requirement (1970) 171
An Empty Jacket (1974) 182
At Home (1981) 188
Sold (1991) 205
A Place in Time (1938-2008) 216