After so many years things ought to come to rest, but nothing does, not even this old house. It’s been settling through all the nights of my life, and now the days. How many people have heard a house settling in the daytime? It’s that quiet. There’s a beam been moving around in that south corner again, but I can’t feel any other sounds. Before, when the silence was first growing in my ears, I thought I’d never hear anything again, and I strained to every sound: the well pulley, the voices of the farm animals, little things, things to hold in my head. It was a long time after the sounds blurred, almost forgotten, that I began to hear the voices of people dead too long ago to think about it. Those old voices are as plain to me now as the day they spoke.
Listen, my father said on the edge of the cornfield that dead, still night. I stood over my head in darkness and couldn’t hear a thing.
I heard all the inside of my head.
Then I heard the corn growing in the night. We stood at the end of the neat rows, drowned in silence, listening to the leaves uncoiling. I moved closer to the muffled form beside me. Child as I was, I knew I’d never heard anything more frightening, but I didn’t know why. Now I know violence doesn’t have to lash out on a mule’s hooves—Hup Jake, breaking harness. That poor damned mule.
When the grandchildren are in the house the noise comes from every direction. Caroline is a ripple, have to be still to hear her. More than once I’ve moved my feet and found her sitting there. Big Jimmy takes a close listen too. I don’t see how a man his size can touch a board so lightly. He can be two steps from laying his hand on my arm before I know he’s about. Lucy’s best though. She sets the whole house going with her housework.
I feel good today, only a red sliver in my off shoulder. If I could get at those bones with a rasp and some grease, I’d show that whippy doctor a thing or two. He doesn’t have to come buzzing in here every time I take to bed, “Mister Wilson, you’ve got to expect some arthritis at your age.”
What am I supposed to do, pray? That’s not for arthritis. He’s so young he can’t realize that two nights before my wedding, for the pure joyous hell of it, I fought a carnival man in a ring with my bare fists.
Only the very young have an understanding with the old.
I guess her sewing rocker is still up in the attic with the needles and spools all neatly arranged in the little swingout drawer under the seat. And the walking stick. She would punch it at the isinglass squares in the living room stove.
How can a body warm without flame?
She kept the isinglass pretty well punched out and me giggling. She hadn’t seen the sun for fifteen years she was so blind.
All those years sitting in a sewing rocker, with night in her eyes and never complaining except to slap her palms against the chair arms. Her wide gold wedding band would rap the wood and startle me so I’d feel just my skin was left. The ring always rapped when the room was quietest, and every time it did she said to the ceiling, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy.
You know, I didn’t even know she was blind. It took a friend of mine on the next farm.
How’s your blind grandma?
I was as surprised as he was when I hit him. I hit him square on the nose, and my knuckles came back slick with blood. Moment he put the name to it, I realized that once she could see. I’d never thought of that.
To me there was only the feel of that first stone step racing up the porch after school, the flung door, and where is everybody, Grandma? Her skin was so loose and so thin to be almost transparent. Her veins were like fat worms.
I’d show her off to disbelieving friends.
What time is it, Grandma?
The rocker stopped as she listened to something inside.
About three twenty-five, Son.
I’d gleefully point to the kitchen clock in my hand: 3:27.
And the date, Grandma?
It’s August thirty-first. You in some hurry, Boy?
Mother said Grandma kept track of time because she was afraid of getting senile like her aunt had been, said Grandma talked about it to her, hoped that if she ever got to nodding around and smelling like Great Aunt Meacom did that someone would have the good sense to shoot her. She just smelled like Grandma to me, and with her sitting there looking straight ahead, who needed clocks and calendars?
rap rap rap
That’s the only complaint she ever made except to mumble when she was alone. Like the time in the back bedroom when I broke her belt. I was on the bed when I heard her in the room. She was tugging open the top drawer of the old marble top washstand where she kept my grandfather’s things: shaving brush and mug, wallet, pocket knife and such. Opening that drawer was like opening a box of time. It didn’t smell of dust or anything like that, but there was my grandfather in the curve of the wallet and in the soap-caked cracks of the golden name across the rose colored shaving mug. John Wilson, the gold said.
I could imagine the smell of time she was getting as her blind hands started patting in the drawer. She wasn’t in any hurry to find what she was looking for, usually it was his knife to cut her toenails with, but that day it didn’t seem to be the knife because she would have remembered where it was. Her hands would pat, then pause.
With both hands moving, she started mumbling. Only this time it was like she was talking. For just that long, I thought it was to me. But as I watched her milky eyes looking at nothing towards an old waterstain in the ceiling I knew it wasn’t me. It was not until she said his name that I realized who she was talking to. I wanted to jump up and yell at her to stop, but all I did was breathe as she went on talking over her hands.
—and I’ve done all I promised you, John. They’ll get along without me now. I don’t know why it took so long for me to make up my mind.
I jumped off the bed and started pulling on her belt and yelling until the buckle came off. But all I did was scare her so much she couldn’t hear a thing I was saying. Her hands tangled in the drawer and the fright was in her face as she tried to see what was happening out of those milky eyes. Then my mother came running in with biscuit dough on her fingers and put her hand over my mouth. With the other hand mashing dough on the back of my neck she said in a quiet voice, He’s saying he loves you, Grandma.
She heard right off. Only she heard the wrong thing because that’s not what I was yelling. I was shouting loud enough to wake the dead that she could do for us some more. You only need sit, I kept yelling. You only need sit.
But all I did was scare her, and when I got the biscuit dough shoved down my throat I knew I’d done more than break her belt buckle. What I didn’t know was where the wrong lay; so later I was afraid to tell grandma that we needed her because I thought it was something grownups didn’t want said.
So I didn’t try to say it again. I tried to show it. I never passed her chair without touching her arm—she could always tell touches as well as voices—and saying, Hi. But after that day in the bedroom, the rocker seemed to get slower. And I started going by even when I wasn’t passing. I poked so many sticks of wood in the stove that my father said I was going to burn the house down. But mother shushed him. So I kept the fire hot for her and checked by to see if she didn’t need grandfather’s knife or something. But it seemed like the more I hurried around the slower the rocker got.
She could never understand that as long as she was sitting there I knew the house would never be empty. I guess I looked on that old woman like The First Man. I figured she had set in that rocker so long before even I was born that she was the center post holding the whole place up, and if she fell, nothing was safe.
And I was right.
I was helping my father harness the mule. He always said Jake didn’t like working unless he could lean two feet lower than he stood. He especially enjoyed it when he had Jake on a busting plow. He’d push the plow deep and when he had that poor damned mule leaning low and digging, he’d grin and shout at him, Hup Jake, breaking harness. Hup Jake, breaking harness.
They were a sight to see and my father laughed at anyone saying he ought to get rid of Jake. Get rid of the strongest mule in the country. The boy and I can handle him, can’t we, Son?
The real trouble with Jake was the harnessing. He steadied to work after the harnessing, but he was a terror to get in it, so that’s where I helped. He could sure rattle those boards with his heels, and they’d warned me time out of mind to stay clear of his stall, so I always stood in the barn holding his head through the feed window while my father did the harnessing.
It was hardly past day that morning, a white morning, still with cold, and frost crunching as the dead grass bent under our shoes. I had a good hold on one of Jake’s ears and a couple of turns around his nose with the halter rope, keeping his head up and his teeth hid. Lights flickered on his rolling eyes, and our white breaths mingled when we heard mother calling from the house. It was her running voice, and my father was gone before I could even turn loose.
By the time I got there the living room was empty. They’d already carried her to the bed. She’d dozed back to sleep or something and pitched out on the stove I’d stoked red hot. I couldn’t help but feel responsible and stayed with her. My father did my chores because mother told him to let the boy be if it makes him feel better. So I sat there watching her sink lower in the feather tick she slept on winter and summer. Every little while I’d push down the feathers to try and raise her some.
At first her cheek and neck were covered with soda and amp cloths to ease the burn. But by the end of the week the cloths were gone and she was raw red and lower than ever. Then some of the neighbor women started sitting with me.
There were two of those neighbor women with me the day mother came to the bedroom door and stood in its frame. She was still holding her apron full of chicken feed and had a wild look. Those two women jumped up.
Caroline, what on earth?
Even grandma stirred at their excitement. I can’t say I was surprised or frightened or anything else. It’s like I knew anything could happen now with the rocker empty. Mother didn’t even see us. Still clutching the apron full of chicken feed, she turned from the door and took my father’s pistol from the desk.
Mother went out the back door with the pistol in one hand and her apron in the other. One of the neighbors was running along sidewise. What on earth, Caroline? What on earth? I just followed. I only started getting scared when mother headed for Jake’s stall, for the first time not because I’d been there but because I hadn’t. Before I could get close enough to see over the stall door, mother said, Jake, turn around here. Jake stepped in the straw, and as his head come over the door with his ears pricking forward, mother shot him between the eyes and Mrs. Cora Grayson screamed.
When the stall was opened, Jake was lying across my father’s legs. I saw that much before Mrs. Cora spun me around and started pushing mother and me both towards the house. She pushed us into the living room, and I stood beside mother’s chair while Mrs. Cora ran into the bedroom then out the front door. Her dresstails were disappearing down the road when mother’s head dropped onto her hands and yellow corn spilled form her apron and bounced out over the floor. While the golden corn was spilling, she rubbed her face in her hands. I told him not to without help.
I don’t know how long I stood holding mother’s chair arm, shaking, and crying too, I guess, before the other women came to the door calling Caroline in hushed voices. I started to go along, but they pushed me back. Through the door I could see mother’s feet hanging off grandma’s bed. I went back to the chair.
Then mother called me and when I got there she wasn’t crying anymore. The other woman was saying, Somehow grandma knew when Cora ran in and told me. She just said flat and strong, That mule killed him alone didn’t it.
Then mother said, Go to your grandma, Son.
She was so low in the ticking I could hardly see her. Only her nose and some hair stuck out. As I got closer, her hand, the one with the gold band, twitched on the covers and the twitch carried back into her body going down its full length. I knew she wanted me to take her hand. I was surprised how strong it was. As soon as our hands met, it was like she tried to raise up off the bed and pull me on it all at the same time. Her lips were working, but I couldn’t hear what she was trying to say. I was up half on the bed trying to hear, when her milky eyes started glittering like they were burning behind. I could smell her sachet that I liked and something else that I didn’t like.
Then her lips got out what she was trying to tell me. Her voice was high and it cracked at the end. She said just one word. Pa.
This time there wasn’t anybody to hit and never would be again.
The night after we buried them the house was still full of people I went outside to sit on the steps and look at the stars. It had rained all day, but mother said that was good because people always go to heaven if it rains. By then the rain had stopped. The air was washed, one of those cold clear nights when you can see the wind moving through the stars. For just a moment I could almost hear ticking out there.
I wanted to yell up into the night, but I didn’t. I was as still and silent as the answer I knew would come ringing back to me.
This story first appeared in the Winter 1968 issue of The Southern Review.