Precious Door

Monday, January 10, 2011

 “Somebody's laying out in the field,” my little brother came to tell us. It was eight o'clock in the morning and already so hot that the weeds were steaming and the locusts calling. For a few days there had been word of a hurricane coming. Since yesterday we had felt signs of it—a stillness of air followed by an abrupt billowing of wind; and the sky seemed higher, and it was washed-looking.

“Must be a drunken mill man sleeping in the weeds, or a hobo. Could even be your Uncle Bud, God knows,” my father told me; “go see what it is.”

“Come with me,” I asked my father. “I'm scared.”

What we found was a poor beaten creature who did not answer my father's calls. My father and I carried the unconscious person onto the back porch and laid him on the daybed.

“I wish you wouldn't let the children see that,” my mother said, and she drew back into the darkness of the house like her own shell.

“He may be dying,” my father said, “can't rouse him. Call the doctor, son, then get me some warm water. Hey,” my father called loudly at first and then lowered his voice to a soft summons, “Hey, friend, hello; hello . . .”

The battered friend did not budge, but he was breathing, now quite heavily, almost gasping. The warm water cleaned away some of the blood that was like paste on his lips and cheeks, and then some cool water stroked back his dark hair from his brow; and we saw in that moment when his face and his look came clear to us what would have been called a beautiful young girl if it had been a girl; but it was a man. Something shining came through the damaged face and we knew we had brought a special person into our house out of the weeds of the field. When my father pulled back the stained shirt of the stranger and saw something, he told the children (I was twelve and the oldest) to go outside in the yard. I did not go far but hid under the yellow jasmine against the screen and listened.

“Pardner, you might not make it,” I heard my father say, “if the doctor don't hurry up and get here. Because somebody's cut you with a knife.” And in another moment I heard my father say, “Who did this to you? Cut you like this?” There was no sound from the wounded stranger. “Hanh?” my father murmured tenderly, “who hurt you like this? Hanh? He can’t hear me or he can’t talk. Well, you try to rest until the doctor comes,” I heard my father say softly. At that moment I felt so sorry for this stranger lying silent in our house that I suddenly cried, there under the yellow jasmine.

The hurricane that was said to be coming toward us from down off the deep southern Gulf kept reaching at us. Now we could smell it; and quick wind, then rain, had turned over us, whipped away, turned back on us. Now it really was close on us and my father guessed we were going to get it. Storms scared my father where little else did. He felt afraid in our old house and always took us to the high school basement. “Mary, you and the children go on to the high school and hurry up,” my father called. At this I rushed into the house.

“I’ll stay with my father and the hurt man,” I announced. There was going to be a discussion of this, but little time was left for it; and I could see that my father was glad to have me stay.

The storm came nearer. It threw down a limb of a hickory tree across the road and a driving rain hit against the side of our house for a few minutes, then stopped.

“It’s coming,” my father said. “We can’t stay out here on this screen porch. Latch the screen door and move things away from the open. We’ll move the hurt man into the parlor. What’s your name, friend?” I saw my father put his ear to the young man’s mouth.

My father lifted up the stranger and carried him like a child inside the house to the parlor, where few people went. It was a cool shadowy room used only for special occasions. It looked like my father wanted to give the wounded man the best we had to give.

I covered things on the porch and pushed things back and brought some firewood to the parlor. “I thought we could build a fire in the fireplace,” I announced. “That’d be fine,” my father said. “You know how to do it, like I taught you.” I saw that he had made a pallet on the floor with the mattress from the daybed.

“Help me put our friend on the pallet,” father asked.

When we lifted our friend I was at first afraid to touch him so close, to hold him, but in my trembling grasp his body felt friendly and like something of mine—and more: he felt beloved to me. He must have felt something of the same to my father, for I saw my father’s face filled with softness in the light of the fire. Now the fire was going and brightness and warmth were coming from it, suddenly bringing to life on the wall the faces of my grandmother and grandfather who had built fires in this fireplace; they looked down from their dusty frames upon us. Suddenly the man murmured, “Thank you.”

“God bless you, pardner,” my father said, and I patted the man’s head. My breath was caught in my throat, that he was with us.

The storm was here, upon us. Our little house began to shudder and creak under it. Though we didn’t say anything, my father and I were afraid that Doctor Browder would never be able to get out to us now; for when we could see what would be the dirt road in front of our house we saw a flowing stream; and when we saw in the lightning some trees fall over the road along the field we knew the doctor could not get to us.

We began to nurse the wounded stranger, my father and I. We washed his wounds. And my father prayed, there in the yellow firelight in the swaying little house my grandfather had built for his family and whose roof and walls and floor had been their safe haven and now ours, a shelter for generations in a world none of us had known beyond this place and a few nearby little towns. My father prayed over the young man, laying his carpenter’s hand on the brow of the suffering man and clasping his hand in love and hope. And then I heard my father’s words, “He’s dead.”

We said the Lord’s prayer together on our knees by the dead stranger’s pallet. The rhythmic clanging of the wind against something of metal, our washtub maybe, tolled over our prayer. And when we opened our eyes at the end of the prayer, my father said, “He looks like somebody.” I knew he did, in that moment, for I saw in my sorrow his somehow blessed brow and his pale full lips, his dark bitter hair, familiar as kin. The wind tolled the washtub. My heart was heavy and aching and my face felt flooded but no tears came for a long time. And when they came, I sobbed aloud. My father held me and rocked me as though I were three, the way he used to when I was three; and I heard him cry, too.

I felt for the first time the love that one person might have for another he did not know, for a stranger come suddenly close. The great new swelling love I had for the stranger visitor to our house now filled our parlor. And I hoped then, with a longing that first touched me there on that wild and tender night in our faraway parlor in that hidden little town, that one day I would know the love of another, no matter how bitter the loss of them would be.

In the toiling hurricane that whipped at our house, our trees and fields, lightning showed us what the storm had already done to the world outside. “This must be the worst ever to hit this country,” my father said. “God hold down our roof over our heads and receive the spirit of this poor man.”

“And protect Mama and Sister and Joe in the school basement,” I added.

The flood rose to our front porch. My father and I sat lone with the stranger. My father had washed him and taken away his clothes that had been stained again by his wounds and dressed him in a fresh shirt and workpants. The dead being was a presence in the parlor. We waited.

The sun flared out and streamed down on the waters that covered the town in the unsettled midafternoon. We looked out and saw a whole world of things floating by. We ourselves felt afloat, among them. And then the rain began again, right out of the sunshine, and put it out. It turned very dark.

“We’re lost,” my father told me. “We’ll all be washed away."

“God please stop the rain,” I prayed. The fire had burnt our supply of wood and it was sinking fast.

“Go get a candle from the bedroom, son,” my father asked. “We’ll put it by the body so that it won’t lie in darkness.”

When my father called the stranger “the body” I felt, for the first time, a sense of death and loss. Our friend whom I loved and grieved for, as though I had long known him, was gone. Only “the body” remained. Now I understood the hardest part of death, the grief at gravesides, and what was given up there so bitterly. It was the body.

What interrupted our mourning was a figure at the window. A figure of flying hair and tearing clothes with wild eyes and a face of terror stared through veils of water.

“Somebody,” I gasped to my father. “Somebody wants in from the storm.”

“Hot damn Lord help us!” my father cried out, as afraid as I had ever seen him.

We struggled with the front door. When we unlocked it, it blasted against us and knocked us down to the floor, and it seemed to hurl the blowing figure into the house. We saw that it was a young man in tattered clothes and a thick beard. The three of us were able to close the front door and to barricade it with the heavy hat tree, oaken and immemorial, standing in the same place in the hallway since first my eyes found it. Suddenly it had life.

“Worst storm I’ve ever seen,” my father said to the man. The man nodded and we could see that he was young.

When he walked into the parlor, drawn there by the candlelight and the fire, he saw the man on the pallet and lunged to it and fell to his knees and cried out and wept over the dead man. My father and I waited with our heads bowed, holding together in bewilderment under the fire’s guttering sound and the soft sobbing of the young man. Finally my father said, “He was lying in the field. We tried to help him.” But the man stayed on his knees beside the figure on the pallet, sobbing and murmuring. “Boy, boy, boy, boy . . .”

Then my father went to the kneeling man and put a blanket around his shoulders and said softly, “I’ll get some hot coffee, pardner.”

I was alone with the two men, dead and alive, and I felt scared but full of pity. I heard the man speak softly, now, in a gasping language I could not understand—or I was too choked with astonishment. And then I heard him say clearly, “Put your head on my breast, boy! Here. Now, now boy, now; you’re all right, now. Head’s on my breast; now, now.”

When my father came into the parlor with coffee, he put it down at the side of the grieving man. “Sit back, now,” he said, “and warm yourself.”

When the man sat back and pulled the blanket around his shoulders, my father asked him for his name.

“Ben,” he said. “He and I are brothers. I brought him up.” He would not drink his coffee but looked down at the figure of his brother and said, “We were in the boxcar comin from Memphis. Goin to Port of Houston. We had a plan.” And then he cried out softly, “I didn’t go to hurt him. I swear to God I didn’t mean to hurt him.” And then he held his brother’s head to his breast and rocked him.

My father and I were sitting on the cold springs of the daybed whose mattress was the dead man’s pallet, and I could feel the big, strong wrap of my father’s arm around me, pulling my head to his breast. I felt my everlasting love for him, my father, but in my head rang Ben’s words, we had a plan. My blood rushed in exciting hope. And that hope was that one day I would have enough courage to be this tender as this man was now at this moment, if ever I was lucky enough to find someone who would take my tenderness. And to have, together with someone, a plan. I knew, at this moment, that that was the thing I would look for in my life. And who could hold that from me or tell me I could not have it, that unspeakable tenderness that already I felt to grow in my breast as my blood rushed through me and which was the gift of Ben and his brother to me.

And out of this passion, as though I had been blinded by it and now could see again, I saw Ben lifting up the body of his dead brother from the pallet.

“Thank you for tending to my brother,” he said to us, solemnly, and turned to go. “My brother and me will go, now.”

“But you’ll drown,” my father told him. “Wait until the flood is over, for God’s sake.”

My father stood in front of Ben as if to stop him; but in a growling voice and with a look of darkness, Ben said, “Get out of our way, my friend.”

Ben was going, holding the nestled body against his breast. My father and I stood still as our visitors out of the flood went back into it, through the barricaded front door and into the storm.

“Goodbye, goodbye,” I whispered.

“God be with you and God forgive me for letting a man who killed his brother go,” my father said, almost to himself.

Through the window we saw, in the fading daylight, the brothers move through the water. Ben was nestling the body of his dead brother in his arms and pressing his head upon his breast. “They’ll never make it,” my father said.

“But where are they going?”

“They’re in God’s hands,” answered my father. “Although Ben was a murderer, I feel he is forgiven because he came back and asked forgiveness,” father said. “The love of God works through reconciliation.”

“Father,” I asked. “What is reconciliation?”

“It means coming back together in peace,” my father answered. “Although there was torment between the two brothers, they have been brought back together in peace.”

Through the gray rain, moving through the rising waters, they disappeared, the two men of “reconciliation” who had come back together in peace. My eyes clung to them as long as they could see, trying to hold the loving enemy brothers back from the mist they were slowly melting into.

The days after the rain were worse than the rain. The river swelled and covered farms and roads and many people sat on top of their houses. Though the water around us fell to the lower land, since we were on a rise, my father and I were marooned. The sun had a new hotness, the world was sodden and the smell was of soaked things and rotting things. There were snakes and sobbing bullfrogs and there were crying peafowls in the trees and red crawfish flipped in the mud. In the remoteness and seclusion of our place, through the strangeness of our days, I wept for Ben and his brother so many times I can’t remember. A new feeling had been born in me, obscure then but clearer through time. A man in a boat stopped to tell us of the wonders of the storm: gin cotton lay over an acre of water like white flowers; a thousand sawmill logs were aloose, a church steeple had been carried away with its bell, miraculously afloat, and stood gonging like a buoy near Trinity bridge.

And for a while it was reported that a floating door bearing the bodies of two men was seen moving on the wide river through several towns. At one town people had said that when it came through there, the raft was whirling in the currents as though a demon had hold of it; but the men stayed put, though it was considered that they were dead. And another time, near the river’s mouth where it flows into the Gulf, they said it rode the crests of dangerous rapids so serenely that it was easy to see the two men, one, alive and fierce, holding the other, dead. I waited to hear more, but after this, there were no further reports of the precious door.

For Reginald Gibbons

William Goyen, "Precious Door," copyright 1985 by the Doris Roberts and Charles William Goyen Trust, reprinted by permission.


Saturday, January 1, 2011