Donald Harington

With (Chapter 28)

The imaginative reader, meaning you, has for some time now been caught up in the idyllic character of Robin’s situation. Even before Sog was dispensed with, you had an awareness of the sheer lively entertainment that Robin was experiencing, almost to the point of making her forget the world she had been stolen from.

            Thus it is my unpleasant duty to reveal aspects of her existence which were less than ideal. Sog’s death was decidedly a mixed blessing; it left her figuratively without insulation against life with its unkind vicissitudes, just as the house itself literally had no insulation against the winter cold (in those days the so-called “wind-chill factor” had not yet been discovered, but the howling winds on Madewell Mountain often dropped the temperature well below zero). Despite my own antipathy toward Sog, I was willing to concede that preferably he should have been allowed to continue living for several more months or even a year if need be (for the record, his affliction was a malignant form of degenerative multiple sclerosis which would have been treatable with medical attention). Living a bit longer would have permitted him to fully prepare Robin for the life she was going to have to live without him. As it was, the day would not go by that she did not discover things she needed to ask him, or things she wanted him to do for her, or tasks that required his help.

            If Sog had managed to hang on a while longer, he would certainly have chewed her out for her mismanagement of the household. He hadn’t been at all fastidious himself, but he would have jumped all over her. She quit sweeping the house, and not because of that superstition he’d given her, “Don’t never drop your broom so it falls flat on the floor, and if you do drop it don’t never step over it.” Sog had often been required to nag her into washing the dishes; now that he was gone, she quit washing dishes entirely, except when she had to have one, and then she just wiped it with a dirty rag. She quit washing practically everything, including herself, her clothing and her bedding, using as an excuse the fact that it was too cold to go out to the well, and one morning when she just had to have some drinking water she found the well bucket frozen tight to the ice beneath it, and couldn’t pry it loose. She made do with snow melted in a pan on the stove. The stove periodically required having its ashes removed, and although she had a scuttle and a little shovel for that purpose she was negligent in using them, and the stove became inefficient to the point where all the inhabitants (except me) were unnecessarily cold.

            She had no regard for the larder. She had no concept of budgeting the food supply, and thus had already run out of several things that she couldn’t do without, least of all the Purina Dog Chow. She was going to run out of flour in a few more months, and then she’d really be in a pickle. And speaking of pickles, she’d happily discovered that Hreapha’s pups loved Sog’s pickled pig’s feet but she gave no thought to rationing the stuff. And speaking of Hreapha’s pups, although their thoughtful mother did her best to housebreak them, Robin did nothing to clean up the mess that they sometimes made, with the result that the living room in which all eight creatures were living and from which they were all loath to sally out into the subzero weather was a veritable pigsty or (since the only evidence of actual pigs were their feet) a crummy dump, uninhabitable by anyone except an in habit: fortunately, although I could see and hear I chose not to smell. At the age of twelve I was not especially neat and tidy myself; in fact, I couldn’t care less about orderliness, but even I was moved to remark to Robin one cloudy day, This place aint fitten for dogs! If Adam’s mother had been there, blind though she was, she would have fainted. If Robin’s mother had been there…well, of course, if Robin’s mother had been there she would have immediately whisked her daughter out of the place.

            Which reminds me that it has been a good while since we last saw or heard anything from Karen Kerr. Mention was made that she’d been spending a lot of time with the FBI agent, who, Leo’s wife Louisa had remarked, might become Leo’s new son-in-law. If it’s of any interest, as a matter of fact the FBI agent, Hal Knight, proposed to Karen Kerr at Christmas, but she, while confessing her love for him, said that it would not be “seemly” to get married while she was still in mourning for Robin. I’m sure we’ll hear more about her farther along.

            As Hreapha was the first to detect, the signs of Spring were in the air, and it would soon be time for the whole pack of them to get outdoors, open the windows and doors and air out the house, and for Robin, even if I had to get on her case, to do a bit of cleaning.

            In fact she was prompted to do so not by my giving her a talking to, but by the appearance in the yard of the first daffodils. Adam’s mother had once obtained, after a visit to her sister in Parthenon, a peck of bulbs for tulips and daffodils, and had planted them (“naturalizing” is the modern gardener’s term) randomly around the yard, where many of them had received unwitting fertilizer from the toilet habits of Hreapha, Robert, and Robin as well as all the pups (not to mention the dozens of free-ranging chickens). Now, twenty-one years after Sarah Madewell had gone to California, leaving behind the bright flowers that she had been able to enjoy only through touch and smell (and Adam would never forget the sight of his mother down on her knees gently fondling the daffodils each early March), the bulbs not only continued to bloom but had greatly multiplied. Their coming up seemed to be, for Robin, a sign of renewal and hope. She gathered several to put into a vase for the kitchen table, and the sight of those bright clean yellow flowers in all that squalor tempted her to do something she hadn’t done for months: give the house a thorough sweeping and dusting. That done, she was even inspired to go out to the henhouse and do an awful chore she’d neglected all winter, shoveling the chicken manure into the wheelbarrow and carting it out to fertilize the vegetable garden soil, as she had been advised by the Cyclopædia.

            That done, she was even inspired to go into the barrel factory and straighten things up. Hold your horses! I exclaimed. There aint no call to be moving things around in here.

            “Hi, Adam,” she said. “I thought you’d moved into the house and didn’t stay out here any more.”

            How confess to her that I was her stalker? I generally keep a eye on whatever’s going on around here, I declared. Don’t matter whether it’s the house or this shed or wherever.

            “It’s so messy out here,” she said, sweeping her arms around her.

            But look what ye done, I pointed out, although I was unable to point. You’ve put the bung flogger and the chime hoop maul on the same bench. That aint where they belong.

            “There’s so much junk all over,” she said.

            Aint a bit of junk. Ever one of them tools – stave froe, jointer, swift, stoup plane, horse, chince, backing knife, croze and flagging iron has got a use, and if you was to lose ary one of ‘em, you’d be on the spot.

            “But what do I need them for?” she asked. “I won’t ever make a barrel.”

            Naw, but you might could make a firkin.

            “You’re bad, Adam! Did you say ‘fucking’?”

            I blushed, as much as invisible cheeks can redden. Aint you the feisty’un, though? What I said was firkin, which is what’s called a small cask for keeping butter.

            “Where would I get any butter?” she wanted to know.

            She had me there. I laughed at my own slip. And then offered, Wal, ye never can tell, some old cow might come wanderin lost into the pasture some day.

            “That would be nice,” she said. “Would you be able to teach me how to milk it and then how to use the churn to make butter?”

            Why, shore. If you’ll look at the corner over your left shoulder you’ll see a right nice butter churn.

            “Sugrue told me what it was.”

That was the last thing I made afore we left. I mean the last thing that Adam made afore his folks up and took off for California. Can you turn it upside down and look at the bottom?

 She did so, and there were the initials “AM” that Adam had burned into the wood with the branding tool.

            “You made this?” she asked.

            Adam Madewell made it well, I said with a giggle. Recall I aint Adam, jist his leavings. What ole Hreapha calls a “in habit.”

            She was smiling. “So this ‘AM’ is not just your initials, but it means you are.”

            I didn’t yet follow her. At twelve I was slow in realizing that she had recognized and was referring to the first person singular present indicative of be. As in the Cartesian axiom. Am = sum. In all his years of living with those initials – and he was still very much living with them – it had never occurred to Adam that the initials were an assertion of his existence, his being. When Adam’s twelve-year-old in habit finally got the concept through his thick skull, his admiration for Robin was greater than ever: he fell in love with her, although what he had already been feeling for her amounted to slavish devotion.

That shore is real clever, I granted.

“So can you teach me how to make a fuckin?” she asked.

If you can learn to say the word proper.

“Firkin! Firkin! Firkin!” she said and giggled.

My daddy never believed that I could make that ‘ere churn, I related. Matter a fact, I aint made it just yet. I’m not but twelve and Adam made that churn when he was twelve just before he left me behind, so you could even play like the churn aint been made yet. Not “am” but “aint.” Wal, little lady, I’ll tell ye: you’d want to make your firkin out of cedar, not out of white oak the way all these barrels has been made. I made my churn out of cedar. Cedar don’t shrink when it dries. But you’ve got to cut the cedar in the fall, not the spring when the sap’s a-rising. Come to think on it, there’s a stack of cedar staves out to the barn that I already split with the stave froe.

“Sugrue told me not to go near that barn,” she said. “It could come crashing down on top of me.”

Naw, it won’t. Grampaw built that barn to last forever. Braxton Madewell had made the barn as well as he made anything, and the barn might still be standing years after I no longer inhabit the place.

“I could just tiptoe in there and grab them,” she offered. “How many would I need for a firkin?”

A dozen ought to do it, I said.

            Robin brought an armful of cedar staves from the barn. They had been seasoning for two decades and were thoroughly dry. “Now what?” she asked.

            I sniffed one of the staves. All the cedar smell is gone, so it won’t give your butter a cedar taste.

            “What butter?” she asked, and laughed. “I can use it for a water bucket instead of a firkin. What do I do next?”

            Them is churn staves. You’ll have to saw ‘em down to firkin size, if you can. That’s the stave saw hanging on the wall yonder. She looked around but couldn’t seem to find it. It was a damned nuisance for me not to be able to point. See all them things a-hanging yonder by the window? Naw, to your right. That’s it. The third one over is the stave saw. Now prop a stave here on this horse and see iffen ye can cut it in half.

            It was slow work. Robin simply didn’t have the muscle for sawing, but she persisted and managed after a long while to cut the stave in half. I might have become bored or restless during the long passage of time required for her to do all the cutting, but the simple fact was that, just as I was free from appetites and susceptibility to the physical world, I was also free from the passage of time, its speed or dragging. But her pets, seven in number now, grew tired of observing her and went off to play elsewhere. Or, more likely, they went off into the woods to rustle up their supper.

            The shaving horse was just a little easier, not much. She had to sit on the horse, and draw the two-handled bucket shave toward her again and again along the edges of the stave, to shape it. She began intoning aloud a little work-chant: “Shave the stave. Shave the stave. Shave the stave.” Why hadn’t I ever thought of that? Or rather Adam, when he worked? Because he lacked her imagination, and her sense of words. I joined my voice to hers: Shave the stave. Shave the stave. Shave the stave. She had to stop to laugh more often than she had to stop to rest.

            But then, as I pointed out, it was necessary to sharpen the bucket shave. Blades has got to be kept keen, I told her. Sog had already shown her how to use the treadle whetstone, although she was always catching and bumping her knees in it and had hobbled for a week the first time she’d tried to use it. That had been for sharpening the kitchen knives and the hog butchering knives and occasionally her scissors. Now she had to learn how to keep the cooper’s knives and shaves razor-sharp.

            Paw allus tole me, “Ever a tool falls off the bench, don’t never try to grab it. It’ll slice your fingers off.” It was something Robin would have to learn and remember because one always instinctively tries to keep something from falling. If a cooper’s tool falls, you must let it fall.

            I couldn’t show Robin my right hand – I didn’t have one – I couldn’t show her Adam’s right hand, which was missing the index finger, from an accident in which he forgot that warning, grabbed for the backing knife as it fell, not only sliced off the finger but hurled the knife against his leg, causing a deep gash that left him unable to walk at all for months and to walk only poorly thereafter. Only once again was he able to try to make the long hike to Stay More, and that, as we’ll see, ended in an accident which kept him at home thereafter, which his father considered a blessing, for two reasons: one, his father despised education and books, and two, Adam was able, once he could walk again, to spend all his time helping his father in the cooperage.

            Nor could I show Robin Adam’s left thumb, which was severely callused from the hammering and driving of the hoops onto barrels. His hands in general were covered with hard skin, although not nearly as bad as his father’s, which were grotesquely callused all over.

            I did not want Robin to get any calluses, let alone cuts. But she was determined to make her firkin. The days were still short, and it grew dark before she had completed the task of dressing the staves, and I half hoped that her enthusiasm for the job might drift away overnight if she got interested in something else. But she returned to the cooperage early the next morning, and it was my painful duty to point out to her that while she had successfully shaped the staves she had not yet jointed them, that is, tapered their sides so they would fit together in a circle. It was hard to explain to a girl so young that backing a stave, which she had done, must be followed up by jointing the stave with the upturned plane called a jointer. And first she had to sharpen the blade of the plane. By the time she had successfully reassembled the plane with the sharpened blade and was ready to use the long-jointer, I had to explain the gauge to her: a two-pronged wooden thingamajig which determines the angle of the each stave to make them fit snuggly into an exact diameter of, in this case, ten inches.

            This here’s the most important job of all, I said, meaning to encourage her, but it seemed to dispirit her.

            She did a fair job of angling the edges of four or five staves, but then her eyes moistened and tears began running down her cheeks and into her work. She returned the jointing plane to the bench and said, “Adam, I don’t think I’m big enough to do this. Would you mind if I waited until I got bigger?”

            Her words touched me. If in habits could weep, I would’ve. Something in her words seemed to suggest a kind of resignation: she truly understood that she would have to go on living here until she grew older and bigger. Or even until she died.

            But the twelve-year-old in habit was somewhat scornful that she could not finish a job that she’d started. I pouted, You was the one who wanted a firkin. I realized the sexual suggestiveness of those words. I rephrased it, You was the one who wanted to be learnt how to make you a little cask. But I, the mature overseer of this whole story, realized the young in habit’s words were saturnine, and I interceded, prompting him to say, But heck, I won’t hold it again ye. Shoot, I’m too little myself to be allowed to try and make a whole barrel. Paw said I caint make a barrel until I’m fifteen or sixteen, but I’m going to make a butter churn when he aint lookin, someday soon. If I can wait a while, so can you.   

            “Thank you, Adam,” she said, and went on back to the house, where she took advantage of her pets being out of doors to spread out her paper doll town of Stay More on the newly-swept floor. But she took one paper doll house and three of the paper dolls and put them not on the floor but on the topmost part of the davenport. “This is the Madewells and their house, way up here on a mountaintop,” she said, in case I was listening. “Someday soon you’ll have to tell me all about them.”

            Any old time, I said.