Four and Twenty Blackbirds


Reprinted by permission from The Western Humanities Review, vol. 27, no. 1, Winter 1973.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

I

The sun was a red hot pancake on Laun’s shoulders. He squirmed. It clung. He caught a fly, let it tickle in his fist for a while, set it free. He watched sadly the big red ant making its roundabout way home across his toes. If Irma were husking too, he could drop it down her neck. Things being what they were, he sent the ant on home and husked another ear of corn. When he became a father he would have a new saddle all carved and a shining shotgun. He saw them in his mind—waiting. He saw them in a wide cornfield without one ear of corn in it. In fact, there was not one ear, even husked, in the whole world. But Pa was there, uncomfortable, looking everywhere for the corn. Seeing Pa’s face put a pinch in the boy’s forehead; it idled his hands and his senses and he did not hear the wagon until it had stopped in front of him.

“Laun!” Papa jumped to the ground. “What gets into you!” It was a judgment, not a question. Laun did not reply. Israel piled the load of corn around his son in a circle of new hills and Laun worked feverishly then, even though he knew Papa was not looking at him, but at how little corn had been husked. Laun had been bad, and again, for good reasons, it mattered like everything.

As Israel drove the team and empty wagon back across the creek his forehead tightened into rigid lines. Between his troubled eyes they deepened into a permanent pinch he did not even know was there. Day upon day from gray dawn to lamp-broken dark the demands on his physical body were too insistent for his mind to piece together even a complaint: You work too hard. Or a fancy: If there is corn to be husked in the kingdom of heaven, I will relinquish my tubful and go with the gentiles.

Israel stripped the stalks with quick, sure hands, his long back lightly bent. Stock will have feed. The family will eat. Winter will—but there were no conscious mind-workings any more except at prayer and on the Sabbath when his worship was total. Six days a week were industry. Industry in a man loved but worried after.

Some folks said that even if the Gordons had plenty, Israel would labor as hard as he did now. He would expect too much of his children, stunt their growth perhaps? With pride and sorrow, folks remembered that pioneering and colonizing had taken the health of a whole generation. Give this generation and their sons and daughters long, healthy lives.

Israel Gordon did not have time to know what they said of him. Doing chores by lamplight, he even missed and never knew he missed the fanciful songs Amy sang as she put the children to bed. Small wonder he could not accept the absurdity of twenty-four blackbirds baked in a pie or understand how a nine-year-old could believe such a thing.

Aching under his pa’s disapproval, Laun had forgotten the scalding sun. He husked for a long time, hours maybe, as if Pa were right there. He did not even see the blackbirds fly into Brother Nyman’s poplars. But he heard something—a rustle? a caw?—and he looked up and there they were, hundreds of them, maybe millions. Sing a song of sixpence—blackbird pie. In an instant he was in the upstairs bedroom window, a 12-guage shotgun with eight inches of its barrel sawed off aimed at a million blackbirds. Out of sight beyond them was Frank Nyman’s front window.

Forty dead blackbirds slept in a community grave. Payment for the window promised, Frank Nyman snored soundly in his bed. Even Laun was in happy dreams despite an empty stomach and a sore bottom. Amy herself longed to rest and could have except for the tossing form at her side.

“Go to sleep, Papa. Please.”

Sleep? We have a disobedient child and she wants to sleep? “If a child is working, he doesn’t get into mischief, Amy. He should have been working. Why wasn’t he?”

“I don’t know. It is easier for some children to mind. And he wanted a blackbird pie.”

“He wanted the corn to husk itself!” Israel sat up. “But it doesn’t. Thank heaven it doesn’t!” He sat stiff and silent and he thought. When an answer finally came, he sighed and lay down.

“Amy, there is only one thing to do. When the corn is done, I’ll take Laun up to Main Canyon with a bunch of Grandpa’s ewes and lambs. A week of herding will make the boy responsible.”

Within moments Israel had gone to sleep. Amy was still wide awake when he went out to milk at five in the morning.

II

What was it about this canyon? Israel rode alone, hearing nothing in the wide dusk but silence itself, silence complete, and kindly. As he arched the last hill the silence brushed his skin. Then suddenly like a whip descended the hundred months—maybe two hundred—that he had spent on these same hillsides. Out of them a mountain of memory distilled into sudden emotion. He straightened in the saddle and spurred the animal beneath him. To be the boy! To be becoming again! When he finally saw his son stacking firewood beside the wagon, he saw only himself, and for an instant he would have died to make the vision true.

“Whoa. Whoa there!”

The boy whirled about.

“You don’t need all that firewood, Laun. We’re going home.”

Laun still stood there, unmoving.

“It’s me. It’s Papa!” Israel stepped into the firelight and now the boy laughed and his arms were tight around Israel’s waist. Israel looked about him. The pile of kindling showed care, attention to the chopping as well as the stacking. Through the wagon door Israel saw the floor had been swept, the bed made, the old tear in the bed covering mended. In the doorway was the lantern, its chimney as shiny as a new dollar.

“Hey, hey now, Son!” The boy would not let go. When had he hugged Israel last? or been hugged? Israel could not remember, but he let his fingers slide through the boy’s hair and rest awkwardly on his shoulders. Every time Laun laughed aloud, he squeezed tighter and Israel knew he ought to say something loving. Perhaps he should chide the boy about being so strong or pretend to be suffocating. Instead he carefully freed himself and smiled down at his son.

“You’re a sheep herder, now, Son. How are the sheep?”

“I didn’t lose a one, Papa.”

“Then why don’t you make supper while I go look at them. All right? Have you beans cooked?”

“Oh, yes!”

Israel saw the herd and knew the boy had become responsible. The two ate supper together, beans and biscuits and spring water. Israel felt good and he showed his pleasure. “Mama is fine. So are the little girls. Irma has eczema but she promises not to give it to you if you will come home.”

Laun laughed again. “I don’t think I can wait. It’s like Christmas.”

Israel stood. Yes, it was. He took his bed roll and flung it on the ground. “We better go to bed so we can make an early start.” He spread out his quilts.

“Aren’t you going to sleep in the wagon?”

“You’re the sheep herder, Laun. The wagon is yours tonight.”

“But, Papa, we can both sleep inside.”

“I have my quilts, Son. See? No reason to be crowded.”

“Please, Papa. I won’t wiggle. I promise. Please!”

Israel rolled up his bedding and they slept side by side, barely touching, on the narrow bed.

As they rode out at daybreak, Laun kept looking back.

“What is it, Son?”

“We’re leaving the sheep alone!”

“I told you. Grandpa will send someone for them.”

“But Papa! If he doesn’t come right away—”

“Shhh. The sheep will be all right.”

From the end of the street they saw Amy at the gate, and suddenly Laun was to the ground and running into her arms. Israel stopped at the corral. “He did well, Amy,” he shouted. “Wait until I tell you!” He took care of the horse, then hurried smiling to where Amy and the boy stood. “Amy, this boy of ours, this boy—”

She was already nodding yes, an impatient, pleading nod for silence, but she was looking at the boy. Israel saw the moisture gather in her eyes. “Amy?” She did not answer. Laun hung to her but he was not squeezing and laughing as he had done the night before. Soft, reluctant sobs shook his body. Israel watched dumbly, his hands in and out of his pockets, his joy of a moment ago violated. Now Amy was on her knees beside Laun, pulling off his shoes, holding his blistering feet in the caress of those gentle hands.

Israel had not noticed the blisters. Why should he? Blisters were not hard to come by! But he saw them now. They were red and raw and pitted with dirt. Slowly he felt them, where he stood, and the pain became a memory. That first time out with the sheep you walked around them and around them, bundling them too much, fearing for them too much. From dawn to dusk you walked a circle, as if you needed to, for fear. You raised burning blisters by the dozens before experience taught you that you were foolish for it. Why hadn’t someone told you? Because some things need to be learned first hand to be understood. And they had to be learned gradually. “He’ll learn, Amy! He’ll learn it! He’s all right!”

You walked and walked. Then you went back to camp and slept in your clothes. But before you slept you chopped more kindling than you needed. You mended bedding. You swept the floor twice and you lined up the cans and utensils in perfect rows. Last, last of all, you set to polishing the lantern chimney. Fascinated with its form, its transparency, you made it glow, hypnotized yourself into drowziness. Then you slept, still lonesome. Lonesomeness was a ghost in your wagon door in the middle of the night—or in the day—a constant painful surprise. The sunlight never sent it completely away.

Two long strides and Israel was bending over the boy. Touch him! Explain to him! Now!

But without doing it, Israel straightened and backed away. He was not this boy. Had his own ma needed to hold his feet, soothe them with her hands? Had she wept over him because he was pale? Had he cried? Why, this boy even howled if he got sent to bed without his bread and milk! Yes, herding was worse, but it was a kindness after all, not a punishment!

“Raise up, Laun. Come on now, Laun, raise up!” The boy did it, his eyes on Israel all the while. They were not the eyes of a friend.

Israel did not follow Amy and Laun into the house. He took the bucket from inside the screen porch and hurried back to the barn. Molly was already calling to be milked and as he attended to her suffering, half-watched the warm, white arrows foam in the pail he tried to lay his mind on a clear thought. “Sooooo. Soooooooo, Molly.” He did not blame her for fidgeting. Tonight his hands were clumsy, as if they belonged to somebody else.

Israel frowned at his legs, legs so long he had to kneel to get comfortable on the milk stool, then fold them to the sides like chicken wings. His own pa wasn’t all leg. Grandpa was sturdy, tight. And he was certain of his children. Before even one house had been begun at Willow Flat, before a one of his sons, hard as they worked, had an extra suit of clothes, his pa had sat one afternoon on the wide cook stove and said he wanted to talk. He always sat on the stove if the fire was out and if he had time to sit and if he had something to say to his family. The fire had never been built that day because it was reunion time and fixings for celebrations that big were always made the day before.

Papa had sat and leaned forward without even resting his elbows anywhere. Israel’s knees were always in the way when he sat, demanding elbows, and at family prayer he had to kneel in the doorway to avoid cracking against the wall. But Papa had sat there as if pulled forward and held by his own strength. “I have a suggestion to make,” he had said. “And it’s a good one. It’s right. We will start a town, have our own community. We’ll build it down on the flat. Our children can have their own school and our women can have neighbors close enough for daily assistance and comfort. All right?”

Israel saw Grandpa sitting there surrounded by men who felt the claim a piece of ground put on a man, men who had minded their pa, who had kept every last one of them free of worldly temptation and idleness. Even before the first house was finished, the town had been named and the school block dedicated and cleared.

How did a man come by Pa’s certainty? Some men had sturdy, tight bodies; some were lanky, long. That couldn’t matter, could it? You had children. You reared them right or you didn’t. If you didn’t, everything was nothing. Your own strength became a handful of air, if not a mockery, unless your children were good.

For the first time in his life, Israel contemplated failure. He had seen it in the eyes of his son and he knew that a mistake had been made and that perhaps he—not Laun—had made it. But how? and when! He forgot Molly and the cumbersome knees and sank to the ground. Papa had nine sons. So far, he had one.

When the sun had gone down and the milking and other chores had been completed, Israel walked back to the house. As he stepped inside he saw by the clock that Amy ought to be downstairs by now. The children ought to be asleep. But the kitchen and parlor were empty and from the top of the stairs he heard a note or two of a nursery rhyme.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Howard Post