Chapter Seven – Altar
Alvin Junior wasn't scared when he saw the beam falling, and he wasn't scared when it crashed to the floor on either side. But when all the grown-ups started carrying on like the Day of Rapture, a-hugging him and talking in whispers, then he got scared. Grown-ups had a way of doing things for no reason at all.
Like the way Papa was setting on the floor by the fire, just studying the split pieces of the shivered ridgepole, the piece of wood that sprung under the weight of the ridgebeam and sent it all crashing down. When Mama was being herself, not Papa or nobody could bring big old pieces of split and dirty wood into her house. But today Mama was as crazy as Papa, and when he showed up toting them big old splinters of wood, she just bent over, rolled up the rug, and got herself out of Papa's way.
Well, anybody who didn't know to get out of Papa's way when he had that look on his face was too dumb to live. David and Calm was lucky, they could go off to their own houses on their own cleared land, where their own wives had their own suppers cooking and they could decide whether to be crazy or not. The rest of them weren't so lucky. With Papa and Mama being crazy, the rest of them had to be crazy, too. Not one of the girls fought with any of the others, and they all helped fix supper and clean up after without a word of complaint. Wastenot and Wantnot went out and chopped wood and did the evening milking without so much as punching each other in the arm, let alone getting in a wrestling match, which was right disappointing to Alvin Junior, seeing as how he always got to wrestle the loser, which was the best wrestling he ever got to do, them being eighteen years old and a real challenge, not like the boys he usually hunkered down with. And Measure, he just sat there by the fire, whittling out a big old spoon for Mama's cooking pot, never so much as looking up– but he was waiting, just like the others, for Papa to come back to his right self and yell at somebody.
The only normal person in the house was Calvin, the three-year-old. The trouble was that normal for him meant tagging along after Alvin Junior like a kitten on a mouse's trail. He never came close enough to play with Alvin Junior, or to touch him or talk to him or anything useful. He was just there, always there at the edge of things, so Alvin would look up just as Calvin looked away, or catch a glimpse of his shirt as he ducked behind a door, or sometimes in the dark of night just hear a faint breathing that was closer than it ought to be, which told him Calvin wasn't lying on his cot, he was standing right there by Alvin's bed, watching. Nobody ever seemed to notice it. It had been more than a year since Alvin gave up trying to get him to stop. If Alvin Junior ever said, “Ma, Cally's pestering me,” Mama would just say, “Al Junior, he didn't say a thing, he didn't touch you, and if you don't like him just standing quiet as a body could ask, well, that's just too bad for you, because it suits me fine. I wish certain other of my children could learn to be as still.” Alvin figured that it wasn't that Calvin was normal today, it's that the rest of the family had just come up to his regular level of craziness.
Papa just stared and stared at the split wood. Now and then he'd fit it together the way it was. Once he spoke, real quiet. “Measure, you sure you got all them pieces?”
Measure said, “Ever single bit, Pa, I couldn't've got more with a broom. I couldn't've got more if I'd bent down and lapped it up like a dog.”
Ma was listening, of course. Papa once said that when Ma was paying attention, she could hear a squirrel fart in the woods a half mile away in the middle of a storm with the girls rattling dishes and the boys all chopping wood. Alvin Junior wondered sometimes if that meant Ma knew more witchery than she let on, since one time he sat in the woods not three yards away from a squirrel for more than an hour, and he never heard it so much as belch.
Anyway, she was right there in the house tonight, so of course she heard what Papa asked, and she heard what Measure answered, and her being as crazy as Papa, she lashed out like as if Measure had just taken the name of the Lord. “You mind your tongue, young man, because the Lord said unto Moses on the mount, honor your father and mother that your days may be long on the land which the Lord your God has given you, and when you speak fresh to your father then you are taking days and weeks and even years off your own life, and your soul is not in such a condition that you should welcome an early visit to the judgment bar to meet your Savior and hear him say your eternal fate!”
Measure wasn't half so worried about his eternal fate as he was worried about Mama being riled at him. He didn't try to argue that he wasn't talking smart or being sassy– only a fool would do that when Mama was already hot. He just started in looking humble and begging her pardon, not to mention the forgiveness of Papa and the sweet mercy of the Lord. By the time she was done with ragging him, poor Measure had already apologized a half a dozen times, so that she finally just grumped and went back to her sewing.
Then Measure looked up at Alvin Junior and winked.
“I saw that,” said Mama, “and if you don't go to hell, Measure, I'll get up a petition to Saint Peter to send you there.”
“I'd sign that petition myself,” said Measure, looking meek as a puppy dog that just piddled on a big man's boot.
“That's right you would,” said Mama, “and you'd sign it in blood, too, because by the time I'm through with you there'll be enough open wounds to keep ten clerks in bright red ink for a year.”
Alvin Junior couldn't help himself. Her dire threat just struck him funny. And even though he knew he was taking his life in his hands, he opened up his mouth to laugh. He knew that if he laughed he'd have Mama's thimble hard on his head, or maybe her hand clapped hard on his ear, or even her hard little foot smashed right down on his bare foot, which she did once to David the time he told her she should have learnt the word no sometime before she had thirteen mouths to cook for.
This was a matter of life and death. This was more frightening than the ridgebeam, which after all never hit him, which was more than he could say for Mama. So he caught that laugh before it got loose, and he turned it into the first thing he could think of to say.
“Mama,” he said, “Measure can't sign no petition in blood, cause he'd already be dead, and dead people don't bleed.”
Mama looked him in the eye and spoke slow and careful. “They do when I tell them to.”
Well, that did it. Alvin Junior just laughed out loud. And that set half the girls to laughing. Which made Measure laugh. And finally Mama laughed, too. They all just laughed and laughed till they were mostly crying and Mama started sending people upstairs to bed, including Alvin Junior.
All the excitement had Alvin Junior feeling pretty spunky, and he hadn't figured out yet that sometimes he ought to keep all that jumpiness locked up tight. It happened that Matilda, who was sixteen and fancied herself a lady, was walking up the stairs right in front of him. Everybody hated walking anywhere behind Matilda, she took such delicate, ladylike steps. Measure always said he'd rather walk in line behind the moon, cause it moved faster. Now Matilda's backside was right in Al Junior's face, swaying back and forth, and he thought of what Measure said about the moon, and reckoned how Matilda's backside was just about as round as the moon, and then he got to wondering what it would be like to touch the moon, and whether it would be hard like a beetle's back or squishy as a slug. And when a boy six years old who's already feeling spunky gets a thought like that in his head, it's not even half a second till his finger is two inches deep in delicate flesh.
Matilda was a real good screamer.
Al might have got slapped right then, except Wastenot and Wantnot were right behind him, saw the whole thing, and laughed so hard at Matilda that she started crying and fled on up the stairs two steps at a time, not ladylike at all. Wastenot and Wantnot carried Alvin up the stairs between them, so high up he got a little dizzy, singing that old song about St. George killing the dragon, only they sang it about St. Alvin, and where the song usually said something about poking the old dragon a thousand times and his sword didn't melt in the fire, they changed sword to finger and made even Measure laugh.
“That's a filthy filthy song!” shouted ten-year-old Mary, who stood guard outside the big girls' door.
“Better stop singing that song,” said Measure, “before Mama hears you.”
Alvin Junior could never understand why Mama didn't like that song, but it was true that the boys never sang it where she could hear. The twins stopped singing and clambered up the ladder to the loft. At that moment the door to the big girls' room was flung open and Matilda, her eyes all red from crying, stuck her head out and shouted, “You'll be sorry!”
“Ooh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” Wantnot said in a squeaky voice.
Only then did Alvin remember that when the girls set out to get even, he would be the main victim. Calvin was still considered the baby, so he was safe enough, and the twins were older and bigger and there was always two of them. So when the girls got riled, Alvin was first in line for their deadly wrath. Matilda was sixteen, Beatrice was fifteen, Elizabeth was fourteen, Anne was twelve, Mary was ten, and they all preferred picking on Alvin to practically any other recreation that the Bible would permit. One time when Alvin was tormented past endurance and only Measure's strong arms held him back from hot-blooded murder with a hayfork, Measure allowed as how the punishments of hell would most likely consist of living in the same house with five women who were all about twice a man's size.
Ever since then, Alvin wondered what sin he committed before he was born to make him deserve to grow up half-damned to start with.
Alvin went into the little room he shared with Calvin and just set there, waiting for Matilda to come and kill him. But she didn't come and didn't come, and he realized that she was probably waiting till after the candies were all out, so that no one would know which of his sisters snuck in and snuffed him out. Heaven knew he'd given them all ample reason to want him dead in the last two months alone. He was trying to guess whether they'd stifle him with Matilda's goosedown pillow– which would be the first time he was ever allowed to touch it– or if he'd die with Beatrice's precious sewing scissors in his heart, when all of a sudden he realized that if he didn't get outside to the privy in about twenty-five seconds he'd embarrass himself right in his trousers.
Somebody was in the privy, of course, and Alvin stood outside jumping and yelling for three minutes and still they wouldn't come out. It occurred to him that it was probably one of the girls, in which case this was the most devilish plan they'd ever come up with, keeping him out of the privy when they knew he was scared to go into the woods after dark. It was a terrible vengeance. If he messed himself he'd be so ashamed he'd probably have to change his name and run away, and that was a whole lot worse than a poke in the behind. It made him mad as a constipated buffalo, it was so unfair.
Finally he was mad enough to make the ultimate threat. “If you don't come out I'll do it right in front of the door so you'll step in it when you come out!”
He waited, but whoever was in there didn't say, “If you do I'll make you lick it off my shoe,” and since that was the customary response, Al realized for the first time that the person inside the privy might not be one of his sisters after all. It was certainly not one of the boys. Which left only two possibilities, each one worse than the other. Al was so mad at himself he smacked his own head with his fist, but it didn't make him feel no better. Papa would probably give him a lick, but even worse would be Mama. She might give him a tongue-lashing, which was bad enough, but if she was in a real vile temper, she'd get that cold look on her face and say real soft, “Alvin Junior, I used to hope that at least one of my boys would be a born gentleman, but now I see my life was wasted,” which always made him feel about as low as he knew how to feel without dying.
So he was almost relieved when the door opened and Papa stood there, still buttoning his trousers and looking none too happy. “Is it safe for me to step out this door?” he asked coldly.
“Yup,” said Alvin Junior.
“Are you sure? There's some wild animals around here that think it's smart to leave their do on the ground outside privy doors. I tell you that if there's any such animal I'll lay a trap and catch it by the back end one of these nights. And when I find it in the morning, I'll stitch up its bung hole and turn it loose to bloat up and die in the woods.”
Papa shook his head and started walking toward the house. “I don't know what's wrong with your bowel, boy. One minute you don't need to go and the next minute you're about to die.”
“Well if you'd just build another outhouse I'd be fine,” Al Junior muttered. Papa didn't hear him, though, because Alvin didn't actually say it till the privy door was closed and Papa'd gone back to the house, and even then he didn't say it very loud.
Alvin rinsed his hands at the pump a long time, because he feared what was waiting for him back in the house. But then, alone outside in the darkness, he began to be afraid for another reason. Everybody said that a White man never could hear when a Red man was walking through the woods, and his big brothers got some fun out of telling Alvin that whenever he was alone outside, especially at night, there was Reds in the forest, watching him, playing with their flint-bladed tommy-hawks and itching to have his scalp. In broad daylight, Al didn't believe them, but at night, his hands cold with the water, a chill ran through him, and he thought he even knew where the Red was standing. Just over his shoulder, back over near the pigsty, moving so quiet that the pigs didn't even grunt and the dogs didn't bark or nothing. And they'd find Al's body, all hairless and bloody, and then it'd be too late. Bad as his sisters were– and they were bad– Al figured they'd be better than dying from a Red man's flint in his head. He fair to flew from the pump to the house, and he didn't look back to see if the Red was really there.
As soon as the door was closed, he forgot his fears of silent invisible Reds. Things were right quiet in the house, which was pretty suspicious to start with. The girls were never quiet till Papa shouted at them at least three times each night. So Alvin walked, up real careful, looking before every step, checking over his shoulder so often he started getting a crick in his neck. By the time he was inside his room with the door closed he was so jittery that he almost hoped they'd do whatever they were planning to do and get it over with.
But they didn't do it and they didn't do it. He looked around the room by candlelight, turned down his bed, looked into every comer, but there was nothing there. Calvin was asleep with his thumb in his mouth, which meant that if they had prowled around his room, it had been a while ago. He began to wonder if maybe, just this once, the girls had decided to leave him be or even do their dirty tricks to the twins. It would be a whole new life for him, if the girls started being nice. Like as if an angel came down and lifted him right out of hell.
He stripped off his clothes quick as he could, folded them, and put them on the stool by his bed so they wouldn't be full of roaches in the morning. He had kind of an agreement with the roaches. They could get into anything they wanted if it was on the floor, but they didn't climb into Calvin's bed or Alvin's neither, and they didn't climb onto his stool. In return, Alvin never stomped them. As a result Alvin's room was pretty much the roach sanctuary of the house, but since they kept the treaty, he and Calvin were the only ones who never woke up screaming about roaches in the bed.
He took his nightgown off its peg and pulled it on over his head.
Something bit him under the arm. He cried out from the sharp pain. Something else bit him on the shoulder. Whatever it was, it was all over inside his nightgown, and as he yanked it off, it kept right on nipping him everywhere. Finally it was off, and he stood there stark naked slapping and brushing with his hands to try to get the bugs or whatever they were off him.
Then he reached down and carefully picked up his nightgown. He couldn't see anything scurrying away from it, and even when he shook it and shook it, nary a bug fell off. Something else fell off. It glinted for a moment in the candlelight and made a tiny twinking sound when it hit the floor.
Only then did Alvin Junior notice the stifled giggling from the room next door. Oh, they got him, they got him sure. He sat on the edge of his bed, picking pins out of his nightgown and poking them into the bottom coRNer of his quilt. He never thought they'd be so mad they'd risk losing one of Mama's precious steel pins, just to get even with him. But he should have known. Girls never did have any bounds of fair play, the way boys did. When a boy knocked you down in a wrestling match, why, he'd either jump on you or wait for you to get back up, and either way you'd be even– both up or both down. But Al knew from painful experience that girls'd kick you when you were down and gang up on you whenever they had the chance. When they fought, they fought in order to end the fight as quick as they could. Took all the fun out of it.
Just like tonight. It wasn't a fair punishment, him poking her with his finger, and them getting him all jabbed up with pins. A couple of those places were bleeding, they stabbed so deep. And Alvin didn't reckon Matilda had so much as a bruise, though he wished she did.
Alvin Junior wasn't mean, no sir. But sitting there on the edge of the bed, taking pins out of his nightgown, he couldn't help but notice the roaches going about their business in the cracks of the floor, and he couldn't help imagining what it would be like if all those roaches just happened to go a-calling in a certain room full of giggles.
So he knelt down on the floor and set the candle right there, and he began whispering to the roaches, just the way he did the day he made his peace treaty with them. He started telling them all about nice smooth sheets and soft squishy skin they could scamper on, and most of all about Matilda's satin pillowcase on her goosedown pillow. But they didn't seem to care about that. Hungry, that's all they are, thought Alvin. All they care about is food, food and fear. So he started telling them about food, the most perfectly delicious food they ever ate in their life. The roaches perked right up and came close to listen, though nary one of them climbed on him, which was right in keeping with the treaty. All the food you ever wanted, all over that soft pink skin. And it's safe, too, not a speck of danger, nothing to worry about, you just go on in there and find the food on that soft pink squishy smooth skin.
Sure enough, a few of the roaches started skittering under Alvin's door, and then more and more of them, and finally the whole troop went off in a single great cavalry charge under the door, through the wall, their bodies shiny and glowing in the candlelight, guided by their eternal insatiable hunger, fearless because Al had told them there wasn't nothing to fear.
It wasn't ten seconds before he heard the first whoop from the room next door. And within a minute the whole house was in such an uproar you'd've thought it was on fire. Girls screaming, boys shouting, and big old boots stomping as Papa rushed up the stairs and squashed roaches. Al was about as happy as a pig in mud.
Finally things started calming down in the next room. In a minute they'd come in to check on him and Calvin, so he blew out the candle, ducked under the covers, and whispered for the roaches to hide. Sure enough, here came Mama's footsteps in the hall outside. Just at the last moment, Alvin Junior remembered that he wasn't wearing his nightgown. He snaked out his hand, snatched the nightgown, and pulled it under the covers just as the door opened. Then he concentrated on breathing easy and regular.
Mama and Papa came in, holding up candles. He heard them pull down Calvin's covers to check for roaches, and he feared they might pull down his as well. That would be such a shameful thing, to sleep like an animal without a stitch on. But the girls, who knew he couldn't possibly be asleep so soon after getting stuck with so many pins, they were naturally afraid of what Alvin might tell Mama and Papa, so they made sure to hustle them out of the room before they could do more than shine a candle in Alvin's face to make sure he was asleep. Alvin held his face absolutely still, not even twitching his eyelids. The candle went away, the door softly closed.
Still he waited, and sure enough, the door opened again. He could hear the padding of bare feet across the floor. Then he felt Anne's breath against his face and heard her whisper in his ear. “We don't know how you did it, Alvin Junior, but we know you set those roaches onto us.”
Alvin pretended not to hear anything. He even snored a little.
“You don't fool me, Alvin Junior. You better not go to sleep tonight, because if you do, you'll never wake up, you hear me?”
Outside the room, Papa was saying, “Where's Anne got to?”
She's in here, Papa, threatening to kill me, thought Alvin. But of course he didn't say it out loud. Anyway, she was just trying to scare him.
“We'll make it look like an accident,” said Anne. “You always have accidents, nobody will think it's murder.”
Alvin was beginning to believe her, more and more.
“We'll carry your body out and stuff it down the privy hole, and they'll all think you went to relieve yourself and fell in.”
That would work, thought Alvin. Anne was just the one to think of something so devilish clever, since she was the very best at secretly pinching people and being a good ten feet away before they screamed. That was why she always kept her fingernails so long and sharp. Even now, Alvin could feel one of those sharp nails scraping along his cheek.
The door opened wider. “Anne,” whispered Mama, “you come out of there this instant.”
The fingernail quit scratching. “I was just making sure little Alvin was all right.” Her bare feet padded back out of the room.
Soon all the doors were closed, and he heard Papa's and Mama's shoes clattering down the stairs.
He knew that by rights he should still be scared to death by Anne's threats, but it wasn't so. He had won the battle. He pictured the roaches crawling all over the girls, and he started to laugh. Well, that wouldn't do. He had to stifle that, breathe calm as could be. His whole body shook from trying to hold in the laughter.
There was somebody in the room.
He couldn't hear anything, and when he opened his eyes he couldn't see anybody. But he knew somebody was there. Hadn't come in the door, so they must've come in the open window. That's plain silly, Alvin told himself, there isn't a soul in here. But he lay still, all laughter gone out of him, because he could feel it, somebody standing there. No, it's a nightmare, that's all, I'm still spooked from thinking about Reds watching me outside, or maybe from Anne's threat, something like that, if I just lie here with my eyes closed it'll go away.
The blackness inside Al's eyelids turned pink. There was a light in his room. A light as bright as daylight. There wasn't no candle in the world, no, not even a lantern that could burn so bright as that. Al opened his eyes, and all his dread turned into terror, for now he saw that what he feared was real.
There was a man standing at the foot of his bed, a man shining as if he was made of sunlight. The light in the room was coming from his skin, from his chest where his shirt was tore open, from his face, and from his hands. And in one of those hands, a knife, a sharp steel knife. I am going to die, thought Al. Just like Anne promised me, only there wasn't no way his sisters could conjure up such an awful apparition as this one. This bright Shining Man had come on his own, that was sure, and planned to kill Alvin Junior for his own sins and not cause somebody else had set him on.
Then it was like as if the light from the man pushed right through Alvin's skin and came inside him, and the fear just went right out of him. The Shining Man might have him a knife, and he might've snuck on into the room without so much as opening a door, but he didn't mean no harm to Alvin. So Alvin relaxed a little and wriggled up in his bed till he was mostly sitting, leaning up against the wall, watching the Shining Man, waiting to see what all he'd do.
The Shining Man took his bright steel knife and brought the blade against his other palm– and cut. Alvin saw the gleaming crimson blood flow from the wound in the Shining Man's hand, stream down his forearm, and drip from his elbow onto the floor. He hadn't seen four drops, though, before he came to see a vision in his mind. He could see his sisters' room, he knew the place, but it was different. The beds were up high, and his sisters were giants, so all he could see clear was big old feet and legs. Then he realized he was seeing a little creature's view of the room. A roach's view. In his vision he was scurrying, filled with hunger, absolutely fearless, knowing that if he could get up onto those feet, those legs, there'd be food, all the food he'd ever want. So he rushed, he climbed, he scurried, searching. But there wasn't no food, not a speck of it, and now huge hands reached and swept him off, and then a great huge shadow loomed over him, and he felt the hard sharp crushing agony of death.
Not once, but many times, dozens of times, the hope of food, the confidence that no harm would come; then disappointment– nothing to eat, nothing at all– and after disappointment, terror and injury and death. Each small trusting life, betrayed, crushed, battered.
And then in his vision he was one who lived, one who got away from the looming, stomping boots, under the beds, into the cracks in the walls. He fled from the room of death, but not into the old place, not into the safe room, because now that was no longer safe. That was where the lies came from. That was the place of the betrayer, the liar, the killer who had sent them into this place to die. There were no words in this vision, of course. There could be no words, no clarity of thought in a roach's brain. But Al had words and thoughts, and he knew more than any roach what the roaches had learned. They had been promised something about the world, they had been made sure of it, and then it was a lie. Death was a fearful thing, yes, flee that room; but in the other room, there was worse than death– there the world had gone crazy, it was a place where anything could happen, where nothing could be trusted, where nothing was certain. A terrible place. The worst place.
Then the vision ended. Alvin sat there, his hands pressed against his eyes, sobbing desperately. They suffered, he cried out silently, they suffered, and I did it to them, I betrayed them. That's what the Shining Man came to show me. I made the roaches trust me, but then I cheated them and sent them to die. I've done murder.
No, not murder! Who ever heard of roach-killing being murder? Nobody in the whole world would call it that.
But it didn't matter what other folks thought of it, Al knew that. The Shining Man had come to show him that murder was murder.
And now the Shining Man was gone. The light was gone from the room, and when Al opened his eyes, there was no one in the room but Cally, fast asleep. Too late even to beg forgiveness. In pure misery Al Junior closed his eyes and cried some more.
How long was it? A few seconds? Or did Alvin doze off and not notice the passage of a much longer time? Never mind how long– the light came back. Once again it came into him, not just through his eyes, but piercing clear to his heart, whispering to him, calming him. Again Alvin opened his eyes and looked at the face of the Shining Man, waiting for him to speak. When he said nothing, Alvin thought it was his turn, and so he stammered out the words, so weak compared to the feelings in his heart. “I'm sorry, I'll never do it again, I'll–”
He was babbling, he knew it, couldn't even hear himself speak he was so upset. But the light grew brighter for a moment, and he felt a question in his mind. Not a word was spoke, mind you, but he knew that the Shining Man wanted him to say what it was he was sorry for.
And when he thought about it, Alvin wasn't altogether sure what all was wrong. Sure it wasn't the killing itself– you could starve to death if you didn't slaughter a pig now and then, and it wasn't hardly murder when a weasel killed himself a mouse, was it?
Then the light pushed at him again, and he saw another vision. Not roaches this time. Now he saw the image of a Red man, kneeling before a deer, calling it to come and die; the deer came, all trembling and its eyes wide, the way they are when they're scared. It knew it was coming to die. The Red loosed him an arrow, and there it stood, quivering in the doe's flank. Her legs wobbled. She fell. And Alvin knew that in this vision there wasn't no sin at all, because dying and killing, they were both just a part of life. The Red was doing right, and so was the deer, both acting according to their natural law.
So if the evil he done wasn't the death of the roaches, what was it? The power he had? His knack for making things go just where he wanted, making them break just in the right place, understanding how things ought to be and helping them get that way? He'd found that right useful, as he made and fixed the things a boy makes and fixes in a rough country household. He could fit the two pieces of a broken hoe handle, fit them so tight that they joined forever without glue or tack. Or two pieces of torn leather, he didn't even have to stitch them; and when he tied a knot in string or rope, it stayed tied. It was the same knack he used with the roaches. Making them understand how things was supposed to be, and then they did what he wanted. Was that his sin, that knack of his?
The Shining Man heard his question before he even found words for it. Here came the push of light, and another vision. This time he saw himself pressing his hands against a stone, and the stone melted like butter under his hands, came out in just the shape he wanted, smooth and whole, fell from the side of the mountain and rolled away, a perfect ball, a perfect sphere, growing and growing until it was a whole world, shaped just the way his hands had made it, with trees and grass springing up on its face, and animals running and leaping and flying and swimming and crawling and burrowing on and above and within the ball of stone that he had made. No, it wasn't a terrible power, it was a glorious one, if he only knew how to use it.
Well if it ain't the dying and it ain't the knack, what did I do wrong?
This time the Shining Man didn't show him a thing. This time Alvin didn't see no burst of light, there wasn't a vision at all. Instead the answer just came, not from the Shining Man but from inside his own self. One second he felt too stupid ever to understand his own wickedness, and then the next second he saw it all as clear as could be.
It wasn't the roaches dying, and it wasn't the fact he made them do it. It was the fact that he made them do it just to suit his own pleasure. He told them it was for their own good, but it wasn't so, it was for Alvin's benefit alone. Harming his sisters, more than harming the roaches, and all so Alvin could lie in his bed shaking with laughter because he got even– The Shining Man heard the thoughts of Alvin's heart, yes sir, and Al Junior saw a fire leap from his gleaming eye and strike him in the heart. He had guessed it. He was right.
So Alvin made the most solemn promise of his whole life, right then and there. He had a knack, and he'd use it, but there was rules in things like that, rules that he would follow even if it killed him. “I'll never use it for myself again,” said Alvin Junior. And when he said the words he felt like his heart was on fire, it burned so hot inside.
The Shining Man disappeared again.
Alvin lay back, slid down under the blanket, exhausted from weeping, weary with relief. He'd done a bad thing, that was so. But as long as he kept this oath he made, as long as he only used his knack to help other people and never ever used it to help himself, why then he would be a good boy and didn't need to be ashamed. He felt lightheaded the way you do coming out of a fever, and that was about right, he had been healed of the wickedness that grew inside him for a spell. He thought of himself laughing when he'd just caused death for his own pleasure, and he was ashamed, but that shame was tempered, it was softened, cause he knew that it would never happen again.
As he lay there, Alvin once again felt the light grow in the room. But this time it didn't come from a single source. Not from the Shining Man at all. This time when he opened his eyes he realized the light was coming from himself. His own hands were shining, his own face must be glowing the way the Shining Man had. He threw off his covers and saw that his whole body glowed with light so dazzling he couldn't hardly bear to look at himself, except that he also couldn't bear to look anywhere else. Is this me? he thought.
No, not me. I'm shining like this because I've also got to do something. Just like the Shining Man did something for me, I've got something to do, too. But who am I supposed to do it for?
There was the Shining Man, visible again at the foot of his bed, but not shining no more. Now Al Junior realized that he knew this man. It was Lolla-Wossiky, that one-eyed whisky-Red who got himself baptized a few days ago, still wearing the White man's clothes they gave him when he turned Christian. With the light inside him now, Alvin saw clearer than he ever did before. He saw that it wasn't likker that poisoned this poor Red man, and it wasn't losing one eye that crippled him. It was something much darker, something growing like a mold inside his head.
The Red man took three steps and knelt beside the bed, his face only a little way from Alvin's eyes. What do you want from me? What am I supposed to do?
For the first time, the man opened his eyes and spoke. “Make all things whole,” he said. A second later, Al Junior realized that the man had said it in his Red language. Shaw-Nee, he remembered, from what the grown-ups said when he was baptized. But Al had understood it plain as if it was the Lord Protector's own English. Make all things whole.
Well, that was Al's knack, wasn't it? Fixing things, making things go the way they were supposed to. Trouble was, he didn't even half understand how he did it, and he surely had no idea how to fix something that was alive.
Maybe, though, he didn't have to understand. Maybe he just had to act. So he lifted his hand, reached out as careful as he could, and touched Lolla-Wossiky's cheek, under the broken eye. No, that wasn't right. He raised his finger until it touched the slack eyelid where the Red man's other eye was supposed to be. Yes, he thought. Be whole.
The air crackled. Light sparked. Al gasped and pulled his hand away.
All the light was gone from the room. Just the moonlight now coming in the window. Not even a glimmer of the brightness was left. Like as if he just woke up from a dream, the strongest dream he ever had in his life.
It took a minute for Alvin's eyes to change so he could see. It wasn't no dream, that was sure. Cause there was the Red man, who had once been the Shining Man. You ain't dreaming when you got a Red man kneeling by your bed, tears coming out of his one good eye, and the other eye, where you just touched him–
That eyelid was still loose, hanging over nothing. The eye wasn't healed. “It didn't work,” whispered Alvin. “I'm sorry.”
It was a shameful thing, that the Shining Man had saved him from awful wickedness, and he hadn't done a thing for him in return. But the Red man said nary a word of reproach. Instead he reached out and took Alvin's naked shoulders in both his large strong hands and pulled him close, kissed him on the forehead, hard and strong, like a father to a son, like brothers, like true friends the day before they die. That kiss and all it held– hope, forgiveness, love– let me never forget that, Alvin said silently.
Lolla-Wossiky sprang to his feet. Lithe as a boy he was, not staggering drunk at all. Changed, he was changed, and it occurred to Alvin that maybe he had healed something, set something right, something deeper than his eyes. Cured him of the whisky-lust, maybe.
But if that was so, Al knew it wasn't himself that done it, it was the light that was in him for a time. The fire that had warmed him without burning.
The Red man rushed to the window, swung over the sill, hung for a moment by his hands, then disappeared. Alvin didn't even hear his feet touch the ground outside, he was that quiet. Like the cats in the barn.
How long had it been? Hours and hours? Would it be daylight soon? Or had it taken only a few seconds since Anne had whispered in his ear and the family had quieted down?
Didn't matter much. Alvin couldn't sleep, not now, not with all that had just happened. Why had this Red man come to him? What did it all mean, the light that filled Lolla-Wossiky and then came to fill him? He couldn't just lie here in bed, all full of wonder. So he got up, slithered into his nightgown as fast as he could, and slipped out of his door.
Now that he was in the hall, he heard talking from downstairs. Mama and Papa were still up. At first he wanted to rush down and tell them what all happened to him. But then he heard the tone of their voices. Anger, fear, all upset. Not a good time to come to them with a tale of a dream. Even if Alvin knew it wasn't a dream at all, that it was real, they'd treat it like a dream. And now that he was thinking straight, he couldn't tell them at all. What, that he sent the roaches into his sisters' room? The pins, the pokes, the threats? All of that would come out too, even though it felt like months, years ago to Alvin. None of it mattered now, compared to the vow he had taken and the future he thought might be in store for him– but it would matter to Mama and Papa.
So he tiptoed down the hall and down the stairs, just close enough to hear, just far enough to be around the comer and out of sight.
After just a few minutes, he forgot about being out of sight, too. He crept farther down, until he could see into the big room. Papa sat on the floor, surrounded with wood. It surprised Al Junior that Papa was still doing that, even after coming upstairs to kill roaches, even after so much time had passed. He was bent over now, his face buried in his hands. Mama knelt in front of him, the biggest hunks of wood between them.
“He's alive, Alvin,” said Mama. “All the rest ain't worth never mind.”
Papa lifted his head and looked at her. “It was water that seeped into the tree and froze and thawed, long before we even cut it down. And we happened to cut it in just such a way that the flaw never showed on the surface. But it was split three ways inside, just waiting for the weight of the ridgebeam. It was water done it.”
“Water,” said Mama, and there was derision in her voice.
“This is fourteen times the water's tried to kill him.”
“Children always get in scrapes.”
“The time you slipped on a wet floor when you were holding him. The time David knocked down the boiling cauldron. Three times when he was lost and we found him on the bank of the river. Last winter when the ice broke on the Tippy-Canoe River–”
“You think he's the first child to fall into the water?”
“The poison water that made him throw up blood. The mud-covered buffalo that charged him in that meadow–”
“Mud-covered. Everybody knows that buffaloes wallow like pigs. It had nothing to do with water.”
Papa slapped his hand down hard on the floor. The sound rang like a gunshot through the house. It startled Mama, and of course she started to look toward the stairs to where the children would be sleeping. Alvin Junior scampered right back up the stairs and waited out of sight for her to order him back to bed. But she must not have seen him, cause she didn't shout anything and nobody came up after him.
When he tiptoed back down, they were still going at it, only a little quieter.
Papa whispered, but there was fire in his eyes. “If you think this doesn't have to do with water, then you're the one that's a lunatic.”
Mama was icy now. Alvin Junior knew that look– it was the maddest Mama knew how to get. No slaps then, no tongue-lashings. Just coldness and silence, and any child who got that treatment ftom her began to long for death and the tortures of hell, because at least it would be warmer.
With Papa she wasn't silent, but her voice was terrible cold. “The Savior himself drank water from the Samaritan well.”
“I don't recollect that Jesus fell down that well, neither,” said Papa.
Alvin Junior thought of hanging onto the well bucket, falling down into the darkness, until the rope bound up on the windlass and the bucket stopped just above the water, where he would have drowned for certain. They told him he wasn't yet two years old when that happened, but he still dreamed sometimes about the stones that lined the inside of the well, getting darker and darker as he went down. In his dreams the well was ten miles deep and he fell forever before waking up.
“Then think of this, Alvin Miller, since you think you know scripture.”
Papa started to protest that he didn't think nothing of the kind.
“The devil hisself said to the Lord in the desert that the angels would bear Jesus up lest he dash his foot against a stone.”
“I don't know what that has to do with water–”
“It's plain that if I married you for brains I was plumb cheated.”
Papa's face turned red. “Don't you call me no simpleton, Faith. I know what I know and–”
“He has a guardian angel, Alvin Miller. He has someone watching out for him.”
“You and your scriptures. You and your angels.”
“You tell me why else he had those fourteen accidents and not one of them so much as gave him a scrape on his arm. How many other boys get to six years old without no injury?”
Papa's face looked strange then, twisted up a little, as if it was hard for him to speak at all. “I tell you that there's something wants him dead. I know it.”
“You don't know any such thing.”
Papa spoke even slower, biting out the words as if each one caused him pain. "I know. "
He had such a hard time talking that Mama just went on and talked right over him. “If there's some devil plot to kill him– which I ain't saying, Alvin– then there's an even stronger heavenly plan to preserve him.”
Then, suddenly, Papa didn't have no trouble talking at all. Papa just gave up saying the hard thing, and Alvin Junior felt let down, like when somebody said uncle before they even got throwed. But he knew, the minute he thought about it, that his papa wouldn't give up like that lessen it was some terrible force stopping him from speaking up. Papa was a strong man, not a bit cowardly. And seeing Papa beat down like that, well, it made the boy afraid. Little Alvin knew that Mama and Papa were talking about him, and even though he didn't understand half what they said, he knew that Papa was saying somebody wanted Alvin Junior dead, and when Papa tried to tell his real proof, the thing that made him know, something stopped his mouth and kept him still.
Alvin Junior knew without a word being said that whatever it was stopped Papa's mouth, it was the plain opposite of the shining light that had filled Alvin and the Shining Man tonight. There was something that wanted Alvin to be strong and good. And there was something else that wanted Alvin dead. Whatever the good thing was, it could bring visions, it could show him his terrible sin and teach him how to be shut of it forever. But the bad thing, it had the power to shut Papa's mouth, to beat down the strongest, best man Al Junior ever knew or heard of. And that made Al afraid.
When Papa went on with his arguments, his seventh son knew that he wasn't using the proof that counted. “Not devils, not angels,” said Papa, “it's the elements of the universe, don't you see that he's an offense against nature? There's power in him like you nor I can't even guess. So much power that one part of nature itself can't bear it– so much power that he protects hisself even when he don't know he's doing it.”
“If there's so much power in being seventh son of a seventh son, then where's your power, Alvin Miller? You're a seventh son– that ain't nothing, supposedly, but I don't see you doodlebugging or–”
“You don't know what I do–”
“I know what you don't do. I know that you don't believe–”
“I believe in every true thing–”
“I know that every other man is down at the commons building that fine church, except for you–”
“That preacher is a fool–”
“Don't you ever think that maybe God is using your precious seventh son to try to wake you up and call you to repentance?”
“Oh, is that the kind of God you believe in? The kind what tries to kill little boys so their papas will go to meeting?”
“The Lord has saved your boy, as a sign to you of his loving and compassionate nature–”
“The love and compassion that let my Vigor die–”
“But someday his patience will run out–”
“And then he'll murder another of my sons.”
She slapped his face. Alvin Junior saw it with his own eyes. And it wasn't the offhand kind of cuffing she gave her sons when they lipped or loafed around. It was a slap that like to took his face off, and he fell over to sprawl on the floor.
“I'll tell you this, Alvin Miller.” Her voice was so cold it burned. “If that church is finished, and there's none of your handiwork in it, then you will cease to be my husband and I will cease to be your wife.”
If there were more words, Alvin Junior didn't hear them. He was up in his bed a-trembling that such a terrible thought could be thought, not to mention being spoke out loud. He had been afraid so many times tonight, afraid of pain, afraid of dying when Anne whispered murder in his ear, and most of all afraid when the Shining Man came to him and named his sin. But this was something else. This was the end of the whole universe, the end of the one sure thing, to hear Mama talk about not being with Papa anymore. He lay there in his bed, all kinds of thoughts dancing in his head so fast he couldn't lay hold of any one of them, and finally in a that confusion there wasn't nothing for it but to sleep.
In the morning he thought maybe it was all a dream, it had to be a dream. But there were new stains on the floor at the foot of his bed, where the blood of the Shining Man had dripped, so that wasn't a dream. And his parents' quarrel, that wasn't no dream neither. Papa stopped him after breakfast and told him, “You stay up here with me today, Al.”
The look on Mama's face told him plain as day that what was said last night was still meant today.
“I want to help on the church,” Alvin Junior said. “I ain't afraid of no ridgebeams.”
“You're going to stay here with me, today. You're going to help me build something.” Papa swallowed, and stopped himself from looking at Mama. “That church is going to need an altar, and I figure we can build a right nice one that can go inside that church as soon as the roof is on and the walls are up.” Papa looked at Mama and smiled a smile that sent a shiver up Alvin Junior's back. “You think that preacher'll like it?”
That took Mama back, it was plain. But she wasn't the kind to back off from a wrestling match just because the other guy got one throw, Alvin Junior knew that much. “What can the boy do?” she asked. “He ain't no carpenter.”
“He's got a good eye,” said Papa. “If he can patch and tool leather, he can put some crosses onto the altar. Make it look good.”
“Measure's a better whittler,” said Mama.
“Then I'll have the boy burn the crosses in.” Papa put his hand on Alvin Junior's head. “Even if he sits here all day and reads in the Bible, this boy ain't going down to that church till the last pew is in.”
Papa's voice sounded hard enough to carve his words in stone. Mama looked at Alvin Junior and then at Alvin Senior. Finally she turned her back and started filling the basket with dinner for them as was going to the church.
Alvin Junior went outside to where Measure was hitching the team and Wastenot and Wantnot were loading roof shakes onto the wagon for the church.
“You aim to stand inside the church again?” asked Wantnot.
“We can drop logs down on you, and you can split them into shakes with your head,” said Wastenot.
“Ain't going,” said Alvin Junior.
Wastenot and Wantnot exchanged identical knowing looks.
“Well, too bad,” said Measure. “But when Mama and Papa get cold, the whole Wobbish Valley has a snowstorm.” He winked at Alvin Junior, just the way he had last night, when it got him in so much trouble.
That wink made Alvin figure he could ask Measure a question that he wouldn't normally speak right out. He walked over closer, so his voice wouldn't carry to the others. Measure caught on to what Alvin wanted, and he squatted down right there by the wagon wheel, to hear what Alvin had to say.
“Measure, if Mama believes in God and Papa doesn't, how do I know which one is right?”
“I think Pa believes in God,” said Measure.
“But if he don't. That's what I'm asking. How do I know about things like that, when Mama says one thing and Papa says another?”
Measure started to answer something easy, but he stopped himself– Alvin could see in his face how he made up his mind to say something serious. Something true, instead of something easy. “Al, I got to tell you, I wisht I knew. Sometimes I figure ain't nobody knows nothing.”
“Papa says you know what you see with your eyes. Mama says you know what you feel in your heart.”
“What do you say?”
“How do I know, Measure? I'm only six.”
“I'm twenty-two, Alvin, I'm a growed man, and I still don't know. I reckon Ma and Pa don't know, neither.”
“Well, if they don't know, how come they get so mad about it?”
“Oh, that's what it means to be married. You fight all the time, but you never fight about what you think you're fighting about.”
“What are they really fighting about?”
Alvin could see just the opposite thing this time. Measure thought of telling the truth, but he changed his mind. Stood up tall and tousled Alvin's hair. That was a sure sip to Alvin Junior that a grown-up was going to lie to him, the way they always lied to children, as if children weren't reliable enough to be trusted with the truth. “Oh, I reckon they just quarrel to hear theirselfs talk.”
Most times Alvin just listened to grown-ups lie and didn't say nothing about it, but this time it was Measure, and he especially didn't like having Measure lie to him.
“How old will I have to be before you tell me straight?” asked Alvin.
Measure's eyes flashed with anger for just a second– nobody likes being called a liar– but then he grinned, and his eyes were sharp with understanding. “Old enough that you already guess the answer for yourself,” he said, “but young enough that it'll still do you some good.”
“When's that?” Alvin demanded. “I want you to tell me the truth now, all the time.”
Measure squatted down again. “I can't always do that, Al, cause sometimes it'd just be too hard. Sometimes I'd have to explain things that I just don't know how to explain. Sometimes there's things that you have to figure out by living long enough.”
Alvin was mad and he knew his face showed it.
“Don't you be so mad at me, little brother. I can't tell you some things because I just don't know myself, and that's not lying. But you can count on this. If I can tell you, I will, and if I can't, I'll just say so, and won't pretend.”
That was the most fair thing a grown-up ever said, and it made Alvin's eyes fill up. “You keep that promise, Measure.”
“I'll keep it or die, you can count on that.”
“I won't forget, you know.” Alvin remembered the vow he had made to the Shining Man last night. “I know how to keep a promise, too.”
Measure laughed and pulled Alvin to him, hugged him right against his shoulder. “You're as bad as Mama,” he said. “You just don't let up.”
“I can't help it,” said Alvin. “If I start believing you, then how'll I know when to stop?”
“Never stop,” said Measure.
Calm rode up on his old mare about then, and Mama came out with the dinner basket, and everybody that was going, went. Papa took Alvin Junior out to the barn and in no time at all Alvin was helping notch the boards, and his pieces fit together just as good as Papa's. Truth to tell they fit even better, cause Al could use his knack for this, couldn't he? This altar was for everybody, so he could make the wood fit so snug that it wouldn't ever come apart, not at the joints or nowhere. Alvin even thought of making Papa's joints fit just as tight, but when he tried, he saw that Papa had something of a knack at this himself. The wood didn't join together to make one continuous piece, like Alvin's did– but it fit good enough, yes sir, so there wasn't no need to fiddle.
Papa didn't say much. Didn't have to. They both knew Alvin Junior had a knack for making things fit right, just like his Papa did. By nightfall the whole altar was put together and stained. They left it to dry, and as they walked into the house Papa's hand was firm on Alvin's shoulder. They walked together just as smooth and easy as if they were both parts of the same body, as if Papa's hand just growed there right out of Alvin's neck. Alvin could feel the pulse in Papa's fingers, and it was beating right in time with the blood pounding in his throat.
Mama was working by the fire when they came in. She turned and looked at them. “How is it?” she asked.
“It's the smoothest box I ever seen,” said Alvin Junior.
“There wasn't a single accident at the church today,” said Mama.
“Everything went real good here, too,” said Papa.
For the life of him Alvin Junior couldn't figure out why Mama's words sounded like “I ain't going nowhere,” and why Papa's words sounded like “Stay with me forever.” But he knew he wasn't crazy to think so, cause right then Measure looked up from where he lay all sprawled out afore the fire and winked so only Alvin Junior could see.