Though it was an unexpected school holiday, he had gone dutifully home, to see if his uncle and aunt had anything for him to do. Immediately they had put their heads together, their voices rising and falling somewhat querulously beneath the chinaberry tree and blurred a little by the subdued zooming of flies and little bees. Evidently they couldn’t come to any conclusion, but kept bickering futilely as they separated. Aunt Morine scuffled into the house, and Uncle Steve stood looking out toward the hills, seeming actually to stand there half-tilted against the lushly swelling spring day with its rising tide of clean green and cloying odors, into which even the birds seemed to be flying lethargically. “Well, I dunno, Bram,” his uncle said to him at last, “All the necessary work is done . . . .” He left the sentence unfinished, and poked with his shoe at the heavy-leaved weeds on which the fallen tree-blossoms lay like supine stars. “There’s nothing?” he asked hopefully. “No,” his uncle answered, turning slowly. “Nothing, but that don’t mean you’re gonna go wandering off all alone over the hills, moping, keeping everything to yourself, even your breath, like your aunt says. I don’t know why your father brought you up that way. But he was always a lone-goer, too,” he added almost wistfully. And then with more authority in his voice: “It ain’t good for you, Bramford.”
The boy nodded his head, unconvinced, but making that polite gesture of submission they expected of him here. All grown-ups expected it, perhaps because they wouldn’t or couldn’t understand simple ways and desires. As his father had. “Yes,” he said then, making his submission final.
“You a growin’ lad of fourteen,” his uncle continued, again leaving all the significance in the unfinished part of his sentence, as if his purpose had floated away on the air like pollen, “A growin’ lad . . . .”
It was at that moment the six boys came shouting down the road, and then came storming the fence behind which they had spied him and his uncle. “Come on, Bram,” they yelled, “We’re goin’ exploring. He can come, can’t he, Mister Pearcefield?”
The man turned on them pleasantly, grimacing at the ring-leader, Mose Cameron’s boy. “Take ‘im with you, kids,” he said. “Take ‘im off my hands.”
Aside to Bram he added: “Now at least you won’t be skulking around alone, in the midst of snakes and lizards, Upsettin’ your aunt. Now go and have fun with the boys.”
Bram stood studying the boys. They were his own age, except Dizzy Cameron. So he didn’t mind them. They wouldn’t talk dirt, except Dizzy Cameron again. And they’d leave him alone, if he wanted that, all except Dizzy, “Thanks,” he said to his uncle, joining the boys.
They went bouncing up the old wagon path that led into the hills. Jostling each other, and making wild sallies for no reason at all upon a flowering Judas in full bloom, shaking petals off the dogwoods, scaring up a turkey buzzard from the carcass of a rabbit, they continued their way. But it was already warm, and their busy scurrying waned in the slow murmuring mid-morning. Half a mile up, they straggled off the wagon track, and started singing “Carolina Moon” together.
Dizzy Cameron, poking Bram, asked suddenly: “Sounded like the old man was scared lettin’ you go off alone. Why?”
“Snakes and lizards,” he said, interrupting his singing.
“Aw, go on. You can’t tell me that stuff,” Dizzy jeered,
“Then I won’t,” he answered indifferently, singing again.
They weren’t so bad, any of them, not even Dizzy. And Dizzy’s whole trouble was getting grown-up too fast. That’s why he’d rather talk dirt, why he kept his mind glued on dirt rather than on birds, snakes and salamanders, all small living things, Grown-ups didn’t, unless they grew up as his father must have. . . . He started stalking ahead, as if to escape from thinking about his father. Whenever he did, loneliness closed in around him like a fog, even when he was in crowds. He marched ahead with three of the boys, all four falling silent in the warm sun and the slow, all-enclosing perfume of the wild honeysuckle which covered the entire swamp here like a sweet mat.
He didn’t mind them when they were quiet like this. But that wouldn’t last. Now having crossed a creek four times, and traversed two hills, and having reached the rocky ledges that protruded like black, humped beasts from the junglelike undergrowth, he realized that he had actually led them where he had intended to go all the time. Of course, they didn’t know he was leading them. To them it was a desultory trek through swamps, woods, and open spaces, a trek that had no particular direction, that would eventually tire them out, whereupon they’d lie on the grass to rest, and then go back home, sweaty and hungry. Only Dizzy was noisy, drumming a stick on an old bucket he had found. But none of them was really intent on what they were doing. It was a holiday; it was endless; it extended far beyond their immediate thoughts.
They were far past all houses here. The wild honeysuckle was draped wantonly even over high pines and tamaracks. Birds swooped languorously. Plunging into sudden heavy shade, the boys grew noisy again, unconsciously combatting the vast and jealous silence of the trees. Bram stopped them before a brook widening shallowly between weed-jungles. “Take off your shoes and stockings,” he commanded, without intending it as a command.
Obediently three followed his example, two murmured and hesitated, and only Dizzy was raucous, yelling: “Gee, you ain’t gonna make us wade through no snake holes, are you?”
“You don’t have to,” Bram said calmly.
“Think I’m scared, don’t you?” Dizzy shouted.
“I don’t know,” he said, wading out into the shallow brook, letting the cool water slide past his ankles, feeling the black sediment, softer than velvet, beneath his feet. He sucked in his breath from the pleasure of it, not caring if Dizzy followed or not. Glad now he was the first, so his feet could leave slow blue-black clouds in their wake, before the others muddied it all up. They’d come close around him soon, scared of snakes and what not. They’d yell and muddle, and then in a few minutes they’d go back on dry land, relieved . . ..
He was right. They came shouting behind him, jubilantly noisy, tagging closer as he waded farther under the dark undergrowth from which things darted and rustled. “Sure there’s no water moccasins here, is there, Bram?” they asked anxiously.
“Guess not,” he said with studied indifference, aware that they were becoming more quiet and wary as the water deepened. It was Dizzy who was closest behind him now, sloshing noisily, poking at the shore with a stick. He waded on, not looking back. It was dark here, the honeysuckle making a black cavern of the brook. Crows cawed at them to make it all the more cavernous and mysterious. They had fallen completely silent behind him now, and when he turned he saw that only Dizzy was following him still. All the others had climbed stealthily ashore. Dizzy, seeing him turn, said: “Thought I was scared, didn’t you?” “I don’t know,” he said.
Dizzy came abreast him, thrashing the water with his stick, Bram restrained him. “Look.” He pointed at a large snake making a leisurely getaway, dignity in its marvelous undulations.
“Bram, it’s a moccasin,” Dizzy whispered, clutching his arm in fascinated terror.
“Naw,” he started to protest. “Can’t you see the markings? It’s a king snake—” but then, solemnly looking at Dizzy, he added: “Well, supposin’ it is a moccasin? It’s going away from us, isn’t it?”
“It’s a moccasin,” Dizzy gasped, leaping noisily toward shore. “You’re crazy, Bram. You’re as crazy as a coot.” He danced frantically through the tangled weeds toward higher ground, bellowing terror with his young changed voice.
From safe higher ground he looked back at Bram. “Honest, no wonder your uncle thinks you’re batty. No wonder. . . .”
“Aw, there ain’t no moccasins in this neck of Carolina,” Bram said derisively. “Aw, go on. . . .” Losing interest in Dizzy, he started following the snake, keeping pace with it, till it disappeared under the roots of a tree. When he looked back, Dizzy was no longer there. The voices of the others sounded subdued behind the trees. Then they became louder, Dizzy’s raucous barks among them. He smiled. He was alone.
Slowly he trod through the velvety sediment, stepping high to keep the water clear. It was very dark and still here, so that the rustling of the fleeing lizards seemed like greater stillness, and the fanning of birds was a quietness that had somehow gotten wings. He came upon a small eddy with a whole colony of black water snakes, lifting their pensile heads from the slush to watch him, their eyes cobalt-blue scintillations in the deep shadows. “Moccasins,” he murmured in disgust, watching the black snakes. “As if they’d ever seen one. . . .”
The voices of the other boys sounded farther away.’ They were climbing the hill now, he figured. From time to time they shouted his name, half-urgent, half-lost. He didn’t answer. It made his aloneness more complete that his name sounded in the distance, as if he had left it there behind him. He stooped and scooped up a small wriggling salamander and then let it swim on in clearer water, watching its flight. The black snakes moved lazily, each a few inches away from the others, watching him from slightly different places, the farthest with their heads lifted highest. A turtle dragged itself from the mud, its head like a banner over its glossy shell. Silent birds flitted away. One invisible bird shouted mischievously at him with a solemnly benign voice: “Ah-weeh, ahweeh.”
Again they shouted his name from the hidden hill. First six voices at once, then six voices separately. Someone drummed discordantly on the old bucket. Dizzy. All of them scared of snakes. Like grown-ups, ready to kill them, from sheer fear. Like his uncle clubbing that seven foot chicken snake that had been in the henhouse since March, doing no harm, just lying there beautiful and calm on the shelf. His uncle clubbing it, till it was ten times dead . , . his aunt running around, yelling and shrieking: “It’s that boy. You, Bramford Pearcefield, you. Practically living with rats and snakes and lizards. Tell you, Steve, it ain’t good for the boy to have been with his father so long alone , . ,” with so much silly terror in both their faces that they’d better have worn masks.
Contentedly he waded on. Not to grow up. Not in that fashion, he corrected himself, remembering his father. Not to fear, not to make unnecessary noises, unless you had to because they simply welled up in you. Hear and see small things, know them. Know that they watched you, too, thinking you clumsier and bigger than themselves. That’s all. Have dignity like them, his father had said. “Then my heart stood still, on that distant hill.” He sang his father’s song under his breath, his voice no louder than the water’s gurgling. Judas trees showered blossoms, a mocking bird was tediously sonorous. No snakes here; only shoals of fine bright fishes darting everywhere. Then came a dense tangle of honeysuckle and creepers again, and the brook beneath went singing along the black rock ledges from which ferns dangled and spiders hung suspended like grotesque jewels. Far up the hill, accompanied by the drumming on the old bucket, the boys were still shouting his name, as if they were now simply in the habit of doing it, as if they had half forgotten him.
Then the silence had no bird voices contesting it, he realized. He heard only the cantankerous whining of one catbird from among the trees. Lizards made their whispering forages from beneath dead leaves and darted under them again, and here and there the head of a black snake or a turtle watched him. He knew then that everything was poised to an awareness for something alien. Not for him. Not for anything that now indented the silence. Certainly not for the drum’s thudding and the distant cries of the boys, already nostalgically far: “Bram, hey, Bram . . . .”
And then looking up to the ledge, between the trees curtained with creepers, he saw them. The man was sitting up and looking at him. Of the woman only a pair of rundown heels and soles were visible, silly spindly heels and worn soles. He came to a stop in the middle of the brook, staring up at the man. Now the woman was slowly rising, too. He didn’t like their red, shiny faces. Above all he hated them for being there. There were plenty of other places for couples like that, easier to reach, near roads; they needn’t have come here to do their ridiculous mauling.
“What’re you sneaking around here for, kid?” the man demanded.
“What’s he want, anyway?” the woman said thickly, pushing at her hair.
“Damned kid, come sneaking up on us,” the man growled, getting to his feet threateningly.
Slowly Bram waded on. “It ain’t none of your business,” he said under his breath. And louder: “And what are you doing here?”
“Come here and I’ll push your face in,” the man shouted.
“Come here and try it,” he said, not turning till he knew he was far beyond them. For a while longer he heard their voices. Then they fell silent. This had spoiled everything, however. Just the thing Dizzy would have liked to come upon, and talk about for days after. Just the thing fools like that would be carrying out in a spot like this, with millions of other places in which to do their dirty work. He was indignant now, and sulkily he started up the weedy bank of the creek, startling a ground bird. He sat down, letting his bare toes grovel in the soft black silt, and then seeing something move on the opposite bank, he crossed over and found a sluggish toad hiding ridiculously beneath an altogether too small plantain leaf. Far away the boys were still shouting his name, more intermittently now. Eventually he’d have to go and retrieve his shoes. Eventually, too, he’d have to go back to the boys. He looked up at the sweet-gum towering over him with honeysuckle shrouding its stem like a spread skirt.
It wasn’t that he actually wanted to know what they were doing. Certainly he would never talk about it. But there was that strange curiosity nagging at the periphery of his consciousness. To it his thoughts seemed to give very little heed, but his body was already obeying, as he started climbing the gum tree with noiseless dexterity. He went as silently as a savage, his actions actually beating his intentions. At first the tangles of honeysuckle obscured his view, then climbing higher, he could see the dark sheen of the brook, and there, but alone, the woman was lying on her back, her arm across her face, and beside her in the gleam of sunless light, an empty bottle.
“Fools,” he breathed to himself. But where was the man? He did not hear the sound of feet snapping twigs or brushing through undergrowth. The woman was now straightening her skirts and fingering the bottle furtively. Then she yawned, and the light caught on her teeth and lipstick-smeared lips. Near him the catbird scolded. And directly beneath him he saw only the mat of honeysuckle and ivy above which the bees hummed with a great abstract noise that could easily swallow all sounds beneath it. Where was that man?
With sudden clairvoyant apprehension he seemed to know he was in danger. One last look at the woman, who seemed to have fallen asleep, and he stealthily climbed down the tree, sliding as noiselessly as a honey bear. He looked sharply around him as he neared the ground, but saw nothing. Then just as he dropped himself from the lowest branch, as his feet touched the weeds, the man was upon him.
He made no sound. The man pinned his shoulders back against the tree stem, and pushed his red face so close that Bram seemed to inhale the sour liquor breath. “What’d I tell you,” the man growled, so low that his voice was hardly more than a whisper. “So you had to see what was going on. Well, what did you see?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t even shake his head. They were there curtained by the honeysuckle, in fearful dusklike privacy.
“Well, you know what I said I’d do to you?” the fellow threatened. “I could,” he made his voice come insidiously low and lifted one knee and pressed it hard against the boy’s stomach. “I could squeeze your guts out. You sneaking pup. . . .”
Then Bram’s words came slowly, pushed out by violent anger, as he stared up at the fellow: “You just try. You . . . .”
“And you’ll what?” the man taunted, pressing his knee harder. But he tottered a little, unsteady on his one leg in his drunkenness. His lips stayed curled away from his stained teeth, and his breath fanned hotly as he added: “You sneaking cur. . . .”
But those were the last words he said and they became a cut-off croak, not human, choking in his throat, as he lunged backward. The man’s tottering on his one leg had given the boy a cue. Pushing himself violently away from the tree, so that the fellow lost his balance completely, he added a well-aimed kick at the man’s belly. Too hard, because the fellow fell, a lump of impotent flesh, loose arms flaying, now stumbling backward over the algaed rock ledge flanking the brook, and incongruously over it. Then the water splashed, and all that remained visible of him was one foot in a ridiculous canvas shoe, pointing upward from the rock. That foot twitched once or twice and then lay still. Then silence . . . .
Bram breathed hard. He remained standing with his back against the gum tree, staring only at the protruding foot. Not till the catbird scolded again did he step forward to see what had happened. The man lay with his back in the water, which rippled very slowly against him, almost touching the corners of his open mouth. The one foot lay fantastically on the rock ledge, the other was caught behind a tough ivy creeper. With horrified fascination the boy kept staring down. “Serves you right, you fool,” he said tensely, not knowing what to do. He kept watching, tense with terror. The fellow must be dead. Mechanically he moved to free the entangled foot, but he stopped.
The woman was approaching, thrashing through the undergrowth, shouting querulously: “Hank, where the hell are you? I tole you to leave that kid alone, . . . Hank! Hank!” In the pauses, very distantly, he could still hear the boys shouting: “Oh, Bram. Oh, Bram.” The thudding on the bucket continued, like the sound of a tribal drum. The woman came shouting: “Hank, Hank, you damned fool. Don’t you go sneakin’ out on me. . . .”
From the dusk-dark shadows he watched her come closer, a pink print dress through the leaves. He heard her grumble and stand still. His hand still lay two inches away from the man’s caught foot. Below him the slow water eddied against the stupid red face, the mouth fallen open, the tongue curled.
The boy sat taut, in wordless terror. The woman passed by, cursing: “Can’t go sneakin’ out on me, you . . . you lousy drunkard, you. . . .” She stumbled drunkenly on, then started yelling in a piercing voice: “Hank! Hank!”
The catbird above him scolded back at the woman. In the water black snakes curiously watched the half-submerged man. Then he saw the man’s lips move slightly along a grey flickering of teeth. He wasn’t dead! Not yet. The woman went on, shouting the man’s name. Then in mad haste the boy pulled the man’s foot free from the creeper. He sat hunched back in terror watching the fellow’s legs gather themselves onto the fallen torso, as if they were inanimate. His breath stood still. The water churned darkly; the snakes slid away. The knees sank for a while against the body, folded incongruously back. Then the man started groveling, turning, his face stuck deep in the sediment now; but gradually he lifted himself on hands and knees. Then Bram saw where the back of his head must have struck against the rock. He ran.
Scurrying madly through the tangled growth, he dashed in the woman’s direction first. She turned, hearing him. “You, you,” she cried, shaking her finger loosely at him. “You . . . .”
“Better get him,” he yelled hoarsely, pointing back at the creek.
As she came stumbling toward him, he ran again, dashing away from her, and far around her, to the spot where he had left his shoes and stockings. Tucking them beneath his arm, he continued running. His breath pounded the words out of him: “You did. You did. You made me. You could have made me kill you. You did. You fools. . . .”
At last, halfway up the slope, he came to a stop. Below him meandered the brook through the tropical, lush foliage. That fool woman was no doubt tugging the man out of the water by now. The fools, the stupid grown-up fools. He started pulling on his stockings, watching the far hill with a nigger cabin and a man walking behind a mule and over them four buzzards keeling. There was nothing else in the warm blue sky. He put his shoes on then, his eyes riveted unsee-ingly on the toadstools and boletes around him. Miserably he cried a little, pulling angrily at his shoestrings. His thoughts came madly, tripping over each other, leaving no sense or succor. “And they say, don’t be alone,” he murmured bitterly. “Then they say, you’ve gotta grow up, you’ve gotta associate with people. Then they say, quit hanging around with snakes and rats, and . . . .”
Suddenly he jumped to his feet. Far in the distance the boys shouted his name again. The drum thudded, thudded, thudded. Madly he raced now, up one slope, down another, up a still higher one, and from that hill with its small pin oaks he looked down on the boys straggling desultorily among the trees, with Dizzy thudding two sticks on the old bucket, One of them shouted his name again, And at that moment he simply had to outrace his mad feelings, outrace his blood and the pounding of his heart, outrace everything that was cautious and planned and sane . . ..
He leaped, while they were shouting his name again, unaware that he was there. He charged down, like a wild beast, and he was practically upon them before they realized anything. Then five of them stared at him in dumb amazement, while Dizzy kept drumming on his bucket. He roared, as if his voice had suddenly changed, and pounced upon Dizzy, hurtling him to the ground, sending the bucket flying against a tree, “The enemy is upon you,” he bellowed. “Fight or perish! Fight!”
Startled and indignant, Dizzy lay pinned beneath him, his face slowly contorting with fear. “Bram,” he gasped, “for gosh sakes!”
“Gosh, look at Bram!” the others shouted.
He was going to pound the living breath out of Dizzy. He was going to tear him limb from limb. “You, you,” he barked ineptly, and then he jumped to his feet. Dizzy kept lying on the ground, pale and disheveled.
“Gosh, Bram,” one of the youngest boys gasped.
Suddenly he roared with mirthless laughter. Then, shouting madly, he pointed to the highest hill, a bare boulder-studded hill. “Take the hill, boys!” he shouted. “Take the hill, This is war. This is our last stand. Follow me!” His wild voice and fierce eyes were contagious. They stared at him with unalloyed fascination. Then they started shouting, too. “Get ready! Come on! Charge the hill!” he commanded.
“Come on!” they shouted, storming after him. Even Dizzy leaped to his feet and followed. The hill was steep and difficult, hut madly, as if they had taken leave of their senses, they followed Bram. He got to the top first, but they were not far behind. They clustered around him as he raised his arm to the sky, proclaiming: “This hill we claim forever and ever. This hill is for boys only. No grown-up shall ever take it from us.”
“No grown-up shall ever take it from us,” they repeated in solemn intoxication. Even Dizzy joined in with his cracked adolescent voice. They looked at Bram’s face for understanding, for further words.
Then they looked, too, where Bram was looking, down into the lush valley where they had been earlier, where now very distantly two figures were walking through the dark green, one a woman in pink. “They shan’t take it from us,” Bram repeated solemnly.
They repeated it in sing-song incantation.