By William E. Barrett
There is a young legend developing on the west side of the mountains. It will, inevitably, grow with the years. Like all legends, it is composed of falsehood and fact. In this case, the truth is more compelling than the trappings of imagination with which it has been invested. The man who has become a legendary figure was, perhaps, of greater stature in simple reality than he ever will be in the oft-repeated, and expanded tales. Which commemorate his deed. Here, before the whole matter gets out of hand, is how it was?
His name was Homer Smith. He was twenty-four. He stood six foot two and his skin was a deep, warm black. He had large, strong features and widely spaced eyes. A sculptor would have interpreted the features in terms of character, but Homer Smiths mother had once said of him that he was two parts amiable and one part plain devil. It was a verdict that he accepted, as he accepted, the days that came to him. He lived his life one day at a time. There was laughter in him.
He was a buck sergeant when he received his Army discharge at Fort Lewis . The Army years had been good to him and he had accumulated a sum of money through some slight thrift, much moonlighting and occasional gambling luck. He bought a secondhand station wagon in Seattle , equipped it for sleeping, and started out to see the West. He had not believed much of what he heard in the Army and he did not believe the tales that Westerners told about their county; he was, however, a curious man.
On a morning in May, Homer Smith drove into a valley west of the Rocky Mountain Range. Spring, which had stood aloof from him on the higher levels, moved down the valley to meet him. Blue, yellow, and pink flowers twinkled in the tawny expanse of buffalo and grama grass. He had grown up in South Carolina , a far different land from this. On his left, as he drove south, blue- and purple-tinted mountains tipped with snow formed a seemingly unbroken barrier against the East, and everything that the East represented. In this county, he had discovered, there was no South; south?was merely an adjective prefixed to the noun west.?/font>
Where the road curved away from the mountains to parallel a narrow, sluggish stream, he saw the women. One of them was working in an area of cultivated land and three more were building a fence behind a dilapidated farmhouse. There were no men visible and that was curious. The women wore bulky-looking garments and they had white cloths tied, scarf fashion, around their heads. Homer appraised the house and the out-building with one glance.
Place needs a lot of work,?he said.
He hadnt worked for a week. It wasnt necessary that he work unless he felt the urge. In that fact lay a new concept of freedom. He was a man of many skills and when he became restless with idle traveling, he had no difficulty in finding work to do; when work became onerous, or the road called to him, he moved on. Impulse turned the wheel and he drove into the badly rutted road, which led to the farmhouse.
The woman in the field paused briefly to look toward the station wagon and so did the three women who were building a fence; a mere turning of heads, a brief pause before resuming the tasks, which occupied them. The short, squat older woman who walked into the sunlight from the direction of the chicken run stood and watched Homer as he braked to a stop and slid from under the wheel. He chuckled in recognition of a familiar type. This was the sergeant, the top, the boss of these other women. No doubt about it.
If you need a days work done,?he said cheerfully, I am for hire.?/font>
The woman had a hard, weather-beaten look. There were many deep lines on the broad surface of her face. Her eyes were small and sharply intent. She measured Homer before she spoke. She had a deep, guttural voice.
Got is gut, ?she said. He has sent to me a big, strong man.?/font>
Homer was intrigued by the heavy German accent, the careful spacing of words. He was amused, too, at the idea, which the words conveyed.
I dunno,?he said. He didnt say anything to me about sending me some place. I was just passing by.?/font>
Ja. You did not pass.?/font>
There was aggressiveness in this old woman, an air of certainty, which is the mark of the boss. Homer felt antagonism stir in him, but it was a fine day and he was carrying the day in his spirit. He had no quarrel with anyone. He waved one hand.
I can build that fence better than those girls youve got,?he said.
All of the lines in the womans face seemed to draw together. He could see the effort that she was making to translate what he said in her own mind. He smiled reassuringly and strode away from her.
The three women had their fence half built, a high fence enclosing an area behind the house. Someone had dug postholes and spotted the posts in place. The women had fresh, unpainted planks and their method was for one woman to brace herself against the post, another to steady the plank, and the third to drive nails. All things considered they were not doing badly. They stopped work, startled, when Homers tall figure loomed over them. He gripped the post and shook it. It was a more solid job than he anticipated. The older woman was right behind him.
Her voice sputtered through three emphatic German sentences and he did not have to understand the words. She did not want him meddling with the fence. She had other work for him to do. He turned and the woman tapped herself on the chest. He caught the words, Mutter Maria Marthe? which registered as a name. She indicated each of the three women in turn with a jabbing forefinger.
Sister Elisabeth, Sister Gertrud, Sister Agnes.?/font>
Religious folk,? Homer thought. He nodded his head to each of them. Im real happy to meet you,?he said. Im Homer Smith.?/font>
Mother Maria Marthe formed his name silently with her lips, then uttered it as it translated in her mind: ?Homerus Schmidt.?/font>
Oh, ja! Schmidt!?/font>
Broad smiles broke across the faces of the three women. This was something that they could understand, a stranger named Schmidt. Their smiles made him welcome and Homer felt immediately at ease with them. They did not have any color line; he was just people to them. He made another attempt to do something about the fence but the harsh voice of the older woman stopped him at the first gesture.
Nein, Schmidt,?she said.
She pointed to the roof and delivered herself of another series of inexplicable sentences. Homer understood her without difficulty. This old woman was a natural boss and boss always got their ideas across. She wanted the roof fixed.
Thats not something you do with Scotch tape and chewing gum,?he said. Id need a good ladder and shingles, and the right kind of nails.?/font>
She made no effort to understand him; she merely anticipated him. With a purposeful stride, she led the way to the barn. There was a large room given over to tools and equipment. She had shingles, not enough to shingle a roof but enough to repair one that was not too far. She had nails of several sizes, including 3d flatheads. She had roofing cement. She had a ladder. Homer looked at her with respect. Here was a woman who knew what had to be done and what was needed to do it.
Okay,?he said. Ill fix it good.?/font>
He was happy when he climbed the ladder and looked out over the valley. There was a chill in the wind but the sun was warm. He could see the three women working doggedly on their fence and, from his point of vantage. He could see what the fence enclosed. There was nothing in that little patch except a small statue and a privy.
How about that??he said softly. All that work for just privacy. Away out here where theres nobody.?/font>
There was another privy north of the barn behind the foundation, which marked the site of a house that had, obviously, burned down. This, he decided, was where the hired man had lived once, in a smaller house. It was curious that a fire would burn a mans house down and leave his privy standing. It hardly seemed sensible.
He surveyed the roof carefully, aware from the markings that someone had surveyed it before him, indicating the places where it would have to be repaired. He was glad of that because a man couldnt tell from the outside where a wood shingle roof leaked, and he had not been invited inside. He wondered if the women would have done this job if he hadnt come along, probably so. He looked down on the woman who was beating away at the fence planks with a hammer. It would be comical, he thought, to watch them on this roof beating on the shingles.
He worked while he amused himself thinking, rocking the broken and warped shingles to break them away from the hidden nails, sliding new shingles in place and nailing them, covering the nails with roofing cement. He worked swiftly, easil, finding the rhythm best suited to the job and maintaining it. He didnt count time and he was startled when a deep, heavy carrying voice called: Schmidt!?/font>
Mother Maria Marthe was gesturing him down. The other women had already entered the house. The sun was directly overhead. Lunchtime. He scrambled down the ladder and slowed his pace as he approached the door of the house. There was a crucifix above the door, not a rugged Protestant cross but a crucifix. The word, Catholic?came into his mind and with it the strange, awesome word, nun.?It had not occurred to him that these women were nuns. He found the idea incredible. What were they doing out here building fences?
They were standing in their places at a rough pine rectangular table that lacked a tablecloth, two on each side, Mother Maria Marthe at the head and a place for him, facing her. When he stood in his place, the older woman made the sign of the cross and the others followed her example. There was no doubt now. This was a Catholic place and these were nuns. Homer didnt join in the prayer and couldnt have done so if his Baptist conscience had permitted it. They prayed in German. It was a long prayer and, at a certain point, the rhythm changed as though something new had been added, something that wasnt in the memorized pattern. Homer was sensitive to rhythm. He was sensitive, too, to attitudes toward himself, a sensitivity born of race and skin color that set a man apart. He had delicate, invisible antennae, which told him when he was noticed or discussed. He knew at the change in the prayer that these women were praying about him. The knowledge made him vaguely uncomfortable. Nobody was going to pray about getting a roof fixed, particularly a roof that wasnt in very bad shape; there had to be more to it than that.
Amen?was the signal to be seated. Lunch consisted of thick cheese slices and coarse bread from a homemade loaf that was like a big, swollen pancake but solid. There was a glass of milk at each place, no coffee. Nobody talked and Homer studied the faces without staring at anybody. There were not young women, but two of them had a young look in spite of weather-roughened skin and tight dishtowel turbans that concealed their hair; Sister Gertrud who was the shortest nun, the one with the longest nose, and Sister Albertine who was frail-looking with large eyes, very blue. The other two, Sister Elisabeth and Sister Agnes, were sturdier and had broad faces. The eyes of Sister Elisabeth were brown.
Mother Maria Marthe presided grimly and it was obvious that no one was going to dawdle over lunch. All hands were going to eat in a hurry and go back to work. The sister, seemingly, paid no attention to Homer Smith but he was aware of occasional hurried glances in his direction, and more important to him, he felt friendliness. When he went back to his roof he was humming, and the hum grew to full song as he fell into the rhythm of the work. This was an interesting experience. The pay probably wouldnt take any pay. He didnt know. Come night, hed roll again.
In the pink of the evening, as he was cleaning the roof gutters, he saw Sister Agnes bringing in a cow, one cow in a county of herds. A few minutes later, as he gathered up his tools, he saw Mother Maria Marthe emerge from the house, followed by Sister Elisabeth and Gertrud who were carrying an Army cot. The older woman carried a bucket. He watched them, momentarily baffled, but when the tool room in the barn became their obvious destination, he put all of the pieces of the puzzle together.
They are doing that for me,?he said. Room and bath.?/font>
The idea touched him. A cot to sleep on and a bucket in which to wash! It was what they had. He swung down the ladder and followed them with long strides. They turned and startled, when they heard him. The two sisters held firmly to the cot. It was not Army, merely Army-type, that kind that was sold in surplus stores, collapsible and cheaply made.
I didnt figure to stay,?he said, but Ive got me a bed in the car.?/font>
Mother Maria Marthe did not understand him, so he gestured to the car and turned toward it. She followed him. The two sisters, after a moment of hesitation and lacking definite instructions, joined the procession, still carrying the cot. He opened the station wagon from the rear and showed them the bed on which he slept. He had equipped that vehicle for living. He had his own bucket, too, foot locker, a tool chest, and a guitar. The older woman nodded. Then spoke to the other two in rapid-fire German. They started back to the house with the cot.
Das is gut, Schmidt,?she said. For zipper I rink a bell.?/font>
She walked away and Homer filled his bucket at the well, hauling it behind the barn for his wash-up. Supper was preceded by an even longer prayer than the one at lunch, and was only slightly more substantial as a meal. Sister Albertine served omelet with the coarse bread and a glass of milk. This was it; a house full of people living on the efforts of one cow and a few chickens. When another prayer had been said, two of the nuns made deft work of clearing away the dishes. There was a general air of relaxation. Sister Albertine, with badly concealed excitement, departed on a mysterious errand. Mother Maria Marthe sat less stiffly in her chair.
We are German,?she said, met two from Hungary . We learned English.?/font>
Sister Albertine returned with a small, tinny, wind-up model phonograph, the type that is bought for very young children. She placed a record on the turntable when the dishwashing nuns returned. A harsh, badly distorted voice squawked something in German from the speaker, followed by the English equivalent. The five voices repeated the English, including in the pronunciation all of the phonograph noises.
Please send the valet up to my room,?they said.
I have something to be pressed.?/font>
Do not starch the collars of the shirts.?/font>
Here is my laundry list.?/font>
Five pairs of the socks.?/font>
Homer listened, fascinated and repelled. He had never been exposed to the problem of learning another language. He resented the voice on the record, which wasted the time of these people by teaching them to say stupid things. These nuns werent ever going to see a valet, and they werent going to have anything pressed. He had and expressive face and Mother Maria Marthe read it when the pause at the end of the record occurred. She halted Sister Albertine who was about to turn the record over.
Wait!?she said. Schmidt! He speaks English.?/font>
Homer sat suspended in the sudden hush, aware of the eyes. He was, suddenly, elevated above his status as a big, strong man, above the disembodied voice on the record. Sister Albertine was so carried away that she spoke without waiting for permission. She pointed to the phonograph.
What name is this?? she said.
Homers reply broke down discipline. If Sister Albertine could ask a question so could anyone else. Each nun was indicating some object in the room. He named them as rapidly as he could, trying to speak the words distinctly. He could tell from their delighted expressions that they already knew the words table,?chair,?window,?door,?and the words for the other familiar objects. His identification pleased them by confirming what they knew. Mother Maria Marthe put a stop to the obvious. She went through the pantomime of shaking hands with one of the nuns and he told her what she was doing, pointing out the you ?and her.?span style="mso-spacerun:yes"> He became self-conscious about the South Carolina in his voice.
If you learn English from me,?he said apologetically, youre sure enough going to get yourselves segregated some places.?/font>
They looked at him uncomprehendingly and he let the subject drop. That was something that he could not explain even to himself. Sister Albertine was drawing a sketch on a piece of paper. She showed it to him. It was a very good sketch of his station wagon.
Automobile? No?? she said. Autobus, no??/font>
She knew that it had a special name and she did better with English than did the others. They were all interested but when he told them that it was a station wagon, he drew blank looks. With a few deft strokes, the nun drew a depot, then a wagon. This was a station and this, a wagon. How could you put them together and obtain something that resembled an automobile?
He didnt explain that very well, but he tried. He was sorry when Mother Maria Marthe clapped her hands as a signal that class was over. He walked to his home on wheels in the cool darkness, with a thousand stars swung low above him and his brain filed with strange rhythms. German words and English words flavored with German. He did not ask himself why he was spending the night; he was here and it happened. He wondered which of the nuns would have slept on the floor and managed without a bucket if he hadnt had his own equipment.
These nuns are nice people, he thought, and that old ladys got a shrewd mind, loose and easy.
One of the privileges of freedom was that a man slept until he felt like rising, with no bugles blowing. Homer Smith was not a late sleeper but he didnt believe in stumbling around in half night, waking up birds. The morning was nicely lighted in the sky when he rose, filled his bucket at the well and hauled it beyond the barn. There was a hammer hammering and, from the corners of his eyes, he could see Mother Maria Marthe watching him while he was filling his bucket. She didnt bother him until he came back to the station wagon, then she descended angrily.
Schmidt!?her words tumbled out and they were so German, or so German-English, that they were incomprehensible. She did not, however, need words to convey meaning; she needed only gestures and emphasis. The gist of the message was plain. He was a lazy loafer who had no business sacking out when there was work to be done. Homer drew himself up, looking at her from his commanding height, as angry as she was.
Look!?he said. I aint no nun and I aint no hired hand, neither. I get up when I feel like getting up. If I dont want to work, I dont work.?/font>
He did not awe her. She stamped her foot, pointing emphatically at the house. Geh!?she said. Much smell!?/font>
Being commanded to go to the house meant that he was expected to eat breakfast. That was an idea that made sense. He turned away and still angry. Sister Albertine greeted him shyly in the communal dining room. She had, obviously, been forced to waste her time preparing a late breakfast for him and she was nervous about it. She set two fried eggs before him, following them with two slabs of coarse bread, toasted. There was no coffee, only the inevitable milk.
Old Mother sure sets a poor table,?Homer said, How come she can afford all that lumber outside and no money for chow??/font>
Sister Albertine stared at him, her large eyes seeming larger still as she tried to understand him. Homer didnt expect her to understand him. It was a comfort to him to express his feelings in words with a human audience to listen to him; he did not require a response.
Theres a mean streak in that old woman,?he said. I dont know why you girls put up with her. People got to sleep. People got to eat. People got to have a little joy in living. She doesnt go for that. All these milk all the time and no coffee! And also doesnt have milk for human kindness, neither. That woman just hasnt got it.?/font>
Sister Albertine gestured helplessly. I dont understand,?she said. Speak slowly please.?/font>
Her English sounded like English, or more like English than Mother Maria Marthes, even if she did speak one word at a time.
Im going to give you some soup,?he said. Got some soup in the car. Emergency rations. Got a can of peaches, too. You wait right here! Ill bring them right in.?/font>
Sister Albertine looked frightened but there was one note in the human voice that she understood, the note of command. She nodded her head weakly and started clearing the dishes from the table. Homer strode out to the station wagon.
I hope Old Mother tries to stop me,?he said. Just let her ask me what Im doing.?/font>
He was in a high, exalted mood, flying the flags of rebellion against authority. No one attempted to stop him and he took five cans of soup out of his locker, a can of peaches, a can of opener. He saw Mother Maria Marthe bearing down on him as he started back to the house and his flags drooped on the flagstaff. He pretended that he did not see her and lengthened his stride. He piled his cans on the table, resisting the impulse to look over his shoulder. He went through the pantomime of opening the cans for the benefit of Sister Albertine.
Ja. Thank you.?/font>
She looked interested, but she also looked fearful. She did not have the authority to accept gifts, but she lacked the vocabulary necessary to refuse acceptance or to explain her dilemma. Homer sensed it.
Old Mother will like that soup,?he said. Save a little wear and tear on that cow and those chickens.?/font>
He went out to face the dragon and the dragon was waiting for him. Schmidt,?Mother Maria Marthe said, We build a shapely. I show you.?/font>
She led the way with firm tread to the old foundation over which a house had burned. Coarse grassed had grown around it and the foundation itself was a pit into which ash and brick and partially consumed timbers had fallen. She reached into her pocket and produced a sketch on a piece of coarse wrapping paper. It was a good sketch of a small church, a frame church that looked like many Baptist churches in the South except that it did not have a steeple. There was a cross on the first roof truss above the door.
Who builds it??he said.
Her eyes drilled into him. She was patient and she could wait upon the perception of a dull-witted male. Homer looked from the unsightly foundation to the sketch and back again. There was a pile of new lumber behind the barn.
If you think that Im building that, youre out of your mind,?he said. Im one man. I aint no contractor with a crew. I dont need all that work, neither.?He handed the sketch back to her. No.?/font>
There was hard-eyed contempt in the old womans face. She folded the sketch into a hidden pocket. We are women,?she said. We build it.?/font>
Anger boiled and bubbled in Homer Smith. He could feel the steam from it rising into his brain. He looked away from Mother Maria Marthe and it helped to bring his anger down to a simmer, not looking at her. She was a mean-minded, overriding, unreasonable old woman. He was going to get in his station wagon and drive. The warmth of the day touched his skin and he was looking toward the debris in the foundation. He had had his breakfast. Breakfast sort of committed a man to the day. He felt strongly about people passing judgment on him and he did not want this woman justified in thinking ill of him.
Ill clean that old foundation for you before I go,?he said.
He walked away from her, tall in his pride. There was a scoop shovel in the tool house and, surprisingly, a crowbar. He had a spade in his car. He came back and surveyed the ruin of a house. The builder had put down a solid foundation of granite. Not many farmhouses in this section of county were built like this. It made sense. A man had to have a cool place for his perishable stuff. The big house e where the nuns lived was probably built the same way. The chimney stood above the foundation, tall and built of brick, a lonely thing without a house to keep it company.
Strange how it burned the mans house and left his privy.?/font>
Homer shook his head over the familiar thought as he surveyed the ruin. The years had fallen on the grave of that house; snows and rains and blowing sand. The debris was packed into the pit and it looked like a town dump set in cement. A bulldozer would churn it up fast. He knew how to handle a bulldozer, but this was a place of hungry labor where a man was lucky because he had a shovel and a crowbar. Resentment against Mother Maria Marthe moved hotly in him again. He paced off the dimensions of the foundation, confirming what his eye told him. It was 18 X 26.
He dropped down into the pit and started probing. It had been a hot fire and the house had probably gone fast. Some of the lumber had survived, charred but not burned through. Someone had stared the cleaning-out process long ago and quit. It was impossible to tell how that fire had gone. It probably smothered out some way. Maybe it happened in the winter and the snow came. There werent any clues left to show what had happened to the roof. He did not believe that it had been reduced to ash.
Old farmer took him some salvage,?he said. Hauled away what would haul.?/font>
He was encouraged when he discovered that the burned lumber moved against his pry. It had partially roofed the excavation. This hole wasnt as solidly packed as it looked. Fire-eaten though they were, the lumbers were heavy and he strained his muscles against them, heaving them out. His body absorbed thought and emotion, condensing them into sweat. When he heard a bell ringing in the distance he did not immediately translate it into meaning.
Old Mother going to feed the slaves,?he said.
Resentment returned. He was filthy. Clouds of black ash rose from his work clothes when he slapped them. He went to the station wagon for his bucket and washed in cold water from the well, accepting the icy touch of it gratefully. The nuns were standing in their places at the table, waiting for him before starting their prayers. He didnt say Catholic prayers with them but he had to be there. It was some idea in Old Mothers mind. He bowed his head. He had a prayer in his own heart when he accepted food. Nobody took food for granted when he was a child. It wasnt always easy to get and a person learned to be thankful when it was there.
He sat down at the table and there were soup plates at each place. Sister Albertine came in with a pot and a ladle. She looked happy. All the nuns looked happy. Mother Maria Marthe didnt look as stern as usual. Homers mood lifted. They were serving his soup.
Nobody talked. That seemed to be the rule at lunchtime. Still, without talking, it was a pleasant meal. Nice atmosphere. These girls, Homer thought, need better food. He wished that he had more cans in his car. He didnt feel full-fed when he rose but his stomach was friendly to him. When a man felt welcome at a table the food tasted better.
He was whistling when he turned to the excavation. He stood with his hands in his pockets looking at it. Old Mother, he repeated to himself, was out of her mind. Nobody could build a church like her drawing unless he was a contractor with people working for him, people skilled in doing different things. Women werent ever going to build it, especially not women that built a fence so clumsy. All of which made cleaning out all of this mess ridiculous. He had told her that hed clean it out before he left, however, and hed do it.
He was a strong man and the work went fast when he didnt think about it. He got all of the odds and ends of wood and metal out of the hole, then worked them into a trench about a dozen yards away. He cleaned the stone steps that had led into the cellar from the outside, but the cellar was deep. A man could walk around in it with the top of his head under ground. Getting out the ash and the sand was not mere shoveling; it was hauling. He did not want to use his own pail so he rummaged around in the barn until he found a bucket that had seen hard service. After that, monotony claimed him; shoveling, filling, carrying out, and dumping.
He created a refuse pile that would have to be leveled off some day but he had no alternative and it did not worry him. Blue dusk came down on an uncompleted job and his muscles ached. The distant bell rang again.
They were back to eggs for the evening meal. The eggs irritated him. He was tired and hungry and hed spent his day doing a job that didnt add up to anything. There wasnt enough food to satisfy him and Mother Maria Marthe sat stiffly at the head of the table keeping everything on a low key. She never said a word of thanks to anybody for anything.
Im going to get me my pay and leave.?/font>
The resolve sustained him, even when he was swept into an English lesson after dinner. The nuns, he discovered, had been studying English, not merely trying to learn it from a phonograph record. They brought their books with them and they knew many English words. Their problem was that they never heard anyone speak those words and they had no practice in speaking them. Homer was not in a mood for teaching anybody anything and he gave their problem only half his mind. He could feel the disappointment of the nuns but he was concentrating on the boss nun and he couldnt give any thought to the others. When Mother Maria Marthe clapped her hands at the conclusion of the lesson, he braced himself.
I want to talk to you,?he said. Ive been doing work for you. Good work. I want pay for what I do.?/font>
She sat silent, with her hands clasped in front of her. Her small eyes looked at him out of the wrinkled mask of her face but there was no light in them. He did not know whether she understood him or not; if she did, she would not admit it. She could make a person feel wrong, like a miserable sinner, by just looking at him. If she refused to cross over into English, he couldnt talk to her. He looked past her to the little table under the statue of the Mother of Jesus in the corner of the room. There was a book on the table, a big book, and it talked to him. The Bible! He crossed the room and looked at it, turning a few pages. The type was outlandish and did not look like words, but no other book was organized like this one.
You wait right here,?he said. Im coming back.?/font>
He was afraid that she would not wait, that she would close the door on him; but she waited. He brought his own Bible from the station wagon. It was the one he got in the Army. He had a passage in his mind and he turned pages rapidly. He fore half of the wrapping from a package of cigarettes and wrote on the whit side, Luke 10:7.
Mother Maria Marthe rose heavily and crossed the room to her big Bible. She turned the pages and he knew what she was reading when the page-turning stopped:
And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the laborer is worthy of his hire.?/font>
It wasnt exactly what he wanted to say, but he hoped that she would get the idea about the laborer. She walked slowly back and reached for his pencil. In bold letters, she wrote, Proverbs 1:14.
She spun her own pages and read: Cast in thy lot among us: let us all have one purse.?/font>
No,? he said. Im a poor man. I have to work for wages.?/font>
Mother Maria Marthe did not change expression. Without returning to consult her Bible, she wrote again on the fragment of cigarette package, March 6:28, 29.
And why take you thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.?/font>
And yet I say onto you. That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.?/font>
Homer read, baffled. This old woman had answers out of the Book, which surprised him. They did not come to grips with the situation, and they did not deal directly with his right to be paid, but they slowed down a man in argument. Before he went into the Army, he had had a head filled with Bible words and figures but they would not march straight for him now as they did once. It wouldnt make any difference. This old woman wasnt going to pay him. Shed never had any intention of paying him. She sat straight with her unblinking eyes fixed on his face.
Schmidt,?she said. Tomorrow Sunday, isnt it. Der Mass in Piedras is nine by der clock.?/font>
I dont go to Mass. ?/font>
She sat immovable, letting the statement stand in all finality until his comprehension caught up with it. She expected him to drive the nuns to Mass.
How did you get there before I came??/font>
That, too, had finality in it, completeness. Piedras was a little town. Homer had driven through it before he stopped here. It was over two miles away. He thought about those nuns, working hard all day on thin rations, walking miles along the road on Sunday. He liked those nuns. It wasnt fair to them.
Ill drive you in,?he said.
He walked out, then, not expecting thanks and not wanting any. A man was free, when he could say yes?or say no.?Old Mother had her ways and she was a tricky woman but she hadnt asked him that. That wasnt her way. She put a problem up to a man. She knew how to set a problem up for him so there wasnt anything he could do but take it from her.
The morning was still, with no movement in the wide and lonely land. Homer Smith rose early. He dressed in a pair of Army slacks, a button-down gray shirt, a blue necktie, a gray jacket. A man had to look sharp on Sunday if no other time. He wandered around aimlessly, missing the sense of life, movement and activity that he associated with this strange place in which he found himself. As time passed, with no bell sounding, it became apparent that there would be no breakfast. He remembered vaguely from the Army that Catholics, or some Catholics, did not have breakfast before Mass. His own hunger was the captive of Catholic custom and he was uncomfortable. He removed his bed from the station wagon, providing space if not comfort for his passengers. At 8:30 they emerged.
Mother Maria Marthe and her four nuns wore long black robes with white starched bibs and white bands across their foreheads under black hoods. They looked now like his idea of nuns but he was astonished at them.
You girls sure look nice,?he said.
Whether they understood his English or not, they recognized a compliment by its tone. The looked pleased. Mother wasted no time on looking pleased. She sized up the station wagon, ordered the nuns into the back and elected to ride with the driver. There were no seats in the back so the passengers sat on the floor. There was something pleasant and companionable about that and Homer had an impulse to sing as he drove out onto the road. He didnt sing. The stiff, no-nonsense woman beside him wouldnt put in with singing. He was certain of that.
Piedras was a shabby little town and the church was a flat-roofed structure of adobe. Homer let his passengers out and stood beside the station wagon, ignoring the hard stare of old Mother. This close was as close as he intended to go to a Catholic Mass. He waited until the nuns entered the church. Then crossed the street. There were signs in Spanish all over the windows of a small caf?and he did not have to understand Spanish to recognize a place that sold beer and miscellaneous food. He wasnt certain that it would be open, but it was. A thin man with sad brown eye s rose from a stool and moved behind the counter.
I want a mans breakfast,?Homer said. Ham and eggs, with lots of ham, and pancakes, and anything else youve got, and coffee. I want lots of coffee and I start with it.?/font>
Sir. I can do it. You are the man who does the work for those nuns??/font>
They do a lot of work themselves.?/font>
Sir. This I know. It is a great folly. They cannot make the living in this county. It is not possible.?/font>
A steaming cup of coffee appeared on the counter in front of Homer and he inhaled the fragrance of it. The sad man had a grill behind the counter and he broke eggs onto it. Ham sizzled and Homers nostrils twitched. He hadnt ever thought about nuns making a living. New thoughts interested him.
They are German. They speak the good Spanish but nobody listens. There is no reason for it.?/font>
The little man talked on. He knew all about the nuns, or claimed that he did. They were from the wrong Germany , the one that is Communist,?and they escaped, which was a great embarrassment to their Order. But yes. There was some politics about it, which on one could understand. It is Church politics and politics of Europe, and who can understand the politics even when it is of his own country??the nuns could not stay in Germany and the Order owned this land. It came to them in the will of Gus Ritter. Did the customer know Gus Ritter?
Everybody in this place knew him; todo el mundo. He was a hard, mean man who worked his family night and day to make money for him. His son and his sons wife burned to death in the house next to him. A lamp of kerosene caused it. He was too mean, Gus Ritter, to have electricity although poor people in this country had it. After his son burned up, he did not live long. He left his land to this Order of nuns because his sister in German belonged to it. For a long time the land was idle. Gus Ritter made good money from it growing nothing. They knew nothing except to teach. There was no school and they did not know the English. How could they teach? They sold some land to buy tools and furniture and lumber. What purpose for? What could they do? Would the customer have some more of the eggs?
The customer wasnt interested in eggs but he would have more ham. Homer Smith was enjoying this experience. He was catching up on his victuals after two lean days. The steady flow of talk from behind the counter fascinated him. He had always had a weakness for good talkers. He liked the cadences, which Spanish brought to English and the occasional Spanish words or phrases, meaning nothing, delighted him because they so obviously belonged to what the man was trying to say.
The Mass is finish,?the man said.
There were a few people coming out of the church across the street. Homer rose and stretched. It had been a noble breakfast. As he was paying for it, he thought about those hungry nuns. He hesitated. Working only occasionally and traveling much, he had learned thrift. He shrugged and purchased five slices of ham, which he carried to the car in a paper sack.
The main body of worshipers moved slowly out of the church; Spanish, all of them. Poor people. Homer towered above them as he stood beside his station wagon and he was aware of his physical superiority, as he was aware of the curious glances that he attracted. Nobody spoke to him.
The nuns did not come out until after everyone else had gone. The priest came with them, a short, thin man in a brown robe with a white cord around his waist. Mother Maria Marthe was talking to him in Spanish. Her Spanish did not have a lot of German in it like her English did. She introduced Homer to the priest and he did not understand what she said about him, but he caught his own name. She called him Senior Schmidt.?Senior means mister?in Spanish. He knew that. She never called him mister in English. The priest was Father Gomez. These Catholics were a comical people. They called themselves Father?and Mother? when they werent and when they didnt aim to be.
The priest shook hands with him. He was a quiet man, half sad like all these Spanish, with a low voice. He wouldnt be likely to get a call from a Baptist church. He wasnt an exhorting type. He said something nice about Homer being good to the nuns.
Mother Superior tells me that you are going to build her a chapel,?he said.
That is just an idea shes got in her head. One man cant do that.?/font>
Homer felt embarrassed when he read disappointment in the priests eyes. He had no reason to feel embarrassed but he did. He spoke hurriedly to cover what he felt.
Ive been studying your church. Never saw one like it before. Not close up.?/font>
It is not impressive but I would like to show it to you.?/font>
The priest brightened. He led Homer to the wall of the church and showed him where the outside coating of adobe had cracked. There were adobe bricks underneath. They are simple bricks,?he said. They are made out of adobe clay and a little straw, sometimes the manure of the horse, then dried in the sun.?/font>
The door was of rough board. Homer hesitated when the priest opened it. He had never been inside a Catholic spills and of idol worship, but he was curious about the construction of the building so he followed the priest in. there was an altar and there were rows of rough benches, strange-looking images that wore clothes, murals of Biblical scenes painted on the walls. The walls were whitewashed adobe, concealing the brickwork. There was a poverty about it that attracted Homer Smith. He understood poverty.
The priest was telling him that he had three other churches like this one in which he said Mass on Sundays, that his home parish was in the large town of North Fork . Homer nodded. This was a busy man, a circuit-riding preacher. He respected him.
Im glad I saw your church,?he said.
It is a poor church but God comes down to it.?The priests eyes were intent upon Homers face. Mother Superior says that she prayed for someone to help her and that you came. What do you think about that??/font>
Homer laughed. He did not mean to laugh but this was a disturbing subject. I think that she figures that she owns me. She figures that the Lord gave me to her as a present because she did all that praying.?/font>
Not that!?the priest said. Im certain, not that. But she has a need and she trusted in prayer. It is not a fault in her if she believes that God sent you.?/font>
He didnt send a black Baptist to a Catholic nun. He didnt do anything like that.?/font>
It would be odd, wouldnt it??/font>
I dont see much sense in what shes doing.?/font>
She does what she must at the present. These nuns have to live. She wants a place here ultimately for poor boys from the city; Spanish-speaking boys who get into trouble. No one is interested in them. They could work and learn and be happier in the country than in the city. No one will believe that until she proves it. She knows what she wants to do and she is strong of will.?/font>
Yes,?Homer said. I know that. Shes a strong-minded woman. But God didnt give me to her and she doesnt own me. Shes got to get that out of her head.?/font>
He was thoughtful driving home and he declined the breakfast invitation, abrupt in his presentation of the paper sack to Mother Maria Marthe. Just a little ham,?he said. Maybe you girls might like it.?/font>
He gave her no opportunity to say thanks or not to say thanks. He turned away hurriedly and climbed into the station wagon. He drove to a parking place close to the excavation and changed into his working clothes. He had an innate respect for the Sabbathe and a disinclination to profane it with servile work, but the Army had relaxed the rigid rules of his boyhood. In the Army a job that had to be done on Sunday. It was like the ass or the ox falling into a pit and having to be hauled out. The nuns, however, seemed to be abiding by the old rules so he restrained his urge to plunge in and finish the cleaning of the excavation.
He walked around the excavation and measured it again. He returned to the station wagon and obtained a small pad from his locker. He covered the pad with figures. He had worked for many people and he had done many things. He had varied skills. Always he had worked with someone telling him what to do. Nobody, in all of his life before this, had told him to build a church. Nobody had ever said to him: Here is the ground and here I want a church and it is your job to build it.?It was like a call. It elevated him. He was all alone, one man, with a hole in the ground and a church to be built, and no one to tell him how.
He took his black pipe from his locker and packed it. He smoked cigarettes during the week, but no Sunday he smoked a pipe. It was his fathers habit. His father could not afford to smoke tobacco seven days a week, so he settled for Sunday. Homer had been smoking a black pipe like his fathers on Sunday ever since his father died. In his mind it was sort of a memorial and he drew satisfaction from it.
He sat on the smell pile of partly consumed lumber that he had stacked a few yards away from the foundation. He puffed on his pipe and there was sheen over his eyes. He was seeing something before him that wasnt there and the world around him did not exist. He was unaware of Mother Maria Marthe until she spread the wide skirts of her black robe and sat beside him on the lumber. It was the most companionable thing that she had ever done.
Schmidt,?she said, We can do it??/font>
It wasnt a statement; it was a question. That, too, was unusual, but Homers mind was away out where the unusual is usual and nothing ordinary matters.
It would take a powerful lot of work,?he said, and a lot of those adobe bricks.?/font>
About the work, I dont know. Nearly four thousand bricks.?/font>
They sat silent, contemplating the foundation where once a house had stood and where a man and woman had burned to death. Mother Maria Marthe rose.
Tomorrow we go to North Fork ,?she said.
Homer didnt answer. North Fork was the big town of this section. He hadnt seen it yet. If she wanted to go, hed take her. She wouldnt do anything about the gasoline. Gasoline was like the lilies of the field to her; somehow it would be provided.
The soon heat pressed down and he moved into the shade of the station wagon. The land was big and there was loneliness all around him. He thought about going back to Piedras and listening to the Spanish man at the eatings place. But that was too much trouble. The day, without work or travel, seemed as big and as empty as the county. He took his guitar out of the station wagon. He traveled with everything that he liked in that old vehicle because it was his home while he rambled. He had bought the guitar in a pawnshop in Tacoma , a better instrument than the one he had owned back in South Carolina . He tuned it and played softly, feeling his way into a mood. In a little while he was singing, keeping his voice down, not putting out anything, singing to his own soul.
He sang Wade in the Water?and ?st1:place w:st="on"> Deep River ,?Blind Barnabas?and Old Time Religion.?He let his voice swell out a little on Shenandoah?because the mood was right and the song was saying what he felt inside of him. Mother Maria Marthe returned then and he felt her presence without seeing her. His mood was stronger than her presence and his voice made its last crossing of the wide Missouri before he looked up. The old face, with its deeply graven wrinkles, was forbidding but the small eyes seemed less hard than usual.
Schmidt,?she said. Come! Brink der music.?/font>
He rose reluctantly to follow her. He had been doing all right alone. His resentment melted when he saw the four nuns waiting expectantly in the living room. The table had been pushed back and his chair was placed, so that he would face them. They were women without music in a great, flat, lonely place that was intolerable without it. He looked at them and his heart lifted. These were people who needed something that he had to give.
He started softly, offering religion to religious people; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot? and Didnt My Lord Deliver Daniel.?He warmed to them, then, and worked to lift them, swinging into: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel? and Dry Bones.?span style="mso-spacerun:yes"> Their feet moved and their eyes were alive. Old Mother sitting stiffly and didnt seem to mind, so he did Water Boy?and ?John Henry.?He had no particular awareness of his voice except as an instrument like his guitar. It was deep, a bass-baritone, and he could do with a song whatever he felt like doing at the moment, but he did not try to make his voice obey any rules. When he finished ?John Henry,?Mother Maria Marthe clapped her hands. It wasnt applause; it was the end of his solo.
We sing,?she said.
He nodded, accepting the role of accompanist. ?Give me the key,?he said, and let us hear how it goes.?/font>
The old nun nodded to Sister Albertine who had a moment of shyness. She wet her lips and her thin fingers tightened, making fists out of her hands. Her large blue eyes met Homers and she leaned forward. She sang and her voice was true, a sweet voice, not strong but perfectly pitched. A man could follow it. Homer watched her and listened to her, tuning the guitar. What she was doing was chant, a simple thing. He drew deep organ sounds from the guitar and it was right. Everything was right; the voice, the music, the accompaniment. Sister Albertine felt him with her and she signaled to the others. They came in and they knew what they were doing. None of the voice was as good as Sister Albertines but this chant did not call for good voice. Sister Gertruds voice was harsh. Sister Agnes and Elisabeth sounded like just anybody out of a Baptist choir, and the old Mothers voice was cracked; but, together, they made a strange, solemn sense.
This was Latin. It was Homers first experience with sung Latin and he approved the sound of it. It belonged to this music. As they changed from one hymn to another, Sister Albertine led him into the sense of the new chant and the others joined in as he picked it up. Loneliness had long since dropped away from him and he felt exultation. He wanted to mingle his voice with these others but the words eluded him so long as he regarded them as words; when he thought of them merely as sounds, they made a pattern in his mind. He signaled to Sister Albertine for a repeat at one point and when he heard the sounds a second time they clung to his mind. The woices of the nuns came in again and his voice joined them.
Ave maris stella
Dei mater alma
Atque semper virgo
Felix coeli porta.
It was that easy. They stopped when Mother Maria Marthe clapped her hands. It was suppertime but Homer paid no attention to his food. He ate it but it made no impression on him. When he walked to the station wagon, he was empty of thought but filled with throbbing sound, a happy feeling of reverence. He stood for a long time looking at the shadowed shape of the excavation.
North Fork had a population of 7094 people, which made it the metropolis of the west slope where towns were small and widely spaced. It was a spread out town and the Livingston Construction Company was on the northern outskirts. Mother Maria Marthe was accompanied with Sister Gertrud. The two nuns left Homer Smith beside the station wagon while they entered the Livingston office. Homer lighted a cigarette and looked at the construction company property with interest. He had no idea why old Mother was visiting this place but it had a prosperous look.
Politician, this man, Livingston, he decided.
There were several earth-moving machines standing in a row and spaces indicating that there were others out on a job. There were four good-sized buildings and an adjoining lumbers yard. All of which, on this side of the mountains, added up to road-building contracts and government work. A man didnt employ such equipment out in the widely open spaces by merely hanging out a sign or putting an ad in the paper.
Rolling in it, Homer thought. This man is doing all right.
He was idly curious about Mothers mission but speculation never engaged his mind for long. He either knew something or he didnt know, found out ultimately or never found out. He walked around, admiring the equipment. He had resumed his post beside the station wagon when a short, firm-jawed, gray-haired man exited briskly from the office door. The man seemed angry, either temporarily or permanently so. He looked at Homer challengingly, looked past him, then met his eyes.
Are you Schmidt?? he said incredulously.
Thats a German idea,?Homer said softly. My folks figured that it was Smith. Named me Homer.?/font>
Youre the man who is going to build a chapel for those nuns??br> Homer was about to say that was another German idea, one of old Mothers idea, but he didnt like the mans attitude. Then man didnt seek information in a polite and orderly way.
I expected a different type. Hell! Youll never do it.?/font>
Homer kept his eyes on the other mans face; not answering, merely waiting. This was an attitude that he understood although he had not encountered it lately. This man expected to meet someone white; when he discovered that he was dealing with a Negro, he knew?that the job wouldnt be done. A voice inside Homer said: The mans right. You know hes right. You wont do it.?He closed the voice out, refusing to listen.
Im Orville Livingston,?the man said. I dont know how you got mixed up in this, but I told this nun when she first came here that shed better go back again. I was Gus Ritters friend and the executor of his estate. I turned his property over to this religious Order, which was what he wanted. I sold land for those nuns after they came here, without taking a commission. I had a man plow for them when they insisted on working the land that they kept, and I paid him personally. Now they want bricks. Ive got to stop somewhere. Im a Methodist.?/font>
Im a Baptist myself.?/font>
You are? Then why are you working for them? If you are??/font>
Youll figure it out. Then youll quite. Those nuns will figure it out, too; figure out that what people told them was right. Then theyll quite. They must. Women cant work that land and if their Church was interested in them, it wouldnt leave them out here. Theyll quit and anything that they start will fall to ruin.?/font>
Old Mother has a strong idea in her mind,?Homer said softly. Shes going to do what she feels she must.?/font>
Certainly. If somebody else supplies the bricks! Well, I wont. I wanted to see you before I told her.?/font>
Orville Livingston did not seem to realize that he had made Homer Smith the last toppling weight in the scales of decision against the nuns, and that he was telling him so.
Youve got that right,?Homer said. I cant talk against you on that. Im still doing that job for them. Im going to need two days work a week to keep it going. I can handle a bulldozer, almost any machinery youve got. Learned how in the Army.?/font>
All right. I can use you Thursday and Friday if you can only work two days. Ill pay the going rate on whatever job youre assigned. Seven Thursday morning, Ill try you out.?/font>
Orville Livingston turned away. Another thing,?Homer said, Ill need two sacks of cement. For them Ill pay cash.?/font>
Three dollars. Ill have a man wheel them out.?/font>
Homer lighted another cigarette. Something had happened to him. He didnt plan any part of it. He had taken a job that he didnt want under a man whom he didnt like and hed told the man that he was going to build a church. It didnt make sense. He stared across the big lot of the Livingston Construction Company, seeing none of it, seeking in his mind for a way out of a worrisome situation. A sentence kept repeating itself like an outside voice speaking to him. I expected a different type.?Then, another sentence; I wanted to see you before I told her.?Hed let old Mother down merely by being black.
A man wheeled out two sacks of cement and Homer paid for them. They weighed 94 pounds a sack and he heaved them into the back of the station wagon. His muscles felt good doing it.
The two nuns emerged from the office and any sentimental feeling that he had developed for Mother vanished immediately. She was in bad humor.
Schmidt,?she said curtly, we go back.?/font>
No, we dont. Ive got things to do.?/font>
His pride stood tall, contradicting her and not explaining anything. The two nuns were riding in the front with him because there was no sensible alternative. He could hear the old nun breathing heavily.
We have no time,? she said.
He ignored her and drove downtown. North Fork had a variety of stores concentrated on two streets. He found the town interesting after a period of isolation. He bought a spirit level and a couple of good saws, a heavy hammer, a chisel, and a hoe with a ventilated blade. The expenditure dismayed him but he assured himself that he would pay the money back to his fund out of his pay on Friday. He couldnt afford a big investment in something that probably wasnt going to get done.
Schmidt,?Mother Maria Marthe said when they were halfway home, we have no bricks.?/font>
Well get some.?/font>
He didnt know where or how, but that was a problem of the future and the future was never quite real to him. A man couldnt calculate on time that hadnt arrived, happenings that hadnt happened; he had all that he could do in coping with what was already here. The here and the now of this afternoon was the finishing of the foundation cleaning-out. It took his afternoon and part of the next day. He built a mortar box, got a level on the foundation, chiseled off the rough spots and mixed cement. He stared on the task of smoothing the top of the foundation with cement and he worked carefully, missing the direction of a boss while savoring the joy of being his own man with a job that was his to plan and to execute. On Thursday and Friday he worked in one of the Livingston road gangs and on Friday night he drew his pay.
I owe myself more money than I earned.?/font>
The flat statement admitted of no argument. It was a fact. He weighed the fact thoughtfully for as long as it took him to walk to the North Fork supermarket. That market had been beckoning to him since he first saw it. He entered and selected a wheeled basket, pushing it before him. He passed all of the products, which needed refrigeration but he selected an accumulation of canned goods and two minutes before buying a whole ham.
Weve got to eat better than weve been eating,?he said defensively.
When he presented the two sacks of groceries to Mother, her face tightened like one of her hands folding into a fist, more bone and skin than flesh, more contraction than expression. He had a startled impression that there were tears in her eyes but he could not be certain because she turned away so abruptly, the groceries in her arms.
Ach, Schmidt!?she said.
The next day she was more annoying than ever, yelling Schmidt!?at him when he was counseling with himself over his work, bothering his life with orders and suggestions and just plain interference. He decided that she was a natural hen-pecker and that hed been foolish in his idea that she had softness in her.
Hard as a hammer,? he muttered. Always beating on something.?/font>
He had, however, established a new pattern without thinking about it. Buying groceries seemed the natural thing to do when he had his second payday a week later and he engaged in no hesitations or arguments with himself.
Mother to feed,?he said.
He rather liked the idea, liked the nuns and responded warmly to their obvious liking for himself. He enjoyed the English lessons and the Sunday music. Everything in his life seemed to fall into line, work and more work, music, a little visiting, a little pondering, regular thing to do at regular hour and no time to think about doing anything else.
The nuns worked all day in the fields as the weather grew warmer. He neither tried to understand their work nor to interfere with it. They were irrigating the land from a stream, which fed into another puny stream that Westerners called a river. All that he knew about the irrigating process was that it was hard work. He had grown up in Columbia , South Carolina , and he was strictly city.
The idea of building a church obsessed him. He had no bricks but he laid floor when he had the foundation topped with cement. He used common lumber for his sub-floor and the best of his planks from the lumber pile for the surface. Some day, he thought, well maybe have money for linoleum or something. These planks wont take no polish.
He studied the church in Piedras every Sunday. There was not much to learn from it, but one feature of he own dream church baffled him. The brick chimney, which had survived the fire stood high against the sky, higher than his projected roof. The fireplace and part of the stone mantel had survived, too, and that fireplace would be halfway down the right-hand side aisle of his church. He had never seen a church with a fireplace or one with a chimney; that is, not a big chimney that called attention to itself.
Old Mother will probably have someone lay a log and sit herself in that warm spot come cold weather, he thought.
He tried to take it lightly but the chimney wasnt right. The church in Piedras had only a small hole near the altar side where a stovepipe would fit in winter, and it was a larger structure than his church. He could wreck the chimney, of course, but that old German, Gus Ritter, had built things to last. It would be difficult to get that chimney out of there with the equipment that he had. He didnt like destroying something that had survived a disaster. That didnt seem right, either.
On a Tuesday in late July, the sad-faced man who ran the caf?in Piedras drove a beer truck up the road and parked behind the station wagon. He had another man with him and neither man was friendly.
The padre says to the people that you must have brick.?/font>
There were about five hundred adobe bricks in the truck and the two men made only a pretense of helping to unload it. Homer unloaded five bricks to them one.
It is of no use,? the sad-faced man said, but we have brought it.?/font>
Homer did not waste time talking to people who did not want to talk to him. He understood dimly the attitude of Orville Livingston. They saw no future for the nuns and they did not approve. They did not want to be involved, or called upon for a succession of services, either.
Brick gave Homer a new impetus. He puddled adobe to use as mortar and he set his guard lines. He had done a little brick lay but not much of it. This adobe brick was tricky. The bricks were uneven in size and crude. He had to socket his floor joists and he built a temporary wooden bracing for his wall. He experimented and he worked slowly but, with the brick, the thing that he was creating became a reality.
He was leading three lives. The life of work in North Fork , the communal life of eating and singing with the nuns, the highly personal life of building a church. Mother Maria Marthe was a grimly irritating figure with her eternal Schmidt!?and her interference, but most of the time he could block her out of his mind. When she annoyed him to the point where he could not block her out, he had spills of dark brood during which he wondered why he was working harder than he had ever worked in his life, and for no pay; why he was staying here on this sun-baked prairie with so much world yet to see. It was a dull wonder, requiring no answer from him. The answer was before him. He was building a church.
It had been blazing, relentlessly hot for days and there was no moisture. Everything that he touched was hot and his clothing clung to his skin; yet this was not a sweating heat like the heat of the South, it was a frying heat that skillet a man, making his skin itch. There was restlessness in his blood and in his nerves, a vague unhappiness clouding his thought. He sat with his back against the left-rear wheel of his station wagon and picked listlessly on his guitar. In the distance a coyote howled.
The cry was a high-pitched keening, a sound that climbed to a peak and broke. Homer lifted his head. The silver white of the moon lay over everything like snow. He felt along the strings for that coyote cry. He knew that he wouldnt find it, but he understood it.
He had heard coyotes before, almost every night. He was sensitive to animal tongue. He knew when a coyote was seeking a woman of his own kind. This coyote was not seeking that. He was finding the night unbearable because it was so big and so bright. He was lonely in it, feeling small and lost.
The cry rose again and another coyote answered. The other coyote was lonely, too. But the coyotes were not lonely for each other. It was bigger than that. Homer fingered the string on his guitar and laid it down. He couldnt say what they were saying; he could only feel it. He straightened his body and stood, looking to the west where the coyotes were. There was nothing out there, nothing but wide, flat land and miserable little places like Piedras. He turned his body slowly so that he was face east.
The mountains were a deep violet color slashed with silver. Everything was still. The hush had swallowed the last cry of the coyote and frightened him into joining the silence. Homer stretched his arms wide.
Time to go,?he said.
He returned his guitar to its case and climbed into the front seat of the station wagon. The noisy roar of the engine responding to the starter shattered the night, but there was and urgency in Homer Smith that ignored sound and silence now. He drove down the retted road to the main highway and, as the car picked up speed, he relaxed under the wheel.
Over the pass, beyond the mountains, lay the big city of the state. It had been a long time, too long a time! He could not tolerate nights so vast as this; he needed a city where people huddled together and kept one another warm. He sang softly as he drove and his car was a spinning reel on which the road wound up.
The city was traffic-choked and noisy, and its lights were bright. The heat of summer rested on it like a cloud without rain, but a man could wet his throat with cold beer in the daytime and mingle with his own kind at night, eating and drinking whatever he found. He could listen to loud, rhythmic sound from jack boxes and dance with women and laugh at jokes. He could look into the eyes of women and see himself there, feeling pride in his manhood. He could stand big in his body with gray fog in his mind and hear his own blood running in his veins. He could go to the Baptist church on Sunday and sing hymns that his mother and his father sang before he was born, weeping a little because he had been a sinner all week. He could leave the church with all the sin washed out of him, feeling clean.
Homer loved all of it, the standing tall and the falling down. Most of all, he liked the speech of men and women like himself, and the humor of them. A man heard no funny stories from people of another language who could not speak English well, and he could tell no funny stories. Homer belonged to the language that a man knew. He liked companionship and his room in the boardinghouse, and the bathroom down the hall where he could bathe in a tub instead of showering himself from a bucket. He liked the hard feel of pavement under his feet, the odor of cooking food that floated out of strange windows and doorways, the children who were in constant motion around him. He liked the sirens of police, fire, and hospital vehicles, the bright exteriors of taverns and the twilight dimness within. This was the city.
The nuns and a town named Piedras and the Livingston Construction Company belonged to a hazy dream, as unreal as incidents in the life of another man. He never sat down deliberately to think about them and such stray memories as floated in and out of his mind did not disturb him. His life in the Army was gone, too, to be recalled only through conscious effort and not worth that. He lived in what he had, and with what he had, finding life good.
His money ran low in ten days and he went to work for a wrecking company. His first job was with a crew that was wrecking a carbon, no longer used by the tramway company. It was heavy, dirty, dangerous work, with much steel to handle and grime over everything. The next job, by comparison, was easy. A half-block of house had to come down to create a blank, which could be converted into a parking lot. They were small and old, low-rent house, known in the South as row houses but in the West as terraces; houses all alike, built together wall to wall. Everything that could be stripped by hand was stripped. Then a crane, with a big metal ball, knocked the walls down. The job took three days.
On the third day, Homer was sorting through the salvage, stacking the theoretically usable doors, window frames and fixtures. He piled the bathtubs, then stood looking at them, hearing in his mind a high, clear call as compelling as a coyotes cry to the moon.
Those girls need a bathtub,?he said.
It was the first time he had consciously thought about the nuns and they were suddenly alive in his mind. He had seen them hauling buckets of water from the wall in the evening, many buckets, and he had seen how crude everything was about the house. Gus Ritter, that old German farmer, had been a tight-fisted man. He didnt improve a place except where it paid him.
The foreman was a big man, almost as big as Homer was. Homer sought him out. Hows to buy one of those tubs??he said.
Sure enough? You want your own personal tub, boy??/font>
You could steal it and nobody would care. That kind is no good. You got some way to haul it??/font>
Okay. Give me two bucks to keep it honest.?/font>
Homer gave him the two dollars. He saw the bills go into the foremans pocket and he knew that the company would never see those bills. That didnt matter. Hed bought what he wanted at the price asked. The bathtubs were high and narrow, standing on dragon feet. He picked the best one of them. It wouldnt go into the station wagon so he opened it on the top, the feet pointing skyward, lashing it in place with rope. The bathroom windows had been removed intact, small windows of red, yellow, and green glass in diamond pattern. He bought two of them from the foreman for a dollar each and, with the purchase, a vision returned, haunting him.
He drew his pay at the end of the day and headed for the hills.
It was afternoon on Friday when he drove into familiar territory. He stayed on the highway when it looped around North Fork . The crops were prospering under a bright sun; potatoes, wheat, barley, lettuce, cauliflower. The hazy blue mountain was on his right. Within a few miles the fields on his left became bleak, sage, and greasewood, sprinkled with a few indomitable flowers of blue, yellow, and pink. A hawk floated low, gliding on motionless wings, and a rabbit scurried across the road.
Homer drove over a small bridge and the stream below it was a thin trickle. He turned to his right on a rutted road and the nuns were in the field, working on their variegated crop, fighting for their growing stuff against weeds and voracious insects and the parched dryness of the soil. It was good to see them again, but he did not slow down or look in their direction. He was not certain of his reception and he was willing to defer it. He parked in his accustomed spot and sat looking at his unfinished church.
Nobody had disturbed it and no one had brought bricks with which to complete it. It had a desolate look; one wall built as high as a mans shoulders, the others low; the chimney pointing upward like the skeleton finger of a giant. There was an untidy scattering of rubble on the ground. Homer got the scoop shovel from the barn tool room and started shoveling. He cleared the area and dug a hole with his spade into which he tumbled the debris.
The bell rang and he straightened. Old Mother never rang the bell for the nuns because they knew when to come for meals. That bell was for him. He laid the spade aside, carried his bucket to the well, washed his hands and walked into the house. They were waiting for him, standing in their places at the table, just as if he had never been away. He bowed his head while they prayed. When he looked up after the Amen?they were all looking at him happily. Nobody said anything but they were glad that he was home. A man felt a thing like that. Nobody had to say anything.
There was an omelet and coarse bread, but there were vegetables, too, fresh vegetables. The farm was starting to pay off.
They resumed the English lessons after supper and Homers ears were sharper because he had been away. They were doing better with the language but he could hear the soft echo of South Carolina coming back to him when they spoke.
Better than a phonograph accent, he thought. Used to be you could hear the turntable going around when they spoke anything in English.
He did not unveil the bathtub until after breakfast the next day. He drove the station wagon close to the house and eased the tub down from the top. He called old Mother out to see it. Sister Gertrud and Albertine came with her. He made an awkward gesture toward the tub, not naming it. After all, these were girls who built a high fence around the privy.
A present,?he said.
He was facing Mother Maria Marthe. Her eyes squinted as though she found the sun too bright. Does it God, Schmidt,?she said, does it God.?/font>
She said something in German to the two nuns and went hurriedly into the housel. Homer did not have to explain to her that he needed a place in which to install the tub. When she returned, she led him to a pantry off the kitchen. This was the deepest penetration that he had made into the nuns?quarters. He had not even known that the pantry existed.
It was a small room but that was her problem. He hauled the tub in and set in on its feet. He had taken some pipe as a necessary accessory to the tub and he had bought a secondhand blowtorch in the city. He cut a hole in the floor where it met the wall and angled the pipe through it, attaching it to the drain- pipe of the tub and soldering it in place. He put the rubber plug in the drain and the tub was in business. He dug a trench outside the house to run the water off. They would still have to haul water because he couldnt give them a pump and a plumbing job, but this was something. He felt good about it.
He still lacked bricks, so he settled down to carpentry, making pews and kneelers like those in the church at Piedras. He lacked a lathe and he had to work with what he had, so the pews were mere benches without polish or curlicues, but he built them solidly and the day passed swiftly.
Old Mothers got to pray me some bricks,?he said softly. ?If she doesnt, shes wasting my time.?/font>
He sat at the counter in Piedras while the nuns were at Mass on Sunday. He ordered his big breakfast. The sad-looking man broke eggs into the skillet and surrounded them with bacon.
It is not reasonable that you have come back,?he said.
It makes sense to me.?/font>
It could not. Everybody says that you are gone and this is how it had to be. They laugh at the nuns because the nuns say that you will return.?/font>
Homers body stiffened. I dont want to see no body laughing at those nuns.?/font>
This they know.?The man cast a wary eye at his big customer. Now nobody will laugh.?/font>
No. Thats right. Nobodys going to laugh.?/font>
The padre says to them that you will return.?/font>
How did he know??/font>
That Mother Superior, she told him.?/font>
How did she know??/font>
Homer drank his coffee, savoring the fine aroma of bacon. He had not known, himself. That he would ever come back. He had not given it a thought. How could old Mother know? He had a dark suspicion that it had something to do with her praying. She had never got it out of her head that God had given Homer Smith to her. If that were a fact, shed be certain that he couldnt wander off. He belonged to her. That was something Homer had never liked. The idea of belonging to someone stirred a racial antagonism in him. No Negro was ever going to belong to anybody again. Not ever! He was free.
The breakfast was good and he ate it. The idea of freedom move around in his mind while he ate, not moving in a worrisome way, merely in a curious manner. It was a strange thing, freedom. He had been free in the city. Nobody told him to do anything. He kept his own hours, ate when he wanted to eat, slept as late as he liked. Here, old Mother was always ringing bells or yelling Schmidt?or telling him to do something. She exploded inside of herself if he didnt get up at bird-waking time. She was so certain about owning him that she never said thank you?for anything. Not one time that she had said thank you.?/font>
The padre, that Father Gomez, he will be very happy that you have come back to those nuns,?the man behind the counter said.
Why should he be happy??/font>
He will say that it proves a religious thing.?/font>
What religious thing??/font>
Faith. It is a word for what is unreasonable. If man believe in an unreasonable thing. That is faith. It is not reasonable that you should come back to this place and work for nothing. Nobody believed it. You have come back.?/font>
Homer ate contentedly. That was an interesting idea. He liked interesting ideas. Faith was what old Mother had. She believed that he would come back. She believed that he could build a church all by himself, maybe even without bricks. That wasnt a reasonable idea. He hadnt built anything all by himself. He was free, building that church, just as free as he was in the city, even more so. There wasnt anybody else to build it. He didnt need any wages. He had a full life. He had many things. He was free like the lilies of the field. It was strange thing. As this Spanish man said, it wasnt reasonable.
Me,?the man said. I have no faith. I dont believe in the church. I dont go to the Mass. ?/font>
Homer looked at him with interest. I dont know what that does for you,?he said. All those other Spanish are in there sitting on those benches or doing whatever they do at Mass, not working. Youre over here, working, fixing my breakfast.?/font>
It is reasonable. You pay me. I make money.?/font>
I never saw another customer in here during the Mass. Except you get a hungry Baptist in your place, you dont make money.?/font>
So, I sit here and do nothing. It is a reasonable thing. No priest tells me what to do.?/font>
The first stragglers were coming out of the church. Homer rose and paid for his breakfast. The man behind the counter baffled him in a mild way but he was not interested in him. The man could stay just as he was, where he was, being reasonable. If the man ever got faith, Sunday was going to be a hungry day in Piedras.
The nuns, as usual, were the last ones out of the church. Homer amused himself, looking big and dangerous beside the station wagon, frowning at all of these people who had laughed at his nuns, seeing them turn quickly away from him. He did not frown at Father Gomez who came out with old Mother. The priest was smiling and he extended his hand.
It is nice to see you again,?he said. I believe that you will have a surprise or two this week. Mr. Smith.?He turned his head. Dont you agree, Mother Superior??/font>
Mother Maria Marthe either understood, or sensed, what he was saying. She nodded and, amazingly, for the first time since Homer had known her, she smiled.
The surprise was not long in developing. Early Monday morning, vehicles of various types and ages arrived at Homers working area. Each vehicle brought adobe bricks and each driver had approximately the same speech.
Im happy to bring these bricks for the chapel. I have had in my heart a doubt of you and I am sorry.?/font>
After his astonishment at the first two versions of the speech, Homer adjusted cheerfully to the situation. Old Padre must have preached hell to these Spanish, he thought. Wish I could have heard it.
The bricks piled up and he went to work again. The day climaxed with the beer truck and the largest donation of the day, five hundred bricks. The driver, a wide-shouldered, husky, embarrassed man made the set approach. His companion, the sad man from the caf? spat at a grasshopper, missing him.
I have come only to see this thing,? he said. I have brought no bricks.?/font>
Homer shrugged. It made no difference. This man probably did not believe in bricks. It was not reasonable that all of these bricks should be here, so they were not. The broad-shouldered man laughed. Now that he had made his speech, he was no longer embarrassed. He slapped his companion on the back and walked around the partially built chapel, shaking his head.
You dont know well the adobe,?he said.
You should have help.?/font>
Homer resented him and he was glad to see him go. A shadow had fallen on his church which everyone else called a chapel. Now that these Spanish were bringing bricks they were going to tell him what to do and how to do it. That could not be. He had to finish it as he had begun it. It was his church. For the first time since he started work on the project, he worried. Mother Maria Marthe added to his worry. She walked around his bricks, making clucking noises like a hen that has just laid something; owning his bricks as she owned him, acting like shed prayed them into existence.
If I hadnt come back, there wouldnt be any bricks, he thought sullenly.
Old Mother was obvious. Schmidt,? she said. Do people will help you? All is well.?/font>
I dont want any help.?/font>
His mind was set on that point and when helpful neighbors came to watch and make suggestions, he was curtly hostile. They brought no brick on Tuesday or on Wednesday but men with time to spare from whatever they did normally, came in person. Some of them were mouth experts, telling him what he should do. They were very friendly about it. When he wouldnt let them work, they sat and smoked, watching him and sometimes shaking their heads, making remarks to another in Spanish.
They aint commenting on how good Im doing neither, he thought.
Thursday bothered him. He didnt know whether he would still have a job with Livingston Construction Company and he was reluctant to leave his own job unguarded. There wasnt any sense in telling old Mother to chase these Spanish because she liked the idea of having them do some of the work. She didnt understand how he felt about it. All that she cared about was getting her chapel-church built. She didnt care who built it.
Homer made two signs and placed them conspicuously on his walls. One read Keep Off! And the other was equally uncompromising: Dont Touch Anything! He drove off then to North Fork .
Orville Livingstons eyebrows moved upward and his jaw moved forward when he saw Homer Smith. Where have you been??he said.
Yeah? Why did you come back??/font>
Had to finish my church.?/font>
Are you going to finish it??/font>
Ill finish it. Right now Im gaining on my brick.?/font>
Humph. Well, they ought to read you out of the Baptist Church but Im glad youre back. Im short-handed.?/font>
Homer went out on a road gang and Livingston had not exaggerated his short-handedness. The work was heavy. Thursday night Homer checked his church and no one had disturbed it. Friday night, with his two days pay, he loaded up on groceries, enjoying the adventure of pushing his cart through the supermarket again and selecting what he wanted. When he reached home and presented his sacks to old Mother, she shook her head at him.
No, Schmidt,?she said. No more.?/font>
She showed him vegetables in jars, which the nuns had canned for winter eating, five vegetables ready for the table, an entire new generation of chickens, which in the fowl run ready to be thinned out. He had been blind to all that. He experienced an odd twinge of disappointment.
Thats fine,?he said. Thats just fine.?/font>
He had never been vitally interested in what the nuns did, or how. He knew that they worked hard and that was all that he cared to know. Now their had something to show for their work. They didnt need his groceries any more. He walked across the clearing to his church. The Spanish had been interfering in his absence. They had built a big mortar box with some of his old lumber. He sat and smoked, taking counsel with himself.
There was a way of spreading adobe on the outside of the brick and smoothing it out, a little like stone. He had studied the church in Piedras and he believed that he knew how it was done, but he had never seen anyone do it. These Spanish planned to do it for his church. Thats why they built that box to do their puddle. He resented any and every hand laid on that church other than his own, but he told himself that this was a practical matter and that the Spanish knew how to do this work.
No sense in me getting sore,?he said.
Some intangible thing, some joyful spirit, had gone out of his life and he tried to call it back. He sang as he laid brick on Saturday and he was friendly to the Spanish people who came out to watch him, so friendly that he surprised them. They got in his way, trying to help him. No one attempted to mix adobe clay; everyone wanted to help lay brick.
No!?he said. I got my ideas. I got to do it my way.?/font>
?st1:City w:st="on"> Como ? There is only one way to lay the brick.?/font>
They didnt understand his attitude and he had taken a positive stand at an awkward time. He had reached the point in one wall that called for the installation of a window, high up and placed, as in the church at Piedras, so that light would fall on the altar. He had the window intact in its frame, a small window that need never be opened. It was not easy to set it properly in place with the bricks holding it firm. He had measured his space carefully, but he has difficulty when he tried to set it. A short, thin man named Juan Archuleta joined him on his working platform.
It is a matter of aggravation, this,?Juan Archuleta said. I have done it.?/font>
He broke a brick deftly, scarcely seeming to glance at it but breaking it to the exact size that he wanted. He wedged pieces into place and he spread his adobe mortar. He knew how to set a window and Homer grudgingly admitted it. The little man took no credit for what he did and made no point of it. He talked as he worked.
I like how you sing,?he said.
A man works better singing.?/font>
Si. Singing is good. You like guitar??/font>
Got one of my own.?/font>
Great. You come to my house tonight for the dinner. Drink a little, sing a little, play the guitar.?/font>