The Stone Boy
Arnold drew his overalls and raveling gray sweater over his naked body. In the other narrow bed his brother Eugene went on sleeping, undisturbed by the alarm clock’s rusty ring. Arnold, watching his brother sleeping, felt a peculiar dismay; he was nine, six years younger than Eugie and in their waking hours it was he who was subordinate. To dispel emphatically his uneasy advantage over his sleeping brother, he threw himself on the hump of Eugie’s body.
“Get up! Get up!” he cried.
Arnold felt his brother twist away and saw the blankets lifted in a great wing, and, all in an instant, he was lying on his back under the covers with only his face showing, like a baby, and Eugie was sprawled on top of him.
“Whassa matter with you?” asked Eugie in sleepy anger, his face hanging close.
“Get up,” Arnold repeated. “You said you’d pick peas with me.” Stupidly, Eugie gazed around the room as if to see if morning had come into it yet. Arnold began to laugh deliriously making soft, snorting noises, and was thrown off the bed. He got up from the floor and went down the stairs, the laughter continuing, like hiccups, against his will. But when he opened the staircase door and entered the parlor, be hunched up his shoulders and was quiet because his parents slept in the bedroom downstairs.
Arnold lifted his .22 caliber rifle from the rack on the kitchen wall. It was an old lever-action Winchester that his father had given him because nobody else used it any more. On their way down to the garden he and Eugie would go by the lake, and if there were any ducks on it he’d take a shot at them. Standing on the stool before the cupboard, he searched on the top shelf in the confusion of medicines and ointments for man and beast and found a small yellow box of .22 cartridges. Then he sat down on the stool and began to load his gun.
It was cold in the kitchen so early, but later in the day, when his mother canned the peas, the heat from the wood stove would be almost unbearable. Yesterday she had finished preserving the huckleberries that the family had picked along the mountain, and before that she had canned all the cherries his father had brought from the warehouse in Corinth. Sometimes, on these summer days, Arnold would deliberately come out from the shade where he was playing and make himself as uncomfortable as his mother was in the kitchen by standing in the sun until the sweat ran down his body.
Eugie came clomping down the stairs and into the kitchen, his head drooping with sleepiness. From his perch on the stool Arnold watched Eugie slip on his green knit cap. Eugie didn’t really need a cap; he hadn’t had a haircut in a long time and his brown curls grew thick and matted, close around his ears and down his neck, tapering there to a whorl.
Eugie passed his left hand through his hair before he set his cap down with his right. The very way he slipped his cap on was an announcement of his status; almost everything he did was a reminder that he was eldest–first he, then Nora, then Arnold–and called attention to how tall he was (almost as tall as his father), how long his legs were, how small he was in the hips, and what a neat dip above his buttocks his thick-soled logger’s boots gave him. Arnold never tired of watching Eugie offer silent praise unto himself. He wondered, as he sat enthralled, if when he got to be Eugie’s age he would still be undersized and his hair still straight.
Eugie eyed the gun. “Don’t you know this ain’t duck season?” he asked gruffly, as if he were the sheriff.
“No, I don’t know,” Arnold said with a snigger.
Eugie picked up the tin washtub for the peas, unbolted the door with his free hand and kicked it open. Then, lifting the tub to his head, he went clomping down the back steps.
Arnold followed, closing the door behind him.
The sky was faintly gray, almost white. The mountains behind the farm made the sun climb a Iong way to show itself. Several miles to the south, where the range opened up, hung an orange mist, but the valley in which the farm lay was still cold and colorless.
Eugie opened the gate to the yard and the boys passed between the barn and the row of chicken houses, their feet stirring up the carpet of brown feathers dropped by the molting chickens. They paused before going down the slope to the lake. A fluky morning wind ran among the shocks of wheat that covered the slope. It sent a shimmer northward across the lake, gently moving the rushes that formed an island in the center. Killdeer, their white markings flashing, skimmed the water, crying their shrill, sweet cry. And there at the south end of the lake were four wild ducks, swimming out from the willows into open water.
Arnold followed Eugie down the slope, stealing as his brother did, from one shock of wheat to another. Eugie paused before climbing through the wire fence that divided the wheatfield from the marshy pasture around the lake. They were screened from the ducks by the willows along the lake’s edge.
“If you hit your duck, you want me to go in after it?” Eugie said.
“If you want,”
Arnold said. Eugie lowered his eyelids, leaving silts of mocking blue. “You’d drown ‘fore you got to it, them legs of yours are so puny,” he said He shoved the tub under the fence and, pressing down the center wire, climbed through into the pasture. Arnold pressed down the bottom wire, thrust a leg through and leaned forward to bring the
other leg after. His rifle caught on the wire and he jerked at it. The air was rocked by the sound of the shot. Feeling foolish; he lifted his face, baring it to an expected shower of derision from his brother. But Eugie did not turn around. Instead, from his crouching position, he fell to his knees and then pitched forward onto his face. The ducks rose up crying from the lake, cleared the mountain background and beat away northward across the pale sky.
Arnold squatted beside his brother. Eugie seemed to be climbing the earth, as if the earth ran up and down, and when he found he couldn’t scale it he lay still.
Then Arnold saw it, under the tendril of hair at the nape of the neck–a slow rising of bright blood. It had an obnoxious movement, like that of a parasite.
“Hey, Eugie,” he said again. He was feeling the same discomfort he had felt when he had watched Eugie sleeping; his brother didn’t know that he was lying face down in the pasture. Again he said, “Hey, Eugie,” An anxious nudge in his voice. But Eugie was as still as the morning about them. Arnold set his rifle on the ground and stood up. He picked up the tub and, dragging it behind him, walked along by the willows to the garden fence and climbed through. He went down on his knees among the tangled vines. The pods were cold with the night, but his hands were strange to him, and not until some time had passed did he realize that the pods were numbing his fingers. He picked from the top of the vine first, then lifted the vine to look underneath for pods and then moved on to the next.
It was a warmth on his back, like a large hand laid firmly there, that made him raise his head. Way up the slope the gray farmhouse was struck by the sun. While his head had been bent the land had grown bright around him.
When he got up his legs were so stiff that he had to go down on his knees again to ease the pain. Then, walking sideways, he dragged the tub, half full of peas, up the slope.
The kitchen was warm now; a fire was roaring in the stove with a closed-up, rushing sound. His mother was spooning eggs from a pot of boiling water and putting them into a bowl. Her short brown hair was uncombed and fell forward across her eyes as she bent her head. Nora was lifting a frying pan full of trout from the stove, holding the handle with a dish towel. His father had just come in from bringing the cows from the north pasture to the barn, and was sitting on the stool, unbuttoning his red plaid Mackinaw.
“Did you boys fill the tub?” his mother asked.
“They ought of by now,” his father said. “They went out of the house an hour ago. Eugie woke me up comin’ downstairs. I heard you shootin’–did you get a duck?”
“No,” Arnold said. They would want to know why Eugie wasn’t coming in for breakfast he thought. “Eugie’s dead,” he told them.
They stared at him. The pitch cracked in the stove. “You kids playin’ a joke?” his father asked.
“Where’s Eugene?” his mother asked scoldingly. She wanted, Arnold knew, to see his eyes,
and when he had glanced at her she put the bowl and spoon down on the stove and walked past him. His father stood up and went out the door after her. Nora followed them with little skipping steps, as if afraid to be left alone.
Arnold went into the barn, down along the foddering passage past the cows waiting to be milked, and climbed into the loft. After a few minutes he heard a terrifying sound coming toward the house. His parents and Nora were returning from the willows, and sounds sharp as knives were rising from his mother’s breast and carrying over the sloping fields. In a short while he heard his father go down the back steps, slam the car door and drive away.
Arnold lay still as a fugitive, listening to the cows eating close by. If his parents never called him, he thought, he would stay up in the loft forever, out of the way. In the night he would sneak down for a drink of water from the faucet over the trough and for whatever food they left for him by the barn.
The rattle of his father’s car as it turned down the lane recalled him to the present. He heard voices of his Uncle Andy and Aunt Alice as they and his father went past the barn to the lake. He could feel the morning growing heavier with sun. Someone, probably Nora, had let the chickens out of their coops and they were cackling in the yard. After a while another car turned down the road off the highway. The car drew to a stop and be heard the voices of strange men. The men also went past the barn and down to the lake. The undertakers, whom his father must have phoned from Uncle Andy’s house, had arrived from Corinth. Then he heard everybody come back and heard the car turn around and leave.
“Arnold!” It was his father calling from the yard. He climbed down the ladder and went out into the sun, picking wisps of hay from his overalls.
Corinth, nine miles away, was the county seat. Arnold sat in the front seat of the old Ford between his father, who was driving, and Uncle Andy; no one spoke. Uncle Andy was his mother’s brother, and he bad been fond of Eugie because Eugie had resembled him. Andy bad taken Eugie hunting and had given him a knife and a lot of things, and now Andy, his eyes narrowed, sat tall and stiff beside Arnold.
Arnold’s father parked the car before the courthouse. It was a two-story brick building with a lamp on each side of the bottom step. They went up the wide stone steps, Arnold and his father going first, and entered the darkly paneled hallway. The shirt-sleeved man in the sheriff’s office said that the sheriff was at Carlson’s Parlor, examining the Curwing boy.
Andy went off to get the sheriff while Arnold and his father waited on a bench in the corridor. Arnold felt his father watching him, and be lifted his eyes with painful casualness to the announcement on the opposite wall, of the Corinth County Annual Rodeo, and then to the clock with its loudly clucking pendulum. After he had come down from the loft his father and Uncle Andy had stood in the yard with him and asked him to tell them everything, and he had explained to them how the gun had caught on the wire. But when they had asked him why he hadn’t run back to the house to tell his parents, he had had no answer–all he could say was that he had gone down into the garden to pick the peas. His father had stared at him in a pale, puzzled way, and it was then that he had felt his father and the others set their cold, turbulent silence against him. Arnold shifted on the bench, his only feeling a small one of compunction imposed by his father’s eyes.
At a quarter past nine Andy and the sheriff came in. They all went into the sheriff’s private office, and Arnold was sent forward to sit in the chair by the sheriff’s desk; his father and Andy sat down on the bench against the wall. The sheriff lumped down into his swivel chair and swung toward Arnold. He was an old man with white hair like wheat stubble. His restless green eyes made him seem not to be in his office but to be hurrying and bobbing around somewhere else.
“What did you say your name was?” the sheriff asked.
“Arnold,” he replied; but he could not remember telling the sheriff his name before.
“What were you doing with a .22, Arnold?”
“It’s mine,” he said.
“Okay. What were you going to shoot?”
“Some ducks,” he replied.
“Out of season?” He nodded. “Were you and your brother good friends?” What did he mean–good friends? Eugie was his brother. That was different from a friend,
Arnold thought. A best friend was your own age, but Eugie was almost a man. Eugie had had a way of looking at him, slyly and mockingly and yet confidentially, that had summed up how they both felt about being brothers. Arnold had wanted to be with Eugie more than with anybody else but he couldn’t say they had been good friends.
“Did they ever quarrel?” the sheriff asked his father.
“Not that I know,” his father replied. “It seemed to me that Arnold cared a lot for Eugie.”
“Did you?” the sheriff asked Arnold. If it seemed so to his father, then it was so. Arnold nodded. “Were you mad at him this morning?”
“How did you happen to shoot him?”
“We was crawlin’ through the fence.”
“Yes?” “An’ the gun got caught on the wire.”
“Seems the hammer must of caught,” his father put in.
“All right, that’s what happened,” said the sheriff. “But what I want you to tell me is this. Why didn’t you go back to the house and tell your father right away? Why did you go and pick peas for an hour?”
Arnold gazed over his shoulder at his father, expecting his father to have an answer for this also. But his father’s eyes, larger and even lighter blue than usual, were fixed upon him curiously. Arnold picked at a callus in his right palm. It seemed odd now that he had not run back to the house and wakened his father, but he could not remember why he had not. They were all waiting for him to answer.
“I come down to pick peas,” be said.
“Didn’t you think,” asked the sheriff, stepping carefully from word to word “that it was more important for you to go tell your parents what had happened?”
“The sun was gonna come up,” Arnold said.
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“It’s better to pick peas while they’re cool.”
The sheriff swung away from him, laid both hands flat on his desk. “Well, all I can say is,” he said across to Arnold father and Uncle Andy, “He’s either a moron or he’s so reasonable that he’s way ahead of us.” He gave a challenging snort. “It’s come to my notice that the, most reasonable guys are mean ones. They don’t feel nothing.” For a moment the three men sat still. Then the sheriff lifted his hand like a man taking an oath. “Take him home,” he said.
Andy uncrossed his legs. “You don’t want him?”
“Not now,” replied the sheriff. “Maybe in a few years.”
Arnold’s father stood up. He held his hat against his chest. “The gun ain’t his no more,” he
smiled wanly. Arnold went first through the hallway, hearing behind him the heels of his father and Uncle Andy striking the floor boards. He went down the steps ahead of them and climbed into the back seat of the car. Andy paused as he was getting into the front seat and gazed back at Arnold, and Arnold saw that his uncle’s eyes had absorbed the knowingness from the sheriff’s eyes. Andy and his father and the sheriff had discovered what made him go down into the garden. It was because he was cruel, the sheriff had said, and didn’t care about his brother. Was that the reason? Arnold lowered his eyelids meekly against his uncle’s stare.
The rest of the day he did his tasks around the farm keeping apart from the family. At evening when he saw his father stomp tiredly into the house, Arnold did not put down his hammer and leave the chicken coop he was repairing. He was afraid that they did not want him to eat supper with them. But in a few minutes another fear that they would go to the trouble of calling him and that he would be made conspicuous by his tardiness made him follow his father into the house. As he went through the kitchen he saw the jars of peas standing in rows on the workbench, a reproach to him. No one spoke at supper, and his mother, who sat next to him, leaned her head in her hand all through the meal, curving her fingers over her eyes so as not to see him. They were finishing their small, silent supper when the visitors began to arrive, knocking hard on the back door. The men were coming from their farms now that it was growing dark and they could not work any more.
Old Man Matthews, gray and stocky, came first, with his two sons, Orion, the elder, and Clint, who was Eugie’s age. As the callers entered the parlor, where the family ate, Arnold sat down in a rocking chair. Even as he had been undecided before supper whether to remain outside or take his place at the table, he now thought that he should go upstairs, and yet he stayed to avoid being conspicuous by his absence. f he stayed, he thought, as he always stayed and listened when visitors came, they would see that he was only Arnold and not the person the sheriff thought he was. He sat with his arms crossed and his hands tucked into his armpits and did not lift his eyes.
The Matthews men had hardly settled down around the table, after Arnold’s mother and Nora had cleared away the dishes, when another car rattled down the road and someone else rapped on the back door. This time it was Sullivan, a spare and sandy man, so nimble of gesture and expression that Arnold had never been able to catch more than a few of his meanings. Sullivan, in dusty jeans, sat down in the other rocker, shot out his skinny legs and began to talk in his fast way, recalling everything that Eugene had ever said to him. The other men interrupted to tell of occasions they remembered, and after a time Clint’s young voice, hoarse like Eugene’s had been, broke in to tell about the time Eugene had beat him in a wrestling match.
Out in the kitchen the voices of Orion’s wife and of Mrs. Sullivan mingled with Nora’s voice but not, Arnold noticed, his mother’s. Then dry little Mr. Cram came, leaving large Mrs. Cram in the kitchen, and there was no chair left for Mr. Cram to sit in. No one asked Arnold to get up and he was unable to rise. He knew that the story had got around to them during the day about how he had gone and picked peas after he had shot his brother, and he knew that although they were talking only about Eugie they were thinking about him and if he got up, if he’ moved even his foot, they would all be alerted. Then Uncle Andy arrived and leaned his tall, lanky body against the doorjamb and there were two men standing.
Presently Arnold was aware that the talk had stopped. He knew without looking up that the men were watching him.
“Not a tear in his eye,” said Andy, and Arnold knew that it was his uncle who had gestured the men to attention.
“He don’t give a hoot, is that how it goes?” asked Sullivan, trippingly.
“He’s a reasonable fellow,” Andy explained. “That’s what the sheriff said. It’s us who ain’t reasonable. If we’d of shot our brother, we’d of come runnin’ back to the house, like a baby.
Well, we’d of been unreasonable. What would of been the use of actin’ like that? If your brother is shot dead, he’s shot dead. What’s the use of gettin’ emotional about it? The thing to do is go down to the garden and pick peas. Am I right?”
The men around the room shifted their heavy, satisfying weight of unreasonableness.
Matthews’ son Orion said: “If I’d of done what he done, Pa would’ve hung my pelt by the side of that big coyote in the barn.”
Arnold sat in the rocker until the last man had filed out. While his family was out in the kitchen bidding the callers good night and the cars were driving away down the lane to the highway, he picked up one of the kerosene lamps and slipped quickly up the stairs. In his room he undressed by lamplight, although he and Eugie had always undressed in the dark, and not until he was lying in his bed did he blow out the flame He felt nothing, not any grief. There was only the same immense silence and crawling inside of him; it was the way the house and fields felt under a merciless sun.
He awoke suddenly. He knew that his father was out the yard, closing the doors of the chicken houses so that the chickens could not roam out too early and fall prey to the coyotes that came down from the mountains at daybreak. The sound that had wakened him was the step of his father as he got up from the rocker and went down the back steps. And he knew that his mother was awake in her bed. Throwing off the covers, he rose swiftly, went down the stairs and across the dark parlor to his parents’ room. He rapped on the door. “Mother?” From the closed room her voice rose to him a seeking and retreating voice.
“Mother?” he asked insistently. He had expected her to realize that he wanted to go down on his knees by her bed and tell her that Eugie was dead. She did not know it yet, nobody knew it, and yet she was sitting up in bed, waiting to be told, waiting for him to confirm her dread. He had expected her to tell him to come in, to allow him to dig his head into her blankets and tell her about the terror he had felt when he had knelt beside Eugie. He had come to clasp her in his arms and, in his terror, to pommel her breasts with his head. He put his hand upon the knob.
“Go back to bed, Arnold,” she called sharply. But he waited. “Go back! Is night when you get afraid?” At first he did not understand. Then, silently, he left the door and for a stricken moment stood by the rocker.
Outside everything was still. The fences, the shocks of wheat seen through the window before him were so still it was as if they moved and breathed in the daytime and had fallen silent with the lateness of the hour. It was a silence that seemed to observe his father, a figure moving alone around the yard, his lantern casting a circle of light by his feet. In a few minutes his father would enter the dark house, the lantern still lighting his way.
Arnold was suddenly aware that he was naked. He had thrown off his blankets and come down the stairs to tell his mother how he felt about Eugie, but she had refused to listen to him and his nakedness had become unpardonable. At once he went back up the stairs, fleeing from his father’s lantern.
At breakfast he kept his eyelids lowered as if to deny the humiliating night. Nora, sitting at his left, did not pass the pitcher of milk to him and he did not ask for it. He would never again, he vowed, ask them for anything, and he ate his fried eggs and potatoes only because everybody ate meals–the cattle ate, and the cats; it was customary for everybody to eat
“Nora, you gonna keep that pitcher for yourself?” his father asked. Nora lowered her head unsurely. “Pass it on to Arnold,” his father said. Nora put her hands in her lap.
His father picked up the metal pitcher and set It down at Arnold’s plate. Arnold, pretending to be deaf to the discord, did not glance up but relief rained over his shoulders at the thought that his parents recognized him again. They must have lain awake after his father had come in from the yard: had they realized together why he had come down the stairs and knocked at their door? “Bessie’s missin’ this morning,” his father called out to his mother, who had gone into the kitchen. “She went up the mountain last night and had her calf, most likely. Somebody’s got to go up and find her ‘fore the coyotes get the calf.”
That had been Eugie’s job, Arnold thought. Eugie would climb the cattle trails in search of a newborn calf and come down the mountain carrying the calf across his back, with the cow running down along behind him, mooing in alarm
Arnold ate the few more forkfuls of his breakfast, put hands on the edge of the table and pushed back his chair. If he went for the calf he’d be away from the farm all morning. He could switch the cow down the mountain and the calf would run along at its mother’s side.
When he passed through the kitchen his mother was setting a kettle of water on the stove. “Where you going? she asked awkwardly.
“Up to get the calf,” he replied, averting his face.
“Arnold?” At the door he paused reluctantly, his back to her knowing that she was seeking him out, as his father was doing and he called upon his pride to protect him from them. “Was you knocking at my door last night?” He looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes narrow and dry. “What’d you want?” she asked humbly.
“I didn’t want nothing,” he said flatly. Then he went out the door and down the back steps, his legs trembling from the fright his answer gave him.