At last full of the knowledge of the wonder it is to be a man walking upon the earth, Andy Catlett is past eighty now, still at work in the fashion of a one-handed old man on what still he often calls in his thoughts the Riley Harford place, the name that has belonged to it for at least a hundred and fifty years. As a farm perhaps never better than marginal, the place in its time has known abuse, neglect, and then, in his own tenure and care, as he is proud to think, it has known also healing and health and ever-increasing beauty.
He has supposed, he has pretty well known, that some of his neighbors in Port William and the country around had thought, when he and Flora bought the place and settled in it, that they would not last there very long, for it was too inconvenient, too far from the midst of things, too poor. And so Andy has delighted a little in numbering, as disproof and as proof, the decades of their inhabitance: the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s. And now they have lived there more than half a century, long past the doubts and the doubters that they would last. Now it has become beyond doubt or question their place, and they have become its people. They have given their lives into it, and it has lived in their lives.
Of all his kindred Andy has become the oldest. He is one of the last who remembers Old Port William, as he now calls it, as it was when it and the country around it were still intact, at one with its own memory and knowledge of itself, in the years before V-J Day and the industrializing of land and people that followed. He is one of the last of the still-living who was born directly into the influence of the best men of his grandfather Catlett’s generation, who confidently, despite their struggles, assigned paramount value to the good-tending of their fields, to a good day’s work with the fundamental handtools, to the stance and character of a good mulethe inheritance that has made Andy so far out of place in the present world.
Surprised to find that he has grown as old as his grandfathers, who once seemed to him to have been old forever, he sometimes mistakes his shadow on the ground for that of Marce Catlett, his grandfather, whom he was born barely in time to know, or that of Wheeler Catlett, his father, whom he knew first as a man still young in middle age and finally as a man incoherent and old. Their grandson and son, he has come at last into brotherhood with them.
Of all the old crew of friends and neighbors with whom he traded work and shared life, who accompanied him and eased his way, Andy is the last of the older ones still living. Of that about-gone association the only younger ones still at hand are his and Flora’s children and Lyda and Danny Branch’s.
Danny was the last, so far, to go. In the absence of the others, and not so often needed by the younger ones, he and Andy had been often at work together in their old age. “Piddling,” they called it, for they never hurried and when they got tired they quit, but also it was work and they did it well. They had worked together since they were young. They knew what to expect from each other. They knew, as Danny said, where to get, and that was where they got. Danny knew, for instance, and maybe before Andy knew, when Andy was going to need a second hand. They worked sometimes, Andy thought, as a singular creature with one mind, three hands, and four legs.
Danny was sick a while. And then at breakfast time one morning, answering a somewhat deferential knocking on the front door, Andy was surprised to see Fount and Coulter Branch standing somewhat back from the door in the middle of the porch, formal and uncomfortable. They had never before in their lives come to his front door. Always all of them had followed the old usage: the familiars of a household went to the back door. But now the world had changed. It would have to be begun again. Fount and Coulter had come for that.
As Andy stood in the open door, the brothers looked at him and did not say anythingbecause, as Andy saw, they were not able to say anything.
And so he spoke for them. “Well, boys. Has he made it safe away?”
And then Fount cleared his throat, and swallowed, and cleared his throat again. “Andy, we was wondering, if maybe you wouldn’t mind, if you wouldn’t mind saying a few words for him.”
They reached for his hand and shook it and went away.
And so Andy stood behind the lectern at the funeral home and spoke of Danny, of the history and company that they both had belonged to, of the work that they had done together, of the love that made them neighbors and friends, and of the rules of that love that they knew and obeyed so freely, that were so nearly inborn in them, as never to need to be spoken. Andy spoke the rules: “When your neighbor needs help, go help. When neighbors work together, nobody’s done until everybody’s done.” Looking at the younger ones, his and Danny’s, who now were looking back at him, he spoke the names of the old membership, dead and living, into whose company the younger ones had been born. He spoke of their enduring, their sweat, and their laughter. “This is your history,” he said. “This is who you are, as long as you are here and willing. If you are willing, this is yours to inherit and carry on.”
Having outlived so many and so much that will not be known again in this world, Andy has come to feel in body and mind sudden afflictions of sorrow for the loss of people, places, and times. He has passed the watershed in his life when he began losing old friends faster than he made new ones. Now he is far better acquainted in the graveyard on the hill at Port William than in the living town. And so he is diminished and so he lives on, his mind more and more enriched by the company of immortals who inhabit it. He is often given to the thought of subtraction, of what has been given, what taken, what remains. He is no longer surprised, when he is alone, to hear himself speak aloud some prayer of gratitude or blessing.
And yet by their absence his old companions have in a way come closer to him than they were when they were alive. They seem to involve themselves intimately in his life as he goes on living it. His thoughts now often seem to come to him in their words and voices.
On a certain kind of warm summer evening with a steady breeze from the west, Elton Penn will say to him again, as Elton said to him when he was a boy, “Do you feel how soft the air is? It’s going to rain.”
Or sometimes, when he is looking with satisfaction at his steep pastures now healed and “haired over” with grass, he will hear his father say, “This land responds to good treatment.”
Or when in the apparently unbreakable habit of the years of his strength Andy catches himself working too fast, Mart Rowanberry will say, as he said to him once with a certain condescension in the overeagerness of his youth: “You aiming to keep that up all day?”
Or he will remember sometimes in the evening, when the weariness of the day and of his years has come upon him, his grandpa Catlett speaking in one sentence the tragedy and triumph of his knowledge: “Ay God, I know what a man can do in a day.”
Or he will hear again his granddaddy Feltner on occasions more than enough: “What can’t be helped must be endured.”
Or when, as sometimes happens, he is listening to somebody who has started talking and can’t stop, he recalls the judgment of Art Rowanberry: “I reckon he must be a right smart fellow, but whatever he knows he learnt it from hisself.”
As he thinks back over his kinships and friendships, of those he has loved and who have loved him, and of the once worn out and broken farm that he has cared for, that has responded to his care with health and beauty, he is able to think well enough of himself. But he still has his wits too, and his memory, and he is often enough reminded of his acts of carelessness and selfishness, more in his youth than now, but also now, and he will hear his grandmother Feltner: “Listen to me. Your granny expects better of you.” And so she taught him, as he flinched from her gaze, to expect better of himself. And so he is grateful to think of forgiveness and of the persons in high places who recommended it.
From Elton Penn’s early death until the deaths as they came of all the older ones, Andy and his children, the Rowanberrys, the Sowerses, the Coulters, and the Branches would often be at work or at rest together. They knew one another well. They talked for hundreds of hours. And now it seems remarkable how little they spoke of public issues. They talked of course of the weather and their work, of things they remembered. They told jokes and stories. They told of other seasons in other years when they were doing what they were doing again. They told stories that all of them were in, that all of them already knew, that they had told and heard and laughed at and revised and told again any number of times. They told and wondered at bits of local gossip. They spoke of the life histories, commented upon the characters, and filled out the pedigrees of remarkable people they knew. Rarely they would lapse into journalism and tell of something they had read in the paper or heard on the news. Almost never did they speak of politics.
Andy can remember now only one political utterance from a member of their old crew in all of those years. This was at one of the annual Rowanberry family reunions. They had gathered that year in a hickory grove in a corner of a bottomland field belonging to Pascal and Sudie Rowanberry Sowers. There was a sizeable crowd of them: at-home Rowanberrys, Rowanberrys come home for the occasion, Rowanberrys-by-marriage, honorary Rowanberrys, and some self-appointed Rowanberrys who came bearing in pots, kettles, and baskets, as dutifully as the others, their contributions to the feast.
Andy was sitting on a bench among several of the men who had come from away, all of whom had originated within the familiar reach and compass of Port William, but who bore now something of the estrangement of distance and of other places. A little to Andy’s surprise, they began to speak of the recent disgrace of an eminent politician. Pascal, who was standing with one shoulder propped against a tree more or less in front of the bench, seemed to be withdrawn under the brim of his hat as he could sometimes seem to be, but Andy knew that he was listening. The talk of the great politician’s downfall gradually brought one of the talkers under pressure to confess that he had voted for him, and another to say modestly that he had not.
Pascal then lifted his head so that his countenance emerged from the shadow of his hat. He said, “I’m not going to tell you who I voted for. But I’ll tell you this much. I’ll never vote for that son of a bitch again.”
Ill-fitted as he has always been to the present age of the world, much more ill-fitted to it as he has come to be, Andy is yet in part and inextricably its creature, captured and held to it even by his contrariness against it, drawn too much left or right by the toxic simplifications of its politics, too much subject to the seductions of its economy. Often enough he knows he has spent money he knew he should have kept. Often enough he has been tempted to buy something he knew he did not need, only by a second thought separating himself from the dog-trained “consumers” who obediently pay too much for whatever is new. He knows that among that multitude he would disappear from the ghosts he most needs to remain known by. He rescues himself by vigilance and fear. And then invariably he will hear Danny Branch’s admonition to Reuben, his temporarily youthful and extravagant son: “Sweetheart, you’ll finally learn. Don’t let the sons of bitches get ahold of your money.”
Often enough in his remembering he will be delighted. He will laugh. And his laughter will be complicated by respect for the completeness and the stature that come only to the dead, and by the knowledge of loss, and by grief.
Outliving your friends, hardly a pleasure, is in its way a matter not overly complicated. Time brings the losses and, if you stay in time, it removes the shock or surprise, gathers the new absences into the structures of ordinary days, and carries you past. But Andy also has begun to outlive his fences, and in the present age of the world that is verily a complication.
He had missed by a lifetime or more the age of the rock fences. When he was born some of them were still in use, but they were frost-heaved and crumbling. Nobody any more had the skill or the time to mend them. They were being replaced by wire, the tumbled rocks left lying or cast into piles out of the way or knapped into road gravel. And so as he grew up he learned to fence with wire.
After he and Flora settled on the Harford place he renewed all the old fences and added more, sometimes with help but often alone. And then as the years passed he had repaired and then rebuilt the fences that he had built. But then he had been still in his strength, and for a long time when he needed help, he had his friends or his children to help him.
But now in his old age he still knows of course how to build a fence, but he is without the all-day strength and stamina to do it. And the generation of Port William men who knew either how to build a fence or how to help is by now as decrepit as he is or dead and gone. Of all the ones Andy knows the only one he could freely call on who could build a fence is Marce, his son. But Marce has his own farm and his own shortage of help. Though he is nearby and watchful and capable and always ready to help when needed, and often does help, Andy doesn’t want to ask him to take on a big job. He feels a greater reluctance to call on any of the Branches. He knows that if he asked they would feel obligated and would come whether it suited them or not.
And so when he had spliced and re-tightened and stobbed up a lengthy stretch of old barbed wire to about its and his own limit, he started asking around for somebody else he could hire to rebuild it. A friend of his gave him the name of a friend of his who gave him the name of Shad, short for Shadrock, Harbison.
Shad Harbison was an entrepreneur from down about Ellville who farmed some, carpentered some, did about anything anybody wanted done, including fence-building, and had a crew and the equipment to do the job. Andy called Mr. Harbison on the phone and told him what he needed. Would he be interested?
“Sure would,” Mr. Harbison said. “I’ll be there at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. Now where you live?”
Andy told him, and told him how to find the place.
At eleven o’clock the next morning Mr. Harbison’s pickup truck was in the driveway in front of Andy’s house. Andy would not have been surprised if he had been late or had never showed up, but he was on time to the minute. Andy thanked him for his punctuality, and from then to the end of their association he would have no further reason to thank him. Mr. Harbison politely tooted his horn. They introduced themselves and shook hands.
Mr. Harbison, without unduly noticing the absence of Andy’s right hand, had given him his own left hand. “Call me Shad.”
“All right. And I’m Andy.”
They walked the fence together, Andy showing Shad where it started and where it ended. Andy pointed to the old wood posts that were still sound, and to the ones that would have to be replaced. They took note of the considerable amount of brush and the several trees that would have to be removed before the old fence could be taken out and the new one built. They looked and Shad nodded at the half a dozen young oak and walnut trees that were not to be cut. Andy told Shad he wanted the bushes and the tree limbs laid in neat piles, butt ends together, handy to pick up. The old wire should be rolled up and the rolls put into piles. Andy described the fence he wanted: five strands of barbed wire, spaced so as to turn sheep. There was to be one new corner post, and Andy said how he wanted it braced.
Shad took it all in comprehendingly and with approval:
“Aw yeah. I see.”
“Yessir, I see what you mean.”
“Why sure. It won’t be no problem.”
They came to an understanding on the price. Too much, Andy thought, but he had expected that. He had made up his mind not to mind.
“Get the wire and everything else you need at Mel Hundley’s in Port William. He’ll know to look for you, and he’ll charge me for what you get.”
Shad then figured up and, taking a notebook and pencil from a shirt pocket, made a list of the materials he thought he would need. He read the list to Andy and looked at him.
“All right,” Andy said.
And then, prompted by a committee of his ghosts, he said, looking Shad in the eye, “I’m asking you to do this because I think you’ll do it right. I hate a damned mess, and I believe you do.”
“Aw, I’m with you there. It ain’t a bit more trouble to do it right than it is to do it wrong.”
They shook hands.
“Tuesday week,” said Shad. “Early.”
“I’ll be looking for you.”
On Tuesday, not early, a large powerful red pickup truck with a large metal toolbox behind the cab came rumbling up the lane and into the driveway. The truck was pulling a large trailer of the kind known as a “lowboy” upon which was riding a large red tractor.
A large, soft-looking, somewhat sleepy young man got out of the cab and turned to look at Andy.
Andy was grinning to cover his displeasure at the looks of the young man. “If you’re looking for Andy Catlett, I’m him.” He stuck out his only hand.
Deciding what to do with it occupied the young man for an awkward moment, and then another, and then, turning his right hand approximately upside down, he allowed Andy to shake it.
“I’m Nub,” the young man said.
“Are you Shad Harbison’s son?”
“Well I reckon!” Nub said, implying that this should have been obvious.
By then an assortment of three other men had emerged from the cab. Had the surplus flesh of Nub been distributed evenly among them, they would have been much improved. They were lean with the leanness of wear and tear, of four or five Saturday nights a week for too many weeks. There was not a full set of teeth or a matched pair of eyes among them.
Andy put his hand in his pocket. “Fellows, I’m Andy Catlett.”
“I’m Junior,” said the first.
“I’m Junior,” said the second, who clearly had looked forward to Andy’s surprise at the coincidence.
“Twins!” Andy said, and the Juniors got a laugh out of that.
The third neither laughed nor smiled. He said, “Clay.”
Andy turned back to Nub. “Where’s your dad?”
“Bringing the wire and stuff.”
They unloaded the tractor and Andy showed Nub where to leave the trailer. Then with Andy opening the gates and pointing the way, Nub driving the truck and Clay the tractor, they went up the hill to start work.
Andy had a prejudice against heavy machinery. When a big truck or tractor came onto his place, his prejudice was a sort of loose ache somewhere inside him or in the air around him. He had anticipated the truck and the tractor and was reconciled, but he had allowed himself to believe that they would be accompanied by a competent human.
When they had got to the fenceline and dismounted, he said to Nub, “I suppose your dad told you what we’re doing here?”
“Well I reckon!”
But Shad, who was perhaps a competent human, still had not come. So far that was not necessarily a problem, for the line would have to be cleared and the old wire removed before the new materials would be needed.
Andy showed Nub everything he had shown his father. “Now you see what has to be done?”
“Well I reckon!”
By now Andy was conscientiously restraining his dislike for this slack-fleshed young man whose favorite three words bore invariably the whiff of intellectual superiority.
The two Juniors and Clay were unloading tools from the truck.
Andy had work of his own waiting on him that morning. He resolutely abandoned the fencing job to Nub and his crew and walked away. But he carried with him the insinuating small ache of his uneasiness, and his footing on the slope felt unsure, as if he were walking on mud.
When he went back, Shad had come with the supplies, which had been unloaded, and he and the crew were finishing their lunch in the shade of a tree midway of the fencerow. From there all the results of their morning’s work were revealed to Andy. The brush, instead of piling it neatly as he had asked, they had merely flung out of their way. The old wire too they had rolled or wadded into handfuls and flung out of the way. And they had removed not only the old barbed wire, but beyond that also perhaps two hundred feet of still very good woven wire they had so mangled in tearing it out that it could not be put back. Had Nub, the all-reckoning one, started the others and forgotten to tell them to stop? Had he been asleep? Was he perhaps awake only when at the wheel of his magnificent pickup truck?
After he had succeeded in believing his eyes, Andy turned to look at Shad, who was with perfect candor looking at him. Needing very much to say something, Andy thought of nothing.
It was Nub, that master of subtlety, who first spoke. “It wasn’t no sense in tearing out that good wire.” His tone was corrective, even instructive, implying that the senselessness belonged to Andy, that they would never have thought doing such a thing had they not been told to do so.
So far as Andy could think in the moment, and he was a slow thinker, he was licked. They had, however clumsily, taken him hostage. His old fence now was gone, he needed it, and they were the ones most available to replace it. Further thoughts, as he knew and feared, would come later. But when he replied his voice was quiet.
“No. There was no sense in it. Don’t tear out any more.”
He looked at Shad. “You’re going to be with these people until they’re finished, I hope.”
“Aw yeah. I’ll be here.”
“And you remember how to space the strands?”
Shad recited the measurements, which encouraged Andy a little.
He said, “Well. All right.”
He went back a few times to see what they were doing and to signify his distrust, but his judgment of them had turned hard and he went near them only by forcing himself. He was looking forward now only to being rid of them.
The full wherewithal of speech having returned to him, he was cursing them in his thoughts for their ignorance, idiocy, laziness, violence, and haste. He saw that wherever there had been a choice, they had preferred the easiest way to the right way. He was filled with an exasperation that he recognized as his father’s: “Barely, by God, sense enough to swallow.” He knew that he would not outlive their bad work. And he felt with a sickness almost physical their insult to his place, to himself, and to the history, the legacy, of the good work of his forebears and friends. He reminded himself that there had been a time when he had known hired hands, black and white, who had never possessed a square foot of their own land, who out of the common sense of their culture and upbringing would have recognized the badness of this work for what it was, and would have resented it.
But he had also begun an agenda of self-reproach that would be with him for a while. Why had he not fired Nub on general principles and on suspicion before he even started? Why had he not stayed with Nub and the others to watch, to supervise, at least until Shad had come? He began the suffering of self-knowledge.
He knew well his inclination to trust people, a weakness perhaps that he had nevertheless made a principle, for he knew, and upon enough evidence, that without trust there can be no end to the expense and effort of distrust. But now that it had been so flagrantly abused, his trust looked foolish to him. He looked foolish to himself. Those who had brought him up, whose ghosts accompanied him now, had told him plenty about caution, about responsibility, about the importance of “seeing to things” and “tending to business.” And he had once in fact gone so far himself as to fire a man who had come to replace a barn door, and whose work was so careless and slovenly as to be destructive. The man apparently had concluded, as apparently Nub and Company had done, that a place so obviously inferior, so far off the road and out of the modern world as this old Harford place, did not deserve his respect or his best work.
But firing the man, Andy’s one exploit as a firer, had given him no pleasure, not even in his initial anger, and the lapse of more than enough time had not taken away his distaste. But now, as he accused himself of not having fired or supervised Nub when he should have done so, it came to him that on the farms he had known in his early life he remembered nothing at all of supervising and firing. His grandfather Catlett, for example, had one hired hand: Dick Watson, a black man, whom as a child Andy had looked up to and loved, whom he still loves. Andy spent hundreds of hours in the company of Grandpa Catlett and Dick Watson. Though the order of work was set of course by Grandpa, he never in Andy’s hearing told Dick how to do anything or made a supervisory remark of any kind. Past work himself, Grandpa would often be watching, but he spoke of Dick’s work to Andy only to commend it, to speak of Dick as an example for Andy to learn from. “Look yonder at how old Dick sets up and takes hold of his mules.”
Thinking back, Andy can see that Grandpa Catlett trusted Dick Watson to work well because Dick was capable of working well, did so willingly, took pride in doing so, and trusted Grandpa to see that this was so. They were, to the extent of their mutual trust, free of each otherfree, that is, to sit down together on upturned buckets in the doorway of the barn to talk and look out at the rain. In that trust and freedom, limited as it was, there was something of peace, maybe even a promise of peace, unregarded and bypassed as history wore on through its wars, beyond the deaths of those elders and their generation, to a time when no two men even of the same race would sit together in a barn door to talk and watch the rain.
During his first twenty or so years, Andy played and then worked in the company of a good many hands, black and white, who worked by the day, straight time or temporarily as through a harvest. They and their work varied a good deal in quality, but with few exceptions, they were more like Dick Watson than they were like Shad Harbison’s fencing crew. Long ago the good ones, farm-raised and self-respecting, had either died or gone to jobs in industry. To replace them now were only the machines, the chemicals, and, in a pinch, the barely awake, the barely sober, the barely conscious, the incompetent, indifferent, and more or less accidently destructive.
At last, actually fairly soon, the Harbison crew messed and blundered its way to the completion of a passable fence, newer, shinier, and tighter at least than the old one. Andy wrote Shad a check for the too much that they had agreed on, that had now become much more than too much. Shad graciously accepted the check and hoped that Andy, if he ever had more fence to build, would just let him know.
“Thanks,” Andy said, and watched their vehicles go down the lane and out of sight, he hoped, forever.
And so he was left to submit his outrage to time, hoping, praying in fact, that before he died he would come to some manner of forgiveness both for the Offensive Fencers Incorporated and for himself.
Unignorably in the way of that lay the mess that the fencers had left behind: the scatters and tangles of brush and small logs, the randomly discarded rolls and wads and bits and pieces of old wire that now defaced and affronted the beautiful field that for fifty years he had lovingly housekept. There had been a time when in his strength he would have thought nothing of cleaning it up. He could have done it by himself in a few hours. Now he was depressed and diminished by it. It looked impossible.
He thought of calling his son to come and help him, but he rejected that thought as soon as it came. It was too late now to ask Marce. If he had asked when he should have, the two of them working together would have built a good fence with no mess or shortcutting. Moreover, they would have enjoyed working together.
Now, grieved by that loss and dismayed by the result, he was also embarrassed. He could not bear the thought that Marce might see the mess. He knew Marce would not say, but he dreaded that he would think: “Well. You oughtn’t have dealt with those damned counterfeits in the first place.”
Andy knew very well why he had dealt with them: he was ignorant and knew it and was in a hurry and went ahead anyhow. And so he didn’t call Marce.
But there was one recourse he might still have. There was a good boy from down at Hargrave, Austin Page, a boy not farm-raised but interested in farming, who had asked to work for Andy while he was in high school, and Andy often had been glad to hire him, to have his help, and to have his company. He liked Austin, who was intelligent, eager to learn, willing to work, and humorous enough to put up with the correction he sometimes received. Andy had put him to the test a number of times, and Austin had always passed. By way of Andy’s instruction, and sometimes his impatience, Austin had learned to work with Andy. Now more often than not he knew where to get, and more often than not he could anticipate what came next. Now he was in college, majoring in music, in which he was perhaps exceptionally gifted. As Andy had grown older and weaker, Austin had grown older and stronger. He was a big boy now, well-muscled, with freckles and tightly curled hair the color of a new penny. He was easily embarrassed and a radiant blusher, which made him especially valuable to Andy.
“I can turn that boy on and off like a light bulb,” he said to Daisy Page, Austin’s mother. Daisy Page was a woman whom Andy somewhat excessively admired, and all the more when she replied, “Mister. Catlett. You are too near the dropoff to be a smartass.”
She said that as a prelude to saying that Austin soon would be done with his summer courses and was wondering: might Andy have work for him before he had to return for the fall semester? Andy said yes, he might.
And so it happened that about three days after the departure of Harbison and crew, when Andy was sorely needing him, Austin called him up.
“Mr. Catlett, this is Austin. Do you need some help?”
“Do you mean am I helpless?”
“Oh nosir. I mean, do you have something to do that I could help you with?”
“Yes, Mr. Austin, my friend, I do. Come in the morning.”
Andy had a small, low-wheeled wagon that was easy to load. It was not often used, and he and Austin had to go to some trouble to get it out from among the other implements where it had been put away. When they had it unencumbered and in the clear, they brought out Andy’s old team of horses, the white one and the black, and hitched them to the wagon. By then Andy felt that he too had come into the clear. The oppression of the fencers and their mess had lifted from him like a cloud.
In his new clarity he had a sort of vision of himself and Austin there with the team and wagon at the start of their morning’s work: an old man full of an outdated pride and demand, counting his losses, still suffering his dream, two nights ago, of the handtools of all the tradesmen of Old Port William heaped up and auctioned off to “collectors” who did not know their usesand, standing beside him, this vivid boy, his mind on fire, his hair burning his cap off, this Austin Page, fresh from his summer courses, clearly glad now to be with Andy, outdoors, going to work.
Andy handed the lines to Austin and was amused, also much pleased, that Austin took them as a matter of course into his own hands and spoke to the team.
They went up to the fence row. When they had come to their starting place Andy said “Whoa,” and he and Austin stepped off the wagon.
Andy said, “You see what we’ve got to do. It’s a mess.”
And Austin, quoting and correcting, said, “A damned mess,” and Andy laughed.
“We’ll pick up the brush first,” he said, “and we’ll pile up the wire as we find it. It’s scattered everywhere. We’ll pick that up last. Finding all of it’ll be the problem.” In fact they would not find it all that day. As Andy expected, he would be finding the smaller pieces by surprise for a long time. Once, as he had feared, he found a fugitive hank of the heaviest of it by cutting into it with his mowing machine.
He picked up the first limb and laid it on the wagon. And then Austin picked up a somewhat larger one and, from a distance of perhaps a dozen feet, with a young athlete’s depreciating nonchalance, tossed it over onto the one Andy had loaded.
“Hold on!” Andy said. “Wait a minute.” He had spoken almost before he thought.
In his happiness at Austin’s arrival to help him, Andy had seemed to himself to be both in the moment and outside it, watching. And now, his mind as if alerted in all the strata of its years, he was inhabiting also a moment much older. He was fourteen years old and had been formally hired, not at last by his father but by Elton Penn, to help in the tobacco harvest, and thus, small for his age as he was, had arrived at last at the status and dignity of a hand. But he had just handed Elton a stick of tobacco, turning loose his end as soon as Elton took hold of the other, greatly increasing the effort for Elton.
“Now wait a minute!” Elton had a transfixing grin, and Andy was transfixed, knowing well by then that his situation could get worse.
“You handed that stick to me wrong. Now I’m handing it to you right. Now you hand it back to me right. That’s the way. That’s the way I want you to hand it to me from now on.”
Andy said, “Austin, my good boy, damn it, wait a minute. We ain’t going to make a mess to clean up a mess. Do you want to put one load into three loads or into one load?”
He looked at Austin until Austin said, “Well. Obviously. I would rather put one load into one load.”
Andy saw that Austin’s ears were turning red, and he was amused, but he said fairly sternly, “Well, come and pick up that branch you just threw on and turn it over so it takes up less room. Now snug the butt up against the headboard of the wagon.
“That’s right,” he said. “That’s the way we do it. We pick up every piece and look at it and put it on the load in the place where it belongs. We think of the shape of every limb and stem and chunk and pole, and that’s the way we shape the load.
“It’s the use of the mind,” he said, “what they ought to be teaching you in school.”
Andy and Henry, his brother, had gone to see Elton one day shortly after Old Jack Beechum had died and Elton had bought the Beechum place. In Old Jack’s declining years he had become dependent on hired hands and tenants, some of whom had not lived or worked up to Old Jack’s standards. They had not stayed long, but they had each left a deposit of dooryard trash, broken toys, bits of furniture, things put down and left lying. Now Elton was cleaning it up, setting the place to rights, as in duty to the old man, to himself, and to their joint ownership. The Catlett brothers found nobody at home that day, but in the barn lot there was a wagon loaded with the debris of human carelessness as well as bits of old lumber and the scattered rocks that Elton had picked up as he went along. Henry stopped his car and he and Andy sat for a few minutes, admiring the load which was, of its kind, a masterwork. Every piece, every scrap conferred upon the whole load the happiness of its right placement.
“He couldn’t make an ugly job of work to save his life,” Henry said.
“Now you’re shouting,” Andy said to Austin. “Now you’re doing it right.
“Now,” he said, “we’re practicing the art of loading brush. It is a fundamental art. An indispensible art. Now I know about your ‘fine arts,’ your music and literature and all thatI’ve been to school tooand I’m telling you they’re optional. The art of loading brush is not optional.”
“You talking about symphonies?” Austin had stopped and was standing still to signify the importance, to him, of symphonies.
“Symphonies! Hell yes!” Andy said. “You take a society of people who can write symphonies and conduct symphonies and play symphonies and can’t put on a decent load of brush, they’re going to be shit out of luck.”
Austin’s face, starting with his ears, had become almost astonishingly red, and Andy rejoiced. He was bearing joyfully now the burden of knowing better. Maybe in the passing on of his ghostly knowledge he was doing his duty to Austin. He was sure that a man hiring a boy had a duty to help him along if he could. But his thoughts were moved now by a parental fear for this Austin, this boy with his mind on fire, kindled by symphonies and God knows what. Andy was entirely familiar with that fire. Any sorry poor human having a mind, some time or another it would be on fire, with the old prospect of burning the mind’s owner or burning the world, invoking always the old familial hope, for every grown boy anyhow, that the heat might be so contained as to warm a hearth or boil a kettle without burning down the house. So an old man, leaning toward a young one, would try to dampen a little the omnivorous blaze. But also he would be warming his hands. If he was helping Austin to get a start in life, he was also re-starting his own. He felt a strange elation coming into his heart, so familiar now among the dead, so strange among the living. He wasn’t going to say much more, but for the moment he was standing his ground.
“My dear Austin, my good boy, maybe it’s possible to blow things up and burn things up and tear things down and throw things away and make music all at the same time. Some, it looks like, think you can. But: if you don’t have people, a lot of people, whose hands can make order of whatever they pick up, you’re going to be shit out of luck. And in my opinion, if the art of loading brush dies out, the art of making music finally will die out too. You tell your professors, when you go back, that you met an old provincial man, a leftover, who told you: No high culture without low culture, and when low culture is the scarcest it is the highest. Tell ’em that. And then tell me what they say.”
Now instead of blushing Austin was thinking. His face, his posture, his movements all now bore the implication of thought.
He said finally, “I reckon you’d make brush-loading a required course for music majors.”
Andy laughed, which he had been wanting to do for some time. “I probably would, if it was up to me. But listen, Austin. I’m serious.”
“I know it.”
“And I’m telling you all this because I’m your friend.”
“I know it.”
They finished the load. Andy took the lines himself this time. He stood to drive, and Austin made himself an uncomfortable place to perch.
“The art of piling brush begins and ends,” Andy said, “with knowing where to pile it.”
He drove some distance to where a grassy slope came down to a wooded bluff. They came to a swale in the pasture where once there had been a gulley, now long-healed and sodded over, “haired over,” his father would say. But the gully was still open and raw where it steepened, going into the woods. Andy positioned the wagon just above that place.
He had a theory, two hundred years too late to prove, that gullies like this one had been opened by plowing and cropping the slopes. Before that, when the country still wore its deep, porous, rootbound original soil, the water draining through such places was more apt to seep than to flow. Where the slopes were not too steep they could be healed under grass. On the bluffs, even after the trees had returned, the healing would be slow, if it could happen, if it could happen in human time. Andy nonetheless loved the thought of the healing of the gulleys. He knew they could not be healed from the bottom up, for there the flow had gathered too much force. But for a good while he had thought, experimentally, that by using brush to slow and divert the water a little just below the edge of the grass, he might start the healing from the top. He laid his thinking out for Austin, showed him what he had in mind, and then to the head of the gulley they applied the art of piling brush.
And so they worked through the morning. And so they worked to the end of their task in the middle of the afternoon. By then Andy was tired. By then Austin was doing most of the work, and all of the hardest of it. Andy was keeping out of his way, helping a little as he could, and watching, as Austin stepped with the happiness of his young strength into the work. About as far as it could be done in Andy’s lifetime, they had undone the bad work of the fencers. Maybe they had helped a little the healing of the hurt world. And he was proud of the boy.
Wendell Berry lives and works on a farm in Port Royal, Kentucky. Among other things, he is a poet, fiction-writer, essayist, and environmental activist.