When his nephew was gone, the Warden said, "Sit down." He did so. "You got in the paper," the Warden said. It was folded on the desk facing him: TRIES PRISON BREAK DISGUISED IN WOMEN'S CLOTHES Parchman, Miss. Sept 8, 1923 M.C.
"Mink" Snopes, under life sentence for murder from Yoknapatawpha County ...
"What does the 'C' in your name stand for?" the Warden said. His voice was almost gentle. "We all thought your name was just Mink. That's what you told us, was not it?"
"That's right," he said. "Mink Snopes."
"What does the 'C' stand for? They've got it M. C. Snopes here."
"Oh," he said. "Nothing. Just MC Snopes like IC Railroad. It was them young fellers from the paper in the hospital that day. They kept on asking me what my name was and I said Mink Snopes and they said Mink aint a name, it's jest a nickname . What's your real name? And so I said MC Snopes. "
"Oh," the Warden said. "Is Mink all the name you've got?"
"That's right. Mink Snopes."
"What did your mother call you?"
"I dont know. She died. The first I knowed my name was just Mink." He got up. "I better go. They're likely waiting for me."
"Wait," the Warden said. "Did not you know it would not work? Did not you know you could not get away with it?"
"They told me," he said. "I was warned." He stood, not moving, relaxed, small and frail, his face downbent a little, musing, peaceful, almost like faint smiling. "He had not ought to fooled me to get caught in that dress and sun-bonnet," he said. "I would not a done that to him."
"Who?" the Warden said. "Not your ... is it nephew?"
"Montgomery Ward?" he said. "He was my uncle's grandson. No. Not him." He waited a moment. Then he said again, "Well I better ---"
"You would have got out in five more years," the Warden said. "You know they'll probably add on another twenty now, dont you?"
"I was warned of that too," he said.
"All right," the Warden said. "You can go."
This time it was he who paused, stopped. "I reckon you never did find out who sent me them forty dollars."
"How could I?" the Warden said. "I told you that at the time. All it said was From a Friend. From Memphis."
"It was Flem," he said.
"Who?" the Warden said. "The cousin you told me refused to help you after you killed that man? That you said could have saved you if he had wanted to? Why would he send you forty dollars now, after fifteen years?"
"It was Flem," he said. "He can afford it. Besides, he never had no money hurt against me. He was jest getting a holt with Will Varner then and maybe he figgered he could not resk getting mixed up with a killing, even if hit was his blood kin . Only I wish he had not used that dress and sunbonnet. He never had to do that. "
They were picking the cotton now; already every cotton county in Mississippi would be grooming their best fastest champions to pick against the best of Arkansas and Missouri for the championship picker of the Mississippi Valley. But he would not be here. No champion at anything would ever be here because only failures wound up here: the failures at killing and stealing and lying. He remembered how at first he had cursed his bad luck for letting them catch him but he knew better now: that there was no such thing as bad luck or good luck: you were either bom a champion or not a champion and if he had been born a champion Houston not only could not, he would not have dared, misuse him about that cow to where he had to kill him; that some folks were born to be failures and get caught always, some folks were born to be lied to and believe it, and he was one of them.
It was a fine crop, one of the best he remembered, as though everything had been exactly right: season: wind and sun and rain to sprout it, the fierce long heat of summer to grow and ripen it. As though back there in the spring the ground itself had said, All right, for once let's confederate instead of fighting-the ground, the dirt which any and every tenant farmer and sharecropper knew to be his sworn foe and mortal enemy-the hard implacable land which wore out his youth and his tools and then his body itself. And not just his body but that soft mysterious one he had touched that first time with amazement and reverence and incredulous excitement the night of his marriage, now worn too to such leather-toughness that half the time, it seemed to him most of the time , he would be too spent with physical exhaustion to remember it was even female. And not just their two, but those of their children, the two girls to watch growing up and be able to see what was ahead of that tender and elfin innocence; until was it any wonder that a man would look at that inimical irreconcilable square of dirt to which he was bound and chained for the rest of his life, and say to it: You got me, you'll wear me out because you are stronger than me since I'm jest bone and flesh. I cant leave you because I cant afford to, and you know it. Me and what used to be the passion and excitement of my youth until you wore out the youth and I forgot the passion, will be here next year with the children of our passion for you to wear that much nearer the grave, and you know it ; and the year after that, and the year after that, and you know that too. And not just me, but all my tenant and cropper kind that have immolated youth and hope on thirty or forty or fifty acres of dirt that would not nobody but our kind work because you're all our kind have. But we can burn you. Every late February or March we can set fire to the surface oj you until all of you in sight is scorched and black, and there aint one god-damn thing you can do about it. You can wear out our bodies and dull our dreams and wreck our stomachs with the sowbelly and corn meal and molasses which is all you afford us to eat but every spring we can set you afire again and you know that too.
It was different now. He did not own this land; he referred of course to the renter's or cropper's share of what it made. Now, what it produced or failed to produce - bumper or bust, flood or drouth, cotton at ten cents a pound or a dollar a pound-would make not one tittle of difference in his present life. Because now (years had passed; the one in which he would have been free again if he had not allowed his nephew to talk him into that folly which anybody should have known-even that young fool of a lawyer they had made him take back there at the trial when he, Mink, could have run his case much better, that did not have any sense at all, at least knew this much and even told him so and even what the result to him would be - not only wouldn 't work, it was not even intended to work, was now behind him) he had suddenly discovered something. People of his kind never had owned even temporarily the land which they believed they had rented between one New Year's and the next one. It was the land itself which owned them, and not just from a planting to its harvest but in perpetuity; not the owner, the landlord who evacuated them from one worthless rental in November, onto the public roads to seek desperately another similar worthless one two miles or ten miles or two counties or ten counties away before time to seed the next crop in March, but the land, the earth itself passing their doomed indigence and poverty from holding to holding of its thralldom as a family or a clan does a hopelessly bankrupt tenth cousin, That was past now. He no longer belonged to the land even on those sterile terms. He belonged to the government, the state of Mississippi. He could drag dust up and down cotton middles from year in to year out and if nothing whatever sprang up behind him, it would make no difference to him. No more now to go to a commissary store eveiy Saturday morning to battle with the landlord for every gram of the cheap bad meat and meal and molasses and the tumbler of snuff which was his and his wife's one spendthrift orgy. No more to battle with the landlord for every niggard sack of fertilizer, then gather the poor crop which suffered from that niggard lack and still have to battle the landlord for his niggard insufficient share of it. All he had to do now was just to keep moving; even the man with the shotgun standing over him neither knew nor cared whether anything came up behind him or not just so he kept moving, any more than he cared. At first he was ashamed, in shame and terror lest the others find that he felt this way; until one day he knew (he could not have said how) that all the others felt like this; that, given time enough, Parchman brought them all to this; he thought in a kind of musing amazement Yes sir, a man can get used to lest anything, even to being in Parchman, if you jest give him time enough.
But Parchman just changed the way a man looked at what he saw after he got in Parchman. It did not change what he brought with him. It just made remembering easier because Parchman taught him how to wait. He remembered back there that day even while the Judge was still saying "Life" down at him, when he still believed that Flem would come in and save him, until he finally realised that Flem was not, had never intended to, how he had pretty near actually said it out loud; Just let me go long enough to get out to Frenchman's Bend or wherever he is and give me ten minutes and I'll come back here and you can go on and hang me if that's what you want to do. And how even that time three or five or eight years or whenever it was back there when Flem had used that nephew-what was his name? Montgomery Ward-to trick him into trying to escape in a woman's dress and sunbonnet and they had given twenty years more exactly like that young fool lawyer bad warned him they would at the very beginning, how even while he was fighting with the five guards he was still saying the same thing: Just let me go long enough to reach Jefferson and have ten minutes and I will come back myself and you can hang me.
He did not think things like that any more now because he had learned to wait. And, waiting, he found out that he was listening, hearing too; that he was keeping up with what went on by just listening and hearing even better than if he had been right there in Jefferson because like this all he had to do was just watch them without having to worry about them too. So his wife had gone back to her people they said and died and his daughters had moved away too, grown girls now, likely somebody around Frenchman's Bend would know where. And Flem was a rich man now, president of the bank and living in a house he rebuilt that they said was as big as the Union Depot in Memphis, with his daughter, old Will Varner's girl's bastard, that was grown now, that went away and married and her and her husband had been in another war they had in Spain and a shell or cannon ball or something blew up and killed the husband but just made her stone deaf. And she was back home now, a widow, living with Flem, just the two of them in the big house where they claimed she could not even hear it thunder, the rest of the folks in Jefferson not thinking much of it because she was already mixed up in a nigger Sunday school and they said she was mixed up in something called com-monists, that her husband had belonged to and that in fact they were both fighting on the commonist side in that war.
Flem was getting along now. They both were. When he got out in 1948 he and Flem would both be old men. Flem might not even be alive for him to get out for in 1948 and he himself might not even be alive to get out in 1948 and he could remember how at one time that too had driven him mad: that Flem might die, either naturally or maybe this time the other man would not be second class and doomed to fail and be caught, and it would seem to him that he could not bear it; who had not asked for justice since justice was only for the best, for champions, but at least a man might expect a chance, anybody had a right to a chance. But that was gone too now, into, beneath the simple waiting; in 1 948 he and Hem both would be old men and he even said aloud: "What a shame we cant both of us jest come out two old men setting peaceful in the sun or the shade, waiting to die together, not even thinking no more of hurt or harm or getting even, not even remembering no more about hurt or harm or anguish or revenge, "- two old men not only incapable of further harm to anybody but even incapable of remembering hurt or harm, as if whatever necessary amount of the money which Flem no longer needed and soon now would not need at all ever again, could be used to blot, efface, obliterate those forty years which he, Mink, no longer needed now and soon also, himself too, would not even miss. But I reckon not he thought. Cant neither of us help nothing now. Cant neither one of us take nothing back.
So again he had only five more years and he would be free. And this time he had learned the lesson which the fool young lawyer had tried to teach him thirty-five years ago. There were eleven of them. They worked and ate and slept as a gang, a unit, Jiving in a detached wire-canvas-and-plank hut (it was summer); shackled to the same chain they went to the mess hall to eat, then to the field to work and, chained again, back to the hut to sleep again. So when the escape was planned, the other ten had to take him into their plot to prevent his giving it away by simple accident. They did not want to take him in; two of them were never converted to the idea. Because ever since his own abortive attempt eighteen or twenty years ago he had been known as a sort of self-ordained priest of the doctrine of nonescape.
So when they finally told him simply because he would have to be in the secret to protect it, whether he joined them or not, the moment he said, cried, "No! Here now, wait! Wait! Dont you see, if any of us tries to get out they'll come down on all of us and wont none of us ever get free even when our forty years is up, "he knew he had already talked too much. So when he said to himself, "Now I got to get out of this chain and get away from them," he did not mean Because if dark catches me alone in this room with them and no guard handy, I'll never see light again but simply I got to get to the Warden in time, before they try it maybe tonight even and wreck ever body.
And even he would have to wait for the very darkness he feared, until the lights were out and they were all supposed to have settled down for sleep, so that his murderers would make their move, since only during or because of the uproar of the attack on him could he hope to get the warning, his message, to a guard and be believed. Which meant he would have to match guile with guile: to lie rigid on his cot until they set up the mock snoring which was to lull him off guard, himself tense and motionless and holding his own breath to distinguish in time through the snoring whatever sound would herald the plunging knife (or stick or whatever it would be) in time to roll, fling himself off the cot and in one more convulsive roll underneath it, as the men - he could not tell how many since the spurious loud snoring had if anything increased-hurled themselves onto the vacancy where a split second before he had been lying.
"Grab him," one hissed, panted. "Who's got the knife?" Then another: "I've got the knife. Where in hell is he?" Because he-Mink-had not even paused; another convulsive roll and he was out from under the cot, on all-fours among the thrashing legs, scrabbling, scuttling to get as far away from the cot as he could. The whole room was now in a sort of sotto-voce uproar. "We got to have a light," a voice muttered. "Just a second of light," Suddenly he was free, clear; he could stand up. He screamed, shouted: no word, cry: just a loud human sound; at once the voice muttered, panted: "There. Grab him.," but he had already sprung, leaped, to carom from invisible body to body, shouting, bellowing steadily even after he realised he could see, the air beyond the canvas walls not only full of searchlights but the siren too, himself surrounded, enclosed by the furious silent faces which seemed to dart like fish in then out of the shoulder-high light which came in over the plank half-walls, through the wire mesh; he even saw the knife gleam once above him as he plunged, hurling himself among the surging legs, trying to get back under a cot, any cot, anything to intervene before the knife. But it was too late, they could also see him now. He vanished beneath them all. But it was too late for them too: the glaring and probing of all the searchlights, the noise of the siren itself, seemed to concentrate downward upon, into the flimsy ramshackle cubicle filled with cursing men. Then the guards were among them, clubbing at heads with pistols and shotgun barrels, dragging them off until he lay exposed, once more battered and bleeding but this time still conscious. He had even managed one last convulsive wrench and twist so that the knife which should have pinned him to it merely quivered in the floor beside his throat.
"Hit was close," he told the guard. "But looks like we made hit."
But not quite. He was in the infirmary again and did not hear until afterward how on the very next night two of then-Stillwell, a gambler who had cut the throat of a Vicksburg prostitute (he had owned the knife), and another, who had been the two who had held out against taking him into the plot at all but advocated instead killing him at once - made the attempt anyway though only Stillwell escaped, the other having most of his head blown off by a guard's shotgun blast Then he was in the Warden's office again. This time he had needed little bandaging and no stitches at all; they had not had time enough, and no weapons save their feet and fists except Stillwells knife. "It was Stillwell that had the knife, was not it?" the Warden said.
He could not have said why he did not tell. "I never seen who had it," he answered. "I reckon hit all happened too quick."
"That's what Stillwell seems to think," the Warden said. He took from his desk a slitted envelope and a sheet of cheap ruled paper, folded once or twice. "This came this morning. But that's right: you cant read writing, can you?"
"No," he said. The Warden unfolded the sheet. "It was mailed yesterday in Texarkana. It says, 'He's going to have to explain Jake Barron'" (he was the other convict, whom the guard had killed) " 'to somebody someday so take good care of him. Maybe you better take good care of him anyway since there are some of us still inside. ' "The Warden folded the letter back into the envelope and put it back into the drawer and closed the drawer. "So there you are. I cant let you go around loose inside here, where any of them can get at you. You've only got five more years; even though you did not stop all of them, probably on a recommendation from me, the Governor would let you out tomorrow. But I cant do that because Stillwell will kill you. "
"If Cap'm Jabbo" (the guard who shot) "had jest killed Stillwell too, I could go home tomorrow?" he said. "Could not you trace out where he's at by the letter, and send Cap'm Jabbo wherever that is?"
"You want the same man to kill Stillwell that kept Still-well from killing you two nights ago?"
"Send somebody else then. It do not seem fair for him to get away when I got to stay here five more years." Then he said, "But hit's all right. Maybe we did have at least one champion here, after all."
"Champion?" the Warden said. "One what here?" But he did not answer that. And now for the first time he began to count oS the days and months. He had never done this before, not with that original twenty years they had given him at the start back there in Jefferson, nor even with the second twenty years they had added onto it after he let Montgomery Ward persuade him into that woman's mother mibbard and sunbonnet. Because nobody was to blame for that but himself; when he thought of Flem in connection with it, it was with a grudging admiration, almost pride that they were of the same blood; he would think, say aloud, without envy even: "That Flem Snopes. You cant beat him. There aint a man in Missippi nor the U. S. and A. both put together that can beat Flem Snopes."
But this was different. He had tried himself to escape and had failed and had accepted the added twenty years of penalty without protest; he had spent fifteen of them not only never trying to escape again himself, but he had risked his life to foil ten others who planned to: as his reward for which he would have been freed the next day, only a trained guard with a shotgun in his hands let one of the ten plotters get free. So these last five years did not belong to him at all. He had discharged his forty years in good faith; it was not his fault that they actually added up to only thirty-five, and these five extra ones had been compounded onto him by a vicious, even a horseplayish, gratuitor.
That Christmas his (now: for the first time) slowly diminishing sentence began to be marked off for him. It was a Christmas card, postmarked in Mexico, addressed to him in care of the Warden, who read it to him; they both knew who it was from: "Four years now. Not as far as you think." On Valentine's Day it was homemade: the coarse ruled paper bearing, drawn apparently with a carpenter's or a lumberman's red crayon, a crude heart into which a revolver was firing. "You see?" the Warden said. "Even if your five years were up ..."
"It aint five now," he said. "Hit's four years and six months and nineteen days. You mean, even then you wont let me out?"
"And have you killed before you could even get home?"
"Send out and ketch him."
"Send where?" the Warden said. "Suppose you were outside and did not want to come back and knew I wanted to get you back. Where would I send to catch you?"
"Yes," he said. "So there jest aint nothing no human man can do."
"Yes," the Warden said. "Give him time and he will do something else the police somewhere will catch him for."
"Time," he said. "Suppose a man aint got time jest to depend on time."
"At least you have got your four years and six months and nineteen days before you have to worry about it."
"Yes," he said. "Hell have that much time to work in."
Then Christmas again, another card with the Mexican postmark: "Three years now. Not near as far as you think." He stood there, fragile and small and durable in the barred overalls, his face lowered a little, peaceful. "Still Mexico, I notice," he said. "Maybe He will kill him there."
"What?" the Warden said. "What did you say?"
He did not answer. He just stood there, peaceful, musing, serene. Then he said: "Before I had that-ere cow trouble with Jack Houston, when I was still a boy, I used to go to church ever Sunday and Wednesday prayer meeting too with the lady that raised me until I--"
"Who were they?" the Warden said. "You said your mother died."
"He was a son of a bitch. She was not no kin a-tall. She was jest his wife .-- ever Sunday until I--"
"Was his name Snopes?" the Warden said.
"He was my paw .-- until I got big enough to burn out on God like you do when you think you are already growed up and dont need nothing from nobody. Then when you told me how by keeping nine of them ten fellers from breaking out I did not jest add five more years to my time, I fixed it so you was not going to let me out a-tall, I taken it back. "
"Took what back?" the Warden said. "Back from who?" "I taken it back from God."
"You mean you've rejoined the church since that night two years ago? No you have not. You've never been inside the chapel since you came here back in 1908." Which was true. Though the present Warden and his predecessor had not really been surprised at that. What they had expected him to gravitate to was one of the small violent irreconcilable nonconformist non-everything and -everybody else which existed along with the regular prison religious establishment in probably all Southern rural penitentiaries - small fierce cliques and groups (this one called themselves Jehovah's Shareholders) headed by self-ordained leaders who had reached prison through a curiously consistent pattern: by the conviction of crimes peculiar to the middle class, to respectability, originating in domesticity or anyway uxoriousness: bigamy, rifling the sect's funds for a woman: his wife or someone else's or, in an occasional desperate case, a professional prostitute.
"I did not need no church," he said. "I done it in confidence."
"In confidence?" the Warden said.
"Yes," he said, almost impatiently. "You dont need to write God a letter. He has done already seen inside you long before He would even need to bother to read it. Because a man will learn a little sense in time even outside. But he learns it quick in here. That when a Judgment powerful enough to help you, will help you if all you got to do is jest take back and accept it, you are a fool not to. "
"So He will take care of Stillwell for you," the Warden said.
"Why not? What's He got against me?"
"Thou shalt not kill," the Warden said.
"Why did not He tell Houston that? I never went all the way in to Jefferson to have to sleep on a bench in the depot jest to try to buy them shells, until Houston made me."
"Well I'll be damned," the Warden said. "I will be eternally damned. You'll be out of here in three more years anyway but if I had my way you'd be out of here now, today, before whatever the hell it is that makes you tick starts looking cross- eyed at me. I dont want to spend the rest of my life even thinking somebody is thinking the kind of hopes about me you wish about folks that get in your way. Go on now. Get back to work. "
So when it was only October, no holiday valentine or Christmas card month that he knew of, when the Warden sent for him, he was not even surprised. The Warden sat looking at him for maybe half a minute, with something not just aghast but almost respectful in the look, then said: "I will be damned." It was a telegram this time. "It's from the Chief of Police in San Diego, California. There was a church in the Mexican quarter. They had stopped using it as a church, had a new one or something. Anyway it had been deconsecrated, so what went on inside it since, even the police have not quite caught up with yet. Last week it fell down. They dont know why: it just fell down all of a sudden. They found a man in it - what was left of him. This is what the telegram says: 'Fingerprints FBI, identification your man Number 08213 Shuford H. Stillwell.' "The Warden folded the telegram back into the envelope and put it back into the drawer. "Tell me again about that church you said you used to go to before Houston made you kill him."
He did not answer that at all. He just drew a long breath and exhaled it. "I can go now," he said. "I can be free."
"Not right this minute," the Warden said. "It will take a month or two. The petition will have to be got up and sent to the Governor. Then he will ask for my recommendation. Then he will sign the pardon."
"The petition?" he said.
"You got in here by law," the Warden said. "You'll have to get out by law."
"A petition," he said.
"That your family will have a lawyer draw up, asking the Governor to issue a pardon. Your wife - but that's right, she's dead. One of your daughters then."
"Likely they done married away too by now."
"All right," the Warden said. Then he said, "Hell, man, you re already good as out. Your cousin, whatever he is, right there in Jackson now in the legislature - Egglestone Snopes, that got beat for Congress two years ago?"
He did not move, his head bent a little; he said, "Then I reckon I'll stay here after all." Because how could he tell a stranger: Clarence, my own oldest brother's grandson, is in politics that depends on votes. When I leave here I wont have no vote. What will I have to buy Clarence Snopes's name on my paper! Which just left Eck's boy, Wallstreet, whom nobody yet had ever told what to do. "I reckon I'll be with you them other three years too" he said.
"Write your sheriff yourself," the Warden said. "I'll write the letter for you."
"Hub Hampton that sent me here is dead,"
"You've still got a sheriff, have not you? What's the matter with you? Have forty years in here scared you for good of fresh air and sunshine?"
"Thirty-eight years this coming summer," he said.
"All right. Thirty-eight. How old are you?"
"I was born in eighty-three," he said.
"So you've been here ever since you were twenty-five years old."
"I dont know. I never counted."
"All right," the Warden said. "Beat it. When you say the word I'll write a letter to your sheriff."
"I reckon I'll stay," he said. But he was wrong. Five months later the petition lay on the Warden's desk.
"Who is Linda Snopes Kohl?" the Warden said.
He stood completely still for quite a long time. "Her paw's a rich banker in Jefferson. His and my grandpaw had two sets of chillen."
"She was the member of your family that signed the petition to the Governor to let you out."
"You mean the sheriff sent for her to come and sign it?"
"How could he? You would not let me write the sheriff."
"Yes," he said. He looked down at the paper which he could not read. It was upside down to him, though that meant nothing either. "Show me where the ones signed to not let me out"
"What?" the Warden said.
"The ones that dont want me out."
"Oh, you mean Houston's family. No, the only other names on it are the District Attorney who sent you here and your Sheriff, Hubert Hampton, Junior, and V. K. Ratliff. Is be a Houston?"
"No," he said. He drew the slow deep breath again. "So I'm free."
"With one thing more," the Warden said. "Your luck's not even holding: it's doubling." But he handled that too the next morning after they gave him a pair of shoes, a shirt, overalls and jumper and a hat, all brand new, and a ten-dollar bill and the three dollars and eighty-five cents which were still left from the forty dollars Flem had sent him eighteen years ago, and the Warden said, "There's a deputy here today with a prisoner from Greenville. He's going back tonight. For a dollar he'll drop you ofi right at the end of the bridge to Arkansas, if you want to go that way. "
"Much obliged," he said. "I'm going by Memphis first. I got some business to tend to there."
It would probably take all of the thirteen dollars and eighty-five cents to buy a pistol even in a Memphis pawn shop. He had planned to beat his way to Memphis on a freight train, riding the rods underneath a boxcar or between two of them, as he had once or twice as a boy and a youth. But as soon as he was outside the gate, he discovered that he was afraid to. He had been shut too long, he had forgotten how; his muscles might have lost the agility and co-ordination, the simple bold quick temerity for physical risk. Then he thought of watching his chance to scramble safely into an empty car and found that he did not dare that either, that in thirty-eight years he might even have forgotten the unspoken rules of the freemasonry of petty law-breaking without knowing it until too late.
So he stood beside the paved highway which, when his foot touched it last thirty-eight years ago, had not even been gravel but instead was dirt marked only by the prints of mules and the iron tires of wagons; now it looked and felt as smooth and hard as a floor, what time you could see it or risk feeling it either for the cars and trucks rushing past on it. In the old days any passing wagon would have stopped to no more than his raised hand. But these were not wagons so he did not know what the new regulations for this might be either; in fact if he had known anything else to do but this he would already be doing it instead of standing, frail and harmless and not much larger than a child in the new overalls and jumper still showing their off-the-shelf creases and the new shoes and the hat, until the truck slowed in toward him and stopped and the driver said, "How far you going, dad?"
"Memphis," he said.
"I'm going to Clarksdale. You can hook another ride from there. As good as you can here, anyway."
It was fall, almost October, and he discovered that here was something else he had forgotten about during the thirty-eight years: seasons. They came and went in the penitentiary too but for thirty-eight years the only right he had to them was the privilege of suffering because of them: from the heat and sun of summer whether he wanted to work in the heat of the day or not , and the rain and icelike mud of winter whether he wanted to be out in it or not. But now they belonged to him again: October next week, not much to see in this flat Delta country which he had misdoubted the first time he laid eyes on it from the train window that day thirty-eight years ago: just cotton stalks and cypress needles. But back home in the hills, all the land would be gold and crimson with hickory and gum and oak and maple, and the old fields warm with sage and splattered with scarlet sumac; in thirty-eight years he had forgotten that.
When suddenly, somewhere deep in memory, there was a tree, a single tree. His mother was dead; he could not remember her nor even how old he was when his father married again. So the woman was not even kin to him and she never let him forget it: that she was raising him not from any tie or claim and not because he was weak and helpless and a human being, but because she was a Christian. Yet there more than that behind it. He knew that at once - a aunt harried slattern of a woman whom he remembered always either with a black eye or holding a dirty rag to her bleeding where her husband had struck her. Because he could always depend on her, not to do anything for him because she always failed there, but for constancy, to be always there and always aware of him, surrounding him always with that shield which actually protected, defended him from nothing but on the contrary seemed actually to invite more pain and grief. But simply to be there, lachrymose, harassed, yet constant.
She was still in bed, it was midrnorning; she should have been hours since immolated into the ceaseless drudgery which composed her days. She was never ill, so it must have been the man had beat her this time even harder than he knew, lying there in the bed talking about food - the fat-back, the coarse meal, the molasses which as far as he knew was the only food all people ate except when they could catch or kill something else; evidently this new blow had been somewhere about her stomach. "I cant eat hit," she whimpered. "I need to relish something else. Maybe a squirrel." He knew now; that was the tree. He had to steal the shotgun: his father would have beat him within an inch of his life - to lug the clumsy weapon even taller than he was, into the woods, to the tree, the hickory, to ambush himself beneath it and crouch , waiting, in the drowsy splendor of the October afternoon, until the little creature appeared. Whereupon he began to tremble (he had but the one shell) and he remembered that too: the tremendous effort to raise the heavy gun long enough, panting against the stock, "Please God please God," into the shock of the recoil and the reek of the black powder until he could drop the gun and run and pick up the still warm small furred body with hands that trembled and shook until he could barely hold it. And her hands trembling too as she fondled the carcass. "We'll dress hit and cook hit now," she said. "We'll relish hit together right now." The hickory itself was of course gone now, chopped into firewood or wagon spokes or single trees years ago; perhaps the very place where it had stood was eradicated now into plowed land - or so they thought who had felled and destroyed it probably. But he knew better: unaxed in memory and unaxeable, inviolable and immune, golden and splendid with October, Why yes he thought it aint a place a man wants to go back to; the place dont even need to be there no more. What aches a man to go back to is what he remembers.
Suddenly he craned his neck to see out the window. "Hit looks like-" and stopped. But he was free; let all the earth know where he had been for thirty-eight years. "-Parch-Man," he said.
"Yep," the driver said. "P. O. W. camp."
"What?" he said.
"Prisoners from the war."
"From the war?"
"Where you been the last five years, dad?" the driver said. "Asleep?"
"I been away," he said. "I mind one war they fit with the Spaniards when I was a boy, and there was another with the Germans after that one. Who did they fight this time?"
"Everybody." The driver cursed. "Germans, Japanese, Congress too. Then they quit. If they had let us lick the Russians too, we might a been all right. But they just licked the Krauts and Japs and then decided to choke everybody else to death with money."
He thought Money. He said: "If you had twenty-five dollars and found thirty-eight more, how much would you have?"
"What?" the driver said. "I would not even stop to pick up just thirty-eight dollars. What the hell you asking me? You mean you got sixty-three dollars and cant find nothing to do with it?"
Sixty-three he thought. So that's how old I am. He thought quietly Not justice; I never asked that; jest fairness, that's all. That was all; not to have anything for him: just not to have anything against him. That was all he wanted, and sure enough, here it was.
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