It was at the supper table that the boys discovered the change in their father. They knew him as a presence—as ears that heard but did not listen, eyes that looked and did not notice. He was a
cloud of a father. The boys had never learned to tell him of
their interests and
discoveries, or of their needs. Lee had been their contact with the adult world, and Lee had managed not only to raise,
feed, clothe, and
discipline the boys, but he had also given them a respect for their father. He was a mystery to the boys, and his word, his law, was carried down by Lee, who naturally made it up himself and ascribed it to Adam.
This night, the first after Adam’s return from Salinas, Cal and Aron were first astonished and then a little embarrassed to find that Adam listened to them and asked questions, looked at them and saw them. The change made them timid.
Adam said, “I hear you were hunting today.”
The boys became
cautious as humans always are, faced with a new situation. After a pause Aron admitted, “Yes, sir.”
“Did you get anything?” This time a longer pause, and then, “Yes, sir.” “What did you get?”
“With bows and arrows? Who got him?”
Aron said, “We both
shot. We don’t know which one hit.”
Adam said, “Don’t you know your own arrows? We used to mark our arrows when I was a boy.”
This time Aron refused to answer and get into trouble.
And Cal, after
waiting, said, “Well, it was my arrow, all right, but we think it might have got in Aron’s quiver.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know,” Cal said. “But I think it was Aron hit the rabbit.”
Adam swung his eyes. “And what do you think?” “I think maybe I hit it— but I’m not sure.”
“Well, you both seem to handle the situation very well.”
The alarm went out of
the faces of the boys. It did not seem to be a trap. “Where is the rabbit?” Adam asked.
Cal said, “Aron gave it to Abra as a present.” “She threw it out,” said Aron.
“I don’t know. I wanted to marry her too.”
“How about you, Cal?” “I guess I’ll let Aron have her,” said Cal.
Adam laughed, and the boys could not recall ever having heard him laugh. “Is she a nice little girl?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Aron. “She’s nice, all right. She’s good and nice.”
“Well, I’m glad of that if she’s
Lee cleared the table and after a quick rattling in the
kitchen he came back.
“Ready to go to bed?” he asked the boys.
They glared in protest.
Adam said, “Sit down and let them stay a while.”
“I’ve got the accounts together. We can go over them later,” said Lee. “What accounts, Lee?” “The house and ranch accounts.
You said you
wanted to know where you stood.”
“Not the accounts for over ten years, Lee!”
“You never wanted to be bothered before.”
“I guess that’s right. But sit a while. Aron wants to
marry the little girl who was here today.”
“Are they engaged?” Lee asked.
“I don’t think she’s accepted
him yet,” said
Adam. “That may give us some time.”
Cal had quickly lost his
awe of the changed feeling in the house and had been examining this anthill with calculating eyes, trying to determine just how to kick it over. He made his decision.
“She’s a real nice girl,” he said. “I like her. Know
why? Well, she said to ask you where our mother’s grave is, so we can take some flowers.”
“Could we, Father?”
Aron asked. “She said she would teach us how to make wreaths.”
Adam’s mind raced. He was not good at lying to begin with, and he hadn’t practiced.
frightened him, it came so quickly to his mind and so glibly to his tongue. Adam said, “I wish we could do
that, boys. But I’ll have to tell you. Your mother’s grave is clear across the country where she came from.” “Why?” Aron asked.
“Well, some people
want to be buried in the place they came from.”
“How did she get
there?” Cal asked. “We put her on a train and sent her home—didn’t we, Lee?”
Lee nodded. “It’s the same with us,” he said.
“Nearly all Chinese get sent home to China after they die.”
“I know that,” said Aron. “You told us that before.”
“Did I?” Lee asked. “Sure you did,” said Cal.
He was vaguely disappointed.
Adam quickly changed
the subject. “Mr. Bacon made a suggestion this afternoon,” he began. “I’d like you boys to think about it. He said it might be better for you if we moved
schools and lots of other children to play with.”
The thought stunned the twins. Cal asked, “How about here?”
“Well, we’d keep the ranch in case we want to
Aron said, “Abra lives in Salinas.”
And that was
enough for Aron. Already he had forgotten the sailing box. All he could think of was a small apron and a sunbonnet and soft little fingers.
Adam said, “Well, you think about it. Maybe you should go to bed now. Why didn’t you go to school today?”
“The teacher’s sick,” said Aron.
Lee verified it. “Miss
Gulp has been sick for three days,” he said. “They don’t have
to go back until
Monday. Come on, boys.”
They followed him
obediently from the room.
Adam sat smiling vaguely at the lamp and tapping his knee with a forefinger until Lee came back. Adam said, “Do they know anything?”
“I don’t know,” said Lee.
“Well, maybe it was just the little girl.”
Lee went to the kitchen and brought back a big
cardboard box. “Here are the
accounts. Every year has a rubber band around it. I’ve been over it. It’s complete.” “You
Lee said, “You’ll find a book for each year and
receipted bills for everything. You wanted to know how you stood. Here it is—all of it. Do you
really think you’ll move?”
“Well, I’m thinking of it.”
“I wish there were some way you could tell the boys the truth.”
“That would rob them of
the good thoughts about their mother, Lee.”
“Have you thought of the other danger?” “What do you mean?” “Well, suppose they find
out the truth. Plenty of people know.”
“Well, maybe when
they’re older it will be easier for them.”
“I don’t believe that,”
said Lee. “But that’s not the worst danger.”
“I guess I don’t follow you, Lee.”
“It’s the lie I’m thinking
of. It might infect everything. If they ever found out you’d
lied to them about this, the true things would suffer.
They wouldn’t believe
anything then.” “Yes, I see. But what
can I tell them? I couldn’t tell them the whole truth.” “Maybe you can tell
then a part truth, enough so that you won’t suffer if they find out.”
“I’ll have to think about that, Lee.”
“If you go to live in Salinas it will be more dangerous.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
Lee went on insistently,
“My father told me about my
mother when I was very little, and he didn’t spare me. He told me a number of times as I was growing. Of course it wasn’t the same, but it was pretty dreadful. I’m glad he told me though. I wouldn’t like not to know.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
“No, I don’t want to. But it might persuade you to
make some change for your own boys. Maybe if you just said she went away and you don’t know where.”
“But I do know.”
“Yes, there’s the trouble. It’s bound to be all truth or part lie. Well, I can’t force you.”
“I’ll think about it,” said
Adam. “What’s the story about your mother?” “You really want to hear?”
“Only if you want to tell me.”
“I’ll make it very short,”
said Lee. “My first memory is of living in a little dark shack alone with my father in the middle of a potato field, and with it the memory of my father telling me the story of my mother. His language was Cantonese, but whenever he told the story he spoke in high and beautiful Mandarin. All right then. I’ll tell you—” And Lee looked back in time. “I’ll have to tell you first
that when you built the railroads in the West the
terrible work of grading and laying ties and spiking the rails was done by many thousands of Chinese. They were cheap, they worked hard, and if they died no one had to worry. They were recruited
Canton, for the Cantonese are short and strong and durable, and
also they are not
brought in by contract, and perhaps the history of my
father was a fairly typical one.
“You must know that a Chinese must pay all of his debts on or before our New Year’s day. He starts every year clean. If he does not, he loses face; but not only that— his family loses face. There are no excuses.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” said Adam.
“Well, good or bad, that’s the way it was. My
father had some bad luck. He could not pay a debt. The family met and discussed the situation.
honorable family. The bad
luck was nobody’s fault, but the unpaid debt belonged to the whole family. They paid my father’s debt and then he had to repay them, and that was almost impossible. “One thing the recruiting agents
companies did—they paid down a lump of money on the signing of the contract. In this way they caught a great many men who had fallen into debt. All of this was reasonable and honorable. There was only one black sorrow.
“My father was a young
man recently married, and his tie to his wife was very strong
and deep and warm, and hers to him must have been— overwhelming. Nevertheless, with good manners they said good-by in the presence of the heads of the family. I have
often thought that
perhaps formal good manners may be a cushion against heartbreak.
“The herds of men went like animals into the black hold of a ship, there to stay until
they reached San
Francisco six weeks later. And you can imagine what
those holes were like. The merchandise
had to be
delivered in some kind of working condition so it was not mistreated. And my people have learned through the
ages to live close
together, to keep clean and fed
under intolerable conditions.
“They were a week at sea
discovered my mother. She was dressed like a man and she had braided her hair in a man’s queue. By sitting very still and not talking, she had not been discovered, and of course
there were no
examinations or vaccinations then. She moved her mat close to my father. They could not talk except mouth to ear in the dark. My father was
disobedience, but he was glad
“Well, there it was. They were condemned to hard labor for five years. It did not occur to them to run away once they were in America, for they were honorable people and they had signed the contract.”
Lee paused. “I thought I could tell it in a few sentences,” he said. “But you don’t know the background. I’m going to get a cup of water—do you want some?” “Yes,” said Adam. “But there’s one thing I don’t understand. How could a woman do that kind of work?”
“I’ll be back in a moment,” said Lee, and he
went to the kitchen. He brought back tin cups of water and put them on the table. He. asked, “Now what did you want to know?” “How could your mother
do a man’s work?”
Lee smiled. “My father
said she was a strong woman, and I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is almost indestructible.”
Adam made a wry grimace.
Lee said, “You’ll see one day, you’ll see.” “I didn’t mean to think
badly,” said Adam. “How could I know out of one
experience? Go on.” “One thing my mother
did not whisper in my father’s ear during that long miserable crossing. And because a great many were deadly seasick, no remark was made of her illness.”
Adam cried, “She wasn’t pregnant!”
“She was pregnant,” said Lee. “And she didn’t want to burden my father with more worries.”
“Did she know about it when she started?” “No, she did not. I set
my presence in the world at the most inconvenient time. It’s a longer story than I thought.”
“Well, you can’t stop
now,” said Adam. “No, I suppose not. In
San Francisco the flood of muscle and bone flowed into cattle cars and the engines puffed up the mountains.
They were going to dig hills aside in the Sierras and burrow tunnels under the peaks. My mother got herded into another car, and my father didn’t see her until they got to their camp on a high mountain meadow. It was very beautiful, with green grass and flowers and the snow mountains all around.
And only then did she tell my father about me.
“They went to work. A woman’s muscles harden just as a man’s do, and my mother
had a muscular spirit too. She did the pick and shovel work expected of her, and it must have been dreadful. But a panic worry settled on them about how she was going to have the baby.”
Adam said, “Were they ignorant? Why couldn’t she have gone to the boss and told him she was a woman and pregnant? Surely they would have taken care of her.”
“You see?” said Lee. “I haven’t told you enough. And that’s why this is so long.
They were not ignorant. These human cattle were imported for one thing only— to work. When the work was done, those who were not
dead were to be shipped back. Only males were brought— no females. The country did not want them breeding. A man and a woman and a baby have a way of digging in, of pulling the earth where they are about them and scratching out a home. And then it takes all hell to root them out. But a crowd of men, nervous, lusting, restless, half sick with loneliness for women— why, they’ll go anywhere, and particularly will they go home. And my mother was the only woman in this pack of
men. The longer the men worked and ate, the more
restless they became. To the bosses they were not people but animals which could be dangerous if not controlled. You can see why my mother did not ask for help. Why, they’d have rushed her out of the camp and—who knows?
—perhaps shot and buried her like a diseased cow. Fifteen men were shot for being a little mutinous.
“No—they kept order
the way our poor species has ever learned to keep order.
We think there must be better ways but we never learn them
—always the whip, the rope, and the rifle. I wish I hadn’t started to tell you this—” “Why should you not
tell me?” Adam asked.
“I can see my father’s
face when he told me. An old misery comes back, raw and full of pain. Telling it, my father had to stop and gain possession of himself, and when he continued he spoke sternly and he used hard sharp words almost as though he wanted to cut himself with them.
“These two managed to stay
close together by
claiming she was my father’s nephew. The months went by and fortunately for them there was very little abdominal swelling, and she worked in pain and out of it. My father
could only help her a little, apologizing, ‘My nephew is young and his bones are brittle.’ They had no plan.
They did not know what to do.
“And then my father figured out a plan. They would run into the high mountains to one of the higher meadows, and there beside a lake they would make a burrow for the birthing,
and when my
mother was safe and the baby born, my father would come back and take his punishment. And he would sign for an extra five years to pay for his
delinquent nephew. Pitiful as their escape was, it was all they had, and it seemed a brightness. The plan had two requirements—the timing had to be right and a supply of food was necessary.”
Lee said, “My
parents”—and he stopped, smiling over his use of the word, and it felt so good that he warmed it up—”my dear parents began to make their preparations. They saved a part of their daily rice and hid it under their sleeping mats.
My father found a length of string and filed out a hook from a piece of wire, for there were trout to be caught in the
mountain lakes. He stopped smoking to save the matches issued.
And my mother
collected every tattered scrap of cloth she could find and unraveled edges to make thread and sewed this ragbag together with a splinter to make swaddling clothes for me. I wish I had known her.” “So do I,” said Adam.
“Did you ever tell this to Sam Hamilton?”
“No Ididn’t. I wish I
had. He loved a celebration of the human soul. Such things were like a personal triumph to him.”
“I hope they got there,”
“I know. And when my father would tell me I would say to him, ‘Get to that lake
—get my mother there— don’t let it happen again, not this time. Just once let’s tell it: how you got to the lake and built a house of fir boughs.’ And my father became very Chinese then.
He said, There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful
storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only
their infirmities and teaches
nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.’ ” “Get on with it,” Adam said irritably.
Lee got up and went to
the window, and he finished the story, looking out at the stars that winked and blew in the March wind.
“A little boulder jumped down a hill and broke my father’s leg. They set the leg and gave him cripples’ work, straightening used nails with a hammer on a rock. And whether with worry or work
mother went into early labor. And then the half-mad men knew and they went all mad.
One hunger sharpened
another hunger, and one crime blotted out the one before it, and the little crimes committed
starving men flared into one gigantic maniac crime.
“My father heard the
shout ‘Woman’ and he knew. He tried to run and his leg rebroke under him and he crawled up the ragged slope to the roadbed where it was happening.
“When he got there a
kind of sorrow had come over the sky, and the Canton men were creeping away to hide and to forget that men can be like this. My father came to her on the pile of shale. She had not even eyes to see out of, but her mouth still moved and
she gave him his
clawed me out of the tattered meat of my mother with his fingernails. She died on the shale in the afternoon.” Adam was breathing
hard. Lee continued in a singsong cadence, “Before you hate those men you must know this. My father always told it at the last: No child ever had such care as I. The whole camp became my mother. It is a beauty—a dreadful kind of beauty. And now good night. I can’t talk any more.”
Adam restlessly opened
drawers and looked up at the shelves and raised the lids of boxes in his house and at last he was forced to call Lee back and ask, “Where’s the ink and the pen?”
“You don’t have any,”
said Lee. “You haven’t
written a word in years. I’ll lend you mine if you want.” He went to his room and brought back a squat bottle of ink and a stub pen and a pad of paper and an envelope and laid them on the table.
Adam asked, “How do you know I want to write a letter?”
“You’re going to try to write to your brother, aren’t you?”
“It will be a hard thing
to do after so long,” said Lee. And it was hard. Adam nibbled and munched on the
pen and his mouth made strained grimaces. Sentences were written and the page thrown away and another started. Adam scratched his head with the penholder. “Lee, if I wanted to take a trip east, would you stay with the twins until I get back?”
“It’s easier to go than to write,” said Lee. “Sure I’ll stay.”
I’m going to write.”
“Why don’t you ask your brother to come out here?”
“Say, that’s a good idea, Lee. I didn’t think of it.”
“It also gives you a
reason for writing, and that’s a good thing.”
The letter came fairly
easily then, was corrected and copied fair. Adam read it slowly to himself before he put it in the envelope.
“Dear brother Charles,”
it said. “You will be surprised to hear from me after so long. I have thought of writing many times, but you know how a man puts it off.
“I wonder how this letter finds you. I trust in good health. For all I know you may have five or even ten children by now. Ha! Ha! I have two sons and they are twins. Their mother is not here. Country life did not
agree with her. She lives in a town nearby and I see her now and then.
“I have got a fine ranch,
but I am ashamed to say I do not keep it up very well.
Maybe I will do better from now on. I always did make good resolutions. But for a number of years I felt poorly. I am well now.
“How are you and how
do you prosper? I would like to see you. Why don’t you come to visit here? It is a great country and you might even find a place where you would like to settle. No cold winters here. That makes a difference to ‘old men’ like us. Ha! Ha!
“Well, Charles, I hope
you will think about it and let me know. The trip would do you good. I want to see you. I have much to tell you that I can’t write down.
“Well, Charles, write me a letter and tell me all the news of the old home. I suppose many things have
happened. As you get older you hear mostly about people you knew that died. I guess that is the way of the world. Write quick and tell me if you will come to visit. Your brother Adam.”
He sat holding the letter
in his hand and looking over it at his brother’s dark face and its scarred forehead.
Adam could see the glinting heat in the brown eyes, and as
he looked he saw the lips writhe back from the teeth and the blind destructive animal take charge. He shook his head to rid his memory of the vision, and he tried to rebuild the face smiling. He tried
to remember the
forehead before the scar, but he could not bring either into focus. He seized the pen and wrote below his signature, “P.S. Charles, I never hated you no matter what. I always loved you because you were my brother.”
Adam folded the letter
and forced the creases sharp with his fingernails. He
sealed the envelope flap with his fist. “Lee!” he called, “Oh, Lee!”
The Chinese looked in through the door. “Lee, how long does it
take a letter to go east—clear east?”
“I don’t know,” said
Lee. “Two weeks maybe.”