Chapter no 52

East of Eden

That winter of 1917-1918 was a dark and frightened time. The Germans smashed everything in front of them. In three months the British suffered

three hundred

thousand casualties. Many units of the French army were

mutinous. Russia was out of the war. The German east

divisions, rested and re-equipped, were thrown at the western

front. The war

seemed hopeless.

It was May before we had as many as twelve divisions in the field, and

summer had come before our troops began to move across the sea in numbers. The Allied generals were fighting each

other. Submarines slaughtered the crossing ships.

We learned then that war

was not a quick heroic charge but

a slow,

incredibly complicated matter.


spirits sank in those winter months. We lost the flare of excitement and we had not yet put on the doggedness of a long war.

Ludendorff was unconquerable.


stopped him. He mounted attack after attack on the broken armies of France and England. And it occurred to

us that we might be too late, that soon we might be standing alone against the invincible Germans.

It was not uncommon

for people to turn away from the war, some to fantasy and some to vice and some to crazy gaiety. Fortunetellers were in great demand, and saloons

did a


business. But people also turned inward to their private joys and tragedies to escape the

pervasive fear


despondency. Isn’t it strange

that today we have forgotten this? We remember World War I as quick victory, with flags and bands, marching and horseplay and returning soldiers,

fights in


barrooms with the goddam Limeys who thought they had won the war. How quickly we forgot that in that winter Ludendorff could not be beaten and that many people were preparing in their minds and spirits for a lost war.


Adam Trask was more

puzzled than sad. He didn’t have to resign from the draft board. He was given a leave of absence for ill health. He sat by the hour rubbing the back of his left hand. He brushed it with a harsh brush and soaked it in hot water. “It’s

circulation,” he

said. “As soon as I get the circulation back it’ll be all right. It’s my eyes that bother me. I never had trouble with my eyes. Guess I’ll have to get my eyes tested for glasses. Me with glasses! Be hard to get used to. I’d go today but I feel a little dizzy.”

He felt more dizzy than

he would admit. He could not

move about the house without a hand brace against a wall.

Lee often had to give him a hand-up out of his chair or help him out of bed in the morning and tie his shoes because he could not tie knots with his numb left hand.

Almost daily he came back

to Aron. “I


understand why a young man might want to enlist,” he said. “If Aron had talked to me, I might have tried to persuade him against it, but I wouldn’t have forbidden it. You know that, Lee.”

“I know it.”

“That’s what I can’t understand. Why did he sneak away? Why doesn’t he write? I thought I knew him better than that. Has he written to Abra? He’d be sure to write to her.”

“I’ll ask her.”

“You do that. Do that right away.”

“The training is hard.

That’s what I’ve heard.

Maybe they don’t give him time.”

“It doesn’t take any time to write a card.”

“When you went in the army, did you write to your father?”

“Think you’ve got me

there, don’t you? No, I didn’t, but I had a reason. I didn’t want to enlist. My father forced me. I was resentful.

You see, I had a good reason. But Aron—he was doing fine in college. Why, they’ve written, asking about him.

You read the letter. He didn’t take any clothes. He didn’t take the gold watch.”

“He wouldn’t need any clothes in the army, and they don’t want gold watches there either. Everything’s brown.” “I guess you’re right.

But I don’t understand it. I’ve got to do something about my eyes. Can’t ask you to read everything to me.” His eyes really troubled him. “I can

see a letter,” he said. “But the words jumble all around.” A dozen times a day he seized a paper or a book and stared at it and put it down.

Lee read the papers to

him to keep him from getting restless, and often in the middle of the reading Adam went to sleep.

He would awaken and

say, “Lee? Is that you, Cal? You know I never had any trouble with my eyes. I’ll just go tomorrow and get my eyes tested.”

About the middle of February Cal went into the kitchen and said, “Lee, he talks about it all the time. Let’s get his eyes tested.” Lee

was stewing”

apricots. He left the stove and closed the kitchen door and went back to the stove. “I don’t want him to go,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t think it’s his eyes. Finding out might

trouble him. Let him be for a while. He’s had a bad shock. Let him get better. I’ll read to him all he wants.”

“What do you think it is?”

“I don’t want to say. I’ve thought maybe Dr. Edwards might just come by for a friendly call—just to say hello.”

“Have it your own way,”

said Cal.

Lee said, “Cal, have you seen Abra?”

“Sure, I see her. She walks away.”

“Can’t you catch her?” “Sure—and



throw her down and punch her in the face and make her talk to me. But I won’t.” “Maybe if you’d just

break the ice. Sometimes the barrier is so weak it just falls over when you touch it. Catch up with her. Tell her I want to see her.”

“I won’t do it.”

“You feel awful guilty, don’t you?”

Cal did not answer.

“Don’t you like her?” Cal did not answer. “If you keep this up,

you’re going to feel worse, not better. You’d better open up. I’m warning you. You’d better open up.”

Cal cried, “Do you want

me to tell Father what I did? I’ll do it if you tell me to.” “No, Cal. Not now. But

when he gets well you’ll have to. You’ll have to for yourself. You can’t carry this alone. It will kill you.” “Maybe I deserve to be killed.”

“Stop that!” Lee said coldly. “That can be the cheapest

kind of

self-indulgence. You stop that!” “How do you go about stopping it?” Cal asked.

Lee changed the subject.

“I don’t understand why Abra hasn’t been here—not even once.”

“No reason to come now.”

“It’s not like her.

Something’s wrong there. Have you seen her?”

Cal scowled. “I told you

I have. You’re getting crazy too. Tried to talk to her three times. She walked away.” “Something’s


She’s a good woman—a real


“She’s a girl,” said Cal.

“It sounds funny you calling her a woman.”

“No,” Lee said softly.

“A few are women from the moment they’re born. Abra has the loveliness of woman, and the courage—and the strength—and the wisdom.

She knows things and she accepts things. I would have bet she couldn’t be small or mean or even vain except when it’s pretty to be vain.” “You sure do think well

of her.”

“Well enough to think

she wouldn’t desert us.” And he said, “I miss her. Ask her to come to see me.”

“I told you she walked

away from me.” “Well, chase her then.

Tell her I want to see her. I miss her.”

Cal asked, “Shall we go back to my father’s eyes now?”

“No,” said Lee. “Shall we talk about Aron?”



Cal tried all the next day to find Abra alone, and it was only after school that he saw her ahead of him, walking home. He turned a corner and ran along the parallel street and then back, and he judged time and distance so that he turned in front of her as she strolled along.

“Hello,” he said. “Hello. I thought I saw you behind me.”

“You did. I ran around

the block to get in front of you. I want to talk to you.”

She regarded him

gravely. “You could have done that without running around the block.”

“Well, I tried to talk to you in school. You walked away.”

“You were mad. I didn’t want to talk to you mad.” “How do you know I was?”

“I could see it in your

face and the way you walked. You’re not mad now.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Do you want to take my books?” She smiled.

A warmth fell on him. “Yes—yes, I do.” He put her schoolbooks under his arm and walked beside her. “Lee wants to see you. He asked me to tell you.”

She was pleased. “Does he? Tell him I’ll come. How’s your father?” “Not very well. His eyes bother him.”

They walked along in silence until Cal couldn’t

stand it any more. “You know about Aron?”

“Yes.” She paused.

“Open my binder and look

next to the first page.”

He shifted the books. A penny postcard was in the binder. “Dear Abra,” it said. “I don’t feel clean. I’m not fit for you. Don’t be sorry. I’m in the army. Don’t go near my father. Good-by, Aron.”

Cal snapped the book

shut. “The son of a bitch,” he said under his breath. “What?”


“I heard what you said.” “Do you know why he went away?”

“No. I guess I could

figure out—put two and two together. I don’t want to. I’m not ready to—that is, unless you want to tell me.” Suddenly

Cal said,

“Abra—do you hate me?” “No, Cal, but you hate me a little. Why is that?” “I—I’m afraid of you.” “No need to be.”

“I’ve hurt you more than you know. And you’re my brother’s girl.”

“How have you hurt me? And I’m not your brother’s girl.”

“All right,” he said

bitterly, “I’ll tell you—and I don’t want you to forget you asked me to. Our mother was a whore. She ran a house here in town. I found out about it a long time ago. Thanksgiving night I took Aron down and showed her to him. I—”

Abra broke in excitedly, “What did he do?”

“He went


crazy. He yelled at her. Outside he knocked me down and ran away. Our dear mother killed herself; my father—he’s—there’s something wrong with him.

Now you know about me. Now you have some reason to walk away from me.”

“Now I know about him,” she said calmly. “My brother?”

“Yes, your brother.” “He was good. Why did

I say was? He is good. He’s not mean or dirty like me.” They had been walking

very slowly. Abra stopped and Cal stopped and she faced him.

“Cal,” she said, “I’ve

known about your mother for a long, long time.”

“You have?”

“I heard my parents

talking when they thought I was asleep. I want to tell you something, and it’s hard to tell and it’s good to tell.” “You want to?”

“I have to. It’s not so terribly long ago that I grew up and I wasn’t a little girl

any more. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yes,” said Cal.

“You sure you know?” “Yes.”

“All right then. It’s hard

to say now. I wish I’d said it then. I didn’t love Aron any more.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve tried to figure it

out. When we were children we lived in a story that we made up. But when I grew up the story wasn’t enough. I had to have something else, because the story wasn’t true any more.”


“Wait—let me get it all out. Aron didn’t grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn’t stand to have it come out any other way.”

“How about you?”

“I don’t want to know

how it comes out. I only want to be there while it’s going on. And, Cal—we were kind of strangers. We kept it going because we were used to it.

But I didn’t believe the story any more.”

“How about Aron?”

“He was going to have it come out his way if he had to tear the world up by the roots.”

Cal stood looking at the ground.

Abra said, “Do you believe me?”

“I’m trying to study it out.”

“When you’re a child you’re


center of

everything. Everything happens for



people? They’re only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you’re your own size and shape.

Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It’s worse, but it’s much better too. I’m glad you told me about Aron.”


“Because now I know I didn’t make it all up. He couldn’t stand to know about

his mother because that’s not how he wanted the story to go

—and he wouldn’t have any other story. So he tore up the world. It’s the same way he tore me up—Abra—when he wanted to be a priest.”

Cal said, “I’ll have to think.”

“Give me my books,”

she said. “Tell Lee I’ll come. I feel free now. I want to think too. I think I love you, Cal.”

“I’m not good.” “Because you’re

not good.” Cal walked quickly

home. “She’ll come

tomorrow,” he told Lee. “Why, you’re excited,” said Lee.


Once in the house Abra walked on her toes. In the hall she moved close to the wall where the floor did not creak. She put her foot on the lowest step of the carpeted stairs, changed her mind, and went to the kitchen.

“Here you are,” her mother said. “You didn’t come straight home.”

“I had to stay after class. Is Father better?”

“I guess so.”

“What does the doctor


“Same thing he said at first—overwork. Just needs a rest.”

“He hasn’t seemed

tired,” said Abra.

Her mother opened a bin and took out three baking potatoes and carried them to the sink. “Your Father’s very brave, dear. I should have known. He’s been doing so much war work on top of his own work. The doctor says sometimes a man collapses all at once.”

“Shall I go in and see him?”

“You know, Abra, I’ve

got a feeling that he doesn’t

want to see anybody. Judge Knudsen phoned and your father said to tell him he was asleep.”

“Can I help you?”

“Go change your dress, dear. You don’t want to get your pretty dress soiled.

Abra tiptoed past her father’s door and went to her

own room. It was harsh bright with

varnish, papered

brightly. Framed photographs of her parents on the bureau, poems framed on the walls, and her closet—everything in its place, the floor varnished, and

her shoes


diligently side by side. Her mother did everything for her, insisted on it—planned for her, dressed her.

Abra had long ago given

up having any private things in her room, even any personal thing. This was of such long standing that Abra did not think of her room as a private place. Her privacies were of the mind. The few letters she kept were in the sitting room itself, filed

among the pages of the two-volume Memoirs of Ulysses

S. Grant, which to the best of her knowledge had never been opened by anyone but herself since it came off the press.

Abra felt pleased, and

she did not inspect the reason. She knew certain things without question, and such things she did not speak about. For example, she knew that her father was not ill. He was hiding from something.

Just as surely she knew that Adam Trask was ill, for she had seen him walking along the street. She wondered whether her mother knew her father was not ill.

Abra slipped off her dress and put on a cotton pinafore,

which was

understood to be for working around

the house.


brushed her hair, tiptoed past her father’s room, and went downstairs. At the foot of the stairs she opened her binder and took out Aron’s postcard. In the sitting room she shook Aron’s letters out of Volume II of the Memoirs, folded them tightly, and, raising her skirt, tucked them under the elastic which held up her panties. The package made her a little lumpy. In the kitchen she put on a full apron to conceal the bulge. “You can scrape the

carrots,” her mother said. “Is that water hot?”

“Just coming to a boil.” “Drop a bouillon cube in that cup, will you, dear? The

doctor says it’ll build your father up.”

When her mother carried the steaming cup upstairs, Abra opened the incinerator end of the gas stove, put in the letters, and lighted them. Her mother came back, saying, “I smell fire.”

“I lit the trash. It was full.”

“I wish you’d ask me

when you want to do a thing like that,” her mother said. “I was saving the trash to warm the kitchen in the morning.” “I’m sorry, Mother,”

Abra said. “I didn’t think.” “You should try to think of these things. It seems to me


getting very

thoughtless lately.” “I’m sorry, Mother.” “Saved is earned,” said her mother.

The telephone rang in

the dining room. Her mother went to answer it. Abra heard her mother say, “No, you can’t see him. It’s doctor’s orders. He can’t see anyone— no, not anyone.”

She came back to the kitchen.

“Judge Knudsen again,” she said

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