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The Guilt of Sin and the Sin of Guilt - Excerpt
The cock crows against the feeble dawn. Roused, in discontent, Putnam gets about another day. The snow crackles underneath his steps, and he sees memories in every breath. One handful and then another of grain is reluctantly spread.
He sees her laying there, another fallen hen.
Monique, Jeannine had named her when she had hatched. From birth she had been a tough old bird—not delicate as named, but still a long producer of his breakfast eggs. No more, not for many days. Now, on this hard-packed frozen morning, she lies held fast in earth’s frostian grip.
Putnam bends, takes hold and pulls a leg, feels an old bone break as he yanks her free. Some feathers still remain pasted to the ground. Ignoring these, he goes outside the wire pen, makes a wide circle long and forceful with his arm, and launches her, flightless bird, into the air.
A high trajectory. Across the yard she flies to rest against a rock, granite flecked with quartz and mica, one of the countless boulders lying close beneath and showing their weathered heads to dare farmers to try this glacier-churned land.
Monique’s collision with the rock is worse for her. Putnam does not care. He knows that in the coming hours scavengers will appear to remove every trace of her upon the earth: nature’s end to death.
Jeannine would, he knows, have cried as she had cried for each old hen. She had never become a rural wife. The birds had been more a mock acceptance of this way of life and a statement of her love for him. He knew it was no more. She was not born for country life with its simple, harshest truths.
Nor to be honest was he, who would not hunt despite the shotgun pegged high on the cabin wall. He could not have used it for a kill, and he had never owned a rifle at all.
He had, however, butchered the capons and the hens when they were spent. That had been enough of death and more for him. The blood of each still stained his nighttime hands—in painful dreams with her blood as well, Jeannine’s, she whom he had so loved and for whose death in many ways Putnam still heaped blame upon himself.
The cancer that had taken her, was it not from him? It was a question he could not resolve nor forgive. His sin held his soul in a crimson grip. Her womb, from which their love had sprung, had in the end destroyed her; and he could not absolve himself from cause though any doctor would.
The chicken’s carcass lies where it has been flung: a reminder of his negligence until the ‘coons come and drag the hen away. He watches as he had watched Jeannine’s death—with pain-filled heart and deep regrets. Yet, knowing there is nothing left that he might do—that in the end when all is said—death is naught but death and is an end enough to life.
What is fate that chooses us for life and death? What sin was hers? The guilt was mine. Yet she’s the one who suffered and she’s the one who died. Is it my punishment that I survive?
The pastor who had said the gravesite prayers and eulogized her gentle soul could not explain a wife now dead, a mother gone. Putnam’s life no meaning left. A hen—carried off in frozen night first to death and next to a darkened raccoon den.
EVIL IS AS LETS THE DEVIL IN
Yellow heat of fore noon and the young man, shirtless, walks from town towards a cemetery rendezvous. The Civil War dead—so long at rest—will not be disturbed if asked to host their tryst nor regret the hospitality of such a warm and carefree day. No purpose is to be found at work or school when spring has called young glands to play.
What if Pratt must do without his strong, young back? What matter her unread books? Russ and Emily, teens and full of life, having met a thousand times and more, now smile at the thought, and high in spirits, walk their separate ways along the same road to join one Major Elijah Jones, his last repose, a stone marked grave. Wounded at Spotsylvania and mustered out. The gentle burial ground hill tells heroic stories in canting stones and flowers left by long ago parents and spouses celebrating war and union and love and progeny lost to cruel battle.
Virginal, fourteen, and this day resolved, Emily, thinking herself not daughter or child but woman now ready for life, craves love in every step as she almost runs the road. And he, not quite three years older, freckle-faced with eyes that wink like distant stars and seem to promise a secret called desire and passion enough for more.
Experience has taught him well. He brings a pint of whiskey, oil for massage, a cotton print sheet on which so many times he has pledged his unfelt, but sworn-undying love. The scene is written, as it has been a myriad of maidens’ times—inscribed with the endless list of lovers’ lies.
She thinks it is all new, a place meant just for them. He knows it has been often used, many times by him. Small town girls never tell; they—embarrassed once by truth—will make believe that innocence remains while their parents—gone off to work and bent over stoves—have no wish to know where daughters might have been or what their sons have done.
The high sun spent engraved and cummed, plied with warm hands kneading flesh—her back, her breasts, his thighs and butt— and drink that she had never before touched—potent, cough- inducing, impulsive stuff bought by Karl, the next town’s drunk, who hangs outside the liquor store and begs for change.
Kisses—tongue to teeth to palate. Caresses—fingers, lips, words. Her breasts, risen in delight. He has become a skilled husband of this trade. She—at first hesitant and then in practice learned—touches and caresses in response. Their joint climax comes with moans and “damns” and “fucks” set free upon the wind, the wind which carries the sharp menthol of white and pink Mountain Mint, the sweet grape soda smell of purple Lupine, and yes the homey scent of fir and pine.
It seems to Emily an idyll even when, a week into their amour, Russ turns to another girl, after whom he also lusts and with whom he shares the graveyard hill. The Major’s ghost will surely never tell.
She would not have told if the itch had not persisted, if the unwanted flow had been less intense. Shy, alone, she had visited old Doc Viles, who stammering that he’d have to make reports, suggested she tell before they’d have to know. Her parents, after the gasps and shock, took two different routes: Jeannine to tears and comfort and Putnam, supposed free-thinker and novelist, turned to fury and threats that she, having always counted on his love, would not forgive and never could forget.
At the library, after sex, over tea, Delia had laughed at his outrage, reminding Putnam, in gentle terms, of their own clandestine love. It did not assuage his sense of injury or dampen his paternal rage. Instead, hardened as fired clay, his attitudes became vessels for anger glazed with furious rebuff. He could not accept remorse, and his daughter’s responding grudge would offer none.
The fox, stealth hunter of the night, finds his way through the fence with a chicken dinner in his sights. The cock, guardian, screams his outrage and, battle ready, sets himself in a foolish storm of feathers, beak and spurs. Vulpes vulpes, tooth sharp, responds. The battle whirls around the yard. The man, roused from sleep by screech and squawk, brings his gun to bear, not to kill but blasting loudly in the air.
Sly canine, sure to try again, takes flight; the human sees but cannot bring himself to take sight upon the fleeing brown-red streak.
The cock, one wing sorely hurt, preens himself with muttered pride and matted blood. In the morning Jeannine will tend his wing, pet him, sing a lullaby, and tell him that he’s heroic as she hand-presents pellets for him to peck while hens and chicks mill about with no recall of what had sought to do them ill the previous night.
Putnam had sat for hours on the porch. Having fixed the fowl pen, having driven staples home with curses and angry blows and having twice pained and bloodied his left thumb, he keeps the shotgun close, alone, obsessed why he had not fired and wondering if he should or could kill to protect his home. If it had been Emily? He asks himself over and over, again and again. The ruckus passed, she had in the morning gone to school—no reason to stay at home. Life goes peacefully on, or maybe not.
The freckled boy at Pratt’s pulls a tube of salve from a small wooden drawer. “This should do the trick. Birds don't like the taste so it won’t be peck-ered off.”
He smiles an impish grin as he takes her dollar forty-nine. Jeannine smiles back and asks his name. “Russ, Ma’am, Henry Johnston’s son.” He grins again.
“I think you know my daughter Emily?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I do. She’s a nice girl and a bright one, too.”
A mother cannot subdue a flash of smiled pride. “And pretty, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I surely do.”
“What salve might do for her?” she asks. “What potion might give her relief?”
And he, sudden shy, does not reply. “I think you’d best speak to the Doc.” “I know. He called me. I’ve gone. Gave me a shot.”
There were no more, no unneeded words. It was a story as nature tells.
The shotgun, old, purchased from a yard sale, sold by a daughter emptying her dead parents’ place just as Putnam imagines that Emily will one day sell it off as well. He cradles it—a twenty gauge, side- by-side, Remington, American made, showing spots of rust and signs of age—now as on that day, after the fox’s raid, after he had been unable to kill and had sat distracted, pondering the rights and wrongs of death, and what it means to slay.
He had wanted to take it from the wall—been tempted to use it and let blood spill, a boy’s blood, that boy’s blood—a lecher’s blood. He had wanted to, but he had not. An action suspended by conscience and by inadequacy’s remorse.
Impotence had fired his rage, the incubation of her contempt. A daughter riled so against could not in tears forgive such hurtful words: cunt, whore, bitch and damn you both to hell. The loving child’s pain and shame. A lifetime of love in a moment scarred, and no voice can ever call such damning back.