Nah. I just want to ask you something.
You ever have questions—I mean big questions now—that you can’t find the answers to?
I’m talkin about the kind of questions that follow you around for years, she says.
I know what kind of questions you’re talkin about.
So what do you do about em?
Not much, he says. Some of em answer themselves after a while. Some of em you just stop thinkin about. Some of em accumulate.
You ain’t much help.
Moses Todd smiles, sucks his lips into his mouth, his beard making a sound like a brush against concrete.
Stop playin around, girl. You know it as good as I do. You step outside under the sky and there’s answers everywhere you look. Why you think you’re roamin in the first place?
I’m runnin from you.
No you ain’t—at least not as hard or fast as you could be runnin. You just know that out there is where to look for the answers—even if you ain’t found em yet. It’s more than what most people got.
Then a change comes over his face, and he looks conspiratorial.
Hey, if you wanna untie me, we’ll see if any answers come to you when I got my thumbs diggin into your windpipe.
She stands and considers smacking him one across the face, but she doesn’t want to know the feeling of that beard of his.
See you later, Mose.
Count on it, little girl.
DID YOU do it? James Grierson asks when she enters the library.
The look on his face is like a dead tree, drained of all its sap.
You’re leaving then, he says.
Yeah. You’ll watch Mose for me while I go? I don’t want him gettin ideas.
I’ll watch him.
All right then.
She turns to go.
Listen, he says, sitting up on the edge of the couch. Listen, I have something to say.
What is it?
I—the thing I have to say is—I lost my father tonight.
She looks at him, a tragic figure with dark hair and notions that torture.
You’re gonna be all right, James. Every house needs a man. You’re it now.
Right, he chuckles to himself.
There is nothing else she can say. She opens the door and is almost gone when she remembers something. The slip of paper the dummy had in his pocket. She stops a moment, considering. Part of her says to leave it lie, to stop messing around in what’s none of her business. But there’s another part of her too.
She goes back to the couch where James Grierson sits.
One more thing, she says and hands him the slip of paper. Can you read this?
He looks at it.
What does it mean? he says.
Out loud, she says. Can you read it out loud?
Just—a favor, okay?
He looks at it again and recites:
Hello! My name is Maury and I wouldn’t hurt a fly. My grandmother loves me and wishes she could take care of me forever, but she’s most likely gone now. I have family out west. If you find me, will you take me to them? God bless you!
Jeb and Jeanie Duchamp
442 Hamilton Street
Point Comfort, TX
Doggone it, she says.
And in this way the paths narrow for the tempters of fate. She thinks of Malcolm, of the iron giant, the edifices of lost men, the boiling in her belly more wicked than fiend or meatskin. The voice of God speaking with colors that are not hers.
She should have left it alone.
All right then, she says. You want to read me that address one more time?
She picks from eight in the morning until ten, stopping sometimes to stand up and straighten out her back and look across the fields to the spot where Maury stands chopping the wood like she taught him to. His large frame hunches over the stump where he places the tree rounds and raises the ax over his head and brings it down steady but not swift, putting the whole gravity of his mineral self into the gesture. She wipes the sweat from her forehead and fans herself with the panama hat and looks at the wide open sky, the biggest sky she’s ever seen—because look how it curls around at the horizon and almost comes back to meet itself.
When she fills a tub with the berries, she brings it to the shack in the middle of the fenced property and sets it on the porch. Then she goes back out into the fields. Five times she does this, setting the little tubs in a row.
This is a no-count business, she says to Albert, the freckled man sitting on a wicker chair in the shade of the porch.
I told you it weren’t gonna be easy.
He sips something from a plastic tumbler.
What you drinkin? she says.
Lemonade. Fresh-squeezed. I might could give you a glass when you’re done.
She looks at the glass in the man’s dried-up hand.
Yeah, all right. I’m just takin a breather. Say, what you need all them bingberries for anyway?
Trade em. You’d be surprised the things people’ll give for fresh-pick berries.
I guess so. Listen, I been meanin to ask you—what state’re we in?
Little girl, on your travels you happen to notice some dead people walkin around? What state are you in? I’d say you are in a state of denial.
His hacking laughs turns into a cough. She takes a deep breath and waits for the man’s fit to pass.
I’m just kiddin you. We’re in Alabama. Just outside Union Springs.
Alabama? Dang. I thought we got further.
Where you coming from?
We were in Georgia a couple days ago. It’s slow goin—the roads you got here are a mess.
I’ll write a letter to our congressman.
Then something occurs to him, and he looks around the side of the house in the direction where Maury continues to chop wood.
You keepin an eye on that feeb?
He’s all right. He does what he’s told.
Albert leans forward.
Listen up to what I told you before, he says. I don’t know if you quite got it. You come inside with me for a little bit, you can have all the berries you want.
Yeah, I heard you the first time. I’ll pass.
He leans back to indicate the conversation is over.
Suit yourself, he says. You best get back in that field if you wanna be done by noon.
She didn’t think it would be so difficult, picking the berries, but the plants are thorny and if she pulls at the berries too hard they crush to purple sap in her hands. She picks on, crouching like a toad among the bushes. By noon she is stained sapphire all over and when she sucks the blood from her pricked fingertips, it tastes like iron and bingberry mixed.
She goes back up to the porch for the last time.
There, she says. That’s ten tubs.
Good work, he says. That one’s yours.