a Frontier Romance
John Chapman answered the door.
The postman grinned, rapped once on his tin hat, and flipped him a letter.
John! It’s been a long time since I saw you. How’s about stopping by. Yours, Vernon.
Chapman hid amusement. Chapman disappeared the letter under his coat and bade the postman out. Lady pawed at his cuff. Chapman huffed.
When do I reveal the plot, he thought.
He wanted to squash Lady sometimes, friend that he had. “My best friend,” he said out loud. Was there ever a man who had less at which to shout, he wondered, and let the good Lady out. “Run, my girl,” he thought. “Run all the way home. Run run Lady.” He turned in.
Sarah lay on the bed, limp underneath blankets. Sarah was stout-ish, he observed evilly. Ish. He saw her waking and he turned. She yawned loudly. Eyes on Sarah.
One eye opened after the other.
She was polite and this annoyed him. Even before he got “Out” out, she had already put on her dress and socks. In fact she was already halfway through braiding up her hair by the time he’d decided he’d not share his morning with Sarah Scrumptious.
This was, of course, not her name. It was Mrs. Service, and here she was leaving so rapidly! Her name was Mrs. Powder, and how her eyes sparkled in the glowing moonlight, her voice husky, and only one white ankle peeked out from underneath her petticoats…
But here was Lady bounding back to the threshold now. and oh! what a morning! He had her little bowl ready, and she accepted the meal with relish. Her rough tongue darted around the cereal and she smacked and grubbed. Lord almighty, he said. To keep anything alive. Lady looked up with wet, soft eyes.
If he put his fingers in those soft, wet wells, and simply exerted the smallest pressure…
Something quickened in his throat and he cleared the thought off.
It was difficult to maintain focus, he thought. To maintain focus. To cleave to the work at hand.
The frontier would follow him.
But now John Chapman or, Johnny, as some knew him (as oneknew him), had some tasks, some tasks, some tasks to do.
Open, again, swing that door, no point to latch no more no more. Water, seed, trowel, soil. Not to mix up bags. “Not to put the right seed in the wrong hole, hm?”
“Hell's angels” he muttered, when he noticed the hole in his trouser pocket.
Once the seeds were well-pressed and his knees dusted and Lady watered, and Chapman himself dined, and the letter from Vernon read and reread one or two times and placed neatly back in its sleeve, nothing was left to do in that day but whistle tunes.
And whistle he did.
“By god’s bones”. John Chapman whistled so fast and so sweetly, tremor and tremolo, that the blades of grass even swayed with pleasure. Even the birds in the trees, the Dunnock and the Jackdaw, champed their beaks and hopped to. “By babe’s blood.” Chapman whistled every song he knew, and there was an order to the songs he knew. The song which had a refrain most melodically similar to the one before it, or shared a similar stride, was sung next. This made it easy to keep several tunes on board, but easier still to mix them up, or, move too quickly to the next without finishing the one at hand. But, despite the setbacks of this method, it gave a continuity to all of the whistling, and words ebbed and flowed from memory, and there was simply an agreement in the tunes. And so, whistling carried him through dusk, through til nightfall-come.
When indeed it came, John Chapman twisted some jerky off a bigger piece and ate for the last time. The length of one day, he thought, is equal to the amount of time it takes to resolve one single emotion. Or, the length of an emotion was in agreement with the sun’s rise and set. He knew he’d feel better tomorrow - hey, he already felt a little better. He sent a prayer up; it went: “MY Lord, Savior, bring silence on these bones, rest on this head, and the gifts of Sun and Rain to these seeds, that they may blossom ever more rapidly under your loving and gentle attention. Amen, goodnight.”
Then our friend Chapman tamped out the small fire he had crackling, closed the smoke hole, pulled up the heavy stiff coverlet, and went to sleep.
At night he dreamed, vigorously, of Martha, Marty, Mary…women - not girls. But women, with pallid skin, sick with child; women named Margaret whose name he said like “Mmmmargaret,” who had white cold toes and straw hair whose braids wrapped round the bedframe and pulled when he plied her; Mmmmmargaret who shrieked; her purple swollen breasts pouting out and over his fingers where he clamped them; Mmmmmadame biting his lower lip until it bled while Chapman bore to…
He woke up in a sweat, realized himself, and sucked in his cheeks. Lady was licking his big toe.
“Cut. That. Out.”
She ignored him. And Chapman went back to sleep, dreaming of apples, juice a-running, a young girl’s fingers, apple juice running out through the cracks between her fingers, like quick lava coming over the cup of a volcano, sun, miraculous and plenty, over the apples of her shoulders, and she lookt up and smiled. Apples come rolling over the crest of the hill, like a thudding river, one great barrel of every variety: Hewes' Crab, Father Abraham, Maiden’s Blush, Catface, King Tom. And to every variety, he crossed himself and revered. Lovely, he said, rising up on winged feet over a crest, winging up over the roiling landscape, lover-be-bled, he threw a fist into the sky and cried, kicking up over the crest, points of tears pushing at his eyes.
Chapman woke up with a sense of good morning, meaning, morning came lightly on him, as if that particular morning had been hovering over his crown before the brain knew of it. A morning you have courted for some time before betrothal. All this is to say he got up early, with ease, and let Lady out, and all things were reasonable.
It was the kind of morning where a breakfast came easily and without hesitation - is to say - he didn’t hesitate over it. Lady wanted let back in, and where John might usually have groaned a little before removing the pot from the fire, laying aside the stir spoon, letting Lady in, replacing the pot, and commencing to stir once more - where perhaps even sometimes he’d leave Lady pawing at that door for more than a moment or two, today, on this morning of ease, he moved like a dream from fire to door to fire again, with Lady clipping at his heels like the faithful and true companion that she was and ever shall be. The letter from Vernon lay on the table where he left it like a lover. Already the corners of it were feathering under many touches.
Hows about stopping by. Funny to use the “hows” in written language, thought Chapman. To write out the contraction, the style of speech, that way. Vernon always had a formal stiffness about him, the kind that made him funny, or fun to laugh at, a little, funny because he struggled so with words, with appropriateness, with knowing quite how to say a delicate thing. He, Vernon, edged around a delicate thing like a spider round its tiny flapping prize, advancing and retreating, choosing casualness carefully and formality even more carefully. At times, when Vernon wanted to emphasize a careful point, he would drop his voice and enunciate, as if he had slipped a silver ring round the tip of his tongue, sharpening and circling the careless thing with metal so as to make of it a finer instrument, and his tongue would tap sharp consonants against the fine enamel planks that corruscated the gums; in fact, the tongue hardly clinging to the gums at all, but standing triumph over each difficult syllable with the craft of an ancient spider.
The letter, though short, gave him long pause.
Hows about stopping by? What of that by? What of “hows about”? The clean tentacle of that voice, which reached around its object, the thing Vernon was saying, about Chapman coming by. Vernon, with a mouth the size of Christmas, had never used such broad language in actual speech. He seemed to make his mouth smaller, seemed to want to. Delicate Vernon.
Those strange periods, like blows at the ribs. Hows. About. Stopping. “Careful, John,” he warned, as the porridge stiffened in the pot. For he was beginning to insert a period at the end of every word, which was, of course, not in the letter, not the punctuation at all.
And then - releasing the gather of his brow - what, finally, of the “yours,”?
Something in his reason faltered at the “yours” and he couldn’t touch it. Couldn’t dream of approaching it, wouldn’t go near, not even with stalwart Vernon at his side, marching him right up toward it.
Old blasted unscrupulous man! he thought, and thumped the ground with his cane. He would have known that. Lady begged at his trouser. He wrested back the hem.
The morning that had descended upon his mood so easily, with its temperate weather, began to change hue. John fought it, but like tying down a tarpaulin in a strong wind, the soft edges of the old mood flapped and brooked little protection against the foul wind of the new mood. Vernon be damned, he said again, if he hadn’t said it already, and began to ferry the hot and very dry cereal to his mouth.
Nevertheless, nevertheless, eating was always a pleasure, because it was one of the few times he knew of where the job got done and the job was clear. And food gave shape to an often morphous day, and the small effort of mashing the cereal with his tongue against his palette and feeling it meet then drop away from his glottis was still, even in his age, a pleasant and amusing event. Or, event of events. Yet, no matter how he felt about it, he nearly heard himself say, the meal was over quickly, and Lady’s too. John moved his finger off the letter and placed it in his lap, crossed his arms two ways, and began to move the rest of himself, so that the chair might have danced away from him rather than he from it, so that Lady might’ve even begun to dance a little too, and though the fire had quieted to a mutter, were it full aflame there would’ve been agreement in that it might’ve danced too.
Chapman and Lady, Lady and Chapman, “what a pair they were”. Sometimes he played a game to her. He’d say, “hey there Lady, what’s your favorite part of winter?” “Under my paws,” she’d say. “What’s your favorite part of paws?” he’d say. “The long brown nails,” she’d say. “What’s your favorite part of nails?” he’d say. “How surely you hammer them home,” she’d say. And so on. Today, for example, he’d say, “hey lady, hey, lady-dee, what’s your favorite part of a nursery?” “The surprise.”
Once, a message from Philadelphia. It was a request: to measure by paces the length of the river’s edge. In exchange for this “valuable information, the gathering of which you alone are capable,” several parcels of land at a geographic distribution of his choosing, with the small request that he might visit each once a year in order to make sure it yielded forth a crop. Even if he’d wanted it, and he wasn’t sure he didn’t, come to think now, it was an impossible task. The measurement, by paces, of the bank of the Great River, would come to anywhere between a very large number to infinity, depending upon the way they walked. If they walked a more or less direct line, “as the crow flies,” that would make up the inside limit of the figure, but say they traced the bank of the river with the maximum degree of exactitude, with the most exact tracing of every bip, burble, and murble that furrowed the bank of that excellent river, well then, you would begin to be looking at an outside figure that would slowly but absolutely plod towards infinity. “But doesn’t it feel that way, sometimes, Lady my girl,” he would say, and pat her on the rump.
In fact, it didn’t at all feel that way, though he, Chapman, was getting on - he reckoned - by years, though he didn’t, couldn’t, and wouldn’t know how many.