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from In the Country of the Young

Hugh found that his mother did not like his pictures. She scolded him for wasting paper and chewing pencils. His twin sisters merely giggled when he brought them views of things familiar or sometimes seized him for a game. They wanted to dress him up and Mrs. Cullom never interfered with this hideous diversion. Unless his father or brother Ian effected a rescue, Hugh might be dragged to the attic and there robed in something sure to be uncomfortable and female. Ian was more gracious to Hugh’s art. He would look at the last effort, nod gravely and say that it was pretty good never inquiring the subject. Hugh really preferred this calm to Aunt Kate Bartlett’s laughing rapture or Uncle Henry’s loud delight.

Grandmother Wells was the great impediment. She had no patience with pictures at all. She was likely to interrupt with shrill orders about washing or the learning of her catechism. Hugh was safe from this terrible woman only in the library. Into that still room she never came. The sills of the library doors somehow held her away. Elsewhere she raged incessantly, harrying hired girls. Farmhands recoiled from her, coming into hasty employments. She invaded the garden and yelped at the witless flowers. But the square library walled in books seemed to repel her slow feet save when Hugh’s father was in his office in town. Then, she might come down on Hugh comfortably at work under the broad table or send his sisters to pull him into the tumult of the red sitting room.

Hugh found that the leaves flapped most briskly when Grandmother Wells veered toward the sitting room sill.

But when Mr. Cullom sat reading the library must be silent. Hugh could take refuge under the table unquestioned. A regiment of sharp pencils lay in a blue china dish beside the cigar box and his father did not care how many points Hugh broke. If Hugh panted aloud in the passion of art Cullom would reach out a slipper and prod him back into silence. But in his long shadow or behind the whirling bookcase, Hugh was safe. Mrs. Cullom couldn’t remove him. Her skirts would flutter up to the table and voice would break out.

“Come, Hughie, Mrs. Brundred’s fetched Florrie over to play.”

“No,” said Hugh.

“Now, come.”

Then Cullom would say, “Oh, let him alone, Milly. He’s happy.”

“But Gus, Mrs. Brundred’s fetched little Florrie over—”

“Let him alone.”

Then the skirts fluttered off again, over the green matting to the red rug of the sitting room. Gratefully, Hugh would pat the long leg nearest. Sometimes Cullom chuckled. Usually he made no sign. The leaves of his book flapped. Hugh found that the leaves flapped most briskly when Grandmother Wells veered toward the sitting room sill. Hugh watched her yellow face turn to see his father and stared blandly at her crooked, summoning finger.

It was a surprise when he was lifted up on the shoulder of Uncle Henry’s black coat and told to look down at the yellow face with its eyes tight shut. Her coffin lay among flowers by the library fireplace. Hugh wondered at her intrusion but wanted a white rose from the crust of white bloom on the sober cloth. He asked why she didn’t speak.

“She’s dead, son,” said Uncle Henry.

Hugh wriggled. Death was a state overtaking cherished cats. He still wanted the white rose. The garden was deep in snow.

“Can’t she talk, now?”

“No, sonny.”

“Oh, my!” Hugh sighed out his happiness. He bent and stole a rose. Then, in the crowd of dark people someone laughed like his father. Lovely Aunt Kate carried Hugh off. A black veil covered her bright head but under it she smiled. In the upper hall the shutters were closed but light ran through the cracks and fell on the head of Ian chewing gum by the windows. This sun made his hair dance and glitter and soon music mixed with the light. Hugh seemed to swell with joy. He laughed wildly.

“Sh-sh!” said Aunt Kate.

“Oh, look at Janny’s hair, Kate! Oh—”

“Yes, but hush, lover.”

Ian sneezed and got out of the sun rays. Hugh played with the rose and listened to the music. Then, there was motion below. His mother cried on the stair and Cullom stood on the red landing, wonderful in his silk hat, talking against her sobs. “… None of them. I won’t have any of them go to the cemetery.”

“Gus is right, Milly,” said Aunt Kate, “they’re too young.”

Carrie and Lucy yelled that they wanted to go to the cemetery but their parents vanished along with Kate and Henry. Ian threw the windows wide. A line of black carriages rolled down the drive to the lane where pools had the sheen of new tin. Nettie the hired girl and Somers the jolly, youngest farmhand came to open all the windows. The twins wept tiresomely. Ian took Hugh off to the barns where they found a strange tomcat who strutted about with his tail lustrously swaying and who grew dear directly.

“Oh, what’s his name, Janny?”

“Dunno, bud. We’ll ask papa.”

Cullom always knew cats’ names on sight. It turned out that this cat’s name was Jonadab when he was brought to the house the next day.

“Now, Gus,” said Mrs. Cullom, “that’s a Bible name.”

Ian observed, “I know who he was. Jonadab was the feller told that feller Amnon to—”

“Oh, Janny,” Mrs. Cullom cried out, “that ain’t a nice part of the Bible!”

“You could say that about hunks of the Bible,” said Uncle Henry.

Mr. Cullom stood looking curiously at Ian with his black eyes half shut for a moment, then he laughed, “Good lord, Janny remembered something!” He picked Ian up and set him afoot on top of the whirling book case. Ian smiled solemnly down at them all. A wish rose in Hugh’s head. He wanted something.

“Oh, stick your leg out, Janny! Stick your leg out!”

“What for, bud?”

“Oh, O please, Janny! Your leg an’ your arm!”

“I see,” said Cullom, “it’s the Mercury over at your house, Henry.”

And with a leg and arm balanced, Ian did look like the naked bronze lad on Kate’s piano. Hugh laughed and hugged Jonadab until the new cat wailed and escaped to the kitchen.

This God collected dead persons who then lived with him in remote comfort above the blue sky.

Jonadab was a tranquil, friendly beast who liked to sit watching Hugh make pictures. He graciously slept on the dresser in the blue room where Hugh lived with Ian at night. Hugh doted on Jonadab above all other cats since his friend got on excellently with Benjy the dog. But Jonadab died in May. He was buried in a soap box at the edge of the flowering apple orchard. Ian found a thick chunk of clean wood to mark the grave and on this Cullom carved letters that Ian read to Hugh, “Jonadab. A subtil man.”

“Oh Gus,” said Mrs. Cullom, “out of the Bible!”

“Well, why not? Jonadab wasn’t any saint.”

“It just don’t seem right.”

“Rubbish, Milly,” said Cullom and gave Ian the headstone of Jonadab for whom Hugh did honorable mourning. Jonadab’s destiny troubled him. God had taken Jonadab. This God collected dead persons who then lived with him in remote comfort above the blue sky. Grandmother Wells, though, disliked cats. She berated their approach and counseled their destruction.

“And I guess God’d be scared of her,” Hugh told his mother.

This was a mistake. Mrs. Cullom slapped Hugh then set out to tell him about God. Once she took him to a place of torment called Sunday School in town. Here several girls kissed him and Hugh saw his sisters in prim glory giggling together far from the circle of woe where he sat. But when he came home Cullom had arrived from Cleveland and spoke loudly to Mrs. Cullom so that she wept. As always, the girls wept too. Hugh ran off through the slope of woods with Ian to Aunt Kate’s house where no one ever wept and maple sugar was to be had on application of kisses to the goddess. His dear aunt assured Hugh that God had made the world in six days, a fearful chore, and Hugh fancied his mother might like a picture of this.

On his sixth birthday, in June, he undertook the picture when Mrs. Cullom and the girls had gone proudly to church, in the new carriage. Nettie the hired girl gave Hugh a vast sheet of paper, slightly stained from beef but smooth and shiny. He considered the porch as a workroom, then disliked the heat and an intrusive young collie so sprawled on top of the marble table in the sitting room. Its coolness rose gloriously through his linen shell. Inspirations came fast. Ecstasy rent Hugh. He hummed.

“Here,” said Cullom, in the library “you sound like a steam whistle, buddy.”

Hugh was silent but wrought on. Mighty thoughts circled his brain. Soon Ian trotted in from a swim, his hair darkened by water, and stood looking.

“It’s God makin’ the world,” Hugh explained.

“Oh. Well, what’s that he’s got in his hand?”

“That’s a saw. Other’s a hammer.”

Ian nodded and shuffled his pink bare feet on the red carpet. He said, “M, it’s pretty good, bub, but I wouldn’t let mamma see it.”

Hugh doubted the advice, for once and in spite of Ian’s general wisdom. A picture of God was surely designed to please Mrs. Cullom. His father came to look and laughed, kissing his ear.

“You’re all right, brother Hugh.”

Ian was never spanked, yet could devise remedies against spanking.

Hugh chewed some cedar from his pencil. People called him anything: Son, sonny, bub, bud, buddy, brother Hugh, Hughie, lover, and sometimes Somers the farmhand called him kid. Had he any actual name? Oh, curious world! He began an elephant, recalling Ian’s geography. The convenient structure of elephants was charming. He panted, effecting the trunk. Time passed. Presently, Mrs. Cullom drove in from church bringing ladies and Dr. Reece, the black-clad rector. Cullom groaned as Hugh crawled under the library table and made his queer, unmeaning remark of “Thus we find and so we see” then went in his long, slow steps to meet the light skirts and the rector’s neat trousers. The voices rose to a squealing that meant pleasure. The ladies laughed before his father spoke. Hugh peeped, noting Mrs. Reece, a round woman who smelled of carnations and who always called Hugh “Sweetheart.” She saw him and now his sisters came trotting to bring Hugh out.

“And what’s this picture?” Mrs. Reece smiled, “Isn’t it pretty? And tell me what it is, dear.”

“It’s God makin’ the world,” said Hugh.

At once all the voices stopped, then with a swift change to clatter, Hugh was floating upstairs, his mother’s hand locked on his wrist. She wept. His sisters wagged their yellow braids and watched Hugh spanked. He was too frightened to cry and could only gasp at the closed door when Mrs. Cullom tossed him into the bedroom where Ian was pulling on stockings. Hugh bumped on the gray floor.

“I told you so,” Ian said, but kindly, and poured some water from their jug on the oilcloth mat by the washstand. He picked Hugh up and sat him down in the cooling pool. The water soaked through Hugh’s thin breeches and soothed him. He gazed at great Ian with awe for such sapience. Ian was never spanked, yet could devise remedies against spanking. Now he stood buttoning a fresh shirt over the rose of his chest so deftly that Hugh marveled. Not a button went amiss. Hugh adored Ian until the girls came twittering to say that he was to have no dinner. Hugh howled. Ian comforted him with a string of limp licorice before going downstairs. It seemed that the girls reported the spilt water, for Hugh heard his mother’s voice just as a totally new, brindle cat walked down the oak branch and hopped on to the window sill. Hugh was stroking him when Mrs. Cullom dashed in, red faced.

“Oh, you bad, bad boy, Hugh Cullom! Spillin’ water on the floor!”

Hugh cowered. His mother babbled incomprehensibly, her hands on her moving breasts. But Cullom came into the white doorway, a napkin spread over his arm and stood listening, then spoke with a jar of the voice that halted Hugh’s breath, “Milly, I’m sick of this. You asked these dam’ cattle here to eat. Go down and talk to them.”

He towered. Hugh had never seen anyone so tall. The black head seemed to touch the white top of the doorway. Mrs. Cullom let her hands fall. The hair swayed above her face from which the red vanished.

“Oh, Gus,” she said, “Gus!”

“Go downstairs.”

Somehow she wilted from Hugh’s sight. He stood staring at his father whose lashes drooped now and hid the flash of his eyes. The cat yawned on the window sill and clawed Hugh’s wrist. Hugh thought suddenly that this cat’s name was unknown to him. He scooped the creature in his arms and hurried to Cullom.

“Son,” said the tall man, “you ought to know by this time that God’s a piece of your mamma’s personal property.”

“Yes sir. Papa, what’s his name?”

Cullom recognized the cat at once. “That’s Hamilcar Barca, bud. Go down tell Nettie to give you your dinner.”

Hamilcar slew a mouse in the hay and civilly took it elsewhere.

Hugh took Hamilcar Barca down the backstairs into the hot kitchen where Nettie was sitting on Somers’s lap and feeding that entertaining farmhand chicken. She graciously abandoned him for Hugh, however, gave Hamilcar some melted ice cream and soon the kitchen was gay. Hugh admired Nettie as an accomplished woman. She could talk Swedish and balance a bone hairpin on her freckled nose. Somers played the jewsharp exquisitely, far better than Ian, Hugh admitted. Hugh felt giddy with pleasure while he ate chocolate cake in Nettie’s lap, listening to Somers who played “Marching through Georgia.” But the bell rang and when Nettie came scowling back from the dining room she bade Hugh be still, for, “Such a temper your mamma’s got to her! I never!”

Somers put away the jewsharp and asked if it wasn’t kind of dangerous. But Hugh thought of another spanking and fled with Hamilcar to the hayloft of the cowbarn. Here all was yellow peace. Hamilcar slew a mouse in the hay and civilly took it elsewhere. Hugh digested his dinner and watched the other hired men roll dice in the gray shade of the red ice house. From the loft’s double door their bent bodies looked like blue cabbages of the kitchen garden, swelled and transplanted to the brown barnyard clay. They mentioned God and Christ ceaselessly. Hugh sighed over the behavior of women. Then Ian climbed up through the trap door and spoke gravely, “Mamma’s sick. They got a doctor. She fell down on the floor. I guess she’s awful sick.”

“My,” said Hugh hopefully. His memory of Grandmother Wells’s departure was fresh and pleasing with its music and white flowers and rattling black carriages. Let his mother die, by all means. Perhaps Ian could arrange it, “Mebbe she’ll die, Janny?”