FROM “The River” by Flannery O’Connor
THE child stood glum and limp in the middle of the dark living room while his father pulled him into a plaid coal. His right arm was hung in the sleeve but the father buttoned the coat anyway and pushed him forward toward a pale spotted hand that stuck through the half-open door.
“He ain’t fixed right,” a loud voice said from the hall.
“Well then for Christ’s sake fix him,” the father muttered. “It’s six o’clock in the morning.” He was in his bathrobe and barefooted. When he got the child to the door and tried to shut it, he found her looming in it, a speckled skeleton in a long pea-green coat and felt helmet.
“And his and my carfare,” she said. “It’ll be twict we have to ride the car.”
He went in the bedroom again to get the money and when he came back, she and the boy were both standing in the middle of the room. She was taking stock. “I couldn’t smell those dead cigarette butts long if I was ever to come sit with you,” she said, shaking him down in his coat.
“Here’s the change,” the father said. He went to the door and opened it wide and waited.
After she had counted the money she slipped it somewhere inside her coat and walked over to a watercolor hanging near the phonograph. “I know what time it is,” she said, peering closely at the black lines crossing into broken planes of violent color. “I ought to. My shift goes on at 10 P.M. and don’t get off till 5 and it takes me one hour to ride the Vine Street car.”
“Oh, I see,” he said. “Well, we’ll expect him back tonight, about eight or nine?”
“Maybe later,” she said. “We’re going to the river to a healing.
This particular preacher don’t get around this way often. I wouldn’t have paid for that,” she said, nodding at the painting, “I would have drew it myself.”
“All right, Mrs. Connin, we’ll see you then,” he said drumming on the door.
A toneless voice called from the bedroom, ‘Bri ng me an rcepack.” “Too bad his mamma’s sick,” Mrs. Corwin said. “What’s her trouble?”
“We don’t know,” he muttered.
“We’ll ask the preacher to pray for her. He’s healed a lot of folks. The Reverend Bevel Summers. Maybe she ought to see him sometime.”
“Maybe so,” he said. “We’ll see you tonight,” and he disappeared into the bedroom and left them to go.
The little boy stared at her silently, his nose and eyes running. He was four or five. He had a long face and bulging chin and half-shut eyes set far apart. He seemed mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out.
“You’ll like this preacher,” she said. “The Reverend Bevel Summers. You ought to hear him sing.”
The bedroom door opened suddenly and the father stuck his head out and said, “Good-by, old man. Have a good time.”
“Good-by,” the little boy said and jumped as if he had been shot. Mrs. Connin gave the watercolor another look. Then they went out into the hall and rang for the elevator. “I wouldn’t have drew it,” she said.
Outside the gray morning was blocked off on either side by the unlit empty buildings. “It’s going to fair up later,” she said, “but this is the last time we’ll be able to have any preaching at the river this year. Wipe your nose, Sugar Boy.”
He began rubbing his sleeve across it but she stopped him. “That ain’t nice,” she said. “Where’s your handkerchief?’
He put his hands in his pockets and pretended to look for it while she waited. “Some people don’t care how they send one off,” she murmured to her reflection in the coffee shop window. “You pervide.” She took a red and blue flowered handkerchief out of her pocket and stooped down and began to work on his nose. “Now blow,” she said and he blew. “You can borry it. Put it in your pocket.”
He folded it up and put it in his pocket carefully and they walked on to the corner and leaned against the side of a closed drugstore to wait for the car. Mrs. Connin turned up her coat collar so that it met her hat in the back. Her eyelids began to droop and she looked as if she might go to sleep against the wall. The little boy put a slight pressure on her hand.
“What’s your name?” she asked in a drowsy voice. “I don’t know but only your last name. I should have found out your first name.” His name was Harry Ashfield and he had never thought at any time before of changing it. “Bevel,” he said.
Mrs. Connin raised herself from the wall. “Why ain’t that a coincident!” she said. “I told you that’s the name of this preacher!”
“Bevel,” he repeated.
She stood looking down at him as if he had become a marvel to her. “I’ll have to see you meet him today,” she said. “He’s no ordinary preacher. He’s a healer. He couldn’t do nothing for Mr. Connin though. Mr. Connin didn’t have the faith but he said he would try anything once. He had this griping in his gut.”
The trolley appeared as a yellow spot at the end of the deserted street.
“He’s gone to the government hospital now,” she said, “and they taken one-third of his stomach. I tell him he better thank Jesus for what he’s got left but he says he ain’t thanking nobody. Well I declare,” she murmured, “Bevel!”
They walked out to the tracks to wait. “Will he heal me?” Bevel asked.
“What you got?”
“I’m hungry,” he decided finally.
“Didn’t you have your breakfast?”
“I didn’t have time to be hungry yet then,” he said.
“Well when we get home we’ll both have us something,” she said. “I’m ready myself.”
They got in the car and sat down a few seats behind the driver and Mrs. Connin took Bevel on her knees. “Now you be a good boy,” she said, “and let me get some sleep. Just don’t get off my lap.” She lay her head back and as he watched, gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton. There was no one in the car but themselves and the driver and when he saw she was asleep, he took out the flowered handkerchief and unfolded it and examined it carefully. Then he folded it up again and unzipped a place in the innerlining of his coat and hid it in there and shortly he went to sleep himself.
Her house was a half-mile from the end of the car line, set back a little from the road. It was tan paper brick with a porch across the front of it and a tin top. On the porch there were three little boys of different sizes with identical speckled faces and one tall girl who had her hair up in so many aluminum curlers that it glared like the roof. The three boys followed them inside and closed in on Bevel. They looked at him silently, not smiling.
“That’s Bevel,” Mrs. Connin said, taking off her coat. “It’s a coincident he’s named the same as the preacher. These boys are J. C., Spivey, and Sinclair, and that’s Sarah Mildred on the porch. Take off that coat and hang it on the bed post, Bevel.”
The three boys watched him while he unbuttoned the coat and took it oft. Then they watched him hang it on the bed post and then they stood, watching the coat. They turned abruptly and went out the door and had a conference on the porch.
Bevel stood looking around him at the room. It was part kitchen and part bedroom. The entire house was two rooms and two porches. Close to his foot the tail of a light-colored dog moved up and down between two floor boards as he scratched his back on the underside of the house. Bevel jumped on it but the hound was experienced and had already withdrawn when his feet hit the spot.
The walls were filled with pictures and calendars. There were two round photographs of an old man and woman with collapsed mouths and another picture of a man whose eyebrows dashed out of two bushes of hair and clashed in a heap on the bridge of his nose; the rest of his face stuck out like a bare cliff to fall from. “That’s Mr. Connin,” Mrs. Connin said, standing back from the stove for a second to admire the face with him, “but it don’t favor him any more.” Bevel turned from Mr. Connin to a colored picture over the bed of a man wearing a white sheet. He had long hair and a gold circle around his head and he was sawing on a board while some children stood watching him. He was going to ask who that was when the three boys came in again and motioned for him to follow them. He thought of crawling under the bed and hanging onto one of the legs but the three boys only stood there, speckled and silent, waiting, and after a second he followed them at a little distance out on the porch and around the corner of the house. They started off through a field of rough yellow weeds to the hog pen, a five-foot boarded square full of shoats, which they intended to ease him over into. When they reached it, they turned and waited silently, leaning against the side.
He was coming very slowly, deliberately bumping his feet together as if he had trouble walking. Once he had been beaten up in the park by some strange boys when his sitter forgot him, but he hadn’t known anything was going to happen that time until it was over. He began to smell a strong odor of garbage and to hear the noises of a wild animal. He stopped a few feet from the pen and waited, pale but dogged.
The three boys didn’t move. Something seemed to have happened to them. They stared over his head as if they saw something coming behind him but he was afraid to turn his own head and look. Their speckles were pale and their eyes were still and gray as glass. Only their ears twitched slightly. Nothing happened. Finally, the one in the middle said, “She’d kill us,” and turned, dejected and hacked, and climbed up on the pen and hung over, staring ill.
Bevel sat down on the ground, dazed with relief, and grinned up at them.
The one sitting on the pen glanced at him severely. “Hey you,” he said after a second, “if you can’t climb up and see these pigs you can lift that bottom board off and look in thataway.’ He appeared to offer this as a kindness.
Bevel had never seen a real pig but he had seen a pig in a book and knew they were small fat pink animals with curly tails and round grinning faces and bow ties. He leaned forward and pulled eagerly at the board.
“Pull harder,” the littlest boy said. “It’s nice and rotten. Just lift out thet nail.”
He eased a long reddish nail out of the soft wood.
“Now you can lift up the board and put your face to the…” a quiet voice began.
He had already done it and another face, gray, wet and sour, was pushing into his, knocking him down and back as it scraped out under the plank. Something snorted over him and charged back again, rolling him over and pushing him up from behind and then sending him forward, screaming through the yellow field, while it bounded behind.