The Opposite of an Epitaph: A Waters of Time Story

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There is a man in the German barn who babbles of time and bells.

I have been thinking this all day as I go about my work, until thought itself babbles like the water in its creek bed through the woods and down to the Schuylkill, and knocks like hammers hitting pegs as the barn was built, and clamors like church bells across the land. Although the last should shame me, for our meeting house has no bells, and bells sing funerals or weddings or calls to worship, and this man means none of these.

Sometimes the bells sing of danger, of fire or flood. But I hope he means none of those either.

We’ve only one cow in the barn as yet—the others run loose in the woods until winter—and it is my task to milk her so my little brothers have their fill, morning and evening. I’m as sure as I can be that the man wasn’t hiding there last night, for the mackerel cat chased a mouse into that very corner, and killed it without disturbance. And none said aught to me as I told the cow of the good grass she would eat and the calves she would bear and the milk she would give, all in her long lifetime—the milk comes easier if I do—but this morning when I said the same words again (for I don’t think the cow remembers) he spoke.

I fell off the stool in surprise, and it was I, not the cow, who kicked the bucket over, and I was angrier for it. “Eleven days!” I said. “Eleven minutes of milk is what I have lost into the earth, and that is more than I want my brothers to be without. And what would a cow do with eleven days of milk?”

“Explode, probably,” he said, and it was then I missed anything familiar in his voice, and forgot to be angry. “Blowing up time theory along the way,” he continued, as I could not move or speak to interrupt. “Chickens, too, with the eggs. Boom! Which would be a shame if we woke up eleven days hungry. And eleven days thirsty, with an eleven days-full bladder, speaking of exploding, not to mention the far more accustomed eleven days—”

“Who are you?” I managed to ask.

“Not that there’s any pattern to getting lucky.” In the shadows his head shook as one thought finished and another began. “I’m a witness bear,” he said. “I witness your bells proclaiming liberty through the land, in E not E-flat, except not. Cracked. Blood down its pale cheek.”

I know the talk of men who drink more than their fill, and of men in fever, and once I heard my father speak thus, when Daniel mistook himself and turned too fast with a plank upon his shoulder. And there was blood then too. I went to the stranger where he lay in the corner stall.

The blood was dark on the hay-colored hair. He had covered himself in straw against the night’s chill, for he wore no coat, and his hat—his townsman’s hat—was a black three-winged bowl on the ground, holding a gray curl of… I stepped closer to see. Mouse’s tail. Precisely spiraled, filling my mind with numbers it couldn’t hold.

“I might fetch you better food than the cat’s leavings,” I said.

He said nothing, not then nor when I tended his wounded scalp with a kerchief dipped in water, or when he took the cup of milk from my hand with an eager thirst that might have built over eleven days. I watched him for the time I could spare, to be sure it stayed down. And then I sent the cow to her pasture and left him, for my sisters could not be trusted to get breakfast alone. And I did not tell anyone, and knew that I should.

I thought all day that my father would find him, not that he had need to go into that stall, but the stranger might babble as he passed. But he was planting winter wheat, and came not near the barn. And I was glad of this, and glad that I had done as I ought and cared for a stranger as I would my own kindred, until the hours and minutes I had left him alone began dropping heavy on my head like rain in summer storms, weighting my steps and drowning my eyes, as it came to me that men who have been struck into foolishness often decline into stupor and death, and that he was like to await me as a corpse.

But he is alive.

“It’s impolite for a guest to help himself,” comes his voice from a different quarter of the barn than I left him in. Yes, he has found his wits and, for a time, his feet, for the cow is back in her stall. He lifts a half-full cup of milk to me as I approach. “I did ask permission. She was amenable. But I apologize for the violation of hospitality.”

All my worries forgot, I give him the apple, cheese, and pancakes, and he gives me a smile before yielding to his appetite. When he has pared the rind from his hunger, he speaks again.

“How does it look?” He gestures at his wound. “It’s painful enough, but not in a way that says permanent brain damage. I hope.”

A stranger indeed: he does not speak like a man of Pennsylvania, though I can fit his words together like dovetail hinges and hang sense on them. “You were hit with something of wood that left splinters,” I say without touching him again. “And flecks of bark in your hair, I think of sycamore. Fallen tree limb, it might be.”

He frowns. “It hit me, not the other way around? I was riding a horse, that much I remember. It might have—”

“Do you often ride a horse while looking over your left shoulder?”

“Not unless I’m being followed.” His face clouds with the effort of memory. “Someone pulled me off the horse for purposes of assault and robbery. At least, I’ve got no money left.”

“You may pay for your food in labor,” I say, and then relent as he half-rises and goes pale. A traveler, fallen among thieves. “Finish your dinner first.” I find the stool and bucket and begin to strip the cow of what milk he left. “There was much blood,” I tell him, “but little damage else, once I cleaned it away.”

“I hope you didn’t use the water the cow drinks.”

“No, she was in need of it. I fetched more from the stream.”

“Not necessarily any better, but…” He clears his throat. “I think I meant to begin this conversation with ‘Where am I?’”

“You are in my father’s barn.”

“Ah. And who are you?”

It’s not the question I expect to be answering; I nearly blurt out my father’s name before correcting myself. “I am Ruth Gregory.”

He manages a bow, lolling back against the wall. “Honored,” he says. “My name is George Merrill. Born in the town of Frederick in Maryland, now a printer’s journeyman in Baltimore. My master takes the journey part seriously. I have come to Philadelphia to—”

“You’re not in Philadelphia,” I say. It’s a bad habit, interrupting my elders. But he isn’t telling; he is reciting, as little Sarah recites her Bible verses with no sense of their meaning.

“No. I suppose not. I’m not far away?”

“No.” He waits, as though expecting me to draw him a map. I shake loose the last drop of milk, then turn to him and say, “How do you come to be here?”

He moves his head from side to side; it looks as though it hurts. “I wish I remembered. But it’ll occur to me, I’m sure, once I’m walking. If you would point me in the right direction…?” Despite his paleness, he is readying himself to go. He reaches for the hat, looks down, holds up the mouse’s tail in bemusement.

“I said, finish your dinner first,” I tell him.

He stares a moment longer, and then laughs, like a door swinging open in the wind. “Your servant, Miss Gregory,” he says, “until you shall dismiss me,” and picks up the cheese again. After several bites, he adds, “It is Miss? I’m not speaking to… no, you said your father’s barn; probably you wouldn’t still live here if—”

“I am unmarried,” I say, trying not to smile.

“That’s very good news for someone,” he says, and he does smile, the sort of smile I am not yet accustomed to receiving from men. “At the moment, excellent news for me, as it means I have the privilege of enjoying your company, a privilege before which, I heartily assure you, assault and robbery pale in… wait. How old are you?”

“Not yet fourteen.”

His eyes close, and then his teeth come together as though trying to bite words already escaped. “Speaking of robbery. George, you might try keeping your mouth shut once in a while. I do beg your pardon,” he says, looking at me again.

“And how old are you?” I ask him; if he is allowed to inquire I am as well.

“Let’s just say twice your age and not worry about the arithmetic.”

Arithmetic comes nonetheless, but I manage not to voice it. “Is that old for a journeyman? When my father had your years he was already married and working his own land.”

He makes a face, as though I were cleaning his wound again. “Miss Gregory, if I were the man you think me, that would hurt.” Looking as though he means to say more, he instead finishes the cheese. “Thank you,” he says.

“Thank the cow,” I say.

He moos in her direction. “Does she like the barn?” he asks. “It’s new, isn’t it?”

“This summer’s work. My brother”—I cannot but swallow saying it; when will this end?—“my brother learned its construction from our German neighbors, and we had their help in building it.”

“He must be proud.” Something in the voice: envy, or condescension, I cannot tell which.

“Daniel never saw its completion. A fever… he…”

“Oh.” A pause. “When?”

“July. The twelfth.”

“I’m very sorry.” The voice is gentle now; I look up. “I have a brother. He’s older than me, and irritatingly perfect. Often I don’t like him much, but it’s hard to think about life without him.”

“Daniel was the oldest. Now I am.”

“So you’re trying to be you and him both?”

This takes me aback. “But I couldn’t be.”

“I expect there are things he could do and you can’t, but… have you got other brothers?”

“Three. And two sisters. And two-thirds of one yet to come.”

“God in heaven.” He waves a hand. “No way to help it, I know. All younger than you, then?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, the tone of voice; you sound like my brother,” he says, smiling. It is a different smile now, but still… embracing.

“Is he married?”

“Yes.” Mr. Merrill gives me a suspicious look. “Tucked away, stable and successful. He’s a safer proposition than me altogether. Does less… journeying.”

“What work does he do?”

Perhaps he hadn’t expected the question; the reply comes slowly. “He’s a senior clerk. Plays with numbers all day.”

The second part of the remark is more truthful than the first, I think, though it is nothing to tell lies about. “I love numbers,” I say.

“Really?”

Again the condescension. “Yes,” I tell him. “For example, if you are indeed twice my age, you own to twenty-seven years and four months precisely, unless we are to count the days missed, in which case I am eleven days older and you twenty-two.”

He closes his eyes. “You were born on the fourth of some month,” he says after a moment.

“January. Of the year thirty-eight.”

“It’s seventeen fifty-two, so you should already be fourteen… no, wait, they did try to drum this into me… because the year began in March… ah, I get it. My birthday’s in April, so it’s easier for me.”

“What date?”

“The thirtieth.”

“So you are five days more than twice my age, disregarding the eleven days gone overnight, and assuming one counts all months the same, although in the normal course—“ I hesitate, as I am not used either to the year’s birth shifting, and am still inclined to think of it as simply quartered. Rising to my feet, I feel time settle into alignment along the axis of my body. “The balance will be weighted to the second half of the year, even allowing for February gaining a day’s heft. But this year is a strange one.”

“Yes.” His eyes open. “Five days more than twice your age. I don’t feel like it.”

“My father says the young mind is more agile but less wise.”

“Well, he’s right about the agility. That’s all assuming this really is September fourteenth.”

“You were not without your senses longer than a few hours at most, I think. And I did not oversleep.”

“No, I bet you didn’t. Yesterday was September third, all right, and our British overlords have imposed on us a new calendar, stealing eleven days to catch up with the rest of the world, or significant parts of it. No troubles there. It’s the days before that I might look at differently than you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m glad there’s something you don’t.” He finds his feet as well, though his balance is uncertain. “No doubt I’m keeping you from your work. And I was to pay for the food in labor?”

I want to assign him to shoveling dung; it is what he deserves. But I relent. “Tomorrow my father means to hunt bees—”

“I don’t think your father should know I’m here.” He waits while I nod—and I ought not to, but I want this secret as much as he does—and then adds, “Hunt bees?

“To capture a swarm. For their honey.”

“I didn’t think it was for their sting. Though that strikes a galling and familiar note.”

“E not E-flat?”

“B-sharp, I’d think, if there was such a… wait. Was that me?”

“Something about bells and liberty.”

He puts back his head and laughs, not loud but honestly. “I think it’s Leviticus on crop rotation, but yes, it was me. All of us, in fact. Something about bells and liberty. It’s a nice… what’s the opposite of an epitaph?”

“A benediction?”

“Close enough. Quite a country you’ve got here, Miss Gregory. How many sons will you give to make it free?”

I cannot move. All the fear of when I first knew him a stranger, and when I thought he might die, comes upon me again. He does not offer violence, either to take the sons from me or to give them to me; he offers instead… a number. A number I should not comprehend, and cannot.

“You ought not to have said that,” I say, though I do not know why.

“No.” He is frightened as well.

“I should go… the milk…”

“You should go. But—”

He steps forward, and I backward. “I will come again,” I say.

And I do. Bells ring in my head through our supper, though none but me hears them. When the house is asleep, I slip out with a lantern, like a bride eloping, and go to him. I have the excuse, if I am caught, that the cow was not fed, though no reason that I should have forgot. But when I arrive I see Mr. Merrill has given her hay; she is contentedly chewing, and he is leaning against her side.

“The night is chill,” I say. “Too much so, for early September.”

“Ah, but it’s not early September.” He comes to me—he has recovered his balance and his strength—and clasps my hand with both of his, warm from the cow. “Ruth… I am sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldst take knowledge of me? My voice would shake if I asked him, and he does not answer. His grip loosens, and he backs away. “Should you be here?”

“I have slept in the barn before, since Daniel…”

“No one will come after you?”

“No.” Ruth, counting the stars or the drops of milk in her bucket; Ruth who goes out to mourn the night; no need to pay any heed.

“But if they did?”

“The truth is a good tale.” Though not your tale, I tell him silently. “I don’t believe my father would force you to marry me. Unless he thought he would gain… Daniel’s labor is missed. But you have a position elsewhere.”

“Yes.” Mr. Merrill looks of a sudden white and sick; he turns, finds the milking stool, sits upon it. I put the lantern down between us, rest myself against the nearest post, and wait. “Very well,” he says. “I’ll take the risk. Please stay. While you do, could I ask you some questions? I’m supposed to be…”

“What is it you need to know?”

A sigh escapes him. “How you think, and what you feel, and why I want you to tell me. But start with the eleven days.”

“They make the year shorter.” A limp in time; one side wizened, like Peggy’s brother James who came wrong out of the womb. But only if one measures by months. Three hundred and fifty-five days divided in two… a new axis…

“I know that, but does it make a difference to you? Do your father’s harvests come at the wrong time? What about market days?”

“How can a harvest be wrong because of days? Weather; storm or fire; beasts or wild Indians. But not days. The crops are ready when they are; they pay no heed to the calendar. Nor does the snow when it first falls. Nor does the babe my mother will bear come the winter.” Nor will my new monthly courses, but I shall certainly not mention those to Mr. Merrill, especially not with talk of marriage and sons still hanging in the air. “Now market days…”

“Are something people can set their teeth into and worry. I’d hate to think there wasn’t anything you wise farmers argued about.”

“There has been much discussion. Also about wages. Ought workers to be paid for eleven days on which they did no labor?”

“I’d guess you don’t think so.”

“Of course not. They will be paid sooner than they otherwise might, if somewhat less. But what they deserve.”

“Very practical. I’d be inclined toward indulgence, but then I’m used to demanding pay for days that don’t legally exist.”

“You should not.”

“Ha. I might even manage to get paid for sitting in a barn at night talking about employment policy with a thirteen-year-old girl. If I ply my timesheets right.”

Sheets of time: clock faces inked on paper, the linen on which he might have slept away eleven days, a shroud full of eternity. I question him with a look, but he does not answer.

“I understand,” I say, “that we will now conduct our business by the same calendar as that of France and other countries, though we are not the sort to concern ourselves with such matters. But to some this is a point of importance.” The calendars align themselves in my head like two cart wheels, the angles of the spokes matching, but the pleasure I find therein matters little either.

“It might make things easier down the road, too, alliances and… hm. We’ll let people like my brother deal with rents and interest. If you owe money: eleven days leeway in payment schedule?”

“Yes. Though you ought not to borrow in the first place.”

“Ah, a moralist.” He smiles. “So, the lesson is that people are adaptable. More so than some whose heads are buried in books and records would have you believe. That’s why I like looking at things.”

“There was not enough to look at in Philadelphia?”

“Oh, believe me, there was. Though not nearly the sight for sore… head that you are, Miss Gregory.” Compliments to me have become a jest to him, his indiscretions already forgot. “So people adjust to the new calendar, and nature ignores it; is that what you’d say?”

“Yes. And God—”

“Oh, I was afraid you’d bring him into it. Go on. Theologize.” I pause, gathering my thoughts, and he adds, “Unless you don’t think it’s your place?”

“Because I am a thirteen-year-old girl?”

“No, because… damn! And”—a quick gesture, rubbing out what he has said—“sorry. Language. And contagious assumptions. I’m sure you’re far more qualified than me to speculate on divinity.”

“Among the Friends”—and I have known for some time he is not one of us—“my youth might prevent me from speaking at meeting, but not my sex.”

“Well, good.” He is angry; I cannot tell why. “And I’m sure you’ve had an equal education to your brothers, and can hold political office, and will get blamed just as much for refusing to join the army. Everything in balance.”

“Why would I wish to join—” How many sons will you give to make it free? I shake my head, trying to loosen his words or rattle them into a form of sense. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. But an angel would wish to speculate on divinity. “Killing is wrong, no matter when or how. And I have been to school.”

“You’re not there now.”

“No, but—”

“Who thinks of such things at the advanced age of thirteen? When my brother was your age—” He rises, strides away and stands with his back to me as though he cannot bear to look on me any longer. “Differential calculus, I seem to remember. With lots of very mild cursing. You probably can’t wait to get married.”

“Does that also provoke curses?”

“I wouldn’t know.” His fists clench, but he does not turn around. “You were going to tell me what God thinks of calendar change.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I echo. “But—”

“You have an opinion nonetheless?”

“No. I only… Daniel would have been eighteen years old yesterday.”

“Yesterday. The thirteenth?”

“He would have laughed.” Mr. Merrill turns now, and he is not laughing. He opens his arms, looking helpless as though he were about to catch something very large, a cow perhaps, thrown from a roof, and I stumble forward and let him hold me. I shed tears, and cannot count them.

“Days that don’t exist,” he says, close to my ear. “People here one day and gone the next. I know, Ruth. I know. Life’s all cut up into slices and served to me on a plate. Like cheese.”

“Wedges. Cheeses are round.”

He strokes my hair. “Pie are not round. Pie are square. Sorry, you probably don’t know that one. R is the radius and—”

“If I know how long the wedge is, I know how big the cheese is. It’s always the same number, the one I multiply by… I measured with string…”

“It’s a constant. Comforting, isn’t it?” Pulling back, he meets my gaze with his own, and I see no comfort there. “Ruth, listen.” He takes my hand, balls it into a fist, thumps it against his shoulder. “I’m solid. I bleed, and I do stupid things, and you can measure me with string. And I should go. Now. I should go back to Philadelphia and watch people not have riots over eleven missing days, and poke my nose into a metal foundry in case I can’t do it later, and… oh hell, Benjamin Franklin, I was on a horse for some reason to do with him, it’ll come to me, and—”

“It’s dark.” Stay, I want to tell him. Stay and teach me. The sharpness of bees, and the curl of a mouse’s tail, and the arc of a cow falling from a roof. Slices of time: one day, a sliver of a life. I could tell the size of the life, if I knew the length of the sliver. Except that this year is shorter than it ought to be.

“Then I’ll go in the morning. You ought to get some sleep.” He pushes me away gently. I find the bed I have made for myself before, straw and the old coat of Daniel’s my mother wanted for baby blankets, and lie in it. Mr. Merrill sighs, and settles himself at a distance away so purposeful he might have measured it, a distance that to my father should mean companionship but not the necessity of marriage. My father is a man of reason, of sense and carpenter’s angles and wedges of the day filled with hard work. But he would not ask what God thought of calendar change. Daniel would have.

When Mr. Merrill speaks next, I think he believes I am asleep.

“I was born in a year that ends in forty-two, a year that doesn’t exist. The day before yesterday was in July. So I’m not quite as much twice your age as you think. Not that it matters.” He pauses, though not as though he expects me to reply. “If you can come to Philadelphia on the tenth of March or the eleventh of June, I might be there. Can’t say for sure; the funding’s not through yet. A pair of anticlimaxes, really, but that’s life. Bells crack; bells are vaguely unsatisfactory but go on to be symbols. You never know. Some things turn out to be worth fighting for.”

He says nothing else before I fall into slumber, dreaming that I give him Daniel’s coat and lead him to the place between fields and woods where he can see the way to Philadelphia. But when I wake before first light, he is gone.

 

*

The bell ordered for the State House of Pennsylvania arrived in Philadelphia from London on 1 September 1752, two days before the eleven days that never happened. It was first hung on 10 March 1753, and cracked when rung. Recast by Pass and Stow, it was tried again in April but its sound was judged unacceptable. The next recast was hung at the State House in June, and though some still didn’t like its tone, it stayed in place. It was rung to announce major events throughout the Revolutionary years, though probably not to accompany the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The famous crack occurred in 1846, soon after the name “Liberty Bell” had been adopted by abolitionists. Each of its incarnations has been inscribed with the quote “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).

Cover photograph by Joshua Winata.

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