LITTLE VICTOR was moving through his Saturday deliveries, perched on the splintery riding board of his old cart, his small body wobbling with the pocks of the trail. His stubby fingers were twisted around the rope tied to his donkey Ewell. The animal was melancholy as usual, head lowered, dragging his hooves morosely along Mill’s Trail as though it were a river of mud.
The day was looking to be unusually warm for autumn. It was Victor’s Saturday route, starting near Broke Ranch in the south, moving north to the grangelands, making stops along the way to pick up and drop off deliveries. Sometimes folks would ask him to repair something—a broken farm implement, a fence, a wagon wheel. That night, he would set up camp in the north, rise before daybreak to follow his route back again, arriving in the south late at night. He worked mostly for farmers who didn’t have time to do repairs or ride far to trade with other farmers. Mayor Gladford also paid him to bring food from the communal stores to the elderly or injured.
With a tug, he turned Ewell off Mill’s Trail and onto the meetinghouse road. He was bringing sacks of grain, flour, tea, and smoked pork to Reverend Calvin Branch. It was Victor’s favorite delivery, for the reverend was a true man of God, one of the last.
He took out a handkerchief and wiped sweat from his forehead. Victor had a huge, barbed nose that jutted from a tiny face whose eyes were separated by several inches and whose long, pointed chin bent oddly to the right. His waxy brown eyes were set deep in his head, within craterous sockets the width of crabapples. This deformity made it hard for Victor to lower his eyelids, and gave him the appearance of constantly goggling in surprise. Victor’s skin seemed to be the wrong size for his distorted skull, stretched too tightly here, hung too loosely there, giving the impression of a man who was different ages at the same time.
He wore a huge hat that swallowed up his tangles of red hair and fell halfway over his face.
He squinted at the sky. A glorious, bright, and beautiful day, the cloudless sky wide open. A day for giving thanks to Jesus, yet the morning had left him with an ugly, crawly feeling, like that time he woke up in an infested haystack with fleas in his flesh.
Lunchtime, he’d dropped by the two most popular merchants in town, Shrenker’s General Store and Hanker’s Barrel and Pub. The gossip at both was more frantic than usual. Wherever Little Victor went, the topic alighted before him like mice in a field: Adam Green, that strange farmer out on Green Hill, went mad yesterday, screaming he’d seen a ghost in the forest.
At Shrenker’s, a dozen ladies were gabbing about how unfashionably dressed Henrietta Auberon was in church the previous Sunday. A customer threw in the information about Adam Green, Henrietta’s nephew, having come bolting from the woods claiming he’d seen a ghost. Wandabella Shrenker, the store’s owner, grabbed onto the news with slobbery glee and started in on it, embellishing it, her spidery fingers doing a dance in front of her bony face as she spoke. By the time Victor left, the dozen ladies were in heat over this new scandal.
A few paces down the road at Hankers, Victor joined men gathered around a barrel, heads lowered in discussion about what was the worst kind of folks.
Joss Hankers stomped up to the table, a tray of pewter tankards propped on her big shoulder. With her booming voice, she weighed in: “I think the worst folks is those too cowardly to do the right thing when the right thing needs doing. Remember how Ole Brock wouldn’t get himself out of bed to help rebuild after that fire at Widow Hutch’s? That’s the day I stopped serving him, the lazy snake. If a body can’t do right when right is needed, a body’s got no right to live.”
The men thought on what she said and someone raised the subject of the incident with Adam Green, but the others hadn’t heard about it yet. The topic of conversation instantly changed and gossip surged like a fire on dry hay.
Wherever Little Victor went, they started in talking about it, and soon they couldn’t talk about anything else. Adam Green, whose mother and father had already scandalized everyone seven years back by taking their own lives in the Forbidden Forest, the couple who even now folks whispered might have been servants of the Devil, had finally gone over the edge himself. Malicious old rumors, near-extinguished by the passage of years, found new fuel. Could Adam’s seeing a ghost be a sign that he had inherited witch-blood from his parents?
Victor was glad to get out of town. The trail climbed, rounding Staff Hill. Here Victor could look out on larger pieces of sky and land: the central plains with the southern mountains rising behind them; the jagged clay-iron of the Grey Mountains to the east, the green and brown checkerboard patterns of the grangelands and northern valleys behind them. All this beauty made Victor feel connected to the grandeur of things, like he, despite his small stature and deformities, was part of something greater, a particle of the body of God. It was a feeling he rarely had when with others of his species.
At the top was the community meetinghouse. Farmers still attended the reverend’s Sunday services, but in dwindling numbers. The Reverend Calvin Mathers Cotton Makepeace Branch lived behind the meetinghouse in his windowless, shutterless cabin. A sole wooden chair, its back straight as a hitching post, separated the preacher from the stone floor. When he slept, he did it on a pile of coarse hay.
Little Victor too spent most nights sleeping in hay. He felt it was one of many qualities that bonded him with the reverend. Within the cold morass of cruel humanity on whose periphery the little man existed, only a handful of people was kind to him. The schoolteacher, Miss Dorothy, offered him regular treats from her kitchen, and the mayor was tolerable enough polite. Virginia at the bakery almost treated him like a normal human being. However, Reverend Branch was the only person Victor really trusted.
While some found in the old man’s stormy face and ice-blue eyes an antique and terrible Puritan zealotry, Victor saw only wisdom.
He tapped Ewell with the reins to bring the wagon to a halt in front of the cabin. Reverend Branch, tall and thin, a few white hairs clinging stubbornly to his skull, emerged from behind, where he was tending a small vegetable garden. “Victor!” His eyes twinkled above his frown. “What did you bring me today?”
“Brought something special, Rev.”
The little man, his distorted body bobbing awkwardly to one side, reached into the back of his wagon and pulled out a couple of filled burlap bags with the word “corn” scrawled on them. The bags were much larger than him, yet he hoisted each easily over his shoulder and laid it on the ground. Victor then burrowed into the recesses of his wagon and dragged out a wooden box. He removed the box so gently, he might have been lifting a newborn baby. He held it up to the Reverend. “Got these today from the southlands.”
The old preacher lifted the lid and cried out in delight. Inside was a bunch of tiny grapes. On their purple surfaces, sunlight broke into a spray of enchanting white stars. “Victor, they’re magnificent!”
The small man flushed with joy. The reverend nodded his head enthusiastically. “Bounty from Heaven, for certain. What did I do to bring down the Lord’s blessings on me this day, I wonder?” The reverend looked up to the sky.
You treated a man like me with respect, thought Victor.
The reverend smiled down on him. “I thank you, sir. And how are you today?”
“Can’t complain, Rev.”
Calvin Branch looked at the donkey tethered to Victor’s cart. “I see Ewell is down in the spirits, as usual.”
“Seems to be his nature, Rev.”
“Maybe his bones hurt, like mine. Getting on in years.”
“Was thinkin’ maybe of taking Ewell to see Doc Midland, maybe get’im a powder for his sad moods.”
Reverend Branch’s countenance darkened.
“I think the last thing you should do is take your poor donkey to that ungodly charlatan.”
“Sorry, Rev. I forgot you and Doc don’t get on.”
“Doc Midland has forsaken Christ. It’s as simple as that. He is a practitioner of Natural Philosophy and has no shame about it. He comes from a long line of practitioners of alchemy and apothecarial arts. I know he denies it—I’ve endured his protestations on too many occasions—but these endeavors are the handiwork of the Devil. There is no room for dispute. Rather than consuming devilish herbal powders, Ewell would do better to treat his melancholy by embracing his condition of original depravity and accepting the Lord Jesus into his heart.”
Victor threw a huge sack of grain over his shoulder. He staggered dangerously under its weight, but the reverend didn’t offer to help him. Victor would assail even a man of God with kicks and bites rather than allow him to shoulder any of his responsibilities. As he moved the sacks of grain, the casks of cider, butter, and other stores into the house, he continued talking, as the reverend walked alongside.
“Did you hear about that Adam Green?”
“No. What happened?”
Victor paused in mid-stride, a barrel of apples balanced on his back.
“Don’t know how to talk on this without sounding downright, excuse the word, Rev, witchy.”
“What do you mean?”
“This morning, seems Adam Green came screaming out of the Forbidden Forest, mad as a bear. He ran to his aunt and uncle, you know? They first thought a snake bit him, but it were a lot worse.”
Victor lowered his voice. “He says he found a box, in the woods, that had a human head—with no body—inside. And he says the head talked to him.”
The reverend’s face grew very serious. “Are you sure?”
“Sure as rain, Reverend.”
“Where did you hear this, Victor?”
“I heard it,” Victor paused to think, “At Shrenkers Store.” He screwed his eyes upward in their deep sockets. “Then I heard it again when I was delivering to Hankers Barrel.”
“Who did you hear it from at Shrenker’s?”
“Them fancy-dressed ladies was talking it up, Rev.”
“Where did they hear it?”
“Think it were from Wandbella Shrenker.”
The reverend nodded. “That woman is a most fearsome gossip. Did she start this rumor?”
Victor shook his head. “No, she weren’t the first to tell it.”
“Where did she hear the story?”
“Think she overheard some man talking about it. Lot of men drinking over at Hankers.”
“You too said you heard men talking about this at Hankers, Victor. Was there one man in particular who was telling this story? I’m very curious to know.”
“Men was talking. I didn’t really look at’em close.”
“Did you speak with these men?”
“I was working.”
“Did you hear which of the men told the story first? I want to know who started this rumor. Think hard, Victor.” The old man’s eyes were blazing down at him. Sweat began to drip down Victor’s cheeks.
At last Victor squeaked, “Oh, yes. One of the men at Hankers said he heard the story somewhere else. And then he told the story to the men at Hankers.”
“What was the man’s name?”
“I get names all confused, Rev.”
The reverend took a deep breath. “Where, Victor, did this man say he first heard the story?”
“From the ladies at Shrenkers.”
For a long, terrifying moment, Reverend Branch looked like he was going to reach down, and wrap his long, gnarled fingers around Victor’s neck. Then all at once, he burst into laughter. He patted the little man on the head.
“Victor, God bless you for bringing simplicity and honesty into our tawdry human proceedings.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“What I wouldn’t give to have such trueness to the Lord even pretended by our citizens such as you radiate naturally from your very being.” The reverend heaved a sigh. “Like the old days.”
“The old pur’tan times, Rev?”
Calvin winced. “Please don’t say ‘Puritan’, Victor. It’s a vulgar designation given to us by heathens. We must call ourselves the People of God.”
“Victor, do you realize there used to be Sabbatical Laws?”
“Well, there were. We had Sabbatical Laws. And everyone needed to attend church. And there was none of the free and easy sinning we have today.”
The reverend smacked the palm of his hand with his fist. “No working or drinking on the Sabbath, no hayrides, merrymaking, laughing, none of that.” The old man swiped his open hand through the air like a sword. “On the Sabbath! When people weren’t in church, listening to my father preach, they were at home.”
“What were they doing at home?”
“Praying, Victor! Thinking about the Lord!”
“If they wanted to do their merrymaking, what could stop them?”
“We had constables, Victor!”
“Constables? What’s that?”
“Constables were men who stopped people from breaking the Sabbatical Laws. Why, my father spoke of one young man and woman who were caught holding hands. Holding hands, yea, even kissing, on the Sabbath!”
“Yes,” the reverend smiled. “And those big constables grabbed those two sinners and shoved them into pillories and whipped them bloody. And all the townsfolk turned out to pitch rotten apples at them. Some even threw stones.”
Reverend Branch gazed into the distance, his features pacified by nostalgic recollection. “That’s what we need now,” he said. “We need someone who can make the old ways come back, force them to…”
“What are pillories?” asked Victor.
“Pillories, yes, um…” The reverend stammered, then said, “Victor, it’s of no matter.”
“Just last Sunday, I saw a couple of folks kissing,” said Victor conversationally. “Under the smooching sycamores.”
“What are they?”
“Some trees, by Silver Stream. Couples go there to smooch.”
Reverend Branch stabbed his finger at the air. “That’s what I mean, Victor! No one has any respect for God anymore!” Victor nodded. “Now why don’t you put away that thing, before you fall down the hill?”
Victor looked up at the big barrel still perched on his shoulder. “I forgot.” He finished carrying the goods to the house. The reverend took from his breeches a leather pouch jingling with coins.
“Victor, coins are okay today? Or would you prefer provender in trade?
“Coins, Reverend, if it don’t put you out.”
“You know, Victor,” he said as he fished out coins from the pouch and handed them to the little man. “You too would be welcome at my services. I wouldn’t pillory you if you came.” Reverend Branch said it with a twinkle in his eye.
Victor looked down. “I do come to church. Every Sunday.”
“Really? But I don’t think I’ve ever seen you.”
“After everyone’s inside, I listen at the window.”
“You are a good man, Victor.”
Victor pocketed the coins and climbed into his wagon and bade the reverend farewell. He rode down the hill, pondering. Life was so hard. He didn’t like lying to him about where he’d first heard the story of Adam Green. He hated not telling him the truth about the fact that it was he, Victor himself, who had spread the rumors about Adam at Shrenkers and Hankers.
He wouldn’t have done it if small, ugly men like him didn’t need to earn money from unholy sources too.
The Language of Bears is “Witty, serious, and original, this stunning tale should attract anyone who delights in an intellectually stimulating read.” – Kirkus Reviews
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