Listen (15:59) The Indelible Myth
eesville perched–and clung–to the banks of the Percumsah River, as did Natchez, on a much grander scale, on the Mississippi River on the opposite side of the state. Citizens of Leesville were born and raised within twenty-five miles of town center and it was rare for a family to leave for the outside world; no people from afar that I remember ever permanently settled in Leesville when I was growing up. Although a few tried, they always moved on.
Leesville had its own way of thinking in the 1960’s. They didn’t celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, even when it was its own national holiday, but closed the schools to mourn the death of Jefferson Davis. Above my school a confederate battle flag was raised at sunrise and lowered at sunset, without the stars and stripes. It wasn’t protest, just habit.
When I was in the fourth grade, my art training was with Miss Patchett in a Thursday afternoon session with students from many different grades. In May, we were creating Mother’s Day gifts; I drew a bird. It took a full two hours, and Miss Patchett stopped by often to see my progress. Then, before the bell rang, Miss Patchett singled out my bird as the best accomplishment of the day. She held it in front of her, the top edge gently squeezed by thumb and index finger, and rotated from side to side for all to see. Most of the kids my age frowned and wished their art had been chosen. The older kids closer to high school smiled at what they thought was a lack of sophistication. But it was special, everyone knew it in their hearts–a narrow snipe-like bill; long legs and three toed feet; a perfect circle for a head with a yellow eye, alert yet kind. The thrush size body had reds and yellows and tilted forward, the tail fanning out behind, the wings with greens and deep blues of the peacock.
After school I headed home alone. My mood was buoyant. School was exciting and my parents loved me. I was really their only child. My sister, my only sibling, died at birth at the hospital and I never saw her.
I walked steadily, eager to see my mother. I had my book bag strapped to my back and carried my drawing in one hand so there was no chance of smudging the surface. I held it facing out and tried to be casual but I wanted the world to see what Miss Patchett had been so proud to display to her students, and what I was going to give my mother.
As I neared the corner to my home street off Elm, I saw Ruth, a girl who was a grade above and lived near the river. Usually her brother walked her home, and except for a few taunts, they usually ignored me. Her father was a doctor.
Today Ruth sat alone with her back against an oak tree, her books at her side. She was looking down at something in her hand. She was big for a girl, strong muscular legs and thick upper arms. She had short brown dark hair and a wide thick-lipped mouth with spaces between the teeth in front, not ugly really, but they held your attention. I circled around so as not to be close.
“That’s a stupid bird,” she called to me without looking at me.
I began to cross to the other side of the street, away from her. She stood up. She was in my art class. She knew what Miss Patchett said about my bird.
“A really stupid, stupid bird.” She stood, leaving her books, and came toward me. I moved quickly but she was too fast and she snatched my drawing and backed off. She had torn the bird into small pieces by the time I reached her.
My rage empowered me. With my fists I pummeled her, I pushed her down. I did not kick her, but I hit her again and again with my book bag, the brass buckles cutting her face and neck. Blood oozed from her forehead; she cried out and I hit her in the mouth with my fist, felt the pain as her teeth broke skin on my knuckles.
Two adults came. They held me from her. I tried to explain about the bird, but they saw me as unreasonable and out of control. I quieted and waited until Ruth’s parents were found to take her to the hospital, and my mother came to get me.
Through tears I told mother about my bird, and she held me. I told her about my rage at Ruth destroying my gift without reason. And Mother said she loved me. But Ruth’s parents demanded I be punished. The school was contacted to impose penalties—Ruth’s parents thought I should be sent to reform school in New York. But I was placed on probation and required to attend counseling sessions with my mother with the local pediatrician who had majored in psychology in college. The pediatrician was intent on reconciliation, and in time included Ruth’s mother in some of the sessions with him and my mother. My mother and Ruth’s mother came to an understanding, and, I believe liked each other in addition to gaining a mutual, if not at first hesitant, respect.
I survived my probation and my counseling. My family began to share family gatherings with Ruth and her parents, and her brother—who was much older than I. It was a Saturday, and Ruth’s parents had invited our family over for an afternoon barbecue. Ole Miss was playing LSU away and a radio had been propped on a windowsill of the house with the volume on maximum. The adults sat in folding lawn chairs around a brick lined barbecue pit with a pig on a spit that Ruth’s father, the doctor, pasted sauce on every few minutes. Ruth’s brother went to shoot squirrels with a twenty-two near the dump refusing to take Ruth and me. Ruth decided to fish on the river, a skill her brother had taught her, usually on the oxbow about a mile north. Ruth’s mother insisted I tag along. Carrying her rod and tackle box, Ruth went to where the river narrowed, the surface white with froth swirling in eddies. I followed. There was a floating dock with a planked walkway that tilted up slightly now the river was high from recent rains. The flushed river grumbled and swished here. She stood at the dock’s edge in her bare feet and cast a lure awkwardly upstream.
“Are there fish here?” I asked.
“There are millions of fish,” Ruth said.
“Like brim?” I asked.
“All kinds. Like every kind in the whole world.”
After that, she did not speak to me. I soon walked away back to the house. I threw a tennis ball for Ruth’s father’s black lab to retrieve. When it was time to eat, I was sent to tell Ruth. But there was no one on the dock. I returned to tell the adults.
“Where is she?” Ruth’s mother said.
I didn’t answer.
“Have you done something to her?”
“I’m sure she’ll be here soon,” my mother said, coming and standing close to me.
“You’re an evil child,” Ruth’s mother said to me.
“That’s not fair, Martha,” my mother said. “He’s done nothing.”
But Ruth’s mother, breathing fast through clenched teeth, was already sending people out in different directions to find Ruth.
“I’m sure everything is all right,” my mother said, taking me with her as she followed Ruth’s parents to the river. My father tended the grill.
An hour later, Ruth’s body was lifted from the water a few hundred yards downstream. I stood back at the edge of the crowd, but I could see her face was scratched and her leg bruised. Her fishing rod was never found.
The sheriff questioned me on the day Ruth died. Then later, twice, once for three hours, I sat at the police station as we went over ever second of that afternoon. But nothing happened and I went back to school in the fall. I thought life was as it should be, except that Ruth’s parents never spoke to me and walked away when they saw me, even at school.
But life was not as I expected. Little things happened, that now seem unimportant, but that were etched into me. Adults looked over me when they talked where children were allowed, and teachers rarely called on me in class. In gym I was passed over when the teams were chosen, and even at Church in the children’s choir when I usually sang my lead in “Down by the Riverside” from the front row next to the sopranos, I was told to stay in the back next to tone-deaf Arthur whom no one liked. Later that year “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” replaced “Down by the Riverside”, and I had no solos.
My mother became my only confidant. I told her how I was treated. I told her I didn’t care what people thought, but I did care and couldn’t sleep well. I was haunted by formless nightmares with sensations of falling, prolonged, and slow to wake me. On weekends, I often went alone to sit motionless and silently by the river—near where Ruth died. Mother had conferences with my teachers and the principal who seemed sympathetic and said I was a good boy and a hard worker. They trusted me, they said. They definitely thought Ruth’s mother’s tirades against me about her daughter’s death would stop, and soon be forgotten.
I graduated from high school in the top half of my class, but at the ceremony, when the principal handed me my diploma and shook my hand, his eyes never tried to see me as he did with others, looking instead beyond me to someone in the audience. My mother died when I was away in my third year in a Birmingham college and my father retired and moved to Florida with a woman he’d known since high school.
I did well enough in college to win a scholarship to pharmacy school. I’ve been in practice now for four years and I am manager of a drug store in Dayton, Ohio. I never speak of my past and I can’t remember when, or if, anyone asked.
But I must tell my story now. I have a decision to make. A woman (Robyn Welter) loves me. She is a small frail woman of thirty-five, two years older than I, quiet, gentle and shy. She is a school librarian, and teaches English to fourth graders. I love her too, and we want to marry. A date has been set. But as the time has come closer, I cannot find it in me to want children. Robyn wants a family. It is what will fulfill her life. And it has become a source of contention–and many tears. And I have come to wonder if marriage is right for me. I do not want children. I do not want to see them have to grow up through unpredictable dangers.
We have come for consultation to the church office of her minister here in Ohio. Robyn is religious, and I believe in God but have little faith in the church. Robyn and I sit in chairs in front of the minister’s desk. He is a young unmarried man with glasses and a nervous glance that lands on others at odd times, disjointed in some way, avoiding contact as if he couldn’t face the realities he might see by looking into another’s eyes. Robyn and the minister discuss our incompatibilities and, after an awkward silence, I dread telling my story when they hint the need for catharsis. Robyn is adamant about children. I comment that a child is a slice of potential reality that I cannot take on. That I cannot cope with childhood as my offspring. Robyn urges me to tell my story leaving nothing out. The minister insists too. I tell my story directly to him in every detail. When I finish, Robyn expresses her love for me again, and looks immediately toward the minister who smiles and nods, as if she’d just spelled the winning word in a spelling bee.
The minister mumbles something about perceptions and justice. Then his voice strengthens.
“I must be honest,” he says not looking at me, “You show an urgent need to address guilt. It seems to have consumed you. For a successful marriage, you must confront your inner demons.”
I stare at him, not sure exactly of his meaning. I say nothing. I am not demonic.
He continues. “Your guilt frankly seems excessive for what you describe. Is there something that day by the river you might have repressed? Some nudge? Some hesitation to save her? Something to distract her?”
I look to Robyn. It is, for her, the moment when she can make our marriage whole by believing in me. A marriage with children too, I now am willing to believe if she has faith in me. In her soul, she must know that even as a child I was incapable of murder, or even assisting in an accident. And that is what she must communicate to me.
She stares at me. At this instant I look into her eyes, tenuous in their lock on me, then she looks to her left, toward a table with framed photo of a modern painting of Jesus in a romantic pose holding a shepherd’s crook. I continue to stare at Robyn, despair sweeping over me. And she looks back to me. Now her eyes do not hold the sparkle and desire of our lovemaking. They hold pity. She has brought me here to confess the sins she perceives I have committed. Her look deflates me, voids me of emotion and self-worth. I slowly rise, button the front of my white lab coat, bow slightly to both if them.
“Don’t run,” the minister says.
“Please,” Robyn says.
“Hypnosis,” he says. “To explore your unconscious.”
“You were a child,” Robyn adds. “You cannot be held responsible.”
Who did nothing wrong, I want to yell at her. But I’ve told her many times and the well of doubt, once discovered, can never be abandoned.
“We could discover the facts,” the minister says.
But we know the facts!
I exit to the street. I am surprised at how calm I am, still unaware of the weight of my resolution. I refuse to believe there is an evil memory inside me that will satisfy the omnipresent suspicions. I will bury myself in the demands of my profession. Alone, I will make my contributions to the world. But I lose any comfort in my strategies.
I pace away from the church until I am sweating, even though dark clouds swirl above and the chill of winter is already on us. I sit down on the low wall near the Air Force base. The street traffic is heavy. A near freezing rain begins to fall and the windshield wipers slap from side to side on cars that stop for the streetlight. I tremble, then sag, my arms limp.
The minister is a fool. It is only Robyn, whom I love, who could pierce me with my own doubt about what I remember and what happened that day. And she has coated her love with impenetrable suspicion, and I’m left with the truth that now, with inescapable doubts, her feelings would dwindle, and force her to a separate world, prisoner of denying how love is destroyed by uncertainty in the mind.
“I am without sin,” I say aloud to a passing stranger who looks at me oddly without breaking stride.