Salt

A Novel

Isabel Zuber

Picador

Salt
FAITH, 1932
The moles, he noticed, had made a progress and left ridges between the graves, even tunneled right over them. His grandfather would have been out with castor beans and poisons, his father with his steel trap jammed down above the little animal runs, set and poised to fall like a miniature portcullis, spiking the unwary. Roland smiled. It amused him to think that in this case the moles were having the last say in the matter.
Other than the mole runs, all was in order in the cemetery, grass cut, weeds pulled, markers upright. All that could be done was done. He could go. His mother had once commented that the place seemed a gracious, inviting spot and that it made her think of music. He had no idea why she would feel that way about an ordinary graveyard. She was a mystery to him.
Roland lived in town now, was married, and taught at the college. But he was one, as his acquaintances and relatives would tell him, who had not gotten above his raising. His visits to Faith were fairly regular, first to the cemetery, then to the store, then on to other calls as his quest or an invitation took him.
Sherwood, the longtime store owner, sat in a morris chair by the front window, so bulky and seemingly immobile that Roland could picture him sitting there all through the night watching the road for wrongdoing and misadventures. The man was past remembering all of the community happenings to tell Roland and repeated some of those he had told him before. Still he would usually think to say, "It's too bad about John, your dad," though sometimes he forgot that too. His elderly niece did nearly all the store's work now while Sherwoodobserved comings and goings. Her reactions to Roland were not predictable. She could nearly fawn over him. "And how is your dear lady wife these days, why don't you bring her to see us?" Or she could scowl at Roland and look sour when he came in and if there was no one to serve she would go into the stockroom and stay until he left.
Today Sherwood did remember something.
"Eli's boy has something for you. Told me to tell you to stop by."
This was to be a scowling day. The niece's expression seemed to say, You will have to tell him. She headed for the stockroom.
 
 
ELI'S "BOY." CARL, was the age of Roland's father but still running the post office, as his father had before him.
"But maybe not for much longer," he told Roland. "They've gotten to consolidating everything, schools, post offices, and who knows what else, maybe places themselves. We could lose our souls." He picked up a stack of the circulars, calendars, and catalogs that his patrons left behind and moved them from one end of the narrow table under the window to the other. The table and just such a stack, the mailboxes, and all of the post office supplies had been in the little low room on the Younces' porch for as far back as Roland could remember. Carl was a puttering-around man like his father, but he seemed far less sly.
Eli Younce, Roland's father used to say, had hidden out during the war from the rebels and Union folks alike, especially the Confederate Home Guard. He had a secret hiding place dug out under his house that couldn't be seen even from the cellar and he'd hole up in there with a jar of water, or something much stronger, whenever recruiters were about. As a child Roland had thought of that frightening gravelike place as being built exactly like a coffin and under the floorboards of the post office room he himself trod, though of course it would have been at the earlier Younce house.
"There was no fight in him," John Bayley would say. But there seemed to have been plenty of deviousness.
 
 
"HE HAD THEM squirreled away," Carl said. "I didn't find them until long after he passed. There was some more mail besides, but I don't know what's become of the other folks." He looked over Roland's shoulder. "Didn't seem right to throw them out, you being so close by and here so often."
"Thank you," said Roland. "I wonder why he didn't forward them."
"Maybe he didn't know your address after you moved."
Fifteen old-fashioned small envelopes, nearly square, addressed to his mother and postmarked years earlier. As he handled them Roland wondered if they had been steamed open and resealed. Did not know the address? Letters had come to them from Faith. No way not to have known. He thought his hand might shake. He'd not expected anything like this.
"Or maybe he thought she'd be back and he'd give them to her."
I bet. "Anyway, thanks again. I appreciate your holding on to them and letting me know.
"I thought you ought to have them but I don't want no danger to his reputation. You understand? Our being cousins and all?"
"Of course."
 
 
THINKING ABOUT ELI and his odd craftiness, Roland wandered off, following Cove Creek down to where the man had once lived. It seemed an appropriate place for secrets.
The Younce family's old homesite on the creek bend was marked now only by two stone chimneys, the low foundation wall, and the cellar hole. No house had been rebuilt on the place after the fire. Eli had long before moved closer in to the community when he became postmaster and let the place out to rent. Tall weeds and a tree or two were growing within the crumbling masonry.
The house had been burnt down when Roland was a boy by a storekeeper rival of Sherwood's who was a stranger to Faith, an oddsoul who never did well there. The man had also stolen Roland's father's horse but was never caught and punished for either the theft or the arson.
Below the ruin was a narrow wooden footbridge across the stream. Roland sat down on it, dangling his feet over the brown water. He opened the envelopes.
They contained love letters to his mother, postmarked from two places out West he had never heard of, signed only with the initial M, letters from a man who, though he tried to joke and make light of trials now and then, was clearly lonely and unhappy to the bone, making his way by himself.
I know you said not to write, would not even give me your address. All I know is the name of that little place where you once lived. Perhaps this will reach you if they send it on. I cannot help it. I am without companions here and think of your sweet face all the time. Heaven and earth would not be too great a price if we could be together ... .
I think of you fondly. Yours, in the sure and precious hope that we shall meet again to be parted never. M.
He had no idea who had written them. Possibly someone his mother had known when she lived and worked in town before she was married, someone who had loved her long ago.
Would she have wanted to see these foolish things? Should she have seen them? There was a great deal he didn't know about his mother.
The letters were much the same, and all ended the same way, except the last.
None of my letters to you have been returned to me and I have sent my address. I have no way of knowing if you ever received any of them and I've not had one from you. I write this last time to tell you that I'm to be married to a Mrs. Bonham, Ellie, a homesteader in her own right, with land that lies next to mine.She is a widow with two small sons. So it seems I shall be a family man after all.
I remember you with great fondness. Yours in the hope that, since probably not again in this world, we may meet in the next.
Roland looked at the water for a while, then tore the letters into little squares and watched them float away downstream like a laundry of tiny handkerchiefs.
 
 
bread and salt
 
 
On a bright, breezy day children run up the mountainside through the tall sweet grasses, cross circles of soft ferns, run so hard it takes their breath, so fast their small bare feet scarcely touch the ground. They scream back at the hawks overhead, waving their arms. They sing to meadowlarks nesting among the weeds. They wave stern swords and stick flowers behind their ears.
They have been running there always. Look for them.
SALT. Copyright © 2002 by Isabel Zuber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.