SAINTS (chapter 1:John Kirkham, Manchester, 1829
The day John Kirkham abandoned his family, he came home early from work. It was midafternoon, and Manchester bustled with business. He dodged carts and wagons and carriages all the way home. He remembered that when he was a young man he walked for pleasure, sending the carriage home early from the store. And then, when they had lost the house and moved into the rooms over the store, he had walked not at all, if he could help it. He was irritated by business, ashamed of the sweat of his brow. Sweat was for less sensitive men, the near-animals who made their nails and wove their endless cloth and tended their machinery in the factories that pumped the air out of the sky and replaced it with foul coal smoke.
This was not the first day John had left early. Many times, pushing another man's broom in another man's store, he had become impatient and taken his box of paints and pens and coals, and a sheaf of papers, and headed out of the city, beyond Broughton to the north or Ardwick to the east, to where the scenes were rustic and unspoiled, to where the carriages did not come.
There was no grace in carriages, or in any of the works of men, John was sure. To him all buildings were blocky protuberances from the surface of the earth; Manchester was a vast blemish. He could not paint with a carriage in the scene; the thought of drawing a shop or factory would never have occurred to him. Instead he had always painted the gentle, wild scenes by the River Medlock, upstream of Manchester where the water was drinkable and fish had strength to leap.
But now he had painted everything within a day's going and coming of Manchester. Even if he had not, he had no will to paint anything near this city, even if he saw something new. Tied to the shop by his need for money, where the work dulled him and slowed his mind and heart, he could not paint his best. True, the painters in London were forced to paint portraits, dull visions of dull people, in order to finance themselves in style. But at least they painted for their bread and were received as artists in society, not forced to bear the crude manners of factory men, not forced to smile and deferently give them what they wanted for their coins, their precious and grudgingly given pennies and shillings. A real painter never had fingers so stiff from gripping a broom that he could not hold a brush.
So today John left work early, but did not go to the countryside. Instead he headed home.
Home was surely not where he had intended to go. He had meant to go east, keep walking until he reached London, where a discriminating audience would soon recognize his talent. But, as always, his feet would not let him leave Anna, not without seeing her one last time. He tried to remember--hadn't he felt this way before? Hadn't he meant to leave, and then changed his mind because of Anna's comfortable ways?
Busy people passed him, hurrying, shoving sometimes, jostling and scrambling for place in the dirty streets. John refused to let his heart beat as quickly as theirs. His footsteps were slower. More relaxed. He could hear the silent criticisms as the busy men went by. Idler. Slacker. If you have no hurry, don't take place on the road. But I am not on the road, John answered. I am walking in the meadow God meant this place to be. You have hidden it in stone, but still my feet can feel the grass, my ears can hear the bees dozing on the dandelions.
Home was one apartment in a long building that stretched the length of a block of Bedford Street. It was a nice enough place, their cottage, but definitely middle class. Definitely middle-bordering-on-lower class. Not the home of a gentleman. I was meant to be a gentleman, John Kirkham thought bitterly. If the universe were properly run I would manage a great estate and paint in the garden in the afternoon. God is perfect when it comes to nature, but he's far too whimsical with the lives of men. Bees don't dig badger holes, yet I take small money and wait on barbarians. I have been mislaid in a world of brick. If my father had had the good sense to be as impotent as he was stupid, I might have had my soul placed in a different family, with the right advantages. The stone walls of the great houses in the countryside. Some men should not have had children.
"Dinah. Your cheek is dirty. Your mother ought to wash you more."
His ten-year-old daughter looked up at him with her inscrutable face. She neither smiled nor frowned nor anything at all. Like a cat, her eyes just stared into his face, as if she knew what lay behind his eyes. He felt a rush of guilt, knowing that he had decided to leave. Damn this girl for her silence, for her seeing eyes.
"Enough of that," he said to her. "What's for supper?"
"Isn't ready yet."
"Of course it isn't, girl; I'm home early, do you think I don't know that?" He was ashamed to be annoyed, yet could not curb either the annoyance or the shame. "Why aren't you in school?"
She said nothing, only looked at him. Of course he remembered why. The girls were sent home earlier than the boys. But she could make a civil answer, couldn't she? He wanted to shake her. Answer me, damn you. What are you thinking? Speak, child, or I'll know the devil's in you. But he knew from experience that nothing would get words from this child unless she felt the need to speak. Her school uniform was frayed, faded, and too small. Not my fault. It was my father who gambled it all away. It's not my fault for my father's sins.
He brushed past his lithe daughter and entered the cottage. Onions were strong in the air. That meant no meat tonight, so there were onions to give some flavor to the potatoes. The endless potatoes, poor man's food. Filthy Papist Irishman's food. John resented the potatoes without letting himself draw a connection between the low wages he brought home and the hours he spent away from the shop to play with a paintbrush that earned no money.
"Anna," he said. Anna was surprised to see him home. Well, be surprised if you like, Anna. Life is rude shocks, Anna, and the rudest of all is the shock of learning where you must live your life, and that you may never leave that place. But I will leave.
"Are you ill, to be home early?"
He shook his head. "Only tired."
He ignored the frown on Anna's forehead. Only tired. His own words were an accusation: she was also tired, but where could she go to escape from her work?
Charlie came down the stairs, a book under his arm. He was small for seven years old, but bright and eager. Was I bright and eager at seven? John did not think so. He had been a moody child, had grown to be a melancholy man. Brightness was Anna's manner, and Charlie was Anna's boy. "Papa, are you ill?"
Again no. "I just couldn't bear the shop any longer, and old Martin couldn't bear me, and so we agreed to part company." He saw Anna's eyes go wide with fear. "Only for the afternoon, Anna. I haven't lost my place." He spoke snidely, angrily; how dare she care about his place when she didn't give a damn about his soul. Fine with you if your husband never achieves what he was born to do, just so he brings home money. Never mind how the earning of it ruins him.
She clattered the spoons on the table; she was angry that he had spoken so sharply to her. It was unfair, and he was sorry. "You should have been the man, Anna," he said mildly. "You'd be rich by now."
"And you'd look fine in a fancy gown, John," she said, smiling at him. Again he felt contempt for her, for being so changeable of mood. When he was sad, he stayed quite glum all day; another sign of the weakness of women, that they could not hold a humour.
Charlie came to his mother and began reciting. The sound of it throbbed in John's head; he would have left, but his languor sank him deep into the chair and he could not move.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Wretched boy. Miserable boy. Your mother's son to the core. Read read read. Recite it once, recite it twice until all the family can say the words along with you. And the boy's worst habit was to get well into a piece he had done a hundred times and then stop, leaving the last few lines to hammer endlessly through his father's head.
"Born but to die, and reasoning but to err."
What sort of miserable stuff is Anna teaching to the boy? Born but to die. Sounds downright Papist. Anna will have the children read, will have them go to school, whatever it costs, however it means that he must do his endless, meaningless toil and be content eating potatoes and onions, so the children can have their books. It's not as if the boy understood any of what he spouted. Ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta DUM ta-DUM.
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.
Just as John was about to cry, aloud, about to run from the house begging for silence, for respite from the boy's rote wisdom, just then came Dinah's gentle hand on his forehead, stroking, calming. He did not open his eyes and look at her; did not speak to her, because she would not answer. He just slumped in his chair and let her gentle hands minister to his inward pain. His younger son might be unbearable, but his daughter had a good heart and a knack for kindness. Of course I won't go. How could anyone imagine I would leave here? They love me, they depend on me, I know my duty and I will not go.
Then Charlie began on Gray's Elegy, and John got up and left the room. Damn the inglorious Miltons. Would God they all were mute.
From the window of his upstairs room John Kirkham watched the street. No flower sellers here, no one crying "strawberries, raspberries, fresh and sweet!" The venders were wise enough to know there was no money here. But once John had known their cries. Hadn't his father had a house in the country and a house in town? Hadn't all sorts of people come to visit them? The man who did the family portrait when John was only five--the man with the paints, who made a mirror image of the family that did not disappear when you walked away from it--ah, the miracle of it, and so I learned to paint. My father encouraged me: the rich should have some pleasant way to pass their time, he said. How are the mighty fallen. The old man died with three mortgages on the house and enough gambling debts to obliterate a much larger fortune. First the house had gone, then the country estate, then even the store they had bought, leaving only what he could earn in menial labor, all because his father loved the excitement of the gaming tables.
My father left me ruin. What will I leave my son?
My son. Only one son, of course, and there he was on the street below, walking home. Robert, thirteen years old now, and showing signs of growing tall; lanky, with hands already large and manly; only the effeminate books his mother forced him to carry to and from the school, only the books marred him. Oh, Robert, you are beautiful, you are my only hope, I will leave you more than debts and bitter memories.
Robert looked up at his father, raised his hand, and waved. I will not go. How could I leave my son?
He looked away from the window to the paintings on the walls. Wretched trash, all of them; only hours after he finished each one he had begun to notice the flaws, how the sheep were in the wrong place, how the shepherd was too much in the foreground, how the hills were not distant enough, how the trees looked like a drawing and not like the real thing. He had modeled them from nature, but his image wasn't true. I have no control, he said silently. I have no restraint. And he thought of the lovely woman by the brook. Her smile made him kiss her, her lips made him caress her, her breasts made him bear her to the meadow grass and take her, and all for the sake of his lack of self-restraint he now was trapped in this cottage with this woman and her reciting children and her achingly sweet body that was always eager for him, that never could be satisfied. You drain all my genius from me in your body at night, you thief, he accused her. And yet when she reached and touched him, he could not say no. Could never, never tell her no. She was much too strong for him. She went at loving as if she enjoyed it, which was certainly not proper and, he sometimes feared, not Christian.
It was deep in the night, and he lay awake in bed. He listened to her heavy breathing, slow in the dark beside him. He had tried, but nothing could satisfy her. He could hear the voice of God whispering, "John Kirkham, I put you on the earth to paint, and you did not paint. If you could have pulled away from that temptress the devil put in your path, you could have painted. It was your choice." And God cried out to a terrible angel standing in fire beside him, "Take the iron and put out his eyes!" The angel dipped the iron into the flames and came closer, closer.
John woke, the last sound of his scream ringing in the air. Anna was awake beside him, patting him. "A dream, John, that's all."
A dream. He had fallen asleep, on this of all nights. That's what Anna's body did to him. He twisted his head around to see the window--no light drifted in past the shutters, so he at least hadn't slept through all the hours of darkness. Anna kissed him, and the lips were like needles, so sharply did his cheek tingle. Then she rolled over, went back to sleep. He reached for her, touched the hair that spilled across the sheets, and he almost said, "Anna, I cannot leave you, not ever." But then the lump in his throat subsided, and his resolution returned, and he waited, sleepless, until her breaths were the breaths of sleep again.
He carefully arose and dressed. When he was ready, he pulled two boxes from under the bed, the one partly filled with money, the other filled to the brim with paints and brushes and papers.
He toyed with the idea of taking the whole moneybox--after all, hadn't he earned this money? Hadn't he as much need to eat as anyone, and far less idea of what he would live on once he got to London?
And then, ashamed, he thought of taking nothing, for surely they would need it all.
In the end, he carefully counted out three pounds and left the rest, sure that he was taking only a tiny portion of a rather large cache of money. He did not know that with the price of food rising, Anna had long since stopped saving money, and for months had been dipping into the savings under their bed. It would have made no difference. If he had known, it would have made him all the more certain he must leave.
He tiptoed to the door, carrying the paintbrush and his shoes. He closed the door to his and Anna's room and stepped carefully down the stairs. He did not open the door of Robert's and Charlie's room, for fear they would waken, for fear that seeing Robert he wouldn't have the heart to leave. And he did not walk to Dinah's cot in the kitchen. He did not need to. She was wide awake to meet him at the foot of the stairs.
"Father," she said.
"Sh," he answered. "Go back to bed."
But she did not go back to bed, only stood there in her nightgown, watching him. Look at someone else with your sharp eyes, girl. I won't be held back now. She said nothing, and the silence tore him.
"I'm not going far, Dinah," he insisted. "And I'll come back soon."
A lie, of course it was a lie, he knew it as he spoke and saw that she knew it also. Oh, no, of course she believed him. Of course she believed that he'd come home. But already behind her inscrutable face she was making plans, figuring ways to get along without him. I need you, said her expressionless face; I don't need you at all. Well, to hell with you women and your miserable dependency, your infuriating independence. I am free of you forever, free of you all.
He closed the door behind him and set out for London. Within minutes it seemed he was out of Manchester, walking on a country road. The morning dawned in his face, with all nature spread between the light and his eyes. Cows mooed, and whimsically and joyously he answered them, earning the curious stares of the farmers--the poor farmers, who understood nothing, to whom cows were nothing more than machines for consuming grass and turning it to shit. No one understands. Only God and I, and there are things that I can teach him, too.
SAINTS Copyright © 1984 by Orson Scott Card