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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book I: The Shimerdas

Chapter XV

 

OTTO FUCHS GOT back from Black Hawk at noon the next day.  He reported that the coroner would reach the Shimerdas' sometime that afternoon, but the missionary priest was at the other end of his parish, a hundred miles away, and the trains were not running.  Fuchs had got a few hours' sleep at the livery barn in town, but he was afraid the grey gelding had strained himself.  Indeed, he was never the same horse afterward. That long trip through the deep snow had taken all the endurance out of him.

 

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Fuchs brought home with him a stranger, a young Bohemian who had taken a homestead near Black Hawk, and who came on his only horse to help his fellow countrymen in their trouble.  That was the first time I ever saw Anton Jelinek.  He was a strapping young fellow in the early twenties then, handsome, warm-hearted, and full of life, and he came to us like a miracle in the midst of that grim business. I remember exactly how he strode into our kitchen in his felt boots and long wolfskin coat, his eyes and cheeks bright with the cold. At sight of grandmother, he snatched off his fur cap, greeting her in a deep, rolling voice which seemed older than he.

 

`I want to thank you very much, Mrs. Burden, for that you are so kind to poor strangers from my kawntree.'

 

He did not hesitate like a farmer boy, but looked one eagerly in the eye when he spoke.  Everything about him was warm and spontaneous. He said he would have come to see the Shimerdas before, but he had hired out to husk corn all the fall, and since winter began he had been going to the school by the mill, to learn English, along with the little children. He told me he had a nice `lady-teacher' and that he liked to go to school.

   

At dinner grandfather talked to Jelinek more than he usually did to strangers.

 

`Will they be much disappointed because we cannot get a priest?' he asked.

 

Jelinek looked serious.

 

`Yes, sir, that is very bad for them.  Their father has done a great sin'--he looked straight at grandfather. `Our Lord has said that.'

 

Grandfather seemed to like his frankness.

 

`We believe that, too, Jelinek.  But we believe that Mr. Shimerda's soul will come to its Creator as well off without a priest. We believe that Christ is our only intercessor.'

 

The young man shook his head.  `I know how you think. My teacher at the school has explain.  But I have seen too much. I believe in prayer for the dead.  I have seen too much.'

 

We asked him what he meant.

 

He glanced around the table.  `You want I shall tell you?  When I was a little boy like this one, I begin to help the priest at the altar. I make my first communion very young; what the Church teach seem plain to me.  By 'n' by war-times come, when the Prussians fight us. We have very many soldiers in camp near my village, and the cholera break out in that camp, and the men die like flies.  All day long our priest go about there to give the Sacrament to dying men, and I go with him to carry the vessels with the Holy Sacrament. Everybody that go near that camp catch the sickness but me and the priest. But we have no sickness, we have no fear, because we carry that blood and that body of Christ, and it preserve us.'  He paused, looking at grandfather.  `That I know, Mr. Burden, for it happened to myself. All the soldiers know, too.  When we walk along the road, the old priest and me, we meet all the time soldiers marching and officers on horse. All those officers, when they see what I carry under the cloth, pull up their horses and kneel down on the ground in the road until we pass. So I feel very bad for my kawntree-man to die without the Sacrament, and to die in a bad way for his soul, and I feel sad for his family.'

 

We had listened attentively.  It was impossible not to admire his frank, manly faith.

 

`I am always glad to meet a young man who thinks seriously about these things,' said grandfather, land I would never be the one to say you were not in God's care when you were among the soldiers.'     After dinner it was  decided  that  young  Jelinek should hook our two strong black farm-horses to the scraper and break a road through to the Shimerdas', so that a wagon could go when it was necessary. Fuchs, who was the only cabinetmaker in the neighbourhood was set to work on a coffin.

 

Jelinek put on his long wolfskin coat, and when we admired it, he told us that he had shot and skinned the coyotes, and the young man who `batched' with him, Jan Bouska, who had been a fur-worker in Vienna, made the coat.  From the windmill I watched Jelinek come out of the barn with the blacks, and work his way up the hillside toward the cornfield. Sometimes he was completely hidden by the clouds of snow that rose about him; then he and the horses would emerge black and shining.

 

Our heavy carpenter's bench had to be brought from the barn and carried down into the kitchen.  Fuchs selected boards from a pile of planks grandfather had hauled out from town in the fall to make a new floor for the oats-bin. When at last the lumber and tools were assembled, and the doors were closed again and the cold draughts shut out, grandfather rode away to meet the coroner at the Shimerdas', and Fuchs took off his coat and settled down to work.  I sat on his worktable and watched him. He did not touch his tools at first, but figured for a long while on a piece of paper, and measured the planks and made marks on them. While he was thus engaged, he whistled softly to himself, or teasingly pulled at his half-ear. Grandmother moved about quietly, so as not to disturb him. At last he folded his ruler and turned a cheerful face to us.

 

`The hardest part of my job's done,' he announced. `It's the head end of it that comes hard with me, especially when I'm out of practice.  The last time I made one of these, Mrs. Burden,' he continued, as he sorted and tried his chisels, `was for a fellow in the Black Tiger Mine, up above Silverton, Colorado. The mouth of that mine goes right into the face of the cliff, and they used to put us in a bucket and run us over on a trolley and shoot us into the shaft.  The bucket travelled across a box canon three hundred feet deep, and about a third full of water. Two Swedes had fell out of that bucket once, and hit the water, feet down.  If you'll believe it, they went to work the next day. You can't kill a Swede.  But in my time a little Eyetalian tried the high dive, and it turned out different with him. We was snowed in then, like we are now, and I happened to be the only man in camp that could make a coffin for him. It's a handy thing to know, when you knock about like I've done.'

 

`We'd be hard put to it now, if you didn't know, Otto,' grandmother said.

 

`Yes, 'm,' Fuchs admitted with modest pride.  `So few folks does know how to make a good tight box that'll turn water. I sometimes wonder if there'll be anybody about to do it for me. However, I'm not at all particular that way.'

 

All afternoon, wherever one went in the house, one could hear the panting wheeze of the saw or the pleasant purring of the plane. They were such cheerful noises, seeming to promise new things for living people:  it was a pity that those freshly planed pine boards were to be put underground so soon. The lumber was hard to work because it was full of frost, and the boards gave off a sweet smell of pine woods, as the heap of yellow shavings grew higher and higher. I wondered why Fuchs had not stuck to cabinet-work, he settled down to it with such ease and content. He handled the tools as if he liked the feel of them; and when he planed, his hands went back and forth over the boards in an eager, beneficent way as if he were blessing them. He broke out now and then into German hymns, as if this occupation brought back old times to him.

 

At four o'clock Mr. Bushy, the postmaster, with another neighbour who lived east of us, stopped in to get warm.  They were on their way to the Shimerdas'. The news of what had happened over there had somehow got abroad through the snow-blocked country. Grandmother gave the visitors sugar-cakes and hot coffee. Before these callers were gone, the brother of the Widow Steavens, who lived on the Black Hawk road, drew up at our door, and after him came the father of the German family, our nearest neighbours on the south.  They dismounted and joined us in the dining-room. They were all eager for any details about the suicide, and they were greatly concerned as to where Mr. Shimerda would be buried.  The nearest Catholic cemetery was at Black Hawk, and it might be weeks before a wagon could get so far. Besides, Mr. Bushy and grandmother were sure that a man who had killed himself could not be buried in a Catholic graveyard. There was a burying-ground over by the Norwegian church, west of Squaw Creek; perhaps the Norwegians would take Mr. Shimerda in.

 

After our visitors rode away in single file over the hill, we returned to the kitchen.  Grandmother began to make the icing for a chocolate cake, and Otto again filled the house with the exciting, expectant song of the plane. One pleasant thing about this time was that everybody talked more than usual.  I had never heard the postmaster say anything but `Only papers, to-day,' or, `I've got a sackful of mail for ye,' until this afternoon.  Grandmother always talked, dear woman: to herself or to the Lord, if there was no one else to listen; but grandfather was naturally taciturn, and Jake and Otto were often so tired after supper that I used to feel as if I were surrounded by a wall of silence.  Now everyone seemed eager to talk.  That afternoon Fuchs told me story after story: about the Black Tiger Mine, and about violent deaths and casual buryings, and the queer fancies of dying men. You never really knew a man, he said, until you saw him die. Most men were game, and went without a grudge.

 

The postmaster, going home, stopped to say that grandfather would bring the coroner back with him to spend the night. The officers of the Norwegian church, he told us, had held a meeting and decided that the Norwegian graveyard could not extend its hospitality to Mr. Shimerda.

 

Grandmother was indignant.  `If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr. Bushy, we'll have to have an American graveyard that will be more liberal-minded. I'll get right after Josiah to start one in the spring. If anything was to happen to me, I don't want the Norwegians holding inquisitions over me to see whether I'm good enough to be laid amongst 'em.'

 

Soon grandfather returned, bringing with him Anton Jelinek, and that important person, the coroner.  He was a mild, flurried old man, a Civil War veteran, with one sleeve hanging empty. He seemed to find this case very perplexing, and said if it had not been for grandfather he would have sworn out a warrant against Krajiek. `The way he acted, and the way his axe fit the wound, was enough to convict any man.'

 

Although it was perfectly clear that Mr. Shimerda had killed himself, Jake and the coroner thought something ought to be done to Krajiek because he behaved like a guilty man. He was badly frightened, certainly, and perhaps he even felt some stirrings of remorse for his indifference to the old man's misery and loneliness.

 

At supper the men ate like vikings, and the chocolate cake, which I had hoped would linger on until tomorrow in a mutilated condition, disappeared on the second round. They talked excitedly about where they should bury Mr. Shimerda; I gathered that the neighbours were all disturbed and shocked about something.  It developed that Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch wanted the old man buried on the southwest corner of their own land; indeed, under the very stake that marked the corner. Grandfather had explained to Ambrosch that some day, when the country was put under fence and the roads were confined to section lines, two roads would cross exactly on that corner. But Ambrosch only said, `It makes no matter.'

 

Grandfather asked Jelinek whether in the old country there was some superstition to the effect that a suicide must be buried at the cross-roads.

 

Jelinek said he didn't know; he seemed to remember hearing there had once been such a custom in Bohemia.  `Mrs. Shimerda is made up her mind,' he added.  `I try to persuade her, and say it looks bad for her to all the neighbours; but she say so it must be. "There I will bury him, if I dig the grave myself," she say. I have to promise her I help Ambrosch make the grave tomorrow.'

 

Grandfather smoothed his beard and looked judicial. `I don't know whose wish should decide the matter, if not hers. But if she thinks she will live to see the people of this country ride over that old man's head, she is mistaken.'

 

 


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