What David always hated most about the Sumner family dinners was the way everyone talked about him as if he were not there.
“Has he been eating enough meat lately? He looks peaked.”
“You spoil him, Carrie. If he won’t eat his dinner, don’t let him go out and play. You were like that, you know.”
“When I was his age, I was husky enough to cut down a tree with a hatchet. He couldn’t cut his way out of a fog.”
David would imagine himself invisible, floating unseen over their heads as they discussed him. Someone would ask if he had a girlfriend yet, and they would tsk-tsk whether the answer was yes or no. From his vantage point he would aim a ray gun at Uncle Clarence, whom he especially disliked, because he was fat, bald, and very rich. Uncle Clarence dipped his biscuits in his gravy, or in syrup, or more often in a mixture of sorghum and butter that he stirred together on his plate until it looked like baby shit.
“Is he still planning to be a biologist? He should go to med school and join Walt in his practice.”
He would point his ray gun at Uncle Clarence and cut a neat plug out of his stomach and carefully ease it out, and Uncle Clarence would ooze from the opening and flow all over them.
“David.” He started with alarm, then relaxed again. “David, why don’t you go out and see what the other kids are up to?” His father’s quiet voice, saying actually, That’s enough of that. And they would turn their collective mind to one of the other offspring.
As David grew older, he learned the complex relationships that he merely accepted as a child. Uncles, aunts, cousins, second cousins, third cousins. And the honorary members—the brothers and sisters and parents of those who had married into the family. There were the Sumners and Wistons and O’Gradys and Heinemans and the Meyers and Capeks and Rizzos, all part of the same river that flowed through the fertile valley.
He remembered the holidays especially. The old Sumner house was rambling with many bedrooms upstairs and an attic that was wall-to-wall mattresses, pallets for the children, with an enormous fan in the west window. Someone was forever checking to make certain that they hadn’t all suffocated in the attic. The older children were supposed to keep an eye on the younger ones, but what they did in fact was to frighten them night after night with ghost stories. Eventually the noise level would rise until adult intervention was demanded. Uncle Ron would clump up the stairs heavily and there would be a scurrying, with suppressed giggles and muffled screams, until everyone found a bed again, so that by the time he turned on the hall light that illuminated the attic dimly, all the children would seem to be sleeping. He would pause briefly in the doorway, then close the door, turn off the light, and tramp back down the stairs, apparently deaf to the renewed merriment behind him.
Whenever Aunt Claudia came up, it was like an apparition. One minute pillows would be flying, someone would be crying, someone else trying to read by flashlight, several of the boys playing cards by another flashlight, some of the girls huddled together whispering what had to be delicious secrets, judging by the way they blushed and looked desperate if an adult came upon them suddenly, and then the door would snap open, the light would fall on the disorder, and she would be standing there. Aunt Claudia was very tall and thin, her nose was too big, and she was tanned to a permanent old-leather color. She would stand there, immobile and terrible, and the children would creep back into bed without a sound. She would not move until everyone was back where he or she belonged, then she would close the door soundlessly. The silence would drag on and on. The ones nearest to the door would hold their breath, trying to hear breathing on the other side. Eventually someone would become brave enough to open the door a crack, and if she were truly gone, the party would resume.
The smells of holidays were fixed in David’s memory. All the usual smells: fruit cakes and turkeys, the vinegar that went in the egg dyes, the greenery and the thick, creamy smoke of bayberry candles. But what he remembered most vividly was the smell of gunpowder that they all carried at the Fourth of July gathering. The smell that permeated their hair and clothes lasted on their hands for days and days. Their hands would be stained purple-black by berry picking, and the color and smell were one of the indelible images of his childhood. Mixed in with it was the smell of the sulfur that was dusted on them liberally to confound the chiggers.
If it hadn’t been for Celia, his childhood would have been perfect. Celia was his cousin, his mother’s sister’s daughter. She was one year younger than David, and by far the prettiest of all his cousins. When they were very young they promised to marry one day, and when they grew older and it was made abundantly clear that no cousins might ever marry in that family, they became implacable enemies. He didn’t know how they had been told. He was certain that no one ever put it in words, but they knew. When they could not avoid each other after that, they fought. She pushed him out of the hayloft and broke his arm when he was fifteen, and when he was sixteen they wrestled from the back door of the Winston farmhouse to the fence, fifty or sixty yards away. They tore the clothes off each other, and he was bleeding from her fingernails down his back, she from scraping her shoulder on a rock. Then somehow in their rolling and squirming frenzy, his cheek came down on her uncovered chest, and he stopped fighting. He suddenly became a melting, sobbing, incoherent idiot and she hit him on the head with a rock and ended the fight.
Up to that point the battle had been in almost total silence, broken only by gasps for breath and whispered language that would have shocked their parents. But when she hit him and he went limp, not unconscious, but dazed, uncaring, inert, she screamed, abandoning herself to terror and anguish. The family tumbled from the house as if they had been shaken out, and their first impression must have been that he had raped her. His father hustled him to the barn, presumably for a thrashing. But in the barn his father, belt in hand, looked at him with an expression that was furious, and strangely sympathetic. He didn’t touch David, and only after he had turned and left did David realize that tears were still running down his face.
In the family there were farmers, a few lawyers, two doctors, insurance brokers and bankers and millers, hardware merchandisers, other shopkeepers. David’s father owned a large department store that catered to the upper-middle-class clientele of the valley. The valley was rich, the farms in it large and lush. David always supposed that the family, except for a few ne’er-do-wells, was rather wealthy. Of all his relatives his favorite was his father’s brother Walt. Dr. Walt, they all called him, never uncle. He played with the children and taught them grown-up things, like where to hit if you really meant it, where not to hit in a friendly scrap. He seemed to know when to stop treating them as children long before anyone else in the family did. Dr. Walt was the reason David had decided very early to become a scientist.
David was seventeen when he went to Harvard. His birthday was in September and he didn’t go home for it. When he did return at Thanksgiving, and the clan had gathered, Grandfather Sumner poured the ritual before-dinner martinis and handed one to him. And Uncle Warner said to him, “What do you think we should do about Bobbie?”
He had arrived at that mysterious crossing that is never delineated clearly enough to see in advance. He sipped his martini, not liking it particularly, and knew that childhood had ended, and he felt a profound sadness and loneliness.
The Christmas that David was twenty-three seemed out of focus. The scenario was the same, the attic full of children, the food smells, the powdering of snow, none of that had changed, but he was seeing it from a new position and it was not the wonderland it had been. When his parents went home he stayed on at the Wiston farm for a day or two, waiting for Celia’s arrival. She had missed the Christmas Day celebration, getting ready for her coming trip to Brazil, but she would be there, her mother had assured Grandmother Wiston, and David was waiting for her, not happily, not with any expectation of reward, but with a fury that grew and caused him to stalk the old house like a boy being punished for another’s sin.
When she came home and he saw her standing with her mother and grandmother, his anger melted. It was like seeing Celia in a time distortion, as she was and would be, or had been. Her pale hair would not change much, but her bones would become more prominent and the almost emptiness of her face would have written on it a message of concern, of love, of giving, of being decisively herself, of a strength unsuspected in her frail body. Grandmother Wiston was a beautiful old lady, he thought in wonder, amazed that he never had seen her beauty before. Celia’s mother was more beautiful than the girl. And he saw the resemblance to his own mother in the trio. Wordlessly, defeated, he turned and went to the rear of the house and put on one of his grandfather’s heavy jackets because he didn’t want to see her at all now and his own outdoor clothing was in the front hall closet too near where she was standing.
He walked a long time in the frosty afternoon, seeing very little, and shaking himself from time to time when he realized that the cold was entering his shoes or making his ears numb. He should turn back, he thought often, but he walked on. And he found that he was climbing the slope to the antique forest that his grandfather had taken him to once, a long time ago. He climbed and became warmer, and at dusk he was under the branches of the tiers of trees that had been there since the beginning of time. They or others that were identical to them. Waiting. Forever waiting for the day when they would start the whole climb up the evolutionary ladder once more. Here were the relicts his grandfather had brought him to see. Here was a silverbell, grown to the stature of a large tree, where down the slopes, in the lower reaches, it remained always a shrub. Here the white basswood grew alongside the hemlock and the bitternut hickory, and the beeches and sweet buckeyes locked arms.
“David.” He stopped and listened, certain he had imagined it, but the call came again. “David, are you up here?”
He turned then and saw Celia among the massive tree trunks. Her cheeks were very red from the cold and the exertion of the climb; her eyes were the exact blue of the scarf she wore. She stopped six feet from him and opened her mouth to speak again, but didn’t. Instead she drew off a glove and touched the smooth trunk of a beech tree. “Grandfather Wiston brought me up here, too, when I was twelve. It was very important to him that we understand this place.”
She looked at him then. “Why did you leave like that? They all think we’re going to fight again.”
“We might,” he said.
She smiled. “I don’t think so. Never again.”
“We should start down. It’ll be dark in a few minutes.” But he didn’t move.
“David, try to make Mother see, will you? You understand that I have to go, that I have to do something, don’t you? She thinks you’re so clever. She’d listen to you.”
He laughed. “They think I'm clever like a puppy dog.”
Celia shook her head. “You’re the one they’d listen to. They treat me like a child and always will.”
David shook his head, smiling, but he sobered again very quickly and said, “Why are you going, Celia? What are you trying to prove?”
“Damn it, David. If you don’t understand, who will?” She took a deep breath and said, “Look, you do read the newspapers, don’t you? People are starving in South America. Most of South America will be in a state of famine before the end of this decade if they aren’t helped almost immediately. And no one has done any real research in tropical farming methods. Practically no one. That’s all lateritic soil and no one down there understands it. They go in and burn off the trees and underbrush, and in two or three years they have a sunbaked plain as hard as iron. Okay, they send some of their bright young students here to learn about modern farming, but they go to Iowa, or Kansas, or Minnesota, or some other dumb place like that, and they learn farming methods suited to temperate climates, not tropical. Well, we’re trained in tropical farming and we’re going to start classes down there, in the field. It’s what I trained for. This project will get me a doctorate.”
The Wistons were farmers, had always been farmers. “Custodians of the soil,” Grandfather Wiston had said once, “not its owners, just custodians.”
Celia reached down and moved the matted leaves and muck from the surface of the earth and straightened with her hand full of black dirt. “The famines are spreading. They need so much. And I have so much to give! Can’t you understand that?” she cried. She closed her hand hard, compacting the soil into a ball that crumbled again when she opened her fist and touched the lump with her forefinger. She let the soil fall from her hand and carefully pushed the protective covering of leaves back over the bared spot.
“You followed me to tell me good-bye, didn’t you?” David said suddenly, and his voice was harsh. “It’s really good-bye this time, isn’t it?” He watched her and slowly she nodded. “There’s someone in your group?”
“I’m not sure, David. Maybe.” She bowed her head and started to pull her glove on again. “I thought I was sure. But when I saw you in the hall, saw the look on your face when I came in… I realized that I just don’t know.”
“Celia, you listen to me! There aren’t any hereditary defects that would surface! Damn it, you know that! If there were, we simply wouldn’t have children, but there’s no reason. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded. “I know.”
“For God’s sake! Come with me, Celia. We don’t have to get married right away, let them get used to the idea first. They will. They always do. We have a resilient family, you and me. Celia, I love you.”
She turned her head, and he saw that she was weeping. She wiped her cheeks with her glove, then with her bare hand, leaving dirt streaks. David pulled her to him, held her and kissed her tears, her cheeks, her lips. And he kept saying, “I love you, Celia.”
She finally drew away and started back down the slope, with David following. “I can’t decide anything right now. It isn’t fair. I should have stayed at the house. I shouldn’t have followed you up here. David, I’m committed to going in two days. I can’t just say I’ve changed my mind. It’s important to me. To the people down there. I can’t just decide not to go. You went to Oxford for a year. I have to do something too.”
He caught her arm and held her, kept her from moving ahead again. “Just tell me you love me. Say it, just once, say it.”
“I love you,” she said very slowly. “How long will you be gone?” “Three years. I signed a contract.”
He stared at her in disbelief. “Change it! Make it one year. I’ll be out of grad school then. You can teach here. Let their bright young students come to you.”
“We have to get back, or they’ll send a search party for us,” she said. “I’ll try to change it,” she whispered then. “If I can.”
Two days later she left.
David spent New Year’s Eve at the Sumner farm with his parents and a horde of aunts and uncles and cousins. On New Year’s Day, Grandfather Sumner made an announcement. “We’re building a hospital up at Bear Creek, this side of the mill.”
David blinked. That was a mile from the farm, miles from anything else at all. “A hospital?” He looked at his uncle Walt, who nodded.
Clarence was studying his eggnog with a sour expression, and David’s father, the third brother, was watching the smoke curl from his pipe. They all knew, David realized. “Why up here?” he asked finally.
“It’s going to be a research hospital,” Walt said. “Genetic diseases, hereditary defects, that sort of thing. Two hundred beds.”
David shook his head in disbelief. “You have any idea how much something like that would cost? Who’s financing it?”
His grandfather laughed nastily. “Senator Burke has graciously arranged to get federal funds,” he said. His voice became more caustic. “And I cajoled a few members of the family to put a little in the kitty.” David glanced at Clarence, who looked pained. “I'm giving the land,” Grandfather Sumner went on. “So here and there we got support.”
“But why would Burke go for it? You’ve never voted for him in a single campaign in his life.”
“Told him we’d dig out a lot of stuff we’ve been sitting on, support his opposition. If he was a baboon, we’d support him, and there’s a lot of family these days, David. A heap of family.”
“Well, hats off,” David said, still not fully believing it. “You giving up your practice to go into research?” he asked Walt. His uncle nodded. David drained his cup of eggnog.
“David,” Walt said quietly, “we want to hire you.”
He looked up quickly. “Why? I’m not into medical research.”
“I know what your specialty is,” Walt said, still very quietly. “We want you for a consultant, and later on to head a department of research.”
“But I haven’t even finished my thesis yet,” David said, and he felt as if he had stumbled into a pot party.
“You’ll do another year of donkey work for Selnick and eventually you’ll write the thesis, a bit here, a dab there. You could write it in a month, couldn’t you, if you had time?” David nodded reluctantly. “I know,” Walt said, smiling faintly. “You think you’re being asked to give up a lifetime career for a pipe dream.” There was no trace of a smile when he added, “But, David, we believe that lifetime won’t be more than two to four years at the very most.”
Copyright © 1976 by Date Willhelm