Robert Hill is a New Englander by birth, a west coaster by choice, and an Oregonian by osmosis. As a writer, he has worked in advertising, entertainment, educational software and not-for-profit fundraising. He is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Walt Morey Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. The Remnants follows When All Is Said and Done (Graywolf, 2006), Robert’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction.
Forest Avenue Press
©Robert Hill 2016
Excerpted from chapter 4
Odd how going through life as one of two should leave Jubilee Aspetuck feeling so alone, all the more so at the end.
Jubilee was a product of a harvest moon and two cousins in the shadows gone goofy. It was the kind of clandestine whoop-de-do that related townsfolk were adept at, and Jubilee’s parents were definitely related and most decidedly adept. No one saw the union coming. Russet Aspetuck with his alluring cowlick and long thumbs had long been intended for Agapanthus Saflutis, and barring an intercession by Butte O’ums or Columbine Buckett, an Aspetuck-Saflutis union in the spring of whenever promised to be by all accounts a union free of the usual genetic flimflammery.
Russet Aspetuck, instructed by his father to bank in his heart a fire that would last a lifetime, chopped one hundred cords of maple and hickory and ash and oak, he stacked them high and spread them wide, and when he was done he confessed to his mother that he would rather see them burn to cinders than have to live long enough to heat the house of a bride he didn’t want to wed. This was news no town crier had ear of, and the suddenness of it led his usually composed mother to take an ice pick to the locked spice box for a nip of vanilla bean and a swig of applejack.
Russet’s father was of the mind that a groom is only nervous of that which he better not have had much if any practice at, and assured Russet that after a few years of pleading and sobbing and insisting and threatening he would figure out the ins and outs of husbandry and develop into a fine sire, if not a companionable mate, or at the very least something warm to thrust one’s feet against.
Russet’s heart sank as deep as the potato he was named for. There was nothing terrifically repulsive about Agapanthus Saflutis that could not be stomached after a tankard or two; she had a ready, if reedy, laugh, one or two of her fingertips were virgin skin never pierced while needle working, and the headache she was born with had grown in her an appreciation for solitude, darkness, and the calming effects of cats.
Had there been a rival for Russet’s affections it was thought to be Columbine Buckett, whose bloom was considered more delicate and spirited, though she was easily swayed by any blowing wind. Columbine herself was promised to tried and true Butte O’ums, as regular a man as any who had ever wound a ball of string. Columbine Buckett was fond of Russet in the way one might favor a sweet potato over a yam, liked his cowlick and his long thumbs, yet her heart was not exactly set on fire by a second cousin who could chop one hundred cords of wood anymore than it was by a first cousin who knew his way around twine. Agapanthus Saflutis spent long hours under heavy cover—trees, horse blankets, the what mattered not—soothing her throbbing cranium and fully dreading a bent knee and a bouquet and a marry-me-do, and made no efforts to give Russet a reason to want her. Likewise Columbine Buckett, not in anymore of a marrying mood than Agapanthus or Russet or rock-solid Butte, but whose cold feet could use a warm back, reckoned if Butte could bend a knee, she could wiggle a toe. Why Columbine was seen as an asp at the bosom of Agapanthus’s matrimonial bliss is anybody’s guess, but loose tongues don’t need the taste of reason to hiss.
All through the winter and into the spring of whenever, Russet restacked and restacked his one hundred cords of wood, turned the forest he had felled into an acre piled high, and thought the blisters on his palms and the splinters in his long thumbs would teach his heart not to be such a baby. As he stacked and restacked his cords of maple and hickory and ash and oak, enough to sustain a marriage or burn down the gates of hell, he practiced his kneeling and rehearsed his betrothing. Day after wood-stacking day, he’d fashion an effigy of Agapanthus out of a thick oak bole whose bark reminded him of her complexion, atop of which he sat a plop of earth and splintered grasses to approximate her hair. Before her he’d fall on one knee and then the other, shifting his weight from his right side to his left, which, after a long day of chopping and stooping and stacking, was no pain-free matter. Once in a picture book he’d seen a knight in dented armor kneeling in such a fashion before a blushing maiden fair, one hand beseeching her heart to join his while his other arm was folded behind his back with a bouquet ready to go, so Russet knelt and offered out to the unquartered log that was Agapanthus a callused hand with splintered thumb, and behind his back he hid the next best thing to a bunch of flowers that would soon be wilted anyway: his ax. Russet could have drawn on the words of better men, words kissed by cherubs and starlight, extolling the beauties of matrimony immortalis, as he rehearsed fully half of his heart in the time-honored entreaty that would make Agapanthus his own, but from the pit of his stomach came his own poetry sure to seal the deal. To her he entreated: “Um, wanna?”
Russet was no spud. He had his alluring cowlick and his long thumbs. He could chop wood, he had turned the pages of picture books, and he was scholarly to the fact that poetry is a fancy way of tying a noose. Surely among the family forest of trees there was a cousin more comely than Agapanthus whose feet he’d be happy to feel, someone whose bark wasn’t dry and peeling, someone whose head wasn’t always aching, someone who hated cats as much as he did. Russet informed his father and his mother and Agapanthus and her parents, too, that he’d wed once he was sure he had chopped enough wood to keep Agapanthus from growing cold to his touch.
Columbine Buckett wed Butte O’ums in early summer of whenever, and by autumn of that same ever, she and the old ball of twine were as surprised as any neighbor that inside her womb a small knot was growing. Russet hewed and felled and chopped and stacked and sweated and callused and counted, and once he was done and both families were satisfied that he’d chopped more trees than Lebanon had cedars, he hemmed and hawed and started again to hew and fell some more. His cowlick flattened from his outpouring of sweat and his long thumbs turned hard as spring branches. Agapanthus did not seem to mind the delay, only the noise from all that felling and yelling of timber!
By winter of the next whenever the Saflutis family could see the forest for all the felled trees. Russet Aspetuck was more interested in having his hands on his ax than on their daughter, and there was little reasoning with a man who was always off by himself swinging his ax. So Etingem Saflutis did what any father would do to avoid any chance that Agapanthus would make solitude and darkness her lifelong ambition and live out her years in his house like a truffle. He took down from the wall the blunderbuss handed down from his father from the set-to of ’76, he oiled it and packed it tight with biscuits baked by Agapanthus herself (they were as hard as any scrap iron he might have used for ammunition), and set off for the woods to convince Russet to lay down his ax and give marriage the thumbs up. Etingem only intended to scare the lad into stopping his chopping, to lay down his ax long enough to bend down on one knee and take his daughter off his hands for good. But when he aimed the flared barrel at Russet, Russet raised his ax in defense, and somewhere in the altercation between blade and barrel and boom, the thumb he hoped would be up was shot off.
Four thumbs a marriage make, not three, and if Russet couldn’t supply two, Agapanthus would hand over none. She had found in his dismemberment a reason not to wed, and to her parents’ dismay and Russet’s delight, an Aspetuck-Saflutis union would develop in the spring of when-never. As the last Saflutis, Agapanthus lived out her days needlepointing in solitary bliss and very little light, her headache miraculously cured, her womb as untilled as the fields her father bequeathed her. It was in her early middle years that she succumbed to a cat scratch gone gangrenous.
Russet, now, with one thumb less and too much wood, didn’t know what to do with his ax. He still had his alluring cowlick and one long thumb, and that one long thumb was longer by far than any other thumb in town. Sometimes it’s what we lack that makes us appealing, and Russet soon learned that there were cousins in town who liked him more now that he had one thumb less, and one cousin above all who couldn’t wait to grab hold of it.
Circe Trousard was the siren of four families with a high bust and a come-hither shimmy. The Aspetucks and the Trousards had a common link through a Minton-Lope coupling that both sides could trace to the set-to of ’76, when, under the red glare of bombs bursting in air, there was more being raised in the night than a flag. Circe Trousard had toyed with but tendered scant serious attention to other cousins paraded before her. She had been courted, cuddled by, and considered engaged at one time or another to Rufus Drell, who had more teeth than sense, and Hinkley Minton, with his sniffer like a third ear, and Intermediate Hurlbutt, who had fleas. For each one of these cousins in whom she found too much to not want, Circe took stock of their excessive faults and when they pressed for her hand she impressed back with her knee.
Circe Trousard never lacked for snaps and whistles, but as a girl who knew the worth and future a high bust buys, she preferred to hear her own raspy voice do the yoo-hooing. The spring of her eighteenth was the same spring Russet Aspetuck’s thumb was blunderbusted, and no sooner was he bandaged and poulticed and unbetrothed, that Circe set her sights first on what he was lacking and then on what he had left. One long thumb was all a girl like Circe needed to make her insides sing like a wood thrush. Russet took one look at his overlooked cousin, saw her eyes bug and her bust heave, and experienced a stirring in his core like he never felt with his ax. It may have only been spring, but for the both of them: what a fall!
Nine months to the full moon when they first warmed their feet on one another, Circe gripped Russet’s long thumb with all her might and screamed and kicked and sweated and peed and heaved into the world the celebration of their cousinhood: their first born: their Jubilee. Not a week passed before Circe’s toes caught a chill and she gave Russet the thumbs up to warming her feet anew, and the heat he was only too happy to resume generating was hotter than any two hundred cords could ignite. Their daughter Jubilee was two months shy of her first birthday when her brother Carnival came into her world and wouldn’t leave her alone.
Jubilee Aspetuck never had much of a season as the only apple of her parents’ eyes. With her brother Carnival hot on her heels, this new worm out of their mother’s womb left her feeling like a shadow and not the sun.
Carnival had a cry louder than a screech owl and was talking before Jubilee had even buckteethed. He inherited his father’s alluring cowlick and his long thumbs, too, and got from his mother the Lope appetite and the Minton indifference to table manners. He grew sooner than Jubilee and bigger in under a year, and fast as Circe could stitch his swaddling, Carnival was out of nightshirts and out of knickers and out of his seat at the dinner table, hogging every last turnip, hen toe, and gizzard. He was a big boy from the word go, and like his father, crack with an ax. By five, he was chopping saplings like plucking daisies; by ten he could split an oak and have it stacked before noon. Kids will be kids, but a kid with an ax is about as adult as they come. Carnival swung it from sunup to set every day but the Sabbath, and every family in town needed a man to chop and he was the boy for the job. When he wasn’t swinging his ax he was reaching for the whole fresh loaf of life and dragging it unsliced through a pan of drippings, then sucking his long thumbs of every last drop, lickety-split. He chopped and ate and chopped and ate; he outgrew his long johns with shoulders too broad for doorways and split his britches with thighs two sizes too thick. Carnival wasn’t all that tall, but he filled space like a heat wave, leaving little room for his big sister.
By contrast, Jubilee was small—a stunted bud to a full-blown bloom. To make the most of her compact size, she was heir to her mother’s high bust and her father’s long thumbs and cowlick, and as luck would have it, she was blessed with both buckteeth and knock-knees, but on the whole: not bad. Where her brother had size and sharp steel to make his points, Jubilee could speak plenty with just a look. She had eyes as expressive as a sky turning storm; she’d never have to say much.
Russet and Circe were parents like any other parents. They fed their children, they clothed their children, they taught their boy how to be a man and their daughter how to be useful. Before they warmed their feet at night they knelt by their bed and prayed for a son-in-law who would not be too related. About Carnival they had no qualms. Carnival had his ax and his future stacked up before him, and as long as there was wood and food and someone to tend his darker wants, he’d want for nothing in this world.
When it was courting time, they advised Carnival as Russet’s father had advised him: to bank in his heart a fire that would last a lifetime, to chop and stack an acre square and to find himself a foot-warmer with whom to spend eternity sparking. Carnival took broad canvas of his options: there was True Bliss and Frainey Swampscott and Zebelia Was-She-a-Hackensack-or-Was-She-a-Whiskerhooven, though he sensed not a one of them appreciated a man with an ax. There was bent-necked Petie Soyle and her equally twisted sister, Loma, though neither saw much in him, Petie least of all. There were all three Lopes, each unlovelier than the last, despite their enticingly big feet. And empty-headed as a thimble there was Butte and Columbine’s little O’ums, Knotsy, who was as pale and permeable as a jellyfish and about whom the less said was always so much the better. As cousins go, any one of these lasses would make a fine bride. Never mind the certainty that the further narrowing of the bloodlines might produce something more mineral than animal, Russet and Circe secretly hoped that the pride of their loins would till Loma Soyle, even if what grew was a vegetable, and a vegetable would be a far sight better than another see-through Knotsy O’ums.
But Carnival had his ax set elsewhere. No one curled his toes more than his own sister.