Jess Mercer
(© 2008 by the author)

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The falling bag hit a rock and split, a bottle of catsup and several cans rolled down the sandy slope into the bog, broken eggs splotched deeper yellow against the sand. His ten year-old feet flew through the marsh gathering layers of mud, unheeded in the terror that squeezed his pounding heart. Stumbling to the top of a low dune, he saw red-gold flames leaping from every part the shingled cottage. Billows of dark smoke bent with the wind. At the front of the cottage, five volunteer firemen of the island moved with jerky precision in futile effort.

The child’s feet tripped on the shell path; he would have run into the flames screaming “Mommy!” had not large hands grabbed him, pulled him against a rough tweed coat.

“No!” The bass rumble penetrated his consciousness as the child struggled with the arms enveloping him in a bear-hug. He screamed once more, then felt himself lifted, a huge hand pressing against his head until came to rest against the rough clad shoulder, stroked comfortingly.

The efforts of the firemen continued, but in a short time the burning cottage crashed into a pile of smoldering rubble on which they continued to pour a stream of water until the last ash was cold. Water, blacker against the sand, created rivulets as it flowed away. Two husky men carrying a tarp stepped cautiously into the remains with searching eyes. One shifted a charred rafter and they lifted a form onto the tarp and rolled it closed.

Despite his admiration, one of the firemen standing by the old truck, looked with vague discomfort toward the large man embracing the boy and said to another, “Would ye of believed it?”

The other shook his head. “No from that one. What about the boy?”

The first fireman scratched his head under the knitted watchcap he wore. “Don’ rightly know.”

“You’re first selectman, ain’t ya. Peers to me the decision is your’n.”

“Ought be reported, but I figure it’s island business. Don’ need none of them from the mainlan’ telling us what’s right. We allus take of our own.”

“Ain’t none of our’n, no more’n them.” The man jerked his head toward the man holding the boy.

The selectman nodded. “Ayuh, but ain’t none of ‘em ever give no trouble. Mind their own business, they do. ‘sides, they stays here. None of that runnin’ to and from like them summer people. Dyrka, there, give me a hand once’t er twice unloadin’ the boat when that no good kid I had up ‘n took off. Never said nothin’, just worked good and when it was done paid me fer the fish he wanted and left.”

“Comes down once’t ‘n a while when he sees me comin’ in. Never in no hurry. When I gits done, he points to the lobster he wants, pays, and goes on. Never says nothin’. Ye think he’ll take the boy?”

“Doubt it. Kids say he don’ want nobody ‘round, least ways, he allus chases ‘em way if they git aroun’ the point.” He paused to survey the rubble. “Guess we done all we kin. Might as well git on.”

As he stumbled wearily towards the ancient fire truck, the man holding the child walked slowly toward him, stopping a little distance away. He moved his head slightly, indicating the whimpering boy he still held close. “I take, yes?”

The selectman searched the craggy face, looking into the intense blue eyes. “Ye sayin’ ye’ll take the boy in?”

“Is no family now, yes? No one vant, I take.”

“Mebbe.” The selectman’s concern shifted from the fire to the boy. “Take ‘im along now, Dyrka. I’ll bring the missus ‘long later and we’ll see.”

Dyrka nodded, then looked to the tarp covered form a couple of the men were lifting into the back of an old jeep. The selectman’s eyes followed Dyrka’s.

“That’s sumpen else we gotta talk over. I’ll come ‘round to your place in a couple of hours.”

Dyrka nodded and carried the boy away swiftly, topping the dune, then dropping below the selectman’s vision.

“When the selectman reached home and told his wife of the fire and Dyrka taking the boy, she chided him sternly. “Ye oughtn’t done it, Zeb.”

“Don’t fuss me, woman. I’m bone weary. I’m wantin’ a hot shower and some dry clothes.”

“Ye still should o' considered the boy.”

“Dyrka ain’t goin’ to hurt the boy none. He knows we’re a-comin’. What’s wrong er that?”

“Cain’t rightly say, but it don’ seem right. Ya should of brung the boy here.”

“Where’d ye put ‘im?”

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt the kids to double-up none.”

“Hush ‘n git ready. Just cause a body tends to his own business, you women think there’s sumpen wrong ‘bout it. Fer as the boy’s concerned, he don’ need no passel o’ kids botherin’ ‘im just now.”

After he showered and dressed, he walked through the kitchen. “I’ll be in tha truck.” He let the screen door slam behind him.

The old pick-up rattled along the sandy ridge secreted in the marsh, climbed a small rise to halt before a gate in the picket fence. His eyes scanned the small shingled cottage as they walked through the yard. “He’s done a might o’ work. Didn’t think it would look so good,” he commented before knocking at the door.

The opening filled with the massive frame of Dyrka. He looked at the selectman and his wife suspiciously for a moment, then stepped back for them to enter.

“Please to sit.” He indicated chairs by the blazing hearth.

Zeb’s wife used the few steps to take in the room, unconsciously nodding her feminine approval of its simple spotless state, contrary to her expectation of bachelor habitation.

“Where’s the boy?” Zeb asked in a hoarse whisper.

“He sleep.” Dyrka nodded towards a closed door on the far side of the room.

Zeb’s wife crossed the room, opened the door, and looked at the child sleeping in the big bedstead, covered with a down comforter. A single sweeping glance assured her of the same fanatical cleanliness. She returned to her chair, giving her husband a glance that through their years meant wholehearted satisfaction.

Dyrka misinterpreted the look, alarm passing over his blond bearded face. “Not to take boy, please.”

“We ain’t much fer interferin’ in other folks’ business,” Zeb assured, “but we got to be sure the boy’s goin’ to be brung up like he ought be. It’s a fearsome responsibility. I know, got five of my own. Weren’t er that, I’d took ‘im myself.”

“Please?” Dyrka interrupted.

Zeb smiled for the first time. “Iffen ye kin satisfy the missus ye kin take care of ‘im, we’ll let ‘im stay. Course, we’re goin’ to keep track o’ how things is. That be part of my duty as selectman. We ought ta have the service tomorrow, then ye got to git some things fer the boy, ‘cause we didn’t save nothin’, an’ he’s got to go on ta school. It’ll take a might of money. Ye got any?”

“Plenty I have. Live simple. Not much for spend.”

Zeb’s eyes narrowed. “How ye come by it?” He asked, seeking to affirm supposition.

“Am making pictures.” Dyrka pointed toward several watercolors hanging on the walls.

“My, my,” Zeb’s wife murmured.

“Don’ recall seein’ ye sellin’ none.” Zeb persisted.

“No sell on island. Sell in city.”

“Ye send ‘em out?” Zeb felt comfort in the idea.

“Haff friend in art store. He sell.”

Zeb got up to look at the familiar scene of one of the island’s boats along side the dock, lobsterpots piled around. The delicate shadings all but impossible to believe as coming from such a huge figure of a man.

“How much ye git fer one like this?”

“Friend is sending some over two hundred dollar.”

Zeb’s face froze in surprise. “Two hundred fer some water paint on paper?”

“Is good, no? Store is, vhat you say, gallery.”

Zeb felt unsettled at the revelation. “Didn’ mean to pry, Dyrka, but we wanted ta know if ye could take care of the boy proper like. I guess that answers all the questions. Come on, maw, we best gitten underway.”

“I keep boy?” Hope spread across the broad square face.

Zeb nodded. “Fer as I’m concerned. Ain’t no family I know of. Ye an’ the boy come by the store in the mornin’. Figure we can find a place in the churchyard for the burial.”

“Ya, ve come.”

Dyrka, his hands resting on the shoulders of the boy, stood by the side of the grave during the reading of the service. Only when the island lay-minister paused for others to speak did he move to the head of the grave and, taking a small, much worn, black leather covered book from his pocket, began to read in his native Swedish. When he began to chant in a strong bass voice, the islanders looked at one another in consternation. Suddenly it was finished, the A-men understood, and Dyrka stepped back to the boy.

They started to move away with the others, but the lay-minister’s hand on Dyrka’s arm stopped them. “What was it you said?” He asked uncertainly.

Dyrka slipped the book from his pocket and held it out. “Vas short Lutheran Mass for the dead. Vas wrong?”

The lay-minister made out a word embossed on the cover. “No, it’s all right. Kind of unusual, though.” Least ways the boy will have a Protestant upbringing, he thought to himself. Without a regular minister for the tiny church, he felt an undue responsibility.

“Vas good woman. I pay respect.” Dyrka insisted.

“Aye. Proper.”

Still benumbed by shock, the boy walked along side Dyrka. When he stumbled, Dyrka picked him up and carried him on his shoulders the rest of the way to his cottage.

After a few days, the boy resumed his place in the village schoolhouse. But for his reticent silence, there seemed no change. Zeb, his wife, and the lay-minister kept a cautious eye, but the boy was always neat, clothing spotless; he seemed to lack for nothing. They saw another room added to the cottage, Dyrka working alone, asking no help save that of the boy. Packages arrived on the mail boat from the mainland with regularity.

Zeb and his wife visited the house on two separate occasions. The solemn courtesy of the boy, the offerings of coffee and, to them, unusual sweet cakes and cookies by Dyrka and, on the last visit, the savory fragrance of the cooking meal satisfied their concern. Their visits ceased as did the watch on the boy.

By spring the boy began to grow at a rapid rate. “Aye, he’ll be a big ‘un,” the natives whispered to one another.

The teacher noted that the boy never smiled, his speech on occasion now lapsing into Dyrka’s native tongue, yet he held high grades in his to the end of the school year. With the coming of summer, the boy was seen only on visits to the general store for supplies. The few times Dyrka accompanied him, he bought ice cream for himself and the boy. When he handed the boy a cone, the boy always responded with a shy slight smile.

On a dark afternoon a week before Christmas a few of the older children from the village wandered into the bog near Dyrka’s cottage in search of late cranberries. They looked warily toward the house only to run breathlessly back to the village. Minutes later a dozen people or more ranged before the gate gazing at the sight. In each window an electric candle burned, behind the window of the living room could be discerned tiny colored lights rising to the top of the tree. A wreath of evergreens tied with a large red bow adorned the door. In their fascination, they failed to see the door open, the figure filling it, until the bass voice called out, “Velkomen. Come, eat, drink.”

The villagers stood in confusion until the lay-minister opened the gate and stepped forward.  He crossed the threshold to stop astounded. On the top of the tree a star of woven straw touched the ceiling, greens draped the mantle on which stood a hand-carved crèche of wood, a fire blazed on the hearth. On a small table, covered with a snowy cloth, a steaming bowl stood, surrounded by plates of unfamiliar delicacies.

“Please.” Dyrka waved the minister to the table, greeting the others.

Many exclaimed over the straw figures hanging on the tree, others at the candles on the tips of each branch. 

The fireman/ selectman asked, “Ye don’t light the candles, do ya?”

“Is traditional on Christmas Eve, but boy has fear. Use lights only.” Dryka’s broad smile  counterbalanced by the somber expression of the boy.

“Ayuh. Better that way. Don’t want to have to put out no fire fer ya.”

The impromptu party lasted until the lay-minister declared he must go. “Thank you, Dyrka. Will we see you at church Christmas Eve?”

“If boy vish. Is good you come. Is Christmas vhen friends come to share. I am thanking you.”

Word spread in the tiny village. By the day before Christmas Eve only the few choosing otherwise had not been welcomed into the cottage.

Christmas Eve, Dyrka and the boy walked the snow covered lane to enter the white frame church a few minutes before midnight. Candles gave light, evergreen boughs filled the simple frame structure with resinous incense. They settled into a pew near the back as the lay-minister entered the front of the sanctuary and looked over the congregation with concern. “Is there anyone here kin play for the service? Miss Ella’s got misery in her fingers right bad.”

The people looked at one another in consternation; Christmas without music was unthinkable, but no one replied. The lay-minister returned to the sacristy to prepare.

A sudden wheezing and music poured through the church as never before. Every head turned toward the gallery, every eye strained in the dim light. A huge figure moved on the organ bench, while to one side a boy’s hand worked the handle of the bellows rhythmically up and down.

When the lay-minister began his sermon, he saw the boy slip on the organ bench beside the huge man, saw his head rest against the broad shoulder.

“God’s son is given to man this night,” the lay-minister began. He could not hear the boy whisper, “I love you, dad,” but he sensed the wonder of the tender smile, a soft kiss, but missed a soft deep whispered echo of his own words: “Tonight is also a son for me.”


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Posted: 12/19/08