And yet: “Jesus has arranged this, Rebecca. We must think so. ”I am a light come into the world that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.“ You are welcome to live with me, Rebecca. I have made the arrangements with the county. Together we will pray to discover what this terrible thing means, that has touched your young life.”
For it wasn’t Mrs. Schmidt but Miss Rose Lutter, Rebecca’s former schoolteacher, with whom she could live as a ward of Chautauqua County for two and a half years.
Out of nowhere it would seem to Rebecca, her former schoolteacher had come. Yet there was the sense, that would grow upon Rebecca over time, that Miss Lutter had been waiting for Rebecca, for years.
Rose Lutter was the sole party in Milburn to offer to pay not only for much of Rebecca Schwart’s upkeep (the term “upkeep” was frequently noted) but also for a burial plot in the very Milburn cemetery for which he’d been a caretaker, for the deceased, disgraced Jacob Schwart and his wife Anna. Except for Rose Lutter’s generosity, the Schwarts’ remains would have been buried at county expense, in an unmarked and untended section of the cemetery reserved for indigents.
Paupers’ graves these were called. No headstones, no markers.
But Miss Lutter would not hear of this. Miss Lutter was a Christian, a bearer of mercy. Though she had retired early from public school teaching for reasons of health and lived now on a modest pension supplemented by a family annuity, she arranged for Jacob and Anna Schwart to be properly buried and for a small aluminum marker to be set into the earth at the head of the grave site. Since Rebecca had not been capable of providing information about her parents, their birth dates for instance, and since no one in Milburn much wished to rummage through the morass of old, yellowed, moldering documents that Jacob Schwart had left behind in boxes in the stone house, all that was indicated on the marker was:
SCHWARD Anna & Jacob d. 4-11-49
Rebecca perceived the errors here. The misspelled name, the inaccurate death-date. Of course she said nothing. For who could care that an immigrant gravedigger had killed his sickly wife with a single shotgun blast, and himself with a second shotgun blast, on a weekday in April, or in May?
Who could care that someone named Schwart, or Schward, had lived or died, let alone when?
And so in the Chautauqua County Courthouse when Miss Rose Lutter appeared amid a gathering of strangers, and all of these strangers men, and clutched at Rebecca’s hands in triumph, and uttered such extravagant words as special destiny, singled out by God Rebecca did not protest.
“Jesus, I will believe. Jesus, help me to believe in You.”
He was observing her, she knew. In the corner of her eye sometimes she saw Him. But when she turned her head, however slowly, He retreated. Vaguely she recalled that He had taunted her, once-hadn’t He? She would pretend not to remember.
She would come to know, in time: the man whom her father had shot in the cemetery was named Simcoe, fifty-one years old and a former Milburn resident and unknown to Jacob Schwart and his death by Jacob Schwart “unprovoked.” He had died en route to the Chautauqua Falls hospital in an ambulance, of massive gunshot wounds to the chest. His left forearm, uplifted in a futile gesture to protect himself against an explosion of buckshot at close range, had been shredded, a splintered white bone protruding.
This death was the outrage, the injustice. This death was the crime.
The Schwart deaths were lesser, of course. You could see the logic. The shotgun death of Anna Schwart, also at close range. Massive injuries to the head. The self-death of Jacob Schwart, at close range. Strangers would ask the daughter what she knew, what she could tell them. So slowly she spoke and with such confusion and often her voice trailed off into baffled silence so there were observers who believed that she must be mentally retarded or in some way “damaged” like others in the family perhaps, the wife Anna for instance, and at least one of the sons, or both.
And there was the father, the madman.
How Rebecca had left the stone house on that day, where she’d been taken and by whom, she would not recall clearly. What had been sticky and coagulating in her hair, that had to be cut out by a frowning nurse in whose fingers the scissors trembled.
“Girl! Try to stay still.”
In a strange bed nonetheless she slept for twelve, sometimes fourteen hours even with morning sun shining on her mask-face. Slept with her limbs entwined like snakes in winter, in a burrow. Her mouth was open, agape. Her bare feet, icy at the toes, twitched and paddled to keep her from falling. Inside her empty head water rushed rushed rushed over the gigantic ten-foot lock in a ceaseless stream. Damned lucky to be alive! don’t you ever forget damned lucky I didn’t blow your head off you are one of them aren’t you! born here why I couldn’t trust you going behind my back and wasn’t I right?
No memory of how she’d left the stone house. Maybe she’d run outside desperate and screaming. Maybe she’d run panicked as a wounded animal trailing blood, something soft and liquidy in her hair, on her face and arms. Maybe she’d fainted, and someone had lifted her. Onto a stretcher? Thinking that she, too, had been shot, wounded? A dying girl, looks like about thirteen.
In the startling intimacy of Miss Lutter’s kitchen. Where on a shelf with several pots of beautifully blooming African violets, in a tasteful oval mirror-frame, the handsome olive-skinned and dark-bearded likeness of Jesus Christ lifted His hand in a casual blessing as, at the Capitol Theater, in a movie poster Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, James Stewart might lift his hand in a casual smiling greeting to warm the heart.
There were two pieces of raisin bread toast, smeared with honey. Set before her.
“Rebecca, eat. You must.”
“Jesus, I will believe. Jesus, help me to believe in You.”
Personal possessions they were called. Brought to her from the old stone house in the cemetery.
Rebecca’s clothes, her shoes and boots. Such shabby items, Rebecca was shamed to see turn up in Miss Lutter’s tidy house, dumped out of cardboard boxes. Even her schoolbooks looked shabby! And there was the dictionary she’d won as a champion speller of 1946, now warped from the damp in the old stone house and smelling of mildew. Some of Anna’s clothing had been mixed with Rebecca’s, a wrinkled white cotton eyelet blouse far too large for Rebecca, box-shaped housedresses, cotton stockings twisted together like snakes, black suede gloves Rebecca hadn’t known her mother had owned, a much-laundered flannel nightgown big and shapeless as a tent…Seeing the frightened look in Rebecca’s face, Miss Lutter quickly folded up Anna Schwart’s things, and placed them back inside the box.
Here was a surprise: the Motorola console radio that had been shut away in the parlor for years, Jacob Schwart’s most prized possession. In the frayed cardboard box in which it was carried into Miss Lutter’s house it, too, appeared shabby, diminished like something hauled from the dump. Rebecca stared at the radio, unable to speak. Numbly she drew her fingers over the wooden cabinet: she fumbled to turn the dial on, though of course the radio wasn’t plugged in and hadn’t Pa told them with bitter satisfaction that the tubes were burnt out…
Politely Miss Lutter told the delivery men to please take it away. “I have my own radio, thank you.”
Most of the personal possessions were given to the Milburn Good Will shop, by Miss Lutter. So ever afterward so long as Rebecca lived in Milburn, and even after she moved away with Niles Tignor to live elsewhere, she instinctively shrank from glancing into the windows of such secondhand stores as Good Will or Salvation Army out of a dread of seeing her family’s despoiled things on display: old, ugly clothes, battered furniture, the pathetic Motorola console radio in its scuffed imitation-wood cabinet.
In the fall of 1949, the old stone house in the cemetery was razed.
No one had lived in it since the murder-suicide. No one had attempted to even clean it. The Township voted to replace it with another dwelling in which the new cemetery caretaker and his family could live.
By this time Rebecca had been living for nearly five months in Rose Lutter’s tidy beige-brick house at 114 Rush Street, in a residential neighborhood of similar small brick and shingle-board homes. A block away was the First Presbyterian Church, to which Miss Lutter avidly belonged. Her house had a small front stoop upon which, in appropriate seasons, Miss Lutter placed pots of geraniums, mums, and hydrangea. Inside, Miss Lutter’s house wasn’t really much larger than the stone house had been, and yet: how different!
The most startling difference was that Miss Lutter’s house contained no strong smells. Not a smell of kerosene, not woodsmoke, not old, rancid food, or rotting wood, or damp earth close beneath the floorboards. Not that smell of human bodies in cramped quarters.
Only just, in Rose Lutter’s house, most noticeable on Fridays, a smell of furniture polish. And, beneath, a faint sweet prevailing fragrance of what Miss Lutter called her potpourri.
Potpourri was a mix of wildflowers, herbs, and spices prepared by Miss Lutter herself and allowed to dry. Potpourri was placed in bowls through the house including the bathroom where its position was on the back of the gleaming-white porcelain toilet.
Miss Lutter’s mother, now deceased, had always had potpourri in her house. And Miss Lutter’s grandmother, long deceased.
Rebecca had never heard of potpourri and she had never smelled anything like it before. It made her feel almost dizzy sometimes. When she stepped into the house, and the fragrance struck her. Or when she wakened in the morning, and it awaited her.
Blinking her eyes uncertain of where she was, what this meant.
Another startling thing was, the walls of Miss Lutter’s house were so clean. Some of the walls were covered in floral-print wallpaper, and some had been painted white. And all of the ceilings were white. In all the rooms there were windows!-even the bathroom. And at each of these windows, even the tiny window on the back door, there were curtains.
Mornings when Rebecca opened her eyes in the room designated as hers, in the rear, left corner of Miss Lutter’s house, what she saw first was pale pink organdy curtains facing her bed.
Wished she was friends still with Katy Greb! God damn she’d have liked to show Katy this room. The curtains, and the pink-rosebud wallpaper, and the fluffy “throw” rug, and the step-in closet…Not boast but just to show her. For Katy would be impressed. And she would be sure to tell Leora.
Is Rebecca lucky now, Momma! You should see her room…
Another remarkable thing was, how few cobwebs you saw in Miss Lutter’s house. Even in the summer, not many flies. None of those crazed stinging flies that hung out in kitchens and privies and made your life miserable. Rebecca helped Miss Lutter with keeping the house clean, and it was rare for her to discover dust-balls beneath furniture, or a patina of grime on any surface. So this was how people lived, in real houses in Milburn! The world of those others that had eluded the Schwarts.
There was a procedure to life, Rebecca saw. It wasn’t meant to be haphazard and made up as you went along.
As Miss Lutter had been a scrupulous teacher at the Milburn grammar school, so she was a scrupulous housekeeper. She owned not only a carpet sweeper but a General Electric vacuum cleaner. A heavy upright mechanism with a roaring motor and a bag that swelled up like a balloon with dust and grit and roller-wheels to be pushed along the floor. Of all of the household tasks, Rebecca liked vacuuming most. The roaring motor filled her head and drove out all thoughts. The very weight of the vacuum cleaner, tugging at her arms, making her short of breath, was like wrestling with someone who was strong and stubborn but finally tractable, and became an ally. Soon Rebecca was entrusted with vacuuming all of the rooms of the beige-brick house at 114 Rush Street.
Always there is a way out. If you can make yourself small enough, like a worm.
For two and a half years Rebecca would live with Rose Lutter, and for two and a half years she would await Jesus.
She’d given up expecting her brothers to come for her. Not Herschel, not Gus. Herschel was still a fugitive from justice and Gus had simply disappeared. It seemed to Rebecca that they must know what had happened for in her dazed state she believed that all the world must know. When she left Miss Lutter’s house to walk to school, when she appeared with Miss Lutter at church services in the First Presbyterian Church, everyone who saw her knew, as if a glimmering halo of light surrounded her, like those halos of light surrounding figures in Bible pictures: Jesus stilling the storm, Jesus healing the leper, Jesus presiding over the miraculous draught of fishes, but also Daniel in the lions’ den, Solomon dedicating the temple, Moses and the brazen serpent, Mary visited by the angel. Some were singled out for attention, and could not hope to hide.
In Sunday school, in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church, Rebecca learned to clap hands as she sang with other, mostly younger children:
This little light of mine!
I’m going to let it shine!
Let it shine all over God’s mountain!
I’m going to LET IT SHINE!
For the news of the Gospels was good news, Rebecca was told. It was all about Christ and the coming-again of Christ and Christ entering your heart.
Sometimes, Rebecca saw the minister’s wife Mrs. Deegan watching her above the heads of the younger children. At such times Rebecca smiled, and sang louder. The palms of her hands stung pleasantly with clapping.
“Very good, Rebecca! What a nice voice you have, Rebecca. Do you know what it is? A contralto.”
Rebecca ducked her head, too shy to thank Mrs. Deegan. Her voice was scratchy as sandpaper and it hurt her throat when she sang, especially it hurt her to sing loudly. Still, she would sing.
She would sing children’s songs to please the minister’s wife, who wore her hair in twisty little bangs on her forehead, and who would tell Reverend Deegan what a good girl Rebecca Schwart was. Miss Lutter would be informed, too. Make no mistake about that. They were keeping close watch on the gravedigger’s daughter, she knew.
She knew, and she accepted. She was a ward of Chautauqua County, a charity case.
“Rebecca! Put on your gloves, dear. And hurry.”
Sunday school began promptly at 9 A.M. and promptly at 9:50 A.M. Miss Lutter appeared in the schoolroom doorway, to take Rebecca to church services upstairs. If Rebecca had left her white cotton gloves back at the house, Miss Lutter would have discovered them, and brought them to give to Rebecca.
You could see that churchgoing was the very center of Miss Lutter’s quiet week. Always she wore dazzling white gloves, and one of her pert little hats with a veil; she wore “pumps” that gave her an unexpected, giddy height, of about five foot one. (Already by the age of thirteen Rebecca was taller than Miss Lutter, and heavier.) In warm weather Miss Lutter wore floral-print dresses with flared skirts and crinolines beneath, that made a frothy sound when she moved. Her thin cheeks glowed with pleasure, or with rouge. Her thin lips had been reddened. Her sparrow-colored hair was curled tightly as a child’s.
“We mustn’t be late, dear. Come!”
Sometimes in her enthusiasm Miss Lutter took Rebecca’s hand, to pull the shy gawky girl along.
It was like the Red Sea parting in the Bible picture, Rebecca thought. When Miss Lutter made her way importantly along the center aisle of the church to her pew near the front, with Rebecca in tow. “Hello!”-“Hello!”-“Good morning!”-“Hello!” So many friendly curious faces, for Miss Lutter to address, somewhat breathlessly. So many eyes sliding past her, and onto Rebecca.
Miss Lutter had bought Rebecca several girlish dresses with flared skirts, that were already too tight for her, in the bodice and armpits. She’d bought silk ribbons for Rebecca’s hair. At Thom McAn’s Shoes for the Family she bought Rebecca a pair of beautiful black patent leather shoes to be worn with white anklet socks. And white gloves to match Miss Lutter’s, a size larger than hers.
In all, Miss Lutter would be obliged to buy several more dresses for Rebecca, pairs of shoes, gloves. For goodness how the girl grew!
And her hair that was thick, coarsely wavy, inclined to snarls-Miss Lutter insisted that Rebecca brush, brush, brush it with a wire handbrush until it shone, and her wrist ached with weariness. Like a horse’s mane, Miss Lutter sighed. Yet she touched Rebecca’s hair, with a fascinated repugnance.
“Sometimes I think you’re part-horsy, Rebecca. A wild roan pony.”
Rebecca laughed, uneasily. She was never certain whether Miss Lutter was joking, or meant such extravagant remarks.
When manly Reverend Deegan strode to the pulpit to preach his sermon, Miss Lutter sat upright in the pew before him, rapt with attention as if she were the sole person in the room. The minister had been a U.S. Army chaplain, he’d served in the war, in the Pacific. So it was frequently noted, in Reverend Deegan’s sermons. He spoke in a gliding-and-dipping voice, a voice trained as a singer’s; he frowned, he smiled. Almost inaudibly Miss Lutter murmured Yes yes yes. Amen, yes. Her lips parted moist as a child’s, her eyelids fluttered. Rebecca tried very hard to hear what Miss Lutter was hearing for she wanted very badly to believe for if she failed to believe, Jesus would not enter her heart and her soul would be as nettles cast upon the earth, and not seeds. And the stones that the Jews took up to throw at Jesus for His blasphemy would be her lot.
How hard Rebecca tried, week following week! Still it was like trying to haul herself up by her arms onto the shed roof, when she’d been a little girl and her brothers had scrambled ahead of her laughing at her.
It was strange: how when Rebecca was alone, it was not so difficult to believe in Jesus Christ. Almost she could sense that Jesus was watching her, smiling His enigmatic smile. For Jesus, too, had laughed at Rebecca, on the Quarry Road. Yet Jesus had forgiven her. Yet Jesus had saved her life and for what reason?
Miss Lutter had promised that they would discover, one day.
Miss Lutter had taken her to her parents’ grave site, that was so plain, and covered in weeds. Miss Lutter had taken no notice (out of tact, or because her eyes were weak) of the factual errors in the marker. They had no religion, I was told. But we will pray for them.
But here in church all that was difficult to believe. Though Rebecca tried to concentrate. The more earnestly Reverend Deegan spoke of Jesus, the less real Jesus seemed. Amid this congregation of good decent people. Amid the polished hardwood pews, robust voices uplifted in song. Women’s talcum powder, men’s hair oil and shaving lotion.
Time to take up the hymnal. Reverend Deegan’s smile flashed wetly white. “My brothers and sisters in Christ, make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
They stood. Miss Lutter sang as earnestly as the others. Her weak soprano voice. Her head uplifted in hope, her mouth like a hungry little beak, working. A mighty fortress, a mighty fortress is our Lord. The lady organist with the snow-white floating hair struck her shrill chords. The crinoline beneath Miss Lutter’s rayon dress quivered. Rebecca sang, shutting her eyes. She loved the swell of the music, that mixed with the roar of the water over the gigantic lock. Her heart beat strangely, she became excited. Oh, suddenly there was hope. Shut her eyes tight in hope of catching a glimpse of the remote Jesus, in his filmy white robe, floating. She did not like to think of the crucifixion, she wanted Jesus to be remote, like an angel; like a beautiful high-scudding cloud, borne by the wind overhead; for the most beautiful clouds were shaped above the lake, and scattered by the wind in all directions; and no one except Rebecca Schwart saw. She would explain to Miss Lutter: for she loved Miss Lutter, and was so grateful for Miss Lutter having saved her life, having taken her in, a ward of Chautauqua County, a charity case, almost she could not look Miss Lutter in the face, almost she could not speak without stammering. She loved Jesus that he was remote and ascended to the Father but like a willful child she hated it more and more that Jesus was a dead body on a cross like any other dead body dripping blood and shortly it would begin to decompose, and smell. Jesus need not be resurrected if He had not died and He need not have died if He had not submitted to His enemies, and escaped. Or better yet why had He not struck His enemies dead? For was not Jesus the Son of God, possessed of the power of life and death?
Words are bullshit, lies. Every word that has ever been uttered, has ever been used is a lie.
The singing was over. The congregation was seated. Rebecca opened her eyes, and Jesus had vanished. Ridiculous to think that Jesus would ever be here, summoned by Reverend Deegan of the First Presbyterian Church of Milburn, New York.
Rebecca tried to forestall a yawn. One of those powerful jaw-breaking yawns that spilled tears down her cheeks. Miss Lutter would notice and be hurt (for Miss Lutter was easily hurt) and would afterward scold in her elliptical-nasal manner.
Now Rebecca was restless, itchy. Each Sunday it was worse.
She tried to sit still. Tried to be good. Oh but it was so stupid! Bullshit it was, all of it. Yet telling herself how grateful she was. To Miss Lutter, grateful. Grateful to be alive. Damn lucky. She knew! She might be mistaken for retarded but she was an intelligent girl with eyes in the back of her head and so she knew exactly how Milburn viewed her, and spoke of her. She knew how Rose Lutter was admired, and in some quarters resented. The retired schoolteacher who’d taken in the gravedigger’s daughter, the orphan. Her underarms were itching, and her ankles in the little white anklet socks she hated. She rubbed one ankle against the other, beneath the pew. Hard. Except for where she was and who might be watching she would’ve dug at the patch of wiry hair between her legs, hard enough to draw blood.