EASY ESSAYS
EASY ESSAYS
Syndic Literary Journal

AA ~ THE ADVENTURES OF HENRIETTA CHAPTER FIVE

The Adventures of Henrietta Fine

Chapter Five

By Paul Levitt

Narrated by Elizabeth Mansfield

Published by LeRoy Chatfield

Poison ivy plagued me.  My entire stay in south Jersey, I had the itches and bathed in calamine lotion, which made me look like a Delaware brave dressed in pink war paint.  In the woods behind our house, an old Indian trail ran through a tangle of sassafras, dogwood, Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, poison ivy and oak.  My imagination lured me there, as I hoped to find lost Indian treasures.  Unless I wore high socks, overalls, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and a hat, I was asking for trouble.  But who’s going to wear all that stuff in June and July?  It seemed whenever I stooped to pick up an arrowhead or gather some herbs, I was knee deep in toxicodendron.  I had been told that in New Jersey they cross the mosquitoes with crows, but a skita bite lasts two days and a rash from the ivy a month. 

The trail ran under a canopy of oak and chestnut and ended at a deserted cranberry bog.  You could still see the effects from the “turfing,” a process in which the native plants are removed, dams built, and ditches cut to control flooding and divert the natural drainage.  Beavers had moved into the area.  Two nearby bogs, which some people call cedar bogs or swamps, had escaped turfing and remained in a natural state.  Thick with cedar trees, they were also home to holly and pine, as well as laurel, inkberry, and the type of mosses sold to florists for packing material.  When I first discovered them, I thought that a channel of some river or lake, or an arm of the sea, had been dammed.  To a city girl like me, the bogs seemed otherworldly.  Limbless trees, fifty and sixty feet high, rose out of water colored like brandy by years of fallen leaves and the roots of the cedars.  With their tops woven so closely together, they shut out the day, creating a perpetual twilight below.  Fallen timber, stumps, and waist-deep ponds made passage nearly impossible.   

In calm weather, except for the occasional screams of herons and the chirps of small birds, the bogs were as silent as death.  But when a breeze came up, the trees sighed mournfully, as the mast-like cedars rubbed against each other, producing a variety of noises that resembled shrieks, groans, and the growling of wild beasts.  Since only a few fragments of light pierced the gloom here, it was a good place to hide. 

I came to the swamps only rarely, though I frequently meandered along the Indian trail looking for arrowheads.  In the short time I lived on the farm, I found nineteen arrowheads and hundreds of spent twenty-two rifle shells.  Hunters and target shooters used the woods for their practice, taking aim at the lids of paint cans, which they nailed to the trees.  Occasionally I’d run into moonshiners, who generally stayed out of sight.  They sold the locals home-cooked whiskeys, called “happy Sally” and “jump steady,” reputed to cause paralysis of the tongue and internal bleeding.  Price:  four dollars a quart.  When the wind came up, the pungent odor of fermenting mash and alcoholic distillate led revenuers to stills and waste piles of prune pits, potato peelings, cherry skins, sugar beets, barley, cornmeal, and other grains.  Consequently, if you came within eyeshot of the shiners they’d unleash bad-tempered dogs or fire a warning shot over your head.  It was best to leave them alone. 

Although the woods are home to many dark places and untold sins, they also house numerous treasures.  Besides arrowheads, I would find remnants of birchbark canoes and Indian feathers and old causeways built out of logs and abandoned saw mills.  I picked wild huckleberries and raspberries, and saw snapping turtles and colorful birds, like cardinals, Baltimore orioles, yellow warblers, and scarlet tanagers.  Just a few miles outside of Carmel, an Indian trail ran through a forest of pines to the Maurice River, with its sandy banks and dark cedar water.  Mom and I swam in the river whenever we could free ourselves from the farm.  Jake Narovlansky would pick us up in his wagon, pulled by a tired old horse that would cloppety-clop down the road.   

Hayrides, sponsored mostly by the factory workers, took place every Sunday.  Normally, the moral bluenoses would have prevented such fun on the Christian Sabbath, but Carmel was a Socialist community.  Billy Sunday’s Chariot, as we called our hay wagon, would start in front of the Skilowitz candy store and slowly make its way to the river.  Anyone was free to hop on. 

The first time I joined the party, a young man emerged from the woods a short distance from Carmel and hoisted himself into the sweet-smelling hay.  At first I took him for a moonshiner, because he was no sooner aboard than he began singing: 

Mother makes brandy from cherries; 

Pop distills whiskey and gin; 

Sister sells wine from the grapes on the vine— 

Good grief, how the money rolls in! 

“Is hooch your hobby or your habit?” I asked.   

“I never touch the stuff.  You’re new around here.” 

“Just moved in.” 

“My name’s Ben Cohen.” 

“Mine’s Henrietta Fine . . . but my friends call me Henny.” 

Like many Ukrainians, he had high cheekbones and pale blue eyes.  His face was thin and his sandy hair already receding.  A scar on the bridge of his nose resulted from his having fallen off a ladder and landed face down on a nail.  His accent was barely discernible, owing he said to his having taken singing lessons, which taught him pronunciation.  He had an imaginative turn of mind.  On that first hayride, someone was recounting the awfulness of life under the Czar.  Ben agreed but asked why it was that for all the sins of the Romanovs, Russia during that period had experienced a great flourishing of literature.  Was it just chance or did hard times provoke people to write?   

“The one thing we know for sure,” he joked, “is that the Romanovs were not sponsoring literary salons.” 

He lived alone in a tar-papered house on a small piece of cultivated land.  Only two acres had been hacked out of the woods, but he hoped someday to farm fifty.   

“How old are you?” he asked. 

“Sixteen.  Seventeen next month.  And you?” 

“Nineteen.” 

“What brought you to America?” 

“Both my parents died in the great flu epidemic.” 

“My Mom’s been talking about farming.” 

“Take a tip from me, plant strawberries.” 

“She mentioned tomatoes and peppers.” 

“The price isn’t right.” 

“You been at it long?” 

“My first year.” 

“Do you like it?” 

“I’d rather farm than work in a factory or the needle trade.  On the land you’re free.  No punching clocks, no piece work.  I do just enough to get by.  The rest of the time, I do what I want:  fish, swim, hike . . . you know.” 

“Do you have any plans for the future?” 

“I’d like to write.” 

“Have you written before?” 

“I’m waiting for the winter . . . after the berries have been picked and a new crop is in.” 

“You know what they say, Ben, it’s good to plan; it’s the waiting that spoils it.” 

“Say, Henny, you pitch horseshoes?”  

“What’s that?” 

“A game.  Would you like to try it?” 

“Sure.” 

“I’ll teach you.” 

At the Maurice River, the men headed for one part of the woods and the women another to change into our bathing suits.  The Sobleman boy yelled, “last one in is a prune,” and we all dashed for the water.  Because of recent rains, the current was strong and the depth much greater than usual.  We plunged in and let the current carry us about fifty yards downstream to a sand bar and then made our way through the woods to the starting point.  You had to be careful to aim for the sand bar, otherwise you could be swept into a much deeper and wider part of the river.  The water, cool and black, was home to numerous turtles, sunning themselves on the logs.  The light came through the trees on a slant shading half the river and dappling the other.  It was lyrical; it was rhapsodic; it was Eden.  Alas, my dreaming made me careless.  Floating downstream on my back, I failed to watch for the sand bar and was swept past it, into the dangerous water.  I yelled out for help.  Ben, who was standing on the sand bar talking to friends, immediately dove into the river.  In the midst of the swiftest part of the current, he caught up with me, taking my arm.  Together we were carried downstream.  Passing under a low hanging tree limb, Ben tried to grab it.  But as he did so, his grip on me loosened and I was lost to the torrent.  Shoved along, I kept telling myself just to keep swimming and beware of losing an eye to the submerged, splintered logs.  Caught in a maelstrom, I could hear only the rush of the water and the faraway cry of Ben’s frantic voice, “Henny, hang on!” 

For some stupid reason, I recalled the meaning of Moses’ name:  “Pulled from the water.”  If the Lord could save Moses, where was He now?  I knew from the locals that when the river ran high, a certain low-lying area downstream thickened with rattlers bent on dry land.  Suddenly from out of the woods thundered Ben’s voice.  A moment later I saw him.  He was racing down an old Indian trail that bordered the river.  Arriving at a point in front of me, he dove into the water, grabbed my arm, and told me to hang on for dear life.  Finally, he managed to haul me up on the bank.  Standing there shivering with fear and exhaustion, I could feel the soft moss underfoot and the warm air on my skin—and see fifty feet ahead the area noted for snakes.   

As we walked along the trail, we stopped from time to time to eat wild blackberries.  Ben embraced my shoulder and I hugged his waist.  During that walk I felt my first inkling of love.  Having always regarded smooching as mush, I was flabbergasted to discover that when Ben leaned over and kissed me on the lips, a strange sensation coursed through my body warming that place nice girls don’t mention.  To tell you the truth, I was scared; but I wasn’t about to run off, the way those dumb damsels in dime novels always do.  I just smiled and said thank you, and rejoined the others, who were playing leapfrog.   

Running, placing our hands on the back of the person bending over, and leaping as far as we could, we marked the spot of our landing to see who had vaulted the farthest.  I was third best, outjumped by only two men, Dave Skilowitz and Ben.  When we tired of leapfrog, we ran several foot races—again I was third—and climbed a cedar tree on the bank of the river.  Whooping and hollering like Indians, we swung branch to branch like apes.  Ben asked me if I wanted a piggyback ride to the hay cart.  So I swung from the tree onto his shoulders and he jogged along at what he called a canter, while singing, he said, like a cantor.  I gave his pun a Bronx cheer. 

From that day forth, a communion united Ben and me so tightly that I thought I’d die if we were ever to part.  As a mutual gift, we bought two canaries from Mr. Peccary and kept them caged on the porch.  Mom’s farmhouse became a regular nest of intrigue.  While Malcolm Bird courted the Princess, Ben came each day to see me.  I called it the sewing circle, except that the Princess wasn’t stitching; she was spinning a web.  The closest I came to spinning was the whirl I felt in my head from helping Ben in the fields and the stirrings in my heart.   

One day, Ben bicycled up the road and told me excitedly that the anarchist, Claire Foyant, was to speak at Columbia Hall.  Having read most of her writings, Ben claimed she represented an America that truly deserved the name golden.   

“But no one knows better than Miss Foyant,” he remarked, “how short we have fallen.” 

The evening of the lecture, workers and wives, dressed in their Sunday best, quickly filled all the chairs.  Latecomers stood along the sides and at the rear of the room.  The crowd, easily more than a hundred, included Mr. Schneiderman and Malcolm Bird.  The pine floors sagged and the heat, made worse by the press of bodies and post-dinner flatulence, hung like a zeppelin.  Some men threw open the screenless windows, admitting clouds of mosquitoes.  Throughout the entire lecture, you could hear the sounds of slaps as we fought off the insects.   

From Ben I learned that Claire was born in Michigan, the daughter of a poor seamstress and an itinerant tailor.  Raised in poverty and sent to school in a Canadian convent, she learned early to hate economic systems that punish the poor and religions that frighten the young with such fire and brimstone they leave white scars on the soul.  She had a wide pretty face, though her mouth, turned down at the ends, made her look sad.  Her long unmanageable curls reminded me of my own.  But what I remember most were her intense dark blue eyes and the scent of lavender that hung over her like a halo.   

She spoke as if branded into her flesh were the words justice and fairness.  Her fiery words left us all dazed.  The press called her headstrong; I called her courageous and ahead of her times.  Decrying marriage as slavery and rape, “whereby a man compels the woman he says that he loves to endure the agony of bearing children whom she does not want and for whom he cannot provide,” she contended that to treat women as mentally inferior to men makes them children, irresponsible dolls not to be trusted outside their “doll’s house.”  But her most corrosive comments she saved for an economic system that hurts and humiliates those who hope to survive.     

“I am standing on a mighty hill,” she passionately cried, balancing on a milk crate at the front of the hall, “and from this height I see the roofs of workshops and factories.  I see the machines that men have made to ease their burden:  iron genies.  I see them set their steel teeth in the living flesh of the men who made them.  I see the maimed and crippled stumps of men go limping away into the night that engulfs the poor.  I see deep down in the hull of the ocean liner the men who shovel the coal—burned and seared like paper tossed in a grate.  And I see in the lead works how men are poisoned; and in the sugar refineries how they’re driven insane; and in the factories how they lose their decency; and in the stores how they learn to lie; and I know that it’s economic slavery that makes them behave in this way.” 

Wild cheers greeted the end of her speech; and before you could say “strike,” two men had lifted Claire onto their shoulders and carried her out to the road.  A line of marchers formed and began walking “downtown” from Columbia Hall.  Torches were lit and someone started to sing the “Marseillaise”; others joined in, as the crowd coalesced at the corner.  Like a swamp bird’s cry, a wail pierced the night, and a police car marked Bridgeton wheeled out of the dark and into the road, blocking the way.  Three burly fellows sprang from the car.  One of them growled through a bullhorn that the march had gone far enough.  Another step, he warned, and he would make mass arrests.   

“There’s no place in America for anarchists,” he warned.  “All anarchists are Socialists, and all Socialists are enemies of the American way.  So return to your homes and don’t be misled by agitators and troublemakers.” 

When no one moved, the cop threatened that the foreigners among us were running the risk of being deported.  Claire, not one to be intimated, pushed through the crowd. 

“If anarchy means equal relations between men and women, black and white, then I am an anarchist.  If anarchy means an end to the perjuries and prejudices of big business, I am an anarchist.  Now you know where to find me.”   

This declaration earned Claire the wrath of the cop, who ordered his sidekicks to put her in cuffs.  Two beefy mutts manacled her and started to lead her away.  But the marchers encircled Claire and the cops, a menacing move that persuaded the law to abandon their catch and retreat.  Claire faded into the crowd.  The buster with the bullhorn made all kinds of dire threats, but no one listened.  Irving Avenue was soon empty.  When I returned to the farm, I found to my surprise and enjoyment Mr. Schneiderman entertaining Claire Foyant.   

“Your mother said she could stay here a few days,” he said, “until the authorities lose interest.  But we do have a problem:  Claire is still cuffed and your hacksaw won’t work.” 

From my dresser I took Sully’s tension wrench and pick.  When I returned, Claire was sitting on Mr. Schneiderman’s bed.  He had told her that she could sleep in his room and that he would bed down on the porch.  I undid the cuffs, which were old warded locks and therefore a cinch.   

The cops put several workers in jail and said they’d keep them behind bars until they found “the anarchist witch.”  But since no one ratted—maybe because only a handful of people knew where she was—they began a house-to-house search.  She stayed with us almost a fortnight before Wilbert Nahr, a cop who had twice attended our séances, knocked at the door.  But I’ll get to him in a minute.   

The time I spent with Claire, she taught me—and the Princess—plenty, mostly about what she called “the subordinated cramped circle prescribed for women in daily life.”  I learned through her how few were the opportunities open to girls outside of the house.  Claire was the first woman who insisted that I attend college.  My old aunts regarded schooling as an impediment to marriage, and college the very worst.  Though Mom wanted me to finish high school, she felt that too much education for a young woman would limit her chances to marry.   

I asked Claire why she never went to college. 

“No money.  In its place I have read myself bleary.” 

But in my gut I didn’t feel ready to head back to school. The Princess, present at most of our talks, was a rapt listener.  At her next séance, she included much of Claire’s message.  This time, instead of his usual off-color humor, Walter came from the spirit world bearing advice:  Women must be given equal wages and rights.  Marriage was sacred only when equality was present.  A number of her sitters (mostly men) expressed disapproval.  But the Princess claimed to know nothing of what Walter had said, since she was transported to another realm by her trance. 

Once word of Walter’s new manners and message had spread, women began to displace men at the now thrice-weekly séances.  When I told Ben about Claire’s using our house as a hideout and about the Princess’s resorting to a “trance” to distance herself from her message, he said that women in the reform movement had employed that trick before.  We were standing in a grassy field not far from his house.  He was at last teaching me how to pitch horseshoes.   

“Here, get the feel of them,” he said clanging the shoes. 

“They don’t look like the ones I see at the blacksmith’s.” “These are made specially for sport.  There’s a reward, you know.” 

“For pitching horseshoes? 

“For Claire.”   

“Why is it that when people want something badly, they offer money?” 

“Perhaps because greed is stronger than love.  How do you plan to protect her from the house-to-house searches?”   

“Mr. Schneiderman made her a suit of men’s clothes.  When she’s not in her room, she wears the trousers and jacket, topped off with a jaunty French beret.  She could easily pass for a man, especially now that she’s cut her hair short.” 

“You see the two metal rods sticking in the ground?  They’re the pins that you aim for.  They’re forty feet apart.  But since you’re a girl, you get to stand ten feet closer.” 

With Claire in mind, I interrupted, telling him that if forty feet was the distance for men, I wanted no less.  He shrugged and continued. 

“Each player has two horseshoes.  You pitch two; I pitch two, or vice versa.  The player who goes first has the advantage, because if his shoes are close to the peg, the second player has to top or dislodge them, no easy thing.  To score, you have to land within one shoe width of the peg; that’s worth one point.  Or you have to make a ringer, meaning your shoe collars the peg, and that’s worth three points.  Leaners count only as one.  It takes twenty-one points to win.” 

“Do you throw without moving your feet?” 

“When you’re learning, it’s better to step.  Give it a try.” 

I pitched one shoe, which fell short of the peg and rolled to one side.  The same with the second. 

“A shoe’s easier to control if you hold it at the bottom of the U, instead of at one of the ends.  Yours rolled because it was thrown too low.  You have to give it more lift.  Like this!” 

Ben’s pitch landed right next to the peg.  I tried over and over again, but couldn’t cover the distance.  All my throws came up short.  Without so much as a single “I told you so,” Ben marked off two places five feet in front of each peg, cutting the distance I had to throw from forty to thirty feet.  With that alteration, I could reach the posts.  But my horseshoes still went awry, landing wide or short.  Finally in frustration, I asked, “What other games can we play?” 

Ben smiled and said, “Do you wrestle?” 

****** 

When it came, the inevitable knock at the door admitted Wilbert Nahr, Bridgeton policeman and former amateur boxer.  Given the numerous scars on his face, I concluded that he would gladly, as he frequently said, bleed for his country.  He’d certainly had enough practice. 

At the two séances he attended, he expressed a wish to contact his dead cousin Merton, who apparently at one time had buried—and never recovered—a large sum of money.  I suppose the Princess never contacted Merton through Walter because you can’t go around telling people where to find money, unless you know where it is.  A few mistakes and your reputation is done for.  But the eagerness he showed at the séances provided the Princess with just enough insight to keep Claire out of jail. 

Torpy always spoke of himself in the third person.  “Mr. Nahr is here looking for that dame what started the trouble.”  I told him he was free to look wherever he liked.  Claire, dressed like a man, sat on the porch bold as brass playing cards with Jimmy-Jimmy and the Princess.  Mr. Schneiderman sat next to them kibitzing.  Looking through every room (Claire kept her few clothes in a bolted valise Jimmy-Jimmy had lent her), Torpy galumphed out to the porch.  Mom and I followed close behind.   

“I never seen this dame,” said Torpy, “but I got a good idea of her puss.  There’s drawings of her in the station house.  Anyone else living here?” 

“Just us,” I replied, “as well as the Prof.  But you know him from the séances.” 

“Yeah,” Torpy snorted, as he studied the card players.  “I can see she ain’t here, but I know a new face when I see one,” he said pointing at Claire.  “What’s your name?” 

“Voltaire.” 

“How come you got a dame’s voice?” 

Before Claire could answer, the Princess cut in.  “Monsieur Voltaire is a world-famous medium, who lives in the best of all possible worlds.  His spirit guide is the Indian princess Pococurante, sister of Pocahontas.  It’s her voice that you’re hearing.  If you want to know where your cousin Merton has hidden the money, just ask Monsieur Voltaire.” 

“Really?” a delighted Torpy exclaimed.   

Claire, just like the Princess, closed her eyes and seemed to take off for dreamland.  Speaking in her own voice, she said, “Your cousin Merton from . . .”  

“Hammonton!” Torpy rushed in to answer. 

“He lived . . .” 

“With his mother, my Aunt Bertha.” 

“In Bertha’s . . .” 

“Grandfather’s house.” 

“The money . . .” 

“Yes?” Torpy eagerly asked. 

Was this the moment Claire would be caught?     

“Cash and . . . ” answered Claire, obviously trying to stall. 

“Stock certificates,” said Torpy.  “How much in all?”  

“Ten thousand, at least.” 

“Where’d he bury the metal box?” 

“The one place you forgot.” 

“Under the porch!  It’s there, ain’t it?” 

“I Pococurante have spoken.” 

Torpy bounded off the porch and out the screen door, yelling “Dang it, I’m gonna be rich!”  Lucky that he’d said Hammonton and not some city nearby.  The events of the day and the distance had bought us some time.  Our canaries, chirping merrily, seemed to agree.  But sending Torpy off on a wild-goose-chase was one thing, avoiding detection for several more days quite another. 

Police cars were still patrolling Carmel. So I went down the road to the phone box and rang A.R.  He wanted to know whether I was calling from home; as soon as I told him no, his voice softened.  I said that I had to get a friend out of town and needed some help.  Reminding me he didn’t distribute free meals, he promised to send Legs Diamond to Carmel.  Then I mentioned that Claire was an anarchist. 

“Sorry, can’t do.” 

“Why not?” 

“They’re radicals.” 

“And you’re not?” 

“I don’t want a country without laws.” 

“You break them every day,” I replied, astonished that he of all people would care about order. 

“Without laws, you can’t break them.  In my business, money comes from beating the system.  Take away the system and where are you?  Broke!” 

Not knowing what else to say, I asked about my own case. 

“I told you.  As soon as the judge decides, I’ll get word to you, but not by phone.” 

“What’s taking Fallon so long?” 

“He’s too much with the dames.” 

Now on my own, Ben, the Princess, and I concocted a plan to spirit her away in a coffin.  We would have the Vineland undertaker drive our wooden box, with Claire hidden inside, to the town of Elmer, where she could board the West Jersey Railroad for Philly.  But even the best laid plans . . .  

Ben took his time building the coffin, waiting for the cops to slacken their search.  In the meantime, we goldbricked.  As soon as the morning heat had burned off the dew, we’d bicycle to the Maurice River and wrestle in the sand.  Afterwards, we swam and rafted on logs that the weekend swimmers had lashed together with wire.  It was our own Mississippi, idyllic except for the blue dye in the water that tinted the skin.  The factory was dumping again.  Each day was unforgettable and yet the same.  “I bet I can pin you,” Ben would say. 

“Bet you can’t,” I would answer. 

Agile, I could squirm loose from most of his holds, except for a body press.  The weight difference between us made it impossible for me to get free.  Once he had me down, he’d cover my face with kisses, which he said were his “guerdon,” a ten-cent word he’d read in some book of medieval tales.  I said “No fair!” and he’d reply “Say uncle!” but I wouldn’t give in—not until his kisses grew heated, and I’d say, “Time out,” and he would release me.  I’d pretend to walk off but actually come up behind him, winding my arms round his neck and hitching a ride on his back, as we laughed and laughed, till tears salted our faces.   

If we wrestled in the morning, it was at Ben’s place, where the dewy grass soaked our clothes; but in the afternoon the sun-dried grass made it scratchy.  Later, he’d carry me to his tar-papered shack, where we sat at the kitchen table talking about the books or essays we’d read.  It was a time when there was no time, at least not to us, who counted life by the time spent together.  

The coffin finished, we pulled it ourselves to the farm on a neighbor’s rubber-wheeled cart.  Ben had anticipated all the necessities, having drilled small air holes in the sides and padded the bottom with an old Army mattress.   

Meantime, the Princess and the Prof were spatting, but this time it touched upon Birdie.  Some disagreement had arisen between them concerning the outdoor séance to take place July 3.  Apparently the Prof wanted her to materialize more than the usual number of things.  He was suggesting an American flag, a small bronzed golden eagle, a miniature White House, and a pocket-sized phosphorescent Jesus.  The Princess, particularly agitated, kept saying “No!” 

“Before your nerves get the better of you,” soothed the Prof, “remember how resourceful I can be.”   

She exclaimed, “It’s my body!” 

“You’re jumping to conclusions.  All I said was that most people prefer symbols to thought.  They want to feel good.  They’re not interested in news from the spirit world—unless it bears out their biases.” 

“There just isn’t room.  If you want to have ectoplasm in the form of a hand and a harmonica, as well as a horn, you’ll have to forgo the symbolic stuff and let Henrietta hide the bird and the concertina inside her clothes.”   

“It increases the risk of discovery.  She’s not a genuine.” 

“And you’re convinced that I am?” 

“Absolutely.” 

“Then why do you have me perform these carnival tricks?” 

“To silence the skeptics.” 

“Magic detracts.” 

“People expect it.” 

“And you, what do you expect?” 

“That one day the scientific community will kneel down to you for proving that there is a world yet to come.” 

“And to that end you are willing—” 

“To risk everything!” 

Although I had a glimmering of what they were saying, some of it left me confused.  It wasn’t until later that the Princess lifted the veil of unknowing. 

The next day, Sunday, June 25, was set for Claire’s coffin escape.  All our plans were in place.  Shortly before twelve, Claire would climb into the box.  The undertaker, Mr. Blutoe, was told to arrive promptly at noon to pick up the coffin and three mourners, Ben, the Princess, and me.  Taking into account the dirt roads and the frequency of flat tires, we allowed two hours for the trip up to Elmer.  If the train was on time, Claire would be steaming out of the station on the four-twenty-two for Philly.  Every sign appeared in our favor, including the most unlikely of all:  Torpy had taken the train from Bridgeton to Hammonton and found under the porch a metal box with various forms of legal tender.  Though the amount was less than Claire had predicted, Torpy benightedly concluded that either his cousin Ferd had arrived there before him and grabbed a few G’s or that Pococurante’s arithmetic had somehow gotten garbled. 

The next morning we all gathered in the dining room with high expectations.  Just before twelve Ben nailed down the lid on Claire, some food, and two jugs of water.  Noon came and went.  Shortly before one, Claire whispered she had cramps and needed a bathroom.  Ben opened the lid.  While she was easing her pains, Mr. Blutoe drove up in his hearse. 

“Where’s the body?” he asked, standing just outside the screen door. 

“You were expected at noon,” Ben said. 

Didn’t want to miss the morning-prayer session at our church.  Besides, your Uncle Stanislaus ain’t goin’ nowhere.”   

Stalling for time, I asked Mr. Blutoe to share with us the sweet prayers he’d heard at the breakfast.  I nearly gagged on my insincerity.  But I was learning that if you’re going to survive in this world, you have to know how to talk mush. 

“The Lord was with us.  You could feel it.  We praised Him and damned to hellfire all the foreigners in America.” 

“Sounds like a full day’s work in one morning,” said Ben. 

“We’re lettin’ in too many foreigners,” Mr. Blutoe complained.  “We oughta send them back where they come from.” 

“When your grandfather came to America,” I wickedly asked, “did he speak English?” 

“Hell no!” answered Mr. Blutoe indignantly.  “He spoke Bulgarian.” 

“Lucky they didn’t send him back . . . or right now you might be farming some rocky hillside, working as a serf.” 

Mr. Blutoe’s face reddened.  “Where’s the damn body?” he snapped.  

“We’ll just go inside and say one more prayer over dear Uncle Stanislaus,” I said, “and then you can have his remains.”   

Ben and I went inside, while the Princess entertained Mr. Blutoe.  Claire was still indisposed.  I whispered through the door that the undertaker was waiting outside.  She groaned that the tank was just about empty and she’d be out in a sec.  But Mr. Blutoe reached the dining room before Claire.  Seeing the empty coffin, he asked what in blazes was going on.  I told him that we were just giving Uncle Stanislaus a last washing up because we didn’t want him facing eternity with egg on his face.   

“Well where is he, if you’re here?” asked Mr. Blutoe. 

“Drying off,” I said.  “We’ll get him.”   

Ben and I went to the bathroom.  Claire was just coming out.  Ben told her to act as if rigor mortis had set in and to make herself stiff as a board.  Then we carried her into the dining room and laid her out in the coffin. 

Peering into the coffin, Mr. Blutoe exclaimed, “That ain’t no man, that’s a woman—and danged if she don’t look like someone I’ve seen some place before.”   He then turned on his heels and left, no doubt to report what he’d seen. 

Claire rightly suspected we’d not seen the last of Mr. Blutoe.  In fact, the very next day, Torpy drove up and asked for a powwow.  Mom, having seen a police car wheel into the drive, had bustled Claire off to the bedroom to don her disguise.   

“The Vineland police called us in Bridgeton to let us know they was comin’ this way,” Torpy explained.  “I don’t know how many.  But some undertaker’s been sayin’ that Claire Foyant might be hidin’ out here.” 

“Here?” I exclaimed.  “Why would Mr. Blutoe think that?” 

“Let’s put our cards on the table,” Torpy said.  “That man who was a woman . . . you know, the one which told me where the money was hid . . . if he—I mean she—is the anarchist they’re lookin’ for, I’m warnin’ you, look out!  She—he—whatever—done me a favor.  Now I’m showin’, uh, that person my thanks, even though I’m a cop.” 

From behind us, Claire’s voice rang out.  “I’ve long held,” she proclaimed, “that the working man of America is fundamentally fair.  Torpy, you’re a good fellow.  If you ever need further advice, don’t fail to ask.” 

Torpy’s eyes bulged and his mouth opened, like a sprung trap door.  You could almost feel his amazement.  Mumbling something about the road’s being unsafe and our calling him if we could use his assistance, he trotted off to his car, patted the hood, and drove off.  Jimmy-Jimmy and Mr. Schneiderman had departed for work.  But the rest of us fell to arguing about what to do next. 

“If we honestly explain to the authorities that Claire has every right in a free country to speak her mind,” said the Prof, “I am sure they’ll uphold the law.”   

“Protect us?” scoffed the Princess.  “Not a chance.” 

“Women have no rights,” Claire contended; but before she could launch off into one of her speeches, I interrupted. 

“We need a place to hide.” 

“And not behind legalities,” Ben added.  “That’s not what Henny means.” 

“You can leave if you like,” said the Prof, clearly disgruntled, “but I’m staying put.” 

“Then you’re staying alone,” the Princess replied.  “Weren’t you listening?  The cops are on their way here.” 

“It’s an unholy union,” said Ben, “the law and the lawmen.” 

The Prof refused to listen.  “I have the utmost confidence that the police will behave in an exemplary manner.” 

What did that mean, I wondered?   

The debate had gone on long enough.  So I decided to take the bull by the horns.  “The woods are the best place to hide.  In the swamp.  I know some good places.  Let’s get started.” 

The Prof stubbornly remained in the house.  The rest of us, Mom included, took to the woods.  Before we had reached the swamp, we heard in the distance police sirens and the sound of guns going off.  We hadn’t left a minute too soon.  Leading the way, I guided the party through a jungle of laurel and vines to a bog not easily reached.  As we sat on the moss and waited, I was reminded of the times that this swamp brought to mind Eden.  The darkness, broken only by the croaking of frogs and the splash of a fish, put me at peace.  I felt secure, as if my mom were holding me in her arms. 

On our quaking island, I lost track of the time.  Eventually we heard voices coming our way.  I suggested that we push further into the woods; but the others counseled patience.  So we waited, which proved a mistake.  Before long we could hear men on three sides of us.  

“These bog islands is a good place to hide,” said one. “You take that small one and we’ll take the one full uh cedars.” 

Sooner than expected, we heard the splashing of water and the snapping of twigs as the men started to wade through the swamp.  Mom whispered to me in Yiddish, asking what they would do if they caught us.  I told her not to worry.  Leaving my place of concealment, I pushed through the trees and matted undergrowth to the edge of the island, where I let out a holler.   

“Help!  Anyone there?  Please save us.” 

“There’s one of ’em!” someone shouted in the dark. 

“Quick—before it’s too late!” I yelled. 

“Come out of there—all of youse—and don’t try no tricks,” ordered the voice. 

“We can’t.  We’re trapped.  We need your help.  Hurry!” 

“What’s wrong?” 

“Snakes!” I cried.  “Timber rattlers.  They’re everywhere.  In the water, underfoot, in the trees.  Everywhere!” 

“Timber rattlers?” came a startled reply. 

“As big as logs,” I said.   

“Snakes!” bellowed the voice.  “Rattlers!” 

From all directions men shouted, “Look out!”   

“What’s that?”   

“I just seen one.”   

“The place is swarmin’ with ’em.”   

“Judas Prees, let’s get outta here.” 

“Have mercy!” I theatrically begged.  “Don’t leave us to die.  In the name of the Lord I beg you . . .” 

All you could hear were the sounds of retreat, until some redneck yelled, “Ya got it comin’ to ya, ya Socialist bastards!”  We remained through the night trying to decide what to do about Claire.  In men’s clothes, she could pass undetected, known only to Mr. Blutoe and Torpy.  But with the roads in and out of Carmel still blocked, we concluded that the best way to escape was to follow the Indian paths through the woods and wend our way to the Maurice River and to the log raft the weekend swimmers had used, the one lashed together with wires.  Ben declared that he knew a moonshiner, John Barleycorn, living close by, who could show us which path to take to the river.  It was therefore agreed that the Princess would lead Mom to the house and that Ben and I would accompany Claire to the far side of Millville, from which point she could float safely down to the Delaware Bay.  The only problem would be her having to pass right through Millville.   

 

 

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