I’m reading through That Distant Land, a collection of Wendell Berry short stories that has been recommended time and again to me as a way to get a broad view of Port William, Berry’s fictional Kentucky hamlet in which his novels are set. I thought I’d record the quotations I like from some of the stories I read and comment on them when I can. There won’t be anything profound here in these posts, just some Reflections in Progress.
The first story is “The Hurt Man,” a story set in 1888 and written from the point of view of a five-year-old Mat Feltner. In the story, his mother helps a man who has been injured in a fight.
His outgrown dresses he saw worn daily by a pretty neigbor named Margaret Finley, who to him might as well have been another boy too little to be of interest, or maybe even a girl, though it hardly mattered–and though, because of a different intstinct, she would begin to matter to him a great deal in a dozen years, and after that she would matter to him all his life. (3)
I like the picture of marriage that Berry paints here. As his wife, Margaret Finley will indeed “matter to [Mat] all his life.”
The town was the product of its own becoming, which, if not accidental exactly, had also been unplanned. It had no formal government or formal history. It was without pretense or ambition, for it was the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave. It had never declared an aspiration to become anything it was not. It did not thrive so much as it merely lived, doing the things it needed to do to stay alive. ( 4)
Mat would remember the town’s then-oldest man, Uncle Bishop Bower, who could confront any stranger, rap on the ground with his long staff, and demand, “Sir! What might your name be?” (4)
Uncle Bishop Bower reminds me of my maternal grandfather, the only grandfather I ever knew. He was a giant of a man, with a personality to match his stature. He would “produce” (my granny’s tongue-in-cheek way of saying “introduce”) himself to people by enveloping their hands in his meaty one and pronouncing gruffly, “Miller’s my name. What’s yours?”
But in spite of her losses, Nancy Beechum Felter was not a frightened woman, as her son would learn. He would learn also that, though she maintained her sorrows with a certain loyalty, wearing black, she was a woman of practial good sense and strong cheerfulness. She knew that the word was risky and that she must risk her surviving child to it as she had risked the others, and when the time came she straightforwardly did so. (6)
Mat had been surprised when she did not follow him into the house, when she waited on the porch and opened the door to the hurt man and then to his friends. But she had not surprised him after that. He saw her as he had known her: a woman who did what the world put before her to do. (10)
Loss came into his mind then, and he knew what he was years away from telling, even from thinking: that his mother’s grief was real; that her children in their graves once had been alive; that everybody lying under the grass up in the graveyard once had been alive and had walked in daylight in Port William. And this was a part, and belonged to the deliverance, of the town’s hard history of love. (10)
Loss has been on my mind a lot lately. We’re none of us immune, even when we think we’re invincible. The storms of last week have taught us in the Southeast (yet again) the lesson. I love that Berry’s story ends hopefully, though. That even the loss ”belonged to the deliverance.” Small consolation, perhaps, to those living the loss, but it is indeed a “part . . . of the town’s [and our] hard history of love.”