And what a people loves it will defend.
We took their temples from them and forbade them,
for many years, to worship their strange idols.
They gathered in secret, deep in the dripping glens,
Chanting their prayers before a lichened rock.
- John Hewitt, "The Colony," 1950
There he is, three days after his fifth birthday, standing barefoot upon wet summer grass. He is staring at the house where he lives: the great good Irish place of whitewashed walls, long and low, with a dark slate roof glistening in the morning drizzle. Standing there, he knows it will turn pale blue when the sun appears to work its magic.
The boy named Robert Carson loves gazing at that house, basking in its permanence and comfort. On some days, a wisp of smoke rises from the chimney. On other days, the early morning sun throws a golden glaze upon its white facade. It is never the same and always the same. He sees the small windows like tiny eyes in the face of the house, the glass reflecting the rising sun. The front door is mahogany, salvaged from some drowned ship along the shores of the Irish Sea, as tightly fitted in that doorway now as any man could make it. There's a low half-door too, placed in front of the full mahogany door like a snug wooden apron. During balmy summer days, the large door is always open, welcoming light and air into the house. The breeze pushes smoke from the fire up through the stone chimney.
Robert Carson goes in, flipping the iron latches made by his father, whose name is John Carson and is called simply Da. The house is as it always is and as the boy thinks it will always be. A sweet odor of burning turf fills the air. He breathes it deeply, inhaling the ancient burned mud of the swamps beside Lough Neagh, where the peat was cut from the bog. Directly facing him is the jamb wall, running from floor to ceiling along the side of the hearth. A diamond-shaped spy hole is cut into its pine boards so that he and his father and mother can observe the approach of strangers. The boy can only do this by standing on the shoulder of the hearth.
The hearth is at the end of a large main room, but it is the center of the house, the holy place that holds the fire. A wide iron canopy rises above the hearth, carrying away the smoke, and on damp, chilly days the boy sits on one of the hand-carved low benches beside the fire. The family has few visitors, but men always sit on the right, facing the fire, so the boy does the same. The women take the bench on the left, and his mother is always there. Her name is Rebecca, but he calls her Ma. He thinks of them as a unit: Ma, Da, and me. The Carsons. To the left of the hearth is the small iron crane his father made in the forge, with its arms of different lengths, and hooks for hanging pots. His mother moves the pots back and forth, in and out of the flame, while the odors of stews and porridges and soups overwhelm the sweetness of the burning turf. There are two low three-legged chairs called "creepies," cousins of milking stools. Built low in the days before chimney flues so that farmers could breathe below the smoke. One day he lifted a creepy, examined the perfect pegs that held the legs so permanently to the seat, and hugged it to his chest, thinking: This is ours, this belongs to the Carsons. Back about five feet from the hearth is his father's own chair, made of woven rush, looking like a throne designed as a beehive. Robert Carson never sits in his father's chair.
Beside his father's chair is one of the many wrought-iron light holders that John Carson made in the forge, long iron poles with four arched feet and hooks that hold lanterns for his reading. They never wobble on the flagstone floor, never lose their dignity. A wide oaken shelf spreads above the hearth and he can see with his eyes shut the objects that occupy its oiled surface: his father's clay pipes, with their long curved stems, an old thatched horse collar that Da saved from his own youth, a carved wooden cup called a noggin, found in the mud of a bog. Da has told the boy that the noggin is a thousand years old, and Robert Carson is certain that his father is right. To the left, a mound of turf bricks rises off the floor, dried out of dark black bottom mud. The iron tools of the fire, smaller cousins of the light holders, stand as rigid as sentries.
This is a complete excerpt from Chapter One of Forever by Pete Hamill. Copyright © 2003 by Deidre Enterprises. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Co.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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