All are part of the hearth, where the fire burns low but is never allowed to go out. As the center of the house, the hearth gives off warmth and food, and is the place to which the Carsons turn in the evenings for talk and even song. On his birthday, while they faced the hearth, his mother told the boy that his magic number would be nine, for he was born on the ninth of September.
"Do you see, son? You were born on the ninth day of the ninth month," his mother said, "and as you grow up, lad, you'll learn: Nine will be your number."
Sometimes on rainy afternoons, when his father is working in the forge, the boy's mother sits beside the fire to drink tea and eat oat bread while she tells stories. The boy listens silently, the stories entering him in such a way that he later thinks they have happened to him, that he has lived them. Sometimes he drowses, while her voice makes a kind of music. They are the first stories of his life, written on a five-year-old's emptiness. He is awake and asleep at the same time, listening to the magical words, while becoming through his mother's magic the people in the stories. The fire burns steadily in the hearth, and his mother tells him that the fire should never be allowed to go out, because if it does, the soul leaves the house.
Da agrees. There were houses in Ireland, he said once, where the fire had burned day and night for more than a hundred years. In this house, he said, it had burned since John and Rebecca Carson moved in, long ago, before the boy was born. Even as she whispers stories, his mother gazes at the fire, as if seeing people or things unseen by others. Robert Carson later learns that before he was born there were two other children, his brothers, who were born and then died in another house. And when they died, Da poured water into the hearth and moved to this place to begin again. Robert Carson tries (after learning this when he is eight) to imagine those lost brothers, but no faces ever come clear. In bad dreams they have heads with shiny surfaces but no eyes or noses or mouths, and those visions wake him from his sleep. Sometimes he is terrified.
To the left of the hearth is the door to the bedroom where his mother and father sleep each night. A dresser stands outside the door, its drawers holding clothes. On its top there's a wooden tray of knives and forks and spoons, along with a clump of gorse or primrose standing in water in the family's only piece of delft: a tall vase decorated with tulips. Sometimes the boy traces with his fingers the designs on the vase, and caresses its smooth surface. Above the dresser three shelves are cut into the wall, stacked with terra-cotta plates and cups and bowls made by hand in the Mountains of Mourne. To the left is the back door, leading to the West. The room is dominated by the table behind the chairs that face the hearth, its dark planed top burnished by endless cleanings and oilings.
Sometimes he stares at the back door, the one that opens to the West. He knows that no stranger should ever leave through the back door because he would take with him the luck of the house. He knows too that when there's a death in the house, the coffin must leave through that same back door, to be taken to the West, to the setting sun and the blackness that follows.
On the ceiling, great beams cut from bog oak form a huge A, supporting the layers of thatch and sod, tied firmly with fir rods, that lie beneath the slates. His father built this house to last. The roof rests on towers of chiseled stone that form the gable ends, each slab thirty inches thick, cut so fine that they fit together without mortar. The walls are brick, stone, cut rushes that had soured, all bound together and made smooth by river mud and lime wash. They are two feet thick. A house built like a fortress. Even when he is alone, he is safe.
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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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