In the Blink of God's Eye
That 1901 winter when the wife and her husband were still new to Washington,
there came to the wife like a scent carried on the wind some word that wolves
roamed the streets and roads of the city after sundown. The wife, Ruth
Patterson, knew what wolves could do: she had an uncle who went to Alaska in
1895 to hunt for gold, an uncle who was devoured by wolves not long after he
slept under his first Alaskan moon. Still, the night, even in godforsaken
Washington, sometimes had that old song that could pull Ruth up and out of her
bed, the way it did when she was a girl across the Potomac River in Virginia
where all was safe and all was family. Her husband, Aubrey, always slept the
sleep of a man not long out of boyhood and never woke. Hearing the song call her
from her new bed in Washington, Ruth, ever mindful of the wolves, would take up
their knife and pistol and kiss Aubrey's still-hairless face and descend to the
porch. She was well past seventeen, and he was edging toward eighteen, a couple
not even seven whole months married. The houseand its twin next doorwas always
quiet, for those city houses were populated mostly by country people used to
going to bed with the chickens. On the porch, only a few paces from the corner
of 3rd and L Streets, N.W., she would stare at the gaslight on the corner and
smell the smoke from the hearth of someone's dying fire, listening to the song
and remembering the world around Arlington, Virginia.
That night in late January she watched a drunken woman across 3rd Street make her way down 3rd to K Street, where she fell, silently, her dress settling down about her once her body had come to rest. The drunken woman was one more thing to hold against Washington. The woman might have been the same one from two weeks ago, the same one from five weeks ago. The woman lay there for a long time, and Ruth pulled her coat tight around her neck, wondering if she should venture out into the cold of no-man's-land to help her. Then the woman pulled herself up slowly on all four limbs and at last made her stumbling way down K toward 4th Street. She must know, Ruth thought, surely she must know about the wolves. Ruth pulled her eyes back to the gaslight, and as she did, she noticed for the first time the bundle suspended from the tree in the yard, hanging from the apple tree that hadn't borne fruit in more than ten years.
Ruth fell back a step, as if she had been struck. She raised the pistol in her right hand, but the hand refused to steady itself, and so she dropped the knife and held the pistol with both hands, waiting for something -terrible and canine to burst from the bundle. An invisible hand locked about her mouth and halted the cry she wanted to give the world. A wind came up and played with her coat, her nightgown, tapped her ankles and hands, then went over and nudged the bundle so that it moved an inch or so to the left, an inch or so to the right. The rope creaked with the brittleness of age. And then the wind came back and gave her breath again.
A kitten's whine rose feebly from the bundle, a cry of innocence she at first refused to believe. Blinking the tears from her eyes, she reached down and took up the knife with her left hand, holding both weapons out in front of her. She waited. What a friend that drunken woman could be now. She looked at the gaslight, and the dancing yellow spirit in the dirty glass box took her down the two steps and walked her out into the yard until she was two feet from the bundle. She poked it twice with the knife, and in response, like some reward, the bundle offered a short whine, a whine it took her a moment or two to recognize.
So this was Washington, she thought as she reached up on her tiptoes and cut the two pieces of rope that held the bundle to the tree's branch and unwrapped first one blanket and then another. So this was the Washington her Aubrey had brought her across the Potomac River toa city where they hung babies in night trees.
The foregoing is excerpted from All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without
written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York,
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