Once Upon A Time: The Road

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel illustration by...
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel illustration by Gustave Doré (1855) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a road. The road stretched past a grove of oak trees, pitted and muddy, out of sight.
Little Jacob had never been around the grove of oak trees. He wasn’t supposed to leave the yard, and even going out onto the road was a whipping offense. A runaway cart or even one of those noisy, new automobiles could come rushing down at any moment and decapitate him just like he’d seen uncle Jeb do to the old rooster when ma had got the new one in from town. Even though that chicken had been brown and smelled good, Jacob hadn’t been hungry that night. He just sat and stared at the one bit of feather that hadn’t gotten plucked and just sat there behind the old rooster’s wing. The old rooster had been a terror and Jacob hadn’t liked him at all, but it just felt wrong. Now whenever Jacob looked out on the road, he could see himself like the chicken, because uncle Jeb had told him that an automobile could just take his head clean off. Uncle Jeb had smiled when he said it, but Jacob had seen him smiling when he chewed on that old rooster with his big, square teeth, so he believed that Uncle Jeb might even think it was a good thing that Jacob was gone. Any time a car growled past the house after dark, Jacob would pull the covers over his head and block his ears, trying not to think of the chicken.
Uncle Jeb had shown up a few months after ma got the letter about pa getting shot in the Great war. Jacob had been hiding under the sofa when she told the minister that his pa had gotten his head blown clean off, which bothered Jacob whenever he thought about the rooster.
Ma needed someone to take care of the farm, so she’d advertised and Uncle Jeb had come to chip in. There was something disreputable about Uncle Jeb, because Jacob had seen people at church eyeing Uncle Jeb with anger and disgust. Even uncle Jeb noticed, because they stopped going to church. Jacob wasn’t old enough for school, so without church he might go weeks without seeing another child to play with.
Uncle Jeb wanted to help Jacob out, but ma had told him straight out that he was a hired man and that was all there was to it. And she certainly wouldn’t disgrace the memory of her husband with a shirker. Jacob wasn’t sure what any of that meant, but he thought ma had sounded really angry, and he’d heard Uncle Jeb stomp off to the barn and slam the door after that.
It wasn’t long after that Jacob saw Uncle Jeb buy liquor. Uncle Jeb had gone out to get meal for the cows, and when he came back, Jacob had seen him with another burlap sack that Uncle Jeb hid under the straw at the back of the barn. When Jacob dug it out and uncorked it, it smelled strong and bad like vinegar. He remembered the minister talking about demon liquor, and knew this had to be it.
So Jacob watched Uncle Jeb after that. Every once in a while he’d see Jeb coming out of the barn wiping his mouth, but never bad enough that he was weaving.
Then came the night that ma shouted at Uncle Jeb again. Said she’d run him off the place if he didn’t mind his manners. Jacob heard Uncle Jeb slam out of the house, and his mother go up to bed. He was already up in his room, but he watched out the window as Uncle Jeb made straight for the barn. When Uncle Jeb came out of the barn, he was drinking from the jug and staring up at the house. It gave Jacob the shivers, that stare. He’d seen a cornered garter snake stare at him like that just before it went for his big toe.
Jacob got on his clothes real quiet-like. He crept down the stairs. Ma had already checked in on him, and Jacob had done the heavy, slow breathing she liked to see when she came in to tousle his hair. Jacob really liked it when she’d whisper: “Just like your father,” to him while she thought he was sleeping. He wished she’d sing to him like she’d used to, but she hadn’t sung a note since she got the letter from the U.S. army telling her that pa wasn’t coming home.
Ma was praying softly in her bed, or maybe she was talking softly to pa, which Jacob had heard her do more’n once when she didn’t think he was around. Jacob crept past her door along the edge of the banister where the creaking boards were only every other one. Then he crawled down the stairs, because you couldn’t put too much weight on any step or it would groan like a ghost.
Jacob went out the back door, because the front door was partially visible from the barn, and he didn’t want Uncle Jeb seeing him. Uncle Jeb had most of a bottle to get through, but Jacob was sure something bad would happen when he finished it. There wasn’t anything Jacob could do himself, because he wasn’t even big enough to hold pa’s shotgun even if he could get to it hung over the mantelpiece. And he knew ma kept it unloaded and the shells up in her room because she was afraid Jacob somehow would get hold of the gun and do something foolish like look down the barrel.
The only way Jacob could do anything is by going to get the Jersey boys, two old men who lived up the road beyond the bend. He wasn’t sure how far they were, but on a clear night you could hear Ed Jersey’s fiddle like it was in the room with you.
The road was dark, and muddy. The moon was rising, a half-moon coming up over the treetops of the grove at the bend in the road.
Jacob took a deep breath. Even knowing it was needful, it was a dreadful thing to tread out on that road. At any moment he feared he’d be run down. Jacob listened as hard as he could. He could hear the crickets, and even around the barn when Uncle Jeb swallowed and spat. But he didn’t hear any terrible runaway cart or automobile. But Jacob reasoned he’d best run along the side of the road in the grass to muffle his footsteps just the same.
The distance from the house to the grove seemed to stretch on-and-on. Jacob was out of breath by the time he reached the grove, sucking wind. He looked back at the barn. On the other side of the grove was no man’s land. They went the other way to the church or to town. Jacob thought for certain there was a runaway cart just waiting on the other side of the trees, waiting to crush him as soon as he ventured out.
But the brush under the trees was too thick to avoid the road. Jacob was afraid that Uncle Jeb would hear him trying to get through and maybe come hunting for him if he made any noise. So Jacob stuck one foot and then the other out onto the muddy road. He held his breath as he started to run. Maybe if he ran silently and didn’t even breathe the cart wouldn’t hear him coming.
Jacob rounded the bend of the road and saw the Jersey place. It was right there, just on the other side of the grove. Suddenly Jacob could see his house and the Jersey house on a map in his mind, like he’d drawn in the bend and filled in the Jersey house. Even as his lungs cried out for air he pumped himself faster and felt a sense of elation.
Ed Jersey and his brother Jerome were both smoking on the porch. They looked surprised to see Jacob and more surprised to see him so out of breath and panting. It took Jacob a minute to catch his breath, and then he realized he didn’t know what to tell the brothers. They bent down to listen to him, their beards almost touching and the smoke from their pipes drifting up like silver steam in the moonlight.
Jacob finally gasped out a few words: “Uncle Jeb…liquor…ma.” Ed Jersey got a really hard look on his face and told Jerome to get the guns. He took Jacob by the hand and told him to come inside and to wait by the fire. Jacob did as he was told, but as soon as the two old men were out of the house he’d opened the door behind them and slipped out. He thought Ed might have seen him, but the old men were moving as quickly as they could down the road.
Jacob followed them at a distance. Behind him, he heard a grumbling growl, and saw something light in the distance. It was an automobile or a runaway cart! Jacob took off as if his life depended on it. He passed the startled old men at a dead run just as the lights crested the far hill and started shining down on him.
Nothing reasonable came to Jacob’s head. He knew that the only safe place was his bed, and his only chance to saving himself was to get there before the automobile caught him. Jacob paid no mind to the old men behind him, hearing only the increasing growl of the automobile as it prowled closer. He sprinted up the front steps and banged open the door.
Even taking the steps two at a time didn’t seem fast enough. Jacob pushed right past Uncle Jeb where he struggled with ma and dove into his bed just as he heard the car growl past. He was shaking.
In the hallway Ed Jersey was talking loudly to Uncle Jeb. Uncle Jeb was swearing a fair amount, and Jacob wanted to block his ears. Then both men were shouting and Jacob heard his ma swear, which he couldn’t believe at all. He heard more scuffling, and a yell, and then a crash as something hit the floor. Ed Jersey and his brother were both yelling again, but Uncle Jeb was growling like the car outside. Two guns went off. Things got really quiet after that.
Jacob heard what had happened when ma told the minister. Uncle Jeb had threatened her with a kitchen knife, so she had kicked him so hard he’d gone over the banister. When he got up he’d gone for the Jersey boys, and they’d had to blow him away.
After that, the Jersey boys came over to help run the farm. It got so there was a trail through the woods between the farms so Jacob didn’t have to go out onto the road if he wanted to get the Jersey boys for something.
Ma seemed happier too, and hugged Jacob more. Once when she was baking for the Jersey boys Jacob even heard her singing.
When Jacob started school in the fall, he was something of a hero. He knew the other children looked at him funny, but he didn’t realize that the local paper had covered him in the news story. Then the teacher compared Jacob’s run to Paul Revere’s run to save the founding fathers. Some of the other boys took to calling him Paul Revere, which suited Jacob fine. It helped him whenever a car went by the house at night, growling. Jacob would pull the covers up to his chin, but didn’t need to pull them over his head like he’d done before.


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