Year of the Big Thaw
Fantastic Universe, May 1954
Mr. Emmett did his duty by the visitor from another world—never doubting the right of it.
You say that Matthew is your own son, Mr. Emmett?
Yes, Rev’rend Doane, and a better boy never stepped, if I do say it as shouldn’t. I’ve trusted him to drive team for me since he was eleven, and you can’t say more than that for a farm boy. Way back when he was a little shaver so high, when the war came on, he was bounden he was going to sail with this Admiral Farragut. You know boys that age—like runaway colts. I couldn’t see no good in his being cabin boy on some tarnation Navy ship and I told him so. If he’d wanted to sail out on a whaling ship, I ‘low I’d have let him go. But Marthy—that’s the boy’s Ma—took on so that Matt stayed home. Yes, he’s a good boy and a good son.
We’ll miss him a powerful lot if he gets this scholarship thing. But I ‘low it’ll be good for the boy to get some learnin’ besides what he gets in the school here. It’s right kind of you, Rev’rend, to look over this application thing for me.
Well, if he is your own son, Mr. Emmett, why did you write ‘birthplace unknown’ on the line here?
Rev’rend Doane, I’m glad you asked me that question. I’ve been turnin’ it over in my mind and I’ve jest about come to the conclusion it wouldn’t be nohow fair to hold it back. I didn’t lie when I said Matt was my son, because he’s been a good son to me and Marthy. But I’m not his Pa and Marthy ain’t his Ma, so could be I stretched the truth jest a mite. Rev’rend Doane, it’s a tarnal funny yarn but I’ll walk into the meetin’ house and swear to it on a stack o’Bibles as thick as a cord of wood.
You know I’ve been farming the old Corning place these past seven year?
It’s good flat Connecticut bottom-land, but it isn’t like our land up in Hampshire where I was born and raised. My Pa called it the Hampshire Grants and all that was King’s land when his Pa came in there and started farming at the foot of Scuttock Mountain. That’s Injun for fires, folks say, because the Injuns used to build fires up there in the spring for some of their heathen doodads. Anyhow, up there in the mountains we see a tarnal power of quare things.
You call to mind the year we had the big thaw, about twelve years before the war? You mind the blizzard that year? I heard tell it spread down most to York. And at Fort Orange, the place they call Albany now, the Hudson froze right over, so they say. But those York folks do a sight of exaggerating, I’m told.
Anyhow, when the ice went out there was an almighty good thaw all over, and when the snow run off Scuttock mountain there was a good-sized hunk of farmland in our valley went under water. The crick on my farm flowed over the bank and there was a foot of water in the cowshed, and down in the swimmin’ hole in the back pasture wasn’t nothing but a big gully fifty foot and more across, rushing through the pasture, deep as a lake and brown as the old cow. You know freshet-floods? Full up with sticks and stones and old dead trees and somebody’s old shed floatin’ down the middle. And I swear to goodness, Parson, that stream was running along so fast I saw four-inch cobblestones floating and bumping along.
I tied the cow and the calf and Kate—she was our white mare; you mind she went lame last year and I had to shoot her, but she was just a young mare then and skittish as all get-out—but she was a good little mare.
Anyhow, I tied the whole kit and caboodle of them in the woodshed up behind the house, where they’d be dry, then I started to get the milkpail. Right then I heard the gosh-awfullest screech I ever heard in my life. Sounded like thunder and a freshet and a forest-fire all at once. I dropped the milkpail as I heard Marthy scream inside the house, and I run outside. Marthy was already there in the yard and she points up in the sky and yelled, “Look up yander!”
We stood looking up at the sky over Shattuck mountain where there was a great big--shoot now, I d’no as I can call its name but it was like a trail of fire in the sky, and it was makin’ the dangdest racket you ever heard, Rev’rend. Looked kind of like one of them Fourth-of-July skyrockets, but it was big as a house. Marthy was screaming and she grabbed me and hollered, “Hez! Hez, what in tunket is it?” And when Marthy cusses like that, Rev’rend, she don’t know what she’s saying, she’s so scared.
I was plumb scared myself. I heard Liza—that’s our young-un, Liza Grace, that got married to the Taylor boy. I heard her crying on the stoop, and she came flying out with her pinny all black and hollered to Marthy that the pea soup was burning. Marthy let out another screech and ran for the house. That’s a woman for you. So I quietened Liza down some and I went in and told Marthy it weren’t no more than one of them shooting stars. Then I went and did the milking.
But you know, while we were sitting down to supper there came the most awful grinding, screeching, pounding crash I ever heard. Sounded if it were in the back pasture but the house shook as if somethin’ had hit it.
Marthy jumped a mile and I never saw such a look on her face.
“Hez, what was that?” she asked.
“Shoot, now, nothing but the freshet,” I told her.
But she kept on about it. “You reckon that shooting star fell in our back pasture, Hez?”
“Well, now, I don’t ‘low it did nothing like that,” I told her. But she was jittery as an old hen and it weren’t like her nohow. She said it sounded like trouble and I finally quietened her down by saying I’d saddle Kate up and go have a look. I kind of thought, though I didn’t tell Marthy, that somebody’s house had floated away in the freshet and run aground in our back pasture.
So I saddled up Kate and told Marthy to get some hot rum ready in case there was some poor soul run aground back there. And I rode Kate back to the back pasture.
It was mostly uphill because the top of the pasture is on high ground, and it sloped down to the crick on the other side of the rise.
Well, I reached the top of the hill and looked down. The crick were a regular river now, rushing along like Niagary. On the other side of it was a stand of timber, then the slope of Shattuck mountain. And I saw right away the long streak where all the timber had been cut out in a big scoop with roots standing up in the air and a big slide of rocks down to the water.
It was still raining a mite and the ground was sloshy and squanchy under foot. Kate scrunched her hooves and got real balky, not likin’ it a bit. When we got to the top of the pasture she started to whine and whicker and stamp, and no matter how loud I whoa-ed she kept on a-stamping and I was plumb scared she’d pitch me off in the mud. Then I started to smell a funny smell, like somethin’ burning. Now, don’t ask me how anything could burn in all that water, because I don’t know.
When we came up on the rise I saw the contraption.
Rev’rend, it was the most tarnal crazy contraption I ever saw in my life. It was bigger nor my cowshed and it was long and thin and as shiny as Marthy’s old pewter pitcher her Ma brought from England. It had a pair of red rods sticking out behind and a crazy globe fitted up where the top ought to be. It was stuck in the mud, turned halfway over on the little slide of roots and rocks, and I could see what had happened, all right.
The thing must have been--now, Rev’rend, you can say what you like but that thing must have flew across Shattuck and landed on the slope in the trees, then turned over and slid down the hill. That must have been the crash we heard. The rods weren’t just red, they were red-hot. I could hear them sizzle as the rain hit ‘em.
In the middle of the infernal contraption there was a door, and it hung all to-other as if every hinge on it had been wrenched halfway off. As I pushed old Kate alongside it I heared somebody hollering alongside the contraption. I didn’t nohow get the words but it must have been for help, because I looked down and there was a man a-flopping along in the water.
He was a big fellow and he wasn’t swimming, just thrashin’ and hollering. So I pulled off my coat and boots and hove in after him. The stream was running fast but he was near the edge and I managed to catch on to an old tree-root and hang on, keeping his head out of the water till I got my feet aground. Then I hauled him onto the bank. Up above me Kate was still whinnying and raising Ned and I shouted at her as I bent over the man.
Wal, Rev’rend, he sure did give me a surprise—weren’t no proper man I’d ever seed before. He was wearing some kind of red clothes, real shiny and sort of stretchy and not wet from the water, like you’d expect, but dry and it felt like that silk and India-rubber stuff mixed together. And it was such a bright red that at first I didn’t see the blood on it.
When I did I knew he were a goner. His chest were all stove in, smashed to pieces. One of the old tree-roots must have jabbed him as the current flung him down. I thought he were dead already, but then he opened up his eyes.
A funny color they were, greeny yellow. And I swear, Rev’rend, when he opened them eyes I felt he was readin’ my mind. I thought maybe he might be one of them circus fellers in their flying contraptions that hang at the bottom of a balloon.
He spoke to me in English, kind of choky and stiff, not like Joe the Portygee sailor or like those tarnal dumb Frenchies up Canady way, but—well, funny. He said, “My baby—in ship. Get—baby...” He tried to say more but his eyes went shut and he moaned hard.
I yelped, “Godamighty!” ‘Scuse me, Rev’rend, but I was so blame upset that’s just what I did say, “Godamighty, man, you mean there’s a baby in that there dingfol contraption?” He just moaned so after spreadin’ my coat around the man a little bit I just plunged in that there river again.
Rev’rend, I heard tell once about some tomfool idiot going over Niagary in a barrel, and I tell you it was like that when I tried crossin’ that freshet to reach the contraption.
I went under and down, and was whacked by floating sticks and whirled around in the freshet. But somehow, I d’no how except by the pure grace of God, I got across that raging torrent and clumb up to where the crazy dingfol machine was sitting.
Ship, he’d called it. But that were no ship, Rev’rend, it was some flying dragon kind of thing. It was a real scarey lookin’ thing but I clumb up to the little door and hauled myself inside it. And, sure enough, there was other people in the cabin, only they was all dead.
There was a lady and a man and some kind of an animal looked like a bobcat only smaller, with a funny-shaped rooster-comb thing on its head.
They all—even the cat-thing—was wearing those shiny, stretchy clo’es.
And they all was so battered and smashed I didn’t even bother to hunt for their heartbeats. I could see by a look they was dead as a doornail.
Then I heard a funny little whimper, like a kitten, and in a funny, rubber-cushioned thing there’s a little boy baby, looked about six months old. He was howling lusty enough, and when I lifted him out of the cradle kind of thing, I saw why. That boy baby, he was wet, and his little arm was twisted under him. That there flying contraption must have smashed down awful hard, but that rubber hammock was so soft and cushiony all it did to him was jolt him good.
I looked around but I couldn’t find anything to wrap him in. And the baby didn’t have a stitch on him except a sort of spongy paper diaper, wet as sin. So I finally lifted up the lady, who had a long cape thing around her, and I took the cape off her real gentle. I knew she was dead and she wouldn’t be needin’ it, and that boy baby would catch his death if I took him out bare-naked like that. She was probably the baby’s Ma; a right pretty woman she was but smashed up something shameful.
So anyhow, to make a long story short, I got that baby boy back across that Niagary falls somehow, and laid him down by his Pa. The man opened his eyes kind, and said in a choky voice, “Take care—baby.”
I told him I would, and said I’d try to get him up to the house where Marthy could doctor him. The man told me not to bother. “I dying,” he says. “We come from planet—star up there—crash here—” His voice trailed off into a language I couldn’t understand, and he looked like he was praying.
I bent over him and held his head on my knees real easy, and I said, “Don’t worry, mister, I’ll take care of your little fellow until your folks come after him. Before God I will.”
So the man closed his eyes and I said, Our Father which art in Heaven, and when I got through he was dead.
I got him up on Kate, but he was cruel heavy for all he was such a tall skinny fellow. Then I wrapped that there baby up in the cape thing and took him home and give him to Marthy. And the next day I buried the fellow in the south medder and next meetin’ day we had the baby baptized Matthew Daniel Emmett, and brung him up just like our own kids. That’s all.
All? Mr. Emmett, didn’t you ever find out where that ship really came from?
Why, Rev’rend, he said it come from a star. Dying men don’t lie, you know that. I asked the Teacher about them planets he mentioned and she says that on one of the planets--can’t rightly remember the name, March or Mark or something like that--she says some big scientist feller with a telescope saw canals on that planet, and they’d hev to be pretty near as big as this-here Erie canal to see them so far off. And if they could build canals on that planet I d’no why they couldn’t build a flying machine.
I went back the next day when the water was down a little, to see if I couldn’t get the rest of them folks and bury them, but the flying machine had broke up and washed down the crick.
Marthy’s still got the cape thing. She’s a powerful saving woman. We never did tell Matt, though. Might make him feel funny to think he didn’t really b’long to us.
But—but—Mr. Emmett, didn’t anybody ask questions about the baby—where you got it?
Well, now, I’ll ‘low they was curious, because Marthy hadn’t been in the family way and they knew it. But up here folks minds their own business pretty well, and I jest let them wonder. I told Liza Grace I’d found her new little brother in the back pasture, and o’course it was the truth. When Liza Grace growed up she thought it was jest one of those yarns old folks tell the little shavers.
And has Matthew ever shown any differences from the other children that
you could see?
Well, Rev’rend, not so’s you could notice it. He’s powerful smart, but his real Pa and Ma must have been right smart too to build a flying contraption that could come so far.
O’course, when he were about twelve years old he started reading folks’ minds, which didn’t seem exactly right. He’d tell Marthy what I was thinkin’ and things like that. He was just at the pesky age. Liza Grace and Minnie were both a-courtin’ then, and he’d drive their boy friends crazy telling them what Liza Grace and Minnie were a-thinking and tease the gals by telling them what the boys were thinking about.
There weren’t no harm in the boy, though, it was all teasing. But it just weren’t decent, somehow. So I tuk him out behind the woodshed and give his britches a good dusting just to remind him that that kind of thing weren’t polite nohow. And Rev’rend Doane, he ain’t never done it sence.
Man, that is one ugly baby, but you know what people are like. (People like babies.)
It is Appalachia, after all.
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