Cover Image for ?Black Mass
The Mosquito Coast

PENGUIN BOOKS

THE MOSQUITO COAST

Paul Theroux was born and educated in the United States. After graduating from university in 1963, he travelled to Italy and then Africa, where he worked as a teacher in Malawi and as a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1968 he joined the University of Singapore and taught in the Department of English for three years. Throughout this time he was publishing short stories and journalism, and wrote a number of novels, including Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers. In the early 1970s he moved with his wife and two children to Dorset, where he wrote Saint Jack, and went on to live in London. During his seventeen years’ residence in Britain he wrote a dozen volumes of highly praised fiction and a number of successful travel books. He has since returned to the United States, but continues to travel widely.

Paul Theroux’s many books include Waldo; Saint Jack; The Family Arsenal; Picture Palace, winner of the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year, joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; My Secret History; Millroy the Magician; Kowloon Tong; The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express; Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Happy Isles of Oceania; Sir Vidia’s Shadow, a memoir of his friendship with Sir Vidia Naipaul; Fresh-Air Fiend: Travel Writings 1985–2000; Hotel Honolulu; and Dark Star Safari. Most of his books are published by Penguin.

PAUL THEROUX IN PENGUIN

FICTION

Waldo

Saint Jack

The Black House

The Family Arsenal

Picture Palace

The Mosquito Coast

O-Zone *

My Secret History: A Novel *

Chicago Loop

Millroy the Magician

On the Edge of the Great Rift
(containing Fong and the Indians,
Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers)

My Other Life: A Novel

Kowloon Tong

Hotel Honolulu

SHORT STORIES

The Collected Stories

TRAVEL

The Great Railway Bazaar

The Old Patagonian Express *

The Kingdom by the Sea

Sunrise With Seamonsters *

Riding the Iron Rooster *

The Happy Isles of Oceania

Travelling the World

The Pillars of Hercules

Fresh-Air Fiend: Travel Writings 1985–2000

Dark Star Safari

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Sir Vidia’s Shadow

*NOT AVAILABLE IN THE USA

Penguin Books

THE BEGINNING

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Paul Theroux

The Mosquito Coast

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Penguin Books

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

www.penguin.com

First published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd 1981
Published in Penguin Books 1982

Copyright © Paul Theroux, 1981
All rights reserved

ISBN: 978-0-241-95919-0

To ‘Charlie Fox’, whose story this is, and whose courage showed me that the brave cannot be killed. With grateful thanks for many hours of patient explanation and good humour in the face of my ignorant questioning. May he find the peace he deserves on this safer coast. Naksaa.

P.T.

Contents

Part One
Banana Boat

Part Two
The Ice-House at Jeronimo

Part Three
Brewer’s Lagoon

Part Four
Up the Patuca

Part Five
The Mosquito Coast



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Part One

Banana Boat

1

We drove past Tiny Polski’s mansion house to the main road, and then the five miles into Northampton, Father talking the whole way about savages and the awfulness of America – how it got turned into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger-zone of rabid scavengers and criminal millionaires and moral sneaks. And look at the schools. And look at the politicians. And there wasn’t a Harvard graduate who could change a flat tyre or do ten push-ups. And there were people in New York City who lived on pet food, who would kill you for a little loose change. Was that normal? If not, why did anyone put up with it?

‘I don’t know,’ he said, replying to himself. ‘I’m just thinking out loud.’

Before leaving Hatfield, he had parked the pick-up truck on a rise in the road, and pointed south.

‘Here come the savages,’ he said, and up they came, tracking across the fields from a sickle of trees through the gummy drizzling heat-outlines of Polski’s barns. They were dark and their clothes were rags and some had rags on their heads and others wide-brimmed hats. They were men and boys, a few no older than me, all of them carrying long knives.

Father’s finger scared me more than the men did. He was still pointing. The end of his forefinger was missing to the big knuckle, so the finger stump, blunted by stitched skin folds and horribly scarred, could only approximate the right direction.

‘Why do they bother to come here?’ he said. ‘Money? But how could it be money?’

He seemed to be chewing the questions out of his cigar.

It was mid-morning, already too hot for Massachusetts in May. The valley looked scorched from the dry spring we were having, and the shallow ditches were steaming like fresh cowflap. In the furrows that had been torn from one field’s end to the other, only tiny palm plumes of Wonder Corn were showing. Not a single bird twittered here. And the asparagus fields, where the men were headed, were as brown and smooth as if the green scalp of grass had been peeled off and the whole baldness steamrolled.

Father shook his head. He released the brake and spat out of the window. He said, ‘It sure as heck isn’t money. These days a dollar’s only worth twenty cents.’

Beyond Hatfield and Polski’s house, and at the top edge of the valley trough, were leafy battlements, some as pale as lemonade froth and others dark bulges and beetle heaps of bush, and stockades of bursting branches that matched my idea of encircling jungle. A few hours before, when we had woken up, the ground had been covered in glitter beads of cold dew. I thought of it as summer ice. I had breathed out clouds of vapour then. There were pouches of cloud in the sky. Now the sun was up high, filling the valley with light and heat that blazed against those men and made them into skinny demons.

Maybe this was the reason that, though I had seen the men before – the savages, in that very place and close enough to notice the way the sun left black bruises on their leather-brown skin – the sight of them had alarmed me, like Father’s finger.

‘This is the part I hate,’ he said, as we entered Northampton. He wore a baseball cap and drove with his elbow out the window. ‘It’s not the college girls, though they’re bad enough. Look at Tugboat Annie over there, the size of her. She’s so big it would only take eleven of her kind to make a dozen. But that’s fat – that’s not health. That’s cheeseburgers.’ And he stuck his head out the window and hollered, ‘That’s cheeseburgers!’

Down Main Street (‘They’re all on drugs’), we passed a Getty Station and Father howled at the price of gas. TWO SLAIN IN SHOOT-OUT was the sign on a newspaper stand, and he said, ‘Crapsheets.’ Just the word, Collectibles, on a store front, irritated him. And near the hardware store there was a vending machine that sold ice by the bag.

‘They sell ice – ten pounds for a quarter. But water’s as free as air. Those dingbats are selling water! Water’s the new growth industry. Mineral water, spring water, sparkling water. It’s big news – water’s good for you! Low-cal beer – know what’s in it? Know why it keeps you thin? Know why it costs more than the regular? Water!’

Father said it in the Yankee way, wattuh.

He cruised around, getting grumpier, until he found a meter with unexpired time left on it. Then he parked and we walked back to the hardware store.

‘I want a rubber seal, eight feet of it, with foam backing,’ Father said, and while the man went to get it, he said, ‘And that’s probably why gas is so expensive. They put water in it. You don’t believe me? If you insist there’s morality in merchandising’ – but I hadn’t said a word – ‘then maybe you’d like to explain why two-thirds of government-inspected meat has substantial amounts of cancer-inducing nitrates in it, and junk food – this is proven fact – has no nutritional value whatsoever –’

The hardware clerk returned with a coil of rubber and handed it to Father, who examined it and gave it back.

‘Don’t want it,’ he said.

‘That’s what you asked for,’ the man said.

Father made a pitying face. ‘What are you, working for the Japanese?’

‘If you don’t want it, just say so.’

‘I just said so, Jack. It’s made in Japan. I don’t want my hard-earned bucks turned into foreign exchange for the sons of Nippon. I don’t want to bankroll another generation of kamikazis. I want an American length of rubber seal, with foam – do you work here?’ And he cursed, because the man had walked away and begun serving another customer.

Father found the rubber seal he was looking for at a smaller hardware store on a side street, but by the time we got back to the pick-up truck he was having fits over what he had wished he had said at the first hardware store. ‘I should have said “Sayonara”, I should have made a scene.’

A policeman had his hands clasped over our parking meter, resting on it, with his chin on his fingers, like a goldbricker leaning on a shovel handle. He looked at Father and sort of smiled hello, and then he saw me and chewed his lips.

‘Shouldn’t he be in school?’

‘Sick,’ Father said, without breaking his stride.

The policeman followed Father to the door of the pick-up and hooked his thumbs in his gun belt and said, ‘Hold on. Why isn’t he in bed, then?’

‘With a fungal infection?’

The policeman lowered his head and stared at me across the seat.

‘Go on, Charlie, show him. He doesn’t believe me. Take off your shoe. Give him a whiff.’

I jerked the laces of my sneakers, as the policeman said, ‘Forget it.’

‘Don’t apologize,’ Father said, smiling at the policeman. ‘Politeness is a sign of weakness. And that’s no way to combat crime.’

‘You say something?’ The policeman clamped his jaw and hovered. He was very angry. He looked cautious and heavy.

But Father was still smiling. ‘I was thinking out loud.’

He said nothing more until we were back on the Hatfield road.

‘Would you really have taken off your shoes and showed that cop your healthy toes?’

‘You asked me to,’ I said.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘But what kind of a country is it that turns shoppers into traitors and honest men into liars? No one ever thinks of leaving this country. Charlie, I think of it every day!’

He kept driving.

‘And I’m the only one who does, because I’m the last man!’

That was our life here, the farm and the town. Father liked working at Tiny Polski’s farm, but the town gave him fits. That was why he kept me out of school – and Jerry and the twins, too.

Later in the day, fixing a pump by the side of a field, we saw the savages again.

‘They’re from the jungle. Migrant workers. They didn’t know when they were well off. I’d have traded places with them. They think this is paradise. Should never have come.’

Father had invented the pump for Polski a year ago. It had a sensitized finger-prong like a root in the ground, and when the soil dried out this nerve-wire activated a switch and got the pump going. Father, an inventor, was a perfect genius with anything mechanical. ‘Nine patents,’ he liked to say. ‘Six pending.’ He boasted that he had dropped out of Harvard in order to get a good education. He was prouder of his first job as a janitor than his Harvard scholarship. He had invented a mechanical mop – you held it tight and it jigged across the floor, then squeezed itself dry. Using that mop was like dancing with a headless woman, he said. He called it The Silent Woman. What he liked best was taking things apart, even books, even the Bible. He said the Bible was like an owner’s guide, a repair manual to an unfinished invention. He also said the Bible was a wilderness. It was one of Father’s theories that there were parts of the Bible that no one had ever read, just as there were parts of the world where no one had ever set foot.

‘You think that’s bad? It’s anything but. It’s the empty spaces that will save us. No funny bunnies, no cops, no crooks, no muggers, no glue-sniffers, no aerosol bombs. I’m not lost, like them.’ He pointed at the savages. ‘I know the way out.’

He touched the different parts of the pump with his fingers, like a doctor examining a baby for swellings, and still he talked about empty spaces and savages. I raised my eyes and saw them. They seemed to be creeping straight out of the wilderness he had just described. We watched them making for the upper fields, and though I knew they were only going out to cut more asparagus they looked as if they were searching for some fingers to chop off.

‘They come from the safest place on earth – Central America. Know what they’ve got down there? Geothermal energy. All the juice they need is five thousand feet underground. It’s the earth’s belly button. Why do they come here?’

Across the fields they went, the savages, hunched over and flapping. They had huge shoes and tiny tucked-down heads, and as they passed by the woods they scared the crows and started a racket of caws. The birds flew up like black gloves jerked from a line, rising backwards and filling out their feathers with each wingbeat.

‘No TV where they come from. No Nipponese videocrapola. Pass me that oil-can. Up here, nature is young. But the eco-system in the tropics is immensely old and hasn’t changed since the world began. Why do they think we have the answers? Faith – is that what you’re saying? Is faith just playing “Come to Jesus” in A-flat?’

He locked the wrench over the threads of the protruding pipe, then poked the spout of the oil-can at the pipe-joint and squirted. With both hands he freed the pipe, and he sighed.

‘No, sir. Faith is believing in something you know ain’t true. Ha!’

He put his short finger inside the rusty trickle in the pump housing and pulled out a brass valve and a gush of water.

‘You can’t drink the water where those savages originate. It’s got creatures in it. Worms. Weeds. They haven’t got the sense to boil it and purify it. Never heard of filtration. The germs get into their bodies, and they turn green, like the water, and die. The rest of them figure it’s no good there – spiders big as puppies, mosquitoes, snakes, floods, swamps, alligators. No idea at all about geothermal energy. Why change it when you can come here and go to pieces? Give me the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Have a Coke, watch television, go on welfare, get free money. Turn to crime. Crime pays in this country – muggers become pillars of the community. They’ll all end up mugging and purse-snatching.’

The water was now pouring out of the pump and the inside circuits ticked and measured.

‘I’m not going into Northampton again. It’s too upsetting. I’m sick of meeting people who want the things I’ve already had and rejected. I’ve had every dollar I’ve ever wanted, Charlie. And don’t mention education. That cop this morning was educated – that Truant Officer – and all he wants is what they have on TV. I wouldn’t send that guy out for sandwiches! I’ve had all that – what people crave. It doesn’t work, and it’s irritating to hear it praised ignorantly.’

He grinned at me.

He said, ‘It’s an imperfect world.’

Now he was grinning at his cut-off finger.

‘What are the Russians doing while those people are watching TV? They’re conducting some very interesting experiments with water. They de-gas it, bubble everything out of it, including oxygen and nitrogen. When they’ve flattened it they seal it up in mason jars, like preserved peaches. Put it aside for a while. Then, when they use this water on plants, they grow two or three times as fast – big healthy monsters. Beans climb off their poles, summer squashes like balloons, beets the size of volleyballs.’

He motioned to the water.

‘I’m just thinking out loud. What do you think? You figure there’s something wrong with the rain? Say something.’

I said I did not know.

‘Figure someone ought to talk to God about rethinking the weather? I tell you, Charlie, it’s an imperfect world. America’s in gridlock.’

He cupped his hand under the spurting pipe and raised it to his mouth. Then he slurped it. ‘This is like champagne to those savages.’

Smacking his lips he made it seem wonderful stuff.

‘Things you and I take for granted, like ice. They don’t have it in their country. If they saw an ice-cube they’d probably think it was a diamond or a jewel of some kind. Doesn’t seem like the end of the world – no ice. But think about it. Imagine the kind of problems they have with no proper refrigeration.’

‘Maybe they don’t have electricity,’ I said.

Father said, ‘Of course they don’t. We’re talking about the jungle, Charlie. But you can have refrigeration without juice. All you need is suction. Start a vacuum going and you’ve got refrigeration. Listen, you can get ice out of fire.’

‘Why don’t they know that?’

‘No way,’ he said. ‘That’s what makes them savages.’

He began putting the pump back together.

He said, ‘Must have all kinds of diseases.’ He gestured with his wrench in the direction the men had taken. ‘Them – they’ve got diseases.’

He seemed both fascinated and repelled by them, and he communicated these feelings to me, telling me something interesting and then warning me not to be too interested. I had wondered how he knew these things about the men he called savages. He claimed he knew from experience, from living in wild places, among primitive people. He used the word savages with affection, as if he liked them a little for it. In his nature was a respect for wildness. He saw it as a personal challenge, something that could be put right with an idea or a machine. He felt he had the answer to most problems, if anyone cared to listen.

The crows returned to the woods, speeding towards the treetops, then circling warily and plunging to roost.

I said, ‘Are those men dangerous?’

‘Not as dangerous as the average American,’ he said. ‘And only when they get mad. You know they’re mad when they’re smiling. That’s the signal, like dogs.’

He turned to me and smiled broadly. I knew he wanted me to ask him more.

‘Then what?’

‘They turn into animals. Killers. Animals sort of smile just before they bite you.’

‘Do those men bite?’

‘Give you one example. Know how they do it? Kill you? I’ll tell you, Charlie boy. They hollow you out.’

Holler ya out was the way he said it, and when he did I felt as if my scalp was tugged by a hundred sharp claws.

‘That’s why it would take courage to go there – and not ordinary gumption, but four-o-clock-in-the-morning courage. Who’s got that?’

We worked outside until the sky turned the colour of flaming Sterno, then started home to supper.

‘Admit it,’ Father said, ‘this is better than school.’

2

That night I opened my eyes in the dark and knew that my father was not in the house. The sense of someone missing is stronger than the sense of someone there. It was not only that I didn’t hear his whistling snore (usually he sounded like one of his own original expansion valves), or even that all the lights were out. It was a feeling of lonesome emptiness, as if there was a mummy-shaped hole of air in the house where my father’s body should have been. And my fear was that this unpredictable man was dead, or worse than dead – hollowed out and haunting the property. I knew he was gone, and in a worried guilty way – I was thirteen years old – I felt responsible for him.

There was no moon, but even so it was an easy house to search, because there were no locks. Father disapproved of locking doors. I say disapproved but I mean he’d threaten to hit us for it. Someone behind a locked door was up to no good, he said. He often shouted at the bathroom door, ‘Don’t barricade yourself in!’ He had grown up in a small fishing town on the coast of Maine – he called it ‘Dogtown’ – where door-locking was unknown. During the years he had spent in India and Africa he had kept to the same rule, so he said. I never knew for sure if he had been to those places. I grew up with the belief that the world belonged to him and that everything he said was true.

He was big and bold in everything he did. The only ordinary thing about him was that he smoked cigars, and wore a baseball cap all day.

I looked first in the bedroom and saw one figure lying there on the brass bed, a humped-up sheet on the far side – Mother. I was sure he was gone, because he always hung his overalls on the bedpost, and they were not there. I went downstairs and through the rooms. The cat was sleeping on the floor like a tipped-over roller skate. I paused in the hallway and listened. It being spring, there was a powerful odour of lilacs and dug-up dirt, and a soft wind. There was a torrent of crickets outside, and one frantic cricket trapped inside making fretful chirps. Except for this cricket, the house was as still as if it lay buried.

My rubber boots were right inside the door. I put them on and, still in my pyjamas, I set out along the path to look for my old man.

We were surrounded by ploughed fields. The edge of each field was ragged with woods, cut as windbreaks. The corn and tobacco had begun to sprout, and though it was easier to tramp between the furrows, I stuck to the path with my arms in front of my face to keep the branches away. It was not the branches I hated, but the spider webs strung across that snagged on my eyelashes. These woods were full of marshy pools, and the sound that night was the spring peepers, the little slippery frogs, shiny as fish lures, that made such a warbling. The trees were blue and black, like towering witches. Where was he?

I had left the house feeling wrapped in darkness, but the farther I walked the less dark it seemed. Now the land was muddy yellow. Some trees were ash-coloured and the upper parts picked out like iron thorns and the sky heavy grey. I could see some clouds. One was the shape of a loaf of bread and I guessed that the moon was behind it because it had a bright oily look, as if it hid a mill town in the heavens.

After a while I wished that I had not left the house in such a hurry. The boots were loose on my feet and made a slopping sound. Mosquitoes bit me through my pyjamas. My arms were scratched with brambles. I should have worn my hat – bugs chased into my hair. Every so often, I had a feeling that someone was behind me. I turned around sharply to confront the smirking skulls on barkless trees or the reaching finger bones from dead branches. That was one fear. My other was that I would step on a skunk and get sprayed with the stink. Then I would have to bury my pyjamas in a hole and go back to the house bare naked.

The woods thinned out. I could see single trees against the sky and another row in front of a yellowish field. A pile of boulders told me where I was. This high point had been left because it was impossible to plough. It was narrow and it rose up at the end of the woods, giving the whole thing the look of a ship. From the side, in daytime, it was a schooner with a rocky bow and a cargo on the deck and thirty leafy masts, stranded in the asparagus fields among the windbreaks that looked like islands.

It was mostly asparagus here. The crop was ready, the harvest had begun. It is a funny-looking crop, because it does not grow in furrows. The fields are as flat and smooth as a parking lot. From a distance you can’t see asparagus plants, but if you go very close you see the spikes – no flowers, no leaves – just fat green candles sticking out of the ground everywhere. From where I was standing I could not see anything but the smooth steamrolled earth, and its dull shine, like a swell in a waveless sea. And beyond those fields the black ribbon of night where I feared my father was.

There were also lightning bugs. They were puny, not bright, less than match flares, dithering on and off and never in the same place twice. They had a light of their own but lighted nothing else and were like dim unreliable stars dying in the darkness.

But a cluster of small lights far off did not die. They fumbled, they were torches, and when I was satisfied that these fires had men beneath them I set off directly for them, across the asparagus fields, kicking over and cracking the spikes, and boots sinking in the dirt crust.

Closer, I could see the high flames wagging all in a row – a procession of people in single file holding torches over their heads, the flames snapping like flags. Their broad-brimmed hats were lit up, but I could not see their bodies. They streamed from a patch of pinewoods where there was an old building we called the Monkey House.

Men with torches marching at midnight across the valley fields – I had never seen anything like it. It was a snake of flame, and I thought I heard a rattling sound, the jacking of beans shaken in a can. But I was more curious than frightened, and I had hidden myself so well and was still so distant, the thing didn’t threaten me.

The procession kept to the far side of a stone wall between the crops – young corn there, asparagus here. I had to stay where I was. I imagined that if they saw me they would attack me and set me on fire. This thought, and the knowledge that I was safe here, gave me a thrill. I hunched over and ran to a ditch and got down flat and looked sharp.

Then they changed direction and came towards me. Had they seen me run? My heart almost stopped as the torches tottered through a gate in the stone wall, and I thought: Oh, Gaw, they’re going to set me on fire.

I crept backwards into the ditch, and as I was in this lying-down position the ditch water started to leak into my boot tops. Pretty soon my boots were full of ditch water. But I didn’t open my mouth. One of my father’s favourite stories was about the Spartan boy with the fox under his shirt, I forget why, who let the animal chew his belly to shreds because he was too brave to shout for help. Wet feet were no comparison. There were some low vines growing on the ground nearby. I knew my legs were sunk in mud and water, so I yanked at the vines and pulled them over my head and flattened myself against the side of the ditch. I was completely hidden.

The men were close. They were still gabbling – they sounded happy – and I could hear the swishing of their torches, the flames sounding like sheets blowing on a clothes-line – no crackle, just the flap of fire. I looked up. I expected to see torch-carriers with crazy faces, but what I saw almost made me yell. The man in front was carrying a huge black cross.

The cross was not made out of planks, but rounded – two fat poles lashed together. There were horrible white chop-marks where the branches had been lopped off, like oval wounds on skin. And behind this fellow with the cross, and more scary, was a man carrying a human body, a limp thing, with the head slung down and the feet dangling and the arms swishing back and forth. He carried this corpse the way you heave a seed-bag. It was big and soft and heavy, and its parts swung loose in a dreadful way. In the torchlight the carrier’s face was yellow. He was smiling.

I did not feel like looking any more. I was shivering with cold. You can get ice out of fire, Father said. Now I believed him. That fire froze my guts.

I kept my head down and my mouth shut, even though I was muddy and wet and bitten by bugs. I had felt the heat and smelled the torches – that was how close they were. Then they were gone. I looked up slowly and saw their torches flickering in the ship-shaped woods I had cut through myself. The tree branches jumped in the firelight, and this leaping line of hot stripes and shadows crossed to the far side where it settled and glowed.

I crawled out of the ditch and chucked the vines aside and emptied my boots. Then, keeping to the ditch, I sloshed as far as I could, and duck-walked across the asparagus and into the woods. By now the procession was beyond the trees. All that remained here was the smell of gasoline-soaked rags and burned leaves. I was well hidden here. In fact, I could see everything from behind a heap of rocks.

Two of the men were hunched over. They must have been fastening the dead man to the cross, because soon after, in the fiery light of the circle of torches, I saw the cross raised up with a man on it, his wrists bent, and his toes sticking down and his head tipped like a jug.

It looked wicked and I expected the men to be screaming blue murder. But no, it was all quiet, even jolly, and that was worse, like the nightmare you watch happening to you and cannot explain. In all that zig-zagging across the fields I was so afraid of giving myself away and being burned alive that I had forgotten why I was there. But just as I saw the raised cross I remembered that I was looking for my father. The recollection and the sight came at the same instant, and I thought: That dead twisted person is my old man.

I sat there and put my hands on my eyes and tried to stop crying, but I kept blubbering until my head felt very small and very wet. I thought, without knowing why, that I would be blamed for it.

All I could do was watch and listen. I had got used to this murky sight, and the longer I looked the more I felt responsible for it, as if it was something I had imagined, an evil thought that had sprung out of my head. Watching it made me part of it.

There was no time to worry. All at once, the men doused their lights. After the fires and the shadows and the lighted cross, there were only shirts and hats – bone-white skeleton rags moving without bodies – and silence, as the men, these rags, foamed towards me.

I picked myself up and ran for my life.

I’m the last man! That had been Father’s frequent yell.

It was painful, back in my bed, in the dark unlocked house, not dreaming but thinking. I felt small and shrunken. Father, who believed there was going to be a war in America, had prepared me for his death. All winter, he had been saying, ‘It’s coming – something terrible is going to happen here.’ He was restless and talkative. He said the signs were everywhere. In the high prices, the bad tempers, the gut worry. In the stupidity and greed of people, and in the hoggish fatness of them. Bloody crimes were being committed in cities, and criminals went unpunished. It was not going to be an ordinary war, he said, but rather a war in which no side was entirely innocent.

‘Fat fools will be fighting skinny criminals,’ he said. ‘You’ll hate one and be scared of the other. It’ll be national brain damage. Who’s left to trust?’

He sounded disgusted, and in the depths of that white winter he was sometimes very gloomy. One day, Tiny Polski’s pipes froze solid and Father was called on to unblock them. We stood in the snow, at the edge of a freshly-dug pit, wiring the pipes to Father’s ‘Thunderbox’ to unthaw them. (This device was his own invention and he was proud of it – patent pending – though the first time he used it he almost killed Ma Polski, her hand being on an electrified faucet when he turned on the juice.) He watched the pipes heat and throw off vapour. Ice cracked inside, and jostled, and rattled like gravel. He listened with pleasure to the clunking thaw in the pipes, and then faced me at the edge of the snow-crusted pit.

‘When it comes, I’ll be the first one they kill. They always kill the smart ones first – the ones they’re afraid will outwit them. Then, with no one to stop them, they’ll tear each other to pieces. Turn this fine country into a hole.’

There was no despair in his words, only matter-of-factness. The war was a certainty, but he was still hopeful. He said he believed in himself and in us. ‘I’ll take you away – we’ll pack up and go. And we’ll shut the door on all this.’

He liked the idea of setting out, moving away, starting off in an empty place with nothing but his brains and his toolbox.

‘They’ll get me first.’

‘No.’

‘They always get the smart ones first.’

I could not deny this. He was the smartest man I knew. He had to be the first one to die.

Until I saw that marching procession at midnight, and the dead body on the cross, I could not imagine how anyone would be able to kill him. But that night was enough. I was convinced now, and I was alone. The strongest man I knew had been strung up on two poles and left in a corn field. It was the end of the world.

‘I’m the last man, Charlie!’

The dark hours were passing. Soon it would be morning and I would have to face everyone and tell them that Father had predicted it. So I lay in my bed and thought how Father had said that the country was doomed. He had promised to save us and get us away before it was too late. But he was gone, I was too weak to save the others, and in the dream I finally had in the coldest part of the night I was leading Mother and the twins and Jerry through burning fields under a wounded sun and a sky the colour of blood, all our clothes in rags, and the smoke, and nothing to eat. They were depending on me, and only I knew, but was afraid to tell them because it was too late, that I was taking them the wrong way.

In the bruised red-black sky was the mocking face of Father, after we had walked and walked, saying, ‘Where have you been, sonny?’

I covered my eyes. I was still in the dream and aching, Mother and the kids behind me, disaster ahead and no escape.

‘Where have you – ?’

I woke and saw his face, sunburned and angry, and sat up because I expected him to hit me – afraid he was dead, then afraid because he was standing over me. His cigar told me I was not dreaming. I was too shocked to cry.

‘I had a bad dream.’

And I thought: It has all been a dream – the men with the torches, the corpse on the cross, the laughing savages, the wounded sun and sky. I was very happy. The sunlight bleached my bedroom curtains, birds screeched at me.

‘You must have been dreaming about poison ivy,’ Father said. ‘You’ve got the worst case I’ve ever seen.’

As he said it, I began to ache. My face felt pebbly and raw, and my arms, too.

‘Don’t touch it. You’ll make it spread. Get out of the sack and put something on it.’ He started out of the room, and as I pulled on my clothes he said, ‘You’ve been fooling in the bushes – that’s where you’ve been.’

The loose board on the threshold told me everything was normal. I smelled coffee and bacon and heard the twins screaming and was gladder than I had ever been. I went to the bathroom. My face looked like a pomegranate in the mirror, and my arms and shoulders were inflamed with the poison ivy rash. I wiped calamine lotion on it and hurried to the kitchen.

‘It’s a ghost,’ Jerry said, seeing my whitewashed face.

‘You poor thing,’ Mother said. She set a plate of eggs in front of me and kissed the top of my head.

Father said, ‘It’s his own fault.’

But it was nothing. After what I had seen, a case of poison ivy seemed like salvation.

‘Eat up,’ Father said. ‘We’ve got work to do.’

I wanted to work, to carry the toolbox and hand him the oil-can and be his slave and do anything he asked. I deserved to be punished. I wanted to forget those torches and those men. I was thirteen years old again. I had felt forty.

Father said, ‘Meet me in the workshop when you’re through.’

‘Poor Charlie,’ Mother said. ‘Where did you get that face?’

I said softly, ‘I was fooling in the bushes, Ma. It was my own fault.’

She shook her head and smiled. She knew I was sorry.

‘Ma!’ Jerry yelled. ‘Charlie’s staring at me with his face!’

Father’s workshop was behind the house. There were mottos and quotations lettered on pieces of cardboard and tacked to the shelves, and tools and pipes and coils of wire and various machines. Besides motors of all kinds, and a grease gun and his lathe, which gave the workshop the look of an arsenal, there was his Thunderbox and an all-purpose contraption he called his ‘Atom-smasher’.

On the floor, about the size of a trunk, but resting upright on its end, was a wooden box he had been building and tinkering with for most of the spring. There were no wires in it and no motor. He had put it together with a blowtorch. It was full of pipes, and grids and tanks, copper tubing below and a door leading to a tin box on top. It smelled of kerosene and I took it to be an oven of some kind, because bracketed to the back was a sooty chimney. Father said we had to get this thing into the pick-up truck.

I tried to lift it. It wouldn’t budge.

‘Want to rupture yourself?’ Father said.

With fussy care, and taking his time, he set up a block and tackle on a tripod and we swung this box of fitted pipes into the pick-up.

‘What is it?’

‘Call it a Worm Tub or a hopper. You’ll know when Doctor Polski knows.’

He took the back road and travelled towards Polski’s farmhouse on the tractor paths by the margins of the fields. When we passed the windbreak that was like a ship, I remembered that it was there that I had seen the procession of torch-carrying men. Below that clump of woods I had seen the men gather, and the corpse raised up on the cross. I hoped Father would take the right fork, so that I could satisfy myself – seeing footprints or trampled corn – that I had not dreamed it. Father turned right. I held my breath.

What was that in the ploughed field? A cross, a dead man hanging on it, black rags and a black hat, a skull face and broken hands and twisted feet.

It froze me, and I could not help the stammering whimper in my voice as I asked him what it was.

Father was still driving fast over the rutted track. He did not turn his head. He just grinned and said, ‘Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a scarecrow.’

He thumped the throttle.

‘And it must be a damned good one.’

I looked back and saw it hanging in the empty field, the old clothes stuffed with straw. Sweat had made my poison ivy itch, and I wanted to claw my face.

‘Because it sure has you scared!’ And he laughed.

3

The story was that Tiny Polski, who had heard about his inventions, visited Father and pleaded with him to come to Hatfield. We lived in Maine then, not Dogtown but in the woods. Father was trying a year of self-sufficiency, growing vegetables and building solar panels and keeping us out of school. Polski promised money and a share in the farm. Father did not budge. Polski said he had unusual problems because he wanted, by mechanical means, to lengthen the growing season, even make it a two-season farm. It was a good area to raise kids in. It was safe, a happy valley, miles from anywhere. So Father accepted. That was the story he told me. But I knew better. Things had not gone well for us in Maine. Father had refused to spray insecticides on the vegetables – the worms got them before they could ripen. Rain and storm raised hell with the solar panels. For a while, Father would not eat, and he was taken to the hospital. He called it ‘The Buzz Palace’, but came out smiling and said, ‘I didn’t feel a thing.’ He was healthy again, except that now and then he forgot our names. We drove to Hatfield with nothing. He liked starting from scratch.

It was impossible to think of Polski, or anyone else, as Father’s boss. Father did not take orders. He described Polski as ‘the runt’, called him ‘Roly’, and ‘Doctor Polski’ – but ‘Doctor’ was pure sarcasm, to frustrate any friendship. He believed that Polski, and most men, were his inferiors.

‘He owns people,’ Father said. ‘But he doesn’t own me.’

Polski was waiting for us on his piazza as we drove in. His eyes were grey and as hard as periwinkles. He was older than Father, and small and plump, and looked full of sawdust. He wore a checkered shirt and clean Dubbelwares and a belt around his middle that bunched his bib overalls into two bags. His jeep was shiny, his boots never muddy, there was no sweat stain on his hat. He did not smoke. He was always dressed for dirty work but never got dirty. We had not been inside his mansion, but whether this was because Father flatly refused to enter or because we had not been invited, I could not say. Maybe Polski knew better than to invite Father in and hear one of his speeches about crapsheets or cheeseburgers. I had looked through the windows and seen the polished table and the cut-glass vase of flowers, the plates in a wheel-row on the hutch, Ma Polski’s busy back as she stooped and tidied. None of it said welcome. And Ma Polski looked like part of the room.

‘Nice day,’ Polski said.

‘You bet,’ Father said.

‘Hope it’s like this on the weekend. I got something doing on Saturday.’

Sumthun doo-un on Saddy was what he said. But Father did not comment. He was excited. He had driven with impatience, he was eager to show Polski the hopper he had made, his ‘Worm Tub’. He was proud of it, whatever it was. And yet he was still sitting in the pick-up truck, chewing his cigar.

‘Got a match, Doctor?’

Polski screwed up one eye and rocked a little on his heels. The question baffled him. He said, ‘You come all the way over here for a match, Mr Fox?’

‘Yup.’

‘Be right back.’ Polski said his rs like vs – vight back, vemember, vobber, veally, vong. It was his lower lip catching on his front teeth. He went inside.

Father studied my rashy face and arms. He said, ‘You’ve got the mange. I hope you learned your lesson.’

He hopped out and set up the block and tackle behind the truck. ‘We’re going to knock his boots off,’ he said. He swung the Worm Tub on to the driveway. ‘We’re going to straighten his hair.’

Polski returned with a box of big kitchen matches and looked at the Worm Tub and said, ‘Pretty small for a coffin.’

‘I wonder if you’d do one more little thing for me,’ Father said. ‘I need a glass of water. Just a small glass of regular water from your faucet.’

Muttering ‘a glass of vegular water’, Polski entered the farmhouse. I could tell from the way he said it and how the door banged shut, that he was getting exasperated. When he brought the water out and gave it to Father he said, ‘You’re a mystery man, Mr Fox. Now let’s get volling.’

‘You’re a gentleman.’

Now Polski looked at me for the first time. ‘Poison ivy. You’re crawling with it. Ain’t that something.’

Hearing crawlun and sumthun, I stepped back and touched my face in shame. I had been fooled by a scarecrow. And I had figured it out. It made sense to put scarecrows up at night, so the birds would not know. Was that my lesson?

‘What is it, anyway?’ Polski was saying to Father.

‘Tell you what it ain’t,’ Father said, opening the door of the wooden box and revealing the metal compartment with its hinged flap and the rubber seal we had bought in Northampton. ‘It ain’t a coffin, and it ain’t a piece of diseased meat. Ha!’

He picked the flap open and said, ‘I want you to tell me what you see inside.’

‘Nuthun.’

‘You’re the witness, Charlie.’

Polski laughed. ‘Only his eyes are all swole shut.’

Father tipped some of the water out of the glass, seeming to measure it in splashes until there was about an inch left. He put the glass inside the metal compartment, closed the flap, closed the door, closed the hasp, then lit a match.

Polski said, ‘Don’t tell me you’re going to cook that glass of water.’

‘I’ve got better things to do.’

‘Likewise!’

Polski moved his lips after this. He was boiling.

Father said, ‘You won’t be disappointed.’

‘What’s that stink? Kerosene?’

‘Correct. Range oil. Cheapest fuel in America.’

‘And smelliest.’

Father said, ‘Opinions vary.’

This made Polski gobble. ‘And you say you’re not cooking anything?’

‘Not exactly.’

Father was enjoying himself. He worked at the back of the wooden box, where the tubing and the heating element was. Worm Tub was a good name for this crate of pipe-joints. He had lighted a wick that was fed and moistened by a spout on the fuel tank, and adjusting the flame he sent bats of sticky soot out of the chimney. There was a gurgle inside, the sound a hungry stomach makes, but apart from this surge of discontented squirts in those tubes, nothing, no motor and not much heat.

‘Does she burp or fart?’ Father said. ‘That’s what you’re asking yourself.’

Polski grunted with embarrassment and clicked his eyes and looked impatient as he fussed his footsoles over pebbles. Heat, loose weeds of it, were growing blackly out of the chimney. Polski backed away.

‘If them pipes are sealed, she’ll blow up,’ he said. ‘Pressure.’

‘Hide in your house if you want,’ Father said. ‘But she’s got a full set of safety valves. Reason she’s smoking is I’ve got her turned up full blast. For demonstration purposes.’ He snatched at his visor. ‘She can take it.’

He looked proudly upon it, and he seemed so certain of it, so carelessly confident, I half expected it to wheeze open with a boom of flame and explode in his face. We had had other explosions. ‘Just testing,’ Father would say. The workshop ceiling was scorched, and Father had not lost the tip of his finger opening a can of tunafish, as he sometimes claimed.

Polski said, ‘If I ever wanted to cook a glass of water, I’d shove it on the front burner. Only I never veally wanted to voast a glass of water.’

Polski looked at me for approval, and then turned gloomy when he saw the column of greasy smoke. His head turtled into his shoulders, and he squinted, awaiting the bang.

Father winked at me. ‘Like the way she purrs?’

‘Vumble, vumble,’ Polski said.

‘Not a wire anywhere,’ Father said, walking slowly around the box. ‘She’s not connected to anything. I’ve got nothing up my sleeve. No moving parts, Doctor. Nothing to wear out. Last forever.’

‘Just the ticket for my chicken coop,’ Polski said, and he looked at me. ‘During the winter. It’d keep the birds warm as toast and laying vegular if it didn’t kill them with fumes.’

‘He’s a great kidder,’ Father said. ‘The fumes can be rectified. It’s all a matter of fine adjustment. I only want to show you what she’s capable of.’

‘I’d say she’s capable of putting skunks out of business.’

Polski cleared his throat, then spat, and toed dust on to the medallion of spittle.

Father said, ‘How’s the old asparagus?’

‘Too damn much of it. It’s this dry weather. It’s shooting up in this heat. It’s mostly all vipe. I’ve got more than I can store.’

Mowah than I can stowah.

‘Sell it, then,’ Father said.

‘They’d like that.’

‘Everyone likes asparagus.’

‘The market’s glutted,’ Polski said. He filled his jaws with spit and used a jet of it like a reply. ‘I wouldn’t tell you what I’m getting for a pound. I’ll be selling it by the ton next. Or giving it away.’

‘That’s the idea.’

‘I’ll be in the poorhouse.’

‘Sure you will,’ Father said.

‘You too, Mr Fox.’

‘I’ve been there. It’s an education.’

Polski said, ‘The cold store is chock-a-block. I want you to look at the fuses later on. I don’t know how much they’ll bring back today, but if it’s more than a couple of truckloads I’m in trouble. I mean, we’re all in trouble. Last year, I couldn’t cut it fast enough. I was making a dollar a pound some weeks. This year it’s vuining me. I’m buried in grass –’

He went on complaining this way and spitting and angrily nuthuning and sumthuning and kicking dust until finally, in what was almost a shout, he said, ‘I guess that glass of water must be good and cooked by now!’

Father said calmly, ‘Wouldn’t be a bit surprised.’

‘Mind opening it up, Mr Fox? I’ve got work to do. Show me whatever you’re going to show me.’

Father turned to me. ‘He wants us to open it up.’

Polski was gobbling again. ‘You talk to him, Charlie. He won’t listen to me.’

‘Don’t plough with my heifer,’ Father said.

Drawing harsh bellyaching breaths, Polski said in a suffering voice, ‘Will you see if this thing’s emulsified!’

Father sucked on his cigar. He tasted it. He swallowed. He puffed and blew a smoke ring into the windless air. It was a blue hoop, it grew handles and pedals and a rider, it cycled away. We watched it slant towards the fields, pulling itself apart, like a sinking comma from a sentence of skywriting, filling Father’s pause with visible delay.

‘Here we go,’ he said.