Early in my childhood, when the adult world and sometimes my own experience easily assumed the bright timelessness of myth, I overheard my father’s friend Charlie Hardy telling about the drouth of 1908. I liked hearing the grownups talk, and when I wanted to I could be quiet. By being more or less unnoticeable, I heard a lot. Some of the adult conversations I listened to ended with a question: “How long have you been here, Andy?”
Charlie Hardy, anyhow, grew up on a rough little farm on Bird’s Branch. Charlie, as he said, “came up hard,” though that phrase, by now, has lost much of the meaning it still would have had in the early 1940s. At the time of Charlie’s boyhood, except for the railroad and the little packets that still carried passengers and freight up and down the river, there were no machines in the country around Port William, no electricity, no “modern conveniences” or not many. Now, when electricity, indoor plumbing, and many personal machines have become normal, people generally assume that a hundred years ago life was “hard” for almost everybody, though few still have the experience needed for a just comparison. It is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one.
Like every child of his time and in his circumstances, Charlie grew up working. One of his jobs was to carry water for the household from a spring at the bottom of the hill. It was a good spring, with a reputation for never going dry. It was known as the Hardy Spring, and people spoke of its “deep vein,” and of its fine-tasting water that ran cool through the hot weather. It didn’t go dry in 1908, but it came close. In 1908 Charlie was big enough to carry two ten-quart buckets of water from the spring to the house. He made many trips.
In tolerable weather the spring was a good place to go. The water issued from a cleft in the ledgerock down near the creek. The place was always in deep shade. The spring itself and the little basin where the water collected had been enclosed with a rock wall and roof, and fitted with a door, to keep the livestock out. The water striders and the round-and-about bugs conducted their daily business in the pools downstream, and the shikepokes came and fished. But for Charlie, in the drouth of 1908, it became a place of suffering. He would come down with his buckets, dip one full from the basin, and then wait a long time for the basin to fill again so that he could dip the second.
The drouth, the withering foliage, the heat, and the diminished flow of the spring filled Charlie with misery, and his misery was made worse by his longing for rain. Until it finally rained again, something fundamental seemed to have gone wrong with the world. In the secrecy of his thoughts, after the way of boys, he mourned and he was afraid.
Noticing his misery, his father gave him an instruction that Charlie always remembered when he needed to. “You think it’s awful. And it is. But I’ll tell you something. You can’t believe it now, but times will come when this won’t be on your mind. You won’t think of it.”
And that, Charlie said, was true. There had been times when he had not thought of it.
But hearing him tell about it put it on my mind. I thought about it. And so when the first drouth of my own experience and memory came to our part of the country during the war year of 1944, I already knew one thing about it: It had happened before.
In addition to the drouth and the war, and the absence of my uncle Virgil, my mother’s brother, who had gone off to fight, the summer of 1944 was the summer of the death of my uncle Andrew, my father’s brother. For me, it was a summer of needof more need, probably, than I was capable of recognizing or feeling. That one may be grieved and in need and all the while living one’s life, often enough with interest and even pleasure, was an ordinary oddity far beyond my years and understanding. Grief, great as it might be, did not consume all the world, but now, for me, it had taken its place among the world’s other things.
I was staying that summer with my father’s parents, Dorie and Marce Catlett. As the days without rain accumulated until the word “drouth” took its place in our daily vocabulary, I learned of two other drouths that were still new in the memory of my elders. One had come in 1930. Another, a worse one, had come in my own lifetime, in 1936 when I was two years old, though I had no memory of it.
A drouth is an event of the atmosphere of the earth. It is also an event of the atmosphere of the human mind, which suffers a disturbance that affects everything. It affects the meanings of memory and history. It affects one’s sense of the future. Everybody on the place old enough to remember the Thirties regarded our present drouth with a fearful respect that could be described as primeval: It had been felt by country people since the beginning of time. It was not qualified by youth or innocence. I felt it, I think, as fully as my elders.
Grandpa Catlett showed me a rewired place in the line fence where in 1936 a gap had been cut, allowing the neighbors to drive their cows to our spring that had kept flowing. He and his black hired hand Dick Watson remembered how they and others had hauled water to the livestock in barrels dipped full one bucket at a time. They told of people who drove their cattle two or three miles through the heat to drink at the river, and the cattle would be as thirsty again when they got home as they had been when they left. Who could not see the misery of that? And how, having seen it, could you keep it from filling your mind?
We looked at the parching ground and at the drying creek whose pools got smaller every day, we suffered the heat, and we watched the sky. We expected, or at least I did, the end of the world. I was much under the influence, in those days, of Grandma Catlett and Dick Watson’s wife, Aunt Sarah Jane, to whom about equally the end of the world was a scheduled event, though nobody knew the schedule. The end of the world was not as exactly predictable but was just as expectable as Christmas or the Fourth of July. And of course they were right.
Grandpa, I think, did not give much thought to the end of the world. It was the continuance of the world that worried him. Of the theologies then available on the place, Grandpa’s was probably simplest: Old Marster is in charge, and we are not; Old Marster knows, and we don’t. But Grandma had pondered a good deal about the end of the world. It was fearful to her, and in times of unusual weather she dwelt upon it. If, for instance, there would come a spell of cold weather in the late spring, she would say to me, perhaps wishing not to, to spare me, but unable to contain her thought, “Oh, Andy, they speak of a time when we’ll not know the summer from the winter but by the budding of the trees.”
I would sit with her in a bay of one of the upstairs rooms whose windows looked out to the north. She would have her lap full of sewing or mending, we would talk, and we would watch the clouds that passed, stately and aloof, in their procession from west to east. According to her, they followed the great river to the north of us, leaving us dry. Around here, you still sometimes hear that thought“The rain follows the river,” meaning the Ohiobut with the support, I think, of little evidence.
In the minds of us humans, weather draws superstition as molasses draws flies. It draws also a sort of supernatural mystification that is a cut or two above superstition. Aunt Sarah Jane was full of the spaciousness, and the enchantment too, of mystery, and in the network of attractions that ruled me in those days I would be drawn down to listen to her in the two-room house where she and Dick lived at the corner of the woods. Like Grandma, Aunt Sarah Jane was thoughtful of the end of the world. But whereas Grandma regarded it with some deep disturbance of temporality and dread, Aunt Sarah Jane, who held it sufficiently in fear, also looked upon it with some approval as the time when justice would rain down at last. I think she anticipated with a certain pleasure the look on some people’s faces when suddenly they would hear behind them the “great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.”
So to Aunt Sarah Jane, the weather and all things of the realm of the sky were heavy with portent. From the sky, news of eternity irrupted into the daily world. To her, the events of the skyrain, no-rain, clouds, rainbows, winds, the phases and attitudes of the moonall were signs. The significance of the signs might not be discernable then or ever, but they were never merely what they appeared to be. They were signs.
Aunt Sarah Jane had a whole curriculum of fascinating subjects. She was precisely a spellbinder. I listened to her, as Grandpa would sometimes say, with all the ears I had. And yet her spells had their limits. Her unrelenting sense of the convergences of worlds, of the hereafter with the here, finally would so unsteady me that I would have to leave and walk the solid footpath back up to the barn.
For comfort in that season of my first knowledge of loss and cosmic dread, I spent as much time as I could with Dick Watson. If he loved me as I loved him, I was indeed blessed, but of course I will never know. He seemed ancient to me then, ancient perhaps in knowledge, though now I believe that he was younger than Grandma, and that by now I have probably outlived him in years.
In my hearing at least Dick did not pay much attention to the great mysteries and mystifications, nor was he much preoccupied with doubts. He did not dwell with regret upon the past. He looked forward to small pleasures and relished them when they came. He lived, he pleased himself as he was able, he endured. Small amusements lasted him a long time. He had a cheerful heart and a sympathetic one. I think he suffered the drouth as the plants and animals suffered it. He believed that it finally would rain, for finally it always had, but he did not know when.
With Dick too I watched the sky, watched the clouds pass over us one after another without shedding a single drop of rain, watched the signs. Dick’s weather signs, unlike Aunt Sarah Jane’s, were merely practical, and he observed them with appropriate humor. If the sun rose red in the morning, if it set behind clouds, if the chickens lay on their sides to sun their feet, if the raincrow called, all those were signs of rain. And all those signs were subject to a higher truth that even Dick spoke with a certain solemnity but also with a certain amusement: “All signs fail in a dry time.” For the sun did rise hot and red in the morning, it set behind clouds, the chickens sunned their feet, the raincrow called, and it did not rain. Dick said, “All signs fail in a dry time, buddy,” and he apparently felt some reassurance in the certainty of that.
There was work to be done every day. Sometimes I would walk to the back of the place to find my friend Fred Brightleaf, or he would come to find me, and we would slip away to the pond for a swim. But often I would be at work with Grandpa and Dick, hoping to find something manly that a boy could do, often failing, sometimes having to be tolerated as I blundered at men’s work while shirking the boy’s jobs that would actually have been useful, sometimes needing to be warned out of the way, but always glad to be at large in the great open world that, even dry, was better than the house and far, far better than school.
When quitting time came and we drove the mules to the barn, and Dick had unharnessed and watered and fed them, the three of us would sometimes rest for a while together, sitting on upturned five-gallon buckets in the big doorway of the barn, watching the evening changes in the sky. We watched it not rain. Sometimes we spoke hardly a word. Sometimes, the drouth weighing on his mind, Grandpa would speak of previous dry times, and Dick would confirm him, speaking from his own memories. Dick would sit perfectly still, relishing his stillness as rest came upon him. Grandpa too sat still, gazing out under the brim of his straw hat, one hand on his cane, the fingers of the other worrying at the sore on his shin that would not heal.
He had fallen out of the barn loft several years before, and so had by his carelessness, Grandma said, made the wound. It would not heal perhaps because of his absent-minded prodding and picking, perhaps because otherwise he ignored it, forgetting or refusing to use the special soap and salve that Grandma had sent off for. He spoke of the hardships of other years, never exclaiming, never lamenting, allowing the remembered and uttered facts simply to stand on their own. Of all my elders, his sense of difficulty was probably the keenest. It called forth his memories and established the tone of his voice. To live from the farm and preserve it had been difficult. To stay solvent at the bank had been difficult. His experience was summed in a single sentence that he repeated often: “I know what a man can do in a day.” At times this bore the sense of tragedy, for what a man can do in the little light of a day, with his little knowledge, with his little strength, is rarely enough. But sometimes he spoke it in exultation: What a good man, a good hand, could do in a good day could sometimes be a wonder.
But I was happiest, I think, when Dick and I would be out somewhere together, just us two. Maybe we would go on an errand to Port William or a neighboring farm, Dick riding Grandpa’s saddle mare Rose and I on Beauty the pony, or we would go on foot to salt the steers or clean the spring. At such times we found much to talk about.
The great theme of our conversation, in that summer and others, was an event that Dick and his people called “The Big Day.” When Dick and I talked about it, I too called it The Big Day. The Big Day came every year on a Saturday in August. It was attended by the black people in Hargrave and from the farms for miles around. For the ones who had moved to the northern cities, it was a homecoming. It was for its participants the greatest, grandest event of the year. On that day the black people of our part of the country were the absolute center of their own attention. The white people, if they wished, might observe the public display, but they were observers merely. They observed, moreover, from a polite distance.
The Big Day began with a parade through Hargrave, led by the only marching band to be heard there all year. The men of the lodge marched in white gloves, badges, and sashes, carrying a variety of medieval weapons. The women of the churches marched in white dresses, badges, and sashes. The parade ended at the tree-shaded lawn of a grand old farm house just beyond the outskirts of town, where for the rest of the day there would be eating and drinking and talking. There would be many excellent things to eat, and Dick recited again and again the list of them. There would be joyful greetings, mourning over the newly departed, many memories retold and renewed. And then that night, at the Lodge Hall, the marching band would transform itself into a dance band, and there would be dancing.
Dick Watson looked forward to The Big Day with all his mind and heart. He had to talk about it, and because I often was the only available listener he talked about it to me. Probably he could not have found a better listener, for I identified utterly with him in his anticipation. I fully shared his enthusiasm. I held excitedly to every word he said about it, and my ears were not filled with hearing. But this realizable reality of Dick’s was for me only a vision, a sort of inward ritual of the intensest comradeship and love. Though we were living in the great tremor of the drouth and its betokening of the end of time, we also foresaw the coming of this merely local event that caused Dick’s mind, and therefore my own, to tremble with a presentiment of joy. For a while I took part in these conversations about The Big Day as if I would be going to it myself, hand-in-hand with Dick, for as we tramped about together we often would be holding hands. And then as we approached the great event, we would arrive finally, inevitably, at the racial division. Dick would be going without me. He would be part of it, party to the joy of it, and I would not.
I still feel the disappointment and sorrow of that parting of ways, and I feel the strangeness of it. Thanks to Grandma Catlett and Aunt Sarah Jane, the end of the world was not strange to me. I did not greatly like the thought, but I knew then, as I know now, that some day will be the last. But categorical divisions among people still seem to me to be strange. I understand them, I believe, and I have felt their attraction. But it matters to me that as a small boy in Kentucky sixty-odd years ago I could have had a vision in which for a while the racial difference simply disappeared. I supposethough I suppose I should say I may be wrongthat such divisions are best mended outdoors, unobserved by crowds, and in some mutuality of needs, if only those of speaker and listener. I have the feeling that all this means and matters more than I can understand. I do understand now, having learned well my ingrained distaste for great public events, that if I had been allowed to attend The Big Day I would have enjoyed it less in fact than I had supposed.
We talked also, Dick and I, of foxes and fox hounds, of horses and mules, and of the nature of things. I remember a day when, walking along the road, our attention was captured by the humming of the telephone wires. We stopped and stood still, the better to listen. The humming, we thought, was the sound of people’s voices passing through the wires. To get through the wires, voices had to become hums, and then mysterious small machines inside the telephones had the power to change the hums back into voices. This may have been Dick’s explanation, but I myself was a dauntless scientific theorist in those days. It seems lovely to me now that we could speak freely of mysteries of all kinds, not burdened in the least either by doubts or facts. We imagined the world as we were passing through it. We saw it all in pictures and visions.
I was with Dick, standing in the barn lot, watching and listening, when at last the rain came. Grandpa was sitting by himself on his bucket in the barn door, but Dick and I had got up because there was a change in the sky and a change in the air, and we could no longer sit still. All across the south and the west a great smooth-looking cloud was rising and darkening over the horizon of ridgelines and woodlands and open fields. Presently we could hear, far and faint, the thunder grumbling in the cloud, as though it was possessed and inhabited by some great living creature. And then we could see the lightning playing in it, and the thunder grew louder.
“It’s raining about at Goforth right now,” Dick said.
We watched and listened again, and then a freshening wind reached us, smelling of rain.
“It’s raining on Port William now,” Dick said. “It’s about to the graveyard.”
And then the Alpha and Omega of all the world seemed to break upon us from directly overhead. BLAM! Thunder and lightning came all at onceand we ran, scared and laughing, into the barn. It came again, that simultaneous lightning and thunder, and what appeared to be a large round ball of electrical fire burst in the lot, just outside the barn door. Beauty the pony, who had been standing tied in the driveway, made a violent lunge and snorted as if to expel something terrible from her nostrils.
“She breathed that lightning,” Grandpa said.
I remember how solemnly he said that, and how inadequate it sounded. Also palpably inadequate were Dick’s and my efforts, later, to discuss the ball of fire. For a minute there, reality had got way ahead of us. We couldn’t even decide what color the fire had been. We thought maybe it had been all colors, all at the same time.
With that second thunderclap, anyhow, the rain was suddenly with us, falling in spouts and sheets as if it had never started and would never stop. None of us said another word. Dick and I had returned to our own buckets. We sat with Grandpa in a row there in the doorway and watched.
Before too long the rain slacked off. Dick went to get the milk buckets, and I got on the pony and went to bring in the cows. Soon enough we had done the nightwork, Grandpa and I had washed at the washstand on the back porch and come in to our places at the supper table. It was getting dark. We were then on what we would come to call “the old time,” and night came two hours earlier than it does now.
The rain, the steady dizz-dozzle, had not stopped. It had set in for the night. We ate by the light of an oil lamp and listened through the open door to the fall of the rain on the back porch roof. We said nothing. It was as though we were being told something that we had forever longed to hear.
Finally, raising his head to listen, Grandpa said, “This breaks the drouth.”
It was the voice of a sufferer. I didn’t know much, but I knew that. And in my mind or heart, or whatever the affected organ was, I felt the breaking of the drouths of 1936, 1930, 1908, and all the other drouths backward and forward to both ends of time.
Wendell Berry, who lives and works on a 125-acre farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, has published over thirty books of essays, poetry, and fiction. His story from our Spring 2011 issue, "Nothing Living Lives Alone," was selected for inclusion in the O. Henry Prize collection.