By Eugene Marckx
A featherbrained idler – what your grandfather said of him, and farmers hereabouts who should’ve known better, long after Nestor took to the road. Then he was forgotten, but the forgetting couldn’t quite fill in the pigeon-hole, which hid quite a lot, it turned out. Nobody brought up how Nestor made music with pretty much anything – spoons, bottles, even a blade of grass. And the tales he once told went round again in the General Store. But they seemed a bit flimsy in the old men’s retelling.
I saw how big that pigeon-hole had grown when John and Nestor’s father, your grandpa died. Laid out for the viewing, the body looked so worn down in that black broadcloth suit, and the face so crushed in, like fate itself had done the crushing. I glanced across at John, not thirty years old and a face full of wrinkles, like he’d grown up leaning into a storm. He didn’t seem to know what he was missing in life and might never know.
None of my business, I was told, but John inherited a nice farm, and he seemed headed toward an unhappy demise. That farm would likely bring some stranger with bank money to muddle things up around here. Or some girl with no sense might marry him and slowly turn him into a hard-boiled cretin. That’s what his old man was, bitter at John for purchasing a big Belgian mare when they still had the mule, and not admitting a thing next year when the mule got the colic and died. The old man’s bitterness likely began when his wife passed soon after Nestor was born.
I told my brother Karl to invite John to one of our church potlucks. I made a peach pie, ripe peaches sliced into a baked butter-crust and topped with whip cream. After a few holidays and Saturday shindigs, John asked me and I said yes, and I started having baby after baby. Even with his thin-lipped gloom we made a happy family. It might have gone on like that for a lifetime.
But on a late fall day your father was in the back forty plowing for winter wheat. A bedraggled man came hobbling up the road and sat on the porch. I offered him coffee and asked if he wanted some work. Ah, Nestor. I brought him in and gave him bread and soup. Your sisters and brothers gawked at his bent back while I introduced them to their long-lost uncle. He told of being wounded overseas in the World War.
That evening when your father came in, he stood gaping, as if his brother were a ghost. Nestor leaned in his chair and smiled, but for John a smile was a kind of painful contortion. They shook hands and together went to clean a stall in the barn, where Nestor could stay and take time to get back his health. I brought out blankets and kept my mouth shut about this.
In a few days Nestor – bent back and all – was limping alongside Bertha, our Belgian mare, urging her as she pulled the plow for the furrow. At apple harvest he climbed the ladder to pick the topmost branches. In the woods he pointed out some good-eating mushrooms and yarrow leaves for tea to cure a cough. He’d give a whistle, and a bird would call back.
Through winter, around the supper table your brothers and sisters kept talking about these things, and your father’s face began to pinch. I waited until later and took his hand. “We send food out to your brother there at his stove. Maybe you can invite him to our table for supper.”
He stared at me and took a breath. “Maybe.” So, Nestor became great fun at our table. Your brothers and sisters shrieked and fell over laughing as he limped and gaped in the telling of his tales. But your father froze up, and I saw that wind blowing, with trouble for them both.
But no. At dawn Nestor cleared out. Not even a fare-thee-well.
I said to John, “You go get him and bring him back – before dark.”
I knew a whole day’s work was spinning through him, but he just said, “Before dark,” went to the barn, saddled Bertha, and shouted back to me as he rode away, “Going to the gorge.” The rest of the day I was a wreck trying not to think what might happen at the gorge. I slaughtered and plucked a pullet, and made a mess of it, feathers flying everywhere.
And they didn’t come home before dark. The gorge was the worst place, with that old weathered bridge so high over a shear ravine. Your big brothers wanted to stay up, but I sent everyone to bed. I didn’t want them seeing me so shaky. A spring rain swept through. It had me tight as a drum. Then the sky cleared, and I stood on the porch. An owl called, maybe a bad sign, and my heart was churning what felt like clabbered milk through my veins, but after a long vigil I finally heard on the wind our Bertha clopping in the dark, more than a mile away.
Pretty soon they rode into the yard and up to the barn. I held the lantern and saw John slip down off Bertha and then catch Nestor as he came, bent as ever. I watched these two brothers clasp together in the longest embrace. Then, with the mare on her feed in the barn, they shuffled into the kitchen, and I served hot pullet soup and toast. Nobody spoke, but I could see in their slouches and half-smiles the trouble was gone.
Nestor left for the barn, and we went to bed. As tired as we were, neither of us could go to sleep right away. I asked how it was out there. I didn’t expect anything. Your father never talked about anything at all except the farm. But he started whispering, as if here in the dark it was okay.
“I come to that old bridge, you know, and him perched on the railing, ready to jump. He tells me, ‘Don’t come near!’
“Well, I didn’t want to, but Bertha had her own ideas. She kept moving, and when I come to Nestor, I just grab ahold for all I’m worth.”
Lying beside this man, I could not remember him ever grabbing me in a hug the way I saw him in the yard with Nestor. He got me pregnant with babies, but there was nothing too intimate about that. I could have felt so jealous, but I chose to be happy for my husband.
He whispered on. “I just grab ahold of Nestor … and in that grip … if he goes … I’m going down with him. In a single breath I know. Dying’s okay. I mean … he’s my brother. First time I felt like that?”
Then he turned and grabbed me in a hug, and I felt love, first time, from my husband. That night, I’m thinking you got started inside me. In summer the two of them built a tight little cottage for Nestor. Next year the Spanish flu laid them both in the grave. We were everyone scrambling, pitching in to put food on the table, trying to hold onto the farm. The cottage sat empty, except for farmworkers from time to time. Your brothers and sisters grew up fast in all that trouble, and you too. But by God’s grace we’re still here to see you and your Billy married. You’ll do right well in that cottage.
Might be a ghost – what some workers told – in those musty walls. That’s why I’m telling you all this. Maybe on an early morning a bird whistles in the kitchen. No fear. It’s only old Nestor going about sweeping the air, helping us all pull together, winter to spring, summer to fall. I’m guessing your Billy’s a bit flighty and knows how to whistle like Nestor. I imagine he’s going to fit right in.