Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Broken Chain--a story (ii)

When this story first appeared in print, in Sign of a Promise and Other Stories, it was titled "Through Devious Ways." I had, back then, sincere literary pretensions, and I expected readers would care about such a strange title. Actually, the line comes from an old hymn, "Shepherd of Tender Youth," which, three lines in commends the Lord's ways as "devious," meaning something to the effect of "not always completely understandable," not a more contemporary meaning, something closer to "deviant." 

But when the story was published again, years later, in an anthology of stories for a consortium of Christian schools, it was more conveniently titled as it is here--"Broken Chain," for reasons both literal and figurative, I'd guess.

Meanwhile, we left John Van der Wall in a cornfield outside of Ireton, where he's working for a neighbor, a man named Henry DeRegt. John's concerned about a broken chain meant to hold the two sides of the wagon together. It isn't, and he doesn't like the fact that DeRegt doesn't fix it, doesn't like it at all.

BTW, Grandpa Van Gelder told me he was just a kid--maybe 12 or 13 years old.

DeRegt cut through the field behind the wagon, retracing its path. The team moved forward on command and the work continued, but John saw his employer emerge from the corn with a handful of ears and lay them down where John could reach them when the wagon passed that way again. DeRegt continued cleaning up until he reached his son, some ten yards behind the wagon. Their muffled voices were barely audible over the snapping ears and the slow drone of the wind through the rows.

De Regt was tall and gaunt with a bony face and a long, Indian-like nose that arched from between two bulging eyes. His head seemed to bob like a crow's when he stepped carefully between the corn. His lips curled downward beneath a light mustache that grew like wild thistles down around the corners of his mouth, and his unkempt hair hung in little clumps around his ears. John remembered having once thought that De Regt looked like the portrait of George Washington that hung in the bank at Prinsburg.

When he reached John, DeRegt turned and looked down the rows that ran straight as a taut rope. "How is the boy doing, John?" he asked.


"Ja, he is a good worker."

John glanced back at the man. The boy was barely visible, his back arched to the earth where he cleaned the ears from the inside row.

"You should get them all, John. Look at the piles I've picked there." He pointed a bony finger. "You're no child. We can’t forgive such carelessness.”

John continued to pick.

"Good day for harvest, ja?" DeRegt removed his cap and brushed back his thin, graying hair. “The sun­ shine's warm, but the breeze is cool. And the field is dry."

"It’s a good day.'' John looked up at his employer. There was a white ring about his forehead where the cap usually sat; otherwise, his face was as brown as soil.

"You’re getting a load here, eh?"

"I think it is full. Do you want--"

"Oh, no, no, no. Plenty more will go in here yet. I can hardly see the load above the box."

John said nothing.

"You can get more on yet.”

He said it as if no one could possibly believe anything else. “I got fence to be mended. It is almost noon." He looked back at the bulging wagon. "I'll tell you when it is full. You can get in the rest of the row here." He pointed down the field, not even waiting for any response, then took three big steps back to the inside row, said something to his son again, and moved away.

"Mr. DeRegt!" John could not let that pass so easily.

Henry turned back and smiled.

"The wagon. You know about it?"

"What's that?"

"The wagon--you know?"

"What of the wagon?"

"The chain is broken," John told him. “I said it before.”


"The chain-"

"Ach, I forgot to fix it. Sure." He waved impatiently, turned and left.

The wagon's sides were bulging with the weight of the ears. It was full. It was. It wasn't as if he hadn't picked corn before. He couldn't help wonder whether DeRegt didn't want that chain fixed, had no desire at all to pay his neighbor's boy--him!--what he'd earned. 

Anger made him breathe more deeply as he watched DeRegt, cold as snow, walk away. 

His father knew Henry DeRegt. They had gone to the same church for as long as John  Van  der Wall  could remember. DeRegt was a proud church man.

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