by Orson Scott Card
LaVon's book report was drivel, of course. Carpenter knew it would be from the
moment he called on the boy. After Carpenter's warning last week, he knew
LaVon would have a book report -- LaVon's father would never let the boy be
suspended. But LaVon was too stubborn, too cocky, too much the leader of the
other sixth-graders' constant rebellion against the authority to let Carpenter have a
"I really, truly loved Little Men," said LaVon. "It just gave me goose bumps."
The class laughed. Excellent comic timing, Carpenter said silently. But the only
place that comedy is useful here in the New Soil country is with the gypsy pageant
wagons. That's what you're preparing yourself for, LaVon, a career as a wandering
parasite who lives by sucking laughter out of weary farmers.
"Everybody nice in this book has a name that starts with a d. Demi is a sweet little
boy who never does anything wrong. Daisy is so good that she could have seven
children and still be a virgin."
He was pushing the limits now. A lot of people didn't like mention of sexual
matters in the school, and if some pin-headed child decided to report this, the story
could be twisted into something that could be used against Carpenter. Out here
near the fringe, people were desperate for entertainment. A crusade to drive out a
teacher for corrupting the morals of youth would be more fun than a traveling
show, because everybody could feel righteous and safe when he was gone.
Carpenter had seen it before. Not that he was afraid of it, the way most teachers
were. He had a career no matter what. The university would take him back,
eagerly; they thought he was crazy to go out and teach in the low schools. I'm safe,
absolutely safe, he thought. They can't wreck my career. And I'm not going to get
prissy about a perfectly good word like virgin.
"Dan looks like a big bad boy, but he has a heart of gold, even though he does say
real bad words like devil sometimes." LaVon paused, waiting for Carpenter to
react. So Carpenter did not react.
"The saddest thing is poor Nat, the street fiddler's boy. He tries hard to fit in, but
he can never amount to anything in the book, because his name doesn't start with
The end. LaVon put the single paper on Carpenter's desk, then went back to his
seat. He walked with the careful elegance of a spider, each long leg moving as if it
were unconnected to the rest of his body, so that even walking did not disturb the
perfect calm. The boy rides on his body the way I ride in my wheelchair, thought
Carpenter. Smooth, unmoved by his own motion. But he is graceful and beautiful,
fifteen years old and already a master at winning the devotion of the weak-hearted
children around him. He is the enemy, the torturer, the strong and beautiful man
who must confirm his beauty by preying on the weak. I am not as weak as you
LaVon's book report was arrogant, far too short, and flagrantly rebellious. That
much was deliberate, calculated to annoy Carpenter. Therefore Carpenter would
not show the slightest trace of annoyance. The book report had also been clever,
ironic, and funny. The boy, for all his mask of languor and stupidity, had brains.
He was better than this farming town; he could do something that mattered in the
world besides driving a tractor in endless contour patterns around the fields. But
the way he always had the Fisher girl hanging on him, he'd no doubt have a baby
and a wife and stay here forever. Become a big shot like his father, maybe, but
never leave a mark in the world to show he'd been there. Tragic, stupid waste.
But don't show the anger. The children will misunderstand, they'll think I'm angry
because of LaVon's rebelliousness, and it will only make this boy more of a hero
in their eyes. Children choose their heroes with unerring stupidity. Fourteen,
fifteen, sixteen years old, all they know of life is cold and bookless classrooms
interrupted now and then by a year or two of wrestling with this stony earth,
always hating whatever adult it is who keeps them at their work, always adoring
whatever fool gives them the illusion of being free. You children have no practice
in surviving among the ruins of your own mistakes. We adults who knew the world
before it fell, we feel the weight of the rubble on our backs.
They were waiting for Carpenter's answer. He reached out to the computer
keyboard attached to his wheelchair. His hands struck like paws at the oversized
keys. His fingers were too stupid for him to use them individually. They clenched
when he tried to work them, tightened into a fist, a little hammer with which to
strike, to break, to attack; he could not use them to grasp or even hold. Half the
verbs of the world are impossible to me, he thought as he often thought. I learn
them the way the blind learn words of seeing -- by rote, with no hope of ever
knowing truly what they mean.
The speech synthesizer droned out the words he keyed. "Brilliant essay, Mr.
Jensen. The irony was powerful, the savagery was refreshing. Unfortunately, it also
revealed the poverty of your soul. Alcott's title was ironic, for she wanted to show
that despite their small size, the boys in her book were great-hearted. You,
however, despite your large size, are very small of heart indeed."
LaVon looked at him through heavy-lidded eyes. Hatred? Yes, it was there. Do
hate me, child. Loathe me enough to show me that you can do anything I ask you
to do. Then I'll own you, then I can get something decent out of you, and finally
give you back to yourself as a human being who is worthy to be alive.
Carpenter pushed outward on both levers, and his wheelchair backed up. The day
was nearly over, and tonight he knew some things would change, painfully, in the
life of the town of Reefrock. And because in a way the arrests would be his fault,
and because the imprisonment of a father would cause upheaval in some of these
children's families, he felt it his duty to prepare them as best he could to
understand why it had to happen, why, in the larger view, it was good. It was too
much to expect that they would actually understand, today; but they might
remember, might forgive him someday for what they would soon find out that he
had done to them.
So he pawed at the keys again. "Economics," said the computer. "Since Mr. Jensen
has made an end of literature for the day." A few more keys, and the lecture began.
Carpenter entered all his lectures and stored them in memory, so that he could sit
still as ice in his chair, making eye contact with each student in turn, daring them to
be inattentive. There were advantages in letting a machine speak for him; he
learned many years ago that it frightened people to have a mechanical voice speak
his words, while his lips were motionless. It was monstrous, it made him seem
dangerous and strange. Which he far preferred to the way he looked, weak as a
worm, his skinny, twisted, palsied body rigid in his chair; his body looked strange,
but pathetic. Only when the synthesizer spoke his acid words did he earn respect
from the people who always, always looked downward at him.
"Here in the settlements just behind the fringe," his voice went on, "we do not have
the luxury of a free economy. The rains sweep onto this ancient desert and find
nothing here but a few plants growing in the sand. Thirty years ago, nothing lived
here; even the lizards had to stay where there was something for insects to eat,
where there was water to drink. Then the fires we lit put a curtain in the sky, and
the ice moved south, and the rains that had always passed north of us now raked
and scoured the desert. It was opportunity."
LaVon smirked as Kippie made a great show of dozing off. Carpenter keyed an
interruption in the lecture. "Kippie, how well will you sleep if I send you home
now for an afternoon nap?"
Kippie sat bolt upright, pretending terrible fear. But the pretense was also a
pretense; he was afraid, and so to conceal it he pretended to be pretending to be
afraid. Very complex, the inner life of children, thought Carpenter.
"Even as the old settlements were slowly drowned under the rising Great Salt
Lake, your fathers and mothers began to move out into the desert, to reclaim it. But
not alone. We can do nothing alone here. The fringers plant their grass. The grass
feeds the herds and puts roots into the sand. The roots become humus, rich in
nitrogen. In three years the fringe has a thin lace of soil across it. If at any point a
fringer fails to plant, if at any point the soil is broken, then the rains eat channels
under it, and tear away the fringe on either side, and eat back into farmland behind
it. So every fringer is responsible to every other fringer, and to us. How would you
feel about a fringer who failed?"
"The way I feel about a fringer who succeeds," said Pope. He was the youngest of
the sixth-graders, only thirteen years old, and he sucked up to LaVon disgracefully.
Carpenter punched four codes. "And how is that?" asked Carpenter's metal voice.
Pope's courage fled. "Sorry."
Carpenter did not let go. "What is it you call fringers?" he asked. He looked from
one child to the next, and they would not meet his gaze. Except LaVon.
"What do you call them?" he asked again.
"If I say it, I'll get kicked out of school," said LaVon. "You want me kicked out of
"You accuse them of fornicating with cattle, yes?"
A few giggles.
"Yes sir," said LaVon. "We call them cow-fornicators, sir."
Carpenter keyed in his response while they laughed. When the room was silent, he
played it back. "The bread you eat grows in the soil they created, and the manure
of their cattle is the strength of your bodies. Without fringers you would be eking
out a miserable life on the shores of the Mormon Sea, eating fish and drinking sage
tea, and don't forget it." He set the volume of the synthesizer steadily lower during
the speech, so that at the end they were straining to hear.
Then he resumed his lecture. "After the fringers came your mothers and fathers,
planting crops in a scientifically planned order: two rows of apple trees, then six
meters of wheat, then six meters of corn, then six meters of cucumbers, and so on,
year after year, moving six more meters out, following the fringers, making more
land, more food. If you didn't plant what you were told, and harvest it on the right
day, and work shoulder to shoulder in the fields whenever the need came, then the
plants would die, the rain would wash them away. What do you think of the farmer
who does not do his labor or take his work turn?"
"Scum," one child said. And another: "He's a wallow, that what he is."
"If this land is to be truly alive, it must be planted in a careful plan for eighteen
years. Only then will your family have the luxury of deciding what crop to plant.
Only then will you be able to be lazy if you want to, or work extra hard and profit
from it. Then some of you can get rich, and others can become poor. But now,
today, we do everything together, equally, and so we share equally in the rewards
of our work."
LaVon murmured something.
"Yes, LaVon?" asked Carpenter. He made the computer speak very loudly. It
startled the children.
"Nothing," said LaVon.
"You said: Except teachers."
"What if I did?"
"You are correct," said Carpenter. "Teachers do not plow and plant in the fields
with your parents. Teachers are given much more barren soil to work in, and most
of the time the few seeds we plant are washed away with the first spring shower.
You are living proof of the futility of our labor. But we try, Mr. Jensen, foolish as
the effort is. May we continue?"
LaVon nodded. His face was flushed. Carpenter was satisfied. The boy was not
hopeless -- he could still feel shame at having attacked a man's livelihood.
"There are some among us," said the lecture, "who believe they should benefit
more than others from the work of all. These are the ones who steal from the
common storehouse and sell the crops that were raised by everyone's labor. The
black market pays high prices for the stolen grain, and the thieves get rich. When
they get rich enough, they move away from the fringe, back to the cities of the high
valleys. Their wives will wear fine clothing, their sons will have watches, their
daughters will own land and marry well. And in the meantime, their friends andneighbors, who trusted them, will have nothing, will stay on the fringe, growing
the food that feeds the thieves. Tell me, what do you think of a black marketeer?"
He watched their faces. Yes, they knew. He could see how they glanced
surreptitiously at Dick's new shoes, at Kippie's wristwatch. At Yutonna's new
city-bought house. At LaVon's jeans. They knew, but out of fear they had said
nothing. Or perhaps it wasn't fear. Perhaps it was the hope that their own father
would be clever enough to steal from the harvest, so they could move away instead
of earning out their eighteen years.
"Some people think these thieves are clever. But I tell you they are exactly like the
mobbers of the plains. They are the enemies of civilization."
"This is civilization?" asked LaVon.
"Yes." Carpenter keyed an answer. "We live in peace here, and you know that
today's work brings tomorrow's bread. Out on the prairie, they don't know that.
Tomorrow a mobber will be eating their bread, if they haven't been killed. There's
no trust in the world, except here. And the black marketeers feed on trust. Their
neighbors' trust. When they've eaten it all, children, what will you live on then?"
They didn't understand, of course. When it was story problems about one truck
approaching another truck at sixty kleeters and it takes an hour to meet, how far
away were they? -- the children could handle that, could figure it out laboriously
with pencil and paper and prayers and curses. But the questions that mattered
sailed past them like little dust devils, noticed but untouched by their feeble, self-centered little minds.
He tormented them with a pop quiz on history and thirty spelling words for their
homework, then sent them out the door.
LaVon did not leave. He stood by the door, closed it, spoke. "It was a stupid
book," he said.
Carpenter clicked the keyboard. "That explains why you wrote a stupid book
"It wasn't stupid. It was funny. I read the damn book, didn't I?"
"And I gave you a B."
LaVon was silent a moment, then said, "Do me no favors."
"I never will."
"And shut up with the goddamn machine voice. You can make a voice yourself.
My cousin's got palsy and she howls to the moon."
"You may leave now, Mr. Jensen."
"I'm gonna hear you talk in your natural voice someday, Mr. Machine."
"You had better go home now, Mr. Jensen."
LaVon opened the door to leave, then turned abruptly and strode the dozen steps to
the head of the class. His legs now were tight and powerful as horses' legs, and his
arms were light and strong. Carpenter watched him and felt the same old fear rise
within him. If God was going to let him be born like this, he could at least keep
him safe from the torturers.
"What do you want, Mr. Jensen?" But before the computer had finished speaking
Carpenter's words, LaVon reached out and took Carpenter's wrists, held them
tightly. Carpenter did not try to resist; if he did, he might go tight and twist around
on the chair like a slug on a hot shovel. That would be more humiliation then he
could bear, to have this boy see him writhe. His hands hung limp from LaVon's
"You just mind your business," LaVon said. "You only been here two years, you
don't know nothin, you understand? You don't see nothin, you don't say nothin,
So it wasn't the book report at all. LaVon had actually understood the lecture about
civilization and the black market. And knew that it was LaVon's own father, more
than anyone else in town, who was guilty. Nephi Delos Jensen, bigshot foreman of
Reefrock Farms. Have the marshals already taken your father? Best get home and
"Do you understand me?"
But Carpenter would not speak. Not without his computer. This boy would never
hear how Carpenter's own voice sounded, the whining, baying sound, like a dog
trying to curl its tongue into human speech. You'll never hear my voice, boy.
"Just try to expel me for this, Mr. Carpenter. I'll say it never happened. I'll say you
had it in for me."
Then he let go of Carpenter's hands and stalked from the room. Only then did
Carpenter's legs go rigid, lifting him on the chair so that only the computer over
his lap kept him from sliding off. His arms pressed outward, his neck twisted, his
jaw opened wide. It was what his body did with fear and rage; it was why he did
his best never to feel those emotions. Or any others, for that matter. Dispassionate,
that's what he was. He lived the life of the mind, since the life of the body was
beyond him. He stretched across his wheelchair like a mocking crucifix, hating his
body and pretending that he was merely waiting for it to calm, to relax.
And it did, of course. As soon as he had control of his hands again, he took the
computer out of speech mode and called up the data he had sent to Zarahemla
yesterday morning. The crop estimates for three years, and the final weight of the
harvested wheat and corn, cukes and berries, apples and beans. For the first two
years, the estimates were within two percent of the final total. The third year, the
estimates were higher, but the harvest stayed the same. It was suspicious. Then the
bishop's accounting records. It was a sick community. When the bishop was also
seduced into this sort of thing, it meant the rottenness touched every corner of
village life. Reefrock Farms looked no different from the hundred other villages
just this side of the fringe, but it was diseased. Did Kippie know that even his
father was in on the black marketeering? If you couldn't trust the bishop, who was
The words of his own thoughts tasted sour in his mouth. Diseased. They aren't so
sick, Carpenter, he told himself. Civilization has always had its parasites, and
survived. But it survived because it rooted them out from time to time, cast them
away and cleansed the body. Yet they made heroes out of the thieves and despised
those who reported them. There's no thanks in what I've done. It isn't love I'm
earning. It isn't love I feel. Can I pretend that I'm not just a sick and twisted body
taking vengeance on those healthy enough to have families, healthy enough to
want to get every possible advantage for them?
He pushed the levers inward and the chair rolled forward. He skillfully
maneuvered between the chairs, but it still took nearly a full minute to get to the
door. I'm a snail. A worm living in a metal carapace, a water snail creeping along
the edge of the aquarium glass, trying to keep it clean from the filth of the fish. I'm
the loathsome one; they're the golden ones that shine in the sparkling water.
They're the ones whose death is mourned. But without me they'd die. I'm as
responsible for their beauty as they are. More, because I work to sustain it, and
they simply -- are.
It came out this way whenever he tried to reason out an excuse for his own life. He
rolled down the corridor to the front door of the school. He knew, intellectually,
that his work in crop rotation and timing had been the key to opening up the vast
New Soil Lands here in the eastern Utah desert. Hadn't they invented a civilian
medal for him, and then, for good measure, given him the same medal they gave to
the freedom riders who went out and brought immigrant trains safely into the
mountains? I was a hero, they said, this worm in his wheelchair house. But
Governor Monson had looked at him with those distant, pitying eyes. He, too, saw
the worm; Carpenter might be a hero, but he was still Carpenter.
They had built a concrete ramp for his chair after the second time the students
knocked over the wooden ramp and forced him to summon help through the
computer airlink network. He remembered sitting on the lip of the porch, looking
out toward the cabins of the village. If anyone saw him, then they consented to his
imprisonment, because they didn't come to help him. But Carpenter understood.
Fear of the strange, the unknown. It wasn't comfortable for them, to be near Mr.
Carpenter with the mechanical voice and the electric rolling chair. He understood,
he really did, he was human too, wasn't he? He even agreed with them. Pretend
Carpenter isn't there, and maybe he'll go away.
The helicopter came as he rolled out onto the asphalt of the street. It landed in the
Circle, between the storehouse and the chapel. Four marshals came out of the gash
in its side and spread out through the town.
It happened that Carpenter was rolling in front of Bishop Anderson's house when
the marshal knocked down the door. He hadn't expected them to make the arrests
while he was still going down the street. His first impulse was to speed up, to get
away from the street. He didn't want to see. He liked Bishop Anderson. Used to,
anyway. He didn't wish him ill. If the bishop had kept his hands out of the harvest,
if he hadn't betrayed his trust, he wouldn't have been afraid to hear the knock on
the door and see the badge in the marshal's hand.
Carpenter could hear Sister Anderson crying as they led her husband away. Was
Kippie there, watching? Did he notice Mr. Carpenter passing by on the road?
Carpenter knew what it would cost these families. Not just the shame, though it
would be intense. Far worse would be the loss of their father for years, the extra
labor for the children. To break up a family was a terrible thing to do, for the
innocent would pay as great a cost as their guilty father, and it wasn't fair, for they
had done no wrong. But it was the stern necessity, if civilization was to survive.
Carpenter slowed down his wheelchair, forcing himself to hear the weeping from
the bishop's house, to let them look at him with hatred if they knew what he had
done. And they would know: he had specifically refused to be anonymous. If I can
inflict stern necessity on them, then I must not run from the consequences of my
own actions. I will bear what I must bear, as well -- the grief, the resentment, and
the rage of the few families I have harmed for the sake of all the rest.
The helicopter had taken off again before Carpenter's chair took him home. It
sputtered overhead and disappeared into the low clouds. Rain again tomorrow, of
course. Three days dry, three days wet, it had been the weather pattern all spring.
The rain would come pounding tonight. Four hours till dark. Maybe the rain
wouldn't come until dark.
He looked up from his book. He had heard footsteps outside his house. And
whispers. He rolled to the window and looked out. The sky was a little darker. The
computer said it was four-thirty. The wind was coming up. But the sounds he heard
hadn't been the wind. It was three-thirty when the marshals came. Four-thirty now,
and footsteps and whispers outside his house. He felt the stiffening in his arms and
legs. Wait, he told himself. There's nothing to fear. Relax. Quiet. Yes. His body
eased. His heart pounded, but it was slowing down.
The door crashed down. He was rigid at once. He couldn't even bring his hands
down to touch the levers so he could turn to see who it was. He just spread there
helplessly in his chair as the heavy footsteps came closer.
"There he is." The voice was Kippie's.
Hands seized his arms, pulled on him; the chair rocked as they tugged him to one
side. He could not relax. "Son of a bitch is stiff as a statue." Pope's voice. Get out
of here, little boy, said Carpenter, you're in something too deep for you, too deep
for any of you. But of course they did not hear him, since his fingers couldn't reach
the keyboard where he kept his voice.
"Maybe this is what he does when he isn't at school. Just sits here and makes
statues at the window." Kippie laughed.
"He's scared stiff, that's what he is."
"Just bring him out, and fast." LaVon's voice carried authority.
They tried to lift him out of the chair, but his body was too rigid; they hurt him,
though, trying, for his thighs pressed up against the computer with cruel force, and
they wrung at his arms.
"Just carry the whole chair," said LaVon.
They picked up the chair and pulled him toward the door. His arms smacked
against the corners and the doorframe. "It's like he's dead or something," said
Kippie. "He don't say nothin."
He was shouting at them in his mind, however. What are you doing here? Getting
some sort of vengeance? Do you think punishing me will bring your fathers back,
They pulled and pushed the chair into the van they had parked in front. The
bishop's van -- Kippie wouldn't have the use of that much longer. How much of
the stolen grain was carried in here?
"He's going to roll around back here," said Kippie.
"Tip him over," said LaVon.
Carpenter felt the chair fly under him; by chance he landed in such a way that his
left arm was not caught behind the chair. It would have broken then. As it was, the
impact with the floor bent his arm forcibly against the strength of his spasmed
muscles; he felt something tear, and his throat made a sound in spite of his effort to
bear it silently.
"Did you hear that?" said Pope. "He's got a voice."
"Not for much longer," said LaVon.
For the first time, Carpenter realized that it wasn't just pain that he had to fear.
Now, only an hour after their fathers had been taken, long before time could cool
their rage, these boys had murder in their hearts.
The road was smooth enough in town, but soon it became rough and painful. From
that, Carpenter knew they were headed toward the fringe. He could feel the cold
metal of the van's corrugated floor against his face; the pain in his arm was settling
down to a steady throb. Relax, quiet, calm, he told himself. How many times in
your life have you wished to die? Death means nothing to you, fool, you decided
that years ago, death is nothing but a release from this corpse. So, what are you
afraid of? Calm, quiet. His arms bent, his legs relaxed.
"He's getting soft again," reported Pope. From the front of the van Kippie
guffawed. "Little and squirmy. Mr. Bug. We always call you that, you hear me,
Mr. Bug? There was always two of you. Mr. Machine and Mr. Bug. Mr. Machine
was mean and tough and smart, but Mr. Bug was weak and squishy and gross, with
wiggly legs. Made us want to puke, looking at Mr. Bug."
I've been tormented by master torturers in my childhood, Pope Griffith. You are
only a pathetic echo of their talent. Carpenter's words were silent, until his hands
found the keys. His left hand was almost too weak to use, after the fall, so he coded
the words clumsily with his right hand alone. "If I disappear the day of your
father's arrest, Mr. Griffith, don't you think they'll guess who took me?"
"Keep his hands away from the keys!" shouted LaVon. "Don't let him touch the
Almost immediately, the van lurched and took a savage bounce as it left the
roadway. Now it was clattering over rough, unfinished ground. Carpenter's head
banged against the metal floor, again and again. The pain of it made him go rigid;
fortunately, spasms always carried his head upward to the right, so that his rigidity
kept him from having his head beaten to unconsciousness.
Soon the bouncing stopped. The engine died. Carpenter could hear the wind
whispering over the open desert land. They were beyond the fields and orchards,
out past the grassland of the fringe. The van doors opened. LaVon and Kippie
reached in and pulled him out, chair and all. They dragged the chair to the top of a
wash. There was no water in it yet.
"Let's just throw him down," said Kippie. "Break his spastic little neck." Carpenter
had not guessed that anger could burn so hot in these languid, mocking boys.
But LaVon showed no fire. He was cold and smooth as snow. "I don't want to kill
him yet. I want to hear him talk first."
Carpenter reached out to code an answer. LaVon slapped his hands away, gripped
the computer, braced a foot on the wheelchair, and tore the computer off its
mounting. He threw it across the arroyo; it smacked against the far side and
tumbled down into the dry wash. Probably it wasn't damaged, but it wasn't the
computer Carpenter was frightened for. Until now Carpenter could cling to a hope
that they just meant to frighten him. But it was unthinkable to treat precious
electronic equipment that way, not if civilization still had any hold on LaVon.
"With your voice, Mr. Carpenter. Not the machine, your own voice."
Not for you, Mr. Jensen. I don't humiliate myself for you.
"Come on," said Pope. "You know what we said. We just take him down into the
wash and leave him there."
"We'll send him down the quick way," said Kippie. He shoved at the wheelchair,
teetering it toward the brink.
"We'll take him down!" shouted Pope. "We aren't going to kill him! You
"Lot of difference it makes," said Kippie. "As soon as it rains in the mountains,
this sucker's gonna fill up with water and give him the swim of his life."
"We won't kill him," insisted Pope.
"Come on," said LaVon. "Let's get him down into the wash."
Carpenter concentrated on not going rigid as they wrestled the chair down the
slope. The walls of the wash weren't sheer, but they were steep enough that the
climb down wasn't easy. Carpenter tried to concentrate on mathematics problems
so he wouldn't panic and writhe for them again. Finally the chair came to rest at
the bottom of the wash.
"You think you can come here and decide who's good and who's bad, right?" said
LaVon. "You think you can sit on your little throne and decide whose father's
going to jail, is that it?"
Carpenter's hands rested on the twisted mountings that used to hold his computer.
He felt naked, defenseless without his stinging, frightening voice to whip them into
line. LaVon was smart to take away his voice. LaVon knew what Carpenter could
do with words.
"Everybody does it," said Kippie. "You're the only one who doesn't black the
harvest, and that's only because you can't."
"It's easy to be straight when you can't get anything on the side anyway," said
Nothing's easy, Mr. Griffith. Not even virtue.
"My father's a good man!" shouted Kippie. "He's the bishop, for Christ's sake!
And you sent him to jail!"
"If he ain't shot," said Pope.
"They don't shoot you for blackmailing anymore," said LaVon. "That was in the
The old days. Only five years ago. But those were the old days for these children.
Children are innocent in the eyes of God, Carpenter reminded himself. He tried to
believe that these boys didn't know what they were doing to him.
Kippie and Pope started up the side of the wash. "Come on," said Pope. "Come on,
"Minute," said LaVon. He leaned close to Carpenter and spoke softly, intensely,
his breath hot and foul, his spittle like sparks from a cookfire on Carpenter's face.
"Just ask me," he said. "Just open your mouth and beg me, little man, and I'll carry
you back up to the van. They'll let you live if I tell them to, you know that."
He knew it. But he also knew that LaVon would never tell them to spare his life.
"Beg me, Mr. Carpenter. Ask me please to let you live, and you'll live. Look. I'll
even save your talkbox for you." He scooped up the computer from the sandy
bottom and heaved it up out of the wash. It sailed over Kippie's head just as he was
emerging from the arroyo.
"What the hell was that, you trying to kill me?"
LaVon whispered again. "You know how many times you made me crawl? And
now I gotta crawl forever, my father's a jailbird thanks to you, I got little brothers
and sisters, even if you hate me, what've you got against them, huh?"
A drop of rain struck Carpenter in the face. There were a few more drops.
"Feel that?" said LaVon. "The rain in the mountains makes this wash flood every
time. You crawl for me, Carpenter, and I'll take you up."
Carpenter didn't feel particularly brave as he kept his mouth shut and made no
sound. If he actually believed LaVon might keep his promise, he would swallow
his pride and beg. But LaVon was lying. He couldn't afford to save Carpenter's
life now, even if he wanted to. It had gone too far, the consequences would be too
great. Carpenter had to die, accidentally drowned, no witness, such a sad thing,
such a great man, and no one the wiser about the three boys who carried him to his
If he begged and whined in his hound voice, his cat voice, his bestial monster
voice, then Lavon would smirk at him in triumph and whisper, "Sucker." Carpenter
knew the boy too well. Tomorrow LaVon would have second thoughts, of course,
but right now there'd be no softening. He only wanted to watch Carpenter twist
like a worm and bay like a hound before he died. It was a victory, then, to keep
silence. Let him remember me in his nightmares of guilt, let him remember I had
courage enough not to whimper.
LaVon spat at him; the spittle struck him in the chest. "I can't even get it in your
ugly little worm face," he said. Then he shoved the wheelchair and scrambled up
the bank of the wash.
For a moment the chair hung in balance; then it tipped over. This time Carpenter
relaxed during the fall and rolled out of the chair without further injury. His back
was to the side of the wash they had climbed; he couldn't see if they were watching
him or not. So he held still, except for a slight twitching of his hurt left arm. After a
while the van drove away.
Only then did he begin to reach out his arms and paw at the mud of the arroyo
bottom. His legs were completely useless, dragging behind him. But he was not
totally helpless without his chair. He could control his arms, and by reaching them
out and then pulling his body onto his elbows he could make good progress across
the sand. How did they think he got from his wheelchair to bed, or to the toilet?
Hadn't they seen him use his hands and arms? Of course they saw, but they
assumed that because arms were weak, they were useless.
Then he got to the arroyo wall and realized that they were useless. As soon as there
was any slope to climb, his left arm began to hurt badly. And the bank was steep.
Without being able to use his fingers to clutch at one of the sagebrushes or tree
starts, there was no hope he could climb out.
The lightning was flashing in the distance, and he could hear the thunder. The rain
here was a steady plick plick plick on the sand, a tiny slapping sound on the few
leaves. It would already be raining heavily in the mountains. Soon the water would
He dragged himself another meter up the slope despite the pain. The sand scraped
his elbows as he dug with them to pull himself along. The rain fell steadily now,
many large drops, but still not a downpour. It was little comfort to Carpenter.
Water was beginning to dribble down the sides of the wash and form puddles in the
With bitter humor he imagined himself telling Dean Wintz, On second thought, I
don't want to go out and teach sixth grade. I'll just go right on teaching them here,
when they come off the farm. Just the few who want to learn something beyond
sixth grade, who want a university education. The ones who love books and
numbers and languages, the ones who understand civilization and want to keep it
alive. Give me children who want to learn, instead of these poor sandscrapers who
only go to school because the law commands that six years out of their first fifteen
years have to be spent as captives in the prison of learning.
Why do the fire-eaters go out searching for the old missile sites and risk their lives
disarming them? To preserve civilization. Why do the freedom riders leave their
safe home and go out to bring the frightened, lonely refugees in to the safety of the
mountains? To preserve civilization.
And why had Timothy Carpenter informed the marshals about the black
marketeering he had discovered in Reefrock Farms? Was it, truly, to preserve
Yes, he insisted to himself.
The water was flowing now along the bottom of the wash. His feet were near the
flow. He painfully pulled himself up another meter. He had to keep his body
pointed straight toward the side of the wash, or he would not be able to stop
himself from rolling to one side or the other. He found that by kicking his legs in
his spastic, uncontrolled fashion, he could root the toes of his shoes into the sand
just enough that he could take some pressure off his arms, just for a moment.
No, he told himself. It was not just to preserve civilization. It was because of the
swaggering way their children walked, in their stolen clothing, with their full
bellies and healthy skin and hair, cocky as only security can make a child feel.
Enough and to spare, that's what they had, while the poor suckers around them
worried whether there'd be food enough for the winter, and if their mother was
getting enough so the nursing baby wouldn't lack, and whether their shoes could
last another summer. The thieves could take a wagon up the long road to Price or
even to Zarahemla, the shining city on the Mormon Sea, while the children of
honest men never saw anything but the dust and sand and ruddy mountains of the
Carpenter hated them for that, for all the differences in the world, for the children
who had legs and walked nowhere that mattered, for the children who had voices
and used them to speak stupidity, who had deft and clever fingers and used them to
frighten and compel the weak. For all the inequities in the world he hated them and
wanted them to pay for it. They couldn't go to jail for having obedient arms and
legs and tongues, but they could damn well go for stealing the hard-earned harvest
of trusting men and women. Whatever his own motives might be, that was reason
enough to call it justice.
The water was rising many centimeters every minute. The current was tugging at
his feet now. He released his elbows to reach them up for another, higher purchase
on the bank, but no sooner had he reached out his arms than he slid downward and
the current pulled harder at him. It took great effort just to return to where he
started, and his left arm was on fire with the tearing muscles. Still, it was life,
wasn't it? His left elbow rooted him in place while he reached with his right arm
and climbed higher still, and again higher. He even tried to use his fingers to cling
to the soil, to a branch, to a rock, but his fists stayed closed and hammered
uselessly against the ground.
Am I vengeful, bitter, spiteful? Maybe I am. But whatever my motive was, they
were thieves, and had no business remaining among the people they betrayed. It
was hard on the children, of course, cruelly hard on them, to have their father
stripped away from them by the authorities. But how much worse would it be for
the fathers to stay, and the children to learn that trust was for the stupid and honor
for the weak? What kind of people would we be then, if the children could do their
numbers and letters but couldn't hold someone else's plate and leave the food on it
The water was up to his waist. The current was rocking him slightly, pulling him
downstream. His legs were floating behind him now, and water was trickling down
the bank, making the earth looser under his elbows. So the children wanted him
dead now, in their fury. He would die in a good cause, wouldn't he?
With the water rising faster, the current swifter, he decided that martyrdom was not
all it was cracked up to be. Nor was life, when he came right down to it, something
to be given up lightly because of a few inconveniences. He managed to squirm up a
few more centimeters, but now a shelf of earth blocked him. Someone with hands
could have reached over it easily and grabbed hold of the sagebrush just above it.
He clenched his mouth tight and lifted his arm up onto the shelf of dirt. He tried to
scrape some purchase for his forearm, but the soil was slick. When he tried to place
some weight on the arm, he slid down again.
This was it, this was his death, he could feel it, and in the sudden rush of fear his
body went rigid. Almost at once his feet caught on the rocky bed of the river, and
stopped him from sliding farther. Spastic, his legs were of some use to him. He
swung his right arm up, scraped his fist on the sagebrush stem, trying to pry his
clenched fingers open.
And, with agonizing effort, he did it. All but the smallest finger opened enough to
hook the stem. Now the clenching was some help to him. He used his left arm
mercilessly, ignoring the pain, to pull him up a little farther, onto the shelf; his feet
were still in the water, but his waist wasn't, and the current wasn't strong against
It was a victory, but not much of one. The water wasn't even a meter deep yet, and
the current wasn't yet strong enough to have carried away his wheelchair. But it
was enough to kill him, if he hadn't come this far. Still, what was he really
accomplishing? In storms like this, the water came up near the top; he'd have been
dead for an hour before the water began to come down again.
He could hear, in the distance, a vehicle approaching on the road. Had they come
back to watch him die? They couldn't be that stupid. How far was this wash from
the highway? Not far -- they hadn't driven that long on the rough ground to get
here. But it meant nothing. No one would see him, or even the computer that lay
among the tumbleweeds and sagebrush at the arroyo's edge.
They might hear him. It was possible. If their window was open -- in a rainstorm?
If their engine was quiet -- but loud enough that he could hear them? Impossible,
impossible. And it might be the boys again, come to hear him scream and whine
for life; I'm not going to cry out now, after so many years of silence --
But the will to live, he discovered, was stronger than shame; his voice came
unbidden to his throat. His lips and tongue and teeth that in childhood had so
painstakingly practiced words that only his family could ever understand now
formed a word again: "Help!" It was a difficult word; it almost closed his mouth, it
made him too quiet to hear. So at last he simply howled, saying nothing except the
terrible sound of his voice.
The brake squealed, long and loud, and the vehicle rattled to a stop. The engine
died. Carpenter howled. Car doors slammed.
"I tell you it's just a dog somewhere, somebody's old dog --"
Carpenter howled again.
"Dog or not, it's alive, isn't it?"
They ran along the edge of the arroyo, and someone saw him.
"A little kid!"
"What's he doing down there!"
"Come on, kid, you can climb up from there!"
I nearly killed myself climbing this far, you fool, if I could climb, don't you think I
would have? Help me! He cried out again.
"It's not a little boy. He's got a beard --"
"Come on, hold on, we're coming down!"
"There's a wheelchair in the water --"
"He must be a cripple."
There were several voices, some of them women, but it was two strong men who
reached him, splashing their feet in the water. They hooked him under the arms and
carried him to the top.
"Can you stand up? Are you all right? Can you stand?"
Carpenter strained to squeeze out the word: "No."
The older woman took command. "He's got palsy, as any fool can see. Go back
down there and get his wheelchair, Tom, no sense in making him wait till they can
get him another one, go on down! It's not that bad down there, the flood isn't here
yet!" Her voice was crisp and clear, perfect speech, almost foreign it was so
precise. She and the young woman carried him to the truck. It was a big old flatbed
truck from the old days, and on its back was a canvas-covered heap of odd shapes.
On the canvas Carpenter read the words SWEETWATER'S MIRACLE
PAGEANT. Traveling show people, then, racing for town to get out of the rain,
and through some miracle they had heard his call.
"Your poor arms," said the young woman, wiping off grit and sand that had sliced
his elbow. "Did you climb that far out of there with just your arms."
The young man came out of the arroyo muddy and cursing, but they had the
wheelchair. They tied it quickly to the back of the truck; one of the men found the
computer, too, and took it inside the cab. It was designed to be rugged, and to
Carpenter's relief it still worked.
"Thank you," said his mechanical voice.
"I told them I heard something and they said I was crazy," said the old woman.
"You live in Reefrock?"
"Yes," said his voice.
"Amazing what those old machines can still do, even after being dumped there in
the rain," said the old woman. "Well, you came close to death, there, but you're all
right, it's the best we can ask for. We'll take you to the doctor."
"Just take me home, please."
So they did, but insisted on helping him bathe and fixing him dinner. The rain was
coming down in sheets when they were done. "All I have is a floor," he said, "but
you can stay."
"Better than trying to pitch tents in this." So they stayed the night.
Carpenter's arms ached too badly for him to sleep, even though he was exhausted.
He lay awake thinking of the current pulling him, imagining what would have
happened to him, how far he might have gone downstream before drowning, where
his body might have ended up. Caught in a snag somewhere, dangling on some
branch or rock as the water went down and left his slack body to dry in the sun. Far
out in the desert somewhere, maybe. Or perhaps the floodwater might have carried
him all the way to the Colorado and tumbled him head over heels down the rapids,
through canyons, past the ruins of the old dams, and finally into the Gulf of
California. He'd pass through Navaho territory then, and the Hopi Protectorate, and
into areas that Chihuahua claimed and threatened to go to war to keep. He'd see
more of the world than he had seen in his life.
I saw more of the world tonight, he thought, than I ever thought to see. I saw death
and how much I feared it.
And he looked unto himself, wondering how much he had changed.
Late in the morning, when he finally awoke, the pageant people were gone. They
had a show, of course, and had to do some kind of parade to let people know.
School would let out early so they could put on a show without having to waste
power on lights. There'd be no school this afternoon. But what about his morning
classes? There must have been some question when he didn't show up; someone
would have called, and if he didn't answer the phone someone would have come
by. Maybe the show people had still been there when they came. The word would
have spread through school that he was still alive.
He tried to imagine LaVon and Kippie and Pope hearing that Mr. Machine, Mr.
Bug, Mr. Carpenter was still alive. They'd be afraid, of course. Maybe defiant.
Maybe they had even confessed. No, not that. LaVon would keep them quiet. Try
to think of a way out. Maybe even plan an escape, though finding a place to go that
wasn't under Utah authority would be a problem.
What am I doing? Trying to plan how my enemies can escape retribution? I should
call the marshals again, tell them what happened. If someone hasn't called them
His wheelchair waited by his bed. The show people had shined it up for him, got
rid of all that muck. Even straightened the computer mounts and tied it on, jury-rigged it but it would do. Would the motor run, after being under water? He saw
that they had even changed batteries and had the old one set aside. They were good
people. Not at all what the stories said about show gypsies. Though there was no
natural law that people who help cripples can't also seduce all the young girls in
His arms hurt and his left arm was weak and trembly, but he managed to get into
the chair. The pain brought back yesterday. I'm alive today, and yet today doesn't
feel any different from last week, when I was also alive. Being on the brink of
death wasn't enough; the only transformation is to die.
He ate lunch because it was nearly noon. Eldon Finch came by to see him, along
with the sheriff. "I'm the new bishop," said Eldon.
"Didn't waste any time," said Carpenter.
"I gotta tell you, Brother Carpenter, things are in a tizzy today. Yesterday, too, of
course, what with avenging angels dropping out of the sky and taking away people
we all trusted. There's some says you shouldn't've told, and some says you did
right, and some ain't sayin nothin cause they're afraid somethin'll get told on them.
Ugly times, ugly times, when folks steal from their neighbors."
Sheriff Budd finally spoke up. "Almost as ugly as tryin to drownd em."
The bishop nodded. "Course you know the reason we come, Sheriff Budd and me,
we come to find out who done it."
"Plunked you down that wash? You aren't gonna tell me you drove that little
wheelie chair of yours out there past the fringe. What, was you speedin so fast you
lost control and spun out? Give me peace of heart, Brother Carpenter, give me
trust." The bishop and the sheriff both laughed at that. Quite a joke.
Now's the time, thought Carpenter. Name the names. The motive will be clear,
justice will be done. They put you through the worst hell of your life, they made
you cry out for help, they taught you the taste of death. Now even things up.
But he didn't key their names into the computer. He thought of Kippie's mother
crying at the door. When the crying stopped, there'd be years ahead. They were a
long way from proving out their land. Kippie was through with school, he'd never
go on, never get out. The adult burden was on those boys now, years too young.
Should their families suffer even more, with another generation gone to prison?
Carpenter had nothing to gain, and many who were guiltless stood to lose too
"Brother Carpenter," said Sheriff Budd. "Who was it?"
He keyed in his answer. "I didn't get a look at them."
"Their voices, didn't you know them?"
The bishop looked steadily at him. "They tried to kill you, Brother Carpenter.
That's no joke. You like to died, if those show people hadn't happened by. And I
have my own ideas who it was, seein who had reason to hate you unto death
"As you said, a lot of people think an outsider like me should have kept his nose
out of Reefrock's business."
The bishop frowned at him. "You scared they'll try again?"
"Nothin I can do," said the sheriff. "I think you're a damn fool, Brother Carpenter,
but nothin I can do if you don't even care."
"Thanks for coming by."
He didn't go to church Sunday. But on Monday he went to school, same time as
usual. And there were LaVon and Kippie and Pope, right in their places. But not
the same as usual. The wisecracks were over. When he called on them, they
answered if they could and didn't if they couldn't. When he looked at them, they
He didn't know if it was shame or fear that he might someday tell; he didn't care.
The mark was on them. They would marry someday, go out into even newer lands
just behind the ever-advancing fringe, have babies, work until their bodies were
exhausted, and then drop into a grave. But they'd remember that one day they left a
cripple to die. He had no idea what it would mean to them, but they would
Within a few weeks, LaVon and Kippie were out of school; with their fathers gone,
there was too much fieldwork and school was a luxury their families couldn't
afford for them. Pope had an older brother still at home, so he stayed out the year.
One time Pope almost talked to him. It was a windy day that spattered sand against
the classroom window, and the storm coming out of the south looked to be a nasty
one. When class was over, most of the kids ducked their heads and rushed outside,
hurrying to get home before the downpour began. A few stayed, though, to talk
with Carpenter about this and that. When the last one left, Carpenter saw that Pope
was still there. His pencil was hovering over a piece of paper. He looked up at
Carpenter, then set the pencil down, picked up his books, started for the door. He
paused for a moment with his hand on the doorknob. Carpenter waited for him to
speak. But the boy only opened the door and went on out.
Carpenter rolled over to the door and watched him as he walked away. The wind
caught at his jacket. Like a kite, thought Carpenter, it's lifting him along.
But it wasn't true. The boy didn't rise and fly. And now Carpenter saw the wind
like a current down the village street, sweeping Pope away. All the bodies in the
world, caught in that same current, that same wind, blown down the same rivers,
the same streets, and finally coming to rest on some snag, through some door, in
some grave, God knows where or why.
Special thanks to Tor for giving permission for IGMS to reprint The Folk of the Fringe which is still in print.