The first of April came dark and stormy, with silver whips of lightning cracking open the lowering clouds that seemed to skim the treetops. My brother Tom and I, recovering from chest colds, tired of reading and listening to the radio, turned to the big living-room window of our house on Syringa Street.
“Here they come, Mother,” cried Tom when a big truck drove up in the teeming rain and stopped in front of the empty cottage across the street. Mother hurried in from the kitchen and we three looked out. That truck, we knew, contained the Duvitch family and all their earthly possessions. Mr. Duvitch and the biggest boy carefully helped Mrs. Duvitch from the seat and walked her into the house, supporting her all the way. Another big boy, carrying a well-bundled baby, followed. A stream of young Duvitches, accompanied by a big brown houndlike dog, poured out of the back of the truck and stood in a huddle in the rain.
The barnyard sounds we heard escaped from two crates of hens the Duvitches had fetched along and from a burlap bag in which a small flock of ducks had been stowed. While the livestock made noises according to its kind, the Duvitches were quiet—almost solemn. They showed no elation at finding themselves in a new neighborhood and a very pretty neighborhood at that.
All afternoon Mother, Tom and myself had been watching out for them, with rather mixed emotions. For the Duvitches were immigrants and the first of their nationality to settle in our small smug town. Coming to our obscure part of the state a year before, they had moved into a rotting old farmhouse two miles north of town, long abandoned. After the slashing hurricane of mid-March, the moss-rotten dwelling looked like the house in the fairy tale that remained standing only because it did not know which way to fall and the Duvitches were forced to give it up.
“I wonder if Mrs. Duvitch is ill,” murmured Mother, looking through the rain at the dreary street scene.
“She must be,” said Tom. “I wonder if it’ll be all right for Andy and me to help ’em move in their stuff.”
This request, as Mother well knew, was not inspired by genuine feeling for the Duvitches but by curiosity and she shook her head. It was a strict family rule that any illness which kept us out of school would automatically keep us indoors.
But the Duvitches got along very well without help from us. As it turned out, they were old hands at moving. For years before coming to America they had been on the move, to escape starvation, separation, possible assassination. Every child capable of two-legged locomotion pitched in and helped carry the things from the truck. In no time at all, it seemed, the truck was empty and the Duvitches were shut up tight in their new home.
That was the signal for Mother to step into the kitchen. She returned swathed in her hooded raincoat, carrying a basket containing a vacuum jug of chicken soup, a baked tuna fish dish, steaming hot; a loaf of fresh bread and a chocolate cake. These she took to the house across the street and gave basket and all to the boy who answered her knock. It wasn’t her plan to stop for a visit that day but to wait a week or so and call when the Duvitches were all settled.
The next day when the three of us—Mother, Tom and myself—were having lunch, we heard a faint tap at the back door. I answered it and there stood a pale dark-eyed boy, looking very solemn, holding our basket. It contained the empty vacuum jug, casserole dish and cake plate, all of which shone, and a tiny very shapely potted rose tree, in exquisite pink-tipped bud, the handsomest plant—and the only plant of its kind—ever seen in that neighborhood.
“I send them a few scraps of food,” murmured Mother, a few seconds later, deeply touched, “and get this queenly gift!”
That was our last traffic with the Duvitch family for over two years. When Mother stopped to visit them a week after their coming, the little girl who opened the door a few inches said, “Mamma sick; she stay in bed today.”
Mrs. Duvitch never crossed the street to our house and Mother, a rather formal woman, made no further attempts to see the family. But Father disagreed when she remarked that she thought the Duvitches probably wished to be left alone.
Syringa Street seemed to be a friendly street. It was a crooked maple-shady country lane that wound through the town without losing its charm. The sidewalk here and there was almost lost in weeds and the ditches, in places, were brightened by clumps of orange day lilies. Widely spaced cottages, some of them smothered in vines, only seemed to make the neighborhood more rural. There were brilliant flower gardens, vegetable plots, fruit trees—and a few henhouses.
The children, who enjoyed all the benefits of country life while actually living in town, were quite numerous. Behind the facades of the street’s dwellings there was probably no more greed, envy, superstition or intolerance than lurked behind the doors of any average dwelling in any average American town. The cardinal virtues, no doubt, were all represented. Yes, Syringa Street seemed to be a friendly street.
But the Duvitches were marked people. They were the one struggling family in a prosperous community—and poverty, amid prosperity, is often embarrassing and irritating to the prosperous. They were considered unattractive physically. They were so meek! The Duvitches never fought back.
The women started in on Mrs. Duvitch because she “never showed her face.” It is true, she was rarely if ever seen in the daytime, emerging from her dwelling only after dark in warm weather, to sit on the veranda, where she found privacy behind the ragged trumpet creeper. But this gave rise to the rumor that she was the victim of an obscure skin disease and that every morning she shook scales out of the bed sheet. (When my father heard that one, he went out to the pantry and mixed himself a tall drink.)
Mr. Duvitch, too, was classified as an untouchable. His job, a rather malodorous one, was with the local rendering plant as a laborer. It followed that the Syringa Street young, meeting him on the street, sometimes stopped their noses as they passed him by—a form of torment all the more acute when Mr. Duvitch had to share it with the children that happened to be with him.
Black hard luck seemed to be their lot. A few weeks after they moved to Syringa Street they suffered a tragedy they were all summer in recovering from—Mr. Duvitch lost two weeks’ pay while gathering mushrooms in Tamarack Swamp. Inside of a year and a half, three Duvitch boys had lost, among them, by various mishaps, two fingers, one eye and an ear lobe. They were forever being cut up, bruised, mutilated by things falling, breaking, cracking and exploding.
A mild case of typhoid, mass cases of whooping cough and measles—all plagued the family within a year of their arrival. Their only bright spot here was Dr. Switzer, one of the town’s kindliest souls. He declined to accept fees, but was several times seen leaving the Duvitch cottage, carrying off a handsome house plant and looking very pleased. The Duvitches’ dog, Kasimar, acted just like the family to which he belonged—like one of the world’s poorest canine relations. He seemed to be afraid of his own shadow and no one had ever heard him bark or growl.
Because they cast their eyes on the sidewalk as one passed them by and spoke only when spoken to, the young Duvitches, like their parents, were considered antisocial. They were regarded as born scavengers too, for they spent hours foraging in the town dump, where they often picked up their footgear, some of their pants and shirts and furnishings for the house as well. They went on country excursions to gather watercress, dandelion greens, mushrooms and wild berries; and the few apples and tomatoes they occasionally concealed under their blouses didn’t make the farmers on whom they poached much poorer.
Tom and I raided tomato patches and robbed apple trees just for the fun of it. That first September four Duvitches—Irving, Benny, Abe and Esther—registered at the local grammar school. Mrs. Lovejoy, the principal, said they were bright, conscientious, pathetically eager but almost pathologically shy. Before she could put a stop to it, some of their classmates scoffed at the leaf, lard and black bread sandwiches they ate for lunch, huddled in one corner of the recreation room, dressed in their boiled-out ragpickers’ clothes. After school they headed straight for home, never lingering on the playground.
Even the tradesmen to whom the Duvitches gave good money were either curt with them or downright rude. Mrs. Frithjof Kinsella, the proprietor of the general store and a big jolly Viking who could be heard two blocks away, extended credit to almost everybody in town and had a way of insulting her customers so heartily that they all loved her for it. The Duvitches, however, Mrs. Kinsella very carefully did not insult (a form of insult in itself) and neither did she extend them credit.
But Mother, remembering the potted rose tree, always had a friendly word and a smile for the young Duvitches when she saw them and a bone for Kasimar when he found courage to venture across the road. Father was the only man on Syringa Street who tipped his hat to sixteen-year-old Maria Duvitch, when he met her coming home from her piece-work job in Miller’s Box Factory. It may have been that their European travail made it easy for them to endure such a trifle as humiliation in America.
“I think,” said Father one fine Saturday morning in July two years after the Duvitches had come to Syringa Street, “that it would be very pleasant for Andy, Tom and myself to pitch our tent out at Durston’s Pond and spend and swim. That is,” he added, “if Mother can spare us.”
“I can spare you very well,” Mother said cheerfully. She had a notion it did menfolk good to get away occasionally and in this instance the sacrifice came easily, because camp life was little to her liking.
She packed a hamper of food, Tom and I fetched a tent from the attic and Father looked over his fishing tackle. An hour after lunch we were driving through rolling farm country out to Durston’s Pond, four miles north of town.
We often had the serene little lake all to ourselves but on our arrival that afternoon we found half a dozen male Duvitches in possession. They had been fishing for several hours, casting from the shore, dropping their lines over the wooden bridge that spanned Cat Creek where it flowed into the pond and trolling for bass from a flat-bottomed rowboat.
Tom and I, Philistines like our friends, ignored the Duvitch boys but Father went up to Mr. Duvitch, who was fishing from the shore, and put out his hand.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Duvitch! It’s nice to see you and the boys here. What a beautiful day! Are Mrs. Duvitch and the girls all well?”
Mr. Duvitch was a little fellow, a lean starveling of a man with watery blue eyes and a kicked-about look. Gratitude for being agreeably noticed showed in his mosquito-bitten face as he took Father’s hand and his tremulous smile showed broken teeth.
“I know the mosquitoes are biting,” Father went on pleasantly, “but are the fish?”
Proudly, oh, so proudly, Mr. Duvitch exhibited the catch that would probably feed his family for the better part of a week: a fine mess of bass, perch and sunfish, all of them alive, as far as I could see, and swimming around in the oaken washtub in which they had been dropped. Father gave Mr. Duvitch hearty congratulations and said we couldn’t hope to do as well but that we’d try.
We three pitched the tent on a little knoll over the pond, and then Father, with a happy sigh, lay down on the blanket for a nap in the sun. Tom and I played a game of chew-the-peg on the grassy bank above the water and, later on, made several trips to the tent, for the camera, the field glasses, the sun lotion.
On a trip for a cold drink from the vacuum jug and to fetch towels and soap, we stopped to look again at the Duvitches’ catch of fish.
Mr. Duvitch and the boys had moved away and were fishing in a small arm of the pond below us. None of them seemed visible. Tom and I, our glances meeting over the big cake of soap in my hand, were similarly and wickedly inspired—the thing was irresistible. We held a brief whispering conversation; and then, egged on by him and quite willing on my own, I played a shameful trick on the Duvitches, the memory of which will come back to the end of my days to plague me. Without considering further, I dropped the cake of soap into the tub of fish.
“Let’s go,” whispered Tom after we had watched the soap sink to the bottom.
We swam out to the raft, diving and frolicking in the deep water. After a while the Duvitches, calling it a day, assembled at a spot on the shore below our tent, happy in the knowledge of a good catch to take home.
In a little while Tom and I could hear their muffled exclamations of disbelief and dismay. Father woke up and joined our neighbors in a conclave, looking down at the tub of fish near his feet. After a few moments he produced the whistle he carried on all our country excursions and blew it piercingly three times, the proclamation of emergency. This meant that Tom and I must come at once.
Looking as guilty as we felt, we swam in and joined the group gathering around the tub. In the midst of our stricken neighbors stood Father, holding the half-melted cake of soap in his palm silently but accusingly, for the fish had perished miserably in the soapy water and were unfit to eat. Not only had Tom and I snatched precious food from their mouths but we had brazenly advertised the contempt in which we held them.
Father’s eyes were narrow slits of blue fire in his white face. I had never seen him so angry. One look at Tom and me told him everything. Words would have been superfluous and my brother and I bowed our heads in acknowledgment of our guilt.
“You will begin,” Father said in a voice I didn’t recognize, “by saying you’re sorry.”
Our stunned neighbor wiped his blinking eyes as he listened to our mumbled words, which Father made us repeat when they were inaudible. But there was no hostility, no animosity toward us in the man and it was obvious also that he considered himself too humble to receive an apology, finding it, like most of life’s troubles, a mockery to be endured without protest. His sons showed no resentment, either, only a kind of resignation in their minds, which carried almost atavistic memories of century-old oppression by country barons and landed gentry.
One-eyed Manny Duvitch, as it turned out, had told Father he had seen me drop something in the tub of fish (before he learned that it had been a cake of soap). Now he looked guiltier than Tom and I. Because he had been the witness and accuser, it was as if he considered himself to be the troublemaker, deserving the punishment. The two real culprits were the young lords of the ruling manor, with unlimited license, exempt from chastisement. To Manny, the fortunate, the well-to-do, were also the privileged.
“Do you realize,” said Father coldly, looking from Tom to me, “that in certain primitive communities the sort of stunt you’ve pulled would be punishable by death?”
Tom and I did not reply.
“Turn over the tub,” said Father abruptly, addressing us as if we were strangers.
We turned it over. The gray soapy water ran away in bubbly rivulets, disappearing in the coarse mat of turf, and the poisoned fish lay exposed on the grass—quiet, strangled, open-mouthed—and somehow looking as if they were mutely protesting their horrid unnatural fate.
“Count the fish,” Father ordered us, his voice like steel.
Tom and I got down on our knees.
“How many are there?” demanded Father.
“Sixty-one,” I said.
“How many bass?”
Father handed Mr. Duvitch two dollars, the price of a day’s rental of the r owboat. Then, looking both the avenging angel and executioner, he ordered Tom and me, with our tackle and bait, off the land we had disgraced—into exile, out on Durston’s Pond.
“And you are not to come back,” he gave out in the same steely tones, “until you’ve caught sixty-one fish to repay Mr. Duvitch. See to it that among them you bring in at least a dozen bass.”
Father stepped up to the tent on the knoll to fetch our shirts and dungarees. These he rolled into a tight ball and shot like a bolt into the rowboat. He then turned his back to us and, thus disowned, Tom and I lost no time in rowing out on the pond. Father’s decisions, even with Mother present, were never reversed and swift execution, from which there was no appeal, followed his sentences.
Oh, the mosquitoes! They were bad enough at the time, and while the light held, but after we had been fishing for three hours and had caught eight fish, they swarmed out of the swampland surrounding the pond in legions. After an hour of it we wanted to leap overboard. They got in our ears, our noses, our eyes, even in our mouths, and nestling in our hair, they bit through to our scalps. I remembered tales of Indian prisoners in Alaska, turned loose on the tundra by their captors, where they died of the mosquitoes in two hours. Several times we slipped over the side of the boat, immersing ourselves in the water to escape the bloodthirsty clouds.
The night dragged on while the whining swarms grew thicker.
“Andy, what time is it?”
“Ten o’clock, Tom.”
“Is that all?” Tom groaned and pulled in another bass and killed six or eight mosquitoes in one slap. Two hours passed and midnight was ghostly on Durston’s Pond. The moon, bright as day, sailed high in the purple sky, dimming the starfire, casting a great white shaft of quivering radiance on the water, but it was all hideous. The big yellow disk sank in a gauzy cloudbank, then disappeared for good and the stars shone out with renewed splendor.