Jerome: part six
Jerome had managed so far only the unbuttoning. At intervals he’d tugged the cuff, abandoned this effort while lurching with the wagon’s motion; essayed a renewal of the attack with each regaining of his balance. His left hand was presently snagged in his left armhole, tension pinning his right arm to his side. From his secure perch on the tasseled cushion Ebrach twisted, clamped a hand on Jerome’s undressed shoulder, and began peeling back the right sleeve.
At last, sweating freely and steadied by an added hand from Ziegler, Jerome was unprisoned. Ebrach, taking the coat, folded it into a tidy square, and laid it inside the trunk over a stack of quarto-sized books. He drew from his portfolio a single sheet of paper. He deliberated. He closed the trunk. And although Ziegler was his only auditor, Ebrach again used Jerome as his dialectic partner.
“Are you familiar, Jerome, with that which is called automatic writing? When I use the expression, do you understand my meaning?”
“Yes… Mr. Ebrach, I know…I believe…there are people who say they contact spirits, who use this way of…making themselves involved…”
Jerome hardly knew of words to describe such practices without exposing to Ebrach the contempt in which he held them.
“I will read to you, Jerome, an illustrative example from my own work. What sort of work is it that you suppose I do?”
But this is what I asked you, only yesterday.
Jerome made this complaint inside himself, and found his memory muddled. Ebrach, he thought, talked in circles. Meaning only to sound the words out, to find―if this were possible—their sense, he said aloud: “A mental scientist.”
“It is,” Ebrach said, “more almost than science can encompass. Here is a letter from the Reverend Mr. Douglas Murchison. Mr. Murchison is, by his calling, a man of faith. And yet, Jerome, what is this greatest of mysteries, that which no faith can explain? Religious teaching alone offers insufficient consolation to the bereaved. Why so?”
Ebrach spoke of things hidden. But nature, rather than conspire to his advantage, produced at this stage an effect contrary to his theme. The wagon had passed the last of the overarching trees. A track bisecting an expanse of cultivated fields, the whole of a sun-drenched vista, forked away from the main road, and Ziegler steered them along this way, the track not much wider than the wagon itself. Dust hung on the air where some other vehicle had gone before. The last of the cooling shade was buffeted back, and where the last shadow fell, heat with a visceral presence rose. Jerome, beginning to feel a certain dread admixed with his discomfort, pulled his hat brim lower. He would have liked to take this off and fan himself with it, but didn’t dare. There was no relief here from the sun. He looked across the bottomland towards the river; then, turning to his right, looked uphill. These, he thought, were tobacco fields. Jerome had never seen tobacco as it grew in the earth, yet he was certain these big-leaved plants were W. A. Gremot’s cash crop. Over the slope’s contour, narrowing in the distance, a pattern seemed to weave itself into a net—the rows of plants, and the exposed soil between. Black laborers crouched with white cloths laid behind them.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)