By Mark Slouka
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From Gideon’s porch the fires set along the edges of our fields appeared strangely alive, as though burning inside a blizzard; every now and again a man-shaped space would block out the flames like a woodcut out of Dante, send a gust of sparks soaring into the night, and quickly disappear. A fever in the land. I believe that if we had stopped and listened, we could have felt it growing. That was the year that John Brown, God singing in his ears, reduced the proslavery population along Pottawatomie Creek by five.
Our morning sessions on the porch had begun by then, and twice a week and once on Sundays we would repair outside, my brother to study the wisdom of God, I to contemplate the many roads to damnation, as he so neatly put it. There was little help for it. I can still see us there, like clerks behind the old dining-room table, he quietly mumbling his way through Deuteronomy, I trying to calculate approximately how long it might take him, having pushed off from Egypt, so to speak, to reach the land of Canaan.
In any case, his nature changed. Whatever rage he may have had left he turned, with admirable success, to work. He became a steadying force, a decent husband, a good father to his son. No one was better at sniffing out a game trail or reading the dogs. No one was better at pushing the bucks out of the briar thickets on a drive, or finding the places where the does bedded down in the heat. When Moses and Christopher were old enough to feel for catfish in the deadfalls at night, it was Lewis who taught them, who showed them how to keep from winding up like Toner Hugg who, three years earlier, had lost his hand in the craw of a big-river blue as big as a sow; a fish with a head the size of a horse, whiskers thick as a man’s thumb.