Read The Choiring Of The Trees Online

Authors: Donald Harington

The Choiring Of The Trees (8 page)

Gabriel McChristian opened the door, which had been latched. Standing in the door was Michael O. Shoptaw, the turnkey, who said, “Scuse me, Warden, sir, but Governor Hays is calling up on the telephone.”

“Who?” demanded Mr. Burdell. “Which telephone?”

“The governor, sir. That telephone in your office.”

“Don’t he know we’re doing a execution?” Mr. Burdell said. “What’s he want at a time like this?”

“Wants to talk to you, is all I know, sir,” said Mr. Shoptaw.

“Caint it wait till we’re done?”

“Sir, I’m just tellin you what Williams come and tole me. He says the telephone is ringin in your office and he answers it like he’s sposed to, aint he? and it’s the secretary of the governor, and says the governor wants to talk to you right now.”

“Right now, huh?” said Mr. Burdell, and seemed to be deliberating. “Governor Hays himself, huh?” He looked around at the others in the room, waiting for someone to advise him. No one spoke. “Well, I reckon I better go see what he wants.” No one objected. The warden turned to Bobo. “Bobo, you just cook him real slow till I git back, and make sure he aint done before I git here.” Several people failed to laugh at the warden’s wit, and he realized his joke had fallen flat, and retracted it. “Aw, I’m just kiddin you, Bobo. Stand back from that switch till I tell you. I’ll be right back.”

The warden marched out of the room. The turnkey followed. The condemned man opened his eyes, which had been closed as though in meditation. He stared right at her, at Viridis. She didn’t know what to do or say. She smiled slightly, and wanted to say, See, you get a few more minutes of life, not just from me. The trees she had been hearing singing, perhaps just in her head, had changed their tune: it was not a mournful carol but a hymn of joy. If it was the trees. If it was only inside her head. She wished Nail Chism would stop looking at her. Was he going to look at her the whole time they waited for the warden to return?

The others did not seem to know what to do. Gabriel McChristian and Short Leg Fancher chatted, too quietly for her to hear. Jimmie Mac was rubbing his hands together as if he had a bar of soap inside them and was washing them. Irvin Bobo reached inside his coat and produced a flat glass bottle, which he unscrewed and tilted up to his lips.

“Now, I wonder,” said Jimmie Mac, “what-all that is about. Could be something important. Could be, even,” he looked down at the convict and spoke the rest of the sentence to him, “could be the governor has granted you a stay, or something.”

Nail Chism did not appear to hear him. He continued to stare at Viridis, seeming to see her for the first time. His eyes, she realized, were not as dark as she had rendered them. She put the drawing back on top of the pad and used a kneaded eraser to lighten the pupils of his eyes. His eyes were a kind of hazel-tinged blue. She wasn’t too uncomfortable staring into them as long as she was examining them for the purpose of her drawing.

Suddenly his eyes grew enormously large, and his whole body jumped, and the green-shaded overhead light dimmed. Bobo had thrown the switch! She heard a frantic screech, and realized it was herself. She had thrown down the sketchpad and jumped up from her chair and lunged toward Bobo and the switch, and she found herself clawing at Bobo and the switch and protesting as fast as she could talk, too fast to be understood.

McChristian and Fancher were restraining her. “Take it easy, lady,” the obese McChristian was saying to her. “The switch aint on. It aint on. Bobo was jist foolin! He jist give it a teensy little spark, jist fer a joke.” To the executioner McChristian said, “Okay, Bobo, enough’s enough, you better jist wait for the warden and don’t be foolin around.”

Viridis shook herself loose from the hands of McChristian and Fancher and looked at both of them indignantly, then gave Bobo her most scornful glower and asked, “What kind of monster are you?”

“Hey, lady, I was jist givin him a little sample,” Bobo said. “He hardly felt it. But if ole Burdell don’t git back here soon, I might jist let my hand slip and give him the full dose.” Bobo fished out his bottle and took another swig, then offered it to Viridis. “Here. You act like a man, so be a man. You’re the only
wo
-man that ever watched me. Kind of guts it takes to do that can shore stand a swaller of this stuff. Drink it.”

Viridis shook her head and returned to her seat, picking up the sketchpad from the floor. The drawing was smudged. She’d have to do one side of the face again. Her charcoal pencil was broken in half; she had another in her purse, but they hadn’t let her bring her purse into the execution chamber. She would use half the pencil as best she could, sharpening it with her fingernails. But first she took a scrap of newsprint out of her pocket and carefully wrote down exactly what Irvin Bobo had done and said. She intended to put it into the story if Tom Fletcher would let her write it.

The subject was still staring at her, but this time, when her eyes met his, Nail Chism smiled and said, “Thank you.” Then he said, “You’re very brave. You could have got yourself hurt.”

“There’s some things I can’t stand,” she said. It was the first almost conversational remark she had made in a long while.

Warden Harris Burdell returned and, forgetting there was a woman present, began to speak coarse profanity. He swore obscenely, and then he announced, “The goddamn governor has done gone and granted Chism a stay. Git the fucker out of the chair, boys, and throw him back in his fuckin cell.” He turned and saw her. “Oh, shee-
it,
Miss Monday, I forgot you was here.”

Off

 

T
he last time I was in Little Rock, just a few years ago, for my sister Mandy’s funeral, I took some time off to go out Arch Street and look for the house where Viridis Monday had spent all of her childhood and adolescence. My granddaughter Sharon drove me, at my request; she’ll know why when she reads this. The house is still there, and the present owners have lovingly restored it to what must have been its original appearance, when the architect Charles L. Thompson designed it for bank vice-president Cyril J. Monday. I would guess that the original two colors of the house were a sort of tarragon with a trim of sage, and the present owners have taken pains to duplicate these colors exactly, giving the house its Victorian feeling of elegance relieved by fanciness and playfulness. It is a storybook house. Sixteen rooms, seven porches, two turrets (one with a domed cupola), a steeple, lots of wrought-iron trim and jigsaw decoration, fishscale shingles, miles of turned balusters and spindles, and maybe (I didn’t count) two dozen roof pitches, no two of them alike. I learned that this is called Queen Anne—inappropriately, because it had nothing to do with the era or the personality of Queen Anne—and that its dominant characteristic is an avoidance of symmetry. The rooms shoot off and up in every direction, and one of them up there was Viridis’ aerie: her studio and her bower.

Most such urban houses, on huge high lots with leaf-dappled lawns, were intended for large families at a time when large families were desirable, but Cyril and Elsie Monday had only five children; they would have had more, but Elsie’s health was not good after the birth of Viridis, who was the first girl, fourth child. The last-born, also a girl, Cyrilla, was frail from infancy, although she outlived them all.

The house is a short, brisk hike from downtown Little Rock, not far from the governor’s mansion. All its neighbors are distinctively individual but large and rambling houses of the 1890s and early 1900s. Although the Mondays had servants, a black couple who handled the yard work and kitchen work, Viridis told me, years later when she was filling in the pieces of her life for me, “I remember at an early age being placed in charge of them, in charge of the household, since my mother was either too ill or too indisposed to give orders to the servants. The black couple, a man named Samuel and his wife Ruby, called me Missy V, and they did not seem to mind taking orders from me, and I was careful never to give orders in a demanding or supercilious fashion.”

Cyril Monday had originated in Malvern, Arkansas, and so had Elsie. Malvern was in the flat timberlands southwest of the capital, and Cyril, although he liked to claim that he was a “self-made” man, was the son of a prosperous lumber baron, who, however, had insisted that each of his sons attend “the College of Hard Knocks.” So Cyril at seventeen became a driver for the stagecoach that ran from the depot to the resort spa at Hot Springs. One of his regular passengers was the Little Rock banker Henry T. Worthen, who took young Cyril under his wing, persuaded him to move to Little Rock, and gave him a job in his bank. Within five years Cyril had risen from clerk to teller to vice-president. “But never more than that,” Viridis told me. “All of my growing-up years I had to listen to my father complain that he was not ever going to realize his ambition to become president of the bank. He was a very frustrated man.”

Cyril Monday may have remained only a frustrated vice-president for all of his working life, but he was a very wealthy one, and he and his family were “comfortable”—a word then meaning without a care in this world, except that Elsie was often in poor health, and when she wasn’t spending long periods in Hot Springs taking one “cure” or another, sometimes for addiction to drink, she was convalescing at home, not bedridden but spending most of the time in her garden, which covered nearly half an acre behind the Monday mansion. “In good weather, if I wanted to speak to my mother,” Viridis told me, “I tried the garden first. If my mother wasn’t there, she was in Hot Springs. I was seventeen and in college before it suddenly dawned on me that my mother had never had any friends.”

Henry Worthen once suggested to Cyril Monday that he would never become president, of the bank or of any of the civic and fraternal organizations to which he belonged, unless and until his wife Elsie began to “entertain.” Cyril Monday did not apologize for Elsie. Some women, he felt, were not cut out to entertain, and he himself was not fond of large dinner parties at which a fortune was spent on food that remained unappreciated because the eater was too busy either trying to keep stains off his or her clothing or else carrying on a conversation to pay any attention to what was being eaten.

Nor did the girls, Viridis and Cyrilla, do any entertaining in the form of inviting friends to come to the Monday mansion for food or play or casual conversation. Cyrilla was almost as delicate as her mother, and in fact she began at the age of twelve to accompany her mother on the regular cures to Hot Springs. What social life existed at all within the confines of the Queen Anne house was that of the three sons Matthew, Dallas, and Henry, who frequently invited their classmates to come and visit, to explore the countless cupboards and crannies of the endless house, to play croquet or badminton on the lawns, to shoot billiards on the third floor, to climb even higher into the fifth floor of the domed turret and shoot pigeons on the roof.

“I remember the house as being overrun by males,” Viridis said to me. “When my mother and sister were gone to Hot Springs for long stretches, and my three brothers had three or more of their friends spending the night or longer, I had no one to talk to except my father, and he had very little time to listen to me, although we did spend much time together, evenings especially.”

(It is hard for me to get out of the habit of thinking of “evening” as meaning “afternoon,” as it always did in Stay More and the Ozarks. Evening was the time before supper, night was the time after supper, but to say that Viridis and her father spent their nights together is misleading…somewhat.)

Days, when she had any time free from managing the household, from meeting with the tutors who came regularly to give private lessons in voice, piano, French, and Spanish to her and her sister, from planning the lunches for her brothers and their friends, from dusting the spots that Ruby had missed, from shopping in the markets along lower Main, Viridis would climb the smaller north turret, not the south one the boys used as a pigeon blind, to the room that was her studio, which she had created at the age of eleven when one of the books she’d got from her Grandmother Monday at Christmas was
The Young People’s Concise Doorway to the Fine Arts,
wherein she had learned what an easel is, a palette, a mahlstick, and the names of such colors as madder, alizarin, ocher, umber, sienna, and, her delightful discovery, viridian. “Neither my father nor my mother, who hadn’t known it themselves, had ever told me the meaning of my given name, which had been bestowed upon me, my mother had said, because she had ‘found it in a novel’ and had thought it ‘was pretty and unusual.’ My mother had not been able to remember which novel, and once I searched their library without finding it. My father couldn’t even pronounce the name, or, if he could, he chose to mispronounce it roguishly to rhyme with ‘paradise.’” She was destined to endure from other people its mispronunciations and misspellings (Viridas, Viredes, Vyradis, Veredis, etc.) all of her life.

She spelled it for me, and she told me it was pronounced properly Vera Dis, although she didn’t mind that I had been saying it Verdus, which was the way Nail Chism had pronounced it too.

“I have too many eyes,” I thought she said, but she was saying that she had a surplus of the letter
i
in her name, three of them, and I jokingly called her Three-Eyes when I was irritated with her, which was not often: she was fourteen years older than I, and I loved her dearly.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if she couldn’t tell this whole story of her growing up and becoming a woman much better than I could do it. What follows I have put into her words, pretending it’s what she spoke to me, but it wasn’t then, that year I first met her, and it wasn’t even over the many years following that I knew her and we would sit endless hours together rocking away on the porch while she told me the whole story of her life. No, what follows is a kind of combination of bits and pieces she told me over the years, and some other things I learned from other people who knew her, and parts of it, perhaps the best parts of it, not from what she or they said but from what she wrote, in her private diaries, which came into my hands after her death many years later. So yes, I will let her tell this:

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