Rudolf Franz Flesch.

Why Johnny can't read--and what you can do about it online

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William Faulkner



Copyright, 1930, and renewed 1957, by William Faulkner.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright

Conventions. Published in New York by Random House, Inc., and

in Toronto, Canada, by Random House of Canada, Limited.

The corrections in this edition are based on a collation, under

the direction of James B. Meriwether, of the first edition and

Faulkner's original manuscript and typescript.



Hal Smith



Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single
file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us
from the cottonhouse can see Jewel's frayed and broken straw
hat a full head above my own.

The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet
and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laid-by
cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns
and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on
across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.

The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which the chink-
ing has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch,
it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a
single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the ap-
proaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path
which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking
straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still
staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden
face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a
cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with
life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the
opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the
corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front,
we go on up the path toward the foot of the bluff.

Tull's wagon stands beside the spring, hitched to the rail, the
reins wrapped about the seat stanchion. In the wagon bed are two
chairs. Jewel stops at the spring and takes the gourd from the wil-
low branch and drinks. I pass him and mount the path, beginning
to hear Cash's saw.

When I reach the top he has quit sawing. Standing in a litter of
chips, he is fitting two of the boards together. Between the shadow


spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks
in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade: a good car-
penter, Cash is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along
the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints
along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze.
A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better one,
a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort. I go
on to the house, followed by the

Chuck. Chuck. Chuck,
of the adze.


So I saved out the eggs and baked yesterday. The cakes turned
out right well. We depend a lot on our chickens. They are good
layers, what few we have left after the possums and such. Snakes
too, in the summer. A snake will break up a hen-house quicker
than anything. So after they were going to cost so much more than
Mr Tull thought, and after I promised that the difference in the
number of eggs would make it up, I had to be more careful than
ever because it was on my final say-so we took them. We could
have stocked cheaper chickens, but I gave my promise as Miss
Lawington said when she advised me to get a good breed, because
Mr Tull himself admits that a good breed of cows or hogs pays in
the long run. So when we lost so many of them we couldn't afford
to use the eggs ourselves, because I could not have had Mr Tull
chide me when it was on my say-so we took them. So when Miss
Lawington told me about the cakes I thought that I could bake
them and earn enough at one time to increase the net value of the
flock the equivalent of two head. And that by saving the eggs out
one at a time, even the eggs wouldn't be costing anything. And
that week they laid so well that I not only saved out enough eggs
above what we had engaged to sell, to bake the cakes with, I had
saved enough so that the flour and the sugar and the stove wood
would not be costing anything. So I baked yesterday, more careful
than ever I baked in my life, and the cakes turned out right well.
But when we got to town this morning Miss Lawington told me
the lady had changed her mind and was not going to have the party
after all.

"She ought to taken those cakes anyway," Kate says.
"Well," I say, "I reckon she never had no use for them now."
"She ought to taken them," Kate says. "But those rich town
ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant."


Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into
the heart. "Maybe I can sell them at the bazaar Saturday," I say.
They turned out real well.

"You cant get two dollars a piece for them," Kate says.

"Well, it isn't like they cost me anything," I say. I saved them
out and swapped a dozen of them for the sugar and flour. It isn't
like the cakes cost me anything, as Mr Tull himself realises that
the eggs I saved were over and beyond what we had engaged to
sell, so it was like we had found the eggs or they had been given
to us.

"She ought to taken those cakes when she same as gave you her
word," Kate says. The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will
that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is
not my place to question His decree.

"I reckon she never had any use for them," I say. They turned
out real well, too.

The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two
hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with
her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear
him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf
we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face
is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white
lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter
down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks. But the eternal and
the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her.

"They turned out real nice," I say. "But not like the cakes Addie
used to bake." You can see that girl's washing and ironing in the
pillow-slip, if ironed it ever was. Maybe it will reveal her blindness
to her, laying there at the mercy and the ministration of four men
and a tom-boy girl. "There's not a woman in this section could
ever bake with Addie Bundren," I say. "First thing we know she'll
be up and baking again, and then we wont have any sale for ours
at all." Under the quilt she makes no more of a hump than a rail
would, and the only way you can tell she is breathing is by the
sound of the mattress shucks. Even the hair at her cheek does not
move, even with that girl standing right over her, fanning her with
the fan. While we watch she swaps the fan to the other hand with-
out stopping it.


"Is she sleeping?" Kate whispers.

"She's just watching Cash yonder," the girl says. We can hear
the saw in the board. It sounds like snoring. Eula turns on the
trunk and looks out the window. Her necklace looks real nice
with her red hat. You wouldn't think it only cost twenty-five cents.

"She ought to taken those cakes," Kate says.

I could have used the money real well. But it's not like they cost
me anything except the baking. I can tell him that anybody is likely
to make a miscue, but it's not all of them that can get out of it with-
out loss, I can tell him. It's not everybody can eat their mistakes,
I can tell him.

Someone comes through the hall. It is Darl. He does not look
in as he passes the door. Eula watches him as he goes on and
passes from sight again toward the back. Her hand rises and
touches her beads lightly, and then her hair. When she finds me
watching her, her eyes go blank.



Pa and Vernon are sitting on the back porch. Pa is tilting snuff
from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip out-
drawn between thumb and finger. They look around as I cross
the porch and dip the gourd into the water bucket and drink.

"Where's Jewel?" pa says. When I was a boy I first learned how
much better water tastes when it has set a while in a cedar bucket.
Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar
trees smells. It has to set at least six hours, and be drunk from a
gourd. Water should never be drunk from metal.

And at night it is better still. I used to lie on the pallet in the hall,
waiting until I could hear them all asleep, so I could get up and
go back to the bucket. It would be black, the shelf black, the still
surface of the water a round orifice in nothingness, where before
I stirred it awake with the dipper I could see maybe a star or two
in the bucket, and maybe in the dipper a star or two before I drank.
y After that I was bigger, older. Then I would wait until they all went
to sleep so I could lie with my shirt-tail up, hearing them asleep,
feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence
blowing upon my parts and wondering if Cash was yonder in the
darkness doing it too, had been doing it perhaps for the last two
years before I could have wanted to or could have.

Pa's feet are badly splayed, his toes cramped and bent and
warped, with no toenail at all on his little toes, from working so
hard in the wet in homemade shoes when he was a boy. Beside his
chair his brogans sit. They look as though they had been hacked
with a blunt axe out of pig-iron. Vernon has been to town. I have
never seen him go to town in overalls. His wife, they say. She
taught school too, once.

I fling the dipper dregs to the ground and wipe my mouth on


my sleeve. It is going to rain before morning. Maybe before dark.
"Down to the barn," I say. "Harnessing the team."

Down there fooling with that horse. He will go on through the
barn, into the pasture. The horse will not be in sight: he is up there
among the pine seedlings, in the cool. Jewel whistles, once and
shrill. The horse snorts, then Jewel sees him, glinting for a gaudy
instant among the blue shadows. Jewel whistles again; the horse
comes dropping down the slope, stiff-legged, his ears cocking and
flicking, his mis-matched eyes rolling, and fetches up twenty feet
away, broadside on, watching Jewel over his shoulder in an at-
titude kittenish and alert.

"Come here, sir," Jewel says. He moves. Moving that quick his
coat, bunching, tongues swirling like so many flames. With tossing
mane and tail and rolling eye the horse makes another short cur-
vetting rush and stops again, feet bunched, watching Jewel. Jewel
walks steadily toward him, his hands at his sides. Save for Jewel's
legs they are like two figures carved for a tableau savage in the

When Jewel can almost touch him, the horse stands on his hind
legs and slashes down at Jewel. Then Jewel is enclosed by a glitter-
ing maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings; among them, be-
neath the upreared chest, he moves with the flashing limberness of
a snake. For an instant before the jerk comes onto his arms he
sees his whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-Umber,
until he finds the horse's nostrils and touches earth again. Then
they are rigid, motionless, terrific, the horse back-thrust on stiff-
ened, quivering legs, with lowered head; Jewel with dug heels,
shutting off the horse's wind with one hand, with the other patting
the horse's neck in short strokes myriad and caressing, cursing
the horse with obscene ferocity.

They stand in rigid terrific hiatus, the horse trembling and
groaning. Then Jewel is on the horse's back. He flows upward in
a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body in midair shaped
to the horse. For another moment the horse stands spraddled,
with lowered head, before it bursts into motion. They descend the
hill in a series of spine-jolting jumps, Jewel high, leech-like on
the withers, to the fence where the horse bunches to a scuttering
halt again.


"Well," Jewel says, "you can quit now, if you got a-plenty."
Inside the barn Jewel slides running to the ground before the
horse stops. The horse enters the stall, Jewel following. Without
looking back the horse kicks at him, slamming a single hoof into
the wall with a pistol-like report. Jewel kicks him in the stomach;
the horse arches his neck back, crop-toothed; Jewel strikes him
across the face with his fist and slides on to the trough and mounts
upon it. Clinging to the hay-rack he lowers his head and peers out
across the stall tops and through the doorway. The path is empty;
from here he cannot even hear Cash sawing. He reaches up and
drags down hay in hurried armsful and crams it into the rack.

"Eat," he says. "Get the goddamn stuff out of sight while you
got a chance, you pussel-gutted bastard. You sweet son of a bitch,"
he says.


It's because he stays out there, right under the window, ham-
mering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she's got to see
him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and
sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I
am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good
God do you want to see her in it. It's like when he was a little boy
and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some
flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the
barn full of dung.

And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fan-
ning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn't keep on sawing
and nailing at it until a man can't sleep even and her hands laying
on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and
you couldn't get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell's
arm. I said if you'd just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and
keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you're
tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick
less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in
the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter
he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and
if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood
fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the
county coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what
the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and
_me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up
and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God
until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less.
One lick less and we could be quiet.


We watch him come around the corner and mount the steps. He
does not look at us. "You ready?" he says.

"If you're hitched up," I say. I say "Wait." He stops, looking
at pa. Vernon spits, without moving. He spits with decorous and
deliberate precision into the pocked dust below the porch. Pa rubs
his hands slowly on his knees. He is gazing out beyond the crest
of the bluff, out across the land. Jewel watches him a moment,
then he goes on to the pail and drinks again.

"I mislike undecision as much as ere a man," pa says.

"It means three dollars," I say. The shirt across pa's hump is
faded lighter than the rest of it. There is no sweat stain on his
shirt. I have never seen a sweat stain on his shirt. He was sick
once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old,
and he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die. I suppose
he believes it.

"But if she dont last until you get back," he says. "She will be

Vernon spits into the dust. But it will rain before morning.

"She's counted on it," pa says. "She'll want to start right away.
I know her. I promised her I'd keep the team here and ready,
and she's counting on it."

"We'll need that three dollars then, sure," I say. Fe gazes out
over the land, rubbing his hands on his knees. Since he lost his
teeth his mouth collapses in slow repetition when he dips. The
stubble gives his lower face that appearance that old dogs have.
"You'd better make up your mind soon, so we can get there and
get a load on before dark," I say.

"Ma aint that sick," Jewel says. "Shut up, Darl."

"That's right," Vernon says. "She seems more like herself to-


day than she has in a week. Time you and Jewel get back, she'll
be setting up."

"You ought to know," Jewel says. "You been here often
enough looking at her. You or your folks." Vernon looks at him.
Jewel's eyes look like pale wood in his high-blooded face. He is
a head taller than any of the rest of us, always was. I told them
that's why ma always whipped him and petted him more. Because
he was peakling around the house more. That's why she named
him Jewel I told them.

"Shut up, Jewel," pa says, but as though he is not listening much.
He gazes out across the land, rubbing his knees.

"You could borrow the loan of Vernon's team and we could
catch up with you," I say. "If she didn't wait for us."

"Ah, shut your goddamn mouth," Jewel says.

"She'll want to go in ourn," pa says. He rubs his knees. "Dont
ere a man mislike it more."

"It's laying there, watching Cash whittle on that damn . . ."
Jewel says. He says it harshly, savagely, but he does not say the
word. Like a little boy in the dark to flail his courage and sud-
denly aghast into silence by his own noise.

"She wanted that like she wants to go in our own wagon," pa
says. "She'll rest easier for knowing it's a good one, and private.
She was ever a private woman. You know it well."

"Then let it be private," Jewel says. "But how the hell can you
expect it to be—" he looks at the back of pa's head, his eyes like
pale wooden eyes.

"Sho," Vernon says, "she'll hold on till it's finished. She'll hold
on till everything's ready, till her own good time. And with the
roads like they are now, it wont take you no time to get her to

"It's fixing up to rain," pa says. "I am a luckless man. I have
ever been." He rubs his hands on his knees. "It's that dura doc-
tor, liable to come at any time. I couldn't get word to him till so
late. If he was to come tomorrow and tell her the time was nigh,
she wouldn't wait. I know her. Wagon or no wagon, she wouldn't
wait. Then she'd be upset, and I wouldn't upset her for the living
world. With that family burying-ground in Jefferson and them of
her blood waiting for her there, she'll be impatient. I promised my


word me and the boys would get her there quick as mules could
walk it, so she could rest quiet." He rubs his hands on his knees.
"No man ever misliked it more."

"If everybody wasn't burning hell to get her there," Jewel says
in that harsh, savage voice. "With Cash all day long right under
the window, hammering and sawing at that—"

"It was her wish," pa says. "You got no affection nor gentleness
for her. You never had. We would be beholden to no man," he
says, "me and her. We have never yet been, and she will rest
quieter for knowing it and that it was her own blood sawed out
the boards and drove the nails. She was ever one to clean up after

"It means three dollars," I say. "Do you want us to go, or not?"
Pa rubs his knees. "We'll be back by tomorrow sundown."

"Well . . ." pa says. He looks out over the land, awry-haired,
mouthing the snuff slowly against his gums.

"Come on," Jewel says. He goes down the steps. Vernon spits
neatly into the dust.

"By sundown, now," pa says. "I would not keep her waiting."

Jewel glances back, then he goes on around the house. I enter
the hall, hearing the voices before I reach the door. Tilting a little
down the hill, as our house does, a breeze draws through the hall
all the time, upslanting. A feather dropped near the front door
will rise and brush along the ceiling, slanting backward, until it
reaches the down-turning current at the back door: so with voices.
As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out
of the air about your head.


It was the sweetest thing I ever saw. It was like he knew he would
never see her again, that Anse Bundren was driving him from his
mother's death bed, never to see her in this world again. I always
said Darl was different from those others. I always said he was the
only one of them that had his mother's nature, had any natural
aSection. Not that Jewel, the one she labored so to bear and cod-
dled and petted so and him flinging into tantrums or sulking spells,
inventing devilment to devil her until I would have frailed him time
and time. Not him to come and tell her goodbye. Not him to miss
a chance to make that extra three dollars at the price of his mother's
goodbye kiss. A Bundren through and through, loving nobody,
caring for nothing except how to get something with the least
amount of work. Mr Tull says Darl asked them to wait. He said
Darl almost begged them on his knees not to force him to leave
her in her condition. But nothing would do but Anse and Jewel
must make that three dollars. Nobody that knows Anse could have
expected different, but to think of that boy, that Jewel, selling all
those years of self-denial and down-right partiality— they couldn't
fool me: Mr Tull says Mrs Bundren liked Jewel the least of all,
but I knew better. I knew she was partial to him, to the same qual-
ity in him that let her put up with Anse Bundren when Mr Tull
said she ought to poisoned him— for three dollars, denying his dy-
ing mother the goodbye kiss.

Why, for the last three weeks I have been coming over every
time I could, coming sometimes when I shouldn't have, neglecting
my own family and duties so that somebody would be with her in
her last moments and she would not have to face the Great Un-
known without one familiar face to give her courage. Not that I
deserve credit for it: I will expect the same for myself. But thank
God it will be the faces of my loved kin, my blood and flesh, for


in my husband and children I have been more blessed than most,
trials though they have been at times.

She lived, a lonely woman, lonely with her pride, trying to make
folks believe different, hiding the fact that they just suffered her,
because she was not cold in the coffin before they were carting her
forty miles away to bury her, flouting the will of God to do it. Re-
fusing to let her lie in the same earth with those Bundrens.

"But she wanted to go," Mr Tull said. "It was her own wish to
lie among her own people."

"Then why didn't she go alive?" I said. "Not one of them would
have stopped her, with even that little one almost old enough now
to be selfish and stonehearted like the rest of them."

"It was her own wish," Mr Tull said. "I heard Anse say it was."

"And you would believe Anse, of course," I said. "A man like
you would. Dont tell me."

"I'd believe him about something he couldn't expect to make
anything off of me by not telling," Mr Tull said.

"Dont tell me," I said. "A woman's place is with her husband
and children, alive or dead. Would you expect me to want to go
back to Alabama and leave you and the girls when my time comes,
that I left of my own will to cast my lot with yours for better and
worse, until death and after?"
- "Well, folks are different," he said.

I should hope so. I have tried to live right in the sight of God
and man, for the honor and comfort of my Christian husband and
the love and respect of my Christian children. So that when I lay
me down in the consciousness of my duty and reward I will be
surrounded by loving faces, carrying the farewell kiss of each of
my loved ones into my reward. Not like Addie Bundren dying
alone, hiding her pride and her broken heart. Glad to go. Lying
there with her head propped up so she could watch Cash building
the coffin, having to watch him so he would not skimp on it, like
as not, with those men not worrying about anything except if there
was time to earn another three dollars before the rain come and
the river got too high to get across it. Like as not, if they hadn't
decided to make that last load, they would have loaded her into
the wagon on a quilt and crossed the river first and then stopped
and give her time to die what Christian death they would let her.


Except Darl. It was the sweetest thing I ever saw. Sometimes I
lose faith in human nature for a time; I am assailed by doubt. But

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Online LibraryRudolf Franz FleschWhy Johnny can't read--and what you can do about it → online text (page 1 of 13)