Hattie Wilson came to the end of her patience with her brother Brown one week before Christmas. Hattie had been patient, long-suffering in her silence. Brown lived a recluse in his own bedroom for four years and 71 days, self-sequestered and completely healthy, able to leave his room whenever he chose. Hattie had not seen him in all those long months, but now, she decided to prod him.
Brown had always been a recluse, but until his 33rd birthday he participated in private Wilson home life. He sat in the parlor most evenings, and he read and discussed books. Wilson children inherited an interest in books, if not biologically, then because Mama insisted. Marguerite Wilson had earned a degree in literature from the state university. No other woman on the ridge had even gone away to university.
Brown spent one hour each afternoon and another in the evening sitting next to Mama in her three final, bedfast years, reading the Bible, reading Charles Dickens, reading Nathaniel Hawthorne.
After Mama died, Brown sat with Hattie, discussing literature and recalling Mama. A month after the funeral, Brown and Hattie read an exceptionally puritanical Hawthorne story, and Brown announced he, too, was in need of a walk. Hattie, exhausted from her day, chose not to walk with him.
He walked late, too late for Hattie to hear him return. At breakfast, she noticed a limp, stark whiteness in his face. “I had a scare in the woods,” he said.
It must have been scary, Hattie thought; his face was so pale as to be riveting, impossible to turn away from. “What scared you?” she asked.
“The devil,” he replied, a high nervous tremor in his voice.
She thought Brown was trying to be funny.
But that night, Brown went into his bedroom and locked his door in a house where doors had never been locked.
She didn’t understand at first. The next night, after Hattie had locked up the chickens and finished the chores she held back for the dusky hours, she went as usual into the parlor. Brown didn’t join her.
She knocked at his door, and he said he didn’t feel up to Hawthorne tonight and to please excuse him. The scare and chill of the night before still affected him; she heard tremor and tiredness in his voice. She excused him, having no idea that she would not see her brother again for over four years. The next night, he asked to be excused again, and the evening after, and then came a night when Hattie didn’t ask. She hoped if she ignored him, Brown would come out on his own. He didn’t.
Hattie came to realize that, no matter what had really happened in the woods, Brown thought he had seen Lucifer.
The few who knew assumed Hattie must be cooperating with his asceticism. She could not see how. True, she left food for him; their culture demanded that women feed men. And Brown had been excused from every area of domestic responsibility by Mama, who doted upon him, believing him delicate, thereby making him so. Hattie worked alongside Papa, as hard as any son, smarter than any son. She became Papa’s favorite, just as Brown was Mama’s.
But now, as October’s harvest had given way to November’s feast, Hattie grew weary of caring for her brother, sharing her house but not sharing life. She decided to drive him from his lair.
She enlisted Anna Domby’s help. Anna feared spinsterhood. Hattie’s closest friend since childhood, Anna looked at Hattie’s lack of a husband and did not desire such a life for herself. Brown had been the husband she dreamt of, and she assumed that Mama Wilson had blocked her every advance on him.
“I want you to stand outside Brown’s window in your nightgown,” Hattie told her. “Make noise enough that he’ll look out.”
“In my nightgown? Are you going crazy, too?” Anna responded. “Papa would kill me if the cold doesn’t.”
“It’s not that cold,” Hattie said. “And your papa won’t know.”
“I can’t stand in front of Brown that way!”
“I declare, Anna, I don’t know why not. You’ve been mooning and moping for him for as long as I can remember. If you ever catch him, he’ll see your drawers.” Hattie had always been earthier than Anna; Anna kept kitchen at home — Hattie tended livestock.
The favor of calm, warm night air graced their efforts when Anna visited Hattie under the pretense of working together on a quilt. At 1 a.m., Anna paraded outside Brown’s window in her nightgown, calling out to him in her notion of a seductive voice. To Hattie, it sounded about as sexy as a guinea hen’s croak. Anna’s head-to-toe mustard yellow nightgown nauseated Hattie, and as she watched Anna’s back-and-forth strolls and listened to her calls, Hattie knew Brown wasn’t coming out of his room for that.
Anna clutched her sides and ran back into the parlor, where Hattie stood in front of the fireplace guffawing. “I did what you said,” she whined.
She also said Brown’s curtain flicked once, but Hattie thought she made it up. She imagined how Anna would react to her newest idea: that she now go outside without the nightgown, or anything else.
Hattie walked with Anna back to the Domby farm. “What if you made so much noise he couldn’t sleep?” Anna asked. “Babies get their days and nights mixed up; his must be by now.” Anna’s mama, Bertie, suggested taking the door off the hinges. Anna liked the idea: “Papa would do it!” she said, her voice rising with excitement.
“I’ve thought about it,” Hattie replied. “And I don’t need Paul to do it. I could take it right off by myself. But Brown’d just hole up somewhere else. He needs to want to join up with life again. Don’t you understand?”
On Saturday, Hattie banged every pot and pan and kettle, she scraped the floor with every chair, she dropped things outside Brown’s door, she called to him as she passed by his door. But I don’t even know if he’s trying to sleep, she thought.
“Mama’d get him out of that room!” Hattie muttered 10 days before Christmas, as she searched for the book she read every December, just as Mama had. Mr. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. She began it last night and reached Jacob Marley’s chain-rattling before falling asleep. This morning, it lay on the floor; she picked it up, smoothed a bent page, and carried it into the kitchen, thinking to read more at breakfast, but yowling barn cats fighting on the back porch distracted her. She left the book next to the flour bin.
But now the book wasn’t there. Not on the safe, not on the table. Books don’t walk away by themselves, she thought and then considered a new idea.
Night-time prowlers might carry them away. Into their own rooms.
Mama read Mr. Charles Dickens to both of her students at Christmastime.
Hattie remembered how Brown loved the story, both drawn to and scared by the Christmas ghosts.
Did Brown believe in ghosts?
Maybe. He believed he saw the devil in the woods.
The right ghost would not fail at getting Brown out of that bedroom. But Hattie, who knew how to castrate calves and build sheds, did not know how to summon a ghost.
The only sure way to make Brown want out of that bedroom would be to light the house afire, she thought as she sobbed herself to sleep in the warm parlor.
Then, Mama shook her knee. “Yes, Mama?” Hattie said. She didn’t open her eyes, but she could see Mama.
“Wake up, Harr-r-r-riet,” Mama said. “I don’t have a lot of time, and I need to speak my peace to someone who’s listening.”
Hattie jerked upright, eyes now opened wide. “Mama, you’re —”
“Yes, I’m dead. Do you think I could forget that?” Mama pulled a kitchen chair into the parlor, so close to Hattie that their knees were almost touching.
“No’m,” Hattie answered. “But that means I must be dreamin’ this.”
Mama scowled and said. “Pinch yourself.” Hattie did. “Harder,” Mama said. Hattie pinched like she was trying to pull a brooder hen’s head off its neck. It hurt.
“You sure you’re awake now?”
“You think I’m real?”
Hattie didn’t nod — didn’t move a muscle.
“Jiminy, girl,” Mama said. “You’ve been prayin’ and frettin’ over Brown Billy for four years and wantin’ to figure out how to get him out of that room and back into life. Did you think no one was listening?”
“Well, Mama, no, I knew God was listening, but sending a ghost …”
Mama slapped Harriet. Not real hard, just stinging hard. “I’m not a ghost. I’m your mama. No witch of Endor sent me!”
Hattie rubbed the sting away with the back of her hand. “You didn’t have to slap me,” she said.
“Then stop being a mule,” Mama said. “Now what’s your plan?”
“To get Brown out of his bedroom,” Mama said, exasperation evident in her tone.
“I don’t have one! None of my plans work, anyway,” Hattie said. “I’ve been thinking to ask Bertie Domby if she’d dress up in some of your old clothes and pretend to be you. I banged on every pot and pan in the house. I even asked —” but she broke off there. She doubted Mama would want to think about Brown ogling Anna.
“Even asked what?”
Hattie spoke slowly, finding a lie Mama wouldn’t question. “I even asked Bertie and Anna for their ideas. They said I should take the door off its hinges.”
“Dummy Dombys,” Mama snorted. “That’d be their solution, all right. Break something.” Mama said. “The door does not need to come down, Hattie.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Mama,” Hattie said.
So Mama leaned in close to Hattie, as if afraid someone would overhear her. “Give him what he wants ’til he doesn’t want it anymore. Give him Poe.”
Hattie rubbed her eyes open and looked around the parlor. Something didn’t look right — a kitchen chair sat next to her. Her forearm hurt, and when she looked at it, there was an angry, red bruise. Like she had been pinched. Pinched hard.
Give him Poe.
Had it been real? The pinch had been; the bruise proved it.
But had Mama really come back to advise her?
Hattie sat and considered the practicals and the theology of it. They didn’t matter. Whether Mama had come back or not, Hattie had a plan.
If Brown wanted to stay in that damn bedroom, he could. She’d give him Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
And so, bright and early on December 18, Hattie left for town after breakfast. But first, she called through Brown’s door. “I’m tired of this, brother. You’d best come out today,” and under her breath, she added, “while you can.”
At the sawmill, she charged 10 eight-foot two-by-sixes. She needed cash for the brick, so she stopped at the bank. Today, when she wanted to get her supplies and leave town with no one even knowing she had been there, Ellsie Wood met her in the bank’s parking lot. He wanted to know about Brown.
He spat on the sidewalk and demanded, “Brown still holed up in his room?”
“He is,” Hattie answered. “I’m starting to think he just might never come out.”
“Crazier’n a bedbug on a griddle,” Ellsie said. “You must get lonely up there all by yourself.”
“Not so much,” Hattie said. “Too much work to do.” She added, because she knew Ellsie wouldn’t understand it, “I read a lot.”
“You ’n’ me ought to step out,” he said, scratching a scab on his chin. “You like to square dance?”
“I’m a Methodist,” she said.
“They don’t dance?”
“No, we don’t dance.” Hattie tried to step around Ellsie.
“We could just sit in your parlor. Maybe smooch a little. Methodists smooch, don’t they?” he said, grinning.
“They do. And we could,” Hattie said, “but we’re not going to.” She pushed him aside and opened the truck.
“Hell, Hat,” Ellsie said, “you’re just as closed up in that house as Brown is. Who’s the bigger hermit?” He spat again and walked back to his own vehicle.
After feeding and the other chores that had to be done, Hattie fried chicken, wanting Brown to smell his favorite dinner. She took her time over two pieces, thinking sorely about Ellsie Wood and about how sometimes idiots had the clearest vision. She put her dirty dishes into the sink and headed to the smokehouse for tools.
Then she pulled the truck around the house, right in the yard, and parked outside Brown’s bedroom window. Hattie wanted Brown to hear her.
She took the first of her two-by-sixes, a mouthful of nails and her hammer, and she nailed the board right into the side of the house, right down the center of the window, watching carefully to see if Brown pulled back the blind to look out. He didn’t, so she nailed a second board right up next to the first, as closely butted together as she could get them. After she had the window completely boarded shut, she took the last two-by-sixes and nailed them crossways to the others, one at the top and one at the bottom. He still had the door.
It took her awhile to get ready for the inside work, what with packing the brick into the house and mixing the mortar, but by 9 p.m., she started, intending to be knee-high or better by bedtime. She was.
She rose at rooster-crow and got to mixing and carrying. She would see Brown out of that room today — or never again.
She slapped the mortar and clapped the next layer of brick to her new wall with fervor; and before she had added a half-dozen to the wall, Brown wrenched the door open. Wild-eyed and haggard, pale and unshaved, he cried, “Hattie! What are you doing?”
“What Mama told me to do,” Hattie replied, reaching for another brick. “Giving you more of what you want.”
“I don’t want to be tombed up in my room!” Brown said, reaching his bony hands to his scalp and pulling his hair.
“You already are! I’m tired of living with you shut up like the dead. But if it’s what you want, if you like it, stay in there. If it isn’t, you’d best come out now.”
“I saw the devil in the woods!”
“You’re not going to need worry about anything in the woods ever again if you don’t come out of that room, Brown.”
“For the love of God, Hattie!” Brown screamed, and Hattie smiled. Mama had raised scholars.
“Yes, for the love of God.”
After another layer of brick, Brown understood Hattie meant what she was doing to be permanent, so he hiked up his long legs and climbed out over the half-wall with high, spidery steps. He walked through two doors: out of his reclusion, through the kitchen, into the crisp December air. He didn’t bother to find a coat, but Hattie didn’t care. She didn’t follow him; she finished the wall.
Hattie regretted the books lost inside the room, but she never exhumed them.
Whatever Brown had found inside that room, he left there.
That evening, all work done, muscles aching, heart satisfied, Hattie sat alone with the classics again, surprisingly satisfied by a world that could still be changed by the words of the greats.