Charles Guiteau, Who Will Hang for the Assassination of President Garfield in 1882, Has Trouble Fitting in at Oneida, John Humphrey Noyes’ Utopian Commune, in 1866

 

Father Noyes waits outside the shop for me again. He wants to know why I am late again.

Since joining the Community, whenever I encounter Father Noyes I shake his hand, and I shake it again upon parting. Father Noyes has told me this amount of hand-shaking is peculiar. Even bothersome and off-putting. Even potentially unsanitary.

We are drawing close to an unveiling.

I point to my stockinged feet to present Father Noyes evidence of my continuing persecution and harassment. Once again, legion has pilfered my shoes.

This nonsense is becoming tiresome, Charles. Surely we all have better things to do. To whom do I need to speak in order to put an end to this foolishness? Give me a name.

It is all of them in spirit. In spirit they are legion. They who do not pilfer the shoes encourage the pilferers with their smirks and laughter. There is but one reason the pilfering is funny to them. Their shoes are not the shoes being pilfered.

The first pilfering occurred on my second night in Oneida. When I told Father Noyes, he nodded and assured me he would get to the bottom of the matter. He regarded my feet, and then he regarded his own feet, and then he told me he had an extra pair of shoes that would hold me over in the meantime. When I expressed to him my ideas regarding fit punishment for the pilferer once apprehended, Father Noyes lifted his gaze to regard my face.

Here in Oneida, it is my responsibility to determine and administer discipline, Charles. Not yours. Is that understood?

Father Noyes did not follow through with his promise to get to the bottom of the first pilfering. Due to this negligence, there was a second pilfering. When I informed Father Noyes of the second pilfering, he regarded my feet again and told me I was wearing shoes. I told him they were not my shoes. He regarded my feet again and noted that the shoes I was wearing looked like his shoes. I told him they were his shoes. Then he asked how it had come to pass that I was wearing his shoes. When I reminded him that he had loaned them to me the first time my shoes had been pilfered, he said he did not remember doing so. When I reminded him that he had promised to get to the bottom of the matter of my pilfered shoes the first time my shoes had been pilfered, but had neglected to get to the bottom of the matter, he cupped my shoulders with his large hands and regarded my face. As if he were holding me in place for a kiss.

Have you talked to the young men, Charles? You need to find a way to talk to them. They need to hear from you directly. You need to work towards greater self-reliance. 

The third time I tell Father Noyes my shoes have been pilfered he is angry.

I am not angry, Charles. I am, however, weary. Aren’t you weary?

I am. I was weary of this the first time it happened, and I was weary the second time, and I am weary now. Again and still.

Where was it you found your shoes last time?

Hanging in the trap shop above where the tools hang is where I found my shoes the last time. Which was the second time. And hanging in the trap shop above where the tools hang is where I found my shoes the time before that. Which was the first time. Legion likes to watch me get them down. I have to stand on top of two stacked crates to reach them, and Legion pretends to kick out the crates from underneath me. To cause me to exhibit fear. Because my exhibition of fear increases Legion’s enjoyment. There is but one reason my fear is funny to Legion. It is not Legion’s fear.

So hanging in the trap shop above the tools is where your shoes are apt to be found this time, wouldn’t you agree? Stay here, Charles.

Father Noyes’ voice is stern but quiet. Not quiet like he wants to avoid being overheard, but quiet like the words he is saying are not important because they are merely a preface to action. He strides quickly towards the door of the trap shop but then stops short to turn and face me.

Where are my shoes, Charles? The ones I loaned you the last time this happened?

Father Noyes did not loan me shoes the last time this happened. Rather, he loaned me shoes the first time this happened, which was two pilferings ago. Father Noyes’ shoes are in the turtle pond, which he and others call the carp pond, but I do not tell him his shoes are in the turtle pond, which he calls the carp pond. I tell him that I returned his shoes to him. He tells me I am mistaken about returning them. I tell him I did not pilfer them.

It was necessary to deposit his shoes in the turtle pond, which he calls the carp pond. And it is necessary that he accuse me of having the shoes so that in his accusation he himself might be accused. And it is necessary that I make my denial so that he might bear witness to his own perfect and impossible guilt.

We are coming close to an unveiling.

When he turns back to the trap shop and opens the door, the dissonant rhythm of steel on steel and the lurid chorus of sweat-soaked voices drift into the thick morning air. Bile rises in my throat. Underneath these noises, not just today but every day, I forehear the yelps and whimpers of mangled animals. And underneath these noises I foresee the cracking of forelegs, paws and hooves. And underneath these noises I forefeel the yelps and whimpers in my own throat. And underneath these noises I foretaste with my own tongue the blood-matted fur. Not just today underneath these noises, but every day underneath these noises.

Elijah directed the she-bear to devour the youths who had made mockery of him, and the she-bear devoured them.

Father Noyes lets the shop door close without entering and turns again to face me.

Elisha, Charles. Not Elijah. And there were two bears, not one. And I don’t recall the bears being identified as female.

He combs his beard with his long fingers. He wrinkles his high forehead. He could be leading a meeting, delivering a homily.

You would do well, Charles, to ponder on the notion that God was likely displeased with Elisha for this rash act. For using the power inherent in His name, for using His creation, to destroy young, redeemable lives. You might do well to ponder on whether being eaten by bears was or was not just punishment for those children.

I never considered the story in that way. Nor will I direct myself to consider it in that way going forward. The story has been revealed to me in the way it has been revealed to me. Revelation cannot be undone. God shalt not be mocked.

Make no mistake, Charles. You are no prophet, and I am no bear. If your study of the Old Testament is to be sound and fruitful and revelatory, the likely possibility of God’s displeasure with His people, perhaps most notably with kings and prophets, needs to be in your mind at all times. Page after page throughout the Pentateuch and the Books of the Prophets, God is more apt to be displeased than pleased.

These are the last words Father Noyes says before disappearing into the building. So they carry more weight. Last words are weightier than words followed by, and therefore replaced by, other words. Due to the manner in which no other words come after and therefore replace last words, last words carry more weight.

When Father Noyes re-emerges from the trap shop, no noises follow him. He is carrying one of my shoes by the heel with two hooked fingers. A fish by the gills.

I am told this was found hanging on the wall amongst the tools. Sewell tells me it was there when he opened the shop this morning.

I take the shoe from him, the left, and put it on. I sit on the ground to do this.

My right shoe was not hanging on the wall above where the tools hang alongside the left shoe. My right shoe must have been hanging on the wall alongside the left shoe.

I have been informed that your right shoe is in the orchard, in the pear tree nearest the east fence, and that a ladder would come in handy for fetching it.

That my right shoe is hanging in the orchard rather than in the trap shop on the wall above where the tools hang is unlikely. Legion wants me to walk one-shoed all the way to the orchard for nothing. And then back one-shoed from the orchard for nothing. As part of the persecution. I stand up and start towards the trap shop door. Father Noyes puts a hand up to stop me.

Your shoe is not in the shop, Charles. You can take my word for it. I looked and inquired so you do not have to look and inquire. In any case, I deem it best for you to stay away from the shop for a while.

I do not want Legion to think I am frightened of them. I do not want Father Noyes to think I am frightened of Legion.

Come. I will walk with you to the orchard. I know you are not frightened of those boys. What is to be frightened of? A bunch of rambunctious pups. Still. Just now it is not about being frightened or not frightened. Just now it is about the business of fetching your shoe. Walking to the orchard to fetch your shoe does not signify your being frightened. Walking to the orchard at this point in time is simply necessary because your shoe is there. And I will walk with you. I will accompany you on this errand because it will afford us opportunity to talk.

It begins to rain. So lightly that the hovering droplets could be rising from the earth. As well as descending from the leaden sky. As well as rising from the earth. The same fallen droplets that had just descended. Rising again. Or different droplets. Descending droplets that only descend and rising droplets that only rise. Meeting in mid-air to hover.

Since it is raining you’d do well to remove your sock and put it in your pocket. That way, when we rescue your shoe from the pear tree, you will have a relatively clean, dry sock to wear.

But then I will be putting a relatively clean, dry sock on my relatively wet, dirty foot.

You will find some grass or leaves to wipe and dry your foot before putting on the sock.

It is raining, so all the grass is wet. All the leaves are wet. One cannot dry one’s foot with wet grass or wet leaves.

 You can certainly use damp grass and leaves to clean your foot. To wipe off mud. Your foot might not be bone dry when you put it into your sock, but you will be better off than you would have been had you walked the whole way to the orchard in your sock.

I remove my sock, ball it, and place it in my pocket. Father Noyes nods.

We are coming close to an unveiling.

I walk through the drizzle in the damp grass beside Father Noyes, attempting to emulate his two-shoed gait. So that I do not stride lopsidedly like a man wearing only one shoe. As I am a man wearing only one shoe.

When I step on a sluggish bee with my un-shoed, un-socked foot, I stumble and curse.

Father Noyes kneels beside me as I attempt to remove the stinger from my heel. He chooses to pretend he has not heard me curse.

About the other boys, Charles. I do not believe there to be true malice towards you in their hearts. You refer to them as demons, but I think that is a mischaracterization. They are not demons. They are no more demons than you and I are demons. Their hearts are not evil; rather, they are easily distracted by mischief, and they act foolishly because they are desperate to amuse and please each other. They are desperate to amuse and please each other because in doing so, they are able to feel good about themselves. If they feel they are liked by their companions, then they can allow themselves to like themselves. That’s the crux of it. That’s the crux of being a boy. I do not believe their primary motivation is to inflict pain upon you. I sincerely do not. I think it is primarily an excess of energy that drives their interactions with you. Energy can well up in boys, and they need to learn how to channel it appropriately. In learning how to do this, how to channel energy appropriately, boys become men. So I think there is that aspect of what has been happening between you and your peers. The aspect of boys growing up. Also, I think they want to test you simply because you are new here. They want to initiate you, to discover something about you by observing how you react. They want to know if you are a threat to them, if you are someone around whom they need to be careful, or if you might be someone with whom they might find friendship. You know Nathaniel, right, Charles? The tall tow-headed fellow who can do all the birdcalls? When Nathaniel and his family arrived in Oneida last year, the other boys would drop worms in his water cup and on his dinner plate when he was not looking. On at least one occasion, if I remember correctly, he swallowed one. Even so, he laughed along with them. This impressed the other boys, Nathaniel’s easygoingness, and now he gets on well with all of them. He is like a brother to them, and they are like brothers to him.

The stinger comes out of my foot cleanly, in one piece. I hold it on the edge of my finger and bring it closer to my eyes. A remnant of the bee’s abdomen clings to one end. When I lower my thumb onto it and squeeze, the last bit of venom oozes out.

Who are they to test me? Who are they that I should seek to impress them? To swallow worms for them?

I suppose I do not understand your question, Charles. Who are they to test you? They are young men like you are a young man. Did you hear what I said about Nathaniel? About brothers? When I speak, it is my hope that you are listening. You will eventually need to come to recognize the other young men of Oneida as your brothers. Brothers are not always kind to each other, but they always have love for each other. They always need each other, and they know they can always rely on each other.

I get to my feet, and Father Noyes and I recommence walking. I put the stinger on my tongue, press it against the roof of my mouth, and swallow it.

When I was a boy, my brother and I went barefoot everywhere, all the time. The bottoms of our feet would grow tough and calloused. Hard as hooves. We walked on pine needles, rocks, sticks. I remember stepping on an arrowhead or two. I’ve surely stepped on more than my fair share of honeybees.

Father Noyes grins, pleased to remember this about himself.

What about snow and ice? Frostbite? What about school and church?

I am referring only to the summer months, Charles. I grew up in Vermont. In the winter our feet were fully dressed, of course. And in school and church we certainly wore shoes.

When I was a boy, my mother told me about George Washington’s men at Valley Forge. Trekking through the snow in their bare feet. I attempted to emulate them one morning. First just to the outhouse and back. And then a longer hike to our neighbor’s. When I returned, my father gave me the switch for my efforts. But I could not feel the switch. All I could feel was that I could not feel my feet. I felt not feeling my feet so intensely that I could not feel myself feeling the switch. And then later, in bed, my feet burned. Given that snow had made my feet burn, I reasoned that fire might cool them. So I went to the stove. But this is not how it works. And the doctor did not know if the blisters had come from the cold or the heat. And the switch burns. Even if not right away. The switch has the final word.

We are coming close to an unveiling.

By the time we reach the orchard, the rain has steadied itself into the kind of soft, soaking rain that is good for an orchard. Over the east fence, the sky burns white, triggering the slow, cold crackling of fresh thunder.

When Father Noyes and I find the right tree and spot my shoe perched in the branches among the pears, we remember together the step-ladder, and we scan together the rest of the trees in the orchard for ladders, and we see together no ladders.

Father Noyes moves to the base of the trunk. Drops to one knee. Locks his hands. I put my hands on his shoulders. I put my shoed foot into the stirrup of his grip. My next step is onto his shoulder with my stung foot. My third step is into the tree.

When I have the shoe, I step out of the tree and back onto Father Noyes’ shoulder. Then I step off his shoulder. Then I step into and then out of the stirrup of his grip. When I land on the ground, my stung foot finds a rotten pear and, within the pear, another bee.

Scattered all across the ground are similar rotten pears. A good number of which contain similar bees. I brace myself with my hand on Father Noyes’ shoulder as I remove the second stinger from my twice-stung foot. The way he was standing suggested to me an invitation to place my hand on his shoulder to brace myself when I removed the stinger from my foot. But when I brace myself on his shoulder, he seems surprised. Like he did not intend to suggest to me an invitation to brace myself on his shoulder. Since I am already bracing myself on his shoulder, though, I continue to brace myself on his shoulder as I put my relatively clean, dry stocking and damp right shoe on my on my wet, muddy, twice-stung foot.

When I let go of Father Noyes, I note the muddy footprint on his shoulder.

The thing for you to do now, Charles, is to go back to your room for a while. Get some rest. Close your eyes, or maybe find something to read. Soak your foot in a bucket. I will see you at supper. Unless, of course, we still have something to discuss. Do we still have something to discuss? I believe we still have something to discuss. I hope we still have something to discuss.

Father Noyes is squinting because of the rain. Otherwise he does not appear affected. I become aware of how I am tucking my chin into my chest due to the rain in the moment I notice that Father Noyes is not tucking his chin into his chest. And I become aware of how I have swept my wet hair back off my forehead in the moment I notice how his hair hangs in dripping strands across his temples and onto the bridge of his nose instead of being swept back off his forehead.

Before we part, Charles, I want you to understand that I know what happened with your shoes this morning. Perhaps more importantly, the young men with whom you work in the trap shop know. Sewell knows. Soon everyone, the whole Community, will know. You should act very soon to own up to your actions and ask  forgiveness. Perhaps you might approach them one at a time, or you might call them together to talk to them as a group if you prefer. Either way, you need to address them, and you need to do so soon. You do not want to let this fester.

I tell Father Noyes I do not know what he is saying even though I know what he is saying. I tell him I do not know what he is saying as a test. To find out if he knows what he is saying.

Father Noyes pokes the air between us with his forefinger.

Do not make things worse through denial, Charles. I am severely disappointed you did not have the courage to admit your deception to me on your own. I walked with you because I wanted to afford you the opportunity to repent without having to be told to repent.

I again tell Father Noyes that I don’t know what he is saying even though I know what he is saying. I tell him this again to test him again.

This morning, one of the boys saw you at the trap shop before sunrise, and he witnessed you returning to your room shoeless. He told Sewell, and Sewell told me. They know it was you who hung your shoes in the shop. To try to get them in trouble? To get out of working this morning? Both they and I are unsure of your motivations. I hope by this evening you are ready to explain yourself.

How did my shoe get in the pear tree? I did not put it there. To say I put my shoe in the pear tree is to say something untrue. To say I need to repent of putting my shoe in the pear tree is to say something unjust.

No, you did not put your shoe in the tree, Charles. In response to your deceitful actions, the boys took one of your shoes from where you had planted it in the shop, and they ran it over here to the orchard.

Legion should not have done so.

Given the circumstances, I do not believe you are in any position to offer your opinion on what the other boys should or should not have done.

The first time my shoes were pilfered it was Legion who took them. To say it was me who took my shoes the first time they were taken would be to say something untrue.

They told me they took your shoes the first time, Charles. You are not being accused of that.

The second time my shoes were taken it was Legion who took them. To say it was me who took my shoes the second time they were taken would be to say something untrue.

You are defending yourself against accusations no one has leveled against you, Charles. You are doing so to avoid taking responsibility for those actions of which you are guilty.

I do not think Legion has paid sufficiently for their pilfering. Neither for the first time my shoes were pilfered nor for the second time my shoes were pilfered. So this morning I did what I did. I am guilty of seeking to create an opportunity for justice to prevail. Since to this point in time all opportunities for justice to prevail have been missed.

You are not the justice keeper in Oneida, Charles. This is not your role. To be direct, you are not off to a good start here. You need to alter your course.

Father Noyes pulls an unripe pear off a branch and takes a small, careful bite with his front teeth. He winces as he chews. When he holds out to me the uneaten portion of the pear, I do not take it because it is unripe and because I have already eaten.

I am not like a piece of unripe fruit.

You are like a piece of unripe fruit, Charles. Too crisp, too bitter. You are not ready for the harvest, but you will be. You made promises to your father when you came to Oneida, and your father made promises to me in seeking my approval of your joining us. Suffice it to say, Charles, that your father cares for you and wants the best for you. One does not worry for and fear for and make promises for those one does not care for. And your Heavenly Father cares for you. And your Community sisters and brothers and fathers and mothers care for you. And I care for you. We care for you because it is our duty to care for you.

Father Noyes takes four more bites of the pear and then tosses the core underhand over the fence. He wipes his fruit-wet hand on his rain-wet shirt and clears his gums with his tongue.

I am not a piece of unripe fruit.

In the figurative way in which I am speaking, Charles, you are. You are a piece of unripe fruit.

I am not a piece of unripe fruit.

You are. And I know you still have the shoes that I loaned you. And you are. You are a piece of unripe fruit. You are.

These are the last words Father Noyes says before raising a hand to himself. Before the bee rises from the pear-littered grass into his beard, and Father Noyes slaps himself on the neck, and the bee stings his palm. As these words are last words, they carry more weight. Last words are weightier than words followed by, and therefore replaced by, other words. Due to the manner in which no other words come after and therefore replace last words, last words carry more weight.

We are drawing ever closer to an unveiling.

 

 


Tom Noyes has published three fiction collections. His most recent, Come by Here: A Novella And Stories, won the Autumn House Fiction Prize. He directs the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, where he also serves as Consulting Editor of the literary journal Lake Effect.

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