Story goes: Wonders like Rock School are more dreamt and pieced together by collective imaginations than planned; perhaps Tumbling Creek had called itself forth during the flood season and its rushing waters had picked up the first rock and transported it to the top of the hill and set it down there and once Rock School took shape, it could only become what was intended.
For Miss Rhys Rambo, Rock School was the most special place God had ever helped man to invent, with its perfectly fitted walls—thick as a castle—and the way it appeared as if Rock School was just about poised to fall right into Tumbling Creek. She loved its sturdy classroom, filled with carefully laid black walnut floors, its coal stove, and its black slate board, pulled right out of the slate mine from Tumbling Cove, its handmade desks and its vaulted ceilings—that kept the classroom warm in the summertime and cold in the winter—and, God Bless the stained-glass windows, fitted by Saw Austin, the local handyman, funding supplied by the beneficent congregation of Salt Church.
Old Da felt sure Saw Austin was God-sent, put on this salty earth to prevent the unnamable, and she thanked the good Lord each day for sending him her way. ‘Course Saw couldn’t talk and was old—none of the Old-timers, even, could remember how old he was. The people of Smyth County couldn’t summon up memories of his mother or father. As far as anyone could tell, Saw’s mother and father had never been seen enough to exist.
In the ripple of memories that spread out like a stone’s throw into the churning waters of Tumbling Creek, the need for a solid, old-fashioned, good-hearted upbringing must, Saltfolk said, have been the reason that Saw Austin was the one who found the well-dressed boy, they all nicknamed Keeps, sitting on a stone on the edge of Tumbling Creek, as if he were part of the patchwork. The boy was dressed in a beautifully tailored white suit, a starched and pressed white French cuff shirt with silver cufflinks, and cordovan wing tips. We never did see him wearing anything else.
Miss Rhys Rambo— (we called her Old Da even though she was very young)—Rock School’s elementary teacher, was convinced that the well-dressed boy was suffering from some kind of unnamable shock. Saw felt certain that Keeps had found his way to Rock School to prevent something terrible or to participate in something special. The particular signifying wind was out either way.
Saw Austin led the boy up from the creek and delivered him into the capable hands of Old Da, while the sixteen wide-eyed, barefoot children studied the boy, eyed his shiny shoes, and coveted his sparking silver cuff links. Keeps stood so still that the sixteen children of Rock School wondered if he wasn’t one of those waxed-figures they had heard about, who graced museums in far-away boardwalks.
At lunchtime, the children all wanted the boy to look at them, and thus spent much of their time, as country-folk do, staring out of the corners of their eyes. They imagined he spoke the secret language of coming and going; and, they thought about leaving before they even knew what true leaving was; they spent their cast-off pleasantries talking about what they would do once they finally left Salt. Perhaps they would eat a large “get-going” breakfast at the Saltbox Diner and then keep moving on until the end of their days; perhaps they would settle down in a city, where fumes from cars and busses would choke off their words before they could spit them out; perhaps they would find themselves in the still desert, where the sun painted evocative daily moods upon the cracked earth; perhaps they would find a place where snow fell like confetti and no one thought to comment on its beauty; perhaps, wherever they ended up, they would find themselves longing to be back in Smyth County, beneath the shadow of Rock School.
For the rest of the afternoon, they waved their hands in the air in an effort to get Old Da’s and Keep’s attention. Perhaps, they thought, if they waved hard enough, they would. But, neither Old Da’s thoughts nor Keep’s attention was on them.
After she rang the dismissal bell, the most immediate question was what should be done with the boy. Neither Old Da nor members of the School Board, as assisted by Sheriff Kindred, could find out much about him: there was nothing to indicate foul play, nothing to indicate the boy was lost or even missing. There was the matter of his clothes: impossibly white, perfectly pressed.
Old Da told Sheriff Kindred that although she knew better, she almost believed the boy had dropped down from the sky. She suggested he be allowed to stay temporarily with Saw Austin, who lived in a room in the back of Rock School and was forever protected by its shadow. Saw would surely care for the boy as he did the big slate board, the homemade desks, and the stained-glass window. “No one gets off this earth without making an impact on something or somebody,” Old Da said to the School Board and felt like a schoolgirl reciting aphorisms.
By the time Old Da found her way to Rock School the next morning, Saw and Keeps had readied the classroom for her. They made sure all of the homemade desks were free and clear of ink stains and stray marks, that each slate board had been wiped clean, and they seemed to communicate in a strange language through the noticing-light in their eyes.
For the next few days, Old Da took to watching the boy and noticed that he talked to Tumbling Creek. And Saw changed dramatically. Maggie Arnold of Maggie Arnold’s Dress & Fashion Emporium said on the Party-line that Saw Austin, “bless his whittled-together soul, had recently procured dress pants and a belt and cast away his overalls.”
When Old Da asked Saw to do some such, he would first look to the boy, whose eyes would gleam and with a slight tilt of the head Saw would file down one on the jagged edges of the cast iron legs on a desk that threatened to snag the skin of a child; or, he would clean out the ash from the woodstove, scraping it into the ash bucket with the care of folding a new shirt; or he would carefully polish the stained-glass window until light filtered into the school room in prosaic delight.
About a three-weeks after Keeps appeared, Old Da found the tablets hidden in Johnny Payne’s empty memorial desk—Johnny Payne had suddenly gone off to Heaven, but the sixteen children in Rock School had refused, out of respect, to clean out Johnny’s desk and decided that they would no longer sit in it or use it for anything at all.
At one point during the year, the desk disappeared, and the children became so upset that they begged Old Da to “tell the Saw-Man to put it back where it was so that Little Johnny Payne’s ghost could still learn his lessons.” Saw Austin had to drag the desk back into Rock School and was made to understand that he was under no circumstances to remove it again.
Keeps, however, was unaware of any such strictures and from the first day began sitting in the desk: strangely, the children accepted this and made no further fuss. When Old Da found the tablets, she knew they had been written by Keeps—each letter a perfect specimen.
His abbreviated stories weren’t like reading at all: there was a story of a woman who gave birth to a rock. The little rock never spoke and was barely alive but dressed nicely every day; there was a story of a man whose breath dispersed colors and a boy who plucked each of the colors out of the air and deposited them in his pockets for safe keeping; there was the story of a structure made entirely of rocks that didn’t let in the wind or the rain and kept those inside safe and warm and happy. On one the slates Keeps had written, “The rocks will tell their own story of how the men and the boys all helped to gather up the rocks and carried them up to where Rock School now stands. Dreams have a way of making themselves visible.”
Keeps sat in the classroom during the day listening. At night, he traced his hands over the stones, and wrote down what it was that the rocks in the walls said. The only light that found its way in was the moon’s that pierced through the stained glass.
A week passed and Saw was the first to notice that Keeps was gone. He retraced his steps; he peered under each of the desks; he made his way outside and down the hill toward Tumbling Creek, where he had first found the boy.
If one was not careful and there was a misstep, the creek water might reach up and find a way to pull unsuspecting souls under. This had happened to the Payne boy, who had gone night fishing without telling even his Ma or Pa. Saw Austin had found Johnny Payne washed up on the smooth rocks under the shadow of Rock School. He looked so peaceful lying there that Saw Austin almost hated to disturb him.
Along the bank, Saw found Keeps’ clothes carefully folded, laid in a neat pile pressed down by his shoes. He noticed the boy’s footprints that made their way along the ledge of muddied rocks until they either disappeared into the water or flew straight up.
After about an hour of looking, Saw tried to conjure up the boy by tracing his image in the dark water with a branch he pulled off of a black walnut tree. He swirled the branch about in a perfect swirl, until the words formed and Saw traced them.
Story goes: Rock upon rock; stone upon stone—all fitted together; gathered up from Tumbling Creek: a puzzle—each rock finding the proper sides of each other to snuggle against. Storm waters booming them boulders from the depths of Tumbling Creek and bringing them to the surface. And rocks, built by layers upon the ages, followed the deep trenches upward, squeezing time out of the earth like a hard-pressed commodity; they followed the children up to the top the hill and they assembled there; rocks like words like rocks once dispersed have a way of following one around.
Saw, sat down on the bank, carefully thread the silver cuff links through the cuffs of his newly pressed shirt and made his way back up the hill and into Rock School. What mattered was that the floors were swept each day and the desks were cleaned and the previous day’s assignments were wiped away. What mattered was that there had been a desk filled with words. What mattered was that Miss Rambo was standing at the precipice of the front door of Rock School waiting to let him in.
Image by Michelle Raponi from Pixabay
7 thoughts on “You’ll Never Understand the Circumstances That Brought You To This Moment by J Bradley Minnick”
This has a lyrical quality to it that is impossible not to fall for. Lovely setting and characterizations.
Thank you, Leila. I tried to make the sentences match the place.
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Deliciously weird! I wasn’t sure about it when I started reading but it drew me in and transported me somewhere curious.
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It’s great to see you back.
Simply put- What a cracking piece of writing!!
I loved the line – ‘As far as anyone could tell, Saw’s mother and father had never been seen enough to exist.’
All the very best my fine friend.
Thanks, Hugh. Worked hard on this one.
A regular routine is important! But you never know what’s going to happen next. I wish somebody could motivate me to wear dress pants once in a while. Saw is like some kind of holy man, and the appearance of Keeps after the drowning of Johnny Payne rather intriguing. Pretty interesting story, quite different, how a whole world was created, as the story that Saw conjured up goes.
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I agree with others that this has a beautiful lyricism to it that works with the odd, but perfectly poised, story. I also love your use of names, there’s a down-to-earth, but wonderfully skew-whiff quality to them.
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