Volume 4
An Online Literary Magazine
October 30, 2010

 

Work Song

Fiction

Ivan Doig

 


Excerpt from Work Song.

 

F
ull as a church on Christmas, the library brimmed with activity, much of it mine as I sped from task to task. Sandison commanded from the mezzanine, on the lookout for anyone forgetful enough to spit on the sacred floor, and things seemed to be going well until midway through the morning, when he flagged me down with the news:

 

"Miss Runyon has gone home in a nervous fit, the excitement has been too much for her. You'll have to take over the story hour."

 

"Now? How? Whatever short notice is, this is less."

 

"The tykes are on their way," he overrode my protest. "You wouldn't want to break their young hearts, would you?"

 

Did the man actually have a sense of humor? I would have had to part that beard of his like a curtain to be sure.

 

"Get yourself down there," he ordered.

 

I raced to the basement, hoping against hope that the auditorium's supply cabinet held some storybook that Miss Runyon had in reserve for emergencies such as this. Rummaging frantically, I came up with a dog-eared Mother Goose Tales. Well, it wasn't Aesop, but it would have to do. I breathed easier; from my experience in the one-room school, even jaded fifth-graders eavesdropped keenly enough when those old nursery tales were read to the younger children.

 

Then I heard the thumps and scuffles on the stairs.

 

By the time the freckled heathens of the sixth grade spilled into the room, with Rab riding herd behind them in a harried way, I had given up on Mother Goose. More like a rough-dressed horde than a class, boys and girls alike threw themselves into chairs and looked me over. Who's this gink? I heard the loud whispers. How come so much of him is mustache? Where's Old Lady Bunion?

 

"Everyone, shush, or else," Rab recited as if by rote, meanwhile shooing the final straggler in from the hallway. Pale as a chalk figure, Russian Famine slouched past her, sending me a prisoner's gaze as he took the farthest seat of the last row.

 

His classmates ignored him but not one another, pinching, poking, prodding, and generally provoking disorder. How well I remembered it all. Grade six somehow transforms obedient schoolchildren into creatures with the bravado of bandits and the restlessness of overage Sunday schoolers. Rabrab herself had turned into a schoolyard Cleopatra at that time of life; the Marias Coulee sixth grade boys went dizzy in her presence. Now I watched her brightly approaching me, while behind her a pugnosed boy and a redheaded girl swatted each other over the issue of elbow room. If Rab, with her battlefield experience, couldn't command best behavior from this bunch, what chance did I have? The dismaying thought occurred to me that, in Butte, perhaps this was best behavior.

 

"Mr. Morgan, what a treat," her velvet murmur greeted me as we stepped aside to confer. "My pupils don't know how lucky they are."

 

"I can see that. I was hoping for a second-grade choir of angels."

 

Rab wrinkled her nose at her squirming tribe. "They're somewhat worked up today."

 

"I wonder why."

 

"The Hill is a little excitable this morning," she hedged, "but Jared is only doing what he thinks is necessary."

 

"Maybe so. The question is, what am I to do with this mob of yours, Rab?"

 

"Anything you like, as long as it teaches first aid," she said contradictorily. "That's a must--we don't want the school board on our necks." She thought to add: "Nor, I imagine, Sam Sandison."

 

I had forgotten the medical aspect. Seeing my blank look, Rab prompted: "Your Miss Runyon starts off with Florence Nightingale as a nurse in, oh, say the Crimean War, with shot and shell whizzing everywhere, and somehow jumps from there to strapping one of the pupils up in bandages. Then, next story hour it is Florence Nightingale happening upon some awful accident in London, and--"

 

"I get the picture."

 

There was nothing to be done but square myself up and advance to the stage of the auditorium. Restive in the seats below, the class eyed me like cub lions in the arena waiting for a Christian meal. So be it; I took off my suitcoat and tossed it to a surprised Rab, then rolled up my sleeves as if for a fight.

 


Butte, Montana, 1942.

 

"Blood," I said in a tone practically dripping with it.

 

The word did its work, for the moment at least. Two dozen sulky faces showed flickers of interest.

 

"Blood is red as fire, and thicker than rain," I did not let up. "Blood percolates secretly all through us, from finger to toe. It outlines our family, whom we speak of as our own flesh and blood. When we are afraid, we feel our blood run cold, and when we are angry, we are hot-blooded. No other substance carries the magic of life so tirelessly." As I talked on, I pressed a set of fingers to my wrist. "The heart beats in its mysterious way, day and night, so blood never sleeps." I finished taking my pulse. "While I have been speaking, my heart has pumped blood sixty times. If it had stopped doing so, back there when I rolled up my sleeves to test it, by now I would stand before you dead.

 

Several more heartbeats went by as my audience caught up with that. A litany of gasps, a lesser peal of nervous laughs. One girl crossed herself.

 

Before such attention wore off, I swept my listeners through the Greek suppositions of Hippocrates and Galen--that blood simply sloshed in us like water in a jug--to William Harvey's discovery that the substance in fact goes around and around. "The circulatory system, as it is called, sends this miraculous fluid circling through us." There is a glaze that comes over a class if too much of a topic is pressed on them at one time, and I could tell from a first few restless feet and territorial elbows that I was reaching that limit.

 

Folding my arms on my chest in thinking mode, I paced the stage. "Roll up your sleeves, everyone." This was a gamble. Hardboiled boys and pouty girls among the group showed no inclination to do so. But Rab got on the job, patroling mercilessly, and soon enough I had a forest of naked arms in front of me.

 

"There is a superstition that your life can be read in the palm of your hand," I began, "but really, it is written there on the underside of your wrist." I bustled them through taking their own pulse, emphasizing that the underskin rhythm was actually the contractions of arteries as blood was pushed through by the pumping of the heart. As intended, even the most heedless twelve-year-old could not ignore the message of existence there just beneath a surface barely thicker than paper. "And," I rounded off the arm lesson, "the blood that keeps us going has to find its way back to the heart to be pumped again. See the blue tracings between your wrist and elbow? Each of those is a vein. A word you have heard at home, am I right? Your fathers and perhaps your brothers descend into the body of the earth to find those streaks of ore. If you think about it, copper is the blood of Butte."

 

As I said so, a part of my mind filled with visions of what lay ahead of these youngsters in this veined city. By all odds, at least one among the fresh-faced boys who would follow the family path into the mines would die underground in that relentless toll of a death a week. A greater number of their classmates in pigtails and curls, women-to-be, would experience perilous childbirth and the innumerable ills of the Hill. Yet others sitting here today would go on uneventfully to what passed for average life in Butte. Those flashes of precognition were hypnotic; I could see as if it were written in me the circlings of fate which would single these young lives out, as always happens in the human story, within the rushing bloodstream of time.

 

"Mr. Morgan?" Rab prompted me out of my trance. "You were saying...?"

 

"Ah." I scrambled for new ground. "Blood provides life to our language, too, doesn't it. Shakespeare could scarcely write a page without bloodshed ahead or behind. Poets would have nothing to rhyme perfectly with flood. Who can tell me some everyday ways we use this essential word?"

 

"Bloody murder!" blurted a freckled scamp who seemed to relish the thought.

 

"Red-blooded," a bossy girl overrode that, impatient at not having been first.

 

"The blood of our Lord," said a cauliflower-ear tough who nonetheless must have been an altar boy.

 

"Bloodshot eyes!" rang out from one end of the increasingly enthusiastic audience, and from the other, "Blood poisoning!"

 

Amid the hubbub came a muted utterance from the back row. Everyone looked around. I encouraged: "A little louder, please?"

 

Russian Famine wriggled in his seat, scratched behind his ear, gazed over our heads as though that would make us go away, and finally muttered:

 

"No getting blood out of a turnip."

 

"A well-known saying, thank you very much," I honored that.

 

Before I could get another word out, a hand was up and waving strenuously. Its owner was the impish enthusiast for bloody murder.

 

"I perceive you have a question."

 

"Sure do. Back there a ways when you had us taking our pulse, how come we couldn't do it on our veins just as good as on those archeries?"

 

"Clean out your ears, dummy," the girl next to him jumped on that. "It's not archeries. That's bows and arrows. It's arthries, like arthritis. Isn't that right, Mr. Teacher?"

 

"You are both nearly correct." But not near enough. While explaining that the returning blood in veins was too dispersed to register a pulse, I despaired of ever making my words stick in minds as flighty as these. Then an idea hatched.

 

"Miss Rellis?" Rabrab was startled to hear me call her that for the first time since she was the age of these students. "Do your young scholars ever sing?"

 

"They most certainly do. Why?"

 

"Can they sing this one?" I whistled a snatch of it.

 

Confidently, Rab swept to the front to lead the command performance. "Class, serenade Mr. Morgan such as he has never heard."

 

Whether it was the song's mischievous endorsement of betting on bobtail nags or the familiar sassy tune or simply the chance to bawl at the top of their adolescent voices, the sixth-graders attacked the old favorite with gusto, making the auditorium ring with the final galloping chorus:

 

Camptown ladies sing this song, doo dah, doo dah!

 

Camptown racetrack's five miles long, oh the doo dah day!

 

"Unforgettable," I said with a congratulatory bow to the class when the last high-pitched note had pierced the rafters. "And would you believe, the exact things we have been talking about go nicely with that same tune. Hum it for me and I'll show you." With the room practically vibrating to Stephen Foster's jingle-jangle rhythm that practically anything can be fitted to, I improvised:

 

Arteries and veins and pulse, heartbeat, heartbeat!

 

They all deliver life to us, that's the job of blood!

 

"Ready to try it?" I challenged. They couldn't be held back. Rab looked radiant as the young voices romped through my version a number of times.

 

"One last thing." I rolled my sleeves down at the conclusion of the songfest. "At next week's story hour, I am sure Miss Runyon will be happy to show you the knack of the tourniquet."

 

 

Reprinted from Work Song, by Ivan Doig, by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2010 by Ivan Doig.

 

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