Outcast of the Hills – part one – short story

Stewart Toland

They didn’t hang him for the crime, because he was blind. Instead, they condemned him to be forever the

It was a day no different from any other day, as dark and drear as most. It was the day before Christmas. But that made it no different ftom any other. There was no tinsel to be strung, no stores to run to, no stockings to be hung.

For in these hidden hills Christmas was only the telling of the Story. Each year the little children were gathered together, and they chose someone to tell it to them-just how it was that Christ was born. And every story was different. Yet every story was the same. For it was told to the little children, and it was never forgotten. The children changed, they were the children’s children, but the years were remembered by the Christmas Story. That was all they knew of Christmas.

On other hills in other places there was dancing and singing, but a changing world walked slowly here. So it was only Christmas and the gift of life that came to them in this darkest time of the year.

And it was dark indeed this year on the hill called Hope. For Jonathan Deal was a condemned man. He was young, and big as a strong tree. His pants were homespun, walnut-dyed; his shirt was blue, with leathern sleeves; his hat was broad and low and black. He was a proud-looking piece of a man.

And he was blind. It was an accident made him so two years ago. A hunting accident-men chasing a wounded buck, and one fool man running shooting out of the brush right beside where Jonathan stood. It was so close the fire caused a creeping sickness in his eyes, and he’d had just long enough to say good-bye to all the things he’d seen and loved. It was an accident that could have happened to anyone. He was not bitter about it. He was only blind.

That was why they couldn’t hang him now. Not even for what he had done. For they said he had set a bear trap in the forest, and for setting bear traps in the hills men have been hanged.

* * *

It wasn’t his trap. He had not set it there. He had only found it. But no one would believe him. No one would listen. And the coward who had placed it there didn’t come forward and tell. Not just to put a noose about his neck.

Jonathan had loved the forest up until then, walking out in it every new day even after he was blinded. For, living on the top of the hill, he could always find his

Illustrated by PETER STEVENS way home; he had only to turn and walk up. So he was walking this day with a stout stick to guide his way when suddenly the stick poked into a bear trap hidden in the leaves, and the jaws clamped shut and bit it in two as though it were wax. Long ago, before the laws were passed against bear traps, all wise men, even men with eyes, walked with staffs, testing the leaves before them to keep from losing legs, or lying there lost and bleeding to death.

That was how evil this could be. And why the crime was so shameful a thing. He knelt and felt of the trap. It was just then that men came running, for they had heard the chilling, clanging sound that only bear traps make, and they saw Jonathan laying it down in the leaves.

It was as simple as that. Men said they saw him setting the trap. And nothing he could say or do could change their minds. For how else could a blind man lay meat on his table except by traps? And because with their own eyes they had seen him laying down that trap. They didn’t need more proof than that. They were wrong. But like others who are wrong, they were so sure they were right.

He would have been hanged. Just like that. Any other man who had done what he had done would have been. Only they would not hang a blind man. So they set him free with their hands, but not their hearts, for in the hills forgiveness is not known-not in these men who are made of stone. They would not have a blind man’s blood upon their hands; they just took everything else. His pride, and his honor, and his future. They set him alone upon his world, condemned and an outcast. No man saw him. No man heard him. No man spoke to him. Not anywhere. To them he was a dead man lying in the forest he had betrayed. This was the price they asked Jonathan Deal to pay. This was how these men took a man’s life without killing him.

And Jonathan thought he might as well be dead. And he hated the hills and the people in them. They had stolen his pride and his place among men. He had believed in them and they had betrayed him. They had made him forever condemned. It was a loneliness such as he had never known. Not even blindness was as dark a place as this. As to be a man shamed and shunned.

Mis’ Loulie watched him. She sat in her dooryard weaving ribbons on her ribbon loom, for she wove them for all her days; they made a strange and lovely pattern of darkness and light. An now nearly all her ribbons were done, and she had only to unravel them one by one. For she was old. As old as people ever have a right to be, and wise with the wisdom of living.

And so she knew this thing hadn’t really begun with the crime folk said Jonathan Deal had done. It began when the hills were made. They were the first. Before all the other hills, these were carved of stone and storm and loneliness.

For her hills were in the Great Smoky Mountains, there beyond the end of the road. Out of Chattanooga or Sweetwater or Maryville, every road would lead you there, and no road would go there. It was in a gap between the greater hills that folk measured and climbed to see how high and proud they could be. But these hidden hills had remained their own.

Some said God made them. He put the forests there to bend low over the hills, and shelter them and give them warmth. He put the rushing waters there so the hills need never be without a song. He put the mists there to keep the beauty and the secrets safe from a changing world. And when He’d made all this, He called the place His own. And the people living there are born with a stange beauty within them. And faith. Some say this is so.

But some say the Devil made the hills. He made them steep, so men must work even sometimes only to breathe. He made them of stone, with so poor a covering of earth that few men can grow bread enough to last the year. And he set these hills on edge, like jagged teeth set to bite, so men looking at them can know how devouring a thing this wilderness is. And when he’d made all this he called the place his own. And the people are born with the hunger in them, and the hardness. Men like stone. Some say this is so.

Mis’ Loulie didn’t know. Only that it was a true fact that in these hills there are two things in every man. The timeless faith of the hills. And the coldness, the hardness. For people are like the land they live in.

And so this thing happened. These men stealing a man’s life without killing him.

Mis’ Loulie looked away from her hills. And now she sat and watched Jonathan Deal. Not with her eyes. They were gray and secret as faraway mists; it had been years since she watched the world only with her eyes. So she sat there watching him with her heart. She saw his bitterness. She saw how all his hope and trust were gone. Here on the hill called Hope, there was no hope left for him.

And she said, “I cannot understand why this has come to be. But I have faith. I know there is good in this, for there is good somewhere in everything. We have only to find it.”

And so, on the day before Christmas, she tried to see if she could see where the goodness might be. She searched for it on the ribbon loom, on the shining threads like the threads of life, weaving a pattern no one knows. Just holding it, she could think; and looking on it, she could see the things she couldn’t see. She looked and looked. And she saw how fragile a man’s pride is, and how much of him it is.

She saw how big men’s ears are, and foolish, and believing. That was what she saw. A whole world of listening ears, believing anything they hear. It was very odd. For she recognized them. There were all the ears on all the hills. There were Jonathan’s ears. She saw how deaf they were to the small, unspoken things; like all the other ears, they could hear only the shouting of the crowd.

It was very strange. She puzzled on it, and she might be sitting there puzzling still, only that was the day of the thieving. For on Christmas Eve Mis’ Loulie’s sheep were stolen-the ones she had trusted Jonathan to keep safe. And all of them were gone. Only the bells were left lying in the meadow.

Jonathan went out early to count them home. He knelt by the shed gate, for that was the way blind men counted sheep. It was to let them walk into his arms as though that were home, and he’d whisper each one good night and promised to keep it safe as he counted it through the gate. So he knelt there and listened to hear the sheep bells singing on the wind. But there was no sound. He walked to the meadow and called. And they did not come. Then he stepped upon a bell.

It was just where it fell, its collar ripped in two, all the stitching cut away. He found another and another. He gathered them as though just by wishing he could fill them again. And dragging the collars, he heard the bells make a queer, sobbing noise. Or maybe it was the man. For the sheep were all that had been left to him. And they were gone.

His young wife, Mary, heard the bells. The strangeness in their ringing. She came to the door to see, and she saw her husband crawling over the frozen meadow after something that was not there.

She ran from the house and her hill. And at every cabin she said, “My man has lost Mis’ Loulie’s sheep. They were his faithful charge. They were all the pride he had left. Please help me find them, for without them he has nothing, and everything in him will be dead.”

But no one had seen the sheep. Nor heard them, nor smelled them. But they promised to look. And on every trail there were people walking, carrying their children to hear the Christmas Story. Somewhere the lost might be found.

A darkness came all over the world. And it was night. Jonathan left the meadow. He came to the log shed and found the gate open. He smelled the sharp, clean smell of pine smoke, and inside the gate, standing in the ground, was a lightwood torch. And inside the shed he touched wool.

It was as tall as a sheep and as thick as a sheep, and it had wooden legs and a wooden head with two round stones for eyes.

“They’re black,” a small voice said”They’re almost nearly black as coal, saving they don’t rub off. And it looks almost nearly like a sheep. Back a ways yonder you’d surely think it so.”

Jonathan closed his arms and gathered in the wooden sheep and a little boy. He felt of them all over, so he might know just exactly what they were, and the child didn’t giggle or wiggle away, so he knew the man was blind. And Jonathan knew he was a little boy as tall as goldenrod, with his coat buttoned with twigs, and no pulse warmers or mittens, and his hands as cold as stone.

Jonathan held them close within his own. “Who are you?” he asked. “And why have you come this long, lone way?”

“I’m Eben. I’ve come because you have lost your sheep. And I know what it is to want to be a shepherd and have no lamb at all. And because you’re blind. It could be a blind man might need to pretend even more than me.”

Eben lived in the hollow below the hill called Hope. He had a mother and five brothers and sisters, and they were just on the way to hear the Christmas Story when Mary came telling of the sheep that were lost.

And Eben’s ma had said, watching Mary run on, “It don’t seem right somehow to hear the Christmas Story when there’s someone deep in trouble. It seems on Christmas night one ought do more than listen.”

“I could carry him my sheep,” Eben said. “For I have heard the Story, and I do not need to hear it so soon again.”

She looked at her son, and she was proud. “Yes, Eben, you have heard the Christmas Story, and I think you listened very well. You may go spend this lonely night with a lonely man. Tote you a hearth brand to light your way, and be good.”

That was how he had heard, and how he had come, and why he was here.

Eben laid the lamb in Jonathan’s arms. “It’s of the brier wool. For most a year I’ve followed the walks where your sheep walked, and took the wool they tore and left behind. I gathered as much as a whole fleece and made me a sheep, for in our house there’s never cash money to buy a sheep that lives and walks. But when I set it out to pasture, it looks almost like I got property.” It was in his voice-a wonder and a pride.

“I carry it out every morning, and listen for dogs or any hurt, just like it was waiting for me to keep it safe. And I count it home at night, and I made a little bell of a tin and a shotgun shell, and I ring the bell, slow and every now and then, and I listen in the dark, and it is such a lovely sound. Almost as though my sheep was real, and I was a shepherd. That is what I want to grow up to be. A man of property. A shepherd watching over his fields at night, keeping them safe and sweet.”

Jonathan listened. And he could see Eben. He wasn’t just a little boy as tall as goldenrod; he was everything a little boy can be. He could see him because he could see the little boy he used to be. Wanting a hoe and wanting a plow and wanting a crop. And wanting sheep. So he could be a man of property and show something for the years of his life. So he could watch them home at night, and come as close to peace as man may be. He had forgotten. He had forgotten about the little boy he used to be.

Eben stroked the lamb of sticks and stones. “I made it to learn me to be a shepherd. And I made it for Christmas night, because it’s on Christmas night, they say, when miracles come closest to the earth. And it was to the shepherds the angels came, so I figured maybe some angels might be flying close and, seeing my sheep, come and make it real for me. Do you think the angels could do so much?”

And Jonathan said he thought they could. He thought the angels could do most anything.

Eben signed, so soft a sigh. And he kissed the lamb good-bye. “I think so, too,” he said. “That is why I brought it, so the angels can make it real for you, and you won’t have lost everything, like the lady said.”

“No!” Jonathan cried.

Eben turned and ran. “I have two strong eyes. Before another Christmas comes I can find more brier wool and make another sheep for me.”

“No!” Jonathan called, but it was like calling to the wind. And he knelt there in the shed, holding a lamb of sticks and stones, and wept.

By and by he went out of the meadow and the night; he went to Mis’ Loulie and laid the sheep and the bells in her lap. “Your sheep are gone. This is all I have left of your trust.”

She felt the wool, all the little bitty pieces of brier wool matted close. She stroked the wooden head and the long wooden nose. “Maybe it is trust enough. Have you forgotten, Jonathan, it was not sheep alone I gave’ you to guard, but a way of life?”

He knelt there and looked and looked at her with his heart. “Tell me, Mis’ Loulie, what you are trying to tell.”

She smiled to her secret self, and she did not answer. She asked instead, “Does a shepherd need sheep? Or do sheep make a shepherd?”

It was a strange question. He didn’t know what she was trying to tell, for the mountain people everly have a favorance for speaking in riddles. They talk all around a thing to tell it well.

Jonathan listened and listened, and asked it again, “Tell me, Mis’ Loulie, what you are trying to tell.”

“I saw a thing this day in the thread of life. I saw ears. A whole world of listening ears. I saw how big they are, and foolish and believing. I saw how deaf they are to all the small, unspoken things, how they can hear only the shouting of the crowd. I saw your ears.”

She leaned to him, and now she was shouting. “Do you know what it was your ears were hearing? ‘You are an outcast!’ That was what they were hearing. ‘You are condemned! You have no place among men!’ That was what your ears were hearing. That was what your foolish ears were believing.”

She grabbed his ears and like to pulled them ftom his head, and she whispered so soft, it was as though the words were not said, “Jonathan, because men call you blind, does that make you so?”

No. Oh, no. He knew it didn’t make him so. He knew the answer so well. For he had learned that eyes are perhaps the least of men. For men without eyes can see only the loveliness.

And she said, without saying it at all, “Because men call you an outcast, does that make you so? Because men shame and condemn you, are you condemned within yourself? A man does not need forgiveness to forgive. He does not need friends to be a friend, he does not need the faith of others to have faith within, he does not need eyes to see.”

Chills touched his back and trembled his hands. And Jonathan saw. After so long and long a time, Jonathan saw again.

“The thief stole what you did not need. You do not need sheep to be a shepherd, and if you become a shepherd of more than sheep, maybe you can find your way again. It is not your sheep that are lost. It is you. All these months you have been lost from yourself. That is what you might find this Christmas night. Not the sheep that are lost. But the man.”

Jonathan looked at her with his heart and he listened to her with his heart. And he picked up the lamb of sticks and stones, and he said, “Mis’ Loulie, I have a long way to go, and no hurt must come to it. Do you have a sacking I could tote it in?”

She brought a great brown sack and together they laid it in, and he hung it over his back. He fingered a golden coin. It was the only coin he owned”I have never owned a sheep all my own. But if you still had yours and they were not stole, would this be enough to buy? The least one?”

She took the coin and felt it, and said it would be enough.

He walked to the door and opened it. Coldness struck at him, and stillness; there was no sound at all, so he knew it was snowing even before the flakes crowded the door.

“Winter has made a soon start,” hesaid.

And she said, “Yes, I will take no more walks this year. I found it much too cold today; I went only as far as the cave.”

The cave. He smiled and nodded, and slipped out into the snow. And shut the door on everything he used to know.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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