Remnants of an Autobiography by Charles Hoy Fort
Neighbors complained to Them about us. Just because in our travels we would tear down a vine or two. Or only break a trellis in scrambling away from the inhabitants. Or maybe only shout impertinent things at savages looking from wig-wam windows. For these offenses They punished us, beating us with a strap or a whip. Striking us in passionate outbursts.
In Mrs. Lawson's room one day. She was teaching us our Sunday school lesson; it was about Moses and the rock. They strolled in, brushing their hat, looking into the mirror to see that the necktie was all right, very particular with every detail of their appearance. Then Moses smote the rock. But they flurried us; we could not pronounce "smote". An easy word, but we said, "smut". Told to read it over; again we said "smut". More flurried; unable to use our brain; saying "smut" still again, because our lips formed that way and we had no brain. To them, we were showing dogged meanness. They struck us in the face.
"That's smote," They said. "Now do you understand what smote is? Say smote."
We whimpering, "Yes, sir; smote." Our brain had cleared; perhaps something had flashed into it to make it work. Probably not; it was right to beat us when we were bad.
But They often beat us with a dog whip, thinking well of using the butt
end. And the butt end seemed to us to be going just a little bit too far;
it interfered with our belief that
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for fun." Couldn't explain that we didn't mean it was for fun to burn the fence, but that the fence had been burned while we were having fun.
But they were gentle enough for us. "Why do you do these bad things?"
"Just for fun." Our stiff body was there; we were somewhere else, or had ceased to exist.
But, even though we weren't there, we could feel that they were trying to hold back. Their hand was on our shoulder. We, who had done wrong, should have blubbered, because of their kindness, only, we weren't there.
"Now, tell me; try to think and don't be afraid; why do you do these bad things?"
Our lips formed, "Just for fun." They struck us savagely; blood gushed from our nose. Then we were there.
Said Mrs. Lawson, "Toddy's nose bleeds so readily."
They went away; but we were there. A wild, mad we. Running up the stairs, blood all over us. Running into the spare room. throwing ourself upon the bed, rubbing our nose all over the counterpane. A dirty, grovelling, little beast, crazed to get even, and doing damage was the only way to get even. Rubbing our nose on the lace curtains, making the room a horror room. Gurgling hysterically and then just sodden, not caring what should be done with us. In fact, wishing they would kill us, for suicide had been in our mind from the earliest days. Trying a sharp rap on our nose to renew the supply; for the truth is that nose-bleeding was an ailment of ours, as were head aches and oppressed breathing, all outgrown one by one.
At the dinner table, we were not allowed to speak; They could not bear to hear our voices. Once, feeling the restraint, we giggled nervously. They looked over the newspaper, saying, "Who's that!" The little kid started to tell; he kept quiet. The other kid answered that he had heard nothing. We said, "I did it." Mrs. Lawson would have told anyway; we wanted credit for truthfulness.
"Go upstairs!" We rising slowly, eating pie as we rose. We going up inch by inch; pie going down inch by inch. Couldn't bear to leave that pie. And this was defiance to them. Jumping from their chair, catching us by the collar, hitting us in the face with their open hand.
We running up the stairs, striking at figures in the wall paper, butting our head against the bannister, trying to kill ourself, biting our arms, running up and down the hall in frenzy. They went out, and, when the other kids came up, we were leaning over the bannister, letting blood drip into the lower hall to do damage. We knew it was dirty work; had as much sense of decency as a grown person; only, just then we were a little beast. The other kids cursed their father. All three chanted the vilest oaths to be thought of. Praying that death in most horrible form should overtake Them.
We were often deeply religious. Often in anguish as we thought of our sins, getting down on our knees to say our own prayers, not waiting for the formal prayers said with Mrs. Lawson in the evening. Often keeping track of our behaviour by marking on a wall the length of time we had been able to be good. There were many quarter days, some half days, and long blanks were encouraging, and we'd try for whole days or even two days for a record. But with our believing, there was incredulity too.
When a small boy, we puzzled over inconsistencies in the Bible, and
asked questions that could not be answered satisfactorily. Sometimes puzzling
right through a game of baseball.
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Wouldn't know. Knocking us down, we curling up on the floor, keeping our head under, trying to chew the carpet, or biting our own fingers, or just sodden.
We had found our way to the country; we and the other kid and two or three others almost every afternoon. Liking to have favorite haunts, where we'd make believe we were camping. Discovering a malarial, little pond in the Boulevards woods, seeing little, black creatures, which we recognized as real pollywogs. Taking the pollywogs home, watching their legs come out, interested in the marvel of their turning green. Pollywogs losing their tails; we never able to find any. Wanting to have more creatures in our aquarium, trying to make them by soaking horse hairs in a bottle. Horse hairs remained horse hairs, and we exposed another fiction.
And having trouble to start to the country; that little kid always tagging on behind. The best runner would hold him, little kid struggling, the rest of us running until several blocks away, then the best runner following. Little kid starting after; none of us in sight. Little kid wailing on the corner; a fist in each eye.
And then we bought more birds' wings, for we made a sling shot, searching a whole afternoon for just the right kind of a crotch, shooting our own birds. On a lone tree with low branches we saw our first blue bird, we underneath, aiming with fierce excitement. A fluttering amid leaves, and we could not have been more amazed if a bit of blue sky had fallen at our feet. Then shooting our first woodpecker, dressed in polka dots and a red hood, running up and down a tree, tapping like Mrs. Lawson on a window pane.
But it seemed shamefully wasteful to cut off wings, scalp, and tail, thought they looked very neat mounted on white cards. Ours was a spirit to go on and do better, so we tried to stuff birds, making them long-necked things, rumpled and stiff-legged. But practicing with many sparrows, becoming so expert with the sling shot that we could bring a little ball of feathers tumbling from a telegraph wire almost every time. Beaks opening helplessly at us; useless wings spread out, feebly beating the ground, we fiercely exulting, knowing nothing of pity, though to end suffering, we would break necks without injuring the skin.
Learning to leave in the skull after cleaning it and filling it with
cotton, making eyes like the eyes of statuary, filling sockets with cotton,
learning to cut the skin under one wing, so as to preserve the breast.
Finally, we could stuff a bird as big as a pigeon, so that the feathers
would be smooth and the form would be its own, though in mounting birds
with wires we succeeded less well. Neglecting our school studies, unable
to center our mind on them, but spending much time studying natural history,
having many books, learning Latin names and the classifications under which
all creatures are arranged, reading the lives of the great naturalists.
Having every specimen labelled, as in a real museum, a boy with a printing
press printing the labels. In the mineral world, we could find few specimens,
not much more than clay formations and pieces of cobble stones, ugly outside
but beautifully white or pink inside. For ours was a city paved with jasper;
only the jasper did not show. Nothing showing but yellowish brown; but
the tints of the rainbow underneath. Then, in our remarkable city, other
streets were studded with precious stones; for out of granite blocks, we
would dig minute garnets now and then. Nevertheless, we had a large collection
of minerals, acquired by buying or trading. All kinds of iron ore; the
crumbling, black kind, red hematite, and iron pyrites looking like gold;
copper ore in many shades of green; crystals, spar, agates; many petrifications,
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Often going shooting alone, pleased with ourself that we should roam alone, seeking ourself in earnest pursuit and not in mere pastime. Wishing we were far away somewhere, and could not see the city from every hill and the vast Capitol everywhere. Feeling marvels of romance and imagining in the mere names of Sumatra, Orinoco, Ceylon. Our desire for remoteness offended by papers scattered around or tin cans every now and then.
Liking to get into the woods, imaging ourself in a real forest. Seeing the remains of a pic-nic. Or we were out on a prairie. A few, old cows coming along; well, they were buffalo. But then the fluttering of a morning newspaper. If we could only be away off and uncivilized somewhere! Then we would get as far away as a large pond, where even the Capitol could not be seen, having told Mrs. Lawson that a boy had invited us to dinner to account for our staying away till night. Having dinner all alone, digging up potatoes, roasting them in the woods. In a camp fire. We were a pioneer! May be a gypsy or an Indian. We had not learned to swim yet, but we'd paddle around the pond on a shaky raft we had made, liking to stand on one end until it would sink, we to our knees in water, enjoying the feeling of a little danger. Paddling around with our sling shot ready, looking for red-shouldered black birds in the bushes along the bank. and their eggs, all scrawled over with mysterious figuring, as if the black birds had been taking first lessons in writing on them. Shooting our first king bird, thinking him some kind of a bee martin, until we saw his covered-over crown. Crowned with a flame and the rest of him sober and modest. Bringing down cedar birds, stuffing them with their crests standing, trying to preserve their jauntiness of manner, pleased with the splashes of red-sealing wax on their wings. Now and then shooting a strange bird, going home to search through natural histories to find out what he was, going back next day to hunt for his mate, for we had male, female, young, nest and eggs of every species, if possible.
And dreaming, as we tramped over hills and through woods, for the delight in birds, shells, and minerals had become ambition. We wanted to be a naturalist. Seeing ourself in a canoe in strange South American waters. Luxuriance of life around, palms waving, a python swinging from overhanging branches, a jaguar lying at our feet. Or collecting shells on West Indian sands. Or away off in our cabin in the Rocky Mountains; traps, skins, guns around. Everything that is of picturesqueness, poetry and soft music playing to us in these imaginings, satisfying because at last we knew what we wanted, and tormenting, because it seemed that things dreamed of could never come true. Still, we'd be twenty some day.
Our grandfather often asked us what we should like to do when we should
grow up. Which annoyed us, for we felt that we could not tell him. Asking,
"Fell, have you decided yet?" We stupidly answering, "I
don't know." But once coming right out with it. Saying that we should
like to be a naturalist. Our grandfather looked puzzled; he went away,
to his dictionary, we think, between a demijohn and a jug, with a painting
of the Grand Canal over it. He came back, looking more puzzled. Evidently
the definition did not please him; naturalists deal with birds and animals
but not in canned form. Our grandfather looked pained, for he had his own
dreams, and ours startled him. Which were of a great grocery house founded
by him, going down the generations, his eldest grandson some day the head
of the family and important among things in barrels, things in bottles,
and things in cans. But not things in cases with
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