That day, in Sam’s Barbecue and Gas Stop, Esther foresaw that she would bury Frank. He waved his chicken leg around, the sauce on his hands and face, in his hair, all unconcerned –not even aware that death existed– about what would come tomorrow, unless it involved not getting ice cream.
She knew then, that she could not let Frank die, that she would stop the death foretold and her son would live. But how?
Esther had stopped foresights before. She had the gift of foresight, her mother, Big Matilda said. But Big Matilda – not even Mama to her brood of children but only Big Matilda– did not know to what degree her daughter had the gift.
Sometimes Esther saw things and sometimes she did not but she always used it, what ever bit of information she gleaned she used. It was erratic. When she first met Sam, she saw a vision of a white gleaming icebox, a new car in the distance and herself in a clean, shiny new kitchen (not what she had foreseen when she saw Floyd in distance –his handsome face gleaming with sweat– then she had foreseen her laughing happy face, heard children playing, as she darned socks and Floyd fixed the radio, again); no, when her father told her that Floyd was coming over and she felt that he would propose, Esther made sure to be gone –she wasn’t sure that she could say no, if asked– but when Sam came and she felt the new icebox, the new car, she made sure to be there. Sam was okay as long as he didn’t talk about the books that he was reading or what he was doing. He was a good listener, and handsome but not like Floyd was.
The foresight she had now that she would bury Frank had no filmy pictures of the event. She knew that meant it might not happen, but that the death foretold was a specific instance like Floyd’s almost proposal and that meant it could be cheated. But she did not know the day or the hour of when. She only knew –just like with Floyd– that the key, the lever, the means to stopping a sight was to turn, to move, to end the circumstances around the sight and never speak of it, so that it never became real but died like seeds planted on concrete.
Esther bent her life to that end.
“You spoil the boy, Esther. He can’t learn without some danger, he just can’t.” She ignored Sam and kept Frank away from all danger.
But Sam did not always cooperate. He took Frank hunting, fishing and even driving the horse team through downtown of Big Gap on the Cumberland river.
Frank survived it all. The hunting, the new car, the old car, the horses, the mules, hot and sweaty work on the fire for the barbecue pit, he grew and grew, tall and strong, broad shouldered but quiet, very quiet.
On December 7, 1941 out of that sunny Hawaiian Sunday morning (chilly in Big Gap’s afternoon), war came to America, to Big Gap and Esther knew, at 3:00 EST, that she just could not let Frank go to war and that she must do anything – everything– to stop the sight from so many years ago. The sight’s time had finally come, if prevented like Floyd’s marriage proposal, it would not come true.
That January, a notice to report for registration came for Frank. She held it in her hand and stared off, there wasn’t much time and how to prevent the sight was not clear.
“It’s alright, Ma. I want to go.” Frank smiled at her, six feet tall, 150 pounds lean muscle, with all his teeth, no criminal convictions and perfect health. There was not going to be any easy way to avoid the draft.
But the war would kill him. She had seen the sight and it was clear, she would bury Frank.
In late January, around the wood stove, dusk outside, in the living room, she said: “Frank, I can get you a job at the car plant. I’m sure trucks will be needed for the war.”
“I want to go. Grandpa went to Cuba and his father fought at Chickamauga. I will go and fight the Japs or krauts and Italians.”
“Sam, tell him about Great Uncle Benjamin.”
“Who?” Frank looked at Sam.
Sam puffed his pipe, smoke billowed into a cloud and, when he spoke, it was with the appearance of an oracle, a voice coming out of the bourbon smelling clouds. “Your great grandfather’s brother, but unlike him, Uncle Benjamin never came back.”
He puffed again. “War is a strange thing. I enlisted in August of 1918 and when the Armistice came, that November, they just discharged us, me and all the men who’d just finished training. And, my cousin Robert, he had enlisted the day after war was declared. In the Navy. He spent the whole war in the Philippines as a cook. And he can’t cook but he can shoot.”
Frank and Sam laughed. They looked at each other, laughed and she knew that Sam would be of no help to her. She passed the evening listening to them talk, smelling the bourbon and feeling pain when she pressed her fingernails in too deep.
The next morning, she looked in the paper to see who was on the draft board and read that Floyd was on it. Esther was still beautiful, maybe Floyd would help. He had married Minnie Vern, a fun but plain girl. She put on her best dress and went to his office.
Floyd refused. All her hints and then her flat out offers were ignored. He said that he loved Minnie. Then he kicked her out.
She came home in time for evening mail and found a Notice of Classification. So Frank had registered and not told her. Before she turned the postcard over, she prayed that Frank had been found IV-F but the foresight returned, and she knew that he was I-1 Available for Military Service.
Tears came down her cheeks. She would bury him. She would not attend her own sons funeral. Frank would not appeal the classification. She would have to find some other way.
Three days later, Frank walked into the kitchen (it had a white gleaming icebox) with a big smile and an Order of Induction in his hand. Sam congratulated him but Esther saw his face in the mirror when Frank wasn’t looking. The eyes were wide, staring off, Sam didn’t smell the burning chicken next to him but when Frank turned back around, Sam smiled.
Esther moved the chicken and begged Frank to take a factory job. But he was adamant, he would go. The date to report was in seven days. He would be there.
She wasn’t Big Matilda’s daughter for nothing. The night before she extracted just a little of the poison from too green potatoes. He would be ill when he reported.
The morning of the seventh day she added the poison with sugar to Frank’s favorite food, blueberry muffins. Such a small dose of poison would take effect in eight hours. It could cause hallucinations and if she was lucky, he would have one at the induction station, and her nightmare would be over, finally. She added more sugar and poison. Was it enough? To large a dose would kill, to small and he would only have diarrhea. She added some more poison.
Sam, Esther and Frank drove to the train station. They said their goodbyes, watched other parents say their goodbyes to their own and all stood there, watching the train and its plume fade in the distance. Sam was quiet. She had never seen him this quiet, not even when he slept.
The house was still that evening. The radio was on but seemed quiet and did not dispel the silence. Sam stared off into the dusk and dark, an unopened book in his lap, his pipe unlit. She wondered what they would talk about and when Frank came back, would things be the same?
A pair of lights shone in the driveway.
So soon? Esther ground her fingernails into her palms. Defeating a sight was never this easy.
Two people got out. In the gloam, she could not see who they were. Could one be Frank?
They stepped into the porch light. Preacher Johnson and the Sheriff.
Preacher Johnson? She burst into tears. “No, no. He’s not, is he? ….”
The Sheriff handed her a telegram but the Preacher’s face said it all. Sam stood, looking from her to Preacher to Sheriff, his mouth moved and he said nothing.
“Only what that telegram and my boy told me.” Preacher Johnson’s voice was soft and soothing. “About halfway to the induction station, Frank just stood up and started screaming about all sorts of crazy things –snakes riding bicycles and stuff like that. Then he, then he … jumped off the train. He hit headfirst and died.”
She cried and Sam sank to the floor. The Preacher was down beside her. He said words she didn’t hear. Then Sam’s voice came through.
“I have the foresight you know.” He was on one knee, now and tears streamed down his face. His pipe was on the stove, the stem melting and its acrid smell filled the room. The book was on the floor.
“I had this sight that Frank would die before me. That I would go to his funeral. That he would die in wartime. You can prevent a sight from coming true. I have. First, you must never speak of it. And second, well, that’s different. For this, it was really different.”
He fingered the pages of the book. “I thought of Oedipus Rex. How does it become possible that Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother? How is the prophecy fulfilled?”
Sam threw the book into the fire of the wood stove. “Because Oedipus’s father tries to stop the prophecy from coming true by exposing Oedipus as a newborn. He tries to kill Oedipus and makes it possible for the prophecy to come true. The prophecy could not have come true if the King had not tried to prevent it. He brings about what he wants to stop.”
He looked at them all. “I thought that, maybe, doing nothing would save Frank. What if, instead of trying to prevent the prophecy and so causing it to come true, I ignored it? Would the sight be cheated? Not all sights come true, just mostly. I guess I know now.”
She cried for a long, long time. She cried herself to the grave.
John A. Monaghan is an international lawyer in Virginia Beach, Va.