Mercy Howls on V. J. Day – Draft
by Anne Montague about her memory of her mother on Victory Japan Day
Anne was bored. The August day was hot, humid, windless. She called to Mercy, her mostly-fox-terrier mutt, as she ran down the steps of her grandparents’ cottage. Mercy didn’t move from the shade of the huge oak tree near the front gate.
A tree branch on the grass waited to be used. Anne went to it, studied it. It was longer than she was tall. She decided she could break it into pieces. So, she dragged it the narrow, grassless strip between their white one-story house and the chain-link fence that separated them from the Henchman’s big two-story house that hid an unfriendly woman and her grown albino son.
Listlessly, she doodled in the dust with the stick. She made a circle, then erased it with her bare foot. Then, she got serious and started the job of making circles with different sized sticks as her deaf papaw, Henry, had taught her to. She held one end of the stick to the ground with her left hand, swooped the other end across the dirt with her right hand, stood back and looked at the half-circle “painting”. Satisfied, she broke the branch and made a smaller circle inside the big one, at the same center point. “Protractor” she practiced in her mind, always glad for new words she’d learned from her mother and others in her family.
Suddenly, the war-factory whistle blew. It wasn’t nearly time for the end of the shift. It continued. Mercy whined. A car honked over and over as it passed the house on the busy Madison Avenue.
Her mamaw, Tennessee, burst onto the front porch shouting. “Anne, The Japs have surrendered! The Japs have surrendered! The War is over!” The screen door banged. Tennessee sat her big-framed body on the top step and sobbed into her hands, “Praise the Lord. Jehova’s house is safe!”
Anne went to her and watched her cry tears of joy. “Mamaw, does this mean Mother can quit working at the war factory?”
Tennessee answered, “It means that the devil has been defeated by Almighty God. The Lord has shed mercy on our souls. Lucifer, the fallen angel, has been stopped again by his own inventions. God have mercy on our souls, for making bombs that kill whole cities of people. But the war is over!
“You take care of Leah . . .. She’s asleep. Go tell your papaw the war is over! I’m going to Mrs. Donathan’s to tell her.” She didn’t bother to tie her hair into a tighter knot or take off her apron. In her size 11 manly shoes, she ran down the sidewalk and unlatched the gate. She yelled over her shoulder, “Check on her every few minutes. Don’t let her wake up with no one there.”
As Tennessee started across the street, a black car stopped to let her pass. The older-man driver yelled, “Victory!” She shouted back to him, “The Good Lord has overcome the Devil!”
Anne called to her, “Mamaw, tell Michael I’m glad the war is over.” She wanted to talk to him.
She stood alone on the sidewalk. More and more cars went by honking. As she entered the house to check on Leah in the back bedroom, the man on the radio said, “Victory over Japan!” She envisioned that all the family but her deaf Papaw would huddle around the radio soon. She knew her mother was glad. She planned to be standing at the front gate when her mother came up the road from the war factory that was somewhere on a hill above “the fill” – the marsh that connected Madison Avenue to Westmoreland.
As she ran through the furniture-less, linoleum-smelling dining room, her eyes adjusted to the dark, but she knew her way perfectly – she’d lived there since before Leah was born when she was two-and-a-half. In the kitchen, the sunlight glimmered from the back window she’d fallen through once. She turned left, passed between the ice box and the cupboard with a porcelain shelf where her mamaw rolled out biscuits every morning. She stopped before she went into the bedroom Mamaw shared with Leah who was gentle, sick, and very smart. She entered quietly.
Leah slept deeply. A light cross-breeze blew from the open windows – one looked out to the garden behind the house and the other looked out to the lawn just north of the chicken house. She studied Leah’s sleep-swollen face. All the family was protective and softened by Leah. But somehow, she also knew that Leah was part of who she, herself, would always be. She brushed a fly from Leah’s cheek. Close and far away, horns, whistles and a lone bell sounded. She looked out the back window and saw her skin-and-bones Papaw moving a three-legged stool into the tomato patch of the victory garden. As usual, the buckle of his leather belt was on the first hole.
As she ran back through the kitchen, she felt the warmth of the hot water in the wringer washer. A pot of pinto beans simmered on the gas stove.
She jumped out the back door. In two running steps she was on the dirt garden path. She passed the tender, chartreuse leaves of the leaf lettuce she’d helped her papaw cover with cheese-cloth to keep hungry rabbits out.
She yelled, “Papaw!” It didn’t matter that he couldn’t hear her; she needed to call to him.
He was sitting on his three-legged stool in front of a tomato plant. His big, red and blue bandana handkerchief was in his pants’ pocket, and a clean, white handkerchief was in the pocket of his sweat-wet shirt with a button missing so his top ribs showed.
He put a thin strip of rag between his yellowed front teeth. With his stiff left hand, he held the stem of a tomato plant that drooped with the weight of little green tomatoes, ready to tie it to a wood stake.
When he saw Anne running toward him, he acknowledged her with a raspy, “Hey!” He expected her to hold the stem to the stake while he tied them together with the rag strip. Instead, she faced him on his stool, pointed to her mouth and shouted, “THE WAR IS OVER! NO MORE BOMBS!” She pointed up to the sky and let her hands fall like rain. He was confused. He looked at the sky – no planes. Then, he understood.
He smiled slightly, as he eased back on the stool. She took the strip of cloth from his mouth and tied the tomato plant to the steak, proud that she could tie a tomato-plant rag as well as her shoes.
As he pulled the bandana handkerchief from his pocket, a block of chew fell to the ground with a red bloodhound on the wrapper. He picked it up, took his pen knife from the same pocket, opened it, cut a slice off the end of the tobacco slab and plopped it in his mouth like a gold fish grabbing a piece of float-by food. Bloop! He wiped sweat from his face on the bandana handkerchief, then blew his nose on it.
She was frustrated that he didn’t seem really glad – just relaxed. She curved her pointing finger into an O, and put the pointing finger of her other hand and over the O to make a Q to show she had a question, as he’d taught her to. “Papaw, what do you think?” She put her finger to his forehead.
His voice was more crackly than usual. “Love Child . . ., we’ve salvaged ourselves.”
A memory flashed through her mind. The winter before, her mother had taken papaw and Anne to the 14th Street West picture show, to see the newsreel. Anne had been silent in shock as they watched the goose-stepping Germans march like scary, wind-up toys with real guns. Thousands yelling, together, “Heil, Hitler!” Her papaw had squeezed her hand protectively as he saw the power of the enemy for the first time. He had seemed sad since then.
As they walked home after the newsreel, his steps were more shuffled. Anne had asked her mother as they walked home, “Why is there war?” Jessie had answered, “It’s like the depression. One bad thing leads to another until people are helpless because everything that seems right and fits together crumbles in anger and fear. In war, you have to fight back or be destroyed.”
Now, in the garden, he was finally relieved. He said, “Where’s Tennie? Where’s Leah? Get the family together.”
She pointed across the street and formed her words so he could read her lips, “Mamaw’s at Mrs. Donathan’s house.” She leaned her head to the side, rested it in her hands, closed her eyes, and formed with her mouth, “Leah’s asleep.” She covered her ears and formed, “Leah doesn’t hear the noise.”
“What’s the sound like?” he asked.
She looked straight at him and formed, “It’s everywhere.” She swept her arms around in the air. “The war-factory whistle.” She pulled an imaginary string in the air, as railroad engineers do. “Cars.” She pushed a pretend car horn.
“Look, an airplane.” She pointed up at the low-flying, single-engine plane. He watched and waited. She waved at it, hoped the men inside saw her. Finally, he said, “I hear victory bees.” She knew he didn’t hear the sounds everyone else heard but he heard “crickets” in his own head.
“Let’s celebrate!” She pulled at his hand with missing fingers to come with her. She hoped they’d open a Mason jar of home-canned peaches or that Mamaw would make a blackberry-jam cake. She and Leah would lick the bowl.
“Meet me on the porch. I’ll check Leah.” He said with new sureness in his crackly voice.
She ran toward the house calling, “Mer-cy!” She looked in the back window. Leah was still fast asleep. She ran around the house. Mercy was on the front porch. She ran up the steps, opened the screen door, and listened. The band music stopped, the announcer said that President Truman was going to speak to America. Her papaw came in the back screen door and closed it quietly. He shuffled to the back bedroom to check on Leah.
She heard her papaw shuffling to his bedroom, which was totally off limits to everyone but him. She wondered what could be in his room that was more important than getting together on the front porch.
She sat on the porch floor with Mercy. “Mercy, I’m sorry it’s loud. But The War is over!” She bent Mercy’s pointed ears over her hairless cavities to muffle the sounds. Mercy flipped her head in protest.
Papaw came onto the porch, guiding the screen door till it closed quietly. She realized how much she loved hearing the screen doors close – it meant summertime play and people coming and going. She could tell who was coming because each person closed the door in their own way – some with a bang, some with a thud, some so quiet you could barely hear it.
As he sat in the swing, she saw that he had a small, thin, paper bag. She waited until he opened it. It was the precious cloth book that he had used when he taught youngest readers in a one-room school in Mason County, before his first wife and children died of T.B. He had only let her look at it once, but he had never let her touch it.
He sat in the swing. She waited in front of him. Hoping he’d invite her to touch it. Its pictures and words were painted on heavy cotton “pages” that were doubled over and stitched on the side. The white was yellowed, and the primary-colored drawings were faded. She hope the words were easy.
“Go wash your hands,” he quavered. Excited, she ran into the house. From the bathroom off the dining room, she used extra soap her mamaw had made with lie and grease. Before she started back on to the porch, she listened for Leah in the back bedroom. It was quiet.
Back on the porch, he inspected her hands. Then he patted the space on the swing beside him, and she got up in the seat and sat up straight beside him. “Put your feet up. Turn them the other way,” he said. She put her head against his bony arm, and he handed her the cloth book. She slowly turned the pages looking at the pictures first. Then, she began to read some words. Suddenly, she realized that he was not following along to correct her when she pointed to word she didn’t know. He was not in a teaching mood.
She scooted out of the swing, put the book on his lap and said Papaw, how do you know if I read it right? He smiled slightly to acknowledge that he understood. He followed his hand up the braided-leather chain at his waste and took his watch from its small pocket. She waited for him to see the time.
She put her face close to his and repeated, “Papaw, how do you know if I read it right?”
He got up and went to the edge of the porch and spat straight down, behind one of the blooming hollyhock bushes. He sat down and looked at her earnestly, with the lump of chew in his cheek. “YOU will know when it’s not right. Love Child, you’ll make it right.” She kind of knew what he meant. Mostly she knew he was saying he trusted her to do the right thing.
He pointed across the street. Tennessee was waiting to cross the busy street, with cars honking at one another and at her. “Where’s Leah?”, Tennessee asked as she lifted the latch on the metal gate.
She walked briskly to the porch, then, instead of going in, she looked at Henry and said, “Who knows how many children he taught to read from this book before I met him!”
“Mamaw, I got to read from it – Papaw let me touch it. Leah’s still asleep. We just checked.”
“How can you sit and read when the Japs have surrendered? Child, you can’t imagine what it means. Praise the Lord! How merciful is our Savior!” Praise the lord, and make the past of ammunition!” She was proud of herself, and sang it to the familiar tune. She laughed at herself. Anne did not laugh.
“Mamaw, do Jap children’s mamaws and papaws love them?”
“Of course, they do. Every child has a mamaw and a papaw, unless they’re orphans or their grandparents have passed. Every grandparent loves their grandchildren. It’s God’s way. God’s people are God’s people.”
Anne protested, “But the Japs are so mean!”
“There you go, again, thinking about something else, somewhere else, somebody else. The Japs do peculiar things – they read and write backwards, the boys kill themselves to be buried in some Emperor’s graveyard. The whole world has a screw lose but people still love their children and grandchildren, unless they are really nuts. Worse than crazy! Nuts!!”
Especially when Sheila, her cousin, was there, Tennessee would say, “You children can drive me crazy, but you aren’t going to drive me nuts!” Her limit was reached. Anne changed the topic. “Mamaw, will Mother come home soon, since the war is over?”
Tennessee said, “You and your mother. Guess it’s the same as Leah and me. We’re a pair of pairs. Then, there’s you and your Papaw. Like two people the same age. I’m only eighteen years younger than he is, and you’re purtineer four generations younger, but he doesn’t say a word to me, and you two don’t even need to talk. Same with Jessie and him. God has his reasons. But it’s beyond me!”
She yelled as she entered the house, “Leah, you sleepyhead, the war is over. The inventions of the Devil have brought the Devil to his rightful place.” When she got no answer, she screamed, “Leah, the Japs have surrendered. Wake up!”
Anne said Mercy, “Papaw says I have to know my mistakes. By myself. Who’s going to teach me? You don’t correct your mistakes. You expect me to tell you what you can do . . ., but you don’t worry when you don’t do what I tell you to do.
“Jap children read and write backward. Mother says they write like chickens scratchin’. Poor children. Wonder if any Jap girl has a banty rooster like mine.”
Henry watched her puzzle over things. He patted the swing with his distorted hand to come and read again. Instead, she stood in front of him and mouthed, “Can I read to Leah from your book?”
He nodded yes. She ran to the front door, stuck here head in and called, “Leah, come! Papaw will let US look at his really old first-grade reader. You can touch it.”
Leah came through the dining room, living room and onto the porch. Her gait was slow, her stomach protruded, and she had a slight swelling under her brown, hairy birthmark on the right of her neck.
Anne had heard many times that Leah seemed younger than her years and that she seemed older than her years. She took her usual role as teacher, and said, “You sit next to Papaw. I’ll sit next to you.”
Leah waited patiently in front of Henry to be helped onto the swing. He took the clean, worn white handkerchief from his shirt pocket, unfolded it, wiped Leah’s hands and helped her up beside him. She waited until he handed her the book. Anne sat next to her. As Leah turned the pages, Anne described each picture.
When Anne finally began to read, she didn’t let Leah know she made up words for ones she didn’t know. She crossed her fingers on her left hand in case it was a lie.
“Teachers are born and made,” Henry said, as he had before. She was proud to hear it again. She was to read to Leah as though no problems existed.
In a lull after she read, Anne told Leah about how the low stone wall by the front walk was built by Papaw and his friends, and that it’s hard to build a stone wall. She ended, “Our house is not as big as the Henchman’s, but we have a stone wall, too, and the wall will last longer than the house.” She always wanted Leah to be hopeful.
She told Leah that their mother had said that when The War was over, they’d get rid of the ice box and a new invention called Freon would keep food cold, so they’d never need an iceman to come with a huge hook carrying a big block of ice.
Leah asked, hesitantly, “Why is Papaw letting us hold the book?”
“Because The War is over! He wants to celebrate with the family. That’s why horns and whistles are blowing. Mother won’t have to go to the war factory ever again.”
Leah put her hand over her mouth, and gently exclaimed in her quietly amused way, “Papaw said he’d shave his mustache when The War’s over!”
Anne laughed gleefully, jumped out of the swing, stood in front of Henry and said, “Pawaw, you said you’d shave your mustache when The War’s over.” She mimed him shaving – pretended she was sharpening his straight razor on the leather strop that hung on the bathroom wall, made suds with his shaving brush, looked in the mirror as she lathered her face, put the brush in a cup, shaved under her chin, then her cheeks. With even more flourish, she tightened her upper lip, shaved off the mustache one stroke at time and flicked the hairs off the razor into the pretend sink after each stoke. Finally, she ran clean water, splashed it on her face, wiped her face with a towel, rubbed her hands over her clean-shaven face and gave an approving smiled in the mirror. He smiled as he watched, fascinated that she knew his every move.
He covered his mustache with the hand with two missing fingers, put his thumb on his nose, and waved his fingers, just as Tennessee came back on the porch. “Henry, upon my word and honor! What are you doing! I can’t believe you’d teach children to thumb their nose. And on the day that Almighty God has overcome Lucifer.” The Bible – Acts 14:22 says we must go through many hardships to know the kingdom of God. We’ve done it.
He knew she was angry, not what she said, and he rasped, “If I shave my mustache, I won’t look like Hitler, to scare the sailor boys away from the beautiful women in my house.” Tennessee was disarmed and laughed; then, they all laughed in nervous relief that bordered on joy.
The metal gate latch sounded as Jessie yelled, “What am I missing out on?” Anne ran down to her. Jessie knelt on the sidewalk to look straight in Anne’s eyes before they embraced. It was a moment of Anne always remembered – the message was, “We are connected! We are safe!” Jessie held her tight.
Waiting on the top step, Leah heard paper rattle, as Jessie stood up. “Candy. You’ll give me candy. . .? You will?” They all laughed.
Jessie revealed the little brown-paper sack she’d hidden on the sidewalk behind her, went to Leah, sat on lower step, and gave Leah the first choice. Leah pulled out a piece of red, hard candy. Next, Anne pulled out a black piece – licorice, ran past Jessie and Leah to show her Papaw and stood by him to see where her mother was going to sit.
As Jessie approached him, he looked gently in his daughter’s eyes and said quietly, “Jessie, we’ve salvaged ourselves.” Jessie answered, “For the merciful like you, Dad.” At that moment, Anne saw a significant message pass between the 81-year-old father and his 26-year-old daughter. They often knew the same things without talking, as Anne and her mother had just done. She decided that before she went to sleep that night, she’d ask her mother exactly what salvaged meant, since bedtime was “explainin’ time”.
Henry took two pieces of candy from the bag, put them in his shirt pocket and said, “After my chew.” Anne knew they were for Leah and her.
Tennessee refused the candy and said, “Jessie, hide the poke and mete out a piece of candy a day. Else the young ‘uns will eat it all by bedtime.”
Jessie said, “Mom, The War’s over!” Tennessee obligingly put her hand in the bag, pulled out a red candy and put it in her apron pocket to save for Leah.
Anne spoke for both girls, “Mother, Papaw said he’d shave his mustache when The War was over. Now, he won’t.”
Jessie answered them, “Your papaw would feel naked without his mustache!”
The girls giggled at the thought of his being naked. They chanted, “Papaw’s gonna’ be neck-id.“
Jessie covered her ears, winced and shrieked, “Please! It’s ‘naaked’ not ‘neck-id’.”
A siren became louder and louder as they watched the police car come up Madison Avenue. It stopped across the street. The siren stopped. A policeman got out the passenger side, looked over the car and waved to Henry – almost as though the end of the war was in honor of him. Henry slowly rose from the swing and shuffled to the edge of the porch. The policeman saluted to her papaw. Henry touched his forehead with his crimped hand and saluted back. The message between the men was that her papaw need not worry anymore about being too-fragile to be a protector – the war was over. Everyone knew that Henry knew more than they did.
As the policemen drove off with siren screaming, Mercy started to howl. Head back, and nose up. The policemen went west, then turned around at the Wayne County line a block up the street, and as the siren came closer again, Mercy howled, and howled. The passenger policeman who had just shown his respect laughed, put his fingers in his ears as the car went toward “up town”. This time, the message was that a siren announcing freedom was far more important than a dog’s howling because it’s ear’s hurt.
“I‘ll look handsome without my mustache”, Henry said. The five of them laughed.
He was glad that his small joke delighted them, not knowing the girls had mentioned his being naked. He laughed more openly than Anne had ever seen – for the first time, she saw his teeth were stained all the way back in his mouth. For a frozen-in-time instant, she saw him as a younger man. She felt as if she were in his past – as though he was a younger person she was not supposed to look at, but she wanted to see, like happening onto your Christmas present before it’s been wrapped. From that day, she thought about him also as a teacher and as a father of young children, as well as her always-laboring, deaf, smart, loyal, all-knowing papaw who almost never talked, but called her, “Love Child”.
“Mom, kill a hen for dinner, Jessie said. Tennessee answered, “It’s too late in the day to wring the head off a hen, pluck it, and fry it. Pinto beans are ready.
“Tomorrow, I want a chicken wing so I can fly, Leah said.” Anne and Leah had a secret pact to eat the wings so the hard-working grownups could have more meat.
“I’ll make rhubarb for a pie!”, Tennessee said. The rhubarb was planted in the back corner of the garden, since the leaves were poisonous. It was Mamaw’s job to pick the rhubarb tomorrow.
Mercy quit howling and ran joyfully with Anne to lead them all through the house to the kitchen. Screen doors slammed twice, once after they all went in, and once when her mother and Anne went to the garden to pick vegetables, while her papaw went to his room to return the cloth primer in its paper back, and put it in some secret place Anne never saw.
Tennessee and Leah stayed in the kitchen to make the cornbread, boil water for peas, heat the grease to wild the endive, and set the table.
Bedtime was much as usual. Jessie and Anne slept in a twin bed in the front bedroom, so they could hear anyone who knocked in the night. This night, her mother said that her papaw had turned on the porch light before he went to bed in case one of “our boys” came home to his nearby home, with no one there. Anne listened for footsteps in the night, but she did not hear them until months later.
Clarifications for Future Writing:
The Official Japanese Surrender:
Over the next days, the news defined that the Japanese had not officially surrendered, but everyone knew it was coming. Especially the men talked about it. Capitulation was a word they used. No one understood why the Japanese did not surrender, since the A-bomb was so awful. People talked about how the slow surrender showed that the Japanese were too proud to surrender, but people knew they would. In an anti-climax the unconditional surrender was signed on a Sunday, Sept. 2, 1945, the day before Anne started to her first day of school in first grade. Most people did not seem to know when a second bomb was dropped, but Mamaw found out somehow from her church – a group that did not believe in preachers – which left her worried that the bombs were the beginning of man’s making horrid implements of war that would grow even worse in a cycle of retaliations that would lead to more and more destruction.
Anne knowledge of her mother’s work:
Jessie inspected the lenses – but as she changed her focus back and forth from the inspection machine to the real world, she became increasingly dizzy through the day. By the time she came home in the evening, she was stumbling and then she’d vomit. Anne hated the war factory for that. Anne’s Mamaw would keep dinner in the oven for Jessie who sometimes could not eat. By bed time, Jessie celebrated with her children in her usual way, playing Clair de Lune, singing Froggy Went a Courtin’, or some lullaby to Anne as the last part of the bedtime routine, while Anne’s Mamaw took Leah who usually fell asleep early in the back bedroom.
Henry’s death and mustache:
Henry died with his mustache 15 months later just before Thanksgiving in 1946. He had grown a full garden the summer before, when he was 82. Her Uncle Carl came from Indianapolis for the funeral, Anne wondered why the family had a treat of pumpernickel bread – Anne thought it tased terrible. The family chose a cherry casket because Henry had loved wood so much that he had been a carpenter on the C&O railroad, after he left teaching in Mason County when his first family died. She never saw the cloth primer again. She was given his simple wood plane when she was a mother, which is all she had of his, though he intended for her to have more.
Anne’s Promise to her mamaw:
The morning Anne started to school, on Sept. 3, Tennessee went to the front gate with her, stepped aside and extracted a promise that Anne never forgot. Her grandmother said, “Anne, you are a very lucky girl. You will grow up in a free world. You will be able to get an education. You must use your freedom for good. Promise me that you will not waste your freedom.” Anne promised, and she is guided by that promise yet today.
Mercy was let out on a country road 200 miles from Madison Avenue, near Petersburg, WV by Edward, the man who became Anne’s step-father a year after her papaw died. He encouraged Jessie and the girls to live on a farm Grant County to help Jessie gain weight, since she had been malnourished as a teen. Anne insisted that Mercy go too, but in the morning, Edward had gone back to Huntington, supposedly with Mercy. But two months later when they returned to Madison Avenue, Mercy was not there, and her Mamaw said Edward had not brough Mercy home. Anne tried not to resent Mercy’s disappearance and Edward’s lie that Mercy ran away. She pretended that she did not worry that Mercy missed her. Crying was not allowed by her step-father, nor was getting a cold or having a pet. She believed that Mercy would find a new family because she was a good dog. She resolved to have a place someday where people seldom had to cry, and if they did, they could. .
Leah’s death and prediction:
Leah died of cancer in 1965, at age 23. Several times before she died, she asked Anne to tell her about VJ Day on Mamaw and Papaw’s porch. Anne loved to tell her, so Leah would be comforted by how special the family was in the girls’ shaping years. Leah though “salvage” meant a junk pile. Anne taught her that salvaged also meant being useful again. Somehow, that word bound the two girls even tighter as they realized change was inevitable, so they hoped that something lost could reappear in a different way. Leah’s perpetual, gentle humor remained no matter how she suffered. She begged Anne to leave her medicines by her bed, so she could end her own suffering, but Anne could not. The last time Anne saw Leah, she was terribly disfigured by cancer that had metastasized into her brain. Leah said that Anne and her husband, Richard, would be on the cover of Time Magazine someday. Anne did not tell her of troubles she bore silently; instead, she laughed and said to Leah, who loved Elvis Presley, “Yeah, when I learn to like Elvis!”, which she thought was impossible. Now, she likes Elvis a bit. She is alone, but if she ever is on the cover of Time, it will be because of her mother and her promise to her mamaw.