Ben and Obediah

The Saga of the Seventh Generation Trilogy, Book One: THE ANCESTORS by C. J. Hotchkiss

From Chapter Two: OBEDIAH

It was early in the third year, just before the first snow, that Obediah began to stutter.  It was only slightly noticeable at first, an occasional mispronunciation or delay, perhaps caused by the cold or exhaustion.  But by the spring, his d’s clutched up in his mouth, f’s spit relentlessly at his listener, and b’s trembled on his lips, unable to escape.  Obediah’s unexplained loss of normal speech left him confused, easy prey to the boys who had no real mettle and nothing else to do.  “What’s your name, boy?” one of the bullyboys would demand. Wide eyed and cornered, Obediah would try to concentrate, but his name would inevitably come out with far too many b’s and d’s creating raucous laughter from his questioner.  His clever words, which had always deflected reckless threats, were missing, stuck somewhere in his head.  He remembered his father’s missing arm and how it had made him mean.  In contrast, Obediah’s missing words simply made him feel naked.  His quick mind, clever storytelling, and playful retorts were trapped in his throat and Obediah stopped talking.  Obediah’s mind did not stutter, but he missed the sound of his own voice and the laughter and company it engendered.  Obediah was not self-pitying by nature, so he turned his thoughts to other things, but the loneliness that had started to grow when he left his home settled deep into his heart, creating a loner that he was never meant to be.   

Obediah’s silence once again bored the bullies, but from time to time they could not help needling him to say his multi-syllabled name.  “Hey you, boy.  What’s your name?”   If he didn’t answer, they would provoke a foreman to ask, knowing Obediah could not refuse.  A supervisor might enjoy helping them mock the boy.  A mining camp was not a place for pity and, even the more sympathetic among them, relegated the stammering boy to a position of amusement, detaching themselves from his humiliation.

One morning, a larger boy grabbed Obediah from the back, demanding his name, while others gathered to watch the uneven match.  Before Obediah could go limp, his attacker was lifted off his feet and thrown to the side.  The rarely heard voice of Ben Langstrum, the six-foot ten-inch, Swedish blacksmith with arms the size of the lifted boy’s thighs, spoke.  “You can just call him O.  You think you can remember that?”  

The boys scattered, grateful that they could still run and breath.  No one could remember Ben ever saying anything to anyone, certainly not picking anybody up or defending a hapless pit boy.  But, they had seen him swing an anvil and practically lift a horse off the ground to put on a shoe. Obediah would have run too, if he weren’t so stunned that Ben had intervened.  He turned to face his liberator.  He had never seen Ben up close and was awed by how big he was.  The huge blacksmith looked as gruff as ever standing a good three feet taller than Obediah.  “Just call yourself O.  You can say that without stuttering, right?  You’re just making a fool of yourself with that long name.”  Obediently, Obediah opened his mouth and let the single vowel slip out.  “O.” 

“Good.”  Ben muttered.  “That’s plenty enough name.” 

O’s friendly nature found a strange new handhold in Ben’s company.   At first, Ben’s size and brevity made O unnaturally shy, but he gradually drifted into the big man’s shadow.  Ben had touched the part of him that still wanted to have a friend, no matter how unlikely.  The silent giant’s unexpected interest in O’s dilemma, and his practical solution felt like friendship or the closest thing to it O had felt since he started stammering.  Maybe even before that… maybe since he left his brothers and sisters and lost his family.   And, happily, this friendship did not require words; indeed, O had not heard Ben speak again since he had given him his name. 

In spite of his characteristic irritability, the blacksmith’s gruffness developed a soft edge for the boy.   Ben didn’t give much thought to why he had stood up for the boy, though it did surprise him a bit.  He had always been too big to be bullied, but he hated to see little boys picked on.  Big people shouldn’t hit little people.  Normally, Ben just ignored it; he had more important things to do.  But for some reason, Obediah’s predicament had bothered him.  He had never seen the boy be mean to anyone and it seemed like the other boys used to like him before his mouth got all tangled up.  Never made any sense to Ben how boys were.  So, without thinking much, Ben put down his hammer, picked up the bigger boy, and set things straight.  It wasn’t about Obediah as much as it just weren’t right and Ben had had enough.  Now Obediah, renamed O without all those b’s and d’s, thought they were friends.

In the beginning, O sat quietly out of Ben’s way, while Ben went about the business of welding the tools needed by the miners and horses, pretending not to notice his silent companion.  O turned his attention to watching Ben’s work.  He quickly learned the rhythm of the hammer and anvil and just what tool was needed.  He watched Ben turn the metal one slight turn between each strike, shaping the piece with his smooth, deliberate motions.  Gradually, O became an extension of Ben’s arm, an easier reach for just the right tool.  Ben never said anything, but, little by little, he allowed the boy to become a part of his solitude.

It was an odd fellowship, one silent by necessity, the other by choice.  They spent hours together without a human sound interrupting the clang of metal against metal.  Neither smiled, but there was a sense of shared pleasure when they were together, two fundamentally different trees moved by the same wind. Ben was not one to think much about other people or why they did what they did, but he did notice the melancholy gap between O’s silence and his truer nature.  Ben had nothing much to say to people, but he could see that the boy was withering without his words.   O watched the other boys, looking past their boyish bravado into the intimacy of their tired hopes and fears.  Even with Ben, who had long since banished most of his needs, O understood when Ben was tired, when he needed to be left alone, when he was particularly proud of a piece, or when he might be open to more camaraderie than usual.  Without words, O had no expression of this shared humanity, no way to heal the aching distance most people felt from each other.  O’s gift – the comfort of being understood – languished in the stingy palette of the blacksmith’s shop.  

Ben’s concern for O’s frustration was a surprise to him, but he could not get it out of his head.  He had grown fond of Obediah and had a vague appreciation for the boy’s unusual insight.  Then he had a dream about it.  Ben did not believe in dreams – they carried no fascination or meaning for him.  He never remembered his own and thought he probably didn’t have any.  But one morning, he woke and had dreamt the solution to O’s loneliness.  It was not his problem, but he couldn’t let it go, either.

Ben had been on his own since he was nine, a big, awkward boy that most people treated as if he was older than he was.  He had no memory of family life or of anyone taking care of him.  He thought his mother had probably died when he was young; he had no real recollection of her, except maybe a vague sense of soft hair and skin.  His father was a big man, rough and drunk most of the time.  Ben stayed out of his way. Ben was big, but he hated violence, on either end of it.  

One night, when his dad was beating him up, Ben hit back and knocked his father out.  This was not so much that Ben was strong enough yet, but that he was scared and his dad was drunk.  He knew better than to be around when his dad woke up, so Ben packed the few things he thought he could justify as his own and he left.   Ben did take the one gift that his father had ever given him.  He thought it was probably won it in a poker game and his father had no use for it, but Ben had been secretly pleased that his dad had given something especially to him.  He now saw that it was meant for Obediah.  

Back in the small room at the edge of the mining camp that was his home, Ben rummaged through the trunk at the end of his bed.  An unused bible, a collared Sunday shirt he had not worn in ten years, an old catalog of blacksmithing tools, a pair of socks waiting several years to be mended, and a battered case, the size and shape of a fiddle.  Ben opened it carefully and saw the fiddle, not much better than the case, but, structurally sound, hiding a pure, perfect sound.  The instrument was at least a hundred years old.  In its day, it had played both gay dancing music and songs of tender sadness in small shacks and dance halls all around the back hills of Appalachia, maybe even brought over from Ireland.

Accustomed to metal, Ben’s work on the fiddle seemed impossibly delicate.  His strong, big hands felt clumsy as he tenderly mended the cracks, reworked the pins, and rebuilt the bow.  He saved a week’s pay and actually went into town – an event that turned every head he passed.  No one had ever seen Ben Langstrum outside of the camp, didn’t know he even knew the way.   He bought a new set of pure gut strings.  Amused with his newly discovered ability to shock the local folk, Ben even walked into the drug store and bought himself a malt shake.  

Ben returned to the camp, quite pleased with himself.  He polished the timeless instrument until it wore its age with great beauty.  Ben was self-consciously proud of his work- not the typical pride he felt in his utilitarian blacksmithing, but a strange, protective pride that this renovated fiddle was beautiful, would make music, and was a gift.  Ben could not trace that kind of pride back to anything in his experience.  In any case, Ben was atypically anxious about what O would think.   He had never given anyone a gift before.  Unaccustomed to caring what other people thought or of wanting to please them, Ben was nervous that the gift might not be what he hoped it would be – an outlet for O’s thoughts, a way to communicate without words.   

Ben approached the blacksmith shop with the fragile fiddle case carefully tucked under his large, muscular arm. When O came to the shop that afternoon, Ben abruptly thrust the case into the boy’s hands.  “Here,” he said.  “My father gave this to me.  Maybe you could play it.  My hands are too big.”  He went back to his work before he could measure O’s response, but listened closely for the opening of the case.

There was not a sound, until the painful moan of the bow across the strings announced O’s discovery.  Even an untrained bow across the belly of this rich, dark fiddle embodied a sound that reached deep into O’s soul.  Within an hour, O had started to find sounds that blended into each other and were curious to the ear.  Ben had guessed right.  The fiddle gave voice to all the feelings and thoughts that were crowded into O’s head.  

%d bloggers like this: