Japeth Finian was not certain when the battle began, when the extraordinary and the commonplace first collided, resulting in an internal rupture that threatened to rend his soul in two. The signs pointed back to that momentous day as he stood helpless in the middle of a wheat field staring up at the menacing sky. Or perhaps his destiny had been fixed long before that date. Ultimately, it made no difference. For though Japeth would experience periods of relative calm throughout his life, the struggle between these opposing forces would continue to rage within him and without him, requiring his constant vigilance.
The harvest time arrived early that year, and every man, woman, and child in the county was recruited to help. All able-bodied individuals, regardless of age, were needed if the wheat crop, on which their livelihood depended, was to be collected in advance of the storm. A process that was usually spaced out over several days was being condensed into twenty hours, which was exactly how long the finger-in-the-air sages, like the infallible Mr. Emerson, predicted it would be before the heavy rains commenced.
The equally prescient Mr. Calhoun calculated that, from the velocity of the wind, the storm might arrive sooner than expected. He based his claim on a call received the previous evening by Mrs. Benson, the only person in the county with a telephone. Mrs. Benson's sister, who lived up north, warned her that the squall was unlike any she'd ever seen-at age seventy-two, she'd witnessed many a tempest in her time-and had resulted in considerable flooding.
Mr. Calhoun scoffed. He didn't need a phone call to tell him that. Just look at the Pitchfork, he said. The Pitchfork River was the main waterway and it traveled diagonally across the county. The abnormal swelling of the past twenty-four hours was proof enough that torrential rains were headed their way and, even if the storm diminished on its way downstate, it wouldn't take much to cause a serious spillover.
"It's happened before," said Mr. Emerson.
"And it'll happen again," said Mr. Calhoun.
"This county is no stranger to calamity," added Mr. Emerson.
"Yup. There's a reason they call 'em 'natural' disasters round these parts," nodded Mr. Calhoun.
The sun rose that morning as usual but it was hidden behind a series of progressively darker clouds. The most recent batch, which barreled across the skies in early afternoon at an alarming rate, was practically purple, like an engorged wound ready to spew blood at the slightest touch. For all that, the air was particularly warm, what would, under better circumstances, be called an Indian summer day.
Out in the fields, the mature husks crackled under the steady churn of rotating blades. As the wheat was hurriedly bundled, tied, and tossed onto the tarpaulin protected wagons, the wind mischievously twirled the fine, yellow particles of dust through the air.
Seven-year-old Japeth, who was no more than a small dollop in the middle of the vast acreage, doggedly struggled to make his contribution. A preacher's son, he was slight for his age, pale and spindly as a reed. Nonetheless, he threw himself into the task at hand though he was disheartened by his lack of progress. Even with a bandana tied over his face, the fine dust seeped into his eyes and nostrils, blinding him, gagging him. His discomfort was further aggravated by the puffy white blisters on his delicate hands and several painful, razor-thin cuts.
Though clearly ill-equipped for harvest work, Japeth excelled in other ways. By the age of five, he could cite passages from the Bible verbatim and explain their meaning. "He is his father's son after all," the Reverend, Japeth's uncle, crowed. The Reverend had always held his older brother in high esteem and would brook no criticism from those who found his manner brash and unorthodox.
Japeth's teacher at school, Miss Grayson, had taken a special interest in the boy, and to stoke his curiosity, loaned him books on a variety of subjects from ancient history to astronomy. He was an advanced reader and every speck of new information he came across made his pulse race, even when he didn't fully understand it. Miss Grayson was more than happy to explain the more difficult passages. He often stayed behind after class, even though the other kids sometimes taunted him, branding him teacher's pet.
"Pay them no mind," Miss Grayson said, "they're just envious because you have a promising future ahead while most of them boys will lead the same lives as their fathers and their fathers before them."
She said this, knowing full well that Japeth was already promised to the cloth. He was resigned to his fate, but at the same time, felt a nagging tug to explore the world he read about in books (though he did not mention these conflicted feelings to Miss Grayson). In that measured, yet direct way he had about him, he told her he saw no reason anyone should envy him. Envy, he reminded her, was a deadly sin. If the other boys were guilty of it, he would pray that they would come to see the error of their ways.
What he did not tell his teacher was that he sometimes fell into envy as well-and another deadly sin, anger. He secretly coveted his peers' heartiness and was frustrated by his lack of physical aptitude. He had never ridden a horse-he was allergic to their dander-and, for the life of him, he couldn't throw a punch. He would gladly trade some brain power for a little brawn, he thought, then was immediately sorry for presuming that his God-given abilities were his to barter.
The wind blew dust into the open cuts on his hands and Japeth started, dropping another armful of husks he had painstakingly collected. Now he would have to start all over again, which made him ball his fists so tight his fingernails cut into his palms. With each mishap he fell farther behind his friends, Crowell and his cousin Lon, callous-handed, stocky farm boys who had been riding horses from the time they could walk and were forever getting into fist fights. In winters, on the frozen pond, Crowell and Lon glided along effortlessly as if skates were natural extensions of their feet, while Japeth spent the better part of these outings on his behind.
After a coughing spasm and yet another careless spill, Japeth was feeling near hopeless and fatigued. Aunt Josephine, a tall, substantial woman with a warm laugh and an easy way, was monitoring his progress from just a few feet away. Bent at the waist, she moved along at a steady clip even though she was burdened with Japeth's younger sister, Abra, who was slung over her hip. With her free hand she culled wheat stalks and dropped them into her folded-over-and-tied skirt, exposing the bottoms of her petticoat.
Aunt Jo and the Reverend were childless and had taken Japeth and Abra into their care while their parents were off preaching redemption. When she saw what a difficult time Japeth was having, she offered words of encouragement, but they were carried away on the wind, which was picking up speed by the hour. Figuring that a lift to the soul was a good way to revive a flagging body, she started in on the first chorus of "As We Crossed the River Jordan." One by one, the other workers joined in.