Out behind the barn was a special piece of equipment imported from Germany for the harvesting of sorghum. At one point deemed essential, it was soon unnecessary, and now no longer of use—because his father hadn't had the good sense to resell it once he'd stopped growing sorghum. He just let it sit in the clearing behind the barn exposed to the rain and snow. When Emmett was Billy's age and his friends would come over from the neighboring farms to play—boys who, at the height of the war, were eager to climb on any piece of machinery and pretend it was a tank—they wouldn't even set foot on the harvester, sensing instinctively that it was some kind of ill omen, that within its rusting hulk was a legacy of failure that one should steer clear of whether from politeness or self-preservation.
So one evening when Emmett was fifteen and the school year nearly over, he had ridden his bike into town, knocked on Mr. Schulte's door, and asked for a job. Mr. Schulte was so bemused by Emmett's request that he sat him down at the dinner table and had him brought a slice of pie. Then he asked Emmett why on earth a boy who was raised on a farm would want to spend his summer pounding nails.
It wasn't because Emmett knew Mr. Schulte to be a friendly man, or because he lived in one of the nicest houses in town. Emmett went to Mr. Schulte because he figured that no matter what happened, a carpenter would always have work. No matter how well you build them, houses run down. Hinges loosen, floorboards wear, roof seams separate. All you had to do was stroll through the Watson house to witness the myriad ways in which time can take its toll on a homestead.
In the months of summer, there were nights marked by the roll of thunder or the whistle of an arid wind on which Emmett could hear his father stirring in the next room, unable to sleep—and not without reason. Because a farmer with a mortgage was like a man walking on the railing of a bridge with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed. It was a way of life in which the difference between abundance and ruin could be measured by a few inches of rain or a few nights of frost.
But a carpenter didn't lie awake at night worrying about the weather. He welcomed
the extremes of nature. He welcomed the blizzards and downpours and tornadoes. He welcomed the onset of mold and the onslaughts of insects. These were the natural forces that slowly but inevitably undermined the integrity of a house, weakening its foundations, rotting its beams, and wilting its plaster.
Emmett didn't say all of this when Mr. Schulte asked his question. Putting his fork down, he simply replied:
—The way I figure it, Mr. Schulte, it was Job who had the oxen, and Noah who had the hammer.
Mr. Schulte gave a laugh and hired Emmett on the spot.
For most of the farmers in the county, if their eldest came home one night with news that he'd taken a job with a carpenter, they would have given him a talking-to he wouldn't soon forget. Then, for good measure, they would have driven over to the carpenter's house and given him a few words—a few words to remember the next time he had the inclination to interfere with the upbringing of another man's son.
But the night Emmett came home and told his father he had secured a job with Mr. Schulte, his father hadn't grown angry. He had listened carefully. After a moment of reflection, he said that Mr. Schulte was a good man and carpentry a useful skill. And on the first day of summer, he made Emmett a hearty breakfast and packed him a lunch, then sent him off with his blessing to another man's trade.
And maybe that was a sign of bad judgment too.
• • •
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The Woman at the Front by Lecia Cornwall.