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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
“See how it rocks back and forth, sister?”
Uncle Vaughn wasn’t a big man, but with little more than a brush of his fingers, the stone fell forward and caught in the crook of rubble beneath. You could push it back from the other side, too, rocking it like a cradle. This boulder – roughly egg-shaped, flecked with green – must have weighed three tons. Uncle Vaughn showed them the magic a few times over.
Neely, one of his two nieces, asked how long it had been that way.
“All my life,” said Vaughn. “And some before.”
“You’re not that old,” said G, his other niece.
“I’m a hundred!”
Uncle Vaughn – their great-uncle, really – lived above the garage. He had never married, never left the county but for a spell in the navy, and didn’t even own a car, so he was grand company, forever willing to take you berry-picking or deal you a hand of rummy for matchsticks. Yet he would twist your ears and hide your toys. There was a touch of madness in that family, not in everyone, but in a few. Uncle Vaughn once alarmed Neely and G’s father by telling him he saw a green sheep climb up over the cliff. A green sheep? their father asked. A green sheep, said Vaughn.
He rocked the stone again. No matter how hard you pushed, it would never crash over the hill in that horrible avalanche that little girls and boys so desire.
They were lucky, said Uncle Vaughn, to have such a wonder on their property. If he had run of things, he would charge people a dollar to see it.
Neely said, “What’s in that hole beneath?”
“Maybe it’s the Indian treasure.” He stooped down and reached into the blackness under the rocking stone, a wonderful place of rattlesnakes and mouse-skulls.
G – G for Glory, a name she hated – told him to stop that, he’d get pinched under the stone and they’d have to saw off his arm at the joint.
“I’m on a pension,” he said – his answer to most demands.
The stone fell forward with a skirling sound.
Vaughn’s face was white, drained. “Help!” His body curled with shocking speed, like a muskrat clapped in a snare. “I’m pinched! Oh God!”
Neely began to cry. Uncle Vaughn told them to keep calm, run back to the house, get their mother and a hacksaw. After a while, with the girls too frightened to move, he pulled his arm from the hole and began to giggle.
Neely and G couldn’t forgive that. They avoided him for two or three days – a task on their small acres – before realizing that without Uncle Vaughn, they had little to distract themselves.
When he asked if they wanted to take a walk, they didn’t say no.
If the television signal was crackly, Uncle Vaughn was the one who climbed the hill to clear limbs off the line and check the antenna. He brushed aside a fallen grapevine, saying, “You wouldn’t think that would foul up the TV, but there you go.”
Really, it was too cold this March to wander about, but after a long drear winter, they couldn’t bear inside. A few bold crocuses offered their buds from the snow. You couldn’t smell much of anything in the world. The forest had no life.
Uncle Vaughn asked if they wanted to tilt the rocking stone. Walking there, they saw tree-frog eggs billowing in a swampy place, in horrid grape-like bunches with black dots in the middles, even though there hadn’t been a single warm day.
This time, Uncle Vaughn let the girls rock it back-and-forth on their own. It took the both of them. Neely and G idly made the stone work its magic. They were growing bored with the trick. Maybe they could bring a screwdriver and chisel their names?
Once again, Uncle Vaughn got on his belly. “Let’s see if I can fish out Mr. Copperhead.”
The girls shot one another a look. They knew what was coming. Uncle Vaughn reached in the hole. “I think there’s something in here.” Further now, up to his shoulder. Neely rolled her eyes. She gave the stone a big kick.
“Oh God,” he said.
Neely and G laughed a little. Vaughn’s face was turned away from them, probably so they couldn’t see him laughing. He didn’t move.
“Go get your mother.” Then he said nothing more. G climbed off the rock and prodded her uncle. He was unconscious. They waited awhile, to see if he was playing possum. They heard their father’s dairy-truck grinding up the road and went down to see him. After helping him unload the galvanized cans, they told of their day with Uncle Vaughn.
Their father pulled Uncle Vaughn out of there, without needing the saw, but the blood on the rock unnerved them. They were glad when a spring rain washed it away. Uncle Vaughn was never quite the same. He couldn’t lift his arm above the shoulder, he even went once to church, and, when healed up as much as he was going to, he went to the rocking stone with a stick of dynamite. (On hearing of it later, their father said, “A quarter-stick would do.”) No one was sure where Uncle Vaughn got it. Neely and G wanted to watch, but he wouldn’t let them. They had to content themselves with a bang and the thin shower of sand that fell in their hair, all the way over at the house.
Vaughn didn’t have much use for children after that.
Matthew Neill Null is a winner of the O. Henry Award and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Ploughshares, PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories, Baltimore Review, and West Branch. He has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, and the University of Iowa. He lives in West Virginia.