Ritical Essay on The Stone Boy by Gina Berriault
The Stone Boy”
by Gina Berriault
Arnold drew his overalls and raveling gray sweater over his naked body. In the other narrow bed his brother Eugene went on sleeping, undisturbed by the alarm clocks rusty ring. Arnold, watching his brother sleeping, felt a peculiar dismay; he was nine, six years younger than Eugie, and in their waking hour it was he who was subordinate. To dispel emphatically his uneasy advantage over his sleeping brother, he threw himself on the hump of Eugies body.
Get up! Get up!he cried.
Arnold felt his brother twist away and saw the blankets lifted in a great wing, and, all in an instant, he was lying on his back under the covers with only his face showing, like a baby, and Eugie was sprawled on top of him.
Whassa matter with you?asked Eugie in sleepy anger, his face hanging close.
Get up,Arnold repeated. You said youd pick peas with me.”
Stupidly, Eugie gazed around the room as if to see if morning had come into it yet. Arnold began to laugh derisively, making soft, snorting noises, and was thrown off the bed. He got up from the floor and went down the stairs, the laughter continuing, like hiccups, against his will. But when he opened the staircase door and entered the parlor, he hunched up his shoulders and was quiet because his parents slept in the bedroom downstairs.
Arnold lifted his .22-caliber rifle from the rack on the kitchen wall. It was an old lever-action Winchester that his father had given him because nobody else used it anymore. On their way down to the garden he and Eugie would go by the lake, and if there were any ducks on it hed take a shot at them. Standing on the stool before the cupboard, he searched on the top shelf in the confusion of medicines and ointments for man and beast and found a small yellow box of .22 cartridges. Then he sat down on the stool and began to load his gun.
It was cold in the kitchen so early, but later in the day, when his mother canned the peas, the heat from the wood stove would be almost unbearable. Yesterday she had finished preserving the huckleberries that the family had picked along the mountain, and before that she had canned all the cherries his father had brought from the warehouse in Corinth. Sometimes, on these summer days, Arnold would deliberately come out from the shade where he was playing and make himself as comfortable as his mother was in the kitchen by standing in the sun until the sweat ran down his body.
Eugie came clomping down the stairs and into the kitchen, his head drooping with sleepiness. From his perch on the stool Arnold watched Eugie slip on his green knit cap. Eugie didnt really need a cap; he hadnt a haircut in a long time and his brown curls grew thick and matted, close around his ears and down his neck, tapering there to a small whorl. Eugie passed his left hand through his hair before he set his cap down with his right. The very way he slipped his cap on was an announcement of his status; almost everything he did was a reminder that he was eldest–first he, then Nora, then Arnold–and then called attention to how tall he was (almost as tall as his father), how long his legs were, how small he was in the hips, and what a neat dip above his buttocks his thick-soled loggers boots gave him. Arnold never tired of watching Eugie offer silent praise unto himself. He wondered, as he sat enthralled, if when he got to be Eugies age he would still be undersized and his hair still straight.
Eugie eyed the gun. Dont you know this aint duck season?he asked gruffly, as if he were the sheriff.
No, I dont know,Arnold said with a snigger.
Eugie picked up the tin washtub for the peas, unbolted the door with his free hand and kicked it open. Then, lifting the tub to his head, he went clomping down the back steps. Arnold followed, closing the door behind him.
The sky was faintly gray, almost white. The mountains behind the farm made the sun climb a long way to show itself. Several miles to the South, where the range opened up, hung an orange mist, but the valley in which the farm lay was sill cold and colorless.
Eugie opened the gate to the yard and the boys passed between the barn and the row of chicken houses, their feet stirring up the carpet of brown feathers dropped by the molting chickens. They paused before going down the slope to the lake. A fluky morning wind ran among the shocks of wheat that covered the slope. It sent a shimmer northward across the lake, gently moving the rushes that formed an island in the center. Killdeer, their white markings flashing, skimmed the water, crying their shrill, sweet cry. And here at the south end of the lake were four wild ducks, swimming out from the willows into the open water.
Arnold followed Eugie down the slope, stealing, as his brother did, from one shock of wheat to another. Eugie paused before climbing through the wire fence that divided the Wheat field from the marshy pasture around the lake. They were screened from the ducks by the willows along the lakes edge.
If you hit your duck, you want me to go in after it?Eugie Said.
If you want.Arnold said.
Eugie lowered his eyelids, leaving slits of mocking blue.
You d drown fore you got to it, them legs of yours are so puny,he said.
He shoved the tub under the fence and, pressing down the center wire, climbed through into the pasture.
Arnold pressed down the bottom wire, thrust a leg through and learned forward to bring the other leg after. His rifle caught on the wire and he jerked at it. The air was rocked by the sound of the shot. Feeling foolish, he lifted his face, baring it to an expected shower of derision from his brother. But Eugie did not turn around. Instead, from his crouching position, he fell to his knees and then pitched forward onto his face. The ducks rose up crying from the lake, cleared the mountain background and beat away northward across the pale sky.
Arnold squatted beside his brother. Eugie seemed to be climbing the earth, as if the earth ran up and down, and when he found he couldnt scale it he lay still.
Then Arnold saw it, under the tendril of hair at the nape of the neck-a slow rising of bright blood. It had an obnoxious movement, like that of a parasite.
Hey, Eugie,he said again. He was feeling the same discomfort he had felt when he had watched Eugie sleeping; his brother didnt know that he was lying face down in the pasture.
Again he said, Hey, Eugie,an anxious nudge in his voice. But Eugie was as still as the morning about them.
Arnold set his rifle on the ground and stood up. He picked the tub and, dragging it behind him, walked along by the willows to the garden fence and climbed through. He went down on his knees among the tangled vines. The pods were cold with the night, but his hands were strange to him, and not until some time had passed did he realize that the pods were numbing his fingers. He picked from the top of the vine first, then lifted the vine to look underneath for pods and then moved on to the next.
It was a warmth on his back, like a large hand laid firmly there, that made him raise his head. Way up the slope the gray farmhouse was struck by the sun. While his head had been bent the land had grown bright around him.
When he got up his legs were so stiff that he had to go down on his knees again to ease to pain. Then, walking sideways, he dragged the tub, half full of peas, up the slope.
The kitchen was warm now; a fire was roaring in the stove with a closed-up, rushing sound. His mother was spooning eggs from a pot of boiling water and putting them into a bowl. Her short brown hair was uncombed and fell forward across her eyes as she bent her head. Nora was lifting a frying pan full of trout from the stove, holding the handle with a dish towel. His father had just come in from bringing the cows from the north pasture to the barn, and was sitting on the stool, unbuttoning hi