(the seventh chapter of Shell Games)
The new vagabond’s mind rippled outward like a vast, quickly growing web of consciousness catching flies of transcendence, as she flitted in the direction of Albany. Molly Connors was a living, breathing paradox, she realized: alone yet with all things.
Another earlier paradox had zapped into her brain the moment before she lost her ego, sometime during breakfast. Outwardly she was buttering a piece of bread. Inwardly she was considering the human practice of using virtues to condone vice. Being able to now connect the universe’s dots, such tactics were clearly self-defeating schemes of duplicity that expelled a colossal amount of energy to justify weaker, easier desires. It was, she granted from her high perch, also extremely popular.
The most popular virtue for generations of Connors was industriousness. As a much younger man new to Blandis in the 1752, Glass Connors planted for his first season twice as much seed than he could ever harvest. Over the next four months a mule and two horses were buried in the Scot immigrant’s mad dash to fill the storehouses of the village by himself. That October, taking his first rest by the fire, he had been mightily proud of the effort. Only a quarter of the fields rotted.
Glass Connors was driven not by himself, but by tradition. Reverence for tradition had always guided him, whether it was a custom centuries old or one just begun (which was how he had found himself at the battle of Culloden).
* * * * *
Adherence to labor by Connors stretched back to the very first of the family line: DeWalden Converes. In 1275—five hundred years and one day before Cornelius Connors marched to Roxbury and Molly Connors danced off in the opposite direction—DeWalden Converes sat down to craft the clan crest. He was not a creative man. Four hours of empty toil went by—nothing. Finally, in a great fit, he hastily drew a sturdy draft horse encircled by a wide leather belt, latched at the bottom tightly. On the belt itself, above the horse’s broad back, was written boldly the motto:
Virtute et Labore
It was an exact copy of the neighboring Cochrane clan’s crest he had always admired.
Throwing the parchment and ink aside, DeWalden Converes, said to himself pleasantly, “I am only borrowing it, until another can be thought of.” Another, unofficial, tradition was begun.
* * * * *
On the morning of April 20, 1775, five minutes before Cornelius Cochran pulled on new leather boots to join his assembling regiment on the village common, Glass Connors pulled his son aside. He placed in the new soldier’s sweaty hand a miniature version of the Connors crest, cast in iron. And then he brought down from above the fireplace the musket the elder Connors had held at Culloden.
“Spill more than wine, my boy,” Glass Connors said as a blessing with great love in his voice.
Molly Connors, at this monent still 84 minutes away from walking forever out the door and into the woods, was staring out an open widow and did not witness any of this.
It was Thursday. By Friday night the three remaining Connors were gravely discussing how the difficult work of the farm could ever be accomplished. Abner would be needed in the fields every minute of the day to make up for Cornelius Connors’ absence. Meanwhile, somehow the dishes had piled up and the floor was filthy.
It was decided something must be done, in the name and virtue of work.
That next Monday afternoon a young dark girl originally from an Outer Bank island of North Carolina, named Columbia was led through the front door and into her new home.
“Take her upstairs, Abner, and show her where she’ll be staying,” Abner’s mother said, not wasting time to show Columbia around herself. There was work to do.
“She’ll be staying,” said Columbia to herself calmly, peering around without expectation.
Glass Connors overheard this. Taking off his straw hat from his sparse white head and placing it on a peg, he let out a small sigh, explaining the arrangement simply. “Now as I first said in Pittsfield, we’ll only be borrowing you.”
“Be borrowing you.”
“That’s right,” Glass Connors said with a smile, relieved to be understood. “It’s only until something better can be thought of.” Saying this again made he feel much better.
“Be thought of,” murmured Columbia. She said this—and everything else—as pure reflex. It could not be helped. Perhaps it was through years of habit, or just how she was singularly wired, but as long as she could remember she had only ever spoke the last three words that had first been said to her. She had never spent five minutes thinking about why; probably because the verbal tic didn’t change her life any one way or the other. Regardless, she could not be aware, as she unpacked her few things in a dark corner of the small, hot second floor, that she had been purchased as a replacement for a son that was thought of too much and a daughter thought of too seldom.