To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 16)

“Cross in it tonight?” asked Dill, not looking up. He was constructing a cigarette from newspaper and string.

“No, just the lady. Don’t light that thing, Dill, you’ll stink up this whole end of town.”

There was a lady in the moon in Maycomb. She sat at a dresser combing her hair.

“We’re gonna miss you, boy,” I said. “Reckon we better watch for Mr. Avery?”

Mr. Avery boarded across the street from Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house. Besides making change in the collection plate every Sunday, Mr. Avery sat on the porch every night until nine o’clock and sneezed. One evening we were privileged to witness a performance by him which seemed to have been his positively last, for he never did it again so long as we watched. Jem and I were leaving Miss Rachel’s front steps one night when Dill stopped us: “Golly, looka yonder.” He pointed across the street. At first we saw nothing but a kudzu-covered front porch, but a closer inspection revealed an arc of water descending from the leaves and splashing in the yellow circle of the street light, some ten feet from source to earth, it seemed to us. Jem said Mr. Avery misfigured, Dill said he must drink a gallon a day, and the ensuing contest to determine relative distances and respective prowess only made me feel left out again, as I was untalented in this area.

Dill stretched, yawned, and said altogether too casually, “I know what, let’s go for a walk.”

He sounded fishy to me. Nobody in Maycomb just went for a walk. “Where to, Dill?”

Dill jerked his head in a southerly direction.

Jem said, “Okay.” When I protested, he said sweetly, “You don’t have to come along, Angel May.”

“You don’t have to go. Remember—”

Jem was not one to dwell on past defeats: it seemed the only message he got from Atticus was insight into the art of cross examination. “Scout, we ain’t gonna do anything, we’re just goin’ to the street light and back.”

We strolled silently down the sidewalk, listening to porch swings creaking with the weight of the neighborhood, listening to the soft night-murmurs of the grown people on our street. Occasionally we heard Miss Stephanie Crawford laugh.

“Well?” said Dill.

“Okay,” said Jem. “Why don’t you go on home, Scout?”

“What are you gonna do?”

Dill and Jem were simply going to peep in the window with the loose shutter to see if they could get a look at Boo Radley, and if I didn’t want to go with them I could go straight home and keep my fat flopping mouth shut, that was all.

“But why in the sam holy hill did you wait till tonight?”

Because nobody could see them at night, because Atticus would be so deep in a book he wouldn’t hear the Kingdom coming, because if Boo Radley killed them they’d miss school instead of vacation, and because it was easier to see inside a dark house in the dark than in the daytime, did I understand?

“Jem, please—”

“Scout, I’m tellin’ you for the last time, shut your trap or go home—I declare to the Lord you’re gettin’ more like a girl every day!”

With that, I had no option but to join them. We thought it was better to go under the high wire fence at the rear of the Radley lot, we stood less chance of being seen. The fence enclosed a large garden and a narrow wooden outhouse.

Jem held up the bottom wire and motioned Dill under it. I followed, and held up the wire for Jem. It was a right squeeze for him. “Don’t make a sound,” he whispered. “Don’t get in a row of collards whatever you do, they’ll wake the dead.”

With this thought in mind, I made perhaps one step per minute. I moved faster when I saw Jem far ahead beckoning in the moonlight. We came to the gate that divided the garden from the back yard. Jem touched it. The gate squeaked.

“Spit on it,” whispered Dill.

“You’ve got us in a box, Jem,” I muttered. “We can’t get out of here so easy.”

“Sh-h. Spit on it, Scout.”

We spat ourselves dry, and Jem opened the gate slowly, lifting it aside and resting it on the fence. We were in the back yard.

The back of the Radley house was less inviting than the front: a ramshackle porch ran the width of the house; there were two doors and two dark windows between the doors. Instead of a column, a rough two-by-four supported one end of the roof. An old Franklin stove sat in a corner of the porch; above it a hat-rack mirror caught the moon and shone eerily.

“Ar-r,” said Jem softly, lifting his foot.

“ ’Smatter?”

“Chickens,” he breathed.

That we would be obliged to dodge the unseen from all directions was confirmed when Dill ahead of us spelled G-o-d in a whisper. We crept to the side of the house, around to the window with the hanging shutter. The sill was several inches taller than Jem.

“Give you a hand up,” he muttered to Dill. “Wait, though.” Jem grabbed his left wrist and my right wrist, I grabbed my left wrist and Jem’s right wrist, we crouched, and Dill sat on our saddle. We raised him and he caught the window sill.

“Hurry,” Jem whispered, “we can’t last much longer.”

Dill punched my shoulder, and we lowered him to the ground.

“What’d you see?”

“Nothing. Curtains. There’s a little teeny light way off somewhere, though.”

“Let’s get away from here,” breathed Jem. “Let’s go ’round in back again. Sh-h,” he warned me, as I was about to protest.

“Let’s try the back window.”

“Dill, no,” I said.

Dill stopped and let Jem go ahead. When Jem put his foot on the bottom step, the step squeaked. He stood still, then tried his weight by degrees. The step was silent. Jem skipped two steps, put his foot on the porch, heaved himself to it, and teetered a long moment. He regained his balance and dropped to his knees. He crawled to the window, raised his head and looked in.

Then I saw the shadow. It was the shadow of a man with a hat on. At first I thought it was a tree, but there was no wind blowing, and tree-trunks never walked. The back porch was bathed in moonlight, and the shadow, crisp as toast, moved across the porch toward Jem.

Dill saw it next. He put his hands to his face.

When it crossed Jem, Jem saw it. He put his arms over his head and went rigid.

The shadow stopped about a foot beyond Jem. Its arm came out from its side, dropped, and was still. Then it turned and moved back across Jem, walked along the porch and off the side of the house, returning as it had come.

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