The Willie Button Series
Albert J. Manachino
The narrow country road, with its multitudinous wagon ruts worn deep into the earthen surface, seemed familiar to Willie but try as he might, he could not penetrate the mists of time that shrouded everything prior to his tenth birthday. The road was imprisoned by an endless vista of split rail fences on either side. Beyond the fences, far as the eye could discern, spread acres upon acres of rich farmland ready to yield its bountiful harvest. He had not seen a single person since an unexplainable urge set his feet on this path.
Willie carried a battered blue canvas bag. From the difficulty he was experiencing, it must have weighed many, many pounds. Certainly enough to have burst the flimsy straps he carried it by.
But the straps did not break. He changed hands and rested frequently. The contents were very weighty in a spiritual sense. The bag contained the devil's bible. Try as he might, he had not been able to unburden himself of it. No matter what he attempted, it always returned. God had told him that until he was successful in transferring his dreadful possession to someone else, he would not be admitted into heaven. Willie was dead; had died some years ago. He passed an already damp handkerchief over a sunburnt face.
"Care for a ride?"
The question made him jump. The sounds of the horses' hoofs and creaking of the wagon wheels had not penetrated his reverie. Startled, he turned.
An ancient farmer in the traditional straw hat and bib overalls, regarded him with something that might have been amusement from atop the driver's seat. The traditional straw dangled from his lips.
Willie experienced confusion. "Oh, yes! Yes. Thank you. I didn't hear you."
A hand was extended to him. "Give me your bag, climb aboard."
Willie had difficulty lifting it. The aged farmer took it from him effortlessly and placed it on the wagon bed. Then he assisted Willie.
His host snapped the reins gently and the horses resumed a leisurely trudge. Willie looked about. Aside from the canvas bag, the bed was empty. The farmer examined him without any display of undue curiosity
"I'll bet your name is Button. Am I right?"
Willie suppressed a start, "Yes, Sir. William F. Button. Everyone calls me Willie." He thanked the farmer again. "How did you know?"
"The Button features and build. No one else in the county has that sharp nose and lemon colored hair. Bet you came back to see your grandfolks fine people."
Willie didn't know why he had returned and he didn't recall his grandparents.
"Yes, fine people," his host repeated. "I'll drop you off in front of the house."
The veil lifted a little. "Tell me," Willie begged, "is old Waggles still living?" He didn't know where the name or question had come from.
"Old Waggles? Good Lord, no! Just how long do you think a dog can live?"
Willie remembered clearly now the faithful hound he had romped with as a child. A tear streamed down his cheek. "And Grandma and Grandpa?"
"They're gone too. Your grandmother passed away at least twenty years ago."
Till then, Willie hadn't remembered that he'd ever had grandparents.
"They're both dead?" he repeated inanely.
"It's been many years now," the farmer reminded him gently. "Guess you'd forgotten."
Grandma and Grandpa and Waggles and Mom and Dad all gone. Something died within him. Both hands tried to hide the tears that now flowed so freely.
"I'm awfully sorry," the farmer finally spoke.
The farmland yielded to a small country cemetery and a small country church. The wagon drew to a stop.
"Here?" Willie asked.
"Here," his host confirmed. "Fourth marker, third row."
It was not necessary to have been reminded, Willie remembered. He remembered that drab September afternoon when his grandmother had been lowered to her final rest beside his grandfather. He remembered the funeral cortege of horse-drawn wagons and buggys. The friends and neighbors in their ill-fitting Sunday best who had come to pay their last respects.
"Do you mind very much if I get off?"
"No, take your time. I'll wait for you."
Willie tried to descend. He could riot move more than a few feet from the canvas bag. "The devil's bible, it's holding me back," he thought.
"I understand." His host moved the bag toward him and Willie was able to descend. Then, it was lowered to him.
Under its dreadful weight, his progress toward the family plot was painfully slow. Finally he stood before the gravestone. The inscription on its face was worn and weather stained. It had been so many. years. Silently he fell to his knees with both hands clasped before him.
"Forgive me," he pleaded. "I have never been a worthy son or grandson." And he prayed.
Time passed. Willie had no idea as to how long he had been kneeling. He looked up. The farmer was patiently waiting a few feet away.
"I'll help you with the bag."
"Thank you so very much. You have no idea how good you've been to me."
A slight smile passed across the toil-worn features. "I like to help people with their burdens. Family tradition that goes back a long ways. Name's Simon."
"Yes, it would have to be. A man named Simon helped Jesus on his last dreadful journey." And, Parson Brown and the long afternoons in Sunday School returned to him.
Simon lifted the canvas bag onto the driver's seat and they both remounted. A "Click-click" set the horses in motion again. Simon did not bother to undo the reins fastened to an empty buggy whip sprocket. Apparently the horses knew their way.
"Not very much further now," Simon told him.
The cemetery dwindled behind them and the fences again held sway over their illimitable domain.
"There she is," the farmer pointed to a huge maple that dominated a white picket fence. The pickets glistened in the sunlight and then separated to reveal spaces between them as they drew closer. The horses stopped without direction in front of a closed gate.
"This is where you get off." The bag was handed to Willie. "I'd like to help you further but you'll have to make this part of your journey by yourself."
Willie watched till the wagon disappeared into the distance. Then he pushed open the gate and proceeded up the flagstone walk to the house. The bag literally had to be dragged as if the devil's bible was actively opposing every step of the way. It seemed years before he stood on the porch exhausted in body and in mind. He knocked. There was no response.
"Grandma!" he called.
"Grandpa! It's me, Willie, I've come back."
Willie sighed. Of course they wouldn't answer. They were resting under that weathered marker in the old country cemetery. He remembered everything as clearly as if he was a boy again. The door would open onto a living room. where a pair of huge comfortable rockers waited. There would be tintype covered walls and the wax flowers under their glass domes on the mantel. There would be the horsehide sofa with antimacassars, stratigically scattered on the arms and along its back. An oaken clothes tree would be waiting to receive his coat and hat. A glass fronted breakfront would be displaying his grandparents' best china. In the rear of the living room a staircase would be waiting to take him upstairs.
Willie looked around. Everything was as he remembered it. He wanted to go through the house and examine it room by room. He wanted to touch the old cast-iron stove he'd cut and carried so much wood for. He wanted to slake his thirst with cold water from the hand operated kitchen pump. He wanted to again see his quilt covered bed and the hobby horse he'd broken. Willie wondered if his grandfather had ever fixed it. He could not move. The canvas bag literally held him immobile.
Now he understood why he'd returned. With a bitter resignation, Willie began to make his way to the stairs. Foot by foot, inch by inch, he dragged the bag. He barely had the strength to lift it onto the first step.
Progress up the stairs was a nightmare. Upon reaching the top, he collapsed. Jesus himself could not have carried a heavier burden.
Finally, he was able to push open the door to his grandparents' bedroom. Yes, again all was just as he remembered. The large comfortable iron bed was there. The nightstand with the family bible on it stood alongside. The bible with every family birth and death recorded in it since Willie's ancestors had landed in the New World.
The struggle to reach it was interminable. His very heart seemed about to burst from his exertions.
"God give me strength," he prayed.
At last Willie was close enough to pick up the bible. He hugged it to his chest.
"God help me! God help me," he repeated over and over. Exhaustion overcame him and he fell onto the hooked handmade rug. Willie slept.
He experienced no hunger upon awakening, but there was a fond remembrance of his Grandmother's pancakes and fried eggs and the rich delicious fresh country milk. The bible still rested in his arms. He knew that no matter what happened, he would always cling to it.
Willie opened the canvas bag, and placed it inside. Then he stood and prepared to leave. He descended the stairs. With two books in it, the bag did not seem half as heavy as with one. With every step the bag became progressively lighter.
Willie reached the gate. He did not turn for he knew the farmhouse would no longer be there. The bag seemed insubstantial.
A slight breeze sprang up. He was having difficulty maintaining his footing. The breeze pushed him onward as if he was an empty paper carton. The distance between his steps increased and then Willie left the road entirely. He bounded into the air captured by a playful gust of wind. He went sailing over the farmlands. A tree branch held him momentarily. His hand just missed the weathervane atop a church spire. The countryside receded beneath him.
His grandparents were waiting for him when he reached the celestial gates. St. Peter also was waiting. "Give me the bag, Willie."
Obediently, Willie handed it to him. "I'm sorry, St. Peter," he apologized humbly. "I haven't succeeded in passing it on."
The Saint knew to what he was referring. "I think that what the Lord actually said was that you couldn't be admitted into heaven while it was in your possession," the Saint responded gruffly. "He never mentioned anything about passing it on to someone else. Don't stand there; your grandparents have been waiting for you a long time.
Joyously, Willie dashed toward his grandmother and grandfather.
Saint Peter opened the bag and looked inside. It contained only the family Bible and a small amount of what might have been ashes.
Albert J. Manachino
Kevin D. Duncan
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Willie Button Series