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Grinning Man

Orson Scott Card

  Grinning Man

  Orson Scott Card

  Card, Orson Scott

  Grinning Man

  The first time Alvin Maker run across the grinning man was in the steep woody hills of eastern Kenituck. Alvin was walking along with his ward, the boy Arthur Stuart, talking either deep philosophy or the best way for travellers to cook beans, I can't bring to mind now which, when they come upon a clearing where a man was squatting on his haunches looking up into a tree. Apart from the unnatural grin upon his face, there wasn't all that much remarkable about him, for that time and place. Dressed in buckskin, a cap made of coonhide on his head, a musket lying in the grass ready to hand - plenty of men of such youth and roughness walked the game trails of the unsettled forest in those days.

  Though come to think of it, eastern Kenituck wasn't all that unsettled by then, and most men gave up buckskin for cotton during summer, less they was too poor to get them none. So maybe it was partly his appearance that made Alvin stop up short and look at the fellow. Arthur Stuart, of course, he did what he saw Alvin do, till he had some good reason to do otherwise, so he stopped at the meadow's edge too, and fell silent too, and watched.

  The grinning man had his gaze locked on the middle branches of a scruffy old pine that was getting somewhat choked out by slower-growing flat-leaf trees. But it wasn't no tree he was grinning at. No sir, it was the bear.

  There's bears and there's bears, as everyone knows. Some little old brown bears are about as dangerous as a dog - which means if you beat it with a stick you deserve what you get, but otherwise it'll leave you alone. But some black bears and some grizzlies, they have a kind of bristle to the hair on their backs, a kind of spikiness like a porcupine that tells you they're just spoiling for a fight, hoping you'll say a cross word so's they can take a swipe at your head and suck your lunch back up through your neck. Like a likkered-up river man.

  This was that kind of bear. A little old, maybe, but as spiky as they come, and it wasn't up that tree 'cause it was afraid, it was up there for honey, which it had plenty of, along with bees that were now so tired of trying to sting through that matted fur that they were mostly dead, all stung out. There was no shortage of buzzing, though, like a choir of folks as don't know the words to the hymn so they just hum, only the bees was none too certain of the tune, neither.

  But there sat that man, grinning at the bear. And there sat the bear, looking down at him with its teeth showing.

  Alvin and Arthur stood watching for many a minute while nothing in the tableau changed. The man squatted on the ground, grinning up; the bear squatted on a branch, grinning down. Neither one showed the slightest sign that he knew Alvin and Arthur was even there.

  So it was Alvin broke the silence. 'I don't know who started the ugly contest, but I know who's going to win.'

  Without breaking his grin, through clenched teeth the man said, 'Excuse me for not shaking your hands but I'm abusy grinning this bear.'

  Alvin nodded wisely - it certainly seemed to be a truthful statement. 'And from the look of it,' says Alvin, 'that bear thinks he's grinning you, too.'

  'Let him think what he thinks,' said the grinning man. 'He's coming down from that tree.'

  Arthur Stuart, being young, was impressed. 'You can do that just by grinning?' .

  'Just hope I never turn my grin on you,' said the man. 'I'd hate to have to pay your master the purchase price of such a clever blackamoor as you.'

  It was a common mistake, to take Arthur Stuart for a slave. He was half-Black, wasn't he? And south of the Hio was all slave country then, where a Black man either was, or used to be, or sure as shooting was bound to become somebody's property. In those parts, for safety's sake, Alvin didn't bother correcting the assumption. Let folks think Arthur Stuart already had an owner, so folks didn't get their hearts set on volunteering for the task.

  'That must be a pretty strong grin,' said Alvin Maker. 'My name's Alvin. I'm a journeyman blacksmith.'

  'Ain't much call for a smith in these parts. Plenty of better land farther west, more settlers, you ought to try it.' The fellow was still talking through his grin.

  'I might,' said Alvin. 'What's your name?'

  'Hold still now,' says the grinning man. 'Stay right where you are. He's a-coming down.'

  The bear yawned, then clambered down the trunk and rested on all fours, his head swinging back and forth, keeping time to whatever music it is that bears hear. The fur around his mouth was shiny with honey and dotted with dead bees. Whatever the bear was thinking, after a while he was done, whereupon he stood on his hind legs like a man, his paws high, his mouth open like a baby showing its mama it swallowed its food.

  The grinning man rose up on his hind legs, then, and spread his arms, just like the bear, and opened his mouth to show a fine set of teeth for a human, but it wasn't no great shakes compared to bear's teeth. Still, the bear seemed convinced. It bent back down to the ground and ambled away without complaint into the brush.

  'That's my tree now,' said the grinning man.

  'Ain't much of a tree,' said Alvin.

  'Honey's about all et up,' added Arthur Stuart.

  'My tree and all the land round about,' said the grinning man.

  'And what you plan to do with it? You don't look to be a farmer.'

  'I plan to sleep here,' said the grinning man. 'And my intention was to sleep without no bear coming along to disturb my slumber. So I had to tell him who was boss.'

  'And that's all you do with that knack of yours?' asked Arthur Stuart. 'Make bears get out of the way?'

  'I sleep under bearskin in winter,' said the grinning man. 'So when I grin a bear, it stays grinned till I done what I'm doing.'

  'Don't it worry you that someday you'll meet your match?' asked Alvin mildly.

  'I got no match, friend. My grin is the prince of grins. The king of grins.'

  'The emperor of grins,' said Arthur Stuart. 'The Napoleon of grins!'

  The irony in Arthur's voice was apparently not subtle enough to escape the grinning man. 'Your boy got him a mouth.'

  'Helps me pass the time,' said Alvin. 'Well, now you done us the favour of running off that bear, I reckon this is a good place for us to stop and build us a canoe.'

  Arthur Stuart looked at him like he was crazy. 'What do we need a canoe for?'

  'Being a lazy man,' said Alvin, 'I mean to use it to go downstream.'

  'Don't matter to me,' said the grinning man. 'Float it, sink it, wear it on your head or swallow it for supper, you ain't building nothing right here.' The grin was still on his face.

  'Look at that, Arthur,' said Alvin. 'This fellow hasn't even told us his name, and he's a-grinning us.'

  'Ain't going to work,' said Arthur Stuart. 'We been grinned at by politicians, preachers, witchers, and lawyers, and you ain't got teeth enough to scare us.'

  With that, the grinning man brought his musket to bear right on Alvin's heart. 'I reckon I'll stop grinning then,' he said.

  'I think this ain't canoe-building country,' said Alvin. 'Let's move along, Arthur.'

  'Not so fast,' said the grinning man. 'I think maybe I'd be doing all my neighbours a favour if I kept you from ever moving away from this spot.'

  'First off,' said Alvin, 'you got no neighbours.'

  'All mankind is my neighbour,' said the grinning man. 'Jesus said so.'

  'I recall he specified Samaritans,' said Alvin, 'and Samaritans got no call to fret about me.'

  'What I see is a man carrying a poke that he hides from my view.'

  That was true, for in that sack was Alvin's golden plough, and he always tried to keep it halfway hid behind him so folks wouldn't get troubled if they happened to see it move by itself, which it was prone to do from time to time. Now, though, to answer the ch
allenge, Alvin moved the sack around in front of him.

  'I got nothing to hide from a man with a gun,' said Alvin.

  'A man with a poke,' said the grinning man, 'who says he's a blacksmith but his only companion is a boy too scrawny and stubby to be learning his trade. But the boy is just the right size to skinny his way through an attic window or the eaves of a loose-made house. So I says to myself, this here's a second-storey man, who lifts his boy up with those big strong arms so he can sneak into houses from above and open the door to the thief. So shooting you down right now would be a favour to the world.'

  Arthur Stuart snorted. 'Burglars don't get much trade in the woods.'

  'I never said you-all looked smart,' said the grinning man.

  'Best point your gun at somebody else now,' said Arthur Stuart quietly. 'Iffen you want to keep the use of it.'

  The grinning man's answer was to pull the trigger. A spurt of flame shot out as the barrel of the gun exploded, splaying into iron strips like the end of a worn-out broom. The musket ball rolled slowly down the barrel and plopped out into the grass.

  'Look what you done to my gun,' said the grinning man.

  'Wasn't me as pulled the trigger,' said Alvin. 'And you was warned.'

  'How come you still grinning?' asked Arthur Stuart.

  'I'm just a cheerful sort of fellow,' said the grinning man, drawing his big old knife.

  'Do you like that knife?' asked Arthur Stuart.

  'Got it from my friend Jim Bowie,' said the grinning man. 'It's took the hide off six bears and I can't count how many beavers.'

  'Take a look at the barrel of your musket,' said Arthur Stuart, 'and then look at the blade of that knife you like so proud, and think real hard.'

  The grinning man looked at the gun barrel and then at the blade. 'Well?' asked the man.

  'Keep thinking,' said Arthur Stuart. 'It'll come to you.'

  'You let him talk to White men like that?'

  'A man as fires a musket at me,' said Alvin, 'I reckon Arthur Stuart here can talk to him any old how he wants.'

  The grinning man thought that over for a minute, and then, though no one would have thought it possible, he grinned even wider, put away his knife, and stuck out his hand. 'You got some knack,' he said to Alvin.

  Alvin reached out and shook the man's hand. Arthur Stuart knew what was going to happen next, because he'd seen it before. Even though Alvin was announced as a blacksmith and any man with eyes could see the strength of his arms and hands, this grinning man just had to brace foot to foot against him and try to pull him down.

  Not that Alvin minded a little sport. He let the grinning man work himself up into quite a temper of pulling and tugging and twisting and wrenching. It would have looked like quite a contest, except that Alvin could've been fixing to nap, he looked so relaxed.

  Finally Alvin got interested. He squished down hard and the grinning man yelped and dropped to his knees and began to beg Alvin to give him back his hand. 'Not that I'll ever have the use of it again,' said the grinning man, 'but I'd at least like to have it so I got a place to store my second glove.'

  'I got no plan to keep your hand,' said Alvin.

  'I know, but it crossed my mind you might be planning to leave it here in the meadow and send me somewheres else,' said the grinning man.

  'Don't you ever stop grinning?' asked Alvin.

  'Don't dare try,' said the grinning man. 'Bad stuff happens to me when I don't smile.'

  'You'd be doing a whole lot better if you'd've frowned at me but kept your musket pointed at the ground and your hands in your pockets,' said Alvin.

  'You got my fingers squished down to one, and my thumb's about to pop off,' said the grinning man. 'I'm willing to say uncle.'

  'Willing is one thing. Doing's another.'

  'Uncle,' said the grinning man.

  'Nope, that won't do,' said Alvin. 'I need two things from you.'

  'I got no money and if you take my traps I'm a dead man.'

  'What I want is your name, and permission to build a canoe here,' said Alvin.

  'My name, if it don't become "One-handed Davy", is Crockett, in memory of my daddy,' said the grinning man. 'And I reckon I was wrong about this tree. It's your tree. Me and that bear, we're both far from home and got a ways to travel before nightfall.'

  'You're welcome to stay,' said Alvin. 'Room for all here.'

  'Not for me,' said Davy Crockett. 'My hand, should I get it back, is going to be mighty swoll up, and I don't think there's room enough for it in this clearing.'

  'I'll be sorry to see you go,' said Alvin. 'A new friend is a precious commodity in these parts.' He let go. Tears came to Davy's eyes as he gingerly felt the sore palm and fingers, testing to see if any of them was about to drop off.

  'Pleased to meet you, Mr. Journeyman Smith,' said Davy. 'You too, boy.' He nodded cheerfully, grinning like an innkeeper. 'I reckon you couldn't possibly be no burglar. Nor could you possibly be the famous Prentice Smith what stole a golden plough from his master and run off with the plough in a poke.'

  'I never stole nothing in my life,' said Alvin. 'But now you ain't got a gun, what's in my poke ain't none of your business.'

  'I'm pleased to grant you full title to this land,' said Davy, 'and all the rights to minerals under the ground, and all the rights to rain and sunlight on top of it, plus the lumber and all hides and skins.'

  'You a lawyer?' asked Arthur Stuart suspiciously.

  Instead of answering, Davy turned tail and slunk out of the clearing just like that bear done, and in the same direction. He kept on slinking, too, though he probably wanted to run; but running would have made his hand bounce and that would hurt too much.

  'I think we'll never see him again,' said Arthur Stuart.

  'I think we will,' said Alvin.

  'Why's that?'

  "Cause I changed him deep inside, to be a little more like the bear. And I changed that bear to be a little bit more like Davy.'

  'You shouldn't go messing with people's insides like that,' said Arthur Stuart.

  'The Devil makes me do it,' said Alvin.

  'You don't believe in the Devil.'

  'Do so,' said Alvin. 'I just don't think he looks the way folks say he does.'

  'Oh? What does he look like then?' demanded the boy.

  'Me,' said Alvin. 'Only smarter.'

  Alvin and Arthur set to work making them a dugout canoe. They cut down a tree just the right size - two inches wider than Alvin's hips - and set to burning one surface of it, then chipping out the ash and burning it deeper. It was slow, hot work, and the more they did of it, the more puzzled Arthur Stuart got.

  'I reckon you know your business,' he says to Alvin, 'but we don't need no canoe.'

  'Any canoe,' says Alvin. 'Miss Larner'd be right peeved to hear you talking like that.'

  'First place,' says Arthur Stuart, 'you learned from Tenskwa-Tawa how to run like a Red man through the forest, faster than any canoe can float, and with a lot less work than this.'

  'Don't feel like running,' said Alvin.

  'Second place,' Arthur Stuart continued, 'water works against you every chance it gets. The way Miss Larner tells it, water near killed you sixteen times before you was ten.'

  'It wasn't the water, it was the Unmaker, and these days he's about give up on using water against me. He mostly tries to kill me now by making me listen to fools with questions.'

  'Third,' says Arthur Stuart, 'in case you're keeping count, we're supposed to be meeting up with Mike Fink and Verily Cooper, and making this canoe ain't going to help us get there on time.'

  'Those are two boys as need to learn patience,' says Alvin calmly.

  'Fourth,' says Arthur Stuart , who was getting more and more peevish with every answer Alvin gave, 'fourth and final reason, you're a maker, dagnabbit, you could just think this tree hollow and float it over to the water light as a feather, so even if you had a reason to make this canoe, which you don't, and a safe place to float it, which you don't, y
ou sure don't have to put me through this work to make it by hand!'

  'You working too hard?' asked Alvin.

  'Harder than is needed is always too hard,' said Arthur.

  'Needed by whom and for what?' asked Alvin. 'You're right that I'm not making this canoe because we need to float down the river, and I'm not making it because it'll hurry up our travel.'

  'Then why? Or have you give up altogether on doing things for reasons?'

  'I'm not making a canoe at all,' says Alvin.

  There knelt Arthur Stuart, up to his elbows in a hollowed-out log, scraping ash. 'This sure ain't a house!'

  'Oh, you're making a canoe,' said Alvin. 'And we'll float in that canoe down that river over there. But I'm not making a canoe.'

  Arthur Stuart kept working while he thought this over. After a few minutes he said, 'I know what you're making.'

  'Do you?'

  'You're making me do what you want.'


  'You're making me make this tree into something, but you're also using this tree to make me into something.'

  'And what would I be trying to make you into?'

  'Well, I think you think you're making me into a maker,' said Arthur Stuart. 'But all you're making me into is a canoe-maker, which ain't the same thing as being an all-around all-purpose maker like yourself.'

  'Got to start somewhere.'

  'You didn't,' says Arthur. 'You was born knowing how to make stuff.'

  'I was born with a knack,' says Alvin. 'But I wasn't born knowing how to use it, or when, or why. I learned to love making for its own sake. I learned to love the feel of the wood and the stone under my hands, and from that I learned to see inside it, to feel how it felt, to know how it worked, what held it together, and how to help it come apart in just the right way.'

  'But I'm not learning any of that,' says Arthur.


  'No sir,' says Arthur Stuart. 'I'm not seeing inside nothing, I'm not feeling inside nothing except how my back aches and my whole body's pouring off sweat and I'm getting more and more annoyed at being made to labour on a job you could do with a wink of your eye.'

  'Well, that's something,' says Alvin. 'At least you're learning to see inside yourself.'