The Coward sits on a hard-backed chair, wearing gloves and boots, since the old house where he lives hasn’t got a bit of heat. He does not deserve heat, he knows that. He deserves exactly what he’s got, which is nothing, in spades. He’s not quite fifty, but most people would guess he’s twenty years older than that. His skin is sallow and pockmarked. His long hair and beard are gray. He’s thin as a twig, and as crooked as one too. When he happens to catch sight of himself in the reflection of his battered coffeepot, he always gets a good laugh. He is what he appears to be, there’s no hiding that. His inside is affecting his outside, like a rotten piece of fruit.
Years ago, when the Coward was a boy, he was on the debating team at the local high school. He had a slick quality, which always helps in an argument, and was often applauded for his speaking voice. Words, however, are nothing to him now. There are weeks when he doesn’t talk to anyone. He doesn’t complain to the fleas who live in his mattress; he doesn’t bother to shoo the flies away from his morning cereal-that is, when he remembers to eat. He has ruined his life, and although he can’t blame it all on drink, drinking has become his whole universe. Sometimes, he doesn’t bother to get out of bed before he starts. It’s just as easy to lie there and reach for the bottle; he doesn’t even have to open his eyes.
This morning some woman was knocking at his door. She must not have known that the Coward’s philosophy of life makes him temperamentally unfit for human contact, although he did appreciate Judith Dale’s visits. When he heard the stranger out on his porch, the Coward knew it wasn’t Judith, since she is dead, and there’s no one else he allows to visit. He crawled to the window on his belly so he could peek outside. The woman out there had long, dark hair; in spite of a heavy, woolen coat, she looked as if she were freezing. She was ill at ease, and kept glancing over her shoulder. She knocked several times, and when there was no answer she called out “Alan” in a clear, pretty voice which startled the Coward. That name-which he never uses anymore and would never sign on a piece of paper, even if offered a hundred dollars cash-made him cover his ears and count to a thousand. Luckily, by the time he was done, the woman had left.
If she’d really wanted to see him, of course, she could have merely pushed the door open, since the Coward never bothers to lock it. Probably, his caller had heard his dreadful history. Not even the charlatan at last summer’s circus fair outside Town Hall would read his fortune. That’s how bad his past has been, and his future looks no better. People used to say the Coward fed his dog gunpowder, to make it more vicious, and this was the reason everyone avoided the Marshes. But that dog died years ago, of arthritis and old age, and the Marshes are still unknown territory for most local residents. Anyone who goes there goes at his own risk.
Of course, twelve-year-old boys are always looking for trouble, and teenagers need their thrills. Sometimes there are groups daring enough to make their way through the muck and the reeds. They pitch winter apples and stones at the roof of his house, defying the Coward to come chase them away, but he never does, and he never will. Even on nights when stones are thrown, the Marshes are silent, and that silence is scary enough to chase off most unwanted visitors.
To the children in the village, who whisper the Coward’s story at slumber parties, his is a cautionary tale about what can happen to spoiled boys who think they have everything. Greedy, thoughtless habits take you down a road you can’t get off, even when you’ve seen the error of your ways. Before you know it, you’ve grown up to be a man who doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself, and then your fortune is your own affair, and hopeless is probably the best you can ask for.
The Coward knows all this-it’s the reason he has never fought for his son. He doesn’t deserve the boy any more than he deserves heat or light or hope. If the Coward happens to be out wandering on a starless night, he avoids Fox Hill, and if he ever comes within a mile of Guardian Farm’s property lines he begins to shake and he’s unable to stop until he’s safe in his house with a drink halfway down his throat.
Although he can barely remember it now-his memory is foggy, and he’s thankful for that-there was an occasion when he went to search out his son. One look, that was all he wanted. A minute; a single word. It was pathetic, really, and he knew it even at the time. He crept up to the schoolyard for a peek at Hank, but five years had passed since he’d last seen the boy and among all those children out for recess, the Coward could not tell which one was his. Unlike the common duck, which can distinguish its young from another’s in a crowded pond or stream, unlike a swan, who will kill for the sake of its hatchling, the Coward had forgotten his own son’s features. This, of course, only made him despise himself more. He is, after all, called the Coward for good reason.
In the past years, his single companion was his old dog, whom he still misses-a wretched boxer someone had set out to drown in a burlap bag. The drowning was somehow bungled, and when the Coward dragged the bag out of the marsh at low tide, there was one dead puppy inside, and another live one who was, from that moment on, forever grateful. Not that the Coward didn’t try to dissuade the misguided beast. He could throw a frying pan at the poor dog’s head, and it would insist upon licking his hand. He wishes he still had that dog, although he is convinced it was the stupidest creature on earth, foolish enough to misjudge its own master and believe him worthy of loyalty.
Though it now seems ridiculous, the Coward once considered himself lucky. He had inherited all his father owned, and was free to do as he pleased. The only dark spot in his life had been Hollis, and he always resented his father for bringing this false brother home. But Hollis, who had recently returned to the village, was nothing to Alan anymore. Why, Alan could pass him on the street and not even feel compelled to acknowledge Hollis’s existence. He had, after all, far better things to think about. His marriage, for one. Julie, the woman who had become his wife, was said to be the sweetest girl in town. There was something peaceful about her, as if snow had settled inside her soul. Often, she slept fourteen hours straight, and when she woke there was a smile on her lips. Their son took after her-Hank rarely cried as an infant, and as a toddler he put himself to bed when he was tired, climbing into his own crib.
On the day the fire started, the Coward was out in a hammock beneath the chestnut tree. It was Mrs. Dale’s day off, so Julie was fixing dinner, which, like all her meals, would surely turn out to be a well-intentioned disaster. Hank, who was three. was sitting on the floor, playing with measuring cups. The child was there when the Coward walked through the kitchen on his way to the yard, and he was probably still there when the fire leapt from the rear burner of the stove, attaching itself to the curtains, and then to the wood countertop, and finally to the pink dress that Julie was wearing, a pretty cotton shift the Coward had bought her in Boston.
In minutes, the smoke was so thick that people standing on the steps of the library in the village could see it; by the time the lirefighters arrived, sparks were shooting into the sky. The firefighters worked like mad that day, desperate to stop the flames before they spread through the woods; they were far too busy to notice Alan Murray standing at the gate, so close to the blaze that he was covered with soot. The air was brutal, a burning, black soup, and yet Alan had been standing there long enough to have his eyebrows singed off. He was crying tears that were so scalding they burned little holes in his face, the scars of which, like pinpricks or small pox, have never faded away.
The heat and the flames had paralyzed Alan. His wife and his child were trapped in that house, but he could no more go inside and search for them than he could jump up and land on the moon. Ken Helm, who was one of the volunteers, was the first to notice Alan, and it was Ken who realized there were still people left inside. Alan was crying beside the purple clematis, which had grown by the garden gate for as long as anyone could remember, but had now burned to ashes, and he didn’t stop crying when they brought Hank out. Someone had been left behind in that burning house, and although it was Julie’s body that was taken from the wreckage, that someone who’d been lost turned out to be Alan himself.
People in town started talking about him at the funeral, as he tore out his hair and called for his wife. They whispered when he lost his money, spending wildly-rebuilding the house, conned into dreadful business deals, practically giving it away. They talked when night after night he had to be carried out of the Lyon Cafe, and when he had to sell Fox Hill to pay off all he had borrowed. Some people say that Hollis bailed him out by covering his debts and buying the hill at a fair price, but Alan knows Hollis never intended to be kind. He bought Fox Hill anonymously, through his lawyer, well aware that Alan would never have sold to him. At any rate, due to extreme carelessness, the money from the sale of Fox Hill disappeared fast. Alan and his boy were often tossed out of rented apartments; Alan tended to fall asleep while smoking, and once he would have burned himself alive, and perhaps been glad of it, if Hank, then four, hadn’t thrown water on the smoldering easy chair where his father slept.
At last, Alan took his son to live in the Marshes, to this house people say the Founder built, a shack really, nothing more. Hank was often discovered wandering alone, his clothes filthy and coated with mud. People who didn’t even know him would insist on taking the child to the Bluebird Coffee Shop, where they’d buy him big bowls of macaroni and cheese or thick tomato soup. Hank always ate each meal as though it were his last, wolfing down his food, even when it was hot enough to burn his tongue. Clearly, if the board of the library hadn’t appropriated clothes for him at every flea market and rummage sale, this child would have gone around town naked. That’s how drunk Alan was by then; that’s how pathetic he’d become.
Hollis went out to the Marshes for the first and last time on a Sunday afternoon that year when Hank was four, plowing through the mud in Mr. Cooper’s old pickup, which he continues to drive to this day. Now that Hollis was married to Belinda, he owned more acreage than any other man in the county; he must have wanted to gloat over his victory, but he never got the chance. He found Alan passed out on the floor. That day he brought Hank with him when he returned to Guardian Farm, and the boy has been with him ever since. People say Hollis is good to Hank, or so the Coward has heard, and that makes perfect sense. No doubt Hollis has some idea of the pain his mercy causes the Coward. No doubt at all.
There are times, of course, when the Coward wonders what their lives might have been like if he had treated Hollis, if not like a brother, then like a human being. When he starts to think about what might have been, that’s when the Coward begins to drink gin, his favorite liquid in all the world. So transparent and empty, just like the rest of his life. The one remnant of a schedule which remains in his life is his Friday routine, for that is the day when he takes the single journey that matters to him-across the Marshes, down Route 22, to the liquor store on the edge of town. He goes after dark, always, and all he needs to do is sign an X on the account page. It took a while, but he finally figured out why Mike Howard was letting him have all this booze on credit, when he’s never gotten paid back. Of course, he thought when it hit him. Naturally. Hollis would gladly foot the bill for arsenic as well, if that had been his pleasure.
On clear days, the Coward sits on the sagging porch of his old house and considers everything in the Marshes that could kill you, if quick suicide was what you were after. You could, for instance, eat the thin, poisonous pods of milkweed stalks or ingest the bitter leaves of the mallows. You could reach down and pluck one of the orange mushrooms that not even the ants will go near. But the end results would be nasty, and messy as well. Gin, however slow, doesn’t make you foam at the mouth like the mushrooms would. There are many ways to accomplish what the Coward’s after, but liquor is the most civilized method. In fact, it’s the last piece of civilization in his life.
At night, when people in the village are fast asleep, he still hears the sound of fire. It’s a sound from hell, all twisted and hot. You get thirsty when you hear a sound like that in your dreams. You get terribly thirsty and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it, except to take the same route every Friday and make certain not to answer your door. You never know who you’ll find out there on your own porch; it may be someone who believes it’s a righteous person’s duty to convince the Coward he has to stop drinking and turn his life around, when it’s abundantly clear he’s never going to do that. He’s here for good; for better or, more likely, for worse, all the rest of his days.