Harlan Ellison

No Fourth Commandment

I’M GOING TO KILL MY FATHER,” said the boy.

“If I ever find him, I won’t bother to tell him who I am, or say hello, or anything. I’ll just walk up and kill him.” He was a tall, thin kid, with a hungry look in his green eyes.

“Butwhy? ” I asked. “Why do you want to kill your father?”

“You should see my mother. She looks like she’s fifty.”

I still didn’t understand. “So?”

“She’s only thirty-six.”

He didn’t say anything more, and I didn’t think I should bug him, so I went back to picking the strawberries. I’ve been out on the road enough years to know when to leave a body alone when he don’t want to talk. But this kid was different. I was kind of drawn to him — I don’t know why — maybe ’cause I never had no wife and kids his age.

It was one of those real warm, pleasantish days when you know there ain’t no place better to be than on a farm.

Even so, I felt a chill. The sun was beating down on me, naked to the waist in the middle of a strawberry crop, I was sweating like a pig, and I was chilly.

The chill started in my chest — way inside — and worked out. It was that kind of chill. It was that kid, that’s what it was.

The way he’d said it. That he was going to kill his old man. It made me wiggle. I’ve heard lotta men say they was gonna kill someone else, but it was the first time I’d heard anything like that!

I’d never thought too much about the Fourth Commandment. Honor thy father and mother just hadn’t applied to me — my folks got killed when I was a kid. But I knew what it meant, and it was one of those things that seemed natural, and there wasn’t no reason to dispute it. But when I heard that kid say it, I felt all funny. He shouldn’t have said something like that, it wasn’t right.

I looked over at him.

He was down on his hands and knees, working the next row, with his berry bag over his shoulder and his hair tumbled into his eyes. He looked to be about fifteen, sixteen, with a long, loose body that was decently muscled, but pretty thin. He looked like he was always set to run. Like a racehorse chomping at the bit. He never did run, he just looked like he wanted to.

Nobody knew where he’d come from, and mostly, nobody asked. Almost all the boys in the fields were roadwalkers and runaways and, of course, a lot of field-followers trailing the crops, so it was smartest just to keep to yourself and not inquire.

But he was different. You could tell. There was something about him — something hungry. One of the men, fellow named Jan who’d been to college, was talking about the kid over supper; said the boy looked like a wild animal huddled up in an unaccustomed cage. I couldn’t of put it better myself. This Jan was smart, and he said the kid was starved for affection.

Well, Hell, ain’t we all?

The kid stuck his hand through the bushes and plucked a handful of ripe berries off. He hadn’t been so good at it the first few hours in the fields. Anyone could see he wasn’t a regular crop-man, but after a bit he’d watched us with those sharp green eyes, and pretty soon he could six-pluck a fistful as well as the rest of us.

“Where you from, kid?” I asked.

He looked over at me, and puckered his lower lip. I don’t think he knew he was doing it. He gave a strong blow and his dirty brown hair went out of his eyes for a second. It fell back in a long branch, and hung there.

He settled back on his haunches, pushing the hair away with force, and said, real slowly, “Up near Cedar Rapids way.”

“That’s in Iowa, ain’t it?” I asked.

He nodded, breaking a dirt clod in his hand.

“Thanks — thanks for … the … other day,” he stumbled, his face turned down in shadow.

I knew what he meant. The fight. He’d gone nuts, for no reason, when he’d heard the boss’s wife, Mrs. Fenkel, talkin’ to her little boy in German, and I’d hadda pull him high off before he’d smashed the poor woman.

There hadn’t been no reason for it. He’d just started for her. I’d slapped him once, good and hard, and the craziness had died out of his eyes and he’d settled back without a word.

But it hadn’t made sense.

“I — I — thought,” he mumbled, and then stopped. He tried again, “ — it seemed for a minute she was … but it wasn’t …” His voice died off again and he sat there idly fumbling with the dirt.

I did something I don’t do, usually. I started to pry into another man’s business. “What’s your name, boy?”

He looked up, then. He looked at me long, and I could tell he wasn’t just thinking about now. I’d done him a favor, sure, but he didn’t know me from Adam. I was just another field bum, pickin’ strawberries. He was thinking, what if I tell this man my name, and in the future, and what’ll happen, and is there a reason not to tell, and then he said, “Holloway. Most call me by my first; that’s Fair.”

“Fair Holloway?”

He nodded. “What’s that short for?” I asked.

“Fairweather.” He seemed embarrassed.

“Nice name,” I said, and went back to my berries. That was enough prying for then. I didn’t want to scare him off. I kinda liked the boy. He seemed grateful I stopped, too. I saw him give me a short look, then he bent over his rows again.

Natchitoches, Louisiana’s a piece down from Cedar Rapids. A strawberry farm is a good ways from the home this boy must have come from, too.

While I picked, I wondered about him. I wondered more than I think I’ve ever wondered about anyone. Any kid would say he was going to put his old man down, like that, in that real matter-of-fact talk, was something pretty odd. Besides, I liked him. He seemed like a nice kid, aside from what he’d said, and except for his goin’ after Miz Fenkel that way.

I finished that row, not even minding the sun, or the mosquitoes, just thinking, and started on another line. The kid stayed right next. He didn’t go off to work another string. I liked that. He seemed to get along with me, too.

We worked till the sun was good and high, and starting down a bit, then they called us for supper. I got up, slow, because I ain’t as young as I used to be, which sounds like what everybody else says, but it’s true. I’m getting on. It won’t be too many years I can keep running the crops this way.

I been running ’em a long time, and maybe the reason I’d taken an interest in the kid was that I’d been on the road alone all those years, and I saw myself in the kid a little bit. I don’t know, maybe that was it. Maybe not. But I liked him, and I figured he needed a friend.

The boy was ahead of me, swinging his berry bag from his hand, kicking at the dirt, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Hey!” I yelled. He turned and stopped when he saw it was me. His eyes were wary, and every line of his blue-jeaned body suggested running again.

“I’ll walk over with you,” I said, coming up. We started walking again, and he didn’t say a word, so I didn’t figure it was my place to do otherwise.

Our feet sank into the summer ground slightly, giving a sort of springiness to our walk, that even our heavy boots couldn’t take away. It was good to be alive.

I stole a look at Fair Holloway out of the corner of my eye. He was a hungry-looking thing, like I said. His face was long and tanned from the sun, and it came to a point at the chin. His cheekbones were high and his nose was straight and thin as a finger.

His hands hung loose and open by his sides, but they had a way of knotting up — sudden-like — for no particular reason at all. He seemed and looked like an ordinary enough kid.

And he wanted to kill his father.

We came up to the house, and Fenkel, the man’d hired us, was out back with his wife, ladling out soup to the first batch of field workers.

We dumped our bags into a trough the hired girls would use when filling the berry boxes, and sat down at the big table.

There was soup, and biscuits, and chittlins, baked potatoes and fresh peas. Corn on the cob, cranberry sauce, two kinds of preserves, and hot, black coffee. Then Miz Fenkel brought out half a dozen good old-fashioned Dutch Apple pies and we cleaned ’em up in short time.

Once, she was saying something to her husband in German, as she served us, and I saw Fair tighten up again. He made like to rise a little, and I put my hand on his shoulder, hard, and he seemed to snap out of a dream. He sat back down again real slow, and shook his head a couple times. He ran his hand through his hair, down across his face, and gave me a sort of sick white smile.

Right about then I figured I’d stick with the kid some. He needed a friend real bad. He needed someone to keep an eye out for him.

There was usually a horseshoe game going after supper, for a half-hour or so, and most of the men were over watching. I didn’t bother joining them. I wandered over to where the kid was leaning up against the steel frame of a plow. I was drawn to him, somehow.

“They put up a good spread here, don’t they?” I said, coming up behind him.

He spun around, half-dropping, his hands tightening, and glared at me. Those sharp green eyes were slitted up like a catamount’s, and his tongue kept flicking in and out, in and out.

For a minute there I was petrified. I’d never seen a kid that looked so old. He could have been a thousand years old in that minute. With the hate of a thousand years all ready to brim over. Then he saw it was me, and all that stoking died down. I could see the scare and fury simmer out from behind his eyes and he wiped his hand across them, as though they were burning. “Yeah. Yeah, they put up a real fine ...

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