14 September 2016

BOOK REPORT: Tom Sawyer (plus a crazy story from my childhood)

This is a true story.

When I was a kid, our neighbor’s cat died.

My little brother and I found it freshly expired. (I promise we didn’t kill it.)

I was about 10 years old, which means my brother must’ve been 6. That made him the perfect sidekick. I told him to call me Tom, and I called him Huck. When Mitch was around, we called him Joe Thatcher, but Joe wasn’t around for this one.

We didn’t want to touch the dead cat, so we got a plastic bread-bag and stuffed the fluffy corpse inside. And we felt awfully lucky to have found it—because we’d read Tom Sawyer.

We made a plan to sneak out at midnight to use the dead cat, only we hadn’t yet made a ladder for sneaking out the bedroom window. It would’ve been easy enough to just walk out the back door, only that wouldn’t have been proper, and we wanted to do things proper.

Over the next few days, we built a ladder out of a couple sapling trunks and baling string, thanks to what we’d learned about lashing in Cub scouts. It was pretty wobbly, but at least it was tall enough.

Putting the ladder against our window meant going to the side-yard, which had enough trees and shrubs that it never got much sunlight. Think Mirkwood.

And crawling between the brick wall and the unruly junipers meant entering an alleyway of spiderwebs. Also, any time we touched the junipers, stuff would fall down the backs of our shirt necks. We squinted and braved our way forward, using a stick to clear our path. Then we deposited the ladder in its place below our bedroom window. We also pulled the screen off.

I promise, this all really happened.

Incidentally, our bedroom had a window in the back-yard too, which was completely clear of foliage. But, again, that was too easy. It wouldn’t be proper.

My brother and I slept on bunk beds. I had the top. And it was the perfect dock for climbing down and out the window. We stayed awake, talking quietly so mom and dad wouldn’t come shush us and give us a talking to. At a quarter to midnight, we crawled outside into the night. The moon wasn’t full, but it was bright.

We ran down through the front yard, across the street, and into the cow pasture where we’d left the cat in its plastic bag behind the shed.

“Oh, gross!” I said when I smelt it.

As we approached, we realized it wasn’t a bag of fluff anymore. It’d had gained a layer of juice. You can image our faces.

We jabbed a long stick at the bag till the end caught. When we lifted the bag, the cat didn’t flop around anymore like it used to. It stayed in the exact same shape, stiff as a board. We carried it about 20 feet from the shed to roughly the same spot dad had buried a dead calf not long before. We dug a shallow grave and put it in.

Even if we’d had a ripe cat, we hadn’t planned beyond midnight, so we decided to head back inside.

We climbed our wiggly ladder and crawled into our beds, giddy about having been out so late. We didn’t feel bad about how things went down either.

We’d probably waited too long to do anything with the cat’s spirit anyway.

* * *

If you understand that passage, then I suppose you’ve already read and loved Tom Sawyer. If you haven’t read it, well, that’s the sort of escapade you’re in for. There’s murder and romance and other intrigues. Mostly it’s a solid character novel. 

I’ve probably read Tom Sawyer four times, which includes the times my parents read it to us. The most recent was just this year. This book really shaped my childhood. (Sometime I’ll tell you about baking knifes into pies and digging under foundations to rescue prisoners.)

I’ll quote just one passage—so you’ll know what a dead cat’s good for:

“Why,” said Huck, “you take your cat and go and get in the graveyard ‘long about midnight when somebody that was wicked has been buried; and when it’s midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three, but you can’t see ‘em, you can only hear something like the wind, or maybe hear ‘em talk; and when they’re taking that feller away, you heave your cat after ‘em and say, ‘Devil follow corpse, cat follow devil, warts follow cat, I’m done with ye!’ That’ll fetch ANY wart.” 
“Sounds right,” said Tom. “D’you ever try it, Huck?” 
“No, but old Mother Hopkins told me.”  
“Well, I reckon it’s so, then. Becuz they say she’s a witch.” 

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— J