There have always been strange children. For as long as there have been children, there have been the children who move differently, who talk differently, and who think differently. These children have always been there, and they will always be there. At times, they have been celebrated, and other times, they have been ostracized. But they have always been there. There have always been strange children, flapping their hands, repeating nonsense words over and over, absorbing everything there is to absorb regarding their favorite things, wincing in pain when the world is too hard on their senses. Everyone knows that these strange children will always be there.
No one has accepted that the strange children grow into adults, same as other children. They get older and older and older until suddenly, they can’t rightly be called children anymore. They’re adults, and they’re still strange. Unacceptable. They should have learned to suppress their strangeness a long time ago.
A strange child that grows into a strange adult is seen as a failure on the part of the parents. They ought to have raised their child better, more normally, and forced the child to fit the mold that had been made for it. A hypothetical strange child is an it, not a he or a she. These children are only afforded the luxury of personhood when they have proved they can push down whatever makes them strange.
There have been debates about this since time immemorial. Changelings, diseases, being dropped while still a babe-in-arms, possession...
None proven and all foolish, according to Jim Casy.
Jim grew up a strange boy. He didn’t speak til he was nine years old, and by that time, his parents had already written him off as a mostly hopeless case. If he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t be taught to do anything too useful.
“Jim ain’t gonna be much good for figgerin’, but that boy got ta do somepin round here,” his Mam used to say. He heard it over and over again, sitting at her side while she talked his future over with his Pa and his grandparents. They talked about him, and what he could possibly end up doing for the rest of his life, like he wasn’t even in the room.
Jim spent a fair bit of time sitting on the doorstep where his Ma could see him, doing whatever amused a strange seven-year-old boy. He drew things in the dust like he’d seen his Pa and his uncles drawing, only his dust-figures had a purpose, a design to them. Jim couldn’t read (yet, but his older sister was awful eager to teach him if he ever started talking), but he loved stories. He loved sitting near his Granny and listening to her tell old stories about why the world was the way it was.
Myths, he learned later, was what those old stories were called. Jim loved to hear myths being told. He’d’ve liked to make up a few of his own to tell, but he couldn’t speak to tell them to anybody. He drew them in the dust with his finger and a stick, stories about why the sky turned colors at sunset and what made mankind start farming and how all the different languages got thought up. He didn’t show his drawings to anybody; they weren’t interesting to other people. His family couldn’t care less about what their strange child did with his free time.
Jim said his first word when he was nine, working with his Mam at the kitchen table. They were peeling vegetables for supper, and Jim had been given the sharper knife to use because his fingers were more nimble than Mam’s. The knife was very sharp, sharp enough to cut a careless man’s finger down to the bone. Or a careless boy’s finger.
Jim missed the mark on a particularly small potato, and the knife sunk deep into his right thumb. He cried out, dropping the knife and clutching his hand to his chest. His thumb was bleeding all over his place at the table and it was hurting.
“Damnit!” Jim’s first word was born out of anger, pain, and surprise. He stomped his foot and stuck his bleeding thumb in his mouth, trying to make the blood stop flowing. He didn’t notice Mam staring at him until he went to ask her for a bandage. She was standing stock still, mouth open, staring at him.
“You done it,” she said wondrously. “You gone and said somepin.” Jim was staring now too, because he’d privately accepted that it was too late for him to start talking, even though he’d wanted to. Well, now he’d said a word, a curse word, and his Mam was right next to him when he said it.
“Praise God, ya done it!”
Jim held out his thumb and mimed wrapping a bandage around it. No amount of praising God would make him stop bleeding.
Mam handed him a bandage and he quickly covered the cut. As soon as he was through, Mam grabbed his arm and marched him out the door. They walked briskly toward the fields where his Pa and uncles were working, Ma leading the way and Jim jogging behind her. His Mam was a tall woman with a long stride, and Jim’s head barely cleared her waist.
Mam hollered something to Pa that brought him and all the other men running, abandoning their planting for the moment. When Pa reached the two of them, he dropped to a squat in front of Jim, grabbed the boy by his shoulders, and shook him roughly. Against his better judgement, Jim stood still and waited for Pa to say something.
He didn’t have to wait very long. Pa demanded that Jim say something else, anything. Prove that Mam wasn’t pulling a trick.
“Pa,” Jim said quietly. He didn’t want to say it, but he knew he’d never get away if he didn’t do what he was told. One word should’ve been enough. He figured that his family wouldn’t expect much, since until now, he’d never spoken even that much. Oh, he was wrong.
Mam and Pa and the uncles decided that a party was in order, a big party with cousins and neighbors and music and a few fireworks and they wanted Jim to greet everyone by name, even the people whose faces he didn’t know, and it was too much. He said hello to the family members whose faces and names he remembered, but that was all he could manage. As soon as everyone had arrived, Jim abandoned his place by the front gate and slunk off to sit behind Granny’s chair. She’d never make him talk if he didn’t want to. Granny was the only person in the house that hadn’t tried to make him talk before he was ready.
He still wasn’t ready, but it was out of his hands now. If people wanted Jim to speak, then he’d have to speak. The good thing that had come about because of all this was that Jim could finally tell his stories to someone, or so he figured. Someone’d want to listen, he’d just have to find them.
But for now, he was nine years old hiding behind his Granny’s rocking chair, hiding from the hullabaloo of the party going on in the yard. It wasn’t really his party, Jim figured, it was his parents’ party, because they finally knew that they hadn’t failed. Their strange boy could be taught to be normal, he might even make some friends, and his parents were celebrating how good that would make them look. His family was out in the yard raisin’ hell because of his parents, not him.
Jim sat down in the dirt and starting drawing, but this time, he said the name of each character as he drew them. God, Cloud-boy, Mister Fox, Ol’ River-man, Moon, Thief-bird, and so on. Nobody asked him what he was doing, because they recognized it as the activity of a strange child, and the rest of his family were not strange.
Jim drew, and Jim named the characters he drew, and his family shouted and danced in the yard.
Jim took to talking like a frog to jumping. He liked it plenty, and he was good at it, but sometimes he just wanted a break, the way a frog took breaks to sit on logs and look at things. Jim needed breaks, to sit somewhere private and look at things and think things over.
He was twenty, and he was thinking about being a preacher. Seemed to Jim that all preachers did was talk, but they got money and friends for their talk, and sometimes drinks too. Jim didn’t think farming was what he wanted. He wasn’t good at men’s work, since he’d grown up helping Mam with women’s work, and he didn’t like it and he didn’t like the men he had to farm alongside. Preachers preached alone, and they could tell somebody not to bother them whenever they wanted.
Plus, Jim wanted to be the guy whose arrival made people smile.
His entire family went hollerin’ mad whenever the town preacher, Reverend Jonesy, came out to the farm country. Once a month, everybody who knew what was good for ‘em made the trek to the Jonesy farm, where the Rev Jonesy would give a sermon so chock-full of farming metaphors and crude jokes that the entire community couldn’t help but love him. Everybody knew the Reverend, and the Reverend knew pretty much every family.
Jim wasn’t close with Rev. Jonsey, but he figured Jonsey was the closest preacher for fifty miles, give or take, and Jim had questions that only a preacher could answer. He waited all month, and at the end of June, the start of the growing season proper, Jim borrowed an uncle’s old truck and drove himself down to the Jonesy farm and waited an hour for the preacher to walk through the front gate.
Jim asked if the Rev’rend coul’ spare a minute, please, I got ta get a question out ‘fore it eats me alive.
Rev. Jonesy squatted down in the yard and give Jim his full attention, full eye contact. Jim’s eyes in turn focused on the point right below the preacher’s nose. He started speaking.
“I been thinkin’, an’ I been a-readin’ some Scripture, an’ I been thinkin’ ‘bout how I ain’t much for farmin’, an’ how they’s lots more jobs, an’, well, I been a-thinkin’ ‘bout preachin’,” Jim said nervously. He knew that the preacher knew that he was strange, even if he was getting good at hiding it; everyone within twenty miles of the Casy farm knew that Jim was strange. It affected the way everyone talked with him and thought about him, like he wasn’t a person so much as a problem they had to get around.
“Well, what’s that question of your’n, boy? Seems like ya got her figgered right out. You want ta preach, go preach.”
“Ain’t nobody told me how ta preach,” Jim said quietly. He knew that if he started doing it without anybody’s help, he’d end up preaching in a strange way, and nobody would bother to understand what he was saying. He needed to learn how to preach the normal way, so people would actually listen to him.
Jonesy shook his head slowly but didn’t say anything, just squatted there and looked at Jim. The younger of the two shifted his weight from side to side and dropped his gaze to the dirt while he waited for the preacher to say something. The next minute passed uncomfortably slowly for both of them.
Finally, Jim couldn’t wait any longer, and he said, “Ya gotta teach me to preach like you done, Rev’rend. Ain’t nobody gonna listen to me ‘f I get up on that stool an’ start talkin’ strange.”
“I can’t tell ya nothin’ ‘bout preachin’ you don’ already know,” Jonesy replied. “No use makin’ you preach like me. Ya gotta preach however you’re gonna preach, an’ trust that God’ll give ya some audience. You gotta preach like you, Jim, not like me. Ain’t no use makin’ copy preachers one after the other. Ever’ one got a diff’rent way of goin’ about their preachin’, an’ that’s unique in every preacher. Gotta find your own way of preachin’, Jim.”
Jim shook his head, and he felt tears of frustration threatening to fall from his eyes because this preacher just didn’t understand. Jim wanted to be understood, that was all he’d ever wanted: communication. This preacher was ignoring the obvious question lurking beneath the entire conversation, making Jim feel like he wasn’t communicating his message clearly, and that was upsetting, but even more upsetting was the fact that Jim couldn’t express his question in words because he just knew he’d lose them. As soon as he opened his mouth to ask the question, his voice would go away, and his tongue would hang heavy in his mouth for the rest of the day.
Will people think a strange preacher is worth listening to?
Turned out, a lot of people thought a strange preacher was worth listening to. And, as the years wore on and more and more people from his parents’ generation died and were buried, less and less people knew that their beloved preacher had once been a strange mute boy who drew in the dirt for fun. People knew him as Jim Casy, the preacher who didn’t take collections, who was strong enough to pick children up and completely dunk them in the river to baptize them. That was how Ruthie Joad knew him.
Jim didn’t know what to think of the Joad children at first. They were kids. They were going to California. Jim didn’t think there was much else to know about them, because he didn’t think they would like him very much. He never was a good hand with kids, even when he was a child himself.
He was right about Winfield. The boy didn’t want to get to know Jim, nor did Jim have a strong desire to talk to the boy. Ruthie, on the other hand, was different. She was mature, she was smart, and she was strange like him. Jim knew that most of the family hadn’t figured it out, because they weren’t strange, but he could see it plain as day. She was strange in a different way than he was, but he couldn’t miss any of the signs. He’d been made painfully aware of the signs from a young age, and he’d been forced to suppress them; it seemed like Ruthie had learned to do that all on her own.
“What was you gonna be, if you wasn’t a preacher?”
Jim chuckled. Such an innocent question, with so many guilty answers. He replied, “I don’ rightly know. Guess I coulda been a farmer, like my Pa, but I didn’ care much for farmin’. I ain’t much good at it neither.”
Ruthie squinted at him and raised one eyebrow high above the other. “Why?”
“Well, I dunno,” Jim stalled, trying to decide whether he should tell her about his strange childhood or not. She wasn’t inclined to give him time to decide, though, because her expression was looking more and more impatient. That was one thing that Jim never had any trouble with, expressions. He was different from most strange people that way.
“Mos’ farmers been doin’ that their whole lives,” Jim explained. “I on’y started when I was ten. I started late on account ‘f I didn’ speak a word til I was nine.”
He was speaking quietly, too quiet for anyone else on the load to hear over the noise of the engine, but Jim still glanced around furtively to make sure nobody but the intended audience had heard him. This wasn’t something he wanted Ma and Pa Joad to know. They thought he was a normal fellow; they thought they’d agreed to help a normal fellow get to California, not a strange man. They couldn’t find out.
Ruthie was staring at Jim, and he could only guess what she was thinking. Something bad, no doubt. He never should’ve told her. What was he thinking? Just because she was like him, didn’t mean she’d have any compassion for him. Jim was about to laugh it off as a joke when Ruthie responded.
“I ain’t been talkin’ good for more’n two years,” she confessed. “I ain’t learnin’ the stuff as fast ‘s I oughta. Ma an’ Pa says I gotta talk well so’s I can git a boy innerested in me. Says them boys won’ touch no stupid girl who can’t say stuff right.” Ruthie, too, looked around to make sure nobody overheard.
“I think ya talk fine,” Jim reassured her, “finer’n ‘most any girl I ever baptized.”
“Mr. Casy, I’m glad it was yaself who baptized me. Good to have somebody strange like me doin’ that to me.” Ruthie’s face hardened with resolve. “From now on, I ain’t never gonna be a-listenin’ to no normal preacher. They’s boring an’ they always a-tellin’ me ta sit still. You’re the on’y good preacher, an’ it’s ‘cause you’re strange.”
Jim was flattered, but not convinced. “People usually stops listenin’ ta me when they figger out I’m strange,” he told Ruthie, because it was true. He’d lost a few congregations to that realization.
“That’s stupid. I’d’a stuck around, ‘cause how many strange preachers is there? Ain’t many, prob’ly,” the girl rationalized, “so’s hearin’ one gotta be pretty rare. Even for them normal folks, it’d be somepin diff’rent.”
Jim smiled. “S’pose it would,” he agreed. “S’pose it would.”