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The Kite Messenger

July 18, 1993|ERNEST J. FINNEY | Avery, who narrates "The Kite Messenger," is one of four characters whose lives connect in Ernest J. Finney's new novel, "Words of My Roaring." The book is set in 1943 in the town of San Bruno just south of San Francisco, and at its heart, says Finney, is the interplay of the accidental and the intentional. "All of us meet instances which call on us to respond with honor, with courage, with grace. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we do it right. Avery survives, but he commits an act of betrayal that haunts him all his life." Finney, who grew up in San Mateo County and now lives in the San Joaquin Valley with his wife, is the author of three previous novels; his short story "Peacocks" received the 1989 O. Henry Memorial Award first prize. "Words of My Roaring," published this month by Crown Publishers Inc., has been excerpted by permission

WHEN I HEARD RUTHIE CALLING, I PUT ON MY SHOES and went over the fence to the Mitchums' house. Mary Maureen was sitting on the back stairs. "We're going to make a kite. My father said you can help if you want." I knew she or Ruthie had asked for me.

Mr. Mitchum had talked about kites before. The ones he'd made when he was a boy with his father, and the ones he'd made later. I had never made a kite myself. I bought one once, but I must have not put it together right because the paper tore and the stick broke before I ever tried to get it off the ground. You have to have someone that's done it before who knows what they're doing. Even with a store-bought kite, it's hard. I had watched some kites in the sky before: I knew it was possible. In the end I smashed the kite I bought, crushed it round and tight like a ball, and forced it down a big gopher hole. But I kept the string.

"Avery," Mr. Mitchum said, "I wondered if you'd show up. It's kite-flying time. Do you feel that March wind?"

"Yes sir."

"It's just the right kind," he said. "Gusts like that will take a kite up faster than you can let out the line." He had sat down on the back stairs with us and was scraping the one stick smooth with the blade of his jackknife.

"I did some government work last night," he said. "They had a saw in the carpenter shop, and I cut some scrap up. Look at this," he said, and he bent the stick almost into a circle, stopped short at a big C. "Red fir," he said. "It's got give. Never saw anything like it back home in Tennessee. Wait until the wind gets behind this kite; it'll bend it double."

He took the other stick from Ruthie and made notches in the ends for the string. He marked the middle of the stick and balanced it on the dull edge of his knife blade. It went to one side and he took a couple of curls off that side.

It was a true miracle the way he could make things. Some Sundays at Mass they talked about how they needed a miracle to raise enough money for new vestments for the priest or an altar for the church or something for the bishop. They never mentioned what Jesus did when he was a carpenter, before he started to become God: That's when all those church miracles started rolling in. But he must have made a lot of cupboards and stools before he ever could turn one loaf into a whole mountain of bread. I'd seen Mr. Mitchum turn a stick into 10 pinch clothespins for Ruthie's grammy, or take new growth out of an old willow down the street and make a bentwood chair, just go ahead and make a chair as quick as that, that you could sit on a couple of hours later. Then he'd made a table to match.

He put the kite together just like I always thought it should go. The tissue paper must have been saved from Christmas because it had Mary Maureen's writing, To Mother and Father, in black crayon. The sticks made a cross and he made them stay together with a wire. Then he threaded string through the notches at the ends of the sticks and laid that on top of the paper that we were holding against the cement on the driveway. Then he cut out the shape in the paper, leaving extra to fold over the string.

He did it all like the thought was so strong even his hands and fingers knew how without being told, and he kept telling us--the sound of his voice made you listen--"This is important, to keep the fold directly against the string without any play, or goodby kite. It'll fall apart on you every time." He used tape to seal the paper over the string. "Now," he said, holding up the kite, "we need to make the shape that'll scoop the air." He cut off a length of string and tied it on the up-and-down stick and pulled it into a little curve. Then he tied another piece on the crossways one, so tight that it made the stick curve more than the lengthways one. The kite was almost as tall as I was. I realized I had a lot of questions I'd like to ask, but I didn't want to try. He saw me looking closer at the reel of string, like one you used when you went fishing, but bigger. It was all wood and set in a box. "My father made it for me," he said, "when I was Ruthie's age, out of cherrywood."

He thought of everything, had a tail already cut out of what looked like an old sheet, longer than Abner's chain. That dog was watching us close, just waiting for one of us to take a step closer so he could start snapping his teeth. Mr. Mitchum let us tie the little pieces of cloth on like bows. "It'll act like a rudder and at the same time like a kind of ballast to keep it in balance," he said before I could think of the question.

Last he attached the string from the reel onto the line that made the sticks bend. He had all the ideas a person could have on a kite. As soon as he lifted it off the ground the kite came alive. It leaped a little, waved back and forth, wiggling the tail to see if it was ready.

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