“Naw, it’s—he’s got a lot on his mind now, without us worrying him.”
“Like what?” Atticus didn’t appear to have anything especially on his mind.
“It’s this Tom Robinson case that’s worryin’ him to death—”
I said Atticus didn’t worry about anything. Besides, the case never bothered us except about once a week and then it didn’t last.
“That’s because you can’t hold something in your mind but a little while,” said Jem. “It’s different with grown folks, we—”
His maddening superiority was unbearable these days. He didn’t want to do anything but read and go off by himself. Still, everything he read he passed along to me, but with this difference: formerly because he thought I’d like it; now, for my edification and instruction.
“Jee crawling hova, Jem! Who do you think you are?”
“Now I mean it, Scout, you antagonize Aunty and I’ll—I’ll spank you.”
With that, I was gone. “You damn morphodite, I’ll kill you!” He was sitting on the bed, and it was easy to grab his front hair and land one on his mouth. He slapped me and I tried another left, but a punch in the stomach sent me sprawling on the floor. It nearly knocked the breath out of me, but it didn’t matter because I knew he was fighting, he was fighting me back. We were still equals.
“Ain’t so high and mighty now, are you!” I screamed, sailing in again. He was still on the bed and I couldn’t get a firm stance, so I threw myself at him as hard as I could, hitting, pulling, pinching, gouging. What had begun as a fist-fight became a brawl. We were still struggling when Atticus separated us.
“That’s all,” he said. “Both of you go to bed right now.”
“Taah!” I said at Jem. He was being sent to bed at my bedtime.
“Who started it?” asked Atticus, in resignation.
“Jem did. He was tryin’ to tell me what to do. I don’t have to mind him now, do I?”
Atticus smiled. “Let’s leave it at this: you mind Jem whenever he can make you. Fair enough?”
Aunt Alexandra was present but silent, and when she went down the hall with Atticus we heard her say, “. . . just one of the things I’ve been telling you about,” a phrase that united us again.
Ours were adjoining rooms; as I shut the door between them Jem said, “Night, Scout.”
“Night,” I murmured, picking my way across the room to turn on the light. As I passed the bed I stepped on something warm, resilient, and rather smooth. It was not quite like hard rubber, and I had the sensation that it was alive. I also heard it move.
I switched on the light and looked at the floor by the bed. Whatever I had stepped on was gone. I tapped on Jem’s door.
“What,” he said.
“How does a snake feel?”
“Sort of rough. Cold. Dusty. Why?”
“I think there’s one under my bed. Can you come look?”
“Are you bein’ funny?” Jem opened the door. He was in his pajama bottoms. I noticed not without satisfaction that the mark of my knuckles was still on his mouth. When he saw I meant what I said, he said, “If you think I’m gonna put my face down to a snake you’ve got another think comin’. Hold on a minute.”
He went to the kitchen and fetched the broom. “You better get up on the bed,” he said.
“You reckon it’s really one?” I asked. This was an occasion. Our houses had no cellars; they were built on stone blocks a few feet above the ground, and the entry of reptiles was not unknown but was not commonplace. Miss Rachel Haverford’s excuse for a glass of neat whiskey every morning was that she never got over the fright of finding a rattler coiled in her bedroom closet, on her washing, when she went to hang up her negligee.
Jem made a tentative swipe under the bed. I looked over the foot to see if a snake would come out. None did. Jem made a deeper swipe.
“Do snakes grunt?”
“It ain’t a snake,” Jem said. “It’s somebody.”
Suddenly a filthy brown package shot from under the bed. Jem raised the broom and missed Dill’s head by an inch when it appeared.
“God Almighty.” Jem’s voice was reverent.
We watched Dill emerge by degrees. He was a tight fit. He stood up and eased his shoulders, turned his feet in their ankle sockets, rubbed the back of his neck. His circulation restored, he said, “Hey.”
Jem petitioned God again. I was speechless.
“I’m ’bout to perish,” said Dill. “Got anything to eat?”