Jem was still getting over his broken arm when we started talking about Tom Robinson and Mr. Ewell and what almost happened to us that night in the dark under the big oak. Before all that happened, Maycomb county had always seemed hotter and more colorful. Jem said that was just my being younger that made me think that way and when I got to be his age I’d understand better. I think he was just fooling though. He just didn’t want me to know that he was just as confused about it as I was. But then, he did have more experience with that sort of thing, what with Mother and everything.
Well, like I was saying, I walked into his room one night when Atticus was in bed and told him that I’d been thinking. He asked me what about and I told him. I said, “I’ve been thinking about Tom Robinson and Mr. Ewell and us and Mother, and I want to know why.”
“Why what, Scout? Don’t be confusing,” He asked me. I didn’t think I was being confusing. It must have just been because it was the middle of the night that he wasn’t understanding me.
“Why they died, Jem.”
“Tom Robinson got shot, Mr. Ewell fell on his knife, Mother had a heart attack, and we aren’t dead. Go back to bed, Scout,” He said then turned over on his bed and made like he was snoring real loud.
“Jem? Jem, you stop that right this minute! Jem?” I said, but he didn’t budge an inch. Well, I knew that there wasn’t any point in trying to get him to listen to me that night, so I made up my mind to try it again the next night.
Well it got to be the next night and I tried real hard to stay awake, but I fell so dead asleep I couldn’t even hardly get up when Cal told me that we were having pancakes for breakfast. I was so mad at myself for falling asleep that I sulked around the house all day so that Atticus asked me if I was feeling alright. After that I went outside.
That night I wasn’t going to let myself fall asleep and while I was concentrating on that I heard Jem tiptoe into my room. “Scout? Scout, are you awake?” I made like I was snoring even louder than he had done two nights ago. Jem smothered my face with a pillow and told me to hush, did I want Atticus to hear us.
I sat up. “What do you want?”
“You got me thinking, Scout. Where do you come up with questions like that? “Why do people die, Jem?” You’re too deep for your age.”
He sighed and sat himself down on my bed. “Never mind. Well, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that ever since you asked me that I’ve been thinking on it and I’m lost. They all died because the blood didn’t get to their heads, but that’s not what you were asking is it? You want to know why people die.”
Of course that was what I wanted to know. I didn’t want to know why people died, I wanted to know why people died. Jem was right too. I was nearly bursting out of my skin that I asked him a question that he actually thought about enough to come back to me to talk about it. “So what do you think, Jem? I think it’s because of God. He got angry with them and he made them die. I can understand why He would be angry with Mr. Ewell, but what about Tom Robinson? He didn’t do anything wrong?”
Jem scratched his head. “Well, according to the court he did. Maybe that’s why God took him.”
“Jem! You know Mr. Robinson didn’t do anything wrong, and I am sure that God wouldn’t go talk to the court before sentencing. Maybe God is one of those people who don’t like Negroes, the ones that call Atticus a nigger- lover?”
“That doesn’t make sense, Scout. God doesn’t just go around killing off Negroes. What about Cal? Ain’t nothing wrong with Cal.”
“Cal would be upset if she heard you sayin’ “ain’t”. That true though. That doesn’t make sense either. Shh!” I hushed him. “I heard Atticus roll over. You’d better get back to bed.”
Jem nodded his head silently and tiptoed away. I didn’t get much sleep at all that night.
Almost every night after that for a week Jem and I would be up talking. We covered almost every possibility from A to Z and even up through alpha and omega but we still couldn’t come up with a good theory.
One night we were talking again. “Jem, why do people die at all, why don’t they just keep on going? Do you think God gets bored of his angels and wants more friends up in Heaven?”
“I don’t think God has anything to do with it, Scout. It’s just anatomy.”
Jem had been studying anatomy in school that week and he was sure that everything could be explained by purely scientific methods. He was so irritating sometimes when he got that attitude of I’m right because I’m older and I’ve learned more than you have. We got off the subject and started arguing about whether or not science was an all purpose answer. Considering that the most advanced thing I’d done in science was plant a flower in a pot and watch it turn towards the light, I couldn’t put up a good argument, got frustrated and told him to go away and I’d ask Atticus why people die.
Well, he got out and I felt a lot better, because I was sure that Atticus would know why people died. He knew everything. The only reason I didn’t ask him sooner was that I wanted to show off to him how I’d figured it out for myself. I fell asleep right quick that night.
Jem came up to me the next day and told me that he wanted to hear what Atticus said too and would it be alright if he was there. I told him that I supposed so. So it came to pass that we cornered Atticus on the porch and posed our question to him.
“Atticus,” I said, “Why do people die? Me and Jem have been thinkin’ on it but we can’t figure it out.”
He sat down on the rocking chair and looked at us. “So that’s what all the little conferences in the middle of the night have been about.”
Jem and I looked at each other with astonished and admonished looks on our faces. So Atticus had heard us, had he?
“People have been trying to answer that question for many years. There have been many theories, but one of the most accepted comes straight from the Bible. Adam and Eve sinned and God punished not only them, but their children as well. Death was one part of the punishment, because until they sinned, they were immortal, that means they never die. One man, John Milton, wrote a poem about Adam and Eve and God. We have copy of it in the library. It’s called Paradise Lost. Come with me.” Atticus led us to the library.
On the way to the library I couldn’t help turning to Jem and saying, “I told you it was God. I told you so.” Jem did something he usually considered himself too old to do. He stuck his tongue out at me.
Atticus turned just in time to see him. “Jem,” he admonished, “You know better than that.”
Just as soon as Atticus turned around I stuck my tongue out at Jem, but he didn’t look at me. Atticus pointed us to the couch where we sat while he picked up a leather bound volume from the bookshelf and brought it over to us. He opened it up. It looked pretty boring to me. No pictures and lots of colons. Atticus flipped through the pages for a while. Then he stopped and looked at the page in front of him for a minute. “Here it is. Here the son of God asks Eve what it was that she did. She tells him, “The Serpent me beguiled, and I did eat.” What that means is that she ate the apple that god had forbidden. That she had sinned. Well, God was very upset that Eve and Adam sinned and he punished them. He sent them out of Paradise and told them that Eve’s children and their children and so on would die. There was something else too. They would make war on each other. Here is what the angel Michael says to Adam about God. “Though late repenting him of Man depraved, grieved at his heart, when, looking down, he saw the whole Earth filled with violence, and all flesh corrupting each their way,” That basically means that God was sad when he looked down on the Earth and saw men hurting each other and hating each other. Because of that he sent down the flood to cleanse the earth of people who hurt other people and hated other people,”
“Like Mr. Ewell tried to hurt us and like he hated Negroes?” I interrupted.
“Yes, Scout. That’s right.”
I thought for a minute. “Then why are people like him still around? Why didn’t the flood work?”
Atticus pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Well, Scout, I think it serves God’s purpose to have men like that in the world. God wants us to remember that his son will come again, and we must try to remain good until then. When you think about Mr. Ewell, you think he is bad, and you are right. You also think that you will never be like him, right?” I nodded. “If there are people like Mr. Ewell around to remind us what is good and what is bad, we are more likely to try to be good. You’ll notice, for example that you two are still alive and Mr. Ewell is dead. He used Mr. Arthur to help teach you to fear evil, but to remember that if you are good, you will eventually be saved.”
“Is Mr. Arthur an angel?”
“Yes, I believe he is.”
That night when I went to bed I thought for a long time. God had made it so that everyone would die because Adam and Eve sinned. In the end, though, the Messiah would come again and everything would be alright. It made sense to me. I was pretty sure that I would try not to say “ain’t” anymore and I wouldn’t stick my tongue out at Jem anymore.
I fell asleep and dreamed of Boo Radley flying up to the sky on angel wings.