American Marchlands Excerpt
The third and final part of the Wilderness Roadshow is coming but, since I’ve had a little time between readings, I’ve been working hard on my next Thing. And, seeing as how I’m getting asked about it pretty regularly at my events, I thought I’d put up the very first little bit of the new novel I’m calling (for now) American Marchlands. It started as a story of a marriage but has become something more akin to a road novel set in frontier America circa 1846. It’s about two men who go west and the dark things they find there; it’s about a quiet boy who becomes a killer of men and a killer of men who longs for nothing more than a return to his boyhood.
Or something like that. It keeps changing and shifting and, while I’m in no way having a terrible time with it, it is putting up quite a fight. So I’m being gifted with great bursts of creativity (one of which I’m in the midst of now) followed by lots of “staring out the window at the trees” worrying about the state of things.
Anyway, here’s a little chunk of the prologue (as it stands for now, anyway…):
And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth…
“…sometimes the marches take their name of the inward country, and sometimes of the out country…”
You remember them constantly fretted. They feared themselves lost then feared themselves found in a place they’d not intended. They feared the land ahead—the horizon bloodred and the clouds when there were clouds monstrous—but feared the land behind more. They went on and on and you, being just young, went with them.
You remember the tyrannical sky: white and endless and cruel as the plains you travelled across. The vast desert of grass that was no longer even America but now some other place entirely and you remember the sky and the clouds and little else. The stars at night, maybe. Your earliest memories are of huddling in the shattering dark around meager little fires kindled on dung. Of the wind making rags of the pale flames and the flapping sounds they made in the night, as if, had they wings, the fires themselves would flee. Off into the dark where anything could be. Of the men clambering up on stones when there were stones to clamber up on, the benches of wagons if not or, even, the shoulders of the oxen—any high point that could be found in that flat country—to shoot the horizon and the sun or, if at night, the spaces between stars; measuring and note-taking in their precise, careful, adult hands in which pens looked so awkward, being fit for rougher trades and cruder tools. Of your father with his railroad compass held to his eye so that, looking up at him, the transit sights rose like horns from his head and so made of him a devil. Of Mr. Brown with his sextant; himself a dark manshape in silhouette against the bottomless vault of stars like some un-albatross’d mariner of old upon a heaving sea of golden wine. Day after day after day. Unstuck. Roving. No one said you were lost. No one said that. You remember them how they fretted and worried and sweated and struggled on and on, day after endless, creaking day.
You remember an encounter. It is not your first clear memory of that time but it is one that can come to you in a moment. Any moment you desire it but you have not desired it for years. You all of you saw them coming from miles away across the plains beneath the hot, white sky that drew its heat from the earth and threw it back in a watery veil between them and the little, three-wagon caravan of which you were a part. The Oregon country still so far beyond that evening bloodred sun. They came out of the north perpendicular to your line, shimmering like liquid; coalescing and coming wetly apart then fusing once more like mercury, like they were all of a single piece and never to be separate. At first, you didn’t know if they were people at all. You didn’t know what they were. Your father called for his rifle but then Dizzy said, “Nah. I reckon that’s a wagon.”
“So?” your father said.
Dizzy shrugged; you remember she always had a recalcitrant way about her that earned her whippings more often than not. But not that day. “So. When was the last time you seen them heathen savages driving a wagon what they couldn’t burn?” she asked.
You remember the world going slowly silent then—a thing rare during those long, scraping daylight hours. The plaintive screaking of Mrs. Brown’s empty birdcage where it hung from the rear stay of their wagon, swaying down the days like a metronome measuring rhythm, dwindled and dwindled and finally fell quiet. You recall her budgie—which had accompanied her, as she’d told it, well before you all jumped off from Independence—had died sometime before but you can’t recall when or how or even if she carried on about it but, from what you do remember of the woman, you reckon she probably did. But you do clearly recollect the sudden, bottomless, breathless hush as the wagons, like little ships coming to port, eased to their halts upon that endless gold-and-brown-beneath-a-white-sky landscape. A pale, uneasy stillness that somehow mirrored the sky and the land beneath it and that was broken now by gusts of wind that rattled the canvas and set the birdcage squealing again. But there had always been wind on that westward journey and you will always remember it now, alone in your age, in your too-quiet room with your aching legs and spotted hands and your cough and without, even, a budgie to sing you to sleep.
But they were people coming over the plains. Three of them arranged in a descending row of height upon the driver’s bench. The teamster himself was tall and thin, a little haggard, with a face that was not quite ugly but certainly not handsome and somehow strangely proportioned as though the hemispheres of his features had suffered some tectonic misalignment in his past. Beside him sat a woman of such perfect, terrible loveliness that, even now so many years removed from the moment, you can feel your heart swell dangerously and tremble in its cage of bone because you knew just by looking at her her history was hard and that her future might well be monstrous. And, next to her, a shorter man with a face that was, in its way, the male equivalent of hers but who, at the same time, had something dark about him, something indrawn and closed-off and grievous. This man’s fists pulsed at the ends of his wrists as though he contained within himself some spirit of violence he knew not what to do with.
You remember how, when she saw him—this smallish, angry-seeming man—Dizzy crossed herself the way she would and stepped into the shade of the Brown’s whitetop as it shuddered and creaked mournfully in the wind, the empty cage describing a lazy, abbreviate circle.