May 062015
 

Madison Smartt Bell

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THE HILL PASTURE SPILLED upward like a green tongue probing the dark trees on its borders. There had once been red horses. Then the square black cows. Then sheep, unshorn, their wool gone grey and matted with bramble, dung clotted under their fat, heavy tails.

Now the deer brown as dry leaves, wind-rustled over the greensward.

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At night I heard coyotes, but it was rare to see them. There was one once in the low pasture; I saw him hunting mice. Ears pricked, attention perfect, everything in him concentrated on his prey. Perhaps not mice after all, but larks in the lengthening grass, a bird pretending to be wounded, circling wider away from the nest. I could not detect the prey, only the coyote’s sharpening perception, straining forward, then the quick, spring-loaded pounce.

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Since everything had been destroyed I lived in the feed room of the middle barn, with a board floor raised hip height from the dirt, and a door still stout. The heavy planks of the wall were thick with a fine dust and plastered with nests of the dirt dauber wasps. There were empty gunny sacks once full of sweet feed and others stuffed with uncarded wool.

In a shaft of sunlight slicing between the boards, a black dirt-dauber droned harmlessly.

In the creek was cress and water; I was no hungrier than that. By night I peed or crapped like an animal on the ground outside the barn.

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The white wolf’s muzzle probed rotten burlap, avid for the taut pink bodies of the blind mice nested there. Each morsel burst on the wolf’s long teeth like a berry.

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The white wolf was my daughter, child of my heart.

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The dark of the moon was a black circle where the moon once had been. A socket from which a white tooth was pulled.

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The bronze, oiled Indians, mostly naked and smelling of lard, dashed out my baby’s brains against the doorpost. She was no bigger than a rabbit. She never had a chance to cry. They had already scalped my father in the corn field, then broken his head with his own hoe.

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The white wolf walked in the cornfield, disguised as a black-robed crone. Black crows moved elliptically around her, keeping the same safe distance from her fearfulness, lifting and lighting among the dead yellow stalks, the long narrow leaves that whispered in the wind.

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Upon a day I will no longer have the strength to pull myself up onto the high floor of the feed-room. I may still crawl underneath, however. There I will be sheltered but not so secure.

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Rain lashes the tin roof of the barn. The front stalls leak, along a faulty seam. Tomorrow their dirt floors will be a bog. I can smell hay rotting in the next chamber (also ground level like the stalls) but in the feed-room it is dry. Extremely dry, as I forgot to fill the rust-brown feed can with creek water for the night. This situation could be remedied by holding the can out under the rain through the open door, but I am too drowsy among the old sacks, and rattle of rain on tin is a great comfort.

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Under the twisted half-dead hackberry wait the remains of an old wagon: paint bleached away, wood rendered back to earth, the metal wheels and tree and springs more slowly dissolving under rust. There is a wagon in skeletal form, infinitesimally more transparent day by day.

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The white wolf was my mother, and I her favorite son.

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On the edge of the creek I watched the water spiders darting over the water, their movement so abrupt as to be invisible. They disappeared from one place and appeared in the place and no line could be drawn between the two locations. A water spider gripped its spot on the water with its legs crooked like fingers of a mechanical hand. The points of its legs dented little dimples into the surface of the water, without ever piercing it.

At that time the creek water was perfectly clear, no more than a few inches deep in most places, so I could see the rounded rocks on the bottom, slightly magnified, and sometimes a crawdad moving among them.

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Once I laid the corpse of a lamb on the bottom of the wagon bed beneath the hackberry tree. The lamb was the weaker of two twins and never stood up to find the teat. It was still warm though its life had scarcely spanned an hour. Its cooling wooly surface was limp as a wet rag in my hand. On the board of the wagon bed it stiffened into a shape of running with its neck and tongue stretched out. The grey beetles wandered in and out of its mouth and anus. Presently the flesh had withered away and there was wool still shrunk onto the bone, then the wool rotted and was washed by the rain and only a pattern of bones remained. Then a frail light imprint on the board to show how intricately those tiny bones had lain.

Now the boards are gone themselves, at the end of an imperceptibly slow burning which reduced them to ash, to dust I mean—to infinitesimal points of carbon scattered to the wind.

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When the white wolf dropped the milk jug to shatter on the kitchen floor we did not know if it was the accident that infuriated her or if she had thrown the jug down deliberately in a rage that had already begun. We never learned the answer because we were afraid to approach her, my father and I, lest the wolf tear out our throats with her white teeth.

I picked up the large pieces of glass from the floor and mopped the half gallon of milk with a towel which over and over I wrung into the sink, and finally found the last near-invisible shards by cutting my fingers as I moved my hands over and around the floor like a mesmerist, mingling the milk with blood.

The white wolf paced an angry circle in the yard, hour upon hour.

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I was afraid in the high garden, alone, also bored, discontent, recalcitrant if I had been sent there to pick beans or thin new-sprouted corn. It would be evening, night’s shade approaching, sun broken on the points of the dark cedars sprouting up behind the gnarled apple trees of the abandoned orchard, drooling the last red light of the day like the yolk of a rotten egg. The corn rows were interminable and it seemed to take forever to half-fill a basket with green beans, hurry as I might, breaking stalks in my haste and sometimes even uprooting a plant from the row. Such carelessness would make the white wolf snarl. The high garden was behind the horse barn well away from the house—behind the barn was a field to cross and a passage through woods that seemed long to me on my short cub’s legs.

There were no more Indians then. The coyotes had not yet come and the deer were rare. Rabbits, groundhogs, quail rustling the dry leaves. Bobcats were there, but we did not see them. Bobcats were shy. There was nothing to fear coming out the arched shadows between the darkening apple trees; rather fear emerged from shadowy niches inside my head only; as much as I knew it to be true my unease grew as the darkness expanded, the bean basket obstinately refused to fill.

The white wolf was inside the house, melting bacon fat on hot iron; she could not see me or protect me there.

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An owl who cries by day is not an owl, except the screech owl who kept releasing its peculiar ululating trill into the midst of a sunny, snowy morning, perched on a chicken-wire corner of the henhouse roof, eyes squinched as if blind or injured or trapped, although, when we netted it and brought it inside, the owl proved to be none of these things.

We put the owl into a bird cage—an arched, frail and delicate thing, intended for a canary or a parakeet. The white wolf caught field mice for it, bringing them into the house pinched delicately between the tips of the wolf’s front teeth, so no mouse would be torn or punctured, save by the owl’s talons.

The cage must be covered with a cloth for the owl to kill and eat, so that the owl could operate freely in false darkness, and also as a matter of decorum. Afterward the owl slept on its perch in the dim daylight filtering into the room and after that I could pick apart the pellets to examine the dry shreds of hair and the warped little bones.

We showed the owl to visitors but these seldom came and we did not keep the owl in the cage or the house for long; it was a wild thing after all.

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Dry–rotted for a decade, the gunny sacks still hold an odor, like a memory of the sweet feed they used to contain: cracked corn and a kind of rolled pellet like the Indian money fossils we found around the edges of the stock pond, the mixture globbed together with molasses. I tasted it a time or two, attracted by the pleasant scent, but sweet feed was not for human digestion; it required the four stomachs of a cow.

I lie mottled among the rotten sacks, remembering: damp muzzles nuzzling the feed from my open hands, the rasp of a heavy tongue drying the last sweetness from my palm.

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With a start I woke and found the whole two sashes of window at my bedside filled with the head of a lion, maned and roaring. Terror stopped my heart—then the white wolf rushed in with her long jaws snapping and drove the lion away. She held me with her hands and calmed me, explaining that there was no lion at all, only an overgrown limb of the hackberry tree scraping its twigs against the window glass.

When the wolf had returned to her own nest, I lay in the dark considering; I did not feel the same fear as before, but no trust either. The wind still rushed around the house and the hackberry limb rustled on the window, with a sound that was nothing at all like that lion’s roaring.

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How then could my father have believed those owls were owls, crying as they did in the broad light of day, and shifting to surround the cornfield? How could he have gone to hoe the corn without a gun? The bleating of a ewe cutting off so sharply, what did he make of that?

And yet, in the house where I waited with my babe in arms, I heard these things myself and still did nothing. I could imagine things to do but could not do them.

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Horned owl at dusk.

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I watched the tame hens watching the owl, great horned owl that settled on the barn lot pump-head—folding his long grey wings in the dusk. The large soft-feathered head was featureless in the gloaming, his wingspread wider than I could stretch my arms. The tame hens craned their necks and clucked. They were about to go to roost but going to roost would not help them.

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Some of the Indians came toward the house on all fours, covered in the bloody skins of the sheep they had slain in the middle barn lot, but it could not be for any purpose of concealment as others of their band came on their hind legs capering and howling in a tongue beyond my comprehension. One of these had my father’s scalp already strung to his lance.

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At this time the white wolf lay in a shallow grave with her head cradled between two roots of an old oak tree, with a wedge of bluish limestone piercing the ground to mark her feet.

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The rifle my father ought to have taken with him to the cornfield hung on its pegs above the fireplace. I knew the use of this instrument but did not reach for it. Nor did I shut the door and pull the latch string. I stood in the doorway, my babe in arms, watching, struck still as if dried blood had glued me to the spot.

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I was amazed when the white wolf first peered out through the eyes of my daughter. It impressed me also, how close my daughter could walk up on buck deer.

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Starlings drift over the stubble of the cornfield, lighting and lifting, a sheet of them moving in near-unison, curling up and away from the yellow-gray stalks like a strip of torn black lace. Wind or their wings carries the starlings over the fence post and forms them into a spiral, a helix—and then they are gone, or almost gone, a set of pin-prick speckles on the sky above the hills.

—Madison Smartt Bell

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Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997)  and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989.  Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990).  In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and  Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York and in London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. For more details, visit http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell

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