A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft Featuring Omnidawn Translators: Kyoko Yoshida, Forrest Gander, Maxine Chernoff, Donald Revell, & Paul Hoover Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 6.1, March 2012 ~ What are the primary […]
Month: March 2012
Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 6.1, March 2012 Helen Vitoria…you may have heard the name if you have spent any time reading online. I had the pleasure to talk with Helen about a few things literary and found her to […]
Interview with Forrest Gander, Co-Translator (with Kyoko Yoshida) of Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura
Interview by Rusty Morrison
Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 6.1, March 2012
Rusty Morrison: How did you come to this project? How did the idea develop? Tell us how you met Mr. Nomura?
Forrest Gander: I met Kiwao Nomura in Japan in 2010. He was standing in a green room surrounded by flamenco musicians from Sevilla, modern dancers from Yokohama, and a famous one-eyed butoh performer from Tokyo. I had come backstage after a performance choreographed by Mariko Nomura, a well-known dancer and choreographer and Kiwao’s wife.
Our meeting came about through Kyoko Yoshida, a fiction writer who came to Brown University as a visiting scholar in 2009. When Kyoko figured out that I was very interested in contemporary Japanese poetry, and particularly in the work of Gozo Yoshimasu, she said she thought I would like Kiwao Nomura’s work. The trouble was that there were very few translations available. I don’t remember if it was Kyoko or me who suggested that we try to translate some of Nomura’s poems together. But that’s how the project began.
RM: Can you describe your methods as a translator when working in this kind of collaboration with a fellow translator? How did the two of you engage in the act of revision? Was Mr. Nomura (the poet you are translating) involved in the process?
FG: In the late 70’s and early 80’s I fell in love with Japanese literature and culture. I studied Japanese briefly in college and I traveled to Japan for the first time in 1985. But I don’t speak or read Japanese. Besides being brilliant and bilingual, Kyoko was the most diligent co-translator imaginable. After we talked about the range of poems we wanted to include, Kyoko began to send me files. In each file, I would find: the poem in kanji (logographic characters borrowed from Chinese); the poem in romanji (Romanized script so that I could pronounce the sounds); a literal English translation with notes about variables; and a first translation. She would also send me a sound file of her reading the poem. I was traveling a lot during the time that we worked most intently on the translations, and I have distinct memories of people looking curiously at me on buses and in cafes in Europe and Latin America while I listened to Kyoko’s Japanese recitations on my laptop.
I would respond to Kyoko with questions and suggestions and drafts and the translation would travel back and forth between us over and over. For the most part, Kiwao, who doesn’t speak English fluently, trusted us to do the job.
RM: What, specifically, were some of the largest or most daunting challenges you faced as you worked through the text? And, the most exciting rewards or surprises?
FG: What we find in innovative Japanese poetries like Gozo Yoshimasu’s and Kiwao Nomura’s has, as far as I know, no equivalents in contemporary poetry in English. The mix of the philosophical and the whimsical makes for a tone that is absolutely weird to Westerners. Also, in Japanese there are puns that take place between characters and pronunciations that cannot be accounted for in our alphabet. In one particularly difficult poem, “(or chasm),” Nomura uses characters that allude to Japanese mythology but might also simply be breath-sounds, Hooha and Ketha. But English language breath-sounds would probably sound different from those sounds, just as dog barks are represented by very different onomatopoeic impressions in different languages. In one remarkable and very exciting layer of our translation of this poem, “(or chasm),” Kyoko and I took a class in butoh movement from the butoh dancer, Akira Kasai, to whom it is dedicated.
RM: You are an esteemed translator of Spanish poetry, and you have been active in translation for many years. Has translating Japanese had a different impact upon you? Has this translation project changed you as a writer?
FG: I’m afraid it sounds facile because I think we all know this intuitively, but I’d offer that everything we love changes us. Certainly the forms, the syntactical innovations, and the compositional originality of Nomura’s poems inspire me and offer me new possibilities and models.
RM: When you read translations by other poets, what questions do you bring to the text? What are you looking for? What stimulates your interest? and what sustains your interest?
FG: I depend most immediately on the quality of the language in English. So the same things that draw me to poetry in English draw me to poetry in translation. Since I’m also interested in translation theory and have a smattering of familiarity with several other languages besides Spanish, there are particular questions concerning, for instance, syntactical sequencing or the use of articles and prepositions or rhythmical constructions that may come up. The old questions about whether the translation stuffs the other language into the polished brown shoe of normative English…
RM: Who are the writers you are reading currently for kinship? Who are the writers you are reading currently to be challenged?
FG: Opening up my most recent notebook, I can tell you some of the books I’ve been reading in the last two months: Andrew Zawacki’s Glasscape, Kabir Mohanty’s The Kernal is a Fact, Joan Retallack’s Proceedural Elegies: Western Civilization Continued, Anja Utler’s Engulf-Enkindle in Kurt Beals’ translation, Alice Jones’ Gorgeous Morning, Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, Alphonso Lingis’ Dangerous Emotions, and Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction.
RM: Are there artists or musicians whom you especially return to? and why?
FG: I’ve been obsessing through a Nico Muhly stage lately. I go back to John Abercrombie regularly. There are two ceramic artists, Rick Hirsch in America and Ashwini Bhat in India, and a glass artist in New York, Michael Rogers, whose respective bodies of work draw me in close. Diane Samuels, yes. The great Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide and the North American photographers Lucas Foglia, Deborah Luster, Sally Mann, and Raymond Meeks.
Drama, Vol. 6.1, March 2012 CAST OF CHARACTERS Jill McMurry… 27 years old, very Irish-American pretty, a librarian at Berkeley, middle sister to an older sister and younger brother, originally from middle class, Atlantic shore Long Island, NY. Scott James (Jamie)… 25 years old, a […]
Drama, Vol. 6.1, March 2012 CAST OF CHARACTERS: THOMAS: A man in his mid-thirties. Well-groomed, good-looking, a real quarterback type. His clothes are stylish and somewhat conservative—an argyle sweater and collared shirt (think Banana Republic, J. Crew, etc). There is product in his hair. JODIE: […]
Fiction, Vol. 6.1, March 2012
The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos (καιρός). Chronos refers to sequential, measurable time, and kairos to moments of hope & possibility. Kairos also means weather in both ancient and modern Greek, and the plural, καιροι (kairoi or keri) means the times.
Between 1790, when the Federal government began issuing patents, and 1930, Connecticut led all states in the USA in the number of per capita patents issued. In the 19 th century, Connecticut’s yearly ratio was three to four times the national average of one patent for every 3,000 citizens. Eli Whitney (1765-1825), a Yale graduate, the son of a Massachusetts farmer, realized that Connecticut, and the United States generally, lacking the large supply of skilled artisans working in Europe, would have to make do. Whitney was the first American to publicize the principle of interchangeable parts, an idea that necessitated precision manufacturing machines. Whitney built a factory in New Haven to produce cotton gins, which were 10 times more productive than hand labor. They made profitable the cultivation of short-staple cotton throughout the South, which encouraged the expansion of the slave system and intensified the regional rivalries that ultimately led to the Civil War. In 1798, Whitney turned to the production of military muskets. Whitney’s government contracts encouraged gunsmiths in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont to produce improved jigs, fixtures, boring mills, and milling machines for gun barrels, stocks, and firing mechanisms.
Calyer Street in Brooklyn was a block facing west across to 14th Street’s end at the East River in Manhattan, toward Washington Square Park in the Village and Christopher and Barrow Streets on the Hudson. Descartes made these Cartesian observations possible. If you looked at a map, one-block-Calyer ran into north/south West Street, the westernmost road in north (Greenpoint) Brooklyn. West Street’s name changed to Kent Avenue as it traveled south until it seemed to end at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But at the little green of Williamsburg Place under the Brooklyn/ Queens Expressway, the avenue reappeared, and as it crossed Flushing Avenue it brachiated, engendering Emerson, Classon, and Taafee.
On Sputnik’s launch date, October 4, 1957, Uncle Theo’s body was found in the East River off the Greenpoint Piers. Had he jumped or been dumped off one of them? He was notable even among Hayleys for his movie star looks and his Thanksgiving grace: “Let us give thanks for Aristotle’s School at Mieza, where he educated Alexander, the ingrate who later berated his teacher for making public knowledge that The Great thought best kept exclusive to the elite. Now dig in!”
Uncle Theo, a naval lieutenant in WWII, eschewed the military. He was called to sea via personal history, not Pearl Harbor. “Hayleys always sail.” Surviving the war, he became a copywriter for a major NYC radio station (where he met his first wife) and thereafter an early TV producer, creating The Howdy Doody Show, where he often packed its Peanut Gallery with nephews, nieces, and his two daughters Thalia and Thorne. (Princess Summerfallwinterspring did nothing for him; Claribel was a sadist.) He also became an alcoholic, which for some time enhanced his irresistible charm. That was a common delusion until Dudley Moore’s Arthur movies collided with an increasing Prohibition health consciousness decades later.
In 1937, when Theo was 15, his father had him called out of prep school class in Connecticut where they were at the climax of Huck Finn (“All right then, I’ll go to hell!”) with the news of his maternal grandfather’s sudden death on the golf course.“Take the train down to the City and out to Brooklyn, and I’ll drive us back up to Mystic.I have something to tell you.” This circular route made no sense to Theo, but life was increasingly appearing to him as Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels.
On the last leg of the trip, as they passed Rye Playland, his father suddenly pulled off the road at an exit. A police car followed them.
“You can’t stop here,” the cop said, beginning to write a ticket.
“Please, Officer,” Theo’s father said, “I’m telling my son that his mother has left us for another man,” and he named the man.
Inured to scenes of greater catastrophe, the policeman nevertheless relented and left them with a warning.
After the funeral, Theo’s mother was inconsolable. When Theo went to her bedroom to try, she spoke wildly.“My father was a giant! Hit by lightning, a thunderbolt! Struck down by jealous gods! A creator! A Hayley! He inherited forests, the lumber business, industrialized silk—invented the machines, built the factories—the Japanese Emperor gave my father a medal! One of the trinity creating Mystic Seaport! He employed the family’s men and men in two states—Theo, you must always be a gentleman,” she choked.“You are not your father’s son. I was raped, and you are a rapist’s son. But you are a Hayley!”
Theo recoiled. He listened to his mother’s ragged breathing. Then he heard himself exhale, icing his respiration into the words: “Never need worry, Mother. I’m also a queer.”
She shut her Gorgon eyes.
But Theo had not been turned to stone. Leaving that room, he felt surprise and relief. He’d spoken a truth he’d only known as nameless fear, and now seeing it, it was so much smaller than its nightmare form that he felt like laughing—also nauseated and his stomach ached, as if he’d vomited, but of all the things he’d just learned—about his grandfather’s ludicrous death by golf, his mother’s victimized life, his alleged paternity, the divorce—the thing that mattered most was what he now knew about himself and how he felt. “All right then, I’ll go to hell!” Theo felt better.
So, why, wondered his nephew Rob in 2011, had Uncle Theo’s last sea journey been in the East River as a corpse? In the midst of the patriarch’s death and his daughter’s hysterical first divorce (Hayleys committed serial marriages rather than murders), when the NYPD labeled Uncle Theo a suicide, no one had cared to investigate. Rob’s two cousins, Thalia and Thorne, Uncle Theo’s only children, had been scattered to backwaters in Bermuda and the Isle of Wight by their own marital escapades and didn’t share Rob’s curiosity, piqued when Thalia self-published a Hayley family history, hardly including her father as a footnote. “There’s a reason dogs don’t chase parked cars,” she emailed Rob, recently retired from four decades as a Connecticut College English professor: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” came instantly to Rob’s mind along with revived memories of Uncle Theo—in Manhattan, at The Howdy Doody Show; in Uncle Theo’s Bartleby-like room in the family lumber business building in Brooklyn; sailing on the 34 ft. Kairos in the Sound off the Connecticut coast in the summers; how handsome Uncle Theo was, how heliotropic.
Rob had only seen Uncle Theo drunk once, one Thanksgiving before he married second wife Laura, the black woman he brought to his mother’s house for dinner. Grandmother Hayley and Rob’s mother had each taken an elbow of Laura’s and led her away from Uncle Theo who was left to the men—to do what? Rob remembered only the image of the two white women at the beautiful black woman’s elbows. But he knew that after alcoholism ended his TV career and second marriage, Uncle Theo had gone on the wagon. There had been at least two holiday seasons when Uncle Theo had been the life of the parties solo and sober, sipping limed soda or ginger ale in a champagne flute.
Uncle Theo had gone to work for Rob’s father in the Brooklyn lumber business. “Your Uncle Theo could sell a pile of twisted lumber to a seasoned salesman—snow to the Eskimos!” The two city blocks on the waterfront in Greenpoint were the last remnant of the Hayley empire begun three centuries before that had consumed Adirondack forests stolen from Mohawks who had ironically named the area R atirontaks , insulting the also indigenous Algonquins for “eating trees” when food was scarce. The Dutch had transliterated the word Aderondackx. This information was included in Thalia’s history: “The Hayleys developed, defended, and defined 18 th and 19 th century America and are dedicated to remember it in the 20 th and 21 st. Northeastern forests cut down in the 18 th and 19 th centuries regrew when farm fields were abandoned. The region is now one of the most important for carbon storage on the planet.”
Another 1957 memory: Thorne had run away from home in Stonington to Rob’s parents’ house in Mystic. Rob’s mother called him at prep school in Virginia as he packed for Thanksgiving.
“Maybe you can calm her down,” Rob’s mother said. “She listens to you.”
She put Thorne on the phone. Rob could hardly make out what she was saying, about—what? Sputnik?
Rob didn’t remember what he’d told his cousin, but it must’ve been some Southern prep school paternoster about the necessity of forgiving the older generation for the sins they’d inherited and passed down. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. Because Rob knew that’s what he was telling himself at that pivotal time in his adolescence when Uncle Theo had just died.
This October day in 2011, Rob was sailing the inherited Kairos out of New London where he had lived for a quarter century with Isaac, who like Uncle Theo’s Laura, was black. Isaac, ten years Rob’s junior, was a professor in the Art Department at Connecticut College where Rob was emeritus in English. Isaac was leaning back warm in the sun as memories of Uncle Theo prompted Rob, “He built a model plane with a real engine mounted behind a real propeller and said, ‘We’re going to take this baby out and make her soar!’ And we did…”
Rob squinted at the autumn sun. “Ask Ptolemy and Copernicus what the Sun’s relationship is to Earth, you get two different answers. One’s a false, failed assumption about reality. And Henry Adams’s essay on energy and economy: The Virgin and the Dynamo… Was Great Grandfather Hayley a dynamo and we’re—what are we now, batteries?”
Isaac, familiar with Rob’s rhetorical wanderlust, kept his eyes closed and enjoyed the swell from the wake of the Cross Sound ferry lifting and lowering the Kairos. Now he opened them and followed Rob’s celestial squint.
“Never bad weather out of a Watteau sky,” Isaac said.
“My father was married seven times,” Rob said. “And us—not even once.”
As the sailboat heeled over, Isaac’s fingers glossed through small white-cresting swells.
Rob saw Isaac’s gesture. “Foam’s an accidental excrescence of the sea, probably another one of those fractal iterations of the 3 – 5% percentage of the Universe that we’re supposed to be.”
Isaac raised his hand and flicked water at Rob. “Ashes to ashes, foam to foam.”
Rob brought the boat about; Isaac assisted. Heading home, they were quiet, listening to the sails, water, and seabirds. Close to the marina, tightening his grip on the tiller, Rob continued his interior monologue out loud.
“The summer I was 15, I was on the Kairos, right at that cove,” Rob pointed, “with Uncle Theo. He told me about Lord Byron and Lukas. He quoted, ‘ Love dwells not in our will./ Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot/ To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.’ Byron let meter force a lie,’ Uncle Theo said, ‘Nothing wrongly there, kid. It’s just the times.’”
“Was that a proposal before?”
“It’s about time.”
It was a hot night in October, not Indian Summer because though there had been chilly days, no frost so far. Still, it was a night that belonged to summer, not autumn, and the inconsistent weather was to blame for the awful cold Theo had. Shocked out of a nightmare of choking, he had awakened in his small room in the lumberyard. He couldn’t breathe. Groggy with sleep and panic, he groped around in the bathroom for Miltown and Dristan. He stripped off sweat-soaked pajamas and dressed—he had to get some air.
He walked two blocks to the nearest pier, shaking his head to clear it of the thick humid clouds that also blackened the sky. How could it be so hot in October? Had that Russian satellite affected the weather? He could feel the pill start to work. Pills? The Dristan made his heart race, but the Miltown dulled fear into placid observation that he might have taken too many of either—or both kinds.
And then he fell, suddenly and wholly underwater into high tide. For a moment, the shock was joy, and he was a boy back in Mystic, leaping off the dock to cool off on summer nights. But the cold October current numbed him now. ‘Ee’en in the gasp of death/ …Love dwells not in our will.’ It was so dark he didn’t know if his eyes were open or closed…he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. ‘O dear, what can the matter be, dear, dear, what can the matter be, O dear, what can the matter be, Theo’s so long at the fair.’ He was falling back to sleep, and in the distance he could see his sister’s lovely boy sailing on open seas…
On Christmas Eve, Rob and Isaac were married in an evening ceremony in Rob’s lifelong trustfund friend’s glass-walled condo on an upper floor in a high-rise in Williamsburgh just south of the Greenpoint Piers.
Looking out at the East River and lower Manhattan skyline, their hostess said, “It’s a shame it’s not summertime.We could’ve used the roof terrace.”
She was dressed in white mink-collared and cuffed red velvet like Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, and some of the guests were similarly camped up in seasonal costumes, as gifts or sugar plums, or candy canes, or elves.
“You couldn’t have hired two Rockettes and four Wooden Soldiers in June,” Rob thanked, hugging her. “Here is the perfect space and time.”
Although wintry months lay ahead, the wedding ceremony was an expression of the hopeful solstice as in the northern hemisphere its holidays are. The couple’s vows, an amalgam of tradition and novelty, were applauded heartily by everyone there and by an avuncular one wherever.
Fiction, Vol. 6.1, March 2012 Charlotte, North Carolina September 1977: I am being baptized in the PTL swimming pool while Mom is fucking a cop in the Shoney’s bathroom. The giant Big Boy in front of the restaurant smiles, holds his hamburger up high into […]
Fiction, Vol. 6.1, March 2012
They call this yellow dirt in the yard mustard, which in long summers gets bored into by thirsty wasps and hornets. Mink goes out in junior cowboy boots, knowing it is trouble to do this, but on Sunday mornings his daddy is indifferent.
The man is cutting wood for the stove in just-after-sunrise light.
“Farwood,” Ike Corprew gruffs, biceps-wipe to his eyes, which are salty red and runny. “Inside with it, boy.”
Much as Mink knows, his mama has always been dead. She never spoiled the boy, but treated him with ice cream, brushed the pale curls from his blue eyes. Nothing she can do for him from behind a headstone.
He takes a rusted hatchet to shed the kindling of its piney bark before he takes it inside. They work together wordlessly, a big and a little man, in sweat and yellow dust. Mink loads the stove and lights it, sits to the bare table and rubs cream on his daddy’s saddle to bring out the dark shine.
Ike darkens the tiny front doorway and lifts a wiggling stick.
“Snake,” he says. This means they have a new skin to add to boots or belt.
They breakfast on chunk toast, coffee, and some smoked ham which has almost gone bad. Ike pours rye whiskey into his coffee and stares off till his eyes relax. On a low plank bench by the back door the dying moccasin writhes, its pale belly undulating with waves of death. A purple smear of blood fills the grooves where Mink learned to carve his initials in white pine, and later – when his hand grew steadier with age – his mother’s short, plain name.
Ike’s eyes follow the boy’s to the toddler bench. The serpent’s head has stilled; only the tail moves.
“It can still bite,” Ike warns, rubbing a massive hand across his face like one who has just gotten out of bed. “Lop its head for us, boy.”
Mink, who is small for ten, squats at the bench and holds the knife over the snake’s lean throat. The blade, as Ike says, is sharp enough to cut a breathing hole in a coffin. He brings the blade down, severing head from body. The tail still flickers.
Mink sits atop a post by the chute, looking at a blue sunset above the packed bullring. Ike is wrapping a gloved fist with the powdered rope, sitting stiffly atop his bull, Red Devil. The boy tips his hat to a fat man sitting across the ring, about halfway up the bleachers. Mink is proud of his cowboy hat because it is not made of straw like the other kids wear.
“Gimme a second,” Ike growls, so close the boy can smell his daddy’s sour breath. But they don’t wait and Ike jolts into the ring, twisted, left arm bent upwards like a ballerina’s, Red Devil lurching, the soft clumps of dirt – the whole earth – vibrating.
The man across the way waves his big white hat in the air. Mink cups his hands to his mouth and hollers. Ike beats the limit and spills running already to the dirt, holding his hat on his head, his black leather vest flapping at his back.
“Hoooo!” Mink hollers.
The man across the way is whipping his hat through the air and laughing, laughing so hard it looks like his face is on fire.
Mink was one of the smallest boys on his pee-wee baseball team. A baggy jersey and his hat brim rolled into an upside-down U, he was teased as much for his puny size as he was for the fact his daddy couldn’t keep the uniform white enough.
“Your daddy wash you in whiskey, too?” they would sneer. “Cause he washes your clothes in it. Don’t he? Or beer. Is it beer, tadpole?”
Mink would ball up his fists, lay them on his knees, and look off to the treetops beyond the fence, or settle his eyes on the motionless flag in center field.
On this evening, a beefy-faced pitcher gives Mink a twisting punch to the ribs after the game. He wanders out of the dugout crying, muffled, mostly with his eyes. Ike sits on the tailgate of his truck, sucking at a beer and watching a few of the younger ladies.
“Hey, boy,” Ike growls. “Why tears?”
As Mink sputters, the man grows where he sits. He calmly puts the can in the bed and bangs closed the tailgate. He wipes his hands on his dirty jeans and passes his trophy cowboy hat to Mink with instructions to get no snot on it whatsoever. Then he sizes up the crowd of men and boys who are climbing into other trucks and cars.
Ike rolls his fists like when he is mounting a bull and walks to the man who has tolerated his son becoming a bully.
Mink sees his daddy on the Sundays before Ike goes in front of the judge and gets two years on the state farm. They had him charged with attempted murder but brought it down to felony assault and battery.
They locked up the house and sent Mink to stay with his Aunt Shay. It was worse than ever. Ike said it would be the same as living with the devil himself.
“Keep one eye open at night,” he warns as they load him, in shackles, onto a rusted bus with men peering wanly or with anger from dusty windows.
Aunt Shay is not a big woman, but she has the arms and shoulders of a man. Short blonde hair. No eyebrows. A snarl always to her cracked lips.
“You eat too much,” she tells Mink early on. “You ought to work for meals.”
He says he has been working ever since the beginning. He says he doesn’t mind working around, whether he has to or not.
“You’ll have to,” Shay leers, holding what looks to be a fat dead cat in the crook of her muscled arm. “And then some.”
Her beaten clapboard sits high off the swampy lot. It is almost fully encircled by short pines. There is always a cat stuck in some limbs, mewling.
“Your mama was purty,” Shay tells him one gray afternoon after the bus has dropped him off from school. “I was never anything to look at. So I took to fighting and drinking. Fucking.”
Mink is watching a cat awaken from its nap in the corner of the bent porch. The cat acts as if it is being born, as if consciousness is new, startling, and dull.
“Go wash your face and ass.” Shay spits on the dirt and the cat looks over. “I cain’t work with no man who stinks.”
“Yes,” he says. “But I’m still just a boy, Aunt Shay.”
“Not for long,” she says, rolling a cigarette between her browned, stubby fingers.
Ike writes one letter a week. Usually it tells Mink all that is happening in the bunkhouse and the yards. It is clear from the handwriting that somebody is taking dictation from his father. Neat and curvy, like a teacher or social worker.
In the fall, Shay spends a whole week “laying low” out at the camp a mile back of the house, in the woods. Mink misses the bus just once. He befriends most of the cats in his aunt’s absence, all but the fat yellow one that plays dead in Shay’s arms.
When she comes back she has money, lots of it, but still forces Mink to cut wood for the stove and coerce the sickly hens to lay eggs.
“Your mama was purty,” Shay says again. “And you are purty, too. Like a girl is purty.”
Ike writes that he will not be home for Thanksgiving, nor Christmas. He says one of the fellas cut his arm off in the shop. They sent him home early.
“I’d do it, too,” Ike’s Good Samaritan writes, “but then I couldn’t ride bulls no more.”
At the first good freeze, the killing frost, in early November, Shay goes berserk. She sets the woods on fire and shoots her bolt-action rifle at trucks out on the highway. But the law never comes.
“This is Buffalo City,” she sneers at Mink, on the porch where he eats dinner in the cold twilight. “It ain’t no law come here. Not since the old boys stopped running whiskey. The law don’t come here no more. It is a lawless place out here, boy.”
He believes her because there is no reason not to. It is the next morning, a cold and bright Sunday, when she goes into what, in a warning to his son, Ike called “rock bottom crazy.”
It is as quiet as he has heard it around Shay’s, not even the soothing whisper in the pines. Shadows are blue in the house and the yard, light is pure as crystal. She stands at the tailgate of her rusted truck – which has no motor. She stares into the bed, from which the fog of someone’s breath rises.
Mink steps along the porch to the pipe handrail. It is cold to the touch. The shadow of a bird crosses the dying grass between them.
Shay lifts and points the nose of her pistol at the person laying face-up in the back of her Ford.
“It’s a snitch, boy,” she calls out calmly. She looks at Mink for a second, a flash. “A lousy damned snitch.”
Then she shoots out the back window in the cab, which was already cracked. It brings an echo through the thick woods, a gentle tinkling within the truck. The breaths stop fogging the bars of light above the bed.
Mink hears a man’s voice moan please. Then he hears Shay cock the old revolver. The cats are moving in the shadows, stirred by the gunshot. They stay like this, it seems forever, till the dust and rumble of a big shiny diesel truck gets their attention.
Shay just stares at it as the driver’s door swings open, a bell going ding-ding-ding in the cab. Mink watches a tall slender man step out, wipe his gray hair back with his fingers, and look around. He wears expensive Western boots, a white dress shirt and black leather suspenders, comb in his pocket, pleated silver dress pants. Mink hasn’t seen his grandfather in two years.
Orin Corprew walks to Shay, grips her arm – right at the knotted muscles of her elbow – and stands her up straight as a flagpole, at arm’s length. He speaks, low and firm, till her face goes blank.
Orin turns to Mink and beckons him with a finger. He tells the boy to climb in the truck. The snitch has lifted himself to sit in Shay’s truck, watching. He wipes his nose and Mink tries to recollect if he has seen this bearded dirty man before.
Orin lets Shay’s arm go and he points the pistol down, like he is a bear trainer or lion tamer, with some quiet, unspoken magic to his skills.
“Get right with the Lord, son,” he tells the snitch. He never says another word to Shay. He just drives off with Mink and leaves them to their situation, to let whatever happens happen in rock bottom crazy.
This is one of Mink’s best days. Even though it all happens because his daddy is penned in the state farm, he is all smiles and energy, butterflies in his stomach.
“Nobody rides a bull like that, when he is light of having hair on his arms,” Orin concedes proudly, as they push through raw open farmland in bright sun. “Old boy could rope with one hand, shoot crows with the other.”
“Like in a Western,” Mink whispers, watching the rough grasses speed by.
“Like in a Western, yes,” Orin nods. “Same as old Roy Rogers or Tex Ritter. But without the singing.”
He laughs and says it is tough to raise a son with no wife nor mother to help, but that he did it. Orin is one of the owners of a peanut mill in Corapeake, up north an hour from Mink and Ike. He admits money helps to raise a child on your own.
“We ain’t so broke,” Mink says, wiping his nose. Orin turns and holds his iron gaze on the boy. “We got enough to get by on most of the time.”
“Most of the time? What about times when you don’t?”
“Well,” Mink says, trailing away. “I forget.”
“You forget just that then? Just when you don’t?”
Mink nods, fidgeting, looking for the prison which is soon to appear up ahead, fences, low towers, cinderblock bunkhouses, scraggly men filing around the yard.
“I ain’t but a boy, granpop,” he says. “I can forget things. It happens at my age.”
“I reckon it does,” Orin says, seeing the prison now, a bleak campus huddled darkly among the swamps. “Folks say the same thing about men my age.”
“Do you forget?”
Orin shakes his head. “Not my style, son.”
They are led along a couple, maybe three unlit corridors to a waiting area. Mink had expected it to be a noisy place, with hollering and laughing heard all over. Instead, it has less noise than a hospital. They are at one end of a long table with a hangdog-faced woman at the other end. She has a fancy red tie and a leather bible in her hands. She acts like she is protecting them from thieves.
Orin starts to whistle softly while they wait. The young woman lifts her big brown eyes over at him and tilts her head.
“Ain’t that a purty song,” she smiles. She is pretty when she smiles.
“It’s Jim Reeves,” Orin tells her.
“It’s purty,” she says.
Then three guards come in and the head one starts reciting all the rules and how things will work during their visit, which is limited to one hour.
Mink looks back over to the pretty young woman, but she has returned to staring gloomily down at the tie and bible she has brought for some wayward man.
In one of his grandfather’s stories on the way down, Mink heard the funniest things ever told about Ike Corprew. Orin still tells it with a wide grin on his face. You have to go back to the early 1950s, when men like Orin were just back from World War II – and had yet to leave for Korea. Ike was maybe six.
The family (Ike’s mother is still alive, not even aware of the cancer that will soon take her life) takes one of its Saturday drives to the beach at Kitty Hawk. The only way onto the barrier islands then was by ferry. They squeezed about thirty cars onto each trip across the Currituck Sound.
Some folks would fish during the ride.
“It was less’n an hour’s ride, is what I remember,” Orin says to Mink.
Orin and his wife, Donna, are holding hands at the guardrail, watching pelicans and seagulls and osprey glide above the brown-green chop of the sound. Till everyone starts to holler and someone blows a horn.
Orin says he turned to look just as Ike drives a showroom-new Cadillac off the end of the ferry and plops it in the water.
“I jumped in and held on to the bumper, waiting for it to sink,” the old man says wistfully. “But we just drifted south, toward Manteo, for an hour or two, till the Coast Guard showed up in a boat.”
Mink has a million questions and doesn’t know which one to ask first.
“Cot me six-thousand dollars,” Orin sniffs. He says it cost nearly as much to pay for repairs to the ferry as it did to replace that Virginia man’s Cadillac.
“But that’s when I learned something about your daddy,” he goes on, pointing out the windshield now, like a preacher. “That was the day I learned that Ike is constituted like a Kamikaze pilot. Without fear. And dangerous because of it.”
Mink tells Ike the story as they sit around a picnic table outside, under a leafless tree. Ike rubs at his eyes and smiles, but he looks real tired. The brown stain the sun gives his face, neck, and arms is fading with each day of incarceration. He says it is him and a few other fellas who are the ones who don’t go outside that often.
“Violent offenders,” he whispers, picking at his hands.
Orin frowns and says nothing.
“Who else is in here, daddy?” Mink asks, squinting up at his father.
Ike shrugs. “Drunks, fornicators, thiefs, hopheads, cheats, bums, and coloreds.”
“When is you getting out?”
Ike shrugs again but says he hopes it is soon. Christmas or just after the new year. Orin spits in a paper cup he has brought outside and says it is time to address the facts. He says Ike is serving two years in prison, and he has another year at least to serve – given good behavior or not.
Ike wipes his face again.
“It’s a long time either way,” Orin says. There is a buzzer that goes off and men on the far end of the yard wander out of a string of bunkhouses.
Orin spits in the cup. He says he is putting Mink into a Christian school. For the rest of the year at least. He says any good Southern boy needs bible studies along with proper education.
Ike pulls out a cigarette and lights it, lets blue smoke hover before his face. He asks who is helping Orin with the boy.
“Mary,” Orin says. He gives Mink’s head a rub. Ike grins and rubs his knee.
“Claude and Mary is good people,” he says of his cousins who, being born-again, have fallen out of touch with Ike for years, since high school. Ike points a finger at his father and holds it, trembling slightly.
“He is to keep learning how to ride,” Ike instructs. “I mean bulls and rodeo horses. Make a note that I told your granpop you is to ride bulls, Mink.”
The boy nods and tries his hand at spitting in the dry grass at his feet. He rubs at the dribble he’s made with the heel of his boot, his favorite riding boots.
“This one’s the best of the bunch,” Ike smiles at Orin. “Ya’ll best be good to this one, cause when he’s famous on TV you’ll have folks ask if you know him. If you and Mink Corprew is related.”
There is another buzz and more men stroll out into the yard. For the first time, the light – the long shadows – gives away the late hour of the afternoon. Ike looks at his watch, a rodeo prize.
“Time is about gone,” he says flatly.
Orin spits in his cup and gazes over the men who have come out for Sunday exercise before supper. He might see one or two men who are smiling.
“It will be over and done with before we know it, and you’ll be home again, son,” he says.
His Aunt Mary could not be any more different from Aunt Shay. She is a tiny woman, quiet, who wears a type of flowery embroidered uniform around the house all day. When in the kitchen, she puts on an apron with almost identical embroidery. She wears huge reading glasses on a chain, but she is not old. When she smiles at Mink, which is often, it warms his heart.
He helps her feed the dogs before the bus comes to take him off to Mount Gilead Christian Academy. She is all business about it, fussing at the ones that get too eager, too early.
“When is old Madge gonna birth her puppies?” he asks. Madge is an arthritic yellow lab who is currently penned by herself, next to the others, but will not come out of her box till after she has had the puppies.
“Any day, hon,” Mary says as she scolds a bird dog named Max who tries to nose out of the gate as she is closing it.
“Can I name one? One of Madge’s pups?”
She gives Max a pet on the nose through the fence.
“You may. So long as it is a Christian name.”
“Oh,” Mink says. His mind is being filled with all there is to know about Christian things, and he has yet to sort it all out.
“Can I name him Jesus? If Madge has a boy?”
Mary stops what she is doing and stares at him. Over his shoulder the white bus rolls between the oaks and starts flashing its lights at the end of the lane.
“Honey,” she says, “your bus is here.”
When he gets home, Mink is still thinking about it. He asked a buddy at school what he thought and his buddy said Jesus is an all right name for a dog. He wants to make sure he has his name in the pot before Claude or somebody chimes in with a name.
Mary is watering her flower pots, though the fall mums have about browned away. She points to a rocker as he steps up the porch.
“You have a letter, hon. From your daddy.”
He will ask about Jesus later, taking Ike’s letter straight to his room. He locks the door, sits on the bed and reads it with moving lips.
Ike has got a prison job. Not many fellas get one. It is an honor and a benefit. Ike says he can send Christmas money now, and keep payments and taxes going for the house.
They are logging an old pulp mill place, deep in the swamp, and it takes horses – and men on horseback – to get a trail started. Even in these modern times, it takes a mule to get a job started. I don’t imagine the State has any horses I can’t handle. I will get pictures of me and my horse and will send you one straight off.
The rest of the letter is the usual news about life in the bunkhouse and how good the food is. He is folding it back when Mary taps at the door. She lets herself in using a key.
“Is you all right?” she asks softly, smiling.
Monk nods and wipes his nose.
“My daddy got a job,” he says.
“What? I don’t understand, hon. Cousin Ike is in prison …”
“A prison job, Aunt Mary. Riding horses. Like in a Western.”
“Oh. Well, any able-bodied man needs to work. Even if he is shackled from his sins.”
“Aunt Mary, can I name that boy dog Jesus? If Madge has one in the litter?”
“Well no, hon. We don’t name animals after the Lord. That ain’t what we do. Do you have another name?”
“Not yet. Just give me a bit to think of one.”
“Well, you got till morning then, cause old Madge is already starting into labor, hon.”
Mink claps his hands over his head and gives Mary a big grin. He asks can he go watch. He already has his cowboy hat on his head.
“Sure, hon. We can watch till supper. Then you got lessons and bath and prayers.”
He asks who will keep watch over Madge after dark, will it be Claude.
“Yes, hon,” Mary says. “Uncle Claude takes the night shift around here with the animals.”
Claude is a stout, balding man who is even more docile than his wife. He is a broker at the farmer’s exchange and was a pastor years ago. He takes Mink out on the sly, right after midnight, to look at Madge’s puppies. They are shivering under the heat lamps, but Claude says they are just fine.
“Is there a boy?” Mink asks, trying to see closer.
Claude nods, holds up two fingers. He points at the pair on the far right, in the corner of the box.
“The one to the end is the one I’ll name, Uncle Claude. His name is … Abel. The good brother from the bible.”
Claude nods approval and they back away from the opening to let Madge and her puppies rest. It has begun to rain a fine mist. Claude’s glasses puddle up almost instantly, and he thumbs them dry so he can see. What he sees is his wife coming hurriedly down the porch steps as she tries to shield the mist with her hand. She joins them under the green light of the yard lamp and puts her hand quickly to her mouth.
They bury Ike in the family cemetery beside Orin’s place. It is a small plot surrounded by a knee-high wall of white brick. The wind scours the earth out here, so there are never flowers.
Orin squeezes Mink’s hand the entire time the preacher eulogizes. He lays a palm on the boy’s shoulder when they lower the casket in. Mary dabs at his eyes and nose when she comes over and Mink offers his limp hand for all to shake.
The white sun sits atop the cemetery all afternoon, till it plummets into the dark treeline at dusk, leaving room for the stars to fill all this black sky.
“Abel!” Mink hollers. “Abel, come here!”
The dog is the fastest of the bunch. The strongest. He pounds to a halt at his trainer’s feet. Mink takes a rope and circles it over his head, again and again. The dog watches with fascination, eagerness, learning. Mink ropes the post and Abel barks his approval.
They ride out through freshly painted wheat fields, using windrows, at a full run at one point, till Mink pulls up some to let Abel catch up.
Mink pumps water for horse and dog, cups some to his own mouth, pushes back his hat – one that Ike won in Georgia years ago – and watches a truck come up the lane, shiny as a new penny.
Orin waves as he goes in the house and Mink waves back. Abel lies at his feet and breathes heavily. He has one blue and one green eye, and they go wherever Mink puts his gaze.
A cloud rises, pink in the evening, and drops cool heavy rain out across the green winter wheat stretched flat between swamps. It splatters the dry dust in the cemetery, filling the grooves in the tombstones where the names of Corprews have been carved. It dampens the white marble of Ike’s grave and pushes toward the house, a sheet of rain.
Mink reaches between his boots and dislodges an arrowhead, flint relic of the Moratoc, and turns it over in his hand. It is smooth as iron, heavy. It may have killed panthers or bears, or even a soldier in one of the early wars of this nation.
Raindrops smack his shoulders and neck, and he squeezes the stone in his palm, clangs the gate to the corral closed, shouts at Abel to follow, and runs ahead of the storm.