Ann B. Stephenson
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In the year 2022 and in pursuit of her beautiful and not-quite-human father, Carme Risk enters “narrative therapy.” Propelled by her memories and her father’s journal, which take her from the Edenic island of her childhood to arevolutionary Latin American nation to life in northern California, Risk moves through worlds of romantic intrigue, machete murders, occult freedom fighters, and surrealist bacchanals. A roiling and wildly entertaining ride, Black Oxen is a hyperinventive novel of political revolution, black magic, sexual predation, and a therapist’s couch.
Some years ago a young man and a boy of fifteen were walking along the banks of a river, looking for a good place to fish. Or rather, the boy had some memory of a better place he'd once tried, only a little farther on. They weren't particularly good at fishing, or interested in it, but they liked each other's companyin a contentious and unsettled way. Fishing, they could be together, but about some business, with no commitment to conversation.
The man was the boy's guardian, and had been for eighteen months. Other adults were involveda welfare agency, a doctor, a developmental psychologistbut the man was the only one who had really taken the boy on, who was affectionate, bossed a little, and asked to have his own feelings considered.
For this man everything had happened at once, in a momentous two-month period a year and a half before. First, he found he was the sole beneficiary of the will of a well-regarded and wealthy grandfather he'd scarcely known, and was suddenly in possession of a lovely house, a bit of land, and a portfolio of investments that his grandfather's executor said was in fine fettle. Next, he had to deal with what he'd dreaded and tried to postpone, the results of some tests he'd been obliged to take because he'd had a few too many short blackouts at the controls of his jet. Blackouts induced by the g forceshe flew fighter jets for the RAF. The tests detected some "cumulative damage." He would always have to look at the world through a swarm of gray amoebic shapes that were, in fact, blood cells loose between the retinas andlenses of his eyes. Eyes and brain had been too hard-pressed, and had thereafter to be left in peace. He had to give up the jets. So he took a disability discharge and gave up the air force altogether. He didn't want to assess the performance of cadets in simulators or teach theories of flight.
He drove up the country to take inventory of his grandfather's houseand kicked a loose tile back and forth along the terrace while it rained. For a time he stared at the green smoke of spring willows down the valley, then asked his grandfather's gardener, "Are there fish in that river?"
There were fish, yes, brown trout and perch. There was a living once in fishing here, and some ancient fishing rights were accorded the people of the village. "But it's gone nowthat village. See?" said the gardener. "Over there is the remains of a mill. The place was inhabited up until quite recently. Most of the people moved out only a little way, to Gatelawbridgeor thereabouts. Oh, no, Mr. Cadaverit was nothing like the clearances."
At a specialist shop just south of the border, the man bought a rod and chest-high rubber waders. Then he used the waders as a jelly mold for a party in his flat near the base. He formed the mold with three dozen packets of jelly crystals and two gallons of vodkawhich made a stiff blue-and-red jelly. He cut the waders open with a scalpel to have the jelly out intact.
Two days after the party, still dehydrated, he was woken at 5 a.m. by a scraping boom as part of the squadron went out on a scheduled exercise. A moment later, when he was sitting on the edge of his bed, mustering energy for a walk to the bathroom, he heard a noise, a loud pop, which he knew was the sound the stainless steel kitchen countertop made when it was depressed and then released. (He'd made that sound himself climbing through the kitchen window once when he'd forgotten his keys.) He found the nearest weapon and went out to investigate. He crept to the kitchen, turned on the light, and hefted his shoe to threaten a skinny boy with matted hair, who was about to go out the window with an armload of party leftovers, including a chicken carcass that had sat about sweaty and neglected all evening at the party and was probably a health hazard. Concerned about this, the man leaped across the room and grabbed the boy's ankle.
"Hey! You!" he said. The boy gave a start, but didn't otherwise make any move to go. He let his ankle be held. He looked up, apparently amused by the shoe, and then into the man's face, with a slow, awed widening in his expressionlike, the man later told people, Balboa in the jungles of the isthmus, sighting the Pacific and saying: "Dios mio! This isn't the ocean I've crossed."
The man noticed several things at oncewhich is how things happened to him, how his mind worked, and also what he came to expect from the world (he'd never asked anyone to justify an act with one good reason, he always wanted ten). He noticed that the boy was sticky to the touch and had a powerful musky aura, where bodily health had somehow converted dirt to the ozone of rain on dirt. The boy was thin and had snaky red scabies scars at his hairline, and his dark eyes darkened more, giving way onto a capacious gulf of expectant attention.
"Hey," the boy echoed. "You."
It was the first thing he'd said for ten years.
The man's name was Carlin Cadaver. There was a Genovese ancestor. When Carlin Cadaver and the very proper but overextended authorities had scratched together the boy's intermittent records, they discovered the child had been named three times in different incarnations at institutions the length of the country, always by diminutives of very commonplace names. That was the effect he had on peoplea combination of tender protectiveness and an associated desire to make him somehow more ordinary. The boy was "Jimmy" before he went missing at five (his foster family hadn't ever really got over it). He was "Billy" when he appeared, perhaps eight years of age but wordless, at a hospital emergency room in Leeds. He had pus-streaked patches of scabies on his neck, in his groin and armpits, and between his fingers. The authorities had possession of him for a year after thatlittle Billyand two different child psychologists examined him and put up quite convincing arguments for both elective mutism and autism. Billy ran away againand didn't reappear officially till the police had him two years later. He was "Fredo" then, because of the huge hoard of chocolate Fredo frogs among other shoplifted goods filling his packing-case nesta thin, utterly silent, mostly passive child who wouldn't meet anyone's eyes but who had a surprisingly sound set of straight scummy teeth, and good bones. Fredo escaped from a locked van transporting him to a "home." There was a female constable in the back of the van with him. She said that when the van stopped at a red light with a long cycle, Fredo tried the handle. She had just warned him"Here! You sit down, that's locked!"when the door opened and he got out, gave her one quick little look (the only eye contact he made), and shut the door. The constable found herself locked in and watching Fredo walk away along a traffic island.
"Jimmy, Billy, Fredo," the caseworker said to Carlin Cadaver. "He never answered to any of them. So it's your choice"
"Call me Ishmael," said the boy, his nose in a book.
"He's not pretending, you know," Carlin said, almost squawking with indignation. "He says he taught himself to read."
"There's writing everywhere," the boy said, and looked up at them, making eye contact. He had gone to the opposite pole and did this more readily than most people. He was trying to find out from their faces why it was surprising that anyone should teach themselves to read, being surrounded by road signs and billboards. He put his face back behind the book, saying, with a faint air of accusation, "I told you I wanted to read true stories or stories about animals. This isn't really either."
Weeks passed. Carlin tried "Jimmy" and "Billy" and the boy just echoedwhich he always did when he was upset.
There was a lot of fuss about moving caseworkers, but Carlin Cadaver did have a home to offera stately home-or big, anyway, as lovely as a Victorian glasshouse-cum-wedding cake, by the same architect who built Dickens's house at Gad Hill. There was a very good developmental psychologist in the neighborhood. And a good school, an experimental school, but with traditional houses, boarders, boys and girls; with languages, French, German, Spanish, and Cantonese; and it offered twenty sports including fencing. (Carlin was trying to sell all this to the caseworker.)
"I want to learn how to kill with my bare hands," said the boy, who was reading a brittle paperback copy of To Russia with Love.
"Billy" Carlin admonished.
"Billy," the boy echoed, in a hollow whisper. Then, "Who could conquer the world with a name like Billy?"
Carlin said that the boy was a smart little sod, and he supposed the boy wanted to be called Bond, James Bond. Well, he was going to sodding adopt him and call him "Abra" and that would show him.
The boy laughed, getting it, and said that was fine by him. Though later, when he was working his way backward through Nobel Prize winners, he once raised an irritated face out of East of Eden and complained that Abra was a girl's name.
Carlin and Abra, their fishing rods waving like the antennae of field radios, had reached a place where the river seemed to put out into its stream a pinching thumb and finger of shingle spits. Each spit originated on a different bank where the river turned around two rock outcrops, but both spits lay straight in the current, sculpted by water. It was a quiet place, sheltered by low hills and by the willows and chestnuts beyond the track to the river. The nearest road was a quarter mile off, and never busy.
"I thought it was here." Abra had been looking for the place he'd found the previous Saturday, a place where the river split around what might have been an island, with its own stony beach and trees, hawthorn, hazel, and rowan, roots exposed where the water had eroded the bank. On one side of the island the channel had been narrow, deep, and green, and Abra had seen a big, dappled shape drift momentarily up into the light.
The boy stopped and looked about him. "It can't be the next bend because there's the bridge." He seemed very puzzled. A truck crossed the bridge; they could hear its mudguards slap the asphalt where the bridge had been resealed, a tad too high for the road beyond it.
"You know how good my memory is," Abra said. He had been uncertain, embarrassed, disappointed just for a momentnow he felt suspicious.
"This is a fine place though," Carlin said. He squatted and opened his tackle box, began to fasten hooks along his line.
Half an hour later they had coffee and a cold meat and mint sandwich. They watched the tiny pulls their lines made on the surface of the water. There was more traffic, the post van, early, and Abra watched Carlin watch it pass, watched him wonder about postcards from someplace NATO exercises had taken his mateslast month it had been Malta. Abra was always noticing things, then not knowing what to do about them. He noticed that when the sun came up, it lit a streak of slick reddish mud on the gray stones of the upstream shingle spit. Because he couldn't think of anything to sayabout the posthe got up, balanced his coffee cup on a flat stone, thrust the handle of his rod into the beach, and walked away. He crossed from the spit on his shore to the spit on the far shore by wading through the river. It came up to his thighs and was so cold his legs burned once he was out of it.
"Now you're wet you'll want to go back, I suppose," his guardian said, mild.
Abra studied the wedge of red silt, studied it up to what should have been its point of origin, where it stopped, thick still but sharp-edged, as though something had sat there keeping the shingle clean. Abra said to his guardian, "Things aren't like this."
"Things aren't like what?" Carlin had faith in the boy. He never mocked, never hurriedafter all, little Jimmy had, by report, been manipulating buttons through buttonholes at twenty months and how many children could do that?
Then Abra's line twitched. Carlin grabbed the rod and said, "Quick!" The boy loped back through the river to reel in his fish.
Three fish later, and on the way back, Abra left the track through the weeds, following a very fine trail of broken stems. He ducked into a place where some dry thorns were tangled with hanging willow fronds. Carlin came when called. There was a lean-to about the size of two closets and made of hardboard and some flat timber shingles. It had shelves inside it, along the back wall, which held blankets wrapped in oilclothreal oilcloth, canvas sealed with paraffinand a musty old army surplus anorak. There was also a bicycle, its chain loosened and well greased.
Abra looked at his guardian, his eyes wide. He was waiting for a reaction.
"Do you expect me to mind?" Carlin asked Abra. The lean-to was on his land.
"Someone comes here," Abra said.
"Well, yes, obviously."
Carlin received one of those black, unfathomable, I-don't-understand-why-you-don't-understand looks. He felt unhappy, and there was a kind of panic in his unhappiness. Abra was being "obscure." The psychologist said Abra's autism had, to a degree, mysteriously resolved itselfas sometimes happenedbut that there would probably be "whole registers of human interaction that would always be beyond him."
Abra sighed and shifted his feet and put one finger on Carlin's wrist. He'd looked blank, but suddenly had an expression of such beauty that it should have been love or joy or gaiety but was only eagerness and impatience. "Look," he said, "there is camphor in the paraffin of the oilcloth. But the wool isn't itself treated." He wriggled a pale fingertip through a hole in one blanket. "See? Here's a moth hole. The oilcloth is homemade."
"Yes? And the bike is a Raleigh, as in Walter, so I suppose we should keep our eyes out for the fabled city of gold?" said Carlin.
"Okay," Abra said. He slid, shrinkingly, past his guardian and picked up his rod from the path and went on home. Carlin followed, and continued patiently to ask what it was he'd failed to notice, and what Abra meant.
When he wasn't at school, Abra kept an eye on that bend in the river. It was summer. He'd take a book and lie in the shade along the long trunk of a fallen willow, near enough to the place to see in, but not too near. One day he arrived to find that the bike wasn't in the lean-to. He hovered for a bit, then climbed into his tree to wait. He finished his book. Then he practiced patience. Carlin called him in to lunchhis voice floating down the valley. Abra blocked his ears and waited. Later he sucked on a stonehaving read somewhere that this helped with thirst and hunger. He got down from his tree and, though he knew he shouldn't, he drank a little river waterthen played a game making patterns with slime on his feet and letting the sun dry them.
He managed to keep his back turned to the ticking of the bike's wheels and to the squawk as its brakes were involuntarily depressed when he was seen. There was a stealthy silence, then a slight stealthy noise as the bike was run on, and the thorn screen before the lean- to was moved, then resettled. When Abra turned around he saw a red-haired boy about his own age, sitting in the grass surrounded by plastic shopping bags.
"Hi," said Abra.
"Hi," said the boy.
Abra got up and minced over, trying to keep his feet immobile in order not to break the now stiff spirals and stars of blackened river slime. He introduced himself and asked for a name.
The boy thought for a bit. As he thought he scratched his neckhis shirt was wool and it was hot. "Twarky."
"What kind of a name is Twarky?"
"A family name," said the boy, with dignity.
Abra forgot his spirals and stars and began to sway from foot to foot. He told Twarky he should reciprocate.
"I don't know what that word isso I can't," Twarky said, stolid.
"You should say, `What kind of name is Abra?'"
"I was brought up to have better manners," said Twarky. Then, "Why don't you go? Can't you hear you're being called at for your meal?"
Abra stopped swaying. He considered this odd "at"then went back to the river to wash his feet and retrieve his boots. He came over to sit by Twarky while he put them on. He asked who the boy was waiting for.
"My big brothers, to help me carry all this."
"I could help."
"You're being called." Twarky was staring at Abra's footwearcamel-colored desert boots, of which Abra was very proud.
"You don't have an accent," Abra observed.
"No?" Twarky pretended interest, not understanding what Abra had said.
"Well, I'll be off," said Abra, and got up.
"Yes. Good-bye," said Twarky and offered his hand.
"Abra Cadaver," Abra said, taking it and shaking.
"Yes, I'm sure," said Twarky, improvising again.
Abra walked away, then, out of sight, doubled back around the nearest hill and came up over its crest, crawling low through the long grass. He could see the red head and the white bags. He lay on his stomach and kept watch.
At dusk Carlin called again. Then Abra heard Carlin's cousin, and the cousin's wife, who also lived in the house, add their voices. He heard the three calling adults spread out, giving the occasional holler. After a time the cousin and his wife must have gone back inbut Abra saw his guardian on the bridge, his big silhouette, looking upriver, then down into the water under the arch. Carlin switched a torch on and pointed it down there.
Below, the boy with the bags hunkered down in the grass, drawing the bags to him.
Carlin pointed his torch upriver, made shadows behind each stone. Agitated, animated shadows rushed back and forth in the path of the torch. Carlin held it still. Twarky cowered in the grass. Carlin switched off the torch and left the bridge. Twarky sat up slowly, and drew a jittery breath.
The insects came with the dark and began to make a meal of both boys. Abra felt quite giddy with the itching. The headlights of the odd car on the road behind the hill showed the insects about him, a billowing net with black knots. He was in great discomfort, but he stayed still. He stayed still, but the insects gave him away to the boy with the bags.
Abra heard the grass move, heard, "So, it's you!" Then Twarky hit him over the head with the hard leather sole of a shoe. (Abra reflected afterward that this was bound to happen to him sooner or later, it was in his stars, the shoe that threatened.)
When he came to, struggling up out of sharp pain, nausea, vertigo, he heard voices, plastic rustling, and people walking through the river. He heard words he couldn't understand. He got to his feet, found all the hills and trees nearer and blacker than ever and outlined in pink. Below him he saw the water flash, he saw white bags, he sawhe saw a thick fur of shadow in the middle of the river where before there was only unquiet water in braids of light. He thought he saw the trees of his island.
He had to go down there. But one of his feet wouldn't take his weightthere was a stabbing pain in its sole, so severe that he lost his footing and tumbledrolled over in the grass and sat up. He discovered that his boots had been taken and the sole of his right foot was slick with blood. He felt the stud of a thorn, tried to pull it out, but couldn't get purchase on the greasy blood. It hurt, and he'd been comfortable for so longhad even learned how to sleep in a bedthat he'd forgotten how to ignore pain. Instead of giving chase, Abra stayed still. He sat on the hill and listened. He heard the voices of the two men and the boy recedehe couldn't understand what they were saying. He heard a marsh bird boom. Behind that was something he had never heard, and couldn't hear, that he worked out only a moment laterwhen he did hear a truck on the bridgewas the sound of many square miles of antique silence, the silence of a place without engines.
Abra got up to limp home. The sky was blue againand by its light Abra could see that his island was still there, with its stand of trees, some of their roots showing in the red clay bank where the water had carved at it, making a slick of silt on the stones. Just over the treetops Abra could see the island's end, more river, and the bridge as usual.
It took him an hour to get homeand he made a good entry, limping across the lawn to the house just as the police arrived to look for him.
Elizabeth Knox is the author of many books, including The Vintner’s Luck, the first novel to be published outside her native New Zealand and a bestseller in England. She lives with her family in Wellington, England.
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