Fire in Beulahby Rilla Askew
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Set during the tense days of the Oklahoma oil rush, Rilla Askew's Fire in Beulah is a mesmerizing story that centers on the complex relationship between Althea Whiteside, an oil wildcatter's high-strung wife, and Graceful, her enigmatic black maid. Their juxtaposing storiesand those of others close to themunfold against a volatile backdrop of oil-boom opulence, fear, hatred, lynchings that climax in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, when whites burned the city's properous black community. Askew's award-winning first novel, The Mercy Seat, was praised for its astute diepiction of family bonds and the beauty of American landscape. Now she explores the American race story with the same perception.
"A tinderbox of a novel."The Boston Globe
"Poignant."The Riverfront Times, St. Louis
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Read an Excerpt
Near the Deep Fork River south of Bristow, I.T.
A high, hot wind had been blowing from the south for seven days. It blew morning and evening and did not lay at night as it should but cried and fingered at the windows till the sun rose, and then it went on blowing. A constant wind, an unremitting wind, it did not gust or fall but blew one monotonous gritty speed. Water could not be kept in the troughs for the animals but evaporated almost as quickly as it was pumped and had to be pumped anew each time the cattle started bawling. Washing on the line did not flap and dance but held a steady northward angle and dried bone-dry in less than twenty minutes. The older Whiteside girls complained their lips and cheeks were cracking. Their mother stayed indoors, though it was more miserably hot inside than out, because she feared the wind would suck the life from her unborn child.
She prowled from windowsill to windowsill in her tiny room, touched the rolled rags laid end to end across the cracks to hold back the dust, and pressed them against the openings, tighter. She paused, her hands entwined beneath her belly, stared out the glass at the bluestem grasses bowed and bending toward her, the stunted blackjacks (those ugly trees) hunched close to earth like dwarves or gnomes, their gnarled fingers reaching earthward: dear God, how she despised them! Beyond the jacks the brooding Deep Fork River crawled west to east, its meandering path made plain by the paler bark of river trees, the cottonwoods and sycamores, within the arc of hickories. Rachel raised her eyes and searched the sky for the moon's pocked face. For a week she'd watched it growing full, swelling as her belly swelled, rising a little later each day to hang above the trees, the blanched sky bleeding through its very features. The daymoon frightened her. For all its grinning, it seemed a malevolent thing: a ragged oval, frayed a little on one side, but soft and permeable, and growing in its porous membrane, like a great ruptured reptile egg, giving forth that cursed wind. Her eyes turned left, and right, straight up above, but the empty sky showed only windspun dust in ruddy light. On the north side of the house the motherless calf was bawling. Lord, couldn't one of the girls go feed that thing, or knock it in the head and leave it for the crows to eat, or something, anything, just shut up, shut up that useless bawling. Rachel eased over to the door and yanked the knotted pull-rag. The door slapped back against the wall. She called down the stairs, "Estaleen! Go feed that thing!" The woman turned, treaded heavily across the roseprint rug toward the southern window.
In the crowded downstairs parlor room, her eldest daughter Estaleen gazed round the room at the frowning faces of her sisters. Each kept a downcast eye upon her embroidery hoop or darning needle or crochet hook, but for the baby Kay playing by herself on the rag-rug floor, and the very middle of the seven girls, Aletha Jean, who stood gazing out the window.
"Lethajean!" the eldest called, though the girl was but five feet away. "Go feed Pet." She turned her face down to the sampler in her lap, but her eyes cut slantwise at her sister's back. Aletha Jean ignored her. Estaleen called again, "Lethajean! Go feed that thing!" Still the girl stood motionless at the window.
"I will!" piped up Winema, the next-to-youngest, a sweet-faced, wiry, amber child of eight, but Estaleen, who was mother to them all, said, "You will not. Letha, go do like Mother said."
Without turning her eyes from the dust-smoked prairie, Aletha said, "Told you, not me."
"I'm telling you," the eldest said, and swept her mothering gaze around the room to see if this rebellion might be joined from another corner. But blond Prudence met her gaze in timid complicity, and pale Dorcas kept her eyes on the embroidery hoop upon her knee, and redheaded Jody, who, at twelve, was hardly a year younger than Aletha Jean and therefore especially resentful of her dreamy, high-and-mighty sister, glared at the dark-haired middle daughter's back with a vehemence outshining Estaleen's own, so that the eldest's pique was in fact enhanced, and she snapped in exact imitation of their mother's former power, "Aletha Jean Whiteside, don't make me have to get up off this chair. Go right this minute and give that calf its ninny."
Aletha continued staring out the window. The calf's bawls came from the corral in a piteous honking wail, the sound so loud it rose above the wind and circled the clapboard house, came in through the shut-tight windows. It had been a fortnight since the old brindle cow tore her bag on a barbed-wire fence, ripped one tit from end to end, and the infection had set in, clabbering her milk right in the bag, the tit so sore, oozing yellow, that she'd kicked the calf away and wouldn't let it suck. The girls' father had tried to turn the calf to another cow, but none would take it, so he'd penned it up and fashioned a teatbag from an old cleaned-out cow stomach and fed the calf one morning before he left the house on his sorrel mare, riding north and east to Bristow. When their father didn't come home the first night and the calf stood in the pen bawling long and weak and pitiful, it had been Estaleen who'd announced that she would save the red calf on her own. She'd gone to the barn at dawn, at noon, and dusk, and nursed the calf for almost a week, and the calf had fallen in love with her and followed her around the pen like a starving pup.
But then the hot southwind had come (though not yet their father), and the days blew dry and full of dust, the burning coin of sun cracked Estaleen's lips, made the buttermilk washes she used on her face to fade the freckles entirely useless, and for the past few days she'd parceled out every one of her outside chores among her younger sisters. In all fairness, if fairness could be had in that household of female wants and needs, it was Aletha's turn to feed the calf, but Aletha was the orneriest of the girls and could be made to do very little on the best of days, and this day was a bad one. She traced the distant trees with her eyes, saying to herself, Y'all can go to aitch-ee-double-ell. She had no intention of doing what her sister said. She hated everything there was to hate about that sucking calf. Oh, she'd watched it many times, had stood outside the gate and watched the creature's thick-tongued slobber, the frothing milk trickling out both sides of its mouth while it sucked and pulled at the bag in her sister's arms, its long red tail a-twitching. She hated the way it followed Estaleen from one end of the corral to the other, nudging, bawling, long after the milk was gone, and she cringed to think of its nuzzling snout prying at her private self. The calf bawled and bawled but Aletha's eyes never left the line of river trees; she stood with her jaw clenched and her spine as straight as a hoe handle. No way on earth, she thought, in hell, or under God's blue heaven. I ain't going out there.
Winema, her heart breaking with the poor calf's distress, begged to be allowed to go feed it, but the older girls told her to hush, and shot their daggered stares at Aletha's back, until she turned at last and faced her sisters. Six pairs of lightbrown eyes, even the baby Kay's by this time, were focused plain upon her. Aletha's thoughts fell self-consciously to her bony arms and washboard chest, but the sisters did not see. She felt it then, as she felt it always: her own worthless invisibility, and with that useless sense came a rush of sorrow for herself. Ain't one of them can see me, she thought. That damn slobbery calf out back gets more attention. And then, wordless in her mind, she saw her mother prowling the narrow room upstairs, absorbed within her swollen self, and Aletha's self-pity was overswept by anger. Immediately she pushed away from the windowsill and flounced across the room without a glance at her sisters; she stomped through the kitchen to the porch, swiped up the full milk bucket and the disgusting teatbag, and stormed out the back door.
She paused, stricken, on the wooden steps. In the west the sun floated above the lip of earth in a fiery ball; in the east, the moon was rising. Its forehead lifted swollen, full, above the horizon, reflecting the crimson of the setting sun. The sky north and east and west and straight up above was clear of clouds, depthless, wrong in color-saffron, olive, berylline-and exquisite beyond all telling. For an instant she took within herself the strange sky, the reddened synchronous moon and sun, stood trembling on the brink of change: almost, the girl was transformed by the prairie's turning beauty. But Aletha was, in more ways than either understood, her mother's daughter, and in the next instant she frowned against the spitting dust, drew her eyes away from the skies, marched down the steps and out across the pasture.
The barn sat on a northwest rise behind the house, so that Aletha had to angle through the gale to reach it. Flax-colored homespun billowing, brown braids snapping, lifted to her very toes sometimes, Aletha fought and floated through the wind to the small corral beside the barn. She reached between the slats to pull the latch, and then had to fight to keep the gate from being torn from her hands by the wind; in the struggle the bucket tipped and sloshed milk on her skirt, darkened the swirling, manure-spat ground.
She said aloud, "Damn it. See?" as if there were a witness who might, now convinced, agree with her how wronged she'd been. Looking down at the greasy milk streaks on the homespun, thinking she'd have to scrub till her hands were raw with lye to get them out, she squeezed past the gate, shoved it shut with all her strength; she squinted toward the far side of the pen, where the calf stood with its back to the wind. The first trembling hint of fear nudged up within her. The calf's head was lifted and cocked, nostrils flared; it had heard the clang of bucket and creak of gate, and now waited in the wind like a blind thing, all senses homed on one awareness only. Without signal or warning, the red calf turned and, leaning sideways, began to trot toward her.
The little thing was stark-ribbed, knob-kneed, solid red (the ferocious color of the setting sun), and as poor as any calf might be and breathe, but in Aletha's eyes it could as well have been a rutting bull. The urgency of its coming scared her. Pushed northward by the wind, yet hungering east toward its dinner, the calf came loping, dancing, bawling, prancing, sometimes purely cockawhoop sideways, rapidly toward her. The milk pail fell from Aletha's hand, she whirled around to the gate, and couldn't get the gate to open. Nor could she feel the slosh of milk on her skirt and shoes, the sting of windflung dirt upon her face, the lashing whips of her own two braids-but only the rising burn and dark of fear inside her body. The gate's latch was jammed, and though the girl clawed at it and was truly terrified, there was at work a far more compelling force than rusted iron and wind, or the beauty of the prairie sunset sky: in those frantic seconds the girl's soul thrilled to the dark sweet rush of danger.
The calf shoved its snout against her skirt. He smelled the milk; he knew the scent and shape of the teatbag beneath her arm; he knew the smell of young human female and claimed the smell as owed him. He pressed against her with the full weight of his bony flanks, demanding, seeking, pushing, and Aletha, thinking herself in actual danger, thinking her terror a terrible thing and not the delicious, alive sensation that, in truth, it was to her, began to scream.
Inside the house, her sisters' working hands fell still; twelve pale brown eyes stared wide across the parlor. The baby Kay, holding to the hassock, her bouncing stopped by the curdling scream, collapsed her face and began to cry. It was this, not Aletha's screams, that finally roused the mother.
Rachel lay on the bed upstairs in a stuporous, halfwaking dream, numbed by the ceaseless groan of wind, pressed into the muslin sheet by the moist weight of her own body. She heard the bawls of her youngest child and tried to ignore it, as one tries to dismiss a mosquito's whine when it hums into the depths of sleep, but at last she rolled sideways, lifted her terrible weight, and placed her swollen feet upon the floor. She made her way to the door and pulled the knotted rag, started down the steep pine stairs. It wasn't until she came into the parlor, where the toddler girl had fallen to the rug, wailing, and the other five were staring wide-eyed and silent at one another, that she recognized the distant terrified shrieks as something real and not the residue of her own unhappy dreams. The others looked up in fear, for Aletha's screams were horrible to hear, and the older girls, at least, believed she was being murdered. The mother lifted Kay and made a move to put her on her hip, but with her belly so far advanced and wide, there was no hip for the toddler's thighs to clutch, and so she dropped her, still sobbing, into Estaleen's lap and turned, as in a dream, and went rolling side to side through the open doorway, the kitchen, the cooling porch, and didn't pause when she stepped outside and lost her breath for an instant to the sucking wind, never looked right or left to see the full moon rising as the red sun set, but headed straight up across the pasture.
She made a broad target for the wind, but her very bigness anchored her to the earth so that the wind became, in fact, more aid than hindrance, buoying her gently north. The rise, however, held her back. Its slope would have seemed slight enough to a woman who did not bear such weight, whose lungs were not pushed up and crowded against her heart, but to Rachel Whiteside the slant was steep as the pine steps to her upstairs room, and a thousand times as far. She climbed, one loglike leg before the other, her labored breathing drowning, almost, her daughter's screams.
The girl's mind had raced past the first rush of fear, past panic, to pure, unbridled hysteria. She screamed, feeling for the first time the rough post oak beneath her palms, the calf's warm breath through the cotton skirt, the warm, sticky milk upon her legs. She screamed, seeing with quickened eyes the serpentine color of the sky. She saw the moon swimming, pure yolk yellow now, above the dark horizon; and nearer, in a closing circle on the rim of earth, blackjack limbs like gnarled screams against the brightened sky. She smelled manure and dust, the calf's sweet hide, a thousand autumn pollens released like sperm, the pecan trees in the distant grove. She smelled her mother, heard her mother's breath and groans. Aletha began then to scream in earnest. She screamed for all her imagined loss and grief, for having wanted, wanted all her life, and never got; for being her own private self within the world. And then she felt her mother's hands. For a fleeting moment the girl knew gladness; she surrendered to the rough skin of her mother's palms, felt their warmth encase her own, and though the calf still pushed against her hips and bawled, Aletha ceased her struggle.
She sagged, deflated against the gate, felt herself shoved back, her wrists clamped within the cuffs of her mother's hands. The big belly pushed through the opening, and then her mother was inside the pen and the teatbag was on the ground beneath her mother's skirt and the calf was struggling to get at it. Her mother slapped her across the mouth, let go her hands, and Aletha had only the space of a heartbeat to feel the bafflement and pain and, quickly, a righteous flare of rage against this clear injustice, because the red calf then, consumed with its own frustration, turned fully away from mouthing at the mother's hem and whipped its head around, up once, and down, and kicked Rachel with all its hungry might right in her swollen belly.
There came a little sound, like hoomph, like sudden air expelled. The mother did not cry out but released that unwilled sound and stood perfectly still on her leaden legs. The calf came at her hem again, grabbed the teatbag in his mouth and tossed it up into the wind, and trotted over to where it landed. The mother stared down at her body. Her whole belly was shoved to the side. Unbelieving, she reached to stroke her stomach where it ought to be, high and huge before her. Her hands fell, lost. The wind pressed her skirt against her so that there appeared, clearly visible though in all ways unreal, the outline of the unborn babe like an overstuffed saddlebag slung at her side, riding low, halfway round toward her kidneys. Beneath her feet a wet spot spread, darkening the red dust.
Reprinted from Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Rilla Askew. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.