"A fine literary writer..." Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The King of Limbo: Storiesby Adrianne Harun
In stories that move deftly from the magical to the mundane, the simple to the surreal, The King of Limbo showcases a mature talent that calls to mind such greats as Alice Munro and Andre Dubus. Here are drifters, waitresses, horse trainers, housewives, a Nigerian foreign exchange student, a fisherman's wife, a cat with a cause. Blending magical realism and a
In stories that move deftly from the magical to the mundane, the simple to the surreal, The King of Limbo showcases a mature talent that calls to mind such greats as Alice Munro and Andre Dubus. Here are drifters, waitresses, horse trainers, housewives, a Nigerian foreign exchange student, a fisherman's wife, a cat with a cause. Blending magical realism and a pitch-perfect ear for the expressions of the human heart, Adrianne Harun presents a cast of unforgettable characters caught in limbo between their reality and their dreams.
Set in locales as diverse as a fictional town on the Northwest coast and a Connecticut boarding school, these stories chart physical and emotional landscapes with equal precision and grace. Vacationers dawdle in souvenir shops. Locals quietly observe the superstitions of the sea. A woman, overcome by the loss of a child, runs her car into a Victorian house, only to be adopted by the house's elderly residents. A killer on the loose prompts a newlywed couple to employ a mannequin as a decoy for marital bliss.
Again and again Adrianne Harun displays a unique ability to view the world from a dazzling array of perspectives. The King of Limbo confirms the arrival of a writer to watch.
"A fine literary writer..." Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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Read an Excerpt
Natife, pedaling hard on the borrowed mountain bike, turned onto Old Cross Road and found himself surrounded by a fluttering mass. Wind slid between trunks and branches, coaxing and catching unaware the leaves that leapt from trees like red and gold birds. If he were in charge of the seasons Natife could not have achieved a more admirable effect. It reminded him of the end of summer at home—the burning grasslands, the knobby domes of anthills remaining for memory’s sake on the scarred land.
He was resplendent, this tall young man in a silky fuschia tracksuit, a gift from the aunts in Chicago upon his arrival from Nigeria. Fiery autumn light slanted across Natife, flickering on and off as he rode between the thinning trees. Occasionally he passed through a darker grove where, in the shadows between trees, he could hear an amused cackle as the breeze swept leaves up to meet the shimmering air. During those intervals Natife sat upright on the bike, avoiding the underbrush of sound. He gripped the raised handlebars and pedaled determinedly toward Ally.
Already it was the third week of his mission as Ally Reisch’s peer counselor, and once again Natife had no idea what he would say to her. It was clear that someone was doing juju on her. Although she was just sixteen Ally Reisch had the pink rheumy eyes and frail blondness of an old woman on her way to bone and ash. What was required was a blood sacrifice. A simple chicken might be enough. If this were a land of tribes, or even of family, someone would do this for Ally. As it was, she had only Natife, assigned by the Chalwright School for extra credit. At least she was no longer terrified by him. The first week she had not said more than a few words, and, failing conversation, they’d eventually drifted to the barn.
In the stable, sweating as she groomed her horse, Ally achieved a rare state of animation. She worked neatly with currycomb and pick, and only then, with her eyes occupied by the task, did she begin to talk to Natife. It was the horse, Denali, who Natife had to thank for Ally’s gradual warming. When she was with her horse Ally forgot to be self-conscious, and Natife had perceived shadows slipping down from around her to the plank floor of the barn. Now, after five previous visits, he felt that she held for him a measure of affection. Witness the delicate hug she gave him each time he appeared, a spindly pressure that seemed as unnatural to Natife as the embrace of an insect and yet brought a pale rosy light to the girl’s face.
As he neared Old Cross Farm, approaching the crossroad that led out to Moon Lake, Natife came upon two men and a truck almost wholly blocking the narrow lane. One man was tying shut the red truck’s rusty tailgate with hard jerking motions. The other was standing by the hood pensively smoking a cigarette as if fulfilling a medicinal rite. Natife had seen any number of such trucks, jacked up and fitted out with enormous tires. He got off his bicycle and started walking around the hunters, noting as he did a dead doe in the truck’s bed. Neither of the men seemed to notice Natife. He was almost past when the man at the back dropped the rope he’d been knotting and jerked his head up, sniffing.
“Goddamn!” he shouted. “Goddamn, you stop right there.” Natife readied himself to explain his presence. His back stiffened and an expression of utter neutrality slid like a mask over his normally thoughtful features. After three months in Connecticut he anticipated such encounters. No one expected a black man here in this area of grand estates and considerable lukudi, or wealthmagic. At home in the villages people were careful about displaying riches lest they be accused of this black magic and awaken reprisals. But here they were as easy and thoughtless as children piling up a hoard of groundnuts. Estate outdid estate with winding drives and carriage houses, vast groomed lawns and swimming pools, stables, exotic cars, even hot air balloons. It was a veritable themepark of lukudi where a black man seldom held the price of admittance.
The rope-tying hunter wore a red cap with a charging black bull on it and an orange vest that hugged the rounded stomach under his heavy plaid shirt. He barreled past Natife and, reaching the smoker at the front of the truck, snatched the cigarette out of his hand and stamped it into the leaves.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled. “You’re going to kill yourself that way, Pat, and you know it. Is that what you want? Huh? Is that what you want?” Natife studied the second hunter. He was younger than the first man, maybe late thirties, also redcapped, but the face unnder the cap was thinner and paler with pinches between the eyebrows. He passed his now empty hand back and forth across his mouth as if to keep himself from cryyyyying out.
“You call this a choice, Pat? Dead now or dead later? You’re an idiot if you think that—an idiot! Give me your pack. Give it to me, man. And the lighter too. Give me that goddamn lighter that goddamn Denise gave you.” “Ah, come on, Mickey,” Pat protested. But the other man thrust his hand out, and Pat dug into the pocket of his quilted orange jacket, pulling out first a crumpled pack of cigarettes and, a moment later, a long silver lighter which he slapped heavily into the other man’s hand.
“Half gone!” The older hunter held the pack up toward Natife as if to share his exasperation. “Pat, you’re a chump. They tell you at the hospital what will happen, and still you’d do this to your kids.” Pat turned away and leaned down on the truck, his cheek resting on the hood. The other hunter turned to Natife, not seeming surprised to see the boy still beside him, as though he’d summoned Natife to his side for this particular moment.
“Hey, buddy, do me a favor, will you? Take this goddamn thing. Take it and chuck it as far as you can. Or give it to your girl. Just do my brother a favor and get it the hell away from him.” Natife nodded and took the offered lighter. This felt right to him. It had been a long time since he had witnessed brotherhood. The hunter returned to securing the tailgate, and Natife zipped the lighter into the pocket of his candy-colored windbreaker. He gave a prayer of thanks that the man could ask for his aid and, sweeping his long leg over the bike, continued on his way. Minutes later he felt a warm spot pressing against his hip and looked down to see smoke wafting from his pocket. He stopped the bike and reached in for the lighter. As he did so he felt it change shape. Hastily he withdrew his hand. In it came a lump of black coal edged with sparks that disengaged and zinged into the woods. Each time a spark flew, the wind picked up and the brilliant autumn leaves seemed to burst into flame. Natife thought of the hunter, Pat, slumped over the truck, and he moved to throw the coal far away from him. Even as he formed the thought, the coal took on weight and he could not. He set the bike on the edge of the road, then squatted and pondered the flailing coal. A leaf fell on the back of his neck. Between the brushing of another leaf across his cheek and still another on the sleeve of his jacket, the coal transformed again. Natife held the lighter until the silver metal cooled. By then he was thoroughly dazed, and he laid the lighter against his tongue where it burned like a sliver of ice before he returned it respectfully to his pocket.
Ciggy, the horse trainer, was leaning against the outside door of the barn blowing smoke rings when Natife rode up.
“Oh, Christ,” Ciggy said when he saw Natife. “It’s visiting hour again.” Natife tipped his head in greeting. Sometimes when he passed Ciggy in the darkness of the barn, Ciggy would turn his back or scurry past, his hard hands flapping at his sides, his face averted. Other times the trainer would deliberately stop what he was doing and spout a sentence or two of what seemed an incomprehensible order, followed by an attack of laughter that resembled the cry of a caged animal. “Don’t be a fool!” Ciggy had shouted at him once. “They’d take it from you if they could.” Natife paused at the barn door and lifted his bike over the threshold. The door kept banging shut. Natife struggled to balance the bike with one hand, hold the door open with the other. Ciggy came up close to Natife. His breath made a pattern in the air at the level of Natife’s chest. Natife thought for a moment he had come to help.
“What are you getting out of this? They pay you for this? Put something on your scholarship?” Ciggy demanded.
Natife, halfway across the threshold, hesitated to answer, and the door fell back on him again.
Ciggy snorted and watched Natife release his bruised hand from between the door and the bike. “Just keep your hands to yourself,” he leered. “This ain’t the jungle.” He shot the stub of his cigarette into a thin puddle and stalked off, spewing gravel and dust with the tips of his boots.
Natife wondered if maybe Ciggy too was being played with, or perhaps he was a juju man. It was hard to get a fix on him. When Natife tried he saw sullen clouds that obscured the pointed features of the man’s face. If Natife could burn those clouds away Ciggy might seem a handsome man— small but well favored by the gods. It was hard to say. The clouds never dissipated but swirled about the little man like dust in a swath of light.
Natife left his bike between the end stall and a wheelbarrow half full of manure and straw and went through the dark barn to the rotted stairs that led to Ally’s apartment. The air was thick with fine hairs that tickled his face. Clean-scrubbed leather tack was suspended from nails on the wall like instruments of torture. There were twelve horses in the barn and most of them watched Natife glide between their stalls. One horse kicked at the door of his stall over and over again.
Natife had once seen Ally with her horse in the ring outside. Denali was a monstrous animal upon which Ally barely made a mark. She was wearing a white turtleneck and pale stretchy breeches. Her straw- colored hair was braided into a thin reed down her back. She looked about ten years old. That man, Ciggy, had been there too, holding Ally to the circle with what looked like a long leash, screaming orders that Ally dutifully fulfilled. Even from a distance Natife had seen her heart rising and falling under the thin ribs of her chest. He wondered at the wisdom of leaving her in this place within earshot of that man’s demands.
Ally was living in the barn on her father’s estate because she had tried to destroy herself with an economy size bottle of aspirin. It was decided by Carena Doyle, the Chalwright therapist, and Burton Reisch, Ally’s father, that what Ally needed now was to learn to take responsibility for herself. Burton and his wife, Georgia, had installed Ally in the barn apartment before leaving for London and the theater season. Georgia tried to keep in touch. She sent her stepdaughter packages with cooking utensils and crockery from England as if Ally were a young bride setting up house instead of a wraith of a girl boiling noodles for herself on a two-burner/sink/refrigerator combination in the corner of a stable.
It was Carena Doyle who had come up with Natife. Natife had met with her several times during the summer. The Chalwright School administration assumed that a student as foreign as Natife would find rural Connecticut difficult to understand and that this would lead to instability. They’d had a Polish student once, a brooding sort of girl, who had leapt from the second-floor science room and broken both legs.
At the suggestion of Bernie Kennedy, his faculty advisor, Natife attended several sessions with Carena. He politely watched her move small plastic animals around on her sand tray as she tried to entice him to run his own hands through the sand. This apparently would allow him to “open up” to her and spill his troubles like little shells into the sand. Carena had pink scaly rashes peeling on the knuckles of each hand.
“Allergies,” she explained to Natife.
Natife nodded. If she needed help he could supply it. He still found it confusing that no one asked directly for assistance here. Each night before he fell asleep in the dorm Natife could see the pleas of the day, grown cold with abandonment, as they floated among the rooms. What most of them, his fellow students and their pale resident advisor, wanted was to be saved, lifted out of a mire of pain. “I want to go home,” he heard and knew immediately that home was not an eighteen-room Colonial in West Hartford. Home, they cried, and Natife squirmed, unable as he lay in the narrow dormitory bed to do more than pray.
On the morning of the third session, Natife appeared with a salve for Carena Doyle, which he gave her, and a dangling charm he hung under the sand table when she went to fetch their coffee. Carena spent that session ignoring Natife. She built a farmyard with a little house for each animal group, and when Natife passed her at lunch the rashes were gone.
Carena ended the sessions and began to think of Nigerians as tender, quiet, easily adaptable people. Natife would have laughed to hear her thoughts. In his family and his village Natife was an anomaly. He was the serious one, as unlike the rollicking rabble of brothers he had left behind as the cool moon was to midday. Nonetheless, it was the image of Natife, sipping his coffee and observing her as she assembled a pigpen in the sand, that came to mind when Carena first heard of the Ally Reisch episode.
In the living room of the barn apartment—oddly shaped like a funnel—Ally and Natife perched knee against knee, squeezed onto the multistriped futon couch in the pinched end of the room. Directly in front of them a cooking show blared on a portable television. The show featured a drunken man who used utensils like the ones Ally stored under her bed. The man made meals that mystified Natife— sauces and creams and layers—in ovens that transformed the food into plastic centerpieces. Natife puzzled briefly about the nature of sustenance. He still longed for the food of his home, spicy crayfish soup with a roll of eba to dip. He wondered if perhaps the daily ingestion of this bodiless food had something to do with the seclusion of spirit in the Americans.
After the cooking show they watched Guiding Light and The Widening Circle and ate cookies from a bag. Ally picked the chocolate chips out of the cookie in her hand, one by one, then nibbled around it, rotation after rotation until it was gone. Natife approved of her considerate ways though he himself ate half the bag in the time she finished two cookies. The cookies were a great improvement over the Chalwright dining room.
On the screen Roger left Sara Jean for Lana, his ex-wife whom he thought was dead and whom he had never truly stopped loving. Andy tried to take over Manchester Enterprises by deceiving Elyse into signing the deposition that would send Mac, her husband, to jail. The entire Brand clan plotted against Elyse because she held control of Manchester. Natife was startled when Ally said: “That’s ridiculous. California is a community property state. Mac would have half of it in any case.” “You think they are lying then?” Natife asked her.
Ally tugged at her hair, wrapping it around her fingers and pulling, and added the hairs to the little yellowish-white pile she had accumulated on the coffee table. “Not altogether. The hospital seems right. And the part about the car. But I can’t believe the dead wife, can you?” Her voice was so tentative Natife began to ache. He felt it starting in his chest and hurried to answer her. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Some people have memory in their bones and will not die for many lives.” “What do you mean?” Ally said. “Not die for many lives?” “I mean that some are given many hurdles and must in the end find their right death.” He turned to the television to witness Marva Brand peppering Elyse’s soup with a poisonous drug.
“Natife,” Ally said in a rush, “do you think I could be one of those people? I mean, sometimes I feel like I’m just being pulled around and around the ring with the bit in my mouth, you know. Like, I wonder if I’ll ever get out of here or what would happen to me if I did. Like I’m stuck, you know.” Her teeth were picking at her nails. Natife thought that pretty soon she would begin to bite into her arm.
“No,” he lied to her. “You are not one of those people.” “Are you sure? How can you tell?” Usually he and Ally didn’t talk so intimately, and this was not the kind of subject Carena would like for him to explore with Ally. He wanted to ask her other questions. “Who,” he itched to say, “is after you, girl?” The lighter in his pocket started to hum like a high-pitched electrical wire. Natife hit his nail against it to shut it up.
“Do you hear that?” Ally looked up startled. Natife knew that since she left the hospital her ears would still ring from time to time, always catching her off guard. Sometimes Natife thought he could hear it too, a faint buzz in the air between them.
“It’s me,” Natife said. He could tell from the wild expression in her eyes how deeply the noise had stung her. For the hundredth time her fragile hold became painfully apparent. She was nothing more than pieces really.
Natife withdrew the lighter from his pocket and hit it lightly again with his nail so that it emitted a soft ping.
Ally looked at it curiously and held out a hand. “Can I see it?” she asked.
What was Natife to do? He watched her as she held the lighter, turning it over again and again with her long white fingers. She read the inscription: “To Patrick, with love, your Denise.” “Oh, this was a gift of love.” She sighed. “Where’d you get it?” “A man gave it to me to throw away. It’s dangerous, Ally.” “Life is dangerous,” she said quickly and then looked down, embarrassed. “If you don’t want it, I mean if you’re really going to throw it away, could I have it instead?” Everything in him resisted. He stared at her. She was thin as a raking stick, but the lighter had brought a strange heat into her usually dull eyes. He thought: I come to listen but what has she said? What can she say? He had been afraid that when she did speak to him of her feelings it would not be in words but in flashes of light and ice. Who could use such frozen words? Yet for this he had held himself. Like a medicine bowl Natife had been ready to catch whatever Ally would let go, and now the words were forming, ready to spring from Ally’s lips in a wild beating cry.
He scrutinized her face. Natife had never seen Ally this way, the eyes, the mouth uplifted, glowing. She was happy, he thought with surprise.
“Take it,” he said, realizing that he too felt joy in bringing her a present. He fought off the whispers that gathered in the corners of the room.
On his way out of the barn Natife saw a red glow, the tip of a cigarette, like a firefly in the stall closest to Ally’s stairway. He stepped over the threshold and let the big barn door slam behind him before he remembered the bicycle and turned to retrieve it. Even as his hands hovered over the handlebars, an impulse pushed Natife past the bike and on toward the horse stalls. Ciggy was darting up Ally’s stairway and didn’t glance back to see Natife, standing perfectly still with his hand on Denali.
Other girls knew where to fly when Ciggy swept into the barn, but Ally Reisch would just take it. She’d been fourteen when he first arrived, and she’d stand outside Denali’s stall with her face gone white while Ciggy pressed in on her, demanding precision. The tack she had just hung on the wall was thrown on the ground; a half-full bucket of feed attached to another stall was grabbed and pushed toward her face indignantly as if Ciggy himself were in danger of being shortchanged by the little rich girls. Some of the other girls complained. A few took their horses and boarded them elsewhere. But unlike Ally’s other instructors, who’d insisted she work with one horse then another, Ciggy let her ride Denali during every lesson. He showed her how to relax her hands so that she could use the reins to know her horse. “You’ve got to be loose, baby, so loose you can feel every little change in him.” He held her legs tightly so she wouldn’t slide back and forth as she posted. “Stay in control,” he growled at her. She shook with the alternating commands: “Relax!” “Stay tight!” But she could not walk away: he was giving her a path to Denali.
Sometimes it seemed to Ally that everything had a cost and that she, despite her father’s great wealth, was penniless. In the great hall of the stable she wanted to cry out for help. She even thought about turning her back on Denali, walking away for good, but that would be wrenching, beyond what she could bear in this life. Besides, she had nowhere to go. Her debt must of necessity remain undiminished. Ally was all alone and Ciggy knew the exact value of everything that was due him.
Ally moved around the apartment without aim. She couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t leave. This was her orbit, from the bath to the bedroom to the oddly shaped living room, the kitchen alcove, back to the bath. She was supposed to drive herself to Chalwright three mornings a week but found it harder and harder to go out. Outside, in the car and at school, light slapped at her face, and she felt so exposed her eyes always looked down. She thought with fondness of Natife, how his gentle presence calmed the agitation always vibrating just under her skin. She looked forward to telling him about Denali or to sitting companionably in her living room.
The little room was newly painted yellow. Lemon yellow, custard yellow. In the store on a square of paper it had looked so clean, so new, but on her walls it seemed dingy and tainted. Only one corner of the wall escaped its awful cheerfulness, and Ally came to rest there, half-hidden under the shelves, picking away at the chipped surface. Bits of old paint flicked into her lap as her thumbnail went back and forth. She saw the edge of the hammer above her on the shelf. She had been planning to put up a few pictures after Natife left. She hadn’t counted on Ciggy. She reached up for the hammer and hit the wall a few times gently, making a long crack that further shattered the top layer of paint.
The line on the wall opened a memory for Ally, a memory of shelling hard-boiled eggs with her mother as they prepared their spinster dinners on the nights Burton had to rush out of town. Those were the nights when Ally’s mother would cry, and they would each eat with their eyes on their plates swallowing half-bites, pretending that the small sobs were coming from somewhere else—like the radio, or a neighbor’s dog shut out of a warm lit house. Later, after her mother’s accident and after Burton married Georgia, Ally ate dinner with the housekeeper and her husband in front of the television. It was as if she had closed her eyes at nine and opened them at ten, a different girl in a different family, with no memory of how she got there.
Ally cradled the hammerhead. Earlier that afternoon when Ciggy had come into her apartment he had grabbed her by the elbow, reeling her away from the window where she’d gone to wait for Natife’s reappearance. She liked to watch him bike down the drive. Ciggy hadn’t knocked, never did, and she had barely heard him coming. He had been part of the dust and grime and cobwebs. He had been all over her and she had gone limp and silent.
One day Ally thought she would break in two. She wished she really could become part of Denali. Just disappear into his legs and lustrous brown eyes. She lifted the hammer again. It hit the shelf above her, and the lighter Natife had left fell onto her lap like a star.
Natife came back to Chalwright in a fever, hearing screams. He slammed the bike into its slot and tore up the stairs to his room. His hands ached and he forced himself to write a letter to his father’s brother, his second father, a herbalist and doctor, specifying that a goat be killed for Ally. He coated his hands with salve and worked painfully on her fetish. It had come to him that she was the victim of lukudi: the magic that created her father’s wealth had come at the expense of others. And one of those others had retaliated by doing juju on Ally. Natife saw the imprint of the little stable man’s heels in the dust on Ally’s stairs; he heard the wailing in Ciggy’s barking laughter. Ally was in desperate need of her own countermagic.
On the way home he had gathered bark and leaves and a shaving from an upraised root. Now he took these and mixed them in his medicine bowl with the nest of hair he had purloined from Ally’s apartment and some clippings from Denali’s mane. Borrowing a bottle of Gordon’s Gin from an upperclassman, he made a libation. He called on first his personal god, then Ally’s. He reminded Ally’s ancestors of their obligations. He swung and chanted and tried to ignore the rising noise in his room. Breath beat at the back of his lowered neck. He hesitated, then lit a match, and with trembling fingers dropped it into the bowl.
The room hushed. Natife studied the interior of the bowl and sat back on his heels a moment, considering. A question appeared. To go on or let the flame expire? He pictured Ally in her yellow room, cowering and crippled, wasting away beneath swaddled bandages. He added a liquid from a brown bottle along with more gin and chanted again. The light flared. On and on, past the cafeteria’s dinner hour, Natife brought in the night for Ally. He saw her grow large and ruddy, saw her stepping high. Ally laughed for him. She ate from his bowl, joyfully, greedily, as if it held a rich and nourishing food. She cleared the fence and disappeared into the night sky, flickering like a star, but it was only when he heard the fire siren, the trucks tearing out toward Old Cross Farm, that Natife caught Ally’s cry, caught it as it flew above his head, caught it and held it briefly in his shining bowl. Then he let her fly.
Copyright © 2001 by Adrianne Harun. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Adrianne Harun’s stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Story, where Harun won first place in the annual short-short competition. She has received a Nelson Algren Award from the Chicago Tribune and a MacDowell fellowship. Harun lives in Port Townsend, Washington.
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I recently heard Adrianne Harun at a writers' conference. Her comments were so perceptive and funny that I searched out this first book of hers. I'm not usually a short story reader, but I was taken with these. I started with a story toward the end, 'A Closed Sea,' which is a magical, but very real tale about a father's love for his daughters and the greed of a small town. After that I skipped around, picking up each story like another treat in a chocolate box. Adrianne Harun is a really fine writer, one who deserves to find a bigger audience. These stories are captivating, thought-provoking, and sometimes pretty funny, too. I heard Ms. Harun read another story, one that had only been published in a literary magazine. It was a great ghost story. I'm hoping another collection is on the way. I may just become a short story reader, after all.