The New York Times
Redemption Falls: A Novelby Joseph O'Connor
1865. The Civil War is ending. Eighteen years after the Irish famine-ship Star of the Sea docked at New York, a daughter of its journey, Eliza Duane Mooney, sets out on foot from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, crossing a ravaged continent on a quest. Eliza is searching for a young boy she has not seen in four years, one of the hundred thousand children/i>/big>… See more details below
1865. The Civil War is ending. Eighteen years after the Irish famine-ship Star of the Sea docked at New York, a daughter of its journey, Eliza Duane Mooney, sets out on foot from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, crossing a ravaged continent on a quest. Eliza is searching for a young boy she has not seen in four years, one of the hundred thousand children drawn into the war. His fate has been mysterious and will prove extraordinary.
It is a walk that will have consequences for many seemingly unconnected survivors: the stunning intellectual Lucia-Cruz McLelland, who deserts New York City to cast her fate with mercurial hero James Con O'Keeffe -- convict, revolutionary, governor of the desolate Western township of Redemption Falls; rebel guerilla Cole McLaurenson, who fuels his own gruesome Westward mission with the blind rage of an outlaw; runaway slave Elizabeth Longstreet, who turns resentment into grace in a Western wilderness where nothing is as it seems.
O'Keeffe's career has seen astonishing highs and lows. Condemned to death in 1848 for plotting an insurrection against British rule in Ireland, his sentence was commuted to life transportation to Van Diemen's Land, Tasmania. From there he escaped, abandoning a woman he loved, and was shipwrecked in the Pacific before making his way to the teeming city of New York. A spellbinding orator, he has been hailed a hero by Irish New Yorkers, refugees from the famine that has ravaged their homeland. His public appearances are thronged to the rafters and his story has brought him fame. He has married the daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family, but their marriage is haunted by a past full of secrets. The terrors of Civil War have shaken his every belief. Now alone in the west, he yearns for new beginnings.
Redemption Falls is a Dickensian tale of war and forgiveness, of strangers in a strange land, of love put to the ultimate test. Packed with music, balladry, poetry, and storytelling, this is "a vivid mosaic of a vast country driven wild by war" (Irish Independent), containing "moments of sustained brilliance which in psychological truth and realism make Daniel Defoe look like a literary amateur" (Sunday Tribune). With this riveting historical novel of urgent contemporary resonance, the author of the bestselling Star of the Sea now brings us a modern masterpiece.
The New York Times
Irish author O'Connor (Star of the Sea) delivers a highly stylized post-Civil War period pastiche centered on Redemption Falls, a tumultuous frontier town in the Mountain Territory (presumably in present day Utah or Montana). Told through the posters, correspondence, poems/songs, newspaper articles and interview transcripts collected in the early 20th century by a university professor (and nephew of one of the book's prominent characters), the narrative follows acting governor James Con O'Keeffe as he feuds with his ravishing wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland, about the mute 12-year-old drummer boy Con takes in and wants to adopt. The boy, Jeddo Mooney, is in a bad way and unaware that his tenacious older sister, Eliza Duane Mooney, is hiking from war-ravaged Louisiana to find him. (Her journey is its own mini-epic.) Con's past as an English criminal who barely escaped the noose and his behavior as an American politician demonstrate his noble but flawed character, while a chorus of minor voices add texture to a narrative already rich with a medley of languages, dialects and clashing cultural mores. The novel is complex, ambitious and at times difficult (many characters are uneducated, and their journals and letters prove to be occasionally impenetrable). O'Connor succeeds as a ventriloquist who brings to life a wide cross-section of Americana. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
When a seasoned author like Ireland's O'Connor (Star of the Sea) writes historical fiction, it is rich with more than facts, dates, and famous faces. It becomes a living, breathing narrative, envisioned by an artist. This is what O'Connor's latest offers readers seeking a style that goes beyond conventional storytelling. To explore the experience of Irish immigrants during the U.S. Civil War and the expansion of the American West, O'Connor uses a variety of narrative voices and epistolary forms of storytelling that change the tempo and meaning of his tale. Among his characters is Eliza Duane Mooney, who is trekking across post-Civil War America in a twisted quest. Lucia-Cruz McLelland is a beautiful artisan who discards her suitors in New York City to forge a life in the desolate town of Redemption Falls with war hero and revolutionary James Con O'Keefe. A runaway slave living with O'Keefe also plays a role at this crossroads of the world, holding her past in the flickering light and turning her losses into hope. Beautifully written, this work is recommended for all historical fiction collections.
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Read an Excerpt
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF ELIZA DUANE MOONEY
Her leave-taking - The strangeness of time - A fat man - Little Rock John Cory & his family - The lustful preacher
The quarter-light was rising as she hurried out from Baton Rouge: through the criminal districts of town, then the black section, then the Irish, past the clustered Union sentries on the Telegraph road, the maws of Federal cannons ranked and aimed toward the north, then onward over the viaduct into barricaded swampland where once, not long ago, the slaves had toiled. It was January the 17th, 1865. The end of the War was coming.
Walking away from a scalpeen shack. The grits of the road on roadskinned soles. Grind of the shingles into lacerated arches. Dazzle of pain, the cramps through the hamstrings, and the hopeless prayers for shoes.
It took her almost a month to slog across Louisiana. Fifteen miles a day. Twenty-six thousand paces. A soldier, vittled and booted, might have deserted at such a burden. Eliza Duane Mooney did not.
She had not been long walking when it started to happen. Everything was coming to merit attention. A rice-field. Two flies. A dead chickenhawk in a gully. The eyes of hungry alligators resentful in the slime. All of it seemed equal, which is one definition of madness. The weight of the world had lost proportion.
There were days when she hobbled until the world began to shimmer. The sky billowed around her like the folds of apocalypse and the whitehot egg of pain in her breast threatened to crack with a seepage of venom. She would lie wherever she fell, gaping up at the crows - would crawl from the road if she was able. Whatever burned to hatch must be palliated by stillness. She came to believe it could hear her.
Riders went by, or waggons full of men. Nobody stopped. Perhaps they did not see her. This is what she would tell herself as she shivered in the ditches. I am becoming invisible now.
April comes in. Time is moving strangely. Tenses grow confused.
Near El Dorado, Arkansas, a stockman is yammering to some farmwomen. Lee is defeated! The rebellion no more! Jefferson Davis in shackles, they say, arrested in a woman's corsets! As she approaches the huddle, the settlers gape at her like goslings. It must be that they can smell her, she thinks.
The minstrel boy to the war has gone. In the ranks of death you'll find him.
A fat man regards her, eyes crinkling in the sunlight. 'Get walkin, daughter. Aint nothin for you here.'As if to italicize the rejection, he pulls back the hem of his coat, beneath which is a cane in a scabbard like a sword's. She is not thinking about the dismissal (she is accustomed to dismissal) but about the antiqueness of his accent, the poetry he talks. Git waukin, dauduh. Ain nuthn fow y heä. His vowels go bouncing on the air.
His father's sword he has girded on. And his wild harp slung behind him.
She pictures the journey as a procession of scarlet ants stretching out from the bayouland to the bastions of the Rockies. She is not truly walking fifteen hundred miles. She is crushing ants one step at a time.
Come Christmas she will be seventeen. 1865. The year the South surrendered. She has no memory of any place beyond the town of her childhood, not even of being in New Orleans with her mother. The edge of the world is the County Line. Stepping over its verge is a trespass. She is out beyond the frame of all that was given, into a land where almost everything is strange. The customs of the people. Their figures of speech. The taste of creek water. That spider on a leaf. Cherokees observing her from the crests of those hummocks. The shattering nothingness of spaces between settlements.
This was the country they'd been killing each other for. These stone walls and levees. Those barns and stunted swards. It was barely an old man's life ago that none of it was here, when the land was only the land, not acreage. Unfenced, ungridded, unmeasured, unbequeathable, a continent of forests the size of nations. The Indians named the rivers; many banks they left anonymous. Then the immigrants came to America.
She had on a tattered hand-me-down her mother once gave her: a rough-cut grogram smock like a knight's tabard of old. 'Shenick's of London' stitched into the label. In its pocket, a slingshot. A bundling on her back. That garment was the only wearing she possessed in the world. She slept in it, walked in it. It had become a kind of skin.
In the bundle, a storybook, dilapidated, spinecracked, and a canister of medicinal foot powder, and a crumpled letter. The powder proved a waste of her last four cents. She suspects it is nothing but pestleddown chalk. She may as well rub in the cinders of the road for all the alleviation it brings.
The Redeemer never wrote. Only once in the dust. Never put nothing on paper. Walked fifteen hundred mile out of Palestine Texas, howled many a field-holler on the way. He was hipshot at Gettysburg, blinded in the Wilderness, torched alive at Shiloh, gutted at Manassas, and He shrieked the rebel yell as they diced for his uniform: Mother, why have you forsaken me?
Sometimes by moonlight, or when she pauses to rest, she takes out the storybook and riffles its pages. The feel of the flimsies Eliza finds comforting, more than the words stained onto them. Thou Shalt Not Kill. I shall cause them to fall. Their carcasses will I give to be meat for the fowls. If you counted all the words in that thick rustling book, they would be fewer than the dead of the War.
And some of those who died were Ephesians or Jerusalems, Maccabees and Canaanites, Golgothas and Samaritans. But most were only ands and ifs and ye's, small and unmemorable, devoid of authority, only significant for the matters they link, never worth quoting or immortalizing in a place-name, because those are the ones that will always do the dying when it comes a time of war. And you wouldn't really miss them until you tried to speak, at which point you would find yourself struck by the absence that is felt between those who love or hate, or sensed in the oceans of the self: the wanted word is somehow not here. It was murdered; edited out of the inheritance. What you say, instead, is what you know how to say, and not what you would like to: the truth.
When it rained she was drenched. On hot days she burned. Time continued moving in ways she did not understand. A minute takes an hour on hardscrabble road but a morning skitters by if you're resting. Often she thinks of a story her mother used to tell. The fiddler inveigled by a faerywoman on the road into Connemara, who enters her rath, plays for her a single night, but when he stumbles out at dawn, blinking, lovedrunk, he finds ten years have passed. You can lose you a life in a single night. Mamo's stories were facts, not fancies.
The skin on her arms is flaking to rice paper. She blisters in sunroar. Her skin will not toughen. She counts as she walks, to murder the road. She gropes for a history that Mamo once read to her. And when even the sight of the trees becomes strange, as can happen in country you do not know, she finds herself inventing their names:
Heartsfire. Gallowspole. Lovers-in-Winter. Magwitch. Hookbough. The Convict's Nails.
In the forest is a temple. In the temple, a box. In the box is a needle. And the needle mends a dress. And the dress is put on by a jilted contessa. And she falls for a fiddler. But he is promised to a faery. And on like that; each stride of the story a punctuation of her steps on the road.
And the story never ends. It spindles out like a web, a netting of filigrees twisting into a petticoat. It trails a way back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana: an egg-sack waiting to burst. And you could never smirch paper with the words of this story, because a bookstory must be straight and true as a ballad, where a life is not like that, not sliceable into stanzas nor even truly capable of narration in one tense. The past is not over, so it seems to Eliza Mooney, and the future has happened many times.
Through ghost towns. Through bread riots. Across skookum-chucks of rivers. These extents between the towns she dreams as a grid. In the dreams she is flying, but with turtlelike slowness, looking down on the longitudes, which are rods of blinding light. Sometimes a sibilant buzz can be heard. Other times, churchlike silence.
She fashions little snares out of saplings and thorns. You can kill a wren that way but there is no eating in a wren. Over sloughs. Wading creeks. Through the high, cold canyons. She sklents like a crab through a dustbowl.
There are days when the walking takes on the abstractedness of rhythm, when she feels, through the misting of pain and hunger, as though her feet are revolving the planet beneath her, turning it like a prisoner's on a treadmill. An eerie sensation: she is turning the world. It withstands, it resists, all the way to its kernel. But then slowly it succumbs; it is crushed into obedience. She is walking to stand still, not to travel into a story. Walking to make the story stop.
A farrier and his lad in the roar of a forge, chiseling a fetter off a black man's ankle. He is shaking, the black man, his hand on the boy's head. Sparks spurt with each krang of the hammer.
Grufts of road dirt are matting her hair. The smock chafes her back. Scrofula makes her tear at herself. Her fingernails go scrivening, scriggling, scratching, but the itch never truly recedes. A drunk heaves a cobble at her. Where did he get a cobble? She scuttles through a bombed-out graveyard.
Malnourished, sickening, through dreamdrifts: memories. But perhaps they are not recollections; rather predictions. The plunk of a banjo calls to mind a Good Friday. Gull-calls. Curtained Christs. The sizzle of gumbo. Oysters the size of a baby's fist. The head of a crawfish oozing in the sun. A pelican alighting on a black metal balcony, gulping at the hornets as they vex it. A widower, a Creole, was her client that afternoon. He'd had his butler go into the streets to hire her.
'J' suis riche,' said the rich man, by way of introduction. 'Ma table c'est la meilleure du sud.' He told her he loved her, would do anything for her; kept asking her to call him mon mari. He wanted her to ride him. Wanted to kiss. Wanted her wearing this wedding gown. Wanted her from behind with the skirts about her flanks. Wanted her to whisper: Je viens. The blemish around his finger where his wedding band had been: where was the ring now, she wondered. And near the end of their contracted time, as they coupled, as they writhed, he had drawn one of her feet to his gasping mouth and sucked on her heel as though it was a fruit, and wept like a hungering baby. And she knew it would be over before too long. It was always nearly over if they wept.
The ash, the oak, the yew, the elder,
The plane, the pine, the fir, the alder.
The tribes of Galway, the heavenly host,
The Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
She is in four-four time. A bag of tunes gone walking. It is as though this Via Crucis is being overseen by a conductor. Even her visions seem to click like a metronome and the road she measures in beats.
Sweat stings her eyes. Her body is scalding. But she knows, for she learned at her mother's knee, that if you only persevere - 'p e r s e v e r', Mamo pronounced it - your steps will prevail over any earthly road, no matter its hardness or the dangers by its edge, just as time, in its droplets of the unnoticed seconds, will eventually hollow a way through your lifestone.
Mother of Christ, Star of the Sea,
Mary, my mother, pray for me.
And the land unspools like a painted diorama. And on she lurches through the foddery air: through dreekings of rain, then hurtful heat, and clouds of fly-filled pollen. Past squadrons of veterans limping home from the slaughter. Past bummers roasting rabbits on the jags of broken bayonets. Past burnt-out barns and ransacked villages and meadowlands blooming with improvised crosses, by smoke-scorched mansions and the rubble-stones of homesteads, through Atlantics of head-high wheat.
It is I, Eliza Mooney, saw the works of the Lord. And I saw the hand of His enemies.
There are men strung together like beads in the meadows. Who can they be? Surely not slaves. There are no slaves any more in this manumitted nation where everything has changed and nothing has changed. The poor, Jesus said, will always be with us. And He never spoke a word about slaves.
Then rain on the steeples of Little Rock, Arkansas. Rain in the streets,in the stinking alleys. How it surges, the rain! Its gush is applause! Militia in the square. A scaffoldage being erected. Garlands, buntings are sagging damply, their reds and blues oozing into bridal whites. The fart of a tuba. The flap and whip of flags. And a hog is being roasted on a preposterous spit. And hawkers tout beans and cornbread and slumgullion, crescents of fat-faced cantaloupe. And a shout-Baptist preacher will baptize you in his barrel - be saved, be saved, o my backslidden siblings! -if only you will receive him.
Jugglers and tumblers. A fire-eater. A band. Belles in gray sashes with peacock-feather fans. Mummers, drummers: a bearded lady. St George and the Dragon dueling in masque. And as sundown comes reddening the columns of Arkansas, on limps the parade of beaten survivors, the Johnnies come marching home. And they wave to their mothers, who weep and run, and they pose for photographers, thumbs stuck in beltloops, and those without arms cradle their stumps like sick birds, and a veteran comes rolling himself along the boulevard in a bowl while flare-bursts and firecrackers and rockets' red glare crackle through the dusk-darkened clouds. And you wish you were in Dixie, hurray, hurray, and the pipes are a-calling for Danny Boy, and all of it as watched by Eliza Duane Mooney as though it had anything to do with her.
Beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly. Everyone is screaming. You might almost think they won. The speeches are defiant, hailed by gunshots and roars (God Bless the Confederate States of America !), which the conquering officers must surely have forbidden, but obedience goes the way of the Catherine wheels. She picks a few pockets but the pickings are scanty. There are only a couple of dollars when the reckoning is done. Scarcely enough for a bed and a meal; and anyway she is whipped from the inns.
The rain don't quit for four long days and the levee is fixing to break. Sewage in rivulets dribbles from the gullies. Muleteers arrive from deep in the backlands, the out-country no one has mapped. Prisoners are unchained in order to sandbag the banks. A screed of a spiritual from the porch of a pox-hospital, commingling with the stench of urine.
Some time I feel like a motherless child
So far away from home.
The alleys are colder than those of Baton Rouge. Hoboes gamble for deadmen's clothes. Pocketa-pocketa says the train in her head, its music bubbling up through the mud. Urchins sleep in busted drains, fumbling at the cold as though it might be persuaded to blanket them. She walks the richer street, where there are trees, porches. Through the windows she sees families - she assumes they must be families, for the children resemble the adults but are graver, more formal, and little is being said at the tables as they eat. But they do not truly eat: they fork and pingle, gawping at the home-come fathers. You should never look at a child through a window at night, for his growing will be stunted if you do.
The twister skirls up. She shuffles though a downpour of frogs. She plucks them out of her hair, her pockets, her bundle: they feel like palpitating hearts. Such a rain is not possible, not in this godforsaken world, but miracles happen in the Indian territories and the faithless call them plagues.
Often in the towns she glimpses her mother. A shawlie begging, a nightwalker plying, a crone on a rummage for scraps. You can brew secret herbs to help grow you a baby and others to put one away. And she wonders why her mother did not put her away, if she knew how it was done, which she did. Perhaps for love; perhaps fear of retribution. Are love and fear cousins, like hunger and gloom? For the Irish are besotted with that moonshine of mambo, with their faeries and she-ogues and pookas and pishogues and druidry and evil eye. Bogeymen, cluricaunes, morrigans, will-o-the-wakes. The skies over Carna rustle thick with flapping craythurs: like living in a bat-cave over there. They came over on the coffinships with the keening and the jig steps. They roosted up the masts dropping guano on the famished, and the faithful are wading in faeryshite yet: they were gusted across the billows by the reeking breath above them as it roared the oratorios of vengeance. They are in it right up to their wishbones, she feels; their hobbledehoy Irish holes.
That voodoo they bring, that shriek of the keening. Your way of looking back, of saying you never left. When her belly is full, which it sometimes is in Fort Smith, for that camp-town abounds with pregnant trashcans, she swears that the future, if there is any future, will not be like the past of her mother. But when hunger returns, the gloom holds its claw, and she knows there is no prospect worth having.
A bedsheet draped sideways on the gable of a grain store, russetstained, as though commemorating a wedding night. She approaches, for it is lucky to kiss the hem of such a relic. But the closer she advances, the clearer she sees. The blemish is not a bloodstain; it is a daub of red words. Be RENT ye Stars and Stripes!
She awakens in a scutch-yard where pullets are scratching. The moon is half-full, wearing bruised purple eyes. The night smells of rain, of goats and fresh dung. She has no recollection of how she came to be here.
'Won't you come in the house?' asks the farmwoman tearfully. 'We don't got us much. But we can give you a plate of food.' The woman might be forty. She is wearing a muslin pinafore. There are little dots of red where her cheekbones come to a point. A goat-eyed husband materializes with a loaf, which he proffers. 'Take it. Go head. You bless us if you do. I'm John Cory. This my wife. In't no cause to be scared.' There is Irish in his talking. His woman is a Swede. How beautiful, her yellow hair in the lamplight.
A trio of gaunt children creep forth from the shadows. The tallest girl is hefting an infant in swaddles. 'Rest you a while. An't no one harm you here. You can sleep in the haggard, you don't want to come in the house. But you're welcome on our place. We thank God to know you.' She is unnerved by uncomplicated kindliness, having encountered it so rarely. While the Corys are sleeping, she limps from their haggard, leaves the loaf on their door-stones, and walks on, hungry.
The mileposts are mostly wrong: they were turned around in the War and nobody has twisted them back. No signboard or marker announces any town. Direction stones have been ripped up or whitewashed blank. It is as though the shamed continent has been stripped of its name, disowned by the warring parents. She estimates her co-ordinates by the track of the sun - this is her attempt, but like all simple things, it is difficult. It rises in the east, sets in the west. After that, like Mamo said, you're alone.
Twas early, early, all in the year;
The greenleaf all a growin;
When come Trickin John from the Chickasaw Bluffs
To wed with Barb'ra Allan.
Some days, her going is straight as the rhumb of a ship. Others she tacks. She veers. She gybes. She will cross private plots, will risk any dog, to keep to the course she has set. But sometimes she is adrift; rudderless as a wreck. Six long days are lost in a circling that wends her back to the crossroads where the wrong choice was made. And the devil is said to haunt the junctions of Kanzas, but nobody appears, not even a goat. She stands in the X with a lodestone in her hand, begging the night for a clue.
The blisters on her heels are pullulating; they reek. She tears strips from her hem as wrappings. Every footstep she limps, the shorter comes the garment. She pictures herself naked except for toe-rags and a fig leaf. Wandering the gardens of dust.
Two dots coming towards her from out of the north. The Gypsy and Barbara Allan? The girl is riding her beau's strong back. How pleasant, the sweethearts of spring. But as the distance between them narrows, she sees they are not sweethearts. When pretty birds sport and sing.
The soldier is being carried, his whole head is a globe of bandages, with only a slit for his mouth. His comrade stares wordless at Eliza as they pass. The mummy on his back is weeping.
When she dreams, she sees faces, thousands of them: multitudes. They remind her of an ants' nest she once disturbed behind the cabin: a gloop of spherical jellies. Not bodies, only faces - eyeless, diaphanous - and occasionally a tadpole-ish limb. She does not know who they are or anything else about them, yet she has the idea that they are somehow connected to her. They are asking her to do something, but she is not sure what. She is not sure what she could do. Nothing, probably.
In a woodland near Marais de Cygnes, taking haven from a rainstorm, which came on as suddenly and terribly as a rage, she happens upon a skeleton, still wearing its Union blues, slumped over a cannon-wheel as though kissing it goodbye. Fledglings are nesting in the bust-apart ribcage. A snakeskin coiled around a knuckle.
She tugs one of the boots from its calcified stub but it is weatherstiffened and useless and she flings it in the river. There is a letter from a sweetheart in the dead man's clutch-sack, scrawled on the back of a torn-out flyleaf. She scans it and blushes. She takes his gourd.
Dear Pat. I wish you were with me this night. I long for a touch of you. I am your boldest girl.
Water tastes sweeter when drunk from cedarwood. She sips, then slugs, but her thirst cannot be slaked. It wakes her in the mornings like a mouthful of boiling sand. She can look in the face of hunger, having never not been hungry. The thirst is the truer murderer.
I have on me that dress you like for to write this. How I wish you would. I think about that night. God forgive me on Sunday I wanted you so bad. My breasts are grown heavy for the treasure you sowed in me. Where are you gone Pat? Why do you not.
Decorous capitals of the rip-maimed page:
From the gibbet of a curlicue, a hanged man dangles: scribble of a fatherless child.
That day, or the next, she is not quite sure, she realizes who the dreamfaces are. All the people she will never know. A needle of grief slides into her spine for the unbefriended pismire.
She is standing on a granite outlook gazing down on a cornfield. A ripple of wind moves steadily across it, diagonally, slow, a rolling wave of shadow, a sight so staggeringly beautiful that her eyes spurt tears.
Every fourth Sunday she pins a red flower on her smock, for Mamo said it quells womanly pain. She rests up, and sleeps extra, and chews fistfuls of wild comfrey. They do not dull the ache but they render it bearable, like an unwanted remembrance that must somehow be accommodated. Monday at dawn she starts walking again. There will not be many more Mondays, nor dawns, nor flowers. She is nearing the end of her life, she feels, and many more miles to go.
Westward over Kanzas. New signboards appear, their capitals lurid as wounds. Hamilton's Creek. Gargery's Mountain. Logan's Ford. Pederson's Hollow. Cronin's Landing. Sheperton's Ridge. Buckley's Plot. John Anderson's Firth. Who are these Kanzans that own the handiwork of God? Has any other country such place-names?
My race is run, beneath the sun;
The gallows for Richard Lee;
For I did ruin that innocent child
Whose name was Rose Dupree.
She finds a candle stub on the road near Mute Creek, Kanzas. You never kill the spark that lingers when you blow out the wick, because long as it glows some sinner in purgatory is given a respite from her tortures.
Spring will come again. The trees will be leafed-out. The world will be a dapple of apple-blossomed light. The corpses in the furrows will molder to loam, and wheat will put forth from them, and there will be food enough for everyone, and the stooks of blond-haired corn shall be lofted like idols, and the lion shall lay by the Lincolns. There are moments when it is possible to believe there will be peace in the valley. But they do not come plentifully any more.
She is skilled with the slingshot, can drop a bird from the sky. But you must have a care what creature you eat in strange country. She scorches them on her fire, blackens them to the guts, but they taste like scorched rats: rancid, raw-chickeny.
If you disturb an ants' nest, the adults gather the eggs and flee. Return a minute later. The spawn will have vanished.
The refugees wonder where is she walking to. This cadaverous madwoman in her ash-dusted rags, who leaves footprints of blood, whose limbs are begrimed, whose face looks as though it has been forced through a mangle before being sutured back on to her skull. She carries a pound of dirt on her clothes. This barefoot nobody: what can be her story? And why is she padding for the wilderness of the north country? Got nothin up there for a manless woman. Nothin up there for no one.
A carny propositions her in a ghost town near Blackwell. He will pay a Union eagle dollar but what he wants she cannot make herself do. A compromise is agreed by which she will accept a Barbado doubloon; but his pleasure once achieved, if pleasure it was, he refuses to pay, says he never wanted it at all, so she slashes his throat and leaves him gurgling blasphemies, and now, as he dies, he has something to want.
Glintings in the distance. What can they be? Are stars raining down on the land like frogs? As she nears to the flickers, she sees what is happening. A sight she must be imagining. Carters heft sheets of glass from a waggon, roughly, hurriedly: the odd pane falls and breaks. The overseer shrieks that they are not to be broken, they cost the Master a dollar a dozen. They are passed hand to hand along a chain of men, who are spackling them into the ribs of a greenhouse. She stops. She watches. Plates of shining glass. And each bears the face of a soldier.
They must be the ones who did not come back, who never returned to pay the photographer. Farmers. Husbands. Old men. Boys. The sun burns hard through their reticent smiles. In a year they will all be burned away.
Strange languages are heard beyond the sheughs at night, from the dark unseen where the waggons pitch camp. The mischief-calls of children, long masculine harroos, the clanking of cauldrons being thrivelled with heavy ladles. A boy runs into the boreen near what is now La Junta, Colorado; at that time the place was nameless. He gawps at her, bugeyed, as though startled by a hag. He backs away, dreadfully, thumbing the cross on his collarbone, and scurries over a dike with a bleat for Mamacita.
That night, her own tombstone appears to her in a dream: a chunk of blackened mahogany bristling with coffin nails. Gardenias snaking through the mausoleum's cracks. Hammer in your spike, her ghost performs a hoodoo. Je Vous Salue, Marie. Fruit of thy womb. She died to make men holy. Let us die to make them free.
The murderess awakens, already walking. How can you dream when you're awake? Her gaze ranges ahead, perpetually ahead, fixed on the vanishing point, the unreachable horizon. Locusts click around her: a telegraphy that says: 'This road will never end.' But there cannot be locusts at this season of the year. Where do they go in winter?
The sunlight smarts her eyes. It blinks through the elms. At a crossroads near Bitter Lake she sees her long-dead father, lurching through the plantings with a crossbeam on his back and a convict slavering at his heels. But when she gapes again, he has turned to a scarecrow: wind-buckled, crippled, in a threadbare frockcoat, with a spade handle for shoulder-bones and a clog for a left foot. 'M' is stamped into the clog.
The ruins of a plantation house burning in her memory. A Corinth collapsing in alabaster dust. It falls slowly, seen from this distance, buckling in on itself, while the wrecking crew and the Captain observe from the tobacco field - but one defiant pillar emerges from the mortarcloud, enrubbled up to its waist. Burnt cotton in the air. And rooks. And scorched banknotes. Strange confetti, those gallowsblack angels. And she pictures a story dragging on the boreen behind her, tailing back to Louisiana like a train. Miss Havisham I am. I stopped my clocks. Cause my sweetman done me wrong.
And one dawn she awakens with a chemise in her hands, having no intimation how she came to possess it. It is like a piece of costuming for some theatrical presentation: braided, sumptuous, with rosettes of chenille. Did the magi stop in the night? Why did they stop? She reefs it asunder; swathes her seeping feet. It is glued to the whelks of her wounds.
She is outside a roofless chapel on Christmas Eve morning. Its bell clonging leadenly. She can feel it hurt her teeth. She approaches with caution, as an Apache towards a shyster, and peers through the doorway for the homily.
The snow falls slowly into the transept: feathers of snow-white snow. The congregants in greatcoats under skeletal umbrellas. Shivering. Hunched. Defiant. There is no organ to accompany them, or, if there is, no one is playing it. Only the zizz of a goatskin tambourine, placking out a funereal cadence.
She prays for those she will never know: for her mother, the child, the dead President, the ants, the boys who were brave and afraid in the War, the boys who slaughtered the innocent. And the preacher dons a stovepipe to hurry home to his gruel. The Reverend Baron Samedi. In his gun-hand he carries the key of the church; a prayerbook under his oxter.
Saint Jeddo. Pray for us.
Father in Hell. Pray for us.
John Cory. Pray for us.
Rose Dupree. Pray for us.
In the morning, as she is shaken from the preacher's rusting bed, he weeps that he cannot afford what they agreed. The tithe-plate was so poor. The people are so poor. Everything they planted was foraged. He presses into her hands a pair of work boots. Belonged to his son. In an asylum in California. Lost his legs at Pechacho Pass. Tried to take his own life. Won't never be coming home.
The preacher is gray in the face with guilt. She must go before anyone notices.
It is still dark as she winters out. The snow crisp and brittle; as though communion wafers have been spread beneath her soles. A whirling of sleet. Wearing her payment is an agony. In the end she tries to hurl them over the shoulder-bone of an oak, but her throw is weak and they catch on one of its fingers where they dangle by their laces. Bootfruit.
The first light comes; a cold, hard dawn. Out of the mist loom giants. She is facing into the mountainland.
She is an ant on a map. She talks to herself as she walks.
And I cannot face her. I cannot face her.
For this walk is for my redemption.
Copyright © 2007 by Joseph O'Connor
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