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Set in the dark, secret world of childhood, this long-awaited second novel from the bestselling author of Machine Dreams tells a story of an unexpected rite of passage, experienced by a group of children in a West Virginia girls' camp in 1963. "Full of dark dreams, menace and the blind tug of sex."--Mirabella.
Higher and Highest
The sky burned white to blond to powder to an almighty blue; the sun fell unobstructed. The girls wore heavy green shorts that were too long and short-sleeved white blouses embroidered in a clover silhouette above the right breast. The blouses were all too big; only the older girls with larger breasts looked strangely seductive in them. The dark shorts were forest-green gabardine, fluted with fine yellow braid on two deep pockets. In Charleston, the state headquarters of Girl Guides did not concede the heat of the Appalachian summer; they recommended knee socks with garters, neckerchiefs with a gold pin at the throat, wool berets. But Camp Shelter was newly reopened, the cabins were in shored-up disrepair, the cots themselves castoffs from a Boy Scout camp in the Panhandle. The county was low income, the mines, statewide, laid off. Only the shorts and blouses were regulation; girls on Supplement or Full Supplement wore secondhand uniforms and got away with rolling up their sleeves.
The upper sites had no cabins at all, just tents donated by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The tents were war surplus, army olive, weathered, alight on squat frames that were new and rough. Each frame seemed the unfinished skeleton of some more ambitious structure. A row of pale two-by-fours angled out from the wooden platforms that served as floors; like rows of awkward elbows, each held a lashed knot tight and the square form of the tent remained uncomfortably aloft. The raised front flaps were tied back, revealing olive interiors so completely plain that the metal cots with their bluestriped mattresses looked direly ornamental. The plank floors tilted and some were supported by posts in front or behind. Lenny and Cap were in the last row of Highest; beyond the rear wall of their tent, the world dropped off. Tattered in the descending bank, brush and flowers grew waist high. Lenny had stood there, looking up. From behind, the tents seemed temporary and strange. Like the dwellings of nomads in flight from floods, they perched on the hillsides in ascending order. Enclaves meant to be A, B, and C camps were soon dubbed High, Higher, and Highest: Girl Guides were rotated ever higher, the better to experience lashing in the wild and long hikes to flag raising. Seniors at Highest camp walked provisions up every morning after early swim in Mud River, and were never seen except at breakfast and at seven A.M. formation. Lenny and Cap stood then in a single line with the rest, just round the flag, looking hard and scratched in their dark, wrinkled Bermudas as the Juniors struggled out of the woods. The Seniors wore slouchy beige or white hats and terry-cloth wristbands: marks of combat with the insects and the heat, and the mist they were already walking through when reveille sounded far below at the quad. The dew-slick windings that were the trails from Highest were a jungle unto themselves and smelled of melons and snakes. Lenny was a Senior with the Seniors. What did they do up there all day? A million things, Lenny had lied to her sister, Alma, who was only a Junior and slept in a civilized cabin off the quad. At night the Seniors sang. Lenny knew they were made to sing. From below, their fires would appear as haphazard orange winks in the dark, and their voices must carry as vague chants that lifted and dropped: Come by here, my Lord. Lenny thought they were probably praying.
After cooking and mess duty and campfire close, they finally went to their tents, each one a canvas bunker whose sides and drooping roof held the heat of the day. Lenny and Cap were on the side of the mountain; if they tied up the front and rear flaps, air moved through the tent like a blessing. At ten and eleven they were still awake, indolent, murmuring, lying on narrow cots with the sheets still tucked. Cap wore her underwear but Lenny took off everything, relieved to be rid at last of the blouse that buttoned to the neck, the heavy shorts that covered her to her knees. She lay on her bed, legs spread, arms out, her blond hair flung over her face. Her hair, weighty, dense, released from its binding elastic, smelled of woodsmoke but felt cool; she imagined its light color made it cool in the dark of night on Highest. Even the lanterns were out. The counselors were sleeping, having made up chore lists for tomorrow; in these hours, Lenny was free. She felt her body borne up and slowly spinning, spun free by the cooling air, the blackness, the night sounds that grew louder and louder as she concentrated on each one: crickets emitting their pierced warbles, the woods owls hooting like they were trying to get breath, the grasses moving ever so slightly, crack of a twig. Though she complained, Lenny liked camp; she liked being dirty, dousing a change of uniform in the stream, throwing it over a rope line to dry, and putting it on still damp. She liked how the river slid, brown and flat, just a stretch of woods from Turtle Hole, the swimming pond whose mysterious depths were forbidden. She liked being with girls and the fact there were no boys, just Buddy, the cook's little kid, who followed them everywhere like the plague, and Frank, the good-looking bugler, perhaps a year older than they, safely observed from a distance. There were four or five county workmen, faceless in khaki clothes, but their river colony of ditches and pipes seemed unreal as home.
Walking was real. Lenny liked the endless walking that was by now automatic, the meaningless, inarguable up and down of the mountain. The routine, the common movements of the group, were oddly pleasant: nothing to be thought of, nothing to be decided, only this chore or that chore, all of them alike, really, the cleaning of objects, the storage of objects, the carrying up and down the mountain of objects. Even food seemed a series of objects, peeled and cut and cooked into mash, even the water to cook it hauled from somewhere. All day Lenny carried this or that--apples, potatoes, buckets, wood--through shimmering heat, conscious sometimes of the heat as a nearly liquid element, as though they were all kept upright, forced to move by what oppressed them. They struggled against it as swimmers struggle, cutting through, buoyed up.
The days were long. When dark descended, Lenny felt cooled and numb. She thought of the glass of beer in her father's hand: she felt as translucent and dense. He would be drinking beer now, on the dark porch at home, in the absolute quiet of Alma's and Lenny's absence, Audrey a canceled zero somewhere in the workings of the house. Lenny couldn't imagine her mother except in the context of Alma and herself; her father she saw clearly. Wes existed apart from them, always--that was Audrey's constant reproach. Home nights, Lenny often walked outside with a paper cup and Wes would pour her part of his beer; she drank it down in slow swallows and it spread through her. At night in Camp Shelter, protected by Cap and dozens of sleeping strangers, she imagined the beer pouring into her and over her, thick and golden like cold, syrupy lava, poured from her father's glass in a Technicolor dream. She wasn't here with Cap, she wasn't anywhere. In the emptiness, full, she nearly slept but didn't sleep, and floated.
In the Shack at Night
At night the shack was darker even than the night beyond it, and when he first lay down on his pallet he felt himself cosseted within some creature whose existence he had always suspected. He seemed to be in utter darkness, the dark that is in the inner guts of living things, and he listened for a heartbeat and heard it, a pounding on a wall, a wrenching pump pump pump that was wet and sick, and gradually the close, furry dark took on a bit of the light of the open night, the night in the forest. Out there the sky looked paler than the trees, which were so black they had no depth, and palest of all was the glassy surface of Turtle Hole, which he could see through the two windows of the front wall of the shack. A week ago he'd torn down the tar paper covering the cracked glass: Turtle Hole lay forward and to the right. From deep in the overhanging trees he glimpsed its opaque light. The water was roundly lopsided like a bowl squashed flat, the water was motionless like night ice that still might tremble if some creature swam beneath the perfect surface, the water scared him mightily and so he lay very still, he lay there and the space of the shack enlarged. Floater, underling, he clung to an udder of charcoal dark and saw the steep pitch of the shack roof above him, weathered gray of the boards pale against tar paper. Someone else had stayed here, stuffed paper between the boards, nailed up a few wood scraps in the corner where the slant was worst. Must have been a chicken coop, with a roosting shelf some tramp had long ago made into a bed. Now the partition boards were gone and the shelf built up with straw, straw he smelt chickens in, an old dust of powder and feathers, he'd sooner bed with rats than chickens, he'd killed rats many a time, shot them with a revolver when he was Preacher's boy. But chickens made him scared, the way they bobbed and pecked, jerking here and there on devilish horned feet, blinking their raw, pink eyes that were stupid and soulless as the eyes of fish. The noise they made, the bwak bwak cut and cluck, the ck ck ck that stammered and froze his blood, how he used to have to chop their heads off at Proudytown, stand there and hold the bloody hatchet while their headless bodies flopped and staggered like runt machines. They were evil, the way they couldn't die, they might have made him evil too, kitchen matron quarreling at him, go on out there and pick up them birds, big boy like you scared of chickens, you gonna eat it you better be ready to kill it, but he didn't eat it, never did, he didn't want that flesh inside him even when his guts rolled with hunger. Oh, it was dark inside him, he knew he was born dark and he liked to be in the daytime, in the dark he had to lie still and watch.
He told himself everything evil was long gone from here. Summers and winters the shack had been empty, falling down for years, who knew how many, maybe as far back as when he was with Preacher, sermonizing, sixteen years old, cowlick and a swarth of beard, dark kid, guinea kid, they taunted him at school, in need of a haircut and clothes, in need of a home, Preacher would say from the pulpit. So he became Preacher's foster son, even preached on Fridays, sweating, Bible in his hand, and while he'd shouted in Preacher's Calvary house, snakes had molted here in this abandoned slant of boards. Parson had found skins, some of them so old they fell to dust when he lifted them out of leaves and dirt. Whatever he found that was good he put beneath his pallet: the dry leaves, an empty honeycomb, the clean bones of small animals rotted and returned to powders, and the snakeskins. There were rags of blankets left by vagrants, men who must have slept here in winter when the camp was closed. And since he'd gotten work on the pipe crew, the directress, a fat redheaded woman white as pink-tinged chalk, had sent him twice to the dump with a truckload of junk. Now he had a metal kitchen chair with a ripped plastic seat, and a cot mattress discolored and torn, softer under him than any bed he remembered. He had magazines. He had a dish with a blue flower on it, and a bucket with no handle he filled at Turtle Hole near dusk. Kneeling to fill it, he saw his own face wavering and broken on the cool surface, sometimes he splattered the image with his hand, with his face, biting water that tasted clean and cut like glass, cold and brilliant, and when he came up sputtering he heard the girls singing in their camps, the sounds vague and high, mesmerizing, every night they sang and he could never hear the words, there were different words from different directions and their nonsensical rise and fall seemed to call and answer, calling him, answering, and he knew he'd come to the right place, he'd followed Carmody and come to a place he was meant to find. It almost didn't matter who he followed, any of them, fallen, vicious in their minds, could lead him to grace.
In prison he'd watched Carmody carefully. Carmody, long and lank, his faded, wheat-colored hair and squinty eyes, his face that was not young with its callow, unfinished look, showing always an edge of the rabbity anger that caused him to hang back, scheming while his cohorts strutted and preened. Carmody moved, not seeming to move, planned while he appeared to sleep: Parson dreamed Carmody was water, an elongated sheen not unlike Turtle Hole in color and brilliance, an oval water that moved along the edges of things like a shade or a ghost, a water that moved up walls, through bars, edged past the warrens of cells along the main corridor of the prison, water that glistened, featureless and flat, probing, searching to take on any shape, any color, anything to get out. For some of them, prison was no worse than what they'd lived through. But prison broke Carmody up, he was wild to finish his time, afraid of the wardens, afraid of the other men. He even seemed afraid of his wife and kid, or afraid to see them, the wife a big woman gone to fat and the kid a pale towhead, quick and thin, darting beside her like a shadow tethered to a string. Before their rare visits Carmody was jumpy. He said his old lady was a nut for God, she and Parson would get on, but Parson wasn't much for women, was he, and Carmody laughed. Parson could smell the fear on him, a bitter vegetable smell like rotted seeds and pulp. For a while they'd shared a cell in D block: Carmody flowed from one side to the other, pacing in the dark, ranting about the block bosses and their gofers until he knelt in the corner and beat at the wall with his fist, a rhythmic pounding punctuated by frantic whispers, I gotta be a good boy, good boy, gotta be a good boy, kill them, fuck them, until Parson dragged him by the back of his shirt to the bunks and prayed over him. Oh Christ, Carmody would mutter, struggle like a cat in a sack, shut up you crazy loon, they all know you're crazy, why the hell do you think they leave you alone? But the praying always worked and Parson was strong enough to hold Carmody still, hold him in the healing grip of the Heavenly Father and press hard against the evil, press hard and shake the Devil loose.
Posted August 15, 2013
Posted July 12, 2001
How can you not love this book? The sheer nostalgia, the yearnings of young people, yeah, we were there once and wouldn't have given it up for anything. Parents out of site, love and longing near by, could life and summer get any better? No. And Phillips' story, the shelter of young girls and who they are and what they are is essential to the core of their being. I loved this book because of what you gain and what you lose and in all that exquisite romantic elusive detail. Jayne, I love you. Donald SommerfieldWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 16, 2000