An Indie Next Title • An Indies Introduce Title • Long-listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
“Impressive . . . [A] tough, honest novel by a surprisingly wise young writer.” — Washington Post
“A complex and powerful story—put Black River on the must-read list.” — Seattle Times
Wes Carver returns to his hometown—Black River, Montana—with two things: his wife’s ashes and a letter from the parole board. The convict who once held him hostage during a prison riot is up for release. For years, Wes earned his living as a corrections officer and found his joy playing the fiddle. But the riot shook Wes’s faith and robbed him of his music; now he must decide if his attacker should walk free. With “lovely rhythms, spare language, tenderness, and flashes of rage” (Los Angeles Review of Books), S. M. Hulse shows us the heart and darkness of an American town, and one man’s struggle to find forgiveness in the wake of evil.
“Artful . . . Hulse evokes the Montana landscape in lyrical, vivid prose.” — Boston Globe
“Hulse believes that grace happens in a look between two people, or a moment of holding back. A powerful elegy.” — Guardian
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Part I White Light
The music, she thinks, is supposed to comfort. It’s meant as a kindness; they are relentlessly kind here. It comes from a small plastic stereo the nurse switches on after helping Claire onto the bed. Claire thinks she recognizes the melody, and feels mildly ashamed for not being able to put a name to it. Wesley would know. He’s outside, in the waiting room. Not reading. Not watching the endlessly looping cable news. Certainly not placing pieces in the unchanging, half-completed jigsaw puzzle near the registration desk. No, Wesley goes still at hard moments. Sets his jaw, lets his features stiffen into an impassive mask, quiets his hands. If some well-meaning person who isn’t wearing scrubs or a white coat tries to say hello or offer a commiserating smile, he either won’t notice or will pretend he hasn’t. But he’ll be watching the comings and goings of every nurse, every doctor. Every opening of the door leading to where she is.
The music isn’t comforting. Too many violins and horns and drums going all at once. Cacophony.
Years ago they didn’t offer sedation for bone marrow biopsies, only lidocaine. Her first time, while Claire lay face-down on the bed waiting for numbness to replace the stinging in her skin, a nurse who looked like a child placed the four-inch trephine needle on a tray in Claire’s line of sight. Maria, Claire’s doctor had said, we try not to let the patients see those. Like a meat skewer, Claire decided. Or a knitting needle. Afterward Wesley asked her if the pain had been bad, and she lied and said not really. He has never liked to be told even gentle untruths, so he doesn’t ask anymore.
She likes simple melodies. A series of single notes that leave a trail she can follow.
Afterward they help her to one of the reclining chairs in the infusion suite and get Wesley. Without asking, he takes a chair from the nurses’ station and rolls it to her side. His hair is backlit by the blue light of a fish tank behind him. He asks how long they have to wait before the nurses will let them leave—it’s a question he asks just for the sake of speech; he knows this routine as well as she does—and she says twenty minutes. She is about to tell him she’s cold, but he’s already standing, moving across the room to the heated cupboard with the warmed blankets folded inside. Wesley hates coming here, but he now occupies this place as though it is their home, with none of the deference he showed the staff in those first days and weeks. They have become used to the hospital in different ways, she and her husband. Claire feels less like herself here. Meeker. She lets people usher her from room to room, guide her through the stages of her illness. Wesley treats the hospital as territory to be conquered. He is impatient, uninterested—for the first time in his life—in policies or procedures. Wesley is one of those Montana men whose mouths hardly move when they speak, for whom words are precious things they are loath to give up. Here, though, she has heard him raise his voice at the nurses’ station loud enough that she can hear him in her room down the hall. Here he has interrogated and threatened and—once—even begged. Sometimes, when he thinks she is asleep, he prays aloud. He is confrontational with God. One of the nurses breezes by, depositing two cans of orange juice on the table. More of that maddening courtesy: snacks for the spouse as well as the patient, unasked. For a moment neither Claire nor Wesley moves, and then she begins to unwrap herself from the blanket. Don’t, he says. I’ll get them. Wesley, she says. The cans have pull rings on top. He can’t manage pull rings. He fumbles with one anyway, his skewed fingers unable to get enough purchase on the ring to lift it. His face doesn’t betray him—sometimes Claire thinks he trained all the expressions out of his face when he was working at the prison—but she watches the skin over his swollen knuckles blanch and knows it hurts him. Wesley, please. The can slips from between his fingers and clatters against the tile, rolls under her chair. He leans forward to pick it up, but stops halfway, bent, eyes in shadow. Claire reaches from beneath the blanket and puts her hand on his bowed head, brushes his hair back from his forehead. It’s reddish blond, a color more suited to a little boy than a grown man. Leave it, she tells him. It tastes tinny anyway.
Claire hopes that when Wesley dies, it will be quick. Heart attack. Stroke. Aneurysm. She cannot imagine him with a lingering illness like this one, cannot imagine him subjecting himself to the doctors and nurses, bearing whatever necessary pain they might inflict. Not after the riot.
It is always the two of them waiting. Waiting for the lab results to come back, for Claire’s name to be called, for the drugs to drip into her veins. Waiting for remission. Waiting for news, good or bad. Now they are waiting in one of the exam rooms in her oncologist’s office, on the bench beside the empty countertop where he will plunk down his laptop, open the lid, tilt the screen toward them. Wesley is sitting nearest the counter, so his body will be between hers and the doctor’s numbers. The verdict. She aims her eyes out the window. The September light has just begun its slow fade from summer-bright, and its gentle cast gilds the edges of the buildings downtown. Claire has never grown to love Spokane, has never come to think of it as her home. It is too obviously fallen from grace, a city with grand but dilapidated architecture and residents who speak fondly of a golden age none of them remember. And the mountains in the distance are so small. Claire misses the mountains in Black River, their immediacy and immensity. These hills are shades of what she left behind. I hate this fucking clock, Wesley says quietly. The first time she’s heard him swear in thirty years of marriage. Claire looks. An ugly red plastic rim, a pharmaceutical logo emblazoned across the face. I suppose it was free, she says, but she knows what he means. It’s a loud clock. The hand moves audibly, every second sounded. Gone.
She doesn’t worry about him. He knows how to endure.
They could be wrong, Wesley says in the truck on the way home. They’re at a red light, and the engine idles so loudly she has to strain to hear him. He says, There are other doctors. Better, maybe. We’ve seen them, Claire says. Seattle. A bigger hospital, more doctors with more letters after their names. More treatments that weren’t quite effective enough. We knew this was coming, Wesley. We might find someone still willing to try a second transplant. I’m not, she says. Willing. Her doctor was kind but honest. He used words like terminal, palliative, hospice. Claire can almost see Wesley turning the conversation over in his mind, looking for the loophole. The sun is on his side of the car, and it slices through the window, bright on his skin. Sweat beads above his upper lip, darkens the hair above his ears. She is cold all the time now, but she says, It’s getting a little warm in here, and he cracks the window. The light turns green, but there is still a man in the road, crossing the street with a slow, swaggering gait. Wesley sinks his foot against the accelerator, cuts close behind the man, who turns just before the curb and gestures with one hand, his mouth opening, the syllables obliterated by the rush of air past the window.
No. She does worry. His father was a suicide.
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