The lives of the working class in West Virginia—a train engineer, an epileptic, coal miners and outlaws, the fragile and dispossessed—are explored in this powerful yet tender collection of six short stories and a novella. They depict an isolated world of hardship, human endurance, and hard-won dignity and are a lyrical rendering of times and places now largely gone—but the stirring clarity of people and landscape can persist in the reader's imagination.
|Publisher:||Santa Fe Writer's Project|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Richard Currey is the author of Crossing Over: A Vietnam Journal, which went on to vast acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize nomination; Fatal Light; and Lost Highway. He lives in Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
The Wars of Heaven
By Richard Currey
Santa Fe Writers ProjectCopyright © 2012 Richard Currey
All rights reserved.
Edward Tyler remembered his forty-first birthday: his brother came back from the woodshed but wasn't carrying any wood, and told Tyler they had better go back down to the shed together. The clouds were dark and low and against them five sparrows hobbled south toward a grove of walnut and black cherry. Rain was coming.
* * *
Edward Tyler drove the night train north from Charleston and back again, had done so since 1931, after the Depression killed the family farm and forced him into another line of work. He started as a brakeman, then fireman, made his way to engineer, loving the seasons of the night, the smell of coal smoke laced with winter and the air-through-teeth hiss of steam's release when he vented the boiler at the stations along the way. He leaned at the cab's open hatch and watched the transfer of mail and merchandise halfway down the train — silhouettes and unreadable voices — until it was quiet and the platform was empty and the brakeman's signal light sliced an arc into the darkness. Tyler pulled the throttle slowly and the engine jerked forward against the weight of the train, a muscle unfolding in a blind man's arm.
Riding through the hills and watching the rails' blue shine in starlight he would sing to himself, and his voice merged with the moan of the engine until the music was something that happened in his lingering imagination, like memory or the remnants of dream. The locomotive's headlamp wobbled a line of light in front of the cars of chickens and cabbages, refrigerator vans, flatbeds and tankers and gondolas and the endless barges of coal.
His schedule laid over in a depot town called Carneyville. Tyler and his crew crowded into the stationmaster's office, stripping their work gloves, laughing, smelling of kerosene and black coffee. Tyler sat on the leather divan talking about the prices of corn and soybeans and beef, about FDR and the New Deal. He listened to jokes about the pope and colored people and the local whores, and jokes about old men like himself who were married to beautiful young women.
* * *
Edward Tyler and Elizabeth Roman were married in a mountain church. White clapboard, one room at the end of a packed-earth lane, random tombstones climbing the hill like teeth in an old man's mouth. Not many were in attendance. A few friends, Tyler's aging mother sitting in the front pew with wildflowers on her lap. Elizabeth's father. The minister's wife playing "Amazing Grace" on a pump organ. A mongrel dog slept in the aisle.
Elizabeth seemed unbelievable to Tyler: a fragile beauty, ethereal eyes invested with a kind of elementary clarity he had never seen before. She stood so gently beside him in front of the altar, and as the preacher read from his litanies Tyler looked at Elizabeth. They had met at a Christmas dance, introduced by Elizabeth's father, a friend of Tyler's, and Tyler danced with her most of the night and took her home in the crisp mountain air, and they were married six months later. He was forty. She was twenty-two.
He rented a house outside of Charleston, the last of a farm cut down to two acres and a barn, garden plot, woodshed and root cellar. He bought a milking cow and a radio and watched Elizabeth move through the house, watched her as she slept, brought her clothes and perfume from Pittsburgh, and was gone every other week of the month driving up the green map of West Virginia.
* * *
The night of Edward Tyler's forty-first birthday it rained: he remembered it well. It was the night his brother found Elizabeth in the woodshed, where she had ended her life with a deer rifle, sitting on a box of pine chips with her eyes open, looking exhausted and melancholy, the back of her skull open and wet on the dark wood. The gun had slipped from her grip and leaned barrel-up between her legs. Her hands lay empty to either side, palms gently opened as if they might speak.
For most of three weeks Tyler sat in a single chair under a single lamp, not eating, only a distant awareness of the run of sympathetic visitors, his body fighting his mind's insistence on complete despair. He had seen no signs of trouble: Elizabeth was often silent, at times unable to sleep and drifting through the long hallways at night, but Tyler took it for diffidence and intensity — aspects of her beauty — and stared from his mourning chair cursing his ignorance and willingness to imagine an identity for a woman he did not know. He wanted to have a place for what his life had become but found none, and felt like an empty shape filling with apparitions and the soft drum of autumn rain. He would pass off to sleep sitting in the chair and start awake in the midst of nightmare, Elizabeth's corpse speaking to him from her death seat in the woodshed, her disembodied voice an emanation. Tyler gripped the chair's arms and rediscovered his face, aligned in a rigid mask of anguish and disbelief before he called himself back into being, trying to find a breath of air in the darkened room.
He wanted simply to understand, and saw that he could not, and would never.
In time he was back at work, back on his route. He moved out of the farmhouse and into a condemned caboose on a siding in the switching yards and though he had never been religious he prayed. Jesus, he whispered, protect me from my innocence. Love me in my weakness.
His train was a friend, unwinding its way out of rain-misted hills. The long stretches through the central part of the state he rode alone at the cab's window, knowing if he reached out to touch the rhododendron and chokecherry that crowded the roadbed splits his hand would be pulled into a rapture of night purple, as sweet as blood. The train would break from undergrowth and forest, and meadows would stretch away filled with moonlight and ground mist. Tyler searched for a direction he could depend on, and thought of Elizabeth. On one late winter night, as his train rounded the long bend beyond the Afton station, he found himself in tears and saying aloud I didn't know you, girl. I didn't even know you, his voice lost in diesel roar.CHAPTER 2
His name was James Heard and the distant thunder woke him: he lay awake before he knew what had drawn him up. Then he heard it again, dark roar in the sky, the slight shock wave jetting underground behind it. He was on the side of the bed putting his socks on when his wife said something to him from her sleep and he turned to answer but saw from her face in the half-light she wouldn't hear. He got up and went to the closet and dressed in front of the closet's open door.
* * *
When he reached the porch one of the mine foremen was there, stopped on the steps carrying a Coleman lantern in his left hand, its light striking his face into shadow. The foreman stood for a moment, his lips working silently and the light spreading a wavering circle over the floorboards of the porch. There was no wind. The night was cold. The foreman shivered once and said, quietly, You know your brother's down there tonight. And then he looked away, from his shoes to the lantern's bright blowing hiss, turned, stepped down and moved off, lantern walking beside him until it was only a flickering point in the darkness.
* * *
James Heard had worked fourteen years underground, digging coal with his older brother Benjamin. They had grown up in northeastern Kentucky, around Little Crane Creek in a family of nine children. Their father was killed when his truck rolled off an iced bridge in the middle of a long winter, and Ben took over, coming home drunk after the old man's death, only seventeen at the time, their long-sick mother sitting upstairs, staring from the edge of her empty bed. When she died with pneumonia in the next autumn Ben scattered the younger children to relatives but kept James with him, talked to him for weeks about leaving, north to West Virginia and the rumor of work.
James packed in the old bedroom wallpapered with Jefferson County Democrats — one wall dominated by FDR in dark glasses, the yellowed presidential face razored by that savage grin — and stopped on the way out to the road to pull a palm of boneset and joe-pye weed. He tossed the spray of tiny blossoms across his mother's grave behind the house. He could hear his brother calling and for a brief moment standing there at her feet he thought he could feel the land singing itself underground, an aura of rivers and trains humming inside the earth. Then Ben was beside him, saying it was time to go.
On the shoulder of the county two-lane Ben joked, did a short dance to imaginary music in his two-tone oxfords and pleated wool trousers. He adjusted the brim of his hat and leaned on his knees like an umpire, squinting into the overcast for the first car up they could hitch a ride with.
* * *
When James Heard got to the mine the main hole was bright, lit from inside and below by flame, talking fire blowing into view, wisping reds and yellows and the hollow color of peaches underneath. A smoke billow turned continuously into the belly of the night sky, its boiling flank white in the fire's light. Firemen had opened hoses full-force into the gate and down the shaft. There were wives against the fence in curlers and slippers, keening and crying; a group of older women stood back, solemn in coats over their bathrobes. James Heard pushed in close, found the foreman who had come to his house, but there was nothing to do but wait. The company wasn't exactly sure how many were down there, the foreman said. Could be near a hundred.
Heard turned back against the gathering crowd feeling his own breath coming in gusts, past faces shining in the glare, some he knew, wives and sons and daughters, brothers and fathers. He said nothing, acknowledging with nods or a touch as he passed, and stepped free of the crowd, stumbling slightly, steadying himself against the first tree he came to, a short birch, hearing his breath reach and pull and he held to it, the simple sound of it in his mind.
* * *
By dawn there was soft rain, a whisper in the surrounding forest. His wife brought coffee and sandwiches, taking up vigil with him. Some of the other wives sat on folding chairs in a half-circle, wrapped in blankets, singing old soulful hymns and reading passages aloud from the New Testament.
It was afternoon when the foreman came to say there was no further use in waiting. The mine was still burning, the governor was sending out a special disaster team. The foreman glanced around, his cheeks sooted. Might be days before this hole burns out, he said.
James Heard nodded. The foreman waited a moment before he said Jesus, Jimmy, I'm so goddamned sorry. Heard looked at the ground. The foreman touched his arm and moved off and Heard stood, families drifting away in silence around him through the rain, until he was alone with the smoking head of the shaft. He stood watching the smoke plume and felt himself a solitary figure in a secret landscape. When he walked slowly down the slope through wet leaves to where he had parked the truck, his wife was waiting for him.
He started the engine, turned it off, sat in the worn smell of work and old oil and coal dust. His wife stared straight ahead through the windshield. Drizzle ticked on the car's roof and he looked at his big hands resting on the steering wheel.
He started the engine a second time and took the truck home.
* * *
He told himself he could forget it, it would pass, but sudden rages convulsed him, riveted the room and left his wife and children remote and frightened. He lost himself in tirades, came to his senses alone and confused in front of the television with the sound turned down, dancing blue light in a black corner. He lost interest in sleeping, and sat up at the kitchen table resting his head in his hands with his eyes closed, listening to the furnace under the floor rumble on and off, his face a closed and silent territory. Over and over the night fire stood in his mind and he saw the new widows along the hollow on that November dawn, looking toward the fume of greasy smoke to the east, and when he did sleep he dreamt of burning tunnels, men choking the fire-holes trying to see some pocket free of the terrible light and heat, just some place they could rest out of their pain.
His wife insisted he see a doctor for something to help him sleep and ease his nerves, but when he finally sat in the alcohol smell of the examining room he felt foolish, his brother's death only another random secret.
He made up a story about a shoulder cramp, was palpated and purged by the old doctor's cold raspy hand, told he shouldn't worry.
* * *
The state sealed the mine after two weeks and James Heard could have moved to one of the company's other sites, but he hired on with a strip-mine project, driving backhoe, shaving down the sides of mountains. He felt he couldn't go underground again. He had a morbid fantasy, a kind of daydream, that if he went below the surface he would find Ben there, that Ben haunted the earth if only for the sake of accident and loss. In better moments he was able to tell himself that this was a private fever, and sitting on his porch with a beer on a Sunday in spring he began thinking about chance, if there was a such a thing, or if life had design and every moment was earned, his years the heart of some crippled innocence. He thought of his childhood in Kentucky and realized the memory he had most, he wasn't sure why, was of the first hog butchering he and Ben had seen, at least the first he remembered.
It was winter, snow-filled. Neighbors crowded the kitchen. He and Ben took turns grinding coffee beans for their mother. Some of the men held their mugs in both hands and their conversations seemed distant and muffled. The family dogs padded the kitchen smelling bootheels. The boys' father mounted the steps and crossed the porch, his boots echoing the crawlspace, and he came through the door patting gloved hands together, into the kitchen in front of a surge of cold air. Ready, he called out, stamping snow from his boots on a mat, taking a cup of coffee from his wife. The other men pushed the last of their coffees down and scraped their chairs back.
James and Ben got into coats and followed the men out into the winter, crunching frost to the clearing in front of the barn. The hog rooted and snorted in a tight cage on the back of Clyde Kelley's flatbed, its breath vaporizing on the snowy air.
Clyde took his Ruger carbine off the truck's front seat, drew a single shell out of his overalls bib pocket and loaded it into the chamber, pulling the hammer back until it cocked. Two of the men moved the cage to the end of the truck's bed and Clyde pushed the rifle's barrel through the mesh and rested it against the hog's forehead. The animal blinked once, confused, and Clyde fired, at that range the shot a muffled thump into bone, and the hog's full weight slammed to the floor of the cage. Clyde withdrew the rifle, rested the barrel in the crook of his left arm and unlatched the cage door. There was a short trail of burnt cordite in the air as three of the farmers lifted the dead animal out of the cage and onto a meathook, hanging it on a crossbeam the boys' father had nailed together the night before, and Clyde opened the suspended carcass with his big serrated skinning knife, one clean draw down the midline.
* * *
After the butchering their father decapitated the hog and sunk the head in a bucket of snowmelt. It sat in a corner of the kitchen and James went to look. The hog stared up at him through empty eyes, tendrils of lacy blood oozing under the neck stump and drifting in the clear water, and he stood back in a sudden and unexpected nausea, gasping, striking a chair. His mother turned from the stove and watched a moment, said Nothing to be afraid of son. It's just an old hog. The hot kitchen slid in his head and he looked at her, sick and trying to speak, the same backward ache that had risen in him when Clyde ripped his knife down through the hog, throat to belly, guts sagging into the rift, blood sluice, the sound of water gushing, and James gripped his brother's hand feeling his lips pull away from his teeth, his throat contracting, frightened and not knowing why, and they stood side by side under the feral cries of crows and the wise float of hawks on the white uplifts above, the hog's opened body steaming in January air.
* * *
In the months after his brother's death James Heard sat at a table in his toolshed, a single plywood sheet across two sawhorses. He had tried some of his old projects — wooden toys, carvings — but they stopped halfway done. He seemed to lose their direction, as if he could no longer depend on the energy inside the wood to guide him. He started a toy truck of loblolly and spruce but now the partially carved blocks sat in front of him on the plywood sheet, refusing his hand. He leaned back and looked toward the toolshed's southern window. Under the window was a small angel he had carved, one of his oldest pieces, a polished cherry standing in a frail cone of summer light with arms and hands slightly away from the body, the three pairs of wings raised in delicate flutter. The carved angel looked quietly down at the fresh vegetables on the table, gifts from a neighbor. Bell peppers arranged at random in a geometric triad, their heavy skins shining, two zucchini squashes and a tomato to the side with cheeky bulges glowing a mild green luster from under the red. The angel gazed on the vegetables as if they were the mysterious fruits of heaven and James Heard looked at the accidental tableau feeling it nearly meant something, the way the angel's hands lifted with just the right knowledge.
With the sound of children he got up and went to the small window at the angel's head and saw his sons and their friends running the side yard. He watched them and one of the boys, Fred Chapel's son, was pushed and lost balance sideways into the Heards' garden plot, taking down a stake as he fell. The boy looked back at the house and got up dark, frightened at his trespass, fists tight and ready to swing. James Heard stepped out of the shed and let the boys see him, and said Forget it, just go on and play somewhere else. The boys stood, saying nothing, looking at each other, then turned to pass deeper into the yard, trotting, then running, toward the cornfields and wooded land beyond. Fred Chapel's son stood alone for a moment in a furrow, sullen and flushed, and Heard said quietly Go on now, catch up to your buddies.
Heard went back into the shed and racked his tools on a pegboard. He held the angel a moment in his palm. He still wondered if he could have shaped it: the eyes seemed to understand themselves beyond the carver, the way they owned their blind dreams whole. As if the angel wanted to know whose vision saw the world for it, and in whose light it went on living. James Heard wiped the dust from the wings with his thumb, buffed the backside on his trouser leg and put the angel back under the window, and went to stand in the doorway. The early summer evening was long and deep, and like a good secret the air was close, a life in itself. He stood a moment, listening to the night. Then he collected the vegetables and walked out across the yard toward his house.
Excerpted from The Wars of Heaven by Richard Currey. Copyright © 2012 Richard Currey. Excerpted by permission of Santa Fe Writers Project.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Rock of Ages,
The Wars of Heaven,
The Love of a Good Woman,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Richard Currey's writing style is beautiful. It is inspiring almost despite the settings and types of characters he depicts in these stories. Though I have long wanted to, I have never visited this part of the country but this book and others of its ilk can make me feel like I have. These are not happy stories overall, but understanding the people and their times make them enjoyable. I have been on a bit of a short story jag lately and this is one of the better collections I have read. Recommended.
Thought provoking short stories This is a book that will start you thinking and then continue to ponder the lives of these people long after you’ve finished reading. The six short stories were all quite dour although they were not depressing. They made you feel the character’s emotions. These are stories to read slowly to take in the atmosphere. Edward Tyler forced from the family farm due to the Depression. James Heard spent fourteen years digging coal and lost his brother to the mines. Raymond Dance a coalminer suffering from Black Lung. Each has their own story to tell. All the stories were thought provoking but the icing on the cake was the novella featuring, Delbert Keene the very likeable if not a little crazy clown. I was left wanting more of Delbert’s story. He was very frustrating yet endearing. These were stories about people coping with real situations of life in the early 1900’s.