The Wished-for Countryby Wayne Karlin
The Wished For Country is set during the founding period of the Maryland colony, during the mid-17th century. The novel focuses on the entwined stories of James Hallam, a carpenter and indentured servant; Ezekiel, an African slave brought to Maryland from Barbados; and Tawzin, a Piscataway Indian, kidnapped to England when a child, and now back in America. While
The Wished For Country is set during the founding period of the Maryland colony, during the mid-17th century. The novel focuses on the entwined stories of James Hallam, a carpenter and indentured servant; Ezekiel, an African slave brought to Maryland from Barbados; and Tawzin, a Piscataway Indian, kidnapped to England when a child, and now back in America. While Hallam goes on to become a soldier and a player in the politics of the Maryland colony, Ezekiel and Tawzin become the center of an outcast group of blacks, whites, and Indians, who find themselves striving to reinvent themselves and their world. The stories of these three men, the women who love them, and the community they form, bring to vivid life the experiences of those who came to America pulled by a dream of what could be shaped from an emptiness that embodied promise, of those who were unwillingly brought to be the instruments of that dream, and of those who saw the shape of their world forever changed by the coming of the Europeans.
"The Wished For Country illuminates an aspect of our history that we dare not forget. Wayne Karlin’s new book is an enthralling and important novel."—Robert Olen Butler
"A powerful and wonderful recreation, deeply imagined and richly detailed. This is a book to be cherished and [one hopes] highly honored. "—George Garrett
"Again Wayne Karlin has demonstrated himself to be a serious artist
- Northwestern University Press
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The Wished-for Countrya novel
By Wayne Karlin
CURBSTONE PRESSCopyright © 2002 Wayne Karlin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom the Narrative of Father Andrew White, S.J.
When we had sailed beyond the Fortunate Islands, Lord Leonard Calvert, the commander of the enterprise, began to consider where he could get any merchandise to load the ship with, on its return, in order to defray the expenses of his brother, the Baron of Baltimore. For he, having originated the whole expedition, had to bear all the expense. No profit was expected from our countrymen in Virginia: for they are hostile to this new settlement,' accordingly we were directing our course to the Island of St. Christopher, when ... we turned our prows to the south to go to Bonavista. This island, situated near Angola on the African coast, 14 degrees from the equator, is a post of the Hollanders, where they collect salt, which they afterwards carry home, or take to cure fish with in Greenland. The abundance of salt, and also the number of goats which are found on the island, were inducements for us to go there, for it has no other inhabitants. Only a few Portugese, transported for crime, drag out their lives the best way they can. We had gone barely 200 miles, when changing our plans a second time, at the suggestion of some among us, lest the provisions should fail us, in going so far out of our way, we turnedaside into Barbadoes....
The watchful care of Divine Providence consoled us for the bitter harshness of men. For we understoond that a Spanish fleet was stationed off the island of Bonavista, to keep all foreigners from engaging in the salt trade. If, keeping to our appointed route, we had gone on thither, we should have fallen into the net, and become the prey of our enemies. In the meantime, we were delivered from a greater danger at Barbadoes: the servants throughout the whole island had conspired to kill their masters; then, indeed, after having gained their liberty, it was their intention to possess themselves of the first ship which should touch there, and venture to sea. The conspiracy was disclosed by one who was deterred by the atrocious cruelty of the enterprise; and the punishment of one of the leaders was sufficient for the security of the island and our own safety. For our ship, as being the first to touch there, had been marked for their prey.
To the right of the quay was a tree unlike any tree I had ever seen before, though I had shaped wood for much of my life, boy and man. A cabbage, it seemed, spiked by a slender, swaying stalk that must have risen two hundred feet into the air, standing against the sun. I laughed at the absurdity of it. The ship rose and fell and I spread my feet to steady myself. The bright white sand, the shattered turquoise sea, needles of sun dancing off it, penetrated and tore aside a gray veil I hadn't known had been hanging before my eyes all of my days until now.
On the other side of that same dock, growing from a square platform, was a more familiar tree. Its fruit twisted in the air, stretching taut the rope from which it hung, the creak and groan rising against an echo in my memory, traveling as clearly across time as the sound that came over the water between myself and the shore of Barbados. A pink tongue protruded between the negro's lips. The tongues of the white men I'd hung in the Spain would turn black. I wondered at the balance. The negro's hands and feet had been hacked off, a warning to others against rebellion and running, the slave's mortal sins.
Another black was standing below and just in front of the hanging man, all his appendages intact, as if he were demonstrating what the complete form should be. He was looking at me.
The white blaze of light under the gallows sparked a bright dissolution: the black transmuting into my Meg lifting her skirt and smiling at me, like a soldier's dream of homecoming or forgiveness, until I drew closer and saw the red rash she was showing me, the pustular swellings on the flesh of her thighs, what I had thought a flash of welcoming lust only the gleam of the disease burning behind her eyes. I remembered how, at the end, when the weak gray London light had leaked in through the crude shutter I had made to fasten over the window, she screamed as if someone had stuck flaming brands into those already scorched eyes.
The light in this place would have turned her to ashes.
A white man is standing on the deck of the ship Ezekiel would have seized, staring at me as the sun awakens a path of dazzle on the water. A useless arrow pointing to that ship. Pointing beyond it. Pointing nowhere. The day before Ezekiel had pointed and the overseer Trent had grabbed his right hand and strapped it, and the axe rose and fell and the hand lay in yellow dust, its sixth finger still twitching, describing small circles in the air. Writing his name on the skin of my heart.
Once I had been a name my lips won't form around now, and once I had been Lucius and now I will be Ezekiel. The white men name carelessly, without thought, as I have seen them reach into a pot and throw scraps of meat to dogs. But names and words call things to themselves, the way my hands called forms from wood, and I know that when the old words are no longer shaped by my mouth or heard in my brain, what they call will have died in my heart. I hope that time will come soon. Ezekiel was the last with whom I could speak in the old words, and now I have taken his name, and it is only when I am near sleep and when I dream that I feel those Dahomey words soften and hatch in my mouth, where they lay in a hard egg under my tongue.
I look back now at what had been Ezekiel, husked and dangling in the air. You are their hands, Lucius, he had whispered to me in the old words, as I'd helped fasten him to the chopping block, next to the gallows my hands had built. Your hands cast their dreams for them, Lucius, and l am only bones now, but I will be released by their axes to travel back over the water.
You'll only travel as far as your swing in the air, I had said to him, and I'll breathe the air tomorrow, Ezekiel, and so will the others I've saved by giving you to them.
You'll breathe my dreams and I give you my name with them, the name of a white man who saw bones rise and dance the way you'll see bones rise and dance, Ezekiel said, Ezekiel falling and Ezekiel rising, cursing me with a third and final name, another birth that was the same time another death. You'll breathe me in every wind tickles your nostrils tomorrow; you'll breathe my dreams into your bones; your fingers, visible and invisible, will pull me into you from time, he said, blowing his final breath, his name, into my mouth.
Come along then, James, they called to me that night, come taste the rum and warm your liver before the dark forests and the savages take all of us, and a pox on all Calverts and their American wilderness. I sat in a damp pinewood box of a tavern, off a mud lane stewing with rotting coconut husks, and drank with Jeremiah Barnes, Richard Harvey, Cedric Raley and Oliver Standrop, indentured all, sold their years and hands, as I had, to the promise of an eventual unfettering. The uneven pine boards, streaked and beaded with moisture, pressed a wet heat in on me, hot as fevered flesh against my flesh. There was a packed dirt floor and the roof was thatched palm fronds, yellowed and brittle, and when I put my head back I could see the stars through them. A line of blacks: five whores and two crippled beggars and one gap-toothed smiling man whose nose and ears had been cropped off, stood against the opposite wall, staring. We drank, and not one of us said a word about the blacks, as if we were unsure these existed outside of our own rum-stoked, sea-shook perception.
"Drink t'Fairyland, James," Barnes said. "T'the fairy kingdom of new Avalon." He hunched over the table and drained his goblet, bony shoulder blades poking up his shirt in the back, his nose sharp-pointed, his peaked ears tufted with clumps of the same black coarse hair that furred his cheeks. A little bat perched in my brain.
The others laughed uneasily. Avalon was George Calvert's New Foundland colony, a land, his captains had assured him, never brushed by the breath of winter. A name, a failure, we had been forbidden to even whisper. I pushed a finger along the wood. It left a snail trail of sweat.
"Sure, and Leonard Calvert is a wiser man than his father, and his brother Cecil more clever yet," Barnes said suddenly, loudly, as if speaking to an invisible spy. I watched the others around the table nod, solemn as monkeys under that thatch, As if they owned Cecil Calvert's wisdom because he'd bought their bodies. Bats and monkeys, scratching themselves, picking each other's pelts for squirmy lice, each reassuring the other that the master to whom they had sold their lives was shrewd because unlike his father, he had deigned to look at a map before sending us across the seas.
"Ce-cil-ius," Oliver Standrop drawled out, and cackled madly.
Barnes glared at him.
"Guard your tongues," I cautioned both of them. I didn't care what they said, but I had no desire to be hung for sitting next to fools.
Barnes wagged a finger at me. "Tis my tongue I brought out t' air and water and speak my dreams tonight. Just as you, James my James. Before the great awake."
The line of blacks suddenly, in unison, groaned, as at some private but shared pain.
I put my hand on the table, flattening my palm against the rough, unfinished plank, looking at the veins netted under my skin, the blood pulsing through them. "I dream nothing," I said to Barnes. "I'm a bit of scrap in Calvert's dreams."
"Nay, you dream the same fifty acres I do."
I looked up at him, a bat trying to little me to fit its own caveish vision.
"My dreams, Barnes," I said, "would burn out your eyes."
Hurt crossed his face. "Why I meant nothing by it."
Standrop was staring at my hand. He raised his own, both hands, suddenly, as if to show us where dreams led. They were warped out of their natural bent, the fingers twisted and frozen to claws from his years tending thousands of tobacco plants, the same sotweed that had rooted in Barnes' fervid brain, in the fifty acres on which he saw himself as a little American lord of the manor. Begun anew. He, Raley and Harvey. Bats and monkeys dreaming of being gentry.
Standrop cackled again, turned and spat on the dirt floor. Spat on their monkey dreams. They stirred nervously. Standrop had been one of the Virginia colonists, had once had what they had come to get now, only to see his wife burnt alive in their cabin, his children brained like cattle during Opechancanough's uprising twelve years before. I suddenly saw Pattern in this, the plague that rotted and burnt up Meg and my children in London twisting into the painted face of the Powhatan who'd fried Standrop's wife and tomahawked his young ones. Standrop and I both here now with our children laid like offerings on the altar of the New World, on this table of rotting cypress planks.
"Standrop, y'sour pot 'a piss," Barnes said. He reached into a stained wooden bowl that cupped greasy, peppered rice on top of a banana leaf, rolled a ball of rice, then threw it back in, glumly, without eating. Took another long swig of rum. "Sour-me Standrop, Sour-me Standrop," he chanted. "Perched there, cawin' at us like a bleedin' bird 'a bad omen. Why in bloody 'ell have you come back, then?"
Standrop winked, lowered his hands. "Why, 'cause I dreams fur now, y'daft twist. Beaver pelt." He made a stroking motion with his crooked fingers, peering at us with insane shrewdness. "Tobac gluttin' the market now in London ... three or four pence a pound. But beaver-nine shillings a pound last year, ten already this year, before we sailed. Beaver, that's what the toffs are mad for now. That's what I come back for."
"Tis no comfort to me. I can scratch the land, good as any man," Harvey said gloomily. "What d'I know about bleedin' beaver?"
Standrop grinned like a skull. "No need t'learn beaver, lad. Only t'learn savages. Their tongue, what they wants. Trade, that's all. Trucke for fur. Fur for love. Only need make 'em love you. Such as what they loves Claiborne. Claiborne knows. Makes the savages love him and they make him rich."
I kept my face expressionless. It was another name forbidden to us. Claiborne. Claiborne and Avalon. But if the one had drawn Calvert's dreams across the water, it was the other, it was the Virginian William Claiborne and what I knew of him and his enterprises, that had scratched a path on my mind. A Kent man like me. A hollowed man who had filled and named himself in the tug and twist between fear and greed. In the unformed place we were going.
"What in the hairy bleedin' 'ell is a Claiborne?" Barnes looked around nervously, spat on the floor, glared at Standrop. "And what the bleedin' 'ell are you, Sour-Me Standrop? How can y'speak all this learnin' and lovin' savages after they skewered your fambly, your wife and wee 'uns?"
"Nay, may as well hate the winter as hate the savages." Standrop looked slyly at me, as if there were some secret bond between us. "The plague took your young, in't it? Do you hate the plague, Hallam? Is there any use to such a hatin'?"
"Plague had a neck, Standrop, I'd throttle it," I told him. "As I'll throttle you, you keep your tack at this heading."
Standrop flinched and looked stricken. Men such as he and Barnes have always clustered around me. Like mice trying to befriend the cat, Meg would say. But it was their need, not mine. I felt nothing. Only a cat-need to torment. To display the difference between cats and mice.
"There's a good dream now," Barnes nodded to me. "That throttling. Throttle Sour-me, pisspot Standrop. Did them savages cut out your heart then?"
Standrop laughed wildly. "You thinks I don't dream my Will and Jen, Jeremiah Barnes? I'll spill 'em right into your skull, y'poxed bastid." He reached down to the rope he used for a belt, loosened a leather bag, reached in and then slammed what he had extracted onto the table. As if throwing dice. A row of broken, blackened teeth grinned up from the little pile of small, splintered bones, like a reflection or extension of Standrop's gaped smile. Standrop stirred the pile with his finger. "Y'want I should tell you how I dream them, Barnes? How you will too?"
"Nay, y'll shut yer gob now, or I'll split yer brainpan," Hervey said, his fat face as sullen as the Africans, his drunkenness pursing his lips into the pout of the woman sitting behind him. I could see the others were all uneasy too, vaguely angry around Standrop, as if he held the bitter bones of their own futures in his hand.
"We need more rum, Standrop," long thin Oliver Raley said finally. "More rum an' less shite. Stow your gab and your bones, both. We're to Maryland for tobacco. For tobacco and land. Not for your damned rodents nor for your damned savages."
Standrop laughed again. He raised his cracked and twisted hands again, turned them in the candlelight, then flapped them towards the back of the rude wooden hut where the beggars and the whores stood, their faces sullen and shadowed in the candle light, a wall of gleaming eyes and black flesh, their misting sweat mingling with the sweat of the whites, rising in a wet haze that filled the small hot room. The smile left his face, like something draining away.
"Starin' at us like they starin' from a forest," he said, almost in a whisper. "Makes no matter they loves you or not, these."
Something roiled through and opened in me now like the shifting water over which I had stared that afternoon from the deck of the Ark, sharded with glare and dreams and bathed in a light clear and bright as Hunger, and a hung man marking the edge of it.
"Where are you off to then, James?" Barnes said.
"Away from bats and monkeys and mice," I said.
Excerpted from The Wished-for Country by Wayne Karlin Copyright © 2002 by Wayne Karlin
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Wayne Karlin is the author of five novels: Crossover, Lost Armies, The Extras, Us, and Prisoners, and a memoir, Rumors and Stones. He lives in Southern Maryland.
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