W

W

by John Banks

Paperback

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780983333418
Publisher: 819 Publishing
Publication date: 04/03/2018
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

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CHAPTER 1

W,

All I hear is your crying. It isn't like when you were a kid and you cried all the time. This is heartbreaking and I am helpless. And it was the last time I'll ever hear your voice (most likely), so I'm doomed to replay that call in my head forever. I suppose I should be grateful for it, though its purpose was not pleasant. It was obviously important to you that you call – when was the last time we actually talked? – but I think I can be certain that you were also unaware at the time that we would never speak again, correct? So what happened? As excruciating as the entire incident was to you I know there must have been more. Why now, Will? After we had all successfully endured the worst? It doesn't make sense. Please help me figure it out. So do you mind if we go over it one more time from the top?

Of course, I almost had to drag it out of you. Were you just being Southern Diffident or were you having second thoughts about calling me? Did you think I would criticize you? I hope that wasn't the case. You know how proud of you I always was, right? How much I admired you and everything you did? When you finally got around to telling me, the last thing I was thinking about, believe me, was chastisement. Jeez, when you said he had a gun your voice cracked as if the word gun itself was a little bullet that had grazed you. And to sucker-punch you in the gut after he had already taken what he wanted? I'm sure you would have happily handed over your wallet if he had asked nicely. No one would blame you for being irate, of course, but there was more than just anger in your voice – there was betrayal. Didn't he know you had dedicated your life to helping those just like him? Where was his gratitude? Oh Will, this is but one of the many ways I failed you. This is where I actually had some useful instruction to impart to you. This is the lesson I never taught you – we are in no position to ever expect gratitude from them. And unfortunately we are quickly putting ourselves in a position of not deserving gratitude from anybody – but that's another sermon for another day.

I understand why you didn't want to tell Mom, but your decision has made my position rather untenable. She sees no reason – except maybe Pop – why you might have wanted to do this. But I heard it in your voice, I understood your anguish, your deep guilt, your self-loathing and shame – I understood it all too well. But I chose many years ago to turn this knowledge and new self-awareness into cynicism and acceptance. Can I be forgiven if it didn't occur to me that you would choose a different way to express your grief? Not that Pop wouldn't be a good enough reason, but that was all about Pop – this was all about you. It was a startling revelation, wasn't it, Will, when you realized that you and Pop had something in common after all? He was a disorienting, nauseating, concussive blow to the head to be sure, but this was visceral; this was a kick in the balls. And of course, because of Pop, there's a whole different layer of speculation I have to deal with, but your assailant didn't broach that particular subject, did he?

I know the fact that you were robbed wasn't something you would dwell on. And I know that being punched in the stomach wasn't an unforgivable offense either – certainly not to you. I wasn't too concerned about it either, after you assured me you were unhurt. But still, I was surprised, to say the least, when you said that wasn't the real reason you called. What could possibly be more troubling than having your life threatened by a thug at gunpoint? But then you started crying. Will, your tears are killing me. What can I do to make them stop?

But it all made perfect sense after you finally fessed up; it was almost predictable, though I was still a bit stunned that you would do such a thing. What I told you at the time is definitely true – you shouldn't blame yourself for all the crap Pop forced down our throats – it was bound to come back up eventually – but what I should have said also is this: It may have taken a lot less than a physical assault to elicit from me a similar slew of unexpurgated insights and incongruous feelings regarding racial harmony. I'm not proud of it – quite the opposite – but I long ago accepted this congenital, constitutional racism as a part of me and a part of America, as bred into my bones and swirled into my system as sugar into sweet tea. Would it have helped to have heard that from me? It may have made things worse, if I implied that you had failed at some essential southern task. But I have the rest of my life now to regret my ironic detachment, my lack of empathy, and my unwillingness to join hands in a shared confession of sins. But I couldn't help it – you were so distraught by this. If you hadn't been suffering so much obvious grief, I would have been tempted to laugh. Damn Will, do you really think you are that pure of heart? That you are that different from me and every other damn white person I know? Are you really that Great White Hope that good old Jerome insisted was purely mythical – a non-racist cracker? Well, obviously not. In the end, you turned out to be not very different from any other unreconstructed rage-filled Southerner; but very much unlike them you looked in the mirror and were sickened by what you saw.

Should I have asked more questions, prodded you to tell me what else was going on? Well, only in hindsight. At the time it was clear you had been put through enough for one day. And you seemed okay when we hung up. I even got you laughing a little. Jesus, thank God your car windows were rolled up. Seriously, it filled me with fear all over again to think about how close you undoubtedly came to getting your head truly bashed in if someone – anyone, in that neighborhood – had been an audience to your performance. But really – and I'm going to have to insist that I bear the brunt of responsibility for this – there is no excuse for your naiveté at your advanced age. "Is it really that close to the surface? Still? Even after all this time?" Those questions, Will, mixing with your tears, will echo in my ears forever. And you thought we had banished that word forever from our vocabularies when we were still kids. You did a better job than most, but I guess it's just like riding a bicycle, isn't it? So, welcome to the Great American Dilemma, little brother. You came a bit late to the party, and you decided not to hang around to help collect all the empties, but here's the question we must ask ourselves: How are we supposed to get rid of all this shit that's inside of us?

You called to confess your unpardonable sin – the sin of failing to rise above your raising – and I ended our call believing I had given you the absolution you needed, but three days later you're dead and I'm left helplessly wondering if my words were ever any benefit to you at all, or if they were the cause of any of your pain. Perhaps I was incapable of understanding your pain. Or maybe, despite all the tears, we never even got around to discussing it.

ON THE ISLAND OF GOTLAND there once lived a man named Thorbjorn who had amassed great wealth through the capture and selling of slaves. He had two sons, Thorstein and Ketil, both of whom were loyal sons and good traders. Though loyal to their father, they were not always loyal to each other. A great rivalry existed between them, which their father did nothing to discourage since their rivalry served to bring him greater wealth. Thorstein went on many successful summer raids throughout the lands to the west of Gotland; Ketil preferred to go east, to Gardariki. During one such trip, Ketil captured many slaves, including many women. There was one woman in particular, however, whom Ketil fell in love with. It is difficult to paint pictures using words, but suffice it to say there was something within the features of her face – some combination of nose, mouth, eyes, cheeks, and skin – that made him happier than he could remember feeling at any other time. He knew immediately that of all the slave women captured for this journey she was the one he would treat differently – perhaps he would even take her for his wife.

"I almost wish I hadn't captured you," Ketil said to her, "for I foresee you bringing me a great deal of trouble."

"You have the power to set me free," she said.

"Yes, but I don't foresee that happening," Ketil responded. "I also don't foresee wanting to sell you. Taking a slave for a bride will not make my father happy, however. We'll see what happens, won't we?" Ketil smiled. "Good luck has always been my best friend, and I have no reason to doubt it will remain by my side."

As Ketil made his way toward Miklagard with his slaves, he was many times made excellent offers for the one slave that was more beautiful than the others. He refused them all, however. The men interested in buying her then made even larger offers, which were also refused. "I don't foresee selling you, my dear," he repeated often. Unlike all the other captured slaves whom Ketil treated indifferently or harshly, he did not mistreat her in any way. Food was taken from other slaves to ensure that she did not go hungry. He had his way with the other female slaves, but not so with her, for he wanted her to remain chaste until they were married, which, as the days and weeks passed, seemed more and more likely to happen. One day, however, a man from the East offered Ketil twice as much gold as anyone previously had offered. Ketil considered the offer briefly and then accepted it. The beautiful woman was heartbroken because she had grown to love Ketil even though she was his slave. She had begun thinking of herself as his wife, who would return to Gotland with him to live in wealth. "How can you do this, Ketil?" she implored. "You said that you would never sell me."

"You are mistaken. I said I didn't foresee selling you, but I didn't foresee being offered a fortune for you, either. My father will be immensely proud of me for making such a good bargain and my brother may actually die of jealousy. I hope this man treats you as well as I have." Ketil gave her to the other man and continued his yearly journey to Miklagard, amassing riches along the way.

Thorstein had many adventures on his raids as well. This same summer Thorstein had pledged his support to a Dane named Harald Thickskin, who promised in return for Thorstein's help in battle the opportunity to capture and sell many slaves. It was said of Harald that in all his battles he had never suffered so much as a scratch, which is how he had earned the name Thickskin. Thorstein fought many bloody and exciting battles with Harald and was rewarded well with slaves and much other booty. Harald, however, though generous with those who offered their support, was merciless to those who failed to display proper loyalty and courage. To one man who appeared to be less than courageous, Harald said, "If you are not going to use your arms to fight for me, then I consider them to be useless." Harald then took his sword and severed both of the man's arms just below the shoulders, bleeding him quickly to death. To another he said, after a hard-fought battle had concluded, "You did not come running to me when I requested your aid, so what good are your feet to me?" This man, though afterwards unable to walk without great difficulty, lived many more years and was called Thorolf Three Sticks.

After their summer raiding, Ketil and Thorstein returned to Gotland with more wealth and glory to bestow upon their father. Ketil eventually married a woman from Gotland named Gudrun and she gave him a son, whom he named Thorbjorn in honor of his father.

Thorbjorn grew into a healthy young boy, but showed little of the adventurousness of his father or uncle. He dreamed of glory in his sleep, however, and on particularly stormy nights his mind would drift to the stories about Gotland sinking under the sea that had terrified him since he first heard them. He imagined running to the shore and bravely unmooring the boats in which to rescue everyone. During the day he played alone among the rauks in the waves, chasing himself through all kinds of adventures. He gazed for hours at picture stones and was content to make no marks of his own on them. As Thorbjorn grew older, this strange child became fascinated by the silver hoard his grandfather had amassed. But when he wanted to see the hoard and to play with it, he had to sneak underground because his father forbade him access to it. "It will anger the gods," he said. But that made no sense to Thorbjorn. This silver was here for the afterlife – it belonged to his family, for eternity, not to the gods. The real reason his father refused to allow him to see the hoard, he thought, was his fear that he would steal some of it. But he had no interest in removing any of the silver. He only wanted to admire it, hold it, turn it over in his palms and study its contours and mysterious engravings.

When Thorbjorn came of age it was time for him to embark on his first summer raid across the sea. He chose to go east with his father. Ketil said he was getting too old for raids and wished next year to remain at home with Gudrun and hoped that Thorbjorn would prove himself to be as brave and successful as he and Thorstein had been. Thorbjorn did not lack courage, and was very successful in fighting and capturing men and women who could be sold as slaves. However, in the business of trading, his love of all the beautiful qualities of silver proved to be a great disadvantage. He was once offered two dinars for one of his slaves.

"Do you have that amount in dirhams?" Thorbjorn asked.

"No – it's much easier to carry two of the one rather than forty of the other. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I will only take dirhams."

"You'll refuse an honorable transaction in gold because I don't have the equivalent in silver?"

"Yes."

"Your future as a trader does not look promising."

Thorbjorn saw many other things that summer that made him doubt that he could make his family proud of him as a slave trader. One man captured more slaves than he thought he could transport. Rather than sell them at lower prices, or set them all free, this man invented a game whereby he offered gold as a prize to whoever in his service could be most ingenious in the killing of a slave. There were many men loyal to him eager to take up an axe and to play the game and many slaves lost their limbs and lives in this manner.

It also happened this summer, just as it had happened to Ketil many summers ago, that Thorbjorn fell in love with one of the women he had captured. She was called Yelena. Unlike his father, however, Thorbjorn could not be induced by greed to sell her. "I wish to take Yelena back to Gotland and marry her," he announced to his father.

"I understand that desire," Ketil said, "but I fear your grandfather may understand it less so. We'll see what happens, won't we?"

Though despairing of ever becoming a successful slave trader, Thorbjorn was excited, however, about travelling to Miklagard with his future bride. He had heard the tales from Ketil of the fire-breathing dragons that the Greeks had captured to use against their enemies and wished to see one of these dragons in action. His wish was granted, as a great sea battle took place in Miklagard at the time he was there. Unfortunately, he and his father were not involved in the battle, but they watched it unfold from the harbor shore. Great bellows of fire poured forth from the dragons' jaws and put to fire not only the enemy ships but the very water upon which they were sailing. Only a dragon's magic can set water aflame, thought Thorbjorn. He was disappointed, however, in his inability to see any of the dragons, for they were much too distant to see upon the ships in the sea, though he saw clearly enough the fire issuing from their mouths and the destruction that they wrought.

Ketil and Thorbjorn returned safely to Gotland with Yelena. As expected, the elder Thorbjorn did not approve of her. "You may marry her if you wish, but I will never have a slave for a granddaughter," he said, adding, "I am disappointed in you, Thorbjorn. You brought a whore back from Miklagard, but not much else. You have much to learn about being a trader, that is, if it is possible to teach you anything. Ketil," he said to his son, "you should have given my name to someone more worthy of it."

Filled with shame, Thorbjorn decided that he and Yelena should leave Gotland and make a life for themselves elsewhere. To this end, he built a ship – for he was an excellent craftsman – and on a morning when the wind was in their favor, they braved the sea between Gotland and the western mainland. They landed safely on one of the Small Lands of Geatland where Thorbjorn built a longhouse for himself, Yelena, and their future family. He thrived as a farmer and fisherman.

Yelena bore Thorbjorn three children, one of whom was called Thorstein, in honor of Thorbjorn's uncle. Thorstein, like most children, was restless at home and eager to roam as far as his luck would take him. He left Geatland and became a great warrior in the service of King Gorm of Denmark.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "W"
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Copyright © 2017 John Banks.
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W 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Meldawoman 11 months ago
Thank you to the publisher, the author and netgalley for giving me an ARC in exchange for my candid review. This book has such potential. But did not make it. The story was comprised from of at least 5 different storylines. None of the speakers were given a name. The stories seemed completely unconnected. I was confused as to who was who most of the time. Perhaps with better editing this might have been a good book. I really only persevered in finishing this book for 3 reasons: 1) I feel very committed to NetGalley to finish and review the books that I have been allowed to read; 2) I feel a personal defeat to not finish any book that I start (I can only remember not finishing one book in the past 20 years, and finally 3) I kept hoping that the book would make some sense. In some small way, the book came around to loosely tie things together, but itis not a book that I would recommend. i