Authors: William Gay
ACCLAIM FOR WILLIAM GAY AND
Provinces of Night
“A writer of striking talent.”
“Almost a personal revival of handwork in fiction—superb—must be listened to and felt.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune
“This is a novel from the old school. The characters are truly characters. The prose is gothic. And the charm is big.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Writers like Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner would welcome Gay as their peer for getting characters so entangled in the roots of a family tree.”
The Miami Herald
“[A novel] about the preciousness of hope, the fragility of dreams, interwoven with a good-sized dollop of biblical justice and the belief that a Southern family can be cursed.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Provinces of Night
plumbs the larger things in life. … The epic and the personal unite seamlessly”
“An old-fashioned barrel-aged shot of Tennessee story-telling. Gay’s tale of ancient wrongs and men with guns is high-proof stuff.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A finely wrought, moving story with a plot as old as Homer. Sometimes the old ones are the best ones.”
“William Gay is the big new name to include in the storied annals of Southern lit.”
Rocky Mountain News
“A plot so gripping that the reader wants to fly through the pages to reach the conclusion … but the beauty and richness of Gay’s language exerts a contrary pull, making the reader want to linger over every word.”
The Plain Dealer
“Gay is a terrific writer.”
William Gay is the author of the novel
The Long Home.
His short stories have appeared in
Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, GQ
New Stories from the South 1999
The winner of the William Peden Award and the James A. Michener Memorial Prize, he lives in Hohenwald, Tennessee.
ALSO BY WILLIAM GAY
The Long Home
This book is for Lee, Chris, and Laura
and William Blake
Were there darker provinces of night he would
have found them.
Child of God
Sometimes I think you’re just too sweet to die
Sometimes I think you’re just too sweet to die
Another time I think you oughta be buried alive.
James Alley Blues
HE DOZER TOOK
the first cut out of the clay bank below Hixson’s old place promptly at seven o’clock and by nine the sun was well up in an absolutely cloudless sky and it hung over the ravaged earth like a malediction.
The superintendent walked over to a white flatbed truck and leaned his numbered gradepole against it. He filled a Pepsi-Cola bottle with ice water from a cooler on the truckbed and drank. He took out a red bandanna and mopped his face and throat. Behind him the scraped bottomland stretched as far as the eye could see like a dead wasteland, a land no one would have. A blue pall of smoke shifted over it and no tree grew, no flower. A bird would not even fly over it.
A swamper named Risner came up carrying a widemouth Mason jar. Its surface was impacted with earth and Risner was mopping at it with the tail of his shirt.
What’d you find, Risner?
Dozer cut it out on that slope yonder, Risner said. Likely it’s money. These old folks always used to bury their money in fruit jars.
These old people never had any excess money to put up in fruit jars, the superintendent said. Likely you’ve found you a antique jar of green beans.
Risner was holding the jar beneath the cooler’s spout and running water over it.
You’ll want that water long about three o’clock, the superintendent said.
Risner was mopping the jar with his shirt again. The shirt came away muddy. He was squinting into the jar then the wet jar seemed to slip in his hands and shattered between his workboots.
What the hell is that, the superintendent said.
In the splintered glass of this transparent crypt lay diminutive human bones of a marvelous delicacy. Bones fragile and fluted as a bird’s, tiny skull with eyeholes black and blind, thin as paper, brittle as parchment. Scattered as if cast in a necromancer’s divination, as if there might be pattern to them, order.
It looks like there was somebody in there, Risner said lamely.
UST AT TWILIGHT
Boyd came up the graveled walk, the chain with its plowpoint weight drawing the gate closed behind him, before him the shanty black and depthless as a stageprop against the failing light. On the porch the old man in the rocking chair sat staring burnt-eyed at him like some revenant out of his past.
Which he was, but Boyd went on anyway. Behind the shack the horizon went left and right as straight as a chalked line and as far as the eye could see, the furrowed earth tending away toward a hammered sky that looked like turbulent waters at land’s end. The old man just watched him come, sepia felthatted old man like a curling Walker Evans photograph, brittle and fragile as memory.
Come up, Boyd, the old man said.
Boyd strode up to the edge of the porch. He stood for a moment as if awaiting invitation to sit and when none came sitting anyway, taking
a bag of Country Gentleman smoking tobacco from his shirt pocket and uncreasing papers and beginning to construct a cigarette.
Looks like they about plowed you under, he said. He’d not had occasion to speak aloud for two days and the sound of his own voice seemed almost to startle him. He struck a match and lit the cigarette. He could not see the river but he could sense it, dank and yellow-smelling, rolling somewhere out of sight in the gathering dark.
They claim they need all the land for cotton, the old man said. His voice was thin and whispery, like cornhusks rustling together. I reckon when I’m gone they’ll doze this mess down and plant it all.
Boyd smoked in silence. The momentum that had carried him for days, for miles, settled upon him like an enormous weight, and he was seized with weariness. Now that he was here he saw that he had reached not some final destination but simply a waystation that had drawn him miles in the wrong direction. If she was here he would have read it in the old man’s face, but nothing at all was written there, not even what Boyd had expected; bitter recriminations, who knew what. All there was was a stoic calm he didn’t know what to make of. As if the old man had come to some kind of terms. Then he studied the face closer. The yellowed skin was drawn tight across the cheekbones, the face sunken and caved, the blade of nose like something an undertaker had sculpted of wax then studied with a critical eye. All in all the old man looked like something recovered from the earth in gross resurrection and set arock on this porch in the middle of a cottonfield.
Boyd drew on the cigarette. You been sick, Ira? His voice was blued and furred by the smoke.
I’m fixin to die. I got a cancer.
Well I reckon you finally got something everybody else didn’t get one of first, Boyd thought. I hope you’re satisfied.
What’s it of?
I got it in my lungs. I wish you’d put out that cigarette. I ain’t let to smoke, and it makes me want one.
Boyd toed the cigarette out in the packed earth yard, a small vicious black smear. A lamp was lit inside, he could smell the smoky burning kerosene. He had forgotten about the old woman, but now he could sense her presence, see her bulk vaguely outlined against the screen of the door.
You afoot, the old man said. I knowed your walk the minute I seen you. You always walked like you had the world in your hip pocket. You ain’t though, have you? Last time I seen you you was in a fine car. You had big plans.
Times is hard, Boyd said.
Times is always hard for some, the old man observed.
They sat in silence. Boyd was watching a blur of cypress past the cottonfield and beyond the cypress soundless lightning flickered the sky to a pale metallic rose. After a while a whippoorwill called out of the trees like something Boyd had been listening for without knowing it, or even some sound he’d summoned by sheer will, and he felt he’d crossed the entire state just to hear this lone whippoorwill mocking him out of the falling dark, and now he must turn around and go back the way he’d come.
How’s that chap? the old woman said through the screen door. He must be about grown by now.
He’s right at seventeen.
Who’s he favor? We never had no picture nor nothin.
He looks a right smart like his mama.
She ain’t here, the old man said suddenly. I reckon you’ve made a long trip for nothin.
If she ain’t here I have. And you ain’t seen her?
The last time I seen her her belly was swole up with that boy you spoke of and you was helpin her into that fine car. Looks like several things has changed since then.
Boyd stood up. He brushed dry flakes of tobacco off the front of his dungarees. He looked back the way he’d come. A dim wagon road fading out in the cottonfield. I got to get on, he said. We’ll see you.
You take care of that chap, the old woman said. You need to be worrying about him stead of traipsin around the country.
Boyd raised a hand in farewell, dismissal, and took the first step away from the porch. No one bade him stay.
You do find her tell her I got a cancer, the old man said.
Boyd didn’t say if he would or he wouldn’t. He trudged on woodenly He looked back once and no one had moved, the whole scene fading into a mauve dusk that seemed to be rising out of the earth itself
like vapors, bluely transparent, slipping into invisibility now that it could no longer serve him any purpose.
the first warm light of the season Fleming Bloodworth lay on his stomach on a shelf of limestone that formed the summit of a bluff overlooking Grinders Creek. He was propped on his elbows watching the road through his father Boyd’s binoculars. This road was red chert and it snaked in and out of sight through the cedars shrouding the bluff. A wooden bridge on concrete pylons crossed the creek downstream from where he was lying and through the powerful binoculars he could discern the heads of the forty-penny spikes the timbers were secured with, trace the grain that ran through the weathered wood.
He was waiting for the mailman. In actuality he was waiting for a lot of things: he was waiting for his father to return from wherever he had gone and for his mother to turn up from wherever she had gone and for himself to decide whether or not he was going back to school. His immediate concern, though, was for the mailman, for the U.S. Mail adhered to a schedule the rest of his life did not. The rest of his life seemed to be in limbo, waiting for one event to take place so that other events would sequence themselves behind it, a recognizable pattern coalesce from swirling chaos.
He had been up and about this day before good light. The day gave promise of being warm, and the remnants of a dream still swirling in his head touched it with portent.
He had dreamed that the mailman brought a check with his name on it, a check from a magazine called
, and he had little doubt that somewhere in the mailman’s sorted box of fertilizer ads and burial plan duns such a check existed, needed only the delivering to bring into his possession a typewriter he had seen in the window of a five-and-dime store in the town of Ackerman’s Field.
Some months back he had come into ownership of a stack of back numbers of this magazine
He had read them cover to cover and written a story so cynically devised that he did not see how it could fail. This story had everything. It had a love story involving a boy
and girl from two feuding families, a collie dog falsely accused of killing sheep, a sentimental resolution wherein the accused dog saves a child from drowning. It was Romeo and Juliet moved to the backwoods with a sheepkilling dog and a flood thrown in for good measure, and it would not have surprised him to learn that his name was being bandied about editorial offices in Atlanta, Georgia, where the magazine was published.
The mailman’s car hove into view in a stretch of road between the cedars and almost immediately it began to honk its horn. The boy scrambled up. He was an habitual joiner of book clubs and requester of catalogs and sample copies of magazines but he couldn’t think of anything he’d sent for that would not fit in a mailbox. Perhaps a check from a magazine required a signature.
He was scrambling down the shale bluffs going tree to tree. All right, all right, he yelled. The mailbox was set up by an enormous poplar tree at the foot of the hill and the mailman’s car had parked before it and continued to honk dementedly until Fleming arrived out of breath at the driver’s side window.
Young Bloodworth, the mailman said. Got a package here for you. He was holding a flat manila envelope and now he scanned the return address. The boy was regarding it with a dull loathing.
, the mailman said. Didn’t know they took to boxin em up like this.
Fleming received the package with some reluctance, stood regarding it balefully as if he did not quite know what to do with it.
That all you got?
That’s it, the mailman said. Your mama ever come back, Fleming?
Thanks for the package, Bloodworth said, turning away toward the hill. The car remained still for a few seconds then the mailman raised a hand and drove away.
Crossing the ditch before the hill began its steep ascent he opened the flap of the envelope. The first thing he saw was his own handwriting, the second a note that had been paperclipped to his manuscript.
We regret that we are unable to read handwritten manuscripts
, someone in Atlanta had written.
All submissions must be typewritten.
He threw the manuscript into the ditch and went on up the hill but after a few steps returned and recovered the manila envelope and went on.
To reach this house you came from either of two ways. If you came by the cherted road you left it at the foot of the hill and climbed up through patches of limestone and a grove of cedars where the footpath led. It was an almost vertical ascent and the house came into view by increments, first a green tarpaper roof, hipped from the four corners of the house to a peak in the center, then weathered board walls, a house cobbled up from odds and ends, homemade, as happenstantial as something left by the recession of floodwaters. I reckon it’ll do till we find some-thin better, Boyd had said, but the boy had been six years old then.
If you approached from the rear, came down from the heavily timbered woods, you followed a footpath that in turn followed the spectral shadings of an old wagon road, a ghost of a road, a rumor of a road. This house had been constructed by and for folk for whom a footpath would serve as well, folk who did not acknowledge the invention of the internal combustion engine, to whom the value of the wheel itself was still in question.
The day that had begun with such promise now yawned like an enormous vacuum that he was called upon somehow to fill. He took down a slingblade from the porch and began to cut weeds, clearing the yard then progressing on toward the garden spot, the air full of bits of weeds like anomolaec snow. The day warmed as it progressed and he took off his shirt and resumed work as if he’d rid the world of weeds once and for all.
In the late afternoon he finally put up the slingblade and went into the house. The house was dark and cool, cave like, scarcely lit by the windows. He took up a book and with it a cold cup of the morning’s coffee and went to a chair where light fell through a windowglass and began to read.
The day drew on, was swallowed in dusk, in silence. No bird called, no insect. Life in abeyance, the world itself grinding to a halt, who knew what would follow. Light through the glass grew dim but he read on as if the passage of day into night was of no moment. The world was winding down, and young Bloodworth wound down with it.
. Boyd hunkered in a viaduct watching beaded rain swing slant off the concrete lip above him. Through the silver curtain this made he watched the lights of a town wax and wane like something dimly perceived through deep waters. Thunder rolled hollowly across the flat countryside. An inch of dirty water coursed beneath him and his feet were wet. He tried to roll a cigarette but his fingers were wet as well and the paper shredded in his hands. I wouldn’t have this Goddamn country if they boxed it up and sent it somewhere I could use it, he said. If they shoved a deed to it in my shirt pocket. Cars went by with tires sluicing the water, gleaming and newlooking in the rain, stark in the surreal clarity of the lightning, like images that were imprinting themselves behind his eyelids.
The concrete was too low to stand erect in and when his legs grew cramped he stood stooped with his hands clasped on his knees, staring into the black water that coursed between his feet. Lightning showed him cigarette butts, scraps of paper, an unrolled condom trailing like some weird sealife.
I reckon by God it’s set in for the night, he told himself.
It hadn’t though. The intervals between the blind white stabs stretched farther and farther, he thought the low rumbling was growing more distant, rolling on eastward the way he planned to go himself. When the rain tempered itself to a slow drizzle he came out of the viaduct and rubbed the stiffness out of his legs and clambered up the sloping shoulder of riprap onto the blacktop and walked off toward the lights of town.