Excerpts from the Novels


Excerpt from Requiem by Fire

From Chapter One: Sign of the Times

Silas Wright, dreaming.

He told his compatriots, “Hardest part’ll be digging up the nerve to do it.” They shook hands in the dark as if to seal an infernal bargain, then bent to their work, feeling instead of seeing, pushing tinder under the little building. Silas heard the muffled click of kitchen matches in his overalls bib and the slosh of whiskey in his hip pocket. He was not unsteady—he could hold his liquor—but a twinge of either remorse or nausea struck the instant he bent his head to poke under the edge of the building. Straightening his back, he looked at the sky.

In flatlands he would have seen a fingernail moon about to set, but Cataloochee was ringed with high mountains that always hid such a rind of light. Thin clouds obscured all but first-magnitude stars and Saturn hung high in the western sky. Brothers Hiram and John Carter, his neighbors, worked on the other side, boots scraping the ground. Silas was glad no dogs barked. It would be a bitch to explain if they were caught.

None of the men had burned a school before, but they figured if they used wooden matches and no coal oil, people would not be suspicious. This time of year the teacher banked the fire in the potbellied stove against the night chill, so there would be ample coals to start a blaze should some errant bear knock over the heater—which Silas meant to do before they lit the circumference.

Fire laid, they met at the front door. Silas, a head taller than Hiram and John, and an angular man, was rarely seen without his briar pipe. He plucked it from his bib pocket and looked at his friends.“You boys ready?”

They nodded as one but suddenly Hiram’s balding head turned, owl-like, as he whispered “What was that?” Three intakes of breath preceded perfect silence. Hiram exhaled. “Thought I heard something.”

“Don’t spook a man like that,” said Silas. “I ain’t ready to see Jesus just yet.” They listened for a half minute.“OK, boys, let’s get to it,” he said, and opened the door to the smell of warm cast iron and generations of chalk dust. A dull red glow outlined the seams in the stove. Donning a pair of gloves fetched from his back pocket, he breathed deeply and muttered, “Well, son, here we go.”

A good shove broke stovepipe away from the heater. Downdraft made fire leap immediately from the nipple. He pitched the stove the rest of the way over, scattering burning coals on the puncheon floor. Outside, on their knees, John and Hiram fanned tinder.

Within a minute they had a decent fire. They were maybe twenty yards from the school’s bell, elevated on a post the other side of the recess field, and Silas meant to ring it when the fire was advanced enough to ensure no possibility of saving the building.

As Silas lit his pipe a sudden wind swept the valley, rushing, like word from crazed mountaintop prophets or perhaps a gale from the mouth of God Almighty, who had seen their crime and made fair to blow them all to Kingdom come. The fire devoured the schoolhouse like a living beast, leaping from yellow to orange, roaring in a noticeable rhythm, content to feed upon itself long past the existence of the puny structure it consumed.

Silas had not figured a small building to sound so sinister in its dying. Where did them damn Carters get off to? He had to think fast. Ride home and pretend he’d been asleep? Ring the bell like they had planned? Get the hell out for a few days?

He started running toward the bell but the post seemed to get no closer. His chest felt like he had run uphill two miles. Gasping, he stopped and grabbed for his pipe. Gone. Fallen out somewhere, damn it all, perfect evidence he had burned a school house. Cursing and wheeling toward the fire, he began to run. He again made no progress but . . .

A bony hand grabbed his shoulder. Carl, his niece Ethel’s husband, yelled in his ear. “Get up, Silas, the damn chimbley’s on fire!”

 

From Chapter Eight: All Manner of Flowers

Saturday morning broke bright and clear, a November Indian summer day, when a fellow could almost think cold weather would not return. Rachel had forced jonquils for Velda’s bouquet, and earthen pots of yellow and white chrysanthemums carefully hidden from frost sat on the porch rails. Jake had garlanded the front porch with spruce boughs. Rachel caused cakes and pies to go in one direction, chicken and ham in another. They brought the last of their ice from the barn to help make ice cream. She herded musicians to the north corner of the porch, where they uncased guitars, a banjo, and an upright bass. Cash Davis brought a mandolin he used to play before “Old Arthur-itis” set in, figuring some youngster would pick it.

Jake put chairs in the yard for old people, and chastened three children who wanted to play lion tamer with one. Jake’s nephew was in charge of parking, but in spite of his efforts, wagons and automobiles sat snaggletoothed. Children ran, played hide-and-seek, and threw balls down the hill for dogs to fetch. Chickens not yet stewed or fried hid in odd corners.

The musicians warmed up with “Wayfaring Stranger,” then tried “A Closer Walk with Thee,” and moved smoothly into a chorus or two of “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” which Preacher Noland appreciated because “I am bound for the promised land” afforded him a chance to kid Oliver about his wedding night. When the band grew silent Rachel cued Noland and Oliver to walk from behind the house. Oliver sported a dark brown worsted suit with a hint of green. A silk handkerchief the color of well-creamed coffee puffed in his jacket pocket. Women smiled, while men searched Oliver’s face for signs of panic. A mockingbird landed in Jake’s yard maple, trilled like a warbler, yelled “thief” like a jaybird, then left in a gray and white flash.

After some argument the band had settled on bass and mandolin as suitable to play the Wagnerian march, which they started while Rachel held the screen door open. Velda’s older brother Samuel emerged and readied his right arm for her. She emerged beaming in a white wool outfit from the mail order. It showed entirely too much of her to suit the older women, although it was only a peek of calf and a hint of shoulder. Men old and young nodded approval. Her hair was secured in the back with her grandmother Cagle’s mother of pearl pin and a dangling yellow ribbon.

Samuel and Velda walked slowly down the steps. “Who giveth this woman?”asked Noland, to which Samuel replied, “Her brother,” and handed her to Oliver, whose grin said he was enjoying this even more than his victory at Zeb’s trial.

Bride and groom vowed with clear voices, but by the time Preacher Noland pronounced them man and wife Velda had practically destroyed her bouquet from sheer nervousness. Reaching to kiss her new husband, she scattered white and yellow petals on his shoes. The band broke into a reel as the crowd huzzahed and clapped, and folks started lining up—women to congratulate the couple, men to eat.

Loads of lemonade, milk, and, for those close to the Banks family, elderberry wine Hannah served discreetly in teacups washed down great quantities of food. Men visited the trunks of their cars through the afternoon for a pull or two. The younger men would have chased a native groom into the barn to pull down his pants and paint his privates with gentian violet, but they spared Oliver, outsider and Zeb’s savior, that indignity. They were content to cuff him on the head and joke leeringly.

Boys organized a baseball game. Younger girls shadowed their mothers while their older sisters whispered and giggled about what Velda would be doing that night, some with more accuracy than others.

As dark crept down the mountain, the musicians packed instruments and folks pretended to leave. Anxiety began to gnaw at Oliver. Velda’s mother’s house was very small—three rooms, kitchen in the rear, front room, and small bedroom—and he wondered if he and his bride might have to wait until Raleigh to consummate their marriage.

But Billie insisted the newlyweds take the bedroom, while she would sleep on the front room sofa. A joyful Oliver went to the bedroom and stripped to his skivvies. He shivered, whether from the growing chill or anticipation he could not tell.

Suddenly a commotion from gunshots, dozens of cowbells, and dishpans beaten by wooden spoons practically lifted him from the floor. Upwards of fifty folks swarmed into the living room. The men yelled “Where’s he at?” Velda grinned and pointed to the bedroom.

They found him struggling to get his trousers back on, hooted, and carried him outside. Borne by half-drunken and more than mildly obscene enthusiasm, Oliver was carried around the yard fast enough to dizzy him. When they deposited him back in the front room the table was laden with presents and women were saying good-bye. As the party left, men shot weapons and yelled for Oliver not to do anything they wouldn’t.

“What in the world?” he asked.

“Shivaree,” giggled Velda. “Happens to new couples hereabouts.”

The party left quilts and pillowcases, jars of honey and beans and sausage, multitudes of dried fruits, bags of nuts and flour and corn meal. There was a cross-stitched sampler reading “God Bless Our Home” in pink and blue. Oliver discretely picked up a quart of straw-colored whiskey to take to the bedroom for a swig. Mother and daughter admired the gifts, then Billie patted Velda’s shoulder. “Honey, it’s time we were asleep.” They hugged, and Velda came to the bedroom and shut the door.

Excerpt from Cataloochee

Click here to listen an interview in which Wayne reads several passages from Cataloochee. A note to dial-up users; this is a 10MB file, better suited to broadband users.

Chapter One: Too Worn Out To Cry

Ezra Banks sprang from a line of men pretty good at hunting and fishing and gambling and drinking. But at farming they piddled. Tenants. Ezra, third son in a brood of seven, knew early he didn’t want to sharecrop. His father farmed ten or twelve hardscrabble acres near Spring Creek in Madison County, North Carolina. The land belonged to Bingham Wright, brother to Jonathan Wright next county over, in Cataloochee. Ezra’s father, a bit too old to serve in the Confederate army, had shown up just after the War started and leased Wright’s poorest section. Some pasture was so steep a fellow needed two breeds of cattle, one with short right legs to stand in one direction and pick the thistle-ridden grass without falling over, the other with short left legs to pick going the opposite way. On level ground they could lean against each other to sleep.

In 1864 Ezra looked older than fourteen, lanky, a bit of beard already and a badly bent nose. His father had broken it three years before when they moved to the Wright place. The old man was trying to fix a fence gate. He banged his thumb with the claw hammer and splintered its handle when he flung it at the barn in a rage. He ran to the back porch and yanked a piece from the middle of his wife’s stovewood stack and started to whittle a new handle. As he smoothed it with his rusty hawksbill, the stack dissolved around the missing stick and fell off the porch. He yelled “Get out here, woman, and pick up yer goddamn firewood before it rains on it.”

Ezra, a boy given to moodiness, had been enlisted to help but had only dragged three tulipwood laps to the stile. He stood ten feet from his father, hands in his pockets, watching him like a cat. The old man held a cross piece in one hand and a hammer in the other and realized he needed three arms to attach it to the gate. He glared at his son. “You think you’re winder decoration? Hold this damn thing for me. Right there.” Ezra hastened to hold the other end of the board. His father struck his last ten-penny nail sidelong, pinging it off the hammer end and scattering a couple of speckled banty hens at the barn entrance. He fumbled in his overalls for another nail. “Don’t jist stand there like a sumbitching wooden Indian, boy, fetch me some nails.”

When Ezra said “Go get them yourself,” the old man backhanded the claw hammer with no hesitation. Had Ezra not been quick he would have been dead. The jagged, rusty claw missed his nose but the hammer head’s top hit home, spinning him into the dirt. “That’ll learn ye to sass me, boy. Now get yer worthless ass up and fetch me them whorehopping nails fore I light into you again.”

Ezra got up slowly, running the back of his hand as close to his nose as pain allowed, making up his mind to leave.

On a cold November Saturday just after his fourteenth birthday, Ezra saddled the horse, a gaunt, swaybacked strawberry roan, as his father’s drunken snores shook the back of the house. He tied his stuff – a piece of a shovel, a clasp knife, a wooden spoon, two shirts and a pair of overalls – in a bedroll back of the ratty saddle. His mother trudged to the barn to give him a pone of cornbread and a leather pouch his old man had hidden behind a hearthstone. He felt coins inside. “Son, will I ever see you again?”

He faced a woman too worn out to cry. He hugged his mother awkwardly, put on his hat, and said nothing. It would be bad for her when the old bastard finally woke to find neither horse nor saddle. Heading down the mountain he stopped and looked back. No help for it but to forge on.

The journey spurred his imagination. He rode through the valley and determined one day to own a farm like Bingham Wright’s. Acre upon acre of bottom land sprouted corn and oats and anything else a man cared to plant. The valley floor narrowed and the road snaked up the mountain toward Trust, a settlement that seemed glued to the mountainside like an outsized doll village.

His mother’s cousin Fred Owenby kept the general store, and sometimes when things got bad at home Ezra and his brothers and sisters had stayed with him. Owenby had taught him many things, including how to graft one variety of apple to another. He told Ezra to hold his head up, that he needed neither to emulate nor to cower before his father. Owenby made everything a contest, whether hunting supper or picking apples. Ezra didn’t stop as he rode by the store but thought one day he would even beat Owenby at growing apples.

By dinnertime, as he rested the horse at Doggett Gap, he looked at the Little Sandy valley. It spoke of field crops but the southeast face of Doggett Mountain looked ideal for orchards. Hard to clear, by God, he thought, but once a man gets shed of tulip trees and laurel hells, keeping an orchard’s easier than growing tobacco. Besides, the steeper the land, the cheaper the price.

By evening he had forded the French Broad west of Asheville, at that point a lazy river of not a quarter mile’s breadth, determined to join the Confederates. He was no patriot nor did he know anybody rich enough to own other men and women, but adventure appealed to him. He rode carefully, hiding from men riding together, for as the war wound down, the Home Guard had taken to shooting outliers instead of rounding them up for bounty, and he had heard of the Guard killing civilians.

Asheville was a city of about eleven hundred souls. He rode up the western hill from the river to Public Square and asked where to leave his horse for the night. A man with one eye pointed him to the liveries. He rode the block west to Water Street, which descended quickly to a series of squat wooden buildings smelling of hay and horse manure. The sign dangling by one chain told of cheapest so he left the horse there. The greasy proprietor gave him a wooden token with which to reclaim the animal. Ezra shoved it into his right boot and walked back to the Square. He felt easier when the token worked under his instep.

Ezra had never seen so many people in one place before, even at the county fair he once sneaked off to. People promenaded the plank Saturday night sidewalks on Main and Patton. Nine or ten saloons bursting with cheap whiskey and loud music, and several hotels, some more refined than others, opened to the street. Through one doorway Ezra saw a slick-haired man in a monkey suit, playing what Ezra knew to be a fiddle, but a body could never square dance to such music. He walked up and down, to and fro, eyeing people, feeling the token in his boot, wondering what it cost to enter such places. By midnight he found a watering hole on Eagle Street, where he purchased some foul fluid the barkeeper called whiskey, and the favors of a plain young woman. He was rough with her at first but after she slapped him he learned quickly.

Sunday morning he prowled the mud streets, peering into shop fronts. He smelled coal smoke, bacon frying, horse manure. From the end of North Main clear to the end of South Main he watched folks emerge from hotels, some hung over and slow, others dressed for church. He turned back up the hill toward the Square, and saw people heading for the courthouse, a three-story brick building on a small rise east of the Square. Ezra in farm clothes and denim overcoat trailed decently dressed people carrying books and speaking quietly. He followed them up the steps into the central of three arched doorways and into a high-ceilinged room. A black-suited old man, smelling of shaving soap and cedar, greeted him icily. Ezra sat on the back bench.

It was clearly a courtroom but in front of the bench a hand-lettered sign proclaimed “Welcome to the Asheville Baptist Church William Boland Standing To God be the Glory.” He wondered what kind of church didn’t have its own building. A bearded man in a dark broadcloth suit smiled thinly at the assembly. Ezra figured him for Boland. Behind the preacher four fat women wearing faded lapel jewelry, and two ancient men in yellowed shirts frowned in splint bottomed chairs, hymnbooks in laps. They made a bare choir, ruined by war. A pasty-faced woman began to beat a poor rhythm on a piano off to the right. Ezra didn’t recognize the tune, but he wasn’t much of a churchgoer and she wasn’t much of a musician.

When the piano lady finished, maybe thirty-five souls faced the preacher and watched the choir watch them. The men were few and old save one, a youth with an outsized head and a vacant stare. They made no effort to seat men on one side and women on the other, in the Baptist way. It would have looked lopsided, like a vineyard trimmed by an idiot.

Boland stood and opened a large Bible. He welcomed the flock, sipped from a glass, and began to read in a mournful tone:

And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This I will do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater: and there I will bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years: take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall these things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

“The Gospel of Luke, chapter twelve, verses sixteen through twenty-two. Praise God for His holy Word.” Why in the world, Ezra wondered, does this bunch on the front side of winter have any truck with some fellow and his barns? They stood for a hymn. Ezra kept his seat, squirming to get comfortable. He felt the beginning of a headache stomp like troops marching to the doleful tune the congregation droned.

Boland began his sermon by declaring that the rich man stood for the Yankee government. Soon God would turn the tide and require the souls of the Federals. He warmed to his topic, wandering into Paul’s letters, quoting texts in First Peter and Ephesians about servants obeying masters. Ezra didn’t know about slaves and masters, but figured all he needed to obey was the army, if he could figure out where to join. A rising headache, not helped by the sermon, provoked him to leave. A crude poster in the lobby showed a soldier pointing to a recruiting office, closed until morning.

Dinner was a cup of hot water and chicory the counterman called coffee, and a plate of beans with chewy fatback. Ezra recovered the token from his boot, retrieved his horse, and rode east to the top of the mountain, where a battery of light artillery defended the town. Leaves were down, so he had no trouble seeing the western encampment on Battery Hill. A cold wind whipsawed the mountain, and clouds gathered like cotton wool around Mount Pisgah some fifteen miles southwest.

Back in town he spent money on a dingy room, and the next morning walked to the courthouse and enlisted. The recruiter saw an able-bodied man with a horse he said was his, so did not examine him closely as to age. Ezra rode thirty-odd miles north to Mars Hill, where he spent a week at military drill with a wooden weapon. They gave him a dingy gray uniform with a forage cap with a rip in the crown but Ezra wore it proudly. Then they gave him a rust-pocked Fayetteville rifle and hurried him back to Asheville to wait. They policed the courthouse square of a day and at night slipped from camp to follow what few slatternly women wanted to be chased. When orders arrived two months later, he and twenty-five other men deployed west, in the early spring, into Haywood County.

He got his first look at Cataloochee when his company marched to Mount Sterling. Laid out before him were Big Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee, bisected by Noland Mountain. High mountains covered in balsam and spruce encircled lush valleys that held tiny patches of farmland. Huge chestnuts promised abundant wildlife and clear creeks. It would make good orchard land. He determined one day to return.

They were sent to block George Kirk’s raiders, rumored to be heading in from Tennessee. Colonel Kirk was a hero or a turncoat, depending on who told it. He had enlisted in the Confederate army, then turned Federal when the prevailing side became evident. He attracted vicious men as easily as Jesus made disciples. Ezra heard campfire stories about Kirk and thought he wouldn’t mind riding with him. Men like that knew how to profit from war.

Ezra’s company and the rest did not stop Kirk nor slow him down appreciably but Ezra wasn’t captured and even managed to kill a bluecoat, a boy his own age who wandered into the woods to relieve himself, britches down behind a scarlet oak. Ezra didn’t hesitate to put a rifle ball between his eyes. Ezra’s legs thrilled same as if he’d killed a turkey.

That was the first of April. Lee surrendered on the eighth, but word traveled slowly to North Carolina. On the twenty-eighth, Johnston surrendered to Sherman at Durham but no one in Haywood County knew it. Brown’s Yankees burned the Asheville armory the same day and Ezra’s company fired some of the last shots of the War at them as they came into Haywood on May sixth. Then it was over.

Ezra rode thirty miles east to Asheville to muster out. He had killed a person and seen some danger. Now he wanted money. The livery he’d used before, sign still dangling, hired him, then fired him for drinking and fighting and laying out of work. He held a series of odd jobs, but after several saloon fights he figured sober country living would keep him out of trouble.

From Asheville he forded the French Broad at Long Shoals and wandered south. He signed on with an orchard keeper near Edneyville who would brook no liquor. First wages were bed, board, and training. He learned quickly, built on what Owenby had taught him, and soon all the work fell to him while the keeper laid about and slept. A year later that old man died of a stroke and Ezra became the keeper.

Then it was 1877. No one knew where Ezra got the stake to buy the farm outright from the owner. There was talk of a poker game. But Ezra owned two barns, horses, an outsized applehouse and orchards, a fairly prosperous farm worked mostly by tenants. He kept to himself except Sundays, when he rode a buggy to the Baptist church. He courted no women. He was tight with a nickel and lent money on strict terms to his sharecroppers. He made their children split firewood for him, promised them a little something . . . then neglected to pay.

He had never forgotten his first view of Cataloochee, and meant someday to live there. One of his wartime compatriots, a Haywood County Sutton, showed up at Ezra’s farm every spring to tell a year’s worth of stories and try to learn something about Ezra to tell the next place he lit. In 1879 he told of Jonathan Wright, who farmed the last place on Big Cataloochee Creek, just under Big Fork Ridge. Wright had a pretty, marriageable daughter and a lot of land. The Sutton also told of Will Carter, the largest landowner on Little Cataloochee Creek, also with plenty of land and a daughter of about fifteen. He depicted Will as fond of both politics and whiskey, but he didn’t blame him for the latter, having to live with a wife, five daughters, and a sickly boy.

Early in 1880 a peach and pecan farmer north of Spartanburg named Dodd, tired of the hot summers down there, offered to buy Ezra’s farm, and Ezra figured cash money would go a long way with either Cataloochan. He wrote letters to Jonathan Wright and Will Carter in January and both replied for him to come talk. So Ezra turned his face toward Cataloochee.