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  • Writer's pictureGrailing Press

Grailing, No. 11




Contents


The Horse Killer, Part 6 and the fateful conclusion of a serialized novella by Joe Kilgore

Knife Play, new poetry from G.H. Plaag

Habit, mundane horror poetry by Ben Niles

Of Time and Chance, a novel excerpt from Ruth Porter

150 Novels..., a Literary List curated by Poet-in-Residence Ben Niles




The Horse Killer, Part 6

Joe Kilgore



“Flies are born to be eaten by spiders

and man to be devoured by sorrow.”

-- Voltaire



Chapter 10

The campfire crackled as mesquite, ash, and pine turned to sparks while smoke drifted into the night’s black sky. It felt like the longest day of Raven’s life. He had no spade to bury Red, and even if he had, he wasn’t sure he had the strength to do it. He had gathered stones and placed them all around the carcass. It wouldn’t keep the scavengers away, but at least it would serve as one man’s remembrance should passing riders find the bones in days to come. Raven couldn’t get over the fact that against every instinct known to nature, Red had disregarded his own fear, overcome his natural inclination to flee, and instead raced toward the danger. In Red’s mind, Raven concluded, his master was on the ground and vulnerable. He needed to be protected. No one would ever make him believe otherwise.

Raven had run down the horse Jorgenson had been riding. He was hobbled and tied to a tree close enough to get some warmth from the fire but not too close to frighten him. Closer, was the Swede himself. He hadn’t died. But Raven believed he was likely to before the night was over. The entry wound was near his heart. It probably punctured a lung. He had been in and out of consciousness since Raven laid him on his blanket. But he had lost a lot of blood, and even though the Ranger raised the farmer’s head to rest on his saddle, he occasionally coughed up more blood. Raven had little hope he’d last until morning.

It is said that some men know when they’re dying, Raven thought. But he wondered if that was a blessing or a curse. Different with each man, I guess, he said out loud. The Swede heard his comment. He was awake.

“Who are you?” Jorgenson asked.

“I’m the man who shot you.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I saw you taking aim at the mustang.”

“I was going to shoot at the hogs…to scare them off.”

“Not the way I saw it.”

The Swede coughed. A trickle of blood slid out of his mouth and into his beard.

“You may not have much time left,” Raven said.

“You’d let me die here?”

“Nothing I can do to stop it. You wouldn’t survive a hard ride to find a doctor.”

“That is true. I don’t even have the strength to sit up.”

“Maybe now would be the time to come clean.”

“About what?”

“About what you did to those horses, and why.”

“You know what happened?”

“I know what, but I don’t know why. I’d like to know.”

“You’ll hear me out?”

“I will.”

“Do you have any water? My mouth is so dry.”

Raven took the canteen looped round Jorgenson’s saddle. He held it to the man’s lips and let him take a sip. “Tell me why you did those things,” Raven said.

Jorgenson wasn’t looking at Raven. The effort it took to move his head in the Ranger’s direction was more than he could muster. He simply gazed up at the sky and began to speak. “We had such plans. We were going to work hard, raise a family. But nothing seemed to grow on our land. Then something started to grow in Karen, my wife. A baby. Our baby. Our daughter.”

Raven then remembered when he went in the cabin and saw everything that had been destroyed. One of those things was a bassinet.

“She was tiny. So fragile. We loved her so.”

There was a long pause. Raved looked to see if Jorgenson might be slipping into unconsciousness again. But his eyes were open, and staring at the sky.

“What happened to your daughter,” Raven asked.

“I was outside chopping wood for the stove and fire. I had brought her in the cradle to be with me while I worked. It sometimes made her smile. Our horse was there too, Lady, her coat had recently turned from gray to white. We thought of her as the baby’s guardian angel. Maybe Lady felt that way too. Maybe that’s why it happened.”

“Why what happened?”

“It was so sudden. I had no time to react. Before I knew it, the horse was rising on her hind legs and stomping at the crib. Stomping and stomping again. I managed to push the horse away and reached down for the little one. But, but—”

Raven felt his stomach turn over inside him.

“When I lifted her up, a snake slid out of her crib. A rattlesnake. The horse broke to it, and stomped again and again until it was dead. But so was my little one, my beautiful daughter.”

Jorgenson sputtered and coughed.

“More water?”

“Please,” the Swede answered. Raven obliged.

“My wife heard the noise and ran from the house. When she saw our daughter, she dropped to her knees screaming. Here cries went on and on. I thought her voice would rupture. I tried to explain. I told her the horse had seen the snake and tried to kill it so it wouldn’t hurt the baby. But she continued to scream and moan and rock back and forth on the ground. I took the poor little one in the house. When I stepped back outside I saw my wife standing with the axe in her hand. Her eyes were like I’d never seen them. She swung the axe and struck me. I blacked out.”

Raven studied the scar on Jorgenson’s face. It ran from the side of his head to his jaw. Things might have happened that way. But they might not have. It wasn’t at all what he expected to hear.

“When I came to, our cabin was destroyed. Everything broken and torn beyond repair. My wife was sitting in the middle of the room. She had blood all over her. But she would not or could not speak. I begged her to tell me what happened. She was silent. I walked outside and found the horse. She had tied him to the corral and taken the axe to him.”

Raven interjected, “I found the horse farther back…away from the corral.”

“Later, with the other horses, I drug Lady away from the corral. And I buried my daughter…deep…in a secret place…where no one or no thing will ever get near her again.”

“Go on.”

“I hitched the wagon…to get away from there…to get my wife away. She was silent. She would not speak a word. It was like she was a ghost, not a person anymore.”

“Where did you go?”

“I headed west. Away from that place. Away from Alpine where people knew us.

“You went to Marfa?”

“We passed through.”

“And…” Raven prodded.

“It happened before I knew it. We were riding through town. Horses must have been hitched in front of a building. I was so intent on getting out of town that I wasn’t paying attention. Karen reached beneath the wagon seat, pulled up the shotgun and fired. I jerked her down and whipped the team into a run.”

Raven was incredulous. A woman…a woman had done that. But surely not the next. He goaded Jorgensen. “And I guess you’re going to tell me it was your wife who hung that white horse at Spencer’s…not you…is that what you’re going to say?”

“More water, please.”

Raven gave him another drink.

“Yes…while my wife slipped away at night. She must have replaced our horses with the oxen in the dead of night. She is a strong woman and used to hitching a team. She would have known how to tie the horse to the back of the wagon, take it to the tree, then rig it so when the team pulled the wagon it would raise the horse by the neck.”

“How did you find her?”

“She found me.”

“Did she talk then? Did she tell you what she’d done?”

“No. Not a word. But she took me to the tree and showed me what she’d done. Another white horse. I wept. Not only for the animal…for her too.”

“Why did you steal mounts at Spencer’s?”

“I made her take me where she had left our horses. At the ranch she hadn’t tied them. They must have wandered off. I took two of theirs and we headed for Pre…Presidi…aughh”

This time when he coughed, a handful of blood shot from his mouth as he jerked forward and then fell back. Raven removed his bandana and wiped the man’s mouth and chin. He gave him another sip of water and looked in his eyes. Could it be true? Could the woman have really gone insane and done such hideous things? Or was he lying.

“I met your wife.”

Finally the Swede’s eyes turned to Raven. “When? Where?”

“At the train station in Presidio.”

“Then she made it? She’s on her way home?”

“I assume so. The agent said the railroad would see her through.”

A sigh escaped from Jorgenson. His whole body seemed to wilt even further into the blanket.

Raven looked into his eyes and said, “You know, if what you say is true, your wife can be brought back to Texas to face what’s been done.”

“Who would do such a thing…after what she’s been through?”

“The law might. The law might feel someone has to pay for what was done to those animals.”

What light was left in the Swede’s eyes, returned Raven’s stare as he said, “Then I was lying. Lying about it all...so if I did live…I wouldn’t be punished.”

“Think twice about what you’re saying, Jorgenson. No man ought to meet his maker with a lie on his lips.”

“Or a blot on his soul?”

“What do you mean?”

“If what I said was true…and I die…you’ve killed an innocent man.”

That thought had not escaped Raven. He wondered if it ever would.

“Tell me the truth, Jorgenson. I kneed to know.”

“One more drink of water, please.”

Raven gave it to him.

“Tell me your name. Tell me who I’m talking to.”

Raven thought he might be slipping away, becoming delusional. He answered anyway. “Raven Comstock.”

“Have you ever lost a great deal, Raven Comstock?”

“We all know loss,” he answered, thinking of Red.

“Indeed. You’ve lost certainty of what’s true and what isn’t. I’ve lost a child, and a wife. But we’re both better off than her, aren’t we…Raven Comstock? She’s lost her mind.”

Sudden darkness made Raven realize he had been so involved with Jorgenson’s tale that he hadn’t noticed the campfire’s flame going out.

Epilogue

A year had passed. Much can be forgotten in a year. Now, Raven seldom thought of bringing Jorgenson into Terlingua for burial. An early start helped complete the ride from the camp to the mining town before the body became rancid. Since Raven had paid the cost of planting the deceased in potter’s field, no one particularly cared why the body had a bullet hole in it. A few days later he returned the two stolen horses to Spencer, and told the rancher that the man who had taken them, the same man who murdered his white horses, was killed while resisting arrest. Which was also what he told his superior in the Rangers. He reasoned that justice would eventually decide for itself whether any final retribution was necessary. The inquiry into the railroad theft—the one he had postponed to look into the horse killings—was resolved. Arrests were made. Thieves found guilty. There had been other incidents during the course of that year; rustling, assaults, robberies, and other forms of hooliganism. They too drifted from Raven’s memory as days turned into weeks, and weeks to months.

Some thoughts could not elude his consciousness completely though. Thoughts of a quiet idyll by a cold stream, a prolonged track in rough country, or the wind in his face as he clung to Red in full gallop. Such thoughts he prized. They often came to him as he was finishing breakfast and having coffee, as he was this day in Holland’s Café.

Holland’s was Alpine’s best café. Aside from a sizeable portion of townspeople who were regulars, it also attracted those only passing through, or those just off the train looking for a first class meal. The waitresses knew Raven by name, and he knew theirs. They also knew he liked to read whatever newspapers any forgetful travelers left behind. So they would save any they found, for the next time he came in.

“More coffee, Raven?”

“One more wouldn’t hurt, Marge.”

“Say, I think I have a paper some drummer left here yesterday. Care to see it?”

“Might be just the thing to top off my coffee. There’s a world beyond Texas, you know.”

“I’ve heard that, but I’m not sure I believe it.”

They both smiled and Marge went to retrieve the paper from the hutch where she put it the day before. He had told her that he liked reading about what was going on in New York, or Boston, San Francisco, or wherever. Sometimes he’d read something that made him wish he were there to see it. More often than not, he’d read about things that made him glad he wasn’t.

“Here you go. Looks like this one’s from Chicago.”

“Thanks, Marge.”

The Herald devoted a fourth of its front page to advertising. Trunk Manufacturer, John T. Barnum, highlighted a line drawing of his newest model. Hannah and Co. hawked their latest teas. And a department store tried to draw attention with a huge headline reading HUNKY DORY. But Raven was always more interested in what was actually going on in faraway places, so he spent his time perusing the news articles. A couple of pages in, he found a section called The Midwest Review. There was an article that covered the State Legislature being in session. Another discussed the growing impact that hog farming was having on the area. But there was one that caught Raven’s eye and held his interest like no other. The headline read:

CHAOS AT MINNEAPOLIS HORSE SHOW

Attendees at the inaugural performance of the U.S. tour of Austria’s Lipizzan Stallions were horrified yesterday by an unprovoked attack. The famous white horses had no sooner begun their performance when a hysterical woman bolted from the grandstands, raced into the ring, drew a handgun from her purse, and began firing at one of the stallions. Before she could be subdued, the animal charged the woman knocking her to the ground. As she fell, the pistol discharged again sending a round into her own abdomen. The assailant, later identified as Mrs. Karen Jorgenson, was rushed to Minneapolis City Hospital but doctors were unable to save her. The wounded stallion had to subsequently be put down. Authorities however, advise the slate of shows will continue as planned. Albeit with an increased security presence.

Raven put the newspaper down without finishing his coffee. He paid his bill and walked outside into the glare of the morning sun. Across the street, a father and his young daughter were exiting the mercantile. They were laughing and enjoying each other’s company as they walked to where their horses were tied. The father’s was a brown gelding. His daughter’s, a white mare. Raven watched as they rode slowly toward the edge of town.

He now knew for certain what he hadn’t wanted to believe. Jorgenson told the truth. The truth about his wife. The truth about firing at the hogs, not the mustangs. There was no longer any question. Raven not only killed an innocent man, he was also responsible for Red’s death. If he had let the Swede fire, the hogs would have scattered and run away, and Red wouldn’t have felt compelled to protect him.

The Ranger knew it was impossible to change what he’d done. He also knew it was impossible to forget it. For this moment though, he put that thought away—somewhere deep in the alcove of his mind where other regrets were serving a life sentence. This hot, dry morning there was work to begin. A jailbreak had occurred in Marathon. He had to find the escapees and bring them back.




Editors Note: This is the final installment of a six-part serialization of The Horse Killer. To read previous issues of Grailing with the first five parts of this wonderful novella, read issues 6-10. Available at grailingpress.com/grailing.


Joe Kilgore is an award-winning writer of novels, novellas, screenplays, and short stories. His work has appeared in magazines, creative journals, anthologies, and online literary publications. Prior to developing his own work for page and screen, Joe created television, radio, newspaper, and magazine advertising for an international advertising agency. He lives and writes in Austin, Texas. You can learn more about Joe and his work at his website: https://joekilgore.com.




 



Knife Play

by G.H. Plaag


for M.


i was not gentle when i went for the cut. you were wearing your tee shirt—flipper: generic flipper, bright yellow—light fell against the glass tempered and fractal, and yes, yellow, and you, clutching that cold blue boston air, as cold as concrete, like wind offshore, like inky black glass against your insulated coat, brown and familiar, like a sheep’s, and how i let you drive me up the coast and across the neck and up the rock to see the waves in just that one place, there, that spot where at nineteen (i was still in love with you) you took a stone from the rockfall at the jetty and hurled it, so far beyond the black horizon that it was swallowed by the ark of the night without a plunk, and turned to me and said, now let’s go get those cakes (you’d remembered earlier, hüsker dü was on, about those little hostess cupcakes that tasted like butterscotch) like you hadn’t just scraped against the cosmos with your little stone in that little town, not even our town, just some town where the police were called for things like excuse me, someone littered on my lawn, yes, it was a wrapper for those little hostess cupcakes, yes, the butterscotch ones, oh and also a raspberry brisk (you liked those)—and your car smelled like heat, which smelled like home, and then (we threw on jimmy eat world, we could throw on anything then) we got good mileage all the way across that pin on the map, so broad and so beautiful, where i first saw you at a small wooden desk, in the fourth grade in a knit sweater with a stupid print, and thought, i could love him one day, and then did, and when we got home—home—we walked inside together, across the dirt parking lot, the sea in our ears, and you said it was nights like this we would remember for a while, and then forget, and then you sang a little bit of that killers song in falsetto, when you were young, for no real reason, and then you said what are you doing, and it turned out i was watching the stars, smeared like icing across the upper air, wondering if the stone you threw had fallen yet, but i didn’t say so, i said oh nothing, and you said okay, and we went inside where i cranked the heat and you threw on something goofy, like a pawn stars rerun, and the streetlights hung like knives on a knife rack, sharp and specific, waiting to drop, to cut, to sever.

G.H. Plaag (they/them/theirs) is a queer poet, writer, and musician from Louisiana. They received their MFA from Hollins University, where they also taught, and have published work with Jabberwock Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Hyacinth Review, Charlotte Lit, The Winter Anthology, and Poets.org, among others. Currently, they reside in New Orleans, where they are developing a novel in conversation with various structures of power along the Gulf Coast.  




 



Habit

by Ben Niles



My household drowses: the dog in its bed, my wife beneath a blanket in our living room. The light blazes off the upper reaches, and in a minute or two the afternoon will have passed. October fades in practice more than theory. There aren’t enough leaves yet to rake. The bedsheets don’t need cleaning. Today, I stacked the plates the same way, and I made tea, too. And tomorrow is one day closer to Halloween, when we parade masks and demons.




Ben Niles studied English & American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and he earned his Master’s degree from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. He lives in Boston with his wife, Sophie, and their dog, Roo.




 



Of Time and Chance

by Ruth Porter



West Severance, Vermont June 5, 1967

Andy

When he turned around, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen was standing in the doorway looking at him. She had to be some magic trick of the evening sun, which drew a red-gold line of light around her. Her face was in shadow, but he was positive it would be beautiful too. She was saying something he couldn’t understand. It was a blur. He couldn’t look and listen at the same time.

He stood there staring at her, holding the milking stool in his hand, while behind him Rosie rattled her stanchion. She wanted to get out to the night pasture with the other cows. He put the pail of milk where it wouldn’t get kicked over and let Rosie out. He had to follow her through the barn, so he could open the gate for her, and he knew when he got back to the milk room, the beautiful vision would be gone.

But he was wrong. She was there, and she was smiling. She said, “Can I buy your milk? My sister and I came to buy milk from your farm, and there it is, plenty of it. How much do you want for the whole pail full?”

He stood there in confusion, and worse, he could feel the red flush climbing up his cheeks to embarrass him. He said, “The milk you want is up at the house. It’s already bottled for you.”

“But I want your milk.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, and he could feel his face getting redder. He just stood there, looking at her.

“Okay, what about this then? Will you teach me how to milk?”

She was even more beautiful when she smiled, and she was smiling at him, but before he could think of a reply, someone called from up near the house, and the girl turned and left.

He went to the door. She was just hurrying around the corner of the barn. She didn’t look back.

He spent a little while straightening up the milk room, trying to calm down. He put a dish of fresh milk out for the barn cats. He should have offered her the pail of milk. He should have said he would teach her how to milk. He could have put Rosie back in the stanchion. He might have been able to squeeze a few more squirts of milk out of her, while he and the girl sat there close together. But it was too late. And maybe she was just joking. With her long flowing hair and long flowing skirt, she didn’t look like someone who wanted to learn how to milk.

Anyway, it was over. He sighed and picked up the pail. When he got around the corner of the barn, he saw there were no cars parked in front, so she was truly gone.

Just then Gram came around the outside of the house. “Where’s your Ma at, Andy? I heard her callin. I was out back in the garden.”

“Ma’s car ain’t here. She could be pickin Phyllis up from school. Maybe they went downstreet or somethin.”

“Well, I better get supper goin. I want to make some hamburgs out of that new meat.”

“Make a lot of ’em. I’m hungry.”

“You always are, and I always do.”

They went into the house together. Andy kicked off his boots and took the milk to the back room and put it through the strainer. He washed the milk pail in the sink and set it out on the counter to dry. “If you don’t need me to do nothin, Gram, I got some homework.”

“You go do that, honey. I don’t need any help.”

Upstairs in his room, Andy changed his shirt and pants. He hung the clothes that smelled like cow on the back of his door to air out. He got his big American History book and lay down on his bed to read the assignment. They were getting close to the end of the school year and close to the end of the book. Gram was probably alive for most of what he had to read. He wished she could just tell him how it was, so he didn’t have to read it. If she told it, it might even stay in his head.

He tried to picture Gram as a young girl and that led him right into thinking about the beautiful girl in the barn. She was dressed like a hippie. There were girls in his class who tried to dress that way, but none of them looked like she did. She must have been from down-country some place. She was just passing through, and he would never see her again.

He lay on his bed with the big book making a comfortable weight on his stomach while he thought about her. He was planning to start reading, when Pop shouted to him to come to supper. He closed the book and hurried downstairs.

Everyone was at the table when he got there. He slid into his chair and reached for the food. They were all eating already. For a little while, he had forgotten how hungry he was.

At first, everyone was too busy to make conversation. After a while, Phyllis said, “I saw Bobby Jacobs in the grocery store, and he said to say hi to you, Andy.”

“Okay.”

“He said to tell you they’re all goin to the recruitin office on graduation day.”

“Everybody knows that already, Phyllis.”

“What?” Pop said. “What’s that about?”

“A whole bunch of the guys in my class are goin to join the army after graduation. That’s all.”

“Oh,” Pop said. “I thought it was like a protest or somethin. Are you goin with ’em, Andy?”

Andy sighed. “I want to, but I can’t, not unless you and Ma sign for me. I’ve told you that before.”

“I guess I forgot. Well, I’ll do it. I don’t want to hold you up, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Thanks, Pop.”

“Patty, is it okay with you if I sign, so Andy can join the army?”

Everybody looked at Ma, but she didn’t say anything.

Andy said, “It ain’t a big deal, Ma. When my birthday gets here, and I’m eighteen, I can sign for myself. We’re just talkin about a couple months, so I can go when my friends go.”

She didn’t even answer. She just threw down her fork and ran out of the room, leaving the rest of them looking at each other.

Phyllis said, “You could sign for Andy, Pop, even if she doesn’t want to.”

“I ain’t goin to do that. I’ll talk to her about it. I can bring her around. I know that’s what you want, Andy.”

Andy nodded. “Thanks, Pop.”

Cynthia

She held Orion on her lap while Laura drove. They were going to buy some milk at a farm Laura knew about. She had to joggle Orion up and down to keep him from crying. It worked until the car stopped.

Laura got out and came around to the passenger side. “Here. I’ll take him. I’m going to have to feed him before I show you how we buy milk here. It won’t take long.” She took the baby and got in the back seat. When she began to unbutton her blouse, he stopped crying.

Cynthia got out of the car. They were parked in front of an old farmhouse that once had been painted white. There was a barn attached to one end of it. She said, “I don’t think anyone’s home.”

“That doesn’t matter. I’ll show you in a minute.”

“Okay. Call me when Orion’s done. I’m going to explore.” She walked along the barn wall. Around the corner, the evening light shone with a golden haze on the old red of the barn boards. There was an open door. She stopped and looked in.

It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the dusty darkness in the room. Then she saw that a cow was standing there, and a man was sitting under the cow with his back to the door. He was milking. Cynthia could hear the staccato bursts of milk hitting the side of the metal bucket.

The cow shifted her feet and turned her head, rolling her bulging eyeballs around to see who was standing in the door.

The man reached up and smacked her on the flank. “Quit it, Rosie. What’s got into you anyhow?” He started to milk again.

It was like watching a movie, but better, because she was in it too. She could smell the milk and the manure and the animal smell of the cow. She could feel the warm spring sun on her back. It was another world, one she had only read about in books.

The man said, “Okay, Rosie. You’re all done.” He stood up and stretched. When he reached down for the stool, he turned, and that was when he saw Cynthia standing in the doorway.

She saw that he wasn’t a man, at all. He was a boy, and he was about her age. He stood there, not saying anything, just looking at her.

The cow shook her head, rattling the bars that held her. The boy put down the stool and moved the milk pail out of the way. Then he opened the bar around the cow’s neck, and she stepped daintily out and walked through a door into another part of the barn. The boy followed her.

Cynthia wanted to see where they went, but the floor was mucky, and her feet were bare. She thought about how she could take the pail and carry it to the car. She would say, “I got us some milk, Laura. Do you think this will be enough?” She was laughing to herself about how surprised Laura would be, when the boy came back.

Still in the spirit of the joke, she said, “My sister and I came to your farm to buy some milk. How much do you want for what’s in that pail? I can get the money from my sister.”

For some reason, that made the boy blush. He mumbled something about getting milk at the house.

She didn’t know what he meant. “Well, okay,” she said. “If you won’t sell us any, will you teach me to milk? I’ve always wanted to know how.” That wasn’t strictly true, but the smile she turned on him was, and that made up for it.

She was about to say more. It was tempting to try to darken the flush on his face, but just then she heard Laura calling her. She sounded impatient. Cynthia hurried out the door and around the corner of the barn.

Laura was standing beside her car with Orion on her hip. There was a big jar of milk and a carton of eggs sitting on the roof of the car. As soon as she saw Cynthia, she said, “Where were you? I wanted to show you how to buy milk here.” “There was a boy milking a cow in the barn. I was watching him.”

“Here. Take Orion. We need to get home.”

“What’s the hurry? I thought you were going to show me around.”

“It’s getting late, and I don’t need to show it to you. It’s easy. There’s a refrigerator on the porch. You take what you want and leave the money. It’s all marked. There’s even a dish of change in case you need it.”

They got into the car. “Aren’t they afraid people will take milk without paying for it? Or maybe take money?”

“They trust people. They’ve been doing it this way for a long time, I think. I guess it works.”

“That boy in the barn told me he would teach me how to milk. He was cute.”

Laura looked around in surprise, but she didn’t say anything.

“I think I’ll take him up on it.”

When they were driving up the hill to Laura’s house, Cynthia remembered what she had forgotten to tell Laura. “Mom said she and Dad are going to come up to visit in a few weeks.”

“What?”

“I meant to tell you yesterday when I got here, but I forgot.”

“When, Cynthy? I’m going to have to get ready for them. They might not like it that we’re letting a lot of people live here.”

“Who’s living here besides us? Just Bob Wickelow, right? He’s the only person I met last night.”

“People come and go. We try not to turn our friends away if they need a place to stay for a while. Everyone’s moving around a lot these days, especially people in the counterculture.”

“But while Mom and Dad are visiting, maybe it’s not such a good idea. They are so old-fashioned.”

Laura parked beside Cynthia’s little Volkswagen beetle. Paul’s old pickup was on the other side of Cynthia’s car. “Oh look, Paul’s home already. I need to get going on supper.”

“I’ll help you. I want to learn how to cook.” They got out of the car. “There are so many things I want to learn how to do.” But she was really talking to herself, because Laura had taken Orion and was hurrying into the house to see Paul.

After supper, Cynthia helped Laura with the dishes, while Paul sat on the porch holding Orion and listening to Bob Wickelow playing his guitar and singing, Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

They left the door open so they could hear him while they straightened up the kitchen. There was only a thin line of light along the horizon when they finished and went out onto the porch. It was dark, except for the light coming through the windows and the screen door. Paul sat in the shadows, cradling Orion in his arms.

Laura stopped by Paul’s chair. She bent down and kissed Orion on the head. He didn’t move. She took off her sweater and laid it over him like a blanket. Then she sat down on the porch steps.

Cynthia sat down beside her. There was a sliver of moon. The brightest stars were just beginning to appear. Cynthia wrapped her skirts around her legs. The night air was cold. Bob was singing Blowin in the Wind, one of her favorite songs. It reminded her of the big protest in New York in April, her first real antiwar protest.

The air smelled of cedar and ice water. Laura must be even colder without her sweater. Cynthia thought that when the song was over, she would go inside and get a blanket for them to share, but before Bob got to the last verse, the phone rang. Laura jumped up and went inside to answer it. Cynthia tried to listen, but she couldn’t hear much because Bob was still singing and playing his guitar.

After a while, Laura came back. She stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the light from the kitchen. She waited until Bob got to the end of the song, and then she said, “That was Mom on the phone. She and Dad would like to come up and see us the weekend after next.”

Bob played a chord on his guitar.

Cynthia said, “Didn’t she want to talk to me?”

“She sent her love and said she’d see you soon. Is that okay with you, Paul? Cynthia told me about it this afternoon, but I didn’t get a chance to ask you.”

“It’s fine with me. They haven’t been up since last fall when Orion was born. I’m sure they want to see him.”

Orion heard their voices and woke up, adding his fretful sounds to the conversation.

“Here, Paul. Let me have him. I’ll feed him, so we can put him down for the night.”

Paul stood, and she sat down in the chair and took the baby. Paul carefully wrapped her sweater around her shoulders. She looked up and smiled at him.

Cynthia watched the whole exchange, trying not to feel jealous. She wished there was someone who felt so tenderly protective of her.

Bob said, “Why don’t I get out of your way when they come? I’ve been thinking about going home for a visit before I head out west this summer.”

Laura looked up at Bob. “That’s a good idea. Thanks. It would make things less complicated.”




[Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Ruth Porter's new novel Of Time and Chance: a Love Story of the '60s. To read the full book, you can purchase it here.]


Ruth Porter was born in New York City and grew up in Alliance, Ohio, where her father was

a doctor. After graduating from school in Cleveland she attended St. John’s College in

Annapolis. She married Bill Porter and in 1972 they moved to a hill farm in Adamant,

Vermont where Ruth has lived ever since.


Ruth raised four children and took care of the farm—one of the children said that she and

Bill learned everything they knew about farming from books, and most of those books were

novels—which included varying numbers of sheep, cows, pigs and chickens, and a big

garden. Together they raised most of their food.


Ruth spent her whole life reading and writing, but she began working seriously on fiction

during those hectic years. She has published four novels, as well as a book about her

grandfather, Maxwell Perkins, one of America’s most widely respected editors. Though Bill

died in 2022, the publishing company they started together in 2005, Bar Nothing Books,

lives on.

 

150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime is a list of great novels selected by Ben Niles, the Grailing Press 2023-2024 Poet-in-Residence. It is an unranked list that includes works by 150 different writers, so any given author will have only one novel included on the list. Ben is fully aware that his selections (or more probably, his omissions) may incur the literary ire of Dear Readers everywhere, but it’s a burden he is willing to bear. Finally, the 150 novels also fall evenly (fifty novels each) across three time-spans: up to 1935, 1936 to 1979, and 1980 to the present. See Ben’s introduction to the list and explanation of the selection criteria here.



Group 8—

 

Great Expectations

Charles Dickens . 1861

 

Faced with the rather challenging task of choosing just one of Dickens’s great novels for this list of 150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime, I realized that it’s not a far stretch to suggest that in Great Expectations, you get all the best of Dickens wrapped up into one novel. In the character of Pip, you get a thoroughly engaging first-person narrator and the central figure of a bildungsroman as you do in David Copperfield, with the added heartstring tug of his being an orphan like Oliver Twist; with memorable characters like (among others) the escaped convict Magwitch, Jaggers the London lawyer, the jilted and scheming Miss Havisham in her ruined mansion, and Estella, Pip’s beloved, beautiful, but frigid object of enfatuation, you get a panoply of personalities and craftily interwoven storylines not unlike Bleak House; you get drama, heartbreak, and tragedy as in A Tale of Two Cities; and you even get some mystery and touching sentiment like you do in A Christmas Carol. Suffice to say: Great Expectations has a little bit of everything that makes Charles Dickens one of the best authors not just of the Victorian era, but in literary history.

 

 

The Power of One

Bryce Courtenay . 1989

 

The Power of One is not a self-help book, as the title might mislead you to think, although you could certainly take away some solid life-lessons from this poignant bildungsroman. Set in conflicted South Africa, the novel follows a practically orphaned English boy from 1939 to 1951. He’s known as Peekay because the bullying Afrikaner youth call him Piskop (Afrikaans for “Piss-head”), as they explore nascent Nazi sympathies and practice taking out their fathers’ Boer War grudges on him. Despite such inauspicious beginnings—whose challenges linger as he grows up—the trajectory of Peekay’s life is influenced by the kindness of a few adults he meets, including a boxer who inspires his life’s goal (to become the welterweight champion of the world), a German music professor who is later imprisoned during the war years, and a good-natured black inmate at the same prison who actually teaches Peekay to box. On the surface, a Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow comparison is apt, but there is great depth to the connections Peekay makes, and the road he travels through his youth, Apartheid, and the War is far from yellow-bricked. It makes for a powerful story, though.

 

 

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut . 1969

 

The firebombing of the German city of Dresden in February 1945 created a firestorm of unprecedented intensity and claimed thousands of lives. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war being held in Dresden; miraculously, he was not among the approximately 20,000 people killed there. Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical processing of the bombing, which took him decades to complete in a way satisfactory to him. The psychological toll of the episode is evident, and the elements of wry, black humor and science-fiction woven into the story were handholds for detractors claiming Vonnegut was downplaying the moral fallout of Dresden. On the contrary: the humor—dark as it is—and the time travel and otherworldly beings that protagonist Billy Pilgrim experiences all emphasize the absurdity and incomprehensibility of a very real, horrific event. In the opening prologue-like chapter, the narrator muses that “the best outline I ever made” for the novel itself “was on the back of a roll of wallpaper…. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle.” Laugh, but believe me: there is so much more to Slaughterhouse-Five.

 

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi . 2016

 

An eight-generation chronicle spanning from 18th-century Ghana to the American South, through slavery, the Civil War, and into the cultural and musical hotbed of Harlem, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a moving historical narrative that delivers a raw moral message about the lasting legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. An Asante woman’s descendants—beginning with half-sisters Effia and Esi—are Homegoing’s many narrators. Effia and Esi are unaware of each other’s existence, and their fates are decidedly different. Effia marries James Collins, the British governor of one of West Africa’s notorious “slave castles,” the Cape Coast Castle. Accentuating the dichotomy of white and black to grotesque degrees, the fort’s practically lightless dungeons served as appalling holding cells for African slaves before being shipped across the Atlantic, while the aboveground castle with whitewashed walls afforded the likes of Collins (and Effia) the utmost luxury. If you’ve guessed how precisely Esi’s fate differs from Effia’s, you understand the powerful starting point of the novel: that Esi begins her enslavement a floor below her blood relative enjoying her freedom. A literary descendant of Alex Haley’s Roots and the works of Toni Morrison, Homegoing also stands firmly on its own as a great novel.

 

 

Lord of the Flies

William Golding . 1954

 

Boys will be boys. Unless of course they become savages…. In William Golding’s classic tale, a group of British schoolboys evacuating from the onset of another World War find themselves stranded on a remote island in the Pacific after their plane crashes. There is of course the initial period of Home Alone-esque excitement among the stranded band of little Kevin McAllisters, thrilled at the prospect of doing whatever they please without supervision, rules, or consequences. But just as Kevin comes to the realization that he has to shop for groceries, brave the basement to do his laundry, and simply grow up a bit, the gravity and reality of their situation dawns on the marooned boys, and the ensuing events are what make Golding’s novel such a great (if also a bit frightening) one. An incredible examination of both the human tendency toward civilization, society, and empathy, and the equally human capacity for hostility, selfishness, and the will to power, Lord of the Flies is no mere young adult parable. The novel’s title is the literal meaning of the demon ‘Beelzebub,’ who—depending on the tradition—is either the Devil himself, or a close associate. And that’s just the title.

 





 

Grailing No. 11


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