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  • Writer's pictureGrailing Press

Grailing, No. 6


The Horse Killer, Part 1 in a serialized and gritty novella of West Texas by Joe Kilgore

My heart betrayed me, a poem of catastrophe by Irina Novikova

The Wild Side, melancholic fiction by A. J. Roberts

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

The Horse Killer, Part 1

Joe Kilgore

“Flies are born to be eaten by spiders

and man to be devoured by sorrow.”

-- Voltaire

Chapter 1

Southwest Texas, 1883

The sun was intent on making everything below it cower and hide, but the soap bush was proving its mettle. Thick, gnarled branches stood their ground. Raven glanced at the splash of purple amid the white rocks and brown dirt. He often took note when a rare bit of color broke the monotony of the high desert landscape. Might have paid it even more mind had not a winged mammal darted across the sky in front of him—the telltale flap of webbed wings identifying its origin. Canyon bat, Raven said to himself. Bit early in the day for you, ain’t it? Talking to the world around him was not out of character for Raven. In fact he preferred it to conversation with more advanced species.

Raven reined his sorrel gelding to a halt and raised the brim of his hat to wipe his sweat. His was a brow etched with deep horizontal lines indicating more frowns than smiles during the forty odd years it had taken for them to make their mark—and those lines were just the beginning. Half-moon circles anchored bags below his hazel eyes. Bags that were more pronounced than the vertical indentions streaking his cheeks. They were all part of the mosaic that signaled a life sternly lived. His nose was more prominent than it needed to be and his mouth turned down, continually giving the impression of an ill-tempered disposition. His was a face that had taken a long time to settle, and would take an even longer time to change.

After dismounting, Raven untied the bandana from his neck, soaked it with water from his canteen, and wet the horse’s mouth while he rubbed its muzzle and cheek. His actions told the mount there would be time for a real drink later, but for now there was more ground to cover.

With reins in hand he knelt to take a closer look at the tracks he had been following most of the morning. The impression in the sandy loam revealed a firmly cut horizon and high wall. His quarry was still moving at a constant pace. No matter, he told Red, soon he’ll tire, and we’ll close by sundown. The horse snorted and neighed as if he understood. Raven liked to think he did.

Stretching out before them was country ill fit for men or beasts of burden. But for men who could adapt, and beasts that could survive, it was awesome in its magnificence. Blindingly blue sky was endless and only dotted here and there with clouds like cotton bolls ready to be picked. In the far distance, towering mountains with jagged peaks and tree-lined slopes stood silently as if on guard. Beneath that sky and before those mountains however, lay an intimidating stretch of Chihuahuan Desert, full of scrub brush, short grass, dry, alkaline soil, and rugged plateaus. In the vast emptiness of this arid environment water was indeed scarce, but it could be found if you knew where to look. Raven did.

There was little Raven Comstock didn’t know about tracking, hunting, or living off the land. A demanding father had schooled him in all three. His mother, a woman both educated and kind, instilled in him a sense of honor and decency. Fighting in the war introduced him to both violence and tragedy. His conclusion from that experience was that you were unlikely to escape either for very long. For the last eighteen years Raven’s profession enabled him to put everything he had learned to work. His full range of capabilities came into play dealing with fence cutters, rustlers, thieves, murderers, and all manner of second-rate scoundrels prone to rash action and extreme measures. Raven Comstock was a man of strong moral fiber and honorable character who believed there was a pressing need for both, particularly in Texas.

Near the sun’s dying light, the fugitive’s trail cut south. Raven knew instinctively he was heading for the riparian oasis. The meandering river was low there, and steep-walled canyons provided a measure of protection. But the twists and turns in the river corridor also provided cover for potential predators—cover that could be used to surprise one’s prey.

* * *

The heat of day had already turned to the chill of evening when Sanchez decided to warm himself with more than his bedroll. In addition to the eighty-five dollars he had absconded with from the Brewster County Mercantile, he had also liberated a couple bottles of Tangle Leg Rye. He figured that two or three, or maybe four shots would help him sleep a lot easier on the cold, hard ground. Of course, figuring was never something he did very well. Less than an hour later, the rumble of Sanchez’s snores completely drowned out the sound of Raven walking into his camp, kneeling beside him, and sticking his .44 caliber Walker Colt into the Mexican’s ear. Nothing interrupts slumber and quickly focuses the mind quite like the chilly steel of a gun barrel.

“I wouldn’t reach for anything if I were you, amigo. I’ve already confiscated your sidearm and blade. Plus my associate over there in the dark has a bead on you with his Sharps.”

“I no move,” was Sanchez’s only reply.

“You’ll move…just enough to roll on your belly and put your hands behind your back.”

The Mexican did as he was told and Raven quickly tied his wrists with the vaquero’s own piggin’ string.

“You no kill me, yes?”

“I no kill you, no.”

“You bandito?”

“Worse. I’m a Texas Ranger.”

“Mierda! What we do now?”

“Now, we get my associate some water. Then we sleep. Got a long ride back in the morning.” He turned, raised his voice, and said, “Red!” with a sharp whistle. The horse stepped out of the shadows, clopped over with his head down and let Raven take the reins.

“Only el caballo? You lie to me.”

“Just be glad that’s all I did.”

Chapter 2

By the time the Mexican woke, Raven had already cleared the camp and saddled both horses. Sanchez complained he had to make water. To spare the man the indignity of soiling himself, Raven unbuckled his pants and pulled them down to his ankles. No undergarments made it possible to avoid further assistance. Nature’s call answered and britches back in place, Raven marched Sanchez to his mount.

“How I ride with hands in back?”

“Just clamp you’re legs round her barrel and hang on tight.”

Raven helped the thief mount, then tied one rein to the saddle horn. He used the other to guide horse and rider as they left the oasis and started back to Alpine. It didn’t take long for the Mexican’s mare to understand she was to follow. So after a stretch, Raven tied that rein off as well. Sanchez had little trouble staying balanced. There was no need to hurry, Raven reasoned, and therefore no call to tire the mounts or endure the hassle of a falling rider. The wheels of justice would turn at whatever pace the Ranger dictated.

All morning and a good bit of the afternoon they weaved their way beside, around, and through mesquite trees, yuccas, agaves, and ocotillo. The spiny pointed brush and cacti could wreak havoc on the horses’ legs if they weren’t careful. Raven made sure they were. The heat caused both men to perspire heavily. Twice they stopped for water. After Raven drank from his canteen, he’d take Sanchez’s and tilt it over the Mexican’s mouth. Of course he never received a muchas gracias, but then he never expected one.

Late in the day, Raven pulled up and spoke. “If memory serves, there’s a shortcut about a mile ahead. Used to be a cabin there. Could be a good spot to hole up for the night…water the animals. Then be on our way in the morning.”

Hot, tired, and realizing there was little he could do about it one way or the other, Sanchez replied, “Why you tell me this, pendejo?”

“Wasn’t talking to you,” Raven replied. “Was talking to Red.”

When they saw the shack in the distance, the sun was still above the horizon but Raven knew it wouldn’t be there long. He nudged Red to pick up the pace a bit and the closer they came, the more deserted things looked. No lamps shone inside the house. Shutters over the windows were ajar. The front door had come loose from one of its hinges and a slight breeze caused it to move intermittently.

“Anybody home?” Raven shouted, as they neared the front porch. There was no response. Stepping down from his mount, he tied his reins to a hitching post out front. Then he undid the mare’s reins from the Mexican’s saddle horn and tied them too. “Stay put till I get back,” he told Sanchez.

Slowly pulling his Colt from its holster, he stepped lightly onto the porch. It had been a couple of years or more since he had come this way. He remembered the owner as an old coot, weathered on the outside and quick with a quip. Not really the kind to let things go like this. Raven used the barrel of his revolver to open the door far enough to step inside. Pausing for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the shadows, he then scanned the room for signs of habitation. The old guy must have sold the place to someone else, Raven mumbled to himself.

While it was a one-room cabin, it had definitely been occupied by more than one person. The table with four chairs indicated that, as did the china on the shelves, the wide double bed, and the bassinet. Raven had to reconstruct these items in his mind however, because all of them looked like they had been ransacked or caught in the middle of a whirlwind. The table was overturned and the chairs were busted up. While one or two pieces of china remained on the shelves, most of it was in pieces on the floor. The mattress had been ripped open and tossed against one wall. Even the bassinet was splintered and broken. Some thing, or someone, had laid waste to the whole cabin.

Stepping back on the porch, Raven said to Sanchez, “I’m going to have a look out back. You just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“I do nothing,” Sanchez blurted.

“That’s my point,” Raven said.

Walking round the side of the cabin, he spotted an outhouse. While he was in no hurry to check its contents, he knew he should. Still with gun in hand, he said, “Anyone in there?” When there was no response he opened the door. The smell was intense, but it was the smell he was expecting. Looking over at the corral he noted it was empty and the gate was open. After walking over to inspect it, he realized there was nothing wrong with the latch. It simply hadn’t been a priority to the last person there.

Twilight and a rising moon enabled Raven to take a look around the place. Nothing but emptiness he thought. Then he noticed some sort of mound or bank of earth about twenty-five yards from the back of the corral. It didn’t seem to conform to the landscape around it. Best check it out, he thought.

As he neared it, Raven soon realized the odd shape that had caught his eye was definitely not a natural part of the land. The smell told him first. He had been around rotting flesh before. It was not the kind of odor one quickly forgets. The size of it still puzzled him though, until he was close enough to see that a few days ago it had been a horse. Pulling his bandana up over his nose, he realized nature had already started to reclaim it. Though they weren’t there at the moment, buzzards had begun their banquet that would continue for some time. And much of the ripped and chewed carcass indicated that coyotes had laid claim as well. A shame, Raven thought. She looked to have been a big mare. Must have stood around fifteen or sixteen hands. The rump, shoulders, and flanks that hadn’t been completely gnawed away, indicated she might have been white, or maybe a gray. Raven hated to see any animal reduced to such a state, but he knew the end comes to all things, and the high desert has its own way of returning all to dust.

He was about to walk away when he gave a second glance at the horse’s head. The eyes were gone of course, delicacies for the first turkey buzzards to arrive. But then something struck him. The forehead and the muzzle didn’t look merely gnawed; they looked like they had been bashed in. Bones were cracked and broken. Not just in one place but several. These were not injuries that would have been inflicted by scavengers feasting on a corpse. Some type of terrible beating had occurred. A beating savage enough to be the cause of death. Who the hell would do something like that, Raven asked himself and the darkness that settled around him.

Chapter 3

They spent the night in the cabin. Raven threw the mattress on the bed and took advantage of it. He made Sanchez sleep on the floor. Leaving early, they reached the outskirts of Alpine before the sun had reached its highest point of the day. The march of progress had taken the place from little more than a cattlemen’s campsite for herd tending, to a tent city for workers on the railroad, to a growing town that encompassed wooden houses, a hotel, livery stable, butcher shop, post office, mercantile, and two saloons. A small adobe building served as the lockup. It had one cell that would constitute Sanchez’s home until the circuit-riding judge made his swing through town to determine the Mexican’s ultimate fate. Sheriff Harvey Wayne took possession of the prisoner, locked him in, and offered to buy Raven a drink for bringing the fugitive to justice.

At the saloon closest to the jail, the two men each set their shot glass of whiskey and mug of beer on a table, took their seats, and proceeded to enjoy a short respite.

“Give you much trouble?” The Sheriff asked.

“Meek as a lamb,” Raven replied.

“Doesn’t strike me as a professional criminal.”

“Me neither. I’m guessing his cowboy money ran out and he just made a dumb decision. Seems to be pretty good at that.”

“Well, maybe this will turn him back toward the straight and narrow.”

Raven answered by merely raising his whiskey.

The men each downed a fiery shot. Then followed it with a swig of beer.

“Where you off to from here?”

“Probably back to Marathon,” Raven said.

“Got family there?”

“No. Just some thievery from the railroad I need to look into.”

“I envy you Rangers your tumbleweed ways. Now and then, I feel kind of stuck here. Course my better half likes that I’m in one place. You know how women are.”

“Can’t really say as I do, Sheriff. Haven’t spent much time with ones I didn’t have to pay for the privilege.”

“Money well spent?”

“On occasion. Can I return the favor and buy you one, Sheriff.”

“Why not. Still got some beer left.” He turned to the bartender and spoke up. “Charley, bring us each one more shot, will you?”

“Coming up, Sheriff,” the barkeep replied.

Picking up the conversation again, the Sheriff said, “Noticed that sorrel you rode in on. Fine looking horseflesh.”

The word gave Raven a jolt, and he pictured the brutalized horse he’d seen the night before. “Yep, Red’s a good one, alright. By the way, do you know—”

Charley stalled the inquiry by setting two more shots on the table. Raven started to reach in his pocket when the bartender stopped him. “No, this round’s on me gentlemen. Heard the Sheriff say you were a Ranger. Happy to buy two officers of the law a drink. Folks in town appreciate what you do.”

“Thanks,” Raven said.

“Charley’s a hospitable citizen,” the Sheriff added. “Like most of the good people around here.”

“Suppose you know most of the folks in these parts, right? Including those who live out of town as well?”

“Guess I do. Course more and more folk seem to be movin’ in all the time.”

Raven then recounted what he found at the cabin the previous evening, except for the horse. He wasn’t sure why, but for the moment he left that detail unmentioned.

“Ezekiel Dodson used to own that place. He’s probably the old codger you said you remembered. The place has turned over a couple of times since he owned it. Ezekiel sold it to a young homesteader and his wife…name of Jorgensen. Oh…I guess about a year ago. Strapping Swede couple. Hearty, you know. Looked like the kind that could have made a go of the place. But they didn’t. The ground around there’s not really fit for growin’ much.”

“You said it’s turned over twice.”

“That’s right. They just got sold to Hiram Daniels. Man’s got more acreage than anyone can count. He’s a rancher with a spread about halfway between here and Marfa.”

“Know if he’s taken over the place yet?”

“Can’t really say. Still…don’t know why either party would leave it in the condition you found.”

“Personally, I wouldn’t put anything past Hiram Daniels,” Charley interjected. Listening in on customers’ conversations helped a bartender pass the time during slow hours. “Fella was in here the other day. Said he had worked the Daniels ranch for a while. Quit though. Said he couldn’t take working for such a hard man.”

“Happen to mention what he meant by hard?” Raven asked.

“Said Daniels was as nasty a fella as he’d ever seen. Took a branding iron to one of his hands who sassed him once. Said he saw him knife a dog that had gotten into the hen house. Coaxed it up on the porch with the promise of a half-eaten steak, then gutted him right there. Hell, the dog was just doing what dogs do.”

“Yep,” The Sheriff said. “I’ve heard Daniels is a bastard. But then you never know, the hand may have had it comin’. And the man was probably pissed about losing good hens.”

Charley stopped wiping the glass he’d been working on while he talked. He put his elbows on the bar, interlaced his fingers and said, “Yeah, but this fella said the worst of it was how he treated his horses. Said he’d work em’ till they dropped, then bring in a fresh bunch of mustangs to replace the one’s that couldn’t cut it. Liked to use a bullwhip on em’ too. Said he cut some up pretty bad. Even blinded one. Right then and there the fella decided that was no place for him. So he drew his pay, and left.”

“When did the cowboy tell you all this?” Raven asked.

“Oh, I guess…uh…maybe two, three days ago.”

The Sheriff said, “Daniels has a bad reputation. Had it for some time. Course he’s also got more money than anyone around here. Guess the two go together. I don’t know.”

Raven looked at one man, then the other. He gripped his mug, turned it up and finished the remaining beer. Standing, he said, “I assume there’s a livery stable in town.”

“Far end of the street,” the Sheriff replied.

“Thanks again for the drinks. I’ll be taking my leave now.”

The Sheriff stood, offered his hand, and said, “Well, good luck with that railroad trouble in Marathon.”

Raven shook his hand, tipped his hat to the bartender, and headed toward the door without saying goodbye to either man. But he told himself, Marathon can wait.

Editors Note: This is Part 1 of a six-part serialization of The Horse Killer. New parts will appear sequentially in future issues of Grailing. Check back for new installments.

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:


My heart betrayed me...

by Irina Novikova

My heart betrayed me... And draws down itself.... It beats—uneven as if a thread had been pulled out of it Blooming flower with yellow corolla Having lost the wind fruits ... As if he wants to please something else ... But the heart does not know that it has no cells To create something else... And it blooms brighter losing Vessels along the way and I bleed To not be... Like a dolphin at dawn In which an iron harpoon entered

Irina Tall (Novikova) is an artist, graphic artist, and illustrator. She graduated from the State Academy of Slavic Cultures with a degree in art, and also has a bachelor's degree in design.


The Wild Side

by A. J. Roberts

We call this ‘the Wild Side’ of Moreton Island. The eastern beach, like many other beaches, has long stretches of white sand. On the inside the dunes are topped with dry hardy shrub grasses; on the other side the ocean is endlessly blue, the rolling waves always look a little angry. We don’t swim here often. It has dangerous rips and a certain sharkyness. My husband drives. The silica makes the sand squeak under our low tires. From the Prado I watch the ocean pass hoping to see a fin cut through those waves. It would be satisfying to see they are out there, those sharks I fear but never see, except in the faded photos at the takeaway shop in Bulwar. New Zealand is out there too, if I could see far enough, nothing but ocean between us and them. We drive in silence. He doesn’t like to do two things at once, sometimes he plays music but not today. We are headed to the lighthouse. We passed fishers, and other four wheel drives packed with surfboards, camping gear, and eskies, no doubt full of beers. This island is a man’s place. Even the dunes (second highest in the southern hemisphere) are muscular, ambitious and solid. Most of the women you’ll see here are like that too; they’ve been hardened by sun, double baked like biscotti. The lighthouse is a good place to watch for whales. We’re likely to see humpbacks migrating past, it’s the right time of year. In the spring they return south to colder waters for feeding. They are in a cycle, bred and fed and return. I guess we’re the same. Our children are grown and gone now, but we keep returning to this place. Both us and the whales locked into a pattern. Do they ever want to break out and visit Finland instead of heading back to the Antarctic? I suspect if they broke the pattern once, they’d get lost and die. We hike up the rocky sandstone steps to the lookout. He grabs my hand, always steadying me, guiding me, it’s automatic, like when the turtles surface for air. This gesture is habitual, and although it makes me feel like a child, I take his hand. From this place you can see the whole island, all the way to Stradbroke. I can see Amity Point, that beach where a poor girl was taken by two bull sharks. She swam at dusk, only a metre or so from the beach. She bled out before the guards got her to shore. That night at the resort the dolphins didn’t come in for their usual feed. I’d been working there then and it was eerie when they didn’t show up. He gazes out to sea when he says,“So - you’ll be at your mother’s.” I know better than trying to get him to see me. “Let’s not keep going over this, not now. Look there’s one.” The humpbacks blow plumes of water several metres in the air, they’re easy to spot. Then they roll their humpbacks and disappear under the surface. They don’t need to breathe much. They don’t get divorced. “Can we stop by Honeymoon Bay?” This was my favourite spot. It was probably the prettiest place on the island to swim and it was a pain to get to, so hardly anyone went there. No tourists. No bus loads of retirees. He proposed to me there on the beach. No ring, but he said we should get married. What did we know? He was twenty three, I was twenty and pregnant. He pulls the Prado off the well trod dirt road and onto a more narrow and more bumpy track at the north end of the island. We scamper down the path. It hurt his knees, but he isn’t a complainer. The grass is pretty high and I worry about snakes so I stomp hard to scare them off. The water in the bay is that opal stone blue, the flat beach wine glass shaped and edged with rocks. The waves tumble over at the edges and make frothy champagne pools. If the rest of the island is masculine, this one place is feminine, the water more pale and inviting, the rock border secure and protective. When the kids were little this is where I’d bring them before they became keen surfers. I change into my swimmers and rashie; he looks away. He used to like to see me naked, maybe now he didn’t think he had the right. He doesn't change out of his clothes. He finds some shade under a gumtree, lights up a cigarette and opens the beer he’d brought down. I can’t tell behind his sunglasses how he is feeling. He’s grown accustomed to the situation and he is slipping away from me, just as I am about to leave him. “Don’t go too deep,” he warns. I was always a good swimmer. I dive into the waves headlong and feel them rush over my back and legs. I peer back at the shore. Another couple had found our spot. He carries a short pointed surfboard: she wears a tiny black bikini. They could have been us twenty five years ago. The boy bounces into the bay with his board, his girl settles on a sunny rock not far from my husband. From a distance he still looks handsome, a bit weathered but men wear that well. I find the champagne pools and lay in the bubbles. I will miss this place but I have sworn not to return. I can’t move in two directions simultaneously. We agreed. It is his place. He’ll come here fishing, beer drinking, camping with mates. They’ll rally around him, once they know. And he’ll bring our boys here for surf trips. I will find new places. The surfer shot past on his board, his brown strong arms pulling him easily through the shore break as he heads off to find the larger waves. He smiles at me. Not a care in the world. I decided to just swim to the other side of the bay. Back on shore they are talking, my old man and that young woman. He laughs at whatever she says. It’s good that he can laugh. They’d say he’ll be with someone else sooner than I will. Not that I am looking for anyone, I’m not. I want to be on my own. I turn to cross the bay, stretch out my strokes as I head for the opposite shore. Swimming is a meditation, you just breathe and kick and pull and breathe and kick and pull. I tried not to think of sharks. You are more likely to die in a car accident. You are more likely to get killed by a coconut falling on your head. You are more likely to win the lottery, I’m not certain about that one. I get almost half way across when I realise my mistake. I feel the tug of the ocean, down and out. I’m in a rip. The first rule is not to panic, I know this, but it is quite terrifying to feel the power of the ocean tearing you away from shore. I let it pull me. There is no fighting it. I raise my arm. He waves and goes back to talking to the girl. I yell but the sound of the surf swallows my cry. I try to swim across the rip parallel style but I am still being pulled out. I swallow some sea water in a gulp. Again I thrust my arm up in panic and I see him. He sees me. But now I am too far out. He kicks his shoes off, runs toward the surf and leaps into the water. I go under. A strong young arm grabs my rashie. He pulls. I come up gasping and hold onto his board. He grins as if this, my almost death, was nothing. “You’re alright.” He pulls me up onto his surfboard and paddles to shore. His girlfriend runs out to meet us. She fusses over me, gets me a towel and sits me down. I am still coughing a bit, and tearing. “You’re lucky.” The surfer unhelpfully smacks me on the back. The black bikini girl just stands there looking concerned. No one noticed. I didn't notice, I was in a panic for myself. David had come in to rescue me. “Where is he?” The beach is empty. The surf is empty. The surfer jumps back on his board and goes out to search. They dial 000. And we wait. This breed of man that I was leaving was hard to know and hard to live with. When we were young he was available and real to me. He used to dream of adventures in a camper, touring surf spots on the coast. Some nights he would stare at the stars and ask me what I thought about things. We felt lucky. Now he might be suspended in the blue-green of the Coral Sea floating on the current to New Zealand. I could picture him gasping, sinking as his heavy clothes got water logged and weighed him down. He wouldn’t yell out for help. He’d rather surrender to the sea than to ask for help. He’d struggle as the water filled his lungs, his eyes would panic madly like a crazed horse, then he’d twitch in the last seconds of panic and give up. Everyone drowning has to, eventually, and then he would float slowly down as the humpbacks sing, schools of blinking fish would swim past, the sea turtles might float over top. And he’d be gone. His flesh would be picked off his bones first by sharks then by smaller predators. His bones may well turn up back on the beach like the giant shells of the turtles do, bleached white by salt and sun. Perhaps he did it intentionally. His friend Steve had done so when his wife left. Men are more fragile than they look. He didn’t like change. He wanted a life set to a pattern. Don’t think that this came to me then. At that time I was utterly in shock. It takes a while before the rescue crew arrives. I can’t stop searching for him in the surf. Shock makes me shake, and I cry and gulp air. I suddenly uncontrollably start to quiver. The emergency worker gives me a sedative and everything goes flat, eerie, calm, unnatural like when the dolphins didn’t arrive at sunset for their nightly feeding. I was leaving him but when he left me like that so sudden and unexpectedly it felt cruel, and intentional. I have been angry with him for years. He manages to keep me with him after all. They never did find his body and no one ever knew about the plan to get divorced. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. What’s the point? Now I’m his widow, still his, still defined by him and I think of him and that day over and over again. I’m stuck in a new pattern swimming alongside him wordlessly, silently in dreams. We float along with the humpbacks and their song is mournful. In tears I wake up with the taste of the sea on my lips. I turn off the eastern beach and take the deeply rutted sand road that crosses the west side of the Island. The Micat ferry will be pulling in at low tide. It’s my place now. This island has become my husband. Now I drive our old beat up Prado with tires let down to 18psi. I visit the Wild Side every time I go to the island and I watch the endless rolling waves and check for bleached bones that might have washed up on the shoreline. The warm sands, his hug; the blue sky, his eyes.

A.J.C. Is mongrel of the commonwealth- born in Cambridge England, raised in Owen Sound Ontario, Canada, now residing in Manly, Australia. A.J.C. likes to write stories that speak to those dark and humorous moments of everyday life. Someday she’ll manage to complete her half done novels. She can be found on Facebook.


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 3—

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley . 1932

It’s good to keep the Shakespearean allusion in mind when reading Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, whose title comes from The Tempest, when the naïve Miranda exclaims, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t.” Then again, were you to quote that allusion in the World State of the novel in which Shakespeare’s works are banned, you’d be presumed a Savage from the Reservation, whose inhabitants do such uncivilized things as get married, practice religion, give birth and grow old naturally, and engage in traditional family life. A far cry from the World State itself, replete with ‘hatcheries’ producing genetically modified humans, sleep-conditioned to behave certain ways and perform class-based roles in society, and kept mollified by heavily structured routine and Soma, the ubiquitous State-supplied population-controlling drug. Sounds like a blast, eh? Looking back at his novel in his 1958 essay “Brave New World Revisited,” Huxley directly warned against the dangers of a misguided ‘Will to Order’, where “the theoretical reduction of unmanageable multiplicity to comprehensible unity becomes the practical reduction of human diversity to subhuman uniformity, of freedom to servitude.” Like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s vision of a hypothetical future is a cautionary must-read.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Haruki Murakami . 1994

To some, Haruki Murakami is rightfully the most popular novelist in Japan and deserves recognition among the world’s best. To others, his works can be too expansive or frustratingly unresolved, and his use of magical realism can distract from already sprawling plots. All in all, the component parts of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle cohere into a novel worth reading. Part family drama, part detective story with mysterious characters, and part gritty look into a campaign within Japan’s engagement in World War II, Murakami gives the reader much to take in. There is also a healthy dose of the fanciful, with a blurring of boundaries between the real and surreal, some plunges into the subconscious, explorations of identity, alienation, and loneliness, and enough shifting of narrative terrain to leave me unavoidably using the word “dreamlike” to describe it. Murakami’s books are polarizing and not to everyone’s taste, so I’ll go ahead and say: “caveat emptor.” I just hope you won’t get too—uh—wound up if you don't like it.

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe . 1958

I was assigned to read Things Fall Apart directly after completing The Odyssey in ninth grade. At the time, I suspected that some of the grand, legendary qualities of Homer’s epic bled into Things Fall Apart, imbuing it with a gravitas greater than it possessed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Achebe’s masterpiece is every bit its own epic achievement, needing no help from outside its pages to be counted among the great novels of the world, with its own gravitas, scope, lasting power, and rending pathos. Okonkwo’s traits and flaws stuck with me just as much as Odysseus’s. And the trials Okonkwo faces are far more tangible than the Cyclops, Sirens, or Scylla and Charybdis, and arguably just as menacing. Steeped in his own masculinity and consumed by preserving it in the eyes of his Nigerian village and his family (who often take the brunt of his angry demonstrations of it), Okonkwo makes unenviable choices with devastating consequences within the context of the ways of his people, only to be faced with the added onslaught of late 19th century European colonization and relentless Christian missionaries. The W.B. Yeats allusion offers a tragically apt title for this foundational African novel.

Little Women

Louisa May Alcott . 1868

The four young women of Louisa May Alcott’s great American novel—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—are loosely based on Alcott and her sisters, and the story spans their girlhood to adulthood in a fictionalized Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. In her foreword to the 150th anniversary edition of Little Women, ‘punk poet laureate’ Patti Smith says she recognized herself in the character of Jo March, the “headstrong girl, who raced on foot, ripped her skirts climbing trees, spoke in common slang, and denounced social pretensions.” More broadly, Smith also recognizes Jo as “a new kind of heroine. A stubbornly modern nineteenth-century American girl.” It doesn’t do Little Women justice to just call it a brilliant example of Young Adult fiction a century ahead of YA literature’s true bloom. It’s that and much more, with compassion, touching sentimentality, and wisdom enough for older readers as well. Maybe I’m particularly fond of the story as a Massachusetts boy myself, doubly so because the 2019 film adaptation shot a beautiful hillside scene in my hometown, but you don’t have to be a New Englander, a young adult, or a woman to enjoy this wonderful novel. Just be a reader.

Out Stealing Horses

Per Petterson . 2003

In his late sixties, Trond lives alone in a remote lakeside cabin in far-eastern Norway. He tells us, “Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.” The novel itself takes deliberate time to develop its nuanced plots, and Petterson deftly builds suspense pertaining to multiple unanswered questions and incomplete pictures by methodically feeding us episodes that are not chronological, until the pieces come together and culminate in a shock of intensity and artistry. Trond’s memories of a fateful summer—the summer of 1948—are central to the story, and the interplay of his teenaged and more seasoned perspectives lend a depth and resonance to Petterson’s spare and imagistic prose. You can feel the Nordic cold, you can hear the chopping and felling of timber, you can smell the sweetness of summer grass, and over all this, you can sense that whatever “going out stealing horses” means, it’s of dire import.

[cover photo: Pamela Manché Pearce]


Grailing No. 6

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