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  • Writer's pictureGrailing Press

Grailing, No. 9


The Horse Killer, Part 4 in a serialized novella of law and order in West Texas by Joe Kilgore

Twimann, poetry by Ben Niles

63° and Sunny, a new poem by Ben Niles

Black Dress, new fiction from Elizabeth Ricketson

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

The Horse Killer, Part 4

Joe Kilgore

“Flies are born to be eaten by spiders

and man to be devoured by sorrow.”

-- Voltaire

Chapter 6

The cabin was on the side of a hill. A small corral had been constructed and attached to the left side of the shack. The pen was only large enough to contain two or three horses. At the moment it held only one, a brown mare that stood about fourteen hands. Raven approached slowly. If Purdy was inside, he didn’t want to spook him. The storekeeper had volunteered the comment about the man’s temper. Raven assumed he had done it for a reason. When he and Red were still a few yards shy of the front, Raven yelled, “Hello! I’m looking for Rupert Purdy. Is anyone inside?”

Thirty seconds passed without an answer. Then the door slowly moved, powered by the long barrel of a Winchester rifle. Whoever used the carbine to open the door was obviously standing to the right of the doorframe. Not too bright, Raven thought to himself. Those thin wooden slats wouldn’t provide much protection if anyone decided to throw down on the occupant who had given his position away. He spoke again. This time with less volume.

“I’m a Texas Ranger. Looking into the killing of a horse the other night. I was advised that the animal belonged to Rupert Purdy. Simply want to ask him about it.”

“I’m gonna’ step out now,” came the voice from inside the cabin. “Don’t be makin’ no quick moves.”

“Don’t need to do anything quick,” Raven replied. “I’m just here to palaver.”

The sound of a rifle being cocked was unmistakable.

Raven quickly added, “When you come out, sir, do not have that weapon pointed my way. I’d have to view that as a hostile act. Leave it by the door. Otherwise we might misunderstand one another.”

“You stay mounted then. Don’t get down. Don’t want a stranger that close to me.”

“A reasonable request.” Raven added, “Can’t be too careful these days. But you have my word I mean you no harm.”

As quiet as the occupant of the cabin was trying to be, Raven still heard the butt of the rife touch the floor as the man leaned the barrel against the doorframe. Then he stepped into the open space. He was small and rail-thin. No hat was atop his disheveled hair. One shirttail hung outside his pants and the gun belt he wore had no weapon in the holster. His face looked as if it hadn’t been shaved in a number of days and his eyes were puffy and swollen. When he stopped, not moving beyond reaching-distance of the rifle he had just put down, Raven noticed he was barefoot.

“Sorry if I disturbed your siesta. Are you Rupert Purdy?”

“What if I am?”

“Was your horse shot the other night in Marfa?”

“Shot…hell, murdered that’s what it was. Murdered right there in the street.”

“What were you doing when it happened?”

“I was in the saloon. Just havin’ a drink or two.”

Raven shifted his weight in the saddle to appear more relaxed. “Yes, everyone likes a little drink or two now and then. I can understand that.”

“Sure. Man needs a drink after hard work. Been havin’ a couple today, too.”

“I thought as much. Now about the incident.”

“The what?”

“The horse that was shot…your horse.”

“I didn’t shoot him. I was in the saloon…drinkin’.”

“Right. Let me ask you, Mr. Purdy, do you recall earlier that evening, was anything done or said that may have caused someone to be angry with you?”


“You know, mad at you. Did you get in any arguments or fights? Or take someone’s money playing poker? Anything like that?”

Purdy raised his arm and rubbed the heel of his hand hard against his forehead and eyes. “Na, nothin’ like that. I was just drinkin’. No law against that, is there?”

“No law against drinking. Some towns have laws regarding public drunkenness.”

“Public what? Drunk…ness…you callin’ me a drunk?”

“Listen to me, Mr. Purdy. The horse that was shot, does he belong to you? Do you own him?”

“I don’t own shit,” Purdy spat. “Don’t have a pot to piss in. Have to go out back when nature calls. Don’t even have an outhouse. Just a trench.”

“The horse you were riding, Purdy. The one killed. Who actually owned that animal?”

“That was one of Mr. Spencer’s. Like the one in the corral, over there. I just use ‘em to ride fence for him.”

The hand that had been rubbing Purdy’s eyes now came down to his stomach. He moved it back and forth and bent forward. Raven could see the sweat that had formed on the cowboy’s brow.

“You going to be okay, Mr. Purdy?”

He bent a bit more and grimaced, still holding his stomach. “Okay? Am I going to be okay? Hell no, I’m not going to be okay. Not when Mr. Spencer finds out one of his whites is dead?”

Raven sat erect in the saddle. “One of his whites? He has more than one?”

“Did have,” Purdy said. “Had two in the herd. Now just one. He’s going to have my ass. And I had nothin’ to do with it. Just mindin’ my own business, doin’ a little drinkin’ and…and…”

Purdy bent double, both hands went to his stomach, his mouth gaped open and he retched violently—the puke splashing his bare feet.

The sound and smell made Red jerk. Raven had to hold him still. “Might want to cut back on that drinking, Mr. Purdy. One more question.”

“Fuck your questions! I’m sick.”

“You damn sure are.”

Purdy dropped to his knees, then onto his side where he curled up in a ball hoping it would keep the knots in his stomach from tightening. Raven concluded he better finish his questioning as rapidly as possible, while the nauseous fence rider could still answer them.

“Have you seen any settlers pass this way? Or maybe seen them on the trail? A couple. Man and wife. Have you seen them?”

“No,” he managed to force out. “Ain’t seen no damn settlers. And I’m tired of seein’ you!”

“Mr. Purdy— Thanks for your time,” Raven was about to leave when Purdy bleated “Asshole lawman!” The little man tried to rise quickly, but dizziness overcame him and he stumbled off the porch and onto the ground where his head barely missed a rock the size of a spittoon. Still drunk, sick, and stupid, he picked it up and was about to hurl it at the Ranger.

“I wouldn’t do that, Mr. Purdy. You might miss me and hit Red. And if that were the case, believe me, things would not end well.”

Purdy hesitated. Said “Oh, hell.” Then dropped the rock

Raven gently tapped Red with his bootheel and rode on.

Chapter 7

It was at least a two-day ride to Presidio. A sweltering ride at a normal pace, but Raven believed he might be getting closer to answers, so he pushed Red a little harder than he ordinarily would. The Ranger would take Red into a canter for a bit, occasionally a gallop, with lots of walking in between to cool the sorrel down. He wanted to make up time. Now he thought he knew why. He hadn’t put much faith initially in the two events being mere coincidence. Now, after learning that the settlers had definitely been near the scene of each, he put even less credence in a fluke of fate. So he pushed Red hard and he knew he’d probably push him even harder tomorrow.

The first night on the trail he camped by a spring. The cold water revived him and his mount. Once Raven had removed the saddle and blanket, he rubbed the horse down—talking to him now and then as he checked each pastern, fetlock, cannon, hock, and gaskin to make sure Red’s legs were in good condition. Walking around to the front of the horse, he ran his palm down Red’s muzzle, over his nostrils and mouth, then underneath his cheeks and throat latch. Good boy, he said.

The more he calmed the animal, the more Raven felt soothed as well. He had long believed man was inexorably linked to animals. If you were cruel to beasts, Raven reasoned, you’d be cruel to human beings too. And cruelty unpunished never seemed to let up of its own accord. That’s why he went to sleep thinking about the brutality visited upon the white horses, and why he knew in his bones that it wasn’t going to stop until he stopped it.

By the time a salmon glow was clearing the horizon, Raven had been on the trail for more than an hour. At mid-morning it was obvious the sun was going to be as unforgiving as it had been for the last few days. When noon arrived, Red had already worked up a lather. Slow it down for a while, Raven told himself. We’re making ground. He drew Red to a halt. Swung out of the saddle and stepped down. Let’s walk for a while, fella. What do you say?

The more they walked, the hotter it became. Straight, hard light bounced off the cracked, dry ground, forcing Raven to squint as he peered at the emptiness in front of him. Perspiration dotted his face and sweat seeped into his eyes more than once, causing him to wipe his face with the sleeve of his shirt. Heat waves rising from the desert floor gave the horizon a shimmering, watery look. Raven knew the phenomenon gave rise to illusions. Water holes, oases, and more could spring out of men’s minds more easily than they could rise out of the dust and dirt. Men see what they want to see too often, he thought. And sometimes they see things they can’t really believe.

Now might have been one of those times.

They were just outlines at first. Black stick figures on a rippling canvas of white. But the longer Raven looked, the more the ephemeral shapes began to change from wobbly shadow to recognizable form. The scene was over a hundred yards away. It was easy to misinterpret what he was seeing, Raven thought. From that distance it appeared to be a group of individuals on horseback, all gathered around a lone tree. And, if he could believe his eyes at all, there was something hanging from the tree. A man? No. Too large. Two men? No. It appeared to be some single behemoth entity. God in Heaven, thought Raven. It is. He put his foot in the stirrup, swung up on Red’s back and kicked the horse into a full gallop.

The sound of pounding hooves made a few of the men turn to see what was approaching. They took stock of the lone rider heading their way, but then returned to the ghastly sight that had them mesmerized. Just yards from the bizarre gathering, Raven jerked hard on the reins pulling Red to a skidding stop. His eyes hadn’t deceived him. He had indeed come upon the scene of a hanging. Swinging from the massive limb of the ancient pinion oak, there was a horse—white as bleached bone.

It took a few seconds for Raven to compose himself. Then he spoke. “What the hell’s gone on here? Who’s in charge?”

A half dozen riders gathered round the tree all turned to look in one direction. The man they were looking at finally took his gaze from the atrocity overhead and slowly walked the horse he was riding through the men and up to Raven. He was older than those around him. Gray hair on his temples was visible beneath his hat. His skin was brown and lined from the sun. The hands he rested on his saddle horn showed raised veins and liver blotches. He looked Raven in the eye when he spoke.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Raven Comstock, Texas Ranger. Who are you?”

“John Spencer. These men work for me.”

“What happened here?”

“It is as you see,” Spencer began, looking back upon the abominable scene. “Early this morning one of my riders discovered the despicable act you are now witness to. He returned to the main house to tell me about it, and we followed him back here.”

Raven looked at the huge oxen still yoked to the wagon. “Are those your animals?”

“They are. Both those, and the one in the tree.”

“Do you know who did this?” Raven asked.

“No. Not yet. But I intend to find out.”

“Mr. Spencer, I understand you have a man named Purdy in you employ.”

“I do. But he wouldn’t do anything like this. Anyway, he’s been east of here for some time, over near Marfa.”

“I understand that, sir. And you’ve haven’t heard from him lately?”

“No. I haven’t but—”

“Mr. Spencer, I’m sorry to tell you this, but one of your other horses has recently been killed too.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“One of your horses that Purdy was riding, was shot in Marfa.”

“Shot? What are you talking about?”

“He was felled by a shotgun blast while Purdy was drinking in the saloon.”

Spencer looked at the Ranger incredulously. “What? Was it some kind of accident?”

“No sir. It was no accident.”

Spencer dipped his head low for a moment. Then looked back up and spoke. “You’re telling me that someone is purposely killing my stock. In these vile and hideous ways.”

“I’m not convinced it’s only your stock.”

“What do you mean? Both horses were mine.”

“Yes sir. But there was a third horse killed. A horse that had nothing to do with you. A third white horse.”

The look on Spencer’s face telegraphed comprehension. But he spoke anyway.

“So the horse Purdy had in town was my other white.”

“Afraid so.”

Spencer turned toward his men who had been watching the two since they began talking. “Brady, you and Johnson grab hold and guide those oxen. The rest of you boys get your ropes and let that horse down easy. We’ll bury him out here. He deserves that.” Turning to Raven, there was ice in Spencer’s voice as he said, “Tell me you know who’s doing this…and that you’ll stop whoever it is. Because if you don’t, I’ll find out and I’ll sure as hell put an end to it.”

“Mr. Spencer, as hard as it is, you need to leave that to me,” Raven said with authority. “I’ve got a feeling about who may be responsible. I just need to rule out a couple of things to be sure.”

“What things?”

“Can you think of any reason that anyone between here and Marfa might have it in for you. Any reason someone would be angry enough with you to do something this foul?”

“No. No reason whatsoever. I’m no Saint. But there’s no one I’ve had any trouble with for years. And even then…there was nothing that might have caused something like this.”

“Alright. Just one more thing. Do you know if you or your men have seen any settlers pass this way recently? Maybe a farmer and his wife.”

“I’m not aware of anyone. But let me ask one of the men.”

Spencer called his lead hand, Brady, and put the question to him. He answered negatively. But then he added. “Damndest thing though, Mr. Spencer…as I took a closer look at that wagon…well sir, it ain’t ours.”

“What do you mean it ain’t ours?”

“It ain’t. It looks like ours, but this one’s different. Ours has a big notch out of the back right sideboard where Davis ran it into the back of the barn. This one don’t have that. The oxen’s ours. The yoke’s ours. But that wagon…well it ain’t ours.”

“You sure,” Spencer asked.

“Positive. This one’s even got a letter carved on the back swing gate. A big J.

Got him. Raven inserted himself into the conversation. “Do you know if any of your tack…saddles, bridles…anything like that is missing?"

Brady answered, “Can’t really be sure. We all lit out for here so early this morning, I doubt that anyone’s checked.”

“What the hell does all this mean?” Spencer asked Raven.

“I believe it means the ones that I’m after are moving faster than they were before. So I need to do the same.”

“I expect to hear back from you,” Spencer said to Raven. “Or like I said, I’ll take care of this myself.”

“I understand the way you feel, Mr. Spencer. But in this part of Texas, I’m the law. I’ll see to it that the killing stops, and the guilty face what’s coming to them. You’ll be apprised once that’s done. I give you my word.” With that, Raven gave Red just enough boot heel to let him know there was no time to waste.

Editors Note: This is Part 4 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:



by Ben Niles

Speaking toward that end, what makes men of the north abide the dark? Their ruddy brows braced against the loss of a daughter to a neighbor’s lad or, worse, religion, which wall’s stone is it that lies at hand to weigh down yellowed atlases of earth and blood and wave-road, vellum smooth as swallows’ flight through rough-hewn rafter-work? They’ve kept their vision true; the new old hymns have no bearing upon their souls. * Anglo-Saxon word for a man who is of two minds


63° and Sunny

by Ben Niles

Some idea of North comes tethered to my thought of Christmas. North, whose certain morning light slants the same as in the afternoons—only with its shoulder leant to the threshold’s other side. North, where a walk is brisk and grey, with a chill that clips at the inhale, so the return home makes a wintry Ithaca of a dog’s familiar waggle, a fire, and the scent of pine needles. In the North, I can just imagine magic, its characters and props: reindeer stamping and hoofing at the frost, benevolent, nodding velveted antlers; a plump tomte—all cap and schnozz— pottering toward a boot in which to drop a gift; a single cross-cleft bell whose ring is polar and whose leather loop has golden-threaded stitchwork; and the night of stars, bright and cold, clear and silent, evocative and constant. It’s the black-vault sky that grounds me again, grounds me here, here in the South at Christmas-time, away from my headstrong northern-ness and cabled sweaters. Here, the pines below the stars are draped with Spanish moss year-round, but welcome winter’s strands of twinkling lights. Here, I imagine grinning gators draw the sleigh, winking languidly from a snowless roof. Here, the elves vay-cay in Mimfiss or in Loozy Anna, tapping toes to blues and toasting the fat man in his snazzy scarlet suit. There is a southern magic all its own; shame on me for not allowing it. I have come (quite suddenly) to realize the compass plays no part in Christmas. We travel to another tree for a magic that is not geographical.

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.


Black Dress

by Elizabeth Ricketson

My mother’s black dress. Classic in its sophistication. Basic in its purpose. Proper in its blackness. The blue-black immortal polyester fabric, 1960’s blend. Appropriate for the occasion.  The many occasions. Carefully I climb the back staircase to my studio while balancing a hot cup of coffee. The first cup. Relishing the daily ritual nearly as much as the first sip. Hickory floorboards greet me as I enter my studio. It’s 3 am. The world sleeps but I can’t rest. I cannot. The desk chair creaks in protest. I reach across my desk to switch on my grandfather’s brass lamp. The familiar green globes glow warmly. Light illuminates misplaced silver pliers. I rest my chin in the palm of my right hand while staring through the darkness. A shroud of emptiness envelopes my small yellow house on the hill. Not sure what I thought I would see.  My great-grandmother’s delicate platinum engagement ring spins lightly on my right finger, reminding me of a woman whose name I share, Elizabeth. I knew her in her last years only. Blind and bedridden. I would brush her snowy white hair. Ponytails fashioned with inexperience. Staring back at me with fading blue eyes never seeing the details of my face. Just a shadowed silhouette, like the figures I now paint. I remember waiting for the school bus one morning many years ago.  Red and white lights flashed, and sirens wailed as an ambulance approached our house. Not a bus. My great-grandmother had fallen. Easily, she bled. A gash on her head seemed to drain her long frail body. Bed sheets soaked in scarlet. Skin paper-thin, torn before impact. Blind and bedridden she lived with us. Died, too. All day at school my imagination carouseled. Nightmarish. My focus, forgotten. I rested my head on cradled arms supported by my school desk. Tears puddled on the laminate while my fragile heart anxiously awaited dismissal.  The bus ride home, long. My small body quaked against the vibration of the hard, green-cushioned seat. I sat as tall as possible as if the perfection of my posture would get me home faster. Nerves twisted and fired with every jolt of the bus. Brakes squealed to a halt. The doors opened and with the usual explosion of relief down the first two stairs I flew. That early autumn day I leapt from the bus into something new. Scorching up the tarred driveway I threw open the louvered glass breezeway door and paused in the three-season room.  The black dress was hanging on our clothesline, near but not with the usual laundry items. Separate in its unspoken priority. More care had been taken in pinning this dress. Squares of muslin provided protection between the fabric and the marks of wooden clothespins. The sheets and pillowcases gracefully floated on a late September breeze while the weight of the black dress kept it nearly static.  Struck by the warmth of our small tidy kitchen and surrounded by knotty pine cabinets I stood frozen on the linoleum floor.  My mother turned from the sink with a dish towel in her right hand while tears streamed down her face. She always found a certain comfort in household chores. Turning in my direction she knelt. Opening her arms to rescue me from the news. “Ma” has passed away, she softly whispered as if to lessen the hurt.     Sitting in my art studio, my hands are now stiff with arthritis. I often massage the years of overuse by employing my right thumb in a grinding motion against the palm of my left hand and vice versa. Hoping for relief as my anticipated workday will soon begin. Rheumatoid arthritis had crippled my great-grandmother’s body. Her long slender fingers arthritically folded flat against her palms. Will my weakened hands understand the same fate? Art would be impossible, and my life would follow. Blind and bedridden she lived with us, died too. Passed away. I would experience our traditions, religious and otherwise, around death for the first time at age nine. Two days of calling hours both afternoon and evening. A funeral mass day three, and early in the morning.  We arrived for the first viewing. My initiation. The funeral home’s heavy varnished black wooden door stonily opened. The funeral director looming. Greeting my family with some urgency. My heart began to beat in pace with his cloaked eagerness. We quickly moved into the foyer while stepping across the worn, dark carpet. Colors now muted by the many mourners. Stained too. Men in dark suits and Brylcreemed hair were dressed in an off-putting perfection. Offering us guidance with our coats. Directions. The well-practiced acknowledgements for a grieving family. I was yet to fully understand.  I stretched my frightened view from around the far side of my mother’s black dress to see where we were headed. To find the great grandmother I loved and had just read to a few days ago. A woman moaned. Loudly, she began to wail. I remember shivering looking for Ma. She was unrecognizable. White flowers. Everywhere. Pungent smells. A white satin sash adorned with gold lettering spelled “grandmother” decorated a large arrangement of lilies. My mother reached for my small hand. Looking from the foyer into the visitation room I glimpsed the wailing gypsy. Seated alone in the back row of the empty parlor. Skin dark. Even darker than my Italian relatives. Wearing a hat and dress as unfamiliar as the woman who wore it. Eyes tightly closed. A white handkerchief crumpled and tightly held in her hand. Rhythmically she moved. Rocking. Back and forth. Wails increasingly louder on the exhale. Her identity, unknown. I whispered to my mother. Why is she here?  Where were those Brylcreemed men to help, I wondered. With a hurried tug of my hand, we moved in silence to the front of the casket. A wooden kneeler complete with a brown leather cushion was appropriately positioned. My mother gracefully began to kneel, easing her right knee gently down onto the bench while adjusting the hem of her black dress. Her left knee quietly followed. Just that morning I had sat on her bed and watched her remove the black dress from a cloth-covered hangar. Cautiously unzipping it. She slipped and shimmied it over her hips. Skillfully protecting her perfectly coiffed frosted hair while careful not to smudge her Avon lipstick. Sliding the dress smoothly into place over her matching black silk slip. Her dark hose and black heels were already on. She was beautiful. My height made me equal to Ma’s still body. Paralyzed I stood. My head was tortured by the view. Uncertain as to why, I knelt beside her. Ma’s torso now within reach. Her arthritic hands had been straightened. Right over left. Pale pink Rosary beads were strategically draped. Averting my eyes, I turned to mimic my mother. Her small hazel eyes were closing. With her first three fingers she softly recited “Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.” “Amen.” Her forehead then rested in her hands while her elbows offered support. Small stains of red lipstick smudged her perfectly white teeth as she softly prayed. Whispers of “Our Father who art in heaven” continued while the wailing gypsy’s foreign moans drowned out my mother’s prayerful words. I could barely breathe. I was afraid of Ma for the first time. Ever. Would she move? Could she move? Where had she gone? My focus, fixated on the floral pattern of her dress and the delicate pearl buttons that rested easily against her stillness. I had never seen her in this dress. In any dress. Housecoats and slippers only. My body was nearly as rigid as Ma’s. My eyes volunteered to move yet resisted. Struggling to understand this demon called death I hoped for answers from Ma. She would surely tell me. Ma loved me. Why would she leave me? She remained quiet. Unresponsive. Needing to know, I looked. Her silky straight white hair now tightly curled and tinged yellow. Thick matte make-up covered her delicate porcelain skin. Painted orangey-red lips sewn silent. Tears overwhelmed me. As my mother finished mouthing three Hail Mary’s with tear filled eyes, she turned to me. Ushering me away from the casket she led me to a gray metal folding chair.  I sat silently and obediently in the front row with my older brother and sister next to me. All views led back to the casket. The magnetic pull of the macabre. I cast my eyes downward toward the burgundy carpet. My head snapped back. Ma’s image was reflected on my black patent leather Mary Janes. I could see nothing else. There was no place to rest. I pushed back on starting my workday. I stayed immersed in the embraceable quiet. The waning darkness weighed heavily outside the sanctity of my warmly lit studio. Wanting to remain untouched by the exhausting demands made certain by daylight. I stole one more moment and then another. However, the work, my work, refused to be ignored any longer. I reluctantly rose from my desk chair. One of the soft white light bulbs began to blink. I was not alone in aging this early morning. Annoyed, I switched it off. Barefoot, I made my way across the cool wooden floor to my paints. I reached for a tube of yellow ochre. A few Sennelier tubes also. Utrecht white titanium and raw umber. I used to slip on my latex gloves before opening cadmiums. I shrugged, remembering how concerned I once was about the heavy metals in them. Was I working smarter these days, or did I worry less? I continued to forage through the tubes in an organized disorganized manor. I tossed rejected colors from one spot to another in search of whatever. I stacked the selected tubes on a well-worn oak stool in front of my easel. My mother had purchased it for me a lifetime ago. I tore off a large sheet of gray palette paper and placed it on a makeshift table to my right. Color reads true on gray. A twelve by three-inch plank of rough plywood loosely balances on two high metal stools. It is not unsteady, but it is not secure either.  Vivid blobs of paint quickly appeared. Neutrals too. A familiar assembly line of color dotted the shiny paper. Habit and subconscious had once again dictated the confines of routine choices. The adventure ahead required maximizing a random yet simple palette. It thrilled me. The possibilities of the day had begun to visually unfold.  Painted canvases fill my studio, comforting me in the low light of early morning. Varying degrees of completion provide a certain energy. Fatigue, too. Images of faceless dancers mirror back. A series of dancers in their reflective moments line my studio walls. A dancer’s body, strength and grace in equal measure. Controlled effortlessness. Beauty in motion. Their faces, blank by design, still emoted. Dancers in isolation. Offstage. Backstage.  I reach for a near-empty tube of Mars black. Just enough left for the day’s effort. The perfect blackness of my mother’s dress swims in my imagination. The depth of its darkness would be compositionally transformed. Highlighted in lavender. A dancer’s tutu. My weakened hands are unable to budge the paint-hardened, sealed acrylic cap. The frustration and inconvenience of an aging body. Pausing, I scan the table near my easel for my pair of pliers. Pliers now have a permanent place in my studio. Necessary as any brush. Resting on the small pine worktable next to a tape measure they mock me. An inanimate object now holds the power. My diminishing strength relies on them. 


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 6—

Bartleby & Co.

Enrique Vila-Matas . 2000


Lest you’ve forgotten that my list of 150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime is entirely subjective, I give to you: Bartleby & Co., a brilliant discourse on literature, the writing of it, and the not writing of it. You might call the novel experimental fiction, as it purports to be simply a collection of footnotes to an invisible text potentially “held in suspension in the literature of the next millennium.” It’s at least a witty and playful look at writers and authors throughout world literature who wrote and then stopped writing, or who wrote about the difficulties of writing, or who at a certain point—like Melville’s character Bartleby the scrivener—would simply “prefer not to” write anymore. I’ll admit: I have a soft spot in my literary heart for non-linear narratives, metafiction, and fragmentary writing. Thus, there are a handful of selections on this list of 150 great novels that might fit such categories (although fitting into categories is precisely what those types of novels tend to elude). No matter what, Bartleby & Co. is clever, thought-provoking, and fun, and you may just come out of it with a reading list of works that—thankfully—were indeed written.



The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas . 1846


A grand tale of wrongful imprisonment and delayed retribution, The Count of Monte Cristo is a true classic of French and world literature. On one hand, that pretty much sums it up! On the other, there is far more to Dumas’s novel, and I don’t just mean because it’s 1,200 pages long. Some might contend that if you read only one Dumas novel, it should be The Three Musketeers, but I maintain that The Count of Monte Cristo is more than worthy of your time. First of all, there’s the intrigue of poor Edmond Dantès being falsely accused of treason and jailed without a trial, and his subsequent resolve to discover the identity of his accusers. Then there’s the prison itself, the notorious Château d’If, a real fortress off the coast of Marseilles, with a reputation of being escape-proof given the forceful currents around the island. Add in some intel that Dantès receives from a fellow inmate about a massive treasure to be claimed on another island called Monte Cristo, and you begin to understand who the Count thereof might be, and why he ends up navigating Parisian high society seeking vengeance on particular gentlemen…. Intrigue? Treasure? Revenge? Allez!



In Cold Blood

Truman Capote . 1965


The fact that In Cold Blood is labeled a non-fiction novel makes me hesitate not at all to include it on this list of great (predominantly fiction) novels. Truman Capote’s passion project took him six years to complete, after extensive research, copious notes, time spent speaking through jail bars with the perpetrators of the horrific crime at the core of the book, and interviews with friends, family, and fellow townsfolk of the victims and the murderers. An early exemplar of New Journalism as a genre, and a foundational “true crime” work, In Cold Blood takes an unflinching look at the quadruple murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, at the hands of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, as well as their trial, conviction, and eventual execution. Capote began writing the story before the killers were even apprehended, so part of the book’s enduring effect is the sense of real-time development, with real people, real investigative challenges, real emotions, and stunningly real empathy and drama. What seems unreal is the brutal nature of the seemingly motiveless crime, but Capote’s meticulous craftsmanship and poignant prose form an incredible piece of art depicting an equally incredible snapshot of reality.



The Secret History

Donna Tartt . 1992


Donna Tartt’s first novel is not the book that won her a Pulitzer Prize, and The Goldfinch was indeed a candidate for inclusion on my list of great novels. Its absence shouldn’t imply that The Goldfinch isn’t great; I just happen to think that The Secret History is greater. Set in a fictionalized version of Bennington College, the small Vermont liberal arts school Tartt herself attended in the mid-80s, The Secret History follows a constellation of six classics students and their professor, whose affecting charisma and enviable intellect elevate the students up and above the quotidian existence of their peers and strengthens the group’s bonds to each other, as well as to the subtly controlling professor himself. It’s the newest member of the group, Richard, who is still circumspect enough to notice oddities of behavior among the group, and it’s Richard who functions as our narrator, leading us down a dark rehashing of a story whose attendant personae might as well be Mnemosyne and Melpomene. (And they’re the goddess of Memory and the muse of Tragedy, for those keeping score at home.) It’s a modern college campus mystery story with classically tragic undertones, a history whose secret is worth uncovering.



The Trial

Franz Kafka . 1925


Imagine not only being suddenly detained and made to stand trial for a crime you didn’t commit, but then also never being allowed to know anything about the supposed offense for which you must defend yourself. Such is the harrowing existential predicament Josef K. faces in Franz Kafka’s posthumously published masterwork. Nearing the end of his life, Kafka famously wrote his friend and literary executor Max Brod, insisting that all of his unpublished material be “burned unread.” Had Brod taken Kafka at his word, we’d have been deprived not just of The Trial but also Kafka’s other novels, The Castle and Amerika, not to mention his diaries, letters, and many stories—that is, those he hadn’t already destroyed as a result of his devastatingly low confidence in his talent. Perhaps even the term ‘Kafkaesque’ would never have been popularized either, and we wouldn’t have that perfect word to characterize those moments in life that are darkly incomprehensible, agonizingly complicated, and menacingly dreadful. The Trial has been deemed a parable or an allegory; at base, it is an unsettling rendering of the dangers of senseless bureaucracy and unyielding, uncaring authority. It’s not a stress-free read, but it’s certainly a classic.


[cover photo: Pamela Manché Pearce]


Grailing No. 9

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