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Heresy of Truth

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

reviewed by Dale Peck’

A work of literature has no value until it enters what my friend and fellow novelist Calvin Baker calls “the cultural conversation.” Before it’s published, a manuscript is just so much kindling (or more likely, a few hundred kilobytes of data, smaller than an mp3 or a jpeg of your new puppy). A book itself is a closed box only incidentally filled with words—a doorstop, a replacement for the broken leg of a couch—until it’s finally opened and read, interpreted, argued about, passed on. It’s an anxious business, not just for writers, but for readers as well. In the twentieth century, an increasingly self-aware bourgeoisie demanded a greater say in what it should read (as opposed to what it would read, where the taste for sex and violence has remained unsated since Paris ran off with Helen, and Achilles dragged Hector’s corpse thrice ’round the walls of Troy). Academics and critics, fellow writers and privileged patrons, talk show hosts and bloggers and the mass of ordinary readers represented by the phrase “the New York Times bestseller” participate in an increasingly populist (and increasingly unruly) parliament, anointing a few books literature while the rest remain mere poetry or fiction, memoir or history.

Occasionally these opinions converge with reverberations that extend beyond the world of letters: the resurrection of Moby-Dick, say, or the deferential haze shrouding Ulysses. Such instances are proof, if any were needed, that the process of canonization isn’t always timely, nor is it foolproof: memoirist and novelist Dave Eggers, despite a manifest lack of talent, has become the center of a dwindling but persistent clan that follows him with the blind fervor of ClayMates, while The Da Vinci Code, a book whose leaden prose makes Eggers’s writing seem positively euphonious, is less a novel than a cottage industry, one that just happens to be a worth a few billion dollars. At such moments we would do well to remember that literature—in which category The Da Vinci Code and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius belong, however much we may wish it weren’t so—is a fundamentally irrational enterprise, one whose psychological exigency is undisputed even as its social utility remains the subject of fretful contention. It is for precisely this reason that the critical process is often more concerned with a writer’s place in society than the meaning of his books. Kurt Vonnegut railed (ineffectually, and quite possibly disingenuously) against the “sweetly faked attention” with which his writing has been cultishly misread since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five almost forty years ago, while J.D. Salinger ultimately felt compelled to flee readers who had come to revere him as a quasi-religious crusader against “phoniness.” “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote at the beginning of The White Album, yet this is the one sentiment that seems to have escaped critical exploration in the reaction to The Year of Magical Thinking, not just because it’s voyeuristic or unquantifiable, but because it’s irrelevant. As horrific as such a sentiment must seem to a culture that esteems individual expression over ethical behavior, Didion’s memoir is no longer her book. It is her readers’, to make of what they will.

As with Salinger—or, if you want to dress it up a bit, Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo, Bola Tangkas—Thomas Pynchon avoids public exposure, but in his case the performance is precisely that: a bit of theater, half serious, half in jest. From his “isolation” he’s written liner notes for the band Lotion, blurbed a few writers, and faxed answers to at least one interviewer (and of course “guest starred,” Unknown Comic–style, on two episodes of The Simpsons). He also makes his home in Manhattan, so his anonymity must be seen as a media creation as much as his own, a handshake, if we can invoke the patrician world from which both the writer and the publishing industry originally hail, between gentlemen. More to the point, the author’s career is no less the creation of the media than his pen. When Gravity’s Rainbow appeared in 1973, it achieved instant totemic status, rendering Pynchon one of America’s most charitably—i.e., poorly—read contemporary novelists, by which I mean that the significance ascribed to his famously hyperbolic evocations of entropy and paranoia and ungovernable paraphilias, of mathematics and metempsychosis and other phenomena both mundane and mystical, so far exceeds what actually exists on the page that uninitiated readers often feel they’re being punk’d by the literary establishment. At least part of the establishment agrees: though Pynchon won the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow, the advisory board of the Pulitzer Prize overturned the decision of its own judges, calling the novel “overwritten” and “unreadable.”

Pynchon touches tangentially on this in the introduction to his 1984 collection of “early stories,” Slow Learner: “My best hope is that, pretentious, goofy, and ill-considered as they get now and then, these stories will still be of use with all their flaws intact, as illustrative of typical problems of entry level fiction.” Excluding the words “now and then,” this modest (and surprisingly readable) statement pretty much characterizes my feelings toward the entirety of Pynchon’s ouevre. To what “use” the stories in Slow Learner are to be put, however, is never said. Are they merely of interest to critics and fans interested in the “problems of entry level fiction”? Or are they also for the more general reader, who tends to regard a book as a discrete entity, of “use” not for what it promises but for what it is? Pynchon’s early fiction—by which I mean not just the stories but all his work up to and including Mason and Dixon—exhibits a fantastically unfettered imagination, an undeniable brilliance in both wordplay and subject matter, and a consciousness that, however “unpolitical” the writer himself once characterized it, is strongly attuned to the most socially engaged of the cardinal virtues, justice—none of which prevents it from being simultaneously willfully obtuse, emotionally closed, pointlessly overwrought, and almost stunningly banal. It was also not very funny, the jokes coming at the expense of themselves, if not the reader. And yet, after more than four decades of laborious progression through the “apprentice” and “journeyman” stages of his craft, Pynchon has at last fulfilled his promise, syncretizing his various preoccupations and taming sentences he once described as “too fancy to read.” Against the Day, the author’s seventh book, stands as the crowning achievement of his or indeed any career.

And now a confession, quite possibly superfluous:

At the time my copy of Against the Day arrived, I was reading a single-volume history of the world—the Big Bang through 9/11 in just under 1200 pages, which is to say, just a hundred pages or so longer than Thomas Pynchon’s seventh book, which spans the years 1893 through 1920 or so. This seemed to me the perfect starting point for a review whose original thesis, formulated before the novel even showed up, ran something like this: “Thomas Pynchon is the most talented living American writer, yet his self-indulgence has prevented him from ever writing a good book.” Imagine my surprise, then, when I cracked the cover, smirked my way past the epigram from Thelonious Monk (“It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light”), noted the avalanche of typically improbable names on the first two pages (Randolph St. Cosmo, Lindsay Noseworth, Miles Blundell, Darby Suckling, Chick Counterfly, and Pugnax, a dog who reads Henry James), and immediately found myself sucked into a story that melded narrative genres—boy’s adventure stories, science fiction, the Western—into a balanced, taut, enticing, and often extraordinarily moving dialogue with the very thing I had set aside in order to read it: history. And yes, it’s funny too.

History, of course, has long been Pynchon’s preferred subject—or, if you will, his preferred lens—and Against the Day is another link in a chain stretching from the pre-Revolutionary trackers of Mason and Dixon to the dawn of Cold War paranoia in Gravity’s Rainbow and on through the counterculture elegized in Vineland, creating what now appears to be an exploration of evolving notions of freedom, both individual and (let us use the word, quite possibly against the author’s will) political. Nearly every critic has mentioned the difficulty of summarizing its plot because of its digressiveness; chances are if you’re reading such a late review, you’re already familiar with at least the names: the Traverse kin, Frank, Reef, Kit and daughter Lake, who marries Deuce Kindred, one of the two killers of her father, Webb Traverse, aka the Kieselghur Kid, a terrorist who dynamites mining operations in Colorado, and whose murder is commissioned by Scarsdale Vibe, a technologically minded plutocrat/fascist on the order of Henry Ford; The Chums of Chance (enumerated above), who travel the world in the zeppelin Inconvenience, investigating such phenomena as æther, Iceland spar, “Tesla devices” that might or might not be responsible for the Tunguska Event in 1908, and time machines that allow beings called Trespassers to journey to the Chums’ present, where it is feared they will steal resources to bring back to their own depleted era (nudge, nudge); and the Rideouts, Merle, a photograher, Erlys, who left to marry a traveling magician named Luca Zombini, and their daughter Dally, who shares a flirtation with Kit Traverse aboard the Hapsburg ocean liner Stupendica—that is, until it splits into a second ship, the Emperor Maximilian, which sales off on its own distinct temporal trajectory.

As my far-from-complete summary indicates, the narrative in Against the Day grows out of the author’s themes and intellectual pursuits, in direct violation of the writing school (or, for that matter, Aristotelian) dictum that even a fantastical narrative must follow certain rules, avoiding deus ex machina manipulations of plot for the sole purpose of making a point (or often, in Pynchon’s case, avoiding one). In fact, what this particular bit of common wisdom in fact states is that a fantastical narrative must first establish its rules and then follow them, and this Pynchon surely does; they are merely rules that many readers don’t truck with, because they place no outer boundary on where, when or how the novel’s narrative might proceed. The reader is required to treat each digression, however unbelievable, and each observation, however arcane, as equally important (or equally irrelevant) until he reads the last page and can decide how it fit into the larger scheme. Such an experience is grueling only if you think of it in Joycean terms, as though each aspect of the novel were part of a hermetic puzzle that will eventually resolve into a single entity. Pynchon’s approach is fast and loose by comparison, half planned, half intuitive—a risky approach whose success or failure depends entirely on execution. I wouldn’t have thought any contemporary writer could pull it off, least of all this one; yet every word-filled page has the splendor of the Great Wall of China, providing the reader with a sense of just how large the finite world truly is, how majesterial an object can be produced by an activity as mundane as bricklaying. We once called such experiences of manmade grandeur “sublime,” a concept that’s been more or less subsumed by the sentimental lionizing of the Internet, whose vastness, though immeasurelessly larger than the lost library of Alexandria, is nevertheless diminished by the mediating aid of search engines. Pynchon’s universe, however, isn’t Googleable, nor can it be Wiki’d if it is to be truly comprehended. It must be navigated sequentially, one word at a time, and only through that banal, methodical, ageless labor can we experience the grandness and generosity of his vision. Reading the novel isn’t simply a semantic or aesthetic experience: it is meditive, and quite possibly transcendental. It must be felt in order to be understood.

There are writers who see the world as it is, and then there are writers like Pynchon, who see the world as we live in it, which is less a place than an experience of a place, one that is mediated by the collective sum of human experience: not history, but culture itself. Against the Day’s numerous instances of doubling (the Stupendica and Emperor Maximillian, for example, or Drs. Renfrew and Werfner, British and German scientists with a fierce animus toward each other) and lenses (the most important, the aforementioned iceland spar, refracts any object seen through it into two distinct images, each of which is real) reinforce this trope. Broadly speaking, historical fiction falls into two categories: romance (what if…?) and tragedy (hindsight is 20/20). The appeal of both approaches is more or less self-evident, as are the limitations, and they’re basically the same thing: historical fiction reminds us of something we’ve lost—a powerful and important memorial that all too often effaces the thing it attempted to invoke. It is only too easy to forget that everything in an historical novel is a lie (except for the facts, which, technically speaking, aren’t part of the fiction at all), but, rather than run from this trap, Pynchon plays right into it, pouring on the sentimental re-creations of daily life (i.e., the sort of stuff that makes historical fiction such a good read), only to burst the fictive bubble with absurd passages that can’t be rationally incorporated into any notion of the period under review. In other words, Pynchon writes both kinds of historical fiction at once. We might think of Plato’s worlds of becoming and being—to which Pynchon, audacious trickster that he is, adds a third category: the world of what might have been. What the past might (or might not) have been, but also what the future—i.e., our present—might have been, and might still some day become, if we learn to understand historical chains of events as not merely causally related phenomena, but products of unspoken, often unacknowledged human desires. “Understand,” of course, is a tricky word, for it contains both rational and irrational components, as this passage, spoken by one of the time-traveling Trespassers, makes clear:

We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate…. [415]

And so we come to the real problem of Against the Day: not its text, which is pretty much perfect, but the context into which it’s been published. Critics have always tried to make Pynchon’s work appear socially engaged, because that’s what art is supposed to do, at least in the bourgeois conception. The truth is novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason and Dixon are more concerned with escaping the restrictions of everyday life than investigating them, but an ambivalence—Pynchon is nothing if not a product of the bourgeoisie—hampers this flight, just as it mars the work of Pynchon’s heirs, who, like their master, can neither depict reality accurately nor offer something purely fictional in its place. To me, Against the Day is the first of Pynchon’s novels bold enough to posit the real world as the lens through which it views the ineffable human condition—what Pynchon himself called, in the introduction to Slow Learner, “an attitude toward death”—rather than the other way around. Yet ironically enough, when the writer has at last managed to perfect his technique, critics see only self-parody and self-indulgence.

“There is the feeling that the magician has fallen in love with his own stunts,” Louis Menand wrote almost contritely in the New Yorker, “as though Pynchon were composing a pastiche of a Pynchon novel.” The Times’ Michiko Kakutani was less conflicted, declaring Against the Day “the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes,” an opinion Laura Miller took a step further: “Slogging through the underbrush of the vast and quintessentially Pynchonian new Thomas Pynchon novel,” Miller pontificates in Salon, “it’s hard not to think, almost with the turning of every page, of all the other writers who now do this better.” Tom LeClair, an academic writing in Bookforum, reminds us that “Pynchonian” also entails “Pynchonists,” i.e., “fetishizing collectors of P-trivia,” whom LeClair imagines as the only readers who will finish Against the Day, let alone like it. Confessing that he has taught “nearly all of Pynchon’s novels to unwilling undergrads and grads,” LeClair almost reluctantly characterizes Against the Day as “a giant bag of imaginative hot air,” only to conclude with this moving (if slightly perverse) postscript: “I hope I’m wrong. I hope some future scholar will read the novel twenty times and either illustrate how it recapitulates the whole history of narrative or demonstrate how every piece fits together into a fourfold design that will replace four-base genetics as the model of all life.” The truth, of course, is that Pynchon has been guilty of precisely the crimes of parodic self-indulgence his critics accuse him of here, and that, as LeClair’s review makes clear, this is precisely what they’ve always wanted from him: the excessive Pynchon, the obscure Pynchon, the quintessential Pynchon. Such self-contradictory cavils lead one to wonder if Against the Day’s reviewers are actually reading the new book, or if they’re merely reading “a Pynchon novel”—if what’s really happened is a retroactive interpretative fatigue that now seems too onerous to bear. Forty years, after all, is a long time to do a writer’s work for him, and Pynchon’s critics are hardly the first people to find the treasure not worth the effort it took to find it.

Well. Part of me wants to label Pynchon the boy who cried wolf, and blame him for the failure for his latest novel to be seen as anything more than another false declaration, just as part of me wants to accuse Pynchon’s reviewers of a case of the emperor’s new clothes, incapable of seeing anything but what they’ve been told to see. But both accusations are, in light of the present accomplishent, irrelevant. With Beloved, Blood Meridian and a handful of other novels, Against the Day stands as one of the few works of literature published during my lifetime that manages to confound reductive exegesis without resorting to meaningless blather. It almost sounds like I’m writing as if Pynchon were already dead, though for all we know he has another, better book in him. I hope so, because the day grows darker by the moment, and we need more of the light this novel offers.

Caretaker

Chapter 1


The Past Is Prologue,
This Life but Preparation for the Grave

It was the third dry spring in a row, though only the Wyandot knew it at the time. The Wyandot said the white man pushed in like kanuma, the whirling wind that comes from the east rather than the west and brings with it tears rather than rain. The pioneers showed up in ones and twos, in families, in ported communities, on foot or horseback or ox-drawn wagon. Their heavily shod feet and iron-bound wheels chewed up the dry grass until the soil of the prairie began to blow away in great clouds of dust. The clouds blew east, as if the newcomers were replacing the land, displacing it—out of dust, flesh, as they said had happened in the beginning. In their beginning. Everything fled before the encroaching tide of pioneers as before a grass fire: wolf and bison, coyote and antelope, and, finally, the rain itself.

Many years earlier, the Wyandot had been driven by the Iroquois from their home along the shores of Karegnondi, the freshwater sea the French would rename Lake Huron. The Iroquois hounded them for hundreds of miles until the Wyandot finally settled in the Ohio Territory, only to “sell” their land to pioneers breaching the Alleghenies and set out again. It was said that the Omaha and Pawnee, the dominant tribes in the Platte River Valley, had themselves come from somewhere else, that the Winnebago and Oto and even the Lakota had emigrated to these plains from one place or another. For years the white man had passed through as well, enroute to the fabled western sea and the gold that was said to line its rivers like gravel. It was an in-between land: even the Wyandot only intended to catch their breath for a generation or two, to recover from the wars and diseases that had decimated their numbers before pushing on in search of a more hospitable home. Green rather than brown. Shaded rather than open and exposed. The oldest among them still spoke of plush mountains, endless forests that painted the cliffs in brilliant reds and golds every autumn and clean cold water that gushed freely from the earth, exposing red-brown rock faces as lined as the cheeks of the elders whose wisdom had guided them here. The elders said that beyond this vast grassy plain—immense, yes, but not endless—were more mountains, higher than those they’d left behind. But the youngsters already had eyes as flat as this land, a gaze that shrank from the limitless horizon to the ground a step or two in front of their feet. Three days’ walking in the direction of the sunrise would bring you to the heart of Omaha territory, the stream-laced hills that fed the silted Missouri; two days south lay the broad, quicksand eddies of the Platte, the border of the Pawnee nation. But in this empty wedge of land forsaken by the two great rivers, the water sheltered underground, and the trees hid in hollows rather than twist up like an old woman’s fingers on what passed for high ground. True, the soil was good: the corn, once sowed, shot up while the tribe was away during the summer hunts, the beans and squash kept the joints supple in winter. And then of course there were the bison, whose numberless undulating backs conveyed a glimpse of tidal lakes left far behind. But it was a hard land, which was why the Omaha and Pawnee didn’t fight each other for it, or fight the Wyandot when they arrived. It was a land you could live on, but it was not a land you would die for, and it was with pity as much as trepidation that the Wyandot greeted the pioneers as they trickled in. It never occurred to them that the newcomers actually wanted to be here.

But this was not the gold rush, it was the land grab, and these were not sojourners, but homesteaders. The stunned look on their faces suggested that this seemingly barren plain (they went so far as to name it the Great American Desert) was not exactly what they’d been led to expect. In truth, they seemed helpless to the Wyandot, at the very least ill-suited to the exigencies of life on the range. In particular, when the sun shone on their pale skin for too long it burned red and blistered off like a snake’s—which must be why, the Wyandot thought, they had such an aversion to water. The homesteaders let the dirt sit on their skin as though it afforded protection against the sun’s rays, and it tested the Wyandot’s powers of hospitality to invite them into their earthlodges, where the smell of their unwashed bodies festered beneath the fragrant meat- and pipe smoke like a skunk circling a nested hen. The lodges were something the Wyandot had learned to build from the Pawnee, and the thick insulating walls, though darker than the longhouses they had once known, kept them warm all through the winter. During the summer hunt they lived in teepees, and the same cedar poles that held the tanned bison hides overhead could be taken down and fashioned into travois in order to follow the herds. The Wyandot thought to impart these and other aspects of life under local conditions to the homesteaders, but the newcomers seemed to have no interest in accommodating themselves to the land. At first they slept in their wagons rather than build teepees, despite the fact that the big bells of fabric that covered their rickety vehicles caught the incessant wind and rocked all night and all day; in heavier gales, they fell over on their sides. Desperate, the homesteaders dug holes in the ground and thatched them with grass and mud into covered pits that seemed more suited to muskrats than men. They burned dung for fuel and accumulated great heaps of it, enormous brown mounds stacked just outside their doors and indistinguishable from the houses themselves. Inside their dung heaps they shivered in soft, thin, malodorous garments, and prayed to survive the winter.

ξ

Some survived, but not all. The first to die died the very first winter. Charles Burton McAllister was a rich man: his hole, three miles from the main encampment, was covered not with thatch but precious wood—battened boards on the walls, clinkered shingles on the roof. Though he claimed to have a wife and children awaiting word to join him, at the time of his death he shared his one-room palace with nothing but a hog. But only he was there when the settlers sent a delegation to check on him after he missed Sunday services. The settlers would have liked to believe that the cold had done in the stiff body, but the absence of the hog testified against that.

It was a simple enough matter to find the animal in another of the covered half cellars that passed for farmhouses—vetted, gutted, butchered, the hams smoking over damp boards that had been taken from McAllister’s own walls—and on a bitterly cold January morning the settlers dragged Wilson Lamb from the tick mattress he huddled in with his wife and led him to a sunless hollow (but only after they had filled their rumbling stomachs with some of the meat for which Lamb had killed his fellow man). There, in the shadow of the common building the settlers had erected to house their somber religious ceremonies, they forced him to dig his victim’s grave. Lamb cut a pathetic figure in his stained union suit and wide-brimmed hat. He was a skinny, bowed-over man with a face that bore a weasely, carnivorous cast, despite his gentle name. The shovel he was given broke on the frozen ground so a pickaxe was sent for, and even as he swung it Lamb protested his innocence, alternately claiming that McAllister had gifted the animal to him or that he had found McAllister dead and taken the hog because it wouldn’t do a corpse no good. His guards were deaf to his protestations. Each instead counted the others, silently divvying up his share of the stolen meat. They ringed the condemned man like a Druid’s circle, swaddled in coats, blankets, scraps of fabric, strips of leather, anything that might stand between them and the icy needles of the wind. Fiscal Baxter, the owner of the general store, used his son Harold, on the pretext of shielding the boy from the very thing he had brought him out to see, and so it was Harold who saw the approaching Indians.

The Wyandot had sent an old man, to signify wisdom, and a young boy, to show the peacefulness of their intention, and through his young interpreter the sage explained to the settlers that the flinty soil the digger’s axe rang against wasn’t normally so dry. For several years the rain had forsaken this area, the old man said. He did not mention that the rain had left when the settlers arrived, but said only that it would return eventually, and when it did this low ground would become swampy and pestilent. He pointed to the brittle, naked tentacles of a stunted willow as proof of the true nature of the patch of ground the digger struck at with his axe. They should take their dead elsewhere.

Ansen Wright, whose farm abutted the burial place, and who was not so happy about its chosen location, was inclined to listen to the Indians. But Wright could see from the frozen faces of the men around him that they were not so amenable to anything that would keep them from their homes, and so he stood as silent as his compatriots while Lamb swung his pickaxe through the bitter cold. Tears and snot smeared the condemned man’s cheeks, freezing there and falling off as little crystals of ice. On the hillock behind the huddled group, the sharp steeple of the white-painted building cut the sky like an inverted icicle.

The ground is for planting things, the old Wyandot said through his interpreter. What do you expect to grow from this seed?

The settlers didn’t answer. When Lamb’s axe struck the frozen ground it rang like the tolling of the thin bell they used to summon each other to the building on the hill.

You must burn the body, the old man persisted. Burn it to release the soul. Not smother it in a cage of soil.

Finally James Lansing leveled his gun at the Indians. Lansing was the youngest save Harold Baxter among the guards (he had given his age as sixteen so as to qualify for his own parcel of land, though in truth he was only fourteen, as near as he could reckon anyway), and now he asked the Indians if four holes rather than two needed digging. Without another word, the old man and young boy left.

Lamb’s pickaxe continued to chip away at the frozen earth. Soon enough his handful of guards had grown too cold even to shift from one foot to the other. Fiscal Baxter positioned Harold to windward and clove the pale boy to his backside in a way that later generations would have found morally suspect, and before the accused man was halfway finished with the first grave the ring of men had come to tacit agreement that there would be only the one hole. When nothing save Lamb’s head was visible over the lip of the grave, Uriah Templeton, the pastor of the church on the hill and the closest approximation of a mayor that this approximation of a town had to offer, stepped to the edge of the earth, and he was contemplating whether to pluck the hat from Lamb’s head before shooting him—it was a good thick leathern affair, and Templeton’s hairless skull was ill-served by the turbanlike wrapping salvaged from his wagon’s canvas covering—when a different sound echoed out of the deep hole. A metallic ding, not hollow but solid, as of steel striking tempered steel.

The sound rang fearfully through Templeton’s head and body, as if God Himself had placed an ice-cold finger atop the pastor’s brain and driven him like a tent spike into the ground.

What the—

Lamb’s voice floated into the open air, only to be cut off by the reflexive retort of Templeton’s rifle. The bullet pierced hat and fontanel, passed out the open mouth, and dinged off whatever Lamb’s axe had struck a moment ago. But whatever had been unearthed was covered anew by the fallen body.

There was some business then as Teodor Rossicky, the owner of the pickaxe, showed through wild hand gestures that he expected the pastor to climb down into the hole and retrieve the tool. But Templeton played dumb, and in the end Rossicky was forced to make the Stygian journey himself. Rossicky was Bohemian by birth and had taken advantage of the fact that the Homestead Act of Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-two was blind to race, gender, and nationality in order to claim 160 acres for himself, his wife, and three sturdy blond children, two boys and a girl. Other than the fact that they were Papists and spoke only ten words of English between them, the settlers bore the Czechs no animus. But it would take the devil himself to drag Templeton down that hole.

Rossicky’s boots splatted when he leapt down the shaft. The sun disappeared but the wind did too, and he felt immediately warmer. It wasn’t just the absence of wind: it was Lamb’s blood soaking through his tattered boots and poaching his blue toes. Despite the tainted source of the heat, Rossicky could not help but stand there for a moment and let the warmth soak in, until Pastor Templeton said,

Wind’s still blowing up here, Teddy.

Rossicky understood the tone if not the words. He got down on all fours to move the body, Lamb’s blood warm as a benediction on his hands, knees, feet. The body itself, though dead less than a minute, was already cold and stiff.

Teddy

The only sound to come from the grave was that of a slushy snuffling, like a small animal pawing in mud.

Teddy? Pastor Templeton said. You best hurry ‘fore I shoot you.

In fact Templeton nearly did shoot the figure that suddenly hoisted itself from the grave, for it was covered chest to feet in blood-soaked mud and had on its head a shiny something that looked a bit like an upended spittoon. But the pastor was too busy running for his life to aim.

Templeton had broken through the ring of men and was halfway up the hillside when their laughter reached his ears. He had lost his turban in his flight but was almost glad of it, because it gave him a way to explain the redness of his face.

Why, it’s a old bucket! James Lansing said as Templeton returned to the graveside. His voice was full of wonder, as if the mundane object were a dragon’s egg, or the Holy Grail.

It ain’t nothing but a redskin claypot, Fiscal Baxter said. And, taking the thing from Teodor Rossicky’s head, he placed it on his son’s. The object, which was clearly metal, sank down over Harold’s eyes, and the boy, who had been shivering violently, suddenly ceased his shaking and stood there without moving.

I do believe it’s a helmet, Templeton said, winding the bit of tattered canvas around his wind-chafed head as best he could. Spanish if I am not mistaken. A piece of conquistador armor.

Your Moor’s hat has addled your wits, Pastor, Fiscal Baxter chided him. The Spanish never came north of the Republican, let alone the Platte.

I did not say the Spanish brought it here, Templeton replied, his strength returning in the face of Baxter’s mincing tone. I merely said it was Spanish.

Ansen Wright, who wished more than ever that the cemetery had been located elsewhere—or, better yet, that he had chosen to homestead a patch of land far from this pregnant soil—said nothing; and at any rate the conversation was abruptly truncated when Rossicky spewed something in his own language and plucked the helmet from Harold’s head with blood-stained hands. His wild eyes darted around the bunched assembly.

Mine! he screamed. And, so saying, he screwed the helmet on his head and ran off in the direction of his house. All the men stared after him save Harold Baxter, whose blank eyes seemed still to be covered by the helmet his father had placed over them.

ξ

After a moment Ansen Wright said, He forgot his pickaxe.

That’s a three-dollar implement, Fiscal Baxter said. I sold it to him myself.

Ain’t worth a dollar east of the Mississippi, James Lansing said, and spat.

Three dollars, Fiscal Baxter repeated. Sold it to him on credit, I did. But neither he nor any of the other men made a move to retrieve it from the grave.

ξ

A moment later the men turned and by silent consent began the trek up the hill to the church, where McAllister’s body waited for them—though Fiscal Baxter had to go back down for Harold, who remained at grave’s edge, eyes wide and staring at nothing, seemingly unaffected by the cold. The stove was lit in the church and the corpse had thawed some, and begun to smell, so the men wrapped it in a sheet until they could fashion a box of wood from more planks ripped from the walls of the murdered man’s house. They laid the mummy in the box and carried it down the hill and lowered it with ropes into the narrow grave, and there McAllister rested aslant, feet higher than head, over the body of his killer, and the unpaid-for implement that had dug their shared grave. But of this and the other thing that had been in the hole none of the men said a word. Even as Pastor Templeton commended the soul to heaven they were hastily pushing the dirt back with their bootheels. They did such a poor job compacting it that the mound of loose earth sat on the flat land in miniature caricature of their houses—a trend that would continue in later years, in the form of comb graves and gravehouses and mausoleums—and after they’d finished they drove a stick into the loose soil like a stake into a vampire’s heart and dispersed to their farms and houses. Night was falling, and the prairie had neither roads nor lampposts to guide a lost farmer to his dark hole in the ground.

When the Wyandot first saw the stake they thought it symbolized the trunk that would bud from the buried souls. In a nearly treeless land, they found it the first fitting symbol they had seen employed by this strange, stubborn, stingy people, a heartfelt image of the cyclical nature of things: out of death, life. But the next day the settlers returned to the grave and nailed a narrow shingle crosswise to the stake, and on this shingle were painted the hatchmarks with which they spoke to each other without using their mouths. By that point some of the younger members of the tribe had learned the secret of these marks, and they reported to the others what was written on the horizontal stick:

Chas. Burton McAllister
1821-1864

The Wyandot recognized the first part as the name of the man who had been murdered, but the second part meant nothing to them. Perhaps it was the name of the second man? No, the younger ones—the ones who could read—reported. They were numbers. Part of the same system the fat one used for counting coin and corn and reckoning trades. Aye, we know how the fat one counts, the elders said, pulling tighter around their shoulders the threadbare blankets for which Fiscal Baxter had taken enough corn to feed a family for a week, and they laughed. But these were special numbers, the youngsters continued. They were a way of demarcating the years, one from another, in sequence. It took a long time for the older members of the tribe to understand what was meant by year and even longer for them to adjust to the idea that you could separate them one from the next, stack them up like dried hides to carry from one place to another, and when they did understand they didn’t laugh. The townsfolk are crazier than we thought, they said. They use their words to separate themselves from the sun and the moon, the stars and the land, the visible order of things. No wonder the rains have fled. No wonder they plant their dead. Their souls have no other way to communicate what they are lonely for.

Later, when they learned about the white man’s heaven and hell, they realized they were dealing with a people accursed even of their own tradition. For it seemed to them that the townsfolk had opened the door to the nether place and closed it between the dead, and paradise. And two such opposed souls—locked in one grave, with one weapon! The Wyandot shuddered at the thought of their eternal battle.

ξ

It was a fertile patch of soil and grew quickly. Its second resident was none other than Teodor Rossicky. In the two hours it took him to walk the four miles back to his house his toes froze inside his blood-soaked boots, and though some of them simply fell off others rotted on his feet, and by the time his wife went for help the gangrene had gone into his ankles. Uriah Templeton, Fiscal Baxter, and Ansen Wright held the feverish man down while James Lansing pushed a timber saw through tibia and fibula—good quick clean strokes that took the first leg off in four pulls, the second in three. In fact the Czech struggled neither through the sawing nor the cauterizing, but only stared at the ceiling and repeated the word, Helma, helma, over and over again. The word was like enough to its English equivalent that the men could understand him, and they cast wary glances at the steel bonnet, polished now, and sitting like a skull on a plinth made from a twisted length of cottonwood that would have been more useful in the firepit. Lansing claimed the helmet in payment for “medical services” (this despite the fact that Rossicky died of shock before his first legless week had ended) but a few months later he surrendered it to Fiscal Baxter in barter for his spring seed (the land might have been free, but there were still ways for an enterprising man to turn a profit). Baxter gave it to Harold as a birthday present; though Lansing had been superstitious of the helmet and never wore it, Harold hardly ever took it off—had to be told not to wear it to church and school, and even then passed over the role of Brutus for that of a common centurion so he could wear the helmet in the school’s production of Julius Caesar. Some two years after receiving it, Harold, whose health had been on the decline since that first hard winter, succumbed to the whooping cough. His body was placed in Ferndell and the helmet in a trunk, along with his boots. Many years later the boots passed on to Baxter’s second son Peter, but the helmet remained in the trunk, and soon enough passed from memory.

ξ

And more homesteaders arrived, and multiplied: for every child that died one or two lived, and the land, though ugly and flat (flat not like a new piece of paper, but like a piece of paper that’s been wadded up and smoothed out by nervous hands) was fertile, and fed them. Soon enough the rains returned as well, and then the town grew even faster: both the living one, and the dead.

With the influx of water the low land behind the Nazarene church grew boggy as the Wyandot had said it would, but the townsfolk continued to bury their dead in the place they had originally designated for the purpose. In the springtime the soil was especially wet, and the sides of open graves had to be held back with planks to keep them from caving in before the coffins were lowered inside. In 1872 a flood from the creek the townsfolk had named the Finicky—it had been dry when they first arrived—washed the earth from the graves at the eastern edge of the cemetery. The sprung coffins sat atop the dark shiny mud like the empty shells of cicadas emerged from their tunnels, and only bits and pieces of the bodies were ever recovered. One coffin floated all the way down the swollen Finicky to the town of Geary, where the rotting corpse fouled the drinking water and brought a pestilence to the village to which was attributed the deaths of three children and one old woman, who complained for several days that everything tasted like chalk and then fell down dead in the street.

But Ferndell continued to swell. It spread east to the bog-holed swamp that edged the Finicky—soon enough rechristened the Beaver, which turned out to be its name farther upstream—and followed its course north to Ansen Wright’s spread, west to the Nazarene church, and then beyond it, until eventually the church’s little patch of hard brown grass was surrounded by a lush garden of the dead shaped something like an upside-down Y, a two-tined fork stuck into the ground. The ends of the inverted Y fronted on the narrow road that brought people to and from town (officially named Church Street, but known by almost everyone as Cemetery Road), ingress and egress to the graveyard’s eleven rapidly filling acres.

Stone markers replaced wooden, pale yellow limestone mined a hundred and fifty miles southeast in a town called Weeping Water, and granite and marble from the Appalachian quarries: tombstones and crosses and plinths with angels and urns mounted atop them, sarcophagi, crypts, table graves and dolmen and cenotaphs for those lost at war—even the odd mausoleum or two as the town grew more prosperous. In 1894 a small open-air chapel supported by eight cleft-faced shale columns was erected at the nexus of the cemetery’s main access paths, but during the warm months the chapel was so filled with mosquitoes that the pastor’s words would be drowned out by the smacking of hands—on the back of the neck especially, which was generally the one uncovered spot on both sexes vulnerable to the mosquitoes’ attack—and in the winter months no one wanted to be outside for as long as it took to commend a soul into God’s care. By 19 and 18, when the great influenza epidemic carried off no fewer than sixty-two souls, the chapel’s floor had already rotted, its rafters grown so lumpy with the mud shells of swallows’ nests that the pagoda felt more like cave than chapel. The cemetery’s grounds had strained to take in all the dead from the recent war—the town had given no fewer than twenty-three men—and now the influenza victims were so numerous that their graves had to be slotted into family plots, harlots come between husbands and wives, nasty men between children and their parents. When more than one member of a family had died the victims were laid on top of each of each other. By common custom husbands were placed on the lowest level, wives on top and children at their mothers’ feet, and if anyone still knew of the precedent for such common burial he did not speak it aloud.

ξ

After that Ferndell accepted only the living, on visits to those who had passed. The spiked black iron fence grew thick with vines: wild grape, Virginia creeper, kudzu, a growth of poison ivy that resisted all efforts at defenestration. A forest of hackberry and elm and cottonwood and thorned locust grew around and out of the neglected graves. Beech and spruce sprung up in the richly fertilized soil, catalpa, hawthorn, walnut, tulip poplar, sycamore, dense cedars, even a smattering of oaks, their acorns carried in by who knew what underground river or migrating bird. Blackberries seemed to have an especial fondness for the cemetery’s soil, and their thickets made straying from the ever-narrowing paths a painful endeavor (for years, though, Cemetery Jam captured the purple ribbon at the State Fair in Lincoln, and was far more profitable for the Ladies Auxiliary than any bake sail or bingo game). What dirt was left was filled with sumac and ragweed and lambsquarter—and the graves of course, though by now they seemed like ornamental accents in an overgrown garden.

ξ

But long before the first tree sprouted the Wyandot had gone on ahead. They left the spring after the first burials—another dry spring, the fourth in a row; the rains wouldn’t return for one more year. That spring the town drove another stick into the ground at the end of the line of false-fronted buildings that had already taken the wishful name State Street. An upright pole crossed by a horizontal board, a magnification of the ones that marked the graves of Charles Burton McAllister and Teodor Rossicky and two children who had not made it through the winter—infants both of them, and unnamed. On the horizontal board were more of the town’s silent, sneaking letters:

Allister, Nebr. territory
pop. 47

The Wyandot shook their heads. To name a town after its first dead? No wise old man was required to interpret that omen. The Wyandot reckoned the number on the board to the number of the living and the number of the dead and, finding the count one short, knew that the town had attempted to cheat someone. But though life could be shortchanged time and again, death, they knew, always won its due, and with a chill in their heart and dread for all possible futures—not just theirs, but Allister’s—they prepared to leave that ill-fated place.

Before they left, a delegation visited the shack that had belonged to Wilson Lamb. They sent an old woman, to signify the eventual release from the burdens of childbearing, and a young girl, to show that the generations would continue in others, and inside they found Lamb’s widow, her belly full with his sons, and with the meat he had stolen to feed them (the town had taken her husband but, in light of her condition, had let her keep of the ham). The widow lay on her bed as if she hadn’t left it since her husband was dragged away, and regarded the grandmotherly pair over a rifle resting lightly on the fulcrum of her swollen abdomen.

What do you want?

God bless you, the girl said, repeating the words spoken by the old woman. We have been sent to ask if you would like to join us.

A suspicious curiosity filled the widow’s eyes, as if her callers were proselytizing some blasphemous religion.

Where you going?

The old woman spoke, the young girl translated.

To a place where your husband’s disgrace will not be yours, nor your child’s.

The broad innuendo of the words seemed to embarrass the girl, and she delivered her final words to the shack’s bone-littered dirt floor.

There is no life for you here.

For a moment the widow’s hands relaxed, and the big gun seemed to settle heavily on the pair of children in her womb like a fallen tree. Her eyes softened as she imagined a life uncleft from the strictures of vengeance. But a moment later they hardened again, and the gun shot up and leveled at her unwelcome visitors.

You get on now, she said. I got unfinished business here.

ξ

The Wyandot took down their teepees. They lashed the poles to horses and dogs, abandoned their sod-brick houses without a backward glance.

The beanstalks were in flower, the just-sprouted squash lay pale and tentacular on the dry soil. The wind whipped them around like the gray strands of an old man’s hair before his pyre is set alight. But the Wyandot did not set the prairie on fire, because they were not running from the land. What they ran from would only be purified in the presence of fire, not destroyed by it.

On their way out of town the straggling band passed a wagon coming in. Its driver, a boy swimming in a man’s hat, looked through the Indians as if he didn’t see them, though his unshod toes felt for the security of his rifle on the footboard beneath him. The Wyandot in turn did not see the woman and children sitting behind him, inside the bell of fabric. If they had seen Emeline McAllister, coming to her husband on the false optimism of a letter mailed last fall, they might have warned her, might even have made the same vain offer they made to the widow of her husband’s killer. Or perhaps they might simply have indicated the meaningless date at the top of her husband’s letter and pointed out that no arbitrary numerology of time could demarcate life, neither a man’s life nor the life of a place—nor measure the hunger of greed and lust, nor stanch the flow of blood which spouted more thickly than the grasses the town sieved from the earth with their plows.

But they told her none of these things. Instead they lowered their gaze against the horizon and foot by foot marched away from a home that, after all, was not theirs. Though by now they knew that no good place likely remained on this shrinking continent, still, they wanted to get away before what had been planted here bore the fruit of the union of good and evil—the fruit that even the white man admitted would be the death of them all.