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1240550_10201985299295541_1511844176_nThere are very few days when I think of myself as a writer, as an artist, or a creator. As I said in this really pleasurable discussion about creativity on Marshall Ramsey’s radio show, “Now You’re Talking,” fifty hours a week I am, joyfully and willingly, the Bob Barker of Scholarly Publishing. I am Guy Smiley. I am the marketing director at University Press of Mississippi, and I gladly do all I can to insure that the work of our authors makes it into the hands of readers worldwide.

David McCarty is a Jackson lawyer in most of the daylight hours. When he can be, he is an art photographer, and his specialty is the use of old instant technology, specifically the Polaroid camera. His photographs have been exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and many other places.

When he discovered Some Kinds of Love: Stories, he began to pester me with a persistence that would make him a fine university press publicist. David wanted to take a photograph of me, a set piece at famed Choctaw Books in Jackson. After much scheduling difficulty for almost nine months of trying, we found a day in July when we both could be away from work. That day, David took what may be the greatest photo that will ever be taken of Choctaw Books owner Fred Smith. Look how the owner of the most famous used book store in Jackson, Mississippi, appears like a shaman in this Polaroid!

Fred Smith, of Choctaw Books // Impossible Project B&W // July 2014 by David McCarty

Fred Smith, of Choctaw Books // Impossible Project B&W // July 2014 by David McCarty

David McCarty taking the photograph of Fred Smith in Choctaw Books.

David McCarty taking the photograph of Fred Smith in Choctaw Books.

And, unlike any photographer I had previously been around, David did not mind at all that I wished to snap photographs of him working. I was taking leave time to do this (one year ago, according to David’s records). Somehow, when we arrived at Choctaw Books, we exited the real workaday world and entered a solar system entirely of David’s making. In the looming stacks, I followed David’s lead and gave myself to his sway—it was crazy, ridiculous to think that I was a writer worthy of an art photographer’s time. But I could tell as I watched him and photographed him, David McCarty was very serious about this. He thought I was a subject of which art could be made.

The result, since we are talking the semi-instant Polaroid, was astonishing. With no guidance from me—I hardly knew David, and we were both so busy we had no time to talk about what he wanted to do—I think he did capture, as only art can, the essence of another’s spirit and truth. He wanted me swallowed in books; he didn’t know I would be smiling like an imp. And he didn’t know how charmed Fred and I would be by the whole fiasco of an art photography shoot happening in the explosive clutter of Choctaw Books on a broiling summer day.

Steve Yates, photograph by David McCarty

Steve Yates, photograph by David McCarty

I was so swept away by the zaniness of the day, I had to share with David a song from “Riba Dimpel” an album one of our authors, Jan Brokken, The Music of the Netherlands Antilles, had shared with UPM for our inspiration and understanding. The song was “Cara Bunita” by Estrellas de Caribe. David brainily explained the song’s refrain, “arte foto, foto arte,” may have referred to the 1920s euphemism for photography of naked women, an “art photo.” So the drunken joy of the band may have had as its theme an “angel in the centerfold,” very roughly translated.

We had lunch at Rainbow Coop in Jackson, a place I hardly ever go to because I am a boring, cheap Biedermeier who eats leftovers at his standing desk. And so, with the lunch crowd mostly departed, the corona of strangeness, of artiness ignited at Choctaw continued.

Somehow over the long meal, we moved to a broader subject, The Golden Age. We had talked of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, The Great Recession (which at the time we were not sure was quite over). These so far were the marks of our twenty-first century. But we also talked of Mississippi changing, of the American Civil Liberties Union being tolerated with an actual office space, the state flag almost changing, Ed King’s new book about to be published. There were sunbursts of intense hope. I believe that is what got us onto The Golden Age.

David McCarty, sizing up the photograph of Fred Smith at Choctaw Books

David McCarty, sizing up the photograph of Fred Smith at Choctaw Books

When would it be? What would be its markers? What could we then achieve if we recognized them? And what could we do to keep a Golden Age from sliding quickly into a Gilded Age? Heady stuff we covered, and mostly without irony or farce, which is saying a lot for me about how earnest, how penetrating our talk was. Normally I cannot tolerate such talk with a straight face, any more than I might feel comfortable talking about creativity for an hour (which despite what it may sound like in the interview linked to above, I wasn’t all that comfortable talking about).

Today, a year separated from that starburst of a morning and afternoon with David, I was reading the great Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. At lunch with David, I had come to the conclusion, and I do not remember if David agreed, that we would not, that we could not at our pace recognize the Golden Age as we were living it. I was firm in that I believed such an age would roar past the two of us, and as old men, we would look at each other and say, “Gee, that old La Salle ran great! Those were the days.”

Zweig’s memoir is more documentary in its beauty than literary. It is certainly not Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. There are many moment’s in which Zweig is an irreplaceable witness to late Habsburg Austria-Hungary and pre-World War I Europe. During the First World War, Zweig’s own humanity and urbanity in some ways interfere with his capacity to witness, but who can blame him a sorrowful disdain, a necessary great distance?

Equipage du McCarty

Equipage du McCarty

Then this morning, the passage that vaulted me back to my encounter with David, with art, with someone who could remind me of that parcel of myself that only occurs now, in the dark, wee hours, from 3:30 a.m. until 6 a.m. or so when I write, when I attempt to create. Zweig’s memoir is devastating in its revelation of Austrian life right after World War I, when a 700-year dynasty was deposed and dismantled, inflation went wild, even the lights could not be adequately powered.

Art is worth our all. Art will be the harbinger of that Golden Age and its lasting aftershock. I need to have lunch with David McCarty more than once a year. Behold, Stefan Zweig:

“I shall never forget what an opera performance meant in those days of direst need. For lack of coal the streets were only dimly lit and people had to grope their way through; gallery seats were paid for with a bundle of notes in such denominations as would once have been sufficient for a season’s subscription to the best box. The theater was not heated, thus the audience kept their overcoats on and huddled together, and how melancholy and gray this house was that used to

Truth + Beauty

Truth + Beauty

glitter with uniforms and costly gowns! There never was any certainty that the opera would last into the next week, what with the sinking value of money and the doubts about coal deliveries; the desperation seemed doubly great in this abode of luxury and imperial abundance. The Philharmonic players were like gray shadows in their shabby dress suits, undernourished and exhausted by many privations, and the audience, too, seemed to be ghosts in a theater which had become ghostly. Then, however, the conductor lifted his baton, the curtain parted and it was as glorious as ever. Every singer, every musician did his best, his utmost, for each had in mind that perhaps it might be his last time in this beloved house. And we strained and listened, receptive as never before, because perhaps it was really the last time. That was the spirit in which we lived, thousands of us, multitudes, giving forth to the limit of our capacity in those weeks and months and years, on the brink of destruction. Never have I experienced in a people and in myself so powerful a surge of life as at that period when our very existence and survival were at stake.”

FictionCOLUMBIA, Missouri — July 18, 2015

2 – 4 p.m.

Research Center–Columbia

Join two authors with Missouri roots for readings from their latest projects, followed by a discussion on writing with topics ranging from choosing historical fiction to literary license and historical accuracy.

Steve Wiegenstein will read highlights from This Old World, which was recently announced as a finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Set in the utopian town of Daybreak, the novel depicts a troubled community deeply changed by the American Civil War. As the characters write the next chapter of their story, the men and women struggle with leadership, lust, and their own flawed humanity. Steve Yates also explores the aftermath of the Civil War in The Teeth of the Souls, which tells the double life and love story of Leighton Shea Morkan. Leighton’s affection for his childhood confidante and former slave, Judith, endures despite his marriage to another woman. A sequel to Morkan’s Quarry, the novel follows Springfield through a triple lynching on Easter 1906.

THERE IS MUCH ABOUT THE ABOVE that I still find hard to believe. Around our house in Flowood, Mississippi, it takes very little searching on any book shelf to find a read and marked, dog-eared copy of The Missouri Historical Review.

In graduate school at the University of Arkansas MFA program, I read the magazine as faithfully as any literary journal. And, when I became publicist at University of Arkansas Press and had the privilege to work on books by Milton Rafferty, James Keefe, and Lynn Morrow, I read The Missouri Historical Review even more eagerly.

Fellow writers in the MFA program found this habit odd. I’m sure almost as odd, off-putting, and disconcerting as some historians found it that the publicist working on their books was a fiction writer publishing pretty regularly in The Missouri Review, Ontario Review, and elsewhere.

Before a conference at Jerry’s Diner, formerly on the corner of Dixon Street and 71B, I spent a really extraordinary hour-and-a-half waiting on writer and fellow MFA candidate Jay Prefontaine for breakfast and a story session. I was to comment on one of his fictions in draft, and he would do the same, critiquing one of mine. I sat there with coffee and grapefruit and read The Missouri Historical Review and watched all the farmers and locals come and jaw and go.

Ozarkers! My people! It was wonderful, that much normalcy right there in Fayetteville. In the narrow bandwidth that was the MFA program, all was cartoon land. Priorities that existed nowhere else in the known universe were, in the program, outsized urgencies: “Today I must craft a sestina! The Chariton Review has rejected me yet again!” But here in Jerry’s, the Ozarks resumed like a calm back bay’s water spreading against a rollicking beach of irrepressible hedonism. A big, sunny spring morning outside boomed through the windows, so that the diner became a kind of corona of formica and vinyl, ball caps and bacon grease.

Jay Prefontaine with my wife Tammy Gebhart Yates.

Jay Prefontaine with my wife Tammy Gebhart Yates.

Finally Jay walks in, that tight, on the toes, poised walk he had. Dare you. Dare you. He had been a scholarship hockey player at Colby College, probably a devastating enforcer. And I had seen him, more than once, ruin someone else’s week with whipcord violence unleashed at a bar or restaurant when too much had been imbibed, and some poor Ozarker decided, drunkenly and quite mistakenly, that Jay would be an easy Yankee to take.

Jay pulls The Missouri Historical Review from my hands, reads the cover, flips it around, hands it back, sits down. “We’re really different, aren’t we, Stevie.”

“Yes,” I say. “You, for example, are ninety minutes late. Coffee?”

“Why read that?” he asks squinting at it again.

I think a minute. “Inspiration. There is a story waiting untold in every paragraph.”

Pause. Some squinting around at the calm glory that was Jerry’s. “We’re really different, Stevie.”

On July 18, I will be permitted the chance to walk through the doors where The Missouri Historical Review is edited and published, permitted to stand on my hind legs alongside a writer I tremendously admire—Tall Steve Wiegenstein—and then permitted to dare a crowd in Columbia, Missouri, to take my fiction, based on and inspired by history, seriously.

No one is more surprised than I am.

Northern Mockingbird (State Bird of Mississippi) Photograph by Ryan Hagerty -- United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Northern Mockingbird (State Bird of Mississippi) Photograph by Ryan Hagerty — United States Fish and Wildlife Service

The Mississippi Arts Hour interview with Larry Morrisey

I have been reminded by several Mississippians lately that a cardinal date approaches. Or maybe I should say a mockingbird date. This June of 2015, I will have lived in Mississippi for 17 years. Tammy Sue and I moved here from the Arkansas Ozarks in 1998. I was born in St. John’s Hospital, now Mercy Hospital, in Springfield, Missouri, and lived in the same house on Meadowview in Southern Hills subdivision in Springfield for 21 years.

November of 2019 I will have lived in Flowood, Mississippi, just as long as I lived in my hometown.

I think the interview above with Larry Morrisey, Deputy Director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, says a lot about why. The Mississippi Arts Commission has supported my fiction not once, but twice with generous artist fellowships. One of those fellowships was awarded for a portion of my novel The Teeth of the Souls. The grant was for the second chapter, set in St. Louis and Springfield, and nowhere near Mississippi.

As that mockingbird date approaches, I’m so thankful for MAC’s support of my fiction. And I can’t thank Mississippi enough for the welcome it has given me.

photograph by Jamie Kornegay, Turnrow Book Co.

photograph by Jamie Kornegay, Turnrow Book Co.

Guest Post: Anything Can Happen at an Independent Bookstore.

ABOVE IS THE LINK TO A BLOG POST AT LEMURIA BOOKS’ BLOG. HERE’S THE TEXT (BUT IT IS WAY COOLER TO GO TO LEMURIA IN PERSON SATURDAY MAY 2)

ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AT AN INDEPENDENT BOOK STORE

Saturday, May 2 is Independent Book store Day all across America.

Independent book stores, including Jackson’s Lemuria Books, are inviting rank amateurs, such as me, onto the sales floor to work part of Saturday as Guest Booksellers in violation of almost every accepted business principle I know.

Imagine being greeted at your local law firm by a Guest Attorney. After all, President Dwight David Eisenhower did declare May 1 Law Day, so why not? “Hi, I’m Steve Yates, your Guest Attorney. You look like you’re really into estate planning? Great! Let’s light in here with Charles Dickens and Bleak House.”

Or imagine sitting down Saturday in confessional, and instead of Father Jerry, you are welcomed to the Solemn Rite of Reconciliation with, “Hey! I’m Steve Yates, your Guest Priest. Why so contrite? Look here, let’s read us some Gerard Manley Hopkins and get some perspective. Or check out the new collected poems of Frank Stanford—now that guy knew what was coming for all of us!”

With so many guests running around, I’m pretty sure the authors of The New Rules of Retail: Competing in the World’s Toughest Marketplace would say, “You have lost all control of your value chain.”

But, you see, anything can happen at an independent book store. The value in an independent book store isn’t just the shelves and all those whispering spines and enticing covers. The reading community that gathers there, that’s the preemptive, experiential, demand driven “thing” about Lemuria. That reading community is the reason you should come on in Saturday.

Where else could you meet Matthew Guinn and get to participate in his incredible story. And at any good book signing, you are going to see Marshall Ramsey, Rick Cleveland, Billy Watkins, Gerard Helferich, Teresa Nicholas, Carolyn Brown, Patti Carr Black, Alan Huffman, Diane Williams, Ed King, and so many other authors from our community with wonderful books. You can meet more authors in one good night at Lemuria than you will in a whole year at an MFA creative writing program.

But I’m not being entirely fair to Lemuria and its calculated business decision to allow me and other authors to join you in commerce. Lemuria has supported me through two novels—Morkan’s Quarry and now its sequel The Teeth of the Souls—and the Juniper Prize-winning short story collection, Some Kinds of Love. And in fact, The Teeth of the Souls would have perished in the dustbin had it not been for the close reading and tough love of Matthew Guinn and Paul Rankin, both of whom I met at readings by other authors at Lemuria.

And Lemuria welcomes me all the time as the assistant director/marketing director of University Press of Mississippi. I may not be able to help you with estate planning or with your immortal soul, but I will know where some of the good books are shelved. And heck, I bet you can introduce me to several as well—I welcome that experience.

Maybe we should revise the headline here, and remember the extraordinary miracle of a great independent book store, remember why would celebrate and invite in rank amateurs as Guest Booksellers.

THIS CAN ONLY HAPPEN AT AN INDEPENDENT BOOK STORE

What’s in that vague pronoun, this?

Real books

Real experience

Real reading community

What does it take to activate these three really wondrous elements, to create the spark so THIS can happen?

You. Come on in this Saturday.

JACKSON, Mississippi — Steve Yates reads from his new novel The Teeth of the Souls at the Eudora Welty House in Belhaven subdivision. The Eudora Welty House, located at 1119 Pinehurst Street, is open for tours by reservation only Tuesdays through Fridays at 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. Admission prices are $5 for adults, $3 for students, and free for children under six. Group discounts are available on all tours. Welty’s birthday was April 13, and when the 13th of each month falls on a day the Eudora Welty House is open, admission will be free. For more information or to schedule a tour, call 601-353-7762 or email weltytours@mdah.state.ms.us. For more information about The Teeth of the Souls see http://www.uapress.com/dd-product/the-teeth-of-the-souls/ Signed copies are available from Lemuria Books at http://www.lemuriabooks.com/products/first-edition/the-teeth-of-the-souls/

March 25 posterOn March 25 at the Fox Theatre in Downtown Springfield, Missouri

The History Museum on the Square hosted a panel of scholars and keyed off my novel

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015) to discuss

A Springfield History of Race and Faith

This is what I said.

Thank you, James Braun, for that introduction, and thank you, Ken Coopwood and Sabrina Brinson, of the Missouri State University Division of Diversity and Inclusion for sponsoring this event. To John Sellars of the History Museum on the Square, thank you for opening the glorious Fox Theatre for our use this evening.

And thank you Jim Baumlin for organizing this lineup. As someone who has worked now at three different scholarly publishing houses, I want to stop just a minute and extol what I will call founding genius. It takes a special sort to found a publishing house, to be the green fuse that drives the first shoots of creativity. Tonight’s agenda marks one more moment when I find a by now six-year association with Jim Baumlin over two novels to be a Godsend.

A long time ago, I was a sleep-deprived junior in Dr. Katherine Lederer’s African American Literature course at Southwest Missouri State University, now Missouri State. My classmates were very much representative of the student body then, I believe, mostly white, mostly middle class, and from the accents I recall almost all from the Ozarks if not from Springfield. The literature Dr. Lederer had us studying, it shook us up as only great art can—Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. These authors brought us a whole new way of seeing, a whole new set of perspectives and experience.

Near the end of that class, Dr. Lederer opened our eyes to history I daresay none in the class knew, or at least judging by our stunned silence, none of us had acknowledged publically. Dr. Lederer taught us of the black community in Springfield, and of the devastation brought on that community by the triple lynching and by the mob that killed, mutilated, and burned Will Allen, Fred Coker, and Horace Duncan, on Easter Vigil and Easter morning 1906 in our town square beneath a replica of the statue of liberty.

Now I came from what I considered a politically and historically awakened family, one with a substantial bookshelf in its formal dining room and books within arm’s reach of every seat in the living room—The Revised Standard Edition of The Holy Bible, Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, Njal’s Saga, Marx’s Das Kapital, Duane Meyer’s A Heritage of Missouri, and Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills. My mother and father both held post-baccalaureate degrees. Mother taught social studies at Central High School before I was born. And Dad was at one time president of the chamber of commerce, on the airport board, and later our district’s highway commissioner. We were boosters of the Queen City of the Ozarks, through and through. What Dr. Lederer taught us about our city required a rethinking of a whole cosmos I thought I had a grip on.

One story she told, never let me go. She described to us, and describes in her book Many Thousand Gone, that several of her respondents in the black community related an extraordinary tale. In the aftermath of the 1906 lynching and the rampage of the white lynch mob that not once but twice visited and destroyed our jail to extract its victims, the black community was terrified that a second mob would form. Two years previous in nearby Pierce City after a lynching, a second mob had gathered and burned out the homes of the black community there. So this was a tangible menace that Easter Sunday. And in answer to this menace, a white quarry manager at Marblehead Quarry was said to have given his black employees the quarry’s dynamite to mine the streets. And that this dynamite, or more precisely in the minds of her informants, the mere story of this grant of fire, if you will, was enough to shield the black district from destruction.

A story stemmed the tide of violence and hate. That is what they believed. What fiction writer in the whole world could hear and then resist this?

Morkan's Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010)

I knew enough of race relations and of the nadir of American race relations to know that a white quarry manager doing anything of that sort in 1906 was committing personal, professional, and social self-immolation. He would be done for in his hometown, done for at the quarry, maybe even in his church and within his family. And yet there was no proving that the act had happened at all. To the survivors who kept the lore, that act existed as a truth, it was the way the story had to be told. And a story had turned the tide. I wished to know such a man, and that’s what started the Morkan’s and Morkan’s Quarry. And I wished also to know Springfield again, to relearn some of its history, for all that had been upended and had to be remade. For many, such a challenge might lead to a life of writing nonfiction history, which by profession I promote, publish, and devour. But on my own I am no good at knowing the human heart in that way, and so I chose the path presented by what little talent God gave me, that of writing fiction.

My first novel, Morkan’s Quarry, involved an Irish Catholic family in early Springfield, specifically during a fictionalized version of our Civil War. We would today call the Morkan’s culturally Catholic, even a step beyond lapsed Catholic. They were the sort who kept a sick call set at their quarry, still reverencing the power of the Consecrated Host, the body and blood of Christ in the transfigured and Holy Presence of the Eucharist, kept in the sick call set, which was an ornate but durable and portable Last Aid Kit. And yet the Morkan’s did not attend Mass and did not seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation, though both father and son did plenty in that novel that might call for confession. Their Catholicism, then, was more like a guiding memory.

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

In The Teeth of the Souls, that lapsed, culturally Irish Catholic meets what may arguably be its opposite, a devout and practicing Missouri Synod, German-American Lutheran. Patricia Grünhaagen Weitzer comes from that first generation of Missouri-born Lutherans, whose Stephanite forebears had escaped the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union and persecution by Prussian kings, then endured the humiliating downfall of their founder and first bishop. These German immigrants, who became the mighty Missouri Synod, had disembarked at St. Louis renewed under a new Bishop with a real mission and a solid vision. In The Teeth of the Souls, Leighton Morkan, whose father has died, whose house is a near ruin, whose quarry must start over in a shattered town, sees in Patricia Weitzer not really a love, and certainly not a guidepost to Faith, but instead a property very loosely based on the Galloway quarry, now owned by Conco Quarries. So Patricia represents to Leighton a lot more really good limestone. And this acquisition is the basis of the marriage that became a lie, and the lie that became a marriage, which is really the heart of the story in The Teeth of the Souls.

I want to read briefly tonight a swag of home life in the very conflicted Morkan household. Anyone who read Morkan’s Quarry will recall Leighton Morkan’s demi-sister, confidante, ally, house hand, the Morkan’s former slave, Judith. In this scene Judith’s son is also present, a little boy she gave the unfortunate name of Holofernes, often called Holy for short. Poor child. Judith knew that Leighton’s Catholic Bible contained the story of Judith and Holofernes. But Leighton was too fearful of any further association with the birth of her child to make Judith aware of that chapter’s fearsome content. Upstairs Leighton’s wife Patricia is putting the Morkan son and heir, Gustasson, to bed. And our Leighton has participated recently in some Ozarks justice, in night-riding vigilantism, Bald Knobber style. He and Patricia are on extremely sour terms when this scene begins in The Teeth of the Souls.

* * *

Leighton glanced at his watch. Six p.m. He was home two hours early. When he stepped through the door to the mudroom, the mulatto child, Holofernes, was on tiptoes reaching for something beside the stove, his little calves straining beneath the frayed bottom of his sack gown. Seeing Leighton, he dropped his hands at his sides and stared down at his feet.

Judith turned from the stove and greeted him with surprise. Leighton reached in his coat pocket and slowly, bobbing his eyebrows, he drew out a shining coil of copper tubing a mechanic at the quarry had forged into the shape of a snake for him.

Holy reached for it, then popped the head of the snake in his mouth. Immediately, his round face furrowed and he pulled the tubing from his mouth, stood wrinkling his nose at the copper. Infantile acts like these made Leighton wonder at him. “Da?” the boy asked, irking Leighton again. At least the child refrained from the habit when anyone else was around. Da, like an Irish child might say to its father, what Leighton called his own father when times were dire.

Upstairs Patricia’s footsteps creaked across the floor. In each pop of wood he heard her intense carefulness. A door sloughed shut.

Leighton placed a hand on top of Holy’s head and the boy raised his arms, dandled his fingers on top of Leighton’s—tiny fingers, the color of red cedar heartwood, pink at their tips, and beneath each fingernail a color, pale, no different from his own skin.

“Ain’t he a good lookin’ chile?” Judith whispered.

Leighton pulled his hand away as if it had been stung.

They hunched over their stews while Holy munched milk toast in the low lamplight. When Leighton finished, Judith said, “Go upstairs quiet.” She grinned. “You catch Mama and the boy reading and praying fire and damnation.”

Upstairs, Leighton paused at the doorway to the nursery, once his boyhood room, and peered in. Patricia sat on Gustasson’s bed with her legs crossed. She wore a white chemise that revealed the shadows of her small breasts. She held the massive Lutheran Bible in her lap. In the corner of the room the spinning wheel waited surrounded by pyramids of wool rolags, piles of carded wool and skeined yarn.

Gus was now five. A thin, already long little fellow with curly reddish hair, he knelt in prayer at the foot of the bed, his tiny nose crammed against his fingertips. With his curly hair and slim face, he sometimes struck Leighton as a miniature of Leighton’s father, the late Michael Morkan. His gray eyes skated devilishly just above the footboard’s trim. They widened when they caught Leighton at the door, but Leighton put his finger to his lips to keep the boy quiet. Gus grinned, and said something to himself, which made him snicker and cover his mouth. He rolled his eyes at Leighton, then glanced at Patricia whose eyes were closed as she fingered the pages, reciting from rote:

And they brought up an evil report of the land which they
had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land,
through which we have gone to search it, is a land that
eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people we
saw in it are men of great stature.

The Israelites proceeded to weep and rend their clothes and eat ashes and eventually they decided to stone the bearers of the bad news. Patricia related all of this with her shoulders hunched, her head rocking to and fro. Gus’s eyes widened at the giants and the ash eating and clothes rending; otherwise, he watched Leighton, and his shoulders shivered with delight. He tried to keep his hands in prayer, but often had to cover his mouth to stifle laughter.

Finally, the Lord spoke to Moses and passed judgment on the Israelites. Patricia raised her fist, her long white arm waving with an air of triumph. She read, “I will smite them with pestilence, and disinherit them.”

Patricia clapped the bible shut. When she noticed the direction of Gustasson’s gaze, she turned, and her eyes narrowed when she saw her husband. She stuck her chin forward and scowled. She swung her gaze back to Gustasson, who ducked his nose to his fingertips. His grin vanished.

“Yes. Let us say our prayers, young man,” she said. “For your father. In English.”

Gustasson took a deep breath, his back rising. He prayed:

Much wickedness a child must see
And evil is learned easily.
Protect, Dear Lord, this little lad
So that he will learn nothing bad.

“Good,” Patricia said. “And?”

Gus craned his neck, and in a high voice said: “God gives grace to those who fear Him. Therefore I pray:

O, My Dear Rod,
Teach Me to Fear God.
Make Me Good, I Beg,
Or the Hangman Will Have My Neck. Amen

“Amen,” Patricia said, nodding.

“Good Lord!” said Leighton, stepping into the room.

Gus blinked at him, and Patricia glared.

“What the Hell kind of prayer is that?”

“Language, Mr. Morkan,” Patricia squawked. “It is the prayer I was raised on. Papist!” She moved off the bed and parted the sheets then ordered the boy into bed. He crawled between the sheets, and she folded the top of the sheet across his chest and pulled it taut. Kissing him on the forehead, she then raised the wooden railings that prevented Gus from rolling out in his sleep. The metal springs whined as they tightened. With a grunt, she fitted the railings into place, and a perfect wooden cage of headboard, footboard, and railings surrounded the boy. Such protectiveness—Leighton remembered sleeping on the cold, smooth stones of the floor with the struts of the unfinished mansion framing starlight, remembered sleeping in stone wagons where the lime dust would crust his eyes shut by morning. When Patricia backed away, Gus’s eyes were on Leighton, and his lips turned in a smile. Leighton stepped to the bedside and rubbed a hard knuckle against his son’s cheek.

“I tell you a secret, Papá!” Gus whispered. Papá!, he said, as if the lad were Dutch.

Leighton leaned over the railings and bent his ear to the boy’s lips.

“Mamá says I cannot ride with you at night. But I do in my dreams.”

Leighton hesitated as he backed away. Gus was grinning broadly.

“No one rides at night, son.” Leighton said, stroking the boy’s tender, smooth forehead. “The woods… it is far too dark.”

* * *

Thank you, and I am mighty eager to listen in fellowship now to our panelists.

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