Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Indian Field III


            Jonah Graves spied himself in a broken piece of looking glass.  The image which gazed back at him was of a long faced man, not yet twenty, with ink-black eyes and blue-black hair, sitting atop his forehead high like an after thought.  His skin, tanned a leather brown from the plow and raking clams in the bay, sprouted soft tufts of down on his upper lip and chin, and was blemishless.   
         He could not be mistaken for anything but an Indian, and as a resident of the South Fork, as a Montaukett.  His nose was broad and squat, as if the aquiline proportions of his Algonquin nasal bones had been flattened by some unseen hand.  For Jonah Graves’ paternal grandfather, James Graves, had been a Negro from Free Town.  And there it sat, James Graves’s nose on the improbable visage of his grandson, although not another African feature could be detected on his Indian Field face.   
           James Graves had left Free Town when he was fourteen and circumnavigated the globe three times on a whaling vessel.  When he returned to Free Town, his body was ringed with golden tattoos, both ears were pierced and for the duration of his life he was a stranger to all the Negros of Freetown, who hardly had a recollection of him.  He fell for an Indian woman named Bess Jones, and they had thirteen children.  Only three reached the age of maturity, and Jonah’s father, Abraham Graves, married a women from Indian Field named Callie.   His two other brothers likewise married Indians.  All that was left of James Graves, that freewheeling Negro whaler, was a score of Indian decedents, each of whom wore a feature of his somewhere in the aggregate of their faces.
            Despite his Negro grandfather, Jonah Graves felt no justification to considered himself a half-breed of any sort.  He had just a tincture of Negro blood and he knew that hardly a man or woman in Indian Field could claim a blood line without by some admixture.
            The sun had set behind the line of scraggly pines and low dunes which ringed Indian Field.  The wind blew salty and stiff from the ocean side of the point.  Jonah fetched his rake and slinging it over his shoulder, took the path from Indian Field to the bay side of the Neck.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Indian Field II

            Silas Denton’s son Amos oversaw the digging, for he was to take a bride in a fortnight and meant to install her in this home.  But when the digging began a man threw up a bone.  Amos Denton peered at it from over the hill of sand and rocks and proclaimed it a deer femur and ordered the dig to continue.  But next a human skull was churned to the surface, brown with sand and green with mold, and a rib cage held together by the mortar of wet clay.  Then the men would dig no more.
            Amos Denton peered into the graves.  There were beads and arrowheads, pottery and the smeared remnants of dried pollen.  The Montaukett resolutely refused to dig so much as another shovel full of soil.  The men with half-Indian blood stood aside with the picks aloft, shaking their heads in sustained disbelief.  The blacks had backed away from the very spot, as if contact with the dead itself was contrary to some unspoken creed.
            Denton examined the crew.  There was no visible emotion on his face and his eyes were fixed and ridged like stones set in some antiquecrystal vase.  This isn’t the first nor the last time Indian bones have been dug up on the South Fork, he announced to all assembled.  If the men gathered around him did not commence to dig, he would send a wagon to Sag Harbor and find some out of work white boys happy to dig through bones of Indians or of Father Abraham himself for ten cents.  After a moment of hesitation, all the men took up their shovels in unison and set about to work, including Jonah Graves.  No one could not afford the lost wage.  More than a dozen skeletons and a mound of grave goods were heaped up in a corner of Amos Denton’s field. 
            When the men returned the next day to finish the digging there wasn’t a trace of the midden.  Elijah Falk, a light skinned Negro from Free Town whispered in Jonah Graves’ ear that last night his brother had seen a cohort of Amos Dentons’s field hands with wooden wheelbarrows cart away the Indian bones and pots and arrowheads and dump them in the bay.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Indian Field - Eric Maroney

'It is better for me to die than to live.'  -- The Book of Jonah 4:8

            Jonah Graves scrapped out the furrow and a cache of arrowheads sprouted from the loamy soil like a bouquet of dusty chicory.  He picked one up and examined it in the speckled sunlight:  sharp ended, blue-black with scoring along its side, notches where it was connected to the shaft, a piece of slender wood long since rendered into ash by wind and sun and rain.
            As a small boy Jonah had once fit a dug up arrowhead to an improvised shaft.  He bound it with some cast off leather laces, found some stiff feathers for the fletching, carved a groove at the base for the nock.  He then felled a young sapling, its trunk still green, and applying his weight, made it taut with a piece of homespun twine.   After a few plucks of the bow, little Jonah Graves intuited that the tension was insufficient.  The arrow flew a few sluggish yards and struck an irregular boulder.  The arrowhead was not secure enough to the shaft, and rather than snapping against the durable quartz, it simply broke free from its mooring like a chick cast too soon from its mother’s nest.
            These were his people’s old implements, but the knowledge of how to employ them had long since vanished from collective memory and communal enterprise.  Jonah used his own wits to make a bow and arrow, and this poor specimen of weaponry would not have killed a squirrel if by some freak of circumstance it had found its way across the arrow’s path.
            Jonah Graves didn’t discard the arrowheads he furrowed up.  He pocketed them in his overalls and at evening time deposited them with a host of their brethren in a large clay pot which once contained molasses.  The origin of this hoarding impulse baffled him.  An unformed sense of respect, a half-image of fear of the dead, a groveling dread for a people who were like him and yet different, akin but sheltered as he was not by a veil of ignorance as deep as the surf shorn shrub oak and pitch pine which wrapped them up and shaded them from the harsh light of history.
            Then three weeks ago this had occurred:  Jonah Graves was hired to excavate a house for Silas Denton.  He assembled with about a half dozen other Montaukett from Indian Field and three Negros from Free Town.  Among them were four men of indistinct race, for the border between Indian Field and Free Town was a porous barrier and the two communities now comingled freely in  church and bedroom.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No Frills, But Strong Short Fiction

Hugh Nissenson’s 1959 collection of short stories A Pile of Stones should be more widely read.  Each story is outwardly simple, but carries complex messages of divided loyalties and conflicting impulses. 
Take “The Prisoner” a story set in Poland in the early 20th century.  A rabbi is charged with visiting a Jew in prison, accused of Socialist activities. The rabbi’s son realizes that the prisoner is tortured.  Not by his captives, not by remorse over his ideas, but because even in prison, God reveals to him that everything is beautiful, and joy pervades the universe.  The prisoner pleads “Why can’t He leave me alone?”

Or “The Well,” set in Israel in the early 1960s.  During a drought, a socialist Kibbutz member offers water to a nearby Bedouin camp whose well has run dry.  But he realizes, as the women are drawing water from the Jewish well, that they will be taxed by the clan chief for the use of the water.  Socialism, feudalism, Judaism, folk Islam, and the rights of the land, all collide on one overwrought moment, with awful consequences.

This collection should be read.  For writers, it shows how to get in and out of a story, leaving messages and meanings for the reader to unfold.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Writing the Unwritten

Joan Didion is known for doing her homework.  Her non-fiction is well-researched, and this, hand in hand with her penetrating mind and incisive use of the language, provide pleasurable reading like few other living writers can provide.

This is the case with The Year of Magical Thinking.  But here, the focus is on the inexorable process of grieving, and Didion takes it on like a case study of how the mind works as it tries to wrap itself around the unthinkable.  This makes the book a bit maddening.  Didion moves around the same topics, picking them apart, breaking them down, reenacting them again and again like thought experiments.  

Yet the effect is mesmerizing. Didion comes very close to getting down in writing an experience that makes every effort to escape from our ability to capture it in writing; to conceptualize and understand its immensity.