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Authors: David Anthony Durham

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Gabriel's Story

BOOK: Gabriel's Story
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Gabriel's Story


“Haunting. . . . A classical bildungsroman told in masterful prose. . . . Not just a startlingly poetic African-American voice but a welcome new voice in the rich spectrum of American letters.” —
The Christian Science Monitor

“Sweeps the reader up into a fascinating, Oz-like whirlwind of language.” —
San Francisco Chronicle

“Durham captures with exquisite precision the isolation, loneliness and cruelty of life in the vastness of the West. . . . The reader turns the last page with regret at the journey's end.” —The Times Picayune

“A bold, sweeping odyssey that tackles big themes. . . . A thrill to read.” —
The News and Observer

“Artfully plotted, masterfully written, this is a work of shimmering intensity and wisdom. . . .
Gabriel's Story
will easily stand in the first ranks of American literature.” —Jeffrey Lent, author of
In the Fall

“A sensational debut . . . lush and atmospheric.” —



THE BLACK MAN WATCHED THE DOOR. HE STOOD, ONE HAND holding the reins of two horses, the other hand engaged in a sense
less motion, closing and opening, a rock to a board, a rock to a
board. His profile against the morning sun was like the chipped
edge of a flint arrowhead, carved by the force of stone on stone and
left imperfect and therefore best suited to its work.

The horses were beautiful creatures. One was a dun, the other a
paint of brown and white, with a faint touch of something like
orange. The man sometimes spoke to them in a low whisper, words
not of our language and perhaps of none other, but sounds that the
horses knew and were comforted by. He watched the door, and as
he watched he caught a scent in the air and knew that the cacti on
the plains to the east had opened their blooms to the sun. He looked
at the horses and could tell by the flare of their nostrils that they
smelled it too.

When the door swung open with a bang, he knew something
was wrong. A man strode out, a white man, his hat pushed back
on his head, the brim of it looking like a halo as it caught the light
and illuminated his face. Two strides and he was off the porch,
another two and he had reached the dun, taken the reins, stepped
into the stirrup, and swung his large frame up into the saddle. He
had a young face, tanned and weathered and abused but no older
than his years. He set his gaze on the black man, and in that gaze
was a shallow anger that was red hot, that burned bright and for
a moment obscured the other anger, the slow heat that he carried
with him always.

You coming?

The black man didn't ask him where. He slipped on top the
paint and sat as if he'd never been off it.

A woman appeared in the door of the house. She was a creature
of considerable girth, cloaked in a dress that hung over her like a
cover over a piece of furniture, alluding to but rendering mysterious the shapes hidden beneath. She squinted in the sun and called
the man by name.

It don't gotta be like this.

The man spat and set his gaze on her. Those were all the words
he needed.

You always did have to be a hot-head, she said.

You ain't even seen me warm yet. With that, he spun his horse
to the east and rode.

The woman called the black man by name. You ain't gotta go
with him, you know? He don't own you. This ain't no slave country anymore, and we don't have no quarrel with you.

If the black man heard her, he gave no indication. He turned
and rode away from the ranch and didn't look back and didn't
squint, although the sun pierced to the back of his eyes. He fell in
behind the other horseman and rode in his wake toward the sun.

Part 1

THE BOY HAD MEASURED THEIR PROGRESS ACROSS THE land through the warped glass of the train's windows. He had seen it all unfurl, from the tidewater up over the broken back of the mountains, out onto rolling hills and into the old frontier, now pacified and peopled and farmed, and further still, through cities and small towns and finally out onto this great expanse, across which they traveled like fleas on a mammoth's back. He had even watched at night, while his younger brother slept against his shoulder and his mother contemplated thoughts of her own. He searched in the land's dark contours for things he dared not name aloud, and he held within himself a rage of voices that to the outside world looked and sounded like silence.

WHEN THEY STEPPED OFF THE TRAIN that afternoon, the boy couldn't help but stare over the crowd and out to the horizon. Looking to the west, he could just make out the geometric shadows that were Crownsville, that cowtown newly bloomed and thriving, connected to the East by a bloodline of iron and steel. To the north and south and back to the east the land rolled away in undulating nothingness. The grass lay heavy and tired from the beating of the previous evening's rain, and the April sky was not a thing of air and gas. Rather, it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie.

The train station was made up of several sod-brick buildings. They had crooked roofs out of which sprouted an abundance of green shoots. In front of one of these structures a motley array of men lounged, with expressions of indolent curiosity on their faces. The grass had been trodden down and thinned by the traffic. It was pockmarked with puddles and prints of both feet and hooves, and cut by wagon wheels.

“Gabriel, you and Ben help the men unload,” the boy's mother said. “Make sure we get all our crates. There's six of them. Count each one and stack them ready to load on Mr. Johns's wagon.” The boys didn't move, but she didn't seem to notice. Instead her gaze rose and roamed through the sparse crowd of people. “Go on and help, like I said,” she said, moving away a few steps. The trim of her dress dangled down into the wet grass and mud, but she made no attempt to hold it up.

Gabriel nudged Ben on the shoulder, and the two boys walked toward the freight car, carrying what hand luggage they had with them. Gabriel had just turned fifteen, although he looked two or three years older. He had a strong body, tall and lean, with the long legs of his nomadic ancestors. His wool jacket cramped his shoulders and impeded the swing of his arms. His skin was a dark shade of brown stretched taut across his features, as if the components of his face were growing more rapidly than the shell. His nose was thin-bridged, with a distinctive flair to the nostrils that was wholly African in design.

Ben was his younger by two years. They looked much alike in the rudimentary casts of their appearance, although Ben had a small indentation on his forehead, and his eyebrows were drawn in thin, wispy lines. He also moved with a nervous energy very different from his brother's brooding gait. His gaze bounced from object to object, out toward the fields, from person to person, and back to the enormous iron works of the train that had brought them so far.

The two boys saw to the unloading. Gabriel was quiet and respectful, yet only enough so as to avoid trouble. He counted the crates, inquired about a missing one, and soon had them stacked as his mother had instructed. This done, they climbed onto them, sat, and waited.

The younger boy said, “I reckon we're here.”

Gabriel was silent for a long minute. “I reckon we're nowhere.”

ELIZA JOHNS REJOINED HER SONS soon after. She had a gaunt face, in which one could trace the origins of her sons' russet eyes, their full lips, and the deep brown hue of their flesh. Her cheekbones curved upward in smooth diagonal lines, unmarked by scar or blemish. She was still beautiful in the eyes of men, perhaps more so now than ever, although years of quiet worry had carved an angular tension into her features. From her erect posture, her civilized clothes, and the demure manner in which she held her hands clasped before her, one might have gathered that she was unaccustomed to the frontier. But there was something determined about the way she set her jaw and surveyed the crowd unflinchingly which seemed well suited for a place such as this.

“You think he's not coming?” Ben asked.

“Don't be silly,” Eliza said. “He'll be here.” She reached over and straightened Ben's collar with a quick tug, then turned back and faced the crowd. “Don't expect the worst from people until they've shown a history of it.”

This answer satisfied the younger boy, but not Gabriel. “He better come. Couldn't pay to go back if we had—”

“There he is now,” Eliza said.

Gabriel looked into the crowd. It took him a moment to pick the man out, but he was there, Solomon Johns. He walked toward them with an anxious gait, dodging people and animals and the larger puddles. Gabriel cut his eyes away and studied the ground.

Solomon stood just over six foot three, even with his slightly stooped posture. His size was measured mostly by the width of his shoulders and the weight evenly distributed throughout his torso, a chest as solid as a lifetime of work could make it. His features were a bit irregular, thrown about his face by a casual hand: eyes set far apart, nose wide enough to all but fill the space, and a mouth small by comparison, although what it lacked in size it made up for in enthusiasm: “Eliza! Praise God you made it.” He strode toward her as if to lift her off the ground. Only at the last moment did he check himself. Instead of hoisting her into the air, he gripped her by the arms and searched her face, finding her features all and more than he remembered.

Eliza shared his gaze, smiling and nodding. They neither embraced fully nor kissed, but to the two boys watching, the exchange was so intimate as to be embarrassing. They lifted their eyes to meet the man full on only when their mother spoke to them. “Boys, what's the matter with you? Say hello to Mr. Johns.”

“Hello, Mr. Johns,” Ben intoned.

Gabriel moved his lips.

“Oh, boys! Look at ya!” Solomon reached out and ardently shook each boy's hand. “Lord, you two have grown. And it's only been a year's time? They do grow like weeds, don't they?” He paused and admired them, then turned back to Eliza. “I can hardly believe it. You're all here with me. Y'all came out sooner than I expected, but it sure does me good to see you. Now we can get this thing started for real.”

Solomon brought his wagon around, a small, rough-hewn thing of sun-bleached wood, led by a ragged mule with milky eyes. Eliza examined the wagon and the mule with a look of concern, but she voiced no comment. They loaded up quickly, Solomon talking all the time, Eliza and Ben prompting him with questions. Once packed, Solomon pointed out the blankets he had laid across the seat as padding for his wife. The boys had to climb up onto the crates and sit on that awkward perch as the wagon moved off in fits and starts, the wooden wheels sending jolts up through the crates and into the boy's backsides. This was a new reason for Gabriel to scowl, although his brother seemed hardly disturbed, so captured was he by the joy of movement, so amazed at the great open space that was to be their home.

THEY TRAVELED TO THE SOUTH, on a dirt road that was at first wide and newly graded but that devolved quickly into two irregular ruts. They followed these out over the rolling features of the land, passengers on scars that headed straight for the horizon. They passed many a homestead, squat earthen structures like forlorn warts pushed up from the earth, darker versions of the colors and textures of the fields that spread out around them. From a distance, it seemed barely possible that these were the homes of human beings. They looked more like sheds for mistreated and abused animals.

They passed a field where a young boy labored to drive a plow through the earth. A thin ox aided him in this effort, and yet their progress was slow. The strain on both showed in the desperation of their movements, as if each push were the last they'd be capable of. The boy's arms were bare to the chill air, his skin so pale it looked lifeless. He paused to stare at the passing family, a smirk on his face that seemed not an invitation to humor but rather an indication of some joke known only to him. He continued with his work a moment later, and was still at it as the wagon crested the next rise and rolled out of sight.

Gabriel turned his eyes to the back of Solomon's head. The man wore an old hat, narrow-brimmed and weatherbeaten, stained on the side where his fingers were likely to touch it in greeting. Gabriel hadn't seen this man in nearly a year, and before that he had known him for only another nine months. Watching him now, all the feelings he had nurtured from the start and over that long absence rose up again. This man had walked in over his father's freshly dug grave. Ever since, Gabriel had found something offensive in his gestures and smiles, in his words, and in the very nod of his head. Each kindness seemed a slight disguised, each touch to his mother's shoulder or back an infidelity.

Solomon drove with a relaxed posture, the reins loose in his hands, his head bobbing and swaying, seemingly oblivious of the thoughts of the boy just behind him. “This earth is tough stuff, I'll tell you,” he said. “Break a man's back, break a plow, break an ox's back for that matter. Sometimes, when you get a good bite into it, it lets out a ripping sound, like you're tearing the earth's skin and it don't like it. But there's good soil below it. You just gotta put in the work to get down to it.” He laughed and then fell silent for a moment. The creaking of the wagon and the turning of the wheels were the only sounds to be heard.

Eliza watched the backside of the mule, whether entranced or disgusted or just curious, it was hard to tell. She raised her eyes and scanned the horizon before them. “It's a wonder you don't get lost out here. Not a tree to be seen.”

“Oh, there's trees around,” Solomon said. He waved his hand to indicate their presence nearby. Gabriel followed his gesture with a gaze, but he could find nothing out there except more and more of the thick grass.

The sun set without ever having shone through the clouds. It slipped to the horizon, and the sky dimmed accordingly, with only a mute hint of watery orange to mark the sun's passing the rim of the earth. The family rode on into the night. Solomon assured them that it was not far at all. The mule could even guide them home of its own accord, so familiar was it with the land hereabouts. Ben entwined an arm in the crate lashings and managed to fall asleep, an awkward, rocking slumber, but deep nonetheless. Gabriel's eyes never tired. They stared out at the shadowy land as if challenging it.

An hour or so into the darkness, they broke out of the ruts and turned off to the left, soon settling into new grooves. In another fifteen minutes they pulled to a stop beside a shape of denser darkness than the night. Solomon was cheerful as he called it home and urged the others in and to bed. But all three of the newcomers found it hard to leave the wagon. They stood staring at the shadow before them, each seeking in the others' faces some sign of reassurance, and each finding none.

They stepped down and followed Solomon inside. For a few moments all was blackness, but then the man struck a match and lit a candle. He turned around with it in hand and faced the travelers, silent for a moment. He lit another candle, and the dimensions of the place began to come into view. It was a single room. The walls pushed into and cramped the space, making it feel much smaller on the inside than the shadow had indicated from the outside. It was smoky and moist and earthen all at once, with a smell unpleasant enough to contort Gabriel's face. From what he could make out, the walls flickering and unsteady in the candlelight, the room seemed more like a cave than a house. Beneath his feet, the floor was of hard-packed earth. There was a crooked table, around which sat chairs of the same design. Boxes and crates and undefined objects cluttered the room, barely leaving space for the iron stove that sat central to it, cold now and dead-looking.

“Well, I know it ain't much,” Solomon said. “Never did have the touch to make a place look nice. But it's sound, keeps the heat good, and the roof don't leak much.” He motioned toward the ceiling with the candle but then drew back as if afraid he might set it aflame, and afraid even more that his words were futile. “It's better you get a view of the place in the daylight. This here candle don't do it justice.”

No one responded, but Solomon kept pushing himself through the motions of host. He showed the boys where they'd be sleeping, in a corner, on bedding of straw and hemp. He seemed to find words harder and harder to create. He indicated the space Eliza and he would share, with a nod and an attentive study of her face. Their bed, small for two but made up neatly and displaying an old quilt, was separated from the rest of the room by a curtain.

Eliza asked no questions. She suggested that the boys go to sleep, adding, “We'll get a proper view in the morning.” She slipped behind the curtain before the boys could respond.

BOOK: Gabriel's Story
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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