Elaine Ford has published five novels, including Missed Connections and Monkey Bay. Her story collection The American Wife won the 2007 Michigan Literary Fiction Award. For her writing, she has received two National Endowment for the Arts grants and a Guggenheim Fellowship. New work appears in Chariton Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Family Chronicle, and The Flexible Persona. A performance of Ford’s story, The Power Cord, can be heard here. Her novel-in-manuscript, God’s Red Clay, has been excerpted in Arkansas Review and here at Wordrunner eChapbooks.
Excerpted from the novel GOD’S RED CLAY
Foreclosure means they find some reason to close in on you and then they do. Ben's pa got a letter from the bank and then rode Ike into Huntsville. When he came home, he said, "There's nothing more to be done. I can't hold the turkey vultures off any longer."
So Ben's family is going to lose their lands and their house. Ben has never lived anywhere else. He knows every tree in the woods, every stone in the crick. There's critters—salamanders, minnows, frogs—in the crick, too. He knows to keep an eye out for snakes and what to do if he's bit. Pa taught him how to use the shotgun, and he can hunt squirrels and possum when he feels like it.
Sometimes in Ben's dreams there's blood, somebody lying dead, he doesn't know who. It's dark and he can't see and his legs won't move. He wakes hearing his own screams in his ears. He's afraid to go to sleep because that dream is hiding inside his head, waiting for him.
After Pa talked to the men at the bank, Uncle Hawk said they could come live on his land in Limestone County and Pa could farm Uncle Hawk's forty acres. Uncle Hawk's a doctor, and his office is in the town of Athens. His overseer manages his negroes, and the forty acres are in corn, mostly. Some cotton, some wheat. Pa prayed on it and then said yes. So now Uncle Hawk will get rid of the overseer and Pa will do that work. The family's going to remove to Limestone, but exactly when Ben doesn't know.
Pa's selling the corn they were saving until next year's crop is in, because now there's no need to keep it. Uncle Hawk has his own corn stores, enough for them all.
A week ago Ben's other uncle, the one on Ma's side, got married again. Ben's family went to the wedding. Uncle Will Howard used to be married to Ma's sister Martha, but then around five years ago Aunt Martha died having her second baby. Ben doesn't remember her too well, but he remembers his mother's eyes red from crying and the big hole in the ground for Aunt Martha's coffin. Made him feel dizzy, like he was going to fall in. Now Uncle Will is sick himself. Consumption. In the buggy on the way to the wedding, Pa said that Uncle Will's marrying Rebecca Harris to get himself a nurse.
Ma placed her hand on his knee in a warning sort of way, but Pa paid her no mind. "Can't even take care of the child he's got," Pa said, "and now he's fixing to beget another."
Ma said in a hushed voice, "It's easier to judge than to be judged. You should know that, Tom, if anyone."
His pa snorted and laid the whip on poor old Ike.
Mary Ann, Uncle Will's daughter, is a couple years younger than Ben. She's been living with Grandmother Malone since her mother died, Uncle Will paying her board. Except not paying it, Pa says, just running up the bill year by year. Anyhow, Uncle Will's too sick to farm anymore and too poor to hire an overseer. That's why they're selling him the corn.
The three hands wrestle the barrels up planks into the wagon bed, Pa yelling and everybody sweating, twenty-eight barrels, one of them half full. At last they're ready to leave.
It's only Pa and Ben going to Uncle Will's plantation. Shadrack's running an errand for Ma. She wrote him a pass to go to Meridianville on Ike. The two other hands are busy sharpening the plows to make them fit to be sold.
Ben would rather be home with his brothers, doing lessons with Isham. Ben likes reading and learning things. But Pa said he had to come along on this trip.
It's February, warm for this time of year. The mules are lugging the wagon north. They swish their tails on account of flies. Over there’s the gravel pit and quarry, and yonder is Burwell Mountain. Isham says it's no more ‘n a pint-sized hill. He comes from North Carolina, real mountain country, so he knows the difference. A ways farther on there's cotton fields on both sides of the road, niggers plowing up the dirt. Scraps of cotton from last year's harvest are snagged on weeds. The sun's getting higher in the sky. Pa doesn't say much, sorrowful over losing his land, Ben figures. The mules are complaining about having to haul such a heavy load, whinnying and trying their best to dig their heels in the clay. Pa has to whup ‘m so they'll move forward.
When they get to Uncle Will's house his new wife comes out onto the verandah. She's a good bit younger than Uncle Will, and she has ringlets dangling down by the side of her face, not like Ma. She says Uncle Will's feeling poorly this morning, and Pa tells her not to trouble him, we'll just take the barrels of corn round to the barn. She smiles, but it's not a happy smile. She squints in the sun. Maybe she's already figured out what Uncle Will had in mind marrying her.
Near the barn there's a grizzled old nigger just lazing about. Pa tells him, "Unload those barrels, and be quick about it." Pa and the old nigger drag some planks out of the barn and get them set up at the rear of the wagon, Ben helping best he can. With a grunt the nigger clambers in. This isn't how he planned to spend his day. He's sour as vinegar as, one by one, he tips the barrels onto their sides and, groaning mightily, shoves them rolling down the planks.
"What do you think's going to feed you all year?" Pa says to him. "Pigweed? Plenty of pigweed in your master's fields, by the looks of them, Uncle. Better tell your women to make this corn last. Could be all you see for some time."
Pa clucks at the mules, giving them a taste of the whip, and they march forward to swing the wagon around, leaving behind the twenty-eight barrels lying higgledy-piggledy in the barnyard. Uncle Will, or somebody, will have to see that they're properly stowed. Pa reckons he's done with his end of a bad bargain.
On the way home at least the mules are happy, not having that big load to haul anymore. Pa says those barrels of corn are worth a dollar apiece, so Uncle Will owes him twenty-seven dollars and fifty cents. Howsomever, Pa says, he won't see a penny of it until Uncle Will is in the ground and his land and slaves and household furnishings are auctioned off to pay his debts.
"Dang it all, I need the money now," Pa says.
It can't be helped. Pa aimed to take the corn to the dealer in Huntsville, who'd pay him in cash, but Ma said it was Pa's family obligation to sell it to Uncle Will. Pa said Will Howard was no blood kin to him, and Ma said, kin is kin. She looked sad because Aunt Martha was her sister, so Pa gave in.
"You're my oldest son," he says to Ben. "I want you to bear witness. Twenty-seven and a half barrels of corn. That was the sum total I had to show for fifteen years farming this land. Now my stores are empty, wiped out."
Isham Culpepper is an itinerant. On his mule he travels anywhere the road takes him, preaching the word of God. He isn't licensed by the Conference, Pa says, not official Methodist clergy. Pa met him in chapel one Sunday before Christmas and they got to talking. Isham needed a place to stay awhile and Pa needed somebody to teach grammar and arithmetic to his three oldest boys, and so it ended with Isham riding his slowpoke ole mule along behind their buggy after the service. To make space for him Ma moved T.J. into Mattie's bed down the hall, and Bill into John's bed across the room. Now Isham's sharing Ben's bed. Sometimes when Ben wakes up from his bad dreams Isham talks to him quietly till he can get back to sleep. Bill used to just give him a kick and tell him to quit making such a ruckus.
Isham has big ears and hands and nicks in his face where pimples used to be. His hair is straight as his ruler and doesn't stay combed for more ‘n a minute. It has a mind of its own, Isham says. He's a cheerful sort of person, and Ma likes him, Pa not as much. Maybe it's because Isham's always telling funny stories about his travels, while Pa is thinking unhappy thoughts about the turkey vultures in the bank and grieving over his land. Isham teaches the boys about all sorts of things, like how to mount butterflies so the powder doesn't come off their wings or how to make different kinds of knots. Ben likes their names: manrope knot, granny knot, shroud knot, Turk's head… He likes the fact that each has its own particular use. "How’d you learn those things?" Ben asks Isham.
"Oh, just picked it up along the way."
Today, like every day except the Sabbath, Ben and his brothers do grammar exercises and work sums on their slates. Then Isham reads to them from Grimshaw's History of the United States, a tattered book he brought with him in his saddlebag. They're as far as Chapter III. Startling the boys out of their reverie, Captain John Smith is dreadfully mangled by an accidental explosion of gunpowder. Off the captain is carried to England to be cured, leaving the Jamestown colonists to their fate. Disappointingly, Grimshaw refuses to specify details of the "wretchedness" that followed: doing so, he explains, would be "alike superfluous and disgusting."
The boys' imaginations are inflamed. What, exactly, happened to the colonists?
"Perished," Isham says, "most of them. Hunger."
"I bet they ate each other," Bill says.
Isham moves on to the day's Bible story. This one is about Joseph and his coat of many colors, which Ben already knows from Sunday School. Jacob gave the boy the beautiful coat because, of all his twelve sons, Joseph was the favorite. Twice Joseph dreamed that one day all his brothers would bow down to him, and he made the mistake of mentioning the dreams to his brothers. Because they were jealous of Joseph and angry about the dreams, they ganged up on him and threw him into a pit. Then, for twenty pieces of silver, they sold him to some passing merchants, slave traders on their way to Egypt.
"A white person sold into slavery?" Bill asks. "Our Joseph's black."
"Any kind of person can be sold into slavery,” Isham says. “White, red, black, yellow, or spotted like a grackle's egg."
Ben always thought it's black people who are slaves because God in His wisdom made them simple, lesser than whites. Therefore it's the Christian duty of white folk to take care of them. That's what he learned in Sunday School.
Isham tells them how Joseph worked himself out of bondage by inventing a way for Pharaoh to save Egypt from famine. Joseph's brothers and father were saved, too. In the end, they bowed down before him, just as his dreams had foretold.
"Joseph got his revenge," Bill says.
"The story isn't about revenge, Bill. In Egypt Joseph said to his brothers: be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves. It was not you that sent me hither, but God. What the brothers had designed for evil, God had designed for good."
"So when we do bad things God is to blame?" Ben asks.
Buzzing, a fly trapped in the house beats itself against the window glass. Outside, the old dog Toby begins to bark for some reason. John's kicking the rung of his chair.
Isham knots his hands together. Ben can tell he's uncomfortable. "The brothers truly repented, and so must we."
"Lesson's over," Isham says, though Zilpah has not yet rung the dinner bell.
They'll be moving to Limestone at the end of March, Pa says, in time to get the cotton seed in the ground. Limestone's the next county over, where Ben's Grandma and Grandpa Ford used to live. Right near to Uncle Hawk's farm. But two years ago Grandma got sick and died, and Grandpa went to Vicksburg in Mississippi so he could live with some of his other children. Grandpa had twelve children, just like Jacob, except they weren't all sons. Most of them were younger than Pa and Uncle Hawk. How did they all fit in the beds? They must've taken turns. Ben remembers the hole they dug for Grandma, like the hole they dug for Aunt Martha. In his ten years Ben's seen many holes dug out of the red clay, and then filled in again, with a stone put on top so you won't forget who's down there under the dirt. But how is Grandpa going to remember if he's in Mississippi?
Yet again Ben dreams of a person lying dead, blood soaking into the grass, spreading like a flood. Somebody cries out, but it's his own self who's making the noise. His brothers in the other bed half wake, thrash about in their bedclothes, sink back into sleep. Ben feels Isham's warm breath on the back of his neck.
Isham's hands look big and clumsy when they're hanging down from his raggedy coat sleeves, but they can do all kinds of things. Write beautiful letters in a copybook, draw pictures, mount butterflies, tie knots, whittle, calm a dog or a mule, stroke Ben's back so gently he can go numb and not see the blood anymore. He loves Isham.
The apple tree by the side of the house is blooming, early this year, Ma says. It was the first thing she liked about this house when they moved here. Maybe the only thing. Ben knows it's an ugly house because Grandmother Malone says so: misbegotten, patched together, leaking in the rain and either stifling or frigid when it's dry. Ceiling beams you crack your head into, floorboards that drive splinters into the soles of your feet. Still, Ben feels bad when he thinks about leaving it. His heart goes unsteady, his lungs suddenly short of air. He's the oldest and should be the bravest. He wonders what's wrong with him.
Today is the day he and Pa are to take the field hands to Huntsville to be sold. These negroes won’t be needed in Limestone, any more ‘n the corn will, and Pa has to have the money. He can't start a new life without a stake, he says, and Hawk has chattel a-plenty. When the field hands are gone, Zilpah will be their only nigger.
They're going to Huntsville in the wagon because Pa sold the buggy last week, along with the oxen and the plows and most of the farm tools. Pa put a notice in the Democrat. Men came to the house and looked over the things in the yard and made offers, and Pa put the cash in his pocket. No more buggy, to go to chapel or anyplace else. So into the wagon climb Shadrack, Joseph, and Lewis, carrying their bundles. After them, Ben. Pa hands him the shotgun.
"If one of them takes it into his head to go overboard," Pa says, "aim for a leg. Don't want anybody killed. They're valuable property."
Ben thinks it's strange that a few weeks ago Shadrack rode Pa's horse to Meridianville on an errand for Ma and nobody thought twice about it, but today Ben has to carry a gun so he won't escape. Now, though, Shadrack knows he's not going to a revival meeting or to a nigger wedding or to sell his vegetables in the market, but to be sold himself. Probably end up in the slave auction in Montgomery, Pa said, and from there could find himself anywhere.
They're heading southeast on the road to Huntsville. It’s a warm spring day, corn coming up in some of the fields. Others are freshly plowed, awaiting the cotton seed. The mules clop along at a steady pace. Pa's quiet, not singing hymns like he usually does.
Ben, holding the gun across his lap, his back to his father, faces the three hands. He's known them his whole life, just about. Shadrack can mend anything pretty near as good as a blacksmith, understands all kinds of ways to treat sick animals, plays banjo better than anybody Ben ever heard. Dances, too. Shadrack wears a little sack on a string round his neck. There's things inside, he explained to Ben, magic things, to keep him safe. Bone, feather, root, coin. Ben hopes it works, wherever he's going.
Once Ma told Ben that the day his father got bit by the cottonmouth Shadrack kilt it, then helped her move Pa to the shade of an oak. Then he ran to the crick with Ma's shoes and brought them back filled with water for Pa. That oak is gone, and there's cotton growing there now. Or will be when the new family plants it. Ben would as soon not think about the new family living in his house, taking possession of his crick.
The three negroes, bundles in their laps, don't look at Ben or talk to each other. As far as Ben can tell, there's no thoughts in their heads whatever. Ben rubs his hand on the stock of the shotgun. It's walnut, smooth as satin, a little bit oily. Odd that a gun can be a pretty thing.
They're reaching Huntsville now. To Ben it's a city, but Isham says no, compared to Nashville or Natchez or New Orleans it's just a small town. Isham's only been to Nashville, but he's heard about the other places. They pass a row of stores, a smithy, a bank. That's the bank that's foreclosing. Pa will have to sign over the deed. He hasn't done it yet. "Land-grabbing bastards like it all done legal," Pa says. "Let them wait till I'm good and ready."
Pa stops the wagon in front of the courthouse and hops down to hitch the mules. Then he takes the gun from Ben and shouts at the hands to get on down off the wagon. Shadrack's banjo must be inside his bundle somewhere.
It's just past noon. In front of the courthouse door is the slave dealer, a short fat man dressed up like he's going to church, striped cravat and all. Pa hands the shotgun back to Ben. Then the dickering begins, while the three negroes stand huddled together clutching their bundles. Ben always thought they were big men, yanking at stumps or digging in the clay or hefting bags of cotton into the wagon. They don't look so big now. Ben tries to catch Shadrack's eye, to send him a message that he's sorry and doesn't want him to be sold, but Shadrack's staring down at his shoes. Finally Pa and the slaver agree on the price, and the fat man counts out the notes. Pa folds them over and tucks them into his vest pocket.
"Taking them to Montgomery?" Pa asks.
When Pa and Ben reach the wagon Ben turns around. The slaver is locking leg irons around Joseph's ankles. The others are already in chains. Ben doesn't know why he's so surprised.
Ben and Isham are walking by the crick after supper. Looks like it's going to rain. Toby, the old dog, wanders along with them. He's close to blind and sore in all his joints, but he sniffs with interest at dead leaves, rodent scat, trails left by creatures this morning or years ago.
"At chapel everybody's talking about the General Conference. Elder Simpson's going, all the way up to New York." Ben slaps at a skeeter. "I hope you're not. I don't want you to."
Isham smiles. "No worry on that score. I'm not an elder and not likely ever to be one."
"At the Conference the Methodists are bound to sunder themselves in two, Pa says."
"I reckon he's right. The North will go one way and the South the other."
"But how can the Church just break apart like that?"
"John Wesley deemed slavery an abomination, and Methodists in the North hold that view. In the South they think otherwise."
"What do you think?"
"Ah, Ben. I don't know that it's my place to think anything, not as a Methodist."
Toby has poked around in the brush, picked up some burrs. He nudges his muddy nose into Isham's leg.
"Fact is, I can't preach anymore," Isham says. "I found God for myself, but I haven't the gift to bring others to Him."
Ben can kind of understand this. Lately, when Elder Simpson lets Brother Culpepper stand before them in chapel and take part in the service, Isham's ears are on fire, his fingers tremble over the pages of Scripture, his voice squeaks and squeals like a fiddle out of tune. In the congregation, Ben suffers with him, word after stumbling word.
"Nor do I have the right.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I’m unworthy. I don’t have the calling.”
"Who says so? Did Elder Simpson tell you that?"
He shakes his head. "Nobody needs to tell me."
Ben figures Isham's not giving him the whole story. He kicks at a rock. "What will you do instead?"
"Something else, I guess."
"You're not going to Limestone with us, are you."
"Your pa would just as soon I didn't. I reckon he's right."
Ben picks up the rock, throws it as far as he can upstream, waits for the splash. It ends up not in the water but somewhere in the brambles.
One morning at the end of March, just before they start packing to leave for Uncle Hawk’s house, Ben wakes to find Isham's side of the bed empty. He's not downstairs waiting for breakfast, he's not in the privy. No, he's gone. Mule, too. Now Pa sees that the door to his gun cabinet is gaping open and the shotgun missing. "That scoundrel picked the lock and stole my gun," Pa says in a cold rage.
"Sometimes you forget to lock it," Ma says.
"What if I did? Sneaky bastard waited for his chance."
Ma frowns. She doesn't like it when he uses words like that.
"I knew there was something perverse about the man. Unnatural."
“You’re wrong,” Ma says.
What’s Pa talking about? Unnatural.
“Don’t contradict me, Anner,” Pa says, red in the face. “You know nothing about it.”
Bill asks, "Why's he need a shotgun? Never saw a preacher out hunting."
"He'll sell it, I don't doubt. Pocket the money, find some other suckers to give him shelter."
No, that's not what he's going to do. Isham would never, ever, steal to turn a profit. He must have had a powerful reason to take that gun. Ben tears out of the house and runs up to the road. In either direction there's naught to be seen, not even a stray dog or a crow pecking at carrion.
Ben has a suspicion Isham wouldn't go to Huntsville. Like as not he'd head north, cross over into Tennessee. That mule of Isham's is slower'n a yeller-bellied slider in wintertime. Maybe Ben can catch up. He hurries along the road, getting hot as the sun rises in the sky. And then, up ahead, he sees that ole mule, just dawdling alongside an abandoned field, munching on scrub growth. Isham's saddlebags are on his back, but not Isham.
He's lying a little bit off the road, face down. His head's a mess of blood and gray stuff and splintered bone. Next to him is Pa's gun.
"Isham," he whispers, though he knows he won't get an answer. Sobbing, he roots through the saddlebags. He finds a skimpy brownish blanket he doesn't recognize from home—Isham must've brought it with him to Madison County, from wherever he came from. As best he can, Ben tucks it over and around him, so animals can't get at his head.
The idea of Isham as a meal for evil critters makes Ben retch into the weeds. After a while, he uses dead leaves to wipe the vomit from his mouth and the snot from his nose. Then he runs home.
Pa's on the stoop, scraping mud off his boots. "Don't tell your ma," he says when he hears Ben's story.
"Because I said so."
After supper Pa and Ben pretend like they're just taking a walk, so John tags along, and the dog, Toby. In the near-to-empty shed they find a rusty shovel. "Lucky for us," Pa says, "nobody fancied it at the sale."
The mule's gone, wandered off. Bible gone with him and the ragged collection of schoolbooks, Grimshaw and all. Toby yaps at the body. John looks like he got thwacked in the chest, sucking for air. Why'd Pa let him come? Pa and Ben dig a hole, taking turns with the spade. After they shift Isham's body into the grave, Pa heaves in the shotgun and, grunting mightily, covers it all with dirt and clumps of broken vegetation. He says a prayer, something about a trembling spirit flying into a world unknown. Ben and John mumble Amen.
They don't say a thing about it, ever, even to each other.