Writer in Residence · 08/28/2013

The Waters

Here’s an excerpt from the long-awaited second novel from Charles McNair. I loved Charles’s first novel, Land O’ Goshen, which was set in a near-future distopic Alabama. This chapter from Pickett’s Charge gives us a glimpse into the surreal world of the novel. Not only is Charles a fantastic writer, but he’s a centerpiece to the Atlanta literary community, and a true Southern gentleman.

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Flock by flock, the birds went away.

The great blue herons rose first. In Threadgill’s view, these sentinels seemed always the most aware of the island’s creatures.

Threadgill lay in the sand under bladed palmettos. Flies swarmed his wounds, but he could not muster the will to shoo them. A fever from the alligator lacerations flowed like snake poison through his body, looping round and round, a coiling cold. The sounds of snuffling beasts and crying wind outdid the drummy thrum of fever in his head. Threadgill saw visions, felt the touch of sun and moon and creatures and inhuman things.

What made him even notice the blue herons? Maybe their beauty—Threadgill sensed the shadows of the first dozen or so of the great birds as they left off their priestly rounds and flapped sloppily up from black-mirror wading pools. Despite their great fanning, somehow these enormous creatures with their four-foot wingspans never even stirred the Spanish moss that clouded high branches.

Threadgill squinted into bright air. The birds looked beautiful, long, elegant. He felt something in him stir, a will to join them, to just fly off.

The blowflies landed on his lips. He blurted them away, a noise like a sob, a curse.

Next, Goat Island gave up songbirds. These departed almost by musical sections—thrashers, jays, finches, warblers. Threadgill felt as if he lost parts of his hearing one layer at a time.

The island grew quiet. He managed to raise his torso on mangled elbows. Threadgill perceived small flocks of heavy-beaked crows and red-headed woodpeckers as they moved away in colorful clouds, one bush and branch to the next, headed in fits and starts for the mainland. All moving away from the gulf.

The gulls passed over, white as the blown-loose pages of books.

Now Threadgill felt a real unease. The flies left him too, one by one buzzing up from the scores of scabs and open wounds where his skin had once held him together. Like that, his wounds breathed clean air.

Without the weight of the insects, his body lightened, almost floated.

A constant wind from the southeast grew stronger and stronger. The trees wagged their fingers, scolding.

What in the world was happening?

Threadgill painfully turned his head to the gusts. His red beard fluttered—his chin whiskers had lengthened and flushed out now, after all these days on the island. Since the alligator mauling, a part of the beard had prematurely silvered, like Spanish moss in moonlight.

Threadgill could better see the mysterious bird departures now. He found to his dismay that color left the scrub all around him, bright flocks zinging like grasshoppers, winging away through hard sunlight and soft shadow, into and past the cool arcades of oak limbs, then over open water toward Mobile and the mainland. Now he wasn’t only losing his hearing. Colors vanished too.

Overhead, in a deep white V that arrowed through the firmament, a flock of cattle ibis flapped inland. A reed marsh coughed up one last cloud of redwing blackbirds, and they went boiling away too, growing small as a gnat swarm before they disappeared altogether into the distant green sawgrass of the mainland.

Mallards whirred, wings beating hard, necks stretched. More birds chased them—a flock of coots, threes and fours of wood ducks, black cormorants. Terns flew extremely high over the other birds, a scatter in darkening sky. Pelicans passed too, long filades that made their own V, fifteen birds at a time, their wings so close to the water that Threadgill could swear only magic kept them off the roughening bay.

Sparrows swarmed off, an endless rocketry of them, soundless but for an eerie applause of beating wings. A red cloud of cardinals flushed from a camphor tree. Curlews and sandpipers skittered in and out of the dollar plants and railroad vines and sea oats, coming at last to the beach. Their feet wrote strange warning letters on the sand. They launched just in time to avoid a splash of ocean foam at its highest point up the hissing beach.

Finally, the ospreys sailed over Threadgill, their scimitar shadows cutting the clouded light fast as an eyeblink. These predators today ignored the gulls and skimmers and other birdlife that would normally have been easy meals, a sudden bomb-burst of feathers in the sky, a shrill scream drifting.

What in the world? Threadgill wondered—had he missed some signal? Were all the world’s birds migrating this single day?

He had witnessed events of surpassing strangeness in his time on Goat Island. He once saw a wooden ship ablaze from stem to stern, passing the island in the deep night, and he marveled at how the metal parts of the ship glowed white-orange like hot iron in a blacksmith’s forge. Little dark man-shapes fell, burning, off the sides into its fiery reflection in the bay.

Another night, Threadgill saw a shooting star that split into three smoking chimes, a trick from a genie’s hand. These triple bombs exploded in wracking, spectacular whitebursts over the phosphorescent bay.

Threadgill even once saw some kind of sea creature, black as a hole, rise from the ocean nothingness into yellow moonlight on a summer evening. Amazed, he watched as lesser fish—were they dolphins?—circled in joy around the leviathan. Sea birds settled on its back and walked the beast’s spine like old sightseers. Threadgill could make out that a great fishing net draped one end of the thing. He watched the dolphins pick at the net, tugging and fussing, until the rotted bonds finally fell away. At that instant, the dolphins vanished, the birds rose, and whatever the deep-sea thing was snorted and blew a plume of white steam from its head and sank into the sea.

A man remembered anything here on Goat Island that changed the rituals. Even while he struggled to stay alive, nursing wounds that needed more than hope, the sameness of night and day, tide and beach, animals on their rounds, gave Threadgill a way to measure the life left in a day … and inside himself.

Still, Threadgill had never seen anything like this morning—the birds of his island leaving so fast for Mobile and all points inland.

It could be migration. Threadgill fixed the sun and tried to measure how many days until Fall. The evenings came sooner now, and sometimes night had the ghost of a chill. Maybe this year the birds went away early. Maybe today marked the day they lifted up together and waved their wings goodbye.

Threadgill turned his injured head to one side. To his surprise, he now saw other island animals joined in the freakish behavior. Ghost crabs, pale, scuttled up the beach toward the bushes. Threadgill could see them climbing like spiders into the limbs, so many that they weighed the branches down, hung like little white apples.

A raccoon chattered past, then two more. A thing with a shell that he’d never seen before, a small round animal that looked like a sailor’s concertina, snuffled past. Threadgill was amazed to spot an otter, galloping in a curvy run up from the surf and toward a hole high in the root ball of a toppled cypress.

Most surprising of all—most disturbing to Threadgill suddenly—was the boldness of a pair of wildcats. Those were the most reclusive animals on the island, and Threadgill gaped as two mates padded up the path towards him, approaching to a point only feet away before uneasily slipping off the trail. With a relieved exhalation, Threadgill watched the pair grapple up the trunk of a lonely lightning-blasted oak.

The big cats disappeared, slipping entirely from view into a hollow shaped like a man’s screaming mouth. Threadgill then witnessed something utterly improbable—a gray squirrel scrambled up the same trunk and tucked into the same hole with the cats. In a few minutes, so did a sleek opossum, climbing slow and fat and steady.

Threadgill strained to hear furious sound as the cats mauled their natural prey. But he heard nothing. In fact, after a few moments, he was astonished to see the little gray squirrel peek out of the hollow, look at him straight in the eye, scold the heavy sky, tut tut, then pop back down the chute.

One of the wildcats poked up its head next. It stared balefully, eyes green as lanterns on a passing ship. After a long, steady appraisal, it disappeared back into the hole without a sound.

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Fever. Delusion. Hallucination.

The poison of the alligator attack surely ravaged Threadgill’s poor brain. What else would make a man see such impossible things?

Threadgill felt a cold knot of fear at the bottom of his windpipe … just where he once made words. He knew speech didn’t matter now, words would prove useless to any purpose in the universe.

A wave raced all the way up the beach to where he lay and licked his torn foot, tasted his flesh and blood.

All at once, he understood. The rising wave finally taught him.

It all boiled down to will now. The will to do as all the animals did. The will to get up and move to higher ground, to heights. To live.

Something terrible would happen soon.

His wounds did not matter.

He would die if he did not get to high places away from the water.

A fear rose in Threadgill that actually lifted him to his feet—he felt the old emotion grasp the scruff of his neck and jerk him upright. Crusted gashes and lacerations popped and hollered, opened little yelling mouths of pain. But Threadgill also found a stick in his hand and staggered with it, swinging crazy around its maypole, down the island path to find a higher spot.

What place could a man go here?

He walked until a black cloud and stinging rain struck and then he crawled to find the way.

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Threadgill rose fast from the bottom of a river of pained sleep.

He reached surface to find the wind blowing very hard, steady all over the world, leaves flattening, branches fending gusts like matadors.

How many hours had he been under water, under the exhausted dream, the fever? The sky looked completely black, and rain spattered his simple hut, squirting through the cracks in places.

A noise startled Threadgill. He jerked around painfully to see one of the island’s foxes—the pretty, long-nosed vixen that lived in the reeds on the south end—hassling loudly in the doorway of his palmetto hut. She looked at him strangely. Did she mean to come inside the hut? Her little black eyes shone in the red fur, and her worried whiskers twitched drops of rain.

In a moment, she trotted away, looking back once to see if Threadgill followed.

At first, he did not. He lay flat, eyes glazed, and watched her sideways as she trotted nimbly down a path and into the troubled overgrowth. Threadgill got her message now. The hut would not be safe enough. He could still find a way to live. He had to do what the other animals did.

He opened up his wounds again and heaved to his sandy bleeding feet and hobbled out into the cold rain. By now it had turned so dark Threadgill had trouble seeing the path the fox fled, and with certain gusts he felt the rain might take the little remaining hide right off him. Sand scoured him one gust, then raindrops, stinging hot then stinging cold in the same single whip lash of wind.

The vixen led Threadgill to an old shell mound, a mysterious rise in the flat landscape of his little barrier island. Thick grass flattened and hissed along its top. Here rose one of the few spots on the island where real grass grew, deep and luxuriant. And among the high blades, nestled like lambs in a summer field, lay a startling menagerie—foxes and opossums and tiny gray mice and a mother raccoon and her babies. Threadgill limped on his stick a few feet closer and saw a pair of wide-eyed marsh rabbits, a big gopher tortoise with a gaping beak, even a shivering green heron with a malformed wing.

Against all odds of nature, some common survival instinct countermanded the lusts and enmity and hungers of the tough little island animals. Their hostilities lay by the wayside. Some threat now loomed so terrible it changed all Goat Island into a peaceable kingdom.

The red vixen slipped up the side of the mound, curled herself snugly into a ball. She lay down to wait with her nose in the grass, her sides heaving nervously, and she closed her eyes. Threadgill noticed then for the first time that she had fox kits huddled in the circle her body formed.

Threadgill crawled onto the mound on trembling hands and knees and lay down with the little red vixen curved into the hollow of his own torn body. He closed his eyes and imagined what the end of the world would be like. He thought yet again of poor Ben, that hot dry death in Georgia. This death, tonight’s flavor, would be very different. When it came to destruction, the universe seemed to find no end of creativity.

The hills around Threadgill this night would differ from those of Georgia. Tonight’s peaks would grow no trees, hold no rocks. They’d be gray and wild with foam. Wind-blown spray would blast them hard as buckshot and those mountains themselves lunge at the land with frightening speed.

Threadgill laughed out loud suddenly.

It was a sound so surprising it startled even him. Every one of the beasts on the mound raised a head and cringed in fear, some halfway to their feet, ready to skedaddle. Most of them had never heard Threadgill make any sound at all, other than the tramping shuffle of his bare feet and the unruly noises of his island work.

“Storm coming, y’all!” he whooped, crazy with something in the air. “God damn it!”

He felt drunk—at least he guessed this was how drunkenness felt. He flailed a long arm southward—the gesture brought every animal bolt to its feet.

“Think Threadgill Pickett don’t see what’s about to happen? I might of been born at night, friends … but not last night.”

He howled with laughter and fell back, suffering, his bare back flat on the cool grass. The rain fell hard onto his face and eyes. Out in the woods, he heard something enormous splinter and tear away, a branch or trunk ripped down.

Threadgill felt the hysteria pass, and a calm settle over him. He tugged his hat down over his eyes, its brim dripping.

Here is what would happen. Here were his options.

He could sink. He could swim. He could live. He could die.

All around him, Threadgill could feel and hear the little animals gradually settle again. He looked at them. Their little heads seemed bowed in prayer. For a crazy impossible moment, the sun burst out of nowhere and burned heroically overhead. Threadgill watched it just that long. He wondered if it would be the last time he ever saw sunlight.

He could easily cross the border and pass on into the gray mists now, like his brother. He could follow so many others. The grotesque soldier he found by the roadside in Georgia. Poor pretty Eva. His momma, and his father, and his lovely Aunt Annie.

Threadgill felt something sharp against his foot.

He looked down, frowning. Without realizing it, he had scraped with his bare foot down into the top of the mound. A big clump of cover grass had come away, and Threadgill’s heel rattled a collection of old clamshells underneath. The insides of the mound poured out, in fact, as he idly worked the opening, the bleached shells spilling like pieces of eight from a ripped treasure bag. With a few nervous kicks, Threadgill undid the work of hundreds of years of Choctaws, the dumped baskets of clam shells that had formed this mound pouring away.

The wind screamed and leaves and bay foam whipped past. So what? Threadgill refused to make his foot stop. In the morning, the whole shell mound could be on the bottom of the sea fifty miles out. Threadgill pictured his scarecrow body rolling along on a sandy bottom somewhere, studded with hungry blue crabs like medals.

That moment, his foot felt a sharp sting. He jerked it back. Blood ran from a new cut along his instep, not deep but clean and painful. How about that? Threadgill marveled he even had any blood left after the alligator mauling. What a thing, a man’s body …

The animals spooked slightly again as Threadgill struggled upright to see what had cut him. The wind pasted the brim of his gray hat flat against his forehead.

A metal edge glinted in a quick flash of lightning. Threadgill yanked, and the clam shells parted with a noise like spilling marbles. The youngster extracted something from the loose heap. He pulled, and it came out and out and still kept coming.

The wind gave a mad howl now, blustering, and the Spanish moss overhead stood straight out from frantic limbs before it tore away in gobbets and whipped off into the wet night.

Threadgill marveled. Brown with age and corrosion, an old Civil War sword lay across his lap. He raised it in the air and the blade cut a musical note in the wind. The sword curved slightly from point to handle, and its handle flared outward like a hoop skirt.

Just under the sword’s quillon, the calcified bones of a hand still gripped the handle, brandishing it righteously even now, years after probable death in a sea battle and transport by wave and unlikely burial in this place.

The little collection of animals stared in bewilderment at Threadgill.

One of the raccoons even bolted from the mound. Threadgill watched the masked creature disappear into the tangles of sea oak, now flat and trembling under the wind. Regret brimmed in him.

He lay the sword down to keep from scaring the other creatures. Then he stretched out beside it, almost on top of it, his arm shielding it.

Now he had a weapon. Now he would wage war against wind. He vowed he would never die without a fight. He vowed he would live forever, if it took that, to pay back the pain that Ben felt, that he’d been forced to suffer. What did he ever do but be born? Why did he deserve the wounds, the hurt?

Threadgill may have dreamed it, but for hours and hours he stood on top of the mound, slashing at the wind and the water. He hacked the heads off countless waves, and severed one monstrous gust after another. The wind blew every stitch of his clothes off as he fought … all except the old yellowhammer hat, which would not let go.

Finally wind and a great wave swept Threadgill away entirely, out into the night, over and over in the dark, bound for glory, the sword lost, everything lost.

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Charles McNair is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Land O’ Goshen. A native of Alabama, he currently lives in Atlanta where he writes full-time, combining freelance literary duties with assignments for corporations and businesses, including “Power of Storytelling” workshops. Since 2005, he has served as Books Editor for Paste magazine and shared his reviews on Atlanta radio station WMLB 1690 AM. He is currently at work on his third novel, The Epicureans. Visit Charles online at charlesmcnairauthor.com .

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posted by Jamie Iredell