As our fans and followers may have noticed, we have some exciting works of fiction due out this Spring. We’ve had the pleasure of working on them for months now, waiting for this moment—the time when we finally get to share them with you!
From now through 5:00 pm Eastern on Monday, January 18, enter for a chance to win one of five available advance reader copies of The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson. Fill out the form below to enter our contest and read this compelling tour de force before it’s published next month.
Also, click “read more” below to enjoy the first chapter of the work that former Kentucky Poet Laureate Richard Taylor has called “Edgy, often raw, original . . . arrestingly beautiful.”
On her first afternoon in her assigned post, delivered to her new office and home by the county judge executive, Dr. Chatterjee had to acknowledge that hers was not an auspicious beginning. The judge executive (so very American his title, with its seamless blend of government corruption and corporate inefficiency) had dropped her here, mumbled something about an appointment with the garbage collection agency, and vanished. In their one phone conversation before her arrival he’d told her only that, since the town had gone many years without a doctor, its men’s clubs (Optimists, Knights of Columbus, Fish & Game) had joined forces to acquire and refurbish “a former commercial site” into a medical office and living apartment. In the transparent light of a spring afternoon she could not escape the thought that she had risen to the bait in a trap.
In its first incarnation her office had been a gas station. The pipes and valves that had once serviced fuel pumps still protruded from the cement apron, a troubling sight, though she rather liked the weathered sign of the winged horse hanging from rusting hinges that creaked with every breeze. In the tiny waiting room with its speckled Formica countertop sat a telephone, a desk, and an oak office chair scarred with pocketknife carvings and cigarette burns. At the building’s other end: A small apartment cluttered with mismatched furniture. Here she would live for the two years of her term of service as specified in the contract under which she had retrained in an American medical school. As she distributed her meager belongings around the rooms she recalled the words Krishna spoke to Arjuna as he and his companions were banished from their forest home: Profit from exile.
She carried with her a hole in her heart. She would not describe it as a longing to return to the land of her birth—on this point she could not be more clear. Once, though, she had been whole and round—for better and worse she had belonged to a particular place, her family’s village situated on one of the many branching arms of the delta of the great mother Ganges. She lived in the assumption that the whole world resonated with her landscape of memory. Everyone knew and dreaded the brutal heat just before the monsoons came on; everyone knew the longing for rain and the joy of dancing in its first drops; everyone knew how tiresome it became, how troublesome to be confined in the village by flooded roads and turbulent rivers. Everyone knew the heart’s leap of anticipation at the news of guests and the crushing disappointment when some obstacle prevented their arrival.
She had not known then and could not have understood that in leaving she was cutting herself off from any possibility of knowing that kind of belonging. Now she was a wanderer, a planet, an exile, and as such one place was as good as another, though her experiences of cold and snow had persuaded her that she would trouble her wound less by living someplace warm.
On darker days she lived in envy. She did not envy them their big shiny cars or their brick houses or their television sets or even their plumbing—no. She envied their casual assumption of place. They walked on the land as if they knew the wide world in all its grandeur and heartache from these lumpy hills and snakey valleys. Having known no other place, they assumed—as she had once assumed—that all places were like their place. It was their unknowing that she envied—she who had grown up with the distant, palpable presence of the Himalayas presiding with calm majesty above the fertile plain; she who had walked the paths of the living, breathing jungle, and had seen that same green labyrinth of shadow and light burst into flame, while jets screamed overhead and she stared, unable even to run, transfixed in awe and learning that this was the way the world is, the only way it could be because the only way she had ever known. A neighbor’s child, whom she’d been charged with watching while her mother worked the fields, was struck by flying, burning debris and fell to the earth. In that moment Meena decided to seek a life in medicine.
Among her first local patients was a young, garrulous woman whose face was already creased from a lifetime of smoking. “You must feel mighty lucky to have got yourself here,” the woman said.
“Of course I am very fortunate.”
“Aint this the most beautiful spot on earth? You’ve been all over, you tell me.”
Dr. Chatterjee acknowledged that this place was very beautiful indeed.
“’Course, it’s getting ruined, but I guess that’s probably true of every place. People, they see we got a good thing here and they want to get in. Oh, I don’t mean you—you’re bringing us something important, but all those others—I don’t blame ’em, mind, I’d do the same, but even so. Every bird protects its territory.”
To go through life without a place—she who had been raised in a family whose roots reached deeper than the mountains. Compared to her people, the mountains were young—that was how she’d once thought of herself and her family. And here she was, placeless on the land.
On long slow Sunday afternoons the bright spring weather called Meena to take her first steps toward becoming American: she took to the road. During her retraining she learned to drive and had acquired a monstrous, rusting Buick Electra from the graduate student whose apartment she had taken. Recalling her conversation with the wild man with the cracked ribs, she set out to find the monastery.
A lightly traveled country road led to its ornate, rusting gate—Meena slowed to a crawl and craned her neck but she could see little more than the abbey steeple poking through greening trees rising above a nubbled cement block wall with a rusting metal sign women not permitted inside enclosure. Not far down the road she encountered a small graveled parking lot with a sign to the statues, from which she deduced that these, at least, were available to visitors.
At this time of year—high spring—the path made its way through delicately branching dogwoods and redbuds that lifted clouds of white and lavender against a budding spring green, with the last of the bright yellow daffodils underfoot. Along the way the monks had scattered fragments of a century of outmoded religious statuary—a grinning gargoyle peered from behind forsythia, a Virgin and Child poked from a clump of bleeding heart.
Meena climbed a small knoll to a copse of Virginia pines. In their midst a small glen sheltered a tableau in black stone—the apostles Peter, James, and John reclining in granite sleep while a few steps up the path Jesus knelt in agony, hands clasped to his face.
Some years back a large pine had fallen near the sleeping Peter and the remains of its trunk bridged a protected hollow. The monks had placed a bench at the edge of the statues’ clearing, but Meena chose to sit on the trunk of the fallen pine—by edging sideways she could dangle her short legs above the sheltered hollow underneath. She kicked off her squat black pumps and warmed her feet in the spring sun and closed her eyes. Here and only here, she decided, would she permit herself nostalgia for the watery green countryside of her childhood.
As a result she visited the statues at every opportunity, until an evening came when she sat on the pine and edged sideways and kicked off her shoes only to see them land in the midst of a coiling mass of snakes, impossible to count how many because where one left off another began, twisting and rising and falling. She screamed, a high-pitched fright.
“I’ll be damned. I heard of such a thing but I never seen it.”
Meena looked up to see Johnny Faye, gravedigger for golf carts and one-time patient, looking on. She composed herself. “And what sort of thing might that be.”
“In winter a rattlesnake’ll hibernate—the young know their mother’s smell and they’ll follow it back to the den where they was born. Then they coil up together to sit out the winter and don’t much move til spring. You give them one more warm night and a hot day and they’ll be scattered far and wide. But I’d wait a day or two before I come back.”
He took his walking stick and thrust it gently into the coiling mass. “Greetings, brother snakes. Summer is coming but not here yet. Welcome, sister snakes. You’ll need another day of sun before you’re ready to rumble.” Using the stick he lifted the longest and thickest of the snakes, almost as thick as his bony wrist and a good deal longer than his arm. It twisted in the evening light, its dark diamonds beads against its brighter brown hide—a living rosary. “A good walking stick comes in handy. That must have been one powerful prayer you was saying. I’d like to learn that one someday if you’d be so kind.” He bowed from the waist and pointed with his homemade caduceus. “I’d walk back in that direction if I was you. And I’d think about wearing jeans if you’re taking your religion outdoors, especially in these woods.” He replaced the snake among its relatives. With the tip of the walking stick he plucked one of her shoes from the pit and extended it to her.
She hesitated, then slipped it on, followed by its mate. She scooted from the pine. Once a safe distance from the pit she drew herself up. “Mr. Johnny Faye. I am a woman of reason and a doctor who has had quite enough experience of religion and its wars. If I am religious you may be assured it is in my own way, which demands peace and quiet and solitude.” She paused for effect. “May I make myself clear. Peace and quiet and above all solitude.”
“Is that a fact.” He laughed, not mocking but conspiratorial. Then he disappeared into the woods.
On these spring nights—the window of his cell propped open for the first time in months—Brother Flavian woke aching with emptiness and desire, but experience had taught him that he could wait his longing out. Reading Thomas Aquinas was an especially effective soporific, and when Flavian woke in the morning’s bright light all that longing had vanished like a bad dream. The lambent days passed in a flurry of busyness, undertaken less as a way of avoiding what one of the older, less embittered brothers called the challenge of the dick than as a way of dodging looming terror. Here he was thirty-eight years old and had never done so many things, most things, most everything—he had never touched another person in lust or in love, had never held a child of his flesh and blood, had made no money, had not seen God despite a couple of years right after his final vows when he had worked at it pretty hard and come up empty-handed. He had searched for God, all right, and had come up with only silence.
A day came when the afternoon stretched out empty as a hand, the devil’s playground. Seventeen years earlier, on his second day at the monastery Flavian had found the statues in their pine grove and he returned to them often, seeking solace. He set out to visit them now but on this particular day the statues offered only silent witness to his crisis and so he continued walking, to the far reaches of the abbey property, where he encountered a steep, north-facing slope, unfamiliar to him even after his years of exploring the abbey acreage.
He bushwhacked down the hill until he found a path that deer had worn on their ways to some source of food or water. The path led him through a dense prickly wall of cedars to the lip of a small creek. The stream was broad and shallow and carried enough water to enable the bordering water maples and sycamores to grow to great heights—they came together overhead to form a cathedral of green. In their center a bright oculus of sunlight illuminated a looping oxbow of the creek that cradled a small patch of bottomland. The broad shaft of light struck the creek bottom as if it were a stage.
Flavian climbed down the banks to find at the oxbow’s outer edge a sycamore with three great limbs that branched out low to the ground to form a hollow large enough for sitting, and the limbs were like arms, each with a branch where a monk might rest his elbows. He climbed into the tree and sat. He was in the habit of taking long walks to sit and think over troublesome conundrums, and on this day what he thought about was what to do with his desire, and with that damned manila envelope full of money. To give it to the abbot would require explaining how he came by it, a conversation Flavian did not care even to imagine, partly from embarrassment but partly because he had found the adventure he sought and was not ready to let it go.
As if catalyzed by his thoughts the Voice came climbing down the creek bank carrying a sack with long handles poking out, a big slobbery dog at his side. It took Flavian a moment to realize that he hadn’t conjured an apparition, that in fact the Voice—who had so monopolized his thoughts for days—was standing before his eyes. “What are you doing here?” Flavian asked.
The Voice shrugged. “You got your secrets, I got mine. The left hand washes the right.” He threw down the knapsack and set about laying out his tools—several varieties of hoes, a spade, a pick. He vanished back into the woods.
Flavian and the dog studied each other. He was a big lumbering galoot of a dog, a little too much in touch with his wolfish roots for Flavian’s taste—in his glittering agate eyes Flavian saw a dog’s heart and a wolf’s temper.
The Voice reemerged, this time carrying a plastic bag that he threw down and that spilled forth what looked like green, unshelled walnuts. “JC.” Flavian had no idea what the Voice meant, until he shrugged a shoulder in the direction of the dog. “Where he goes I go and vice-a versa. JC,” he said again and Flavian understood that he was being introduced.
“Hello, JC.” Flavian jumped down from his sycamore throne to pat the dog’s head.
The Voice nodded at the bag. “Watch where you put your feet. Bittersweet’s contribution.”
“My horse. We’re a little farming collective around here, everybody does his part. Nothing better for fertilizer than a nice aged horse apple dropped in the hole right before you stick in the set.”
“Oh. Of course.”
The Voice took up the hoe and began turning up the small patch of creek bottom. In the focused energy with which he set about the task Flavian understood that this was the first step of a process that had been some time in the planning. The hoe rose and fell, turning over the soft moist earth. The creek gurgled past.
“Um—you mind if I ask what you’re up to?”
“Not at all. I’m getting this plot dug up before the weeds take over. Two weeks from now it’ll be nothing but smartweed and sassafras saplings unless I get it turned up and planted first. Which I’m intending to do.”
“Hey—I mean, this is the monastery. Monastery land.”
“That’s why I give you that money. I’m leasing your land for my crop.”
“But I’m the abbot’s secretary. If he’d signed a lease on land out here I’d have seen a copy of it. Besides, we don’t lease small parcels.”
“Don’t I know it.” The Voice swung the hoe in intervals steady as a heartbeat—a few minutes into his digging and he’d found his rhythm. “You monks are leasing land to every rich farmer in the county but hey, you’re the church, your job is to help the rich feel good about robbing the poor but I figure no harm in a poor buck like me getting in on the deal so long as I meet the terms. Thus like they say the envelope. Or maybe you’re complaining about the terms.”
“No, you were very generous. I mean not that I counted it or anything. The good news is that now I’ve found you and I can give it back.”
“Didn’t your mamma teach you no manners? You caint give back a present, especially when it aint your present in the first place. It’s lease money for the abbot, to do with whatever he wants.”
“Look, I can’t go taking envelopes full of money from any stranger I happen to meet.”
“Why not? Aint that pretty much what you guys do ever Sunday in church?”
“We don’t take up a collection, we’re not that kind of place.”
“Because somebody else is taking up a collection and passing it on to you.”
“Whatever you want to think. But you let me know where I can meet you and I’ll give you that money back and then you can give it to the abbot yourself if you’re so hot to get rid of it.”
“I expect Sundays are as good a day as any. Show up any Sunday you’ll most likely find me here. But you tell the abbot I said to pass along that money to some deserving soul and be done with it. Like maybe to that pretty new doctor. You been in her office? She don’t hardly have a pot to piss in. Better her than another dress for his majesty the pope. You tell the abbot I said that and then you give him that money and save your worrying for something you can do something about. Like turning this little bit of creek bottom into a nice little vegetable garden.”
“You mind helping out a little? How ’bout you take the easy job.” The Voice picked up another hoe and tossed it to Flavian and for the second time in Flavian’s life he caught a flying object. “Here, break up the big clods, that’s all I want you to do for right now. Once we have the heavy work done I’ll bring down this little hand plow I have and make it sweet. Rows for planting corn and everything else in between.”
“Why would you mix vegetables with corn? The corn will shade them from the sun.”
“You’re the labor. You let me worry about management. You talk, I’ll listen. It makes the work pass.”
Flavian took up the hoe and began hacking away at the dirt. “I don’t really have much to say.”
“Everybody knows something about something. Or somebody.”
“Well, what I know about is God. At least, that’s what I was looking for when I came here.”
“You thought about looking under the table? OK, sorry, go on. I could stand to learn something about God.”
“What I know you don’t want to learn.”
Flavian considered this. Surely the point was to teach, both Jesus and St. Paul said as much. “Well, to start with, there’s no gray-bearded guy in the sky.”
The Voice made a noise of disgust. “Everybody knows that. At least, everybody who’s bothered to look. I know what there’s not—Nam taught me that. I want you to teach me what there is.”
Flavian found himself suddenly shy. “Look, I come from a school of thought that says you shouldn’t talk about God, that to talk about Him is to diminish Him because we have no language adequate to the conversation.”
“He invented the words. You think he would have left hisself out?”
“I see your point but I don’t know how to teach somebody about God without making reference to Him and I’m not comfortable talking about Him. Maybe it’s just the word.”
“So find some other word.”
“Some other word isn’t God.”
“From the way I look at it everything is God.”
Brother Flavian heaved a great sigh. “I tell you what. I’ll find some books or sermons on the subject and arrange to have them and that envelope left at any place you name.”
“I don’t got time to read. Besides I’d just as soon hear it from you.”
“To be honest I’m not the best person to be talking about God. I’m not much of a monk. I showed up at the monastery because it was that or be drafted for Vietnam.”
“Then you’re a smarter man than me. They called, I went. At least I come back alive, which is more than some guys around here can say.”
The Voice turned back to his work, which was fine with Flavian—anything was better than being quizzed on the subject that for too many months now had bedeviled his thoughts and dreams.
For a while they worked in silence. When Flavian had first arrived at the monastery, the community still honored the traditional division between the choir monks, many of whom were priests and had college degrees and held down the desk jobs, and the lay monks, who dirtied their hands in the fields. Flavian had graduated from college but had no formal theological training and so he had entered as a lay monk and been assigned manual labor. He’d hated it—hated the endless work and especially hated the dairy herd that furnished milk to make the monastery cheese. Many times the herd gave him reason to contemplate the phrase “dumb animal,” so often had the cows tried his patience to the point of wishing them all turned into hamburger.
But he enjoyed the camaraderie of the lay monks and took solace in the fact that, however miserable the labor in summer’s high heat or on winter nights so cold the snot froze in his nose, he shared the work with his brothers. Their community motto was Ora et Labora, Prayer and Work. They’d scrabbled for their livelihoods and depended on the yield from their gardens to pull them through the winter—potatoes and carrots and pears and apples buried in straw and brought forth in February, with each vegetable and fruit a distillation in miniature of the summer past. They heated with logs cut from their woods, sawed into chunks then hauled to feed their hungry furnace. They had been bound together in the fraternity of sweat.
Then the abbey sold off the draft horses and bought tractors and then it did away with the farm altogether, leasing its bottom lands to distant corporations and working only at the business of making and selling fruitcakes and cheese. The vegetable gardens gave way to trucked-in deliveries of canned and frozen foods. The monastery installed oil furnaces, gas ovens, air-conditioning. On all their acres of field and forest they kept only the dairy herd, and even it was endangered. At the end of the previous summer the abbey had been visited by salesmen from large dairy conglomerates who brought colored charts and graphs and demonstrated that the monastery would save a great deal of money by trucking in milk from afar.
Flavian had been all in favor of decommissioning the cows—he had been the first to use the word, in a memo to the abbot. They were not farmers but monks, he had argued, their lives dedicated to the business of silence. Over the next several months there had been a flurry of correspondence—Flavian had opened and read it—competing offers and counter offers from agribusiness corporations. The abbot played coquettish suitor to salesmen in distant cities. Rumors were rife that the dairy herd was slated for the slaughterhouse, even though without the cows not a domesticated animal would remain on all the abbey acreage except Origen the cat—not a single animal to disturb their silence.
In short order the hoe blistered Flavian’s amateur hands. He stopped—it was close on to Vespers, reason enough to quit. The sun had slipped down to the line of woods but it still gave forth enough heat that the Voice dripped with sweat. He wore a singlet of thin white cotton, sweat-stained and now soaked through so that it stuck to his back and outlined the bands of muscle fanning outward from his knobby backbone. When he raised the hoe his upper back took the form of a wine glass, with his muscles as its vessel and his backbone as its stem. He had shoulder-length hair that shone slick with grease but was streaked with sunlight even this early in the spring. A sprinkling of moles scattered across his broad shoulders—a negative of the Milky Way, a constellation in melanin, the cosmos in miniature. He swung the hoe with grace—Flavian marveled at his smooth, even repetition of the task, transforming it into a kind of litany of labor, the same formula repeated until it lost meaning and became an unconscious prayer.
The Voice stopped and turned the hoe upside down and propped its handle against a rock and rested his buttocks against its wide iron head. “My right side is killing me.”
“Your right side?”
“A long story. Stay away from golf carts is my advice if you want the lesson without the pain though I aint yet come by a lesson that got learnt without a little pain. Speaking of pain, you need to take a leak?” The Voice pulled down his zipper and pulled it out. Flavian looked away. “Go ahead, do it here if you got any need to. Anywhere right here in the bottom will do but around the edges is best. Once I get the plants in I’ll spray some wolf piss around.”
“Sure, you buy it in a bottle at the Big Store, best thing for keeping deer away. I’d sure like to see how they get a wolf to pee in a bottle. However they make it happen the deer know what it is and they don’t like it. But you know people piss does almost as good. I don’t know why they don’t bottle and sell that. That’s how the old lady knows it’s spring—I set out a milk jug next to the toilet.”
In fact Flavian did need to pee. He kept his back turned and his head bowed, only to look up from zipping up his jeans to see The Voice had his hand stuck out practically in Flavian’s face. “Thanks for your help, Brother Tom.”
Flavian winced at this casual reference to his first lie in what was becoming a swamp of deception. “Any time. But I have to go. I have to make Vespers.”
The Voice studied the sky. “Aint no clock time here. That’s why I come here. That and planting my babes.”
“Yes, well, you tell that to the abbot.” Flavian took the Voice’s hand. A warm grip of leathered horn—he would have no blisters. “You know, I never caught your name.”
“That’s because I never mentioned it.” The Voice grinned. “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are often seen in public places. That’s the last nun I had talking. Sister Mary Immaculata Schmuck. Fourth grade, I think she might have been. ‘Mind of your own,’ she told me, ‘but bad attitude.’ After her I was out of there for good. Come to find out she got me exactly right. Johnny Faye.”
“Johnny Faye what?”
“No what to it. Just Johnny Faye. Thanks for the help.”
And then Flavian climbed out of the creek and pushed through the wall of cedars to walk over the hill and down the lane, stepping smartly so as to reach the abbey in time for Vespers. As he jogged along he realized that now he could put a name to the Voice and that was something, on top of which he had figured out a plan to get rid of the manila envelope.
Excerpt from The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky.
Fenton Johnson is the author of award-winning fiction and literary nonfiction, including two novels, Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock, as well as Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks and Geography of the Heart: A Memoir. He is associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona and teaches in the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville.