As a River (book excerpt)

Sion Dayson’s debut novel, As a River, is forthcoming in September 2019. This is an excerpt from her novel, from the chapter entitled “The Flood.”

The Flood

(1944-1945)

Morning dew on the dogwoods, the maple trees, the shortleaf pines—at this time of year they could almost hear the moisture on branches crystallize into ice. The fresh chill blanketed East Bannen, but people still milled in the streets rather than stay cooped up inside. Wind blew through the cracks of their unheated clapboard houses; little warmth could be found in thin wooden walls anyway.

Miss Elizabeth, however, had gone into hiding. The whole town missed her at Sunday services, she the star singer. No one else in the choir could match her perfect soprano; there was no filling the void.

Elizabeth had not only shut her mouth, but shut down completely. Silent save the sobs that continued unabated for the near three weeks since Major’s body was pulled from Snake Creek, she’d been unable to shake the cold ever since emerging from the dark water. She felt as if she were still drenched, her garments dragging her down, heavy with wet weight.

Clayton Major Michaels wasn’t even from Bannen, a migrant come for the advent of the sweet potato harvest, but Reverend Smith had carried him down Main Street nonetheless, as a kind of warning to others of what might happen to lovers who dared to consort outside the confines of marriage, much less the confines of Bannen’s town limit.

She hadn’t joined the procession when they’d found him, but could feel when it passed her window, a shudder running down her spine. As they had marched by, the town shifted its gaze from the bloated body of this intimate stranger of hers to the sad façade of her shuttered house. Nothing stirred.

She didn’t know what became of Major’s body, where that horrible parade had ended. The preacher could have dumped him at the fork of the road, or neighbors might have seen fit to bury him with care under the red clay now hard from winter’s approach, but the story for her had already stopped; suspended at the river, forever the grave and memorial, where before it had been the site of their love, fast and deep.

Steady, one of the local drunks, the most poetic, claimed to have seen Miss Elizabeth stumble home barefoot in the dead of night with silver pebbles in her hair and liquid jewels adorning her body, inert swaddling clutched to her breast, eyes shining wild like a swooping screech owl’s. No one paid his ravings any mind, but it was the most they could piece together of why their knocks on her door were met only with grunts, how for several days running she refused to come out. She hovered in the kitchen, staring blankly at the damp pile scrunched tight in the middle of the table.

She couldn’t stay locked up for all that time without leaving eventually though; she still worked for the Thomases. The church ladies and the unemployed boys, they all would have dragged her out if she had ceased heading towards Highway 75 each morning at dawn for the five-mile hike down to where the Thomas’ driver picked her up. These were lean times, and no one had any right to decline an honest day’s pay, no matter the circumstance. Whether being at the white man’s beck and call was honest would later become a subject of public discussion here, but as yet, these were only private whispers behind closed doors.

And at that job, Elizabeth never spoke but was spoken to. Her silence in those heavy weeks of the drowning’s aftermath appeared unremarkable as she lifted toilet seats to clean and peeled potatoes for mashing. And in that large, icy house there were times when she had need to run to the nearest alcove to unleash the cries lodged in her chest, that lump sometimes hard as coal, then dissolving into something liquid, torrential.

And on that one day she had snuck into the man of the house’s personal study to seek solace and he had found her there, scolded and reprimanded, then somehow, as the brown room spun, she found herself gazing up at white lights and him on top of her.

She felt Mr. Thomas’ heat rising off of him, his clammy hands hike up her skirt. She stared at the ceiling, a stark unadorned expanse, like the vast emptiness she now carried inside. All around the room stood tall, somber bookcases. She imagined them tumbling forward, all of them at once, a cascade of books to bruise and bury her.

Anything to bury her, she suddenly wished. Yes, to his crushing weight. As if from far away, from some surprise store of the subconscious, she heard herself murmur not, “Stop,” but rather assent. Flatten me into the floorboards, grind me into dust.

Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

It continued like this—for days, for weeks, time’s meaning evaporating—she submitting, sublimating her sorrow in the nearest warm place; that the closest one within reach should be Jeff Thomas might have seemed risky, but for her, this was no real danger, this land of salt—the taste of him in her mouth, the sodium of her tears. The oh-ohs sounded like no-nos, garbled, like underwater, filling ears, eyes, brain. Filling her heart. Submerging it. My baby splashes, my baby dashes, my baby has the prettiest eyelashes…Major, his improvised songs, like the way he made love to her. On the spot. And now she, lying there under him, this other him, this white skin, unable to swim she sank trying to forget. And sometimes the shame of wanting to feel good because it hurt so bad would carry her far away like unremitting waves, like the ones that took Clayton Major, open and swallow, that river swallowed him whole. And like then, and like now, Elizabeth screamed, cried. River all over her face. Clawed, crawled, found and lost the shore.

Each time afterwards, she would cup her hand with water from the large basin in the bathroom and wash between her legs, then return to cleaning, broom or mop or rag in hand. The damp cotton of her underwear rubbing against her always reminded her, though. Never again, she would tell herself, but like clockwork, when he came looking for her, she repeated the same shameful scene.

“I thought I’d died,” she’d say when her breath returned.

“You’re all right, everything’s fine,” he’d say, not realizing she was disappointed she hadn’t. He didn’t understand that these little deaths of hers were tied intimately to her open wound. That he was not her lover, or her aggressor, or anything at all to her, for that matter. He held no position in her heart.

Since Major’s death, nothing lessened her careening sadness. Not wailing or crying, the pounding of fists. So she ceased the hysterics and instead did this one thing. All the unseemly heaving and sweating would displace her for a moment into some oblivion of forgetting, but just as quickly, memories would flood her again, and she’d curl into a ball facing away from him as soon as the act was done.

All Mr. Thomas knew was that he was witness to a cache of emotion he hadn’t known possible—the way she scratched and wept and pleaded for more. He sank deep into her vulnerability, licked her skin washed daily with lye soap.

He started seeking her out now, in the tired time between dusk and nightfall. He couldn’t name exactly what it was that propelled him, only that since that first day in his study when he had seen this savage, ravaged thing, he felt compelled to uncover her. Be amidst that earthy muskiness, over and under a body that when supine looks as fragile and inviting as any woman’s does. The revelation that she was in fact a woman. Strong, bronze. Her hair—coarse, thick. Real hair to tug. A lot suddenly seemed real to him. This woman who shook him, but would not look at him, awakened a passion he’d never experienced before.

In the evening he’d watch his wife Susan in front of the mirror, seeing the shadow of her nipples under the modest nightgown, her breasts rising as she reached up with her right arm to comb her auburn hair down her back, knowing she would soon be next to him, that hair spread out against the pillow, catching in his mouth as he turned during fitful sleep, and him feeling this strange sensation that she was just a body, just breath.

Things grow in time. Understanding, resentment. Evenings grew colder as the winter grew closer, light growing dim. The water, now dark in the night, radiated rings, Elizabeth stepping in up to her ankles. She unfurled Major’s shirt, wrinkled from being bound too tight for so long, and laid it flat on the water. Watched the river carry the last traces of him away. She reached down and picked up a piece of jagged feldspar, briefly letting its edges graze the inside of her wrist before releasing it from her grip, placing her hands on her belly. She stared at the silent waves, wondering how something could grow in all this grief.

More About As a River

Sion Dayson’s debut novel, As a River, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press in September 2019, and is available now for pre-order. From the publisher:

It’s 1977. Bannen, Georgia, nestled amid pine forests, is rife with contrasts: natural beauty and racial tension, small-town charm and long-term poverty. An unsettling place for a Black man who fled it years ago and has since traveled the world.

But Greer Michaels has to come home, to care for his dying mother. And that means he’ll have to reckon with the devastating secret that drove him out in the first place.

Greer’s story is intertwined with those of the people around him: His mother, Elizabeth, who once had a dazzling singing voice but fell silent years ago. Their neighbor Esse, who has turned to religion after her own traumatic past. Esse’s teenaged daughter, Ceiley, an insatiable reader with a burning curiosity about life beyond Bannen’s town limits.

Written in spare and lyrical prose, As a River moves back and forth across decades, evoking the mysterious play of memory as it touches upon shame and redemption, despair and connection. An exploration of family secrets rooted in the turbulent history of the segregated South, As a River is ultimately about our struggles to understand each other, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.

About the Author

Sion Dayson photo cropped portrait 250w.jpgSion Dayson grew up in North Carolina and earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Utne Reader, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, and many other venues, and her writings often focus on travel, living abroad, and her literary hero, James Baldwin. She has won grants and residencies from The Kerouac House, Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Stone Court Writer-in-Residence Program. Her popular blog paris (im)perfect explored the City of Light’s less glamorous side. After a decade in Paris, she now resides in Valencia, Spain.

The excerpt appears with permission of Jaded Ibis Press. Copyright 2019 Sion Dayson.

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