Clifford Garstang’s novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, is forthcoming May 14, 2019 from Braddock Avenue Books. This is an excerpt from the novel.
Why Aiken’s ancestor, old Dermot Alexander, stopped here in Turtle Valley and how he acquired the farm that once covered many hundreds of acres—now dwindled to just seventy—are mysteries that have never stirred Aiken’s blood. His father, though, when Aiken and his older brother Hank were boys, frequently spoke of the family history and collected whatever books and documents he could find on the area’s earliest settlers. There were colorful dissertations during Sunday dinner on the exploits of old Dermot—one that Aiken remembers involved an encounter with an Indian medicine man who cured Dermot’s youngest son of a fever they all thought would kill him—and speculation about the harsh life back in Ireland and Scotland that prompted their forbears to uproot. There were stories about a half-wit daughter who found gold in the streambed, rivalries among Dermot’s sons that occasionally erupted into fistfights, and speculation over what really happened to Dermot the day he wandered off into the hills.
“Here’s what I think,” his father had said during one of those Sunday dinners. “I think old Margaret got tired of Dermot’s running off to go fishing or hunting instead of tending to the fields, and she cast a spell on him. But the gol-darn thing backfired and he just disappeared. Poof, in a cloud of smoke.”
“You mean she was a witch?” Hank asked. “A real witch?”
“Stuff and nonsense,” their mother said.
“That’s what they say,” their father said, winking at Hank.
“There’s no such thing,” Aiken said. “That’s just a made-up story. There’s no such thing as witches.”
“Then what happened to Dermot?” Hank asked.
“Probably he got tired of being a farmer in this dump and took off for the big city. Can’t say’s I blame him.”
His father had glared at him. The story—and dinner—came to an end.
Hank had been as passionate as the old man, asking questions about their ancestors and cousins and far-flung relatives, constructing a chart that looked to Aiken less like a family tree than a clump of interconnected bushes strangled by creeping vines. When Hank died, their father packed the books and charts away, and now rarely talks about the past, distant or otherwise. It’s as if, for him, the family ghosts, once as alive and real as the rest of them, died along with his namesake.
For Aiken, whose brand of curiosity makes him look forward, not back, the house is and always has been just a place where he was born and grew up. It had stopped feeling like home a long time ago. And now it’s simply a place where he’s going to sleep until he gets his life turned around.
His mother, he knows, feels differently about the house. As dilapidated as it is, the structure far surpasses her family’s cabin in the hills of Southwest Virginia. Her grandfather on one side was a coal miner, on the other, a preacher. Her father, when he had work, was an auto mechanic, and the rest of the time wandered the countryside offering his services as a tinker. Neither one brought in much money. She and her brothers and sisters grew up in a single room and slept dormitory-style in a loft, while their parents occupied the one bed down below. So she takes pride in the big farmhouse. Falling down it might be, but the place is clean, the bathroom is indoors, and the roof doesn’t leak.
Aiken has always wondered why his mother didn’t reach out to Soon-hee, a girl from a background in many ways similar to her own. Growing up, he often heard his mother’s wish that one day Hank would marry and bring his wife home to raise children in the sprawling house. As the first son, that was his duty: to carry on the family tradition and name, to fill the house with laughter and running feet, to produce offspring who would help with the never-ending chores that a farmhouse spawned—scrubbing linoleum, polishing the pine planks in the dining room, washing three stories of windows, doing the canning and the laundry. That’s how things were done in her family, and in their neighbors’ families, the homeplace with its blessings and burdens passed down from eldest son to eldest son. But Hank was gone, and, when Aiken brought Soon-hee home, he’d expected to take his brother’s place in that vision, whether he wanted it or not. His mother would turn this pretty Korean country girl, no stranger to hard work, into the daughter-in-law she’d always talked about. And they’d raise their children here, a new generation of Alexanders.
He’s still not sure what happened after the initial warm welcome, but he suspects his cousin Tammy had something to do with his mother’s change of heart, as if, by dislodging Soon-hee and Aiken, she might find a spot for herself in the family home. Not that she would. It was true that his mother sometimes treated Tammy like the daughter she never had, gossiping over coffee, giving her the occasional gift of a scarf or stockings, sharing produce from her garden, or recipes. But they weren’t close. More than once Aiken had listened to his mother criticize Tammy—her smoking, her endlessly changing hair color, her foolish Nashville dreams, her skirts that barely justify the name, the new tattoo that had recently sprouted on her calf—and Aiken couldn’t imagine Tammy being any more welcome in the house than Soon-hee.
“You and the girl will be happier in your own place,” his mother had said to him only a week after he and Soon-hee arrived from Korea. “I’m sure she doesn’t want to live out here in the sticks.”
“She’s from a tiny village, Ma. She hated Seoul. Cities give her the creeps.”
“Stillwater’s not exactly a city, Aiken. It’ll suit her.”
End of discussion. She didn’t want Soon-hee in her house any longer than necessary. They had to leave.
Which was fine with Soon-hee. She had told him more than once, usually in a whisper even when they were alone, that she was afraid of the farmhouse. Not afraid of his mother, which Aiken would understand, but of the house itself, of its creaking, slope-floored wings and rickety porch, the shutters that banged in a storm, the roof shingles that occasionally flapped loose and landed in the yard with a gut-wrenching slap. “Make noise,” she said, maybe speaking of the banging pipes and the hissing radiators, or the moaning walls, or the rattling windows. “Too big,” she’d said. “Too tall.”
She might have thrived in the country, with more room for her garden. She would have loved roaming the rocky hillsides that reminded her of Korea. But the minute he landed a job—as a janitor at the high school, not exactly his dream, or his parents’, but a way to pay the bills—they moved into town, into that little rented cottage, far from his mother, far from the farmhouse.
Clifford Garstang’s novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, is available to pre-order.
This excerpt appears with permission of Braddock Avenue Books. Copyright 2019 Clifford Garstang.
About the Author
Clifford Garstang is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, the author of the novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, and the short story collection In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, a three-volume anthology of stories set around the world. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea and an international lawyer, Garstang lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Also read the story “Downhill” by Clifford Garstang in Cagibi Issue 3.
Author photo by Miscellaneous Media Photography.
Cagibi Issue 5