AN OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB PICK. In the spirit of The Known World and The Underground Railroad, “a stunning debut” (Oprah Daily) about the unlikely bond between two freedmen who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever—from “a storyteller with bountiful insight and assurance” (Kirkus). A July Indie Next Pick. In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief...
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (June 15, 2021) Pages: 368 pages ISBN-10: 0316362484 ISBN-13:978-0316362481 ASIN: B08F72SMGG
About the Author: Nathan Harris holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. The Sweetness of Water, his first novel, was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Harris was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree in 2021. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
An entire day had passed since George Walker had spoken to his wife. He’d taken to the woods that very morning, tracking an animal that had eluded him since his childhood, and now night was falling. He’d seen the animal in his mind’s eye upon waking, and tracking it carried a sense of adventure so satisfying that all day he could not bear the thought of returning home. This had been the first of such excursions all spring, and tramping through splintered pine needles and mushrooms swollen from the morning rain, he’d come upon a patch of land he’d yet to explore in full. The animal, he was sure, was always one step away from falling into his line of sight.
The land his father had passed down to him was over two hundred acres. The large red oaks and walnut trees that surrounded his home could dim the sun into nothing more than a soft flicker in the sky passing between their branches. Many of them as familiar as signposts, long studied over many years from childhood on.
The brush George encountered was waist-high and coated with burrs that clung to his trousers. He’d developed a hitch over the last few years, had pinned it on a misplaced step as he descended from his cabin to the forest floor, but he knew this was a lie: it had appeared with the persistence and steady progress of old age itself—as natural as the lines on his face, the white in his hair. It slowed him, and by the time he caught his breath and took a moment to assess his surroundings, he realized that silence had overtaken the woods. The sun, above his head only moments before, had faded into nothingness over the far corner of the valley, nearly out of sight. “I’ll be.”
He had no idea where he was. His hip ached as though something was nestled there and attempting to escape. Soon the need for water overtook him, the roof of his mouth so dry his tongue clung to it. He took a seat on a small log and waited for total darkness. If the clouds gave out, the stars would appear, which was all he needed to map his way back home. His worst miscalculation would still guide him to Old Ox, and although he loathed the idea of seeing any of those sorry desperate sorts in town, at the very least one of them would offer a horse to return him to his cabin.
For a moment the thought of his wife came to him. By now he was typically arriving home, the candle Isabelle had left on the windowsill guiding his final few steps. She would often forgive these absences of his only after a long, silent hug, the black ink from the trees leaving faint handprints on her dress, irritating her all over again.
The log beneath him yawned and George’s rear end sank into the waterlogged mess. Only as he moved to stand, to pat himself dry, did he see them sitting before him. Two Negroes, similar in dress: white cotton shirts unbuttoned, britches as ragged as if they’d fitted their legs into intertwined gunnysacks. They stood stock-still, and if the blanket before them had not swayed in the wind like some flag to signal their presence, they might have disappeared in the foreground entirely.
The closer one spoke up.
“We got lost, sir. Don’t mind us. We’ll be moving on.”
They came into clearer focus, and it was not the words that struck George, but that the young man was precisely the age of his Caleb. That he and his companion were trespassing was beside the point entirely. In the nervous chatter of his voice, the eyes that darted like those of an animal hiding from prey, the young man gained George’s sympathy, perhaps the only morsel of it left in an otherwise broken heart.
“Where is it you two come from?”
“We’re Mr. Morton’s. Well, was.”
Ted Morton was a dimwit, a man who, if offered a fiddle, would be as liable to smash it against his own head to hear the noise as put a bow to its strings. His parcel of land bordered George’s, and when an issue arose—a runaway most often—the ensuing spectacle, rife with armed overseers and large-snouted dogs, lanterns of such illumination that they kept the entire household awake, was so unpleasant that George often deferred all communications with the family to Isabelle just to avoid the ordeal. But to find Morton’s former property on his land now carried with it a welcome irony: Emancipation had made the buffoon helpless to their wanderings, and for all his great shows of might, these two men were now free to be as lost as George was in this very instance.
“Our apologies,” said the man in front.
They began to bundle up their blanket, collecting a small knife, a bit of stripped beef, pieces of bread, but stopped once George started in again. His eyes wandered the ground in front of him, as if searching for something lost.
“I’ve been following a beast of some size,” he said. “Black in color, known to stand on two feet but usually found on four.
It’s been years since I saw the creature with my own two eyes, but I often wake to its image, as if it’s trying to alert me to its presence nearby. Sometimes, on my porch, I’ll be dozing off, and the memory of it is so strong, so clear, that it travels through my head like an echo, bounding through my dreams. As far as tracking it, I’m afraid to say it’s gotten the upper hand.”
The two men looked at one another, then back at George.
“That’s…well, that’s mighty curious,” the smaller one said.
In the last remnants of light, George could make out the taller one, a man whose eyes were so placid and displayed so little emotion that he seemed simple. His lower jaw was cracked open wide, revealing a hanging slab of teeth. It was the other one, the smaller one, who continued to do the talking.
George asked them their names.
“This here is my brother, Landry. I’m Prentiss.”
“Prentiss. Did Ted come up with that?”
Prentiss looked at Landry, as if he might have a better idea.
“I don’t know, sir. I was born with that name. It was either him or the missus.”
“I imagine it was Ted. I’m George Walker. You wouldn’t happen to have some water, would you?”
Prentiss handed over a canteen, and George understood he was expected to ask after them, investigate why they were here on his land, but the issue took up such a small space in his thinking that it felt like a waste of what energy he had left.
The movements of other men interested him so little that the indifference was his chief reason for living so far from society. As was so often the case, his mind was elsewhere.
“I get the sense you’ve been out here some time. You wouldn’t—you wouldn’t have happened to have seen that animal I spoke of?”
Prentiss studied George for a moment, until George realized the young man’s gaze was trained past him, somewhere off in the distance.
“Can’t say I have. Mr. Morton had me on some of his hunting trips, I seen all sorts of things, but nothing like you described. Mostly fowl. Those dogs come back with the birds still quivering in their mouths, and he’d have me string ’em up to the others, and carry ’em home on my back. I had so many you couldn’t see me through the feathers. Other boys would be jealous I got to go off for the day, but they didn’t know the first thing about it. I’d rather be in the field than have that load on my back.”
“That’s something,” George said, considering the image.
“That’s really something.”
Landry pulled apart a chunk of meat and handed it to Prentiss before taking one for himself.
“Don’t be rude, now,” Prentiss said.
Landry looked over to George and motioned to the meat, but George declined with a shake of his head.
They sat in silence, and George found their aversion to speaking welcome. Other than his wife, they seemed like the only individuals he’d come upon in some time who would rather leave a moment naked than tar it with wasted words.
“This is your land, then,” Prentiss finally said.
“My father’s land, now mine, one day it was to be my son’s…” The words fell away into the night and he began again on a different course. “Now it’s got me turned around and I don’t even know which way is what, and these damned clouds in the sky.”
He sensed the woods themselves taunting him and went to stand as if in protest, only for the pain in his hip to coil itself into a tighter knot; with a yelp he fell back onto the log.
Prentiss stood and walked over to him, concern in his eyes.
“What’d you go and do to yourself? All that yelling and carrying on.” “If you knew what hell this day has been you might yell yourself.”
Prentiss was near him now, so close George could smell the sweat on his shirt. Why was he so still? So suddenly unnerving?
“If you wouldn’t mind at least being quiet for me, Mr. Walker,” he said. “Please.”
George recalled the knife that had been beside the half-wit with such urgency it nearly materialized in the darkness; and he realized then that beyond the confines of a household, lost in the woods, he was simply one man in the presence of two, and that he had been a fool to assume his own safety.
“What is this about? My wife will be calling for help any moment, you do know that, don’t you?” But the two men’s frozen, desperate gazes were once again not on him, but beyond him. A whipping sound broke out at George’s side, and he turned to find a rope and the counterweight of a large rock beside it: the makings of a fine-tuned snare holding the leg of a jackrabbit writhing a few feet along the way. Landry rose up, faster than George might have thought possible, and gave his attention over to the rabbit. Prentiss took a step back and waved off the moment.
“I didn’t mean to worry you,” he said. “We just. We ain’t had something land in that trap yet…We ain’t had a proper meal in some time, is all.” “I see,” George said, collecting himself. “Then you’ve been out here longer than I first thought.”
Prentiss explained then that they had departed from Mr. Morton’s a week ago; had taken what little they could carry on their backs—a sickle left in the fields, a bit of food, the bedrolls from their pallets; and had not made it any farther than where they stood now.
“He said we could take a few things from the cabins,” Prentiss said of Morton’s minor generosity. “We ain’t steal a thing.”
“No one said anything about stealing. Not that I would care, he has more than a simpleton like himself could ever make use of. I just wonder why, really. You could go anywhere.”
“We plan to. It’s just nice.”
Prentis looked at George as if the answer was right before him.
“To be left alone for a time.”
Landry, ignoring them, had chopped the loose bits of an oak tree limb into feed for a fire.
“Ain’t that why you’re out here yourself, Mr. Walker?”
George was shivering now. He began to speak of the animal, how it had led him here, but the sound of Landry’s chopping interrupted his train of thought, and he found himself, as had been the case since the preceding day, reflecting on his son. When the boy was younger, they had walked these very woods together, chopping wood and making a play of such things as if a hearth, permanently aflame, was not awaiting them at home. With that memory the others streamed forth, the small moments that had bonded the two—putting him to bed; praying with him at the table, empty gestures with winks passed from one to the other like whispered secrets; wishing him off to the front with a handshake that should have been so much more—until they dissolved in the face of the boy’s best friend, August, having come to visit him that very morning with news of Caleb’s death.