Excerpt

Behind the Moon

Madison Smartt Bell

June 2, 2017 
The following is from Madison Smartt Bell’s novel, Behind The Moon. This story follows Julie, who skips school & heads out with her friends for a camping trip in the desert, where she finds herself the target of unwanted sexual attention. Madison Smartt Bell is best known for his trilogy of novels about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, including All Souls' Rising, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He is a Professor of English at Goucher College.

Jamal dozed in the green twilight of the hospital room, listening to the click and burble of machines, the steady whisper of Julie’s breathing. A feathery shadow in the white bed, her face turned toward the dark window. She was still, waiting. Now and then the nurses exchanged a few words as they passed in the corridor. From outside he could hear the throttle sound of a big motorcycle engine, idling into the lot. Two engines. First one cut and then the other. Jamal opened his eyes and put on his bubble sunglasses, adding a yellow tint to the green, a different ghostliness to everything, as if he was submerged in an aquarium.

“The drool in the lotus,” Marko said.

He was standing over Julie’s quiet bed. Beside him, Sonny hulked uneasily. Jamal remembered Julie aware in her yoga pose, hands in a mudra over her head—how in this flower of her youth she had at the same time seemed ancient. It surprised him that Marko retained some picture in his mind of this. No doubt it was not the same picture.   But Marko was not as stupid as he sometimes seemed.

“It’s a problem for you if she doesn’t wake up,” Marko was saying. “A problem for us if she does.”

Article continues after advertisement

“I think it’s also a problem for you if she doesn’t,” Jamal said. He was standing now, light on the balls of his feet as a spider.

“Yo,” Marko said, more sharply. “We never did anything to her. She just decided to run, that’s all.”

“I wonder,” Jamal said. “Does Karyn tell it all like that?”

White teeth in the shadow of Marko’s smile. “You know, that might not have been Karyn’s first movie. And Karyn’s out of the picture now.”

“She went to her sister’s,” Sonny said hastily. “In Rapid City. She’s gonna finish school over there.”

Jamal, of course, already knew that; impossible not to in a town so small. He wondered if Sonny missed her, how much.

“That’s what the girls do when they’re pregnant,” he said.

“No,” Marko said. “Karyn had an upsetting experience. Which was nobody’s fault.  It just happened.”

He reached as if he would touch the fan of Julie’s hair on the pillow. Jamal moved slightly.  Marko withdrew his hand.

“This one’s not talking,” he said. “I guess that leaves you.”

“You’re not going to take me down here,” Jamal said. “There’s too many other people around.”

“No,” said Marko. “We’re going to let Ultimo take care of you.”

Jamal reached toward this idea with his mind and couldn’t feel anything about it whatsoever.  No surprise, no fear.

“Do that.”

“All right, then,” Marko said, as if the matter had been amicably settled. He flipped his hand idly, moving toward the door.  “We’ll see you around, little bro.

Unless for some reason we don’t.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Jamal said. He tried again, without success, to measure the seriousness of the threat. He couldn’t even seem to remember exactly what Ultimo looked like. Ultimo’s silhouette in his mind was like a wormhole into some other universe.

“Jamal?” Marko had turned in the doorway. “What’s in that cave?” “It’s just a big black hole in the ground,” Jamal said.

“No, man,” Sonny said, with a queer urgency. “The Smokey said you wouldn’t come out—like for an hour.  They were calling and calling.  They thought you were gone.”

“Bears,” Jamal said. “Bullshit,” Marko said.

“I don’t mean just bears,” Jamal said. “There were all kinds of animals. And

people who were partway animal.” He thought for a second.  “I don’t mean like you.”

*

The Humvee, tires mysteriously mended, was locked behind the double gate of Ultimo’s storm fence, but the smaller gate, opposite the trailer door, was not. Around the metal posts the chain hung unsecured. The padlock itself was missing. A U-shaped hasp closed over a post was enough to contain the dogs. Unless one of them, the Catahula most likely, knocked up the hasp with his muzzle one time and then they all went out to compete and breed with the coyotes in the desert.

The dogs were not so excited as the first time Jamal had come here. They gathered, jostling at the gate and growling, but they didn’t bark loud, or throw themselves at the diamond mesh. After a while they quieted, but remained on their side of the gate looking at him intently.  Jamal watched the trailer door.  Its window was dark, opaque as before. There were flickers of TV light as before, with a different soundtrack, not news this time. Above the trailer and the rocky basin where it stood, a fingernail moon had risen, carrying a star in the orb of darkness its inner curve held.

Jamal opened the gate and went softly through and, having closed it carefully behind him, stood still as a tree with his sneakers rooted to the cracked concrete path to the trailer’s front step. The dogs pressed around him, in silence, and with small aggression, damp noses cold through the thin fabric of his pants legs.  Jamal let his hands hang loose and empty, a little forward of his hips, so the dogs could snuffle his open palms. A couple of times he felt a lick, but from what dog he didn’t know because his eyes were fixed on the window, starlight reflected there in the pane, the whole time. One by one the dogs went away satisfied, each walking a tightening circle before it flumped down with a little grunt in the shadow of the Humvee. Only the big Catahula remained, his growl diminished to a purr.  When the growl had gone away altogether, the Catahula relaxed and came nearer, close enough that Jamal could have traced the jaguar stripes on his shoulders, or rubbed the short ears, which were torn from fights.

When the trailer door opened, a noise of gasping and moaning came out, in pain or in pleasure, Jamal wasn’t sure. On the door sill Ultimo appeared, wearing mirrored sunglasses and carrying a carved wooden cane. Seeing himself doubled in the sunglasses, Jamal wondered if maybe Ultimo had been blinded by the desert sun.

Ultiimo clucked his tongue at the Catuhula and the dog turned away and lay down beside the trailer steps, head on his front paws and eyes still burning.

Ultimo stepped down and used the tip of his cane to flick a dry twist of dog dung away from the cement. So he could see fine, Jamal thought. He wore sunglasses at night fairly often himself.

“You’ve got a way with a dog,” Ultimo said. “I wouldn’t put a dog in the pit.”

“No. But you’d go in to get one out, I think.” Ultimo had already turned away from him, the heavy salt and pepper braid switching between his shoulder blades like a panther’s tail. Jamal wasn’t so sure that he needed the cane, though he did put weight on it to climb the three steps.  In the doorway he turned his head back, with the flash of a silver tear-drop.

“Coming in, right?”

Inside it was close and mostly dark and smelled, not too unpleasantly, of dog. Musk, rather; it wasn’t all dog. The moans were of sex pleasure, possibly feigned, and now Jamal was certain the sound was canned; it came from the room off to the right, where light flickered from a big plasma screen.

“You like to watch?” Ultimo said.

“No,” Jamal said. He had a brief image of the girl he’d seen Ultimo drag out of the truck.

“The tape’s copying to disc right now,” Ultimo said. “So you know, it’s gotta be real time.  I can shut the noise off, though.”

He reached inside the doorway, found a remote and killed the sound. The screen continued to pulse light, perhaps because there’d have been no light without it. As it was, there wasn’t much where they stood in a space that was less a hallway than a gap between two rooms. Jamal was in hand’s reach of Ultimo, but he couldn’t see where his hands were, or his feet, only the mirrored lenses floating, a head higher than himself.

“You want to hear the bear tape, then?”

“No,” Jamal said.  “I don’t want to hear the bear tape.”

“All right,” Ultimo said, and this time he sounded faintly pleased, as he’d sounded slightly apologetic about the porn.  “Let’s go in here.”

Ultimo opened a door in the back, where the exterior wall of the trailer would normally have been. Jamal was perplexed, but clearly there was another room, this one with firelight in it.  He barely glanced through the doorway toward the TV as he passed; the people writhing in silence there might have been anyone.

“Careful,” Ultimo said.  “There’s a couple steps down.”

The new space was built as a T leg of the trailer, a partial dug out. Stonework came to Ultimo’s hip; the walls above were logs so closely notched and laid they didn’t require any chinking between. Ultimo moved along them, more creakily than usual. With his back to Jamal, he muttered, “Got stiff, lying out on that hard-pack.”

“And digging a trench with your feet, I guess,” Jamal said.

Ultimo propped his cane against the wall and pushed up his sunglasses. Jamal braced himself not to quail at the naked eyes.  This look was not so penetrating as others he’d received from Ultimo, though it would have been a stretch to call it friendly.

“You built this,” Jamal said. Obviously the trailer had been dropped here first. “Oh yeah.” Ultimo said.  “I can do this kind of work.  Depends what people want.”

Jamal looked at the fireplace and chimney. The masonry was no mean skill.

And the chimney drew well, leaving behind just a faint redolence of cedar. There were lots of animal skins around, deer hides and a buffalo robe and a great grizzly bear with the head and claws intact spread out on the floor in front of the fireplace. The hip-high stone ledge was decorated with small animal skulls, bobcat and fox, interspersed with candlesticks. Ultimo was lighting a few candles with a long fireplace match. A heavy rifle, a shotgun, and a big compound bow hung on the walls. There was some fishing gear too, but no trophies, other than the hides and bearskin.

“Naturally I work with both hands.” Ultimo was seated before the fire, holding both his heavy hands up, displaying a maze of callous and cracks. “You can’t survive otherwise.  I give people whatever they want.”

“I understand,” Jamal said. He sat down cross-legged at the edge of the hearth.

Ultimo had folded the sunglasses and put them on the table, but Jamal still had the impression of facing a mirror. A stone wall, or the raw face of a quarry.

Ultimo raised his right hand. “I could take you fishing or build you a house,” he said.  “Would you like to go out and kill a big animal?”

“No.” Jamal said.

“You don’t want porn,” Ultimo said. “Dope neither, I don’t think. You don’t want to hear the bear tape. I only listened to it once myself. I give people what they think they want. But it corrupts you, to look at things like that. Or listen to them. It poisons your mind.”

“What are you?”

Ultimo laughed. “What you want me to be.” He reached behind a pelt-draped chair and pulled up a jug of red wine by its ring. “Have a drink?”

Jamal nodded and accepted a clear plastic cupful. They drank without any toast or remark, looking into the shifting blades of firelight.

“I’m a mongrel,” Ultimo said. “If you ask the Census. Or if they ask me, I don’t know what to say. Part French, part Spanish, maybe a touch of African too, for sure the biggest part’s Brulé. Sichángnu I should have said. Brulé is a Frenchman’s word for it.” He drank some wine, and looked at Jamal. “Oh yeah, I qualify for the tribe. I could get on the tit at some casino.”

“Why don’t you,” Jamal said.

“No freedom,” Ultimo said.  “In fact there’s nothing there at all.  Nothing I want.”

Jamal accepted a new splash of wine in his cup.  He didn’t quite know what he wanted to know, or if he was close to finding it out.

“You’re a quiet one. “ Ultimo said. “That’s good.” He took out a short black cigar and lit it, offered the tin to Jamal, who declined. “I don’t usually do anything to anybody but I let people do…whatever. Sometimes it’s not good for them, what they do. Sometimes– no different from  you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve been watching you,” Ultimo said. “You’re not so different.” “Why,” Jamal said.

“Well, that mean-natured punk Marko was worried about you.” Ultimo shrugged. “Not for any real reason, I don’t think. And then– I just got to wondering what you were.”

“So?”

“You gave me water,” Ultimo said. “It’s the right thing to do. Most people don’t know that.  It’s the most right thing there is to do.”

“Okay,” Jamal said. “But I don’t understand what you were doing out there.” “Some people come to me as a healer, still,” Ultimo said. “Not so many, but they do. And some come looking for a spirit guide. I could say to you now, I’ll take you to the bear. But kid, I think you been closer to the bear than I have. And that girl, she’s all the way inside.  Know what I mean?”

“Yes,” Jamal said. “No. Not completely.”

“There’s something out there,” Ultimo said. “In there, I mean. It’s old, and it doesn’t belong to anybody in these little towns around here, or out on the reservation either, and it didn’t belong to Sichángnu. It’s older than any of those people are. But somehow–”

“It belongs to everybody too.”

“So you do know what I mean,” Ultimo said. “And the ways to get there, they’re the same, for anybody.  I mean the differences don’t count.  And I—well, you were there.  You saw it.  But I want to know that what I saw was real.”

Jamal drank his wine, looking into the coals.  The room was tight and the warmth was grateful from the fire and the wine; it had been growing colder at night as time moved into the fall.

“The animals,” Ultimo prompted. “The hands on the wall.” “It’s there,” Jamal told the fireplace.

“Are they painted on the cave wall?”

“Yes,” Jamal said. “No. They were but they were more… Three-D. Like they were floating.” The dark space of the cave surrounded him again; it dizzied him. Maybe it was only the wine.

“Like they were alive,” Ultimo said.

They were silent then, and the black orb of the cave dissipated and Jamal was completely present again in the snug space Ultimo had built behind the several façades he presented to the world. Ultimo offered him the jug again and Jamal shook his head, helping himself to stand with one hand on the stone ledge that ran around the room.

“Better not,” he said.  “I’ll dump my bike.”

“Watch yourself then.” Ultimo’s hand spread briefly across the center of his back, solid and warm.  “We don’t want that.”

Outside the trailer door the Catahula got up to sniff at Jamal’s hand and this time Jamal did fondle, briefly, the stubby ragged ears. Ultimo chuckled deep in his throat.

He was carrying the padlock in his left hand and once Jamal had gone out he snapped it through the links of chain.

“It’s open whenever you come back,” Ultimo said, and then, “What do you want.”

Jamal took a backward step and looked up.  The moon was higher in the sky and looked smaller and that star seemed somehow to have spilled from the crescent. He thought he could make out the moon’s whole circle anyway though most of it was dark.

“I want Julie to come back from wherever she is.”

Ultimo was shaking his head, fingers entwined in the diamond mesh. “I can’t do that one for you.”

Jamal lowered his head from the moon.

“The other girl, on the square that night. The one that was wearing the bison head. Her I brought back. Okay, snatched her back. She had got herself into some fairly bad shit.”

Ultimo now appeared to be smiling; Jamal could see the white tips of his teeth.

“They call it a recovery operation. That kind of thing I can do.”

“Okay,” Jamal said. “Thanks for telling me.” He nodded and started up the slope, but before he had gone more than a couple of steps something made him turn back toward the trailer.  Maybe one of the dogs had made a sound.

“Your girl, now….” Ultimo was studying Jamal from his doorway. “If I knew how to get where she’s at I would be there. But I don’t. It’s up to her.”

 

 

From Behind the Moon. Used with permission of City Lights Publishers. Copyright © 2017 by Madison Smartt Bell.




More Story
My Fictional Nemesis: Why Thomas Hardy's Angel Clare is the Worst Reading a novel is an affair of the heart. And like most confirmed bookworms, my relationship to a book is textured by emotional...