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Monday, October 15, 2012

Starting out--

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
(Mercer, 2012 - The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction)

Pip Tattnal woke in the dense warmth of an Emanuel County summer at 4:17 a.m., a fact that he would learn much later when he became acquainted with clocks. For the rest of his life he would jerk from sleep at that very instant, his body refusing to sleep through the stroke of darkness. He did not open his eyes. He did not need to open his eyes. He knew where he was—the same place he had been for almost a year. He was on the farm sharecropped by the Hooks family, although the land was always called by another man’s name as if to remind Mr. Jimmie and Miss Versie that they owned not much more than debt and the clothes on their backs plus a spare change for Sunday, a clutter of ironware and dishes, and a few clanking enamel chamber pots. For the last several years it also had been known as The White Camellia Orphanage or The Cottage because of the doings of Mr. Sam Truetlen, owner of a nearby cotton gin and the far-off Gen’l Notions Store, who had traveled all the way to New Orleans and on to Dallas once upon a time, and there, on the outer edge of the known world, had toured a cottage-style orphanage intended for destitute white children and run by the Klan. Being a man prone to fits of “projecting,” he later backed his own orphanage, though most of the children still claimed at least one parent on some played-out, ramshackle farm. Wherever his kind had sunk so desperate and low as to scoop up the red clay to eat, Mr. Sam would arrive on muleback and plod away with one or more children riding pillion, some to stay at The Cottage for a month, some longer. It got so that people for miles around could recognize Daisy Belle, the white mule, and Goshen, the soot-gray one. As for the name of the orphanage, that was the influence of the Klan, with its Knights and Dragon, its Cyclops and Nighthawk and Kamellia—and Mr. Sam’s tip of the hat to the city of Dallas. So that was where Pip had been lodged for almost a year, in The White Camellia.

It was high, hot summer in Emanuel County, Georgia, and not one soul was saved from the day’s blaze or from the night’s smother of warmth. Up and down the county, the only sleep was a restless sleep, and near Lexsy, one or two old people woke in a fright because the air was just about too dense to breathe—their trembling hands reaching for funeral-parlor fans printed with a portrait of Christ and some luminous, faintly green sheep—and on some gully-shattered sharecropped place, an infant who had been fighting for air yielded up the ghost on his mother’s naked breast. Mr. Sam, next door to the cotton gin, returned to bed and dreamed his nightly dream of being weighed in the scales and found wanting. At The White Camellia Orphanage, the bone-tired children slept without dreaming, all but one, who dreamed about a lost penny.

When he woke, Pip knew something was off kilter. He did not know more, neither whether the hour felt wrong or right. There was a faint slippage of coolness on his back where his half-brother Otto normally slept. The kinship bond between them was tangible, such that the children seemed inseparable, a blood brotherhood of commingled beings. Loss and grief had only made their physical need and ache for each other more clearly manifest. The musky smell that belonged to the little boy was ebbing away, and Pip could detect only the presence of the two others in the bed and the four across the room. The brothers always slept together, with a careful space between themselves and their bedmates, an act that demanded they cling to their perches even in sleep to avoid tumbling down into the deep valley of the bed. Now Pip lay breathing in the scent of near- naked boys and the stink of the chamber pots. These were smells he did not find disagreeable, just as he did not dislike the fumes of kerosene from the lamp or the odor of Miss Versie, unwashed and marked with a faint whiff of blood.

Where was Otto?

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.