Table of Contents
Also by Rilla Askew
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 1997 by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.
Copyright Â© Rilla Askew, 1997
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
The mercy seat : a novel / Rilla Askew.
eISBN : 978-1-101-19163-7
813'.54âdc21 96 - 52416
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
For my family
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
here are voices in the earth here, telling truth in old stories. Go down in the hidden places by the waters, listen: you will hear them, buried in the sand and clay. Walk west in the tallgrass prairie; you'll hear whispering in the bluestem. Stand here, on the ragged rim of a mountain in the southeastern corner; you can hear the sound rising on the south wind, sifting in the dust through the crowns of the cedars: stories told in old voices, in the pulse of bloodmemory; sung in the hot earth above the ceaseless thrum of locusts and nightbirds whillowing, beneath the faint rattle of gourd shells. One story they tell is about longing, for this is a place of homesickness. The land has become home now, and so the very core of this land is sorrow. You can hear it longing for the old dream of itself. Like this continent. This country.
The very sound of it is home.
When the Choctaw people knew white soldiers were coming to force them from their homes in Mississippi, up the Great River and over the face of the earth to this unknown land in the west, the people walked for the last time in their forests and touched their hands to the trees, the rocks and healing plants, to say goodbye. They were herded on flat boats along the waterways, walked suffering over the earth, and brought longing, sickness for home, here. Othersâwhite women, some of themâturned their faces backward, and then front, and ever after kept their eyes forward; they snapped at their children, grew tough as jackoak, and brought longing for home here. Men and women in the bellies of slaveships keened longing across the Deep and brought homesickness here.
Its name first in English was Indian Territory, and then, for a short time, it was called two territories, Indian and Oklahomaâmeaning both the same thing, a redundancyâand then, again, it was one. The land took and held its Indian name, its Choctaw name,
meaning “red people,” as the whole of the continent, changing, would hold her place names, her mountains and rivers, in the tongues that first named them. The shape of it, drawn in mythical lines by men who collaborate in illusion, is that of a saucepan, or hatchet. It lies not in the heart but in the belly, the very gut of the nation, and it contains, like an egg, the whole of the story: red people first, and black slaves among them, and soon the tide of white spreading westward from the eastern hills and mountains across the face of the plains, forsaking all behind them, to come. It is the whole of our story intensified and foreshortened, unfolding at the speed of mere months and years; the whole of our story and yet different, for Negro freedmen were strong here and prosperous; the First People, whose tongues named mountains and rivers, were wrenched from their homelands and marched here, and then when they had made of this land a home, the others came.
The story tells how they came overland or by water, by iron rail or wagon or horseback or walking, in a burst of dust and hoofbeats pounding south in the land runs, or sneaking over the borders from the east, filtering, hidden in the oak and blackgum hills like bollweevils hiding in cuffs; many came to evade the law, some to purge the bile of defeat and Reconstruction. Blacks came for freedom here, to build their own towns, their own country. Whites came for land or a new home or to sell whiskey. They came, all of them, bearing their equal measures of pride and violence and hard work and suffering; they came wrapped in decency, steeped in sour greed and hope and despair; in fear and wisdom, in tolerance and hatred, in mindlessness and sorrow and abiding faith in the hand of the Lord. Forsaking all. Forsaking nothing. Bringing it all, every bit of it, with them.
In deep winter, early February 1887, two white men left Kentucky and headed west toward Indian Territory, coming not as the Choctaw people before themâbecause they had toâbut because they believed that they had to. When the Lodis left Kentucky, they fled quickly and quietly in the night, fleeing fear, the mind's dream, crawling guilt, and the law. They could not flee what bound them.
The two men were brothers, Lafayette Luke and John Major Lodi, and their souls were twisted together as if they'd come forth that way from their mother's womb. They had not, for there was fifteen months between them, but the elder could not remember when the younger had not been behind or beside him, following in his footsteps, doing his bidding, copying his every gesture, solid and malleable as a lump of riverclay. In their boyhood it had been Lafayette who went first behind the harrow, John following with the seed corn or starts of tobacco; it had been Lafayette who led in their games of fox-and-geese or dare goal; Fayette who darted ahead always, quick and grinning, before his slower, more lethargic brother. It was not until John's skill with a forge and hammer revealed itself at the age of fourteenâand later, after the War, as his particular, unfathomable gift at gunsmithing emerged so that men traveled from great distances to ask that gift of him, and pay him well for it besidesâthat the balance between the brothers shifted and changed. Slowly a discomfort built between them, and Fayette, struggling to settle again the proper equilibrium, bullied and cajoled and jabbed at the heart of his brother, and John, unable to resist, went along. But the trouble grew larger, and yet more silent, hidden between them. They did not speak of it. Their father and siblings did not see itâthough their wives did, each secretly blaming the other for the troubleâbut the trouble itself remained unnamed, unacknowledged; no one knew what it was.
On the night they fled Kentucky, the men carried their families with them and this brotherness that would not let them love one another nor unbind themselves. They carried it like a germ of fever in the pale shells of their wagons, across the great Mississippi, and west.
Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.
his is what I remember.
My mama was crying. It was cold in the house, and so dark. I was quiet under the covers, with my eyes open. The sound came down soft in the darkness, like the sound Sudie's pups made under the porch after she tore her foot off in the fox trap and Papa had to shoot her. Before Uncle Fay pulled them out one by one, black blind fluffs and the one white one and the tricolor, and tied them inside a flour sack and threw them in the creek. That sound. I tried to tell myself it was the new baby crying, up in the loft bed between Mama and Papa, wrapped tight in white strips of cotton, soft in the featherbed, warm, crying hungry. But I knew it was not the new baby crying. It was Mama.
My eyes hurt, from the cold, from staring into the dark seeing nothing. Thomas jerked in his sleep and whimpered, scrabbled under the covers, pushed out from beneath them with his fat little arms. I lifted my hand from where it was warm under the feathertick and felt for his forehead. I was afraid for him then, more than always, more than every half second, tremblingâfor fever, for mystery, for what could take himâfrom the very hour he was born. So I felt him. His forehead was dry and naked, smooth with cold. I rolled him against me, lifted his head and slipped my arm under, held him in the crook of my arm with his face turned toward me, soft, breathing milk. On the other side of him Little Jim Dee kicked once in his sleep and got still. At my back I felt Jonaphrene's slow breathing. I held the feathertick over my brother's head to warm him, off his face so he wouldn't smother. My nose and cheekbones were burning. The hard knot cramped my chest. My mother was crying. My fingers were turning ice to the bone.
Later, Papa's voice called me.
This was all the same night.
“Matt!” Papa said. And then softer: “Mattie!”
A weight was on me, like the cold press of pond water, and I tried to fight my way up. I struggled to the top, pushing, like black swimming, and opened my eyes. Still it was dark. I looked to the window. No light filtered through the oilpaper, not even the least hint of dawn's whitish haze.
Thomas twitched awake. He shuddered and reached out for me under the covers. I put my hand to him and felt his fist wrap tight around my finger.
“Martha! Git up now!” Silence, and then “Martha Ruth!” and I knew I was in trouble, because I had in those days, and still have, four names. “Git up and light the fire, would you! Mama's not feeling good.”