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Book Excerpt Perfect Peace


Chapter 1

Gus stood beside the living room window, waiting for the annual spring rains. They should have come by now, he noted, glancing at the battered Motley Funeral Home calendar hanging from a nail on the wall. It was May 17, 1940, and Gus's wilted crops made him wonder if, somehow, he had angered Mother Nature. Usually the rains came between March and April, freeing him to hunt or fish the latter part of spring while cabbage, collard, and tomato sprouts strengthened in the moistened earth. That year, the stubborn rains prolonged the daily sojourn Gus and the boys took to the river and back -- locals called it the Jordan -- carrying five-gallon buckets of water for both their own and the sprouts' survival.

Gus loved the rains. As a child, he lay in bed listening to the thunderous polyrhythms they drummed into the rusted tin rooftop. Something about the melody soothed his somber soul and allowed him to cry without fear of his father's reprisal. After all, he was a boy, Chester Peace Sr. loved to remind him -- as though his genitalia didn't -- and tears didn't speak well for one who would, one day, become a man. The indelible imprint of Chester Sr.'s inordinately large hand on Gus's tender face whenever he wept never bothered the boy who, in his heart, wanted nothing more desperately than to emulate his father. But as he grew, he never learned to control his tears. He learned instead to hide whenever he felt their approach.

The rains awakened something in him. Maybe it was their steady flow that eroded his makeshift stoicism and caused water to gush from his eyes as if from a geyser. Whatever the connection, Gus always wept along with the rains. He'd convinced himself that the sky, like him, was cursed with a heavy heart that required annual purging. So every spring since his tenth birthday, when the scent of moisture filled his nose he escaped to the Jordan River and stood amid the rain, wailing away pain like a woman in labor. Whether it lasted for hours or even a day, no one expected his return to normalcy until the showers subsided.

Gus was grateful others didn't ask why he cried, because he couldn't have explained it. Had he known words like "injustice" or "inequity" he might've been able to translate his feelings into words, but with a third-grade vocabulary, such articulation was out of the question. All he knew was that he cried when things weren't right. He wept as a child when other children mocked his holey shoes, and then he wept when God refused to grant him the courage and the will to fight. He wept for mother birds that couldn't find worms for their young. He wept for cows left freezing in the snow. He wept for Miss Mazie -- the woman whose husband slashed her with a butcher's mallet for talking back -- and wept even harder when he overheard that they put the man away. Most of all he wept because he thought people in the world didn't care.

His hardest days were between the rains. At the most inopportune moments, in the middle of the summer or the bitter cold of winter, he'd witness a wrong and water would ooze, unannounced, across his cheeks and he'd be forced to retreat into some private place where his tears wouldn't be cause for ridicule. Yet these momentary cleansings never resulted in Gus's complete healing. Only the annual spring rains set his heart aright again, so, after the third grade -- the end of Gus's formal education -- he began anticipating the rains' arrival. As soon as the first buds bloomed, he'd watch the heavens for signs of inclement weather, and when the dark clouds gathered, he'd run to the Jordan and welcome the downpour. After 1910, locals noted the beginning of spring when they heard Gus wailing in the distance and, whether out of fear or simple disinterest, no one bothered traveling to the riverbank to see exactly what Gustavus Peace was doing, much less why.

He needed the rains of 1940 worse than he'd ever needed them, for the impending birth of his seventh child -- the only one he had never wanted -- incited rage he feared he couldn't restrain. Yet the rains wouldn't come. Each morning he jumped from his sleeping pallet on the floor, sniffing the air like a Labrador retriever, hoping to smell the sweet scent of moisture, only to be disappointed when his nostrils inhaled particles of dry, pungent, red dust. Having never mentioned to his wife, Emma Jean, that he felt deceived by the pregnancy, Gus had waited since her ecstatic November announcement to unleash with the spring rains instead of strangling her. His greatest fear now was that an overflowing heart would cause him to crumble before his sons.

Each day, his eyes glazed over and his hands began to tremble, and he cursed the rains for seemingly having abandoned him. So far, he had remained composed, but he knew he wouldn't last much longer.

When Emma Jean screamed, Gus released the curtain, turned from the window, and looked toward their bedroom. It was really her bedroom, he thought, for he had slept on the floor since learning of her pregnancy. He liked it that way. It kept him from touching her and creating another mouth to feed. He wouldn't have touched her this last time had Emma Jean not convinced him that she couldn't have any more children. Gus asked why, and Emma Jean said that she was going through the change. He didn't know exactly what that meant, but he took her at her word. The day she confessed her pregnancy, Gus nodded and promised in his heart never to touch her again. That would keep the children from coming, he reasoned, and that was exactly what he wanted.

From Perfect Peace by Daniel Black. Copyright (c) 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.

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