Having escaped an Irish famine only to become enmeshed in an American war, Eliza Duane Mooney sets out across the country on a mysterious quest. Stunning poetess Lucia-Cruz McLelland denies a host of suitors to cast her fate with James Con OKeeffe, convict, revolutionary, and Acting Governor of the desolate Western township of Redemption Falls. Rebel guerilla Cole McLaurenson fuels his own gruesome Westward mission with the blind rage of an outlaw, while runaway slave Elizabeth Longstreet turns resentment into grace. Their destinies collide with shocking consequences.
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Joseph O'Connor has written thirteen books, most recently the novel Star of the Sea, which sold 750,000 copies in Britain alone. His work has been published in thirty languages, and he also writes for the stage and screen.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF ELIZA DUANE MOONEY
Her leave-taking - The strangeness of time - A fat man - Little Rock
John Cory & his family - The lustful preacher
The quarter-light was rising as she hurried out from Baton Rouge: through the criminal districts of town, then the black section, then the Irish, past the clustered Union sentries on the Telegraph road, the maws of Federal cannons ranked and aimed toward the north, then onward over the viaduct into barricaded swampland where once, not long ago, the slaves had toiled. It was January the 17th, 1865. The end of the War was coming.
Walking away from a scalpeen shack. The grits of the road on roadskinned soles. Grind of the shingles into lacerated arches. Dazzle of pain, the cramps through the hamstrings, and the hopeless prayers for shoes.
It took her almost a month to slog across Louisiana. Fifteen miles a day. Twenty-six thousand paces. A soldier, vittled and booted, might have deserted at such a burden. Eliza Duane Mooney did not.
She had not been long walking when it started to happen. Everything was coming to merit attention. A rice-field. Two flies. A dead chickenhawk in a gully. The eyes of hungry alligators resentful in the slime. All of it seemed equal, which is one definition of madness. The weight of the world had lost proportion.
There were days when she hobbled until the world began to shimmer. The sky billowed around her like the folds of apocalypse and the whitehot egg of pain in her breast threatened to crack with a seepage ofvenom. She would lie wherever she fell, gaping up at the crows - would crawl from the road if she was able. Whatever burned to hatch must be palliated by stillness. She came to believe it could hear her.
Riders went by, or waggons full of men. Nobody stopped. Perhaps they did not see her. This is what she would tell herself as she shivered in the ditches. I am becoming invisible now.
April comes in. Time is moving strangely. Tenses grow confused.
Near El Dorado, Arkansas, a stockman is yammering to some farmwomen. Lee is defeated! The rebellion no more! Jefferson Davis in shackles, they say, arrested in a woman's corsets! As she approaches the huddle, the settlers gape at her like goslings. It must be that they can smell her, she thinks.
The minstrel boy to the war has gone. In the ranks of death you'll find him.
A fat man regards her, eyes crinkling in the sunlight. 'Get walkin, daughter. Aint nothin for you here.'As if to italicize the rejection, he pulls back the hem of his coat, beneath which is a cane in a scabbard like a sword's. She is not thinking about the dismissal (she is accustomed to dismissal) but about the antiqueness of his accent, the poetry he talks. Git waukin, dauduh. Ain nuthn fow y heä. His vowels go bouncing on the air.
His father's sword he has girded on. And his wild harp slung behind him.
She pictures the journey as a procession of scarlet ants stretching out from the bayouland to the bastions of the Rockies. She is not truly walking fifteen hundred miles. She is crushing ants one step at a time.
Come Christmas she will be seventeen. 1865. The year the South surrendered. She has no memory of any place beyond the town of her childhood, not even of being in New Orleans with her mother. The edge of the world is the County Line. Stepping over its verge is a trespass. She is out beyond the frame of all that was given, into a land where almost everything is strange. The customs of the people. Their figures of speech. The taste of creek water. That spider on a leaf. Cherokees observing her from the crests of those hummocks. The shattering nothingness of spaces between settlements.
This was the country they'd been killing each other for. These stone walls and levees. Those barns and stunted swards. It was barely an old man's life ago that none of it was here, when the land was only the land, not acreage. Unfenced, ungridded, unmeasured, unbequeathable, a continent of forests the size of nations. The Indians named the rivers; many banks they left anonymous. Then the immigrants came to America.
She had on a tattered hand-me-down her mother once gave her: a rough-cut grogram smock like a knight's tabard of old. 'Shenick's of London' stitched into the label. In its pocket, a slingshot. A bundling on her back. That garment was the only wearing she possessed in the world. She slept in it, walked in it. It had become a kind of skin.
In the bundle, a storybook, dilapidated, spinecracked, and a canister of medicinal foot powder, and a crumpled letter. The powder proved a waste of her last four cents. She suspects it is nothing but pestleddown chalk. She may as well rub in the cinders of the road for all the alleviation it brings.
The Redeemer never wrote. Only once in the dust. Never put nothing on paper. Walked fifteen hundred mile out of Palestine Texas, howled many a field-holler on the way. He was hipshot at Gettysburg, blinded in the Wilderness, torched alive at Shiloh, gutted at Manassas, and He shrieked the rebel yell as they diced for his uniform: Mother, why have you forsaken me?
Sometimes by moonlight, or when she pauses to rest, she takes out the storybook and riffles its pages. The feel of the flimsies Eliza finds comforting, more than the words stained onto them. Thou Shalt Not Kill. I shall cause them to fall. Their carcasses will I give to be meat for the fowls. If you counted all the words in that thick rustling book, they would be fewer than the dead of the War.
And some of those who died were Ephesians or Jerusalems, Maccabees and Canaanites, Golgothas and Samaritans. But most were only ands and ifs and ye's, small and unmemorable, devoid of authority, only significant for the matters they link, never worth quoting or immortalizing in a place-name, because those are the ones that will always do the dying when it comes a time of war. And you wouldn't really miss them until you tried to speak, at which point you would find yourself struck by the absence that is felt between those who love or hate, or sensed in the oceans of the self: the wanted word is somehow not here. It was murdered; edited out of the inheritance. What you say, instead, is what you know how to say, and not what you would like to: the truth.
When it rained she was drenched. On hot days she burned. Time continued moving in ways she did not understand. A minute takes an hour on hardscrabble road but a morning skitters by if you're resting. Often she thinks of a story her mother used to tell. The fiddler inveigled by a faerywoman on the road into Connemara, who enters her rath, plays for her a single night, but when he stumbles out at dawn, blinking, lovedrunk, he finds ten years have passed. You can lose you a life in a single night. Mamo's stories were facts, not fancies.
The skin on her arms is flaking to rice paper. She blisters in sunroar. Her skin will not toughen. She counts as she walks, to murder the road. She gropes for a history that Mamo once read to her. And when even the sight of the trees becomes strange, as can happen in country you do not know, she finds herself inventing their names:
Heartsfire. Gallowspole. Lovers-in-Winter. Magwitch. Hookbough. The Convict's Nails.
In the forest is a temple. In the temple, a box. In the box is a needle. And the needle mends a dress. And the dress is put on by a jilted contessa. And she falls for a fiddler. But he is promised to a faery. And on like that; each stride of the story a punctuation of her steps on the road.
And the story never ends. It spindles out like a web, a netting of filigrees twisting into a petticoat. It trails a way back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana: an egg-sack waiting to burst. And you could never smirch paper with the words of this story, because a bookstory must be straight and true as a ballad, where a life is not like that, not sliceable into stanzas nor even truly capable of narration in one tense. The past is not over, so it seems to Eliza Mooney, and the future has happened many times.
Through ghost towns. Through bread riots. Across skookum-chucks of rivers. These extents between the towns she dreams as a grid. In the dreams she is flying, but with turtlelike slowness, looking down on the longitudes, which are rods of blinding light. Sometimes a sibilant buzz can be heard. Other times, churchlike silence.
She fashions little snares out of saplings and thorns. You can kill a wren that way but there is no eating in a wren. Over sloughs. Wading creeks. Through the high, cold canyons. She sklents like a crab through a dustbowl.
There are days when the walking takes on the abstractedness of rhythm, when she feels, through the misting of pain and hunger, as though her feet are revolving the planet beneath her, turning it like a prisoner's on a treadmill. An eerie sensation: she is turning the world. It withstands, it resists, all the way to its kernel. But then slowly it succumbs; it is crushed into obedience. She is walking to stand still, not to travel into a story. Walking to make the story stop.
A farrier and his lad in the roar of a forge, chiseling a fetter off a black man's ankle. He is shaking, the black man, his hand on the boy's head. Sparks spurt with each krang of the hammer.
Grufts of road dirt are matting her hair. The smock chafes her back. Scrofula makes her tear at herself. Her fingernails go scrivening, scriggling, scratching, but the itch never truly recedes. A drunk heaves a cobble at her. Where did he get a cobble? She scuttles through a bombed-out graveyard.
Malnourished, sickening, through dreamdrifts: memories. But perhaps they are not recollections; rather predictions. The plunk of a banjo calls to mind a Good Friday. Gull-calls. Curtained Christs. The sizzle of gumbo. Oysters the size of a baby's fist. The head of a crawfish oozing in the sun. A pelican alighting on a black metal balcony, gulping at the hornets as they vex it. A widower, a Creole, was her client that afternoon. He'd had his butler go into the s...
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