Read This Excerpt From The Unsettling New Novel “My Absolute Darling”

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Posted on: August 28, 2017

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Isabel Seliger for BuzzFeed News

It is Friday and they have a Friday ritual. Turtle walks up from the bus stop to the two fifty-gallon drums where they burn their trash, flooded with rainwater the way any bucket, any barrel or pot left in their yard fills with water, and will keep filling until June, though the weather has been unpredictable. She takes the fire poker laid crosswise over the barrel mouth and plunges it deep into the ashen water and draws out an ammo can on a looped steel runner. She pops it open and takes out a 9mm Sig Sauer and a spare magazine. She is supposed to take the precaution of clearing the house slowly and carefully, from the front door and into every room, discovering every target. But Turtle has grown bored of the process, and so she goes up the porch steps and throws open the sliding glass door, gun up, and there are three training targets by the kitchen table, plywood and sheet-metal stands with printed silhouettes stapled to them, and Turtle takes them one at a time, sidestepping out of the doorway with tight double taps, one after another, six shots in a little less than a second, and in all three targets the shots are between and slightly below the eyes, so close together that the holes touch.

She walks casually to the hallway door, stands off to the side of it, on the hearthstones, and soft-tosses it open and moves in a swift arc across the doorway, three steps back and then sidestepping so that the hallway comes into view by degrees, and she takes each of three plywood and sheet-metal targets as they appear around the jamb, tight double taps into the nasal cavity, then she steps through the door and quickly out of the fatal funnel. Gunman’s shuffle down the side of the hallway, into the bathroom, clear — into the foyer, one bad guy, two shots, clear — into the pantry, clear. She ejects the magazine and replaces it with her spare and moves to Martin’s bedroom door at the end of the hall. There is not enough room to pan across the threshold, so she tosses open the door and takes three swift, retreating steps back down the hallway, firing as she goes — six shots, two seconds, and when her field of fire is clear, she advances on the door again and finds three more targets, taking each in turn. Then there is silence except for the hot brass rolling around the bedroom and the hallway. She walks back to the kitchen and sets the Sig Sauer on the counter.

She can hear Martin coming up the drive. He parks outside and throws open the sliding glass doors and walks right through the living room and sits down heavily on the overstuffed couch. Turtle opens the fridge and takes out a Red Seal Ale and pitches it underhand to him and he catches it and fits the bottle cap between his molars and pops the bottle open. He begins to drink, taking long satisfied gasps, and then he looks back to her and says, “So, kibble, how was school?” and she walks around the counter, sits down on the arm of the couch, both of them looking at the ashy fireplace as if there were a fire there to absorb their attention, and she says, “School was school, Daddy.”

He rakes a thumbnail across his stubble.

“Tired, Daddy?”

“Nah.”

They sit and eat dinner together. Martin keeps looking at the table, furrowing his brow. They continue to eat in silence.

“How did you do, clearing the house?”

“Well.”

“But not perfect?” he says.

She shrugs.

He sets his fork down and considers her, his forearms resting on the table. His left eye squints. His right eye is bright and open. The two compose an affect of complete and nuanced absorption, but when she looks at them carefully it is upsetting and strange to her, and the more genuine her attention to his expression, the more alien it seems, as if his face were not a single face at all, and as if it were trying to stake out two contrary expressions on the world.

He says, “Did you check the upstairs?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Kibble, did you check the upstairs?”

“No, Daddy.”

“It’s a game to you.”

“No, it’s not.”

"You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace, and then and only then will you be good enough."

“You don’t take it seriously. You come in here and you saunter around, placing your shots right into the ocular cavity. But you know, in a real firefight, you can’t always count on hitting the cavity exactly, you might have to fire for the hip — break a man’s hip, Turtle, and he goes down and he does not get up — but you don’t like that shot and you don’t practice it because you do not see the necessity. You think you’re invincible. You think you won’t ever miss — you go in there just cool and relaxed, because you’re overconfident. We need to put the fear on you. You need to learn how to shoot when you’re shitting yourself in fear. You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace, and then and only then will you be good enough. That is what the drill is for.”

“I do all right when I’m afraid. You know how I do.”

“You go to shit, girl.”

“Even if my spread goes to shit, Daddy, it’s still two inches at twenty yards.”

“It’s not your spread, and it’s not how strong you are, and it’s not how fast you are, because you have all those things, and you think that means something. That means nothing. It’s something else, kibble, it’s your heart. When you are afraid, you clutch at your life like a scared little girl, and you can’t do that, you will die, and you will die afraid with the shit running down your legs. You need to be so much more than that. Because the time will come, kibble, when just being fast and accurate won’t be enough. The time will come when your soul must be absolute with your conviction, and whatever your spread, and howsoever fast you are, you will only succeed if you fight like a fucking angel, fallen to fucking earth, with a heart absolute and full of conviction, without hesitation, doubt, or fear, no part of yourself divided against the other; in the end, that’s what life will ask of you. Not technical mastery, but ruthlessness, courage, and singularity of purpose. You watch. So it’s fine that you saunter around, but that’s not what the exercise is for, kibble. It’s not for your spread. It’s not for your aim. It’s for your soul.

“You are supposed to come to the door and believe that hell awaits just on the other side, believe that this house is full of nightmares; every personal demon you have, every worst fear. That’s what you stalk through this house. That’s what waits for you down the hallway. Your worst fucking nightmare. Not a cardboard cutout. Practice conviction, kibble, strip yourself of hesitation and doubt, train yourself to an absolute singularity of purpose, and if you ever have to step through a door into your own personal hell, you will have a shot, a shot at survival.”

Turtle has stopped eating. She watches him.

“Do you like your cassoulet?” he says.

“It’s fine,” she says.

“You want something else?”

“I said, it’s fine.”

“Christ,” he says.

She goes back to eating.

“Look at you,” he says, “my daughter. My little girl.”

“Look at you,” he says, “my daughter. My little girl.”

He pushes aside his plate and sits there looking at her. After a while, he nods to her backpack. She walks to it, opens it, brings out her notebook. She sits down opposite him, notebook open. She says, “Number one. ‘Erinys.’ ” She stops, looks up at him. He puts one large, scarred hand across the open book, draws it across the table. Looks down at it.

“Well, now,” he says. “Look at that. ‘Erinys.’ ”

“What is that?” she says. “What does that mean, ‘Erinys’?”

He looks up from the book, his attention is fixed on her, and it is enormous with his affection and with something private. “Your grandfather,” he says, careful, wetting his lips with his tongue, “your grandfather was a hard man, kibble, he still is: a hard man. And do you know that your grandfather — Well, fuck, there is a lot your grandfather never said or did. There is something broken in that man, profoundly broken, and his brokenness is in everything he’s done, his whole life. He never could see past it. And I want to say, well, kibble, how much you mean to me. I love you. I do things wrong, I know I do, and I have failed you, and I will again, and the world I am raising you into — it is not the world I would want. It is not the world I would choose for my daughter. I do not know what the future holds, not for you and me. But I am afraid, I will say that much. Whatever you lacked, whatever I haven’t been able to give you, you have always been loved, deeply, kibble, absolutely. And I wanted to say, you will do more than I have. You will be better and more than I am. Never forget that. Now, here it is. Number one. ‘Erinys.’”

Turtle wakes in the predawn dark thinking about that. Thinking about what he’d said. She cannot get back to sleep. She sits at the bay window and looks out at the ocean, the rose thorns itching at the panes. What had he meant, there is something broken in that man? Outside, it is clear. She thinks, you will be better and more than I am, reproducing his expression in her mind, trying to get at what he meant. She can see the stars out above the ocean, though when she looks north, she can see the lights of Mendocino reflected in the clouds. She turns, feet on the floor, elbows on her knees, and looks at her room. The beam-and cinder- block shelves, her clothes neatly stowed. Her plywood platform bolted to the wall, with its sleeping bag and folded wool blankets. The door, the brass doorknob, the copper lock plate, the old-fashioned keyhole. She pulls on her jeans and she belts on Grandpa’s knife and adds a concealment holster, telling herself, just in case, just in case, walking to her bed and reaching under it and pulling her Sig Sauer from the brackets there. She shrugs into a thick wool sweater, and over that a flannel, and walks barefoot through the hall, holstering the pistol.

She climbs down the stairs, but stands on the lowest step, hesitating, soaking up the loneliness of the house in some way, as if it had something it could tell her, the generations of Alvestons who have lived here, and all of them, she thinks, unhappy, all of them bringing their children up hard, but all of them having something to them.

Just down the hall, Martin is in his huge redwood bed, the moon casting the shadows of the alder leaves onto the drywall, and she imagines him there, solid, one hand resting on that enormous chest. She walks into the kitchen and eases open the back door. The night is clear. The moonlight is bright enough to see by. She walks along the joists and stands looking down into the black ferns. She can smell the creek. She can smell the pines. She can smell their curling, dusty needles.

She switchbacks through myrtles and rusty fronds. She comes into the rocky creek and wades up it, her feet numb with cold. The trees rise blackly into the star-glittered vault. She thinks, I will go back now. Back to my room. I have promised and promised and promised and he cannot bear to lose me. To the east, the stream shines glassy from out the riotous dark. She stands breathing, taking in the silence for a very long time. Then she goes.

Isabel Seliger for BuzzFeed News

Turtle climbs out of slaughterhouse gulch and comes into a forest of bishop pine and huckleberries, deciphering them in the darkness by the wax of the leaves and the brittle mess of their sprawl, the dawn still hours away. At times she breaks from the woods into moonlit open places filled with rhododendron, their flowers pink and ghostly in the dark, their leaves leathery and prehistoric. There is a part of Turtle that she keeps shut up and private, that she attends to with only a diffuse and uncritical attention, and when Martin advances on this part of herself, she plays him a game of tit for tat, retreating wordlessly and almost without regard to consequences; her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like him, but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him — and there are silent, lonely moments when this part of her seems to open like some night-blooming flower, drinking in the cold of the air, and she loves this moment, and loving it, she is ashamed, because she loves him, too, and she should not thrill this way, should not thrill to his absence, should not need to be alone, but she takes this time by herself anyway, hating herself and needing it, and it feels so good to follow these trackless ways through the huckleberries and the rhododendrons.

She walks for miles, barefoot, eating watercress from ditches. Bishop pine and Douglas fir give way to stunted cypresses, to sedges, pygmy manzanita, to Bolander’s pines stooped and ancient, hundreds of years old and only shoulder height on her. The ground is hard-packed and ash-colored, puzzled over with tufted, gray-green lichens, the land studded with barren clay ponds.

In the dawn, the sun still banked among the hills, she climbs a fence and walks across the tarmac of a small airport, all shut up and quiet, the runway all her own. She’s been walking for just over three hours, groveling through the underbrush. She should’ve taken shoes, but it doesn’t much matter. She is so far accustomed to going barefoot that she could strop a razor on the soles of her feet. She climbs over the fence on the other side and walks out onto some other, larger road. She stands in the middle of it, on the double yellow line.

A rabbit breaks from the underbrush, dim gray movement against the black. Turtle draws the pistol, racks it in one smooth movement, and fires. The rabbit pitches over in the salal. She crosses the road, stands with the kicking, delicate creature at her feet, and it is smaller than she thought. She picks it up by the back legs, a bare skim of soft fur over the coupled bones, articulated and sinewy, sawing back and forth in her hand.

Turtle comes to an old roadbed lined with Oregon grape, cluttered with fallen leaves. She stands looking down into the Albion River basin. The sun has risen a handsbreadth above the horizon, crowning the eastern hills, sheaves of light slanting through the stunted trees. The road winds out below her, following a ridge with thickly wooded gulches on either side. She eases along, stopping to watch the silk-lined burrows of spiders in the cut bank, raking through grass for the grass-colored mantises, turning over roadside stones. She has an image of Martin in the kitchen, cooking up pancakes for a Saturday morning breakfast, humming to himself, and expecting her to come down any minute. Her heart breaks at this thought. He will be riddling over what to do as her pancakes get cold, and he will stand at the bottom of the stairs and call up, “Kibble? You up?” She thinks that he will go upstairs and open her door, look at her empty room, scraping his stubble with the edge of his thumb, and then he will go back downstairs and look at all the plates and pancakes and warm raspberry jam he’d set out.

The morning turns to early afternoon, blue, cottony, flat-bottomed clouds towing shadows across the forested slopes. At a barren clay promontory, the road makes a turn and descends into the easternmost of two gulches, and here a clay pullout overlooks the valley. Long dried ruts. An old VW bus with its tires rotting into the ground, ceanothus growing up against the driver’s-side quarter panel.

Turtle lays the rabbit across the dirt and opens the van’s rusted door and finds it stuffed with Oriental rugs. She drags out a rug, unrolls it, and finds nothing but sow bugs and wolf spiders. She walks to the front of the van. She opens the passenger-side door and sits inside, looks carefully around the front of the van. There is a strange, intermittent squeaking. It sounds like a loose spring in the upholstery, but it isn’t that. She opens the glove box and finds decaying maps and something long rotten. She leans down and walks her fingers along the footwell where the moldy upholstery has wrinkled up from the frame. She draws her grandpa’s bowie knife, cuts through the carpet, and pulls it aside. There are three pink newborn mice, the size of her fingertips, laid up along a mounded fold in the carpet, eyes closed, paws folded in small fists, squeaking furiously. Turtle lays the carpet back over the mice.

She collars its feet, slits it from anus to throat, pulls its fur off like a bloody sock, and pitches the pelt into the brush.


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