Fiction Friday: Pinckney Benedict and “Damselfly”
Someday I’ll tell you what it’s like to be married to a genius writer guy. But for now I’ll just share a little bit of his work. His name, btw, is Pinckney Benedict. He doesn’t have a website, a blog, or a Twitter handle. He does have a Wikipedia page. If I say that his writing defies genre classification, it’s because it does. He writes in the way good writers have written for hundreds of years: he just tells the story. Fantasy, science fiction, (rural) crime, horror, Literary Americana (I just made that up)–he lets the story be whatever it wants to be, which is what good writers do. I want him to write more, because I think his work is pretty amazing. I think that you’ll think so, too.
Here’s a bit of the opening to his Surreal South ’11 story, “Damselfly.” (You should check out his short story collection, Miracle Boy, too. Or his other books, all of which are available for your e-reading pleasure.)
“And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.”
At just past four in the morning, with the false dawn brightening the eastern sky, Nimrod Nickel once again found himself wide awake. He sat in the place where he’d watched the sun rise every morning for a week or more: perched on a hard wooden chair turned backward, arms crossed on the chair’s rigid back, staring out of his open kitchen window, praying for a breeze. Anything – a sigh, a whisper, a kiss. Anything but this apparently endless doldrums. The suffocating summer’s heat and the constant droning of the seventeen-year locusts had bored their way deep into his brain, and he felt like at any minute he might go mad. At any moment, he might explode into flames. He might scream. He might hurl the kitchen chair through the screen door that opened onto the back porch. He might even do a worse thing. Give me something, he thought. His voice no more than a whisper, he said, “Anything.”
Out in his back yard, not far from the old smokehouse, some thing moved. It was slight and pale and it walked upright. Nimrod squinted. Sweat dripped from his furrowed brow into his eyes, and he wiped at it. A child? A girl? The salt of his sweat stung him, and his vision momentarily dimmed and swam. The pale figure – pale wasn’t the right word for it, exactly; it seemed luminous, it seemed almost to glow – crossed the bottom of his yard with its flitting, light-footed gait and, quick as a wink, brushed open the door of the smokehouse and slipped inside.
For a moment, Nimrod imagined that the glow he had seen – a blue luminescence as pure as light refracted from the faces of a diamond, as calm as the rays of the late-afternoon sun glancing off the surface of a cool, deep lake – outlined the heavy wooden door of the ramshackle smokehouse. How bright must that radiance be, to shine through the gap around the door that way? Inside the smokehouse, which hadn’t seen any proper use since his grandfather’s time, it must be blinding, he imagined. Nimrod closed his smarting eyes and held them closed, and when he opened them again, his vision had cleared. There was no figure, no girl, no glow.
Pharaoh pharaoh pharaoh, cried the locusts in their unnumbered millions. Pharoah pharaoh pharaoh: the locusts’ two-syllable mating chorus, endlessly repeated from every tree on Nimrod Nickel’s place, from every tree in the green little valley that lay beneath the looming shadow of Nickel’s Ridge, and from every tree and shrub and bush on the ridge. It was as though the trees themselves were crying out.
The only trees that had been spared the locust infestation were the ones covered in caterpillar cocoons. These trees stood shrouded, silent and ghostly in their white silk garments, amidst the others. Apparently the caterpillars and the locusts had an understanding between them. But the other trees: they were cloaked in the whirring, creeping, buzzing carpet of locusts. Pharaoh pharaoh pharaoh. Nimrod Nickel’s mother had told him when he was a little boy, when the unrelenting cry of the seventeen-year locusts had frightened him, that they made that sound to remind the world of the fate that had befallen the magnificent Pharaoh of Egypt when he hardened his heart against YWHW, the Lord God of Hosts. The eighth plague, followed by darkness, followed by the Destroyer.
The crushing heat had continued unbroken for better than a month now, not a breath of wind since the day in early summer when the locusts had begun boiling up out of the ground (repulsive, to watch them pull themselves free of the earth, like dead men clawing their way out of their graves; and yet he hadn’t been able to look away, fascinated for hours as his land bloomed with this weird, alien crop), and the humidity made him feel weak and woozy and sick to his stomach. He knew he needed to drink water to stay healthy, he ha dlearned that much as a boy and had relearned it during his time int he desert, but still he couldn’t bear it. On his tongue, the metallic tang of the tap water – drawn by electric pump from an ancient limestone aquifer four hundred feet below the surface – made him think of blood. He felt his gorge rise, just imagining it. He had grown up in that house, drinking that water, and it had never bothered him before this summer, but now – now it didn’t bear thinking about. Like the locusts bursting from every inch of his property. Unbearable.
Needless to say, he wasn’t eating well (You’re going to waste away, his plump, pretty wife, younger than he was by several years, said to him at every meal – Don’t you care for my cooking anymore?) and he’d begun losing weight, his jeans hanging loose from the sharp angles of his hipbones, his workshirt when he put one on in the morning draping over him like some kind of a caftan. He’d had to punch two extra holes, first one and then another just a week later, in the wide leather belt that he wore, the one with the heavy brass bull’s head buckle. He hadn’t slept through the night in weeks. He was beginning to see things, movement in the corners of his vision, cobwebs where there weren’t any cobwebs, moving shadows when there was no light to throw a shadow and nothing moving to cast it. And now – had she been naked? – a girl. A girl had drifted across his yard and gone into the smokehouse.