Mark Shannon is one of the 2009 Awards Program finalists. Below is an excerpt from the prologue and first chapter of his entry, In The Land of Cane.
The river was smooth and it wound murkily, rising with the seasonal rains and receding with the dry ones, laggardly moving, like a serpent on the sly, cutting the face of the land with its body, shaping banks and inlets for miles, creating the land that would one day become Magnolia, and later Sugarville, and now a story for us all. For the land is a dwelling place of spirit, and as such, it is a shared place of souls, existing everywhere in the geography of heaven, which is timeless, but also now, becoming ours to shape and imagine, as it was long ago by angles and demons, who, empowered by light and darkness, trod the earth with Will.
In the summer of 1873, Captain McGeary stuffed his wallet with twelve-hundred dollars in cash and traveled down Snake River to Coastal City. He didn’t bother with a bath when he arrived, but went directly to the saloon. Cradling a bottle of bourbon in his arms, he eased into a poker game and proceeded to win seven consecutive hands, three on a bluff. Taking a long, hard drink from his bottle, he gradually stood up and announced, “I’ll be back.”
No one at the table objected. They merely watched as the red-bearded landowner stacked his winnings into a pair of neat
piles, and, folding up the bills with his big hands, he inserted them deep into the pockets of his trousers. Stumbling upstairs to the second floor, he found a familiar door and passed through it. Beatrice Baudelaire, a fair, finely sculptured French woman with an impeccable facility for language, stood behind the half wall of her boudoir. Strapping on a garter, she was naked from the waist up.
“Mousier McGeary,” Beatrice said melodiously. “I did not expect you so soooon.”
McGeary set his bottle down on her dresser with a clunk.
The sound caused Beatrice to take notice, and she peered cautiously at her guest. He stood motionless, except for his head, which weaved ever so slightly, moving up and down and sideways, searching for the proper degrees by which to fix his gaze and steady his world. Beatrice realized the big man might fall away, and crossing to him, she steadied his body by hugging his waist.
“I’ll be a’right,” he said surly.
Beatrice turned her attention to the bed, and gently drew back a cotton blanket to expose a silk sheet and a pair of duck-feather pillows. She fluffed the pillows with her hands, then smoothed the sheet by delicate strokes of her fingers, much like a Goddess would in preparing an immaculate bed for an immortal. She then took McGeary by the hand and drew him to the edge of the bed, where, dropping to the floor, she knelt at his feet and unloosened the laces of his boots. McGeary got the message, and he responded by sitting down on the bed and lifting up a leg. She removed one boot, then the other, setting each carefully aside as though they were fine garments. When McGeary felt himself bootless, he fell back, his arms spread lengthwise across the bed, and his eyelids drawn down heavily over his eyeballs. As he lay, he got the sensation of her hands working to undo his shirt and belt. Then suddenly, he felt a tug as she drew his trousers off his legs. He fell into a dream before Beatrice could remove his shirt, and she allowed him to lie at peace, sleeping in his fallen place, smelling of liquor, and breathing in balmy rhythms.
Beatrice reached in his trousers’ pocket and removed the cash. After a cursory inspection, she estimated its worth at nearly three-thousand dollars. She rolled off a pair of hundred-dollar bills for herself and slipped them into her brazier. The remaining cash she stashed behind a loose board in the wall.
A knock came to the door and Beatrice answered. It was Cassandra, an island woman. Like nearly everyone in Coastal City, she had a hard-luck story. Her husband had practiced sorcery, and the authorities forced him to flee the mainland, leaving Cassandra to her own devices, which included the secret making of potions.
“He back, hu?” Cassandra asked, peering at McGeary on the bed. “I knew. Didn’t think so soon, though. I put a spell on him. He a good man, but he know too much sin. I told him so, about the land, too. The war change things. Some land clean. No man, though.” She pushed back the braids of her hair and leaned over the bed. Putting her face close to McGeary’ lips, she smelled his breath. “Bourbon?” Cassandra guessed. “He gamble yet?”
“Yes,” Beatrice replied.
Cassandra grinned, exposing a broken tooth at the front of her mouth. “He got money?” she asked.
“I imagine you need some,” Beatrice replied.
“Even the devil need money,” the island woman commented.
Beatrice reached into a drawer and withdrew a gold coin.
“Here’s ten dollars,” she said, handing the coin to Cassandra. “Wash his trousers and bring them back nicely pressed.”
“I do that,” Cassandra said richly. “Sure do.”
. . . . .
McGeary slept soundly throughout the night, and he did not awaken until mid-morning. He was a voracious handler of a knife and fork, but on this occasion, when Cassandra brought him a breakfast of eggs, beans and beefsteak, he was unenthused.
“I had me a dream,” he said, poking the beefsteak with his fork somberly. “The same as years ago.”
“What was it?” Cassandra asked. “You wanna talk ’bout it? I knows about such things.”
McGeary thought of his dream and revisited images of red rain flowing ribbon-like from the sky. The rain filled the fields with crimson, and the earth’s furrows ran coldly with the color of blood. “Ain’t nothin’ a man wants to share,” he explained. “Some things best be lived with alone.” He pushed away his plate. “It was a sign, though,” he commented. “That’s fer sure. I best sell.”
Beatrice overheard, and stepping away from her dresser mirror, she asked McGeary, “sell your land?”
“I’ll find a decent buyer,” McGeary replied. “Many’s a wantin’ cane. We’ll move west. California. Land flows of milk and honey. Not like here.”
“Land flows wit’ blood in these parts,” Cassandra commented. “Gots to. Like a woman some land is.”
“Hush!” Beatrice admonished. “It’s not polite to talk like that.”
“Maybe,” Cassandra said. “Is the truth, though.”
McGeary stood and stepped into his trousers. “Think I’ll play some poker,” he announced. “Give the boys a chance to win some of their money back.”
“Not yet,” said Beatrice, taking McGeary by the arm. “Walk with me through town and down by the water.”
“That’s right,” Cassandra concurred. “Too soon after a dream like that. You best walk in the salt air.”
Beatrice guided Captain McGeary outdoors. She strolled with him along the sidewalks of town, showing him off like a prize. The time had come, she thought. Captain McGeary would finally take her away. She held her head loftily in the morning air, her eyes searching the porches of affluent homes, hoping for the town’s respectable ladies to catch sight of her with the rich landowner. The couple summoned a carriage and traveled down to the water. The beach was empty, except for shells and gulls. The moon was away, and waves crawled lazily ashore, washing the sand with clear, calm strokes.
. . . . .
In the land of cane twenty miles away, two dissimilar yet equally affected storms brewed upon the land, one in the minds of men and the other in the soul of the sky. Both hellacious and damning, they came together not by accident, but by the mood of the moon, which was waxing full and incandescent. The storm of the sky had been building on the horizon for hours, but only when the storm of men congealed did it fully manifests itself and demonstrate its powers. The turbulence began with the appearance of low-hanging clouds, and the wind swirling, uplifting the leaves of trees, causing small animals of the fields to seek shelter in hovels. The land was quiet, except for stalks of sugarcane, which rustled in the wind, murmuring a dialog of inextricable nature. Yet, everyone who passed along the field that evening understood the intention of the stormy sky, and, too, the moon, which appeared in gaps between tumultuous clouds, giving evidence to a dreadful transit come to the land.
A mile outside of town, Lucien Eliot, a landowner and neighbor of Captain McGeary, rode with a band of twenty men, all of them armed with weapons, their horses galloping steadily, their hoofs thundering the ground, like drums of an ancient order. Drops of rain fell from the sky, large ones stinging skin, and making rude, slapping sounds on leather. The heavens crackled with lightning, and it riled the horses, but they remained apace and in concert, for the beasts sucked moist air into their nostrils, the fresh, watery scent exhilarating them.
. . . . .
An hour later, Captain McGeary’s son, Andrew, rode into a cane field with four companions and came upon a pair of black men lying low on the grubby ground.
The white men hooted and hollered. “Get up and run! We gives you a chance.”
One of the blacks spoke up. “We’re tired of running.”
“Then we’ll shoot ya here,” Andrew declared. He got down off his stallion and drew his pistol, pointing it the faces of the two black men. “Which one wants it first?”
“You just gonna murder us?” asked one of the blacks.
“Sure, why not?” a white man mocked.
The black man pulled a knife from his trouser pocket and welded it. “Maybe it’s best we fight!” he cried angrily.
Andrew smiled. “I knows somethin’ about knife fightin’, too.” He withdrew a blade from his belt, and held it high, circling it about like a scintillating lasso.
The black man kept his eyes fixed on Andrew’s knife and moved in measured steps, watching and stalking, awaiting the moment to strike. It was Andrew who struck first, however, for he adroitly looped his blade and lashed the black man’s hand.
“You won’t do that no mo’,” the black man promised.
He leapt toward McGeary and the two began to tussle, their blades slicing the air with violence. The fighters appeared to be evenly matched, for neither man’s knife could find a deadly mark and fell the other. But the black man stood the better ground, and soon he swiped at Andrew and nicked his neck. Andrew saw the act as an opportunity and quickly went in with his blade, catching the black man in the chest and cracking a rib. The black man dropped his knife and stood dizzily, his eyes rolling in his head. Once he fell backward, Andrew proclaimed the man dead.
“You see that?!” cried Andrew. “I got him in the chest! Cut his heart, I bet”. He took a hand-rolled tobacco from his shirt pocket and lit it, adrenalin pumping through his veins. “He went down like a rock,” Andrew continued. “I kilt him with a single stroke.” He puffed heartily on the tobacco and blew smoke. The white men watched and were aghast, for the black man had opened a gash on Andrew’s neck and smoke flowed out of it, like through a pair of grotesque lips.
Mark Shannon is a writer of short novels, screenplays, and theatrical work. A former teacher and dramatic performer of literature (fiction and poetry), he has been writing for more than a decade without publication or production of his work.