"A first novel that sings with talent. A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME will knock your socks off."
author of THE BIBLE SALESMAN and WALKING ACROSS EGYPT
"Wiley Cash is a talented and disciplined young writer, and his first novel, A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, proves it. I think this could be the beginning of a long, fruitful career."
--Ernest J. Gaines,
A LESSON BEFORE DYING
and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN
"A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME is a riveting story! The writing is bold, daring, graceful, and engrossing."
--Bobbie Ann Mason,
author of SHILOH AND OTHER STORIES and IN COUNTRY
"I didn’t sleep well after I finished A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME because I kept thinking, All childhoods are not the same. Cruelty and innocence dwell together and always will. I can just imagine the intense work -- and the love -- that has gone into this."
author of EVENSONG and THE FINISHING SCHOOL
"I try to state the truth and dislike flinging superlatives about with mad abandon, but I have been so deeply impressed by A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME that only superlatives can convey the tenor of my thought: it is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read."
author of I AM ONE OF YOU FOREVER
and BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE
"Cinematic and symphonic, A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME's compelling story is revealed in a sequence of voices that are as pitch-perfect as they are irresistible. This is a wonderfully impressive debut: tender, muscled and unforgettable."
author of THE FAN-MAKER'S INQUISITION and GAZELLE
"Whew! Wiley Cash is the real deal. His first novel, A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, is dense with stories intersecting like the branches in a laurel hell."
author of LIFE WITHOUT WATER and A HOME ACROSS THE ROAD
a land more kind than home
from Chapter Five
People out in these parts can take hold of religion like it’s a drug, and they don’t want to give it up once they’ve got hold of it. It’s like it feeds them, and when they’re on it they’re likely to do anything these little backwoods churches tell them to do. Then they’ll turn right around and kill each other over that faith, throw out their kids, cheat on husbands and wives, break up families just as quick. I don’t know exactly how long Carson Chambliss had been living in Madison County the first time I ever ran up against him, and I’m not saying this fanaticism started with him, because I know it didn’t. That kind of belief has been up here a long time before I arrived on this earth, and it’s my guess it’ll still be around for a long time after I’m gone. But I’ve seen his work firsthand and I still can’t put my finger on what it is and why it affects folks like it does. Ten years ago I saw a man set his own barn on fire while his family just stood out in the yard and watched it go, just because he thought it was the right thing to do.
In my mind that barn’s still a burned-out spectacle set against a darkening sky. The neighbors had all left their houses in the cove and followed the gravel road down to Gillum’s land where they were facing the grassy rise atop which that barn sat with the bright orange light flicking inside. I’d followed the smoke down from the highway and I was driving slowly past the fence when some of them turned to look at me like they hadn’t ever seen the law before. But most of them kept their eyes on the barn where it was swollen with smoke from a season’s worth of crop burning. What looked like fog rolled the length of the pasture and picked its way through the barbed wire fence. The cruiser’s windows were down and the air was tobacco-sweet.
Gillum and his two daughters were standing in the yard watching the barn. His wife had gone into the house to save herself from watching it burn and to put off the accounting of loss that would follow. I still picture her inside a too-warm room with closed windows and doors where she busies her hands and pays no mind to the smoke drifting through the yard and the sound of the boards burning and popping loose from the frame. If she’d have pulled back the curtain she’d have seen me walking through the yard toward the smoke where Gillum was standing with their daughters and waiting for it to be done.
“What’s happened here Gillum?” I asked him. He didn’t take his eyes from the barn, but his right hand left his pocket and touched the shoulder of his oldest daughter. She was maybe thirteen and she jumped like electricity had suddenly passed between the two of them. Her face looked sad and scared and she moved closer to him. Gillum looked at me and then back at the barn.
“I’m just taking care of something, Sheriff,” he said.
“I noticed the smoke from the highway and thought I’d better come down,” I said.
“Everything’s fine.” He was quiet and I listened to the fire spreading itself inside the barn. Whispered voices rose below us where the people had gathered to watch down by the fence.
“Gillum, you’ve got a season’s worth of tobacco drying in that barn. I know better than to think it’s fine.” Before I could say anything else, his youngest girl looked up at me.
“I seen him run in there,” she said. She looked at her daddy and he reached down and took her hand. She leaned her head against his leg.
“What’s she talking about?” I asked. Gillum didn’t say nothing and the girl just looked at me. Then she tilted her head back and looked at her daddy again.
“Who’d you see in there?”
“She says she saw the devil come running down the road,” the oldest girl said. “She says she saw him run into the barn.”
“Is somebody in there?” I asked. Gillum’s gaze left the barn and turned toward the ground. Up the hill in front of him, the flames had dispatched with the low beams and moved upwards along the crossbeams toward the pitch. The eaves were beginning to burn. The roof would catch next.
“Libby Clovis took sick a while back,” Gillum said. “Bob tried to wait it out, but her fever just wouldn’t break. He rode her over to the county hospital and they looked her over and couldn’t find nothing to do for her. He was close to riding her into Asheville when she got worse, but her mama wanted him to send for the preacher. He told me he figured it couldn’t hurt.
“Libby’s mama brought out a preacher from Marshall named Chambliss and Bob said that preacher closed himself up in the bedroom with Libby. He said he could hear all kinds of carrying on behind that door. Sounded like the furniture was getting smashed to bits, like the bed was being lifted up and down off the floor."
I turned and looked down toward the people gathered in front of the fence. In the back I saw the tall, gaunt figure of Robert Clovis bringing an unlit cigarette to his lips. Our eyes locked and he looked away quickly. He struck a light and his washed out face was framed briefly against the darkening road that fell away behind him. I turned back toward the fire.
“Who’s in that barn?”
“It’s not for me to say just what it is,” Gillum said. “But Bob told me Chambliss called the family into the bedroom late this afternoon and asked them all to join hands and pray. Bob said they stood there and held hands and prayed, but he kept his eyes open and looked around. He told me it left her body suddenly. He said everybody in the room saw it: the preacher, Libby’s mama, him. They saw it leave her body and run out of the house like a shadow. Whatever was in her is in my barn now and I mean to be rid of it tonight.”
“You think the devil or some kind of demon’s in your barn?”
“Like I said, it ain’t for me to say just what it is. I just know it’s there.”
“I don’t know what your daughter thinks she saw, but I hope that barn’s empty when this fire burns out.”
“You won’t find no man’s body in there,” he said. “I can promise you that.”
Most of the folks in the group by the fence had gone home, and it was full dark when the north side of the barn collapsed and took part of the roof with it. The sound of splitting wood was followed by a shower of glowing embers that fell like snow onto the lawn. Flakes of warm ash floated toward us and I felt them blow across my face and I brushed them from my shirt. The noise of the collapsing roof startled Gillum’s youngest daughter and she started to cry.
“Take her into the house,” he told the oldest.
She picked up the little girl and carried her toward the house where faint lights burned behind curtained windows. I watched them go until the darkness swallowed them. When I turned I realized that Gillum was gone and I searched the yard until I saw his shape moving away from me toward a small well-house. I stood watching his retreating figure and suddenly realized that people were moving past me in the darkness. The neighbors who’d left earlier had returned and many of them were carrying aluminum buckets and plastic drums. They walked quietly through the yard.
I found myself following the group up to the well-house where someone handed me a bucket and I stood and waited for Gillum to fill it with water from the hose. Behind me I could hear the hiss of the hot ground being cooled as bucket after bucket was dumped onto the smoldering grass. The pump inside the well-house clicked on and the low hum competed with the noise of the fire and the sounds of the feet shuffling in and out of the line.
When my bucket was full I carried it awkwardly toward the fire where the others circled the barn and wet down the grass along its perimeter. A few had even climbed a piece up the hillside and were tossing buckets of water into the trees. The only light was from the fire and the darkness around me moved with the sound of falling water. I carried the bucket by the handle and in its swinging the water overflowed the sides and wet my pants and my boots. I moved slower until I felt the heat of the fire on my face, and I stopped and stood beside another man and carefully soaked a strip of grass at my feet.
I went back to the line where Gillum refilled my bucket and I worked my way around the barn soaking down the grass and trying not to inhale the sour smoke from the treated wood. The earth grew wet until my feet were sloshing through the grass, but I continued to refill my bucket and follow the others clockwise around the barn. I poured the water methodically in straight lines until the grass was no longer steaming. I looked to my right and saw a man in a baseball cap beside me with a cigarette in his mouth. He was using both hands to dump the water and trying in vain to blink the smoke from his eyes. I walked back to the well-house where Gillum was still standing and filling emptied buckets. He was talking to someone; when I got closer I saw it was Robert Clovis.
“I’m going to help you put this back up,” I heard him say. “I can’t help but
feel responsible for it.”
“There’s no need for that,” Gillum said. “We can see to that tomorrow. I just want to make sure I don’t lose nothing tonight that I can’t get back.”
“I’m sorry,” Clovis said.
“There’s no need,” Gillum said. Clovis waited until his bucket was full, and then he walked back toward the barn. I stepped forward and held my bucket before me and it grew heavy as the water from the hose began to fill it.
“I appreciate your help,” Gillum said. I looked up at him and nodded my head, and then I turned to follow Clovis back to the barn, but I stopped when I saw that the fire was slowly burning itself out and the field was already full of inky silhouettes moving against the darkness.