Excerpt from Scorched Earth by David L. Robbins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Scorched Earth

By David L. Robbins

Scorched Earth
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2002,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2003,
    352 pages.

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Clare and Elijah have a dog, a gray cocker named Herschel. It is Herschel who in this first year of their marriage shows Clare that her husband contains in him places she has not yet entered.

On a summer Saturday Herschel lies heaving on the back stoop of the house. His breath grates in his throat. His tongue lolls from his mouth onto the boards. The dog's neck is swollen terribly, as though bees have built a hive inside it. Elijah finds him on the stoop and shouts for Clare to bring the truck around. Herschel has been bitten by a snake.

Elijah lays Herschel on the seat, the dog's head in Clare's lap, his tongue on her bare thigh. He drives fast to the vet, who confirms Elijah's diagnosis and gives the dog antivenom. The vet tells them to leave Herschel overnight.

Returning to the house, Elijah walks away from the pickup to the backyard shed. Clare remains in the yard. Elijah emerges with his rubber fishing waders over his arm.

"There's another pair," he says. "Come if you want.”

Clare watches him enter the house. In a minute he exits carrying his old side-by-side shotgun and a box of twelve-gauge shells. She runs to the shed for the other rubber coveralls.

Elijah slowly drives the quarter mile to the end of the dirt road where he turns left up the farmer's tractor path. He stops the truck at the foot of the trees and looks at Clare. His face is blank as slate, as though all purpose has been drained from it to better fuel his will. He climbs out and Clare follows. The cornfield stops here, the rim of it barbered neat. The air tastes musky along the riverbank in the shade. These trees were left in place two centuries ago when the land was first put under the plow, to hold the bank together. The roots of the trees closest to the river stick out of the bank, exposed by times of high water. Elijah pulls on his waders, then breaks the shotgun, slips in shells, leaves the barrel open over his arm and clambers down the bank holding on to the roots. Where the roots meet the water, spreading like arteries, is where the copperheads make their nests.

Elijah moves into the water as though he were himself reptilian, without ripple or sound. Clare puts on the second pair of rubber bibs, they go on easily because they are too big. She eases herself into the water but still makes a small splash stepping in. Thirty yards ahead, Elijah does not turn. He snaps closed the shotgun and raises it. He lets go with one barrel, then another, the branches overhead shake with the report and where he has aimed smoke whorls on the water. Something thrashes. Elijah unsnaps and reloads. He fires again into a cascade of roots, leaving another specter of smoke as a marker.

He wades the river the length of the field, almost a half-mile, firing the shotgun into the water, against the bank, under roots. Green plastic shells and shredded bits of snakes and bark float past Clare on the slow current. She is surprised the water is not redder with blood. After most of an hour, when an empty cardboard shell box drifts past her, Elijah stops walking, the shotgun under his armpit. He does not turn to Clare but stands watching the current slide past his thighs. Clare clambers out of the river and walks back to the truck. She removes the overalls and sits in the cab. Elijah does not appear. She considers honking the horn but does not. She sits alone for another hour eyeing the yellow palisade of corn. I had no idea, she thinks, no idea how much my husband can love.

Three

Crossing the Mattaponi River your eyes are not on the bridge or the car ahead of you but on the mill. This plant is the giant, smoking, multitiered centurion of the town. Employed here are thirteen hundred people from the five thousand residents of Good Hope and twelve thousand total in the county. A stench issues from the tallest structure, the new boiler, which always sports a cone of steam the entire town uses to gauge the direction of the wind. The smell is sulphurous, the by-products of wood fibers being separated from each other in order to turn logs into cardboard and bleached white top. "It's the smell of money," say the townfolk, and just an egg stink to those driving through on their way to summer cottages elsewhere in the river country. Two red tugboats are tied at the massive pier, waiting to guide waterborne shipments of timber. Rail tracks cross the road leading into the wood yard. A sign welcomes you to the town. good hope, the sign reads. a good place to work, live, and play.

Excerpted from Scorched Earth by David L. Robbins. Copyright 2002 by David L. Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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