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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One

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark; the tree is a gentle old presence. The leaves of the oak bear the first blush of whistling autumn.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for the harvest machinery resting now after church on this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is as silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes are closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over the ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible in the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

Two

Clare and Elijah Waddell live in a shotgun shack two miles down Postal Delivery Route 310. Their small house stands five miles east of the town of Good Hope, the county seat for Pamunkey County. Local wags call these single-story, slant-roofed homes shotgun shacks because if you stood in the front doorway and fired a shotgun blast, you'd kill everyone through the whole house. Elijah and Clare bought the place last year, just after they married. For five months they sanded the heart-pine floors, put in new kitchen cabinets, and painted the clapboards. Clare wanted the exterior painted pink and got dusky rose, their compromise. The house came with ten acres; all of it except Clare and Elijah's vegetable garden is leased to a corn farmer who cultivates four hundred acres on both sides of the road down to the river. The house and yard and the dusty lane are walled in by rising corn from May through October, until the crop is harvested. Elijah and Clare enjoy the isolation. Coming home once from their jobs at the paper mill, Clare took Elijah's hand and stood beside their mailbox, the silks' tassels higher than their heads.

She said, "It's like being Hansel and Gretel coming up on the gingerbread house, isn't it?”

Elijah is ten years older than Clare; she is twenty-two, but they share the same wiry build and long frame. His is a face of circles, pliant, with wide nostrils, long earlobes, and arching brows over dark pupils. Clare's features are round too, but resemble the roundness of an infant's.

When it can be, theirs is a sweaty, dirty love. They groom their big summer garden and work on the house. They bring each other iced tea. They make love in the rope hammock at nightfall in full sight of the road, daring the path to bring them an intruder. In winter they chop and carry wood. Elijah has knocked down a wall to take the space from a closet and add it to a baby's room. Clare carries the detritus outside in a wheelbarrow, shoveling chips and scraps into the pickup to be hauled to the dump. They pull off their clothes to laugh at the dirty regions, hands, arms, necks, and faces, her whiteness showing the grit most, his grime blending into his skin. They make love that way too, with the dirt of home chores or the stink of the paper mill in their hair and clothes. Work seems to make them want each other, like thirst.

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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