It could have been an escaped convict, I said. A white man. It could have been, but I was betting it wasnt. Henry hesitated, and I said, The penitentiarys what, just six or seven miles from here?
More like ten, he said. But he let his hand fall to his side.
Come on, I said, holding out my own hand. Take a break. Ill dig awhile. When he reached up and clasped it, I had to stop myself from smiling. Henry was right: there was nothing our father would have hated more.
Henry was back to digging again when I saw Laura coming toward us, picking her way across the drowned fields with a bucket in each hand. I fished in my pocket for my handkerchief and used it to wipe some of the mud off my face. Vanity??thats another thing I got from my father.
Lauras coming, I said.
Pull me up, Henry said.
I grabbed his hands and pulled, grunting with the effort, dragging him over the lip of the grave. He struggled to his knees, breathing harshly. He bent his head and his hat came off, revealing a wide swath of pink skin on top. The sight of it gave me a sharp, unexpected pang. Hes getting old, I thought. I wont always have him.
He looked up, searching for Laura. When his eyes found her they lit with emotions so private I was embarrassed to see them: longing, hope, a tinge of worry. Id better keep at it, I said, turning away and picking up the shovel. I half jumped, half slid down into the hole. It was deep enough now that I couldnt see out. Just as well.
Hows it coming? I heard Laura say. As always, her voice coursed through me like cold, clear water. It was a voice that belonged rightfully to some ethereal creature, a siren or an angel, not to a middle-aged Mississippi farmwife.
Were almost finished, said Henry. Another foot or so will see it done.
Ive brought food and water, she said.
Water! Henry let out a bitter laugh. Thats just what we need, is more water. I heard the scrape of the dipper against the pail and the sound of him swallowing, then Lauras head appeared over the side of the hole. She handed the dipper down to me. Here, she said, have a drink.
I gulped it down, wishing it were whiskey instead. Id run out three days ago, just before the bridge flooded, cutting us off from town. I reckoned the river had gone down enough by now that I could have gotten across??if I hadnt been stuck in that damned hole.
I thanked her and handed the dipper back up to her, but Laura wasnt looking at me. Her eyes were fixed on the other side of the grave, where wed laid the bones.
Good Lord, are those human? she said.
It couldnt be helped, Henry said. We were already four feet down when we found them.
I saw her lips twitch as her eyes took in the shackles and chains. She covered her mouth with her hand, then turned to Henry. Make sure you move them so the children dont see, she said.
WHEN thE top of the grave was more than a foot over my head, I stopped digging. Come take a look, I called out. I think this is plenty deep.
Henrys face appeared above me, upside down. He nodded. Yep. That should do it. I handed him the shovel, but when he tried to pull me up, it was no use. I was too far down, and our hands and the walls of the hole were too slick. Ill fetch the ladder, he said.
I waited in the hole. Around me was mud, stinking and oozing. Overhead a rectangle of darkening gray. I stood with my neck bent back, listening for the returning squelch of Henrys boots, wondering what was taking him so goddamn long. If something happened to him and Laura, I thought, no one would know I was here. I clutched the edge of the hole and tried to pull myself up, but my fingers just slid through the mud.
Excerpted from Mudbound by Hillary Jordan Copyright © 2008 by Hillary Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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