Excerpt from The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mercy Seat

by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop X
The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 240 pages
    Apr 2019, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Print Excerpt

Seward grunts. "When you was a kid. What, you a man now?"

Lane says nothing. He's twenty-four years old. He watches the dog eat the jerky, then, from his seat behind the wheel, makes as if to kick the creature. "Git!" he says, as the dog backs away. "Git!" He slams the truck door closed, and the captain and trusty again are under way.


Dale watches the truck disappear down the road to the south as he fills the tank of the waiting car. The truck kicks up a cloud of dust that hangs behind it in a slowly fading column. It's been a dry spell, October, not a drop of rain in weeks.

He lowers his eyes; vapors shimmer around his hand as the gas tank fills. The numbers on the pump dial tick slowly upward, and with a click, as he releases the handle, at twentyfive they stop. He replaces the nozzle, twists the gas cap shut.

"Quarter," he says, bending through the car's open window. Three glistening faces look back at him: father, mother, and between them on the bench seat, a little girl, country folk in a borrowed or hard-earned car. An infant lies sleeping in a basket in the back.

The driver drops two dimes and a nickel into Dale's waiting hand, as soiled with grease as the man's is with dirt from the field. "Reckon that'll get us far as Houma?"

"Ought to." Dale stands. He puts the hand with coins into his pocket and watches the car drive away, into that lingering column of dust. Then he turns, walks across the boiling lot toward the store. The dog has settled in the shade of the water oak where the truck had parked, not their dog but becoming so after two-odd weeks around. They've never been dog people, but Ora says she can't help feeding him as long as he's here, even as Dale tells her that the fact of her feeding him is why he sticks around.

The bell on the shop door clatters as he pushes inside. It's as hot inside as out, but at least there's a fan. Ora's on a stool behind the counter, her black hair damp against the side of her face. She looks up from her magazine, expectant, and Dale realizes he has nothing to offer, nothing to say; he just came in to come in. He runs a hand through his hair, which is stiff with sweat and dust, leans against the cooler. "Smells good," he says.


Dale looks at his wife; she returns his gaze with a stony face.

"Venison?" he asks.

She looks back at her magazine. "Pork."

"That hog's gone a long way."


"You cool enough?" He offers, "I can move the fan closer."

"I'm all right." She doesn't look up.

"Changed the spark plugs on the truck," he says. "I'm hoping that'll do the trick."

She looks up, her face a question.

"Engine kept misfiring," he explains.

She is uninterested, looks back at her magazine.

Dale pats his chest pocket for his cigarettes, and finds he's left his pack in the garage. He scratches his head, staring at his wife as intently as she's staring at her magazine, her eyes not traveling across the page.

Finally she looks up. "What?"

"What you?" he asks.

She closes her magazine and stands. "Meat's about done," she says, and she goes into the back, shuts the door behind her.

Dale rubs his eyes. He pulls himself from the cooler and crosses to the doorway. He stands there in the glass and stares into the distance, where the highway disappears in a quivering mirage.


In the kitchen, Ora turns the burner down and without stopping to even lift the lid and look inside the pot, she hurries to the back screen door, which used to slap shut in a familiar sound until last week Dale put felt pads in the door frame. The silence seems louder to Ora than the crack of wood on wood echoing across the field ever did; it makes her uneasy. Used to be that the Negro boy out between the rows of cotton would have looked up at the sound and seen her standing there; now, unaware of her presence, he countinues picking, and puts the cotton into a burlap sack.

The Mercy Seat © 2018 by Elizabeth H. Winthrop. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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