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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Kate Braithwaite
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She settles on the three wooden steps that lead from the door down into the station's backyard, where it comes edge to edge with the field. Cicadas buzz like rattlers. She wonders if Dale is still leaning against the cooler inside, staring at the place where she was as if he still might get whatever answer he's looking for from the space she'd filled. She doesn't let herself wonder where Tobe is. There hasn't been a letter from Guadalcanal in weeks. She and Dale do not talk about it, as if acknowledging the fact might make its portent real. It is not lost on her how their son's absence, after all these years, has caused the same sort of rift between them as his arrival into their lives did eighteen years ago. Then, they secretly wished for their old life back, each quietly blaming the other for its loss; now they await the mail and news of the Pacific front in anxious silence.

She glances up at a commotion of bird noise, watches a sparrow chase a hawk across the field. From the other side of the building she can hear a car whizzing past on the highway, and then a minute later she can see it, growing smaller down the road to the east. Sometimes Ora finds it strange to live at a crossroads, where almost everyone she sees is going somewhere, while her life is such that she has nowhere to go. When Tobe was younger and would sit with her behind the counter, before he was old enough to pump or be of use to Dale in the garage, they'd make up stories about the people who'd come into the store: the woman in the hat was going to New Orleans for her birthday; the family with the twin babies was moving out to California; the man with the handkerchief was a fugitive from the law. She doesn't make up stories anymore; she only wonders.

The boy in the field has come near to the end of the row, shirtless and sweating. He's maybe nine or ten years old, one of many Negroes who live in tiny tenant shacks on the surrounding land, who conduct their lives as if Dale and Ora's station did not exist. They've got no need for gas and they get their goods from the plantation commissary a couple of miles away. For the twenty years since Dale inherited the station from his uncle and they'd moved up from New Orleans it has been this way. At first Ora thought that surely things would change after they took the station over. She had visions of it as a kind of meeting place, a hangout for both blacks and whites, like the country store in Natchez where she grew up. But Dale didn't share this vision, still doesn't, and nothing's changed at all; the "Whites Only" sign Dale's uncle hung still hangs on the door. It's always added to Ora's sense of isolation here to be surrounded by a whole community and yet to be so thoroughly apart. And Tobe's absence has made that sense of isolation even worse.

Impulsively, Ora calls to the boy, Dale be damned. He looks up at the sound of her voice and drops his hands to his sides, one hand empty, the other wrapped around the top of the sack. He waits. Ora kicks off her sandals and walks through the dirt to the edge of the field. He watches her distrustfully.

"You hungry?" she asks him.

He doesn't answer.

"Got some pork on the stove," she says. "Too much. Bring you a pail?"

"No ma'am." The boy glances over his shoulder, across the field, where others are picking in the distance.

"Not hungry?" she asks.

He turns back to her and shrugs, and beneath the dark skin his shoulder blades rise like bird bones.

"How about some chocolate?"

The boy's eyes flicker. He doesn't refuse.

Ora reaches into her pocket for a half-eaten box of Milk Duds. She shakes a few into her palm and looks at the boy: yes?

He sets his bag down and meets Ora at the edge of the field. She drops the candy into his waiting hand; he looks at the small brown balls with guarded interest.

"Taste one."

He puts one of the candies into his mouth, and as he chews his face registers surprise. "Ain't chocolate," he says.

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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