Excerpt from Inland by Téa Obreht, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Inland

by Téa Obreht

Inland by Téa Obreht X
Inland by Téa Obreht
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  • Published:
    Aug 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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That Landlady prayed night after night before a cross on the wall. Her mercy got me hard bread and a harder mattress. In return, I took to praying with my palms together and helped tend her lodgings. Ran up and down stairs with buckets of soapwater, hunted rats, wedged myself up chimneys. Staring men who sat in the shadows sometimes lunged for me. I was a skin-and-bones kid, but unafraid enough of stairwell drunks to kick them while they slept, so they learned to leave me alone. Another summer, another plague, another visit from the Coachman and his black horses. Another and another. A mess of script appeared on our curbpost. Can you read that? the Landlady asked me. It says "pesthouse"—do you know what "pesthouse" means? It turned out to mean empty rooms, empty purse, empty bellies for us both. When the Coachman next came around, she sent me away with him. Just stood there, staring down at the coin he put in her hand.

I bunked in the Coachman's stable for a year. He was the cleanest man I ever knew. Couldn't get to sleep without his house just so and his slippers side by side under the bed. The only unevenness to him was an upper tooth that had come in a tusk, giving him the look of a fancy rat. Together we went round the dens and fleahouses on Bleecker Street to collect the dead: lodgers who'd passed in their sleep, or had their throats cut by bunkmates. Sometimes they were still in their beds with the sheets drawn over them when we arrived. But just as often we'd find them folded into trunks or stuffed under floorboards. Those with cash and kin we took to the undertaker. The nameless we drove to uptown hospitals and delivered through back doors so they could be tabled before wakes of looming young men. Their innards laid out. Their bones boiled white.

When trade was slow, we'd have to pull them from churchyards. Two dollars to the gatekeep to look the other way while we walked among the crosses searching out newly turned mounds. The Coachman would start a tunnel where he guessed the head might be, and I would wedge down, shoulders and arms, all the way into the cold earth and stab forward with my iron until I broke the coffinboards. Then I'd feel about with my fingers till I found hair or teeth, and ease a noose over the head. It took both of us to pull them out.

"Still easier than digging them up," was the Coachman's reasoning.

Sometimes the mound fell in on itself, and sometimes the body caught and we had to leave it there half-dug; and sometimes they were women and sometimes kids, too, and the graveyard earth couldn't be got out of my clothing no matter how hot the washhouse kettle.

Once, we found two people sharing a coffin, face-to-face, as though they'd fallen asleep in it together. Once, I put my hand in and felt only the give of earth and the damp velvet of the pillow. "Someone's beat us here," I said. "It's empty."

Once, I broke through the boards and moved my fingers over coarse hair and skin and was just getting the rope past a reef of jawbone when fingers grabbed my wrist somewhere in the dark. They were dry fingers, hard-tipped. I started and dirt flew down my throat and into me. I kept kicking, but the fingers held on till I thought I'd disappear down that hole. "Please, I can't do it again," I sobbed afterwards—but I could, it turned out, with a broken wrist, and a twisted shoulder, too.

Once, a great big fella got stuck halfway out his coffin. I sat there in the dirt with his pale arm on my knees until the Coachman handed me a saw. I carried that arm all the way uptown, wrapped in its own burlap sleeve, on my shoulder like a ham. Some evenings later, I saw that same rent sleeve on a one-armed giant who stood unmoving in the fishmarket crowd. He was pale and round and stood smiling shyly at me, as though we were old friends. He drifted closer, hugging that empty sleeve, till he stood at my side. It seems an odd thing to say, but a thin tickle spread around me, and I knew he'd put his ghost arm about my shoulders. That was the first I ever got this strange feeling at the edges of myself—this want. He let forth a rueful sigh. As if we'd been talking all the while. "God," he said. "God I've an awful hunger. I'd love a nice cod pie. Wouldn't you, little boss?"

Excerpted from Inland by Téa Obreht. Copyright © 2019 by Téa Obreht. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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