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Harrow:  A Novel

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Harrow: A Novel

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Author: Joy Williams
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Khristen is a teenager who,her mother believes, was marked by greatness as a baby when she died for a moment and then came back to life. After Khristen's failing boarding school for gifted teens closes its doors, and she finds that her mother has disappeared, she ranges across the dead landscape and washes up at a "resort" on the shores of a mysterious, putrid lake the elderly residents there call "Big Girl."

In a rotting honeycomb of rooms, these old ones plot actions to punish corporations and people they consider culpable in the destruction of the final scraps of nature's beauty. What will Khristen and Jeffrey, the precocious ten-year-old boy she meets there, learn from this "gabby seditious lot, in the worst of health but with kamikaze hearts, an army of the aged and ill, determined to refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth"?

Rivetingly strange and beautiful, and delivered with Williams's searing, deadpan wit, Harrow is their intertwined tale of paradise lost and of their reasons--against all reasonableness--to try and recover something of it.


Book One

If they do this when the wood is green,
What will happen when the wood is dry?
--Luke 23:31

My mother and father named me Lamb. My mother believed that I had died as an infant but had then come back to the life we shared. As I grew, her intention and need was to put me in touch with where I had been when I was dead, what I remembered of it and what I had learned. She believed I was destined for something extraordinary.

My father did not believe I had ever been dead. Nor did any of the doctors they consulted.

A young man was watching me the night I was said to have died. He did not harm me was the truth of it. It was just a story that was to grow up around us both, causing us both to be outcasts.

My mother and father were at a dance, the first dance of the summer.

My mother lacked good judgment in many things. She would be the first to admit it. She had taken up with this young man who was still a teenager a little more than a month after I was born. He was a town boy, he delivered our groceries and was Catholic as well. His mother made him go to St. Margaret's but to my mother he railed against the constraints of the church. She found him sweet--his sometimes impotence, his muscles, his dark, dark hair, his inchoate manner of thinking?.?.?.??sweet.

She enjoyed having him explain Purgatory to her.

"They abolished it," he said.

"How utterly ridiculous. I just don't think they can do that, do you?"

"They did, but it still exists."

"And one should fear it but one should guard against excessive fear. One mustn't feel overwhelmed. One must always keep in mind that justice punishes and mercy pardons." She looked at him somberly.


"And tell me again how long a person of faith would have to spend there, assuming that even being very good this person would still manage to commit ten wrongs a day. Which is a conservative number by any reckoning."

A priest had told his mother that each wrong results in one hour of Purgatory. Even if you strive tirelessly to be good you'll be racking up faults by the thousands and will meet God dangerously in debt, the priest, a geriatric traditionalist, said. After fifty years, say, you've accumulated 150,000 faults and got rid of half of them through penance and good works but you'd still have 75,000 hours to pay down. And that would take seven years, ten months and fifteen days.

"I've told you what my mother was told," he said. "You're just fucking with me."

"I just love the calculations. They're so precise."

"They abolished it, but that doesn't mean we're relieved of the necessity of going there."

Yes, my mother found him sweet. His smooth face and square hands, the practiced roll of his walk, his threadbare jeans, the impracticality and poverty of his life. She arranged to have him babysit when she and my father went to the first club function of the new season. It amused her to hire her unlikely lover in this manner and bring him into the very heart of our home.

From birth I had been remarkably serene and considerate, seldom crying and sleeping straight through the night, so the likelihood was small that this directionless young man would have to have any interaction with me at all. If I cried he was to call them at the club.

The dance floor was laid out on the sand. It was Mexican Night, Fiesta Night in Olde New England. The following week it would be Argentine/Tango Night. Modest fireworks were being set off. A ragged hiss, then a streaming downward, the light enfolded by the waves. Small boats rocked gently on their moorings.

"There are some Mexicans, in Chiapas, I think, who believe the world's a cube," the man who would be commodore said.

"I want the tequila that's got the scorpion in the bottle," my mother said, laughing, and the people at their table laughed, too, for it's a worm, Martha, a worm?.?.?.??

She laughed, "I hate my name so much."

"But you've given your baby such an interesting name," her friend Slim teased.

"That's not her legal name of course," my father said. "It's just for now. Her name is Christen."

"Oh him and his damn boats," my mother said. "Everything has to be connected to boats. I've insisted on the letter K at least."

"Let's get a little dinghy," a man on my mother's left said. He was new, she didn't know who he was.

"What a pretty charm bracelet," the banker's wife said. Her husband was a loan officer, recently promoted.

"You must be happy," someone said, congratulating him. "We am," he said. He firmly believed he wasn't drunk yet but that if he went to the bathroom, which he ached to do, he would be. He knew himself.

"Thank you," Martha said, touching a charm. "This is a new one. It's the zodiacal sign of the Gemini."

"But you didn't have twins, Martha, did you?"

"No, no," she laughed. She hated her laugh. "But that's her sign. She was born in May. On a Thursday."

"Astrology can be fun, I guess," the banker's wife said.

"Fiesta!!" a young man shouted. He was wearing red pants, a tie as a belt and a white shirt on which he'd already spilled bean dip. "Throw down your burdens of time and reason!"

My mother's young man went into the kitchen and put a pot of water on to boil for a package of pasta he'd found in the cupboard. He was always hungry but didn't like people seeing him eat. He found eating tactless.

My mother liked candles, they were all over the house. Some were expensive, but there were others she'd bought in supermarkets as a joke, the wax poured into tall glasses with decals wrapped around them.

St. Martin de Porres with the broom and the cat and the dog and people lying behind him in beds, not looking good. Or the Guardian Angel one, with a winged woman following two barefoot children over a wooden bridge slung over a chasm and clearly unsafe and what were they doing out there by themselves anyway? The prayers on the back of the glass were in Spanish and English and even the most casual examination showed them to be evasive and nonsensical in the extreme. Most of them had cheap wicks and didn't even light or if they did the flame soon drowned in its own wax.

My mother was teasing him, even mocking him, he knew that--his troubled, angry faith, its outrageous sentimentalities and brutal corrections. If it were up to him, he'd told her once, he'd be a Jew, a Zealot in the time of the Roman Empire. They were audacious and went far beyond the norms of consensual behavior. They ripped things apart. They went after Rome and just chewed it to pieces. But then they screwed up, burning the food supplies of their own people during a long siege of Jerusalem in order to force God's hand to act against their enemies. They figured God would have no choice but to intervene to preserve them, His adherents. But God did nothing and everybody in Jerusalem starved to death.

But to be a Jew your mother had to be a Jewess and his mother was no Jewess. She was a sun-wrinkled dope-fogged ex-hippie whose highest ambition in life was to have someone give her an old Mercedes diesel that she could run on waste fry oil from the restaurant where she worked. Ma, he'd say, it's a seasonal restaurant, it closes the first week of November. How you going to get around after that? You're not thinking, Ma.

He wandered through our house, lighting candles and turning off lights. He came into the nursery and looked at the two framed photographs of my mother that hung on the wall. She was in a bikini, showing off her big belly and wearing the charm bracelet she always wore, glinting with the codes of her known life. The photographs were in black and white, one frontal and the other taken from the side which made her, and what she was carrying, look like suspects in an atypical police lineup.

He looked down into the crib at the baby, me, and I gazed back at him. My name escaped him. He was nothing to me, of course--this figure, this presence, this filament of darkness--but his was the world I would inherit. He said no word to acknowledge or comfort me but sat down in the chair my mother rocked me in in the early mornings before the day began.

I felt his presence disappear then. Then of myself as well, I became no longer aware. I was neither awake nor asleep, nor could I know what was expected of me, for surely something would be expected?

My mother and father were preparing to leave the club. On the drive home my mother felt chilled and wanted my father's jacket to put over her shoulders but he refused. They were already out of love even then. He turned onto our lane, ignoring her as she theatrically pretended she was freezing. Blackberry bushes and wild roses and Queen Anne's lace lined the road. Every year, they and their few neighbors fought to keep it paved, but the councilmen, elected officials, he was forever reminding them, wanted it tarred. The whole matter would end up in court one of these days he feared. They probably would have to get together and hire a lawyer just to protect the false pastoral quality of the road. He said, "Did the power go off?"

The house was lit up like an altar with what must have been every candle my mother possessed. They'd gotten home earlier than they'd intended. Maybe he was entertaining a girl in there, my mother thought, amused.

My parents had misplaced their keys.

"What are you, drunk!" my father demanded when the young man finally appeared at the door. Candles were guttering everywhere and a two-hundred-dollar pot was seared and ruined on the stove. Yet no explanation or apology appeared forthcoming.

Never apologizing or explaining was how the men and boys of the club navigated their days, but such posturing by this presence infuriated my father.

"What are you, drunk!" my father demanded again, puzzled, aware that it was he and my mother who were half-cut from Fiesta Night.

My mother confessed to me that she had giggled--her irate husband, her absurd lover--it was all so preposterous--but she hurried into the nursery and with care picked me up.

"Thomas!" she screamed. "The baby's not breathing."

And then, as she told me, after an eternity, my father appeared and seized me from her arms. When she, in turn, tore me from his grasp, I cried out as I had at birth. And it was, my mother said, as if I were being born all over again.

My father had no more patience for my mother. In the time that was left for them, in the time they remained together, she never stopped wanting another baby, an extra one was perhaps her thinking, a replacement one were I to die again and not return.

"Lion," my mother begged. "We can name him Lion if he's a boy. We can name her Lion if she's a girl."

But my father ignored her. He spent less and less time in our pleasant house and more at the boatyard he managed. He even began designing his own boats, though he suspected that few people would still be sailing for pleasure in the future. The waterways were being increasingly compromised. The demand was for mammoth houseboats with fireplaces and hot tubs. He was disgusted with these vessels and the people who craved them. Still, he continued to refit and repair them. More and more he realized it was best not to try and change the minds of others, best not to resent or struggle. Even the road he had so recently loved, the sandy roller-coaster road leading to our house and beyond which he had sought so to preserve, he was going to let the neighbors have. Soon he would not live there anymore.

My mother's eager beauty faded, her reckless teasing ways. She became more and more convinced that I had died that night and had witnessed ruthless and troubling mysteries which it was essential for me to recall. I had experienced a great reversal and my life, or whatever it was that had been restored to me, must be subject to the most delicate and definitive interpretation. The fact that I was an awkward yet trusting and thoughtful child with few apparent gifts made my presence all the more properly intriguing in my mother's eyes. For were there not many stories of servants or otherwise utterly uncharismatic and unassuming persons turning out to be the enlightened ones who could lead others out of their lifeless lives and into a new contract with the world?

During my childhood my mother took me to many doctors, all of whom maintained I was perfectly healthy. She was told again and again that she had been mistaken, that if I had stopped breathing for as long as she claimed, any number of neurological issues would have arisen. And they had not. In a crisis of fright, time had played a trick on her, a new and inexperienced mother. Most likely I had never stopped breathing at all.

Yet, my mother was convinced that I had been somewhere, in some frightful chaos of non-being that nevertheless contained an observable yet incomprehensible future to which we would all be subjected.

My father moved out, into a suite of rooms above the boatyard offices. My mother and I continued to live in the seaside house which she neglected. She no longer went to the club or saw her friends, who felt they'd endured quite enough of us and the rumors of that night.

I continued to be subjected to medical examinations and psychological testing. One specialist was interested in me for a time because he believed that only genetic mutations could rewire the brain to cope with the environmental and moral challenges of a ruined, overpopulated world. But he found nothing. He had never found anything. He admitted it was just a sensible, attractive theory.

I remember the results of my last test, the last because my mother no longer had the money to continue. She could not pay--the secular bastards, she called them--and they never contacted us again. She came to believe that our every thought and emotion was being graphed by a newly sinister camarilla. The only way she could save me from this situation was if she severed herself from me. But this belief came later. Until then, I had a ragged succession of tutors and my mother watched me anxiously, fearful that the error of my return would be corrected.

Copyright © 2021 by Joy Williams


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