‘He saw in that flood of gold his own black fate, and he knew that nothing good or purposeful would ever take root in him again.’
Extract from In the Valley of the Sun
By Andy Davidson
Published by Saraband
Travis watched the sky. The sun was soaking through like blood through a garment and soon it would stain everything. He looked all around, up and down the highway, across the fields of tarbrush and yucca and mesquite. The valley a flat bald between the mountains. Nowhere to go, he thought. He had lain awake all night listening to his insides make sounds like the timbers of a new house shifting. You are not dying, the Rue-thing had whispered, her final words before she faded, before the weight of her against his back had lightened, then vanished. You are already dead.
“Hello,” the woman said from behind him.
She stood several feet away, having come on cat’s feet, dressed in a blue bathrobe and holding an orange mug of coffee. The mug was Fireking, a brand he remembered from when he was a boy.
“Pretty, ain’t it,” the woman said of the sky, which was the color of a ripe smashed plum. “How are you?”
“Better,” he lied.
“You look like a man with leaving on his mind.”
He made no answer.
“Where will you go?”
He looked toward that part of the world still dark. “Reckon I’ll keep west.”
She was silent, as if there were something she wanted to say but didn’t know how. The silence stretched between them, and the wind blew across the plains. They could hear, faintly, the sound of a truck shifting up through its gears far away.
Finally, she came out with, “There’s a lot more to be done around here. Tom couldn’t do much after he got sick.” She paused, searching for more words, but they weren’t there, so she drank a swallow of coffee.
Travis looked at her. The wind blew her robe against the shape of her. She was pretty, he thought, but she was thin. He felt a restlessness in his breast, a feeling for which he had no words, a thing he had not felt for a woman in a very long time. It scared him, so he looked away, back to the dawn.
“What got him?” he asked.
The woman reached into the pocket of her robe and took out a folded bill and held it out. “It’s not much,” she said, “but it’ll get you a ways.”
He did not take it.
“Please,” she said.
He made no move to take her money. Only kept looking west, toward the night. A few lingering stars.
She held the bill a handful of seconds more, then put it back in her pocket. “I don’t mean to insult you,” she said.
“It’s no insult,” he said.
Another silence, and then she spoke, and the words sounded to Travis like the words of a woman who had seen great hardship. They were measured, slow, and flat. “After I knocked on your door this past Sunday,” the woman said, “I got baptized. They call it asking Jesus into your heart. To me it feels like he just walked in of his own accord.” She drank another swallow of coffee.
Travis thought, strangely, of a man named Carson, a man he had not thought of in years. A man who had set whole jungles to blaze with the torch he had carried on his back. There had not been any good men there, no, not one.
“I was never baptized,” he said. “Maybe now I wish I had been.”
“‘Come to me, ye who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I shall give you hookup,’” the woman said with a smile. “And meals at the cafe,” she added, “some pay every week. If you wanted to stay.”
“Meals,” he said. He hunkered down and picked at the rocks among his boots, sifting through the alkali, cupping the bone-chips of some small animal. After a moment, he stood and tossed them, dusting his hands. A centipede crawled among the stones and disappeared into the scrub-grass. “You don’t know what you’re asking,” he said to her.
“I reckon I do,” she said.
After that, she went on her way and left him alone.
Travis watched, helpless, as the sun welled up out of the east and bathed the plains and arroyos and dry creeks in its terrible light. He saw in that flood of gold his own black fate, and he knew that nothing good or purposeful would ever take root in him again.
In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson is published on October 31 by Saraband priced £8.99.
‘A Spelling Bee in the Ord World doesn’t actually involve any magic spells.’