All the Living

A Novel

C. E. Morgan

Picador

She had never lived in a house and now, seeing the thing, she was no longer sure she wanted to. It was the right house, she knew it was. It was as he had described. She shielded her eyes as she drove the long slope, her truck jolting and bucking as she approached. The bottomland yawned into view and she saw the fields where the young tobacco faltered on the drybeat earth, the ridge beyond. All around the soil had leached to chalky dust under the sun. She looked for the newer, smaller house that Orren had told her of, but she did not see it, only the old listing structure before her and the fields and the slope of tall grasses that fronted the house. She parked her truck and stared, her tongue troubled the inside of her teeth. The house cast no shadow in the bare noon light.

The ragged porch clung weakly to the wall of the building, its floorboards lining out from the door, their splintering gray now naked to the elements that first undressed them. When she tested a board with one foot, the wood ached and sounded under her, but did not move. She picked her way around a mudspattered posthole digger and a length of chicken wire to reach the door where she found a paper heart taped to the wood. The shape of the thing gave her pause. She read the note without touching it.

Aloma,

If you come when I’m gone, the tractor busted and I went

to Hansonville for parts. Go on in. I will come back soon,

Orren

In this house, she thought, or the new one? She straightened up and hesitated. Over her head a porch fan hung spinless, trailing its cobwebs like old hair, its spiders gone. She turned to peer behind her down the gravel drive. Displaced dust still hung close behind the fender of her truck, loath to lie down in boredom again. It was quiet, both on the buckling blacktop road where not a single car had passed since she’d driven up, and here on the porch where the breezeless day was silent. A few midday insects spoke and that was all. She turned around and walked into the house.

If it was abandoned, it was not empty. Curtains hung bleached to gray and tattered rugs scattered across the floor. Against one wall, nestled under the rise of a staircase and a high landing, stood an old upright piano. One sulling eyebrow rose. Orren had told her of a piano on the property, one she could practice on, but it could not be this. Aloma edged past its sunken frame, leaving it untouched, and walked back through a dining room washed in south light past a table papered with bills and letters, into the kitchen. The ceiling here was high and white. It seemed clean mostly because it was empty—spacious and empty as a church. She circled the room, tugged open drawers and cabinets, but her eyes stared at their contents unseeing, her mind wheeling backward. She turned on her heel and stalked to the first room. She tossed back the fallboard and reached her fingers to the ivory. The keys stuttered to the bed, fractionally apart beneath her fingers, and it was no more, no less than she had expected. The sound was spoiled like a meat. She slapped the fallboard down, wood on wood clapped out into the echoing house in cracking waves, and then it was gone. She turned away with the air of someone halfheartedly resigned to endure, but as she turned, she started and stopped. A wall of faces stood before her, photographs in frames armied around a blackened mantel, eyes from floor to ceiling. She studied them without stepping closer. They gazed back.

She left the room as quick as she had come, retraced her steps to the kitchen where she had spied a door that led outside. She opened it wide to the June day. From where she stood, she claimed a long view of the back property. A field of tobacco began down a slope a hundred yards from the house and a fallow field neighbored close by, its beds risen like new graves. There a black curing barn stood and from its rafters a bit of tobacco hung like browned bird wings, pinions down, too early and out of season, she could not say why. To her left another barn, this one red, with a large gated pen and a gallery on one side. The pasture was empty. The cows had all wandered up a hillside to a stand of brazen green trees and stood blackly on the fringe of its shade gazing out, their bodies in the cloaking dark but their heads shined to a high gloss like black pennies in the sunlight. Far below their unmoving faces the newer house pointed south, no larger than a doublewide, no taller, no prettier. It banked the barbed edge of the cows’ pasture. But none of this held Aloma’s gaze for more than a moment. Instead, she looked out into the distance where, because she could not will them away or otherwise erase them from the earth, the spiny ridges of the mountains stood. She laughed a laugh without humor. All her hopes, and there they were. Had they been any closer, she’d have suffered to hear them laughing back.

Excerpted from All the Living by C. E. Morgan.

Copyright © 2009 by C. E. Morgan.

Published in March 2009 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.