Chapter Excerpt


west texas may 16, 1948

Nobody liked to revel in another's misfortune, not publicly anyway, but there hadn't been a trial at the camp in almost two years, and the fact was, it was overdue. People were hankering for something to talk about. You couldn't go too long without a scandal; life didn't work that way, and thank God. It was one thing to enjoy your own happiness, another to be bored to death when your neighbors were quiet and content for months at a time. It got old. Sooner or later there had to be a break in the monotony. Mala-barely nineteen, daughter of a mental case and a drunk-was providing that for them, doing something useful with her life at long last. After years of bringing shame and hard times to her clan, she would finally have to answer for herself at two o'clock in the dusty clearing that served as courtroom, marriage hall, and place to prepare the dead for what came next.

The trial would be nothing like going to city hall on a vagrancy charge, head bowed before a judge you'd never met, your feet pinched in borrowed shoes, the proceedings so orderly and respectful you nodded off halfway through. Mala should have it so easy. The kris was more like being prosecuted by your entire family, your ex-husband, his mother, and some people you owed money to. Not a very impartial jury, but they knew you. They had an intimate understanding of what you'd done because they'd been watching from behind a tree. Each of Mala's victims would have the chance to tell their story, and then she and whichever idiot dared to defend her would speak on her behalf. Even now, with only a few minutes to go before the trial started, bets were being collected. They wagered with a cast iron pan, a matchless earring, a planishing hammer with a loose head. It wasn't every day a woman was tried, let alone a young one, but the list of Mala's transgressions had grown too long: speaking her mind, flouting tradition, and last week, reading a book out in the open with no attempt to hide it, just sitting there by the river with children in view as if betraying her culture was the simplest thing in the world.

The council and witnesses gathered under a clump of mesquite trees whose branches bent east with the wind. It was a nice day for a trial: sunny, cool for May, with bluebonnets and purple horsemint sprouting up wherever there weren't fire pits and garbage and rusted trailers. A bright sky, Mala thought, at least there was that. She sat at the edge of the clearing on a rock that had previously been occupied by an adulterer, an exceptional liar, and a man who'd invited a plague into the community by keeping a stray cat named Darling, and then denying its existence after it bit his cousin. Her father, Beni, stood beside her kicking at a half-buried root and swearing to himself, not because of the injustice being done to his child, but because he was still drunk from the night before and believed he was the defendant. "Done nothing," he muttered, hands plunged into the pockets of his only pair of trousers. "Nothing but suffer my whole life and eat shit."

"Calm down, Daddy," Mala said. "They're after me."

He thought for a minute, lids blinking slowly over bloodshot eyes. "What's the difference?"

"Go back to bed. You'll know what happened soon enough."

"The trouble you've caused? If I don't stick up for you, nobody will."

"I'll do it myself."

"Nobody believes a word you say, they're gonna start now?" He coughed and spit into the grass. He looked so frail and wobbly, Mala wondered if the trial might be the thing that finally killed him.

"I'm sorry I brought this on you," she said.

"My fault. I could have tried to change you but I didn't." He sat next to her, his bony hip digging into the side of her leg. "Ask me, we been stuck in one place too long. This is what happens when you stop moving. Things freeze up. The balance ain't right anymore. We done this before, thirteen years shackled in one place and for what?"

"We've only been here since October."

He nodded. "Like I said. Turn over any one of those wagons and you'll find worms been there all winter and spring. Weeds growing up to the trailer windows. Light coming at a different slant now but nothing else has moved. It's not natural."

Beni was right; it was the longest they had lingered since losing their storefront seven years ago. Through the thirties they'd been the scourge of Pecos County, the mercurial nuisance no sheriff or vigilante could round up and be rid of. They had tried for stability, the women telling fortunes, first in tents stuffed with bright rugs and wildflowers and later in a tiny rented room, the younger men day- laboring for pennies on nearby farms and ranches, laying irrigation pipes, swinging tools whose handles had been gnawed by locusts. So much toil, but in the end it was useless. The storefront was plundered and times changed, one modern tractor throwing ten men out of work. Mala had been twelve when they unchocked the trailer tires and moved on, the only time she could remember Beni praising God.

Now it wasn't hunger for money or respectability keeping them grounded, but something no one could name. Weariness, maybe. The trouble of getting thirty-four people to agree. This field, one of two dozen Mala had learned the smell and contours of and turned her back on, had become so repetitive she could have walked it blindfolded. Maybe that was all home was, just a place where you never sat up in bed on a moonless night and whispered, "Where am I?" Little by little she'd become accustomed to the arthritic tree out her window and the stove and boiler parts that made a corroded pathway around camp, all the broken valves and heat vent covers and thumb pads the men had collected on odd jobs and kept, because owning something useless was better than owning nothing. Here was the thistle patch, there the dented gas can Beni used as a water jug. She could close her eyes and see it all laid out, as familiar as a worn floor. The wind had scrubbed the field flat, and the river was filled with cattle carcasses and barbed wire, but the land didn't appear to belong to anybody, and if it did, the owner didn't care. Right there was reason to stay. It wasn't that life was turning out so well here, but that moving on took money and prospects, and both had run out. Thanks to Mala, some people would say.

If the trial went the way most did, it wouldn't last long. An hour or two at most, and then the council-the male heads of seven families, including the father of a boy Mala had kicked when she was nine-would deliberate and hand down the verdict. Mala had no doubt she'd be found guilty, it was just a matter of what happened after. Though the adulterer had been declared unclean and ordered to give his car to the husband of his mistress, he'd offended only one person, and okay, provided him with a bastard son. But in Mala's case, there wasn't anybody she hadn't crossed or scared the hell out of. Her clear green eyes terrified the children, who blamed her for everything from bad dreams to scorpions in their shoes. Her old friends-sitting across the circle, a marriage-crazy bunch of girls in long, grubby housedresses, their braids pinned loosely behind their heads-had stopped talking to her around the time she started wearing a pair of men's pants bound at the waist with a scrap of rope. Even her aunt Drina, a three-time widow who dyed her hair with kitchen bleach and sold sedatives she made from powdered hemlock, had not forgiven her for watching helplessly as her mother bubbled down into Canyon Lake, where she hung suspended with her skirt around her shoulders until she was hauled up by fishermen a week later.

Drina stood in Mala's line of sight shaking her head, still beside herself though it had been fourteen years.

The trial started late, so by the time the oaths were taken and people began to speak, there was a sense that everyone had been pent up too long. It was as if they'd all just had tape ripped off their mouths. "Here we go," Beni muttered. "Business in the gutter, that's what this is about."

One witness after another came forward to detail Mala's shortcomings. Long story short, they said, the girl had always been trouble. She talked back to her father, refused to marry, and frightened off the townspeople with relentless visions of disasters, when all they came to her for was a palm reading and a little hope. She had ruined herself by bobbing her hair, and no one could say if the impulse would be contagious. She sat with her knees apart, came up behind you when you least expected her, and fed birds of prey from her own plate. Every spell she cast had a twist to it, a trapdoor that fell open under your feet. Ask for love, and you, a handsome young man, might find yourself pining for an old crone for whom you would eventually hang yourself. Come to Mala for money and it would appear in the form of a rich husband whose wheezing laugh would make you pray for the peace of poverty. There was no sense in it. Whatever she touched turned puzzling, like something viewed through the haze of a high fever. Sure, her spells brought you whatever you wanted-shortly before they turned and bit you on the ass.

But worst of all, Mala had single-handedly destroyed her clan's livelihood and optimism. It was fine if she wanted to empty her own pockets in the name of honesty, but what about the rest of them? Did she think the local people drove to the outskirts of town and paid good money to hear the truth? It didn't matter if her predictions were accurate (and this was a matter of dispute-was she predicting these dismal events or causing them?), they were bad for business. Not that she cared about business or anything practical, so consumed was she with reading books about things that had never happened, written by people she would never know. That was Beni's fault from years back, for letting an outsider teach his daughter to read while he mucked stalls for a lousy wage. It was tragic that Zina had drowned when her daughter was just four, but everyone had hardships. It was no excuse.

"What does my father have to do with this?" Mala asked, rising to her feet. Twenty-odd sunlit heads swiveled in her direction. Her cousins, Joseph and Rosalia, stared like strangers who happened to share the same steep jaw slope and copper skin. All six of the camp's children watched her, open-mouthed, their feet bare and their dark hair stiff with dirt. Only Chester the Spaniard-who had En-glish and Romanian blood but spoke a few wretched words of Spanish, which he misused at every chance-refused to look up. He kept his eyes on the stick he was whittling, showing no sympathy for the girl who had spurned him in such a loud and public way.

Beni yanked at Mala's hand and forced her down next to him. "Let me talk. You'll just cause more damage."

"I don't care."

"For once in your life pay attention to what I tell you," he said, straightening his cap. "Trust me. All right?" He stood up on quivery legs and stumbled to the center of the circle, his cracked boots kicking up puffs of dust.

He raised a hand and swore to tell the truth on the memory of the father he had barely known, but a moment later lost his train of thought and started complaining about his bad back. Eventually he remembered his purpose and began to cry loudly, an act that fooled no one. His daughter was an orphan, he said, too young and impressionable to be held responsible for her impulses. This was such an obvious falsehood that the crowd began to laugh and throw clods of dirt at him, but Beni plowed on even as pebbles and twigs collected at his feet. Mala's foresight had left them destitute, he agreed, but had also prevented the camp from being swept away when the river flooded its banks. Didn't anyone remember that? Her spells might be a bit unfocused, but at least they worked, which was more than he could say for the slop most people practiced these days. Look in the mirror, he said, every man here was a storyteller. They were all con artists who created tales from thin air, and sometimes they created them from less than that. Why single out his daughter, who with her books was only carrying on tradition, albeit in a perversely modern way? Besides, he had nothing else to live for. Send Mala away and in a week he'd be dead, a stain on the conscience of everyone present.

Chin high, trembling from exhilaration and alcohol, he returned to the rock and sat down. "We've almost got them," he said between hard breaths. "You ready?"

She didn't answer. The entire circle waited, watching her in silence.

Beni nudged her with an elbow. "Aren't you going to speak?"

"Why?" she said. "There's nothing more I could say."

It took just twenty minutes for the council to reach a decision. Mala would be banished for one year-a light sentence, considering the harm she'd inflicted on the community. No one would be allowed to communicate with her, the books would be buried, and if Beni wanted to die in protest, so be it. He could be entombed in the same hole.

Beni was sober when he walked Mala down the dirt road to a flat strip of pavement that ran to the horizon in both directions. He handed her a woven cloth bag containing some coins he'd stashed away, enough food to last three days, and the books she had been rereading since she was twelve. "I got to them before anybody else could," he said. "I guess I'll be going in that hole by myself."

"Don't talk that way."

"No point in denying it. One year is a hundred at my age."

"What'll you do when I'm gone?" she asked, so worried for him there was no room to worry for herself.

"I'll wait." He fixed her with damp eyes, one speckled brown, the other blue. "Damn me. I wouldn't have let Ruth teach you if I'd known how it was going to turn out."

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpted from The Lost Book of Mala R. by Rose MacDowell
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.