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Author Ron Rash has long been known for his lyrical tales of his native Appalachia, most notably in his bestselling 2008 novel, “Serena.” He was also critically acclaimed for his 2010 short story collection “Burning Bright.”
His new novel “The Cove” is set in North Carolina in the waning days of World War I. Ron Rash became interested in the period when he came across information about a North Carolina internment camp for Germans and a German ship that was docked in New York City prior to the outbreak of the war and ended up staying there for three years.
“As I started to do more research on the topic, I thought, ‘If I can’t make an interesting novel out of this, I’d better give up,” he told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.
In “The Cove,” heroine Laurel lives with her brother Hank in a dark, isolated cove in the North Carolina hills, land which had long been thought to be cursed.
Residents in a nearby town think that Laurel is a witch, but when she meets a stranger on their land, romance blossoms.
Rash says that he wanted to write a “dark fairy tale” in which “landscape was destiny.”
“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of how the landscape that one grows up in affects his or her psychology or the perception of the world. And for Laurel, being in this dark cove, it seems to me, that the impact of that is that she’s struggling so hard to find some light,” he said.
Sixteen years since then, but Laurel remembered the long tail and thick beak, how the green and red and yellow were so bright they seemed to glow. Most of all she remembered how light the bird felt inside the handkerchief’s cool silk, as if even in death retaining the weightlessness of flight. Laurel couldn’t remember if Miss Calicut described the parakeet’s song, but what she heard now seemed a fitting match, pretty as the parakeets themselves.
As Laurel rinsed the last soap from her wash, the song merged with the water’s rhythms and the soothing smell of rose-pink and bee balm. She lifted Hank’s army shirt from the pool and went to where the granite outcrop leaned out like a huge anvil. Emerging from the mountain’s vast shadows was, as always, like stepping from behind a curtain. She winced from the sunlight, and her bare feet felt the strangeness of treading a surface not aslant. The granite was warm and dry except on the far side where the water flowed, but even there the creek slowed and thinned, as if it too savored the light and was reluctant to enter the cove’s darkness.
Laurel laid Hank’s shirt near the ledge and stretched out the longer right sleeve first, then the other. She looked around the bedraped granite, her wash like leavings from the stream’s recent flooding. Laurel raised her chin and closed her eyes, not to hear the bird but to let the sun immerse her face in a warm waterless bath. The only place in the cove she could do this, because the outcrop wasn’t dimmed by ridges and trees. Instead, the granite caught and held the sunlight. Laurel could be warm here even with her feet numbed by the creek water. Hank had built a clothesline in the side yard but she didn’t use it, even in winter. Clothes dried quicker in the sunlight and they smelled and felt cleaner, unlike the cove’s depths where clothes hung a whole day retained a mildewed dampness.
They’ll dry just as quick if I ain’t watching, Laurel told herself, and set down the wicker basket. She remembered how Becky Dobbins, a storeowner’s daughter, asked why the farmer killed such a pretty bird. Because they’ll eat your apples and cherries, Riley Watkins had answered from the back row. Anyway, they’re the stupidest things you ever seen, Riley added, and told how his daddy fired into a flock and the unharmed parakeets didn’t fly away but kept circling until not one was left alive. Miss Calicut had shaken her head. It’s not because they’re stupid, Riley.
Laurel followed the creek’s ascent, stepping around waterfalls and rocks and felled trees when she had to, otherwise keeping her feet in water and away from any prowling copperhead or satinback. The land steepened and the water blurred white. Oaks and tulip poplars dimmed the sun and rhododendron squeezed the banks tighter. Laurel paused and listened, the bird’s call rising over the water’s rush. They never desert the flock, Miss Calicut had told them, and Laurel had never known it to be otherwise. On the rarer and rarer occasions the parakeets passed over the cove, they always flew close together. Sometimes they called to one another, a sharp cry of we we we. A cry but not a song, because birds didn’t sing while flying. The one time a flock lit in her family’s orchard, the parakeets had no chance to sing.
But this parakeet, if that’s what it was, did sing, and it sang alone. Laurel sidled around another waterfall. The song became louder, clearer, coming not from the creek but near the ridge crest. As quietly as possible, Laurel left the water and made her way through trees twined with virgin’s bower, then into a thicket of rhododendron. Close now, the song’s source only a few yards away. On the thicket’s other side, sunlight fell through a breech in the canopy. Laurel crouched and moved nearer, pulled aside a last thick-leaved rhododendron branch. A flash of silvery flame caused her to scuttle back into the thicket, brightness pulsing on the back of her eyelids.
The song did not pause. She blinked until the brightness went away and again moved closer, no longer crouching but on her knees. Through a gap in the leaves she saw a haversack, then shoes and pants. Laurel lifted her gaze, her eyelids half closed to shutter the brightness.
A man sat with his back against a tree, eyes closed as his fingers skipped across a silver flute. All the while his cheeks pursed and puffed, nostrils flaring for air. The man’s blond hair was a greasy tangle, his whiskers not yet a full beard but enough of one to, like his hair, snare dirt and twigs. Laurel let her gaze take in a blue chambray shirt torn and frayed and missing buttons, the corduroy pants ragged as the shirt, and shoes whose true color was lost in a lathering of dried mud. Sunday shoes, not brogans or top overs. Except for the flute, whatever else the man possessed looked to be in the haversack. A circle of black ground and charred wood argued he’d been on the ridge at least a day.
The song ended and the man opened his eyes. The man set the flute across his raised knees and tilted his head, as though awaiting a response to the song. Perhaps one he would not welcome, because he appeared suddenly tense. His eyes swept past Laurel and she saw no crow’s feet crinkled the eyes, the brow and cheeks briar-scratched but unlined. The eyes were the same blue as water in a deep river pool, the face long and thin, features more hewn than kneaded. Laurel tugged the muslin on her left shoulder closer to her neck. Then he closed his eyes again and pressed his lower lip to the metal, played something more clearly a human song.
Excerpted from “The Cove,” Copyright (c) 2012 by Ron Rash, All Rights Reserved.
Peter O’Dowd follows the route of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train 150 years ago, to look at modern-day race relations and Lincoln's legacy.