This weekend, we have an excerpt from former contributor James Scott’s The Kept. In the winter of 1897, a trio of killers descends upon an isolated farm in upstate New York. Midwife Elspeth Howell returns home to the carnage: her husband, and four of her children, murdered. Before she can discover her remaining son Caleb, alive and hiding in the kitchen pantry, another shot rings out over the snow-covered valley. Twelve-year-old Caleb must tend to his mother until she recovers enough for them to take to the frozen wilderness in search of the men responsible.
In celebration of the paperback release, I spoke with James Scott about the transition between hardcover and paperback and the time post-publication. Below that you have an excerpt from Chapter One of The Kept. –Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
GMP: How different is it now, after publication of your first book?
James Scott: I talked to a bunch of people who’d published books, and so I knew not to expect too much, but there is something in the back of your mind that says, “Maybe I’ll be famous,” “Maybe I’ll be friends with Martin Scorsese” and that kind of thing, and the key is not to be disappointed no matter what happens. It was amazing to go on tour, especially through the South, and talk about the book that way, but now that everything is settled down, life is pretty much where I left it. No paparazzi.
GMP: Learn anything from the reviews? Did you read them?
JS: I don’t read reviews. Well, I read three: two because people talked to me about them so much I felt strange not knowing what they said, and one that I saw a small section of and wondered how the reviewer had come to that conclusion. I’m glad people are reading the book and thinking about it and formulating some thoughts, but I’m afraid of their influence over me and my writing. I’m too sensitive.
GMP: Any edits you made or wished you made to the paperback?
JS: It’s a weird thing, handing in a book. You hand off this thing that’s been so intensely personal for so long. I don’t have kids, but I imagine it’s like dropping your child off for school the first time– you wonder if you’re putting your faith in the right place, and wondering how things will go now that you’re not there all the time. So when I turned The Kept in to Harper, I knew I had to be confident in the polish on it. And I was. There are small things, word choices and stuff, that I’d like to change that I notice when I’m reading, but I could do that until the end of time. Maybe at some point, if they’re doing a new cover or something, I’ll ask if I can make those small changes.
GMP: What did you learn from writing this book that might help you going forward?
JS: On a sentence level, I think I learned more about what I like and what works for me. I streamlined my editing process and figured out a process by which I could make things sound and look the way I wanted them to. The most important thing I learned, though, was that I could do it.
GMP: Any moments you doubted yourself? What happened?
JS: A ton. Every day. But the great thing about having a great peer group, from our MFA program, conferences, readings, etc. is that it normalizes the idea of sitting down to write every day, and it made me think I could actually do it. Or, more precisely, it made me forget about the possibility of not doing it.
From Chapter One
Elspeth Howell was a sinner. The thought passed over her like a shadow as she washed her face or caught her reflection in a window or disembarked from a train after months away from home. Whenever she saw a church or her husband quoted verse or she touched the simple cross around her neck while she fetched her bags, her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone. The multitude of her sins—anger, covetousness, thievery—created a tension in her body, and all that could ease the pressure was movement, finding something to occupy her wicked hands and her tempted mind, and so she churned her legs against snow that piled in drifts to her waist.
While the miles passed the sky over Elspeth became nothing but a gray smudge and weighty clouds released their burden. She loosened the scarf from her face and the cold invaded her lungs. As soon as a drop of sweat slid out from under a glove or down a curl of hair, it turned to ice that flickered in the last of the light.
In her pocket, she kept a list of the children’s names and ages, the years crossed out two and three times, so that when she bought gifts, she forgot no one. She carried a fish scaler for Amos, 14, a goose caller for Caleb, 12, a hunting knife for Jesse, 10, a 50-inch broadcloth for Mary, 15, a length of purple ribbon for Emma, 6, and a small vial of perfume for both girls to share. Wrapped with care against the elements, hidden at the bottom of the bag were strawberry hard candies, gumdrops, and chewing gum. For her husband, she brought two boxes of ammunition and a new pair of sheep shears. Collectively these goods had only cost her a fraction of her four months’ midwife salary. The rest resided in the toes of her boots.
The valley stretched out behind her; the tracks she’d left were already erased. When she’d stepped off the train in Deerstand midmorning, the snow had been a lazy flurry, but the closer she got to home, the deeper the snow became, and the more furiously it fell. It was as if, she thought, God wanted to keep outsiders away as much as the Howells did. “We are an Ark unto ourselves, waiting for the floodwaters to rise,” her husband Jorah liked to say. She heard his calming voice in her ears, over the sighing wind and the whisper of wet snowflakes, and she missed him. She longed for his silken hair against her cheek at night, his soft footsteps as he left in the morning to milk, and his smell—of leaves, of smoke, of outdoor air.
She’d meant to come home in October. The baby had been born before the snow covered the earth, and she went by every day to check on its well-being, to touch each of its little fingers and their pearly nails. The child grew as October gave way to November and the calendar flirted with December. The city—any city—always had need for a midwife. Even that morning, looking out the window, warm by the fire, she couldn’t bring herself to leave, and failed to get on the train before dawn had broken, revealing a clear, bright day.
Still a ways from home, something nagged at the back of her head, threatening to push forward and topple her. She hurried, but the rush made for careless steps. The path shrank, and she passed between naked oaks and shivering pines. The light emanating from the snow turned the color of a new bruise as the day died, glowing just enough to mark her way. The terrain leveled again and broke through the woods. Elspeth knew by the rolling of the ground that she was crossing the cornfields; the dead stalks cracked beneath the ice and snow. She tromped alongside the creek that brought them their water, frozen at the surface but trickling below. It was then that the fear that had been tugging at her identified itself: It was nothing. No smell of a winter fire; no whoops from the boys rounding up the sheep or herding the cows; no welcoming light.
She crested the last rise. The house nestled in the bosom of the hill. The small plateau seemed made for them, chiseled by God for their security, to hold them like a perfect secret. She held her breath, hoping for some hint of life, and heard nothing but the far-off snap of a branch. Everything stood still. She could not make out the smoke from the chimney and despite the late hour, no lamps shone in the windows. Elspeth began to run. She tripped, and her pack shoved her into the snow. Clawing with her hands, digging with her feet, she pushed herself upright and rushed towards home.
Closer, she noticed a hollow in the snow, next to the front door. A bear, she thought, a wolf, but nausea welled in her belly and said different. A glimpse of color spurred her on. The hole drew her toward it, and she feared that it would swallow her, as she’d once seen—from this very hilltop—a tornado envelop a hundred-foot oak and leave nothing but a ragged gap where the roots had been. The color flickered again, a small swatch of red reaching out from the darkness like the Devil’s forked tongue. The screen door clapped against the house as Elspeth pitched herself forward and fell to her knees. There, dressed in her nightgown, lay Emma, the youngest, her blonde curls matted with blood. The red ribbon holding her hair waved in the wind, almost free. The snow had melted and then refrozen in an obsidian mass beneath her. A fine layer of powder had settled on her gown and face, and Elspeth removed her gloves to brush it away. She’d been shot. The cold had puckered the skin around the clean bullet wound on her forehead, the blood there a thin red ring. Elspeth whimpered a small, ferocious noise, and rubbed her hands together before she dared to pull a few loose strands of hair from the wound and tuck them back behind the girl’s ear. If these images didn’t cause Elspeth instant, pulsing revulsion, Emma might merely be sleeping. The snow gone, her hair in place, Emma looked more like herself, and that made Elspeth’s pain burn brighter. She wished to call out, to scream for someone to help, but their Ark had been chosen for its isolation; Deerstand was the nearest town, a six-hour walk that Elspeth had barely made in daylight. She looked to the barn, where Caleb slept, and saw no signs of life there, either. The cold that they warded off with their structures and their fires had won: no warmth lingered on the hill. Nothing could be done. No help could be summoned.
The screen door creaked behind her and Elspeth pushed open the front door. The house, usually heated to bursting on an early winter’s night, offered no respite from the cold. The kerosene lamp stood unlit in the middle of the kitchen table, the matches beside it. She removed her pack, and shook the snow from her hat and shoulders, stalling. She didn’t want to see what the light would offer.
In the darkness she grasped the coatrack Jesse had built. Coats hung on every hook. They were cold. She bent down and touched the neat alignment of shoes and boots beneath the windowsill next to the door and found no puddle of melted snow beneath them. She left her own buttons fastened and her laces tied tight.
She struck a match and touched it to the soaked wick of the lamp, the brightness causing her to turn away. She adjusted the flame and let her vision acclimate. Not three feet from her, Mary sprawled across the stovetop. Elspeth recognized the pattern of the dress Mary wore, a gift from an earlier trip. She, too, had been shot, but from behind. The stitching of her dress—tidy and taut from the girl’s own hand—kept her off the floor, the fabric tangling in the hardware of the stove front. As Elspeth backed away from the body, lowering the lamp, she made out Amos on the ground, four steps from his older sister. He must have been helping with the meal. He’d cut his hair since she’d last seen him, when it had hung down like a girl’s, almost to his shoulders, and he’d developed a tic to keep it from his face, a sudden flick of the neck. Elspeth squatted to touch the bristly hair and wondered if the tic had remained after the hair was gone, the same way her father had sometimes fallen in the morning getting out of bed, forgetting he’d lost his leg to the millstones. She thought that Amos’s eyes had been stolen, or shot out, but when the lamplight struck his face, she saw that two large brass buttons, the type found on overalls, obscured his blank gaze. She fell back onto her hands. Like an insect, she crept backwards, away from the bodies, until she hit the wall. She couldn’t tell if her heartbeat had slowed to normal or stopped altogether. They’d been babies once, swaddled and cradled in her arms. The crowns of their heads had smelled so sweet. How she’d held them. How she’d nuzzled and kissed them.
In the silence, she heard a low whistle and froze. It continued. Then she felt it, on her bare hand, the outside forcing its way through the bullet holes that dotted the house. They announced themselves to her, ten, twenty, countless large bullet holes, then dozens, maybe hundreds more from the pellets of a shotgun. The room contracted and she bent over and clasped her hands to her knees. When she recovered, she moved to the living area, a rectangular space that ran the length of the building, and discovered Jesse facedown in front of his parents’ door, both arms extended above his head, as if he’d been shot diving into a stream. Elspeth had to step around him, her foot leaving a patch of snow in the crook between his arm and his body.
She opened the door, but shut her eyes before the lamp confirmed her fears. She inhaled. The bedroom smelled how she remembered it, of Jorah sleeping, his breath filling the air. She lifted her eyelids, their weight palpable. Upon seeing her husband, she moaned and pressed her fists to her temples like she could hold her thoughts together with pure force. Jorah lay in bed, his face frozen in a grimace of anger, his eyebrows knotted and teeth clenched. His bare torso bore his wounds. One soil-stained foot touched the floor. She allowed herself to think of his soft padding steps trying not to wake her in the morning. The wind insisted, drowning out her reverie, rasping a ghostly noise through their bedroom. The bed itself was stained black. She kicked dozens of shotgun shells and rifle casings that littered the floor and they chimed against one another. She could not bring herself to touch her husband’s gray skin. Usually, when she’d returned from one of her trips, Jorah would be sleeping on the same sheets that had been on the bed when she’d left. She could place a fresh set on the dresser, and in her absence it would do nothing but gather dust. Weeks later, when she came back, the sheets Jorah had been content to lie upon would be stiff with dirt: from the barn, from the fields, and from his own sweat. She stripped the thickened sheets as she’d learned with bedridden pregnant women, gently rolling him onto his side when she needed. Jorah’s joints had locked; she lifted his legs onto the mattress and fought to straighten them, but still would not touch his skin. The springs squeaked beneath her when she knelt on the bed to pull the sheets from under his weight. Once she freed them, she pressed the bunched linen to her face, and breathed in the odor of her husband. The blood didn’t bother her; it was, after all, his. There, on the dresser, sat the clean sheets she’d left for him. She snapped them open, the only sound in a house normally so filled with noise that Elspeth used to retreat into the fields to think or to pray or to worry over the growing thrum of temptation in her body. The new sheets glowed like snow, reflecting the lamplight. She drew them taut under Jorah, pulling as gently as possible, because every time his body moved with the motion of the sheets, it was just that—a body. Not a man, not her husband. When she’d finished, she lifted Jorah’s head, replaced the pillow case, fluffed the down again, raised his head once more, feeling the back of his neck, formerly soft and warm, now cold and firm. She shook her hand as if the sensation would slide from her fingers like drops of water. He’d never looked so small, her protector. To her, he’d loomed over everyone and everything, blanketing them with all the safety and the comfort he could muster.
She extinguished the lamp and lay beside him as the wind erupted and swept through the house. Outside it pushed the clouds south, and the moon rose, casting silver light onto the floorboards, the boots Jorah set beside the bed each night, and the empty shotgun shells.
Elspeth thought again of Caleb. She pictured him at first small and bundled in a yellow blanket, his skin against it a harsh red, mouth toothless and wailing. But twelve years had passed—he walked and talked, he had hair the color of fertile soil that flopped down to his eyebrows, and he’d lost his last baby tooth the previous autumn. He was a solitary boy, and spent most of his time in the barn, sleeping among the animals, talking to them when he got lonely. One spring morning, she’d gone to see why he had yet to bring the milk and she came upon him leaning against the fence surrounding the pen with his chin rested on his folded hands, telling the sheep that the cows were not being cooperative. When Elspeth brought it up to her husband, he said he’d seen it as well, that the boy talked more to the animals than to his own family. Jorah reserved a special tone for Caleb, a sensitive timbre as if the boy would frighten easily, like a skittish horse.
Caleb’s body wasn’t in the house. She hadn’t been able to think—her head pulsed and thudded with her heartbeat—but gaining some clarity in the familiar itch to move, to do something, she rushed to find him, skidding on the shells, catching herself on the doorframe. In the moonlight, the bodies of her children existed only as shadows. She picked her way across the living room and the kitchen and out into the cold again. Through the howling of a wind that burned her face and a falling blanket of snow she called Caleb’s name. The barn crouched in the dark, covered in the shadows of the pines. Without the full glow of a lively home as a guide, she wasn’t sure to find her way there, much less back. The moon had been lost to the storm. She walked as far as she dared, one foot in front of the other, until her legs finally gave out and she slipped and called his name again. Had Caleb survived, she thought, the barn would be lit; the bodies wouldn’t be in such a state.
She shut herself inside, out of habit hanging her jacket with the others, and stopped to listen, as if the house itself might tell her what had happened. With the multiple weapons used, the sheer volume of shells and cases, and the fact that Jorah hadn’t even risen from their bed, it was apparent more than one murderer had stolen into their home. She imagined an army of them, crawling over the house like spiders. No one had ever followed her on the long journey from Deerstand; she would have seen them, heard them, sensed them behind her. A man would have to travel far out of his way to stumble upon the Howell farm, set as it was on what most would consider the wrong side of the hill for farming in an expanse of northern New York so vast and empty that even those looking for the house would have had difficulty finding it. No one lived close enough to know them, as they’d wanted, as had been necessary. Of course, Elspeth had her enemies, and her sins were tied with the Devil’s strings to those she’d wronged.
Sickened, she cracked the ice that covered the surface of the drinking bowl and sipped some water from the ladle. In the main room, three logs stood on end against the wall, next to the large woodstove, and she opened the grille and saw that Jorah had left the fire ready for the morning. Perhaps that explained his presence in the bedroom—Jorah often went back for a short nap between his morning chores and the first blush in the sky, and she would pretend to be asleep as his weight reshaped the bed beside her and she, too, drifted off, listening to the sounds of his breathing.
She retrieved the matches, stepping over Jesse’s body once again. Seeing her children sprawled in the kitchen affected her more now that the shock had worn off, and her whole body began to quiver. She stood there, shaking, sweating, not certain where to start. Her numb fingers went to work trying to untangle Mary’s dress from the range, and she stopped to breathe into her cupped hands to warm them. Mary shook like a doll with her efforts, but it was no use. Elspeth would have to cut her loose tomorrow. How Mary would have cried at that thought, after the many hours she’d spent in the yard clutching her dress in her arms to keep it from the dust. Even the chickens seemed to understand her concern, and did not nip at her toes or flutter at her feet as they did the rest of the Howells. But everything would have to wait for tomorrow and the light of day. She would place the bodies out in the barn with their brother Caleb. Once the house heated, the smell would be too much to take. Burial was out of the question this time of year. Even Jorah would not have been able to dig deep enough to safely keep the bodies.
As she straightened Mary’s dress, she heard a scratching in the pantry, and it relieved Elspeth to have company, if only a mouse. Her voice almost leapt from her throat to call the boys, who loved to catch the mice and keep them in homes they built from scrap wood. She approached the door gingerly, afraid of frightening the animal. The floor creaked. A bright flash and she was thrown into the air. She landed on the kitchen table, nostrils and throat full of a burning smell, her body rent. It felt as though she had fallen apart.