Editors Note: After our discussions of famous revisions by authors such as Fitzgerald, Wharton, James, and Carver, we’re continuing our “Murdering Your Darlings” series by enlisting the help of some of our favorite authors currently working today. These authors will let us in a little of their artistic process, as it concerns the exceptionally complex work of a writers’ revision. For this installment, Mark Powell, the author of Blood Kin and Prodigals, shares the powerful prologue of his current novel-in-progress. We’re thrilled to present the final version, an earlier draft, and an enlightening Q & A, where Powell discusses his choices and helps demystify the revision process. Enjoy!
From Armies of God
He woke miles from the sun, at sea, again, and chasing a dawn that cut along the horizon like light beneath a door. Woke early because this was the time one might be alone with the dark, for—he realized this as he rose from the musty recliner and walked toward the front windows that opened over the porch—for there was no sun, no dawn, and he was not at sea but alone, hours from light.
He collapsed back into his chair.
It was starting. It was starting and now they were back in the big Chinook, chasing its jagged shadow across the paddies while a plume of water towered and spread in a fishnet of dull light. I am with you, Christ said, but the old man knew that in a few minutes Christ would be dead, decapitated by a .30 caliber round, headless and bleeding in a ripple of dark water, and when the old man shut his eyes tonight Christ would die again, and tomorrow the same still, his dreams a billion acts of needless resurrection.
He needed to get up.
He needed to get up before it made him any crazier. He reached for the TV remote but stopped. He knew all he would find was another war—three Marines dead in Fallujah, a car bomb in Baghdad—and kicked off his blanket and stood, stiff as a rake, to make his way to the kitchen and put on the coffee.
Someone was up at the homeplace. From the window, he could just see the roofline raked against the flint of the morning sky. He stood over the sink with a Styrofoam cup of orange juice and watched the lights diffuse through the distant trees. Dallas, he supposed, though the old man had no idea why his oldest boy would be out at this hour. When the lights disappeared, he rinsed the cup and placed it in the drying rack. His dead wife Evelyn sat at the table and spooned cornbread out of a glass of buttermilk.
“You hungry they leftovers in the Frigidaire,” she said.
“I ain’t hungry.”
“Let me fix you something.”
He shook his head as if this might settle things. “I gotta get moving.”
He stopped in the hall to stare for a moment at a portrait of his sons—Dallas and Malcolm, stair-stepped and smiling—then limped on to the bathroom where he washed his face. His boys. There was no use thinking about them. He tried to pray but couldn’t find them, whatever words he sought, standing so still he could hear clouds pass overhead. He dried his cheeks and stared at his reflection.
“Say something.” He shook his head. “You old fool.”
When the coffee dripped he fixed a cup, took his mug onto the porch and settled into a rocking chair. Evelyn was still near. He couldn’t see her, but she was near. Her fragrance today was White Shoulders and baby powder. Other days it was woodsmoke and the cool dirt in the crawlspace beneath the house. That was the smell the night before she died, the night he had brought her a glass of buttermilk only to find her mounted up in her four-poster bed as if already gone to that place across the river, as if she knew what awaited her. He sniffed the cold air. The smell always came first, sometimes hours before she arrived.
But he was a patient man.
There were days he would wait out the steady unclocking night only to watch the blue figures rise from the dust to walk again. The yard full of ammo crates and the LZ lined with dead children dressed in fatigues. When he closed his eyes this time he was back in the dim troop hold, sweating machine oil and sitting still enough to feel the submarine groan of the ship’s engines. East, aboard the USS Hermitage. Pulling dawn from the horizon and watching it falter and fail in the convoy’s green wash. Seven thousand Marines two days out of San Diego on the way to Okinawa. The old man two weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday and sleeping on the third tier bunk beneath a tangle of metal pipes.
But Christ is not with him.
Christ comes later, wading through the sawgrass south of Qui Nhon, the Son of God headshot and caught by the turning rotorwash. For years the old man drank his Early Times and thought of Jesus spinning in the pink surf. He watched his wife and sons toss in their beds while he slept in the cool insect mud then woke to shoulder his rifle across another flooded field. The dead paratroopers wearing the blush of three-day beards. The VC curled fetally, burnt out of tunnels by demo teams, charred until they were nothing but zippers and the melted eyelets of boots. Their hands clawed inward like dead spiders.
He had come to understand death on a cellular level, and put one hand on his abdomen to feel it circulate. He was dying. That much was clear to him. When he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and probed his abdomen he felt a ridgeline of tender bulges. It felt like the last thing that bound him to this world. He had pretty much ceased eating, and when he slept he was back in the dark water, crawling over the stone borders that shredded his hands and knees, so he was pretty much done with sleep, too.
Another old son of a bitch, he thought, gone and outlived his usefulness. The gutter clogged with leaves and not a damn thing he could do about it. Besides his land, he didn’t even own anything worth fighting over. In the shed were a few tools no one would ever touch. In the deep freeze, a box of corndogs no one would ever eat. But it wasn’t the obsolescence that bothered him. It was the diapers he feared most, the adult undergarments matted to his bony shanks like he was an infant, the green shit running down his leg. He’d put a slug in his head before he let that happen. He knew enough to know it had to be on your own terms. You had to own it. Owning it was everything.
When he opened his eyes he found his dead wife beside him, a shawl across her dead legs. Of course—today his youngest was returning. He had almost forgotten, but now it broke in him like a star, all crooked silver light.
“He’s on his way by now,” she said.
“Getting him a bus ticket. Be here in two day’s time,” she said. “And I tell you this, I’m glad it come out like it did.”
He raised his coffee. “Half killing yourself don’t make you no more a Christian than the next.”
“It don’t make you no more in the eyes of God.”
“You hush that talk,” she said. “You think the Lord ain’t got you both on His mind?”
He stared into a dark that seemed to both begin and end a few inches from his face. “The Lord ain’t never said boo to me.”
“The Lord ain’t never said jack shit.”
She seemed to study him from the depths of whatever place she occupied. “You got a black heart, Elijah Walker,” she said finally. “You got the devil in you like a worm.”
He opened his mouth, shut it. There was no use in arguing. He could sense the landing zone beginning to coalesce out of the lifting fog. He would be on the ground soon. He would be needed.
“Maybe,” he said. “It don’t matter no how.”
“No,” she agreed, “not now it don’t.”
It was freezing and what mattered was coming. His boy was coming.