NEA Literature Fellowships

Michelle Hoover

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from Bottomland

That night we lay awake alone in our beds, our heads on our pillows, listening for any footstep in the yard. Sleep, it seemed a hollow chore. I thought the darkness of the hall the night before, how pale Myrle had looked in her nightgown. She had held something in her hand, I remembered, but what? Myrle had never been one for secrets.  She had never before hidden anything from us. But Ester was different. The way she had stood at the top of the stairs, as if wanting to warn me of something. I never could trust a thing she said. Then the thudding sound that had woken me again—A door closed?  A nail pulled?  A chair wedged beneath a knob?  What if I had stepped out of my room a minute sooner?  What if I had never gone to sleep at all?

Mother would have done better. She would have woken in the dark the moment she sensed the door at the top of the stairs was stuck. Why, the house might be empty with every one of us in the fields, and several rooms off Mother could sense a window open just an inch. But the night before, I had gone back to bed as if sleep was what needed me most, and now my sisters were missing. The morning she died, Mother had taken my hand and craned her neck from her pillow. “What a girl you are, Nan,” she said. “So tall.” And then her mind settled and her consonants grew long, as if speaking two languages at once. With Father, German sounded like a march, but Mother’s throaty vowels were bread and milk and eggs. “You might not have your own, my girl,” she whispered. “But those sisters of yours, they’ll be everything to you. And you’ll be everything to them.”

In the morning, the girls’ room was empty. We packed our wagon, headed out just before sunrise.

The town had not seen us together for years, not with what Governor Harding had done. Why, if German wasn’t to be spoken in public, if even God could not understand a prayer in the German tongue—as our governor had declared in his speech during the war—then Germans and their brood might not be welcome in public, not all at once at least. And when only one of our brothers could serve, we had caused plenty of suspicion. Though we were born in this land and a part of it, still Father and his accent made traitors of us. We had done something awful, certainly. We were a rot to our country and town, and the townspeople eyed our every step. Though more than two years had passed, the sense of wrongdoing stayed heavy with us, even if we knew otherwise.

“Well now,” Lee whispered as we pulled the wagon to a stop. He stabbed a finger in his ear, as if thinking. Agnes tied the horses and sat back in the wagon, looking out. Ours was a small town with a main street three blocks long and a handful of dirt roads. The market squatted under an awning that bagged with the rain, and the town hall stood one-eyed with its great clock. Like a thumb, the doctor’s house stood at the end of a row, a shop of trinkets at the other, a cramped, rust- colored door at the side for the county sheriff’s office. There was a grocer as well, open to trading, though only on Wednesdays—and only, some said, when the man needed enough for a bottle. Still, this being a Saturday and harvest time, a dozen or more children ran underfoot, their fathers hauling baskets, and young women and girls walked the street in their hats. But none of those girls were my sisters.  Not even close.

Ray lifted his boots and landed in the street in a spit of mud. “Ready?” “I’m staying,” Father said.

I looked at him. “You’re staying?”

He crossed his arms over his stomach. “If they see the wagon, they will surely come, and you’ll be off and I’ll have found them.” He seemed calmed by this idea, and when he took off his hat, his forehead was smooth, only a tight red line from the brim.

Ray took hold of my arm. “Leave him be.  It’ll be easier...” But I shook my arm from him.  “Fine.”

I headed to the market alone. From the outside, the place seemed full of light. A half dozen customers crowded the aisles, more than I had ever seen at once, though the shelves themselves were spotty with stock. After the Great War, there was more of everything—sacks of hay, packets of paper, cans of beans and sauce—but few here could pay the price, and the market had its debts like the rest of us. I stood at the door and wiped my feet. With one turn of my head, I could see Ester and Myrle were no where about. Instead, a group of women moved in a wave from the counter. I couldn’t back out the door in time.

“Nan,” the first called out. It was one of the Clark sisters, flanked by the twins on either side. All of them were dark and plump, dressed in an old purple crepe that had faded at their throats. Their mother swept toward me with her long fingers and the girls followed, taking their nervous steps.

“Aren’t they back?” Mrs. Clark asked. I bit my lip.

“But they must be somewhere. I can’t even imagine.”

Her daughters reached for my elbow, my wrists. “It’ll be all right.”

Michelle Hoover teaches writing at Boston University and Grub Street. She has published short stories and novel excerpts in numerous journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Confrontation, StoryQuarterly, and TriQuarterly. She has been the Philip Roth writer-in-residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell Fellow, and the 2005 winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award for Fiction. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and published in Best New American Voices. Her debut novel, The Quickening, was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, was a Finalist for the Indies Choice Debut of 2010 and Forward Magazine's Best Literary Book of 2010, and is a 2010 Massachusetts Book Award "Must Read" pick. In the fall, she will join the creative writing department at Brandeis University as the Fannie Hurst writer-in-residence.

Photo by Sanjay Subbanna

Author's Statement

I received the call when I was rushing to teach. In the empty stairwell of our office building, a woman gave me the news. When I couldn’t respond right away, she said, “Hello?  Are you there?” People like me don’t get NEA grants. I’d applied because I’m tenacious and believe in applying for everything. The year before, I decided to throw my hat in the ring because I knew the deadline would force me to revamp the still-in-progress early pages of my second novel, Bottomland.  That I shouldn’t submit such new work to something as grand as the NEA was obvious. But because the reality of winning the thing didn’t seem possible, I hit send. By the time I got the call, I couldn’t remember if I’d applied at all. Did the letters NEA stand for something else? Was I being audited for botching my self-employment taxes? Did they offer $100 awards as consolation prizes? The woman on the phone said “no” to all three. I taught like a grinning idiot that day.

I do believe that setting your mind to a goal can sometimes open the door to making it happen. I’d already decided I would be leaving my full-time teaching job at the end of the spring semester. I was exhausted by the teaching load, had lost all ability to even fake a passion for the various rhetorical modes of argument. I’d been saving my money, working desperate consulting hours to do so, but also trying to get my second book in shape before I made the jump. I had also been steadily trying to grow a year-long novel intensive program at our local writer’s center, GrubStreet, to help other writers in their own careers. Now months later as I write this, I’ve been offered a writer-in-residency position at Brandeis University, the GrubSreet program is flying with two students nabbing book contracts, and Bottomland is waiting on the desks of several editors I have never met. The universe has said YES. For me, that’s what the NEA is about. Because I know so many talented writers who have also hit send, I can only hope they too will get their chance.

Thank you, NEA, for believing in us.