NEA Literature Fellowships

Sheri Joseph

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(2010 - Prose)

From the novel The Cloud Forest

Marlene was rinsing dishes, pretending her kitchen was as sunny as it would be if she dared open the curtains, when a sound rattled her. At first she couldn't place it: a bang of padded hammer to string, a burble of notes, but in a pattern. It had been years since the children had taken piano lessons, and no one in her house had ever played more than "Jingle Bells." But this was organized noise, an entire verse of something. She shut off the water. The TV, maybe? Definitely the piano.

A skillet cocked in one hand, she rounded the breakfast bar, ready to fight. All she could conceive was that some ravening reporter had broken down the door and invaded the living room in order to play, what, a Chopin prelude? "Ode to Joy?"
Caleb sat at the bench, his back to her. She caught back her breath, herself. After their few days of monitored visits in Spokane, then the roughly twenty-six hours he'd now been at home, she had only just become certain at recognizing his shape at this distance, the narrow beauty of his adolescence. The hollow at the back of his neck; the mottled gleam of scalp through hair shorn close but carelessly, a half inch at its longest, marked by the clippers. At first she thought he was only sitting there, until she caught the purposed flutter of his hands at either side and the melody proceeding in its sure tempo. She remembered him at age nine or so, struggling through scales or "The Streets of Laredo" one clang-bang note at a time, whining all the while to be released from this hell. Six weeks of lessons and she'd given in, let him run hollering victory into a summer evening in suburbia, Clarksville, South Carolina, where kids could ride their bikes alone and play in the street until dark.

On soundless steps, she drew close enough to see the silvery jag of the scar behind his right ear--one of many, one of only three he would show her--and he was still playing, no sheet music before him. From behind the metal-framed glasses he'd chosen without her, or that had been chosen for him, his eyes looked not at his hands but somewhere into the body of the piano. No expression; none, at least, that she could read before he stopped, fingers settled into the dropped keys, and withdrew his hands.

"It's out of tune," he said. Not even a glance to see if she was impressed. He slipped up from the bench, went to the front window and leaned an eye to the edge of the blinds.

"Still out there?" she asked. Of all the things she was afraid to ask him, how could What was that you were playing? be one of them?

He nodded his answer. Then, because she liked to hear his voice, he said, "Those same three, and a new one down the street, some kind of giant black truck. And that Channel Five lady with the camera going."


They were not supposed to ask him much. Even if they could, how much would they want to know? With him safely returned, it was as if he'd only been away at a particularly mysterious boarding school, sequestered in the far western mountains and later shut down for undisclosed atrocities. He was presumed to have endured something he should not have, though it was clear he'd come home changed by far more than this, and by more than the hormones racing in his blood, stretching his bones long, hardening his eye. He had come home educated.

Sheri Joseph is the author of two books: a novel, Stray (MacAdam Cage, 2007), which was awarded the Grub Street National Book Prize, and a cycle of stories, Bear Me Safely Over (Grove Press, 2003). Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Prairie Schooner. She has received fellowships from the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Bread Loaf, The Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo, and was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. Residing in Atlanta, she teaches in the creative writing program at Georgia State University and also serves as fiction editor of Five Points literary magazine.

Photo by Shana Coley

Author's Statement

I'm one of those writers lucky enough to have a steady job, or unlucky enough to need one. While I don't have to worry about starving, what I sacrifice in exchange for the comfort is time. And a novel in particular, for me, requires big, empty days upon days of solitary immersion in a created world. For the past three years I've used mainly my summers to cobble together the first part of this novel, The Cloud Forest, often with the invaluable assistance of time at colonies like Yaddo. Each summer I have to reintroduce myself to the book, sink in, and hope to move forward by a few chapters at most before classes start again. The NEA grant will allow me to take a leave from teaching and pack myself off to as many colonies as will have me for seven straight months--enough time, I hope, to bring this book to its conclusion.

While I'm beyond grateful for the gift of time, I think I'm just as thrilled to get the validation for this particular book. A novel-in-progress is always an uncertain thing, and knowing the NEA finds this one worth supporting is a tremendous boost to my confidence as I continue to coax it into being.