The soil is black and rich, the sun unrelenting, the wind a constant in the stark landscape that Bruce Machart limns so superbly in The Wake of Forgiveness, his debut novel set in early 20th-century Lavaca County in southeast Texas, a land where a man needs good seed, a strong back, stubbornness and a wife who lives long enough to give him sons. A land where thick stands of mesquite trees have "arthritic branches and thorns long enough to skewer a foot in the way only careless barefoot boys and Jesus might fully appreciate." The sun bakes the earth to a tough polish, the scents of dry pine and chimney smoke fill the air, and the relentless wind picks up out of the west, "as if bent on keeping the sun on the morning horizon." This is harsh country and a harsh life, rendered in lush prose.
The novel opens with an epigraph from Lamentations: "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth...." Vaclav Skala takes these words literally after his pregnant wife dies. When he wakes in wet bed linens to find her clutching rosary beads and moaning, he kisses her tenderly on her forehead, thinking her water had broken, but he soon realizes the wetness is blood, as she births their fourth son. That kiss was the last moment of softness in Vaclav's life. His newest son suckles the scant milk left, and Vaclav says, "Let him get what's left of her if he can. He's done taken the rest." While the pink glow of dawn begins and mockingbirds come to life in the pear grove, Vaclav burns the mattress feathers, staring at his hands stained with the blood of the only woman he'd ever been fond of. Townsfolk would assume that the death of Klara Skala had turned a gentle man bitter, but in truth, her death merely returned him to the hard man he'd been before.
Fifteen years later, Vaclav Skala owns just under 600 acres, a third of it taken from his neighbor Patrick Dalton by wit and fast horses. Vaclav has only one weakness--two roan quarter horses: "His two good horses he saves for racing, for the straight makeshift furlongs of the moonlit creek bed, for the chance to take more land from his godforsaken neighbor." The roans don't work the fields; they race, they eat, they mate, they rest. For plowing, Vaclav yokes his four sons; instead of animals, he works his boys like animals. They are weathered, they strain against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, and their necks are permanently canted, two boys' one way, two boys' the other, by their years hitched to the plow. They look as if they are continually pondering an impenetrable question.
One day in March, a carriage comes up to the field Vaclav and his boys are working, driven by Guillermo Villaseñor. He has his three daughters with him, and a proposition for Skala: Vaclav can double his acreage if he agrees to marry his three oldest boys to Villaseñor's daughters. Vaclav is unwilling until the Spanish landowner offers a wager that Vaclav accepts: a horse race between youngest son Karel and Guillermo's daughter Graciela. If Karel wins, Vaclav gets the land without the marriages; if Karel loses, the elder boys get a future without a physical yoke and Karel is left with his brutal father.
That night Karel hears a sound in the pear grove; when he slides outside, listening with rifle aimed, he wonders "if a man can set himself afire with only the friction of his own fears." He's surprised to see Graciela and her horse, and is captivated by "her eyes so deep and full of their dark allure that Karel imagines she could pull him out of his boots and into the saddle with nothing more than a look." He asks her name, and she whispers: "Ask me Saturday, and I'll tell you it's Skala."
Before the race commences, Karel remembers a contest four years back, when he raced Dalton's boy for acreage. As Karel stilled in the saddle, his father walked up and silently held a nine-inch knife to the nose of his horse, Whiskey, letting the roan get a good, strong smell of its steel. A threat and a goad for both horse and 11-year-old rider with whip in hand. "The truth, Karel knew, though he could not have yet put it into words, was that the horse wanted the whip, wanted it the same way Karel wanted his pop's strap, the stinging and unambiguous urgency of its attention, and, for Karel, the closest he got to his father's touch."
Now, at the beginning of the race, Graciela's face has a solemn beauty that reminds him of a memory he can't possibly have of his mother sitting on a horse at night, himself floating inside her. For the first time, he dreads swinging into the saddle. Vaclav again comes up to the horse, holds the knife, whispers and nicks its nose, along with a threat and a promise to Karel: if he loses he'll never ride the horse again; if he wins, he can have the girl. And so they race. "Two motherless children get up in their stirrups to do their fathers' bidding."
Graciela wins, and Karel knows his brothers were wishing failure upon him, as were many of the townsmen and ranchers and farmers, securing their jugs of corn whiskey with twine and floating them in the cold river "as if fishing for the county drunks." He accuses his brothers, and a fight starts--the three older boys against Karel and Vaclav, with the men cheering on a family's dissolution with "the bloodlust of brothers, the vengeful rage of the father, all of it born out and somehow flawless in its wickedness, like some depraved reenactment of Genesis staged solely for the amusement of reprobates."
After the fight, bleeding and half-blind, Karel rides out in a downpour; in the darkness, somewhere, is a girl astride her black horse in the rain. He sets out to find her.
Fourteen years later, Vaclav is dead and Karel has the farm and a lucrative sideline selling beer from the Spoetzl Brewery, since to be a Czech farmer in south Texas is to always be thirsty. He has a wife, Sophie, and two daughters. Sophie is pregnant, about to deliver, but is determined to go to Praha for evening mass at St. Mary's and the dance at the Jolly Club. The wind is worrying the twisted branches of a mesquite tree, and Karel, sipping coffee, looks out over his herd of cattle, leaning to the right at his waist in order to set the world level in his sights. Well over a decade has passed since Vaclav's funeral, his brothers there with their rich and lovely Spanish wives. He doesn't spend too much time thinking about them--there are too many things to do, but Karel likes most of his chores, and if the world were made only of such work, he wouldn't mind so much being without a son, and "wouldn't have to keep Sophie on her back every night in March so that, come next December, after the bulk of the year's work was done, she might finally get it right and deliver a boy."
Sophie's water breaks at the kneeling rail at St. Mary's, and Karel hears it in her voice. "His hearing, after these five years of marriage, was attuned to her voice in the way common only to husbands who adore their wives and those who lie to them with regularity. To Karel's mind, he practiced the latter because of the former, because Sophie was a good woman... she endured the indiscretions the way a good horse will endure shoeing and hard harness work, blinded to everything but the promise of brushstrokes and oats, of kindness and comfort. With eyes affixed only to a future worth forsaking the present for."
At the Jolly Club, while his wife is in labor, he meets the Knedlik twins, Raymond and Joe, 14 years old, whose widowed father has just died in a house fire. Karel hires them to caretake his farm while he stays in town with his family, setting in motion a tragedy born of greed and stupidity. When Karel drives back to the farm, the boys are gone, and "there was a reckoning of trouble to be found inside the barn." He sets out to find them, which leads, inevitably, to one of his brothers.
When Karel would later tell the story of his son's birth, he'd stretch the truth to make it more amazing, something he began to do to instill the wonderful in the commonplace, especially when he tells stories to his children. He has a tenderness for his daughters and his wife that are surprising, given his upbringing of "quiet exclusion," where he heard over and over that he'd killed his mother and his father despised him for it. He was wounded deeply, but still, somehow, is now thoughtful enough to touch Sophie with the backs of his fingers so as not to rough her skin with his leathery hands. He's sweet on his little daughters. Perhaps the dreamlike memory he carries of his mother's voice singing to him, unborn, as she went about her chores, has tempered his father's legacy. Perhaps his deep need for soft touch--when a midwife touches his arm after he loses the race, he wishes his sleeves were rolled up--has gentled him.
Machart's writing has a delicacy that throws the story's cruelty into sharp relief. Mesquite and pecan trees cast erratic shapes against bruised skies, while "Overhead, a thick quiltwork of clouds gathers and bunches until, pulled forth by the wind, it flattens out as if by feminine hands pressed into its airy batting to smooth it over a mattress." A stray cloud carries a fringe of color so it looks like it had made off with some unsuspecting sunset; another day, "The sun works its way in and out of the clouds." Female gracefulness tempers desolation. "A sliver of moon lashes behind the low scrim of cloud with all the coy promise of a woman's pale skin showing itself beneath the sheer guise of worn stockings." He captures the thrill and immediacy of horse riding as Karel discovers that all he needs to escape the loud landscape of his father is the darkened mysterious landscape of the night and a horse run hard: "Nothing filled more with wonder, nothing so able to convince you that you are flesh and blood and alive in the world that offers so few joys other than this running."
Karel has lost the comfort of brothers, the bitter allegiance with his father, the lovely Graciela and the nights of riding a fine horse. But now, with his family, as he imagines a life with his son, he finds a way to make a hard peace with the past, and he comes to an austere deliverance. The other verse from the novel's epigraph is Jeremiah 8:20: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." But for Karel, the harvest of his life is a saving grace.
Bruce Machart has written a marvel of a book, stunning and riveting. His depictions of a hard land and a hard life, softened by women and the distractions of beer, church and polka music, evoke a recent past so clearly one can hear the click of dominoes and taste a cold pilsner. His exploration of how mother-loss can shatter lives is heartbreaking. His rich prose shimmers and shocks, as the tragedy sown in the wake of the plow turns into the wake of redemption.--Marilyn Dahl