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Improvidence (Exclusive Extract)

Book Extract
David Herod



In the 81st spring of Consecrated Moralism I graduated with a baccalaureate in civil engineering from Ohio State University and, armed with a letter of recommendation from my father’s business associate Goodman Morales, rode to Columbus to present myself to the governor’s engineering corp. I was twenty years old.

Their two-story office sat within the governor’s redoubt, in the shadow of the fort so that while the turtle-faced colonel squinted at my letter through undersized spectacles, I stood at attention and watched through a window as a hundred or so conscripts stamped the beaten earth of the parade ground below in an unintentional rhomboid formation. Their drill sergeant and I were their only audience so far as I could tell, and my attention was mere distraction from the colonel’s incessantly clicking desk clock. Even in stark daylight the air was sour, rank from the cheap canola lamp fires of nights long past.

Eventually the colonel patted the letter down before tapping his folded spectacles atop it like a dainty gavel hammer. “Your father consents to this?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, not entirely dishonestly, for my father had eventually relented in his quiet way.

He blew air. “Well we aren’t recruiting. But maybe you are God-sent since I don’t have a man left under thirty. Besides, I didn’t make any rank by pissing off men like your father. Can you ride decently on rough terrain?”

“As sure as the devil. Sir.”

“Good. Then what do you say we make this official?”

And simple as that, without a single aptitude test, I was led down to the parade ground for swearing in. The lieutenant general of the engineering corp himself was summoned by a call down the hallway to do the honors. The conscripts were shouted into crooked rows to observe—for it wasn’t every day an officer was minted—and with one hand over my heart and the other over a first book of hymns, I took the oath of service to defend Moralism, the great state of Ohio, and the United States of America.

That excitement would be short lived however, for that summer my romantic dreams of adventure collided with the reality of officership. The colonel made me his personal aide, a role that consisted of sitting close-lipped at senior staff meetings most mornings, scribbling down supply requests for timber, iron, and tar that I would later refer back to as I drafted page after page of requisition and dispatch orders while sweating in the afternoon heat, cramped into the corner of the colonel’s office—the endless ticking of that damned desk clock only punctuated by a snort from the colonel whenever I paused to shake loose a palm cramp from my writing hand.

“Still tender,” he’d scoff.

My only solace was that the lieutenant general had instructed me not to make any permanent living arrangements in town since he anticipated some imminent field work for someone ‘spry’. On his orders I was quartered in the loft, an office attic really, which grew un-Godly hot even in fair weather. Often in the evenings I would lever open the window and creep out to sit on the sunbaked shingles so as to take in the breeze as I resolved any remaining materiel estimates in my journal, or occasionally read for pleasure as the conscripts conducted roll-call below.

The sabbath was my only respite from life at the redoubt. I would attend service and afterward follow the crowd through the streets of Columbus, drifting here and there to enjoy poetry and scripture readings in equal abundance, either in the dappled shade of a tree or on the sunny stoop of a shopfront. The day of rest was well observed in the capital, and while I was haunted by the absent humor of my now distant college friends on those neat cobblestone streets, I was equally heartened by the warmth and kinship of fellow believers, and encountered a few engineer corps members and their families who recognized me by my uniform. Some shop window reflections had led me to believe the high collared cut of my jacket suited me as sharp as you please, and the goodwives of the older officers seemed to agree by their insistence that I stay to hear readings by their eligible daughters; however, not a one of them held me past the first verse.

My emancipation came in the form of a full-blooded Appalachian scout, blonde beard and all, by the name of Jeremy Brown. I came upon him standing at the colonel’s door in the dim of morning. He had the wide eyes of a trapped doe and his wiry beard itched against his homespun shirt when he spoke.

He chuckled when I told him my name. “Thought you was. Well you and me are gonna be tight as ticks soon. I’m to be your guide.”

I tried to keep my brow from furrowing. “My guide?”

“To Harpers Ferry—”

No sooner had he spoken than the colonel arrived and hurried us inside. Once seated, it was explained to me that I was to travel eastward with Jeremy through the West Virginia frontier by following the old peddler’s route, and on my way negotiate a treaty of friendship with any tribal chieftains and assess the work necessary to open up the route for colonization and larger commercial traffic into Virginia.

“At Harpers Ferry,” the colonel tapped his wireframe spectacles against his desk as if to dispel any eavesdropping spirits. “You will inspect the abandoned fort and determine what necessities would be required to refurbish it. You will keep notes on that topic only in coded language, on the improbable chance your journal somehow falls into the hands of the Virginians. You understand?”

I said I did.

“But let’s be clear, you will be in uniform and will make our interests known—there is power in that—but act with discretion and don’t draw any more eyes than you need to. And trust Goodman Brown to do his job, Captain. There’s not a better man alive to explore the West Virginia territory with. I see on your face this is not quite the grand adventure you had imagined, and true enough, you won’t be marching at the head of a column or besieging a city, but I promise you that this is how the true heroics are performed—quietly. And how fortunes are made for that matter; after all, a newly occupied territory will need to be divvied up, won’t it?” he smiled. “And who would know better how to do that than the officer who first surveyed it?”


It was past summer’s end when we departed Columbus on bicycle, packs slung over our backs as we rode through the suburbs of coppiced trees peeking over stone garden walls and everywhere the cries of playing children. They were a patriotic folk and we were treated neighborly at every step on account of my uniform. Each dusk some goodwife would call out to us in passing and offer hospitality.

Life passes in such places to the reliable rhythm of the local windmill, a sort of quiet confidence that imbued itself onto me. I was also unduly impressed at this stage by my own knowledge and growing fascination with the finer details of road care; from my days acting as a dispatch officer I knew all too well the great efforts our corp took in maintaining the state’s essential infrastructure and now saw with keen eyes the impending slopes in the packed earth or thinning gravel trails and made note of them all in my journal.

I repaid each host from my disbursement of course, and relished the simple conversations and fare for the spirit in which they were given before Jeremy and I put our rolls out to sleep each night on their common room floor. It was much the same when we reached the larger rural estates and private farms that sprawled for many acres, parceled by tree lines but unified by the smell of beasts and rich manure. At about that time we sold our bicycles to a village tinker and hiked to a well-known horse trader’s barn to purchase a pair of surefooted young colts for the pocked country roads ahead.

By the fifth day my taste for passing company was soured by both frequency and an unsavory incident. Jeremy and I had taken the sabbath at a goodman farmer’s estate, but the following morning his young wife came upon me while I tended to my horse behind the smokehouse. The whore slid her hand into the crook of my arm and asked if I might ‘be with her’ before I departed. She spoke as cool as if she sold eggs at market just as she stared me dead in the face with wide set eyes and dark waves of hair brushed back, not altogether unattractive but she galled me so completely that I struggled to speak. Eventually I shoved her off and led my colt to the road to await Jeremy as an ugly heat roiled in my gut—a twisting mass of unresolved lust to either beat her backside with a switch down the public road or return to ravish her like the damned alley cat that she was.

We began sleeping under the stars, beside the hedges of farm fields and sometimes on rougher terrain, root knotted and stoney as often as not, as we ventured nearer to the West Virginia territory. The weather was so fair we rarely bothered with our tent unless clouds threatened or the wind took to howling as it does as autumn creeps over the land. The quiet seemed to suit Jeremy, his wild eyes being stilled and taking on the knowing quality. He began to speak to me less as his officer or some passing companion, but as a confidante, which I greatly enjoyed for I found him wise in the ways I believe men should be but so rarely are on account of society’s petty distractions.

Riding side-by-side through the foothills, he told me he was the son of genuine Appalachian tribals, but that when they came down from their mountains near Pittsburgh they had been placed by the army into a colony of New York freemen, runaways from the plastic mines whose blood was tainted so that they made only damaged children—hermaphrodites and worse. They were endured and loved as God’s own so long as they remained amongst their own, until whichever ancient toxins afflicted them were passed by generations of clean living in God’s song and sun. But it was no place for a goodman, and seemed only to have nurtured the scout’s wandering spirit.

Once, after we splashed across an icy brook, soaking me to the shins, our horses stamped up a forested hilltop where we stopped to dry ourselves against the descending evening chill. As I toweled my colt’s underside I caught my first glimpse of a West Virginia arch far to the east.

It was blued by distance, but I knew it to be bone-white; it rose like a twisting wicker-basket handle from one mountain-top to another. Some darker threads hung suspended across its middle at least a mile above the earth’s surface like the drifting remains of an abandoned spider’s web. There remained no sign of a fan blade within it.

The sight of it unnerved me, and I admitted as much to Jeremy.

“You get used to ‘em, handy landmarks really. In fact the homesteader we’re gonna resupply with lives not far from that one’s left foot. From there on it’s just tribals. But Thomas is an old friend, and he often deals with the peddlers crossing from Virginia—it’s rough terrain for sure, but not unfriendly.”

I nodded, but for the next two days found my hand drifting to my hip in a kind of unconscious itch—an irritating tightness creeping against my chest until I gave in and brushed the handle of my service revolver or eyed the hunting rifle slung over Jeremy’s back and felt my fullness of breath return to me. All the while the silent arch loomed larger in the distance.

There were no longer any farms or clearings, only encroaching broadleaf trees and an increasingly unkept road, occasionally punctuated by raw timber bridges over various tributaries—both dry and babbling beneath—whose wood still retained its bright yellow newness. I realized I had ordered supplies and laborers for several of these.

The ancient bridge over the Ohio River had also received some recent patchwork repairs, log supports and joists between rusted metal and cracked concrete, and a new unsteady middle section which was nothing more than timber beams anchored by stones to either side. Jeremy and I crossed one at a time, leading our horses by their bridles, not wishing to test the thing’s strength unduly. The height of the fall nearly made me ill, so I kept my eyes fixed forward until safely across.

On the far side my surveying began in earnest as we were forced to follow an immoral era highway of clumpy gravel and asphalt dust that could pass for the moon’s dark face were it not for the weeds and brambles sprouting from wherever bald soil peeked through. It took careful horsemanship to avoid injury, and we were further delayed by my measuring using impromptu pole markers (branches cracked off any nearby tree) which I would then measure distance between on my brass theodolite. I journaled the conditions of each mile in curt notes which I could later expand on to estimate the necessary work to make a road fit for wagon trains.

But by noon even the dead road sank into the earth and we entered a so-called ‘scar’, the ancient man-made valley beneath the arch, which even after several centuries was a mess of barely navigable slate stone glaciers, remnants from when the ancients had leveled entire mountains so as to induce the greatest wind speed possible on God’s earth. Methods aside, their craft could not be impugned, for the wind tore down in a constant, deafening scream which bent the backs of the few shrubs that struggled between rocky plateaus and made any conversation impossible until we reached the far end and escaped by charging up a piney embankment. The monolith returned to an ominous silence as sudden as a mouth slammed shut.

With only the hushed clack of hooves on pine needled stone, we circumvented the sheer steel cliff of a fan blade where it lay embedded in the earth. It took half an hour to circumvent, our bent reflections lurching alongside us on its infinitesimally gradiated face. But what most unnerved me was passing its narrow end and looking down a mile long partition of paper-thin metal.

It was with immense relief that we found a smoke trail that beckoned us into a clearing where a small cottage lay. Out front Goodman Thomas hammered wood with an ax, stacking winter fuel stores.

Jeremy called out his name and in a moment’s time we were ducking under the cottage door and ladling cider straight from a barrel into tin mugs to toast our arrival. Thomas was an uncommonly black man with a short beard down his neck like a freshly shorn sheep’s back, broad in smile and chest, with a booming voice that lurched as if always on the verge of laughter.

Cold cider put heat in my cheeks, and while I sipped Jeremy and Thomas fell into easy conversation about our journey and his life on the homestead—the challenges of mending fences for his goat herd and such.

We were interrupted by a screaming toddler that stumbled half naked into the room, chased after by a woman with wisps of copper hair escaping her bonnet who called out apologies to us.

“That’s the other thing,” Thomas laughed. “I’m blessed enough to be married and have a child now.”

Jeremy’s face went to ash and I almost gagged on my cider, barely managing out a congratulations to Thomas so as not to shame him any more than I imagined he must already have been—although his smiling face gave no sign—for ‘his’ child was obviously pure Appalachian, even fairer skinned than Jeremy.

It was a pleasant enough evening however, spent cross-legged before the fireplace as we ate warm cornbread generously smeared with goat butter. The child babbled contentedly and the deep murmur of Thomas and Jeremy’s conversation continued unabated until at some point, without intending to, I drifted into a contented sleep. In the morning we packed our saddlebags with venison pemmican traded from Thomas in exchange for a roll of Ohio paper bills. Thomas and his family even gathered on their stoop to see us off.

His wife pulled her shawl tight against the crosswind. “And which way are you goodmen off to exactly?”

“Leesburg route, off to Harpers Ferry,” said Thomas.

“Of course. Well if you see my sister along the way, give her my love, won’t you? They’re at Tygart Bridge, just before you cross. Can’t miss it.”

We thanked her and rode off along the peddlers’ route, which was little more than a deer trail amongst the ruddy leafed oaks. We didn’t discuss the visit, and Jeremy remained entirely quiet for a very long time.

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