Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts
SEARCH THE SITE:  

An Excerpt from Marble Boys

by Tamara Ellis Smith

ZAVION

From high in the sky, above the pathways of parrots, above cloud lines, above the blue—where the moon and the sun take turns shining over rivers and valleys, oceans and forests, towns and cities and farmlands—from here you can see things. A spiral of thick white wind chases its tail; rain crashes down like an endless bucket of marbles tipped on its side; fish dive deep to escape the deafening sound; stray dogs slink to the edges of buildings and press their bodies against the walls; people fill plastic bottles with water, push furniture against doors, grab the hands of their children and pull them up flights of stairs.

It is a hurricane.

~

The wind wrapped itself around the two-by-fours that held Zavion’s house straight and tall. Zavion sat on the floor in the attic. The wind pushed and moaned just beneath the sheetrock. Papa had called the attic the top of a mountain. But a real mountain would rise above this wind and Zavion would be safe.

He was not safe. Not here.

The wind snuck through the walls. First up and then it pounded. Then sideways. Pound. Then down. Pound. Then down again with a piercing squeal. Zavion didn’t know where he would feel it, or where he would hear it next. His teeth chattered. He squeezed his eyes shut, but that didn’t stop the wind and that didn’t stop his body from shaking so hard he thought his heart might shake right out of his chest.

~

HENRY

From high in the sky, you can see the spiral of ocean water, moist air and wind. You can see the hurricane.

But that’s not all you can see. If you turn your head, if you look north, you can see another spiral. A spiral of cold mountain air, a boy and his heart. Listen to the beating of that heart. Pounding, pelting, whooshing like rain and wind. Inside the boy, rain falls fast and wind blows hard.

It is another kind of hurricane.

~

Henry’s legs ached; his breath and heart pounded in his ears. But he wasn’t running. His legs itched to run. To run on the mountain, behind Wayne’s house, in their small town in northern Vermont, half a continent away from the hurricane in Louisiana. Henry wanted to run on the mountain with Brae at his heels and Wayne by his side. Like the very last time.

~

ZAVION

“Zavion!” Papa called through the wind. He sounded far away but he was only downstairs.

“Papa!”

“I’m coming up!”

Zavion’s eyes darted around the room. Nothing was where it should be. Papa’s rolls of canvas caught and tore on nails protruding from the walls. They flapped in the wind like shredded flags. Zavion crawled over to the window and held onto the sill. He peeked outside. It was morning, but it seemed like the wind had blown the hours forward into night.

The dark sky poured rain on Zavion’s street. Only it wasn’t a street anymore. It was a river. The wind came again and Zavion’s hands shook as he gripped the wooden sill. He pressed his chin against his hands to still them, but then his chin shook too.

Outside lay an enormous oak tree split in half. A work boot, jammed between two dangling branches. A lamp, sucked in and out of the water. Some of the roofs had broken off of his neighbors’ houses and sped down the river. Someone clung to one of the roofs. He strained his eyes to see who it was and—was it? Yes. His neighbor’s daughter, Tye. Her father was a painting buddy of Papa’s. Zavion took care of Tye sometimes, when her father and Papa painted together. It was so easy to make her laugh.

The wind gusted. She slipped on the wet roof.

Zavion closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he couldn’t see her. He couldn’t see her. All he could see was water.

Papa was wrong. This was not the top of a mountain. A mountain would rise above this.

This was the end of the world.

~

HENRY

But he’d never do that again. He’d never run on the mountain again. Not with Wayne.

It wasn’t going to happen. Ever. Again.

Because here he was, in front of Wayne’s casket.

His legs twitched. His breath and heart too. Henry imagined he would twitch and twitch and twitch and explode. A loud bang and bits of his body would tear off and land all over the church. A hand in an organ pipe. A leg on a pew. His nose on the pulpit, right on the open page of the Reverend’s Bible.

“Henry.” Mama’s voice through the downpour of body parts. It sounded so far away but she was right by his side.

Henry didn’t answer.

“You can touch him if you want to,” Mama whispered.

Henry’s arm was outstretched. His hand hovered over the casket. He yanked it back. He didn’t want to touch Wayne; he didn’t want to look at Wayne; he didn’t want to be in this church on this day staring at Wayne, dead. Wayne’s mouth was closed, but the corners of his lips were turned up and the middle parts were pushed down so he looked like a stuffed animal. He looked like a stupid stuffed dog that some girl would carry under her arm. He stared at Wayne’s mouth, searching for thread or glue. Whoever it was that fixed Wayne up had done a real crap job. He must have used Wayne’s school picture from last year because Wayne had made that same stupid face for the photographer. Henry had called him Rover for weeks.

And now Mama wanted Henry to touch him.

Jeezum Crow.

~

ZAVION

Zavion’s fingers dug into the wood on the sill. He tried to calm himself. He remembered the bench outside his school where he sat to tie his sneakers before he ran home every afternoon. Tye sitting on the stoop, her nose wrinkled and popsicle juice dripping out of her laughing mouth. His bed neatly made. Bread baking in the oven. His turkey and cheese sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper and lined up in the refrigerator.

“Sweet Jesus!” Papa stood at the top of the attic stairs, soaking wet. “The first floor. It’s flooded. Sweet Jesus. I couldn’t save anything.”

“What about your paintings?” asked Zavion.

“All my murals. All my paintings. They’re gone.” Papa dropped an armful of cereal boxes and two cartons of juice onto the floor. “This was all I could get.”

“I’ll get the survival kit,” said Zavion. He’d made it himself, put it in the downstairs hall closet.

“There are water moccasins down there, Zav. Snakes swimming in our kitchen.”

“What?”

“You’re not going downstairs.” Papa stood like a gate in front of the stairway, but his eyes moved frantically around the room. “We gotta get out of here.”

Zavion pulled the ruined canvases over to the window and he and Papa waved them like flags, trying to get the attention of the helicopters flying overhead. One, two, three helicopters passed them by. They kept on going.

The wind gusted and flung Zavion to the attic floor.

~

HENRY

Wayne didn’t belong here. He didn’t belong here with pink lipstick on his lips and his hair slicked back with gel, a wacked-out fake dog stuck in a box. Wayne belonged on the mountain.

The treasure box didn’t belong here either, but there it was. Sitting there, tucked under Wayne’s stiff arm. The brown leather, rubbed through at the hinges from opening and closing so many times. Henry remembered talking with Wayne’s mother and father, Annie and Jake, about what should go into the casket with Wayne. Annie hadn’t wanted to put anything in, but Jake convinced her that the treasure box, and a few treasures, should be with him. Henry just stood there.

Until they put the marble in the box.

Henry had found the marble on the windowsill in his room when he and Mama moved into their house six years ago. He’d put it in his pocket, and that was the afternoon he’d met Wayne. That was the beginning of the luck.

Henry and Wayne traded the marble back and forth after that. Whenever Jake went on a long truck job, Henry gave it to Wayne. Whenever Henry went to visit his own dad, Wayne gave it back to him. If Wayne had a baseball game, he got it. If Henry had a football game, he got it. The marble practically had a string attached to it. Back and forth. Back and forth, it wove the luck between them.

Now the marble was stuck in the box, stuck in the casket, about to go under the ground, about to be buried, buried forever with Wayne’s dead body.

~

ZAVION

“The walls are breaking,” Papa said. “We have to find a way out of here.”

The wind found a path it liked. It was a violin bow then, squealing back and forth across the two-by-fours. Back and forth, back and forth. Screaming. It splintered the walls of the attic and set itself free.

But the wind stayed inside of Zavion. The screaming wind filled him. Stayed twisted around the bones in his body.

Zavion pulled himself up. He and Papa waved the white flags again and this time when a helicopter flew overhead it shone its lights on them. But then it just kept on going. It kept on going. It kept on going.

~

HENRY

Henry’s legs throbbed.

“I have to get out of here,” someone said behind him.

Henry turned. It was Jake. His voice sounded too loud for his body.

Mama was in the back of the church, hugging Annie. The door opened, clapped shut. Jake left. A group of Henry’s schoolmates sat on the back of a pew. The Reverend picked up hymn books.

No one looked at Henry. Or at Wayne. No one.

Henry put his hand into the casket. He opened the treasure box and grabbed the marble between his thumb and fingers. He closed the old leather lid. He touched Wayne’s arm—a cold, rubbery arm—and he exploded. He exploded into a million fiery pieces as he held the marble in his hand. He exploded. He felt his eyes, his ears, his belly, legs, feet, heart all scattered and burned. All over—in the organ pipes, the pews, the open pages of the Bible.

Then Henry clutched the cold, cold marble. He pulled himself together and ran out of the church.

~

ZAVION

The street was gone. Just an endless river, rising higher and higher and higher. Crouched in the attic, Zavion wished he could reach up into the sky. Turn off the faucet before the whole world overflowed. But wishing did no good. The world was falling apart.

Zavion wished he could climb to higher ground.

But wishing did no good.

The real night had come and gone. Not one helicopter had stopped for Zavion and Papa. Their cereal was gone. Juice, gone. The shingles on the roof of their house cracked and snapped. Zavion watched the dark, rising water suck them down.

“We have to get out of here by ourselves,” yelled Papa. His voice was sucked into the wind and rain too. “The house is falling apart.” He stared out the window. “Look—”

Water. All Zavion saw was water.

“That—” said Papa, pointing. “I think it’s a door.”

Zavion strained his eyes and saw something flat racing toward them.

“I’m going to jump onto that door,” said Papa, “and then you’re going to jump after me. Understand?”

A piece of the window frame tore off the house and plummeted into the water.

Papa balanced on the ledge of the attic window and jumped. The water was so high that it wasn’t far, but Zavion still held his breath until Papa’s feet hit the door. It tilted back and forth like a seesaw. Papa grabbed onto a corner of the house to keep the door from rushing down the river.

“Jump!” Papa yelled. Another piece of the window frame tore loose.

Zavion climbed onto the window sill. He had a strange, strong urge to jump up, not down. To jump up and fly. Fly up, and up, and up.

The wind squealed through the walls of the attic. Long and loud. An entire length of clapboard peeled off the side of the house.

“Zavion!” Papa yelled again. His voice matched the wind. A high-pitched scream. “Jump!”

Zavion closed his eyes and jumped.


To read an essay by Tamara Ellis Smith, click here.

To read more YA and Children’s Literature, click here.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanna May January 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I want to read the whole thing! Your essay about Irene made it all the more poignant. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what it meant, and I love your insights.

Reply

Amy Powers January 20, 2012 at 10:31 pm

I’ll look fwd to reading Marble Boys w/ my boys. Thanks for sharing this excerpt and your essay, Tam. Your description of the flooding in Richmond was vivid and striking, and your epiphany is something I will try to take with me…”Knowledge and understanding with humbleness is truly the best we can offer.” This sounds like what I admire in you–and add to it that great big dose of cheerfulness you so freely give the world!

Reply

Harriet Kanstroom January 20, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Tamara Ellis Smith: YOU ARE A WRITER!
Thank you for this delicious sampling of your art. I loved both your essay and the excerpt from your novel and can’t wait to read more!
Love always,
Auntie Harriet

Reply

Liz January 21, 2012 at 7:10 am

Ahhhh!!!! What happened to Tye?? I’m hooked.

You are insanely talented. I love this – and I love you!!

Reply

Tamara Smith January 21, 2012 at 9:15 am

Thank you Joanna, Amy, Harriet and Liz. You all have made me teary and, at the same time, full of light on this snowy, dark morning…

Reply

laura williams January 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm

what a sensitive and insightful writer you are. The excerpt left me wanting to read on. I trust more is coming! I look forward to sharing the Marble Boys with family, young and old.

Reply

Sheri Lindner January 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm

This is so exciting…and so much more. I love that the transformative journey I know is coming for Zavion and Henry is also something taking place in you. There is nothing more important about being human than the openness to being changed by experience…it is at the heart of loving, and, when we are fully awake, at the heart of living. I have missed you and our correspondences from years ago. And I know you are caught up in the daily art of the life of your family. I can’t wait to embrace Marble Boys in full! Love, Sheri

Reply

Tamara Smith January 21, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Oh thank you Mike, Laura and Sheri. Thank you so much for reading my work and for taking the time to think about it and write back to me too. I love what you said, Sheri, that the openness to being changed by experience is at the heart of loving and living. I don’t know if I believe anything more than that. Only maybe I would change “experience” to “connection” but, really, its all the same thing, isn’t it?

xxoo to you all…

Reply

Miranda January 22, 2012 at 10:52 am

How wonderful to read this excerpt and be aching to read the whole book! I can’t wait to read it with my kids. Many, many thanks Tam.

Reply

Laurie Thompson January 22, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Wow, Tam! This is amazing. I can’t wait to read the rest myself, and to share it with my children. Powerful, powerful stuff.

Reply

Tamara Smith January 22, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Thank you, Laurie and Miranda. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you coming over here to read and leave me your sweet words…

Reply

Leave a Comment

All comments are moderated.
Yours will show up soon, we promise.