Song of the ShankShe comes out of the house and sees fresh shapes in the grass, a geometrical warning she does not understand. Blades mashed down under a foot, half-digested clots of earth where shoe heels have bitten in, mutilated worms spiking up through regurgitated blackness—piecemeal configurations, suggesting a man’s shoe, two, large, like Tom’s but not Tom’s since Tom never wears shoes in the country. A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long lost—three years? Four?—“Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). She has grown accustomed to such intrusion, knows how to navigate around pointed questions and accusations. (Ignore the bell. Deny any insistent knock on the door and that voice on the other side, tongue and fist filled with demands. Speak calmly through the wood, polite but brief. Use any excuse to thwart their facts and assumptions. No matter what, don’t open the door.) Yet no one has called upon them their entire summer here in the country, those many months up until now, summer’s end. This can only mean that the journalists have changed their strategy, resorted to underhanded tactics and methods, sly games, snooping and spying, hoping to catch tom (her) out in the open, guard down, unaware, a thought that eases her worry some until it strikes her that no newspaperman has ever come here before in all the years—four? Five?—that they’ve had this summer home. Alarm breaks the surface of her body, astonished late afternoon skin, all the muscles waking up. Where is Tom? Someone has stolen him, taken him away from her at last. She calls out to him. Tom! Her voice trails off. She stands there, all eyes, peering into the distance, the limb-laced edge of the afternoon, seeing nothing except nature, untamed land without visible limits. The sky arches cleanly overhead, day pouring out in brightness across the lawn, this glittering world, glareless comfort in the sole circle of shade formed by her straw hat. Tom! She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun- beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a stripped and worn tongue. Nevertheless, a (summer) home. To hold her and Tom. It stands isolate in a clearing surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods. Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face. The trees accept the invitation. Take two steps forward, light sparkling on every leaf. The nearest a dozen yards, a distance she knows by heart. Deep green with elusive shadings. Green holding her gaze. Green masking possible intruders (thieves). She must move, have a look around. No way out of it. Takes up a stout branch and holds it in front of her in defense, uselessly fierce. Even with her makeshift weapon she doubts her own capacities. Look at her tiny hands, her small frame, the heavy upholstery of her dress. But the light changes, seems to bend to the will of her instincts, lessening in intensity. (Swears she hears it buzz and snap.) She starts out through the grass—tom keeps the lawn low and neat, never permitting the grass to rise higher than the ankles—her feet unexpectedly alert and flexible across the soft ground under her stabbing heels, no earthly sense of body. Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. in her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods? it is later than she realized, darkness slowly advancing through the trees, red light hemorrhaging out, a gentle radiance reddening her hair and hands. Still enough illumination for a more thorough search. No timepiece on her person—her heavy silver watch left behind on the bedroom bureau—but she’s certain that it’s already well past tom’s customary hour of return, sundown, when tom grows hurried and fearful, quick to make it indoors, as if he knows that the encroaching dark seeks to swallow him up, dark skin, dark eyes.

Had she missed the signs earlier? What has she done the entire day other than get some shut-eye? (A catalog of absent hours.) Imagine a woman of a mere twenty-five years sleeping the day away. (She is the oldest twenty-five-year-old in the world.) After Tom quit the house, she spent the morning putting away the breakfast dishes, gathering up this and that, packing luggage, orbiting through a single constellation of activities—labor sets its own schedule and pace—only to return to her room and seat herself on the bed, shod feet planted against the floor, palms folded over knees, watching the minute lines of green veins flowing along the back of her hands, Eliza contemplating what else she might do about the estate, lost in meditation so that she would not have to think about returning to the city, a longing and a fear. She dreaded telling tom that this would be their last week in the country but knowing from experience that she must tell him, slow and somber, letting the words take, upon his return to the house for lunch; only fair that she give him a full week to digest the news, vent his feelings—in whatever shape and form—and yield.

It takes considerable focus for her to summon up sufficient will and guilt to start out on a second search. Where should she begin? A thousand acres or more. Why not examine the adjoining structures—a toolshed, outhouse, and smokehouse lingering like after- thoughts behind the house, and a barn that looks exactly like the house, only in miniature, like some architect’s model, early draft. She comes around the barn—the horse breathing behind the stall in hay-filled darkness, like a nervous actor waiting to take the stage— dress hem swaying against her ankles, only to realize that she has lost her straw hat. A brief survey pinpoints it a good distance away, nesting in a ten-foot-high branch. She starts for it—how will she reach that high?—when she feels a hand suddenly on her shoulder, tom’s warm hand—Miss Eliza?—turning her back toward the house, erasing (marking?) her body, her skin unnaturally pale despite a summer of steady exposure, his the darkest of browns. (His skin has a deeper appetite for light than most.) He has been having his fun with her, playing possum—he moves from tree to tree—his lips quivering with excitement, smiling white teeth popping out of pink mouth. Tom easy to spot really, rising well over six feet, his bulky torso looming insect-like, out of proportion to his head, arms, and legs—what the three years’ absence from the stage has given him: weight; each month brings five pounds here, another five pounds there, symmetrical growth; somewhere the remembered slim figure of a boy now locked inside this seventeen-year-old (her estimation) portly body of a man—his clothes shoddy after hours of roughing it in the country—an agent of nature—his white shirt green- and brown- smeared with bark and leaf stains.

He turns her fingers palm up like a palmist reading her hand. Pulls and leads her back to the front door of the house, bypassing the back entrance. Because his eyes are lidded over, all the energy in his face is in mouth and jaw. (Eyes are globes that map the feelings of the face.) He grasps the door handle as if it is a butterfly—delicately, barely touching it with his fingers—pushes the door open, and with a great show of strength turns to carry her inside, lifting her high above the ground, overestimating, throwing her face momentarily into his black cap of kinky hair. She hooks both arms around his thick neck, ringed with sweat, for the ride. Her body against his, she can feel his heart beating rapidly beneath his damp shirt. In fact, he’s exhausted, struggling for breath. Something vulnerable about his features, a child’s earnestness in his unknowing blind face, which gives to his obesity the suggestion of exposure rather than strength, more unaware flesh available for ambush. He takes time to wipe the bottom of his feet against the hemp doormat, one foot after the other, again and again, Eliza stilled in air. They flutter in. He almost drops her when he is setting her down. In the act of balancing she detects a faint scent in the room, the smell of tobacco. Someone has been in the house. Might still be in the house. She latches the door while tom, sensing nothing, dizzy with the scent of pollen on his hands, grass on his feet, whistling—always a tune buried under his breath—hurries over to the piano—his feet slide like dry leaves over the carpeted floor—which squats like a large black toad in the sitting room. He takes a seat on the bench, removes his hankie from his back pocket, and cleans his face. Returns the hankie and brings his hands to the keyboard, his long fingers fanning out in excitement. Begins playing, his routine, discipline of pleasure. She sets off to inspect potential hiding places, twenty rooms of ample size, upper and lower, sets off, charged by fear she doesn’t dare feel. How quietly she goes above the music rising up from downstairs; she feels lighthearted, competent, in a situation she knows she can handle. Could be a burglar sneaking through some unsuspecting person’s house, increasingly confident and safe, her pendular breathing causing her to believe that she is only moments behind the intruder, just short of reckoning. A feeling quickly dispelled. Expecting everything, finding nothing. Looking through glass, she scans the jagged red-lit landscape impressed upon her mind with the sudden violence of a dream, all those yellows greens and browns separate parts of something, no longer the stable signs of summer sanctuary but disjointed hostile eruptions. She feels even more the need to leave the country at the earliest opportunity, tomorrow or the next day at the latest. Hard to imagine putting off their return to the city. something real ahead.

Downstairs again, satisfied with her search—check the latches, front and back—safe and sound for now, she settles down on the set- tee, tom twenty feet away from her at the piano, his face directed at the ceiling with the height-bound music, his hands chasing one an- other squirrel-like over the keyboard, Eliza turning speculations about the unknown intruder, mind spinning down to concentrate on her own slowing pulse, buried sense, the music relegated to the edge of awareness as she sits face to face with the fact of herself in this red- bright room filled with handsome well-crafted furniture and plump well-stitched upholstery, light making the objects look incongruous and absurd, lurching in and out of focus like this countryside that lurches in and out of her (their) life with the seasons. She wants to get back to the city, to her (their) apartment. A strong drive to part with this place for good, sever all seasonal ties. Easier now for her to entertain the thought of year-round residence in the city. Everything in between their apartment and this house a mistake. Torn (her) from the city each summer, they holiday here because there is little risk of entanglement, danger from others, the house far beyond the usual hunting grounds. Not that she is not trying to keep them hidden, keep Tom underground.

The facts trip her up. (What she does not say is clearest.) Forced to admit, the city is ideal for her, but not for Tom. Would she dare live here in the country? A city girl her entire life, she’s not sure she’s cut out for the countryside.  All that harmony and light. Greenness pulling through the leaves. And flowers blooming out in the heavy humidity of the air, growing things too colorful to look at but nevertheless created beautiful for the delight of man. Scents and nectars and fruits that act as attractive guides for insects. She cannot get her mind around the idea of nature, Barmecidal feast. Too much to take in. The promised primal power and purity of the elements—fresh air to clear the head, space for the body, rest and reclamation—rarefied to a degree that eludes her senses. There is nothing she desires to map, mount, or measure. So who she is in the country is unclear. Tom’s safety is not reason enough to stay. End of story.

Or is it? The morality is ever changing. (At cross-purposes with herself.) She gets caught in all the choices. What’s bound to happen? What might happen? What should happen? The questions cast long shadows that do not disappear.


Allen, Jeffery Renard (Mark Hillringhouse)JEFFERY RENARD ALLEN is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits; a story collection, Holding Pattern; and the widely celebrated novel Rails Under My Back, which won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction. His other awards include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a support grant from Creative Capital, and the Charles Angoff Award for fiction from the Literary Review. He has been a fellow at the Dorothy L . and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Allen was born in Chicago and is currently professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York, an instructor in the graduate writing program at the New School, and an instructor in the low-residency MFA writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has also taught for Cave Canem; in the Summer Literary Seminars program in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Nairobi, Kenya; for the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria; for the VON A/Voices Workshop; and in the writing program at Columbia University. He is the fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony, and is also the founder and director of the Pan African Literary Forum, a nonprofit organization that supports and aids writers on the African continent. Allen lives in the Bronx, New York.

Adapted from Song of the Shank, by Jeffery Renard Allen, Copyright © 2014 by Jeffery Renard Allen. With the permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press.

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2 responses to “Excerpt of Song of the Shank, by
Jeffery Renard Allen”

  1. Marcia Cham says:

    Your piece is amazing. The course, How Writers Write Fiction required us to read it as part of our class called, Immersion in Setting. Well, I must say I was immersed in Eliza’s world and was amazed when I met Tom. Thanks so much for your piece.

  2. Jane Saunte says:

    I am following the same course as Marcia and agree with her completely!

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