The Sugar Maple Grove by John E. Espy is an epic Southern Gothic about race, poverty, religion, and barbarism, and those brave enough to dare to see a different society. Below is an exclusive excerpt from the novel.
Van Lear, Kentucky
And then, there was Flem. Flem Lemaster’d had three brothers, who now are long at rest. And always when he was tossin’ and turnin’ this way and that, the same distressin’ dream would come to haunt him and he’d see them after the blast, layin’ there boxed-up with their arms forever folded across their breasts. On that airish fall morning about 6:00 or so, he awoke to a thick hoary fog covering the holler. So thick it was that Flem couldn’t even see the cornfield across the way, where, when he was just a youngin’ he and his granddaddy had seen one of Van Lear’s white frocked lost spirits, with her coal black hair being caught up in such a state of frenzy that it looked like it was trying to escape from the top of her head. “There she is, boy,” Flem remembered his granddaddy whispering. “That ain’t a sight that you’ll ever be likely to forget.” And, right after Flem’s eyes took sight of the wandering soul, he tried like the dickens to push his chin into his chest, for it was said that your life is cut short by the amount of time that you cast your sight on an itinerate one that had been ill fated to a vaporous eternity. But, being the way his granddaddy was, he grabbed a handful of Flem’s hair, jerked the boy’s head back and made him stare until she disappeared into the stripped corn stalks just as though she’d never been there in the first place. Flem also remembered that he wet the bed that night, soaking the straw. The next morning he got a lickin’ from his momma who said he was too big a boy to be pissin’ hisself. Weather had beginning to turn now, it wouldn’t be long before the snow started up and he’d have to be trudging his way back up to the mine.
Flem had been laid off for a few months because he’d blown his thumb and forefinger off while testing a fuse to open a coal vein. He’d peeled back the fuse and struck down on it with a piece of glass when it jumped right to the shot and exploded in his hand. Took his thumb and finger clean off. Flem had already lost two of his fingers on that hand years before, when his old man, figurin it was about time to admit him into manhood, had takin Flem down to the muddy banks of the Ohio snappin turtle huntin. No boy, having heard tell the stories from the other finger-missing older boys, ever looked forward to it but if you were going to prove yourself worthy in the eyes of your daddy it was just something you had to do.
“There weren’t no choice about it,” Flem could remember his daddy saying about when he’d lost a couple of his own fingers. First you find a turtle hole in the thick bank muck, shove your hand deep into the turtle nest and pull that snapper out by its head before your hand got tore off. If that turtle’s beak gotchur hand first he sure wudn’t about to let go before hearing a clap of thunder. Most all of the boys brought up from that part of West Virginia were missing fingers and some even whole hands.
The day Flem’d blown his thumb off, a couple of the other miners took him down to the Golden Rule hospital.
Dr. Ernest Elmo Archer, who founded the hospital and had come back from the war with surgical experience, said that Flem’s one remaining finger on that hand was just too mangled from the blast, it was gonna have to go. Dr. Archer’d knew what he was talking about, he’d seen a lot of soldiers overseas who’d been blown up in one way or another. The doctor joked that there wasn’t even enough finger left for Flem to pick his nose with. After the amputation, Flem was left with a finger-less palm sticking out of his shirt sleeve that he could barely squeeze tight enough to cup a spoon when eating Nora’s mashed potatoes. He’d never be able to swing a pickaxe again, but since he knew mine work better than most anyone else the boss man said he wanted to move Flem up to the top, working the tipple.
Nora, Flem’s wife, was one of the Prater girls, having been born and bred in Van Lear. Said it was that her great granddaddy had helped to make that part of Kentucky safe from the Shawnee. Hell, her daddy had said the Shawnee even tried to scalp Daniel Boone up around the late 1700s. Nora never met her great granddaddy though ’cause he’d been killed by a fur trapper who said he was poaching his prey, long before she’d even been thought of being born. Nora was a plain girl, thinking to herself just like her momma’d say that she’d never find a good-for-something husband. So when Flem came along and asked her to marry him, right just before Nora came into her sixteenth year, she said yes almighty for sure. Flem was about twenty years older or thereabouts, they figured. They’d had seven children but only four were living. Two had died, right about the same time when a fever came through the junction and their oldest had been swept into a swell fishing in the Levisa Fork. It had been flooding pretty bad that year and the river was mighty and muddy. They looked long and hard for days but never found Flem Jr’s body.