Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”He let float in the dark air his free hand and then raised it up and reached to the sky where his fingers enfolded a flickering red star. The star was warm in his hand and beat with the pulse of a frog or a songbird held in your palm. He caressed the star and let it ride in his palm and then he carried the star to his mouth where it tasted liked sugar before he swallowed it.”
Robey Childs’s mother had a dream that Stonewall Jackson had died. In her mind, if Jackson was dead, then the war was over. It was time for her husband to come home. She decides that the only course of action is for her fourteen year old son to go find his father and bring him back to the farm. It is a herculean task for a grown man, but for a fourteen year old boy it has the makings of a suicide mission. Like Joseph, she makes him a coat of many colors...well...two colors. One side is butternut gray and the other is Union blue. Her intentions were the best and there is a natural logic that she has made her son safer with the ability to blend with one side or the other.
Or they could think he was a spy.
Old Man Morphew runs the local mercantile establishment and when Robey wandered into town barely beginning his quest and already exhausted and hungry he offers him food, advice, a pair of pistols, and most importantly the use of...the Coal Black Horse.
It is the type of horse, standing 16 hands, with a fire in his eye and quivering raw energy that makes a man out of a mouse...if he can stay on him. A horse like that might increase a boy’s chances from none to slim.
Robey has to learn fast and lessons are handed out with hard falls and pride knuckling helplessness. He meets a man dressed as a woman, a preacher with the devil riding both his shoulders, and two scavengers that snip dead soldiers fingers for their rings and pry gold teeth from their mouths. He experiences the kindness of a pregnant woman burying soldiers as best she can, a Union Major who has the wherewithal to understand he isn’t a spy, and most importantly he meets a waif of a girl named Rachel.
Every time he has something go wrong he has just enough go right to keep himself afloat.
He has more than a passing acquaintance with hunger.
”When the coffee was boiled he poured half a cup into the drippings and could not wait, but was so hungry he burned his fingers and mouth. He slid the cake off the hoe into the gravy and ate the slurry with his fingers. He scraped the sides and the rapidly cooling bottom of the pan with the backs of his fingers and licked them clean and wiped at his mouth and then licked the back of his hand and then it was over. He knew enough to know he’d eaten like a ravenous dog and how disapproving his mother would be if she had witnessed such and how nice it would be to someday again not eat like that.”
The war finds him and etches scenes into the fabric of his memories that will scar and harden a young boy into an old man.
”War had even been made upon the cemetery and in places the ground looked as if plowed. The tombstones were broken into fragments and graves had been turned up by plunging shells. The monuments had been toppled to provide cover for a time and so they were pocked and scarred by the scrape of bullets. The bodies slumped behind the stones had absorbed the bullets made of pure, hollow, soft lead, arriving to kill at a thousand yards, fracturing and shattering bones, blasting tissue, and causing large gaping wounds that draped like cut mouths in the sun.”
Violence is a live thing like a virus that infects all who come near it. It leaves maggots in the hearts of the pure, crushes the weak, and makes the strong feeble.
”How to explain the way violence needs violence? Is that the explanation itself? Violence demands violence. This was not the pagan retribution: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This was the law before there was law. This was vengeance and a rebellion to law. How to explain the failure to understand this and the failure to not understand there are things that cannot be understood?”
He does find his father.
”Their lives were in balance and asking and considering this question they were stepping back from fear and hopelessness and emerging into prospect. They were a teaching father and a learning son, timeless in their existence, the father born into the son as is the grandfather and the father before him and all the way back to the first. The father’s life is foreclosed and the son’s life is continuing and as always, only the unknown privileging one state of being over the other.”
I read somewhere a long time ago that there are theories that all the experiences of all our ancestors are coded into our DNA. We carry not only their genes, but their lives in our bodies. When we reproduce we are not only preserving our own existence, but the existence of all our ancestors going back to the very beginning.
I believe this to be true.
This is a story of courage, of a boy who goes on a quest not because he wants to or that he expects to find glory or fame, but because his mamma asks him to. When we weigh and measure Robey, stacking up his assets and his deficits, he comes up short of even that $4.50 that supposedly the elements of the human bodies are worth. His character, though, is worth a million dollars and change. I’d ride the river with him whenever he needed me. Highly Recommended!!
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