Alta Journal is pleased to present the final installment of a five-part serialization of the opening section of Properties of Thirst, the new novel by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Marianne Wiggins. The book is a multigenerational saga of California in which rancher Rocky Rhodes battles the Los Angeles Water corporation against the backdrop of World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the death of his wife.
Each week, we’ve published online a portion from this first section, titled “The First Property of Thirst Is an Element of Surprise.” Visit altaonline.com/serials to read the entire excerpt or any installments you may have missed.
He used to laugh out loud in his sleep.
Until they were three years old they had shared a bedroom and some nights, after their mother died, Stryker would wake her with his laughter and she’d steal out of bed and watch him as he laughed with his eyes closed, sound asleep. Other nights, he’d bang his head. He’d bang his head against the bedboard or, during the day, pick up things—a book, a spoon, a stone—and bang with them. Very nearly all the time he had a black eye or a cut along his forehead, or his cheek was swollen underneath the watermark blemish he’d been born with. If there was anything to break within his reach he’d find it, break it. At some point he’d broken every one of his ten fingers, several of them twice. He broke both arms, a wrist, his legs, an ankle, and his collar bone. Before she put them both to bed at night Aunt Cas would stand him in front of her in his pyjamas and make him move each joint. Then she’d poke her fingers in his ribs like someone searching for a clue inside a pillow. He was particularly fond of running jumps from heights and loved to flip from Rocky’s shoulders. When they were old enough to learn to ride a horse Stryker had refused to sit and learned by standing, bareback. Rocky liked to tell the story about the first time Cas had entered the house after his wife’s death and Stryker looked up at her and swore, “Holy mountain of God.” But of course that wasn’t true; nor was it true, as Rocky also liked to say, that the only person who could even halfway wrangle Stryker was Cas. Truth was, no one could wrangle Stryker, he was one of those people, despite being a twin, born with a personality left over from some ancient pantheon, indomitable, incorrigible, intact. Sunny would have bet her soul that there had never been, in Stryker’s life, the shadow of a doubt as to who he was. Where’s your brother had never once begged who’s your brother—who-is-he?—because, unlike Sunny, Stryker had never stood in anybody’s shadow, but had grasped, unlike his twin, how to be a selfish person from the get-go. Rocky had wanted both of them to have the education of their choice—the finest education possible, as he had had—even if it meant flying in the face of his parental predilection (as he, himself, had flown in the face of Punch’s and gotten himself out West, away from Harvard). Though he would have preferred to keep them in the West, he had sent Cas with them, separately, to see the East Coast colleges (Stryker disappeared in New Haven and got himself arrested). An indifferent student, Stryker had made it clear that he considered programmed education a rat’s-assy waste of time and that as soon as he was eighteen, as soon as he could collect on his inheritance, what was owed to him, then he was history, sweetheart: outta here. All these things—the physical bluster, the bravado, his daredevil outbursts as well as the quiet instances, when he had been lost inside himself—she had preserved these images of him with purpose, kept the pictures vivid in her mind when he went away so he wouldn’t fade, become an abstract equation in her thoughts the way her mother had. She was used to keeping him alive so how was today any different.
—except that it was.
No denying: might be the worst day in American history.
The difference in the way she thought about him after he had gone away and the way she was being made to think of him today was the difference between being active in the world and being history, and she was angry with the world—afraid of it—for forcing history to intrude on private life, for forcing history to the forefront, for making History instant.
She turned off the flame under the coffeepot and turned on the kitchen radio.
People were lining up on the streets of Washington outside the White House. Roosevelt would go to Congress in the morning, ask for power to engage in War. Resident alien Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent, over a third of the civilian population of Hawaii, were being rounded up and detained in Honolulu and elsewhere in the islands. Sunny took Stryker’s letter from her apron pocket to examine it again. She tacked both it and the photograph to the message board beside the kitchen door so they’d be forced to see it every time they passed. Even though the woman’s eyes were hidden by the aviator glasses there was definitely something about the shape of her face, her physical proportions, that led Sunny to suspect, on second sight, that her brother’s wife was not Caucasian. Reading it again, she saw there was nothing in the letter to support that suspicion—but there was nothing in the letter, anyway, nothing concrete, not his new wife’s family name, nor how they’d met, his sons’ birth weights nor their size nor, even, their date of birth. Instead, the letter read like a notation of a stream of consciousness, self-consciousness, a jotting-down of unordered details as they’d entered Stryker’s thoughts. Unjoined thoughts in unjoined cursive—not so much a page designed for someone else to read as it was a private memo Stryker had dashed off as a quick reminder to himself:
Like her mother’s recipes.
Her mother’s recipes had come to her through Cas, on Sunny’s tenth birthday. Since an early age Sunny had been drawn to where the cooking happened, to the places on the ranch where the women gathered—and, sometimes, a man, or two—in the daily preparation of the food. Because, in the face of death, what else are you going to do, where else are you going to go after your mother has died except to the heart of the house, its nurturing center. Stryker had stayed under the iron lung, refusing to move—until Rocky had lifted him, kicking and screaming—but Sunny had gravitated to the portales, where the Mexican women were shaping the masa, where she could join in, use her tiny hands to mix the dough for the fry bread, pat tortillas, not even knowing how angry she was, as angry as Stryker, for being deserted, not even knowing there was a word to describe it—death—a word she would eventually equate with the loss of love.
You go on loving them, but the dead can’t love you back.
—what persists is solitary love. Some of the women encouraged Sunny to think there was a place above, cielo, where her mother abided, looking down, still dispensing love. But when she’d asked her father and her aunt where her mother had gone, neither mentioned this Heaven, this place above the earth. They merely answered, “Death took her.”
“Is Death bringing her back?”
“Then who’s bringing her back?”
“We are. With our thoughts.”
The concept of Return: this is the day she could remember believing—this is the day she’ll come back because I am thinking of her.
Death is so easily misunderstood by a child.
She doesn’t want to have to go through that again: waiting: and waiting: the diminishing hope.
There were films of her mother, home movies Rocky had made which he ran for them after she had died but the images had panicked the children (Stryker had charged at the screen; Sunny had burst into tears) so he’d kept the reels unlit until they’d both grown older. What Sunny had found comforting, from the start, had been the stories people would tell. Her mother had been an incomparable woman, not only adored but revered for her kindness, her service. Along with all the private things she’d been (lover, wife, mother), she’d been a healer: doctor: herbalist and gardener: chef, and the longer Sunny stayed in the portales the more people started telling her, Chica, you have your mother’s touch. The reaction to her presence turned from Where’s your brother? to You have your mother’s gift for food: your mother would have made this soup this way: this tastes exactly like your mother’s. Stryker had been whelped a person on his own but Sunny had required something else, a recipe, to shape her personality, her own place in the world.
the first card in her mother’s recipe box had read:
Yellowish and rank.
Rocky refuses to consume it (for religious reasons).
the next one read:
WINTER (white): best for icings
SUMMER (yellow): eat with bread
Discard fish heads. (Trouts’ eyes will
follow you around the room.)
The cards themselves, stained with mold and desiccated proteins, were kept in a metal box, three by five inches long, the kind one saw in banks and offices: clerical green, for filing data.
Wash hands. Can cause a rash. Treat as
Castrate the rooster.
Cas had claimed she’d found the box in the potting shed behind a row of seed catalogs and its discovery, so long after Sunny’s mother’s death, when Sunny was already collecting testimonies from people who had known her mother, came as monumental—a moment such as Hamlet’s on the parapet with his father’s ghost, Moses with the Tablets.
—until she read them.
FOOD FOR THE ILL
Slice the dove in 1/2. Lay the wings across
the patient’s chest.
Old: roast, fry or broil
Young: stew, braise or jug
In the sense that a recipe should offer instructions, Sunny’s mother’s were puzzles. Worse, they were betrayals—to a ten-year-old, at least, they betrayed the promise of what Sunny hoped to have revealed to her, the promise of some greater knowledge of her mother, her methods and her secrets. Instead of an ordered index, what Sunny found were traces of a person taking notes, a shorthand, the way some people talk out loud as a self-reminder, to jog memory, a memory in which Sunny would never find an active part until she, herself, followed her mother’s shadow and began to try to cook.
Protein in liquid will always set, when cooled.
Same muscle structure as PORK.
Overactive hearts (tough).
Skin in one piece. Soak in vinegar and water. Ragu.
Her mother had been steeped in Anatomy and Chemistry, versed in the volatility of enzymes and the combinative properties of molecules, the properties of blood, so she had come to cooking with a surgeon’s eye (“…same muscle structure as PORK”). What a doctor knew, and what Sunny would subsequently come to learn, is that every living thing has an inner structure, a covert reality, which must be apprehended (“slice with the grain”).
(From the British: “Dispatch the cock.”)
Can’t be done in less than 2 incisions.
All that life, Sunny was now thinking: all that experience, the complicated web of craft that’s mastered from the cradle—how to grasp a fork and spoon, how to fit a button through its buttonhole, how to tie a knot, how to cast a line into a silver lake, how to jump bareback from one stampeding stallion to another, how to charm your way into the woman’s bedroom, how to survive, mano a mano, against an archetype of masculinity like Rocky as your father—
She’d be damned if she’d allow all that specificity that was Stryker to be ended:
She told herself he wasn’t dead.
She floured her hands and punched the dough down in the bowl and formed it into equal loaves and laid them in their tins to rest beneath clean towels.
She told herself he was on another ship, somewhere.
She took the pheasant and the two hens from the icebox and shocked them under running water, checking with her fingers for quills. Then she laid them out and dried them.
If she had gone with Rocky into town she wouldn’t have been able to keep busy, keep the thoughts, the memory, at bay. She would have had to see a lot of people, town people, people from the Valley who had known her, known Stryker, since the time that they’d been born. Old water, Cas called them, or source water: what she meant was salt of the earth. They would have been in shock, as she was, but without the added burden of direct involvement, the mirror of the twinned experience. Some, the ones with sons, would have started to withdraw into themselves as acts of conservation when they began to suspect the distance between Lone Pine and Pearl Harbor—personal and fatal—was shrinking, that a different kind of gravity was acting on them. She would have had to stand with them in an office on a street where Stryker had once stood, still, attentive, quiet, as if this Sunday were intended as a daylong churchgoing exercise, and she would have dreaded keeping vigil there, among them, untwinned, inactive, and alone.
The radio confirmed the Arizona had gone down.
Sunny took the first bird in her hands and cracked its backbone.
If she ever wrote a cookbook of her own she would describe “spatch cock” as a form of presentation not unlike the process of deboning a joint, a leg of lamb. Deboned, the flesh is “butterflied,” laid out concertina-fashion, like an expanded accordion, with “wings”—except, when dealing with a hen, the wings are real. Spatchcocking is a butchering skill that requires the removal of all the chicken’s bones except the thighs and legs and wings and Sunny’s mother had written on her SPATCHCOCK card that it “Can’t be done in less than 2 incisions.”
Sunny had taught herself how to do it in just one.
It had taken years of practice to perfect the method but she had finally taught herself a skill that had eluded her own mother, the trained surgeon, and every time she made the cut it felt like carving her initials on the bone of time:
She made a single one-inch clean incision through the neck bone just above the broken spine.
Then with one swift move she deboned it through its anus, using just her thumb and middle finger.
So imagine what will happen to the man who falls in love with her.•
This completes our five-part serialization of the first section from Marianne Wiggins’s Properties of Thirst. If you’d like to continue reading her novel, please visit Bookshop.org or your local independent bookstore. Kindly drop us a note and let us know if you enjoyed this serialization.
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Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.