Flesh and Blood

by Michael Cunningham

Flesh and Blood

Paperback, 465 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $15 | purchase

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Book Summary

The epic saga of three generations of an American family follows the Stassos family through periods of ambition, love, violence, and change, focusing on the turbulent lives of the Stassos children

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Excerpt: Flesh And Blood

Flesh and Blood

Flesh And Blood


Touchstone

Copyright © 1996 Michael Cunningham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0684874318

1935

Constantine, eight years old, was working in his father's garden and thinking

about his own garden, a square of powdered granite he had staked out and combed

into rows at the top of his family's land. First he weeded his father's bean

rows

and then he crawled among the gnarls and snags of his father's vineyard, tying

errant tendrils back to the stakes with rough brown cord that was to his mind

the

exact color and texture of righteous, doomed effort. When his father talked

about

"working ourselves to death to keep ourselves alive," Constantine imagined this

cord, coarse and strong and drab, electric with stray hairs of its own,

wrapping

the world up into an awkward parcel that would not submit or stay tied, just as

the grapevines kept working themselves loose and shooting out at ecstatic,

skyward angles. It was one of his jobs to train the vines, and he had come to

despise and respect them for their wild insistence. The vines had a secret,

tangled life, a slumbering will, but it was he, Constantine, who would suffer

if

they weren't kept staked and orderly. His father had a merciless eye that could

find one bad straw in ten bales of good intentions.

As he worked he thought of his garden, hidden away in the blare of the hilltop

sun, three square feet so useless to his father's tightly bound future that

they

were given over as a toy to Constantine, the youngest. The earth in his garden

was little more than a quarter inch of dust caught in a declivity of rock, but

he

would draw fruit from it by determination and work, the push of his own will.

From his mother's kitchen he had spirited dozens of seeds, the odd ones that

stuck to the knife or fell on the floor no matter how carefully she checked

herself for the sin of waste. His garden lay high on a crown of scorched rock

where no one bothered to go; if it produced he could tend the crop without

telling anyone. He could wait until harvest time and descend triumphantly,

carrying an eggplant or a pepper, perhaps a tomato. He could walk through the

autumn dusk to the house where his mother would be laying out supper for his

father and brothers. The light would be at his back, hammered and golden. It

would cut into the dimness of the kitchen as he threw open the door. His mother

and father and brothers would look at him, the runt, of whom so little was

expected. When he stood in the vineyard looking down at the world — the ruins

of

the Papandreous' farm, the Kalamata Company's olive groves, the remote shimmer

of

town — he thought of climbing the rocks one day to find green shoots pushing

through his patch of dust. The priest counseled that miracles were the result

of

diligence and blind faith. He was faithful.

And he was diligent. Every day he took his ration of water, drank half, and

sprinkled half over his seeds. That was easy, but he needed better soil as

well.

The pants sewn by his mother had no pockets, and it would be impossible to

steal

handfuls of dirt from his father's garden and climb with them past the goats'

shed and across the curving face of the rock without being detected. So he

stole

the only way he could, by bending over every evening at the end of the workday,

as if tying down one last low vine, and filling his mouth with earth. The soil

had a heady, fecal taste; a darkness on his tongue that was at once revolting

and

strangely, dangerously delicious. With his mouth full he made his way up the

steep yard to the rocks. There was not much risk, even if he passed his father

or

one of his brothers. They were used to him not speaking. They believed he was

silent because his thoughts were simple. In fact, he kept quiet because he

feared

mistakes. The world was made of mistakes, a thorny tangle, and no amount of

cord,

however fastidiously tied, could bind them all down. Punishment waited

everywhere. It was wiser not to speak. Every evening he walked in his customary

silence past whatever brothers might still be at work among the goats, holding

his cheeks in so no one would guess his mouth was full. As he crossed the yard

and ascended the rocks he struggled not to swallow but inevitably he did, and

some of the dirt sifted down his throat, reinfecting him with its pungent black

taste. The dirt was threaded with goat dung, and his eyes watered. Still, by

the

time he reached the top, there remained a fair-sized ball of wet earth to spit

into his palm. Quickly then, fearful that one of his brothers might have

followed

to tease him, he worked the handful of soil into his miniature garden. It was

drenched with his saliva. He massaged it in and thought of his mother, who

forgot

to look at him because her own life held too many troubles for her to watch. He

thought of her carrying food to his ravenous, shouting brothers. He thought of

how her face would look as he came through the door one harvest evening. He

would

stand in the bent, dusty light before his surprised family. Then he would walk

up

to the table and lay out what he'd brought: a pepper, an eggplant, a tomato.


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