FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK: On the remote Islet of Mt. Banke, there is a thriving backwoods community of reformed murderers, rapists, and thieves. The doctor who leads this motley band of castoffs toils ceaselessly to atone for his own terrible sins—which have marked him, body and soul. When their idyllic existence is threatened by unstoppable forces, wrongs are done which cannot be made right again. So begins a strange and dangerous journey into the blackened heart of mind and man.
Following is the first chapter of Benjamin J. Gohs’ newest novel—Toynbee, a dark literary thriller set in Benjamin’s home state of Michigan.
When the man was a boy, he would whisper his hurts under the clammy plastic lid of a rusty coffee can at bedtime because grandma said this catched them up, and to worry only if they could be heard of the morning—for, if not, such worries were gone and could be forgotten.
Next dawn, always, little him unearthed that urn of woe from the barrow of old shoes, dirty socks, and broken toys in the back of his closet. And him, fledgling yogi, sat with ceremonial reverence to contemplate such transcendental answering service. Ever certain that, with each lift of lid, the boy would hear, upon a sour wind of Maxwell House and tin, his dreaded other.
That he never did hear, in those early years, afeared him utterly. For to wait was to suffer. Amassing by the silent tectonics of anxiety some doomed architecture. Each man his own head engineer. Sightless bugaboos of a lifetime stacked in stretcher bond. Cold sweats and diarrhea for mortar.
Worse yet—and worse still—where did all those fears go? How many burlap sacks could they bulge? Same place all those sounds went, he supposed. To some eternal scrapyard of heartbreak and neglect, catalogued and shelved by the hundred like discarded Buicks stripped down to their frames. By the thousand. By the thousand-thousand.
Such gremlins could be put out of sight, but he wasn’t convinced they weren’t merely waiting for him down the road. Lurking. Plotting. Like the menacing creatures on an old WWII poster which had hung in his grandfather’s wood shop. How did the admonition go? “Square corners and gremlins play. Round corners, they stay away.” And, so, he listened extra hard at the beveled rim, breathing silently through open mouth to, yes, avoid the burnt metallic funk. But moreso for fear they might hear.
If anyone could hear the ghost of a whisper, it was he. His own kid sister had for years marveled at his super hearing. Their parents had had to be more careful about where they held their terse talks if they hoped to keep such confabs clandestine. Super? Perhaps just a little bit better than everyone else’s. But wasn’t that really all “super” was? A little bit better.
Heard things, sometimes, he didn’t want to hear. Wasn’t supposed to hear. Tried to unhear them. But the more he struggled not to listen to the far-off cries and the angry grunts and the noxious syllables, the more the dizzying fists of black cotton squeezed his brain until the pressure threatened to pop his head.
Earaches a constant problem in his youth. All the doctor could do was administer bubblegum flavored colloidal suspension and repeat to the boy’s worried mother that he had slightly larger than average ear canals that let in too much water. Also liked to point out, in an unsolicited manner, the obvious that the boy’s ears themselves were fit for a man in his sixties—almost cartoonishly large—though he would grow into them.
As he got older, the boy mostly outgrew his need or maybe just his want to confide thusly. Talking into a coffee can before bedtime was surely a signpost of madness. Regardless of its perceived catharsis.
But the wondering never had left him. Where went the sound? He’d only done it a couple of times since boyhood. Once, as a sophomore in high school, he dug the can up from the pile of shoddy in the back of his shrinking closet, put his ear to the rim, and lifted the lid just enough to hear that pretender to the sea.
No matter how old he got, he would always hold his breath. Convinced the specters of his own lips stood poised to warm his pink earlobe with their dread echo. And each time, until that last time, he was saved again and again. But that last time. That final time. The words, if they could be called, hadn’t made any sense in the moment. And by the time they would have been apropos, perhaps even useful, they’d long left his memory.
How long was the life of sound? That is, how long will sound travel—how far—before the sound becomes inert? Before it stops making sound? How long could a sound stay fresh in a can? He thought maybe an atomic scientist, or some high-ranking clergy might know such a thing, but he didn’t know any of those either. For a while, he pretended he wasn’t really sure that he’d heard what he heard.
After that, he could hear trouble coming. Not the constituent vibrations of mayhem—gunshots, breaking glass, squealing tires, screaming babies—but the amplitude of trouble itself, the trough and crest of tribulation cycling on the wind. He’d always thought of it as hearing the future. Sort of but not really. More like a dry branch working itself through the lead paint of a second-story eve on a gusty night. That the tree was telling you a storm was coming wasn’t magic. But it was something.
Neither had he tried it even once since coming to this place over thirty years ago. Not that he hadn’t been tempted.
And after tonight?