A spiraling tale of wealth and poverty, racism and rage, The Sport of Kings is an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery. C. E. Morgan, who received a 2016 Windham–Campbell Prize for Fiction, has given life to a tale as mythic and fraught as the South itself—a moral epic for our time. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the novel.
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Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. Its center was as orange as its umbral rim was black. The sky grew redder and redder as the sun turned an earthier orange and less brilliant. Above it, purling clouds showed terraced bands of dark against crimson, and the rungs spanned the breadth of the sky. They stacked one upon the next on and on above the sun until the highest bands stretched into interminable shadow, darkening as they reached the top of the bow of the sky, then drifting edgeless into the risen evening. Blackish blue emerged from the east and stretched over the house like an enormous wing extended in nightlong flight. But day was not done, it shook out its last rays, and as low clouds skimmed before the spent sun, the roaming, liberal light was shadowed and then returned like a lamp dampered and promptly relit. The westernmost rooms of the house registered this call and response—walls now flush with color, now dimmed, now returned to red, the orange overlaid with gray, molten color penetrating the sheers and staining the interiors. Walnut moldings and finials and frames were all cherry-lit like blown glass. Now there was a slight breeze, the curtains moved, the sun sank to a sliver, and in the last light bats swarmed the eaves, fleet and barely weighted and screeching smally. Somewhere, an animal called for its mate. A scale tipped. Then it was dark.
The boy lay on his stomach in his bed. He wasn’t sure if he’d been sleeping or not. The light no longer played against the thin film of his eyelids, and his mother had returned. When she tugged the lamp cord, the room flooded with warm light. Henry made a small petulant sound, turning his face to the black window. When she didn’t reach out to him, he turned back to see a slender finger wagging in gentle reprimand. His mother wore a pale dressing gown belted tight under her small breasts, and the curls on her blonde head had retired to limp strands in the heat.
Henry only eyed her sullenly.
Inclining her head to one side and staring intently with wide dark brown eyes, she raised her hands palms up at her shoulders.
“I don’t know,” Henry mumbled.
She bent further to see his mouth. Her brows drew in, folding the pale skin between them, her gaze swallowing him.
Talk, she signed.
No talk, he signed back with the hand that lay curled by his chin, the gestures terse and incomplete, more like flicking than signing.
She scooted forward off the chair and lay down on her side, a sylph, so he had to hold himself back from falling into her. He found the scent of faded perfume and talcum powder and something on her breath he could not identify, but it was not unpleasant, like graham crackers or creamed coffee. She touched the nape of his neck and the top of his back, but not lower, where crisscrossing wales had risen along his waist and lower still, where split raw flesh like a red rope followed the crack of his bottom.
You could have died, she signed with a sad and clownish face, then made her hands flip and die on the mattress.
He shrugged, staring resolutely at the mattress, refusing her. The silk of her dressing gown rippled and washed as she breathed her loud, awkward breaths, the material falling like water from her crested hip to a pool on her inner thigh.
You don’t care about me, she signed, and fingered the track of an invisible tear from the inside corner of her eye to her lip.
He shrugged. “Father says I talk too much.”
She shook her head against the mattress, a pin curl bobbling loose across her penciled brow.
“He says my mouth is my Achilles heel.”
Am I not pretty enough to talk to? she signed, her eyes sparkling, her lip thumbed out.
“Talk with Father if you want to talk,” he whined, and his aim was true. Her face evened slightly of expression, a white cloth ironed. But when Henry saw the sudden stony and monkish reserve that marred her face, he conceded. His father had only learned the simplest signs.
He signed, Okay.
She brightened, but before a word was shaped by her hands, he began to cry raggedly. “It hurts.”
Nodding, one toe whispering in nylon over his instep, her hand caressing the air above the broken and welted skin, where each thewing lash had landed. The whole of his body was concentrated in the concave of his back and between the cheeks of his bottom, where the painful lines his father had drawn all swelled together in a hot rosette. The pain rose and fell in a syncopation against his breath and the regular beat of his blood. He would not be able to shit without pain for two months.
“He hurt me,” he cried softly. His mother scooted against him now, all silk to his pain. She kissed him on the nose.
Darling boy, she signed, Daddy didn’t mean to hurt you.
“I hate him,” he said, tears flooding his eyes.
She pursed her lips. She signed, Blood waters the vine.
“When I have children, I’ll never be mean to them,” he spat. “Never.” But when he tried to imagine his children, his only reference was himself. There would simply be more of him, and then he would assume his position in the line his father spoke of, that concatenation formed in the begotten past, one that wouldn’t end with him.
C. E. Morgan lives with her husband Will Guild in Berea, Kentucky. She is the author of All the Living.
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