“I used to believe that travel was a form of destruction, and that it was much easier to destroy than to create,” writes Stacy D. Flood, in his new novella The Salt Fields, “but here’s what you never tell yourself enough: destruction is a myth, because things never truly end.”
The Salt Fields combines a reflective sensory experience with the cyclical nature of grief and rebirth in the Black experience in the South. It is a clever and engaging narrative, and while the ascent is slow, the images the author conjures up are so lucid and arresting that it creates a rare, magnetizing pull to read on.
Set just after the first World War, the narrative follows Minister Peters and his family, starting with a tale of his father and uncle, and how they came to escape their island off the coast of South Carolina that was “sinking, receding, being devoured ever so slowly.”
Minister reflects on his father’s early life: having separated from his brother to evade possible capture, he is given rooms with a couple and slowly begins to find his footing. He meets Minister’s mother, they marry, have Minister, and even buy one of the town’s general stores. However, throughout his life, he is haunted by his brother’s absence.
Minister returns to his own life, recalling early days tinted with distant friends and a realistic outlook. He’s not easily swayed by the fantastical, preferring to be grounded in contentedness rather than happiness – try as his father would with bedtime stories. He says, “I never believed in magic and wonder, so the tales were rarely successful; they only served as a reminder of his trials, real or imagined, versus my relative comfort.” Minister’s life truly begins working in his father’s shop, until he gains enough money to go to college, pursuing a career as a physician.
Sadly, the money dries up for school and Minister returns home to become a teacher. Home is where he meets his future wife, and the two eventually have a little girl. This is where the ever-entwined nature of death and rebirth begins to truly take shape for Minister. With Flood’s imagistic metaphors fully on display, he writes: “Imagine the two of us standing at the edge of a cliff, her growing wings and soaring into the sky while I stand on the edge, on my toes, watching, afraid to stretch any higher. I think of her soaring and then I watch her fall.”
Minister’s wife leaves him for another man, which Minister takes in stride – but after leaving, she is murdered, stabbed “with a knife twenty-seven times.” He continues, “there were no suspects – not even the man she flew away with, who disappeared the day her body was found beneath crumpled bed sheets soaked with blood – and no investigation.”
Minister is understandably grieving, though quietly. His emotional expression is never one of grandeur – it is intimate, something spoken in hushed tones between himself and his reflection on the windowpane. It is because of this emotional privacy that he never fully connects with his daughter. She is a lightness of the heart that he doesn’t wholly appreciate until she’s gone too; he says of her, she “collected seeds in her pockets in hopes that the warmth of her skin would help them grow. She would spell out her future by using the tip of her finger to connect one star to the next, her own form of celestial fortune telling.”
It is a day in spring when she climbs onto a well, as she’s done so many times before, “her small arms outstretched as if it were her time to soar,” and falls to her death. Another cycle of rebirth begins.
Much of the book follows Minister after he leaves his home for the North, traveling on a train named The Dawn Lightning, where he meets three others. Carvall, a man fresh out of the military and the first to introduce himself to Minister, is a very down-to-earth character, though very guarded of his past. Divinion and Lanah, a couple in little else but name, take up the remaining two spots – Lanah, elegant, refined, a beautiful illusion, and Divinion, with all the eccentric qualities of a used car salesman that lives within the preset rules of life. A large portion of the story is devoted to their interconnected relationships and what bubbles below the surface.
Flood explores topics such as the Black experience in the South and the danger faced in the everyday. The scenes are heart-wrenching and horrifyingly real, though within the horror there is a spotlight – especially in The Dawn Lightning – on the constant push-and-pull of turning a gaze to the horizon while a tug connects the characters to the old ways of the restricted, lethal South.
Along the way, Flood dips more heavily into themes of mortality, generational patterns, and slogging through difficulties of the past to reach a greater future. Each observation is poetically and powerfully shaped; he wastes no words, and the ones he chooses are carefully considered.
The Salt Fields is a thoughtful and nuanced book, interpreting loss not simply as destruction, but as an opportunity to gain something more. While it succeeds on many levels, perhaps one of its most remarkable aspects is its perspective, especially through Minister reflecting on his life: “You lift one foot, put it in front of the other, and then repeat until you’re someplace else. Someplace you’d rather be. It’s about renewal.”
The Salt Fields
By Stacy D. Flood
Published March 9, 2021