The River Within, from Lambda Literary Award nominee, Baxter Clare Trautman, follows three women whose bonds are strained, reforged, and ultimately strengthened as they struggle to choose between the lives they think they should have and the lives they want.
Baxter gives an overview of the book:
“Not too long after I started working the ‘Stan beat my crew and I got word of a massacre about ten clicks south of Masar-al-Sharif. In Afghanistan, just south of the Tajikstan border. It was the dead of winter, miserable weather. Cold. God Almighty it was cold. Two feet of snow on the ground with more on the way, blowing in from Siberia on a ferocious wind that you couldn’t keep from biting through your coat or your blankets. Hans – my photographer – he had to keep his cameras inside his shirt so the mechanisms wouldn’t freeze. It was vile weather. Just miserable.
“But off we went to check out the story. On skinny little donkeys that we had to beat for every step. Took us four hours to get there and by then it was almost dark.”
Despite the years Greer easily recalled passing single file through the narrow gorge, the loud silence of the wind broken by a donkey stamping its hoof, and another snorting white air. But louder even then the silence of the bone-aching wind was the feeding of jackals.
“They weren’t big dogs – medium-sized. About thirty or so, scattered around the draw. They were all lying in the snow gorging on a face or a hand or leg. Even over the wind you could hear them ripping flesh and crunching bones. One would growl occasionally at a vulture getting too close, but the warning was half-hearted.
See,” she twisted in the rocker to pin Kate with a wan smile, “there was plenty to eat. The jackals were feasting on a hundred and fifty-three Soviet soldiers.”
She turned back to the fire.
“It was near the end of the war. They were defeated and starving and frozen. They just wanted to go home. If they could make it across the border into Tajikstan, they’d be safe. So they decided to take a shortcut through a pass that was heavily guarded, gambling that with the weather being so bad the mujhahideen would be riding it out someplace warm. And a lot of them were. But not all of them. They left a handful of snipers scattered up in the rocks with an RPG and a box of mines.”
Greer considered the fire, its yellow flames the same color as the jackals.
“They were beautiful dogs. Their coats fist-deep coats, thick with winter, all gold and caramel. Except their noses and their paws, which were solid red. They looked up when we rode into the draw but not one of them ran. I’d seen enough of them by now to know that they usually ran off at the first sign of danger then darted back for a bite here, a mouthful there. I don’t know if these dogs were too full or too hungry. Either way, they were too slow.
“The guides opened fire. Then they ran. One was dragging its hind legs across the snow, its guts following like purple snakes. Another was howling and twisting around in the snow. It couldn’t get up. One got to its feet only to fall down again. It kept getting up and falling. Getting up and falling. I couldn’t stop watching and even though I was a little deaf from the rifles I wasn’t deaf enough that I couldn’t hear them whimpering and howling.
“I thought that was what it must have been like for the soldiers. Howling and crying, dragging themselves through the snow.”
She glanced at Kate. Her face was white.
“I’m sorry. Should I stop?”
“No.” Kate shook her head. “Go on.”
Greer bent closer to the warmth of the fire.
“It was a relief when the guides started bashing their heads in. I watched them kill each one. I felt like it was the least I could do. They’d just been jackals doing their jackal thing, scavenging a windfall, tending to business, trying to survive.
“In minutes the guides skinned the pelts, stacked them on their donkeys, and mounted up. They were nervous and ready to go. The small light left was getting murkier and murkier and new snow was falling. Hans got his pictures, I got my notes and we started out of the draw, but as I swung onto my donkey I saw a flash across the meadow. It was one of the jackals, sitting behind a patch of scrub. It was holding one of its forepaws in the air. Or what was left of it. It dangled by a couple tendons.
“Hans and the guides had already started through the pass. Then he stopped and yelled what was I looking at? I could hear the guides grumbling and the donkeys stamping their feet. None of us, not even the donkeys, wanted to get caught there after dark. Hans asked me again what I was looking at but I couldn’t turn around.”
She looked at Kate.
“You know how a dog will nibble at a burr or something stuck in its foot? Well, that’s what this jackal was doing. For maybe half a minute, half a lifetime it felt like, it very calmly, very quietly sat there and chewed its foot off. Then just as calmly it got up, looked at me and limped out the draw.
“I beat that donkey, Kate. I dug my heels in and kicked it hard. I’d never wanted out of anyplace so badly. All of a sudden I was afraid I was going to end up like one of those poor bastards in the snow who had just wanted to go home and be warm and fed and safe.”
She rubbed her head.
“I think about those jackals all the time and how much like them I am. Which isn’t fair to jackals. At least they have puppies, raise families. I don’t even do that. I just wait for a kill, then dart in, get my story, and dart out.”
“And chew your foot off when you have to?”
She expected ridicule when she looked up at Kate but was pained to see only sincerity.
Psychologist James Hillman wrote, "A calling may be postponed, avoided intermittently, missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever, eventually it will out."
My novels deal with the inevitable consequences of denying or subverting a calling and the...