The Silent Generations

“He wanted to be the humming wire, outside time.”

An excerpt from M. Allen Cunningham’s novel Perpetua’s Kin (2018)

Iowa, 1870s

Almost as soon as Benjamin Lorn stopped drawing circular rainbows early in the autumn of his seventh year, he took to making a different shape. One day he was scratching in the margins of a letter his mother had received when old Thornton came upon him.

“Mm,” said the grandfather, stooping. “Will you be a reverend?”

Benjamin didn’t look up. “A reverend?” He was pulling his mouth in concentration.

“Ya, to draw all those crosses.”

Benjamin grunted a laugh. “Not crosses, Grampa. Look.”

Thornton bent closer. The boy had hemmed the letter’s news with lines of fence. From cross to cross they ran in doubles neatly parallel. He thought the boy had drawn the posts too tall but then he saw. “Ah. The wires, are they?”

At the copper-edged counter in Perpetua’s Wabash Depot Benjamin had stood with his father, sometimes his mother, and watched Mr. Mueller, depot man, postal clerk, and operator, tapping signals into the wire by use of a trim lever key. The key made glottic clicking sounds and Mr. Mueller’s green visor glistered as he canted his head to listen. His tapping formed no clear pattern but a body could speak to anyone in the country — even as far as California — by that method. Or so Benjamin had learned. It seemed pure conjuration. It offered wonder even grownups could not foreswear. The boy could think of no other thing with such a claim, whose magic would not die no matter how aged or wise a person got.

The humming wires followed King Street along Perpetua’s town square and continued west to the track by the depot. From there they trued themselves to the railroad. Standing in his father’s store or at the depot platform Benjamin watched them bellying pole to pole and onward to distances unreckoned. Twice, three times a day the trains thundered through that way, to vanish at the narrow place on the horizon. It always left the wires swaying overhead, droning sorcery. “Wind makes em hum,” his father told him, but Benjamin would not believe this. At heart he knew the sound to be voice of a secret energy. Already he felt eternity in the wires. He knew he might walk for hours and come nowhere nearer that pinpoint where those wires and all else disappeared.

One cool Saturday Thornton Lorn announced he was going to the depot to send a message. Would Benjamin care to come along?

Saturdays the Wabash was quiet, trains running scarcely at all. They found Mr. Mueller shuffling cards in his ticket window.

“Boy likes to draw the telegraph,” said Thornton Lorn. “Might you show him some things, Ed?”

Mueller let his cards lie and Benjamin found himself led from the small passenger gallery through the glass-paned door stenciled AGENT and into the office. Drawers and cubbies rose to heights all about him stuffed with wonderful papers. Inkstamps and punchtools, cardfiles, luggage tags, signal lamps, and a pair of bronze scales watched him arcanely. A minute later he was sitting in the operator’s chair. And there before him bolted to the desk lay the signal key, fabulous in shapely brass and coiled wire. The lever ended in a glossy disk the size of a silver dollar.

“What’ll we send?” said Mueller, crouching behind.

Benjamin turned, at a loss to answer. But his grandfather was already jotting a message to a friend Gavin Robley, away to see relations in Osceola. “Pick a word for him,” he told the boy, “to say when he comes back.”

Benjamin mused. “Just anything?”

“Anything Christian.”

After some thought he chose Watermelons. So the message read:

Howdy Gavin. This from my grandson trying the wires.

Tell him Watermelons upon your return. — Thornton

“Ready?” said Mueller. Covering Benjamin’s hand he guided it to the key.

Tap! tap! tap! tap! tap! tap!

The sprung action gave Benjamin much happiness, the lever surprisingly taut. Close in Benjamin’s right ear Mueller was reading aloud while in his left came the brisk tattoo from the sounder box, a wonderful crackling.

Tap! tap! tap! tap!

And suddenly it was done.

“There she goes,” said Mueller. “She’s off.”

The agent’s hand came away but the boy’s still hovered above the key. Benjamin was listening — for what he wasn’t sure. Did he hope to hear a diminishing clatter as the message went forth, like a train? He looked up to find Mueller and his grandfather grinning.

“Well?” said Thornton.

But caution overcame the boy. He nodded at the men and made a smile but didn’t mean it. Some unfledged part of him feared this day should serve for further lesson in the impermanence of magic. Had the wires carried his message or had they not? He must get proof before he could rejoice.

Gavin Robley was to be at Osceola for three more days. In the Lorn household the parlor clock turned torturous. The boy checked the one on the mantelpiece upstairs but it too had deigned to punish him. He would draw no telegraph wires to pass the time. He dithered about. Apparitions of circular rainbows converged at his heels. He wondered would anything ever win his belief again should the telegraph disappoint? He felt how absurd his suspicions were, what an elaborate fiction it would need for wires to be raised and people to mimic transmittal and receipt — but he demanded verification.

Finally it was Tuesday and Mr. Robley had come home. Benjamin alerted his grandfather at breakfast. Old Thornton glanced up forgetfully from the porridge he was stirring. “Oh Gavin? He’ll call after church.”

Which would mean four more days of purgatory. Intolerable.

The Robley home was four or five miles distant by the Hillcrest Highway, just over the narrow Chariton River. Benjamin set off that morning walking south through sunglare and dust. He trailed no stick and kicked no stone as he went. His motive had matured him already. Like a man he traveled bent upon destination.

He could feel the season in the air cooling and very still above the fields of corn and sorghum where the harvests had started. The country’s summer gold was tarnished ochre now. The hay lay rolled into enormous green-yellow cylinders by the waysides but he was not tempted to mount them and play at balancing. He hurried along the road through the tinny babble of insects. He came to the Chariton and crossed the muddy current by a farmer’s plank bridge. A footpath wound upward along tree-shaded banks to the small settlement of Dennis. He turned down a drive and stood before the Robley place.

He realized he’d never yet pursued what was fearful to him. Drawing his breath he mounted the porch steps determined to face this thing.

He knocked. He thought he heard a voice calling from within. He laid his cheek to the door. When the call came again he gripped the latch and stepped inside onto a looped brown rug and stood alone in the Robley foyer.

A pendulum flashed in the glass belly of a grandfather clock. From a pinecone newel post a banister ascended and curved behind a wall. Benjamin did not know the motions from here. He waited.

There came another call. Outside he’d guessed it a woman’s voice originating deep within the house but now he knew it for a child’s call from a neighboring room.

“Didya come in?”

He turned. A double doorframe led into a parlor on his right. He made to step that way just as a little girl skipped through and bumped against him. She gave a small gasp and backed off. She was in brown pinafore and barefooted. Red curls sprang about her face.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Is Mister Robley at home?”

Her pink feet carried her in a curtsy-like hop. He’d outgrown those gestures himself — of bubbling energy, needless motion.

“You mean my grampa,” she said.

“Is your grampa Gavin Robley?”

She retreated beneath the parlor lintel, glaring. She was scant more than a baby and had a child’s fickleness of trust. He took her for an irritant in the way of his task. She lowered her eyes and plunged past him around the banister and up the stairs. The steps challenged her stride, knees caught in her skirt. She called ahead. “Grampa!”

Again Benjamin stood in the clock’s noise. The pulse of the pendulum behind its glass seemed to challenge him and he nearly questioned the purpose of his errand now. But no, he was here. Then above he heard a descending tread. Old Mr. Robley appeared in the stairwell.

“Ah, the grandson Benjamin, is it?”

“Yessir. Hello.”

The clock continued as Robley came down. This man had called on occasion at the Lorn home to summon Benjamin’s grandfather to the society hall or solicit a match of chess. And like most men in Dennis and Perpetua he’d called frequently at Lorn & Son. He stopped at the foot of the stairs. He was in shirtsleeves. He had a wiry robust look. One hand gripped the banister and he waited.

But Benjamin was unsure of his own part.

They stood.

At last a click as the old man’s jaw unlocked. “Ah, it’s business brings you, I see.”

“Yessir.”

“That telegram, is it?”

The boy’s hope welled. “Yessir. The telegram.”

“I see. Hmm.” Robley leaned his head as if to discern some falsity of motive. “Thought you’d come to call on my granddaughter Alma.”

“No sir.”

Robley buried a grin. He was tedious as the many old farmers Benjamin was bound to nod to about town, though the boy knew he was a miller.

“What age are you, Benjamin?”

“Seven, sir.”

“Mm, well Alma’s a bit younger.”

This was sagely remarked and Benjamin bristled at the condescension, but “Yessir” was all he could reply.

Half up the stairway behind the old man the girl reappeared to sit in skirts on the steps. She’d found a dolly and was hugging it in the crook of one arm, thumb stoved in mouth and baby teeth gnawing. Robley noticed her.

“Alma, this is Benjamin Lorn. He’s son of the man keeps the leathery in Perpetua. He’s seven.”

Alma considered him anew, fearless from her place on high and with her grandpa between. She withdrew her thumb. A thread of silver saliva drooped and broke.

“How do you do.”

Old Robley smiled. Benjamin blushed.

“How do you do.”

It vexed him being pushed back to child-talk.

“Well, to the matter of that wire,” said Gavin Robley. Stepping forth he crouched to level gray eyes on the boy. His hand came heavy on Benjamin’s shoulder. Stale breath like Grampa Thornton’s. Gravely he said, “Watermelons.”

Benjamin breathed and felt Robley swatting his arm, old man chuckling pompously in his face. But no teasing could trouble him now.

Returning down the Robley drive toward the Chariton, Benjamin’s steps were jaunty. Little Alma skipped at his heels. Some whim had permitted her to like her guest. Her feet were quickly dirtcaked.

“Wheresa waddlemelons?”

“No place,” he said happily. “It was a message. Why, you like watermelons?” He was feeling generous toward her now.

“I like spitting a seeds.” She dropped her dolly in the drive.

He stopped to help her dust it off. He returned it to her and she took it with a stare. “Are you a daddy?”

He laughed at the scandalous notion. She joined in though she didn’t seem to understand.

At the end of the drive she stood hugging the limp thing, watching him go.

Benjamin fairly loped over the Chariton and down the highway toward home, mind ahum with mysteries, distances, the enigmatic beauty of electricity and its infinite reach. From the highway shoulders in both directions the low country coursed away in slopes and fields. His gaze roamed those expanses and he felt his first vastness wondering how men could keep at home while spaces opened all around.

Send! commanded the operators with a twitch of the hand — and flash it was done. Lightning could zoom through a wire. A soul could go anywhere.

He wanted to be the humming wire, outside time. To let nothing constrain him. He was not long for this place.


This excerpt appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader, Fall 2013. On the basis of this and other excerpts from Perpetua’s Kin, Cunningham has received an Oregon Literary Fellowship from Literary Arts and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission. A separate excerpt from Perpetua’s Kin was awarded Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Family Matters competition, and Cunningham received a 2018 Project Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council to support his work on the novel.

About the novel:

Enthralling multi-generational mystery and reworking of Hamlet, Perpetua’s Kin is a profoundly contemporary exploration of the American experience as one family embodies it: our violent heritage, our vulnerability to the vastness of our own geography, our chronic restlessness and desire for regeneration through technology, and the impossibility of escaping the history that shapes us and, always, demands a reckoning.

Advance praise for Perpetua’s Kin:

“With [Perpetua’s Kin], M. Allen Cunningham once again demonstrates he is one of the bravest and most talented novelists writing today. His prose sings with a rare kind of poetry, even as the story sweeps you along with its dark mystery and heartbreaking tension.”-Eowyn Ivey, author of To the Bright Edge of the World and The Snow Child, Pulitzer Prize finalist

Perpetua’s Kin blew me away with its stark, astonishing music…so uncannily beautiful, so powerfully strange.”-Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks

“A novel in conversation with Faulkner and Melville and possibly even Robert Louis Stevenson. … A writer both original and well aware of the writers who have come before him. Cunningham’s writing, like the scope of his novel, is bold and ambitious.”-Peter Turchi, author of A Muse and a Maze, and judge for the Oregon Literary Fellowship

“A tour-de-force…exquisitely wrought.”-Justin Hocking, author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld

“Compelling characters…lyric majesty…a master storyteller.”-Gina Ochsner, author of The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight

Perpetua’s Kin appears September 2018.


M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), and Partisans, a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance, and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for Moss literary magazine.