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The Land’s Dank Secrets

An excerpt from the author’s debut novel.

Photo: Chris Stein/Getty Images
Photo: Chris Stein/Getty Images
Photo: Chris Stein/Getty Images

The Cut is publishing excerpts of books coming out during the coronavirus pandemic. After each selection, join us for brief interviews with the author.

Six days a week Lucy wakes first. It’s the hour of the mole, an absolute dark, as she slips past her sleeping family.

Sam in the loft bed beside her, Ba and Ma on a mattress at the foot of the ladder—she circumvents them by memory as much as by sight, as she circumvents the heaped clothes, the empty flour sacks, the sheets, broom handles, trunks. The house has the close, stale musk of an animal’s burrow. Last week a tub of creek water overturned, not improving the odor.

Once, Ma might have made it inviting. A bunch of sweet grasses, a strategically spread cloth. But for weeks now her beauty’s been worn thin by a sickness that makes her retch up her food. Her beauty now hardly covers her bones. In this light, the shape of her skull is visible.

Nowadays her sole occupation is sleep. Her cheeks look ever more gouged, as if something nibbles her in the night. She hasn’t eaten a proper meal in weeks. Says she can stomach only meat, which they lack the coin to buy.

Ba promised meat when they got to this big new mine, and a garden, good clothes, proper horses, school. Too many men beat them here. Wages are lower than promised. With Ma sick, it’s Lucy who puts off school to accompany Ba to the mine, Lucy who wakes first, fixes breakfast.

She sets a pan on the stove. Too loud—Ma stirs at the clang. If woken, Ma argues endlessly with Ba. The girls are hungry. / I’d be earning more if we’d gotten here sooner. / But we didn’t. / Not on my account. / Say what you mean. / All I mean is this taking sick was awful inconvenient. / You think I did this on purpose? / Sometimes, qin ai de, you can be right stubborn.

Quiet, quiet, Lucy presses potatoes into the pan with her palms. The oil scalds, but at least there’s no hissing, no noise. Two potatoes in a cloth for her and Ba, one on the table for Sam. She leaves a hopeful fourth on the stove for Ma.

Ba splits from Lucy at the mine, heading down the main shaft with the men. That leaves Lucy to face her tunnel alone.

Six days a week she looks East. The sky is still a bruise’s deep blue, yet she lingers as if she could call the sunrise. She crawls down once she convinces herself of what moles don’t need. Colors disappear, then sounds. The black is entire by time she reaches her door. Nothing else for a long time, until the first knock.

Miners emerge as Lucy drags the heavy door open. Walls reappear at the slice of their lanterns, the textures of rock and cloth and skin. When her grip fails, she wedges an arm into the gap. She fixes her eyes on a strip of yellow cloth and hardly feels the pain. It’s nothing compared to the pain of the miners leaving, sight snuffed out.

In the long idle periods she rubs her body against the shaft wall, or screams experimentally. Five enormous bites of potato at what she guesses for noon. The food tastes of earth, too.

“Not forever,” Ba promises at the end of the day that might as well be the beginning. It’s dark again. The usual sorrow passes over Lucy like the line of sunlight over the distant hills. Where other miners cluster in fours and fives—slapping backs, exchanging greetings and complaints—Ba and Lucy walk apart. He smooths her wiry hair. “Ting wo. I got a plan. You’ll have that school soon enough if you want it, nu er.”

She believes him. She does. But belief only makes the pain worse, just as, in the tunnel, the desired lanterns hurt her eyes.

The shack is another darkness till Ba touches match to lamp. Ma dozes, Sam runs wild somewhere in play. Lucy starts dinner while Ba changes behind a curtain. He’ll gobble his food and head across the creek to a second job cutting firewood for widows. They need the extra coin. Night after night. Day after day. The slow trickle of savings, emptied so quick by the needs of their stomachs.

Tonight, something different.

The fourth potato is gone from the stove. Fingermarks split the pan’s congealed grease. Joy floods Lucy, strong as sunlight: Ma must have eaten.

Yet Ma’s cheeks look hollow as ever, Ma’s fingers clean. The only whiff on her breath is old vomit.

“Did you see?” Lucy asks the moment Sam comes through the door. “Did she eat?”

Sam pushes through the house like a piece of caught daylight, skin bronzed in the glow of the lamp. Over the course of the day Sam’s lost braids, bonnet, a piece of fabric torn from her hem. Gained, instead, this smell of sun and grass.

“Potatoes again?” Sam asks, sniffing at the pot of dinner.

“Did you keep an eye on Ma, like I asked you?” Lucy swats Sam’s hand away. “It needs another ten minutes. Did you watch her? We talked about this. You didn’t have a single other thing to do today.”

“Quit nagging!”

Sam dodges Lucy and grabs for the pot lid, which slips away, clattering. Sam’s outstretched fingers are shiny and slick with grease.

“That potato wasn’t for you,” Lucy hisses. “It was Ma’s.”

“I got hungry,” Sam says, clear-eyed, not trying to deny it. “Ma wasn’t eating it anyhow.”

Sam’s no liar, no thief. Simply lives by a code of honor all her own, refusing to bend to other rules. Scoldings erode to laughter because Sam makes even stubbornness charming. On the worst days, Lucy wonders if this is the real reason Sam hasn’t been sent to the mines, a reason more enduring than young age: that Sam is too pretty to be harmed.

Lucy clutches the bruise on her arm. There are more on her shoulders and back if she consults the tin mirror. “I’m telling Ba on you.” But Ba will just pinch the baby fat on Sam’s cheeks. “I’ll tell him,” she adds with sudden inspiration, “and see if he thinks you’re grown enough to work.”


Lucy crosses her arms.

Through gritted teeth, Sam says, “I guess I’m sorry.”

Ma likens an apology from Sam to water from dry firewood. Lucy savors the triumph till her stomach grumbles. “I’m still telling.”

“Don’t! If you don’t…I’ll show you what Ma ate.”

Lucy hesitates.

“Tonight,” Sam adds, grinning. And then Sam is off, running crash into Ba as he emerges in clean clothes, axe and pistol hanging from his belt. Sam begs, as usual, to be taken along.

Some time later, Ma walks out the door with a dreamer’s shambling gait.

Lucy figures it for a visit to the outhouse, but Sam beckons her to follow. She leaves her book without marking the page. Anyhow she’s read each of the family’s three books so often the drawings are faded, the princess’s face a blur atop which she can imagine her own.

Way down the slope of valley, the prick of distant lights. Ma turns away from them. She heads to a plot of land at the very back of the shack, where all evidence of others is obscured. There she roots in the soil, bare-handed, as if hoping for vegetables in the garden Ba hasn’t yet planted. Deep, unladylike grunts—then she pulls something free.

Hidden, Lucy and Sam crouch too. The night is warm, Lucy’s back sweating. She can see the white stripe of Ma’s neck, the wings of shoulder blades through fabric. Nothing else. Then she hears the chewing. Ma half-turns, holding a long something—carrot? Yam? The thick cake of mud makes it hard to tell.

“What is it?” Lucy whispers.

“Mud,” Sam says.

It can’t be. Ma reproaches Sam for picking food off the floor, wipes each plate twice—once for dryness, once for shine. Yet dark grains stand out against Ma’s cheeks. Sam isn’t quite right, though. Ma licks till a flat edge shows through the thing in her hand, then a round joint, gleaming. She holds a piece of bone.

“No,” Lucy says, louder than she intends. The cry is masked by crunching.

Sam watches the rest, seemingly at home in the night, in the dirt with skirt hiked and one braid dragging. Lucy averts her eyes, not wanting to witness what else Ma might eat: earthworms, pebbles, ancient twigs, buried eggs and leaf mold, the scritch-scratch of beetle legs. A feast of the land’s dank secrets.

Used to be that Ma and Lucy kept one another’s secrets. Each day on the wagon trail Ba and Sam disappeared at dusk to hunt or scout; and each day Lucy and Ma were left alone among hills emptied of noise. Into that wide, wide quiet Lucy spilled her fear of the mule, how she’d nicked Ba’s knife, how she envied Sam. Ma drank Lucy’s words in, as her skin drank in the gilding late-afternoon light. Ma knew how to hold a secret in silence, sometimes murmuring, sometimes tipping her head, sometimes brushing Lucy’s hand lightly. Ma listened.

In turn, Ma told Lucy how she rubbed lard in her hands to keep them soft, how she had tricks for bargaining with the butcher’s boy, how she chose, very carefully, who she associated with. In these moments, Lucy knew that Ma loved her best. Sam might have Ma’s hair and Ma’s beauty, but Ma and Lucy were joined by words.

Yet tonight, Lucy intends betrayal. She stays up long after Sam snores. Close her eyes and in seeps, like moonlight, the shine of Ma’s teeth. The crunch of them. When the door creaks open below, Lucy leans out of the loft. Waves Ba up.

“Say that again,” Ba says when Lucy has told. He stands on the rungs, face level with hers and tobacco-warmed. “Man man de. What was she eating?”

Oddly, he grins when Lucy asks if they should open Ma’s trunk. The long wooden vessel yields fabric and dried plums, and most of all fragrant, bitter medicines that Ma brews into healing soups.

“Go to sleep,” Ba says, descending. “Your ma’s not sick. I’d wager good money on it.”

Lucy waits till he’s out of view, then puts her eye to a knothole. There Ma lies, directly below and puddled in shadow. The hollow at her throat looks bottomless as Ba approaches and wakes her.

The first thing from Ma’s mouth is a cuss.

Lucy has never heard Ma cuss—but she’s beginning to understand that night is a different territory. What slid down Ma’s mouth: how many years and centuries were swallowed with those bones? Enough, this night, to make it seem as if something else clambers out of Ma’s throat. Something enormous, ungentle. History, Lucy thinks suddenly, remembering a drunk who spat at their wagon two towns back. While Ba and Ma stared ahead, the drunk shouted about the land, and claims to it, and who belonged by law, and what should be buried. Lucy doesn’t remember the man’s precise words, but she recognizes in Ma’s spitting, rising voice the same fearsome creature. It must be history.

Ma asks the hour. She calls Ba a liar. She asks how many widows there can be. She accuses him of gambling again.

When she pauses for breath, Ba says, “You’ve been eating mud.”

Ma snatches her blanket higher, likely to hide the brown beneath her nails. The sound of dry cloth across dry hands like snakeskin being shed. “You have my own children spying on me? Ni zhe ge—”

“Don’t you see what it means?” Ba drops to his knees. Ma tilts back, surprised. Her teeth big against her gaunt cheeks. “Qin ai de.” Ba’s hands take up Ma’s clawed ones, stroke them gentle. “These cravings. This sickness. This strain between us. It must be a baby.”

Ma shakes her head. Her face moves from light to shadow, light to shadow. She looks scared. Though Ba’s voice is too quiet for Lucy to catch the words, she hears the old singsong of promises. Ma smiles partway through, and then her face changes once more. Goes hard. This hardness Lucy will remember years later. Trying to decide if it was resolve on Ma’s face, or courage, or coldness. Trying to call it to herself.

“I thought we couldn’t—” Ma says, though the argument has slunk from her voice. “And I wasn’t sick with the girls. I didn’t get this hunger.”

Ba laughs so loud that Sam wakes. Two bright slits in the dark—Sam’s eyes sting Lucy. Both of them hear Ba say, “It’s a boy. What else could be so greedy?”

In the morning, Ba takes to the hills with the tools of his old prospector’s trade, shut up two years back. Lovingly, now, he sharpens his pick and hefts his shovel, fans his little brushes out.

The pick pries bones from the hillside rocks; the shovel digs them out. Brushes shiver, biggest to smallest, along the dug-up lengths. Exposing the old white. Ba grinds the bones down and mixes them into water.

Lying back in bed, her too-thin hands shaking on the glass—Ma drinks. Her throat swells and falls. Hours of Ba’s work, centuries of life, disappearing into the baby.

History, Lucy thinks, and shivers.

From the Book: HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD by C PAM ZHANG. Copyright © 2020 by C PAM ZHANG. Published by arrangement with RIVERHEAD, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Set in California during the Gold Rush, C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (April 7), follows two orphaned siblings with an electric, jangly energy. Jen Gann, senior editor, spoke to C Pam Zhang by phone about facts, the people history overlooks, and editing. A condensed version of their conversation is below.

You’ve described your book as “a haunting.” I’m curious about the role of research in it?

Having gone to middle and high school in this part of California, I had some familiarity already with the concept of the Gold Rush. I knew about key historical events like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, but I felt like I had a foundation that was always more in the mythology of this place and felt I was able to write from that. And then later after, I had completed several drafts, I did go back and do more explicit research and feed some of those facts back into the book. But, when I was writing initially, I wanted to preserve the ability to see the facts and not be too close to them, if that makes sense.

One of those situations where no matter what the facts are or aren’t, the emotional haze of them seems to come through.

Totally, and I also think another key project of this book was putting the spotlight on parts of history that haven’t typically been put into the historical record because history has an agenda, history is political, and it has been largely focused on the exploits of white men. And I know there are so many stories that are lost in history of women and immigrants and people of color, indigenous people and so on, and so there’s a little bit of that in my thinking, too — the historical record will never tell me everything, and it’s our duty as artists to try to peer into the cracks.

Speaking of art, I know you as a really exacting editor in working with you on a short story for the Cut — and I mean that in the best of ways, which I feel like sounds like I don’t mean that at all, but I truly do.

I’m actually delighted to hear that. I love exacting editors myself, so it’s an honor to be called one.

Okay, good. So: Being so exacting, what was it like for you to edit a large project?

It absolutely felt endless! It really did. I think prior to this, I had written maybe like a dozen short stories — and not that I mastered the form, but I have some familiarity with how it goes — and novels are utterly different beasts. I think with a short story, it is quite possible to write a first draft of a short story where you never write an ugly sentence, which is not to say that it’s perfect, but you can get away without, you know, ugliness staring at you in the face. And with a novel, you have to sort of succumb to the fact that you will write many ugly sentences, many ugly chapters, many things that you’re just going to throw away. And that’s an important part of the process.

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The Land’s Dank Secrets