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Excerpt: 'A Blessing Over Ashes'


By Adam Fifield
William Morrow
336 pages

In vivid prose, Adam Fifield recaptures the snowy night when he, at the age of eleven, along with his mother, father, and younger brother, waited to welcome 15-year-old Soeuth into the family. The boy shuffled in, short and scrawny, a baseball cap shading his downcast eyes. He spoke not a word, yet a silent terror hovered around him.

The author describes the events of the months that followed: Soeuth's wariness and detachment; his fear of being seized in the night by his parents' ghosts; Adam's discovery of his new brother's amazing physical skills, like catching fish with his bare hands; and Soeuth's eventual and painful emergence from years of darkness. As Soeuth gradually adjusts to rural middle-class America, a world fantastically foreign from the horrors of his homeland, a bond is formed with his new brothers that would permanently affect them all.

Two brothers find a 'blessing' in crossing cultural divide


Chapter One

My new brother, Soeuth Saut, arrived on a snow-blurred night, a fe w weeks after the Christmas of 1984. We waited for him in our front room with soda, potato chips and a bright red-and-yellow banner, reading "WELCOME SOOTHE!" which my little brother, Dave, and I had drawn with magic markers. Mom had set our family photo album out on the coffee table, next to the soda and chips. Dave and I sat at opposite ends of the couch, Mom and Dad in chairs. No one said anything. Outside, the wind funneled steadily at the side of our house, and I could feel, on the back of my neck, cold spurts of breeze from gaps between the windowpanes Dad hadn't caulked up yet. Dad seemed to be thinking of other things; his hands were folded in his lap, his eyes aimed sideways at the door, his Adam's apple sharp and still. Dave examined his distorted reflection in a Christmas-tree ornament ball, while Frisbee, our dog, twitched in her sleep at Dave's feet. Mom let out sturdy, expectant sighs, hoping someone else would be the first to puncture the silence.

Mom had informed us, while pouring the chips into her wooden salad bowl, that our new brother had taken his father's first name as his last name because he didn't remember what his real last name was. When we had asked if he would take our last name, she had said that would be up to him. She had also assured us that he wouldn't be coming to us straight from the other side of the world. He had been living for a little while with another family here in town, who were strict Germans from whom he had run away. I hadn't asked Mom how she knew he wouldn't run away from us.

When tires finally crunched over the gravel in our driveway, Frisbee barked herself awake, Dave lifted his gaze lingeringly from the Christmas-tree ornament and I cracked my knuckles. Mom smiled at each of us individually, swiveling her head around the room.

A car door clicked quietly, carefully shut, and then another one was shut with equal care. Footsteps thudded slowly up the garage stairway outside. With almost choreographed precision, Dad stood up suddenly, plunged both hands deep into his change-heavy pockets and drew a long breath. Before he could exhale, there were three small, quick knocks at the door.

Dad opened the door and then unlatched the screen door and smiled his doctor smile out the doorway. "Come in," he said. He took a few steps back and jingled the change in his pockets. As if lured, somehow, by the jingling of the change, a small figure shuffled in, followed by a tall, dark-haired man. The man was smiling under his mustache, or trying to; our new brother was not. The boy was short and scrawny, with shiny, copper-colored skin. We could see only the bottom half of his face -- the hyphen of a little mouth, the slope of a nose -- because the shadow of a baseball-cap visor eclipsed his eyes and forehead. His big blue parka swallowed him and made his legs look like a bird's. His arms clutched his sides so that he seemed straitjacketed against us. Though his eyes were hidden his gaze was trained in the direction of the radiator, whose wheezing was the only sound in the room.

The man, whom we would come to know as Mr. Silverstein, held onto the straps of a rumpled duffel bag that dangled at his knees and contained all of this boy's possessions. After a moment, Mr. Silverstein gently set down the duffel bag, placed his hands on the boy's shoulders and said, "Well, here he is."

We all said, "Hi."

Dad rocked on his heels and raised his eyebrows, and Mom said, "We're very happy to have you in our home."

The boy said nothing.

After a few seconds swelled into an awkward silence, Mom stumbled over and hugged him. He hugged back weakly, hands hanging limp from reluctant arms. When she stepped away from him, he stood shivering, as if Mom were ice-cold to the touch. I could see his eyes now, which stared intently at the floor. I supposed he could peer right through it, burrowing through the wood, the pipes, the concrete, the rich layers of Champlain Valley loam and all that lay beneath them, until he was able to see clear to the other side of the world.

When he finally looked up, hard eyes fixed me from beneath the visor of his baseball cap. Eyes that tell you someone is bigger and older than the body he is trapped in. But then his eyes darted to the floor again. He stole a few more glances at Dave and me, but never once looked at Mom and Dad, even when they spoke to him.

The red-and-yellow welcome banner hung uselessly on the wall. He didn't look very welcome. He didn't cast one peek toward our family photo album. He didn't eat any chips.

We ushered him through the house, showed him his room, and when we came back downstairs, Mom pointed out some board games, probably Monopoly and Scrabble, that we had set out on the dining room table. His eyes scanned the games and then flew up to Mr. Silverstein for an explanation, and Mr. Silverstein smiled and squeezed his shoulder. It was only later I would understand that Mr. Silverstein, a lanky Jewish man with a ponytail, was one of the few adults in the world who hadn't betrayed or abandoned him in some way. At that moment he was this boy's only connection to the world ...

c2000 by Adam Fifield. All rights reserved.

William Morrow (HarperCollins)

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