By Silas House
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A timely, powerful story of survival set in the not-too-distant future that Margaret Renkl (Late Migrations) calls “a beautiful book…shot through with such tenderness and humanity, such love and courage and beauty and hope, that it feels almost like a prayer.”
With fires devastating much of America, Lark and his family first leave their home in Maryland for Maine. But as the country increasingly falls under the grip of religious nationalism, it becomes clear that nowhere is safe, not just from physical disasters but also persecution. The family secures a place on a crowded boat headed to Ireland, the last place on earth rumored to be accepting American refugees.
Upon arrival, it turns out that the safe harbor of Ireland no longer exists either—and Lark, the sole survivor of the trans-Atlantic voyage, must disappear into the countryside. As he runs for his life, Lark finds two equally lost and desperate souls: one of the last remaining dogs, who becomes his closest companion, and a fierce, mysterious woman in search of her lost son. Together they form a makeshift family and attempt to reach Glendalough, a place they believe will offer protection. But can any community provide the safety that they seek?
Lark Ascending is a moving and unforgettable story of friendship and bravery, and even more, a story of the ongoing fight to protect our personal freedoms and find our shared humanity, from a writer at the peak of his powers.
In a dark time
the eye begins to see.
They have all asked me to write down the whole particulars about how I came to be here, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back. So now, in my old age, I need to begin with our journey, when my parents and I crossed the wide Atlantic in the hopes of sanctuary on the green island of Ireland. Eventually I will need to go further back to make everything clear, but this is the real beginning, because it is when I knew I had to take control of the journey and when I had to make the decision if I would live or die.
What I recall best is the noise.
The thrashing of heavy sprays, the thundering of the sails, the shrill cries of the crew. The suffering of the seasick. I was ill the entire first week of the crossing. Most everyone was, all of us hanging off the sides of the boat, moaning and retching. Worst of all, though, was that for days there was only the dry heaving, so bad my stomach must have bruised from the violence of it all. Even after the worst passed, I lay between sleep and waking, my eyes wide open in the darkness, the sickness gone but replaced by my head swimming and my body giddying, which was almost worse to bear. Just the thought of those days makes my stomach churn again.
I’ve never known such misery, despite what I’ve been through since. I have had many adventures in my life but there is no matching that anguished time. There’s pain and suffering, and then there is misery, which is what we lived while we crossed the ocean. And of course, none of us was as bad off as my father, although I wouldn’t realize that for many days into the voyage.
My mother worked with the crew the entire time. There was always something to do with the sails, and although she had never been on a sailboat, she got the hang of it better than the rest of the ragtag crew. Everyone on that six-person crew barely slept. If they got sick, they worked through it. Most of them had wormed their way onto the boat promising to work in trade for the passage over. The Covenant had once been a grand yacht meant to carry about ten wealthy passengers. The boat was most likely stolen from some unwatched dock in the wake of the war. Now it was scraped and worn but still sturdy, with two large sails latched to thick masts.
“Pay attention!” the captain yelled at least once a day when she felt the crew was not adjusting the sails quickly enough. She was a giant of a woman who was always angry and anxious. She had no teeth, which made her face seem thinner and meaner. Then, quietly but with even more frustration, to herself: “That is the most important thing.” After which she would close her eyes and make her lips move in prayer. To what force I don’t know. The ocean, most likely, as it controlled her entire world.
I watched the captain all the time because I watched everyone. That was the only way I remained sane, but it is also just how I have always been. My father used to say I noticed things that others did not and for that reason I might be an artist someday. But that was before everything happened, before we were just trying to keep ourselves alive hour by hour.
That first week my father did little more than care for me, although he was in far worse shape than I was and besides, I was twenty years old and I had seen most of the people I cherished die in front of me. So I was grown in every way a person can be. But there I was, accordioned across my father’s arms, helpless, as our boat rose and fell across the dark blue sea. There was not much he could do, anyway, nothing more than lie there beside me. I didn’t realize it at the time but the injuries to his leg were already working on his mind, as well. This truth would present itself soon enough.
Sometimes I heard the others on the boat making fun of me—someone that useless ought to throw himself overboard—but I wasn’t just seasick; I was undone in sorrow. Only days before, we had been a family of six, and now we were only three. Every time I retched over the side of the boat, I felt like I was vomiting up some of that grief. But nothing can get that out of you, no matter how hard you try. I did find that something as simple as my father rubbing my back in a perfect circle during the worst bouts at least calmed me a little. Sometimes I lay against him as if I were a child again and he cooed against my ear and that helped, too. Everyone else on that boat was going through the same thing in one way or another. Grief had ravaged us all. We were the survivors, and we all had lived through nightmare days. I thought I was at my lowest place, but I didn’t know that things would soon get worse.
By the end of that first week, I stood and got back to work. We had witnessed most of the country burning and what followed: the food shortages, the war, the migrations. We had lived just fine on our own for seven years up in the mountains, surviving seven brutal winters in those Maine woods. We had buried people we loved, with our own hands. We had walked all the way to Nova Scotia, risking everything so we could catch this boat. We were survivors. And we were going to make it across this ocean.
The rain pummeled us for four straight days and caused the crew—mostly my mother—to never stop pulling at ropes and adjusting sails. During those days she must not have slept more than a couple of hours a night, when I relieved her. This only happened when the winds died down enough for me to handle the lines. And a couple times there was even a calm spell when we drifted along and I could close my eyes, imagining myself back home in Maine, on the mountain, the only place I had ever been safe in my whole life. In those interludes there was nothing but the sound of the water slapping against the boat. Everyone was either asleep or silent in their misery and there would be a kind of peace for a time. I’d open my eyes and look out at the aching blue of the ocean—a color I had never seen in nature and that most likely only exists in the middle of the Atlantic, a gray blue like a storm cloud full of unspent lightning and unfallen rain. There was some comfort in knowing that, although the world was being torn in two, there were still remarkable things that went on being, that refused to lose their shine. Some days it was only the wonder that kept us going.
But then, one morning the sun stained the far horizon a rich pink that made everyone feel better. One of the old women said the sky was the color of grapefruit meat, but I was too young to have ever seen such a thing, and this meant little more than to remind me that there had been a whole world before that one generation could recall vividly while another could not conjure it at all. For an entire week after that pink-like-no-other-pink, we had smooth sailing weather.
We had not known how small the refugee boat was when we gave nearly everything we had to board it, but we would have had no choice either way. Since the captain liked to recite these facts on occasion, I learned that the Covenant had been intended for the calmer coastal waters around America and now she would have to cross the wide Atlantic. She was forty-three meters in length—about 140 feet. There were forty-four of us in the beginning. There was not one moment for twenty-seven days that I wasn’t up against at least three people at once. There was so little space that we had no choice but to lie upon one another. By the seventh day four people had jumped overboard, driven mad by the lack of room. I tried to not think about what happened to them. Which would be worse—to drown and drift down to the darkest depths of the ocean or to be eaten by sharks and shat out into the sea?
The first death aboard was a man who died of a heart attack, and we all gathered to pay our respects and lift his body over the edge of the boat to drop it into the sea. He had been one of the men who had helped me get my father aboard on that first day, his gray eyes steady on mine as I made that step from certain death to the thrill of hope. Miriam, who was brave enough to reveal that she was a priest and had managed to hide from the Slaughters, said the rites, which she still knew by heart. The dead man was large, and I was surprised by what a small sound he made, being swallowed by the water.
For a while, there was a baby who cried throughout each night. Every time the crying stopped—just as dawn began to light the wide ocean—I was sure the baby boy had died of whatever ailment caused him to wail, but within minutes shrieks began again. The wailing was the loudest when darkness crept in with its purpling and then graying ways. I never saw the infant. Not once. The baby and his mother were on the other end of the boat, and in the daytime, she kept the sleeping tyrant tucked beneath her blouse to keep the sun from roasting his skin. The baby died on the ninth day, and when we bowed our heads to acknowledge his passing and dropped his small bundle into the ocean, his sound was no smaller than the large man’s had been. I couldn’t help feeling thankful—I was glad for an end to the baby’s endless protests, I’ll admit, but mostly because we all knew there was nothing but misery awaiting him anyway. And despite our sadness, the silence his absence provided was a wonder. I had expected the infant’s mother to take up wailing where her child had left off, but until the day she died, she sat looking out on the ocean as if shaping her own face into a tombstone.
From the beginning my mother argued with the captain, especially after my father folded himself up, overtaken by the pain he could no longer bear. He was the strongest man I had ever known, but lying there for days with a dying leg had taken everything from him.
“He’s supposed to be a doctor!” the captain yelled at my mother. “All he does is sit and stare off into space.”
“If you knew how to control your boat, he wouldn’t have been caught between it and the raft motor,” my mother said, her voice as calm as if she were introducing herself. She was taking a gamble that the captain would not actually check in on my father, because he had not been harmed by any fault of the boat as my mother was claiming. The truth was, a knife had been plunged into his leg a week before we boarded, and blood poisoning was slithering its way through his body. “Do you expect him to tend to the sick on a crushed leg?”
So she and I had to work twice as hard to make up for my father’s inability. And she had to give a portion of the seeds to the captain or be thrown overboard. Before the deal was struck, there had been much shouting about this and the captain had two of the crew grab my mother by the arms, hustling her toward the side of the boat.
I rushed forward, ready to fight them all in an attempt to save her. By this point the pain and sepsis had taken my father to somewhere in his mind where he didn’t even have the ability to flinch at the possibility of his wife being murdered.
Another two of the crew members held me back as I screamed and kicked at air. We all reeked at that point but one of them stank so badly—a slick scent of unwashed genitals and dirty hair—that I gagged at the smell of him, even in my rage.
There was a whole group of people—led by Miriam—who locked arms and stood in front of the captain. “We won’t sit by while you commit murder,” Miriam said, her eyes hard and blue gray as the sea. “We won’t allow it. She and her son are doing all they can.”
The captain looked to Miriam as if she might reply, but then her gaze went out over the ocean. She stood thinking for a time, her square fists planted on her tremendous hips, while I struggled against the men. My mother made no movement there on the edge of the boat and it seemed that she was preparing herself to die. Just when I thought they might actually shove her into the ocean, there was a deal made about the seeds.
At last, the captain spat a gelatinous wad into the sea and nodded her chin to the men holding my mother. “Let her go,” she said. “For now.”
And from then on everyone on the boat knew my mother was a seed-saver, so we had to watch ourselves even more than before. We had always slept in shifts but now when it was my turn to keep watch, I never took my hand off the knife that hung in a leather pouch around my neck. Now my eyes scanned back and forth over the rocking boat, always expecting someone to rob us.
Sometimes as the gloaming crept toward us over the ocean, the little children gathered around Miriam while she sang very old songs from the Before:
You belong among the wildflowers
I can’t live, with or without you
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you
Her voice was deep and rich and no matter what she sang, everything sounded mournful and full of longing. Every song made me think of Arlo. Made me think of the three graves we had left behind us that day in those woods.
On the eleventh day my father’s panics started.
He was unable to catch his breath. At first he calmed down if I did just what he had done for me during my lowest point: whisper Shhh, shhh into his ear and rub his back in a perfect circle.
But the attacks grew worse. On the thirteenth day, he clawed at his chest and his eyes rolled back in his head.
“Daddy,” I whispered, something I had not called him in years. Our plan all along was to draw as little attention to ourselves as we could and now the entire boat not only knew we were seed-savers but also that my father was screaming and thrashing. We had everyone’s attention. On the other side of the boat my mother kept steady, tightening the sails while the other crew members slurped down their daily ration of canned beans. “Calm down, it’s okay.”
He rubbed at his heart with the tips of his fingers.
“Look, the water is nice, the sky’s clear,” I pleaded. “Just hold on and we’ll be okay. We’re fine.”
But I knew that we were not. I knew that we had never been worse.
Mostly he looked at me with tears brimming in his eyes, staring at me as if he was trying to tell me something but could not put it into words.
His whole body trembled, shaking uncontrollably. His lips, his hands, his head, his poisoned leg. Seeing him with no control over his own body hurt me worse than any of it.
“My heart,” he stammered, quietly at first, but then, with each word building into a frantic scream: “My heart’s. Beating. Out of. MY! CHEST!”
That brought my mother to us. She took his face in her hands and kissed him with her cracked, wind-burned lips on the forehead, on each eye, on the mouth. “Stay with us, my darling,” she said. She was not the kind of person who revealed herself but in this moment her voice was full of pain. “Come on, now, my darling. Please.”
She turned and dug frantically in the one pack we had, which contained everything we owned, the duffel bag we protected at all costs. Her hands shook. We were nearing the end. I can barely stand to remember the way she looked at him, beseeching him to come back to her. She wedged open his crusted lips and shook a spoonful of turmeric onto his teeth, then forced his mouth shut. “It’s all I have left for the pain,” she whispered to me, but kept her eyes on his face.
There was a quiet woman whose name I never knew, with a quiet child called Charlotte. They always kept near us, as if they had some sense that we were safer people than others on the boat. They both slept on the other side of my mother. On that day the woman approached my father and held his hand as if they had known each other a long time. “Never mind,” she repeated several times, in low coos. Eventually the repetition of this strange phrase calmed him into a steady breathing. For a time.
On the fifteenth day he became delusional.
“Take the knife and cut them off,” he said, over and over until I could not bear to hear it. His arm shot out and took hold of the knife I kept around my neck, pulling it so hard that I was propelled forward, but wrestling it away from him wasn’t difficult. “The devil has ahold of my legs and won’t let go. Take the knife and—” I capped my hands over my ears and hummed—This one goes out to the one I love—to block out his cries. I had never heard him speak of anything such as the devil before. I had surely never heard him cry out like this. Then I lost my patience and pressed my hand over his mouth so he would stop. I’m haunted by how it must have hurt when I pushed his blistered lips against his teeth. But perhaps this was a brief distraction from the poison coursing through his veins. Still, I have so many regrets such as this. That is the thing people rarely mention to you about grief: all of the regrets.
Sometimes he whispered this same thing over and over—cut them off, cut them—even when he slept, or had some semblance of sleep.
Even though the nights were icy, he broke out in full body sweats that caused our clothes to be drenched as we held on to him. He thought he was choking to death and clawed at his throat until his fingernails left bloody lines up and down his neck.
“Daddy,” I whispered over and over again. This was the only word of comfort I had for him, but looking back I realize that this word offered comfort to me more than anyone.
And then, on the twentieth day, I had been in the deepest sleep I could ever recall. A sleep like being under the ocean, like being back in my mother’s womb. A sleep like death must feel. But even in this profound rest I was aware of something not quite right, and coming awake felt like swimming up from far down in the water, my eyes latched onto a dim light just above the surface. I pulled my arms through the water, heavy as thick mud. As I struggled to full wakefulness, I felt that quick rush of concern one feels just before they’ve broken through the waves to draw in a deep breath.
Then I heard the same small sound the large man had made when they gave his body to the Atlantic. The same small sound the baby had made when it was dropped into the sea. Only this time I knew that the sound was the last utterance of my father. He was no longer beside me, and he had not left that spot since we had climbed onto this boat and dragged him over the side, despite the protests of so many who said we should have left him behind. He’d be of no use now with the damaged leg, they’d said. That’s just the way it is, one of them said. And so my mother had struck the deal with the captain. But now he had given himself to the sea.
I felt I had become paralyzed in my sleep. I could hear and see but that was all. I knew my father was dead. He had sacrificed himself for us, to rid us of his burden. I knew he had pulled himself and his lifeless legs overboard in the night, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was unable to dive in after him.
I saw him as he had once been: swinging the red-bladed axe over his head to cut wood for our cabin, cupping his hands into the icy water of the creek and drawing a drink up to his mouth, strolling out of the woods with a rabbit hanging from his belt. I saw him throw back his head to laugh, saw him take hold of my mother’s hand as they walked down the path in front of me, saw him reciting a poem as we sat around the fire together at night. There he was, leaning down to kiss Arlo’s forehead just before we buried him. There he was, running through the creek and screaming for me to run, too.
Only rarely in the night was my mother with us because she crewed all day, and often all night, too. But that night she had fallen, exhausted, between me and the child, Charlotte, who had curved in around her for warmth. In my slow-motion state, I turned my head and there she was, sound asleep. My father had been in that small space between us and now he was gone forever.
The starlight was plentiful. I could see my mother and all of the other people even though it was the very middle of the night. The ocean sounded different at this hour. Even the sails possessed a different timbre. The click of the stays, the flomp flomp of loose ropes. Everyone was asleep except for the crew, who were silent. All of the bodies around me were lit by a wash of silver from the stars. I struggled to move but I knew there was no use. I knew that he was gone, plunging toward the bottom of the ocean like a slender knife. I imagined him, arms out, toes pointed, free at last. I latched my eyes onto the sky, thinking of a song he had sung to me when I was little.
When the stars go blue.
Then I was able to move. I brought my hand up as if lifting a boulder and managed to nudge my mother’s shoulder. Her eyes opened right away, calmly. As if she had been waiting for me, as if she already knew.
For days I watched the dark blue water as if my father might emerge from the waves and put his hand out to be pulled back in, his legs healed by the saltwater. My sickness returned, but this time I didn’t think it was the constant rise and fall of the ocean so much as my hopelessness that caused me to throw up until the dry heaves racked my body.
The captain grabbed hold of my shoulders. “Get to work or follow your father,” she said, her wide face near mine. Up close like that I could see a constellation of freckles across her nose that made her face less hard. I didn’t hate her. I didn’t feel anything. I took my shift running the ropes and found that being up and about helped to settle my stomach. Many hours later the captain appeared behind me. “You did good,” she whispered, as if afraid someone else might witness her small kindness. “Go on and try to rest now.”
Many days passed before my mother spoke to me. “Lark, we have to keep going,” she said. In a way this made no sense because I was going. I had been working the ropes for the last ten hours on my own. The work was more comforting than stillness. But in another way she knew that I was giving up.
I saw that she had changed completely in the last couple of days. New lines striped her forehead. Her eyes were sunken, her high cheekbones more prominent. I knew she had been starving herself so my father and I would have more to eat. For a week now we’d had nothing more each day than one can of beans to split between the three of us. At some point in the hours after his death I’d had the sick thought that at least we’d have a little more food now. I couldn’t stand that I had allowed that to slither through my mind. I pictured it, shimmering like an electric eel. Something black-eyed and ruthless. Something made completely of hunger. I am an old man now, propped here on what I believe will be my deathbed, and I still bear the guilt for this thought. My mother’s lips were so chapped they were bleeding in small places. They were moving. She was talking, but all I heard was the wind. The never-ending eternal ceaseless sound of the ocean. That was the sound of eternity: the wind.
“Don’t give up, Lark,” she was saying, when I managed to hear her again. I thought to myself that I ought to memorize her. Burn her into my mind’s eye. Her ears had been crisply sunburned even though most days there had been only low gray skies. Her hair was wild and matted. “We can’t. Do you hear me?”
I nodded. Don’t give up, I wanted to reassure her, but I was unable to even whisper these three words. I said them only in my mind. Don’t give up. A perfect short prayer.
My mother pointed into the air now. “Look at that,” she said. Above us greenish-blue clouds were roiling together with such ferocity that I thought we might be able to hear them groaning if not for the noise of the wind. She had told me once that green clouds meant that land was nearby. “We’ll still have to get around to the eastern side of Ireland, but we’re so close, Lark. If we can just make it through this storm, by tomorrow we’ll see land.”
The thought of solid ground felt impossible now, but the mention of the word land caused hope to bloom in my chest like the moment when dry leaves take the flame and spring into fire. I nodded again, this time with more emphasis, and something stirred in me that made me feel less dead.
“But the storm’s going to wreak havoc. You have to watch the lines like you never have before.”
“I’m not good at it,” I said.
“Just do what the captain tells you and you’ll do fine.”
Nighttime hunkered over us and still the storm did not come. Yet we could feel it building above us, boiling and churning. Around us.
Far away over the ocean we could see lightning moving toward us until finally the white foam at the tops of the growing waves was illuminated. But still the rain did not come.
The waves grew larger and larger until finally one giant rolling toward us was revealed by a long stretch of lightning. A deafening peal of thunder chased along at the heels of the flash.
Kentucky Poet Laureate
Southern Literary Award Winner
Nautilus Award Winner – Gold
Salon Favorite Book of 2022
Booklist Editors' Choice of 2022
Garden and Gun Best Southern Book of 2022
Indie Next List Pick
Los Angeles Times' Most Anticipated Fall 2022
Lambda Literary's Most Anticipated Fall 2022
“In Lark Ascending, Silas House casts an irresistible spell, conjuring a near future that is both familiar and unbearable, illuminating the brutality and suffering that our own thoughtless age seems determined to invoke. But Lark Ascending is not merely, or even mainly, a tale of pain and grief. This beautiful book is shot through with such tenderness and humanity, such love and courage and beauty and hope, that it feels almost like a prayer.”—Margaret Renkl, author of Late Migrations and Graceland, At Last
“Silas House has always served as an ancestor from the past who has stepped into the present with rich lessons in tow. But with Lark House reveals himself to be an oracle from the future who has come back to illuminate our lived moment with a snapshot of what the years ahead could hold. The vision is terrifying and spare, but in House’s capable and delicate telling, it is also beautiful and compelling. Lark marks a stunning turn in House’s career, taking him from the Appalachian Mountains to a post-apocalyptic Atlantic crossing, but I have no doubt that readers will follow Silas House wherever he goes, whether into the past or headlong into the future.”—Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of When Ghosts Come Home
- “Truly harrowing, yet even more deeply affecting and tender. . . This is very much a book about connection, family, and, above all else, hope. It is this deep hopefulness that allows House’s novel to transcend the constraints of some other dystopian novels. . . Lark Ascending is full of rich colors and sounds and images, brimming with the majesty of life.”—Chapter16.org
“Amazing… powerful, and prescient.”
- “Lark Ascending’s beautiful language and imagery, combined with the emotional heft of the story, drew me in from the first paragraph.”—Literary Hub
- “A postapocalyptic epic that is quiet and lyrical…an emotional testament to the power of hope.”—Booklist (starred review)
- “The narrator of House’s seventh novel is a young gay man who’s escaped a near-future America knocked sideways by climate change and right-wing militias. His destination is Ireland, working off little more than a rumor that an Edenic safe haven isn’t far over the horizon. House works with some familiar dystopian tropes, but the book is distinguished by his lyrical, earthy tone.”—Los Angeles Times (Most Anticipated Fall Book)
- “A fiercely visceral reading experience.”—Publishers Weekly
- “A cleareyed and engaging apocalyptic yarn.”—Kirkus Reviews
- “The not-too-distant dystopia of House’s latest becomes a vehicle for the author to tell a compelling story about a refugee crisis. Because House takes the story out of a contemporary context, readers can more easily empathize with the novel’s refugees rather than focusing on real-world quandaries.”—Library Journal
- “Silas House’s “Lark Ascending” is a dystopian classic, finding new notes of peril and possibility in the once-and-future homeland of Ireland and giving us the kind of richly observed alternative family that humanity of any era would call savior. It also has the best dog ever, excepting my own. Don’t miss this one.”—Louis Bayard, author of Jackie and Me
- “I was sucked into this urgent story where survival in the not-too-distant future depends on forging connections with strangers and nurturing tenderness and hope within. An essential, heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting read.”—Michelle Gallen, author of Factory Girls
- “Just astonishing . . .terrifying, moving, beautiful, instructive, and haunting. I have never been more deeply moved by a novel.”—Lee Smith, author of Dimestore
- “With Lark Ascending, the gifted Silas House has, with the most deft and masterful touches, forged a quite terrifying and all-too-plausible glimpse of our near future and somehow imbued it with almost impossible quantities of poetry and humanity. A gripping story of endurance, suffering and loss, but also of overwhelming love, loyalty and hope, the result is a hugely impressive feat of the imagination . . . A beautiful, haunting piece of work, and a compulsive read.” —Billy O'Callaghan, author of Life Sentences and The Dead House
- “The greatest Southern novel of the year.”—Georgia Public Broadcast / Salvation South
- "A poignant tale... Lark Ascending is full of such magic."—Southern Literary Review
- "Exciting, hopeful, and beautiful."—Alabama Public Radio / Don Noble's Book Reviews
- "This is a story of the dangers of both flight and immigration, survival enabled by chosen families, and the grace of humanity amid chaos. I had to read some sentences several times over to fully appreciate the beauty of the writing."—Kathleen Lance, Denver Reader, Denver Post
- “Silas House’s apocalyptic parable strikes the heart powerfully because of the eerie parallels to now… Lushly written”—Bowling Green Daily News
- On Sale
- Aug 22, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Algonquin Books