Peter Matthiessen, who wrote some of his best fiction about a forgotten stretch of coastline when Florida was still a frontier, died last month. He was 86. In honor of him, we offer the first paragraphs of the prologue of Shadow Country (Modern Library), his 2008 consolidation of his trilogy of novels about the 1910 murder of Edward Watson. Shadow Country won the National Book Award. It was a pleasure to retype these words.
Sea birds are aloft again, a tattered few. The white terns look dirtied in the somber light and they fly stiffly, feeling out an element they no longer trust. Unable to locate the storm-lost minnows, they wander the thick waters with sad muted cries, hunting seamarks that might return them to the order of the world.
In the wake of the hurricane, the coast lies broken, stunned. Day after day, a brooding wind nags at the mangroves, hurrying the unruly tides that hunt through the flooded islands and dark labyrinthine creeks of the Ten Thousand Islands. Brown spume and matted salt grass, driftwood: a far gray sun picks up dead glints from the windrows of rotted mullet at highwater line.
From the small settlement on the Indian shell mound called Chokoloskee, a baleful sky out toward the Gulf looks ragged as a ghost, unsettled, wandering. The sky is low, withholding rain. Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken trees. At the channel edge, where docks and pilings, stove-in boats, uprooted shacks litter the shore, odd pieces torn away from their old places hang askew, strained from the flood by mangrove limbs twisted down into the tide. Thatched roofs are spun onto their poles like old straw brooms; sheds and cabins sag. In the dank air, a sharp fish stink is infused with the corruption of dead animals and overflowed pits from which privy shacks have washed away. Pots, kettles, crockery, a butter churn, tin tubs, buckets, blackened vegetables, salt-slimed boots, soaked horsehair mattresses, a ravished doll are strewn across bare salt-killed ground.
A lone gull picks at the reddened mullet cast on shore, a dog barks without heart at so much silence. A figure in mud-fringed calico stoops to retrieve a Bible. Wiping grime from its caked cover with dulled fingers, she straightens, turns and stares toward the south. The fingers pause. From the black mangrove forest down the Bay, a boat motor, softened by distance, comes and goes and comes again, bound east through Rabbit Key Pass from the Gulf of Mexico.
"Oh Lord no, she whispers half-aloud. "Oh please no, Mister Watson."