‘A Children’s Bible’: Featured Fiction from Lydia Millet

May 12, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we’re excited to present an excerpt from A Children’s Bible by Pulitzer Prize finalist Lydia Millet, out today from Norton.

Kirkus called the novel—about a group of friends and their reunion gone wrong at a summer house—”A bleak and righteously angry tale determined to challenge our rationalizations about climate change.” And The New York Times Book Review hailed the title, saying, “This superb novel begins as a generational comedy…and turns steadily darker, as climate collapse and societal breakdown encroach. But Millet’s light touch never falters; in this time of great upheaval, she implies, our foundational myths take on new meaning and hope.”

Days passed slowly. It was a season of no storms and little rain. By the calendar it wasn’t fall yet, but somehow it wasn’t summer anymore either. Summer had been another time, when we had a great house to go back to, a shining lake, and the blue ocean.

In the mornings we took care of the donkeys and goats and helped Mattie in the vegetable garden. We made lunch in rotation. As afternoon wore on, we washed dirty clothes in the cottage sink and hung them out to dry. We scrubbed ourselves down with cold water, shared toothbrushes until they fell apart, and used small dabs of toothpaste. Those of us with periods had to cut a single sponge into pieces. We boiled the pieces on the stove to sterilize them.

The angels refueled the generator with gas from the silo. They liked to patrol the woods. We took turns cooking dinner with Darla and the angel named John, who’d been a sous-​chef once. After dinner Sukey would take the baby to her mother’s grave and give her a bottle and rock her to sleep. She was building a cairn at the grave with rocks from the stream, a couple more every day.

We mostly kept the lights off in the cottage, to save power and maintain a low profile. A few nights Rafe made fires outside, but we rationed them for safety. We’d gather close around the fire while the angels tried to teach us their hippie songs.

Darla said singing was good for your health.

“It’s like smiling,” she said. “The more you do it, the more you want to!”

Juicy spat.

They taught us a famous, sad song that went “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again,” and a cheerful one called “Spirit in the Sky” that Jack liked because it talked about Jesus, his imaginary friend. The rest of us were OK with it because the angels said it was ironic. Written by a Jew from Massachusetts.

“Never been a sinner, I never sinned,” we sang, off-​key as the karaoke version played on our puck-​shaped speaker. “I got a friend in Jee-​sus.”

Sometimes we yelled it, almost defiantly: “Never been a sinner! I never sinned!”

A photo came by text, onto Rafe’s phone from David’s. A view of the library in the great house. Chairs and tables and sofas had been pushed to the sides of the room, against the tall bookshelves, and a row of mattresses had replaced them.

On the mattresses lay parents, and beside them David and Dee and Low. Zooming in, we could see thin red lines running between the arms of young and old. Graceful loops of tubing.

It reminded me of a news story I’d read, with photos, about a pharma­ceutical lab. In it were hundreds of horseshoe crabs whose blood was being harvested for medical testing. The machines siphoned off enough blood that the crabs didn’t die but lived to be harvested again and again.

The company called it blood farming.

Beside me, Jack stared at the image as I zoomed. In the back, small and blurry, was the fireplace, and above it a painting of hunters with their hounds.

He touched the tip of his finger to the screen, moved it along a red loop of tube from David to David’s mother. Tracing the swoops.

“He’s going back where he came from,” he said.

Jack and Shel were at a crucial moment in their “childhood journey,” according to Darla. The time away from school and other kids their age could be “inhibiting their social and educational development.”

She had an idea. “Our very own prairie school!” she cried, clapping her hands in delight. We cringed.

They could take classes: biology taught by Mattie, history taught by John, and poetry taught by her.

“The angels don’t have enough to do,” said Terry, when we conferred about it. “Could get antsy. Even destructive.”

“Idle hands do the devil’s work,” said Rafe.

So we said yes. They could “teach” the little boys, if they wanted. We thanked them for their interest.

Sometimes I’d sit in a parked car, motionless. I’d remember factories. I’d seen them onscreen in a hundred variations and always had the sense of them out there, churning, whirring, infinite moving pieces. Making the stuff we used.

Now I wondered if they were still busy, manufacturing. Or were shuttered and dark. Were other factories in other places doing the work they used to do? Or were certain components no longer made at all?

I let my eyes rest on a dashboard, its vinyl surfaces, the dust on the curves. I wondered what was behind the plastic and what parts of it were already obsolete.

My phone had ceased to interest me since the news started repeating, bringing a wash of grimness whenever I looked. I solved the problem by ignoring it.

The others abandoned theirs too—​days would pass between updates. Rafe and David texted a check-​in at night, just: OK? out. And OK back.

For a while that was it.

Before the storm we’d caught sight of the parents’ screens sometimes, snagged their devices when we needed a quick fix. Gotten flashes of TV through a doorway. But these days we mostly had what was in front of us, the cottage and barn and long grass in the fields. Long and short, tussocks and bare patches. Topography. We had the wood of the walls and fences, the metal of the parked cars with their near-​empty gas tanks.

We had the corners of buildings and the slope of the hills, the line of the treetops. The more time passed, the more any flat image began to seem odd and less than real. Uncanny delicate surfaces. Had we always had them?

We’d had so many pictures. Pictures just everywhere, every hour, minute, or second.

But now they were foreign. Now we saw everything in three dimensions.

From A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Lydia Millet. Published with permission of W.W. Norton. All rights reserved.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading 2014: Lydia Millet
A Year in Reading 2012: Lydia Millet
A Year in Reading 2007: Lydia Millet

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