A family’s river farm struggles to survive as a strained relationship between father and son becomes more bitter.
Gone to the Forest (Free Press, 2012) by Katie Kitamura tells the gripping saga of the strained relationship between a father and son and their failing river farm. Set in a colonial country on the brink of a civil war, their relationship is further challenged by the arrival of a young woman to the river farm. Gone to the Forest is “a mesmerizing novel, one whose force builds inexorably as its story unfolds in daring, unexpected strokes” according to Julie Orringer, author of “The Invisible Bridge.” Trace the history of Tom’s relationship with his father in the following excerpt from chapter 1.
Tom hears the noise from across the hall. A quick stream of native patois. At first he thinks it is the servants talking. But then he hears the crackle of static. The high cadence of a bugle. The voice picks up again and is louder. Agitated and declaiming.
It is the radio—somebody has left the radio on. Tom gets to his feet. The old man is not in his study, he is out by the river. But the noise is not coming from the old man’s study. Tom follows the sound down the corridor. He goes to the kitchen, thinking perhaps Celeste has been listening to the afternoon drama—
The kitchen is empty. The dishes sit washed and gleaming on the shelves. A drip of water from the tap. Perplexed, Tom turns around. The voice continues to speak from somewhere behind him. He follows the sound to the veranda. There, a radio sits on the edge of the table, the volume turned high.
Brothers, our time has come. We are tired of being ground under the boot of the white oppressor. We are tired of being suffocated by these parasites. For so many years we have not even been aware of their tyranny. We have been sleeping!
A chair has been pulled up to the table. As if someone has been sitting and listening intently. Tom does not immediately recognize the radio—he thinks it has been taken from the library, he cannot be sure. On the farm, they do not often listen to the wireless. Impossible to understand why it is here on the veranda.
Now it is time for us to awaken from our slumber. Rouse up, brothers! We will achieve our liberation and we will free this land! There will be a price. The parasites will not give up this country so easily. But we are brave, we are righteous men—
Tom frowns and switches the radio off. It is unusual to hear a native voice on the radio. The patois is thick and filled with anger. He can barely understand the words, it is a guttural nonsense to his ears. He still cannot imagine who could have moved the radio to the veranda. No servant would have dared do such a thing.
He looks at the chair. He thinks he can see an indentation in the seat. Like a ghost has broken into the farm, and in broad daylight, too. It is a good thing he was the one to discover it. Tom looks both ways before adjusting the chair and picking up the radio. Holding the machine, he looks out onto the land. It is quiet and he retreats inside.
The house sits by the edge of the river. It is big—a house with multiple wings and rooms and a veranda running along three sides. Outside this giant house there is a double row of trees, planted by the old man’s natives. Tom sits in the dirt beneath one of these trees, where there is shade from the blistering sun.
Tom’s father was among the first of the white settlers. Forty years ago, the old man arrived in the country and claimed his piece of land. One hundred thousand acres down a ten-mile spine running through the valley. The land belonged to no one and then it belonged to him. A stake driven into the soil. The old man swallowed up the land and filled it with native hands. The money and good fortune came shortly after.
The farm sits adjacent to the border and from its perimeter the neighboring country is visible. The parcel is big and the soil arable and there is also the river, which is wide and fast, clouded with sediment and Sargasso weed. The old man picked the land for the river. It runs straight out to the sea. The carnivorous dorado swim through in herds and purple hyacinth sprout on the surface.
For many years, the old man used the land as a cattle farm. The vast acreage turned to pasture, the herd growing by the year. A small crop also harvested. Today, he runs the farm as a fishing resort, for tourists who come from all parts of the world. The old man is imperious with the guests in the same way he is imperious with his servants. They do not seem to mind. They stay in the guest wing of the house and pay good money for the privilege.
Tom manages the farm. He oversees the daily operation of the cattle pasture, the fields, the river and the house. It is a great deal for one man to handle but Tom is good at his job. He is good with the fluctuations of the land, which he is able to read correctly. Also the domestic affairs of the house and kitchen. Tom is diligent and has an eye for detail, in which he often takes comfort.
Tom is the old man’s first and only son. This means that one day he will inherit the farm. He will run the fishing resort and that will be the whole of his life. Tom can see no other kind of future. It is the only horizon before him, but he has no sense of its constriction. Tom has a passion for the land. It is the one thing he knows intimately. He burrows into it, head down in the dirt, and cannot imagine a life beyond it.
Therefore, Tom sits beneath his tree. He presses his limbs into the soil, as if they would grow roots. It is the last week of the season but it is still hot. Normally, the tourists would have stayed. For the sun and the fishing, and with winter so slow to come. They would have sat on the veranda in friendly clusters, ideal for souvenir photographs. The women in tea dresses and the men in linen suits. Drinks served on the veranda after a hot day on the river.
Instead, the veranda is empty and silent. The radio having been returned to the library and the chair righted. Tom looks up when the door opens. The old man steps out onto the veranda. He is still in his work clothes, having spent the afternoon shooting old livestock. It is a task he always does himself. There are traces of gunpowder on his boots, the smell of fresh blood. The old man stands on the veranda, six feet tall in his riding boots, and does nothing to acknowledge his son.
After a long silence, he calls to him.
He is called Tom by everyone except his father, who calls him Thomas. It causes a split inside Tom/Thomas. He thinks of himself as Tom but only recognizes himself as Thomas. He does not know his own name. He realizes, has been aware for some time, that this is no way for a man to be. It is not something he can discuss with his father. He rises to his feet and goes to the old man.
His father watches him and is silent. He looks at Tom like he has never seen him before in his life. Possibly he wishes it were so. All this land and they cannot get away from each other, though that is not the way Tom sees it. The sun glows orange in the sky. For a long time his father is silent. Then he speaks.
“The Wallaces dine with us tonight.”
“Have you spoken to Celeste?”
The old man nods. On the farm they squander money on food. The youngest animals are slaughtered for the table. Pods stripped from the stalk. Roots upended from the soil. And then there are the tins of foie gras and caviar, the cases of wine that are flown in from abroad. Everything for the kitchen. Anything that could be needed.
Tom turns to go. He is not more than five paces away when something makes him stop. He is already turning when his father calls him again. Tom waits, some distance from his father.
“What is Celeste serving?”
His father ignores the question. Tom is immediately uneasy. It is not a normal query. The old man treats Tom like his chief of staff. He manages for the old man, sometimes he allows himself to imagine he is indispensable to him. But he is never able to get used to the idea. There is never the opportunity. The old man does not allow for it.
For example, now. His father is a man of appetite. He trusts Celeste with his stomach and that makes Celeste the most trusted member of the household. But now his father is asking what the menu will be and this is not normal. Fortunately, Tom has discussed the meal with Celeste. He clears his throat—a habit the old man hates—and begins.
“Oysters. Gnocchi. Lamb. Salad. Then cheese and ice cream.”
His father nods.
“They were brought in this morning.”
His father nods again.
“Why no fish?”
“I will ask Celeste.”
“Tell her to put out the last of the caviar. I have no need of it. And tell Celeste to set the table for five.”
Mr. and Mrs. Wallace are occasional friends. They are marginal people of no interest to his father. The old man has made that abundantly clear. He does not say who the fifth guest is. Tom waits. The old man looks up.
“Do you have something else to tell me?”
He thinks of the radio on the veranda. Who left it there? Tom shakes his head. No. Nothing. His father nods and Tom goes. He walks to the kitchen to look for Celeste. This time she is there, stuffing pastry for the farmhands. She palms the meat into the pastry and slaps the food down on the tray. He stares at the meat. It is pink and red and white. Raw and unformed. Celeste looks up.
“He wants to know if there is fish for tonight.”
She shakes her head.
“He would like fish.”
She sighs and wipes her hands on a tea towel.
He ignores the question.
“Also he says to serve caviar to start, and to set the table for five.”
She shakes her head. Tcha tcha tcha, her tongue in her mouth. She throws down the tea towel. Neither Tom nor Celeste wants to serve fish at supper. But both know there will now be fish alongside the lamb, an additional course in an already long meal. Celeste will dress the fish in saffron and butter. Jose will pass around the table with the platter resting on his arm, lifting slabs of fish to the plates. He will use the silver serving spoon to pool sauce on top. Tom clears his throat.
“Did you take the radio out to the veranda?”
She stares at him blankly.
“What do you mean?”
Tom nods, then leaves the kitchen and walks outside. The air is still. He stands outside the house.
Something is wrong. The tourist season has been a failure. It was supposed to refill the coffers. It was meant to provide security. But the season brought them nothing and now the money is running out. Everybody knows the money is running out. It is no longer secret, it can be seen everywhere on the farm.
But there will be caviar, and guests! He does not understand his father. He goes up the steps and into the house. He walks along the veranda, along the perimeter of the house. Everything is as it should be. He enters the dining room. The table has not been set. Five, the old man said to lay the table for five. Tom stands for a long moment. He looks at the heavy oak table and the chairs. He stares at the marble topped credenza.
Tom returns to the row of trees. He sits in idleness. It is the tempo of this place. It overtakes him, he has no resistance to it. It is true Tom is a good manager, but that is almost despite himself, fundamentally he is lazy. His father is different. His mother was different. His mother was like his father, she was not from this place. She was nervous, set to a tempo that was out of pace with the draw of the land.
It could not be changed. His mother came ten years after his father and left ten years ago, dead from exhaustion. They shipped her body back across the sea in a bare pine box at the request of her family. The life had been too much for her. His father said that the moment she set foot on the land. Nobody was surprised when she died. It took her twenty years to do it and they were surprised it took her so long. She had been dying the whole time. She was half dead when she gave birth to him and after that died by increments.
Tom remembered her sometimes. Early on she had been diagnosed consumptive. That was a disease from long ago, an illness that no longer existed, but it still managed to kill her. She ate up her body. In the last years of her life she burned through her organs and limbs, she combusted inside her skin. Like she was in a hurry and couldn’t wait any more. Sometimes he could smell the scent of her decay, lifting high off her body.
That was his mother. She gave birth to him and he slithered from between her legs and out into the land and dust. From the start he was of this place. He was country born and at home with the bramble. For the first year Celeste nursed him at her tit. She held him while he scratched and suckled. Celeste had a son exactly Tom’s age, Jose. She raised the two boys together. Jose’s father being nowhere in sight. However, the two boys did not grow up like brothers.
Jose was healthy, indefatigable, stubborn even as an infant. Tom, on the other hand, was not a strong child. He had a skin condition that weakened his body and stunted his growth. Dry scales grew at his elbows and knees. Left alone, Tom would peel long strips of skin from his body. When Celeste discovered the raw lengths she would take him to the river and press handfuls of mud against his wounds. Covered in river sludge, he was left out in the sun to heal.
Between themselves, the natives called him Lizard Boy. His father blamed his mother for the boy’s condition but Tom always believed the weakness to be his own. In the same way the land was seated deep inside him: it was a congenital disorder of sorts. He also knew the weakness meant that he would not die like his mother. It was self-preserving. He retreated into his weakness and lay down inside it. It was a thing of comfort in a life that was not, on the whole, filled with comfort.
As a child he sought solace in lies, and has been a liar ever since. He is not a good liar but he is a persistent one. The first time he lied over a plate. Tom had been sent to the neighboring farm for the afternoon. The farmer’s son had a set of plastic dishes. The colors were cheap and bright and when Tom pressed his thumbnail into the plastic it left a crescent-shaped mark. Tom wanted one of the plates. He slipped it into his pocket. Then he got up quickly and left without saying goodbye.
His father was waiting for him at the steps of the house, like he had seen his guilt from a distance. He stopped Tom and lifted him from the ground, his fingers digging into Tom’s armpits in a way that was not friendly. Tom kicked to be lowered and the plate fell to the floor. The plastic sounded ugly and hollow against the tile. Stupidly, he tried to conceal the plate with the sole of his boot.
His father did not look surprised.
“Where is that from?”
“The boy gave it to me.”
“He gave it to you?”
“The boy gave you a gift.”
“You are lying.”
He was whipped by a servant. His father did not bother to listen. To the whizz of the cane, to his miserable shrieks and howls. Nonetheless, Tom continued to lie. His father asked him who broke the vase in the hall. Who left the gate open and set loose the cattle. It was like the sight of his father’s face made the lie that followed inevitable.
Even then, all Tom wanted was the old man’s approval. Unfortunately, he was never able to act in a manner to win it. Tom knew he would not be punished for the act itself, only for the lie. What his father did not understand was the lying. He needed, on the whole, to dominate what he did not understand. Tom told one lie and then another. He was whipped by the servants again.
Tom was not a good liar, but Tom’s mother had been good enough to make a career of it. She lied to her husband for the full course of her affair with a neighboring farmer. She used Tom as an excuse. She said he was uncomfortable with himself and other children. He needed to be socialized—that was the fashionable term she applied to her son’s unfashionable condition. Every other day she walked him three miles to the neighboring estate. She left him in the yard with the other children and disappeared inside.
The children played in the dirt and listened to the shrieks that rang out across the farmstead. Which sometimes sounded like an animal dying, painfully. She came out of the farmhouse with her skin a hectic red and one hand pressed against her head. Tom watched as she smoothed her hair into place. Calmed the surface of her dress. Then they walked the three miles home, his hand sticky in hers. He knew but did not mind the fact that she was lying. He thought the secret would bring them closer.
There were other flaws in his character, beyond dishonesty and misapprehension, which together conspired to make the son incomprehensible to the father. For example, Tom was a coward. He was easily frightened and physically uncertain. He was not very old when the physical fear became a moral one. It was therefore natural that his father held him in contempt: the old man does not recognize fear as a valid emotion.
It did not help that Tom was especially afraid of the dorado. To him they were a terrifying fish. The dorado grew four feet long in the river, larger than a child and much larger than the child Tom had been. The male fish bore square blocked foreheads and male and female alike their bodies turned gray as they died out of water. But while alive the fish were fearless and had tremendous appetite.
Tom’s father loved the dorado. He is this fish: his father is the dorado. Once, when Tom was a boy, he took him out on the river. He might have been experimenting with the idea of being a father because he was unusually patient. He taught Tom to cast out to the water. He showed him how to reel in. He said very little but he told him that the dorado were a vicious fish that ate into a man’s strength.
Tom remembered how his father caught the dorado on the line. How he began to reel it in. The fish rose out of the water and dropped back in. It appeared to Tom as large as a grown man, as large as his father. It jerked through the water, under the boat, into the air, back into the water. The rod almost bending in two. Tom was not certain that his father would bring it in. He thought surely the rod would snap.
But his father brought the fish in. It was a giant. Male, with the alien crested forehead, the yellow body thrashing against the line. His father lifted it high in the air. He admired the heft and weight, the golden turn of the scales, the tremendous girth of the fish. Then he placed it in Tom’s arms. Tom almost fell with the weight of the dorado, the coldness of the scales, the inner muscle of the animal shuddering hard against its death.
When he came to, his father was standing above him, holding the fish by its tail. Tom watched as he seized a knife and dug into the belly of the fish. He drew a long vertical slit and the crimson guts of the animal tumbled out onto the deck. He ignored his son as he scooped the intestines into one hand and threw them back into the river. The dorado swarmed the boat, jaws snapping.
The fish became their livelihood. Running a farm was an expensive business. The river supported the farm and allowed them to maintain the large holding of land. More and more tourists came to the province in search of the mighty dorado. His father took them out on the boats at dawn. He taught them to cast out and reel in. He brought in the fish and gutted them before their eyes, he treated them the same way he had treated Tom, years ago.
When his father arrived in the country he was a young man. Now he is old. Now he sits—he squats, he straddles—the land. But his presence has been heavy from the start. He picked out the land by riding in the night with a torch held high above his head. A native dug a trench in the soil behind him. The next day they went back with wood and wire and it was done. The old man makes his choice. He grips it out of the air with his hands. He is essentially a violent man.
Tom is different. He does not force himself upon the land. He does not force himself upon anything. There is very little that Tom can call his own. Tom is not like his father, Tom has chosen nothing. He did not choose the country or the piece of land. He did not choose the business of the farm. He did not choose the house, with its dark rooms and corridors. All this was chosen for him, and Tom barely aware of it. It is simply his world.
For several years the pool of guests has been dwindling. There have been empty rooms at high season and the river has remained full of fish, something impossible even a few years ago. Across the province there are fewer visitors. They are far from the cities to the north. The cost of travel is high. And there is unrest in the country, Tom has heard it said. It is growing and the news of it is spreading abroad—bad stories, violent stories that do not inspire confidence.
One by one the gentleman farmers are moving. The idea of living in open land surrounded by natives is no longer appealing. Those with houses in the cities are giving up the country life and moving north. They are closing their farms and estates, which are becoming too hard to protect, having always been vast and exposed. They leave them in the hands of the hardier settlers who remain in the province and are a restless and violent presence. They do not say when they might return.
The circle of refined company is shrinking day by day. Once there were dances and banyan parties—once there was a social calendar! Tom and his father remain. His father does not believe in the city. The other farmers tell him to move out of the country, that it is dying in front of them, that soon it will no longer be safe. His father chooses to stay on the side of the land. He cannot imagine being without the farm. In this, father and son are united.
It is now near evening. Tom stands in front of the mirror in his room. It is large and crowded with things. Furniture brought over from the old country by his mother or father. Objects shipped to them by strangers. He finds these histories oppressive but has essentially grown used to it. Tom does not expect privacy, even in his own room. Carefully, he adjusts the lapel on his jacket and smooths his hair back with grease. He checks the crease in his trousers and then leaves the room, closing the door behind him.
He walks the house in search of his father. He goes across the foyer, which is full of potted trees. Miniature orange trees. Plum trees. He passes the dining room and notes the good linen and silver and china. He sees that the table is now set for five. Five plates, five sets of glasses and cutlery. He pauses, and then walks out to the veranda, slowly.
He walks in the direction of the river and finds his father within minutes. The open land pulls to the river. Which has become the old man’s sole preoccupation as the province empties and the tourism dwindles. A year ago they installed the river farm. Now the pools float in the middle of the river like space age contraptions. The fish birthing and growing, inside the skin of the device. The river flushing in and out.
Tom frowns as he looks at the river. The old man has staked much on the river farm. The pools were installed at vast expense and they sucked the savings—the bounty of those years of lush tourism, now coming to an end—right into the water. At first it did not seem promising. The natives talked of evil and contamination. The eggs floated in the steel and mesh like a river disease.
But then the fish grew. They grew until the pools were full of fish flesh, pressed close together. Now it seems clear that the river farm is what will allow them to live. It will sustain the farm, through the rumors of unrest. It will pay for the imported caviar, the cashmere blankets, the fur coats, the coffee and tea. His father jokes that he is become a fishmonger but already there are plans for more pools, placed downstream, placed upstream. The province empties of landlords and tourists but there are always the fish and the natives.
Every week they drag the pools out of the water and the fish are culled. Then they are sold to buyers in the cities. They are packed into ice and flash frozen and shipped around the world. It is ridiculous, but they are earning themselves a reputation. His father talks about sustainable models of growth. He says there will be money soon, in the next year.
Tom does not like the river farm. When he looks into the water it is like the river is choking on the pools. The pools hovering like prey amidst the hyacinth. Being of the country, he cannot wish to dominate it in the same way as his father. Who in some ways is still a visitor here. But Tom knows his father is right. Soon the river farm will be established. The money will flow in like water. The money is floating in the river now, and it will save them.
Which is why his father stands and stares at the water—the way a man stares at a pile of gold. Tom watches his father looking at the pools. The pools can only be seen by the clearsighted. They are nothing but the faintest trace in the water. The old man is dressed in dinner clothes. A rim of dust gathers around the toe of his shoe, is lifted on a slow gust of wind. The wind goes, and the dust is gone and the old man’s feet stand in the dirt.
The sound of a motor vaults across the silence. His father looks up. Tom sees the Wallaces’ Ford pulling across the land. A small cloud of dust follows as it kicks down the track. The dust pulls and tugs and puffs and grows behind the vehicle. The motor rumble comes closer. His father stands and watches as the car approaches. Tom has already turned and is walking back to the house. He turns his head once to look back. The car is inching closer across the horizon. Tom quickens his pace.
By the time the car has pulled through the gates of the house the servants are ready and the ice in the liquor trolley has been freshened. Tom stands in the shadow of the veranda and watches as the car pulls down the drive. His father stands at the foot of the steps, one hand slipped into his suit pocket. His face is expressionless. The driver pulls the door open. Mr. Wallace. Mrs. Wallace. A third figure steps out of the car. A young woman, in a brightly patterned dress, emerges from the interior.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Gone to the Forest, published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2012.