By Daniel Wallace
Published by Houghton Mifflin
February 2003; 0-618-22138-7; 226 pages
The town emerged a few miles past the freeway exit, its rooftops and church spires just visible above a long, thick stand of pine. An abandoned cinder- block gas station, antique and dilapidated, its pumps rusted and brown, stood forlorn at the city limits, grass shoots growing through the cracked concrete as though it were soil. The door to the station itself had been removed, and although the day was a bright one it was dark inside, and spooky, and gutted of everything but the walls themselves. I tried to imagine her stopping at this gas station on her very first day here, nineteen years ago, pulling up to the pumps and waiting for some hayseed character in an oil-stained jumpsuit, wiping his hands on a dirty orange rag, shielding his eyes from the glare. Her hair would have been auburn, tied back in a scarf, her eyes green, her face lightly freckled. Her smile - her best quality, somebody told me - would have shined for the man.But the image quickly faded. I couldn't really fathom her then, make her real again in my mind.
But say she left the car as he was filling it and walked around the side of the station to the ladies' room. No door here either, just the toilet, the dim mirror, the sink. It was odd to think that her face might have been reflected here once, just as mine was now. If a mirror had a memory and could summon its stored images, I could have placed my face against hers and seen how one resembled the other, what matched and what didn't. Hair, mouth, eyes, chin. But even without this comparison I saw the resemblance: neither of us had a clue about what was about to happen.
"Hi, I'm Lucy Rider," she said to herself in the mirror. Or, working on that smile, lifting her shoulders: "Lucy Rider. Hello."
I looked at my own self. I said, "Hi, there. I'm Thomas." The mirror was so old now it barely maintained a reflection. It was not much better than a piece of tin, really, so I could hardly make myself out. White face, brown hair, green eyes. Lips, nose, and ears proportioned in a way that could be described only as normal. Of average height. An American, eighteen years of age, with a limp. As plain as the country air.
I walked around to the front of the gas station to the telephone booth there - the kind you don't see anymore - a glass rectangular box, like the one Superman used. The phone inside it actually worked. Rotary dial. I called Anna. "Okay," I said. "Looks like I'm almost there."
"You're calling from the gas station?"
"From what's left of it," I said. "It's sort of out of business."
"Things change, huh?" she said. "In eighteen years."
And I thought about the road leading out to our farm, how it had been nothing but trees once, before so-called development, and how the opposite was happening here: the trees were coming back. I figured in a while there'd be nothing left to suggest a gas station had been here at all. I said, "I guess I should head on into town."
"I guess you should," she said.
The town was just up the hill, but it looked far away now. Through the high weeds I could see what was left of an old sign, once painted bright red and green and black but now weathered and pale and leaning to one side. It said, WELCOME TO ASHLAND, WATERMELON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!
"So," I said."Tell me again?"
"Tell you what?"
"Why I'm doing this." My mouth was dry, and in my head I could hear my heart beating.
"Because it's what a man does," she said. "He goes on a journey."
"And why does he do that?"
"To find himself," she said.
"And I'm a man," I said.
"That's right," she said. "You're a man."
"And all those things you told me," I said. "About what happened to my mother there, in Ashland. They were true?"
"Yes," she said. "Crazy, but true. That was a long time ago though, Thomas. Things have changed. I'm sure."
"Sure," I said. I felt like a detective brought on to a hopeless case eighteen years too late. This was the plan Anna and I had come up with: look around, talk to the people, ask a few questions. Excuse me, yes, good afternoon, are you familiar with the name Lucy Rider? Yes ma'am, that's right: Rider. It's known that she left the Birmingham area following the death of her mother, under the aegis of her father, who had "hired" her (a makeshift job, it appears, for a daughter who had few prospects) to check on several of the properties he owned throughout the state, and that in the course of her duties ended up staying on for a length of time here, in Ashland, where she eventually died. Yes ma'am: a good-looking woman, from what I hear. Thank you. Thank you very much. Oh. Another thing, ma'am. By the way: it's known as well that on the day she died she gave birth to a child, a son, named Thomas. Thomas Rider. He's the one I'm looking for, really. Yes ma'am. If you see him, let me know.
The Story of the Watermelon King
They talked, I listened. I stood there, amazed. Everybody had a story, and they were all a little different, but this one was the same no matter who was telling it. It was the story of the Watermelon King, a story so old it came before the words were made to write it down. It came before the town and the men who built it, and the Indians who lived there before them. It was a story passed down through time by the sounds the most ancient man and woman made, and when they came here they learned to speak it too, and speak it now in their own voice, like this:
Once upon a long time ago, beneath this sun, in these fields, our world was full of watermelons. Everywhere you looked there were watermelons. You couldn't walk without stepping on them. No one person thought to grow them; they seemed to grow themselves. It was said you could watch a vine grow, that you could actually see it move, creeping along the ground as though groping for something to hold on to, that a watermelon would swell before your eyes like a balloon, and that some grew so large, so enormous, that children could stand upright within their hollowed-out shells.
During the peak of the season, when the air was hot and wet, people would wake after a night's sleep to find their homes encircled by vines, and more than one baby was known to be smothered as it lay on a blanket beside a particularly enterprising plot. Luckily, most people came to no harm. It was easy to cut the vines away from your house in the morning and pull them off as they coiled around your ankle.
Of course, this was in the before-times. Such legendary abundance did not last into the now. No one knows why this is so. But somewhere back within our dim history the watermelon became a thing to be planted and harvested, a crop like any other, sold to towns far and wide. In this way the Ashland watermelon, its great size and pleasing flavor, became well known throughout the world, and unmatched, and this small area of land was always considered blessed in some mysterious way by God, or by a god, our God. The watermelon was seen as a gift from this God, and to honor the watermelon was to honor God, and thus from the beginning, under the stewardship of men, there was a festival, an annual event, that occurred just before picking time.
During the festival the watermelon was celebrated in many ways. Songs were sung, and great murals drawn, and the man or woman who had grown the largest watermelon was brought before the town and revered. But the amazing and unexplainable fertile nature of this town was the thing most celebrated. The soil and the sun were of course partners in the great mystery, and beyond our understanding. But there was no mystery about the first step: the seed of the watermelon must first be planted and grown. Fertility - that was everything. Without it, we were just another town.
And thus as the future of the town and the future of the watermelon seemed to be intertwined, in our minds the seed of the watermelon came to be understood as the same as the seed of a child, a boy who would grow into a farmer, a girl who would become a woman who would take care of a farmer, one neither more nor less than the other. These men and women would carry on after those who had tilled the soil so long before them had gone. For indeed, what does the burgeoning belly of a woman resemble as she becomes weighed down with the growing life inside her?
It was in this way that a male virgin was thought to bring a curse upon the town. If a man had reached manhood and was still a virgin, he was seen as a threat to the prosperity of the town, and thus each year one man was chosen to be cured. It was a sacrifice like all sacrifices. It was the sacrifice of his virginity.
This man came to be known through the agency of an old woman, a swamp dweller, who could look into a man's eyes and see, and with his body close, smell. A man who is still a virgin is not quite whole, and to look at him for a length of time is to see through him as though he were a pane of glass, and this woman could see such things.
The men of the village were thus inspected, and the oldest among them who had yet to be with a woman was chosen. He was brought before the town in a cart, as the sun set, at the very end of the festival. He would be the king. His crown, a hollowed-out rind; his scepter, a dried and withered vine. The people would watch, cheering him with their laughter. Then a ring of fire was set around him as the sun went down, and around this ring the town would slowly gather. The man would stand within the circle, waiting, alone.
Then the three chosen women, dressed in simple, white cotton gowns, would steal away to a hut in the fields a distance away. In the center of the hut was a basket of watermelon seeds, cleaned and dried, hard and dark like small stones. But one seed was a seed of gold. Each woman reached into the basket and took a handful of seeds, and then the seeds were shown and the woman with the golden seed in her hand left the others and alone walked through the ring of fire. There she took the man's hand, and the two withdrew to a spot in the fields away from us all, and beneath the bright moon the man planted his seed within her; she would attest to it later in her own words, before us all. Thus the future of the town and the crop on which the town was founded was thought to be secure for yet another year, and from that day forward and throughout the year the man who had thus given himself to a woman for the first time was looked upon and acknowledged as the Watermelon King.
But if no virgin is sacrificed where a virgin be, then the gift we had been given would be taken away, and our crops would wither beneath the unforgiving sun, and we would be nothing. Thus it is and thus it always was, even before the words were made to write it down.
© 2003 by Daniel Wallace.
From an author whose work has been praised for its "wit, subtle compassion, and an offbeat originality" (Boston Globe) comes a novel as unforgettable as it is compelling. An endearing blend of fable, fairy tale, and page-turner, The Watermelon King brings readers back to Ashland, Alabama--immortalized in Big Fish--a fictional town whose identity is based on its long-ago abundance of watermelons. Thomas Rider knows almost nothing about his parents, only that his mother died the day he was born in Ashland. He travels there and interviews the townspeople, learning of the town's bizarre past. Most importantly, he learns about the Watermelon Festival, which at one time occurred annually and would symbolically ensure the continued fertility of the crop that sustained them--and how his mother came to destroy it. Piecing together his own identity, as well as that of the town, Thomas finds himself immersed in a series of events that turns everything he knows upside down. Outrageous at times and heartbreaking at others, The Watermelon King is a vivid exploration of the power of history and of storytelling, of identity and myth. This novel is Wallace's most provocative and inventive work to date.(back to top)
Daniel Wallace is the author of three critically acclaimed novels. His novel Big Fish has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese. It is also currently in production as a movied directed by Tim Burton, and starring Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Jessica Lange, and many others, which will release in 2003. Wallace's fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Glimmer Train, Story, Prairie Schooner, and The Massachusetts Review. Heis also an illustrator whose work has appeared on T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and greeting cards across the country.
Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, he now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife and son.