Packer has a forthcoming novel, The Thousands, from which this is presumably an excerpt. (She doesn’t say this explicitly in the Q&A, but the new novel is set during Reconstruction, as this story is.) It doesn’t really begin and it doesn’t really end, so even though it’s exciting and well written, it doesn’t stand alone as a story.
Lazarus and Mary Celeste, his deaf sister, emancipated slaves, are running away from Miss Thalia, their former owner, who seems not to care that slavery has ended. She sets her man Kittredge and his dogs on their trail, and Lazarus is severely injured fighting one of the dogs. Eventually they make it to New Orleans and find their Aunt Minnie, who’s got seven other children to deal with. “‘Nine goddam children,’ she said to the dark. It was neither a curse nor a lament but a pledge.”
Okay. They made it to New Orleans. Now what?
June 14 & 21:“Dayward” by ZZ Packer
[available online only to subscribers but here’s a Q&A with ZZ Packer]
>The story did end abruptly, somewhat, but I tend to like stories that keep me pondering. However, this one perhaps stops with too many questions. I've been having problems in my own stories about what exactly constitutes a story and this does feel like a novel excerpt. Does Lazarus die? Is that really their Aunt Minnie? Aunt Minnie appears too quickly in the story. I don't think we'd ever been introduced to her until she was "needed." However, that being said, the writing enthralled me and I couldn't read fast enough. It was exciting.
>I agree about stories that leave you pondering — an open ending that "resonates" is something I strive for in my writing. But, as you say, there's too much left undone. So I'm pretty sure this is from the novel she's working on.
>I liked that something actually happened (not always the case when "personal relationship" stories have become the norm). There were some good descriptions (of the injured hand, for instance: "erupted muscle," "something bubbling and maroon"). The sense of setting is commendable.
But, aside from the lack of closure that you mentioned, some other things got to me while reading this story. Explanations, for example: the very second sentence has a clumsy way of saying that Mary Celeste was deaf; if Packer had waited just a paragraph or two, we would have figured out this much. Something else amiss: great fondness for participial phrases (which tend to subordinate sentences into stillness), such as "Mary Celeste hugged his head, her grateful tears wetting his face" (and grateful tears is also worth a quibble), and such as "she […] smoked it, her cheeks going hollow from the drag." Something else: shoddy moments, like using "he lied" as a speech attribution (when it was obvious he was speaking and it was obvious he was lying), or like repeating that Lazarus signaled "with his one good hand" (what else would he signal with?).
Sorry for being so nitpicky. I'm also convinced this is an excerpt, which would explain why the story seems to vanish at the end.