The Vultures of Hogwaller: It’s done! (Sort of)
In summer 2019, I drew up a plan to exit the 9-5 working world for a bit and return to writing fiction. In fall 2019, an idea started to come together for a book I would write when I finally followed through on that plan. In spring 2020 (with some coronavirus pandemic modifications), I made the leap, left full time work and started writing.
In fall 2020, I finished. The Vultures of Hogwaller is a completed 95,000-word urban fantasy blending magical realism and historical fiction. From multiple characters’ perspectives, it explores through-lines to the present from the 1827 Monticello slave auction that ruthlessly split apart 130 “valuable negroes” following Thomas Jefferson’s death.
Of course, done is never really done until a manuscript is picked up by an agent and publisher and then baked in their editing process before publication. So it’s DONE in the sense that I’ve written it, completed a first revision, and am now working on more revisions based on feedback from a test group of first readers.
And I’d love to share a little bit more of it. I shared a draft chapter of one character’s backstory in September, and here’s a look at the opening of the manuscript:
The Vultures of Hogwaller
By Jay Hodgkins
“Two years after this, Mr. Jefferson died. Then began our troubles. We were scattered all over the country, never to meet each other again until we meet in another world.”
— Recollections of Peter Fossett, published in the New York World, January 30, 1898
They faced Monticello, the little mountain turning green with spring. Even to their extraordinary eyes, Jefferson’s mansion was lost in the unfolding canopy of hickory, oak, maple and ash. Its legacy, though, was visible everywhere in these parts. To them, that legacy was as blood red as the dawn light reflecting off the mist that shrouded the mountain summit.
They sat on the spine of a shingled roof that topped a dreary box of a home with hardly a window to enjoy the sweeping view of the surrounding foothills. Four apartments were cramped inside, Charlottesville’s high-minded excuse for low-income housing in the ’80s. Their perch was mid-hill, just over the old, crumbling livestock auction stockyard that some said gave Hogwaller its name. Down there on the stockyard’s rusting tin roof, in The Bottom, is where the rest of their committee assembled. Their native home was just a bit further through the marsh around an ancient, dying sycamore tree, pale as a ghost on the southern bank of Moores Creek.
There were about a dozen of them perched in a row on the tenement’s roof, their dark wings spread wide to capture the sun’s rays. Nothing could interrupt this daily morning vigil. Not the police patrol cars circling in ceaseless vigil, the drag races down Franklin, the sick people stumbling out of drug houses, the strange poor people in their bric-a-brac strewn yards, the young people throwing stones at them, or the homeless people traipsing through from their tent town hidden in the woods of The Bottom.
Depending on who you were in Hogwaller – and there, by this time, were every sort of folk – you hated the endemic black vultures or, at best, found them a fittingly peculiar addition to the oddities, mysteries and eclectic ramshackle sprawl of the neighborhood real estate agents and White folks in the new duplexes had taken to calling “Upper Belmont.” A fewer number of people protected them, and a still fewer number understood their true nature.
There were folks in Hogwaller whose occupation it was to watch the vultures. Not birders, who might also delight in the red-headed house finches building nests in air vents or the cackling mockingbirds and jays, always aggrieved by something. These people watched these specific black vultures, all 130 of them, never more, never less. They watched them on the rooftops of Hogwaller every morning, on piles of garbage on trash collection days, and on the mounds of sand and gravel in the lot by the stockyard.
On this cold morning, just after dawn, the vulture watchers sit on a porch across the street, wrapped in blankets, also looking toward Monticello through the vulture silhouettes, each a partial eclipse of the rising sun. Together, they share this Hogwaller hillside draped in the shadow of Monticello and 200 years of its history.
At first glance, the black vultures, now rising from the shingled rooftop on an updraft of air quickly warming in the bright sun, has naught to do with Monticello’s legacy.
At first glance, the vultures were vultures. Coragyps atratus. Vulture-raven dressed in black. A disliked, disregarded species, existing on the fringes of human activity, feeding off the scraps, grunting and hissing to protect what little they possess. They were scavengers, not often credited for the benefits they provide to society, cleaning streets and forests of carrion that otherwise would spread disease to humans and pets alike. They were the only species of New World vulture to live and hunt in large family groups, capable of working together toward such ends as killing livestock, say a baby calf by pecking its eyes until it collapses in shock.
At first glance, it would appear Hogwaller was the perfect confluence of climate, habitat and opportunity for a committee to become so large and bold. Lowland marsh speckled with old forest. A reliable wind down the Rivanna River gorge to use for whipping up into a kettle over the foothills of the Appalachians. A community too bogged down with the rigors of human life to lock up its trash tight.
At first glance, to the old timers in the neighborhood who remembered the livestock wallowing down in the marsh off Moores Creek at the stockyard, it seemed the vultures had arrived with appetites whetted for a chance at the calves auctioned off weekly from 1947 til the last gavel was dropped in 2012. Now some years later, it seemed perhaps they stayed in the bird-brained hope the calves – tasty shit and tastier entrails – would return.
One of the vultures spins out of its kettle to ride down the edges of the updraft into The Bottom. It lands on the rusting tin roof of the old stockyard before spreading its wings to glide lightly down to Franklin Street. There, it begins to investigate the flattened carcass of a green frog run over in the night. There isn’t much left to it, but enough entrails to make it worth the effort to pick through. A pair of cats lounging in the doorway of the abandoned stockyard look on in lazy contempt.
The vulture invests itself in its meal so much that it does not hear the car accelerating down Franklin toward it. It never sees the black Ford Escort or the woman with short, dark hair smiling as she bears down. It never hears the laugh of glee she belches out when she feels the bump of the vulture’s body and sees the tufts of feathers swirling in the air as she speeds off.
The dead vulture has a name. Miles. Miles has suffered from the cruelty of the human race for a long time before this moment. Now, Miles is dead.
At first glance.