“Cast your nets, wanderers! Try me with your questions, and let the contest begin.”
—Blaine the Mono, to Roland and the Ka-Tet, at the end of The Waste Lands
Welcome to A Read of the Dark Tower series. Join me each week as I, Constant Reader, tackle the magnum opus of Stephen King’s career for the first time. If you want to discuss in general terms or talk about these first sections, join me by commenting here.
When we last left the flashback ka-tet of Roland, Cuthbert, and Alain, they appeared to be in Mejis, far from Gilead, and traveling under assumed names. Roland, aka Will Dearborn, had met Susan Delgado on the road late at night as she returned to the village after being proven “onest” by the witch Rhea, and the two had fallen into immediate hormonal infatuation.
Wizard and Glass, “Susan”: Long After Moonset, Section 1
Roland spends two hours after his encounter with Susan, who left him with a kiss, riding around the area called the Drop. He can’t get the girl off his 14-year-old (soon to be 15-year-old) mind. Finally, he rides back toward camp and comes across “several gathers” of horses. As he heads to the hollow where they’ve made their camp, he comes across a skull hanging across the path, and instinctively reaches for his guns (which he isn’t wearing) before realizing it’s the “idiotic rook’s skull” that Cuthbert had earlier put on the pommel of his saddle. Annoyed, Roland bats it away hard enough to break the string from which it’s hanging.
Cuthbert, aka Arthur Heath, is “reproachful, but there was laughter bubbling just beneath…as there always was.” Cuthbert slips up as they banter, addressing Roland as “gunslinger.” Roland asks him not to call him that again—“not here, not anywhere. Not if you value me.” The instant he’s chastised, Cuthbert drops the attitude and apologizes sincerely. This makes me suspect Cuthbert’s runaway mouth might get them all in trouble.
Bert notes that Roland looks different, but Roland instinctively decides to not mention Susan. That way, if he does see her at the Mayor’s house, he’ll be the only one who has to pretend not to know her. Although he says he’ll tell Cuthbert of the interesting things he’s seen (i.e., Citgo, I imagine) once Alain is awake, he does mention that “there are too many horses in these parts, even for a Barony renowned for its horseflesh.”
After Cuthbert goes off in search of his bird skull and Roland takes care of Rusher, he settles into his pack and lies awake, looking at the stars. From his thoughts, we get a glimpse of what happened in the whore’s room a month earlier. Steven had apparently told him much about Marten and about Roland’s mother (“perhaps more sinned against than sinning”). About John Farson, who had vanished, and “harriers who called themselves patriots.” About how before he vanished, John Farson burned the Barony seat of Indrie to the ground, killing hundreds. As a result, the bureaucrats of the Barony—at least the ones whose heads hadn’t been put on display on the wall going into town—had all decided it was the healthiest choice for them to denounce any opposition to Farson. “It was a game of Castles,” we’re told, where all the moves had been made before most of the players in Mid-World even realized that John Farson was someone who needed to be taken seriously. He was either a threat to their way of life, or he was an “agent of change” who preached democracy and the end of class slavery.
Roland is surprised that the gunslingers don’t much care about John Farson and consider both him and his opposition “small cheese.” His words to Roland: “I’m going to send you away. There is no true safe place left in Mid-World, but the Barony of Mejis on the Clean Sea is as close to true safety as any place may be these days, so it’s there you’ll go, along with at least two of your mates.” Not surprisingly, Roland objected to being sent off to safety, so his father tried to make him understand the bigger picture. “The Dark Tower had not been mentioned by either of them, but already it hung in Roland’s mind, a possibility like a storm-cloud far away on the horizon.”
Finally, after a big, long infodump about what went on before the boys set off on their “quest,” Roland turns his mind back to Susan, who’d kissed him, and the whore, who wouldn’t let him kiss her. He wants Susan, and then he dreams of her as she tells him to come to her for the first time.
What Constant Reader Learns: Now that I know (duh) that Will is Roland, I will just call him that to avoid confusion.
There seem to be an abundance of horses around, and I don’t know if that is significant, but it seems to be unusual enough for Roland to have made note of it. Are the horses related to the “big coffin hunters”? Are they signs that more is afoot in Mejis than Steven Deschain knew when he sent the boys here to get them off Marten’s radar?
We learn that Roland and Cuthbert have been friends since they were babies—“the marks of their first teeth had been embedded on many of the same toys”—but that Roland had never really understood him. The truth of Cuthbert runs deeper than his surface emotions of laughter or fear, and it might be, although we’re not told this, that Roland isn’t capable of understanding a complex personality so foreign to his own, something we later see with Eddie—he always underestimates Eddie. We get little feel for Alain at this stage and only are told that he can “sleep through an earthquake.”
The boys have three pigeons (three travelers, three pigeons, three big coffin hunters…hm…have seen that number pop up a few times before) with them. Carrier pigeons, mayhap?
The boys’ horses are named Rusher (Roland), Buckskin (Alain), and Glue Boy (Cuthbert, “who could not even name his horse as a normal person would”). We’ve already seen that Rusher is even-tempered and intelligent and not quick to react. It will be interesting to see if the other horses tell us anything about their owners.
The war between John Farson’s form of “democracy” and the established ways of the Baronies is fascinating, and it will be interesting to see what parallels it plays with other democratic movements in the politics of our world, where democracy is an ideal that can morph easily into a pseudo-democratic dictatorship under a charismatic and powerful leader.
Did the gunslingers of Steven Deschain’s ka-tet look at the machinations of the Good Man and the Affiliation as “small cheese” because they were already looking at the Dark Tower and what might be happening on a much larger scale? We’re told he doesn’t mention the Tower by name, but still Roland seems to have an awareness of it.
Interesting that Steven did not want Cuthbert, “that laughing boy,” to be one of Roland’s two companions. “You’d be better off with a barking dog,” he tells Roland. Another hint that Bert’s mouth will be their undoing?
We’re told that Steven and his “posse” had been in Cressia, looking for the glass ball. Which, of course, has to be the glass ball Rhea has hidden under her bed. Its significance isn’t yet clear.
Uh oh. Roland was “far from the relentless creature he would eventually become, but the seeds of that relentlessness were there.” Which means now that he’s officially acknowledged he wants Susan, he won’t back off and, well, we already know this is going to end badly for everyone.
Wizard and Glass, “Susan”: Long After Moonset, Section 2
Five miles away, Susan also is also restless and unable to sleep, thinking of “Will Dearborn” and the ache Rhea’s unwanted touch awoke in her body.
When she’d returned home from the witch’s hut, Aunt Cord had been waiting for her. She assures her aunt nothing went awry (although she vaguely remembers Rhea leaving her with one final instruction…or maybe she imagined it). But Aunt Cord says she looks “flushy, frothy, like milk fresh out of the cow.”
Aunt Cord asks her more questions: Did it hurt (a little)? Did she cry (no)? Did Rhea give her something? Susan pulls out the scrap of paper bearing Rhea’s mark and the word “onest.” Aunt Cord is horrified to learn Susan isn’t to give herself to the mayor until the Reaping Fair. Cord received four pieces of gold and eight of silver up to this point, with twice that much still due—a third when the bloodstained sheet goes to the Mayor’s laundress and the final third when Susan gets pregnant and the baby’s “honesty” has been proven by Rhea. So she isn’t happy that her payoff will be delayed.
Susan enjoys the frustrated look on Aunt Cord’s face, but assures her aunt she’s only tired, not being “pert.” Finally, she’s allowed to go to bed, and thinks of the events of the night as if they were shuffled playing cards (or a tarot deck, perhaps?). Will’s “card” keeps coming to the top. She resents that she’s met someone now, when she’s already entered into this bargain, but still thinks “if it’s ka, it’ll come like a wind. Like a cyclone.” And I suspect she’s quite right.
What Constant Reader Learns: At sixteen, Susan is old enough to no longer take her aunt at face value and has already begun to take a clear-eyed view of the woman’s machinations. She’s also emboldened a bit by her experience with Rhea, realizing she has a bit of power, at least for now. So she doesn’t hesitate to demand the paper back from her aunt, and her aunt doesn’t dare refuse.
In a little unexpected gender reversal (and maybe the difference between 14/15 and 16), as Roland simply goes to sleep dreaming of Susan’s kiss, Susan goes to sleep after masturbating because, as Rhea pointed out, “even a girl who’s intact don’t need to lack for a shiver now ‘n then.”
Wizard and Glass, “Susan”: Long After Moonset, Section 3
While Roland and Susan toss and turn, we’re treated to a scene at the Traveller’s Rest at pre-dawn. There are broken chairs in the corner from a fight, the participants of which are currently in the High Sheriff’s drunk cell. A “puddle of congealing puke” is in another corner. The saloon’s bouncer, Barkie, is lying under the piano bench, snoring, holding a single card—the deuce of diamonds.
Two drunks are sacked out with their heads on the card tables beneath a portrait of “Arthur, the Great King of Eld” and a sign that says, “Argyou not about the hand you are delt in cards or life.” Ka, in other words.
Over the bar hangs a two-headed elk “with a rack of antlers like a forest grove and four glaring eyes.” An aging dancer, Pettie the Trotter, lies sprawled asleep on the bar.
At a table in the corner sits Coral Thorin, co-owner of the saloon and the mayor’s sister. The mayor owns half of the saloon but doesn’t ever come in. Coral, a former “wild child,” has a hard streak. She is younger than her brother Hart, and “good looking in a large-eyed, weasel-headed way.”
Sitting at the table with Coral and playing a card game is Eldred Jonas, who we’d earlier been told was the eldest and leader of the three Big Coffin Hunters. He’s thin, deeply tanned, and has long white hair straggling down his back, with a long moustache some called “a sham gunslinger’s mustache”—but not to his face. His eyes are described as emotionally dead.
His companion Clay Reynolds comes downstairs—a young man with curly red hair, and vain. Half Jonas’s age, but popular with the ladies. We learn the third of their group, Roy DePape, is fixated on a fifteen-year-old whore named Deborah who has a “bowlegged clumping walk.” (Sounds lovely.)
Talk turns to the three young “babies” who’ve been spotted outside town. Jonas says they’re “Affiliation brats, sons of big estates off in the Green Somewhere.” They agree to keep an eye on them and be careful what’s said in front of them. “With folks like these, you can’t know which way they’ll jump,” Jonas says. But he realizes they can’t just kill the boys and get them out of the way, because their fathers would come looking for revenge.
Jonas, who apparently has great sway over the local sheriff, decides the boys should stay at the bunkhouse at the Bar K ranch, which is on the outskirts of nowhere—“away from the Drop…and away from the oilpatch,” at which they have something underhanded going on. They agree that later in the day, Reynolds and DePape will go and cover up oil tankers while Jonas goes to the Mayor’s dinner, meets the newcomers, and asks some questions. He plans to get answers by seducing, basically, the ugliest unattached woman in town—Susan’s Aunt Cord.
He also says he was the one who convinced Farson that his glass ball would be safe with Rhea, where even a gunslinger couldn’t find it. “These are strange times. A storm’s coming. And when you know the wind is going to blow, it’s best to keep your gear battened down.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Sheb is the piano player! In Tull, at some nebulous time in the future (assuming it’s the same world), he has his own saloon, and the world has indeed moved on, although we can be assured everyone’s still singing “Hey Jude.”
For whatever it’s worth, I’m having much trouble picturing a “large-eyed, weasel-headed” woman as being good-looking, but maybe I’ve been looking at the wrong weasels.
Reynolds rolls his cigarette along the back of his fingers in a Roland-like trick, and we’re told “the Big Coffin Hunters were full of old gunslinger tricks,” which begs the question—what’s their relation to gunslingers?
Ah, a Stephen King gross-out moment. Haven’t had one of these in a while. A stray dog wanders into the saloon and eats the pile of vomit in the corner. Sweet.
The oil. Reynolds and Jonas talk about the oilpatch, and about “tankers,” which Jonas tells Reynolds that he and DePape need to cover with brush so the newcomers won’t see them. As for himself, Jonas will be attending the dinner at the mayor’s house so he can put the moves on Aunt Cord. Which should be entertaining. And what’s up with the oil….
An interesting connection between Jonas and Roland—Cort’s father had given Jonas his limp with an ironwood club after Jonas failed his test of manhood and been sent west into exile, gunless.
And why would Jonas put the moves on Aunt Cord? “For the game of Castles we may have to play,” he says. “We’re to believe that these boys have been sent here more as punishment than to do any real job of work.” But he doesn’t quite believe it. Finally, as he heads upstairs, Jonas says he doesn’t want to kill the boys, but he does want to give them a “sore paw,” so they will think twice about tangling with the Big Coffin Hunters later on.
Yeah, we’ll see how that works out for him.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll continue our read of book four in the Dark Tower series, Wizard and Glass.