Novel excerpt: Bewilderment by Michael Onofrey












It is a long stretch of flat roadway through terrain that is

dry and in need of trees, shoulder of the road dusty with

orange silt that lifts in the draft of passing trucks, but there

aren’t many trucks and traffic in general is sparse. It is hot,

and the sun dwells in a lightly hazed sky that is whitish

blue, tires of their bicycles gummy on the macadam that

runs beneath their moving shadows while they pedal side

by side as if in the ease of companionship.


Up ahead and on their left and set back from the road’s

shoulder there is a tree and in the tree’s shadow there

appears activity, and near that activity a pile of large rocks

sits in the sunshine, and since Wade and Herta are

traveling on the left side of the road, as does all traffic in

India, they will pass very near that activity, and in this way

discover its nature.


Between Herta and Wade there is no conversation

because they are too tired for conversation. Rivulets of

sweat gather airborne dust to streak their arms and legs

and necks with reddish slime. Their legs move as if on

automatic, yet at the same time there is this continuous

pushing feeling even though they are not on an incline,

nor is there a headwind.

The heat, the soft blacktop, the heaviness of their

bicycles, and the repetitive scrub that punctuates the land

and that doesn’t even yield a crow seem to be conspiring

against them. But they “push on,” and of that there have

been reoccurring discussions that lapse into arguments.


But now, activity distinguishes itself from the monotony

of the land, and as they near that activity there are

sounds that are not the sounds of this landscape, for this

landscape has no sounds. It is a windless day. A little more

pedaling is needed in order to get close enough for their

eyes to delineate detail that will yield information that their

minds will assemble with the prospect of identifying what

is going on. And when they understand that, they will

understand those sounds, for of themselves those noises

are unique, unique in the sense of “first experience.” And

so, it is the desire for “understanding” that occupies their



They are in saris of indelicate fabric, colors varied, yet

singular for the dusty hue that they share. With age, too,

variation registers, ten years old or thereabouts to fifty years

old, or maybe sixty years old, and of this upper age bracket

there are deep wrinkles on dark complexions that camouflage

ten years here or there, middle age and old age

shifting under a veil of weathered skin, bare feet black and

leather-like, hands indelibly creased. They are on their

haunches, and, as might be deduced from their clothing,

they are all female. About thirty-five of them, each with a

ball-peen hammer that is reducing a large stone to a cluster

of small stones, and now that Herta and Wade are near

the group it is clear that there is this other pile of rocks

that is developing from the pile of large rocks that sits in

the sun. The pile of small stones is in the sun, too, but that

pile isn’t as noticeable as the pile of large stones because

it’s not piled up so much. This might change, but for now

the small stones form a flattish pile.


Both Herta and Wade stop pedaling so as to coast by

these women who are all pinging away at rocks, and of

course it is that sound that was unidentifiable, but now it

is very much understood, and at the same time they

understand the nature of this labor, for the women are

creating gravel, the sort of gravel that might be mixed with

tar to produce asphalt for the paving of a road. What is

imaginable is a truck pulling up, a dump truck perhaps,

and then the gravel getting shoveled into the bed of the

truck, which is probably how the large rocks arrived, via

truck, perhaps a dump truck.


The women keep pinging away as they look at Herta

and Wade gliding by, and of Herta and Wade there are

sunglasses and khaki shorts and floral-print shirts, and so

the women look at Herta and Wade with what might be

the same astonishment with which Herta and Wade look

at the women, and nothing in this exchange of information

changes until Herta and Wade thrust with their legs and

start pedaling, which puts distance between them and the

women, who are wisely in the shade of that green-leaf tree.


Bewilderment is available here. 



MICHAEL ONOFREY was born and raised in Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. Over seventy of his short stories have been published in literary journals and magazines, in print and online, in such places as Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Snowy Egret,, Weber–The Contemporary West, and The William and Mary Review. Among anthologized work, his stories have appeared in Creativity & Constraint (Wising Up Press, 2014), In New Light (Northern Initiative for Social Action, 2013), Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (University of New Mexico Press, 2013), and Imagination & Place: An Anthology (Imagination & Place Press, 2009). He is the author of “Bewilderment,” Tailwinds Press.