Posted by Lizzie on 02/20/06
For quite some time, in addition to assiduously watching Kill Bill everytime it airs and making plans to reenter the world of preparing one’s own food, your ol’ Old Hag has been planning a new feature on the site–one that will not only a) exponentially increase the quality of the writing herein, but will 2) allow us to do no work. Let us introduce you all to the win-win of Teaser, people, wherein we “tease”–aha!–you with snippets of forthcoming novels by, you know, other people. (Take that, Amazon fucking shorts!)
First up is the incomparable Maud Casey. The author of Drastic, a collection of short stories, and The Shape of Things to Come, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Casey was also a contributor to the excellent Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, which we can inform you from experience is not at all as fun as being on drugs. “Keep Death Daily Before Your Eyes” is a section from her forthcoming novel Genealogy, and here’s where for god’s sake we should have asked the author for a precis of the novel but we forgot so we’ll steal from our fellow Baltimoron and inform you that “Genealogy will use four alternating perspectives to explore the lives of a family affected by mental illness, memory, and the peculiar life of Louise Lateau, a 19th-century Belgian girl who developed a stigmata every day after surviving a cholera epidemic.” That is, “if all goes continues to go according to the plan on her wall.” (We love that wee coda. Our own wall has been fucking with us for months, and if things don’t improve we’re painting it lime green. Try switching chapter 3 to third person indirect then, dude.) In any case, herewith a better wall. Enjoy.
Everyone is gone. Most of all her daughter Marguerite with her fierce pointed nose like a command in the center of her face. On a patch of kitchen linoleum warmed by the sun, Samantha Hennart stands in bare feet gnarled with calluses from walking outside with no shoes. The gnarled feet, the warm linoleum, the blackberry bushes that have grown around the periphery of the former train depot—all once a sign of abundance—now only confuse her. She lays the flyswatter on the kitchen table—the same flyswatter she uses to kill flies and bat her gone husband’s high-pitched frequency of disdain out of the air—in order to open the window and let in the familiar sharp mingled smell of ocean salt and cow manure.
“Let it be said,” Sam says out loud. She doesn’t bother to finish the sentence. She’s forgotten how it ends or if it ever had an ending. There is nothing to be said; there is only the silence of her entire absent family. No more footsteps in rooms above her or on the stairs, footsteps that lately were always on their way to other rooms. No more rush of pee in the toilet, no more muffled coughs or stifled sneezes. No more of her son’s plaintive guitar playing from under his closed door. No more rattling pans in the kitchen as her husband warms milk for himself and Marguerite as he prepares to read aloud to her, when he thought Sam wasn’t listening, from that so called sacred text of his about the ecstatic nineteenth-century Belgian girl who bled for God.
But Sam was always listening to the things Bernard was deaf to. “Do you hear the blood rush and swirl?” Marguerite asked yesterday morning before she disappeared. She said it matter-of-factly, as if she was asking what time it was or wondering about the weather. She pinned Sam’s ear with her wrist. That wrist at the end of the slender branch of her arm, her elbow like a giant knob on that slender branch. “Do you hear the blood rush and swirl? Begging me?”
“What is it begging you?”
“Begging to be let out.”
“Let it be said,” Sam says again now. Still nothing occurs to her, so instead she looks out toward the water. This view could save a life. It is that beautiful. The stony fields, fences, and fields, and fences, and fields leased by local Rhode Island farmers, empty space made cozy by the lowing cows swinging their big dumb heads, and finally, just beyond, that quivering line of ocean on the horizon, the allure of all that mysterious water always within sight. The view is saving her life right now.
She said this to Bernard when they first bought the former train depot thirteen years ago and decided to make it their home. The man who had sold the place to them said that before it had been converted into a home the bedrooms for the children were once luggage rooms, the kitchen the ticket office. He’d told them the bench in the foyer was from the train depot’s original waiting room, and when the man went outside to take a call on his cell phone, Bernard sat down and demanded, “Where’s my fucking train?” Sam repeated it, and then twelve-year-old Ryan did too. Each time it was funnier and funnier until finally Bernard was rolling around on the floor, shouting: I’ll give up my recently tenured appointment in that fucking navel-gazing English Department! We’ll start over in the countryside that smells like a manure-filed ocean! It will be good for the kids! It will be good for Sam’s poetry! Sestinas about manure and the ocean! He leaped to his feet, smothering Sam with dusty kisses, and when the owner returned, Bernard shouted, “Sold!”
“Where’s my fucking train?” five-year-old Marguerite said out of the blue, shrugging her tiny shoulders in fake disgust, and the owner looked to Sam to explain her daughter’s behavior. They were all laughing so hard the owner, frowning with concern, said, “I’ll leave you all to look around then.”
They laughed their way up the creaking stairs, but the laughter that had hold of Sam’s body like violent hiccups stopped abruptly when she looked out the window. “This view could save a life,” she said. “Yes.” Bernard was no longer laughing either. One word, so sweet and unfettered. It was all Sam had ever wanted. Yes, the word felt as durable as love felt then; yes, as if it were leaving a visible mark on Sam’s skin. “Yes,” Bernard had said, and placed his hand against what he then called Sam’s revelatory forehead, as if she had a fever but not one he wanted to cure her of, one he wanted to catch.
It was a forehead, she notices now in her shadowy-eyed reflection in the window, that could hardly be called revelatory anymore. No revel there at all. Her right eyelid flutters again—it’s been doing this all morning, a tic from nerves? She rubs her eye with the back of her hand, pouring the rest of the coffee out in the sink, then digs a chopstick out of a drawer to put her hair up in a bun. Samantha wore her hair up the first day of Topics in Medieval Literature: Vision and Heresy in the Hagiography of the Beguines, stuck through with two pencils because she thought it made her look older than her sixteen years, capable of either vision or heresy, or maybe both.
Her mother begged her to take a year off before she “left her mother and her father all alone on the farm.” “You skipped a year of high school. What’s your rush?” Belinda asked, standing there in a flour-dusted apron. Behind her, Ryan kicked back in his Lazy Boy recliner, eyes closed, drinking a beer. Both of them looked a thousand years old, and Samantha was out of there.
She changed out of what Belinda called her “dress-up slacks” into a plaid miniskirt in the cramped bus depot bathroom. She was in such a hurry she knocked her elbow against the rim of the sink so it rang with pain and it seemed to her that this was the feeling of going out into the world. She banged her elbow again to make sure and, yes, it was.
She felt this same painful but pleasurable ringing through her entire body when Professor Bernard Hennart walked into the classroom the first day. He was the exact opposite of the big, strapping, Nordic farm boys her mother always encouraged her to pursue, boys who never looked at her twice because she was bookish and quiet, never making the most of her looks. “Curlers are miracle workers, Samantha,” her mother said to her over the phone, as if she could intuit the knot in Samantha’s tangled hair. “And a few strokes of the brush never hurt.” Professor Hennart was shorter and much slighter than her father, with a scruffy beard and startled eyes set far apart, but then he began to speak about the Beguines, single women who for centuries made a life for themselves in communities of other single women in towns with names like Liège, Willambroux, and Oignies, the g effortlessly soft, gentle, and unpretentious in Professor Hennart’s mouth hidden deep like a secret in his beard. He spoke of women who chose to lead lives of prayer and contemplation in communities that, unlike the convent, allowed them freedom to come and go. “To be involved with the world and the world beyond this world,” Professor Hennart said. “To lay chaste hands on lepers and the dead.”
It was then Samantha understood the reason the other girls on her college hall giggled about his intensity when she told them she was taking this class. “Independent women who embodied an ecstatic kind of holiness so powerful it wasn’t meant to be imitated,” Professor Hennart said. Though he stood awkwardly in front of the class, one of his hands gestured wildly as if he were playing that kid’s game Samantha used to play with her father where she would stand behind him and operate his arms to make her mother laugh. Samantha saw the potential lurking underneath the franticness for more deliberate, calculated movement.
“Rather,” Professor Hennart continued, “they saw their bodies as vessels, opportunities for God to break through into the mortal world.” One of Professor Hennart’s eyes wandered slightly as he leaned back against the desk, folding his arms across his thin chest as if to contain his flailing, gesturing hand. Samantha wasn’t sure if he was looking at her or beyond her, but still her body rang and rang like her elbow in the bus depot bathroom. As he began to list the names of the women whose vitaethey would be reading over the course of the class—Mary of Oignies, Odilia of Liège, Christina Mirabilis, Margaret of Ypres, Lutgard of Aywieres—Samantha yearned for Professor Hennart to see clearly the bold girl who sat before him, a girl who had left her family behind to venture out into the world and receive wisdom the way the Beguines received God. “Mary of Oignies,” Professor Hennart said, that g as gentle as his hand in hers would be, “tasted honey whenever she was at mass.”
He spoke of women who for months ate nothing but the tiny flowers off of lime trees, who craved only the Eucharist, whose fingers exuded healing oil. Samantha could hear Professor Hennart’s admiration in the soft, tender sound of the consonants as he described these women whose breasts filled with milk in imitation of Mary on the night of the Nativity when Christ was born, whose hair bled when cut, and Samantha wanted her own breasts to swell with milk, for blood to run freely from her own cut hair. Under the skittish gaze of Professor Hennart, filled with the mystery and intelligence of all of the books she’d yet to read, Samantha resolved to tell him her name was Sam. She’d never been called Sam, but she always wanted a nickname and her parents, who never, ever, told her there were men like this out in the world, had always insisted on Samantha.
Flutter, flutter goes Sam’s left eyelid now as she stares out onto the lifesaving view. Sam had been her parents’ baby, and she would remain their baby. When she was eighteen, their Nebraska farm burned to the ground, the result of faulty wiring. There were other fires on other farms, but the local electric company refused to take responsibility. They knew that the struggling, middle-class families whose houses were destroyed would never fight back, especially when the farmers themselves were turned to ash. This was essentially what George, the Lutheran minister whom Sam had known since birth, said at the service about her parents, but in a kinder, gentler way. And then there he was with his wandering eye and his learned beard: Bernard.
“It’s like Marguerite Porette,” Professor Hennart said when she went to his office to show him a poem from the book-length collection that won her the university’s prestigious poetry prize. No undergraduate had ever won the prize, and certainly never a sixteen-year-old. “‘Humble, then, your wisdom,’” Professor Hennart said, “‘which is based on reason and place all your fidelity in those things which are given by love, illuminated through faith.’” He stared off into two versions of the distance. “It’s from the only work of hers that exists. She was accused of being a pseudo-mulier. Killed in 1310, during the Paris Inquisition. Burned at the stake.”
Sam couldn’t help it. Pseudo-mulier, though she didn’t even know what it meant, was the sexiest thing she’d ever heard a man say. Burned at the stake was the second sexiest. Sam nodded and smiled the smile she had perfected to indicate of course, of course in the face of one more thing she didn’t know. After she left his office, she would rush out and discover that pseudo-mulier meant “fake woman” and that Marguerite meant “pearl” in Old French. She loved that. It was as though through her very name, Marguerite fought back.
Sam would find Marguerite Porette’s book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, and pore over its pages for a message from Professor Hennart to her. You who would read this book if you indeed wish to grasp it, it began. She wanted to grasp it all as she thought of Professor Hennart’s eye upon her in the office, wandering especially far afield that day. Flutter flutter, the sun coming through the kitchen window is sharper now, like little flecks of glass. Everyone expected Sam to go on to great things after the poetry prize. She hasn’t. Every morning she attempts to leave her body and float out into this lifesaving view—the fields and fields and fields so beautiful it’s as if they’re creating themselves over again each morning just for her. She wills herself to float out the window into the field speckled with those dumb, lowing cows, like the ones she grew up with so long ago in that part of her life that seems like a dream. She wills herself to float in order to dodge the boulder that rolls down the hill on top of her whenever she sits down to write.
Earlier this morning she went to her study in an effort to distract herself from counting the minutes that made up the hours she had been instructed to wait by the police before calling back to file a missing persons report for Marguerite, the only member of her family she currently wanted to find. She likes to imagine her study was the room where the depot agents played poker. When they first moved in, she found a few packs of cards and a calendar of pinup girls underneath a stack of train schedules, though Bernard insisted the guy who owned the place previously had bought them and put them out for show. This morning, she tried to make something out of “agonists” and “antagonists,” neurological words she’s come across in her research in order to help Marguerite. Sam prefers not to consider it an illness; she didn’t like the idea of lumping her daughter in with the millions of aspirers to mental illness. Agonists and antagonists had something to do with receptors in the brain, activating and blocking receptor-mediated events, but who was she kidding? “No one is here,” from Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” filled her mind until she had no words of her own. She herself was hell.
She took out her notebook and tried to flush the poison out by rewriting the words that she came across in her frantic research on her way to the discovery of Edward Strecker’s continuous bath (okay, so giving her daughter warm baths wasn’t exactly modern medicine, true, but it was friendly, kind, invented by the Quakers for Christ’s sake, and it had seemed, until yesterday, to have a calming effect on her daughter). Morbid, externalizing disorders, reuptake inhibitors, single-blind placebo, psychotropic, rapid dose escalation protocol. Words spawned by the guidance counselor’s premature suggestion that they might need to put Marguerite on medication. The counselor called to tell Sam that her daughter had been crying in the bathroom every day the entire first week of school, her daughter who had never had trouble at school. Yes, Sam said, she’d always had problems making friends because she was shy, but she had always gotten good grades. And that on this particular day, there had been an incident in Marguerite’s physics classroom in which Marguerite appeared “distressed,” was how the counselor put it. At first Sam enjoyed talking to the guidance counselor, inhabiting fully since Ryan was gone the role of mother to her daughter whom she still felt flickers of guilt over for imagining her (and that’s how she described it to herself now, imagining, not wishing) her daughter gone for that split second on the pier. But then, the counselor started talking about medication. “Have you even met my daughter?” Sam had said, outraged by this woman who sounded like the plastic smile Sam imagined her to be wearing. “What is this rush to diagnose?” Sam felt outraged and the outrage felt good, maternal. “Why are you such a lemming?” Sam had asked.
Perhaps she had been abrupt and nasty, but when Bernard told her she might have been rude when she recounted the conversation, she slammed a door in his face. Open naturalistic examination, mood lability, neuroleptics, rates of refusal, noncompliance, rapid loading strategy, lithium carbonate, valproate acid, carbamazepine. These words backfired, bringing the poison back, and she ended up rewriting the sentence that had been echoing in her head for months now: A woman who once spoke poetry and now speaks only in frogs.
And there was that boulder, on top of her before she even began, there since yesterday when the police came armed with questions about Marguerite after Sam called them to report her missing yesterday. They came after Sam’s frantic search up and down the road to the beach, after she interviewed the latest crew of lanky teenagers smoking in a huddle up in the beach grass of the dunes. The wind blew the beach grass into pretty arcs that nicked Sam’s bare thighs with sharp tips. The teenagers knew nothing, but offered her a cigarette, which she gladly smoked though she had quit years before.
“Was your daughter unhappy?” the police officer asked. He stood in the kitchen with a small notepad not unlike the notebook Sam threw against the wall of her study this morning.
“She’s eighteen,” Sam said. “Eighteen,” she repeated dumbly, and she found herself wanting to ask this police officer if he thought she was a good mother. What could he say anyway? He would never tell her the truth. It was one of those questions you could never get to the bottom of. And here she was, thinking of herself when her daughter was gone.
“Was she suicidal?” the police officer asked, his face so still it was as if it was paralyzed. Her gratitude for the interruption of her own thoughts almost diluted the awfulness of the question. “No,” she said and then wondered if she said it too quickly and if she had did that mean she didn’t believe what she was saying? Sam attempted to still her own face. Do you hear my blood begging to be let out?
The photographs of Marguerite Sam could locate most quickly were a series of black-and-white pictures Ryan had taken: Marguerite, slim and wearing one of Ryan’s tattered tee shirts, brown hair recently cut short by Sam herself. Sam thought it must have been exhaustion that made her wonder as she took the scissors to Marguerite’s hair, as Marguerite had asked her to, whether her hair would bleed like Bernard’s Beguines. She looks like a boy in the pictures, dancing wildly as was still tradition after dinner to Exile on Main Street. Sam had asked Ryan to play other things, but until he left Ryan had been boss of the CD player. In the picture, Marguerite’s arms are flung outward and blurred like wings.
The look on the police officer’s still, still face told Sam that these pictures only confirmed that her daughter was out of her mind. He touched Sam’s shoulder. Why was the shoulder always the default area of comfort? People were forever touching her shoulder. Even one of those stoned teenagers at the beach had touched her shoulder.
“Check in with me after twenty-four hours,” the police officer said, handing her his card, which now lies on the kitchen table next to the flyswatter.
With two more hours to go, Sam pours more coffee into the mug she just emptied and opens the window, sticks her face farther out into the day.
Maybe Marguerite has disappeared into the fields, where she often goes for walks with the cows whose big bony faces she’s loved to touch since she was a child. Sam pours her coffee into the sink again, reties her robe, and rushes out into the stubble of the fields on the calluses of her oblivious bare feet. She puts one hand over her shut left eye to prevent the flutter, shielding both her eyes from the sharp light of the sun. She leaps over piles of cow shit and then stands on a rock and looks around like the gophers that come up out of their holes and sniff the air. All she sees are fields and cows. She rushes up to the herd of cows who swing their big heads up from the stubbly grass and gallumph awkwardly away.
“Stupid fucking cows!” she yells.
Let it be said, Ryan’s leaving was Bernard’s fault. Let it be said, Bernard kicked him out. Bernard was always mysterious about the exact nature of the fight itself, but Bernard never had known what to do with a son who didn’t love books, who, at the age of twenty-five, preferred rock and roll and hanging out and smoking dope and was never going to go to college no matter how much Bernard wished it to happen. Still, Bernard should have considered Marguerite, who was devastated when Ryan left. Bernard’s departure, that Sam is willing to take some responsibility for. Let it be said, she fucked the carpenter who came to redo the bathroom. As she walks back up to the house, she has a feeling Thompson, the carpenter, might suggest, “Run into the light of God!,” according to St. Benedict. “You’ve got to be willing to keep death daily before your eyes,” he said just before he left for his weekend retreat. Thompson referred to himself as her boyfriend, though they’ve slept together only twice—three days ago when Bernard walked in on them, and once more since Bernard left. Each time Sam made sure Marguerite was sleeping after a bath.
She’s not sure what running into the light of God entails, but it’s strangely comforting to her because it reminds her of church in Grand Island, Nebraska, where her other long-gone family would drive every Sunday from the farm and speak to George the Lutheran minister after the services. George knew everyone by name so it seemed to Sam as a young girl that he probably was also on a first-name basis with God, which was a relief because Sam had a hard time feeling God even then. She’s always wanted to feel God, but when she tries it’s like she’s constipated. Nothing will come out. Sam has decided to nod and smiles enthusiastically at Thompson whenever he tells her to run into the light of God because she wants to believe in his version of God, or any version really. Yes, Bernard, she thinks, remembering the way Bernard mocked her mercilessly for attributing the fact that Marguerite didn’t die when she fell off the pier that day to something spiritual, I want to believe in God. She also smiles at Thompson with as much enthusiasm as she can muster whenever he suggests because she wants to prevent one more person from disappearing.
Back in the kitchen, Sam pours herself yet another cup of coffee. She uses the flyswatter to push a few dead flies off the windowsill. In an attempt to still her rapidly fluttering eyelid, she looks for an inanimate object on which to focus and settles on the rocks shouldering their way to the surface of the soil in the backyard. The backyard is actually just one more stubbly field with a fence that Sam and Bernard built around it. The rocks come from underground, pushing their dumb rock faces against the dirt until they split the earth. Recently, Sam’s been harvesting the rocks, pulling up what’s left underground from the dirt, but lately it depresses her, this constant battle with the mute rocks who don’t even thank her.
“But why should they thank you?” Bernard teased her when she first began harvesting them, after the call from the guidance counselor. “Well, more likely them than you, right?” she said because she knew it would start a fight. Flutter, flutter, flutter, faster now, and she closes her eyes against the sun’s jagged light.
The wind whistling through the window has grown louder, siren like, though the curtains don’t rustle. Sam lets the ocean salt and manure smell fill her former Midwestern girl lungs, her former poet lungs, and soon-to-be former wife lungs, and then shuts the window. She doesn’t even think “former mother lungs” but, there, she’s thought it. There’s a sweet aluminum ping of pain in her ears, the wind’s siren growing louder, the sort of sweet aluminum ping of pain that, if she still wrote poems, would make her want to write a poem.
“Run into the light of God, my ass!” she shouts out the window. The farmer’s son, still baling hay, doesn’t look up. Sam shuts the window.
It is noon and when the clock in the front hall chimes it’s as if Sam is inside a bell. Flutter, flutter, flutter, and even though she closes her eyes against the tic, the flutter becomes a needle through the back of her eye. She steps away from the window and the fields and fields and the sweet ocean salt and manure smell disappear as her rebellious blood forces itself against the arterial wall, spilling into the area around her brain.
Though Sam won’t live to learn this, she has known the berrylike sac, resting in the now dilating, bifurcated vessel, longer than she has known anyone. They are intimates; she and it are one and the same. It’s been there since the day she was born, part of her body’s plan all along, adhered to the weak muscle layer of the blood vessel wall. A similar blood-berry sac was lodged in the brain of a great uncle who died before she was born and in the brain of an aunt on her father’s side of the family, someone he never spoke of because of a long-standing family grudge having to do with her father’s mother’s will, though no one could remember who exactly did what. Their blood courses through her veins the way her blood courses through her children’s veins, wherever they are, whether they like it or not.
Filed under: Teaser |