The Almanac Branchby Bradford Morrow
A brilliant allegory that traces the life of a young woman whose sanity teeters on the edge as she tries to hold together her troubled family.
Since childhood, Grace Brush has suffered episodic migraines. With them come hallucinatory visions, which reveal buried memories, leading her inexorably on the path to discovering secrets that could send her
A brilliant allegory that traces the life of a young woman whose sanity teeters on the edge as she tries to hold together her troubled family.
Since childhood, Grace Brush has suffered episodic migraines. With them come hallucinatory visions, which reveal buried memories, leading her inexorably on the path to discovering secrets that could send her family’s business empire into ruin. As Grace grows into adulthood, her quest for personal freedom collides with the mysteries of her past, making of her story an almanac of the perplexing nature of truth itself. Bradford Morrow maps the geography of a family’s tragedy and one woman’s redemption with astounding psychological insight, grace, and nuance.
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The Almanac Branch
By Bradford Morrow
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Bradford Morrow
All rights reserved.
How the Ravishments Began
THEY SPOKE IN light, when they felt like speaking. They spoke only to her, they said. When she asked them what they wanted, they retreated into the bark of their tree, and the night turned back to black. Sometimes she just watched them where they congregated in that old ailanthus outside her window, and didn't ask them questions. They would do as they pleased, whispering in hostile tendrils of crackling light words she often couldn't understand, or tracing curious cartoon figures on the pane with mercury and yellow sparks, or bursting into a cloud of crystals when at last she told them to go away. She alone knew them in the beginning, though she hadn't known them well enough to be able to say, in her child's voice, "Such and such took place." But now, because of what she had done, and after they had warned her not to, others would know they were there, and that meant there was going to be a problem.
It was late when the knocking was heard. Her father found her in her room standing at the third story window, slapping her palm against the glass, which was luminous with the light that came from a window across the back yard. Her face was dappled by shadows thrown through the wet limbs and the errant snow drifting down between them; and her father's wonder at how she had gotten herself so worked up, and what kind of dream could have left her in such a state—naked and shaking—was only overwhelmed by what formed on the girl's lips once he got a blanket around her and lifted her into his arms.
"They come in off the branch," she said, rubbing her eyes.
"They did, out there."
He looked over her head into the night where winter smoke had settled with the snow over everything, peered down in the courtyard at the brick walls veined with ivy and dangling cables. A silhouette of some intruder, which he always hoped for, something to substantiate these events, was nowhere to be seen. He lifted the window a little, as her room was warm, and heard the music of the pianist who lived across the way, echoing against the brick. The city, someone always awake—couldn't that guy learn something else, all those crowded arpeggios flying every which way, and the piano out of tune through every note.
"They're gone now," he assured his daughter, setting her down and running his hand over her damp hair. The room had cooled, and he pulled the window shut.
"They want in."
The man heard her brothers talking in the hall—small voices of complaint about this middle of the night stuff going on again—and he shouted over his shoulder at them to go back to bed, and hearing their footsteps retreating down the corridor, asked her, quietly as he could, "Grace, who wants in?"
"Right there, them light people," she pointed to where they were still, out there pulsing and pushing, sending out their white razor flame. They weren't happy about being tattled on, was what the small one with the electric zigzag tongue told her. Hey, that girl was going to pay for her indiscretion. Her father was saying something to her but she couldn't quite make out his words given what an angry din the intensified lights had raised. They never really said they wanted to be her friends, but on the other hand they didn't think they had done anything to her that would provoke such treachery. She opened her mouth to apologize but they weren't interested in listening to apologies. They reminded her that she could have come out onto the branch and joined them whenever she wanted. Hadn't some of them been beckoning? Her father put her back to bed, and read to her for a while. The music from across the walled yard stopped, and the tree dimmed and was silent.
Just before Christmas, two nights later, a static voice came to her and said, Hey Grace?you want to see a trick?
Watch this, watch this, you won't believe it.
She went to the window, her fingers gathered to her chest, her quilt wrapped like a shawl around her as she stood there and again watched the light show. The flare man—the only one of the light people Grace felt was a friend—was alone, and had on a shell-pink tuxedo through which you could see his skeleton. Across his face, a crisp fuchsia smile.
Don't look down, girl, just watch this, he said.
Grace was afraid to call for her father, in part for fear she might awaken the small one who had threatened to sting her with that zigzag tongue of his, and in part because she didn't want her brothers to say anything about her light people, especially Berg, who made fun of her, and them, whenever he got the chance.
Sheepishly, she shook her head yes.
It was an astonishing display. It made her smile back at him, despite her terror. The flare man had gathered himself into a small ball of voltage, about the size of a baby, and then ran lightning snakes down and up and out, winding their way around every branch and limb of the tree so that the tree burst bright into bloom, and this ailanthus, this glorious urban weed—this botanical survivor, which sprouted between subway tracks, survived in pitch-dark cellars, in ventilation shafts, which sent down roots into fissures in the streets, where they strangled pipes and needled the bedrock—which was called, for all its love of darkness, the Tree of Heaven, wore for a moment its full garland of summer leaves, right here at the beginning of winter. The leaves nodded, cordial and companionable. Each leaf was impeccable in shape and contour, each was composed of humming, blue light.
Grace clapped and laughed, until the force of a flash against the casement knocked her backwards into her bureau.
Shelter Island. How appropriate the name must have seemed. Seasoned a traveler though he was, my father, whom I have called Faw as far back as I can remember, had never been there, and for all he knew, the island was nothing but a hump of granite, with patches of bitter grass cropped by stinking unshorn sheep, or a mud flat furred with pampas and populated by birds and scuttling crabs. But he liked the way it looked on the map, cradled between two earthly arms of the north and south forks of Long Island. I can still see him settling his lanky body into a library chair and putting his lean, intent face down close to the map. I can see how he imagined Peconic Bay flowing outward toward the east, Gardiners Bay flowing in from the open waters, how all the coves and inlets of the island swirled in their wash. Together they suggested renewal to him, my renewal. They hinted of absolution and health. And though there have been people in my life who have tried to convince me that a man as self-absorbed as my father could only have removed me and the rest of us to the island to reduce the distraction of raising a family—to hide behind mine his own need for renewal, or a darker need to be left alone—I have refused to believe it. Even now I know that it's never been quite that simple.
My father was an atlas man. He trusted maps more than the land itself. He lived by them, and the names people had given to the rivers and towns on them. While he was not what you would call a religious person—we children were never exposed to the sepulchral interior of a church, or any lessons about virgin births and miracles and so forth (except somehow I knew that St. Peter was crucified upside down, which I thought was pretty wild)—he was superstitious to a fault. My father would trust the most important decision to what most people would consider trivial, a word, a number, a color. So when my night visions got "completely out of hand"—these were Mother's words the morning after the flare man's show, words not meant to be overheard by me who never felt the night visions to be visions, as such—he went to his map case. Out came his compass. I watched him, my muscular yet delicate Faw, as he pinned its metal tip into the paper at the point where we lived, pulled the pencil leg out, and described a circle. Half the area inside the circle was light blue, the ocean. He let his finger wander over the map as if it were a Ouija board, then his intuition (yes; for though he was superstitious, he was willful in his way) tempted him out along the length of the burnt umber body of Long Island. He smiled at me, and it was one of those moments in which I couldn't tell whether we were experiencing something together and I was supposed to offer a conspiratorial smile in return, or whether he was enjoying himself while mildly teasing me—something he loved to do from time to time. With his free hand he gathered me over against him and showed me where we were going.
Shelter, I read.
Did I know what that meant?
He explained. All of it seemed so innocent at the time, and rather than feeling used, I felt grateful, rather than feeling apprehensive about what my father was about to do to himself, and the rest of us, I felt elevated by the warmth of his affection toward me.
Thirty years I have tried to piece together what happened to me, to all of us that crucial winter. It's been a task that I've taken up, and dropped, and then taken up again, and dropped again. Only now I realize that I must reconstruct all this, because it's no longer a matter of curiosity, but survival—this time, in fact, not merely my own. Crises have a habit of engendering more of their kind, just as do healthy organisms, emotions. My family's early catastrophes brought on the later ones, and we have had a time of it trying to break the trend. You get used to things that came before coming again, you even get to where you not only expect but secretly want to see more of the same trouble you've already gone through—"If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all."
It happens because you become familiar with a certain way of living, so that living perversely feels natural and comfortable. Health has become foreign to you, and frightening, and far away, so far away as to appear unreachable—no matter how you define it. For me, health means having a conscience and living by it with as much energy as is available to you, it means having a discipline. And health has always seemed distant to me, far more distant than any island, until recently. Catastrophes have had a way of taking me down so far and, given that I've been a faithful and willing traveler, may now have brought me, whether I like it or not, to a place of—and I use the term reluctantly, because it's a word that smacks of religion and I'd argue that none of this has to do with religion—redemption. On the other hand, as my older brother Berg insists, now that he has an adult stake in such matters, redemption "is something that only happens in the movies, and it happens because audiences demand the happy ending, they insist on deliverance, even when they know that everything is pointing in just the opposite direction." A filmmaker and, until this most recent project he's got himself entangled with, in business to make money, Berg has always been one to believe in providing his audience its dose of generic, feel-good resolution. Give them what they need, take from them what you want. I, in my role of recovering cynic, and as someone who now must finally face up to, even go up against Berg, who is about to ruin himself, along with the rest of us—through inadvertence as much as greed—cannot speak for others, can only speak for myself, can only address my own redemption, such as it is, or might be.
Of New York, where I was born, in April 1957, and lived until my seventh birthday, I can remember a few fragments.
There was a sailboat pattern on my bedroom curtains, with tall brown mountains that ringed the tan water in which the boats rode. The wrought-iron in front of our townhouse near the park up in Harlem was strong, and the smell of summer garbage along the streets was strong. The nocturnal visits of the light people and the aphotic bouts with my head were often followed by my father's reading to me from The Arabian Nights. Those ribbons of Sir Richard's words, his translation of the epic in lush and honeyed sentences—how they wrap my memory even today. And Shahrazad, my heroine and mentor, liar for the ages, was the sister I never had. My mother, Erin, was a pale, blue-eyed woman of medium height, with a tall brow and angular, honest cheekbones, fine manly hands whose veins were very prominent. Her hair, auburn shot through with scotch, was to my eye so flowing, as flowing as any Pre-Raphaelite's but without the usual douleur, and far more Irish. (People sometimes said that when I got older she and I would look like sisters, as we shared these features—except my eyes were green.) My mother often smelled of potpourri, which was an obsession of hers, an eccentric one I always thought, wresting petals off cut flowers, roses mostly, and drying them on the kitchen counter spread with dish towels. These are clear, unblocked memories, and they're the only ones I have got, because what my life was before we emigrated to the island seems to blend into an indistinction that is as familiar as the perfume from those cloisonné bowls of potpourri, and as impossible to distinguish as the scent of one flower from another.
My migraines, which were alluded to as seldom as possible in our family, as if they were leprosy or madness, were referred to by us with the amiable old name of "megrim"—which sounded to me like "my grim," an accurate-enough homonym. They were the source, it was agreed by the several doctors to whom I'd been taken, of my visions ... psychotic ecstasies, as one of the specialists—whom Faw loathed—called them; auras was Dr. Trudeau's word. Everyone was always more upset, and perhaps awed by the sheer phenomenological peculiarity of the visions than I, and as a result tended to ignore the migraine itself. For me, the auras, the whispering lights and fantastical occurrences, were indeed enthralling and even ecstatic, whereas the megrims that led to them were just weighty and deadening. During the megrims all I wanted was for my senses to stop receiving signals from the world, and for everything to come to an end. The megrims backed me into a dark wet quiet which, unlike the darkness my jolly haunted ailanthus tree thrived in, forbade growth. It is common for us to speak of St. Hildegard's sublime visions, when we speak of such things, and to marvel at her mystical stars and her descriptions of the city of God and the Fall of the Angels and all that stuff, but seldom do we think of her as just a pitiful girl racked by pains she didn't understand, and which to this day medicine has neither explained nor been able to cure. Rarely have I rued the fact we weren't religious. But when I have, I've fantasized what my so-called visions might have meant to me if we were. I could have been a saint, instead of Grace Brush. But some of the things I've done in life as a result of not believing I wouldn't give up for anything, let alone a martyr's seat up in big bad boring heaven. Let others retire in celestial peace and walk the Elysian fields—which I picture as being a kind of golf course, pristine and manicured, with paths of raked stardust. For myself, give me my earthly weeds and I'll go my own direction.
I didn't like, and still don't, people feeling sorry for me, so as often as not I did my best to mask what was going on. The flare man I can see in my mind's eye as clearly as if it had been yesterday, rather than a quarter of a century ago. If I hadn't lived in a migrainous world would I remember more about—and thus be able to better record—what our family was like before we left for the island? I'd like to think that I would have sharper memories of my brother Desmond. As it is, I do not.
There were other houses on the island that dated from the same period as Scrub Farm, mid-nineteenth century. Families lived on and on in them, passing them down to children who married some cousin or another, in the island tradition. There they settled, just as their ancestors had, and stayed put, rather than to risk launching themselves like sea-battered coracles out toward the world beyond their shores. Like most islanders, they preferred to live among their own kind, and together survived all the hardships that poverty and ignorance and bad weather brought their way.
But while Scrub Farm's owners got through the Depression, the widow Merriam outlived every relative she ever had, and died heirless at the beginning of the new year, 1964. Scrub Farm was hardly a farm. For one, there wasn't much land to cultivate. The wind had for centuries blown across its stony fields, bending the trees, drying the soil. Whenever a storm came in off the ocean, Scrub Farm would have been the first to be hit, set as it was at the foremost edge of the island.
Excerpted from The Almanac Branch by Bradford Morrow. Copyright © 1991 Bradford Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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