Changing Lightby Nora Gallagher
Nora Gallagher’s elegant debut novel is a love story set in Los Alamos in 1945, in the shadow of the creation of the first atomic bomb.During the last summer of World War II, in the beautiful high desert of New Mexico, a young painter, Eleanor Garrigue, discovers a delirious man lying by the river. She takes him in and cares for him, not knowing that he is
Nora Gallagher’s elegant debut novel is a love story set in Los Alamos in 1945, in the shadow of the creation of the first atomic bomb.During the last summer of World War II, in the beautiful high desert of New Mexico, a young painter, Eleanor Garrigue, discovers a delirious man lying by the river. She takes him in and cares for him, not knowing that he is Leo Kavan, a physicist who has fled Los Alamos after a deadly radiation accident. Eleanor herself has left New York to escape a stifling marriage and to renew her painting in the pure desert light. As the two reveal themselves to each other, their pasts and the present unfold in tandem, taking us from the heady New York art world to Einstein’s Berlin, from English bomb labs to the hidden city of Los Alamos. As their enemies close in, they find temporary solace together, connected and changed in unexpected ways by the brutal radiance of the war and their fierce love.
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Read an Excerpt
Gallagher: CHANGING LIGHT
Eleanor stood up in the garden from tilling a plot for early lettuce, shook off her hands, and stuffed them into the sleeves of her brown wool sweater. The wind was up; it blew dirt from the adobe wall into the newly hoed ground, dry pods from the chamisa bushes rattled like bones. She walked toward the house, sniffing the air like the dog beside her, climbed the steps to the door, opened it, walked past the stove, her hands still nestled in the sleeves—like one of those Chinamen, she thought to herself—and turned into the bedroom, where she’d put him last night.
All night long he’d listed between sleep and a rushing wakefulness, muttering in what she thought was German but couldn’t be sure. “Lotte,” he cried. “Raus aus dem Feuer!” And then, a word she thought might be English but didn’t know. “Implosion,” he said. She had placed rags on his head soaked in water and chamisa to break his fever, get him to sweat. He looked to her like men she’d met in New York: dark, Jewish, probably; curly black hair. Last night, when she’d found him lying in the bosque beside the river, his face was turned toward the sky. The dog circled him. She bent over him, her heart beating in her throat. His lips were cracked, his eyes shut. His wet khaki pants clung to his legs like vines. He grasped a pair of boots by their laces and a heavy belt in his right hand. Her eyes moved from the boots to the river and the mesa that rose up on the other side.
She bent down. “Hello?” she said. “Hello.” His head moved, the eyelids lifted. His eyes were a pale, startling blue. “Lotte?” he said.
“No,” she replied. His accent on the name was thick, and in her memory she heard someone’s voice speaking with these inflections, like an echo off a high stone wall. “Are you ill?” “Ill,” he repeated, and ran his tongue over his lips. She walked back through thick sand to the Ford, took her canteen out of the glove box, returned. He drank in small gulps, like a bird; she could see the water traveling down his throat. Water spilled out of his mouth and onto his chest, and he shivered. She jerked the canteen away.
“Can you walk?”
She wrapped his head in her father’s old sweater, the sleeves crossed over his eyes. She stood between his legs, grasped his ankles, and pulled. When she got him to the Ford, she squatted down, put her arms under his shoulders, and heaved him up to sitting against the front tire, then pulled him forward, whispering to him as she would to a horse, “Easy, now, easy, don’t fall.”
She had planned to drive him straight to the hospital, but as she started the engine he whispered to her, “No doctors.” She looked over at him and saw in his face a barely controlled desperation. And so she took him home. She shouldered him into the house as she had her brother when he came home drunk from a debutante’s party, and tipped him into bed.
She stood over him in the room plastered white with thick adobe walls that she and Estaban built last May before the sudden rain came in July and washed all the plaster off the outer walls and the dirt out of her garden, leaving only gravel, and she had to dig her carrots up with a pick.
He whispered in his sleep, half wakeful. His eyes opened and he saw her arm pass over his body like the shadow of a bird.
“What happened to you?” she asked. Leo turned his head to the wall, licking his lips.
We tickled the dragon’s tail, Leo thought. One of us was burned.
Slotin was moving the two half-moons together with screwdrivers. The counter ticked and the red signal lamps were blinking. The lamps blinked faster as Slotin moved the half spheres closer, like a drummer or a Japanese man with his chopsticks.
Then there was the sound of a screwdriver hitting the floor. The meter stopped. Leo heard the silence first. He yelled to Slotin, “Raus aus dem Feuer!”
The moon had pulled him across the deserted streets, between the trees, to the hole in the fence that the teenagers made to outfox the guards. His legs felt like sacks filled with sand. He got down on his hands and knees and bowed his head, feeling along the sharp ends of the linked fence with his hands first before he pushed himself through. He sat on the other side, his breath hot in his lungs, and then started to weep, his whole body shuddering. To be free of the place. He pulled the knapsack stuffed with a blanket and bread and cheese through the fence after him, adjusted the heavy belt stuffed with money that he carried with him through all border crossings, stood up, and began to find his way. In the dark were animal shapes moving through the trees: a deer, then a wild turkey, its wings folded neatly against its round breast. After a while he noticed the small swift bats flying past his nose, sonar alerting them to his head. He felt a sudden calm to be among them, the life of the world; as a boy he had always loved the dark.
Leo could not stay awake. He felt he should; he did not even know where he was or who this woman was who bent over him, asking questions. But he was too full of dreams or memories, he was not sure which. Slotin’s hands. The Chicago beehive assembly. His sister, Lotte, standing in the Woodrow Wilson train station in Prague.
Eleanor washed red and white beans in a colander at the sink. She poured water from a large earthenware pitcher through the beans and watched their colors darken as the liquid ran over and through them. She caught a cup of water from under the colander and poured it on the pink geraniums in the Folgers can on the windowsill. Outside the light changed to pink; streaks of purple lit up the Jemez. Her garden looked red for an instant. Tomorrow, the doctor, she thought, and almost said it out loud. Tomorrow she would drive into town. Even the unconventional gringa can’t allow a strange man to stay in her house, even if he’s ill.
She checked on him but he was deep in sleep, so she lit her kerosene reading lamp, but didn’t sit down. She was reading Willa Cather, a sweet, sad story about a family of Bohemians in Nebraska. She turned on the radio to hear a little jazz and felt lonely for the first time in months, when, for the first time in months, there was someone else in the house.
Her living room had a little fireplace placed in the wall at waist level that Griefa and Estaban built one afternoon.
“Ande yo caliente ya riase la gente,” Estaban said when he was finished, and when Eleanor asked him “En Inglés?” he shrugged his shoulders. Griefa said, “As long as I am warm, let the people laugh.” Griefa had plastered the walls wearing a dress—her bra showing under the arms—and a hat with plastic flowers. The floors were dirt mixed with cow’s blood, made by the dancers at San Ildefonso Pueblo. It had aged to a shiny deep red. Beside the bed was a wool rug in gray and black from the Ortega family in Chimayo. Against the wall were several canvases, and Eleanor’s paints were neatly lined up. The ceiling was made of heavy vigas with latias woven between them, thin aspen saplings that Estaban had cut in the forest above the boy’s school at Los Alamos.
This was what she had wanted, this room, imagining it while lying in the apartment in New York, sick with a headache, unable to go outside and face the crowded streets for fear of the paralyzing din in her head. She had built this house room by room in her mind ever since she had first seen New Mexico and known she would have to come back. When she and Griefa and Estaban were done, the three of them had breathed in the smell of damp plaster and then sat on the portal outside and drunk Coors beer and eaten some green chile stew Griefa had made and looked out at the blue Jemez Mountains.
Leo opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. How many days? One? Two? Whose room is this?
The light entered the room at quarter past six; his Timex was still ticking. He turned in the bed to watch the door, to wait until she was awake. He had not fully seen her, just her looming face over his, her hands near his mouth, her arm over his head. The sleeve of her white shirt. As she came through the door, he blinked as if to take a photograph. Woman walking through a doorway. White shirt, black skirt. A pensive face, fair skin, shadows under her eyes. Not a trace of rouge. Her hair was dark and straight, cut in a bob; she pushed it back with her left hand. White hands, thin wrists. She obscured and absorbed light as she entered. Leo thought of how neutrons slowing in the body’s watery cells scattered damage.
She leaned over him.
“Is this your house?” Leo asked.
She jumped back; her feet made the floor speak. He smiled.
She stayed where she was, watchful. He tried to broaden his smile, to appear innocent. Who was she?
“It’s very nice.” Then, “I’m hungry. I’m sorry to trouble you.”
She turned and left the room, returning with a bowl of chicken broth and a hard-boiled egg. She spooned the broth into his mouth. She tapped the egg against the wall above his shoulder and peeled the shell into pieces, which fell onto a blue damask napkin she had laid on the bed. She split the egg expertly with her thumbs and popped half into his mouth. He licked the dry, powdery yolk and the smooth white and swallowed. Then closed his eyes. She wiped her hands on her skirt, took the bowl from the side of the bed, and stood up. For a second she lost her balance and pressed her palm against the wall.
Memories called on Leo, plucked at his sleeve. The past was everywhere. A chain of laboratories, from the old world to the new, his life of the last thirteen years, now broken, disrupted: Berlin, the Cavendish lab in Cambridge, Chicago; then here, the Project. The organizing principles: war and flight relieved by discovery.
He had taken the train from Cambridge through the gloomy English countryside into London, that sad city with its piles of rubble. He could hear the ticking of his heart on the long ocean crossing when they neared the places where the German subs might lie under the ship’s weight. Beside the docks when they disembarked in New York there was a mound of oranges lit by flares.
They were the first oranges he’d seen in four years. He reached for one, feeling like a schoolboy, and the beauty of the city broke all around him. He would look back on that in the years to come as one of the last moments of Before, followed by After.
He found a hotel next to a good drugstore with a counter at which he could order scrambled eggs with matzo. He wished simply to walk in the great city of New York again, to breathe in its smell of subway and taxi exhaust and cooking and garbage, to listen to the conversations on the street, to be in a place free of the dread the war had brought to Europe, but he had work to do. The next day, he took a cab downtown and met Wigner at his Greenwich Village walk-up that smelled of cooked cabbage. Wigner, still yellow from a bout of jaundice, wore a suit complete with a vest even on that hot July day. Neither one of them knew exactly where Einstein was staying; it was a rented summer house out on Nassau Point. Leo had been Einstein’s student in Berlin, and had an idea to explain to him, and once, years ago, in a more innocent time, the two of them had patented together a refrigerator that ran on gas: these were his credentials. Leo had never owned a car and could not drive. Once they reached Long Island, Wigner drove in circles until, exasperated, Leo told him to stop. A small boy stood beside the road, fooling with a fishing pole. Leo leaned out the window and gave it a shot. Did he know where Professor Einstein was living? He did.
“I thought he might be a real American celebrity,” Leo said.
Wigner, already tired of Leo’s ego, was silent.
The boy trotted ahead of the sedan and Wigner drove with care.
Einstein was sitting on a small screened-in porch crowded with old summer cottage furniture: wicker chairs with flaking white paint, a table with a water glass on it, an old canvas deck chair, three croquet mallets leaning against a wall in the corner. The floorboards had been painted white. The water of the sound could be seen through the grid of the screens. He was as Leo remembered him: a huge head, furrowed forehead, wisps of white hair, deep brown playful eyes. An English writer had said he looked like a reliable watchmaker in a small town who might have collected butterflies on a Sunday.
He wore a pair of old khakis, fraying at the cuffs, and deck shoes. His eyes looked at Leo as they had when he was his student in Berlin, asking him why had he come, what did he want?
Someone brought in trays of sandwiches: cheese and cucumber. Einstein smoked his pipe, didn’t eat much. They drank nothing but seltzer and spoke only in German. It was so much like summer afternoons in Prague, Leo grew homesick.
“When we left Caputh in ’thirty-two, you remember, the house Elsa loved in the country,” Einstein was saying, “I told her, ‘Turn around. You will never see it again.’ ”
Leo nodded, remembering his mother’s tea roses, Fermi’s goldfish pond in Rome, and Lotte, always Lotte, the last time he saw her, running toward him so fast, he had to pull the cigar out of his mouth before she hit his chest. “In the lab, I am turning salt to blue air!” she had said. She smelled like their mother. He breathed in his family. Now each of them—the roses, the goldfish, his sister, his memories—under boots, in a camp.
Wigner, impatient, leaned forward, his hands on his knees. Leo noticed he had a smudge on his shirt. He looked at Leo.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Tell him about your great idea.”
“Secondary neutron experiments,” Leo began. And, finally, “Chain reaction in uranium and graphite.”
“Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht,” Einstein said, with astonishment and, to Leo’s surprise, evident pleasure.
He asked Leo a lot of questions, but the implications were already clear to him.
“If I have thought of this, so might our counterparts in Germany,” Leo said.
Einstein nodded quickly.
Leo told him of his private fund-raising efforts, and his realization that they must enlist the riches of governments. If it was possible, could Einstein write to Queen Elizabeth? President Roosevelt?
“Just to get started,” Leo said, “I need to buy some graphite.”
“But it may not work,” Wigner interjected. “He could be wrong. We would make fools of ourselves.”
Einstein looked at Wigner and smiled. Leo realized he was above the fear of being a fool—a true American celebrity.
On the way home, Leo laughed out loud. Wigner frowned.
“You’re distracting me from driving,” he said.
“He liked it that he had never thought of it,” Leo said. “What a relief it must be to him not to have thought of something.”
There was a turf war over who would build the experimental lab; the University of Chicago won. Not knowing what amount of radiation might be released, Fermi and Leo found a doubles squash court under the football field stands, a place underground. They worked with graphite bricks, and after a while they looked like coal miners, their lab coats smudged and sooted, their faces darkened like minstrels. The guards at the doors shivered in the cold until they dressed themselves in raccoon coats found in an abandoned locker.
Early December. Bitter cold. That morning, they had received word that two million Jews had died in Europe. Leo and Fermi entered the squash court that held the pile. Covered in a black balloon cloth, it looked like a giant beehive. They began removing the rods one by one. The last one came out only in the most careful increments. Fermi was at work on his slide rule. As the rod was moved out, the scalers clicked faster, then subsided. Fermi smiled. The balcony above the court now held more than twenty men standing in coats and gloves, physicists, mainly, who had helped them with the work. Arthur Compton, the photon master, came down and stood next to Fermi. At eleven-thirty Fermi said, “I’m hungry. Let’s go to lunch.”
It was an Italian lunch. They didn’t come back until two. More men packed the balcony. Fermi ordered the control rod to be pulled out twelve inches. The counters began to click so fast, the sound became a roar. At that point, Fermi ordered that they switch from the counters to a chart recorder. In the abrupt silence, everyone watched the recorder’s pen as it rose and rose across the measuring paper, a line shooting ever upward. The hair stood up on the back of Leo’s head.
Suddenly, Fermi lifted his hand. “The pile has gone critical,” he said.
Two minutes went by. The neutron intensity doubled. Leo saw a bead of sweat form on Compton’s forehead as he leaned toward Fermi. How long was he going to let it go? Leo knew exactly how quickly it could run away. Melt down. Kill them all. The stuff of nightmares. But Fermi looked calm. He waited. Four and a half minutes went by.
“ZIP in!” he said, and the men pushed the rods back in. A kind of sigh went out, and the fear in the balcony lifted and was gone.
Wigner produced the Chianti he had bought months earlier, before Italian wine was no longer possible to buy, and they all sipped a little out of paper cups. Compton said he was going to call James Conant, their new liaison to the White House. They had worked out a funny little code, and he came back to tell them what they’d said.
“Jim,” Compton had said to Conant, “the Italian navigator has just landed in the New World.”
“Is that so!” Conant had replied. “Were the natives friendly?”
“Everyone landed safe and happy.”
The men laughed, and Wigner slapped Conant on the back, and then, one by one, they wandered out into the winter night, leaving Fermi and Leo alone. Everyone had signed the bottle’s straw wrapping except the two of them.
“I can’t tell what this day will be called,” Leo said to Fermi. “The day the earth stood still at our bravado, or the blackest day in the history of mankind.”
Fermi, that smiling Italian, nodded his head.
Eleanor took off her moccasins, put on her boots, and walked outside. The cold air struck her face. As she walked out to the little blue gate, she thought about whether he was a bank robber. She opened the gate, closed it behind her. The gray and black dog, Rita, followed at her heels; she had found her as a puppy in a yard in Taos, tied to a tree, her ribs like barrel staves. Eleanor had offered fifty cents for her on the spot and held her on her lap all the way home. As she and the dog walked down the path, Eleanor looked once over her shoulder at the Sangre de Cristos, which still had snow on them at the top, the snow on the aspen trees making an outline of a horse’s head. In front of her, the ground sloped down toward the arroyo. Juniper trees with bark like old skin, furrowed and pockmarked, and small gray berries. Pinions between them, smaller.
She heard a deep croaking sound and looked up. When she had walked out on this land for the first time, she had heard that sound and looked at her feet for a frog—midwestern girl. But then she realized the croaking came from a tree. A frog caught in a tree? She imagined a frog tethered to the trunk of a pinion, drying out in the sun. Then she saw the raven sitting on a branch; he pumped his chest and sounded like a bullfrog. She laughed at him then, imitator of frogs. Now the raven flapped his wings in the juniper to her left, croaked, and moved into the sky. Rita pointed her nose at him, let the wind flatten her ears. At the edge of the arroyo, a gourd plant had left its dry tendrils stretched out along the bank like lace. Rabbit burrows left deep round o’s in the arroyo’s side. As Eleanor stepped across a thin gravel streambed, now dried many months, she looked down and saw the edge of something different from a rock. She bent over and lifted it gently out of the sand. A shard of pottery, its shape almost square, the top longer than the bottom. It fit perfectly in her palm. It was gray with black stripes; the stripes moved across the gray surface in a diagonal line. One line grew thick and formed a triangle. She stared at it. Its weight was nothing. She had never found anything like it before. She turned it over in her palm; she wondered how old it was, what kind of pot it had come from, and whether she might be able to paint something like it. Had they lived here, on what was now her land, or had it been simply dropped by a woman on her way south? She looked through the trees toward the city. What was here then? Where were they going? She wrapped the shard in her white lace handkerchief and tucked it in the pocket of her man’s shirt.
Once the experiment in Chicago demonstrated that his theory of chain reaction was workable, Leo knew that it was only a matter of time. The letter arrived at his Chicago hotel in the spring. He was needed, Robert Oppenheimer said, for a lengthy “physics conference” in the western United States.
He sent his reply and packed his suitcases. As he walked toward the train station, two men came up on either side of him. “Mr. Simms?” one of them said, the one wearing a tan Bogart hat. Leo didn’t reply. “Mr. Simms,” he said again, a hand on Leo’s arm. Leo remembered his new name. “I am he.”
He was given a ticket by the man in the red tie standing near the water fountain at the station. He read of his destination as he walked toward the tracks: Lamy, New Mexico. The note continued, “Go to 109 East Palace Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There you will find how to complete your trip.” When he found his Pullman room, he put away his suitcase and read his old name printed on it for all to see. A long ride out, through cornfields and plains to the little mud train station with the red tile roof that reminded him vaguely of Fiesole, the mud saloon next door, the long treeless plain, and the queer car ride to Santa Fe with the dark Spanish man who did not speak to him. He was dropped off with his bags at a low string of buildings near the town square. He walked through a narrow iron gate and into a courtyard where it was suddenly cool. Under his feet were large uneven stones. An impoverished place: mud houses, stones badly laid, carpenters who did not age their wood. Leo’s grandmother had said about the American West: It will never be civi- lized. He came to an ancient screen door and knocked.
A woman inside rose from her desk and called to him to come in. She extended her hand. He shook it. “Why is the station so far from the town?” Leo asked, and she laughed. “Each one of you has a different question,” she said, “but every one of you opens the conversation with a question.”
The woman, Dorothy, gave him a short list of commands: Do not refer to yourself by your real name or call any of your colleagues “doctor” when on the streets of Santa Fe. You will be given a new driver’s license without a name, and your address from now on will be Box 1616, Sandoval County, New Mexico. Your occupation will be “engineer.” All of your mail will be read, both incoming and outgoing.
Dorothy arranged for a driver to take him to a dude ranch north of Santa Fe, just overnight.
“Who is that?” he asked the young woman driver as they passed a statue in front of the Catholic cathedral downtown. “That is Archbishop Lamy,” she replied, and then she turned to him and smirked. “Mr. Lamy to you.”
The next day the same girl picked him up at the ranch and drove him past a little collection of foothills studded with what he later learned were pinions, stubby trees with short needles. Between them was a fine loose gravel. It was very hot in the sun, cold in the shade. She came to a bridge over a wide, muddy river and then drove up a winding dirt road with frightening drop-offs to the top of a tableland. The ruts in the road were so deep, they looked to be made by elephants. Pinion trees lay beside the road with their roots pointing to the sky. When they got to the top, Leo saw strings of barbed wire and a tower with a man leaning against the side, and his heart froze in his chest. Mud, men building barracks out of planks, a large old lodge made out of what looked like the trunks of trees. Beyond the houses, mountains, a clear blue sky. “Nobody can think straight in a place like this,” he said to the girl. “Everybody who comes here will go crazy.”
Eleanor had been in New Mexico off and on for a little over three years. She and her cousin Betsy, an art dealer, took the first trip at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Lujan in Taos, who kept a kind of salon for eastern visitors—everyone had been to visit Mabel Dodge. After Eleanor arrived in Taos, she did nothing but sit on the portal of her guesthouse and look out at the mountains. She watched the aspen trees turn from green to gold from August to October. The clarity of light blinded her; shadows moved across the floor of the desert between the mesas like great flying dragons. An abundance of colors at sunset. She borrowed a horse called a flaxen mane and rode through aspens the color of deer, which grew so close together that she had to kick her feet out of her stirrups and hook her knees on either side of the saddle horn. In the dry, calm air she felt new to the world.
In New York, she had been attracted to some of its shapes: especially the new Chrysler building with its oblong windows and pointed helmet on top. Or the beautiful changing sky that she often rushed from the front door of the apartment to see. But it was not until she arrived in New Mexico that she found her landscape. It was as if the world had been thinned. The lush green Midwest and East had hidden what she craved: shape and bone and distance.
After she had settled in at the Lujan house, she mixed aureolin with water and watched it turn to pale gold-yellow like the tops of the cottonwood leaves. She tacked a piece of the paper to an old square of pine she found behind the kitchen and tried to make the paint match the leaves. It shimmered, dissolved; what she saw in her mind refused to release itself on the paper. She backed off, watched, then drew another leaf, mixed a trace of orange in with the yellow. It lay on the paper flat as a pancake warming in the oven.
She read in van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo: “I am trying to learn yellow. It refuses me.”
After suffering Mabel’s autocratic hostess style, and a little worried about Tony Lujan’s affectionate glances, Eleanor traveled the next summer, not to Taos, but south, to Santa Fe. She stayed in a hotel a few blocks from the plaza and bought five tubes of color, two sable filberts, and a new canvas to celebrate.
The varnished cliffs at Arroyo Seco, a twisted cedar, the aspens in October, spoke to her. She wanted to create paintings of them that were clear and not frail or tentative, not pink portraits of women and children. To paint abstracts, paintings that did not tell a story but rather spoke of the wordless and silent, in a medium that was itself silent and without words. She wanted her work to say, I was here. I saw the world.
She had uncovered women artists as if discovering secrets: Marietta Tintoretto, sixteenth century (whose father, Jacopo, also a painter, dressed her in boys’ clothing as a child so that she might accompany him wherever he went); Louise Moillon, seventeenth century, who made paintings of gleaming cherries and slices of cantaloupe and was mistaken for a Dutch male artist; eighteenth century, Marie-Denise Villers, in whose painting of a young woman drawing the girl is turning away from her window as if to shut out distraction; nineteenth century, Mary Cassatt. She had wondered if this was how it was, one per century? From their lives, she learned what it took to succeed—Louise and Mary, born into wealthy families or married into wealth—and what the odds were—Marietta, dead at thirty in childbirth.
She had done it once. She had painted pieces of her apartment in New York: the large living room with a small table and a chair stacked with books, a vase on the table with a green flower, a pale violet wall and Edgar’s overstuffed chair in the background in deep blood red. She began with this domestic scene, to emphasize her sex and her joy in her life with her new husband, and the painting gradu- ally transformed into an abstraction. She used vertical lines and lavish layers of color. As she painted, she realized that it was not the “chair” that mattered or the “table” but the space each created: their shapes and then how the shapes reacted to each other. She felt as if she were breaking up the structure of her living room, and seeing it instead as color and light and shape. Her show at Edgar’s gallery sold out. A reviewer called her “an American (female) Matisse.” Walker Stern, an English collector living in Japan, had arrived late on the opening afternoon and stood in the white rooms with the paintings, and asked the price of two of them. They were Edgar’s favorites. He named an outrageous figure and Stern sat down across from him and wrote out a check. It was more than anyone had ever paid for a living painter’s work. And yet some critics made jibes: something “sensual” in this “woman’s” work, the bed in one painting was “very much in the foreground.” A Freudian analyst was asked by one magazine to view her paintings and give his opinion. Their voices now combined with the ones already inside her head.
Then everything unraveled, and her own struggle began.
Her brother’s letters reached her from the Pacific, where Teddy was a junior-grade lieutenant on the Yangtze Patrol. He had met a man, he wrote, who “could sight the curvature of the earth along a bar.” He had gone to a house where, the directions said, there was a coolie at the gate with six fingers on his right hand. Once, growing sick of the slack tide of a receiving line, he decided to introduce himself to the ambassador’s wife when he got to her as the “husband of some cows in Indiana.”
“Nothing happened,” he wrote to Eleanor. “She smiled and said thank you.”
After describing a forced march through rice paddies and dense green water, he wrote, “This is what in retrospect will be known as a lark.” Then he was on a ship with a name he couldn’t give her; pieces of the letters were blacked out or cut out so they felt like the paper crafts she and Teddy had made as children, snowflakes, stars, chains of paper dolls. She folded the letters and placed them in a sandalwood box, together with her grandmother’s earrings, her baby pearls, and her beaded evening bag.
In those early months, Eleanor traveled the villages. In the dim churches, she found the Santos and Retablos. Our Lady of Sorrows holding a rosary, with a headdress made of flames. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Rosary. Eleanor studied their faces, the various Our Ladies, in the tiny churches in northern New Mexico. In the Sanctuario at Chimayo, the lady was dressed in lace, like a grandee’s wife, carrying the child, Jesus, as if he were her purse. Another baby Jesus wore silk garments and tiny baby shoes. Sometimes the baby’s face was crowded next to Mary’s cheek, his little neck bent upward and his eyes on her face. Mary’s eyes were often on some distant, tragic point. Their skin was inevitably dark, a cloth over the head, hiding the hair. What did Mary’s hair look like? Did she wear it in a braid?
At Chimayo, the crucifix was dark green with gold leaves painted on it. The body of Christ, Our Lord of Esquipulas, wore a long necklace of pine berries. In a dark inner room, a hole in the ground held healing mud, said to have dried up from a hot spring. On the wall, a handwritten sign read, “If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life . . .” As Eleanor knelt at the edge and pulled red clay from the bottom and tied it in her handkerchief, the eyes of infant Jesuses watched her with plaster calm. Santa Coleta held a cross with an ear of corn behind her. San Acacio was dressed in a Spanish suit with a long coat and decorative ribbons at the knees. With what looked like a theater curtain behind her, St. Mary Magdalene knelt in prayer.
At Penasco, higher in the mountains, she witnessed a procession for Palm Sunday. An elderly woman dressed in a round black hat and a polka-dot dress carried a pavilion for Our Lady with a man who looked like Teddy Roosevelt, with a walrus mustache and small round glasses. Beside them stood an Anglo woman with a long horse face, dressed in a white hat and white shoes and a dress that buttoned from the neck to the hem.
Meet the Author
Nora Gallagher is the author of Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith and Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace. Her essays, book reviews, and journalism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, DoubleTake, and Mother Jones, among other publications. She is also the editor of the award-winning Notes from the Field, a collection of literary essays about the outdoors. She grew up in New Mexico and lives with her husband in California and New York City.
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