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“In Dawn Raffel's Further Adventures in the Restless Universe the oppressive truth of our mortality unsettles but does not vanquish the spirit. The woman as drudge may ...
“In Dawn Raffel's Further Adventures in the Restless Universe the oppressive truth of our mortality unsettles but does not vanquish the spirit. The woman as drudge may be "a failure at folding," but she is a rare songmaker whose dialogues with a son, a sister — the usual figures from the family romance — make for a musical and philosophical call and response. The son proposes one way to keep birds from crashing into fatally clear windows is to ‘open the windows all over the world.’ These stories promise more life. Take them to heart!” —Christine Schutt
When Dawn Raffel was a very small child, her father used to read to her nightly from The Restless Universe—a layman’s guide to physics by the Nobel Laureate Max Born. Although she loved the time spent with her father, she didn’t—despite his statements to the contrary—comprehend a word of the physics. It was her first recognition that love so often comes with imperfect understanding.
The 21 stories in Further Adventures in the Restless Universe are about fathers, daughters, mothers, sisters, husbands, wives, strangers, lovers, sons, neighbors, kings, death, faith, astronomical phenomena, and the way the heart warps time. Of her previous work, one reviewer stated, “Raffel takes conventions and smashes them to bits” and another called it “extreme literature.” Of Further Adventures, Publisher’s Weekly says, “Raffel's stripped-to-the-bone prose is a model of economy and grace.”
Dawn Raffel is the author of a previous collection of short stories, In the Year of Long Division, and a novel, Carrying the Body. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Conjunctions, NOON, Open City, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Unsaid, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies. She has taught creative writing in the MFA program at Columbia University and is a magazine editor in New York City.
“Readers have come to expect from Dawn Raffel’s prose nothing less than the syllable-by-syllable perfections of purest poetry and the boldest wisdom a human heart can hold. Her new collection of pithy, exquisite fictions about the timeless crises of mothers, daughters, and wives is breathtaking and haunting in its majestic exactitudes.” —Gary Lutz
“Less has never been more than in Dawn Raffel's Further Adventures in the Restless Universe. These spare, high-intensity stories of brave people at the end of their ropes are not only models of writerly integrity, but monuments of the spirit asserting itself out of the depths of silence.” David Gates
After the rains had come and gone, we went down by the reservoir. No one was watching, or so it looked to us.
The night was like to drown us.
Our voices were high—his, mine; soft, bright—and this was not the all of it (when is it ever?).
Damp in the palm, unauthorized, young: We would never be caught, let alone apprehended, one by the other.
"Orion, over there." He was misunderstood; that's what the boy told me. "Only the belt. The body won't show until winter," he said. "Arms and such."
Me, I could not find the belt, not to save my life, I said.
Flattened with want: "There is always another time," he said.
He died, that boy. Light years! And here I am: a mother, witness, a raiser of a boy.
I could tell you his name.
I could and would not.
"Here's where the world begins," he said. I see him now—unbroken still; our naked eyes turning to legends, the dirt beneath us parched.CHAPTER 2
The woman is awake now. She opens her purse.
The road over-easy, or easy enough. Fork. A knife. Elaina—her name, the fact of herself, is stuck in her with consciousness, a vengeance. Caffeine. "Warm you up?" the server says. The cream is artificial.
Elaina, like any good mother, is fully and dutifully absorbed in a spill. "After a certain age," she says.
"What age?" the child, who is all too abundantly clearly hers—her flesh and blood, etcetera—says. Licked cloth, a scabbed knee; a hair, black, genetically impertinent, a fait accompli: split-end in the eye.
"Jerome, look," Elaina says. "Sometimes a bird flies into the glass."
"What on earth?" Jerome says.
The server is waiting, obtrusively. A smear is on the window.
Aggressively ribby—the shirt Jerome wears. Wherever it came from, she did not buy it—a gift, perhaps, or hand-me-down. A shade of blue. So much he will own, will bear about his person, that she will not choose.
Jerome appears to be bigger to her than the last time she looked, as well as, quite possibly, thinner. He is opening sugar, ripping up packets and pouring the contents into his mouth.
"Stop it," she says. Her stimulant is dripping. The car is on asphalt, gathering heat. She knows she doesn't mean it. Let him, she thinks.
Money on the table, a mint in the hand. "You'll rot your teeth."
"What about the bird?" Jerome says.
* * *
"Completely exhausted," Elaina says. She is turning the wheel. The year is half over. Children in doorways, a bike in a yard—banana seat—rooms and rooms within each house. Somebody old is out on a lawn—a woman to judge by the shape of the body, but this is a guess. Elaina will not look like that! A wind is up. An orange ball has been abandoned in a driveway. Here is the world as driven past: a hospital, school.
"Will you stop asking questions?" Elaina says.
Jerome says, "What?"—which means, she thinks, "Now tell me something else."
"The bird," he says.
"Ah, yes," she says. He is kicking the dashboard, unsafely in the front. "I ought to know better," Elaina says.
Jerome is seven and a quarter or a third. Closer to a third. He is belted at least; at least there's that. Elaina does not look her age, not all of the time, or some of the time, she tells herself, as if, she tells herself, this were a comfort, this time.
A house they pass is gingerbread. Hansel and the other one: Eat you up! She taught him that.
Lilacs are blooming. Here it is—Gretel! Another of her stories: His father groomed lilacs, and hasn't he, Jerome, heard? She pinned them, or she thinks she did, coiled in her hair, a petal to a curl. She will have to cut her hair. Of course, there is also a tale about that. Rapunzel or Samson. Drive, she thinks.
A girl with a basket.
Nothing in the glove, a pill or three. Her child's breath: Baby. A scent she is fond of.
"Mom?" he says. "Mom?"
* * *
It is somebody's birthday, the road sign says, revisably, in plastic.
"Where is the freeway?" Elaina says.
The sign is on wheels. It is raining, a bit. There is bile in her throat.
"Happy " he says.
She swallows, again.
* * *
"Get that up," Elaina says. Spilt grape on vinyl. "Money on trees." Last stop for miles and miles, forever. A Slurpee, no less.
She ought to teach manners, but who has time?
Tissue and napkins, so flimsy what she gives him—a kiss. Another kiss, pulled over to a shoulder.
She ought to enforce better hygiene, she thinks.
"Sorry," he says.
A ruffle of hair, and reacceleration.
Jerome is reading the names on signs. "Menomonee." She taught him that. "Oconomowoc." "Ray-seen," Elaina says. Midwesternized. Bastardized. Directions too, Jerome knows. "Over the river and through the woods " She taught him that. "South to Chicago." "One, two, buckle my shoe " she taught him that. "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly "
Perhaps she'll stop.
* * *
Two in the morning or four or worse. It's a brilliant motel, though, at least on the outside.
Jerome is rightly sleeping. The room smells of breath, and of yesterday's throw-offs. Where is that shirt, Elaina thinks. And why can't she take charge of her possessions? She kisses him, her son, and walks away.
Back and forth and back and forth and back and back and back she goes, a sheet to the breast.
There's a flicker in the bathroom.
The past never changes materially—visit and visit, Elaina thinks. Her head is in the basin. The dead are still dead. She splashes the water onto her face; she towels—absorption.
Slippers, a headache, ever so slight. The cells that must wriggle and wriggle and wriggle inside her. "One, two "
A seed, a wretched pellet.
She smells Jerome's skin as she lies down beside him, divided, awake, and wonders, will she miss him?
* * *
"What?" Jerome says.
They are in the museum regarding bones. Under a limb: Jerome says he's thirsty. So much in the world! ("The Great Lake—look! Look, the Windy City!") The body is always insisting on something. This, that; more, yes. Forever the expense of it!
Gum she has to quench his need, excuses, postponement. "See," she says, "the size of this." A knuckle. The room. The thrill of extinction.
"See how enormous," Elaina says. "Consider the enormity."
Jerome is not stupid, Elaina thinks.
* * *
Elaina says, "Weather."
Toes to the counter. Chicken on a spit. The beef is "with awe juice," the server says.
"I am lonely," Jerome says.
Shake of the month. Precipitation in a tumbler. "Wipe your mouth," Elaina says. "And how can you be lonely when I love you so much?"
"Mom," Jerome says—a word that means anything and everything and nothing, a holder of space, Elaina thinks, a consonant receptacle. Who said I was scared?"
"Ala mode," the server says.
Jerome has dessert. He has crackers in wrappers after dessert.
The windshield is salted with droppings and grit.
"I am not afraid," Jerome says. Things are underfoot again, despite her imprecations—rigid, articulated figures with what would appear to be lethal capability. Blade upon glass. "Rain, rain, go away." Jerome, at least, is singing. The pterodactyl jacket: She gave him that, didn't she?
They're entering an artery, a heart of a city.
Elaina is singing along: " away."
He is looking, she is thinking, at a woman getting drenched. "Why not go home?" Jerome says.
* * *
"Don't touch," she says. She is teaching him something. Showing him something: a woman who lived.
He is bunching her dress. So chilly in the gallery! Pulling her handbag, he leaves an impression: Jelly on a palm.
"The artist is famous for painting," she says. "But see how he sculpted, molded out of metal." The dancers' arms are open, uncorrodable. The mutinous body is captured, whole.
"Careful," the guard says.
"Drafty in the dressing rooms," Elaina says, "a life of no comfort, no money, disease—and yet," she says, "the beauty."
Fingers to anatomy. A glare in the eye. You, you, you: The guard's eyes hold accusation, she thinks. "Miss," he says. "Missus."
Jerome is spinning, in a flighty pirouette.
"Watch he doesn't hurt himself."
"What do you say we dash?" she says.
* * *
She is alert, alert, aroil in the night, and in the morning again, in fact, and still, and in need of a tonic or another cup of hot.
"Five, six, pick up sticks " She taught him that. "Seven, eight " She taught him that. "Little robin redbreast flew up to a wall " "Five, six, seven, eight " And why can't she concentrate?
Elaina tucks him in again.
So many things she cannot be shut of, or not so fast, at least not yet.
There once was a lady who swallowed a substance, or lived in a shoe, or did not know what to do.
She looks at him. "Perhaps," she says, believing he's sleeping, "the bird will do anything to get at something sweet."
* * *
"Here is where you rest your chin. Hold still," she tells him. A long line of children synthetically dressed is stretched out behind them.
Science and industry. Science and technology. Hands-on, the flyer said, but everything is virtual, incorporeal, here. There is a fast game of ball in which there is no ball. No net in the court. No messy abandon.
Here is a landscape: a digital myth, or a world made of light.
You can channel the future, for a fee. A snap of your offspring years from now—inevitable jowl, grayer teeth, a mole. Reliable, certainly: the weight that comes of living, with margin for error, or possibly grief.
"See how Jerome will look as a man!" Elaina says, prodding. So long they have stood here!
"Mom, I don't want to." She feels the body stiffen, changeable as that.
"Now," she says, "or never."
"Please," she says.
Then, "As you wish. Maybe there's a gift shop."
* * *
"What if they left it open?" he says.
Twin beds turned down, a drip in the tap. "Left what?" Elaina says. "What if who left what?"
"All of them," Jerome says. "They could open the windows all over the world."
He lies alongside her. "Happy," he says. So high the boy's voice! She narrows her eyes the better to see him—palpable body, the face as it is—and all she says is, "Wait." She says, "Wait."CHAPTER 3
ALL ALONG THE SILK ROAD
The kids were in the water. At least, she thought they were. Beneath the umbrella—a sturdy, unlovely, brick-and-black affair—the weather undid her. A gift, this. It was not of her choosing. Somebody—who?—with a practical inkling had given them this, a present for the marriage, dependably wrapped. Up it went. A shadow on the belly in the middle of the day. And in the hand, from a chest, ice.
She willed herself upright. "Do you, by any chance, see them?" she said, put a chip to the breast.
Soaked trunks, a flounce at a haunch, sweet navels of girls, a careless bravado in the curve of the back, strapped toe. The moment of near-recognition lost.
Her hair, in a headband, frizzed with heat.
"What did you say?" He was curling the page.
"Do you see them, I said. I don't see them, I said. Look. Just look. Please look. Do you think I should worry? Do you?" she said.
He looked at her—she felt he did—as if he were trying to reach a decision. In his hand the book went limp.
The lake appeared swollen.
Somebody called out the name of a fellow—a famous explorer—and splashed, and jumped. A boy the size (more or less, give or take—roughly) of hers. Skinny in the wing bones, and nevertheless obstructing the view. His shoulders were burning, already beginning to pinken in the sun. He would blister for sure, need an unguent at night.
Two syllables—an offering. A ball in the air.
Heat shrilled the voice, or else the limits of breath, the lack of power in her.
I think your mother is calling.
Look! At play on the water, thwackers of plastic, diggers of holes—see here, a passage!—a castle in the silt, or an attempt at least—no fortress to speak of—lacking form, the overly wishful industry of children. "Look!" she said.
They looked at her avoidingly. The others—she saw them. A glare on the current, deviled eggs. Somebody's mother but hardly theirs.
Eyes in the back of the head—not her.
"In the water, they were. Just a minute ago."
He stood there and stood there.
"Both of them, the two of them, how could they?" she said. "But could they?" she said. She summoned their faces, receding from her. What were they wearing, either of them? A birthmark, moles.
The smell of them. (She loved the smell of them asleep.)
Now, what was the height of them, the weight of them—facts—which a person in authority would rightly request?
Her knowledge was approximate if not lackadaisical. She knew them—hers! her children—mainly only obliquely, it seemed, by unarticulated sense, or the objects they'd touched, too close for description.
She flushed. She felt herself flushing, ever self-conscious.
"Weren't you watching at all?" he said.
* * *
She was frightened of wind.
* * *
This is what she watched at night, or rather, what she minded: the breathing—quick, too entirely quick—and flushing, the rising of the ribs. There was always a little light at a curtain, a street awake. She looked in rooms. She was frightened of heat when there was no breeze. The house seemed to vibrate, irregular, beating, a clock in the bedroom (master), built-in, ticking, slow: a lost minute in the day.
Things glowed at night. Appliances. So much she had been given (a shower for her!). And still in mint condition, sort of. The flame in the furnace was bluish in winter—she saw it, she did—in a child-sized window, an opening, a necessary menace, a toy. There was a voice she intended to find and disable. Press to quit. In the bosom, an almost mechanical compression. And in summer, a fan about to tumble, a bulb the wrong wattage, and close, too close, to a delicate shade.
* * *
She was frightened of the current, afraid—yes, she was—of being carried away.
* * *
"Yes, I was," she said. "I was. I was watching," she said, insisted to him. Because, of course, it was so. The house and its contents. The children. Herself. She was watching her husband sleeping, it seemed, or reading, it seemed, dogging a page, or walking away from her, it seemed—as he was, to the water, with nothing in his hands.
* * *
This is not a true story. Nevertheless, she was frightened of cold, and had a tendency, at times, to overdress.
* * *
She went walking alone along the lake, in the elements, wakeful, in the night, in rain. Night after night: a sweater, a jacket, forever a hood (unruly hair), against better judgment. She oughtn't to go about like that; he'd told her that. The danger! She walked to where the children had played, hands up the sleeves of the opposite arms, poked a toe to an already fallen structure, sunken in, to parts of things abandoned. A handle to something. Body of water; a woman washed to bones: There was a myth about this, if she could only remember. She had grown up far from here. She had lived on a river, the bed of a river, a gentle stream, and yet a child had died there. Blink of an eye. He was given to irritation, it seemed, this man she had married—a check out of order, a drawer stuck—and she to bouts of sentiment and also to rage. Tip of the tongue. "Your problem " he suggested. She fought to retain things a story, a list, or an important precaution. A wind rose at night. She had a boy and a girl, tucked in—tucked in and kissed—before she left them and thought of them and walked; she had a house full of foodstuffs and other provisions—yes, she did—and she was chilly or thirsty or hot or short of breath, and always, it seemed to her, late.
She had been raised to believe that any body of water was serious business—and also, the effects of the sun.
Insubstantial, she thought, the time that had elapsed, and this was what she'd told him.
She listened to voices. The children—the ones who were clearly, robustly, loudly not missing—weren't hers.
"No more than ..." she'd told him. Inconsequential—that was the word she had meant to say.
* * *
There were—conceivably, in all probability—pills for her condition, whatever it was. There were sensible relations, as has been stated; pages of notes.
Excerpted from Further Adventures in the Restless Universe by Dawn Raffel. Copyright © 2010 Dawn Raffel. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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