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MotherKind
     

MotherKind

by Jayne Anne Phillips
 

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A major new novel that depicts the challenges of family life with contemporary force and timeless grace, from the acclaimed author of Machine Dreams and Shelter.

Formerly free-spirited, unattached Kate enters into roles of enormous responsibility: as she takes the first steps into a new marriage complete with her own beloved infant and

Overview


A major new novel that depicts the challenges of family life with contemporary force and timeless grace, from the acclaimed author of Machine Dreams and Shelter.

Formerly free-spirited, unattached Kate enters into roles of enormous responsibility: as she takes the first steps into a new marriage complete with her own beloved infant and two lively young stepsons, she becomes caregiver to her ailing mother, the strong woman who has been her guiding star and counterpart across a divide of experience and time. Kate must, in a single year, confront profound loss alongside radiant beginnings.

Jayne Anne Phillips transforms quotidian details into a shimmering whole, giving us Kate and her family in all the complexity their world offers. Phillips? renowned skill at portraiture combines with her equally nuanced sense of narrative in this heartstrong and delicately layered novel.

Editorial Reviews

Paul Gray
MotherKind marshals details in a passionate but indirect evocation of loss.
Time Magazine
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "beautifully written" work from the author of Machine Dreams received a mixed response from our readers. It tells the "painfully touching" and "confusing" story of a young woman whose caretaking for her dying mother coincides with the birth of her first child. In a single year, she must come to terms with the pairing of radiant beginnings and bitter endings. "Too many characters to keep track of," complained reviewers. "Not up to par - a dust collector." "A dense, slow read."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A meticulous writer, Phillips has produced only four books to date, including the novels Machine Dreams and Shelter, in which she explored the paradoxes of existence from the points of view of youthful characters. This deeply felt, profoundly affecting novel, her best so far, exhibits a maturity of vision both keen and wistful. On a summer day, 30-year-old Kate Tateman flies to her Appalachian hometown to tell her mother, Katherine, that she is pregnant. Always a nonconformist, one who felt most in tune with herself during an itinerant year in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, Kate is not yet married to the baby's father, Matthew, whose divorce is in progress. During the course of the following 18 months, we watch Kate give birth to a son, Tatie; care for Katherine--who has cancer, and decides to move in with Kate and Matt in Boston so she can live to see the baby--and serve as surrogate mother to Matthew's unruly sons, Sam, eight, and Josh, six, who resent her for destroying their home. The narrative captures the quotidian rhythms of domesticity, the stresses of childraising and of nursing the sick, creating a focused yet universal world. A progression of caregiving women help Kate through these life passages: a helper for newborns, various babysitters and the hospice nurses who arrive when Katherine becomes moribund. Phillips explores the intuitive bond between mothers and daughters with unforced grace. All the characters are articulate and introspective; they ponder the human condition, yet function in the daily sphere, with dialogue so easy and true it seems inevitable. While absorbed in the discomforts of childbearing, Kate ruminates about the continuum of time that sweeps her mother toward "the chasm of death"--even as little Tatie thrives and Sam and Josh gradually become integrated into their father's new household. Kate conjectures "that all lines of transit came together in a starry radiance too bright to observe." Amid the inexorable approach of death, the messy certitude and fecund abundance of human life resonate throughout this compassionate and spiritually nourishing novel. 50,000 first printing. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In this latest from Phillips (Black Tickets), Kate finds that she's part of the "sandwich generation"--she is caring for both her terminally ill mother, Katherine, and her newborn son, Alexander. Matt, the father of Kate's son, is going through a divorce while trying to raise his own rambunctious sons, Sam and Jonah. Kate and Matt have bought a house in Boston and installed this large, unruly lot. Kate has decided not to marry Matt until the spring when the weather is nicer and his divorce is finalized for sure. In the course of a year, we watch as Kate deals with the slow decline of her mother, always a friend and mentor, while trying to cope with being a new mom and stepmom when all she really wants to do is sleep. Phillips's slowly paced text incorporates flashbacks that illustrate Kate and Katherine's relationship. While covering issues such as divorce, friendship, and home care of the terminally ill, this novel really explores the bond between a mother and child and how strong that bond is until death. It's well done, but with tighter plotting it could have been more effective. For most public library collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/00.]--Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
The New Yorker
Philips, an abundantly talented writer, never lapses into sentimentality while describing this woman, whose "interior world had receded, replaced by other lives and their attendant mysteries."
Don McLeese
Sentence for sentence, Jayne Anne Phillips ranks with the most virtuosic writers of contemporary American fiction. Since introducing herself with 1979's Black Tickets, a rapturously lauded collection of stories, and solidifying her reputation with her first novel, 1984's Machine Dreams, she has dazzled readers with the heightened reality of her art, the charge of her writing. For all of her poetic precision, there's a feral quality to her work, as if she'd sharpened her creative teeth in the woods rather than honed her craft in the library. No matter what her narratives are ostensibly about, they mainly have been about language--the love of it, the transformative power of it, the dangers inherent within it. This spring, with thirty-one-year-old Kate Tateman, Phillips crafted a protagonist who shares the author's linguistic passion: "Words are so often maligned by their meanings; Kate conceives of words as implements of pure energy, washed, infused, shadowed or illuminated by all they carry in endless combination with one another," Phillips writes. "She writes words and works with them, for pay and for succor; she believes words open in the intangible spheres of their construction, yet stay apart from the world of use, innocent of motive, of healing or harm." However closely one identifies Kate with her creator, MotherKind quickly reveals itself to be a very different kind of fiction for Phillips, almost defiantly domestic and matter-of-factly mundane. Compared with the gothic undertow of 1994's Shelter (an underappreciated coming-of-age novel that was MotherKind's predecessor), Kate brings Phillips' perspective to the sort of plot one would more likely expect from an Anna Quindlen. A published poet, part-time editor and occasional teacher with a tendency toward wanderlust, Kate becomes involved with an internist, Matt, who is separated from the mother of his two young sons. Both the wife and the sons blame Kate for the rupture of their household, though Matt didn't find Kate until his wife's infidelity had driven him from their house. Kate's pregnancy accelerates the process of Matt's divorce and remarriage. As Kate prepares to announce her impending motherhood, she learns that her mother is suffering from a malignant cancer. Thus, the plot darkens and deepens from romantic melodrama into the most elemental issues of birth and death. Even so, Phillips avoids bathos or easy irony in the coincidence of Kate's coming to terms with both of life's poles simultaneously. Since her divorced mother can no longer live alone in her Appalachian home, Kate brings her into the maelstrom of her Boston household, where her transition from girlfriend to mother and stepmother has already proved frustrating. She receives necessary support from MotherKind, an agency that provides assistance with the newly born while helping mothers replenish their exhausted resources. Despite the complications of Kate's crowded life, MotherKind is less concerned with external action than with internal development. The chapters are a series of snapshots and set pieces, offering tableaux that define the pivotal points in Kate's transition without regard to narrative propulsion. Though there's a sense of foreboding throughout the book, as if these fragile lives are always on the verge of tragedy, not much really happens beyond the predictable. Yet it's that drama of everydayness that is the richness of Phillips' novel, as life pushes Kate to the brink of losing herself before she comes to terms with the sort of self that might have been unrecognizable to the younger Kate: "The fact was, birth dwarfed sex, swept sex before it," she thinks. "A woman had sex to get this, to be here, to smell the clean smell of her child tended by her hands, to drink him in, consumed. Kate sometimes imagined herself a flat meadow ravaged by wildfire, an unsuspecting meadow; for years, she'd avoided babies, which was easy, because most women she knew didn't have them. Most women thought they were looking for men, not babies. Kate thought now that they were wrong." Little wonder, then, that Matt seems less like the love of Kate's life than the instrument of her impregnation, and that his rambunctious sons are presented more as challenges to Kate's equilibrium than fully fleshed-out characters. Even Kate's mother seems more like a conversational foil than a commanding presence. Most of this novel takes place inside Kate's head, where the obsessions of motherhood amid the death of her mother leave little room for anything else. In a melange of dream, flashback and a reality that often seems decidedly other than real, Kate achieves a small-scale heroism, a fortitude that is never larger than life but is very much imbued with life. If she doesn't triumph over the rituals of day-to-dayness, neither do they conquer her. Toward the book's beginning, Kate says her pregnancy feels "magical and fierce." So does this novel.
Kirkus Reviews
Responsibility for a dying parent, taking pleasure in a first baby, marriage to a man with kids and an angry ex-wife. Despite her gift for gorgeous prose, Phillips (Shelter, 1994, etc.) is not entirely successful in breathing new life into this combination of domestic dramas so familiar in fiction and women's lives today. Kate Tateman, a poet in Boston, is pregnant. Involved with the expectant father, Matt, for eight months, she cannot marry him until his divorce is final. Not that his first marriage's breakup was Kate's fault—the ex-wife left first—but Kate must deal with Matt's two young sons' difficulties adjusting to her. Meanwhile, in Virginia, Kate's mother, Katherine, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Mother and daughter are close, with few frictions, and no one questions that Kate will be Katherine's primary caretaker when the time comes. As Kate's pregnancy progresses, so does Katherine's cancer, and she moves in with Kate and Matt in Boston. The baby is born, Matt and Kate marry, Matt's sons make noisy, sometimes heartbreaking demands, Katherine weakens. Kate feeds, launders, nurtures. Her often thought-provoking musings are refreshingly lacking in cynicism, although her interspersed memories of a visit to India the year before, when she was free of responsibility, seem a bit contrived. At her best, Phillips builds scenes through sensory details and sharp dialogue. Kate's passionate love for her infant son is particularly well rendered, as is her deep tenderness toward her mother. Unfortunately, though, the story itself drags, thanks in part to needlessly repetitive bits of basic information. Meanwhile, Kate's relationship with Matt, who lacks adefinedpersonality, never rises above lukewarm. And because Phillips insulates Kate from any character flaws, anger, or even much regret, Kate feels a little too perfect, too smart, her righteousness somewhat off-putting. No Pampers for her baby. An ambitious if uneven attempt to write passionately in a minor key about commonplace yet central life experiences. First printing of 50,000

From the Publisher
?[MotherKind] is further proof of an extraordinary ability to reflect the texture of real life?. Phillips sets forth a mother-daughter relationship that is tender without ever bordering on precious.??The Washington Post Book World

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375401947
Publisher:
Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/18/2000
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.66(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.17(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 2

After the birth and the overnight in the hospital, she didn't go downstairs for a week. She'd lost some blood and she felt flattened, nearly dizzy, from the labor and then the general anesthetic. Alexander had been born at dawn on Christmas Day; since then she'd wept frequently, with incredible ease, and entertained the illusion that she now knew more than she'd ever questioned or known before. The illusion pursued her into sleep itself, into jagged pieces of sleep. New Year's came and went; Kate heard bells ring at midnight and revelers' horns blaring plaintively in the cold streets. She slept and woke, naked except for underpants, sanitary napkins, chemical ice packs. The ice packs, shaped to her crotch, were meant to reduce swelling and numb the stitches; the instructions directed her to bend the cotton to activate the solution; inside, the thick pads cracked like sticks. This bathroom looks like a MASH unit, Matt would say. But it's not your unit that's mashed, Kate would think. In fact, her vagina was an open wound. Her vagina was out of the picture. She couldn't believe she'd ever done anything with it, or felt anything through it.

She couldn't use tampons; there were boxes of big napkins, like bandages, piles of blue underliners—plastic on one side, gauze on the other—to protect the sheets, hemorrhoid suppositories, antibiotic salve, mentholated anesthetic gel, tubes of lanolin, plastic cups and plastic pitchers. She drank and drank, water, cider, juices. The baby slept in a bassinette right beside her bed, but her arms ached from picking him up, holding him, putting him down. On the third day her milk came in, and by then her nippleswere already cracked and bleeding. The baby was nursing colostrum every hour but he was sucking for comfort, losing a few more ounces every day. His mouth was puckered and a large clear blister had formed on his upper lip; he was thirsty, so thirsty; finally, Kate gave him water, though the nurses had said not to. He needs to nurse, to pull the milk in. That night she woke in the dark, on her back, her engorged breasts sitting on her chest, warm to the touch, gravid, hard and swollen. She woke the baby to feed him. He began to cry but she held him away until she could sit and prop her arms with pillows, pour a glass of water for the thirst that would assail her. In the beginning, she'd moaned as he sucked, then, to move through the initial latching on, she did the same breathing she'd used throughout labor. She breathed evenly, silenced vocalizations cutting in like whispers at the end of each exhalation. The pain cracked through her like a thread of lightning and gradually eased, rippling like something that might wake up and get her.

She called LaLeche League every couple of days for new suggestions. Kate's favorite counselor was in Medford, a working-class part of Boston Kate didn't remember ever having seen. But the woman had no accent; she was someone else far from home. You'll battle through this, she would say, be stubborn and hang on. Women are made to nurse, she'd declare in each conversation, any woman can nurse; and then she'd say, in a softer tone, that people forgot how hard it was to get established the first time. "Don't let the pain defeat you," were her exact words. "The uterine pain actually helps you heal, and your nipples will toughen."

"What about stress?" Kate asked once. "Will I have enough milk—"

"Stress?" was the response. "Are you kidding? Any woman with a new baby is stressed to the max. She doesn't sleep, she's bleeding, she's sore, she might have other kids or a job she'll go back to. The baby is sucking for life. As long as you eat well and drink, drink constantly, your body responds. You don't need unbroken sleep. You don't need a perfect situation. Refugees nurse their babies, and war victims; theirs are the children more likely to survive, even in the worst of times."

I understand, Kate wanted to say. I understand all about you, and I understand everything.

"Have your husband buy you a Knorr manual breast pump at the hospital infirmary," the counselor had said, "and a roll of disposable plastic bottles. The pump is a clear plastic tube, marked in ounces. Use it each time your breasts aren't completely emptied by the baby. Increase production; you can't have too much milk. Freeze all you express. That's how some women work full-time and still nurse their babies. I'll send you some information in the mail. And if you feel discouraged, call back."

I just want to hear your voice, Kate wanted to say. We're in a tunnel flooded with light.

But she spoke an accepted language, words like "air-dry," "lanolin," "breast rotation," "demand schedule." And there was light all around her, great patches angling through the naked windows, glancing off snow piled and fallen and drifted, hard snow, frozen, crusted with ice, each radiant crystal reflecting light. Kate had brought her son home in the last week of December, and the temperature was sixty degrees, sun like spring. Her neighbor Camille had festooned the fence with blue balloons. Kate and Alexander posed for photographs, then she took him in the house, shutting the front door behind them. Immediately, the cold came back and the snows began. At night Kate was awake, nursing, burping the baby, changing odorless cloth diapers, changing his gown, nursing, nursing him to sleep; all the while, snow fell in swaths past the windows, certain and constant, drifting windblown through the streetlamp's bell of light. Each day Kate stayed upstairs and her mother padded back and forth along the hallway connecting their rooms. Just before Christmas she'd finished a full round of chemo, and the tumors in her lungs had shrunk. She had a few weeks of respite now before the next group of treatments, and she came to Kate's room to keep her company, to hold the baby while Kate slept, to pour the glasses of juice.

"Are you awake, Katie?" She sat in an upholstered chair that had once graced her own living room; Kate had moved that couch and chair to Boston and slipcovered them in a vibrant 1920s print, navy blue with blowzy, oversized ivory flowers.

"I'm always awake, more or less," Kate said. "How was your night?"

"No complaints," her mother said. "No nausea."

"Good." Kate smiled. "It's nice to see you sitting in that chair. I always see it in photographs, in one of its guises. In the old house."

"Yes," Kate's mother said. "By the time we moved into town, this chair was in the basement."

"Now you might admit I was right to drag it here. The cushions may be shot, but at least you have a comfortable place to sit." Watching her mother, Kate realized the print she'd chosen for the chair, dark blue with white, was nearly the reverse of her mother's choice. "Remember the fabric of your slipcovers, what you used on that chair? What did you always call that print?"

"It was a blue onion print, white with blue vines—"

"Thistlelike flowers," Kate interrupted, "like fans, with viny runners—"

"Yes," her mother continued patiently, "wild onions, hence the name."

"And you had those glass pots with lids, in the same print, on the coffee table. I remember. There they sit, in all the Easter pictures. When we're wearing our good clothes. You always matched things. But before, there was that dark living room."

"Dark?"

"The walls were dark green, and the drapes on the picture windows were dark green, with gold, and the furniture in its original upholstery, dark beige, with a raised texture—"

"Well, when kids are young you want things that are dark and tough. When you were older, we had the white fiberglass drapes and the lighter slipcovers. That first upholstery was chosen to last through climbing and sliding and whatever. Your brothers gave it a workout."

"It did last," Kate said. "It was what I covered up. It seems ageless."

"Yes," her mother agreed, "but it darkened. This was your father's chair, and the fabric darkened just in the shape of him."

"Really?" Kate asked. "You mean, as though his shadow sank into it?"

Her mother frowned, exasperated. "No, I mean it was worn. Worn from use. Am I speaking English?"

Kate laughed. "Your energy level is better, isn't it? You're your old feisty self, and I'm just lying here."

Her mother peered over at the bassinette. "I thought I might hold Alexander for you, but he's sleeping so beautifully. I've been downstairs already, to let that little girl in, the MotherKind worker. It's been wonderful to have her for a week. She came this morning with her arms full of groceries. She's just putting things away, and then she'll be up to see what you want her to do."

"It was so nice of you to buy help for me, Mom, such a great present."

"Well, I'd be doing all the cooking myself if I were able. But I must say, your requirements are pretty daunting."

Kate smiled. She'd asked for someone versed in preparing natural foods. No additives, no preservatives. No meat with hormones. "Your color is good today, Mom," she said. "You're sitting right there in the sun, and you look all lit up."

"I'm sure I do. It's so bright in this room. Why do you paint everything white? And not a thing on the windows, not even shades to pull down."

"The walls are linen white," Kate said, "and the trim is sail white. And I don't need shades; I'm not worried about snipers."

"Snipers?"

"My LaLeche League lady," Kate said. "She was telling me how war victims can go right on nursing their babies, even in foxholes."

Her mother frowned. "Some of these people are way out there. What do war victims have to do with you? You're not in a foxhole."

"Not yet," Kate said. "But really, if you want shades on your windows, I'll get some. You should have told me sooner."

Her mother waved away the suggestion. "I don't care. That big tree is in front of one of the windows, and the other faces Camille's house. I certainly don't care if she sees me, not that there's much to see at this point."

"But there's always Landon," Kate said slyly, referring to their neighbor's live-in boyfriend. "What about him?"

"Landon is occupied with greener pastures—I hope not too occupied. If he lives with Camille, I don't know why he has to have his own condo in the Back Bay. And his own crystal and china. And his own art collection."

Kate shrugged. "He's a big-time investment banker. Maybe he needs a place downtown. Anyway, he's cute. I remember how they charged over here the first day we moved in, on their way to some swank thing, and there's Camille, nearly six feet tall, in one of those long satin capes her daughter made her, and all her Navajo jewelry, with a huge tray of assorted handmade cookies and a raspberry pie."

"Camille is wonderful. Mark my words, though, Lannie"—she emphasized Camille's pet name for him—"is not in it for the long haul."

"Not everyone is into hauling," Kate said. "She's been divorced twice, he's been divorced once. Maybe they're better off just relaxing."

Katherine shook her head impatiently, signaling her annoyance with a click of the tongue. "She's certainly suggested he give up the apartment. Camille loves taking care of people; she'd like to be married. But he is not the right fellow."

"Gotcha," Kate said. She realized she often knew in advance her mother's response to a given topic, but she elicited the responses anyway, sometimes to her annoyance, more often for pleasure. She so valued her mother's sheer dependability, the slight cynicism of the old wives' tales she favored, her bedrock common sense, even the rigid provincial innocence with which she approached discussions of what Kate referred to as "modern life." There were so many topics on which Katherine held strong opinions based on scant experience. Like serial monogamy and live-in arrangements. Interracial relationships. Homosexuality. Literature. Film. When I go to a movie, she liked to say, I want to be entertained, not upset.

Kate leaned back on her pillows. She didn't want to be entertained; entertainment was far too demanding, and gave so little in return. Kate wanted someone to read stories to her, or speak intensely about a private matter. She wanted to be fed. The MotherKind worker brought her lunch on a tray, numerous plates of soft, warm tastes, samples of the various entrées she'd made to freeze, and sliced vegetables so cold and crisp they wore ice fragments. Her name was Moira, but Kate liked to think of her only as MotherKind; MotherKind put a flower on the tray, the head of a hothouse daisy or rose, never in a bud vase—too likely to topple during the journey upstairs, perhaps—but floating, the first day, in a cup. Then the flower always appeared in an antique shot glass taken from the good crystal. It was so pretty to see a flower, yet Kate felt the daisy and its lissome petals seemed sacrificial. The soft sphere of the scarlet rose sank inward, pulled from its stem. Kate touched the flowers, their surfaces, as though they were already gone. "It may be January in New England," Moira had said, "but it's still important to see something blooming. And don't worry, I work with unprocessed foods. I'm a vegetarian, though I don't mind cooking meat if that's what you want. My objections are strictly personal." Kate heard her now, her tread on the stairs and the subtle shifting of cutlery. The smell of food came closer and set up a dull fear in Kate, like a nervousness or excitement.

"Here we are," Moira said. "And I brought the mail up too." She placed the bed tray squarely before Kate and pulled her pillows back. "Might want to sit up a bit more. There's a tomato arugula salad and French bread, and I made you a really hearty vegetable soup, with barley. I froze five pints."

"Great," Kate said. "We'll be thinking of you into next month, blessing the fact of your existence."

Moira nodded. She was so efficient, Kate thought, and she had a quiet, nonintrusive presence, but she seemed a bit humorless. Now she smiled her quick, disappearing smile. Perhaps she was only shy.

"This is my last day with you," she said, "so maybe we should come up with a plan. I know you want to do everything for the baby yourself, but the freezer is almost full of food. There's just room for a few pans of lasagna, which I'll make this afternoon. I'll do all the laundry again, but don't forget I could also give you a massage, or a manicure."

"Or you could read to me," said Kate.

"Don't waste the time you have left," her mother said. "I could read to you."

"How about a massage?" Moira asked.

Kate felt so sore, so weak, the thought of anyone touching her was alarming. But she thought Moira had a dreamy voice, soft, a bit insubstantial; Moira's voice would carry words and disappear in them. "A massage, maybe," Kate said, "and then a story."

"Sure." She nodded and took the mail from the tray. "There's a little package for you, and some cards. I left the bills downstairs. Now I'll go and get another lunch, so the two of you can have lunch together."

Kate's mother nodded in her direction. "No, I'll eat later, I'm coming down soon. You go ahead, Katie, before he wakes up and your arms are full."

"I'm coming down later too," Kate announced. "I hope you both realize that I'm dressed today. It's a nursing gown, but still—"

"You're right," Moira said. "I didn't even notice. There you sit, clothed to the elbows."
"Well, I've always been clothed below the waist, in my various bandages."

"Exactly." Moira busied herself straightening the covers of the bed. "And when you're nursing every hour and you're so sore, it hardly seems worth it to take clothes on and off, or lift them up and down."

"It's amazing how the two of you think alike," Kate's mother said wryly. "Anyway, I wasn't going to say anything. You've been mostly covered with sheets and blankets, and I figured you'd get your clothes on by spring."

"I have my gown on." Kate picked up her spoon. "That's all I'll commit to."

"And you do feel warm," Moira said, "when you're making milk. But I know you don't have a temperature, because I've taken it every day."

"You certainly have," Kate's mother said. "You've taken good care of her."

"Why don't we plan on the massage then?" Moira gathered used cups from the bedside table. "You eat all that, then he'll wake and you'll nurse, and by the time he goes down again, I'll be ready. I'll bring up my oils and a tape to play. All right?"

"You're in charge," Kate's mother said.




When Kate woke, the bed tray was gone. Her mother was gone, and the house was perfectly quiet. She remembered finishing the food and leaning back in bed, and then she'd fallen asleep, dreamlessly, as though she had only to close her eyes to move away, small and weightless, skimming the reflective surface of something deep.

She heard a small sound. Alexander lay in the bassinette, his eyes open, looking at her. His swaddling blankets had come loose. Propped on his side by pillows, he raised one arm and moved his delicate hand. Kate sat up to lean near him and touched her forefinger to his palm; immediately, he grasped her hard and his gaze widened. "They're your fingers," she told him. "You don't know them yet, but I do." Everyone had told her to leave him be when he was happy, she'd be holding him and caring for him so ceaselessly, but she took him in her arms, propped up the pillows, and put him in her lap. He kicked excitedly and frowned. She bent her knees to bring him closer and regarded him as he lay on her raised thighs; the frown disappeared. "You're like me," Kate said softly. "You frown when you think. By the time you're twenty-five, you'll have two little lines between your eyes. Such a serious guy." He raised his downy brows. He had a watchful, observing look and a more excited look—he would open his eyes wider, compress his lips, strain with his limbs as though he was concentrating on moving, on touching or grasping. He could feel his body but he couldn't command it to move or do; his focus was entirely in his eyes. And he did focus. Kate was sure he saw her. He wasn't a newborn any longer; today he was one week old. Perhaps his vision was still blurry, and that was why he peered at her so intently. His eyes were big and dark blue, like those of a baby seal. One eye was always moist and teary; his tear duct was blocked, they'd said at the hospital, it would clear up.

Now Kate wiped his cheek carefully with the edge of a cloth diaper, then drew her finger across his forehead, along his jaw, across his flattened, broad little nose. "Mister man," she whispered, "mighty mouse, here's your face. Here are your nose, your ears, your widow's peak. Old widower, here are your bones . . ." She touched his collarbone and the line along his shoulder, under his gown. His skin was like warm silk and his names were too big for him; she called him Tatie, for his middle name was Tateman, after her family, her divided parents. She cleaned him with warm water, not alcohol wipes, and used a powder that contained no talc. The powder was fine as rice flour and smelled as Kate thought rice fields might smell, in the sun, when the plants bloomed. Like clean food, pure as flowers. Across the world and in the South, those young shoots grew and moved in the breeze like grass. "Rice fields are like grass in water," she said to him. "We haven't seen them yet. Even in India, I didn't see them." Outside the wind moved along the house; Kate heard it circling and testing. Suddenly a gust slammed against the windows and Tatie startled, looked toward the sound. "You can't see the wind," Kate murmured, "just what it moves." The wind would bring snow again, Kate knew; already she heard snow approach like a whining in the air. Absently she traced the baby's lips, and he yawned and began to whimper. You're hungry, Kate thought, and he moved his arms as though to gather her closer. Her milk let down with a flush and surge, and she held a clean diaper to one breast as she put him to the other. Now she breathed, exhaling slowly. The intense pain began to ebb; he drank the cells of her blood, Kate knew, and the crust that formed on her nipples where the cuts were deepest. He was her blood. When she held him he was inside her; always, he was near her, like an atmosphere, in his sleep, in his being. She would not be alone again for many years, even if she wanted to, even if she tried. In her deepest thoughts, she would approach him, move around and through him, make room for him. In nursing there would be a still, spiral peace, an energy in which she felt herself, her needs and wants, slough away like useless debris. It seemed less important to talk or think; like a nesting animal, she took on camouflage, layers of protective awareness that were almost spatial in dimension. The awareness had dark edges, shadows that rose and fell. Kate imagined terrible things. That he might stop breathing. That she dropped him, or someone had. That someone or something took him from her. That she forgot about him or misplaced him. There were no words; the thoughts occurred to her in starkly precise images, like the unmistakable images of dreams, as though her waking and sleeping lives had met in him. Truly, she was sleeping; the days and nights were fluid, beautiful and discolored; everything in her was available to her, as though she'd become someone else, someone with a similar past history in whom that history was acknowledged rather than felt, someone who didn't need to make amends or understand, someone beyond language. She was shattered. Something new would come of her. Moments in which she crossed from consciousness to sleep, from sleep to awareness, there was a lag of an instant in which she couldn't remember her name, and she didn't care. She remembered him. Now his gaze met hers and his eyelids fluttered; she could see him falling away, back into his infant swoon. His sleep closed around him like an ocean shell and rocked him within it. In this they were alike, Kate thought, though he had no name known to him, no name to forget. He was pure need. She took him from the breast and held him to her shoulder, patting and rubbing him, softly, a caress and a heartbeat.

Moira came into the room so quietly that Kate was unaware of her until she reached the foot of the bed. She carried blankets, a tape recorder, plastic bottles of oils, a small cardboard box. Depositing her burdens on the floor, she mouthed, "Shall I take him?" and Kate gestured, no, not yet. She whispered, "I'll set up," and disappeared from view. Kate smelled the sulfur of lit matches and then citrus and gardenia, Moira's scented votives. Kate put Alexander carefully into the bassinette and looked through the books stacked beside her table. She chose one. Which passage? The beginning would do.
"I'm going to put the tape on very low. As he sleeps more deeply, I'll turn it up just a bit." Moira was beside her. "Is that the book you want?" She smiled and took it, then indicated the rug at the foot of the bed. "I've made a space. It's better to have a firm surface."

"A space," Kate said. She stood and saw that Moira had made an alternate bed, blankets precisely folded, a pallet covered with terry towels. Sheets and more blankets were arranged over it, neatly turned down. Six votives were lit in a row of little flames at the head. "This looks ritualistic," Kate said. "Do I need a chaperone?"

"I don't believe so." Moira turned the tape on. "But I won't lie, it is a ritual. I'm sorry I can't lower the light. Evening is a better time, but I don't work nights."

"It doesn't need to be dark," Kate said. "Look how the sun falls across. I love the sun."

"Yes, you'll feel it. Can you lie on your front comfortably? I'll go out while you get ready."

"No need."

"No, I will. And take everything off. I'll bring the warm oils from the kitchen."

Kate watched her go, and sighed. What a lot of work this was. She walked past the pallet into the bathroom, pulling the door closed. There, the water running, getting warm. She took off her gown and pants, folded the pads and wrapped them in paper, threw them away. Slowly, she began to wash, water cooling on her legs in rivulets. They'd told her not to bathe yet; she stood like this, cloths and soap, carefully. At first, when she stood or walked, she'd felt as though she moved on the deck of a ship, as though some rhythm pulsed in the ground, the floor. Rooms subtly shifted. The effects of the anesthetic, Matt said, but Kate could see the movement even from her bed, from her window. The way the angles of the ceiling met the walls, how the floor slid to its four corners. How the earth turned. This is the way it's always been, Kate thought; she hadn't known. Now she did. She rocked the baby in the rocking chair and imagined sailing through the window, rocking, with no interruption, into the cold, the air billowing around them. You okay? Matt would ask. I'm fine, Kate would answer. As a child, an adolescent, an adult, she had almost never cried. Now she could. She didn't feel depressed, she felt amazed, and moved, and out of sync. Or she was in sync, but she couldn't explain how. She left her gown where it fell, dried herself and opened the door.

The music was a little more noticeable now, classical music, strings. A shaft of sunlight poured across the rug and motes of dust swam in the light. Moira knelt by the empty fireplace, waiting for her. "Sorry," Kate said. "I wanted to get clean." Moira nodded, and pulled back the sheets of the pallet for Kate to slip inside. Slowly, Kate was on her knees, and then prone. "We won't wake him?" she said, before turning over. "You wouldn't be comfortable away from him," Moira answered. "We won't disturb him."

Then the sheets and blankets were a silky covering. Moira moved her hands along Kate's form as though to gain some innate sense of her, pausing, exerting a gentle pressure. It's not New Age, Kate thought, it's from the oldest days, when floors were swept earth. Behind the music she heard Moira breathing, exhaling in time to the movement of her hands, as though she were draining Kate of fatigue or discomfort, releasing it through herself. Surely that was the idea. "So, Moira," Kate said softly, "what are your personal objections?"

The hands never slowed. "To what?"

"Meat. To meat."

"Oh. Health, basically, at first, theories about nutrition. But after I stopped eating meat, the smell of my body changed, and the taste in my mouth. I don't mind handling meat—I cook and do catering, and sometimes it's part of my job—but I don't want it inside me. And I didn't want my daughter growing up on a meat diet."

"You have a daughter?"

"Yes. She's three. I'm a single mom."

So she works days, Kate thought. Nights at home with her daughter. "You seem so content and organized," she said aloud. "Were you always single?"

"Yes, pretty much. It was a bit difficult at first, but for now, we're content. We do very well."

"Little women," Kate said. "But in those mother-daughter stories, there's always a virtuous hero offstage, the father off at war, or the rich neighbor."

"And so there may be," Moira said. "But I'll do whatever's best for my child. I don't need saved."

"What a relief," Kate said.

"Yes." Moira laughed softly.

"But we do have to save ourselves, don't we," Kate murmured. "Such a project."

"You're stronger each day," Moira said. "And you're doing exactly what you should be doing with this baby. It's so important to nurse, and to have him constantly with you."
Now the light of the sun had shifted; it seemed winter light again, flattened and diffuse, and the flames of the votives burned higher. Moira's hands were at Kate's hips, lifting her from behind, tilting heat into her abdomen. She moved up along Kate's spine with her fists, a hard and soft pressure, repetitive, patterned with heat that Kate felt in her forearms, in her thighs. She felt herself knit together, handled like something wounded; she realized how far she was from herself, and how she might begin to live here again, in her body. Slowly, it would happen. She might call and call now for her own return, but she only floated, inhabiting so many former selves with more conviction. Just now she saw the backs and jostling shoulders of her hometown girlfriends, all bundled in their coats and descending into snow down dormitory stairs; they still looked like high school blondes and brunettes in fur hats and boots, bright twine in their hair, but they were getting off on mescaline, falling into the first tinges of visuals, and someone was crooning, Pleased as punch, pleased as punch. In India, on the vast terrace of the Taj Mahal, boys approached Kate with open arms. Sell blue jeans? Buy hashish? Extreme hashish. You sell blue jeans? The young men, the slim ones, looked like boys, smooth-skinned and lithe. The middle-aged men on the train to Agra were toadish and portly in their tailored clothes; they seldom looked up from their newspapers. Mist rose from the steaming fields as though daybreak would go on for weeks and Kate saw silhouettes of movement, squatting forms, their morning toilette a slow, dark ballet. An old man, skeletal in white, hunkered by the tracks, brushing his teeth with a twig. On the tortuous mountain track to Chitwan, the Nepalese bus had stopped in a town; farmers disembarked with their caged chickens, and the women with their saronged babies; the Gurka soldiers piled out with their guns. The women merely lifted their layered, intricately sewn skirts to relieve themselves, standing to straddle the sewage ditch that ran along one side of the only road. Water rattled in it and the men walked farther up, discreetly, but Kate wandered behind the shacklike kiosks to pick her way down a rocky bank to the river. Ropes of feces blackened among the stones. The riverbank flattened in a broad sweeping curve and the water was low; outcroppings strewn with boulders rose in crescents from glistened sweeps too still and silver to seem fluid. Kate dropped her loose cloth trousers to her knees and crouched, urinating; to her left, two men appeared at the curve of the river, balancing on their shoulders a long pole bent with the weight of a body. The body, bound to the pole at wrists and ankles, swung in delicate motion, the swathed, faceless head flung back.

Kate couldn't look away. Moira's voice came from above her. "It's nearly time for me to go," she said.

"Yes, I know." Kate turned over and lay on her back. Behind her eyes she saw a darkness reddened by light. "Good-bye, Moira."

Moira touched Kate's forehead with her fingertips. Her touch lingered deliberately, a firm little bruise specific as a kiss. Kate lay still. She felt Moira close to her, just over her, her clove-scented breath, the oil of her dark hair. Perhaps she always ended her massages this way. Perhaps she thought Kate ridiculous, a privileged woman not yet alone with her child. Kate raised her gaze to Moira's. "You look so grave," Kate said. "But then, good-bye is a grave word."

"It's just a wish," Moira said, "like a blessing." She moved away. Her hands pressed in a careful pattern above the tucked blankets, finishing evenly. "He's sleeping," she said softly. "You sleep, too, if you like, but here's your story." Kate heard a ruffling of pages. "Chapter one," came a voice. "I am born . . . To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday at midnight . . ." Kate closed her eyes. The river was a high rattling murmur and the barefoot men moved ceaselessly forward in the islanded riverbed. The men never looked at her. They were there still, Kate thought, making progress down the Narayani to the mouth of the Bagmati, two days' trek. The cremation sites, in view of the blue-eyed stupas and their gold spires, were raised earth bound by stones, and the flaming pyres were set afloat, heaped with burning flowers. Kate smelled that scent, like blackened oranges, sticky and boiled, so close she was enveloped. It was remarked that the clock began to strike . . . and I began to cry, simultaneously. . . . She knew she must stand up now and walk, or the bus would ascend into the mountains without her.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Jayne Anne Phillips was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia. She is the author of three novels, MotherKind (2000), Shelter (1994) and Machine Dreams (1984), and two collections of widely anthologized stories, Fast Lanes (1987) and Black Tickets (1979). She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Bunting Fellowship. She has been awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (1980) and an Academy Award in Literature (1997) by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, and has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, DoubleTake, and The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. She is currently Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. Her new novel, Lark and Termite, is forthcoming from Knopf.

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