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Praise for Connie May Fowler
“If writing is a gift, then Connie May Fowler must be endowed with the gifts of ten muses.”
—Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Opposite of Fate
“[Before Women Had Wings is] a thing of heartrending beauty, a moving exploration of love and loss, violence and grief, forgiveness and redemption.”
“Connie May Fowler writes with great sympathy and insight.”
—Lee Smith, author of Saving Grace
“There is no denying the depth of Connie May Fowler’s talent …”
—New York Times Book Review
“[Fowler’s] prose is never less than as sinewy as cypress trees and as right as Christmas cake … Few writers capture poverty’s weird chemistry of aching hope and grinding pessimism like Fowler.”
July 21, 2001
Here is the swan feather I promised. Be forewarned: This really works. An old celibate man in Jacksonville Beach clued me in. He blames the feather for his incessant faithfulness. By his own admission, he cheated on his wife with all the consistency of a serial killer until his wife threw the feather spell on him. He spent the first decade of his marriage as a philanderer and the last two as a model husband. In fact, he buried her three years ago and remains true. It's sad, really, that this works so well. I mean, the old guy is never going to get laid again in his life.
Anyway, you have to sew the feather into his pillowcase. You can't simply stick it in there. Do you know how to sew anymore? You've been up there so long, I suspect you've forgotten everything our mothers tried to teach us. I can see how that is both helpful and not. For instance, your mother, who was truly a dear woman—you know I loved her—was always insisting that you wear your hair short. That was wrongheaded. You're a knockout when you let those curls kiss your shoulders.
Also, when do I get to meet this Nigerian? Like I said in this morning's E-mail, you CANNOT marry until I have approved. I would give you the same courtesy. Bring him down here and let me meet him while the summer storms still rage. Don't let this get past you. I know you. Once school kicks in, you'll be too busy to even respond to E-mail. So book your flights and I'll pick you up, and you two can have the house all to yourselves.
We're having a bang-up summer, Charlee. Last evening, Dr. Z was still running around Hastings in his Roadmaster (I don't believe he has cleaned it out, only added to the pile of crap, since you left here however many years ago), treating the migrants, and I took the liberty, as is my wont and his pleasure, to sit on his dock and sip my beer and watch the end-of-day glory unfold and settle. I was glad I did, because last night's sunset turned out to be a rare breed of awesome. The magnolia leaves quivered in the waning light. The river glowed. The sky bloomed. The anvil clouds towering in the west over the hammock appeared to be lit from within. It was enough to make my heart break and put itself back together out of sheer joy: lilac, purple, orange, sage. This old world, I'm telling you, pulsed with the sun's last gasp—ba bap, ba bap, ba bap—and then both sea and sky took on a golden glaze.
Just when I was thinking life couldn't get any better, it did. A flock of terns rose from the river, spiraling up up up, a ribbon of black and white unfurling along a thermal. And then they disappeared. It was as if God had called them home.
What do you think of that? I'd really like to know. Also, if any of your professors would like to comment, I welcome their thoughts.
If the description of the sunset doesn't do it, then perhaps this will entice you home: The dragonflies are in peak form. And you know what they say . . . a bountiful season of dragonflies makes for a healthy uterus. Picture you and your beloved sitting on Z's dock—or my porch—quiet and beautiful and still—watching the dragons fly. Take right now, for instance. I'm on my back patio, writing this letter and am surrounded. They collide into one another—winged bumper cars—as they gorge on the mosquitoes, and with each collision, a faintly metallic whir strikes the air. I bet ants and cockroaches consider it to be a form of music, something akin to calypso.
So what do you think of my news about this guy I met? I mean, I'm a bit wary, yet ever so willing to throw every shred of caution to the wind.
My tendency toward behaving with abandon is fueled by my very real and reasonable desire for sex. I mean, it has been three months. I've done all sorts of spell casting. I even burned my pubes in a bird's nest. That should have brought me major boom-boom action. But no! I'm still walking about like a nun!
So for no other reason than carnal desire, I'm tempted to go forward with this. He's cute as hell. My pubes have grown back in. As good old Father Beaver used to say, "Perhaps this would make Jesus happy." I'll keep you posted. Love on the river should be very hot. I guess I ought to buy a new razor or get waxed. Or something.
I miss you, Charlee. Z misses you. Edith misses you. Lucinda misses you. The whole damn bunch of us do. So come visit before you get involved in all your books and God again. Besides, you know as well as I do, God isn't up there. She left Boston ages ago.
Love you lots,
P.S. I forgot to tell you, that poor swan! And poor me! The spell doesn't work if you pick up a feather off the ground. You have to pluck it out of the poor bird's butt. You'd better be sure you really want this guy.
Murmur Lee Harp
The pearl-faced moon dipped behind a cloud, darkening the night, as I sped upriver to meet my lover. We'd had many such river trysts. In fact, it was how we'd met five months prior: he on his way to check his crab traps and me anchored in the Matanzas, listening to Gillian Welch softly wail on my boom box. But tonight, it was the Iris Haven River, not the Matanzas, and it was New Year's Eve—a time that made me melancholy, because who among us could live up to the expectations born of fresh beginnings?
My skiff bounced along the swift chop, and as I brought her into the channel, I could see that Billy was already there. He owned a twenty-four-foot Wellcraft Fisherman, and if the tide had been low, he wouldn't have been in this river, as it ran shallow. But the New Year and broad, waning moon had given us a high tide, which made the river doable. I eased back on the throttle, my skin and hair wet with salt spray, not believing that I'd been with Billy for nearly half a year. As I churned doggedly on, closing the gap between us, I reminded myself that I deserved this happiness. My life was like most people's: a series of challenges made bearable by the sanctified gifts of friends and strangers. I wasn't going to sabatoge things this time. I was going to love a man and allow him to love me back and simply accept that life could be this way. And if, on occasion, I needed to slip a pinch of cayenne into his coffee to keep him focused, or sweeten his table salt with a dusting of snipped egret feathers to make him want me more, well, I was up for that. Upon my approach, I heard John Lee Hooker on Billy's boom box: "One bourbon, one scotch, and one beer." What a fine way to bring in the New Year: with the blues.
I anchored off his leeward bow, and as I watched the line uncoil and disappear into the river, I yelled, "Hello!"
Billy poked his head out of the cabin, all smiles, his eyes polished by liquor. "Hey there." He stepped onto the deck and raised his Budweiser in greeting. Dressed in well-saddled jeans, a red cable-knit sweater, and a University of Florida baseball cap, he looked younger than his forty-five years. "What took you so long?" He shot me that gap-toothed Scots-Irish grin.
"I ran over to the hammock. Wanted to see if I could spot the owl we heard last night."
He didn't say anything. He just stared. I fiddled with my hair and felt myself blush. His gaze was direct and all about sex. Even though I was halfway through my third decade on this planet, I wobbled under the weight of his hazel eyes. I brought my slicker tighter about me. "Permission to come aboard, sir."
He held open his arms: a welcoming gesture. "Permission granted."
As he took my line in his big hands and pulled my skiff toward him, I felt light and happy, almost home.
It was cold on the river, even though we were buffered from the easterly breeze by the dunes. Billy insisted I remove my slicker, because he "couldn't get to me through all that waterproofing." He wrapped me in an old gray sweater of his. It fit Billy snugly, but on me, it resembled a coat.
Overhead, clouds moved quickly and the moon's light wavered. We stayed on deck, both of us wanting to bring in the New Year in the wide, cold goodness of this river. Billy kissed the tip of my nose. Mr. Hooker howled, "Think twice before you go . . ."
"Happy New Year, baby." I touched Billy's face.
He rested his hands in my damp hair. "We're getting socked in," he said.
I followed his gaze. Fog billowed westward from the sea. Soon both the river and shore would be enveloped. "I love fog. Especially the way it tumbles in without warning." I wrapped my arms around him and spun a half turn—the perfect curl of a knot—resting the back of my head against his chest. "Fog is all about surprise, whereas rain is about, I don't know, enduring the moment."
He spun me back around—undoing the knot—leaned in, kissed me. He tasted like drawn butter and beer. "That makes no sense, you crazy woman, you."
"Yes, it does." I extricated myself and reached for my beer. I took a long swig and considered if I should try to convince him that rain is all about endurance, but he was on to something else.
"Listen to this." He popped out John Lee Hooker and fiddled with a plastic bag filled with CDs.
"No, Billy. Not again. I don't like this game. Listen, I'm better on music than you. Get used to it. It's a"--I breathed in the wet air, searched for a suitable word--"gift."
He wasn't deterred. He hit the play button and looked at me smugly. He thought he had me stumped—it was written all over his wide face.
"Easy. Prokofiev. Romeo and Juliet."
"Damn it!" He crushed his empty Budweiser with one hand, tossed it in a plastic bucket, opened the cooler, reached for another. "How do you know?"
"I saw the ballet on PBS." Actually, anyone with half a brain would know. That cubist, break-down-the-walls, big-as-a-bull physicality was owned by Prokofiev. I ran my hand lightly over my fog-frizzed hair. "I mean it, Billy, I really hate this game."
"Damn it all to hell." He pulled the CD bag up to his face and stared in. He was determined to prove to me that I didn't know as much about music as I thought I did. For a moment, I hated him.
"Just a couple of more, Murmur Lee." He slammed in a different CD, hit play, and smiled triumphantly.
"Raga. A form of classical Indian music." I spoke in a monotone. "But you've got the wrong season. That raga is to be played only in the summer. Listen to the F-sharp. It's called a Dipak, Billy." I admit, I pushed his buttons with this one, showing off just enough to make him wish he'd never started down this path. "But you've got the time of day right. Hear that tonality of the four-note scale, all of it way down deep? Definitely a nighttime melody."
His mouth pinched up—a sign that I tweaked his gallbladder into producing a squirt or two of poison. He took off his cap, repositioned it, and then searched the CD bag like a dog clawing sand.
I emptied my beer and got a fresh one. If this goes on much longer, I thought, I'm out of here. I popped the top and looked toward Zachary's dock, which, through the fog, appeared smudged. I could barely make out the plastic owl he'd nailed on the rail to keep away the seagulls and all their poop. Dumb idea. Right then, the voice of Egypt blossomed through the thick, liquored air.
"Umm Kulthum." I turned away from Billy, scooted past the cooler, and took three steps to the stern. "Nobody on the planet has a voice like hers. You know, she's like Piaf. And Orbison. Billie Holiday. Ella. Definitely Ella. Some might even say Sinatra. With chanteuses, it's not about tonal structure. It's all about the voice. And phrasing." He was not listening. He was already on to the next CD. I stared into the silk wall of mist, annoyed, thinking, I want to eat the fog; I want it to taste like melted vanilla ice cream.
He pressed the play button. As I zeroed in on the first fat chord, the wind hit us with something awful, something rotting, maybe an animal carcass soiling the evergreen promise of this New Year.
I started to say, Billy, baby, what's that smell? but I didn't get the chance. Everything--the river, the shore, the big dark sky—collapsed in a single bright flash. Right before I lost consciousness, I thought, Oh dear God, there is a lightning storm in my brain.
I do not remember plunging into the green river.
It was only after death consumed me that any sort of consciousness emerged. My first thought was, Have the stars all melted? Is that what rivers and seas truly are? The meltdown of heavenly bodies?
As the river flooded me, I longed for Billy. I wanted him to pull me into the air and back to life. Where was he?
I tried to close my mouth, but it would not move. Tiny fish entered and exited. I looked foolish, floating along, my mouth wide open. What would happen to my soul with my mouth gaped and flooded? Could it escape to wherever souls are supposed to rest? At least no evil could get in. How could any spirit enter a mouth dammed by river water? I decided I resembled a sunken boat, a moving reef, a curiosity to fish and invisible plankton.
An old woman who used to shop at the St. Augustine IGA before they tore it down told me that it was bad luck to die with your eyes open. She lived in Lincolnville, marched with Dr. King, saw her two sons go to jail and her daughter become a lawyer. She was old when I knew her. She taught me a lot. Such as: "You gotta close a dead man's eyes, lest he take somebody with him." And: "Open up all the windows and doors the very second a person passes. Otherwise, their soul stays stuck, locked up in the house. You don't want that." And this one, most frightening of all: "When you become pure soul, don't you dare break a mirror. If you do, your soul shatters to bits and ends up trapped in all them broken pieces of looking glass, cursed to wander not just this universe but all the verses, the multiverse."
I wondered what she'd say about this: me dying with my eyes wide open and not possessing a single anticipatory breath that my demise was imminent? But at least I wouldn't be creacking any mirrors down here.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. On the frontispiece is a quote from John Berger: “There is never a single approach to something remembered.” What does that mean, in terms of this novel? Why do you think Connie May Fowler chose that quote? Discuss Fowler’s use of multiple narrators and multiple perspectives, and especially Murmur Lee as narrator after death.
2. Aside from the first-person narration of the characters themselves, Fowler also intersperses written ephemera–diary entries, a shopping list, a note passed during childhood. What purpose do these scraps serve to the progression of the story, and our understanding of Murmur Lee?
3. Murmur Lee describes herself on page 9 as “the lover to many men, a good friend to a well-chosen few, a daughter who’d been secretly wild but openly obedient, a mother who’d never stopped viciously mourning the loss of her only child, a woman who despite some tough breaks and lapses in judgment had made her own way in the world.” Is this an accurate description? Compare it to the “lessons I’ve learned since dying,” on pages 162 and 163. How has Murmur Lee’s perspective on herself changed?
4. Birds appear over and over throughout the novel, from a swan feather on the first page to a seagull on the last. Why? What do the various bird images mean to you?
5. Murmur Lee is a witch, and her status is presented very matter-of-factly throughout the book. Why do you think she began to practice witchcraft? Did it have anything to do with her religious upbringing? Do you believe in the power of spells?
6. Discuss Murmur Lee’s experience with childhood religious visions. As she says on page 73: “How astounding to be the focus of my mother’s ecstatic passion, how bone-breaking delicious to be the object of her approval!” How much of Murmur Lee’s seizures do you attribute to medical causes, and how much to the desire to please her mother? What effect did they have on her as an adult, aside from the obvious one?
7. Charlee Mudd left the South behind, hoping to transform herself into a Northerner. Was she successful? In what ways did she fail? And what about the novel itself–would you consider it a “Southern” novel?
8. The circumstances of Murmur Lee’s death are questioned and discussed throughout the novel, and the truth is revealed only at the end. Does that make this a mystery? How does the novel fit into the conventions of classic mystery writing, and how does it break them?
9. According to Murmur Lee, her great-great-grandfather named their island Iris Haven after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, but without realizing that Iris also “had one hell of a job: She received the souls of dying women.” Murmur Lee asks, “Did his ignorant foray into the world of nomenclature curse this place? Is that why we keep dying out here, again and again, so young?” (pg 32) What do you think of Murmur Lee’s assessment of the situation? Is it possible for a name to curse a place like that?
10. Murmur Lee didn’t know that she was the product of a rape until after her own death. In what ways did it affect her while she was still living?
11. Compare and contrast Zachary’s behavior while Katrina was dying with Erik’s during Blossom’s illness. Do you see a parallel? Does Murmur Lee’s compassion for Zachary result from her own experience with Erik?
12. On page 120 Charlee wonders about Murmur Lee’s will: “Did she know her time was up? Had she made a decision–watery and vague, but a decision nonetheless–that she’d best set her affairs in order? How does a healthy thirty-five-year-old woman come by that sort of precognition?” How would you answer those questions? Does the existence of a relatively young woman’s will indicate a subconscious readiness to die?
13. After Murmur Lee has sex with Billy for the first time, she asks him if he loves his mother; he replies that he was happy when she died. Murmur Lee is tremendously upset by his response, recognizing an old pattern of hers. What is the significance of this? If Murmur Lee hadn’t died, do you believe she and Billy would have ended up together? Why, or why not?
14. Discuss the characters of Lucinda Smith, Edith Piaf, and Ariela van den Berg. What purpose(s) do they serve in the novel?
15. Why does Zachary punch Billy?
16. Throughout the novel there are countless references to ghosts, and wind. After death, in fact, Murmur Lee is surrounded by gusts and flows. What do you think this means? What do you think happens to us after death?
17. What does the title mean? What is the problem with Murmur Lee?
Posted August 13, 2013
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Posted October 2, 2010
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Posted November 27, 2010
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Posted April 15, 2010
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