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* * *
Put up a fence today. Even though we live on the city's roof, high above the Valley of the Ants, there are always faces, eyes, looks. God, I hate people. Shoo! Get! Up there in our secluded garden, in any case, I clipped away all the blossoms, pruned off all the buds. I had to do something, things can't just go on as though nothing has happened, can they? The leaves are bursting out all over, there's no stopping them. Shoots and new growth everywhere. (And in the darkest corner, furtive and untouched, the alder. A drab sapling that must once have stowed itself away in old soil. Now already as big as a child.)
Fences, partitions, shears. Others dig moats, forge locks, raise bridges. Burn cities to the ground. Yet it all comes down to the same thing. Wanting to set something aright after it's too late. Wanting to set something aright because it's too late. Constraining controlling directing the triad of impotence.
Every day we drift further from her, every step we take is a step away from her. Living on means on and on, further and further away from her. We dig in our heels against the days, but the days roll over us. They drag us along, carry us off to places that bear a remarkable resemblance to something we once knew. And vet everything's different. Did someone go and rearrange things on us, while we were away? We keep running into things, hitting snags again and again, for we have no idea where in the hell we've ended up.
Our house, the house of two strangers. Do they have a child? The silence makes it hard to tell. We grope our way around. We cast about for the smell of laundered whites in clean rooms, the breath-soft calm of the afternoon nap. Happiness is something you mention only once you can no longer find it. The cotton hush, the filtered sunlight.
Quiet it is, but the wrong quiet. From all the cupboards, all the corners, panic can suddenly jump out at you. Despair lurks everywhere. We stay on our guard, we try not to look. Not at the little outfits in the laundry basket. And definitely not at the crib either, the little red blanket with the milk stain, the cap with earflaps. No! Don't look! it's only the sickest catastrophe, hidden especially in the little things dearest to us.
We have to learn to defend ourselves, we're far too vulnerable this way. When a baby's cap strikes fear into you, you're in trouble.
The constant feeling that something's not right, that things need sorting out around here. Who clipped away all the blossoms, damn it? The garden was just starting to flower. I know, I know (things don't turn out the way they're supposed to).
We have to watch what we do, mistakes have been made, something has gone fundamentally wrong. And meanwhile, like a stowaway in my thoughts, the spurious assumption that we'll find a way out of this. All we have to do is get organized. Losing something simply means you don't know where you put it. So take a good look around, even in the last place you'd ever think. Especially there. And tidy up after yourself right away, otherwise you'll lose track. When things don't have a place to belong, it all comes to a shrieking halt. Before you know it, hideous sorrow will have put on the little dress with the animals, and will be leaving the smallest of socks around, right where you'll find them.
* * *
A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow; a man without his wife, a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?
* * *
On the day calamity was to come down on us (and unfurl before us like a lily), we had trouble understanding the portents.
At first it seemed the kind of thing you'd file away later under "anecdotes." For the longest time, I kept clutching at the point of the story: bow we all emerged unscathed. After all, isn't that how it always ends? When something's happening to you, you never know what's happening to you. You're in the dark. Fear builds up around you like a wall, you can't see over it. What lies beyond you know only from hearsay, it's built of inexperienced words: words that have no idea what they're saying. So whatever we may have feared, our thoughts clung to the happy ending. That was the territory we knew. It was all just something we had to go through. On the other side, the good old, happy-go-lucky happy ending was patiently waiting for us.
That's why we missed the signs at first. We didn't see what was different, and if we happened to see it anyway, we must not have been paying attention. How often do you run into Death without seeing him? How often are you rescued without even noticing?
It's amazing, in retrospect, how normally everything went. The blitheness of people on the verge of disaster, the stunning normalcy with which people move toward their doom. It seems that, even then, there is no life but daily life. Rather than bracing ourselves for horrors, we wonder whether this will leave us enough time to cook something later on, or whether we'll have to go for Chinese takeout. "Later." Our time was still running by the clock on the living-room wall.
But meanwhile, one by one, the hospital was taking over our functions.
The hopelessness of the situation would not sink in. Hope is a hardy substance. You chop it off and it grows back again. Something is removed, shut, destroyed, and precisely at that same spot, hope starts growing again.
We, who were no longer allowed to take our child in our arms, adapted immediately. We learned to read lips, eyebrows, fingers. I even read backs and shoulders, I read footsteps, doors, silences. Later they brought in the equipment, more and more equipment. We learned to read that as well. We learned numbers and their relationship to respiration, pulse rate, blood pressure. We learned to ignore certain beeps, and could distinguish unerringly among the various drips and tubes. They provided us with explanations, the only ones at our disposal. We wanted to understand everything, we sought a handhold in every fact, in order to keep from falling. Into bottomless nothing.
"I think she's sleeping quietly now," you said.
"Yes," I said.
For as long as you could say it, it might be true.
SONG OF SONGS
* * *
Her birth came to us like an infatuation, everything became charged, enchanted by the miracle of her presence. The world, in which I had moved without direction for so long, suddenly had a radial center. Too bad the high C has vanished from our speech, that towering register in which the joyful rise up in rapture, stared after in amazement by those left behind on the ground floor. "As the lily is among thorns," I repeat after the song in my heart, "so is my love among the daughters.... Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick with love."
She's everything that was missing, we told each other. But we didn't even know who she was, this living creature, pulled from you slipping and floundering at eight-twenty on a Friday evening.
Infatuation is a state that precedes identity. Just as a person has no need of a name for his own sake (one "knows" who one is), so the beloved needs no name. A name would limit her without reason, because she's simply too much for a single name. Ardor prefers to sample pet words, try out sounds that are replaced the moment they fall short. Nothing is fixed, everything is possible. Each time you haven't looked for a while, she seems different. A person in love has so much to remember at once, it never works out. Looking again and again, touching again. Reading the face like a blind man, with your fingertips. Afraid to miss anything at all, to skip something, forget a thing.
The first night, with her in between us. Full-moon light through the attic window, the pillows, the sheets, the wallpaper, everything silver and blue. Just like then, the first night you stayed with me and I was unable to fathom my luck. Full moon then too: magic light, old as time, that's saved many a ship lost at sea. And now we're lying here with this amazing bundle between us. We had picked up around the house beforehand, cleaned and rearranged it. Bought things. One must be prepared for the arrival of the beloved. But now that she's lying here in her first moonlight, her first bed, her first world, nothing else matters. All the carefully constructed explanations collapse at a breath, like paper towers of Babel on an overworked desk. The last word will always be a first word.
* * *
Does love disappear when the person disappears? Where does the love go when the body is burned to ashes? It flees into similes. The body has been taken from the earth, but not all the things that remind you of it.
"Thine eyes are like the ponds in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus. Thine head upon thee is like Carmel ..." Like, indeed, like, like. Love looks for an embodiment it can no longer find.
The way visiting family members dissect new offspring in search of resemblances, I try to reconstruct her demolished future on the basis of girlish things I come across, along my way.
Today, too, on the street I saw forms she could have taken. There are enough things that would fit her. Gestures, faces, figures. That's not the problem. I saw a little girl on the back of a bike, soundlessly grimacing all her secrets to her mother's back; two girlfriends of thirteen, a fat one and a pretty one, smoking filter cigarettes in a doorway and screeching with laughter, and in the streetcar a dark-haired princess of sixteen or seventeen, a book open on her lap, staring pensively out the window. Instances in which she was potentially present.
A man can love different women, all a mother's children are equally precious to her. So why can't she, who is ash herself, be entrusted to bodies that have, only in the strictest sense, never been hers?
SO THIS IS IT
* * *
It's hard to know the moment when I first realized she was hopelessly lost. Or rather: the moment when I finally dared to admit knowing it. For there are certain kinds of insights that first travel along with your thinking like a stowaway, silently, staying inconspicuous, a dark figure hidden away in one of the lifeboats on the top deck. You know it, with all the sneaking suspicion at your disposal you know it, it's just that you don't want to know it for sure, not yet, like with a letter you're still dreading to open. And you don't want to know it for each other's sake either, you don't want to do that to each other.
And there is something else as well. That's the matter of language, the matter of communicability. You know it, but not how to go about saying it. The tongue gropes across the palate in vain. All the words you find seem borrowed, not applicable. What's going on is not "something like." There are no precedents to follow.
Meanwhile the thoughts simply go on buffing up the anecdote she'll hear later: how Mom and Dad sat up all night by her hospital bed.
Our little girl never let on. She had taken cover deep inside herself, at search in her body for something to hold on to.
Visiting hours were long over, we were the only parents left amid the sleeping children. Night crept into the ward, muffled the sounds, put out the lights. Unwatched monitors dutifully produced rows of digits, the way a sinking ship produces bubbles.
I stand, at the big window. A figure staring out. No moon in the sky, only the neon of the streetlights and lighted office buildings. The clouds are lit only from below. Behind that, darkness unto the end of time. Behind me, I know you are bending over her again, rearranging her diaper, moving aside a tube, a cable, a wire that's coming out of her or one she has to have in her, brushing an invisible hair from her face. I lean my forehead against the cool pane. Far below, traffic crawls like blood through the city, the paved roads and streets a network of arteries, veins, and capillaries, to supply even the furthest extremities of this city with living people.
So this is it, came the thought inside me. This is the worst that could happen to me, and now it's happening. Our baby is dying there, behind my back. Before long she'll be gone forever. I knew it, but I didn't feel it. I didn't feel anything at all anymore.
A stone was what I had become, all I could do was break.
OR COULD IT BE THE TRANSLATION?
* * *
Our life has fallen shut like a book we'd been reading in bed. Now that we've picked it up again, we can't find the page we were on. We try reading on a little, but no, none of it seems even slightly familiar, it's like one of those Russian novels where everyone's name keeps changing all the time. The twists of plot don't say a thing to us, we couldn't have been this tar yet. But even when we leaf back, we never reach a point where we can say: ah yes, I remember this part.
Maybe we've picked up the wrong book, maybe what we have to do first is figure out what we were actually reading.
Or are we reading this book of ours through different eyes, and does the whole story simply seem far-fetched to us now?
* * *
You were sitting in a twin-engine plane over Texel, watching the skydivers. (I'd stayed behind, because of my fear of flying.) You were struck by how green and mountainous the island was down there. Suddenly a huge passenger plane loomed up beneath yours, a dark blue airbus, from an airline you'd never heard of. The big plane was clearly flying off course. It banked to avoid hitting you and lost its balance, one wing actually touched the water of an inland sea before slamming into a mountainside (a dune?).
You were horrified, you'd never witnessed anything so horrendous. You were afraid it was your plane that had been at fault, that you had flown into the path of the big aircraft. But the pilot said that was impossible, passenger planes like that had absolutely no permission to fly here.
At the press conference they pretended it was no big deal after all. Everyone started acting very chic, very la-di-da. Whenever news would come in, the curtains would be drawn right away. It was being held in an old villa with antiques all over the place, those kinds of handed-down family heirlooms. There were lots of snooty ladies walking around who acted as though they knew exactly what had taken place (even though they hadn't been in the plane).
That made you so angry. You started shouting and stamping your feet. What gave them the right to be informed, and not you? Weren't you the one who had seen the whole thing happen right in front of your eyes? At the top of your voice, you told those stupid cow exactly what was what. After all, it was you who had been the eyewitness, not them. Getting angry like that made you feel better. You were finally able to say it out loud. You became so worked up that it woke you.
I was in the living room, talking on the phone to someone from the literature council, when I looked out the window and saw a glider trying to land in our roof garden. It was suspended in midair, as it were: it had pulled up right alongside the fence, I could look the pilot in the eye. He looked back, brash and self-confident.
The person on the other end was trying to put me through to the person I really needed, which didn't seem to be working. But since I had her, the wrong person, on the line anyway, I told her how strange it seemed that a glider should try to land in my rooftop garden, completely unannounced.
"It can't be more than five by five," I shouted like a radio announcer. "And," I added in amazement, "he hasn't damaged a single leaf."
By this time the pilot was sitting at our dining-room table, and I had to find a chair for myself. I was struck by what an anachronism he seemed, with his World War I cavalry uniform, the goggles on his forehead, and that leather cap with earflaps. The young man himself, though, looked perky and modern. I didn't completely trust him not to ply you with his charms.
I didn't want you to know I was jealous, so I pretended that the presence of this uninvited guest didn't bother me in the slightest.
Right then it occurred to me that the woman from the literature council was still on the phone, and I got up from the table. I tried to explain in an ironic tone to this woman (whom I must have known, but whose name I simply couldn't remember) how confusing the situation had become on the home front, but at the other end I heard only the canned silence of an abandoned receiver, lying on an abandoned desk.
I didn't want the pilot to see that I'd been given the brush-off, so I pretended casually to lay the phone back on the cradle. The mistake I made was that I had not spoken a single word of farewell, so he saw right through me.
* * *
The truth as unhidden thing, as Heidegger puts it, as that which one sees "all at once," even though it was there all along. It was you who kept missing it. Eyes shut to the "Unhiddenness." The way you're unable to find a pair of scissors (even though your gaze has already passed over them a few times) on a messy counter, because you're searching in the wrong context.
Excerpted from SHADOW CHILD by P. F. THOMESE Copyright © 2003 by P. F. Thomese. Excerpted by permission.
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