Wilma Schuh goes on a late-life, whimsy-laced, ultimately serious mystical journey. Alone in the world after her centenarian mother's death, Wilma is determined to contact what she decides to call "the god." She expects no human drama, much less violence, but these things come. Also, more varieties of love than she could have imagined. Philosophy (Spinoza, Deleuze), poetry (Rilke, Blake), and art (Francis Bacon) are part of the mix, but love is the essence.
"Complex, deepening, a mature writer comfortable with her genre and style."
(F. Zarod Rominski: Rain Falls Clear, Seven Windows: Stories of Women)
"I love that you are writing the internal world of a nearly 70 lesbian woman."
"You have managed a blend of simplicity and complexity which I love."
"I find your language to be superb."
"Wilma is totally captivating."
"I love Alma."
"I love Gracie."
"I love Lyle. He totally works for me."
"I love the section with Wilma's childhood vision."
"Wilma's meditations all work beautifully."
"When you started getting into Spinoza I felt a charge of excitement…I might actually be able to understand something vitally important."
"Bob Smith, and the whole section on multiple personality: fascinating."
"The voices of the dead work beautifully for me every time."
"I want to emphasize how much I liked Michael's poetry."
"I have finished and I am SATISFIED!"
First forty pages of The Bright Logic of Wilma Schuh:
Wilma Schuh intends to acquire mystical experience, well aware that the god she seeks is somewhat unclear as to qualities. Surely this is a minor consideration. A few words do come to mind. Infinite is acceptable, as is eternal, but she puts little stock in descriptors. Determination, on the other hand, is essential. The god will be contacted, no question about it.
Determination takes its own form in a woman approaching the age of seventy. Younger, she would have called on "will power," assuming such a thing to be direct and effective. She did accomplish, in her own mild-seeming way, what she chose to accomplish. If Lorraine, for example, demanded the unthinkable, a decision would be made, yes or no. Yes was simpler and generally prevailed. After that, will bullied through. But today, sitting on the plain brown couch in her living room, agreeably alone, Wilma is content with indirection, with delay. The business of the god waits, but determination is not undone, not at all.
She sits holding an urn.
Can a cube be an urn? Shape might matter. Perhaps the shiny ceramic container with its greens and its browns—essence of forest, moonlit—does not strictly qualify. But let us not quibble, the cube has an urn's function. As urn, it wants to be held. Or the ashes within want to be held. The ashes are those of Alma Schuh, Wilma's mother, recently deceased.
"Demand to be held" might be more accurate. Lightly, though. Alma's ashes demand lightly.
We have perhaps left the realm of fact, entered fantasy. If so, it is persuasive fantasy. Wilma sits. It's been well over an hour. She does not mind her task. She appreciates the smooth feel of the surfaces of the container which is perhaps not quite an urn.
Lorraine was Wilma's lover. Odd designation, but there it was. Domestic partner seemed a bit cold, though lover was, at least toward the end, a tad heated. Spouse applied only to the heterosexual element, of course. Lover was the word, even unto death.
Long gone, at any rate, is lover Lorraine.
Not so with mother Alma. It's been only a week. Every death has its singular demand. Alma's is this daily holding. When will she agree to be scattered? Perhaps she had enough of scattering, thinks Wilma. Alma Schuh was lovingly designated "scatterbrained" within the tiny family. It let her off most hooks, this way of hers. Thus the development of will, or perhaps discipline, in daughter Wilma, for who else would hold daily life to a shape? Not the philosopher father. Deep into books or lost in a project around the house, Henry was off the track of time. Even Lorraine, requiring practicality, was not quite able herself. This is a heretical thought, thoroughly satisfying. But who did notice suppertime? Who cooked, cleaned, shopped? Only little Wilma.
Like Lorraine, lover, Henry the father is long gone.
Decades dead, both of them.
Alma, Henry, Lorraine. Mother, father, lover. Of these three I am concocted, thinks Wilma, caressing the container filled with her mother's ashes. Of these three, and now god. Or perhaps GOD. It's one way or the other, isn't it? Short modest syllable, all lower case, or a shout. But the shout seems unlikely.
Rise up, old girl, and put your mother in her place.
She sets her mother on the kitchen table, at the center. This is a small rectangular table, bare good oak oiled weekly. Alma was fond of the kitchen which is sunny yellow with two windows, southern exposure—windows kept clean for twenty-five years by Wilma. Candles, one green, one brown, accompany the glossy box. The effect is serene and orderly. Lorraine Benedict, deceased lover, would approve.
Wilma would not want you to think her god, shout or not, is the controlling sort. She had enough of that with Lorraine. Agreed to enough of that, no one forced her. Still, this god: unclear as to qualities but definitely not one who commands. Nor does this god punish, we are not in the Middle Ages. Nor are we, here in this apartment, in the territory of the religiously fundamental; or, to be clear, the religious of any ilk. Wilma's god will not be a god of religion.
She stands looking at the table. A single cloth placemat now, thick and deeply ridged, warm rusty brown, hers. She sighs, turns briskly away. Time to leave the apartment and purchase a few groceries.
Take the back steps, off the kitchen. Fourteen worn steps, down, down, down. These she does not sweep quite often enough any more, but no matter. It's been many months since Alma bumped down on her bottom, determined to see the sky entire. One must, said Alma. But the time came when one couldn't, a deprivation accepted, windows would suffice. Adjustable Alma. Mother.
Emerge at the driveway, loved for its cracks, for the tough grass inhabiting the cracks. New concrete would be disconcerting, smooth and unbelonging, an invasive laying-over. Perhaps the workers wouldn't see it that way.
Onto the bicycle, grateful for good legs, for balance, grateful for warm spring, for leaves once again agreeing to appear. Beyond the high leaves, the reliable sky. Wilma is feeling quite fit in mind and body as she pedals the streets of Bangor, Maine.
~ ~ ~
One jar of natural style extra chunky peanut butter which she stirs thoroughly. One bunch of celery. A shopping to be proud of, uniquely hers. She cycles daily to the store, comes home with modest packages whose contents are cherished for their specificity. She eats by whim but not carelessly, feeling her way. On the stove, boiling for one minute, celery, cut to small pieces. Drain it now, palest tint of green in steaming water descending, descending. Into the small bowl go the bits. Butter them, salt them, add pepper. On the table beside the bowl put the jar of peanut butter. The oil is now integrated, invisible. Two serviceable teaspoons, one for celery, one for peanut butter, are already in place. Sit to eat. Nod to Alma in her box. The celery is hot, with a delicate crunch. What is celerity, though? Something to do with speed. Is there a root in common, the food and the pace? Unlikely.
Next come the spoonfuls of peanut butter, two of them, generous. This is for contrast in color and texture and by way of a bit of protein. Someday a piece of meat, a baked potato. Not yet. Is she losing weight? A few pounds. Nothing to worry over, her bones are well-cushioned.
It is when she runs warm water for her meager dishes that Wilma notices the pattern. Food, ceramic cube, candles: her life is made of green and brown.
This is hardly true. Will she have to cleave to reality more firmly some time soon?
The patterns have been appearing. A robin's song in the early morning yesterday and then on the radio, before the news, a singer named Robin, never mind the raw scratch in her voice. More crow than robin, that one. Wilma has never objected to the caw, caw, caw. Some do. As the song ended an old Volkswagen the exact color of a robin's springtime breast—recently painted for a cheerful owner, she decided—pulled into the parking space across the street. Robin number three. Why was she passing the window just then, peering down from the second floor of this apartment where she, daughter of recently deceased Alma, lives in unaccustomed but not unwelcome solitude? In case there was something to see on a pleasant spring morning. For whimsy, and perhaps for pattern.
Twenty-five years is a considerable time to live with one's older and older mother. Death finally arrives. Is Wilma grieving? Is she relieved? Questions arise and recede, arise and recede.
But life: life insists. And time, that peculiar vast atmosphere, life's genie, insists also. Or is the situation reversed? Does time own the genie called life? Either way, there seems to be a lot of escaping just now, and from a rather large bottle.
And Alma. Has she escaped? If so, she hasn't run far.
But this day is going, going. Wilma has a plan. She will look into the first notebook. Alma will appreciate that, having extracted a promise. Wilma, you do intend to see what's there, after I'm dead. It was one of the last times Alma headed for the back steps. Perhaps it was the final time. Leaning on Wilma, still walking a little at that point, Alma had her intention. Down the steps she would bump on her bottom, out into the air she would go. But first a sudden turn to the right as they were about to leave the living room, Wilma almost losing her balance as her mother, abruptly strong, pulled toward the boxes and stood there, staring, silent. And then the demand. You do intend. After I'm dead. Which Wilma will now honor.
Yesterday she opened the boxes. Notebook A stared up at her from Box One. From Box Two, the flat gaze of Notebook S. Under each, more notebooks. The spiral bindings were respected, the notebooks set meticulously this way and that to preserve balance. She noted the care. Her father's? Her mother's? She lifted Notebook A. Under it was not B but W.
She closed the boxes. She found herself reluctant to look into the spiral-bound contents of her father's mind.
Hundreds of times through the years—thousands—Henry Schuh went to work his thought: I'm going to work my thought now. Privately, modestly, mysteriously, for hours at a time. He would emerge with shining eyes. He would emerge with ravaged look.
Alma cautioned. He's been wrestling with his angels. Wait a while, child, and he'll tend to you. Wilma, good child, waited. It wasn't long before Henry held out his hand and the two of them approached the other work, Our Work. Fix-it projects, carpentry. The old house on the land offered plenty of opportunity. Or someone would order a bookcase to be built, or a table, chairs. Her father was a patient, careful teacher. Together they loved their tools and their hands and their fine, steady minds. Always the mind and the tool, alive together. Do not bother yourself over mistakes, little Wilma, mistakes are a help to the mind. Side by side they lived, except when he was at his desk. At desk time, hush.
Alma, meanwhile, was in the garden, looking into the sky, digging into the earth. Alma communed with clouds and loved earthworms who helped her grow good things to eat. Henry worked his thought and Alma worked the earth and the worms helped her. Alma loved a poet named Rilke. "There were cliffs there / and forests made of mist." This was on the way to the underworld. "There were bridges / Spanning the void, and that gray blind lake." Alma was not much suited to daily mother work, wife work. Alma was their soul, Pa said.
Alma's Rilke made a strange world spun from words, but education was largely the province of Henry. No school would be up to teaching his daughter, he did not quite believe in schools. For Henry everything must be cast in High Terms. They read at the edge of Wilma's understanding, but not beyond. Or the books were beyond her, but she was taught to glean, to pick up what fell to her level, pocket it.
And silence. She was taught silence. She was taught the time of her own mind. Neither parent hovered, they were not suited.
But Alma seems to be hovering right this minute. Spirit now, she is apparently finally suited to nearness, to attending. She must be wildly curious. All those years of not-looking, not-reading her deceased husband's writing. The feared and joked-over Henry Journals. In the boxes. Over there in the corner.
The Time Has Come.
Come along, then, Alma.
It should be noted that Wilma does not believe this nonsense—spirits hovering, deep simultaneity erupting into visible pattern—but a certain pleasure, like a tap-dance down the brain's most provocative pathways, accompanies what we shall call for the time being her inclination toward spiritual whimsy. Her intention to garner mystical experience—let us be straightforward about this—exceeds whimsy.
She kneels on the living room floor. She faces the corner where two cardboard boxes hold her father's life work, companions in patience. She has dusted the taped-shut boxes week after week, year after year. After the third element of yesterday's robin convergence—the Volkswagen precisely parked—she cut the tape. And opened the boxes, saw the notebooks, held the first one in her hand. Put it back, closed the boxes. Unready.
But here she is again. She will look into her father's mind. She ignores Alma's skepticism, oft expressed, echoing now: They might be ridiculous, those notebooks. They might be Henry's Folly. Then, too, sometimes her mother had suspected the opposite, that her husband's great effort was the work of genius. In Wilma herself, all these years, a steady resistance to curiosity. Also, the strangest fear.
But is she ready? Yes, of course she is, she's barely trembling.
~ ~ ~
Spiritual-Intellectual Autobiography of Henry Schuh
(Exile from Rollingstone, Minnesota. Mainer now, newly fathering)
A baby born. Alma's. Mine insofar as fathers in the minor way contribute. Wilma, tiny. Wilma, new.
I give greetings to the someday grown human, the woman. Greetings to the fully formed mind, the expected amalgam, philosophy-infused, poetry-saturated, mind of a daughter grown no doubt beyond her genitors.
Thus I write again, my nights unsleeping, my long abstention from language work now ending. Prolonged fasting, word-nourishment eschewed, fasting that began in flame, now ending. Is it possible? It is possible.
All numbers will be allowed their invisibility. Dates and ages yield to Eternity. In the Presence they step back. Invisible, they exist. From the platform—point of time, point of space—a call out to every when and every where, as in the oldest days, as in the most promising present—and to the adult child, a greeting. Well Come, Wilma.
Wilma must breathe and wipe the tears and steady the trembling hands that hold the notebook in which her father greets her, a woman nearing seventy, his pen reaching from her infancy, from his young manhood. She must read this page many times and not go beyond it. At his desk he wrote to her. Pa, so long dead. Now, here, alive.
She puts the notebook down on the floor, she is kneeling on the floor still, kneeling at the corner of the living room where the boxes have been waiting for decades for attention beyond the dust cloth. She lays her hands over the words, tries to press them back into the page, flatten them. They are fat and wormy. Alma, wife of Henry, mother of Wilma, is loving them, they are making holes in the earth, they will be a good help. The earth is being plowed for planting by the good wormy words of good Henry Schuh.
All of which is rather grotesquely metaphorical and quite inaccurate as Alma herself would surely point out. Humans plow, Wilma. Worms aerate.
Excessive life bulging from words on a page is not a new experience for Wilma, nor is the act of laying hands on the page and pressing and pressing. Sometimes it's an unruly beast, language. Aside from the fact that her father wrote to her, aside from the implication that her infant nighttime needs kept him awake and thus prompted him to write again after some hitherto unsuspected first burning (there was another, the Alzheimer's burning, the one she and Alma stopped part-way through, thus saving these notebooks, but she knows nothing of a first burning, nothing at all)—aside from all of this, look at the way his very mind was pressed—yes, pressed—pressed out into the language, arduously. Her own hands now press back.
Well, well. Henry appears to have worked his thought, just as he said. Already we can see it, can we not?
Yes, Alma. Yes, we can.
Read further, dear.
Wilma tenses, resists, but reads on.
The houses were made of stone in which we lived. I was the boy who left the stone houses, houses rigid with practical Catholicism, bound tight. I was bound another way, bounding forth. Call of Theosophy, child. A Siren's call, but all temptations are opportunities, remember that. The Madame herself in my hand, pages bound and bursting, The Secret Doctrine was the book's title. Esoteric milk and honey from the mind of Madame Helena Blavatsky.
Myself, so young. Boxcar riding, therefore. What else? On the journey east, inside one dark car among many, another book-reader. In a frenzy of wine-poison he thrust at me better salvation, though I could not yet know it. Deep ethics reaching into the brain, reaching inward and outward—both! to infinity!—and the least Godly god of all, god to whom commandment is foreign, obedience irrelevant, punishment unknown. God of reason and mystery, believable. Spinoza, as you will have guessed, his Ethics, gift from a stranger in a boxcar. For the future, my future, when I was ready. May he, most essential philosopher, endure to the end of our days. My days and your days. Never trust those who hold he was an atheist. Never deprive our Baruch, our Benedict—Blessed is the very name—of his perfect eternal unGodly god-joy, Wilma.
This is Henry Schuh, her Pa, talking god, god, god? And uncapitalized! Was she never told? Did Alma know? She cannot remember a single admonition in the direction of any god whatsoever. There were oddities after the Alzheimer's developed, regressions, confusions, Catholic fragments from the past thrown up, but in his right mind--
And the inevitable, unwanted question: is it because of her father that she finds herself bent in this mystical direction? His god sounds suspiciously like the very god she intends to encounter.
Henry's passion for philosophy, and for Spinoza above all, was no secret. She remembers the day she pronounced the name correctly for the first time. Who is the first modern philosopher, little Wilma? Spinoza, Pa. Very good. Even the pronunciation, dear. Excellent. She was four years old.
Spinoza was an element of the family air, but--
Spinoza: his architectural Ethics. Inside them, inside the building he made from mere words, mere human thought: secrets beyond all religion. The book was unread on my long journey East. Unread until the need came, daughter.
She remembers Spinoza's Ethics. It perished in the Alzheimer's burning, already a blackened sacrifice, unsalvageable by the time wife and daughter discovered Henry in action. Then, long after his death, she and Alma found a copy in the crowded aisles of Lyle's bookstore. Henry's obsession, said Alma. Don't you think we ought to buy it? They looked at each other, burst into giggles, and bought it.
It must be here somewhere.
Wilma is thus released from kneeling. Notebook A in hand, she approaches the bookcases. She and Henry made these. They follow the model of the sturdy, exact, practical carpentry her father produced for income now and then, bringing in just enough to supplement Alma's trust fund from her grandmother. Henry would say, did say again and again, that he was wealthy. The world would say otherwise, but he believed it. He had his mind and he had his hands and he had his tools.
Then he lost his mind.
He had us, Wilma.
Yes, Alma. His little hermit family.
That's right, dear.
The movers, struggling up the stairs to the apartment the day she and Alma moved in, damaged one of the bookcases, but the other three are unmarred. All are well-dusted, filled with books. The books are a blur. She's kept them clean, but somehow managed not to notice--
Here it is, The Ethics, by Baruch Spinoza who was apparently also called Benedict. She opens the book.
1. By that which is self-caused I mean that whose essence involves existence; or that whose nature can be conceived only as existing.
The great philosopher starts with God. She must have known this. But did she? Henry was never effusive or even explicit about Spinoza's teachings, or those of any other philosopher. Was there any other, for him? He believed philosophy was the most individual of pursuits and directed Wilma to follow her own nose. Sniff your way around the library, child. He meant the Bangor Public Library, the family's mecca, half an hour's drive from home then (but only a lucky five-minute cycle from this apartment). Sniff out your elixir, Wilma. Sniff? Yes, that's what he said. Odd and solitary, Henry was not without humor. And never not serious.
Her nose was insufficient, but the librarian was delighted to recommend a starting place. She proceeded to read Will Durant's Story of Philosophy, pleased when Durant, who sounded like a smart nice man, expressed respect for Spinoza and quoted the great and difficult Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: "You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all." Perhaps her father was not entirely eccentric. She could feel it herself—how philosophy might pull a person's mind to strange and creative places. Still, it would be years before she read more philosophy. She never read systematically, never quite seriously, and she's forgotten most of what she read. She forgot that Spinoza placed God at the very start. Durant must have conveyed this, but she forgot.
She reads again: "...whose essence involves existence—"
What God is and that God is are inextricable. For Spinoza, God's essence, she concludes, demands, needs, sings existence. Here is the being that cannot not-be.
The dry words rise up, shimmer, enter each other. She watches, allows, does not try to press them back into the page. She endures, almost accepts, as if this were a sudden grace, a wind from nowhere. In fact, doesn't she feel such a wind?
And then not.
UnGodly god-joy wrote young Henry Schuh, father of infant Wilma.
Which is a suitable way to speak of it, thinks grown Wilma, as if she could judge. Truth: she is shaken. Shaken and suddenly aware of mundane matters. Her knuckles ache from their tight hold on the book. Her lumbar region--
These bones want to move.
Wilma has had a troublesome back for years. A graceless fall on an icy walk one hurried morning was all it took to change her pain-free physical life. A set of stretching exercises pulled her slowly out of real distress and if she's faithful to them they keep her comfortable enough. She's gotten accustomed to the frame they give her days, the way they guide her to work with muscles and tendons and ligaments. Inside the stretch a subtle and strangely buoyant energy is sometimes released, like a clear note expanding. Or, of course, the whole thing can be annoying. Down on the floor how many times now over the years, and yet again? She can become quite irritable over the necessity.
Now, however, it's only a relief to have a known thing to do. She gets her old blankets, folds them to form. They are her mat. Down she goes, one knee under her chest. She sinks, letting gravity stretch her left hip's muscles. And then the other side. Faithfully, scrupulously, she performs the entire routine. When she has put the blankets away she looks at Alma resting on the table. Or at the ceramic cube, container of Alma's ashes. Alma herself is not there on the table, she does know this.
Still, she feels the presence as she runs a glass of cold clear water and stands drinking it. For a quarter of a century—after Henry died, after Lorraine died and the house and land were sold—she and Alma lived here together. She can remember the rich taste of well water from the family home, her only other home, but city water is good enough, she's used to it now. Since Alma died, her thirst has increased. All day at intervals, a glass of water. There must be worse symptoms of grief, if that's what this is. She washes the glass and places it upside down in the drainer. Ridiculous work, this washing of the glass. She'll reuse it soon. Nevertheless, it satisfies. She dries her hands. The towel is green, a match to one of the candles standing sentry over Alma's cube. She has no brown towel, or she'd be displaying it, too, to give the candles equal echoes. Should she purchase a brown hand towel?
Now, what else is this young father wanting to say?
I would leave. My determination was firm. Reversing the common route, I went east. Your mother was there, I could sense her in my deepest mind. Learning, too, was there. Let the others go west, or stay planted.
Much planting in the days of my youth. Planting and harvesting and stone-working and churchgoing. I come from Luxembourgers. Your mother does not. Our origins differ.
Unseen magnets exerted force: Steven. Alma. Your mother will tell you the entirety when she turns your way, when she sees her daughter in readiness. Of Steven I will not write. Nor of Theosophy, I see that now. Let it dissolve.
Steven. This must be the man she met, the one Alma searched and searched for, as if finding the priest could somehow reverse Alzheimer's. When was that? Soon after Henry was locked up in Pooler Pavilion among old Mainers with senile dementia and those not so old, struck early by Alzheimer's, like Henry himself. He would live there until he died. Alma, obsessed, looked for Steven Builder for months. One day he arrived, charismatic, upper class, a perfect visitor. He sat with Henry. They held hands. Alma smiled and let tears run down her cheeks, Hart Crane's White Buildings in one hand. Poems, held like a talisman. An aura with a boundary surrounded the three, a trio in their sixties. Wilma left to get herself a Pepsi from the machine down the hall.
As for Theosophy, it certainly dissolved. Never a word about that, at least not one she can remember. Henry's youthful Siren Song. Rather nice to know he had one.
But this attempt: the difficulty of Spinoza for my untaught mind. I, solitary reader, thrust thought-ward into the definitions, the axioms, the propositions, the proofs, corollaries, scholia. Digging, digging, digging into work that was meant never to finish itself. A frame I found, then: Natura Naturans, Natura Naturata. The making and the made. Inside which, and ever forward, you come, newest one, and my own mind follows. You: made. You: born.
Goodness, how opaque. Axioms. Corollaries. And the Latin phrases.
But doesn't she remember the rhythm of that Latin? Wasn't it almost a fundamental of her early childhood? Natura Naturans. Natura Naturata. Was her father more forthcoming about his Spinoza than she remembers? Perhaps when she was very young? And will she have to, now, follow? Her mind feels untaught, like Henry's, but even as she ponders the depth of her ignorance a fact comes running at her like a child barreling into a long-absent parent, head butting into belly of arriving mother or father, screech of agonized welcome erupting from young lungs.
Which experience Wilma Schuh never had, not as a child and not of course as a mother since she has no child. But here it is, the barreling fact: she was somehow prepared long ago. Prepared for this moment. As if she already knows her father's deepest mind.
Of course you do, Wilma.
No 'of course' about it, Alma.
Just read, dear.
So she reads.
Ah, to move against the page again. To anticipate a reader—if this be not burned. Let this not become burn-worthy, I beg it, I who do not beg. May this effort, may these pages, survive for the sake of the mind of a father and for his daughter. A daughter new, and someday grown. Wilma. To work down into the page again! Out of the inner mind! Out! And to imagine—ah, Child—even such a reader as you, who might gather to yourself, to your mind's heart--
The page breaks off. Wilma is breathing heavily. Her father's emotions are filling and stressing her lungs. This is of course Henry Schuh in a very particular moment. The man is sleep-deprived, for one thing. And allowing himself a pleasure apparently long-denied: to write his thoughts. He does seem to take to the fact of her early existence. One might assume he's baby-wakened on more than one level.
What can we say now about this daughter, all grown up and reading the packed pages? She is filling up, but with what? Unanchored intensities, she might tell us. A phrase sufficiently indefinite. Was that the tiniest visit from a god a moment ago? Henry's or her own? Are they one and the same? The wind from nowhere—essence, existence—the ecstatic whirl of their union. This is the result of reading her father's writing? Of opening a book by his favorite philosopher? It is as if something wild has invaded her deliberate, practical soul.
Wilma Schuh's late-life project might be taking an unexpected turn.
She had her plan: after they all died—Henry, Lorraine, Alma—she would find again a path discovered in childhood. The plan was made during Lorraine's illness, shortly after the diagnosis. Henry had died years before, Lorraine would die within the year, Alma was already seventy-five years old. When all three were gone, when she was alone, she would proceed. That her mother would live to be a hundred was not anticipated, but Wilma is not inclined toward impatience and a long incubation for such a project might be best, she's often thought so.
The plan was to find and follow the childhood path, the one the god lived on, the one those three would find inconsequential. Inconsequential? What she meant was silly. They would find it silly, or so she thought.
The plan was to proceed in solitude. Unaccompanied. Unaccompanied by any of the three human beings—Henry, Alma, Lorraine—who sometimes seem to be all she is made of.
Wilma Schuh, concoction of others.
Untrue, and she knows it. The invisible ingredient in Wilma—and, frankly, the most cherished, the most delicious—is something entirely private. When she tastes herself it is there. She would tell you, if she spoke of such a thing, that her particularity has never lost its flavor. She would link this to her childhood god.
If she were to speak of such a thing.
But here is Henry--
Inside the little hermit family, much space opened up. The psyches were quite separate. Attentions went to individual interests. Then came Lorraine, but Lorraine did not see everything, though she saw much. Wilma guarded her invisible ingredient. When she made her plan, she envisioned a stride out on her own—toward a god of her own.
But here is her father's notebook—passionate—god-seeking--
On with it, girl. Alma is looking over her shoulder, impatient as a child to have the page turned.
It is a wrestle begun. A few years now of reading his book—not even a decade—the wine-poisoned gift-giving boxcar rider's book. The Ethics. I fear he's dead now, that boxcar rider. He claimed his eyes could no longer--
Perhaps he knew I needed the hard bread of philosophy. I thank him.
The book. Authored by Spinoza, exiled Jew, fresh from the centuries. Some write into, out of, eternity. Simultaneously here-embedded. Spinoza is one, the one who is mine. Will your days remember a man named Albert Einstein? Scientist. Seems to have an interesting brain. Believes in the god of Spinoza.
Ah, this century! How it proceeds, spreading backward and forward.
And Spinoza, embracing Time as he stands firm upon Eternity. I see him reaching round, one arm stretched over the past, the other over the future, all of it pulled to his heart. Joy! Intuitive intellectual joy from god-knowledge that escapes the bindings of religion! Living necessity, bursting through to godly freedom!
If I could convey, Baby Wilma—
If I could give to you--
A life's work.
There stops the worked thought of the opening pages of Notebook A. Blank pages follow. Wilma knows she has consumed enough. More, today, would certainly constitute excess. She hopes the ghost of her mother agrees.
~ ~ ~
Alive but old, old, and older, Alma Jones Schuh faded to an absence in her final years. As Wilma sees it, the arc of Alma's life moved from absence to presence to absence. Absent was the young mother, off working the garden under her hat, or gazing at the sky, or reading her Rilke. Absent was the wife of the man with early Alzheimer's, sitting with her institutionalized husband who had come to the end of his useable mind, occasionally reading a poem to him in a blank voice, expecting no response, a woman dulled at the end of her difficult days, staring into her own middle distance. Absent even the widow in her early seventies, a solitary woman walking the land, still reading, reading, reading poetry.
But with the jolt of Lorraine's death, Alma came to vivid presence and stayed—stayed until very old age when she finally faded away, as absent as her younger selves ever were. Toward the end, in bed, eyes closed, a flutter of shallow breaths, Alma was barely a wisp in the room, though there were times—exceptions—when the eyes of the mother brightened, or hardened, or softened, demanded, or released, astonishing the watchful daughter. But for the most part, a wisp in the room.
Wilma was quite busy, tending her fading mother, but as Alma slept hour after daytime hour, a version of solitude would sometimes enter the apartment like a character from an old story set down South—a stranger come to tea, eccentric, keeping her veiled hat on, failing to speak but sipping from a thin small cup politely enough. Solitude as companion then, thought Wilma.
Alma's death seemed to complete the long arc. Home from the grocery store, Wilma bent to kiss her mother's cheek and found it cold. More than anything else, the moment was simple. The simplicity was a comfort. Now would come total absence. Alma, gone.
Instead: presence! Alma as ashes, demanding to be held. Alma the ghost, hovering, commenting. But reality is various, as Wilma has observed from childhood on. The days since Alma died, haunted enough, have also been abundant with solitude—real solitude, which is nothing like a woman with a veiled hat sipping tea from a delicate cup. It is robust, full of possibility. Soon—after Alma agrees to be scattered—Wilma will set out, alone, to find the god she glimpsed in childhood. Or such was the plan.
Now this plunge into Henry's writing. A threat. A plain threat. Her father's mind endures, his worked thought. Henry's hand is offered again—as if the two of them will work together, tackle another project around the house, only this one is a bit different. Contacting a god is not like building a bookcase.
Or is it?
Enough of that. Wilma has risen to a new day. Alma in her cube will be held, her quiet insistence will be honored. Involved with Alma, Wilma expects to be happily delayed. Impossible while thus occupied to approach the dreaded second notebook, labeled not B but W. Let the W stand for anything other than her own name, prays Wilma to no god at all.
So she sits and holds the glossy box. Almost absentmindedly, she removes the lid, begins to sift through. The ash is soft, a comfort of sorts. She takes a sharp breath when she feels the unexpected fragments of bone. Her mother's bones are in her hands.
But aren't they quite lovely? Gifts from a ghost, then. She chooses three of the tiny sculptures, sets them aside. They will rest on the bedroom dresser, joining the stones and shells collected on trips to the ocean. Lorraine, who had quickly decided to broaden the lives of the little Maine women she found herself living with (Wilma, Alma) insisted they go to Schoodic Point, see the pale pink granite with its striations of black; took them there three times, then never again. Why never again? A question unasked. Perhaps she forgot about the ocean. She did tend to set out in a direction, go forward, then turn another way and seem never to look back. Classical music was a brief interest, a new album every month, listened to repeatedly. All three of them, sitting and listening. Then not. Her poor mind was busy, that was it. But are the stones and shells from another place, not Schoodic, after all? Up so high above the water, did Schoodic yield such things? Perhaps the gulls dropped them.
Wilma closes the ceramic cube, sets it on the table, gently washes the three pieces of bone, and dries them. On the dresser she sees the feather. She hasn't noticed it lately. The scene comes to her in that movie-like way, action rolling out in clear colors, Lorraine arriving home with an eagle feather, child-thrilled. "Look! Look what I found!" The woman had a sharp and innocent sense of the beautiful. The thought pleases her surviving lover. At this moment it pleases her greatly, a stream of freedom rushing through.
She places Alma's three bone fragments on their own little doily. There was a period after Lorraine's death when Alma crocheted while the two of them, mother and daughter, listened to the news from National Public Radio after their "early repast." Alma liked to twist an old word back into use. Repast, she'd say, and smile.
The time has come. Wilma will approach the cardboard box, retrieve Notebook W. She sets out in that direction as if starting on a long trek, then swerves and finds herself at the bookcases. Alma's favorite translation of Rilke's work was by Stephen Mitchell. Lyle, sitting at his old scratched desk, was reading when they entered the underlit bookstore one winter day. He looked up. His eye pulled Alma over, his one good eye. He handed her the book. No words. None needed. Lyle knew his customer. Toward the end, Alma would sometimes suggest that Wilma read to her. "Let's have a bit of Stephen's Rilke, shall we?" The poems were a potion. They quickened memory, foretold the future. They were pain-killers, they were sleeping pills whose side-effect was splendid dreaming. "I've had a splendid dream, dear. It's the Rilke." The briefly alert but mostly absent mother would drift back to sleep. Or to some state near sleep, a state preferred to presence. Or was it a state beyond preference, something entirely other than willful departure?
Yes, that would be it, dear. Only the unwilled, at the end.
Pondering Rilke's various uses, distracted by her mother's ghost, Wilma is almost able to ignore the pulsations in her tensed hand. Even closed, the book has power. There is a lively residue here from Alma's fingers tracing the lines year after year after year.
And from my mind, dear, which is moving about among the living words, spilling itself just a bit. Containment can be difficult. You won't be bothered, not once you've gotten accustomed.
Wilma wonders if she will somehow find herself meeting her mother's actual mind, after she lets go of this ghostly whimsy.
What on earth does she mean by such a question, though?
Minds, in the family, were somewhat separate from the person. "I notice my mind wants go to the old field today," Alma would say, and put on her wide-brimmed straw hat and walk away, an apple and a book of poetry—not always Rilke or Hart Crane, there were others—inside the small backpack she took from its nail in the hall where jackets, sweaters, and a practical selection of hats also hung, hats for each season, kept there year round. The frayed and faded canvas backpack was essential. Alma needed her hands for touching tree trunks, grasses, the warm dark ground; or, in winter, ice against the edge of a rut in the road. During the years following Lorraine's death, Wilma might join her mother on a walk. Conversation would be much in progress until the abrupt moment when Alma had to stoop and touch. Wilma, feeling a little large, a little stolid, almost elderly beside such behavior, waited. Alma—seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five—stooping and touching, looked up at her daughter then, smiling. It was the time of presence.
And now again. Alma in ghost form, even more present and certainly more demanding than in the years after Lorraine's death, though she was far from absent then. When Lorraine died it was as if the mother aspect of Alma flew in from another dimension, arriving for the very first time in sudden color, friendly, and tall. Noticeably tall. Grown mother and grown daughter would henceforth approach reality as working partners.
Alma was tall, the only one in the family with any height. This was true in absent periods also. Certainly it was.
Get on with it, girl.
What a demanding mother you've become.
Impossible to sit with Rilke, untouched since the day before Alma died, without, too, bringing Henry. A parent in each hand, obviously necessary. Wilma approaches the boxes, takes Notebook W, sits on the couch. But doesn't she need a drink of water? She does.
Set Rilke down. Set Notebook W down. Leave a generous space between the two for the return of the daughter who will settle and read. In a minute. Run the glass of water full, drink it down. Decide while drinking who is to be tackled first, the father with his worked thought or the mother's poet who cannot be separated from the mother's soul.
We need a bit of Rilke just now, dear.
I suppose we do, Alma.
Truth be told, Henry is the greater threat, though why this should be is not only an unanswered question but one Wilma has no time to ask since Rilke vibrates again in her hand. And of course Alma is right. This is after all her time. Dying produces that: a time. Attentions go to the recently departed or even, as in this case, to the not quite fully departed. Alma is perched on Wilma's right shoulder. She is not exactly impatient. Entitled might be the better word. Or queenly. The mother knows that if she wants Rilke she will get Rilke.
Wilma takes a deep breath. She is making a good attempt, trying to please her ghost mother, but her shoulders suddenly collapse. Alma slips from queenly mode. No harm done. She lands nicely, stands, pats herself firm. Now she is the motherly encourager. Versatile Alma. Open it like a Bible, dear. Remember the Bible? Those lovely neighbors. You must invite them, Wilma. Wilma squares her shoulders. She remembers the Bible and the lovely neighbors. But as for inviting them—she hasn't spoken to them in years, nor even driven past the old place. That hardly matters, dear. We need the land, for the scattering of me. Didn't I instruct you?
Thus it is that, opening Rilke like a Bible, letting her eyes fall as fated, Wilma understands that the scattering of her mother's ashes will take place on the family's old land, sold to the neighbors after Lorraine died; and that the neighbors, fervent Catholics, will be invited to the event. But not too soon, Wilma. No, Alma, not too soon. Her eyes have fallen on the first of the Duino Elegies.
being dead is hard work
and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel
a trace of eternity.
She lays her hand over the passage but feels no need to press the poet's words back into the page. In fact the words, which she has after all read and reread to her mother, are a comfort. Possibly, whimsy aside, Alma is here. Possibly Alma has work to do, hard retrieval work. Perhaps—here is the startling thought—what Alma needs to retrieve, more than Rilke, is her Henry. Could this be?
Wilma Schuh, devoted daughter, puts Rilke down and opens her father's Notebook W. The first page is a list—a table of contents perhaps—or a series of intentions—a roadmap--
At the bottom of the page is a determined, pressed out, stomping line of letters.
WILMA SCHUH, DAUGHTER
Which letters Wilma has to stare at for some long moments and then cover with both hands and press; thereby flattening them back into mere print.
~ ~ ~
Wilma is on her bicycle, peddling toward the storefront on Third Street where the words above the unwashed window fade from their original red a little more each year. She feels a need to decipher them every time--Lyle's Bookstore—as if to assure herself she's in the right place. She is carrying the news, unless Lyle reads the obituaries, which possibility she doubts.
One-eyed Lyle. Bit of a hunched back, overly thin. Frayed at the edges, the sleeves and pant-legs. Is he frayed in some other way, too? He doesn't wear an eye-patch. His lid is scarred and glued down, so much a part of his wrinkled face that it's scarcely an ugliness. The thing about Lyle is that he's basically immaterial, hardly a matter of an actual bodied being at all. So said Alma more than once. His role today will be to distract. Who can endure the ghost of a mother and the written remains of a father without looking elsewhere from time to time? A modicum of conversation with the living is required. Besides, Lyle must be informed, and invited to the scattering. He might even agree to come. Wilma finds, somewhat to her surprise, that she would welcome him. She intends to read Rilke's sonnet, as directed by Alma, and to Lyle the poem might even be comprehensible. Or he might be appalled at the idea of getting into a car with her, the two of them alone, driving out to the country; appalled, too, at the intensity of the event, preferring to remain in his store with its back room "where a narrow bed and other necessities reside," as Alma phrased it. Wilma stays astride her bicycle, unable to move, looking at the tired but persistent letters. Lyle's Bookstore. The man should not be surprised at the death of a centenarian. But perhaps he doesn't believe in death, or is inclined to doubt the particular death of the eternal Alma Schuh. Perhaps. She parks the bicycle.
It's one of his good days. He looks up when she enters and almost smiles. He stands near his desk, book open, as if the reading impulse overtook him before he could sit, but he often reads standing, at random locations around the store.
"I have news, Lyle."
This is unusual enough to keep his attention from his book. What is his book? She can't quite see. But he can see her. See into, when he wants to. He'll wait forever, silent, until she can--
But she can't.
"I lack the words," she says finally. This is unexpected, as are the tears that rise and drip.
"Gone, then," is Lyle's response. He hands her a tissue, pulled from the desk drawer as if it were part of the bookstore's service, along with recommendations for reading, making change, tearing off the register's receipt, and at the end of the transaction—only at Lyle's—a handshake brief and dry. All that and tissues, too.
"Did you know?"
"How would I know?"
"Well, the obituary."
"I forego the paper. I have a speech about that, a decade or so old. Care to hear it?"
"Two weeks today."
"No wonder then."
He must mean her tears: no wonder tears appear and wash over your naked face. But it's a wonder to her, this unanticipated wash, this nakedness. She receives a second tissue.
"I'll sit," Lyle says.
So Wilma sits too, in the chair for the customer next to the stacks. Lyle's store is like a library, the shelves like stacks, using space efficiently. She estimates the distance between this man and herself. Seven feet, desk chair to customer chair. They can converse but need not mingle their exhalations. They are not permitted to collapse, either of them, for both chairs are straight-backed. This is an advantage.
The silence goes on. Alma would say, "With Lyle Franklin a person can be alone." This was a compliment. The tears dry up after a while. Nose-blowing stops. It occurs to Wilma that someone else might be in the store, some quiet other customer tucked in toward the back, reading and rereading the same dense page. There are a lot of dense pages here, incomprehensible at first reading.
"The air is emptier without her," Lyle says.
Wilma ponders this. The air at home is quite occupied.
Here we are, she thinks, Wilma Schuh and Lyle Franklin. How odd.
But not as odd as if Alma's ghost were to join them, what a thought.
"You might have a book for me," she says.
Lyle looks at her, nods, and limps into the stacks. His is a minor, familiar, undisturbing limp. Perhaps it's only that his legs don't quite match, or it could be some old injury. She doesn't know him well. Always it was Alma and Lyle, the two of them like puppies going over the ground together, stopping to sniff the same spot. Henry, who sent twelve-year-old Wilma out to sniff her way around the library, might have one day sent Alma out too, but Alma chose not to be on her own, she found Lyle, companion seeker of the world's literary odors.
Wilma, dry enough now to notice her own thoughts, ponders the canine species, how dogs will work a neighborhood, sniffing, lifting legs, producing streams. Not exactly like Alma or Lyle. Though there was a way they were like puppies, those two. Innocence, maybe. That could be the connection. Still, the image is a strange one. No doubt it's inappropriate. If not hilarious. Or hysterical. Well, never mind.
Lyle is known for acute recommendations—as if he enters the mind of a customer, then exits and flies over his substantial stock, locates the exact book, flies back with it, hands it over. Generally no eye contact is offered, but the book is purchased by a pleased, or at least intrigued, customer—and then the handshake, quick and complete. But Wilma has never been the customer, she was only here with Alma. When Alma could no longer leave the apartment, she came on behalf of Alma. Still, Lyle has been a sort of step-father, though he's closer to her age than Alma's. "He's only six years older than you, dear, but I don't suppose you're interested." Interested in Lyle? What a thought. Lyle was the wrong gender, and essentially the wrong generation, no matter his actual birthdate. Besides, he was Lyle. But Alma was only clearing the path for herself. Not that she would seduce him in any obvious or carnal way—she was still a married woman with a living husband. That her husband was chained inside Alzheimer's disease and now suddenly locked up further in that unlikely place in Bangor gave no leave for immoral doings, but she needed a flirtation of the mind and she needed it with a person of the male variety. Was Wilma shocked? No, she assured her mother, she was not shocked.
But was she? It was a rupture: Alma reaching out and taking.
Here's Lyle, book in hand. Keep This Deep and Velvet Night: A Self-Portrait. Wilma accepts the book, stares at the title. Death as a deep and velvet night? The author is Michael Chaim Solomon. Solomon: wise man. A bit obvious. Lyle's standards might be slipping. Of course he did just learn of the death of his perhaps best friend.
"Explain," she says.
Lyle looks at her for a long time. "Poems in there about losing someone who got sewn into his life, how the rip out was rough. Gay fellow, from the sound of it. It says on the back that he's a psychotherapist. Seemed amiable enough when he brought the copies in. Courteous. Surprised to find himself with a published book, if I remember right. I only read bits here and there. I don't know, Wilma, it's a stretch. I have no skill for you yet."
She nods and buys the book and they make their arrangements because, yes, he would appreciate the opportunity to see Alma put to rest. Saturday will be fine, he'll close the store, a worthy reason. He'll be happy to meet the O'Connors, Alma spoke well of them. And the quick dry handshake, no extra squeeze.
~ ~ ~
Wilma bikes a circuitous route home. The compact little volume resting inside Alma's small frayed pack bounces lightly against her back. Here and there she spots them—pansies, nature's velvet. This is not a spontaneous emergence of pattern, it is sought, constructed. Mr. Solomon's title has brought forth a clarity: she is in need of pansies, deep and velvet. Alma grew them long ago.
Pedaling along, she lets her mind wander over the realities. Alma's ashes will be scattered on Saturday, this Saturday, as has been arranged with the benevolent former neighbors, current owners of the old Schuh land and house. The O'Connors still live their own house, rent out the one full of her childhood and so much of her adult life. Lyle, whose presence is apparently necessary for both mother and daughter, will be there. Lyle and Wilma and the tolerant Catholics, a modest gathering. Perhaps a flake or two of Alma will settle on a pansy. But will the garden be kept up?
Never mind, dear. I feel a need for the essential shelter of trees. Rely on a breeze to carry a small particle to the garden. You remember that impressive pine not far along the path into the woods. Nothing sturdier could be wanted. Perhaps a little handful of my ash just where it rises out of the ground, and then fling me. Don't fuss, Wilma.
Alma is right. Wilma's plan—that the tiny group would stand in the field near the garden, exposed to open sky—just stand there, spiritually naked—suddenly seems beyond contemplating. This mother, whose writing (hidden, unexpected) she has discovered, requires a protected resting place. Beyond the blank pages of Henry's autobiographical Notebook A were more entries, some having to do with Alma. Then came anguished paragraphs on Alzheimer's. Alma placed her own writing, ten or twelve pages—her own version of an autobiography—deep in toward the back. She wrote, not without difficulty it would seem, long after Henry himself was gone. Wilma imagines a blind insertion, the wife with closed eyes opening the notebook and tucking her writing in quickly—as if slipping between the sheets of the marital bed, a shy bride. Did she read Henry's work? Did she at least glance? Her writing claims she did not.
Wilma has in the last few days been inside every notebook her father left. At times, for pages, she has read seriously. Often she has glanced and moved elsewhere. True to his word, Henry did not date entries, nor did he offer any other obeisance to time as an organizing factor. Like Spinoza, he was writing into and out of eternity. Entries from various stages of life sit side by side. The notebooks have topics but lose track of them readily. Stones are a theme. One page read only, "Inside stone houses, stone life." Another: "Low creek taking sun. Wet stones. Dark shine." Notebook A ended with Henry's contemplation of a photograph of the extended Schuh family. He was the well-behaved toddler in the front row, quite as expressionless as the rest of the family: stony. The precise handwriting became shaky. Primary entries and marginalia both show this change—a clue that helps to satisfy an unexpected historical curiosity in his daughter. No matter how shaky it becomes, the penmanship never fails to convey a sense of heedfulness. Careful hand and careful mind, little Wilma. Remember that.
The dreaded Notebook W—dreaded for reasons now partly understood—did in fact focus on Wilma. First tooth and first step and first word were recorded and pondered, as if the notebook were a philosophical version of a Baby Book, a thing commonly used to record the progress of a childhood, as Wilma learned when Lorraine, bringing her own, moved in. It was Lorraine's role to educate the Schuh women, teach them how normal humans lived. Surely there had never been a Baby Book like this one. The first tooth led to a meditation on intake and elimination and a broad set of thoughts on the interconnectedness of species and other biological facets of extension which was—Wilma, reading, was reminded—an attribute of Spinoza's God, along with thought. Thought and extension, those two: the only divine attributes humans are capable of knowing. But Spinoza insists there has to be an infinity of others. So wrote Henry. A short paragraph on a page all its own, told of a day Wilma wore a red dress, fell against a rough rock, and cried. Henry came upon her, a sobbing disintegrating young human with a skinned knee. Oh my little god, he said as he took her into his arms. Henry's older mind found space on the page to return and comment, return and comment. In less and less steady handwriting he added his precise thought to the initial story. It had not been pity, he wrote. Pity reduced. Spinoza was right, one must never pour such a thing over another being. Neither was it worship—Spinoza's God evoked no worship, not as active, in-forming Natura Naturans, not as receptive, in-formed Natura Naturata. The young father had been in tears when he named his daughter god. He reported the tears in the margin in shaky penmanship, as if the older, much older, mind needed this detail confessed at last. The least competent hand wrote: "She, Wilma, is. As the great god of Israel, the I Am, is. She. Is."
And here she is indeed, a woman nearing seventy years of age who has gotten off her bicycle and now sits cross-legged on the cracked sidewalk of a questionable neighborhood in Bangor, Maine in the season of spring. She is giving one little patch of pansies its due attention. The pansies also exist. Someone planted them. Someone cares for them. The party appears not to be home. No sign of life disturbs her solitude. The street is empty.
Perhaps she contemplates the pansies on behalf of her mother who (this must be admitted) now lacks the human eye. She who used sight for the purposes of her own soul can no longer see. Her eyes are ash.
Wilma sits numbly on the sidewalk, then shakes herself to full consciousness. Henry was the writer, never Alma. But there they were, Alma's pages. An entire mother poured herself out in a smoother, looser, more comfortable hand than Henry's. The material itself was, in its own style, as intense and intelligent as Henry's own, and it was definitely more succinct. True, Alma's writing meandered—according to a certain whimsy, if Wilma is not mistaken—but it got its business completed and it stopped. It lacked Henry's insistence, his ongoing demand. It allowed, as a pansy allows the eye, freely offering its existence. She reaches out to touch a petal, but directs her hand instead to the ground, to the pansy's grey city dirt which is a tad dry, a bit like ash. She rubs the dirt between thumb and fingers. It is more substantial than ash, really. Ash is so finely textured—it occupies the border—the boundary where substance stops—one step further and it would enter the invisible.
A physicist would disagree, dear.
I know that, Alma.
But is the business of Alma's writing completed? The last paragraph breaks off. Alma leaves the reader—the daughter—hanging there, unsatisfied. Perhaps it's a matter of discretion. Whatever the reason, Alma never managed to approach Lorraine's death, falling to silence or veering to distraction despite stated intentions, and she broke off before writing about the year Wilma turned twelve. Perhaps it's best. There might be limits, natural limits.
Sitting next to the pansies, looking into their depths, breathing cautiously, Wilma remembers taking her mother's pages into her hands. It was sufficient for a while simply to hold the unexpected pages and refrain from placing them on the floor and flattening the loose and lovely unread lines. But soon it became necessary to read what Alma had written.
~ ~ ~
It is five years since I participated in the death of my daughter's lesbian lover, Lorraine. It is autumn and I will soon achieve eighty years of life. Death and endurance meet in my mind. I think to write. But writing was Henry's sphere. With some trepidation I enter his sphere.
"I think to write." Did Henry once say the reverse, that a human writes to think? Will matters here become a bit topsy-turvy? Never mind. I proceed despite.
On this anniversary of Lorraine's death, Adam comes to my dream. Death is the link. I discover myself at his small grave with the little marble marker, a place much visited throughout my childhood. Each blade of grass is carved to clarity. The green stuns my sight and I fall back in time. I am floating to the house, floating up the steps of the wide porch with its columns. It is the Hour Between. Adam is not alive, nor is he buried. He is dead in the house. I stand at the foot of the tiny coffin in the Great Parlor of the house I am to grow up in.
Surely I cannot remember the dimensions of my twin's coffin, nor would it have seemed tiny to me. I was a child of eighteen months.
But the dream insists. I see the gray shine of the tiny coffin, how it stands on its thin metal legs in the parlor, how the adults sit on the straight chairs that line the walls, watching and silently weeping. I toddle and reach out to touch the black-clad knees one by one by one. Adam is there, over in the corner. He wants a drink. No one else can hear him, only I. Dink, dink. Dink, dink.
Perhaps we never heard Lorraine as she expressed her thirst? Such thirst! And all of it for the intangible. Expelled from the Catholic convent, what rivers of shame ran beneath that parched surface? An overabundance of reaching plants sprouted from Lorraine, even if a bit spindly, white where they ought to be greening. Thirsty plants, with unreachable rivers beneath. Such things are possible, are they not?
Lorraine. Not a moment of boredom with that woman. Not for me, not for Wilma. On this we agree. But the depths. I do suspect entire rivers far inside the vast territory of that being—from which no one could drink, in which no one could swim. Unless of course at night, my daughter and her lover, together—information I was not privy to, nor should I have been. Finally, as ever in life, there is mystery. I will say this. I am pleased to think Wilma has not lived a life deprived of the sexual. I am greatly pleased to contemplate this simple fact. She knows the surge.
In the womb we melded, Adam and I. After birth we lived in Mother's two arms or in the wide cradle carpentered for us. The cradle, the solid fact of it, is memory, not at all imagined. It never left us, though we twins left it, moving to the short wide crib. Everything for us was designed, unusual, suited to twinship. After Adam died I rolled in the wide crib, side to side, side to side. I believe, with unfounded ongoing insistence, that this happened. Perhaps Father told me. In time I moved to my sleigh bed, sized for a single child. Many dolls were needed then to fill the empty cradle and the wide crib in my large room full of beds never removed. It was a way of living, to leave nothing behind, to preserve. Adam was thus preserved.
In Mother's dullness, in every slow gesture of hers, Adam is kept. When he comes in dreams, Mother is hovering. She is an undulating mother-ghost surrounding her bright baby. She is the Mother of After Adam Died, a long dirge.
Father explains. Your mother is grieving. I am age five, age six. I belong to Father now, while Mother grieves.
No, that is not accurate. I assume five or six only because I am unwilling to credit my own mind. Thinking now—writing, this moment—I understand. I had to be much younger. It was when I turned three that Mother came back to daily life. She looked at me, a shine upon her, a burnishing. The time of her hidden face was ended.
The dark and the bright control my childhood memories, as if life then were filmed in black and white, strong contrast, chiaroscuro. It was much before the age of technicolor, we knew nothing of that. Even the dolls are darkly grumpy now, or they smile with a surfeit of shine, but I give one a red and perky dress and set her in the center of the short wide crib. She stays there.
And, yes, there is the green of the cemetery grass. There is that.
Mother's brightness was turned on me, a blaze of attention. I was now her child. I lived in the little sailor outfit, Mother's boy. I have a photo somewhere.
Here. Here I am, in my sailor suit and here is the date. I am in fact three years of age.
When Father is away Mother calls me Adam which is a secret and Father must never know. I am proud when I am Adam. I extend my child height and act my part. Does Father suspect?
The years blur. Father needed a graceful delicate girl child. Never would another child enter this family, so he must make the best of it and I must play for him my feminine part. This I had no talent for. When Father called, I stumbled, coughed, placed my feet wrong. He meant no harm.
By the time I turned twelve I understood—consciously, I grasped—that I could not offer a proper presence to either parent. The great gift of withdrawal had come to me. Alone, I watched the sky. Never again would I watch the sky with Mother.
In earlier years Mother and I go often to the orchard to look upward. I am her companion then and do not have to be Adam, he is in the high distance. It is a rest from the honor and the striving. Not being Adam is a rest. Now I am definitely five or six years of age. Seven. Eight. Nine. I train my eyes toward the point in the sky Mother indicates. I try to see. I do see—once—what Mother sees each time, the ghostly essence of a toddling boy child. He smiles a sweet young ghost smile. Very young.
It was difficult for Mother, I now realize, when I began to resist. I remember my tenth birthday. What I wanted as my birthday gift, for that one day, was to stay indoors. I wanted not to look for Adam in the sky. It saddened her. She understood I was beginning my departure. By twelve I had completed it.
All this time I, too, kept Adam. This was my secret. He lived in me and grew with me.
I am twelve, taking my solitude which includes Adam. We watch the real sky. Unlike Mother, we have no need for the ghostly apparition. Together, over the years—age thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and on and on—Adam and I will come to understand that the real sky is a blend of the given and the stolen, icon of unpredictability, of shift and change. Also of constancy, of the eternal. All elements play in the sky which is mood-maker, tease, and comforter.
When the days of the dust bowl arrive and I hear of the faraway troubles, I in my safe place at the eastern edge of this great land nurture a secret excitement that only Adam can understand. Even earth is in the sky now, as we always knew it would be. Earth, air, fire, water. The whirl of all, in the sky.
The dust bowl days. Was it then, when times were hard for many but somehow not for my family, that Steven entered my life? Yes, when the college men came for dances. I, privileged college girl, met Steven, privileged college boy. Steven gave me Rilke, a great gift. He took from me, too. He took the better part of Henry. Considerable complications developed that year. Steven was older, but still in college. I think that is accurate. Yes, there had been his year in the Catholic seminary and perhaps a year to recover from that before he was firmly on his way as a non-seminarian, a simple student. He intended never to go back, never to pursue the priesthood. The young do not know their futures.
Henry was not a registered student but along he came, wandering the campuses, whether the men's or the women's, breathing intellectually saturated ungendered air, as he put it. He was a ragged campus eccentric, sublimely intriguing. Eros struck me. I learned that what I felt for Steven was human awe, but for Henry I felt plain fatal love. Smitten. We were age-mates but I do not think Henry came to replace Adam.
No, it was Rilke who replaced Adam and for that I remain in Steven's debt, for it was time. Steven brought the poets. Not only Rilke. Hart Crane was in fact his passion. How we poured over White Buildings, the three of us.
Steven and I gathered to our mutual bosom this strange pilgrim Henry, this penniless traveler who could quote Spinoza. There was an upspringing of interest in Spinoza at the time. The forgotten philosopher had been found. No one could understand Spinoza but everyone knew he was of utmost importance. Then came Henry who appeared ready to devote his life to reading a single book by this singular philosopher. The Ethics.
Neither Steven nor I possessed a philosophical mind but we lived to watch Henry exercise his. Already he was working his thought, off by himself, scribbling away, indoors and out, emerging from hidden corners in wretched ecstasy. And talking. At that point Henry was driven to speech. "Listen to this," he would say. "Spinoza says, 'By reality and perfection I mean the same thing.' How can he say that? He believes it. Everything spins to a new level! And all he's doing here is giving his definitions. He hasn't even made his argument. The axioms, the propositions..." He would look with hungry expectation from Steven to me, and back to Steven. We felt the depth as readers of poetry will feel the depth of what they cannot understand. And of course we were both in love with Henry.
To make a seamless narration must be the mind's delight. But perhaps not Nature's. I have let this little effort of mine lie in the drawer for an entire month. It roused me to discomfort and a set of sleepless nights. I thought to let it cool. It cooled. I might say it congealed, unpleasantly. There were days when I remembered it with distaste. Days, too, when I forgot it entirely, only to wake in the night with a sense of the unfinished upon me. Now I have read it through and laughed at the bulge in our history that memory refused to bring forth. Even as I prepare to confess, I doubt my own mind. Could we three have bonded in the strange regions of—theosophy? It seems to do justice to none of us. And yet--
I suppose I find it embarrassing. Why else would I give theosophy the unpleasant designation of a "bulge"?
Such good minds my boys had, and I thought my own quite sophisticated by then. A college education, after all, even of the female variety, included a bit of exposure to Great Thinkers.
But it is true. I remember now. When Henry first appeared, the book in his hand was not Spinoza's Ethics. It was Madame Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine. Spinoza waited in Henry's dusty satchel. It was there, it had traveled with him, but it was not his first offering.
So. Theosophy, the embarrassing bulge, or appendage, that does not attach with grace to any part of our fine intellectual history. We spent a few months—or perhaps it was only weeks?—immersed. But was Henry not already disenchanted? Straddling the ways, did he not, even in our first days, begin to quote what he called the cleaner thought? Spinoza, with his deliberate discipline, gave a high pure philosophical air to breathe. So said Henry. Madame Blavatsky began to choke him with her plethora of specificities. And such claims she made to esoteric certainty!
Still, I do wonder if Henry saw the ghost of theosophy playing, calling to him through the years like a mischievous child from hidden places inside the careful structures of Spinoza's argument. I know he aligned with those who declared his philosopher God-intoxicated and scorned those who thought him an atheist. I remember Spinoza was a Jew, banished by the leaders of his own congregation.
Banished with vehemence, for independent thought. How Henry loved that about him.
But first there was theosophy. I would open Henry's copy of The Secret Doctrine at random. One day I found reference to a goose. A goose! It became clear she was a symbol of Divine Wisdom. I laughed out loud. The Hindu name was Hansa. This is my only firmly-held piece of esoteric trivia. The dear goose is offered milk mixed with water. She wisely separates the two, drinks the nourishing milk, and rejects the thin, colorless water. I suppose the good Madame then found a path from milk to breast to goddess, or perhaps to Mother Earth. There was an abundance of imagery in the book, some of it quite lovely. But the glut and hubris of it, the chaos!
Steven liked Blavatsky better than I. He, after all, appreciated the density of his beloved Hart Crane, the crowded stanzas, the braided images that so often snarled, tangled, at least for me. But they could be combed to shining beauty, those images, each strand glistening. I learned.
Also, Steven had the religious thirst. Oh, yes, he had that. Which theosophy might have satisfied more adequately than the stringent Spinoza whom he could not read. Well, neither could I. I believe Wilma managed, for a while. She was not her father, though, and did not persist.
Nor was she her mother.
At any rate, one day we all threw up our hands, our theosophy phase ended. Steven then led us through Crane. One green and sunny afternoon as we sat together in the shade of a large tree he read Crane's "Legend" to us. This was not the esoteric goose with her explicit lesson to teach. This was truly mystery upon mystery. I stared into the poem's silent mirror, was stunned by the realities in silence plunging by. And, oh yes—I remember now—the flame and the moth, their mutual attraction and parallel stubborn resistances. I pondered that image.
Steven was besotted, enamored of every line. I remember how he stood up suddenly, proclaiming to the students passing by: "drop by caustic drop"! He was in Cranian ecstasy.
For Henry it was Crane's striving—"twice and twice and yet again"—it was the effort—the terrible effort—"until the bright logic is won."
Ah, we were young.
It might have been that day--
I can almost see it in Henry's dear dark eyes. Yes. He fell in love with Steven that very day. If this is not accurate I shall eat my favorite hat. But who would require that of me? No one alive can challenge my assertions. I could record things upside down or inside out with no consequence.
Goodness. Is this what Henry was doing in his many pages? Wandering like this? I don't suppose so. I shall never find out. He told me once, while enough clarity remained in his poor mind for me to credit the statement, that he intended the writings for Wilma, that I needn't bother with them. He meant to spare me. I am certain he meant to spare, not exile, me. I honor his intention. And, as I have already written, I do not have the philosophical mind.
What sort of mind does Wilma have, I wonder. Lorraine tried to ferret out the answer to this very question, did she not? I doubt she penetrated beyond my daughter's clear mild surface. A surface I admire. If I have a creed, it is this: one's mind is one's own.
It was necessary to stop again. Two months have passed. A new year begins, if one attends to calendar time. Spring is in the unimaginable distance. We are encased in snow, snow, snow. Wilma and I conduct our days in routine companionship. Neither of us complains. A grim endurance rules. Perhaps the pen against the white page will effect a shift in me. I would appreciate the sensation of juices moving through again—a pleasing fantasy in these frozen Maine days. And poor Wilma might lap up the spill.
Which makes her sound like a dog. She is loyal enough, my faithful companion. But, no, Wilma is quite completely an upright walker, full of the human.
Lest I sound pitiful, let me clarify. My daughter and I have found, I believe, the unusual—friendship. Not that we gaze into one another's eyes, piercing souls. We proceed day by day, side by side, domestic, in peaceful simplicity. Would she agree? It is not a matter for discussion, but I have some confidence. I believe we enjoy each other's company. Minor irritations erupt, of course they do. Nevertheless.
It has occurred to me to slip these pages into a notebook of Henry's. Chance would then offer them to Wilma some day. If I were gone, why not?
But it is not for Wilma that I write. It is for mystery.
Now there, right there, I have turned things upside down. I meant to say clarity and the pen produced mystery. I shall let it stand.
Lorraine's death sprouted both. Perhaps all intensities—and every death is an intensity, is it not?—produce a share of the clear and another of the mysterious. And is there pulsation? Clarity pulsing forward out of mystery? And then from the clear moment come further mysteries? One feels such things, reading Rilke.
A perfect narrative line is not materializing. So be it.
When Steven presented me with my own copy of Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge my very hands felt the rightness. This was strange prose from the poet, but I needed it as description essential to my progress. My own childhood emerged—formed and displayed, entire—from the womb that was Rilke's mind.
Womb. Would he be bothered by the word? The feminine implication? I think not.
I had entire paragraphs of The Notebook by heart. Even now--
"It would be difficult to persuade me that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the legend of a man who didn't want to be loved." Rilke's Prodigal is loved to excess as a child, wrapped in a suffocation of tenderness. The poor boy cannot make a move without causing either pleasure or pain. What he learns to crave is "profound indifference of heart." Scenes come to me now. The boy is outdoors, in dear solitude. An exultation of childish freedom drives him to run through a field, arms outspread. But he must reenter the house, for it is supper time. He is drawn in by the covetous family—a group of adults, hungry for his soul—and placed under a lamp. Light falls on him. The others are in shadow. He, only he, is required to endure "the shame of having a face." Entering manhood, he left home. Of course he did. He resolved never to love, never to place anyone "in the terrible position of being loved." I understood every word. I might have been reading about myself. I pondered the phrases—"terrible position of being loved"—"shame of having a face"—"profound indifference of heart." In the eye of a hurricane of insight, I resolved never to marry. I told Steven we ought to spend less time together. Then Henry appeared and my resolution was unraveled, my heart shaken open.
When I understood that Henry's own heart was yearning toward Steven, that what Henry felt for me was friendship but no movement of the blood, I turned again to Rilke. I read and reread the poems. I pondered the original German though I knew no German. I compared translations, held the lines to the light, turned them this way and that, tried to see into mystery. Perhaps I should have learned German. I believe I preferred the maze of translation. My Rilke is my own accumulation. May he forgive me. In the end I settled on Stephen Mitchell, translator who offers clear water running over the sandy, stony bottoms—all the glints of sunlight on a windy day—never the same vision twice. The weather changes. One walks along. Wilma listens politely. She has not adopted my passion for Rilke, poet of poets. This is best, I sometimes think.
Henry and I did marry, of course. A storm of events led to our marriage. Hart Crane committed suicide. Crane's leap from the ship killed all that was poetic in the world for Steven, and all that was courageously homosexual. He walked in a daze, quoting. Something about light—he was longing for it, Steven was—I can almost hear him—the lines he whispered again and again—his wrenched heart—"Light wrestling there incessantly with light, / Star kissing star through wave on wave unto / Your body rocking!" If the poet who wrote "Voyages" could not live in the world, neither could Steven. But he would not kill himself. He renounced the world in favor of the unworldly, the religious. In particular he renounced the gaze of Henry Schuh.
From me he parted, I fear, rather lightly.
So there we stood like two orphans, Henry and myself, holding hands. It was one month after Hart Crane's death. Steven was returning to the seminary, leaving us at the train station. I was left with both Rilke and Henry, my essentials. Henry was left with Spinoza and the fondness he had for me. We made the best of it. We ran North—to rural Maine—after marrying in haste.
I entered marriage shorn of illusion, bare. I clung to Rilke's profound indifference of the heart. I had the sky. Henry? He stiffened, then broke. I held him at night as he sobbed over the loss of Steven. I looked over his shoulder, out the window where often enough there were stars. Time led us along and after some years we decided to try sex. After all, we were married. Along came Wilma. She was for Henry.
I see that this writing path is circuitous. I set out to honor poor Lorraine. Five years dead, after all. And the return of Adam to my dreams. I seem to have produced an autobiography. Perhaps it is enough.
But, no. Apparently it is not enough. Autumn has come again. I mean to add just this a bit more, for the parallels are cogent. Adam had died. Mother was confused, as I have indicated, and in her grief needed me to become Adam. A strangeness, but I was not the only child thus burdened. Rilke, too, was taken for a dead sibling. I had my sailor suit, he had his little dresses. We had our distressed and enveloping mothers. Like the Prodigal Son, we left home. Like him, we strove for indifference of heart.
Which prevented neither of us from ongoing human entanglement.
Perhaps only Henry could have given me sufficient distance. Had Steven not left us for God, had Henry and I not been abandoned to each other--
I might have lost myself.
Hiding in the recesses of convention, married to some other man, my essential being might never have known to sit and ponder skies, read poetry, respect the earthworm.
Or participate in the death her lesbian daughter's lover.
Insert here, by way of my unruly mind, a third human who endured a childhood shaped strangely by a sibling's death. Was it Steven who introduced me to Dalí? Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí, the surrealist painter. But, no. It was not Steven. Could not have been. It was later, much later--
It was Lorraine--
I feel the fact rise up—
Dalí is five years old. He stands with the adults at his brother's graveside. He is instructed to think of himself as the incarnation of his dead brother. He complies.
Dalí was nothing like Rilke whose soul sings to mine, but Dalí's melting clocks—yes, those clocks. Persistence of Memory is the painting I cannot exorcize. It appears in dreams, time bent and distorted, time in the form of a clock hanging over the table's edge, over the dead tree's limb, over the headless fallen form of the anonymous animal—the bleak desert floor—the devastation—and yet the precision, the clean lines and pure colors—the collision of clarity and distortion—all in service of a deliberate disturbance of the viewer's mundane mind.
I do know why this painting haunts me. It was shown to the world in 1932, as dear Lorraine informed us. 1932 was the year Hart Crane leapt from the boat, the year Steven turned from us, the year Henry and I married.
When Lorraine, who brought many things to Wilma and me, brought Dalí, told us the year, instructed us to look and look and look again—
I must have blanched. The date struck home, of course it did. Add to this the fact of my own clock.
Had I meant to arrive at the visions? What has all of this to do with Lorraine?
Before the clock came the angel.
That stopped me, but only overnight. I had to put the pen down but I pick it up in morning light. Filtered light, this morning. Gentle. Perhaps that will help.
Yes, I will do this.
As I approach the visions I must credit my Rilke. Rainer Maria Rilke. The very name is part of my soul. I climb into his tree, perch and wait. I am smallest of the birds nesting there, tiniest sparrow for whom the sky breaks open on occasion.
I did see the angel, once only. Quite distressing it was, too, this angel. Laden with symbols. Armored, you might say. It was male, which was unfortunate—what about us girls? I suppose it was thus gendered because born from the brain of Rilke who was, despite everything, a man.
I see that I have confused the metaphor, misplaced elements, crisscrossed the generating forces. Rilke is my tree. I wait within him, I look to the sky. The angel, however, seems to be born from Rilke's brain which is presumably inside my own. Perhaps Dalí, though dead, would like to paint the incongruities.
Never mind. In Rilke's own great sonnets a tree sprouts from the ear of Orpheus. Or possibly it is in the ear. I have never resonated with the image. But his angels—his angels have great strength—each one terrifying, as he says. A wonder of terror the poet produces. As for gender, did not Athena emerge from the head of Zeus? There is no need to match the sex of the brain to what emerges therefrom. At any rate, the angel I saw was male.
I was looking skyward as was my habit and the angel appeared. He stood on the air, solid as could be, and nodded politely, then turned and walked into the sun. I saw him enter the sun. I could pretend I was imagining, which is, I understand, a common response to the experience of seeing what is not seen by others. I could pretend I was terrified. I was neither imagining nor terrified. I have implied that the vision was caused—should I say inspired?—by Rilke. Perhaps I had been reading too much of him. But this is no explanation. There is no explanation. I saw the angel. He entered the sun.
I meant to say how old I was at the time. Old enough to know better, as they say. It was 1942. Wilma was four years old. Henry and I were thirty-four, married ten years. I have always valued the evenness of our numbers.
Lorraine was born that year. Of course I knew nothing then of Lorraine.
Pearl Harbor had been struck. We had entered the war.
The country was excited, energy was heightened, and along came my angel.
I should not dismiss the possibility of Rilke's involvement. Perhaps the angel was in fact a visitor from the far origins of poetry about which we know little in our contracted state. Perhaps truth hides for its own protection. We do tend toward violence as a species. Not least is our violence against truth.
Twice more I "saw"—twice in one week—this was years after the angel. I am referring to my clock now. I believe it was the same clock, entering time, re-entering time. Twice it shimmered in the sky with substance beyond light and gave on both occasions comfort such as I had never known. Wilma was turning twelve. Henry and I were forty-two. A change had come upon our little hermit family but I was unable to grasp its nature—and the clock from beyond--
~ ~ ~
Wilma has remained sitting cross-legged on city cement for perhaps longer than is prudent. Pansies are satisfying company but not of the essence. She ought to move. Her mind, however, seems a centipede whose legs cannot agree on their direction. Thus, she sits…